Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Monthly Archives: June 2006

Think fast!

Last weekend, I participated in the 48 Hour Film Project for the third year in a row. This year, our film company joined forces with Bay Area Pictures, a group that had also entered last year. What this meant for me was that I handed off the directing responsibilities to someone else and focused on writing the screenplay and editing the footage.

Writing for this contest is always a fun challenge. The elements of the screenplay are in place at 7 pm Friday night, and generally you need to have your script done by 7 am Saturday, when the filming crew is ready to go. Besides the time element, there’s also the collaborative element, which I actually find both immensely helpful and disconcertingly difficult.

When writing fiction, I tend to go off by myself and just work things out in my head until they feel right, then get them down on the screen and examine them as they come out. It is, as writing should be, a very solitary process. Editing is more collaborative, even if it’s not always what we used to call in the telecom business “full duplex” (that would be sitting in the same room discussing the work). The collaborative screenplay process combines the writing/revising/editing phases, so you’re throwing out ideas, kicking them back and forth, testing and adding to them, circling around to other ideas, presenting advantages and objections. Much as I hate to admit it, years of experience in corporate meetings is actually helpful in this process. Keeping things moving forward is essential.

By the time you’ve talked for a couple hours, you have a pretty good idea of which story “sticks” best. We were trying to come up with an idea for a “buddy film” this year, and the first idea we had kept coming back up as we brought up and discarded others. By about 9 pm, we were sure that’s what we were going with. Then it became a process of working out the story.

One of my weaknesses in writing is that I’ll have a beginning and sometimes an ending, and then a “here there be dragons” in between that I’m confident I’ll be able to map as I actually come to it. That doesn’t work so well in the collaborative writing environment. People kept asking “so what happens in here?” and then throwing out ideas as I was trying to think about it. This is the second part of the night where your intuitive sense of story becomes important. You have to be able to look at the individual scenes as assembled and hover above them, making sure the story feels right holistically. By about 11, we had the story nailed down enough to start writing.

The writing itself went smoothly. Mostly it was a process of creating the characters and throwing them into the story. Between myself and the others in the room, the dialogue flowed pretty naturally. I would write down the way I felt one scene going, and other people, looking over my shoulder, would offer opinions. If I liked them, I kept them. If not, we discussed them.

By 2, we had a first draft, which we read through. By 3:30, we had a draft ready to show the crew four hours later.

The takeaway from this writing exercise (which we did twice–we did a dry run the previous weekend) was the importance of several elements: character, planning out your story, and keeping everything to the bare minimum needed to tell your story. There were a lot of scenes that I thought would have been funny, but they didn’t advance the story, and with limited time, you don’t want to spend time writing scenes you won’t include.

I realize that this is starting to sound suspiciously like an endorsement of outlining. Far from it, unless of course it works for you. It doesn’t work for me, because as I’m writing, I discover new things and everything changes anyway. I’d rather jump right into writing and then go back and edit the story. But as you’re writing, you can look for opportunities to overload your story with tricks we’ve talked about before: subtext in dialogue, for one; plot elements in description, for another. As you write, look for those passages that are just pretty and either make them relevant or eliminate them. You’ll find that that will make your editing go much faster.

Review: Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
10/10: a brilliant journey through time and culture in six parts

I should preface this by saying that a 10 is not a rare shining gem of perfection. I hope to hand out many 10s as I work my way through books. If I look closely enough, there’s always something that can be done to improve a book. Les Miserables? Sure, it’d be a ten, even though it rambles on about French and Parisian history interminably. Anyway, a “10” is something I enjoyed about as much as I’ve enjoyed any other book I’ve read. And with that out of the way…

Cloud Atlas is six stories loosely connected and interwoven, beginning with a journal kept in the mid-1800s by a notary who’s been sent from California to Australia to track down the beneficiary of a will. He discovers the islands off New Zealand in the throes of colonization, where churches, plantations, and bordellos run by white men give the natives something to occupy their “previously pointless” existences. His journal, interrupted mid-sentence, is discovered by a young British man in 1931 who recounts his journey to become apprentice to a famous, ailing composer in letters to his best friend. His letters pass from the friend to a young journalist in 1974, and so on through the present day, a near future, and a far future. At the end of the sixth story, the fifth story resumes and concludes, then the fourth, and so on until we read the end of the notary’s journal.

What is stunning about this book is the utter confidence with which Mitchell inhabits each of the six different voices, not only in attitude but in language, each section appropriate to its time, or convincing (in the case of the future times). It is rather intimidating to think of how much craft and research went into it, but none of those things enter your head upon reading it. With a couple minor slowdowns, the prose is delightful and the stories engaging enough to make any one of them worthwhile, let alone all six. Though they only connect very loosely on the surface, each one resonates with the same themes, and together they make for a very impressive cycle.

Mitchell’s main theme is the question of what constitutes civilization. One character states that civilization is determined by how those with power treat those without, and that theme recurs again and again through the book. The theme is skilfully explored, but the real joys in reading Cloud Atlas come from reveling in the lush prose and voice, and from watching Mitchell’s expansive imagination explore our past and paint our future. I loved the Infocom game A Mind Forever Voyaging, in which you get to explore the future in ten-year jumps, and while this is nothing like that, it evoked the same feelings in me.

This was a recommendation from my Fabulist Fiction workshop, and I can’t pass on the recommendation strongly enough. It’s the kind of book that leaves me thinking about it for days after finishing it, perhaps even weeks. It makes me want to write wonderful things.

That’s as trite as a cliché!

In reading Bill Walsh’s wonderful “The Elephants of Style” (full review to come), I was struck by a quote he reproduced on clichés: they are “first-draft placeholders.” The idea is that you use the phrasing that leaps to mind to hold the idea of what you want to say, and then when you go back and revise, you come up with something more original.

I like that thought.

Of course, clichés have other uses too. Sometimes a cliché really is the best way to say something, and you should leave it be. Sometimes you can use the reader’s expectations of a cliché to deliver a little twist, one of the pleasures people get from writing. For instance, I knew I was going to like the movie “Garden State” when it began with Zach Braff looking in the mirror and the voiceover: “Some mornings, I don’t recognize my own toothbrush.” It was paced perfectly to bring up the expectation that he was going to say “my own face.” Which would have been fine, an okay opening to a movie. A little predictable, but it sets expectations about where you’re going.

The problem with it is that he just said, “toothbrush” to make it jarring and funny. It didn’t really mean anything. If he’d gone on and had a story about how there was a relationship where the woman kept switching toothbrushes on him, then the line would’ve been perfect. As it was, it gave me enough of a laugh that I thought, “hey, this is going to be fun.”

If you do use clichés as first-draft placeholders, here’s another thought. The usual rule in revising is to trim out whatever is noticeable or distracting from the story. Clichés, though, can do exactly the opposite: make you glide over passages where you’d like the reader to linger. You need to walk a line between being too distracting and being too formulaic, and only you know where that line is. Would you rather say, “he was a mountain of a man” or “he stood a lofty six feet tall, muscles straining at the bonds of his flannel shirt”? The first is a cliché, but it conveys the sense of him well. The second is more distinctive but also draws attention to individual details, which you may not want to do.

Be aware of clichés; don’t be afraid of them. Use them when appropriate, twist them when necessary. Just don’t skewer them, or turn them on their heads–those are clichés too.

Story for sale!

Through my small press publications, I have gotten enrolled in the “Amazon Shorts” program, whereby authors can sell short stories or essays digitally for cheap. I’ve uploaded the workshop story from my English 101 workshop, “Soft Release” (link is to the right). It’s a story about a guy returning to his hometown in northern Minnesota after getting a University degree. He feels a connection to the woods and has spent the last several months rehabbing an injured wolf to release to the wild. The connection between him and the people in his hometown is much more tenuous, made more so by his decision to release what they see as a dangerous predator. As the story progresses, he has to come to terms with where he feels he belongs.

Anyway, I’m doing this Amazon thing to increase exposure. The story’s only forty-nine cents, so I’m not going to retire. I’d ask you, if you get it and like it, to recommend it to other people you think might like it. If they like it, hopefully they’ll tell people about it too. Hey, you can’t even get a soda for $0.49 anymore! Why not try half an hour of entertainment? :)

Review: An Invisible Sign Of My Own

“An Invisible Sign Of My Own,” by Aimee Bender
8/10 – A very enjoyable fabulist narrative about a young woman trying to find her place in an offbeat world that doesn’t quite fit her quirks.

Mona Gray, the protagonist of “An Invisible Sign of My Own,” once had a math teacher named Mr. Jones who lived next door to her parents and wore his moods around his neck in the form of wax numbers. The higher the number, the better the mood. By the time Mona has turned twenty and begun teaching math herself, Mr. Jones has retired to open a hardware store, but she continues to watch his numbers. The practice strikes her as odd, but not bizarre; the same could be said of her decision to mark her twentieth birthday by purchasing an axe at his store.

I first encountered Bender’s work in my fabulist fiction workshop. I was impressed with her sparse prose and eccentric characters (a boy with keys for fingers!), and her ability to use fabulist elements to draw out people’s characters. “Invisible Sign” showcases that talent as well, brimming with lovely word pictures and funny, poignant characters. Mona’s second grade math class is richly drawn, eight-year-old kids with fully developed personalities; her father is trying anything he can think of to get rid of an illness that’s dogged him for a decade, leaving him faded to gray; one of her fellow teachers, a young man with burns on his arms, assigns the children diseases to act out.

The joy in this book is watching the genuine emotions of Mona and her fellow townspeople in the array of familiar and absurd situations they encounter. Despite her eccentricities, Mona is an engaging and sympathetic heroine, and by the end of the book, I really cared about her and wanted her story to end well. I didn’t always quite understand everything she did, but I felt the force of emotion behind it, and that carried me through the parts that didn’t jell as well for me.

This reminded me quite a bit of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” with the strangeness of that book’s protagonist diluted somewhat and spread out through the world. The styles are similar, very matter-of-fact and direct but with a wealth of detail pressed into compact sentences. Both books are a quick read, but well worth it. Simply because this one is less famous, don’t pass it by.

When to stop editing

Inspired by the news that the original Star Wars movies on DVD, to be released this fall (packaged with the newer edits, apparently), will be not from the original prints but from the laserdisc transfer (why would they do that? –scroll down to the May 19 entry), and by my own current issues in working with various pieces of fiction, I wanted to take a look at editing.

Most aspiring authors I know have one of two issues with editing: either they don’t do enough, or they do too much. The don’t-do-enough crowd tend to be the people who are less passionate about writing, who get their idea down on paper and then think the fun part is over. I’ll save that for another time. The do-too-much crowd are often those who are either perfectionists or unsure of their ability or both. And the thing is, it’s likely that at one time or another, or from one project to another, everyone who writes will be part of one crowd or another. I certainly have been.

But: editing too much. There’s always going to be something you can improve in your story. Read through any published book you like, and chances are you’ll find a sentence that could have been tightened, a description that’s a little too vague, a piece of dialogue that rings just a little artificial. If you keep going through the edit -> give to friends -> incorporate comments cycle, you’ll never be finished, and the goal of writing is to produce something that people can read. So get it 95% there. Get it 98% there. Get it 99% there. Whenever you’re seeing that the edits you’re making are too minor to matter, declare it done and stop messing with it.

Of course, it’s not done, unless you’re publishing it yourself or sending it to your website. If you’re sending it around for consideration, and you get some suggestions back that the publisher says would improve your manuscript’s chances, go ahead and make some tweaks. This is toward a specific goal of getting it published.

And then, when you’re world-famous and everyone is clamoring for you to reprint your work, what do you do? Do you take out the publisher’s suggestions? Edit your work to fit your current sensibilities?

That will (hopefully) be your decision. My thinking right now is that your readers know and love your stories based on what they read. A story is a discussion between the writer and the reader, and to edit your work after your reader has engaged in the discussion devalues their participation in the process. You’re the writer. If your old stories bother you, write new ones.

Are you listening, Mr. Lucas?

Review: Adverbs

Adverbs, by Daniel Handler
8/10 – delightful tragicomic collection of vignettes about love, and people, but mostly love.

Possibly, you know Daniel Handler better under his psuedonym, Lemony Snicket, author of the “Series of Unfortunate Events” books. Unfortunately, this is likely to remain the rule rather than the exception, since “Adverbs” does not lend itself well to a movie adaptation (though I did get to see a staged performance of four of the chapters by San Francisco’s “Word for Words” troupe which was very entertaining). Unsurprisingly, if you enjoy the “Unfortunate Events” books’ clever and smart wordplay, you will enjoy “Adverbs.”

Initially you might think that all the vignettes are connected by the characters that inhabit them, moving back and forth in space and time. Subsequently, you would notice that although many of the characters share identical or similar names and circumstances, they are not all the same–for example, not all the characters named “Tomas” across different stories are the same character, except perhaps they are. Cannily, Handler keeps us guessing about the characters and their histories, weaving the stories together with small tugs of reference here and subtle and not-so-subtle themes there. Familiarly to fans of the “Unfortunate Events” books, the narrative’s images also recur throughout (magpies and volcanoes, for instance), here in a more grown-up if no less fantastical setting.

Delightfully, Handler crafts wonderful sentences and characters and situations, each one a joy to read about. Often I stopped just to read a sentence back to myself, and I am not usually a proponent of the “beautiful sentence” school of writing. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as clear on how some of the stories fit into the overall narrative, though I enjoyed them all. Sometimes it seemed as though he were more interested in writing something offbeat than following the narrative, which is fine, I suppose, since as I said, I enjoyed all the stories on their own. Thankfully, Handler does expose his hand in “Truly,” giving us his message in case, like me, we’re too dense or too impatient to puzzle it out on our own. Admirably, he has a good reason for the way the book is structured, and an important message to deliver, unlike this review, which has neither, whose only point is to tell you that if you like sentences like, “Love is candy from a stranger, but it’s candy you’ve had before and it probably won’t kill you,” then you should pick up and read this book. Definitely.

Exposition, or, make sure the World’s Fair

One of the first rules in “So You Want To Be A Writer,” the beginning writer’s book of rules I have just now made up, is “Show, Don’t Tell.” A corollary of “Show, Don’t Tell” is: “Exposition Is Bad.” This is a good rule for beginning writers; it warns them against spending the first fifteen pages of their story telling the reader about the fantabulous history of the magical land of Xenovia, or the founding of the town of Humble Hill where their story begins, or the entire childhood of their heroine. Get to the action, let the action tell the story. Good rule.

Like any rule, though, it is not universal. There are times when you will need exposition, especially in cases where there is something different about the world that you need to communicate to the reader. How much time you spend on this depends on how difficult it’s going to be for the reader to figure out the world, and how essential figuring out the world is to the story. The Lord Darcy mysteries take place in a Renaissance-era England (I may be misremembering the time period, but it’s around then) where magic is a skill like woodsmithing or archery. The books do not start with a paragraph about how magic works. They set the stage (England circa 1700) and then quickly show a character performing a magic spell. This is not, we see immediately, unusual. That’s all we need to know.

But what if your book is set in an alternate Nebraska in the early 1900s in a past where the British won the War of Rebellion in 1778, the Confederacy won the Revolutionary War in 1865,
and highly evolved intelligent ears of corn are conspiring with aliens on the moon to increase rainfall in the heartland by 20%? Chances are you won’t be able to situate the reader in the world without a little explanation. So how do you go about it?

Don’t take the awkward solution of having exposition come out in dialogue. Readers react to that rather like you’d react to your parents trying to talk hip to you in high school. All the words are there, but something just ain’t natural. [This isn’t to say that the time-honored device of introducing your world to the reader by introducing it to a newly-arrived character is bad; it just has to be set up better, and informed in equal parts by dialogue and discovery. But that’s another post. Remind me to write that one sometime.]

My solution is to find the one or two elements that it is critical for the reader to understand immediately. Bring those out first. Start the story rolling. Introduce the rest of the world gradually. Maybe you’ve plotted out in intricate detail the brilliant military strategy by which General Lee led his Graycoats to victory at Appamattox. If that’s the core of your story, start there. But if your story is about a young girl who discovers the corn’s nefarious plot and is worried about the increase in mosquitos, then maybe you just need to start with “Vanessa caught the corn talking to the man in the moon one night,” and go from there. Let General Lee’s brilliance wait until chapter 5, when her father is talking about his wartime memories.

This sounds obvious, but what it forces you to do is take a step back, look at the construction of your world, and see how your story relates to it. There may be cherished elements of your world that are not important to your story at all, and so the reader may never know about them. That hurts; you’ve put a lot of thought into it. I have a solution for that, too.

Write another story.