Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Writing Cross Gender

The comment, “I can’t write for women very well,” surprises me every time I hear it. The complaint is legitimate in some ways, as much as I’d like it to not be, so I suppose it’s the admission that shocks me more than the intent. Girls and men alike are likely to worry about how realistic the characters of the opposite sex are to come across, so, unlike what I believe, it does not just have to do with the difficulty of making a female in general.

In the beginning, I didn’t worry about such things, and so I had a hard time relating. Today, it is still not a huge concern of mine, but I will admit that every once in a while I look at my men and think, “My God, you’re a pansy.”

I listened to an argument between a male playwright and a group of female actors which expressed the problem decently. The man is not what I would call, “enlightened,” (though I’m not saying that is typical for everyone dealing with this issue) and he had very limited views, not only for women, but people in general. His characters were superficial, their motivations one-layered and obvious, and though they could be interesting and funny to watch, they had no depth. Because the plays produced were done so by his own hands (he was the writer, director, and star), he had the opportunity to write the characters for the actors who would play them, and so he would take the biggest flaw of that particular person (I was the bitch), emphasize it, dramatize it, and remove all other substance from their personality.

It was fascinating from a psychological and authorial point of view.

He would always write in a love interest who would, in essence, have no personality. Played by either his girlfriend or his potential girlfriend, she would sit around and be the only one concerned with where the playwright/director's character went. She would be the straight man in the scene.

My friend was engaged in a long term relationship with this man, and has been for about three years. Recently, she came up to me bragging that no longer was the playwright writing with the actors in mind. He gave her a different sort of part. This time she was not the idyllic lover, but would now play a dumb, ditzy blonde. I refrained from asking if she was sure it was his style that had changed.

So several years ago, while in a production of his, he stated before this gaggle of women of his issues on trying to write for female characters. One girl responded, “Why? They’re just people.”

And there is the gist of the problem. Where does the conflict stem from? How much different are men and women? Certainly there is a cultural divide, if not a natural one. And, when a character diverges from the stereotype, how much can we attribute to her personality and how much to the author's mistake?

I certainly have found that people claiming this strife tend to be more gender-focused, but it could be that they’re just the ones who are more aware of it or even just the ones who are willing to state it. In my experience, girly girls and manly men have been the sorts who expressed writing opposite genders their biggest concern, which says something about the issue, but it’s hard to say what.

First and foremost, it is important to realize that authors who write dialogue well in general can break against the stereotypes believably; the question is how likable that character will be. As much as I’d hate to admit it, we attribute certain traits to each gender, and though abiding by those assumptions will not necessarily make an appealing character, it will attribute to a certain amount of diversity that we come to expect. But, like anything, too much “feminine traits” will come out as a stereotype, and then again too many “masculine traits” will just be distracting if not annoying.

Thus, here is the philosophical problem: Am I (the hypothetical author) just making a character and thereby confronting any cultural assumptions we have, or, am I just limiting myself to my own ignorance?

Which is why the question is about how good the writer is at “voice” is important. It is very much possible for a woman to have masculine traits and a man to have feminine traits, and if the dialogue sounds believable than the audience will accept it as a personality, not as a mistake. So it is my conception that learning to motivate speech in general will overcome the issue.

But I will admit that “bad” writing can get worse when a person of another gender is speaking, especially when the author has a specific view of that sex.

I once edited a novella in which the writer clearly had trust issues with women. At the time, I did not know him very well, but I noticed that whenever the love interest spoke, particularly when claiming vows of devotion, she sounded like she was lying through her teeth. Over time, as his relationship with my friend took flight, it became more and more obvious exactly how he perceived girls. He idolized them, put them on a pedestal, dehumanized them, and saw them as this powerful force that really only wanted to manipulate men, being incapable of love themselves. But he was a romantic at the same time, which caused most of the conflict in his life.

He was an extreme when it came to this sort of problem, and it must be pointed out that when it came to the dialogue it was all pretty unconvincing. The author had issue with making characters in general, and when he develops the ability over time, I would like to see his female leads and if the insincerity remains. Characters who sound like they’re lying is very typical for inexperienced writing. As fiction is making up a fabrication, of course, when not done right, it will sound like a fabrication.

For those who write dialogue well and do come up with complex characters, the issue of “writing cross gender” can still remain, but I think in a different form. Instead of having stilted and forced conversation, it is more along the lines of the audience disliking or just having no interest in the character.

Writing a female character that women will like is hard (for authors of either sex). In fact, I personally believe that writing women is harder than for men in general, though I haven’t done studies. When it comes to a female lead or love interest, we have to contend with two main problems:

1) Many women don’t like women.

We love to say things like, “I mostly have guy friends. I don’t get along with girls.” I am interested to know the reason for this is, in all honesty. I think that society as a whole has problems trusting women, but I also would like to think that is isn’t true. I know that I personally tend to be far more critical of the women on screen, but I also know that my attention is always drawn to the women on screen. Perhaps it is because of the rarity, or because all the characters tend to pay attention to her. An important field of study for the literary world is whether or not our common perception of women is due to the author’s or the audience’s view.

2) How a woman “should” be is controversial.

Men have to deal with the complications of strict expectations. What we expect out of a male character is very clear and to the point; we want to see someone either strong, brave, or intelligent, or a combination. If a guy can obliterate competition by means of physically or verbally, he is appealing. However, if he diverges from those expectations he has a harder fall. A weak, stupid, and cowardly man is undesirable, only likable when a foil to the protagonist. Women, on the other hand, have split expectations. We could make a well-written, strong woman, (we will assume that all of these characters are well made) but that doesn’t mean that the girls in the audience will like her. Just because she can kick ass doesn’t mean that her movie will be appealing. Even if she kicks ass verbally, she may not be likable. By either gender.

What society wants from women isn’t clear. There are those who like the idea of the kind, innocent virgin. There are those who would find that to be an irritating stereotype. Often times, it’s not even about the woman’s traits that make us like her or not, but the situation that she’s in. I love Buffy the vampire slayer and Xena, despite my natural distaste for the “warrior woman.” I hate Pepper from Iron Man, even though she’s not illogically a badass (a huge pet peeve of mine). I hate Zoey from Firefly even though she’s written by the same person as Buffy. Part of this has to do with the actors, part of it has to do with the difference between being protagonists and supporting characters, and a great deal of it has to do with their relationships between them and other people.

In the end, I’m not sure what my ideal female character is. It is easier for me to say what I am looking for in a man. And we might believe this is due to my being female and therefore more consistently thinking about appealing male traits in real life, but it is actually that lack of thought that makes writing cross gender so problematic, e.g., people don't know what they want someone of the opposite sex to say to them, therefore they don't say anything right. (I'm not going to go into homosexuality because a gay author's view on gender is a long blog in itself.)

I think these two factors also affect men, to some extent. Male readers tend not to consider the female character nearly as much as women do, and female readers tend to ignore the male characters much more than men. But trying to know what personalities to give a woman for guys to like is hard in itself. Because though there are those who love the “virgin” stereotype, there are few who will accept a straightforward, dull virgin character. Though they (some) still want nice and innocent, they don’t necessarily want doormat and stupid, and they demand her being an in-depth character just as much as anyone else. And there are many men who the virgin doesn’t appeal to.

When it comes to writing male characters, however, the gap between male and female readers is larger. For one thing, protagonists can get away with having very little personality, but making a main character a woman gives her a huge characteristic. This means that a male character who starts out as a blank slate really is a blank slate, but a female character now has some weight on one side of the scale, so we need to give her some traits on the other side if we want to be level (and though we can become balanced again, it will never truly be zero). As good news for writing male characters, that means that the male protagonist could be appealing to both men and women as long as we give him no details, but a female character can’t.

Now the likelihood of him being appealing with no traits is small, and few people actually want to write a character like that, which is where the gender of the reader becomes important. Men are more accepting of men than women are of women. Men also tend to be readers who perceive themselves as the character rather than with the character, which is why Mr. Mary Sue can survive better than a Ms. Mary Sue. (It is also important to note that we are not likely to identify a Mr. Mary Sue as often as a Ms. Mary Sue, which is why we call it a "Mary Sue" and not "Steven Lou.") Secondly, as discussed before, because we only really expect strength, bravery, or intelligence from men, characters who are convincingly strong, brave, or intelligent will be appealing to the male audience. If the guy can kick ass in one manner or the other, the audience is happy.

When trying to make women like men, it’s more complicated. In American culture, it is not typical for people who see themselves as the characters to relate to cross gender characters. Though women will often root for the male protagonist over anyone else, it is not typical for her to be sitting their fantasizing about being him (though it is more typical for women than it is for men). Therefore, though women also expect the three main qualities, it’s more complicated than that, chiefly when it comes to the male love interest.

Love scenes can often be the hardest moments to write, whether that includes sex or not. It is a moment, for the author, of raw honesty, intimacy, and passion. We are admitting to our deep down fantasies, and that can be embarrassing.

Many times when love scenes come out badly it is because the author is not “in touch with his own feelings.” People will often put up walls before they can get too emotionally deep, and this is a huge problem for artists. I once worked with an actress who wanted to cry on stage, but she had spent her entire life concealing her emotions. This disabled her from being able to show them when she finally wanted to. She, like many others do, had put her feelings to the back of her mind and done her best to never think about them. She never considered why she had them, how they felt physically, where she felt them, or how to prevent them in the future. Often times, it is hard to write a love interest because we are simply not aware of what we want that person to be.

When I try to understand why people are so concerned with writing cross gender, I think of this context. It is very hard to write a lover who the readers will love.

Part of this has to do with everyone’s perfect someone being different. Part of this has to do with our desires for inappropriate relationships. Part of this has to do with our uncertainty by what we actually want.

If we could have a lover say exactly what we wanted to hear, what would that be? What traits would that person have? Even when we know how we think we want them to be, it’s common to try and write that down and be unable to come up with anything; it’s not specific enough or not accurate enough. Plus, fantasizes can be “wrong,” what society wouldn’t approve of, like abusive relationships with insane men, sleeping around, polygamy, bondage, and other flights of fancy that we probably don’t even want in real life. Sometimes the hardest part of writing a love scene is simply revealing the dark secrets of what we fantasize about love being like.

But, despite the gender imposed on the statement, sometimes, “It’s hard to write for women,” just means, “I can’t get this character right.” Sometimes, by just being worried about it, we can stifle our own abilities, and sometimes it just isn’t working.

First and foremost, focus on that specific character rather than the gender as a whole. Who is this person, and how does gender affect him or her?
            -How much does the character subscribe to gender roles or how much does he rebel?
            -Does the character think that men should be manly and girls should be girly? Does the character try to do what he or she is “supposed to”? Does he do the exact opposite? Does she just not care, landing somewhere in the middle?

Next, assume about similarities and choose differences. This is true for all characters. It is typical for authors to go through a self-rejecting stage in which they say, “this person is different than me,” and attempt to start with a blank slate. This is how superficial and insincere characters are made. It is much harder to recreate the complexity of a human being from scratch than to utilize a blueprint (you). The author’s subconscious will make many decisions for him without him knowing, and working with that, rather than against it, will give him a background color to make choices onto. Saying, “This character is nicer than me, “she cares about appearance more than me,” “she’s had a lot harder of a life than me,” will allow the writer’s instincts to do its job, but also give him the opportunity to make that protagonist the way he wants her to be, and not just a replication of himself. Saying, “She is nice, appearance-oriented, and comes from a bad background,” doesn’t compensate for the thousands of other traits and experiences she has had. Everyone has similarities, and so the author does with his characters. Worry about being completely different from her will just give him a headache.

Thus, sometimes it is hard to write cross gender because we are assuming they are different from us and simply not knowing how.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Pain of Fixation

When I write, it looks like I’m having a seizure. So perturbed by certain words, I have a physical reaction every time I feel inclined to use them. Expressions like “just,” “was,” and “very” cause an eye twitch, despite my own personal belief that these are not something that can break a story. This blog is called “What’s Worse than Was,” for a reason. Yet, no matter how much I realize it is not only ridiculous to write an entire story with no adverbs, but not appealing either, I still can’t help myself second guess with every “was” uttered.

External input and how to receive it can be the hardest part of the writing process. It’s just as wrong to blatantly take advice as it is to blatantly reject it. In college, I had a professor try to simplify the problem by saying, “Just decide to take it or don't.” But it was not something he had a lot of experience with, and so did not realize why that wasn’t really viable.

In the beginning, few of us are trying to improve as much seeking the thrill of achievement. In this first stage we want to show what we’ve done, to get some emotional reward for all the hard work. This is often disparaged, especially how, as we are not yet looking for criticism, we can take it badly. But there is nothing wrong with seeking approval, as much as we like to say it is. An artist needs to gain confidence, feel the pleasure that comes from someone else reading their work, and really understand how good the feeling can be before they start to actively work to being better. People often give up because they don't remember what the reward will feel like after the years of work.

But, after a while, we want bigger things than just a couple of compliments: publishing, admiration, large scale readers, and though the need for approval is still there, we can sacrifice our egos in order for a bigger payoff.

My professor, who had not yet even completed an independent work in his life, had not come to the point in his life where he actually wanted feedback, so he did not understand why a basic do or don’t attitude doesn’t work. I know because there would be a hell of a lot of postmortems ending abruptly when he was the director. For those who are seeking honest ways to better themselves, the question becomes a lot harder.

Say, for instance, someone says, “Don’t use adverbs.”

Now, we might logically know several things. This is a common piece of advice that repeatedly circulates. Its well versed nature means that it may be good on the grounds that many people agree with it, but it may be bad on the grounds that it takes little thought to parrot it. The author is aware that he would be hard put to find a “great” book that doesn’t use adverbs, and that a bad story does not immediately become good after having deleted them. Does that make it untrue?

To simply reject it as a lie seems too simple too. We then have to consider why the person said it, and what it actually means. They say “don’t,” “never,” and “always,” which sound as if they are absolutely true, but everyone knows that’s not right. So learn to interpret it. “Don’t use” means “don’t over use.” “Never” means “use less,” and always means “use more.” Then, we think, the person is probably saying it because they feel like you did overuse adverbs and they want you to use less, but in order to avoid explaining exactly how much less, they utilize the assumption that you’re not really going to listen to them completely, and hope that you will end up with a good balance. Plus, the ramifications of you actually listening is now you have no adverbs at all, which doesn't seem like a big deal. There is a clear benefit to just telling the author to go overboard rather than really trying to figure out the "appropriate" amount.

The next question we have to consider is if they thought you overused adverbs because of what you did, or because they were looking for them. Getting feedback is a little problematic because people don't necessarily know what "good" and "bad" is, probably because, in my opinion, it doesn't actually work like that. So they often will clench onto some sort of pet peeve and utilize that to define quality, such as if "I look to see if you have an inciting incident on page 15 of a screenplay," or something equally as arbitrary. It's important to watch out for these because trying to abide by these Calvinball rules will just make you crazy.

It’s like Neil Gaiman says, “When people tell you something is wrong, they are 100% right. When they tell you how to fix it, they are 100% wrong.”

When actively trying to improve work and ourselves, if we ignore what doesn’t make sense or what isn’t true, then we will have little to go on. If we were to just delete all adverbs, than we'd be limiting ourselves to an extreme amount for an guaranteed (and unlikely) benefit. If we were to just leave them, we are ignoring an opportunity that is rare enough as it is. Getting someone to read your work and respond to it is nearly impossible; we can't afford to ignore the less-than-perfect critiques.
This analytical turmoil is not just a problem during a criticism. It is much worse when the author sits in his home, alone, staring at his computer screen with only himself to discuss the problem with, and he comes along an issue that he’d thought he’d come to terms with. We sit there, unable to get external advice, freaking out because we're not sure if it is acceptable to have eight main characters or if that's a huge ding on our book.

It is common to overuse “be” verbs and adverbs and saids and overwrite and underwrite and passive-sentences and all the things that people say are overdone. But if we were to try and prevent ourselves from using any of them, we wouldn’t be able to write at all. Fixating on these inane, if not accurate, restrictions causes a lot of frustration.

It’s a hard point to balance on, the difference between trying know what to change and to know what to keep the same, to know what is legitimate judgment and what is ridiculous. There is no reason to cling to decisions that hinder us, but actively trying to change rules of the writing world that don’t matter is just a waste of time. The only advice I can give when being faced with arbitrary rules is to not worry about it. Easier said than done, believe me, I know. But sometimes knowing that’s okay to not give a damn, even when we realize that giving a damn might lead to insight, is exactly what we need to move on without needing to hold our tongue down. Fixating on the little details may be helpful, but it's too painful to deal with constantly.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Inspiration or Perspiration

Every time I’ve entered a book store during the last year, I would immediately be drawn to one singular book. A gray cover of a singular tie, I would snatch up 50 Shades of Gray and look at the back before immediately remembering having done the exact same thing seven times before. Before I knew of the reputation of the novel, I would keep being intrigued by the cover and deterred by the summary. The sad part comes from the very good chance that if I ever committed to reading it, I have a decent idea that I would like it.

Why do I keep putting it down? One single word: “Intern.”

Something that is unique to me (meaning uncommon to the majority of your readers) is my distaste for the realistic modern America setting. I hardly can enjoy supernatural modern America. I have and can overcome this small distaste, but it has to have some other element to compensate.

The problem is not, of course, how it affects my reading, but my writing. Considering that this disinterest in anything, well, relatable, is not a popular thread of thought, it makes it more difficult for me to understand the appeal and therefore connect with them. All authors have this problem, of course (though not necessarily with this subject), which is why I bring it up.

The first issue comes from my foray into theatre. I feel inclined, and not entirely mistakenly, that critically respected theatre is the one that deals with small modern issues. If we look at most of the Pulitzer prize winners since the turn of the century, they mostly consist of mundane and dark family issues, whether it be Arthur Miller’s The Death of a Salesman to David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole or anything Sam Sheppard’s ever written, despite how surreal things tend to get.

Now, though having a good reputation amongst the “intellectuals” is important to me, it is not a priority. I am not the sort of person to compromise myself just for success. In fact, I often tend to err on the stubborn side for very inane things. But when I would try to put my characters in this setting so dull to me, I didn’t perceive it as (for lack of a better term) selling-out. Being well versed is a goal of mine, and I don’t want to be limited.

So what would happen? Plays gave me the worst cases of tedium. I would form a concept that didn’t require a specific world and so, for whatever reasons, I’d decided that they lived a very normal modern life. And I couldn’t care less about any of it.

Writing can be a lot like drinking in that most of the experience is miserable. Whether it be having to gag down the taste in the beginning or the hangover afterwards, a drunk has about five minutes of fun (or what seems like) and six hours of discomfort. Writing while inspired, however, is that moment in between, right when the toxicity is such that everything in the world is happy. That moment of pure bliss where we drive through a scene, a chapter, or even an entire story is what we remember when we keep deciding to do it again.

My point being, of course, that if we can induce our own inspiration then we will be happier, and my problem of the setting is a good reason why we’re not inspired.

There are things that we like to read about that may or may not be true for others. For me personally, the best works are comedy in serious situations, romance in fantasy settings, and companionship in easily ignored plots. I like reading about writers, anthropomorphic cats, one-sided relationships, and happy endings. Here are the problems: Not what I like reading about is what other people like reading about, and to only write what I want to read would start creating a series of patterns that restricts me and is indicative of an unimaginative author.

However, I have consistently found that my attempts to write without considering my own personal tastes leads to abandoned projects, and the ones that I change to be more of what I would want to read has created some of my favorite works.

I find it fairly typical for authors to go through a self-rejection phase. When critiquing starting writers’ work, I have often heard them say, “I’m struggling with this character’s reactions, because I know she isn’t me and wouldn’t react like me.” We like to think that we’re unique and we have sort of an “us and them” mentality in which we don’t know how our readers will be different, so we will just assume that they’re different.

But writing shouldn’t be hard. Even if those whose goals are focused more around external rewards than internal, such as positive reception versus emotional release, won’t be hurting themselves by indulging themselves with their own preferences.

It can be tempting to err on the I’m special/I’m wrong side instead of acknowledging that there’s someone out there like me/there’s someone out there who agrees with me. Two human beings will always have similarities, despite their different backgrounds, personalities, and beliefs. It’s hard for me to understand why someone might love Death of a Salesman, and so for me to try to replicate that is harder than for me to try and replicate something I love. And not just because of knowledge, but because of passion.

Passion can be dull to people who don’t understand it, so it can be hard to commit to it. But it is important to remember that there are others who will be just as passionate, that not everyone will be interested in any subject chosen, and that if you have fun writing it is a thousand times more likely to be fun to be read.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Being Right versus Being Stubborn

I had a personality change in college. High school, the time when I started writing, filled me with confidence, ingenuity, and self-importance. College gave me empathy, ability and self-doubt.

I was a serial third place winner. And I’m not talking the sort where everyone gets a ribbon. I’m talking cash prizes. Every single art contest I applied to I would win third place or sometimes second place. Ratherly worse, never better.

Yet after the event I would have judges and spectators tell me my project was their favorite. They loved my piece.

So why didn’t I ever win? Because my work was crappy. I always had something far different and stranger than the rest, but the execution revealed exactly how much thought I put into it: the bare minimum. Because I didn’t care. I was lazy, and I thought the idea was enough. I slapped things together, thought I was fated to do well, and left it at that. My community was not big on “winning” or competition. Though I wouldn’t change all my experiences to help learn how to push yourself and play the game, I would have liked to know now, as I face failure or success, how to compete.

But then I went to college where I grew more aware of the world and myself, and the desire for success came with the understanding it was not necessarily going to happen. I started to focus less on the idea and more on the quality. I wrote with less importance on the concept and gimmick in favor of pacing and word choice. A person might think that this made me a more well-rounded author, but what it really did was take my qualities and flaws and flip them.

Balance is an extremely important part of the arts. Everything in moderation, as we say. And as I ignored one aspect in favor of getting better on another, I was not being as efficient as I could. Of course, talents don’t just go away and if I was to change my attention to the opposite, I would fair very well. But there was one portion of me that I have struggled to find again, and that was self-confidence.

We all have faced this problem before: someone gives a piece of advice that an author doesn’t want to take. If you refuse, are you being true to yourself or egotistical and ignorant?

In high school, I would have trusted myself. In college, I would have trusted other people. In different contexts, both could save me, both could destroy me, and both could do nothing at all. More importantly, I would not know which until after the chance to change it has passed.

Knowing when to stay and when to fold is the entire issue in “constructive criticism.” It’s situational, and the best answer is the one that works. This is often impossible to know. Over the course of the years, I have come across three rules I use to determine when I should hold my ground and when to hear them out.

1. Keep what you care about, change what you don’t. (And realize that you don’t care about as much as you think you do.)

If it really bothers you to make a change, then it’s probably not the right thing to do. Entertainment is about emotions, and if you’re emotionally attached than it’s a good sign. The important part that makes this harder than we’d like is understanding why you’re attached, and realizing it might not have anything to do with a love of what you’ve done. Refusal for change can be attributed to many things, some having nothing to do with how you like it. We are often stubborn because 1) it’d be hard to change it or 2) we perceive changing it as admitting you’re wrong (see below). It might not be obvious at first, but if you can admit to yourself that either of these are your main reasons (or you can’t figure out your reasons), having changed it will answer the question of what’s best for the project.

2) Sacrifice your right to be right.

Humans have an obsession with being right. This innate trait may cause a good number of arguments, but it is a part of life, and isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This need to prove ourselves is a huge reason why we might not want to make a change, especially when we’re not wrong.

A common criticism I receive is when I am using a word improperly. But I didn’t. I used it strangely.  I could agrue creativity and style in keeping it, however, I often know that the word, though prettier than its more basic sister, isn’t the best option for me.

The question becomes not about what the word means, but what are the rewards and negatives to using it. It comes down to these concepts:
1) What do I get out of keeping it?
2) What do I lose by changing it?
3) How common is this reaction going to be?

The last one is tough to answer, but an (honest) educated guess will probably lead you to the truth. Do you think that, for example, the critic is more or less aware of the word’s definition than the average person? If you foresee this being a common problem not worth the benefits, then it is the easiest way to know if you should get rid of it.

3. Consider who the speaker is.

The obvious part of this being, does he know what he’s talking about? But I personally don’t consider expertise as a clear indicator of truth because gut reaction from a layman is what most authors have to contend with. We’re trying to make the masses happy, not the experts.

The important aspects I consider:

            1) How do they feel about you?
            2) What are their tastes?
            3) Do they believe what they are saying?

A person who hates you personally, or worse, sees you as an amateur will change the way they judge a work. Our perception going in will drastically affect our judgment coming out, and a person who wants you to fail or thinks that you will has a very different response than the average reader. A reader who doesn’t like you will look for things to hate, which might make you think they’d be the best critic. But the subjects they choose to talk about are not usually about problems as much as choices.

“Normal,” in terms of writing, is anything the viewer ignores or pays little attention to. For instance, a kitchen described has having chairs and a table, will not be considered as much as one with a cauldron and a coffin. A writer often pays as much attention to the norm as a reader does, and rarely do we make conscious choices about innane things; our brains will insert “the normal” for us.

The point being that conscious choices that go against “normalcy” draw attention to themselves, like the coffin in the kitchen. That makes those things an easy target. So instead of commenting on more problematic and arguable topics, (“It was boring.”) they pay attention to more obvious elements (“You’re not Rocky and Bullwrinkle; you don’t need two titles”). Of course, that’s not to say they are wrong, but it is to say they are more likely to be a jerk than helpful, and jerks are more likely to stifle creativity then solve issues. On that note, it is also important to check your feelings and realize when you are not going to take their advice simply because you hate them.

When someone doesn’t think you know what you are doing, he will criticize you for small, inane (and obvious) things, often making mistake as readers and attributing them to the writer. For example, they may think a word spelled correctly is wrong. When we see something like that in a published book, then we assume it’s our mistake, but when we see it in a draft, we think it’s the authors.

Unlike someone who hated you, even those who look down on you can love you, and that makes it an even bigger problem. Their nitpickiness might be pointing out little details that most readers will be annoyed with, or they might just be driving you crazy. But if you strangely want to keep something the way it is, then realizing they’re treating you differently can give you a good reason to keep it.

Lastly, we come to lying. People don’t out and out do this for this sort of thing, but they will often give you advice they don’t believe. If you disagree with a response that a) they wouldn’t do themselves, b) they just heard from somewhere and repeated it because it sounded good, or c) they want to be true, it might be best to stick with your gut.

You know yourself better than anyone, and it is your vision you’re trying to follow. By remembering that you want to succeed above all, you can deal with your own ego and other’s accordingly.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Five Reasons You Might Not Be Finishing Your Novel

Writing should be easy. It won’t be, but it should. Unlike hard labor, concrete problem solving, or most work, there are a thousand ways to tackle a story at one time, and the best way isn’t always the obvious or always the same.

The trick to writing is finding out why it has gotten hard and change tactics. From planning too much to not planning at all, from making the wrong decision to making no decision, from sitting in bed to sitting at a desk, a writer can destroy his inspiration and ideas by simple, little changes—and revitalize it in the same way.

Most people, writers or not, will have many started novels, plays, and movies on their desktop, and far less finished ones, if any at all. Though most stop with reason, and not every story is worth the effort it would be to finish, it is much harder to see it to the end than it is to start over. Sometimes it’s more important to understand why we quit and solve the problem, especially when it is often due to the same five reasons.

1. It is a premise without a plot.

The plot of a story is the main conflict that is resolved in the end. The premise is an idea or concept with no obvious conclusion because it is often a situation, a setting, or even the life of a character.

How an author is inspired is none of anyone else’s business, and starting with a concept is a common and fine way to do it. The problem is not that he started with a premise, but when he stops because it’s all he has.

Examine the story and ask what the obvious ending would be. A plot will have some clear solution (even if it is not a good one) where a premise won’t.

When writer’s block rears its ugly head, sometimes all the author needs to do is figure out the character’s goal and something preventing him from getting it and he will have steam to move forward.

2. It is an antagonist’s plot.

Now, if we define the plot as the conflict and solution to a character’s super objective, then it is assumed that it would be the protagonist’s. Today, however, many stories, films especially, will have the main character the victim of circumstance.

Modern stories tend to be driven by the antagonist’s objective, such as The Lion King. Not only do Simba’s goals change throughout the film, but most of them are passive ones: waiting to be king, wanting to do nothing, wanting to be left alone. And, for that matter, he does not seek out anything he wants, but is led to it like a horse to water. Simba does not make things happen. Scar does. The plot is the king’s brother wants to be ruler and the prince stands in his way.

Again, there is nothing wrong with the villain leading the plot forward; it’s just harder. When the main character is standing around, waiting for some mentor to show up to tell him how talented he is and what he should do, it is just as hard for the author to move the story forward as it is for the protagonist to move his life forward.

Many movies compensate for this by having subplots, such as Aladdin’s love interest with Jasmine while Jafar (who is clearly propelling the events) tries to take over the world. Jafar is Aladdin’s obstacle in getting the princess, while Aladdin is Jafar’s obstacle in getting the lamp. This allows for Aladdin to have something to do while he’s waiting around for Jafar to make his move.

There are two easy ways to give the hero something to do while the villain compiles his evil plans. One, give him a separate objective that happens to land him in the line of fire (such as Jasmine bringing Aladdin to the palace.) Or two, make his objective to explicitly be to mess up the antagonist’s plan. He knows what the villain wants, and he wants him not to have it.

3. It is unconvincing, boring, or doesn’t meet the author’s standards.

Simply, the writer is discouraged because he doesn’t like what he’s made. This is, unfortunately the common reason why we stop writing. There important thing to remember is that a writer won’t get better unless he a) Makes a lot of crap, or b) Fixes the same crap until it is no longer crap. The best way is a mixture of the two, but if we have to chose, either would work.

There is a time to start over, but that should not be the default. Often it’s best to see it through to the end for the sake of experience, the feeling of achievement, and because it’s probably not as bad or hard to fix as we think.

This is, of course, up to the judgment of the author if he is quitting because he’s being a quitter or if he’s quitting because it is abnormally “bad,” and he knows he can do better. The writer knows best.

4. There is missing information.

Many like to write how we read, not knowing the secrets of the world and the story until they reveal themselves. Yet there is such a thing as foreshadowing, leading up to the events, and acting like the world is a concrete, real place, not being made up on the spot.

If the inspiration never dries up, the story seems to answer itself, and writer’s block never arrives, then the author does not need to preplan anything. Why would he? But for those moments that he sits there staring at the screen with a horrified expression, the simple answer to “What do I not know?” can stop it.

Sometimes not knowing where the scene is going, how it’s going to get where he wants it to be, or any other important plot point will be a huge obstacle that the author might not even be aware of. Sit back and answer all those important questions that you’re avoiding and see if the inspiration returns.

5. Not enough sense of accomplishment.

Writing a novel takes a long time. It is lonely, it is frustrating, it is scary, and even when finished, there’s not necessarily going to be any reward for it.

Creating hurtles, rewards, motivations, and little games can get us through the long haul. Have a goal, such as a daily page count, word count, or time spent. Reward yourself when you meet those goals, such as putting a dollar in a “superfluous spending” account, or eat a cookie. Sometimes I will make the font huge, write five pages, then move down a size to 48px, write back up to five pages, then move down again until I’m at the right page count and font size. Sometimes I will time myself writing a page and try to beat the speed for the next one.

The quality of writing while doing this will vary immensely, but it is anywhere from better to worse. Meaning that, yeah, it will have its effects, but not necessarily for the worse. Changing up the pace and goals can help with the tedium, and meeting arbitrary goals makes us feel like we’re doing something when working on an overwhelming project.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

For Good Men to Do Nothing

The communication gap between teacher and student is large and vague. Often times, it’s just hard to understand what the other doesn’t understand.

When looking back on my own personal incomprehension, I’ve come to several conclusions as to why I didn’t get it. One was the way it was told to me. Abrupt, concrete, and often condescending, of course I wasn’t going to listen when I felt like they thought I was an idiot. Secondly, it was never the whole story. People who said not to use adverbs did. And they did, because when they said “never” what they meant was “don’t overuse.” We say don’t because that’s a lot easier to obey than use moderation.

Lastly, and most importantly, when we give children advice, it comes from an idyllic form of reality, not reality itself. And thus, having been told that they shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, they are confused when we demand they wear uniforms.

Whether it be Disney, high school, or even the parents, the world constantly instructs the youth that life is the way it should be and are surprised when they believe it.

We were told we could do anything then they don’t want us to become rock stars. We were told that it’s bad to lie then they are nervous for our college applications essays. We were told to always be ourselves then they are mad when we won’t play the game. We were told to always be grateful for what we have then they can’t believe we’re still living at home at thirty.

Artists’ careers thrive within the idyllic realm. If an accountant says he’s doing his job to make money, that’s understandable. If an author does, he’s put a black mark on his career. The great artists are of pure integrity, and create art for the art, not for the respect, money, security, or fans.

Americans are taught it is wrong to want things. Possessions, money, power, and, for women, love, are objectives for evil, unlikable, or pathetic characters. It is okay to want safety, as long as they’re not being ungrateful for what they have.

Which is why, in modern film and literature, we see a great deal of heroes wanting little to nothing and merely contending with the villains' desires. Whether it be the Hero’s Journey, the self-fulfilling prophecy, or a Disney movie, we are told that good people sit around and wait for fame, where bad people seek it. Doing things is evil.

Here’s the issue: quality is not universal, a second draft won’t necessarily be better than the first, and whether or not someone likes the work is based around what it’s being compared to. So it becomes very hard to make decisions on how to improve. Especially when no one likes to talk about the concept of improving.

In college, I wanted to impress my professor. (This confession, by the way, is exactly the sort of mentality a proper author should never make because it’s not a goal a true artist would have.) But the plays he liked and hated seemed to have no discernible pattern. Some of the worst works shared main traits with the best. And he would constantly say that you can’t judge a work by whether or not you like it as well as it’s not about what the author meant because sometimes he doesn’t know. So I asked him, “How do you know if a script is good or not?”

(And, of course, I meant, “How do you know if a script is good or not?”)

His response? “You learn with experience.”

The conversation went on for hours, and I could get no better answer.

I’ve had this argument with several different people, and for a long time it was hard for me to understand the miscommunication.

Art is subjective, and that makes it damn hard to make decisions. I feel as if I could break through some truth on what good is that my life would be made easier. But often times when I try to talk about it, I get the same sorts of responses. Artists are careful not to reveal any “superficial” desires, as, for that matter, are most people in our culture.

But the truth of that matter is that no matter how bad it looks to want things, it is okay to want what you want. And more importantly, we need to know what we want if we ever hope to achieve happiness. Though we can often be mistaken in what will make us happy, (thinking that if we had the money there would be no more problems, or if we lost the weight everyone would like us better) as long as the desires don’t make other people miserable, then we should keep our goals in mind.

In terms of writing, honesty about goals relieves frustration. When an author doesn’t know what he doesn’t like about his work, when he doesn’t know if he wants to change something or leave it, when he is trying to edit without any available feedback, knowing what he is trying to achieve, therefore not achieving, will tell him if and how to make changes.

If we treat the writing world the way it should be rather than the way it is, if we consider any forms of playing the game selling out, and if we refuse to acknowledge our own desire for success, then the only thing we can depend on is luck or fate, which is a very depressing way to go.