Thursday, August 26, 2010

It's A Trap!!

I would like to thank Admiral Ackbar for pointing out the obvious.

Alas, sometimes things aren’t as apparent as we think they should be. Like the horror story where the absolute last thing someone should do is open the door to the study, so of course Yakko is reaching for the knob...

Lots of aspiring writers fall into traps. Sometimes it happens when they follow bad advice. Other times it’s because they insist on using a method or writing in a style which really doesn’t work for them. And sometimes... sometimes that trap’s just sitting there in the field kids play kickball in, hidden by some leaves, waiting to snap...

So, with all that being said, here are some common--and dangerous-- misconceptions people have about writing. Beware them, and beware the people who set these traps for themselves and others.

Writing is easy - Probably the most common misconception there is. I mean, most of us learned how to put words on paper when we were ten, right? We could write passable essays by ninth grade. So writing for a living, for an audience greater than your immediate friends and loved ones, how hard could it be? Anyone can do it once you’ve got a clever idea. Heck, I’d bet 90% of Americans have immediate access to a word processor of some sort.

Truth is, writing—not basic, grade-school literacy, mind you, but the ability to write-- is a skill which needs to be learned like any other. All you need to do is browse the comment sections of any news feed or message board to see how few people know how to express their ideas through words. Yeah, I took English and reading classes in school. I also took music classes, so maybe I should expect to get a recording contract sometime soon? Twelve years of gym classes, too, but for some reason I haven’t made it onto any Olympic teams.

Writers need to train and practice for months--maybe even years--before they’re ready to show off their writing. I don’t need to look it up to tell you Wolfgang Puck didn’t get any praise for the first hundred meals he cooked, Mark McGuire did not get paid big money the first thousand times he swung a baseball bat, and Stephen King didn’t make a single cent off the first 100,000 words he wrote. Writing is work. Hard work. It requires skill, a great deal of practice, some actual talent, and a heck of a lot of dedication. This is why so many people can’t succeed at it.

This is probably the best trap because it doesn’t just catch the writer, it tends to kill them 2/3 of the time. Most of the wanna-be writers who believe this have never actually written anything. Once they do, they come up with an excuse why they’ll never be completing their manuscript (see below), then slink away to become musicians. Or writing gurus.

Writing doesn’t require any writing - A few decades back there was a huge spec script boom in Hollywood. It was one of those rare periods when studios acknowledged the importance of the writer and were paying top dollar for screenplays, or even just the idea for one. A popular story is how established screenwriter Joe Eszterhas scribbled the bare idea (no pun intended) for Jade on a cocktail napkin and ended up with a multi-million dollar contract for it.

As I said, however, this was over twenty years ago. These days producers and publishers are much more cautious and they’re not interested in ideas. They’re interested in complete, finished works. Not two-thirds of a manuscript. Not most of a script. Just to save time, knowing the right people won’t change this. No, it won’t. I don’t care what you read on the special snowflake website.

Not to sound too harsh but... well, no, this is harsh because people can only end up in this trap by choice. If someone can’t write and complete something, they can’t be a writer. That’s really all there is to it. Stop now and go back to those criminal justice classes you signed up for.

For the record, some folks argue they don’t want to write until they get paid. These people should give up on any sort of fiction-- because that’s not going to happen there--and go into journalism. Then they need to find a staff job on a website, magazine, or newspaper.

Good luck with that, by the way, not having a writing resume and all...

First person is easy - A lot of prose writers start off with first person stories. It’s quick, it’s not hard to get into, it’s easy to find a voice. It’s also very personable, so a reader can relate to the characters immediately. Plus there are tons of formats ready and waiting; journals, diaries, letter, memoirs, and so on.

Truth is, first person is a very difficult, very limiting tense to write in. There’s a reason so many professional writers avoid it. Beginning writers rarely develop their first-person characters past their voice. I could go on about this one for a while, and as it happens I did earlier this year.

Writers who get caught in this trap start their first novel and pound out 20,000 words worth of journal entries over the weekend. There’s always that chance they may be brimming with so much raw talent they’re the next Hemingway or Steinbeck. There’s a far better chance, though, they’ve just wasted a long weekend.

Writers don’t need to read - Somewhere along the line, someone started promoting the silly idea writers shouldn’t waste time reading, they should spend all their time writing. This is kind of like saying you don’t want to waste time stopping for gas while you’re driving. Every professional writer I’ve ever met, interviewed, or even just read about (myself included) reads voraciously. A writer should be devouring works in their chosen field to stay current and snacking heavily on everything else to stay fresh.

Sad but true, the people who fall into this trap tend to write plain awful stuff. They go for every easy idea, hit every cliché plot point, and tend to follow the textbook formulas they were taught in some creative writing class somewhere. What else can they do? They try to mimic one or two famous examples of what they aspire to and usually end up looking just like the worst of the worst (because they have no idea what the worst looks like)

Research everything - Alas, this is one of the two deadliest traps out there, which is why I saved it for one of the last. We all want to get the facts right in our stories. We check research books, make phone calls, visit important locations, or maybe some of us just spend a lot of time on Wikipedia. The point is, how can I be expected to move forward with my story if I don’t know the name of George Washington’s barber and what size shirt he wore? It’ll ruin everything if I just call him John Smith, neck 16.

This is an awful trap because getting stuck in it means a writer was trying to do the right thing. Research is important, but never forget it’s not writing. There’s a time for putting noses in books but there’s also a time for putting pens to paper (or binary code to electromagnetic bubble memory, as it may be)

Some people get caught in an even deeper layer of this trap. They get stuck researching how to write. We’ve all known someone like this, the one who buys book after book, takes class after class, but never does any actual writing. For some people this becomes a defense mechanism of sorts, sometimes subconsciously and sometimes... not so subconsciously. If they never start, they won’t have to put the work in and their work stays in that wonderful hypothetical stage where it’s the greatest thing (almost) ever committed to paper. It’s a tragedy, really, they never had time to write it down...

Rewrite until it’s perfect - The last and deadliest of the traps in our showroom. For some people, rewriting turns into an endless loop. There’s always another opinion to listen to, more feedback to get, and revisions which need to be done because of them. Just thought of a new way to do those action scenes? That calls for another draft. Maybe last night’s Chuck inspired a new opening? Perhaps Aunt Betty is visiting and she thought the ending was a little violent, and a good writer knows changing the end means changing everything which leads up to the end.

There are two ways people fall into this trap. One is a combination of bad advice and bad judgment. So many gurus tell people to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. How many times have you heard “writing is rewriting” parroted in classes or on message boards? There’s some truth to that, but there’s also a lot of truth in the phrase “poop or get off the pot” (cleaned up for work computers). Eventually, a writer just needs to call it done and move on or they’re going to be trapped in one manuscript forever.

The other way people fall into this trap is by purpose. A bit like with research, constant rewrites are an excuse not to actually produce anything. You don’t expect me to show you an incomplete or old draft, do you? I was going to send it to some agents or publishers, but I think it needs one more polish to make it perfect. Maybe one more after I go through and clean up a few loose threads. Rewrites are a way wanna-be writers--again, consciously or not-- can avoid possible failure yet still keep up the illusion of forward motion.

Are all of these traps deadly? No, but getting snagged in one can definitely cost you some time. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t fallen victim to one or three of them over the years. Fortunately, one of those things only has to slam on your leg once and you’ll rarely let it happen again.

Assuming, of course, that you get out of it the first time.

Next time, I’m going to throw around some big words relating to the throwing about of big words.

Until then, go write. And watch your step.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Chefs Do That

Every now and then I get to do some really cool stuff for my job at Creative Screenwriting. Part of this is pitching ideas for articles or interviews and the little thrill when someone says yes to a wilder one. What’s really cool, though, is when you pitch a complete long-shot idea and the screenwriter said idea centers around says “sure, let’s grab a coffee or something.”

Shane Black came to national attention as Hawkins, the bespectacled, dirty-joke-spewing soldier in Predator who comes to a quick and messy end. What most people probably don’t know is that his role in the iconic movie was an off-the-table part of his deal (so the story goes) for Lethal Weapon, the screenplay he wrote that made him one of the darlings of the late ‘80s spec script boom. Since then he’s also written The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (which he also directed). More to the point, I got to chat with him back at Christmas and we talked for a while about writing and storytelling. And Santa Claus fighting Satan. Anyway, he brought up a very interesting angle on storytelling that I’d like to expand on and share with you all.

As fair warning, some of these terms may not be used exactly as you’re used to them. Try not to think of it in terms of “this means this” but rather the ideas and concepts behind this little sub-rant. For example, to avoid confusion, I’m going to be using the word tale a lot in these next few paragraphs.

Any tale can be thought of in terms of plot, story, and theme. These three elements are really what make up every tale you’ve ever heard. Every now and then you may stumble across one that doesn’t have one of these elements, and nine times out of ten that tale is flawed because of it.

The first of these, the plot, is what’s going on within your particular tale. It’s the elements you’ll usually see on the back of a book or the DVD case. If you’re a screenwriter, it’s usually the idea you pitch. If you’re a novelist, it’s that quick summary in your query letter.

--The plot of Star Wars (no subtitle, never was) is Luke and Han trying to rescue Princess Leia and destroy the Empire’s super weapon, the Death Star.

--The plot of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is Scott trying to defeat seven super-powered exes so he can be with his dream girl, Ramona.

--The plot of The Count of Monte Cristo is a man trying to take revenge on the people who destroyed his life decades ago.

--The plot of The Long Kiss Goodnight is a presumed-dead agent trying to stop a murderous conspiracy concocted by her former employers.

--The plot of IT is six friends coming together again after years to try to defeat a monster that lives under their home town.

--The plot of Raiders of the Lost Ark is Indy is trying to find the Ark before the Nazis do and get it safely back to America.

You may have caught something there. For most good stories, the plot is the attempt to do something. Pull off a heist, get a date, beat the bad guys. This is the action (of one type or another) that makes the reader need to turn to the next page.

Some indie films don’t have a plot. They’ve taken the idea of a character-driven tale to the extreme and tend to just meander. They’re slice-of life tales where beautifully-rendered people don’t really do anything. There is a certain appeal to this, on some levels, but in the end it’s a very niche audience.

The flipside of plot is the story. Story is what’s going on within your characters. It’s the personal stuff that explains why they’re interested in the plot and really why the reader is interested in the plot. Story is why Never Let Me Go is different than The Island, because they’re taking what’s essentially the same plot and approaching it with two very different stories.

--The story of Scott Pilgrim is about becoming more mature in order to shape a lasting relationship.

--The story of Rick Blaine (Casablanca) is about the resurgence of the man he used to be a long time ago and the causes he used to fight for.
--The story of Samantha Kaine (The Long Kiss Goodnight) is figuring out who she is; an amnesiac, single-mom schoolteacher or a ruthless assassin who created the identity of Samantha as a hiding place she could sink into and “retire”

--The story of Edmund Dantes (The Count of Monte Cristo) is about letting go of the past and accepting what he has in the present.

--The story of Indiana Jones is about reconnecting with a past love and learning to believe in something bigger than himself.

You may notice here that while the story and plot are often complementary, they don’t always tie directly to each other. Story is the character arc and the reasons behind that arc. Plot makes us need to turn the page, but story makes us want to turn the page.

A lot of stuff in the action genre is light on story. If there are enough explosions, karate chops, and gunshots the audience may not notice that the characters never really change or develop in any way. Which is fine for your supporting folks, but not so good for your protagonists.

Last but not least is the theme. Theme covers everything, and it applies to both the plot and the story. A tale’s theme can be something broad and simple. The theme of Raiders, for example, is just “good ultimately triumphs over evil (even if good gets the crap kicked out of it first).” That’s a common theme that covers a lot of tales. “You can’t beat the system,” is another common theme that shows up in a lot of dystopian tales like 1984, as does its close cousin “might makes right.” A theme can also be much more specific, like “unrestricted greed caused the financial crisis” or “the Bush Doctrine endangered more American lives than it ever saved.” As a theme gets more specific, though, a writer has to be careful it doesn’t just become an overriding message.

When a tale is lacking one of the previous elements, it’s usually doesn’t have much of a theme, either. Tales without a theme, even one of the simple ones above, tend to wander or be inconsistent. It’s kind of like going out for a drive--you may get somewhere, but it wasn’t in your mind when you set out... and it probably wasn’t the most efficient way to get there...

Next time around, I’d like to talk about triplines, deadfalls, punji pits, and other dangerous assumptions people make about writing.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Nothing Up My Sleeve...


Looks like I gotta get another hat...

Anyway, back in the day, when there just weren’t as many stories to be told, there was a very common structure to Greek stage plays. Essentially, the characters screwed up. A lot. They’d fail at tasks and get themselves in way over their heads. Just when all seemed lost, the stagehands would lower in “the gods,” one or more actors on a mechanical cloud, and the gods would use their omnipotent magical powers to take care of everything. No harm, no foul. Everybody wins.

If you didn’t already know, the name of this mechanical cloud was the deus ex machina (god from a machine). The term is still used today, although it doesn’t have the lofty implications it used to. It’s when a solution to a problem drops out of the sky.

Or, in this case, drops out of the sacred orb of Shen’nikarruan.

With the cinematic success of Lord of the Rings and the overall success of Harry Potter, fantasy is a hot genre again. Mix in a little softcore horror like Twilight and a lot of folks are probably tempted to write in that sexy-dark-mystic sort of style. Even a lot of people who’ve never had any interest in this sort of story before. Which is a shame because a writer really needs to be familiar in whatever genre they decide to write in.

A common problem beginning writers make--especially genre writers-- is to fall back on magic to solve their problems. Characters get into a load of trouble, back themselves into a corner, square off against nigh-impossible odds, but are saved at the last moment as they all lay hands on the sacred orb. It doesn’t matter how world-spanning or universe-threatening the problem is, when the pure-of-heart grab that big emerald sphere it’s all going to go away and make life so much better for the good people.

For the record, it’s not just mystic orbs. The offenders also include--

--magic wands

--mystic swords

--enchanted rings, necklaces, or bracelets

--tiger-repelling rocks

--artifact X which must be returned to/ retrieved from the temple of Y

Now, before any other genre writers reading this start feeling smug, let me remind you of Clarke’s Law. You’ve probably heard some variation on it before. Any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic. A writer may call it the Technotron 9000 and explain it harnesses neutrinos to bend quantum fields, but for all intents and purposes it’s just another mystic orb.

This all goes back to something I’ve ranted about many times before. No one wants to read about a problem that solves itself. They want to read about characters who solve problems, preferably the characters they’ve been following for most of your manuscript. Lord of the Rings does not end with god-like mystic flames destroying the one true ring when the heroes reach the end of their journey. No, it ends with one character all-but driven mad from the burden of carrying it and another one who was driven mad by the ring accidentally destroying it because of his obsession to possess it again. Likewise, Harry Potter never beats his final challenge with magic but just through his sheer determination to do the right thing.

Y’see, Timmy, in good stories the sacred orb of Shen’nikarruan isn’t a solution, it’s just a MacGuffin. For those not familiar with the term, Alfred Hitchcock coined it to describe things that motivate plot and story without actually interacting with them. The Maltese Falcon (in the book and movie of the same name) is a classic MacGuffin. It’s what motivates almost every character in the story, but the legendary statue itself never even appears.

Now, as I often point out, this isn’t to say a magical plot device will never work. If you think about it, Raiders of the Lost Ark has God step out of a box at the last minute to kick some Nazi ass (and save Indy and Marion). Take a moment, however, and think of how many other things in that movie have to work perfectly in order for that ending to work. It’s a level of storytelling most of us--myself included--never have a prayer of reaching.

Which actually brings me to a potentially touchy angle, but one I feel obliged to point out. So if you’re easily offended, you may want to stop reading now...

There is a nice little niche market of faith-based films these days, and a few well-paying contests as well. In these stories, it’s completely acceptable to have prayers answered and problems solved by divine intervention. Heck, it’s almost expected in some of these markets. The Lord steps in to cure diseases, cast out evil spirits, and sometimes even make a personal appearance. At the very least, he’ll send down one of the archangels to help that nice woman who couldn’t pay her mortgage to the evil capitalist developer.

The thing is, despite the previous example of Raiders, “God saves the day” really isn’t an acceptable conclusion to a story. In those niche markets it’s fantastic, but for every other audience it’s just as much a cop-out as the magic orb or the Technotron 9000. The characters aren’t solving problems or doing anything active. In fact, they tend to be innately passive while they wait for the big guy to solve things for them. Which makes sense, because these faith-based stories usually aren’t about the characters, they’re about a religious message the writers are trying to get across.

Again, nothing wrong with having magic, uber-technology, or even divine intervention. But this isn’t ancient Greece. These days, it has to be about character first.

(I had no idea how I was going to end this, and then the archangel Beleth pointed out that I could just bring it back around to the opening idea...)

Next time, I’m going to drop names and prattle on about the time I talked with Hawkins from Predator about storytelling. Yeah, the skinny guy with the glasses. Him.

Until then, go write something.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Shotgun Art

All right you primates, listen up. This is my BOOMSTICK!

The twelve-gauge, double-barreled Remington-- S-Mart's top of the line. You can find this in the sporting goods department. That's right, this baby was made in Grand Rapids, Michigan and retails for about $109.95. It's got a walnut stock, cobalt blue steel, and a hair trigger.

To get to my point, though...

The great advantage of the shotgun is that it’s very hard to miss with one. Load a few shells of buckshot and you can pretty much guarantee you’ll hit whatever reanimated dead thing you’re more-or-less aiming at. Heck, even if you’re not sure what you’re aiming at, you’ll still probably hit it. You won’t hit it with full force, granted, but with that amount of spread you will hit something. And if you’re lucky and hit enough of it, you’ll do more than slightly annoy your chosen target.

With that being said, I’d like to tell you a story...

It’s the story of Yakko Warner, a young man who wanted nothing more than to grow up and be on the Olympic pie-throwing team. It was his dream for as long as he could remember. But then, in the womb, tragedy struck...

Yakko was diagnosed with Sudden Infant Death syndrome and Alzheimer’s. Despite this, he fought on, born an orphan just two years after his parents were killed by a drunk driver. Working his way through private school and an ivy-league college by collecting deposit bottles every night and weekend, he graduated and became an alcoholic writer, artist, and musician on the same day he discovered he had AIDS, brain cancer, and Lou Gehrig’s disease. The next day, a random gang shooting killed his pregnant wife and four-year old son and left him crippled and in a wheelchair.

Yakko decided to become a teacher, in the hopes his story would inspire inner city autistic children to stay out of gangs. Alas, his students were all killed by drug dealers, crooked cops, homophobic bigots, racists, tragic suicides, random household accidents, and Somalian pirates.

Then he decided to write a book about the experience. Then he decided to option the book to be a screenplay. Then he decided to skip teaching and writing the book and just sell the story to Hollywood for the money. The screenplay won a Nicholl Fellowship, a Pulitzer, a Nobel Peace Prize, and a Nickelodeon Kids Choice Award.

Finally, on the day Yakko went to pick up his Academy Award for General Excellence, he was killed by a drunk driver. Ironically, the same drunk driver who had killed his parents five years earlier. As he bled out in the gutter, waiting for an ambulance that was delayed because Republican politicians he’d backed had slashed health care bills, a dove landed nearby. Then--as he stared at the bird and realized he’d wasted his life in books when he should’ve been out there living-- Yakko died the most painful, agonizing death ever imagined.


Okay, you’re probably chuckling a bit, but what might be hard to believe is how common this kind of storytelling is. I saw it in writers’ groups in college (part of the reason I don’t belong to such groups anymore) and countless times when I used to read for screenplay contests. You wouldn’t believe the number of dramatic stories that are just brimming with excess plot devices and story threads.

This all springs from a common misconception--that writing a bunch of plot points and character elements is the same thing as writing a story. The logic is that if I load up my story with every possible dramatic cliché for every single character, one of them’s bound to hit the target, right? And then, eventually, the story will be dramatic. Plus, adversity builds character, therefore it stands to reason all this extra adversity in my story will make for fantastic characters.

I mean, Yakko comes across a dramatic, dynamic character, right...?

In all fairness, it’s not just the dramatic types looking to create literature and art who do this, although I must admit, they seem to be the most common offenders. I just read a book a while ago that puts the old action pulps to shame. Every punch drew blood, every car chase (or skimobile chase, or quad-runner chase...) ended with an explosion, and every leap rattled bones. Not only that, but every character had a snappy one-liner to toss out before, during, and after offing one of the villains. And there were lots and lots of villains...

There’s also the horror story that has blood and gore and chunks of flesh everywhere. Well, it would be everywhere except the story is told in complete darkness. Plus there’s a little chalk-skinned child who moves in high-speed “shaky vision” and the borderline psychopath and the one person who isn’t a psychopath but snaps anyway and gets dozens of people killed because he or she opens a door or invites something in or plays with the puzzle box.

Don’t even get me started on the sci-fi stories that have epic alien wars and ancient technology and sacred orbs and unstoppable monsters and long-prophesied, godlike, cosmic beings and cyborg ninjas and out-of-control nanites. God, I hate nanites. You’d think they’re more common than bacteria, the number of stories they show up in...

Y’see, Timmy, whatever your chosen genre is, just loading up with plot elements and blasting away with your No.2 shotgun does not create a story. That’s called mad libs, and it’s the opposite of writing in just about every way possible.

Which brings us to the flipside of using a shotgun. At close range your shot will definitely hit. It will hit with everything. And when that happens, you will completely annihilate your target. Nothing left but rags.

Take that as you will.

Next week I have a ton of deadlines so I might not be able to post anything, but if I do it will be pure magic, as always.

Until then, go write.