Fundamentals

When I go to schools I find myself comparing being a writer to being an athlete alot. Which is probably weird since I'm about the furthest thing from a sports fan as you can imagine. But I was thinking about this again today as I was editing Dog Soldier (which, by the way, is not going to be called Dog Soldier much longer. Not sure what it will be called instead yet. Stayed tuned) and I came to a scene that was just not working. I came at it from one direction after another until I finally realized that the problem was that I had absolutely no idea what one of the two characters in the scene wanted. I had no idea why she was there. That, my friends , is that the sporty folks would call a problem with my fundamentals.

See, when you think about it, baseball comes down to throwing a ball, catching a ball, hitting a ball and running. As you move higher up in the sport layers of strategy and complexity are put on top of that but the foundation is always throwing, catching, hitting and running.  Look at pro athletes, no matter where they are in their career they are still practicing those fundamentals. It's the basis of everything they do.

I think with writing, especially after you've been doing it awhile, you can get too wrapped up in the complexities of things and, like I did in that scene, lose sight of the fundamentals. To move forward I had to stop thinking about theme or character arcs or any of that stuff and simply ask myself...why is this person here? What does she want in this scene?

Of course this raises the question of what exactly are the fundamentals writing wise? Opinions absolutely vary, but for me at least, I think they are....

  • What need is each character trying to fill?
  • How do they go about trying to fill it?
  • What gets in their way?
  • Specificity and clarity of language.

I'm curious. What do you all think are the writing fundamentals?

 

Magisterium is a Junior Library Guild Selection!!

Hi all! Not alot of detail yet and nothing to link to, but I can tell you that MAGISTERIUM  has just been made a Junior Library Guild Selection for Fall 2012!!

This is super exciting! If you don't know the JLG, their mission is to help libraries wade through the mass of books published every season and pick what's best for their collections.  They review thousands of upcoming titles and pick just a few as their official selections in several categories.

So happy to be a part of it! Thanks to the Guild!!

Things I Learned About Writing From Prometheus

Just as a heads up, this brief posts assumes you have either A) have already seen Prometheus B) Haven't seen it, don't plan to and therefore don't care about spoilers. If you answered B, well, all I can say is that after having seen the movie I wish I had made the same decision.

Don't get me wrong, there was some good stuff in the movie (Pretty much the beautiful visuals and Michael Fassbender) but there were also things in the movie that are really great object lessons for people who write. Namely:

Don't set up that your characters are all brilliant and then make your plot dependent on them acting really really stupid: Honestly this is the movie's worst failing. Sure, no one says that the crew are all geniuses or anything, but hey, they're scientists good enough that a company is sending them a trillion miles from earth in what may be the greatest scientific expedition of all time. They've probably got some game, right?

Well, if they do then one would think they wouldn't:

  • Remove their helmets on a completely alien world. Sure, we know the air is breathable but how can they possibly know that there isn't some alien super flu (or whatever) just floating around ready to make their innards into soup? I mean, wouldn't it  pay to be a little extra cautious when you're the first person ever to step onto an alien world?
  • Stuff alien artifacts into ziploc bags and the take them onto the ship to examine them without bothering to put them into some kind of isolation before you do it. (Also, why were they in such a hurry? Sure there was a huge storm coming but this stuff had been sitting there for thousands of years and I don't think the dead guys head was going anywhere. Again, a little caution was called for.)
  • See a bizarre alien cobra thing floating around in an icky black lake and think "Hey! I know! I'll just go ahead and touch it!"

Now sure, smart people do dumb things all the time and maybe these people are overcome with, I don't know, space madness or something, but if that is the case the audience needs to be made aware of it. I need to understand why they're making these decisions or else I just wonder why the mega corp sent the  Three Stoooges on a trillion dollar mission

Don't do things just because they're convenient for your as a writer:  Ok these drove me nuts as well. Three things. Fassbender using his weird helmet thing to see Rapace's extremely exposition heavy dreams,  the incredibly convenient but baffling Engineer holograms we see running around inside the ship and Rapace's magical de-aliening surgery.

Seriously? The dream helmet thing? It was used once in the whole movie simply to communicate a piece of exposition that A) the robot could have known in many other ways and B) could have been simply communicated in a line or two of dialogue. (For brevity's sake we'll ignore the fact that it really wasn't an important piece of exposition anyway)

And the Engineer hologram thing? I grant you that it looked neat and all but, why would it have existed? I guess the aliens were recording everything they did on the ship in hologram form. Why would they do that? Seems awful convenient for our heros. And our writers. Again, ultimately I guess this was done to communicate some exposition to us and the team but man, it was a pretty heavy handed way of doing it.

And the surgery? Ok, we sometimes have to fudge the timeline on things a little, but seriously? She has what is essentially a C-section, while awake, and then she is stapled up and running through the ship literally minutes later. I think, at most, she winces once. Now honestly, it's not so much that it wasn't realistic that bothers me, it's that the writers put a character in a huge and interesting predicament and then solved it with what is essentially a punt. "Eh she gets magic surgery and she's fine. Whatever. Let's move on."  That's just weak writing. I think if you embrace the difficulty of a problem and the seeming impossibility of solving it, you are forced to come up with  better and more creative solutions.

Shut up already: I had this same problem with Dark Knight Rises. Too often writers think that if characters spend alot of time talking about big heady issues--like faith or the responsibility of creators to their creations--then it means that the movie is about those things in some significant way. It's not. A story is about, say,  faith when we see the ways in which faith, or the lack thereof, effects a characters actions, when it creates conflicts, when it is the engine of the story. Not when people talk about it. This is a classic show vs. tell problem. Don't talk about your ideas, show us your ideas in action and let us make the connections.

How about y'all? Anybody see this and take other lessons from it?

Movie Style Ratings for YA Books?

So have you guys seen this? Basically there's some talk that there should be movie-like ratings created specifically for YA books. On one hand, I get it. I'm not a parent but I can get why parents would want a hand figuring out which books do and do not conform to their values.  There are alot of books out there so asking for  a simple way to look at a book and it's content isn't out of line.

But I think my problem isn't so much it being done, as it is how it would be done. Any rating system is going to be based around a list of flagged content, right? In movies its nudity, language, violence, smoking, drug use, etc. When it comes to books some board will have the job of deciding what deserves to be flagged. Langauge? That one is pretty cut and dried. Violence? OK, but how do you deal with the way violence is depicted? Is it action movie type glorification? Is it critiqued? Does it matter? And what about sexuality? Will hetero sex be flagged in the same way and to the same degree as gay sex, for instance? How about the way religion is handled in YA books? Could "blasphemous content"  become an issue thats flagged? I can sure bet there are people who would want it to be.

And once a list of flagged content is determined  how do we weigh these instances and arrive at a rating?

The MPAA, the group that does movie ratings, is frequently challenged for it's tendency to allow astonishing acts of violence in a PG-13 movie, but will slap an R on something that has a tiny bit of sex or a few bad words, no matter the context. Or, in another recent controversy the anti-bullying film Bully, a well reviewed film and an important one for our time, was given an R rating for using a bit of bad language. (As an aside, the MPAA is primarily made up of former big movie studio execs and, in what I'm sure is a total coincidence, the board tends to be much harder on indie films, even when they have similar content to studio films.)

And all of this brings us to the huge economic issues that will be at play. If a book is rated as being for more mature teen readers will B&N carry it? Will Target? Or Wal-mart?  Now, buyers may read a book and decide that despite challenging content it's an important book and deserves to be on their shelves. Once you start putting letter grades on things suddenly it becomes very easy for corporations to make a blanket statement that they won't carry anything with this or that rating, no matter the context. Saves them from being criticized. And once buyers say they won't take them you'll see publishers stop publishing them.  This ends nowhere good for books.

So in some ways I'm at a loss. I get some parents desire for this but I just can't think of how this can done in a way that doesn't get hopelessly tangled up in politics and doesn't ultimately hurt publishing and deny readers good books.

Any wisdom out there on this?

101 Uses for a Brick (Or a Ghost)

Hi all! I'm coming off a pretty intense few days of book events and have now caught myself a bit of a cold. But before I finish up my tea and put myself to bed I wanted to put together a short Halloween related post. If you haven't seen it yet, Nova Ren Suma (Imaginary Girls) is doing a great series of Halloween themed posts on her blog. Mine will be up there later today. By all means give it a gander. But I also wanted to talk about one of the other posts in this series that went up last week. Nina LaCour (Hold Still) wrote up an awesome true life ghost story that, in addition to being supremely creepy, illustrates an important writing principal.

From here on out there are going to be SPOILERS so before we go any further, read the whole story. Don't worry it's short. I'll wait....

Read it?

Ok. Wow, spooky right? A few nights after I read this I flew into Los Angeles late at night and as soon as I got myself settled into my big empty hotel room this story came rushing back to mind and I got properly freaked out.

Now about the writing principle I think this illustrates. For me, this story works so well because of the twist at the end, where Nina theorizes that it wasn't some kind of ghost taking the pictures but the girl herself waking up in the middle of the night as this malevolent "other person" and taking the pictures. There's just something so chilling and unexpected about that interpretation. That there's this other person living inside you that lives to terrify and undermine you. Nina could have easily left this story as just a creepy occurrence, maybe it's a ghost, maybe not, and it would have worked perfectly fine. That she takes this extra step to come up with a novel interpretation of the event is really what does it for me.

One standard test of creativity is to ask someone to list as many different uses for a brick as they possibly can. You know, you can hold a door open with it, you can crack a walnut with it etc etc. Generally when people do this the first few uses they come up with are the most obvious ones and then the longer they go the more outlandish and surprising the uses get. The idea is the more credible uses you can come up with for a brick the more creative you are. To me, this is what LaCour did so well with this story. She didn't stop at the most obvious explanation for the occurrence, a ghost, she kept going until she found something that had the shock of surprise. She found a new use for a brick.

This is something I'm trying to keep in mind as I work on my new book. If a character needs to get out of a tight spot, I don't want to stop with the first gambit that comes to mind, I want to come up with as many options as possible and pick one that feels fresh and surprising. It's the same thing when it comes to interpreting a character's behavior, or exploring their point of view, or describing a feeling or an image.

Our first idea is not always the best, often it's simply the most conventional, but if we keep pushing we can get somewhere really surprising and, in this case, scare the hell out of people.

What about you all? Do you make a point to push past your first ideas and find new ones?

Are Movies Killing Books?

Over the last few years we've seen a major transformation in the publishing industry. No, not talking about digital books this time, I'm talking about all the ways the publishing industry is coming to mirror the film industry.

There are some surface similarities of course, the film industry survives on the blockbuster genre series, now so do we. Movies do trailers; now we do trailers. How many times have you heard a new book refferred to as being X meets Y? Harry Potter meets Twilight? The Hunger Games meets Sweet Valley High? That all comes from the film industry.
But most importantly, when people talk about books these days, especially when they give advice on how to write one, what I hear sounds alot like Screenwriting 101: 
  • Use a 3-act structure that includes a very early inciting incident, major plot reversals at the end of each act and a couple mid-act turning points.
  • Focus on character arcs where a character must grapple with and overcome a personality defect in order to succeed.
  • Create very clear protagonists and antagonists.
  • Skip descriptions and backstory whenever possible.

Now screenwriters didn't invent any of this--the 3-act structure has been around since Aristotle--but structuring a story around points like these has become the standard way of writing a screenplay, and since film is the dominant storytelling medium at the moment I suppose it makes sense that these points have come to to dominate other mediums as well. And, hey why not? It works and everybody likes a tight, well-structured story.

What concerns me though is that if we adopt the language and techniques of screenwriters will we lose a sense of how a book is a fundamentally different experience than a film?

All mediums (fiction, film, poetry, theater, non-fiction etc) have particular strengths and weaknesses when it comes to storytelling. So when you choose to write a story you have to decide which medium's strengths and weaknesses work most to your advantage. You ask yourself "This idea I have, is it a book? A movie? A poem? A play?"  You can only answer if you know what the strengths and weaknesses of each are.

So what are the strengths and weaknesses of fiction vs. film? 
To speak in a few ridiculously broad generalizations, I think a book excels at being an immersive experience. We'll spend days or weeks poring over a book, while we'll generally spend no more than 3 hours with a movie. Because of this a book is good at doing a deep, sustained dive into characters, relationships, and worlds. Books are great at historical sweep and complex multi-layered stories. Fiction is also better at presenting ideas and character's inner lives. 
Film, due largely to time constraints, is a more compact medium. Films tend to have fewer characters and settings and take place over a shorter time frame. They also need to get to the point very quickly and keep the action at as brisk a pace as possible. For this reason film has really embraced the 3-act structure we talked about above. It's a structure that's all about keeping a story tight and moving. 
Now, if this is true, if our talks about writing fiction have become overwhelmed with talk of film structure, a structure that maybe serves another medium far better, what do we do about it? How do we talk about writing differently? Do we?
I have no answers here so I'm eager to hear any of your thoughts.  Are we fiction writers veering too much into a film world? Do we need to make our books more...booklike? If so, how?

Thumbs up for Rock N Roll!

Ok, everyone may have seen this at this point but there's some truly timeless wisdom here. 

From now on if anyone asks me my thoughts on pursuing writing or publishing I'm just sending them to this video.  Sometimes we adults make things too damn complicated and it takes a kid who just learned how to ride his bike to put things into perspective.

Odd and Inspiring Things I Saw in Nashville When I Should Have Been Working on My Edits

Hi all. Still pushing through on the edits over here, just a few days left now before I need to turn them in. I'll have some thoughts on the editing process later but first I thought I'd post a few pics from my and lovely Gertie's trip to Nashville TN. We had planned the trip months ago, not knowing I'd be in the midst of edits. Turned out well actually. A few days in a nice hotel far from home was a refreshing distraction. We went initially to see The Golden Age of Couture exhibit at the Frist (Lovely Gertie is a sewing blogger and a soon to be published sewing author.) and while we were there checked out The Country Music Hall of Fame and The Ryman Auditorium.

Saw alot of fun stuff there, like....

Carl Perkins' actual Blue Suede Shoes!

Elvis Presley's Golden Piano!

And....this.....

Yeah. I know. Creepy. Hank Williams apparently shot these squirrels himself (which must have been quite an honor for them really) and then had a taxidemist stuff and mount them as a band. I'm not sure why, but I understand Hank was a bit of a drinker. For me it's the way they're all hunched over,  it seems sort of....lascivious. Freaks me out.

On the non creepy side here's the wonderful and inspiring Ryman Auditorium, "The Mother Church of Country Music." I was literally feet from where Johnny Cash stood! And sang! And smashed things while on drugs and was asked to never come back!

And lastly here's the Lovely Gertie looking quite regal posing in our hotel, The Hermitage.

Anyway, we had a great time and learned alot. What did we learn? Well, that everyone in Nashville is

incredibly

nice, so much so that it made two New Yorker's like me and Gertie more than a little suspicious. What's their game, we often wondered. What's. Their. Game?

Also, we learned that the food is amazing and that while NY does alot of things well the one thing it really can't do is a truly revelatory glass of sweet tea. Oh, sweet tea. How I miss it.

Lastly we rekindled our love of classic country music. Johnny. Hank. Patsy. Loretta. And all the greats.

A good time was had by all!