Saturday, August 25, 2007

Tin Roof Queue Jumper

I've got it.
I'm reading it.
All other projects must simply wait...
Except my own latest novel, of course. That will only go slower....

Friday, August 17, 2007

Now *That's* a Second Draft!

Other Writers, Other Methods:

Last week I mentioned Robert McKee's writing method, specifically, his practice of pitching the synopsis to friends and colleagues before he starts writing.

I've never seen anything like this before.

Check out this article on Raymond Chandler's writing process. This was a man who took my metaphor of first draft as 'rough sketch' to its farthest extreme: he read his first draft, picked the bits he liked and, get this, jettisoned the rest!

Mark Coggins even shows us sample paragraphs. Chandler underlined his most resonant phrases (or even single words). Those stayed in later drafts. All the rest of the language was subject to change. All. Of. It.

I've always approached my second drafts with an eye toward honing down the language, eliminating excess words, excess scenes, excess actions, trimming fat in every possible way. Chandler's method seems to turn the story from a draft into a sort of outline-slash-haiku/tone poem (draft 1.5?). From these bones he built the novel back up.

It's radical stuff. The very idea gave me a happy little shiver.

I've got a novel marinating right now (first draft written at full throttle, second as carefully honed as the finest razor's edge) that might be a good candidate for this method. Or, I'll end up tearing out a few dreds before deciding it's not for me!

For every artist, a method...

Thursday, August 16, 2007

NuhNuhNuhNuhNERD, Nerd to the Bone...

(What they don't mention is that I got over 99% in ALL THREE categories compared to the average population...)

Your Score: Modern, Cool Nerd

65 % Nerd, 56% Geek, 30% Dork

For The Record:

A Nerd is someone who is passionate about learning/being smart/academia.
A Geek is someone who is passionate about some particular area or subject, often an obscure or difficult one.
A Dork is someone who has difficulty with common social expectations/interactions.
You scored better than half in Nerd and Geek, earning you the title of: Modern, Cool Nerd.

Nerds didn't use to be cool, but in the 90's that all changed. It used to be that, if you were a computer expert, you had to wear plaid or a pocket protector or suspenders or something that announced to the world that you couldn't quite fit in. Not anymore. Now, the intelligent and geeky have eked out for themselves a modicum of respect at the very least, and "geek is chic." The Modern, Cool Nerd is intelligent, knowledgable and always the person to call in a crisis (needing computer advice/an arcane bit of trivia knowledge). They are the one you want as your lifeline in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (or the one up there, winning the million bucks)!


Also, you might want to check out some of my other tests if you're interested in any of the following:

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Professional Wrestling

Love & Sexuality


Thanks Again! -- THE NERD? GEEK? OR DORK? TEST

Link: The Nerd? Geek? or Dork? Test written by donathos on OkCupid Free Online Dating, home of the The Dating Persona Test

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Tell-It Toolbox

Instead of story structure, today I felt like talking about storytelling itself. How *do* you give a scene its punch?

Pretty much everything we write comes down to three tools: narrative, dialogue, description.

Narrative: straightforward, what's happening now writing.
Dialogue: characters, you know, talking.
Description: those good old sense impressions.

For me, the goal is lean, evocative storytelling. I have a rule of thumb:

Talking beats telling.
Describing beats talking.

It's an idea cribbed from screenwriting and comics, but an effective tool nonetheless. I'm sitting in my recliner with laptop (or lately, pen and paper) in hand. I know that John and Martha are about to come together, and they ain't none too fond of each other.

I have to make a choice about how to tell it.

Narrative is one heck of a workhorse. Nothing moves characters from A to B faster than just telling the reader they moved from A to B. Careful about overusing the narrative, though. Like an all-fiber diet, nothing moves faster and is less interesting:

John looked up as Martha came into the room. John felt disgusted. Martha wanted to claw his eyes out.

A lot of writers love dialogue. I'm certainly a big fan of the stuff. It breaks up those dense paragraphs on the page, lends a bit of personality to those characters and gives Gentle Reader a sense of motion:

"Your drinking sickens me," John said.
"The nerve. I've half a mind to claw your eyes out."
"I'd like to see you try..."

Like I said, zips right along. And if you're not doing this in a blog post, great be had when your characters reveal their feelings gradually.

Description is a powerful, subtle, often underrated tool. Comics and movies use it all the time, in those wordless passages where looks are exchanged, fireplaces or crashing waves shown, etc.

The tick-tick-tick of high heels grew louder in the hall, stopped with a scrape of shoe leather on polished wood. The twin scents of vodka and cheap perfume hit his nostrils, and John's upper lip curled away from his teeth.

Martha stood in the doorway, swaying slightly on her heels. Her hands were curled into claws at her sides, and her eyes were thin green slits.

Description lets Gentle Reader fill in her own blanks, but it can also bog down if overused. And there's the possibility that, like a Mad Lib, the blank might be filled in wrong.

Which one's right or best? Depends. How important is it? Stands to reason the most important elements get the most coverage. How effective will each tool be? Some stuff really does need just one tool more than any other. And, of course, which tool feels most comfortable on the day?

And yeah, in the course of actual writing, we find ourselves jumping from one to the next all over the show. Sometimes, a powerful result comes from letting the dialogue run independent of narrative and action:

John looked up as Martha came into the room. His mouth turned down at the corners and a muscle jumped under one eye before he brought his face under control.

"It's good to see you," he said.

Martha's eyes narrowed to thin green slits.

"Just thought I'd drop by. Not interrupting, am I?"

"Get you a drink?"

He reached for the bottle and a spare glass. The movement turned his face away from her.

It was quiet in the room, and still. John heard the snap of Martha's purse, smelled gun oil and baby powder.

"She's young enough to be your daughter," Martha said. Her cheeks were bright with tears.

The bottle fell. Shattered glass flew. Brown liquid stained the floorboards.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Coming Soon

To a theatre near you...

I don't know how to link to, let alone embed, uTube vids, but I do know how to link to JD! Here's another cover, to make it up to you. (I don't make these, by the way. Just find them here and there on the web!)

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Beat Goes On

The beat, the beat. The elusive beat.

Usually, the 'beat' I write to is the rhythm of the language (eg. my punctuation choices above), but the beat I'm trying hardest to listen to is the heartbeat of the story.

Screenwriters use the term 'beat' a lot, probably because movies unfold in real time. McKee has a very structured idea of which beats are important to the unfolding story. Probably because movies cost heaps per minute, so every unnecessary minute is clipped trimmed, folded into another scene or otherwise elided.

His idea: the heart of a story is forcing your protagonist into a tight place where she will be forced beyond her limits. The structure is one of pushing your hero, watching him react. The reaction will often make things worse, so that the next push will be harder. And again, harder still. Hopefully, at the climax all looks hopeless for our heroine, until she saves the day.

It's not a bad idea, and works as well for The Manchurian Candidate as it does for Bridget Jones.

Think High Noon:

Will Kane is happy, contented, the toast of the town. He and his new bride are looking forward to spending his retirement together. *yawn* But wait...

Word reaches Kane that Frank Miller and his boys are coming. Kane's conscience won't let him leave town. One by one, the townspeople prove to be unreliable cowards. There'll be no posse. No deputies. Kane, married that morning, is facing certain death.

Every act of cowardice that leaves Kane more isolated and alone is a major beat in the story. The minor beats are found in the back and forth that lead to those cowardly betrayals.

In my first draft, I'm watching my characters act and react, tracking those major beats to the story's end. In my second draft, I'll take these beats of conflict right down to the dialogue. I want *every* interaction to uphold the story in some way.

In a way, it goes back to Conflict vs. Complication. Every story has a central question at its heart: Will Frodo destroy the ring? Will Bridget finally choose Mister Right over Mister Wrong? Can newlywed and newly retired sheriff Will Kane stop the outlaws coming in on the noon train?

Resolving that question is our conflict. Everything else is complication with Two Important Caveats:

1) It may be necessary to set the conflict up. The first big chunk of Rocky is about what a crappy life the poor palooka has. It's necessary to understanding the stakes of his fight with Apollo. Just about all of High Noon is setup. We need to see just how alone Will Kane really is.

2) Subplots. These should have their own conflicts, beats and climaxes, spaced around the story to allow the writer to control the tension.

Aragorn's heritage and lovelife, Gandalf's death and rebirth, the dark spiral of Saruman's soul are all subplots that help mask the large amount of walking involved in Frodo's effort to nuke Sauron. Rocky's relationships with Talia Shire and Burgess Meredith (who I always expect to wave an umbrella and quack) keep us involved in that sorry man's life until his One Big Break comes his way.

To keep my own subplots from being pointless complications (or pointless, parallel stories) I try wherever possible to tie them back into the main plot. It can be thematic (for instance, all characters face a simliar decision, and in the subplots we get to see how different reactions play out). It can functional (there's a running conflict in Lee Child's ONE SHOT between Jack Reacher and his wildly inappropriate boat shoes. They're a constant hinderance, up until the final climax.). If they really are just complications, well, out they come...
In High Noon, two important subplots involve Amy (Kane's bride) and Helen Ramirez (his former lover). Both women love Kane, neither want him dead. They make different decisions about what sticking it out (thematic). Amy's decision is vital to Kane's survival (functional).
By the way, The Tiny Dynamo and I watched Dangerous Liaisons last night. Best damn education out there for beats of conflict in EVERY scene, for subplots that unite a theme and weave in and out of the central conflict. I'd forgotten how brilliant it was...

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Take What You Like and Leave the Rest

As a martial arts student, I tried a little of everything I could get my hands on. Some of it suited me better than others. I took what seemed useful and politely left the rest.

When I decided to get serious about writing, I did the same thing. For Avery, here's what I got from Robert McKee.

Robert McKee teaches screenwriting, and does a fine job of it. His book, STORY, is one fine in-depth analysis of the nature and power of drama and our modern concept of, well, story. I heartily recommend it, though maybe I shouldn't be *quite* so hearty. My copy's been passed from hand to hand around Christchurch on the strength of those recommendations...

McKee's a big believer in the beat: A beat is a decision a character has to make. Usually, this is in conflict (even if its subtext) with another character. The beats build until a crisis point is reached and resolved. That's a scene.

Scenes build, one on top of another, until a major turning point is reached. That's an act. Three acts is standard, but use as many or as few as the story itself needs.

This is harder than I thought without the book handy...

Basically, the story is the hero's evolution through crisis. Rick, going from 'I stick my neck out for no one' to shooting a Nazi in front of the chief of police. John McCain, confused and adrift in a failing marriage -- until the bad guys take over the skyscraper. Sophie's wild, excstatic dance with death, begun with a choice in Poland years before...

Stories are about characters pushed into places they don't want to be and the decisions they make when they get there. And yeah, it always gets worse before it's all over.

I sucked that stuff up like a sponge. Love those ideas. His working method... It didn't work for me, but what the hey. Maybe it will for you.

First, write no scenes. No dialogue. No cool, atmospheric openings. Don't.

Instead, get a stack of 3x5 cards. A BIIIIG stack. Jot little notes on them. Bits of the story as they occur. Try to start big and go small. You're listening for the beat. It's usually easier to find the big beats than the little ones.

Pretty much, do a step by step outline of your plot. You work out who your characters are, discover their conflicts, know where and how the story moves and make sure its tight. Expect a very tall stack of cards, or one very full corkboard. All you outlinin' folks know what I'm talking about, I'm sure.

Then, and this is where McKee 'got jiggy with it' (to use the slang of theYouth of Today), put the cards aside. No chapter one yet, no chapter anything. Resist the temptation.

Instead, write a treatment. One page, maybe two, covering the story in that stack of cards. yes, you have to shave off a whole lot of subtext, backstory, and nuance. Lose it. One page. Maybe two.

Then, when you've got that treatment done, sit a few friends down and ask for five minutes of their time. Pitch them your story. Watch them as they listen. You're looking for that electric moment when the story catches them. That 'ooooh' factor.

No 'ooh', either rework your treatment or ditch your story. Go start on another one. All you're out is the outlining time.

I can see some real benefit to this. All of us only have the time to write a certain number of stories. They might as well be the good ones. This would save one the effort of spending a year or more on a bad book.

Also, come time to write query letters and such, you'd be the kid in class who wrote your term paper the first day of Christmas vacation: smug and at ease.

I imagine this is much how Candice writes. Pitching synopses to her editors and getting the book picked up based on the successful pitches.

It's a great idea. My problem is that by the time I've got the plot outline done, the actual writing isn't all that interesting to me. And fleshing the characters out more fully in the writing process, I find them doing all sorts of things that deviate from the outline. It's exciting and fun, but it sort of defeats the purpose of outlining in the first place...

Wordy post. I'll go out on a joke:

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Slowing Down to Speed Up

The new work is somewhere between 37,000 and 40,000 words. Hard to tell, these days.
This story's been a real trial. I've had two false starts and multiple 'sudoku moments' before it found its feet.
In the end, I had to slow down to move at any speed at all.
I want to blame the laptop. The bloody thing is quite the window onto the world. It's got the email, minesweeper, various card games and even that interweb the young people do go on about. ;) heckuva lot of ways for a writer to waste time.
Of course, the laptop doesn't *force* me to distraction. I do that all on my own. But putting this nifty gizmo down has been great!
It all started one night. It'd been a busy day at the tattoo shop, and there were still drawings to do for non-needly clients when I got home. By the time I sat down to write, the eyestrain was bad. I was in no mood to stare at a screen, no mood to hear the exhaust fan come on or the processor tick over.
So I picked up pen and paper. The screen resolution on the paper was fantastic, 1200dpi at least! And though the pen was slower than typing, it still wasn't as slow as thinking up what to say, so I was fine there. At the end of the night I had a tidy pile of respectable work in front of me.
And so it began. Three dead pens later, I picked up a 40-odd year old Skater fountain pen for cheap. There's a lovely sensuality to writing with a good fountain pen (not unlike the soft pat and slide of a loaded brush across canvas, but that's another story). And I can refill the pen whenever it runs out.
From time to time I stop and type in what I've written, hence the dubious word count. I do miss the editing tools in Roughdraft, but I'd miss not knowing how this story turns out even more!