Thursday, June 17, 2010

What Your Story Needs is THIS...

There is no pop culture reference this week. There's a good one on the tip of my tongue, but I can't get it. So I just went with this.

Anyway, let me tell you things I like in stories, and a few I don’t.

I like casual dialogue, but I really dislike it when it descends into jargon or affected accents. I like exotic settings, but not alien, unrelatable ones. I like action and maybe a bit of a mystery or puzzle. I love a good twist. I prefer that the sex and violence be a bit more implied and bit less graphic. I enjoy seeing a smaller story set against a broader canvas. I like writers who use the scalpel over the sledgehammer and don’t feel the need to sink to the lowest common denominator. I love smart humor and subtle wit. I’m not much on romance novels, get really bored by inner-city “gangsta” films, and I despise pretentious material, but past that I read in almost every genre, even westerns.

What does all this have to do with your writing?

Absolutely nothing.

Seriously. Doesn’t mean a damned thing.

A bad habit most of us have when we give criticism is to mistake what we like personally in a book or film with actual corrections that need to be made. If someone gives me a story loaded with explicit violence and sex, it may not be to my taste but that doesn’t mean they’ve done anything wrong. I didn’t see the point to any of the Hostel or Saw movies, but in and of itself that doesn’t mean the writers were off course. These franchises have brought in several hundred million dollars, so it’s clear they appeal to quite a few people.

A far worse habit, though--the one a fair amount of fledgling writers fall into-- is to accept those likes and dislikes as valid criticism. A lot of folks don’t have the confidence or experience to sift out the useful comments (“You switch tenses here and here. And you spelled misspelled wrong.”) from the more personal and subjective ones some people give (“Zombies are overdone. You should make them all Frankenstein monsters.”)

A few random examples...

I’ve mentioned my college attempt at a novel, The Suffering Map, once or thrice. Started in college, finished almost exactly ten years later. Once it was done, I showed it too a few friends and associates. Most were fairly positive with a few notes here and there. Another could have even been called pretty enthusiastic.

One, though, probably burned through two or three red pens. As he saw it, there were some major flaws in the story. The biggest was that Miguel, a former gang member, didn’t go running back to his gang for protection when things started getting scary. Later on, when things were full-on dangerous, he should have a dozen gang members with him, because he should’ve gone back earlier when things were getting scary. As I read on through his notes, it became clear that my friend had a very different idea of what direction my story should’ve gone in. What the story was didn’t interest him at all--he was critiquing it based off what it thought it should be. The further I read, the harsher his comments got because the story was (as he saw it) going more and more off track. About twenty or so pages before the end he scribbled a note that he’d stopped reading because I’d just gotten everything wrong.

Story the second...

A friend of mine was visiting L.A. a while back to pitch a screenplay he’d been working on. It was a dark crime drama that aimed very high. The mysteries unfolded slowly and some weren’t fully spelled out for the audience. Some motives remained murky. In the draft he showed me, even the end was a bit vague (although I think he tightened it up later). A very nice story, but definitely not one for the mass market.

I tossed out the idea of a frame. Perhaps the film could begin at the climactic stand-off moment, the hero’s decision, then jump back to “three days earlier” to show us the events that led up to that stand off. It would begin with a bang (a bruised and battered man held at gunpoint and told to make a choice) to draw the audience in, then settle down to tell the story once they had that hook in their mouths, so to speak.

He considered it overnight and told me the next day that he’d decided against the frame. He had his story and he didn’t want to change how it was being told. If someone didn’t like it--no big deal. Odds are there’d be someone else who would. I agreed with him and that was it--we moved on to talking about a series of magazine articles I’d been working on.

And if I wanted to open a real can of worms, I could bring up LOST as story the third and talk about the fair share of people who didn’t like the ending. But we’d probably end up getting sidetracked into time-travel debates and mysteries vs. resolutions and stuff like that. So I’ll plant that seed in your mind, but we won’t go there...

Y’see, Timmy, at the end of the day, you’re the one writing the story. Just because someone doesn’t like it doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. You need to be telling the story you want to tell.

Now, I know this may sound a bit contradictory to some things I’ve said before, but it isn’t. There’s a bunch of stuff you must do a certain way in your writing, and you must get these thing right. Things like spelling, grammar, believable characters, logical structure, and so on.

However, the writing process is entirely your choice. You don’t have to outline or notecard or write beat sheets or anything if you don’t want to. Feel free to start on page one with no clue what’s going to happen at the end of your story. How you write is up to you.

Likewise, what you choose to write about is your choice. And no matter what anyone tries to tell you, your choice can’t be wrong because... well... it’s your choice. You can’t be wrong for wanting to write about zombies or gothic romances or investment bankers any more than I can be wrong for liking Almond Joy bars, pizza, and the end of LOST.

Keep in mind, I’m still not saying anyone will want to buy your story. Or even read it. Being true to your vision does not always and immediately equate to a contract and money in the bank. Heck, there’s always that chance your story could be complete crap (God knows some of mine have been). But it’s still your story. If you’re trying to meet someone else’s expectations and desires, your writing is going to feel forced and fake.

And yes, it will show.

Next time, I’d like to speak with you about communicating via interlobal trans-psion pulses, if Grolthaxia is willing.

Until then, go write.

2 comments:

Rakie said...

some day you'll have to let us actually read The Suffering Map, now that you've referenced it so many times... ;)

Virtual Stranger said...

Alas, The Suffering Map will probably stay buried for the forseeable future. It was my first completed novel, but only in the sense that I once completed a birdhouse in shop class...

It probably would be worth pulling out and polishing someday, but for now I think my energies are better spent elsewhere. Plus, I get to use it so often as an example of what not to do. :)

If anyone really wanted, they could probably piece together a passable synopsis of it from all the random examples I've given of it here. That'll probably be the most anyone sees until some time after the Mayan calendar runs out.

Which isn't that far off, now that I think of it...