Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Pod Six Jokes

The title of this week's little rant might seem a bit odd, but it's an important lesson every writer needs to learn, and several never do. I've been shown two or three examples of it just in the past month. And what better way to demonstrate this lesson than through the wonders of Star Trek.

Honest, this is brilliant. Stick with me.

The fifth season of Next Generation really began with a wonderful episode called "Darmok." The Enterprise encounters an alien race, the Children of Tama, that has repeatedly halted first contact attempts because its language baffles the universal translator. The Tama language can be rendered in English, but their words still make no sense. In a bold move, the Tama commander, Dathon, kidnaps Captain Picard to a hostile world where the two must fight together against a near-invisible energy creature to survive. Through their trials and a few garbled campfire discussions, Picard comes to realize that the Tama language is not based on ideas and concepts, but on stories and metaphors. Literal translation has been impossible because the Federation does not share the same history and folklore with the Tama.

In a way, all of us do this every day. Some of my best friends and I make frequent references to Pod Six (those guys were jerks), Lucky Bob, and "the girl's evil cheater magic." In college, the folks I hung out with understood when you talked about Virpi Zuckk, the third Pete, and nice shoes. Heck, my girlfriend and I almost have our own language with phrases like French Mousey, cat-switch, and Mr. Sexypants.

We all have circles of family and friends where there are shared memories, private jokes, and special references that few people outside these groups would understand. Some people like sports, others like science. Some crack jokes from Playboy, others from Prairie Home Companion. These folks watch CSI obsessively and these folks watch Reaper whenever they happen to catch it. And everyone talks about what they know and what they like.


A common failing I see again and again in stories and screenplays are oblique references and figures of speech that the reader cannot understand. While it makes sense within the writer's personal circle or clique, outside readers end up scratching their heads. Many of the writers responsible for this will try to justify their words in a number of ways...

One is that since their friends are real people, people obviously talk this way, and therefore there's nothing wrong with it. Alas, "real" does not always translate to "good." In fact, unless you happen to be shooting a documentary, it usually doesn't. That's a large topic for another rant, though.

Two, usually reserved for screenplays, is the auteur excuse. The writer plans to direct this script and cast their friends, so it doesn't matter if no one else can understand the writing (or if there are tons of inappropriate camera angles, staging instructions, and notes for actors). The flaw here is that the screenplay will invariably end up getting shown to someone else. An investor. A producer. A contest reader. Someone out of that inner circle of friends who needs to look at the script and needs to be able to understand the writing.

Three would be arguing common knowledge. The writer will try to say this material is generally known-- universally known, even-- and it's the reader who is in the feeble minority by not being aware of it. This is probably the hardest to contradict, because if someone honestly believes everybody should know who lost the 1969 Orange Bowl, there's not much you can do to convince them otherwise. It's much more likely, in the writer's mind, that those readers are just uneducated, pedestrian simpletons who never learned the periodic chart of elements, don't collect Topps baseball cards, and couldn't tell you the plainly obvious differences between Venom and Carnage if their lives depended on it.

Alas, their lives don't depend on it.

Your writing does, though.

This is one of those inherent writer skills. It's something you just need to figure out how to do on your own, and the easiest way is by reading everything you can get your hands on all the time. You need to know words and phrases. You have to know them and you have to be honestly aware of who else knows them. Using rare or antiquated words like atramentous instead of dark or glabrous instead of bald may show off your vocabulary, but the moment someone has to stop and think about what a word means, they've been taken out of your story. And knocking people out of your story is one of the all-but-certain ways to make sure the reader puts your manuscript down and goes off to fold laundry, make a sandwich, and read something different.

It'd be foolish to say your writing has to appeal to everyone and be understood by everyone. That's just aiming for the lowest common denominator and that's how you end up with The Love Guru or anything Anne Rice has written in the past decade. By the same token, however, you can't be writing just for your five closest friends.

Well, you can, of course. But not if you want to do this for real.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Rules

One of the challenges with writing is that it's something you can only learn by doing. You can take classes, read books, and study examples, but at the end of the day the only way to improve your writing is to write. I'm not saying all that other stuff is bad, but remember my single, simple rule—find what works for you.

As you study the act of writing more and more, you'll begin to discover countless hints, tips, and tricks. Each one has its own faithful followers, and some of these folks will swear by three or four more of these ideas. After awhile, you'll find a large number of people fall into one of two camps.

First, there are those who think of writing as a mechanical process. They've broken it down to a hard, cold science with no talent or experience needed. There are set moments and beats and page counts and pacing and all of that. All paragraphs are three sentences minimum, seven maximum. Scenes are never longer than two pages. Introduce your main character by page six, and your first plot point by page eleven. Your conflict by page nine. Your antagonist by page fifteen. Action begins on twenty with a major turning point on page fifty-three. These are the folks who will quote Syd Field to point out the flaws in your screenplay, or use the MLA Handbook to explain why your novel will never be published.

These folks, by and large, are wrong.

At the extreme other end of this are the folks who think none of this matters. They're the ones who broke the rules, tossed the guidebook out the window, and still roared past the finish line. Kevin Smith. Diablo Cody. Cormac McCarthy. Robert Rodriguez. These writers started from scratch, winged it, and came out on top. And, of course, they've got legions of students and online fans who all say "Well, if they did it, of course I can..." Page counts don't matter. Formatting doesn't matter. Spelling and punctuation don't matter. What matters-- the only thing that matters-- is the pure, raw creative genius and letting it shine through, because that's what people will see on the page and that's what always matters. If you constrict yourself in any way with rules or guidelines, you're just hampering your muse and diluting your talent.

These people are also wrong.

I've been lucky enough to attend conferences twice now where I got to listen to a very well-spoken agent by the name of Esmond Harmsworth. He gave a wonderful little talk the first time I saw him on ten rules for writing a mystery novel, and he set down some basic commonalities that all such stories have as far as location, characters, and complexity. What was even more interesting, though, was when he started talking about breaking these rules.

You see, if you follow every single rule for writing a mystery novel, a screenplay, or even a blog post, you're following a formula. As in, a formula story. It's where anyone with the slightest bit of experience can predict X, Y, and Z when all they've seen so far is A, B, and C. If you've watched a movie or television show where you can immediately guess who the murderer is, who the girl's going to end up with, or how Captain Scarlet's going to stop the missile launch, it's probably because the writers are following a formula.

Now, that being said, you'll notice there's a lot of formula stuff out there. Formula is not necessarily bad. It's the foundation and the ID card of every genre, and it's the common thread that lets all of us access material. Hundreds of writers make really good livings writing novels, television shows, and movies that follow a formula.

Am I saying all formula is good? No.

Every now and then something comes along that breaks all the rules, twists every expectation, and is still magnificent. The novel (if it can be called such) House of Leaves is a prime example. Trying to even define that book is a whole separate post. It's got a cult following and has been a bestseller in several countries (and several languages) for the past decade.

Does that mean any writer can do whateve they want? Nope. Especially not an unpublished, unproduced writer.

As a writer, you need to know what rules you need to follow and which ones you can get away with breaking. Which means you actually need to know what the rules are and how you're breaking them. Study your chosen format. Study your chosen genre. Be aware that if you're going to break a rule, you need a reason, and it can't just be "because I felt like it."

The vast majority of the stories you read will follow most of the basic guidelines for their form. The memorable ones will break a rule or two. The truly spectacular ones will break three or four. And in very, very, very rare-- exceptionally rare-- cases some writers may get away with shattering the rules altogether. The real trick is knowing why and how.

And if you don't know why and how, don't assume you're the exception to the rules.

Friday, June 6, 2008

How to Score with the Hot Chick

This time, let's talk about her. The hot chick.

Much as I'd like, this does not mean a whole post devoted to Famke Janssen, Hayden Panettiere, Angelina Jolie, Anne Hathaway, or Allison Mack. Alas, not even some of the hot chicks I've actually met and hung out with, like Eliza Dushku, Catherine Bell, or Reiko Aylesworth (who is one vicious pool shark). However, if any of these names conjure appealing images and thoughts, feel free to hang onto them for the upcoming extended analogy. Or pick someone you may remember from high school or college.

(Heterosexual female readers—my apologies. This analogy is also going to be a bit one sided, and may even seem a bit shallow at points...)

I think most of us at one point or another have known one of those incredibly sexy and alluring women and had hopes and dreams (or lurid fantasies) about ending up with her, yes? After all, how could she fail to see all my interesting qualities? My intelligence, sense of humor, self-assured nature, and casual disregard for fashion trends. I mean if Famke / Allison/ Eliza/ Reiko just got to know me, it would all work out.


Well, probably not. Let's be honest, a woman like that tends to have her pick of mates, so odd are they're going to lean towards someone... well, a bit more physically attractive. Not always, but that's the way to hedge your bets. Likewise, they probably want someone with similar fashion and music tastes. Heaven forbid, there are even those females who are a bit shallow and are going to be looking for someone with money to spend on them.

Now... does this mean all and every lust-able woman is out of reach? Not at all. Everyone's unique, we all have our funny quirks, and there's a chance that Hayden has been secretly hoping to meet someone just like you. More hopefully, just like me.

If not, though, it might mean you need to make a few changes in your life. That is, if you're serious about this connection with Anne. Exercise a lot more. Shower a lot more, too. Get a haircut. Stop buying clothes at Wal-Mart. Listen to something that isn't '80's retro soundtracks. Possibly even get a job you hate that brings in more money.

Then you also have to deal with the fact that, well, lots of people are paying attention to a woman that hot. If you're at a bar, a party, a club—you don't think you're going to be the only person who notices Eliza over there, do you? She's going to be mobbed by people. Dozens, maybe more. Yes, half of them are way out of her league and don't have a prayer of connecting with her, but they're still there, in the way between you and her. And by the time you reach her, you're going to have to try twice as hard to impress her (without looking like you're trying hard) because she's so tired of dealing with all these other folks.

And even after all this—after you get your act together, make changes to yourself and your life, and fight your way through the crowd-- Angelina might decide to stay with Brad. Maybe not. You never know with these things. But there's a decent chance she might.

So... ready for the analogy?

Writing professionally is like going after the hot chick. In this case, Famke is the agent or publisher you hope to win over, and you are your writing. Yes, there's a good chance that there is an agent or publisher out there that will take your work just as it is with no changes whatsoever... but it's probably not Famke. Or Catherine. Or Reiko. Or...

If you really want to land that dream agent or get that publisher to notice you, odds are you're going to have to work at it. You need to be willing to make changes—maybe even ones you don't like—to make your manuscript into something they want to read instead of just something you felt like writing. You need to stand out amidst hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other writers. Yes, half of them probably have no business being there, but the agent or publisher still has to work through all their stuff to get to yours, and will probably be feeling pretty tired and negative by the time they get there.

Despite everything you've seen in the movies, nobody ever gets the hot chick without some effort.