Friday, September 28, 2012

When Bigger Isn't Better

It is a rare sight to find an author who habitually finishes their stories much shorter than planned, at least not without a conscientious effort. Though I’ve read works far too clear and to the point, and drafts that needed an extra few thousand words, it wasn’t an accident, but an uniformed choice. Words tend to drag out by accident. The author just writes and happens to find out his play is four hours too long. Works are cut short not because the author wrote and found that he finished sooner than expected, but because he wanted to finish and cut to the chase and he usually didn’t know how long it needed to be or care.

The most common criticisms demand for cuts, the common advice suggesting to be terse like Hemmingway, and though there is the problem of not putting enough information, if we were to walk up to a random teacher, their blanket advice would be to not use unnecessary words. Though not every author needs to focus on keeping it to the minimum, it’s something that many of us struggle with. And even those who are good at making something a manageable length are frustrated by pacing.

Over the years I have found that there are two major causes for a book starting to become a monster: 1) emotional changes, 2) stalling.

Stalling, the preverbal “um” in writing, is the process in which the author, not knowing something important—what happens next, how to get to what happens next—draws out the scene. It can be as little as putting extra words as we try to get the sentence right or extra events, it is anything added that we didn’t really plan or necessarily want in there. It is often something that can be taken out with the one exception that it would mess with the series of cause and affects. The problem of delaying is more common for fast typers, for prolific writers, and for those who don’t preplan the story out. Authors who have to take their time to get the words out have more opportunity to think about what they say. People who write every day, who force themselves to move forward, will continue despite not knowing what to say, and that will lead them to have pages of things that may be interesting and entertaining, but has nothing to do with anything, doesn’t move the plot forward, and makes it hard to tie things together in the end.

Like anything in writing, stalling has its benefits, and sometimes it will take the book into a new direction that the author prefers. Staying to stringent regulations just stifles creativity. When stalling is most important is when there are time limitations, or when the author decides he’s taking too much time with something. I am not a big fan of the phrase “isn’t needed,” when it comes to cutting, and the whole concept of this postponing is meant for when an author decides he wants it to be shorter, or more to the point, can’t decide why he doesn’t like the duration of the scene. When looking for things to cut or what to do with an unappealing scene or even sentence, considering the possibility of that the author was delaying gives opportunity to understand why he doesn’t like it.

The stretching out of transitions, on the other hand, are much more common and important. Changing from love to anger within the duration of the scene, believably, is difficult. A very common transition that authors have to deal with is the acceptance of the supernatural, when coming from a “real world” world.

What often takes up a lot of time is these transitions of getting from one emotional place to the other. Abrupt changes can look forced, and authors realize that. Making a fluid build-up is tricky. Often times, stalling takes place as the writer tries to figure out how a person would react, what sets him off to be suddenly angered, mad, convinced, or even decides to take action having been passive.

There are several tricks to sudden changes. One is to make the little triggers more obvious, or adding more/some in. For instance, if the author wished to make the boyfriend angry, when she slurps her soup, describe his facial expression. Have him talk about something bad that happened that day. Lead up to the sudden burst of rage with little hints that he’s already angry, and draw attention to them by making the description longer, or the sentence shorter. “Description longer” being more sentences, “sentences shorter” being less words.

Secondly, unless the story is a novel being told in first person, not describing each emotion the character is feeling and not drawing attention to the exact moment the character does believe or decides he is going to get up and leave can let the audience sense it before they know for sure, and therefore the subject of surprise (as surprise first leads to denial) doesn’t need to be dealt with.

Since this subject is about shortening work, having small triggers is an issue. The question is to use the time given. If the sudden change needs to occur within only the scene, there can still be foreshadowing outside of it. If, for example, the point is to make the lovers argue, then hinting at the boyfriend’s buttons before she pushes them will reveal to the audience what happened. If the sudden change is right at the beginning, or the work is extremely limited in size (a short film or story), then the simplest way to make a transition would be quick and obvious reactions. Dialogue tends to drag things out. If a character is being exposed to, say, a vampire for the first time, having lived for 30 years having no evidence that they exist, instead of having her argue about it, she can do something simple: turn and walk away, raise her eyebrows but carry on with the conversation. It is even possible to go through the few stages of grief (or stages of change as I call it)—denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance—in silence with only a few reactions. A short scoff, stepping back, looking around, jaw tightening, hands clenching, breathing returning to normal, all these little sorts of small physicality’s can tell what the character is thinking without taking too much time to do it in. So if the author has a short amount of time to go through a flurry of emotions, the character doesn’t need to say one word about it.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Why Read When We Can Daydream?

If I ever had to furnish a gallery in a movie, I would paste the walls with framed Rorschach ink blotches. A representation of abstract paintings, it would be a memorial to our generation’s view of modern work.

The art world has turned to enigma, allowing the audience to decide what the work is about. From abstract art to experimental theatre, it is often hard to get a straight answer out of the creator on what they meant. When I ask, I’ve been told that their concept was “about what I want it to be about,” and was to make me feel, “the way I felt.”

“You wanted me to need to pee?” I would say.

For skeptics like me, it seems to be an excuse. These pieces can’t be criticized because they are supposed to be weird and because the artist’s target stretches the size of a barn. Worse even, because if they don’t hit the building and flop in the dirt, they can just claim that’s what they wanted to happen. The critics of this “being weird for the sake of being weird” trend agree that this is usually a copout.

A common enough problem in first drafts is indecision. It is typical for the writers to keep from making concrete details because a) concrete details remove freedom and b) being decisive is hard. So questions are left unanswered with the excuse of having an “open ending.” Scenes deliver as little of information as possible. Conversations seem to be, and are, about nothing. The setting is only developed as far as the room that the characters are in. And when left with the feeling of “and your point?” the only answer you get is “there doesn’t have to be a point.”

There doesn’t have to be anything in art. Beauty has no rules, and art doesn’t even have to be beautiful. That’s the problem. People try to make rules and regulations, ways to understand what is good and what is not, but at the end of the day no such things exists.

How my life is complicated by this is when someone gives me a work they want to make “better,” but then believes any emotion is a good emotion, and that the basic expectations of a story need to be broken to be stylized. If we remove meaning, goals, intended audience/reader’s reception, and any commonly agreed upon literary rules, then how the hell am I supposed to critique anything?

Now I’m not a person to respect the rules or disrespect those who don’t pander to expectations. But I am a person who has been trying to get where I want to be and achieve the quality I want to realize, and I have to say that over the years everyone who has been a member of the Anything Goes party have been the least beneficial in improving anything.

Trying to know what to change and what to keep is hard for even those of us who aren’t trying to break every single expectation set down.

I have never liked this, “there doesn’t have to be a point,” style, I’ve never wanted to write like that, and quite frankly, I never want to read things like that. It is really frustrating to get through the entirety of a play to find the ending to contradict everything it said and not answer any of the mysteries it used to get your attention.

So here’s my argument against all these vague, foggy, all-meaning, means nothing scripts. Why do we read a book when we can just daydream?

Fiction is fantasy. It is the author’s fantasy over the reader’s fantasy, leading the reader to have chosen to someone else’s concrete dream over their own open one. He could just think there for himself. So the question that can benefit us is why do people read instead of daydream? Or, even still, why do people read, period?

This question has many answers, but I’m going to talk about one.

It is about the tangibility of the fantasy. Daydreams are flighty, foggy, and require the mental power of the dreamer to keep pushing them forward. Books are concrete, manipulative, and more substantial. There is a place for both, but we want something different out of each. Even when we read a book to fuel our daydreams, we are still looking for something specific enough to inspire us and push us forward. We read to get ideas, to enjoy ideas, and to that other people have the same ideas and feelings as the rest of us. I want to see other people’s thoughts, opinions, and passions. If I wanted to think what I think and feel what I feel, I could do that staring at a wall, an activity that a play would only distract from.

There is a reason why people prefer paintings to ink blotches. Looking at clouds are fun, but you can only do that for a while. Though we pretend that we don’t like talking to others except to have someone listen to us, the truth is that people like people. We appreciate characters and lives that are not our own, and we read to escape to a new world. If we don’t believe in that world because it’s not concrete enough, then we will find another one to look to.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Nice Writers Finish Last

A psychological trait makes many decisions for the average American. On the moment we are told something is wrong, the immediate instinct is to turn to the exact opposite end of the spectrum for the answer. Like the joke about the “rebellious” teenagers who all look the same, it leads to a lot of unoriginality in our uniqueness.

This pattern is a deciding factor in choice, especially for writers. Whether is the question on the ending  – the lovers finding perfect bliss or being left dead in a ditch  – or a more simple problem of what hair color the female lead should have (a perfect brown or a perfect blonde), this temptation to do the opposite of what we assume the cliche is affects many stories. It even deals with the writer’s reputation, and how we present ourselves. As being an author, to some extent, is about being a unique and irreplaceable vessel, it is reasonable to hope that we are not of the common ilk.

So what is the most presumed character flaw of The Writer? What are authors known for that people can’t stand about them? The ego. The argent insistence in not changing work. Aggressive resolve that their story is perfect. Aggravated attacks on anyone who would suggest he knows better.

Those who know of this stereotype don’t want to be a part of this stereotype. We want to be “better” than these narcissistic artistes. So we make nice. We play nice. We are a nice person.

But, like men, nice writers finish last.

I once was given the piece of advice, “Be willing to compromise and don’t look like you are.”

Readiness to negotiate represents an artist who puts his project before his own ego. An easier person to work with, a nicer writer to be around, an author more enjoyable to work with, the man or woman who takes other people’s opinion into consideration will be a fresh of breath air to those who constantly need to deal with megalomanic jackasses.

So what’s wrong with admitting to that willingness? What’s wrong with saying, “We can change my title if you don’t like it,” at the top of the query letter? Why shouldn’t an author illustrate that he is not going to be a gigantic pin cushion on an agent’s chair?

Because eagerness to change your work indicates three things: 1) Desperation. 2) Insecurity. 3) Inexperience.

Saying outright, “I am willing to adjust my book,” doesn’t say to an editor, “I am open minded.” It tells them, “I haven’t done my work”/“I don’t trust the work I’ve done.”

The truth about fiction is that it is a fantasy. The reader needs a reason to be more interested in the author’s fantasy over than their own. What is the main thing a writer can offer them? A book has more thought, more continuity, and resists giving in immediately into the desires of the fantasizer. It is the job of the author to present his world as real and be as convincing as he can. Especially during the pitch.

Because, though the editor and agent will make changes and don’t expect it to be perfect, the writer is still trying to convince them that her fantasy is the best one out of the slush pile, the one that needs the least amount of change. The one they won't have to spend too much time making choices that should have been made long ago.

But, more importantly, an experienced author knows changes will be made, so telling them that it is okay would be redundant. It’s a part of the process.

Novels and short stories don’t seem to be victim to this mentality. I've never seen a book that reads, "He has blonde hair, but if you don't like that, then he can have brown hair." Most authors try to write a novel with the assumption that it won't be changed. The query letter, on the other hand, will often haggle its ideas in a desperate manner.

Plays, however, are the worst to fair.

After a script meant for the stage goes through the process of editing, publishing, and even being preformed, it can still be changed by the director for each and every production it goes through. Now, there are specific rules about this that are a little vague and strange. For instance, all stage directions (the physical actions) are allowed to be ignored, altered, and completely contradicted. This is due to the size of the stage, the direction of the vision, the actors casted, the props and set pieces available. Yet, it is not within the contract’s rights to change a single word of dialogue. Even if the director wants to switch the gender of a character, he must get written permission. Cutting lines is a stranger concept and is one of those categories that the regulations often vary on. In any case, theatre directors are not notorious for respecting the writer's vision, and, hell, rights.

No matter how much a director is not supposed to change lines, people do it anyway. They go against the script, they think they have a better idea (which is arguable), and they change not only meaning, but the words and the intention of the entire show.

So many potential playwrights who are involved in the theatre realize this and have heard stories about writers such as the maker of Doubt who demands signing a specific contract which reads not a single word be altered, not even due to memorization mistakes. So, for those authors judging that sort of mentality, it is common to go the opposite route. They give the director many options when it comes to doing whatever the hell it is that he wants to do.

I will admit that this is a preference, that some people believe a script is meant to be seen, not read. But to me, it is to create an illusion, while being either read or staged, and having any jarring phrases like "If  you don't have a couch, they may stand," hinders thad. To have a lot of stage directions that the author explicitly states are optional takes the reader out of the world. The logic is that it won’t take the audience from it because, frankly, they won’t see it. But it is important to remember that the director still needs to be convinced to pick the play in the first place. Options make the read hard and a little tedious. It’s similar to why no one wants to follow a story that’s all a dream or a lie, or having extra and misleading pieces to  mixed in with a puzzle you’re trying to solve. We want to trust the information we’re getting, and it’s hard to do when we have a choice.

And here’s the gist of the matter – a director who is going to make changes is going to make changes with or without permission. Giving him allowances will just allow him to take the playwright’s vision even less seriously. If she doesn’t care, why should he?

Like everything, stubbornness and compromise requires a balance. When trying to improve a project, it is important to remember that the author is the one knows how he wants it, but he doesn’t necessarily know how to get it there. Learning when to hold ground and when to let go is the most important part of taking criticism. The writer needs to respect his own opinions just as much as anyone else's, because they're just as likely to be wrong, to be pigheaded, and to bulldoze right over any nice guy who gets in their way.