Tuesday, July 31, 2018

It Ain’t Over Until I Stop Talking

A secret, unspoken joy of a small town is that particular moment when your professors go from being authoritarian experts and become your equally lost peers. Sometimes it’s a blessing, a means to return the gift of support and motivation your fifth-grade teacher instilled in you.

One of the most impactful adults of my childhood would go out of her way to make sure I’d be able to escape the other students when overstimulated by their, we’ll say, antics. She supported my creativity and rule breaking more than any other, and even allowed me to take charge of an entire class period to “teach short story writing” to my fellow third-graders.

As an adult, I encountered this woman again in my creative writing group, where I found her to be immensely insecure and uncertain about her convictions. Other members looked down on her and questioned her choices constantly, a giant man barking, “WHY?!” at her anytime he disagreed with her vision. Unexpectedly, I was given power to empower her just like she had for me.

It can also be a bad thing. Teachers are humans too, and with that comes all of the pettiness and politics that teenagers take possession of. My high school drama teacher had been the longest, most constant relationship out of all of the people who have taught me. I thought her stern and opinionated, but intelligent, passionate, and respectful.

Yet, when I became a teacher myself, I started to question her decisions, starting to realize the ineffectiveness (and unfairness) of how she prioritized the students with natural showmanship over teaching the eager. She wanted high quality shows with minimal effort, not to teach, not to challenge. There weren’t many “lessons” in her lessons. As I worked with her as an adult, professional peers, I found more unsavory practices. She would scream at the techies, insult her directors, and take over any group discussion to make it about her needs and her opinions. Her judgment was law and everyone else was a philistine. The work she produced itself wasn’t something I was too enamored with, and soon the woman who I’d idolized in my youth was nothing more than a stress-inducing diva.

She had had a lot to say about… well, everything, and was my initial introduction to a great deal of writing/acting rules. “Everyone wants something even if it’s just a glass of water,” sort of opinions. And I, as someone who despises being told what to do, never took it seriously, doing my own thing regardless. It was as I aged that I realized that these parroted pieces of advice weren’t always the clearest. Once I understand—via experience and practice—what they were trying to get out, I had more respect for them. But there’s one thing I’ve heard constantly that I still to this day think is too vague to be remotely useful: “Every story needs a beginning, middle, and end.”

While talking with a woman about the playwriting group I founded this year, she mentioned her idea—a café with strange characters—and my past mentor’s criticism: this whole beginning, middle, end shebang. The writer accepted the advice eagerly, but was unclear about which direction to go with it. To me, that made sense, as I always wanted to quip back, “The beginning is when I start talking, the end is where I stop, and the middle is everything in between.”

It’s sort of like when people say, “Get rid of it because it’s unnecessary.” Well, the whole book is unnecessary really. More to the point, I find that it’s misdirecting from the real issue—it’s not unnecessary, it’s that it’s boring and easy to cut. Or boring and doesn’t lead anywhere. Maybe it’s a distraction or looks like the author is rambling. But, the more important part is that it is boring, regardless of the impact it has later on. If it was interesting and off-topic, no one would bat an eye (unless they wanted to hear more about it.) So-called unnecessary details are what separates the story from the summary, and sometimes those little jokes that don’t move the plot forward are what actually keep the audience glued to the screen. To me, the word “unnecessary” is a shame tactic that requires little thought to get something to change something.

As an avid reader of new writers, I know how there are stories that don’t have their beginning, middle, ends, just verbose tangents that make you feel like you’ve wasted your time. Yet, I also say that there are so many exceptions to what constitutes as the effective trifecta of a story plot, it’s mostly based on an, “I’ll know it when I see it,” mentality. It’s difficult to warn a writer starting a new book what to look for without the use of a formula, and surprisingly, there are many formulas and rules to choose from. I recommend that all authors experiment with these, but that takes years of tooling around and research.

So what about the new writer who wants to make something cohesive?

A cardinal rule is to remain focused.

If I’m telling you the story about how I broke up with my boyfriend, I’m going to include the aspects and factors that I consider relevant. I may begin my story with how we met, but only if I think how we met is demonstrative of how we ended. So, by the fact that I had to ask him out and be incredibly aggressive, it might be a great place to begin if our relationship ended due to his lack of effort. How we met foreshadows how we ended. But if we just met in a grocery store and we broke up because he doesn’t think brushing his teeth is important, that might not be the best place to start.

What’s “on topic” is really easy to identify because it’s a true story: we have all this information we know we can’t tell each second of—two years together, there’s a lot of days that can be summed up or skipped over—and so we have a better natural filter. (Some of us more than others, of course.)

Fiction is a little more difficult, especially genres like fantasy and sci-fi when details like where the milk she pours into her cereal came from might be something the audience needs to know for sake of world building. Plus people love subplots.

However, the rules remain the same. Millions of things happen to these characters, not all of which need to be explained. Staying focused doesn’t necessarily mean to one story, but it does mean to ask yourself how information relates to other information, or if a scene is even telling the audience anything. Just because a character would go to the bathroom, being human an all, it can be left out unless the fact that they went at that time informs later or earlier actions.


Really, most people would agree that you can start a book out in anyway as long as it’s interesting. Personally, I would focus on that first, but I will throw out a few things that seems to be successful.

Good beginnings typically…

-Give strong sense of character.
            In Guardians of the Galaxy, Peter Quill’s dance through the “rat” infested cavern and his argument with his humanoid opponents immediately give a sense of how he handles conflict and endears him to us.

-Gives a sense of the author.
            Whether it be The Martian or Pride and Prejudice, the strength of those first paragraphs lie in the perspective/philosophy/sense of humor. We get a vibe to the voice of the book, and some insight into who the writer is; why they’re writing the damn thing in the first place.

-Gives a sense of the overall mood and/or theme of the book.
            “It was a dark and stormy night.” Horror, comedy, drama, a rollercoaster, you get a taste of what emotions the rest of the story intends to instill in you.

-Sets up important details of the character’s situation that explains later actions.
            When we see that Lilo has no friends, no family, and is intensely weird and alone, it becomes the foundation to not only the stakes in losing Stitch, but also makes sense as to why she remains loyal to her terrible, disloyal dog.


I remember, when first writing a novel, thinking about what the hell happens in the middle? And the truth is, this is the most flexible, yet easiest part to get wrong (as in, lose your audience.)

Good middles typically…

-Make a huge change in the character’s situation.
            So, if we see how the character handles conflict in their comfort zone, what happens when we take them to a place they’re unfamiliar? Blake Snyder, writer of Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need refers to this as a “upside down world” and the idea is, after establishing a normal life, how far in the opposite direction can we go? I don’t think it needs to be absolutely polar, but definitely the middle is going to want to look very different from the beginning, if that be setting, social standing, or the types of problems the character now has.

-Explain the character’s priorities and concerns.
            There should be a moment of doubt and resistance when a character’s life changes—as humans don’t like change in general, and it adds to who your character is. When suddenly he’s faced with a decision, you learn a lot more about it when it comes to why he hesitates. Why wouldn’t he do something? What ultimately propels him?

-Show the “concept.”
            Your book often starts out with an idea, such as a young boy finds out he’s a wizard and goes to school, or even you’re in a café with a bunch of colorful locals. After you set up what’s normal and strange for the life of the people in your story, take a moment to play with the actual concept that caused you to write the book. Have Harry take a magic class. Let your locals make jokes at each other’s expense. For the first portion of middle section, write the book the way you want it to be without worrying (too much) about stakes or progression of plot.

-Set up more reasons the character needs to succeed.
            The beginning needs to tell your audience why the character cares about whatever it is he’s trying to do, but the middle needs to emphasize the importance. This is where you start adding stakes and developing even more reasons for the character to pursue his goal and, most importantly, to do it now.

The End

A good ending will, of course, tie the majority your threads together and leave the reader feeling something. Many amateur writers fail in this area because, honestly, they get impatient and they quick. They rush the ending and sort of just stop.

Endings, especially for novels, can get away with “lacking” certain aspects, even being improved because of it. Books in series, for instance, don’t want every problem tied up, and even standalones might do better if you leave the audience with a question rather than answering it for them. That being said, it’s very easy for a reader to feel ripped off if the author doesn’t have an ending with an impact.

Good endings typically…

-Leave the audience feeling something has changed.
            A reader will put the book down feeling scared or on edge, excited or satisfied. They might have new intellectual concepts to chew over, or even be inspired in their own life to make a difference. A bad ending will make a reader wonder why they bothered picking up the book in the first place, typically because though the author tried to instill emotions, they did not succeed.

-Utilize emotional swings within the last few pages to achieve this.
            There should be a moment of doubt as to whether or not the character will succeed/how they will succeed. If the hero ultimately wins the battle, at one point, he needs to look like he genuinely might lose. You don’t have to convince the reader of this, many books don’t, but if you can, all the better. If he comes in and just wins everything, blowing away the enemy in one fell swoop, the conflict doesn’t look hard enough, and the ending isn’t as much of a payoff. If you don't know what the main character is trying to succeed at, it's a sign that your story is just unfocused rambling, and it's likely you're boring the reader.

-Make it clear why you told the story.
            It was funny, arousing, or cathartic. It explained a big problem in our world we need to solve, or at least open up to discussion. You had a point, and you made it, even if you don’t give answers.

-It makes sense as to why we saw the rest of the story.
            If the ending would work just as well without the buildup, then the buildup isn’t working. Because we saw the whole thing from beginning to end, we see how what happened in scene two makes the finale make sense/more important to us as the audience. This falls in line with staying focused; at the last scene, we know why we needed to learn everything we did throughout the book.

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Saturday, July 28, 2018

Blinders are for Horses

“I’m done,” the least invested child of my class told me, racing past to put his poster on the finished pile.

I held out an arm. “What about all that white space?”

“You said I could have some if it was intentional!”

“Is that intentional?”


“Because it looks like you just got bored.”

He grinned sheepishly at me, quickly admitting, “I did get bored.”

“And it looks like it,” I replied, turning him back towards his seat. “Color in the background and then you can be done.”

When the students get older, the arguments get harder. Third graders sort of accept your answers for what they are, but middle schoolers start to become pedantic and make “On-Paper” rebuttals that can stump you if you don’t fully know why—or are willing to admit the truth about why—you believe what you believe.

Adults can be just as bad. “Artistic vision” makes me want to beat someone with a keyboard. Not because their tastes differ from mine, but because so many half-assed pieces are stunted by that excuse. It’s not that you create something “ugly” and are proud of it; it’s when you’re new to what you do and don’t challenge yourself. When something looks unfinished, or is painfully dull, and it’s claimed to be the vision in the first place.

On the other hand, sometimes that “finished” look is actually just an arbitrary restriction of professionalism; a singular method society demands even though many other options work just as well. There are associations, like the papyrus or comic sans font—even Times New Roman for hell’s sake—that come off as amateurish simply because the average Joe has access to it. There are cultural traditions, like ties are formal because ties are formal, which, one day, someone decided to buck the rule and created a new association—ties are for punk rock. The rule made way for a contradiction; the impact is caused by the breaking of the expectation. It begs the question: What is innovative and changing convention versus what is a mere amateur who doesn’t know how to do it correctly?

And more importantly, what do we do with the untalented artist who claimed his poor execution was just above our plebian imagination?

I should mention at this point I’m currently tranq’d out by anti-anxiety medication. For a long time when confronted with (what I considered) a poorly skilled soul who cried “vision!” I told myself to mind my own business and stop getting worked up—that focusing on the quality of my own skillsets is what will bring me satisfaction and yield results. But when you’re constantly looping into fight or flight mode, already feeling hot with pent up rage, this can be hard to do. Now that I’m synthetically calm, it’s easy for me to say the obvious: Don’t argue with bullshit artists. Worry about your own bullshit if you want to improve.

As I work with people of all ages, I find that the real trick to speedy development is simply looking to what they avoid. There are areas that don’t draw our interest, that we’re not practiced in, that we cut corners with, or ignore all together. These spots, blindspots as I refer to them, are easy to enhance on their own, and enhancing those will improve the broader picture in turn.

It’s a fairly quick and fun process if the artist is willing to a) acknowledge it is being unfairly ignored b) actually do something about it. Even a little something.

This might be the white of the paper on the drawing. It might that you don’t have a clue what women characters are thinking when a man awkwardly hits on them. It may be you zone out during action sequences, or don’t care about building a world that’s unlike what others have already seen, or that you find several different camera angles a waste of everyone time. It may be shadow, color, or just making your straight lines actually straight. In fact, it could be pretty much anything, and you may care so little about it you won’t even notice you haven’t touched it.

Sometimes, seeing these things can be difficult, even for the willing; on occasion they’re small and subtle, or it’s not a question you even thought to ask. You don’t always know what you don’t know. Which is one of the best reasons to get outside feedback. But, really, I’ve often found that most people are consciously bracing against a solution they’re already afraid of, a problem they’re denying, or a convention they’ve rejected that, if they just experimented a little, would open up a world of options.

Over the last few weeks I’ve had the same old arguments with children that I have been fighting all my life. Not just with my peers or my students, but even with myself. It’s the real question for every artist. Am I being too hard on myself? Or am I just being a lazy bullshitter?

We all have those moments when we can’t decide if it’s good enough, or the time we knew it wasn’t but couldn’t pinpoint why. In these times, I’ve realized there’s an easy question to ask yourself:

Is there a part of the story that I’m avoiding because I don’t know how to do it right?

And, as I say to my students, if the answer’s yes, there’s an easy solution.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Your Day Job Might Be Training for the Dream

I never believed college would be a magical ticket to better pay and respect. I did believe I would get through it with my personality and mind intact. Oh, the naivety of youth!

I went to college because I didn’t know what else my next step would be. High school has a way of pushing you forward while just float there, and when you finally get dumped into the sea, the opportunities leading off in any direction, you might suddenly realize you weren’t actually taught to swim or how to navigate.

But I hear echoes of the millennial philosophy, one filled with either criticism or complaints. Many people my age were told that college would lead to bigger and better jobs, and that you would end up working at a gas station if you chose a different path. This is attitude I’ve witness multiple times, either via the regret of those who pay the big bucks to take the most traveled path leading nowhere, or the disdain of our older generation attacking that sense of entitlement. My college boyfriend once said to me, point blank, that he would not take entry-level jobs or work for low pay if he had a college degree. The degree was to give him a leg up and have him skip the grunt work. He was a theatre major with no work experience and remained unemployed for the following two years, save for the volunteer work he did at a theatre. To this day, almost a decade after he graduated, he still lives at home and seeks out a masters.

Recently, I found a friend in a similar position, graduating after a good period of time, to find the workforce abhorrent. Having lived off a full ride scholarship since high school, her first foray into retail ended explosively. She now tells me she won’t get a job outside her artistic field and is supported by her boyfriend’s parents.

When I first graduated during the height of the recession, I felt completely lost. I had believed that the answers would just come to me—most people told stories of finding their career by accident—and yet, there I was in Los Angeles, unable to get a basic retail job. I struggled to determine since high school if I should focus my efforts and education on a “career” day job, or if I should just keep myself afloat, giving as much energy as I could to my real work. For months I wallowed in stagnancy, until finally I moved back home, found a job with a theatre company and started to work my ass off for what probably accumulated into two bucks an hour.

Since graduation, I've worked for theatre groups, a fabric store, a dog walking company, extracurricular education, a restaurant, a bar, a coffee shop, and a gift store. I took jobs as they came, moving all across the country and the world as I tried to figure what I wanted in life.

In 2016, I was living with my then-boyfriend in his home country. I couldn’t work yet, still on a visitor’s visa, deciding if I would commit to him and moving to Australia—halfway around the world. The things I had waited for for so long—a husband, a dog, having a permanent place to live, and a space of my own—were right in my grasp. But it had been so hard to get there and not really worth it. At all. He was the wrong guy, and the country, while beautiful, had restrictions that penalized me as a writer. I talk to many artists in Perth, and they all admitted that those who took it seriously would move to the U.S. or Britain. Even their own bookstores were filled with American works with only a few “hometown heroes” being praised in a sort of, “Good for you!” kind of way.

All the sudden, my life took a turn. Once the relationship ended astride my visa, I strove to do all the things moving to Australia would mean. I lived in NYC, started submitting my book to American agents, and experienced a year of the quintessential starving artist.

But I didn’t want that either.

I found myself stressed and constantly concerned with money. My roommate was batshit crazy, checking my lightbulbs when I left for work and abruptly stopping her phone call to shout at me there was literally a singular hair in the tub.

So back to Wyoming came I, determined to focus on my writing as my real job. For the first time, I made a decision. Writing was my career, and I’d take only work that didn’t subtract from it. Go to work and leave it there. No mental labor or decision making, little personal investment in the outcome. A job in which I had to take charge and worry about drastically subtracted from my ability to do so for my books. You only have so much to give.

Part of my work now focuses on marketing. I’m expected to create “personas” of my target readers—fictional people based off the sort of audience I’m aiming for. It also reminds me of how much salesmanship and presentation is relevant to being successful, and how easy it is as a writer to avoid talking to people all together.

I often felt like day jobs got in the way of really pursuing and having time for my real work, but there’s a lot of basic training that a writer needs if she wants to make a living, or even just be read by people who she hasn’t met. Or even those she has. These skills are not naturally learned during the actual writing process, but are quickly taught when you have to work for someone.

-How to talk to people, including negotiating with those who have financial leverage over you, or unsatisfied readers.

-That complaints about pricing aren’t always indicative of being “too expensive.” It’s common and not always intuitive. (People tend to complain more the cheaper your product is.)

-How not to approach a sale - a store or a manager you hope to sell your product to. Negativity is always off putting, and no matter how friendly or chatty you are with the employees, you must talk to the manager to get results.

-Just how important location is to selling something well. Both the shop itself, but its position in the shop.

-How much more effective a personal, one on one sale is to lambasting the public.

By playing “games” to see how good of a salesperson I could be, whether that means which words to use or how to reorganize the store, I got the opportunity for trial and error without a lot of risk on my part. Since I don’t care if the product is actually purchased, I don’t feel bad when the customer turns me down, but learn about why they did and have ideas on what to try next time. And there will be a natural next time without needing to put myself out there. Because I’ve worked along side a variety of people, seen hiring practices, had to deal with inventory and restrictions, I’m much further along in terms of having a head for business, how to work with people, red flags of bad hires, and how to present my work in a professional, trustworthy way.

Yesterday, I somehow got myself roped into the planning of a fundraiser non-related to anything I’ve been trying to save my focus for. As I scanned down the list of options for me to take the reins on, I felt a sickness in my stomach. So much work. So much stepping out of my comfort zone! But there was an obvious choice on there: Marketing. No one wanted to do it. I’m trying to learn it. I have other members of the committee with experience and ideas who can give me a good head where to start, and it’s a great place to begin my trial and error without having my name directly attached to any missteps. As I reframed the sudden responsibility in that light, I went from dread to excitement. Learning is a part of a process, and it’s better to have a safety net and other people to help you than to try and figure it out all by yourself when everything’s on the line.

You may hate your job or feel like it’s a waste of time. Maybe you don’t want one at all unless it’s directly taking your career forward. But you never know how it might help you with necessary lessons you never would have thought about writing by yourself in the corner of your house with fictional people backing you up. Sometimes, you have to get out into the world and test things outside of a vacuum, and a day job you’re not super invested in can be just the place.

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Friday, July 13, 2018

How Blake Snyder Saved the Adjective

My personal abrasion towards “formulas” and “writing rules” has been a little bit of a mystery. In my adulthood, I realized parts of it had to do with my parents’ tendency to be a little too free with advice and constructive criticism, often their impulsive ideas putting me into embarrassing situations. Anyone who has received advice—whether it be on writing, dating, parenting, travel, or auto repair—has found that not all opinions are helpful, some downright problematic.

In fact, I’ve started to realize that people often advocate for their biggest flaws. I often tell the story about the unpublished writer whose English came across as a second language due to his overwriting and perfectly proper grammar, and how he “reminded” me to never put a preposition at the end of a Facebook status so that I am practiced in perfect grammar for my actual work. I politely reminded him that his way of writing wasn’t for everyone, and not a style I was particularly interested in emulating. Just recently, a friend of mine, who is struggling with a man loudly rejecting any commitment to her, insisted that I should just start sleeping with someone (anyone) and that’s how you get feelings! Meanwhile, another friend’s mother-in-law was advising her not to feed her baby whenever it wanted, but instead give him a pacifier dipped in soda until the baby came around to her timeframe.

Blake Snyder was sort of the exception for me. I think, in part, it had to with a way he was introduced. I was working with a cowriter on a radio show we hope to produce next year and she pulled out Snyder’s Beat Sheet to outline from. This was not my normal way of going about things, but obviously, as there were two of us writing different episodes, we needed to get in on the general story before we could get started. As we filled in the beats, things became clearer to me, and all of the sudden, I realized it was exactly what I was looking for.

In many of my scripts (both play and novel) the characters are supposed to be funny with endearing connection to one another, but it never seemed to happen. I didn’t take the time from the plot to just have a fun moment. But where should a scene like that go?

Well, according to Snyder, page 30!

Blake Snyder was a screenwriter with, according to him, a good deal of script sells, some for millions of dollars. Only two of his movies were actually made—typical for the industry—but he believed himself to be great at knowing what Hollywood wants, and how to pitch it.

And I believe that.

For one thing, he immediately promotes to name your screenplay first; come up with a catchy title and then find a logline that goes with it. Script comes third to those things. Well, as I was reading Save the Cat, Snyder’s book on how to write a screenplay, I had several people ask me what it was about, some even saying, “Great title!” which was bizarre compared to most of the books I’ve read.

Since learning about the Beat Sheet last October, I’ve applied the lessons to most of my writing, in both editing and outlining. And regardless of the actual results, one of the nicest things about the “formula” is that I felt less overwhelmed. I understood how to keep the plot moving and had areas that I tended to ignore pointed out to me. In life, I avoid conflict as much as possible, being a pretty good smooth talker when it comes to difficult situations. It’s hard for me to have characters not understand where the other is coming from—or even just not care—and a lot of their logical discussions subtracted from the stakes and conflicts that could be there.

The Beat Sheet is an excellent way of putting emotional range in your manuscript as well as recognizing easy places to add in more conflict and, well, plot.

So I bought the book. I didn’t have people explain the Beat Sheet to me as well as I’d like, so I wanted to get it straight from the cat’s mouth. Unfortunately, the cat is more of a salesperson and less of a writer than I’d hope.

Snyder’s opening states that one reason he felt this book needed to be written was because most screenwriting advice is too formal and pretentious. He speaks like “real people” do, complete with a lot of exclamation points and some typographical errors.

Most importantly though, Snyder’s biggest “casual” way of talking is really the Trumpian-method and instilling credibility through confidence. Ever single one of his scripts is described, point blank, as “hilarious.” He constantly states how awesome his ideas are in a matter-of-fact sort of way. This in itself wouldn’t bother me, except that Snyder doesn’t seem to have a lot of taste.

The loglines he shows are of films that have been actually made, praising their qualities as examples. Not a single one of them stick with me. All of his own ideas tend to be pithy but unrelatable, campy, common denominator comedies that are only interesting because of the humor, not the plot, and not really the concept. But this is common. I read a lot about queries or pitches that succeed and what gets one person hot and bothered is not what gets another. And let’s face it, common denominator comedy sells. It’s most of what you see on the marquee, so I can’t disagree with his premise that, regardless of how I feel about them, this is what works in Hollywood.

The first time he lost me, however, was when he tried to show how changing character’s traits or situations could drastically lower the stakes in the movie.

“A just-hired employee goes on a company weekend and soon discovers someone’s trying to kill him.”

“In the example of The Retreat, again the adjectives come into play to tell us the writers most likely did it right… But let’s play around with the character to see other ways they could have gone with this same premise. What if the person going on the retreat is 65, has been at the company for 20 years, and is about to retire? Okay, so now it’s about a company “downsizing” its employees for real before they can collect their retirement benefits… No one will show up for that movie.”

Really? No one? Because that was the first time in 52 pages he’d talked about a movie that I actually was sort of interested in.

I like Miss Congeniality and Legally Blonde, but for the most part, the vast majority of the films mentioned in the book sounded really dumb. Trying too hard, personality-less, and no hint of inspiration. Movies I would only go see because we wanted to do something and we showed up at the theatre to randomly pick what’s best for a large group. But, let’s be fair, that’s exactly what happened with Miss Congeniality and Legally Blonde. It wasn’t their premises I was going after.

The book, which is mostly bossy and closed-minded, still had some good ideas. Selling a script and writing a good one are two totally different skillsets, and while I wish Snyder had been more honest about his ability to sell a script rather than write one (Both of his produced scripts, Stop! or My Mom Will Shoot! and Blank Check, as awesome as they sound, have lower than 14% ratings on Rotten Tomatoes), I think that using Save the Cat! as a guide to make your script more attractive is a good idea. These tips can contradict your inspiration and innovation, and what makes for a catchy title isn’t always going to be one that you, well, like, (Stop! or My Mom Will Shoot? Really?), but they don’t have to. They’re good ideas to apply in moderation.

He was right in what he said about loglines needing to contain irony. Give us a trait that makes your character likeable (with an adjective), and then tell us something unexpected about it. Hollywood unexpected and real-life unexpected not being the same thing. And also, yes, title matters. It just does.

Truth is, I think he knew what he was talking about, but he was so bent around the axel when it came to “fake it ‘til you make it,” he made himself come off as a little oblivious:

“The amazing Sheldon Bull and I wrote a hilarious comedy in 2004. What if the President’s [sic] helicopter goes down behind enemy lines? And what if he is forced to capture Osama Bin Laden—all by himself? … We even had a great title: Chickenhawk Down. And here’s why we did not sell that script: Because there are about two people who can play the part of the President. It’s the lead. And there really isn’t anyone out there who can “open” that movie. Tim Allen was our first choice. And… who else? What we had done was paint ourselves into a corner on casting. Yes, it’s funny. Yes, it’s a great story.”

I mean, I’m no Hollywood producer, but something tells me that Tim Allen wasn’t the reason you couldn’t get that script sold.

When I pointed this out to my brother, he said, “It sounds like they came up with the title first and just wrote a script on that.”

Well, yes. As Snyder advocates.

My problem with the book, and most books of its kind, is that instead of really thoroughly discussing the pros and cons of their suggestions, the outcomes and whys, mentioning the goals they are targeting, he just states everything like facts and rules and hopes you won’t recognize his Impostor Syndrome coming through.

But when I mentioned that, people couldn’t understand why he would want to point out the flaws in his thinking. He’s trying to sell a book! How would it benefit him to do so?

First off, my point isn’t really about him. It’s that writing books need to be clear to people who tend to latch onto formulas and get scared about being whimsical or, even, themselves. These writers can be incredibly emotional when the time comes to “break the rules,” ironically, more so than those who fight writing techniques like DEFCON 1. I’ve been able to articulately explain my reasons for them breaking out of their mold far more efficiently to people who hate writing rules than to those who love them. The latter are more likely to end up in tears or literally screaming, “THAT’S NOT MY JOB!” to a modest suggestion. The biggest breakdowns I’ve had to deal with as a critique partner is always with people who like the rules and don’t want to hear that doing what they were supposed to didn’t work.

 Mostly though, you get cynical people like me and just by being clear the context in which the suggestion will work, I’m more likely to agree with you. Just telling me you’re hilarious and amazing isn’t going to do the trick. When you say, “[Double Mumbo Jumbo is] a rule you and I can’t break!” and use an example of how Gods and aliens don’t go together, or something else I don’t believe, you’re sort of persuading me to throw the kitty out with the bathwater. I’m old enough now to recognize the consequences of being like that, but many people, especially teenagers, are more likely to say, “That doesn’t really make sense,” and toss the entire idea. If you however, point out, “Here’s what happens when you do this,” rather than just telling me not to do it, I’m more likely to hear you out.

Some people need permission to do something unexpected. Others need to feel respected in order to listen. Bossing them around just makes them stop listening.

Mainly, there’s more than one way to save a cat, and I think that most writing advice needs to promote understanding of cause and effect rather than just telling you what to do. A lot of advice is bad, and I would hate to live in a world in which only Blake Snyder’s films got made.

The book tells you how to sell specific types of movies. Parts are applicable to other mediums and genres, but really, he’s telling you how to make your comedic film alluring to producers. As a book on writing, if you can ignore his businessman talk, his narrow-view of the world, and know to take it in moderation, I think that playing around with these ideas can help clarify for you how to make your work better. The ideas certainly have made me feel clearer headed. I’m just glad I heard about the concept before I actually read it. And I think, in the end, that’s what Blake Snyder was all about.

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Monday, July 9, 2018

Too Close to Love Yourself

When it comes to, "You're too close to your work to judge it," I would presume it’s simply more obvious that's what's happening when someone is delusional about their talents, and so the ideology tends to center on those who think they’re much better than they really are. But, while the feelings of frustration are different—a sadness filling you instead of a tension—isn’t it just as painful to watch someone awesome look at themselves with disgust?

I started writing Take the Wheel back in October 2014, more than three years ago at this point. What’s most interesting for me personally is it was about two months before a certain jackass came back into my life and I had a downward spiral for the next few years. The book has been worked on in parts over time, being left in a drawer, abandoned and forgotten in favor of other ideas.

The series of posts, “So I’m Writing This Novel,” hoped to follow what was supposed to be a much shorter time frame in which I talked about the creation of the book. The last article was over a year and a half ago.

To be fair, I began work on what I intend to be my magnum opus, the start of a series of novels all set in one world. And I too got distracted by other novels.

But something else had happened.

During my relationship with The Jackass, I had a bit of an adult reality check. It wasn’t that I was capable of failing, or that my goals were a lot harder to achieve, but that “failing” doesn’t mean failing spectacularly in a singular ball of glory. “Failing” could be a long process of bleeding out, in which certain attempts get you closer and closer to something you realize you didn’t want at all. I began to understand that I may never be a mother or get married, and over the course of the last few years, I’ve actually accepted the possibility of a celibate artist as having its benefits. Time-wise and financially, I am able to focus on my books as a career.

I also struggled with trying to publish for the first time and feeling lost in the void. My view of myself shifted and, though I was unaware of it, I started to see my writing as nothing more than boring rambles which never could interest anyone.

Depression lies.

As some of you are aware, I’ve been spending 2018 trying to turn my life in a better direction. Instead of working as a caterer for private jets in which I was on-call 24/7, often working 15 hour shifts and constantly worrying about special orders that may come in in the middle of the night, I have transitioned to another place in the company in which I now can work on my books and other projects in the frequent downtime.

Last year, I realized that a big portion of why I tend to isolate myself is that many “social” activities don’t interest me. There’s a reason, after all, many require booze. I decided to start getting people together to work creatively, a means to meet people under circumstances I enjoy and am comfortable. Because of the start of my playwriting group, First Folio, I’d been working on some theatrical scripts since January as well as co-writing a radio show. But due to the massive stress and just general apathy, I didn’t work much at all. This didn’t disturb me because I’d been creating less and less over the years, and I just… stopped caring.

Well, my life has begun to get a routine. My work is able to be left at work now. I’m often going out with friends to do, shocker, non-productive activities. I have a stable and private place to go home that I’ve been decorating to my tastes and needs. I have a decent amount of money to do what I want, and my attempts to eat and sleep better have been increased with the lowered stress and the ability to stick to a schedule. I’ve been talking with a counselor about unresolved issues, plus scheduled biofeedback to deal with the tension-caused pains.

I feel better. I feel great.

In this nine hour day where I can work on my stories while getting paid, I started to set myself back up for success. I picked out one of the multiple books I’d left mid-tale, the favorite one that I thought I might be most inspired to do, and I bared myself to read it, to remind myself what had happened.

It was because of that I first realized just how terrible of a writer I’ve been thinking I was. It was because of how easy it was to read, no boredom, that I suddenly came face to face with the way I’d been seeing myself.

It wasn’t fear of being bad, but acceptance. Something that told me my stories rambled and I had nothing interesting to say. Too much dialogue, not enough action. Too much rambling and nonsensical stories that no one would get.

The book that is currently titled Take the Wheel has been worked on in several ways, the beginning rewritten, a good portion of it just a summation of what should happen. But it is an interesting story with a clear world, good pacing, and flawed characters. They tell me the way I saw the world those three years ago, portraying the start of my deepest depression.

After a co-writer showed me a story formula in which enlightened me to what I felt was missing in a story, I felt restricted to outlining and using templates to create. I wasn’t inspired and considered most of my ideas stupid. What made me stand out? Why couldn’t I create something that anyone would care about?

But for me to sit there and enjoy 50,000 words of my own writing in one disjointed work day, that meant a lot. Considering how I saw my writing being perceived, and received, I couldn’t understand how the flow of the language and what I presumed to be inaction actually worked in cohesive, complete scenes.

Two weeks ago I went to the Jackson Hole Writers Conference and listened to a man who had written over nine screenplays before Little Miss Sunshine was made. His story about how he became a writer, and reminding me that everyone has been seen as a hack, an amateur, a nobody regardless of who they became in the end, really helped me reignite my passion.

I don’t know how long I will stay committed, or if the depression is just one trigger away from returning, but it doesn’t matter so much. The bigger point is that despite my priding myself on being able to evaluate my own projects, I was too close to myself to really take the experiences in my life with a critical eye, to recognize my “failures” were normal parts of life, of the process, and to remind myself that a big part of self-evaluation is actually reading what you’ve written.

It’s easy to get swept away with thoughts of destiny or look for “signs” the universe finds you insignificant, but always remember that experiences shape you, you don’t shape them. It’s not your worth that makes bad things happen to you, and it’s easy to believe the “nothing” that you hear back when seeking your place as a writer is the universe telling you you’re a nobody.

So, I’m back on track, I strongly hope, and though my next two months are jam packed with work and teaching, I have a good plan to finish Take the Wheel by the end of September, almost exactly four years after it began. Let’s see if I can keep my promise.

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Friday, July 6, 2018

Your Reader is a Scorned Woman

Hell hath no fury like the woman given permission to be a bitch. Some girls have so much pent up aggression and rage and yet the desire to maintain a likeable and compassionate demeanor that they rarely let it out. The last thing you want to do is give them permission by being an asshat.

But enough about me.

Your readers are not the scorned woman who has just prior witnessed one wrong. I mean, sure, sometimes. That surge of hate-mail that floods inboxes after a controversial change is made? That’s the immediate anger of a scorned woman. However, that’s often a temporary, impulsive reaction when an audience member first realizes she has been betrayed by someone she thought she could trust. The unfortunate reality is that most readers are past that stage. They’re not the woman who has just found out about her husband’s selfishness, they’re the woman who has long accepted cheating as the inevitable part of the process.

She has her pick of the litter. There are thousands of suitors that she could choose from, none would reject her (books can’t pick their readers, if you’re following). And even though a casual relationship is not only possible, but guaranteed, she’s not looking for a quick, one-night stand in most cases. Sometimes, sure, but what she really wants is that head-over-heels in love, where she can’t get enough of him, where all she wants to do is experience him, and hopefully, while the relationship will have a shelf-life, that shelf life is dated far in the future. And even after he is long gone, she still can think back to him with fond memories. Even return to him when the next man falls flat.

However, you must realize she’s been cheated on. She has been screwed over, left in the lurch, brought to climax just to be disappointed. She’s given chances to those who didn’t care about first impressions only to have them prove that it was more than just appearances they weren’t concerned with. She’s wasted her time with a lot of losers, and the more they hurt her, the harsher her judgment becomes.

Don’t judge a book by its cover, writers say. Judge a book by its content. Typos can’t determine the quality of storyline. Just because my beginning doesn’t hook you, doesn’t mean that the story isn’t good. Appraising a book by its superficial attributes is foolish and disrespects art.

Which is all true.

People should refrain from judging books before they’ve read them. But let’s face it, we have to do a vetting process and that vetting process can’t be “read the whole thing” when determining what book to read next.

I’ve read many self-published books that I considered to be excellent, yet back when I first started to become active on the internet, I didn’t critic the external aspects of the book as harshly. I focused predominantly on setting or plot, trying to be intrigued by summary alone. Most times, I bought books because I wanted to support the authors. If it was a sci-fi or fantasy novel, then I would actually try and read it. I tried to be fair to my indie friends because I believe that self-publishing opens up a whole new avenue of diversity for literature, and I don’t believe in be snobbery. Morally. In practice, it happens.

But because I was trying not to be superficial or a snob, I usually picked books that were less appealing aesthetically, that were obviously self-published and gave me some strong red flags even before I bought it.

I found myself burned a lot.

It’s kind of like the young girl who believes in the goodness of men, who doubts the stereotypes who are given to her, who gives boys a chance. It’s not uncommon for people of either gender to ignore signs of a philanderer, a user, a sadistic narcissist, or even that person who we have no attraction to at all. We enter into bad relationships because we think, “He’s just not texting me because he doesn’t like to text,” only to find out months later that he’s not texting you because he has another girlfriend he’s talking to all of the time. Or he’s just really terrible at conversation in general.

When you give people a chance, when you give them the benefit of the doubt, when you try and find excuses for your red flags, there’s the possibility that you’ll find a diamond in the rough, you’ll have ignored happenstance and shallow reasoning and found something really great. There is merit to the idea. It’s just that it’s far more likely that whatever they’re presenting you with is actually them.

It only takes a few times for people to accept the subtle signs as fact. If you were to be cheated on by every boy who was texting his ex on a first date, how many would that need to be before you became stupid for ignoring it?

Even if a reader has all the time in the world, she can’t read every book presented to her. If I read one book a day, that would still only be 365 a year. I believe I come across more than that in a month.

So what is a reader to do? She has to choose which ones to give a chance to; she couldn’t give them all one even if she wanted to. Preferably, she’d pick the ones that she’s more likely to enjoy, but how can she know that without having actually read them?

I’ll admit that I have hated most of my favorite books and T.V. shows when I was first exposed to them. It wasn’t until the second (or third or fourth or fifth) chance that I realized how much I liked them. You are often afraid of writing something off and denying yourself a great love, so it’s not like we do it lightly.

However, once I began to vet my books, the quality of them started to improve drastically. When I picked up a self-published novel arbitrarily, it was often poorly paced, typo-ridden, and lacked an ending. When I started to trust my superficial instincts, I was more likely to come across something well written.

I picked up the genres that I knew I liked.

Setting is important to me. While sometimes I will give a chance to something outside of my comfort zone—and some of my favorite books fall into that category—I know that a great plot inside an uninteresting location won’t interest me.

People complain about the limitation of genre, and I get it, I really do. I think authors shouldn’t restrict themselves to being what people expect, but we have to acknowledge that the categorization of genre is there for a reason. When I started to only buy science-fiction and fantasy romance novels, I started enjoying my reading again. I wasn’t attempting to force my way through something just because I wanted to like it. I actually considered if I did.

The trick with genre is to explain it accurately. Use it to help people narrow down their options, then make sure to wave away any expectations that will not be met. As long as people have a general understanding of what type of atmosphere, setting, and reader’s motivation that will be in your book, you’re golden.

I look for typos.

In the blog “Why Typos Lose You the Most Sales,” I irritated an indie author who believed that typos aren’t a big deal. When I went to her Amazon page, I found, of course, many typos on the first page and in the summary. She had only five reviews, four of them that were written by authors who gave only five stars to every book they read, likely review exchanges. The one review, a four star, that seemed to put thought into it complimented her story line, but complained that the atrocious editing (my words) made it hard to understand.

I know that there are writers who believe that judging a book by the typo is snobbish. But this isn’t the situation of a woman meeting a great guy and overanalyzing a physical flaw. This is a woman who has been in many relationships with users to find that usually, if he makes selfish decisions in the beginning he’s going to make selfish decisions in the middle, and the end.

I’ve read great self-published books with typos. I’ve read traditionally published books with typos, but those typos were far and few between, and they were not on the first page or summary. When I give a book a chance despite the poor editing, I haven’t yet been unexpectedly surprised by a well polished storyline. Even though you might be great at content editing and terrible at grammar, truth is, it’s more likely that you don’t know what you’re doing and didn’t edit at all.

I read reviews for consistency, “typos,” “didn’t finish,” and an ending.

I’ve never paid much attention to reviews, though I like to read them for personal entertainment. Only once have I ignored one-stars and found they were right. Most one-stars are biased, exaggerated, and mean. I had honestly believed that what they hated would be refreshing—I was picturing it differently.

On most indie books, the bad reviews are frustrated writers telling authors not to use the word “anyways” and that the writer is fat, the good reviews are generic review exchanges by people who’ve never read them. For this reason, I don't read reviews for ratings, but purely content.

I look for comments about typos first. Again, it doesn’t mean the story isn’t enjoyable, but it’s just one of those red flags that I’ve ignored before to my detriment. Just because a review says there’s typos doesn’t mean I won’t buy it, but if I was suspicious about the work put in and the experience of the writer, this is often what will topple the balance.

The next thing is consistency. I look for commentary that was made throughout all of the reviews. What do the bad and good reviews agree on? This, again, doesn’t tell me how I should feel about it, but it does imply the sincerity of the review itself. Even if one person loved the rape scene and the other hated it, it still suggests that both actually read the book and the information I get (like the kind of setting, events and characterization) is more akin to what I’m actually going to experience.

If they say they didn’t finish or the book just stopped, I’m probably not going to buy. I know authors hate this, claiming that you can’t judge a story until you’ve read it all the way through, but I argue that Amazon reviews aren’t literary ones. They’re not intended to analyze the book’s artistic merits, just tell other readers whether or not they’d like it, and if they didn’t finish, I’m going to assume no, they didn't.

I hate not finishing books, but I hate reading boring ones more. There are things in the review that might convince me that the reason they didn’t finish isn’t going to be something that applies to me, and if other fans say they couldn’t put it down, I might give it more of a chance. But, at the end of the day, I'm not going to read a book that is hard to finish, and I appreciate the warning.

Lastly, if it is a cliffhanger or just has no real ending at all, that’s where you lost me. It’s not because I hate cliffhangers, necessarily, but a book without a payoff for me feels like a huge waste of time. Especially if the series is unfinished, but even if it’s not, I can’t count on I will ever be satisfied. At the end of the first book, while some threads can be left hanging, the writer needs to prove to me that he is capable of tying some loose ends together, otherwise we’ll have a repeat of Lost.

I look at the cover.

You can judge a book by a cover if it’s a good one. I still take this less seriously because I have found less commonality between bad designs and bad writing, but if the cover looks homemade, it can be a sign that the writer is new to the business, doesn't know how to self-evaluate, and didn't bring on other people's opinions and advice. If other aspects of the book have made me skeptical, a cover with amateurish graphic art will definitely throw me off.

If a guy comes to you on a first date without having showered or put on a clean shirt, it might not mean that he’s a bad guy, but it does suggest that he doesn’t care all that much. He’s not willing to do what it takes to impress you, which is going to bleed into other aspects of your relationship/read.

I look at formatting.

This one is much more direct. If you have extra spaces in the paragraphs or words cut off by the page or skewed images, it’s not a red flag you’re 'a cheater' necessarily, it just that I’m not going to tolerate being around you. I hate reading books with extra spacing and weird formatting.

Pandering to artificial expectations isn’t just about kowtowing to snobbery, it’s about making a person comfortable in a den of thieves, a potential girlfriend secure after a series of cheaters. Yes, you might be the one exception, (the main question to ask is, “Are you really?”) but why not go the extra mile to prove it? Dress nicely on the first date, don’t text your ex, don’t ignore her for the sports game, and don’t get annoyed when she doesn’t completely trust you on a first impression alone, especially if you’re claiming a first impression doesn’t dictate who you really are.

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