Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Writing Advice I’d Give My Younger Self 2 — Drafting

In my last post, I covered preparation for writing. Below is my advice for drafting a manuscript.

I often do blank-sheet evaluations of my writing (and my life) by literally covering the kitchen table with a piece of chart paper and scribbling ideas, lists, and figures on it.

This time, I just tried to remember who I was when I first got serious about writing, and then imagine what I’d tell that person if I had the chance. (The naive perspective often breaks away the preconceptions and reveals something fresh and new. Perhaps that the emperor has no clothes.) I formulated my advice without reference to previous posts, but I’ve dug through and found links where they were available. I hope those provide enough to pursue tips of interest for anyone who might need them.
  • Imagine the audience for the work. If possible, think of one individual (not yourself). This will add specificity and make decisions easier.
  • Be extreme. Going too far can be fixed in the rewrite. It’s easier to pull back than to get crazier.
  • Write more than you need. It’s easier to cut than to embellish.
  • For any big project (novel, screenplay), create a list early on (by the third chapter for a novel) of why you MUST finish this project.
  • If it stops feeling fun, find a part of the project that you can enjoy and stick with it for a while.
  • Purposely experiment with at least three scenes you won’t use for each major work. This will force you to look at new options. 
  • Stick to your Work In Progress until you get to “The End.” This means, for five days a week and fifteen minutes each day, text is added to the manuscript, moving it to completion. Don’t quit until it’s finished and you have a story. Even if it’s so bad it makes you squirm. No dithering.
  • Set a timer. It makes a great starting gun for a writing sprint.
  • Don’t rewrite along the way (looping). Get the story out.
  • Find your pivotal scene(s). The climax would be one, but any big scenes (at the ends of acts, ends of sequences) may have concepts that suggest exploration.
  • Know what you need to write the next day.
I have a toolbox of techniques to keep myself writing (switching from typing to speech recognition or pencil, writing scenes in the voice of favorite authors, writing dialogue only scenes, etc.), but I probably would not bring those up to a new writer unless he or she were stuck. Making things too complicated and trying to work with too many ideas at once is the bane of rookie authors.

Drafting is about telling as story you love to someone you imagine would love it just as much. With a lot of forgiveness thrown in.

Next time, I'll look at revision advice for the callow youth I once was.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Writing Advice I’d Give My Younger Self — Preparation

What do I need as a writer? I decided it would be good to know, so I took the perspective of talking to my younger self. I did this in terms of Preparation (this post), Drafting (next week), and Revision (in two weeks), and I decided it might be worth sharing here.

As you look through, you may experience what I did. Some advice, I discovered, is already cooked into my writing habits. In a few cases, the gap between advice and practice needs some closing. Some is more honored in the breach than the observance. 

You might think of this as a menu of possibilities, with lots of opportunity to customize. (I actually printed the list out and annotated it as a step toward incorporating some of these into my practice.) For many, I've added links to provide more details than would fit here.
  • Understand what (4-7 things) you want most as a writer. (For now. These can change later.) Align your efforts to enable or achieve these desires.
  •  Create a short list (3-5) of doable objectives (enter a contest, not win a contest) for the following year in October. Fight through each to the end. Do not worry about missing other opportunities.
  • Build a network. Writing is solo, being a writer is a team activity.
  • Spend more time writing than talking about writing.
  • Budget at least twice the time you think you’ll need.
  • Aim education toward mastery. Own the aspects of craft, one piece at a time.
  • Challenge yourself. Do at least one project each year that scares the hell out of you. Know why is frightens you.
  • Write down ideas in full sentences. Unless applied the same week, sort these into categories. 
  • Choose a project and stick to it to the end.
  • Be exquisitely selective about projects to which time is devoted. Have explicit criteria for choosing these. Know that some of them will not work out, but try to complete them in some form anyway.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Character Relationships 9 - High contrasts

Compare: The curtain goes up. Two middle-aged men in dark suits stand next to each other. Or… The curtain goes up. An ancient woman in a robe and a six-year-old boy stand next to each other.

Which engages your curiosity more? Probably the second. In general, differences and contrasts intrigue us. They promise more in terms of variety and conflict.

Consider: The curtain goes up. One character wears grubbies and a baseball cap. He chews a cigar as he builds a sandwich that spills over a plate. The other is dressed impeccably with a perfect haircut. He dons an apron and tends a Cornish hen in the oven.

You know the audience would already be interested. And you probably recognize this Odd Couple (sort of). Both middle-aged men, Oscar and Felix approach life from opposite perspectives. Which is why it was so much fun when Neil Simon bound them together.

When you create character relationships, especially those where the characters can’t simply move on and find someone less “weird,” you set up situations where conflict arises. It may be that accommodations will be made. Or one character might kill the other one to resolve the situation.

Note: It’s important to bind the character together in a way that the audience accepts. Danny Simon said The Phil Silvers Show worked because the characters could not escape the army, and it lasted for almost 200 shows. The New Phil Silvers Show put the characters to work together in a business, which any of them could escape. It lasted ten episodes.

The first examples demonstrates physical differences. The second, differences in interests and perspectives on life. Contrasts can also come from differences in power, wealth, values, morals, and skills. Flaws and virtues can also create engaging juxtapositions. In fact, powerful stories can be created by comparing these as world views (greedy Potter and generous George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life).

Dramatic opportunities are endless. The writer can have a character moderate a flaw (or a virtue) by taking on approaches of the contrasting character. Both characters might move toward each other. In An Officer and a Gentleman, secondary characters, one too generous and the other too selfish, flame out and that helps the main characters find middle paths. Or, one character can kill (or defeat) the other. 

If there is no contrast, dramatic possibilities are limited. If there is a big contrast, more possibilities arise. Good romances have always demonstrated this, with the guy and the gal separated by an important difference and held together by some plot device. For larger groups, types are often used. I haven’t researched it, but I think Hollywood figured out how to do this with war movies where each soldier in the troop had easily recognized traits. Cowboy movies (The Magnificent Seven, Silverado) created similar teams.

Probably the most recognizable and obviously diverse group in a shared relationship is Star Trek’s crew members. A still photo is enough to see their differences. But the variety of perspectives and concerns, once they move into a story, is impossible to miss. Note that they are all trapped together on a five-year mission, often confined to the bridge of the Enterprise. 

This is not to say that such stark differences are necessary to creating a good story. Think of The Dead Poets Society. Seven of the characters (the ones who comprise the Society) are male, intelligent, students at the same school, white, about the same age, and (eventually) absorbed by poetry. The even dress the same.

It had to have been a challenge to differentiate these characters early on and to find ways to highlight how they helped each other come of age. (Something similar is done with female students in the film, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.) But the writer (who won the Oscar for is work) did it. The contrasts are there, and put to use for drama, but the subtle exposure of the differences is done with power and grace. It’s worth exploring. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Character Relationships 8 - Grand gestures and sacrifices

I’ve written about betrayals in this series, but I haven’t looked at the opposite behaviors — grand gestures and sacrifices. As any fan of romances knows, a grand gesture is the sure proof of true love. The cliche is of the hero (or heroine) running through city streets (or an airport or a wedding party) to make a public declaration of love and commitment. Often, there is an element of humiliation or sacrifice.

A great example of this is Bridget Jones (in the film), who finds her diary open and her true love Mark missing. She runs through the streets in the snow to apologize for her diary entries. Note:  As much as I like that example, please no more running lovers. Provide another task at the ending. Do something fresh. At least have the hero or heroine parachute in as a Flying Elvis (Honeymoon in Vegas).

Sacrifices may appear even when romance isn’t the main point. War movies often include sacrifice sometimes with a soldier giving his life, but often including the loss of almost everyone (Saving Private Ryan) or  the whole team (Glory). Saints give up their lives for a greater good in films like A Man for All Seasons. In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey gives up his dreams to tend to the needs of the community and face down a greedy villain on their behalf. And, of course, in a sort of reverse grand gesture, Rick sacrifices his love in Casablanca, watching Ilsa leave with her husband.

To bring power to a sacrifice or grand gesture, consider these:

Make it big - Though the smaller sacrifices, such as those in It’s a Wonderful Life and I Remember Mama can add up for emotional impact, coming up with something that really matters and shows how a character has grown (like Rick in Casablanca) can be more dramatic.

Articulate the human needs - All sacrifices involve a level of privation. Life itself is lost in many stories, but Bridget suffers cold and humiliation. George Bailey gives up his honeymoon and the experience both a special time with the woman he loves and a taste of life beyond Bedford Falls. The exact loss may be stated directly in the story (and often is since this shows it’s meaningful to the character). But, even if it isn’t made explicit to readers or audiences, the writer should be able to articulate it. Maslow’s pyramid can be useful in clarifying the unfulfilled need.

Choose between public and private - Witnesses may be valuable, especially when a declaration is involved. But some sacrifices are more noble if no one (except the reader) knows about them. Test to see which might have the greater impact.

Motivate - If it isn’t clear to a reader why a hero is making a sacrifice, it can be confusing or even appear to be done out of weakness or masochism. Don’t be shy about showing the motivation on no uncertain terms.

Set it up - Big moments in stories need good foundations. The factual information must be provided so they can be understood. They need the time, steps, and reasons. They also need to be presented in emotional depth, which may demand pacing, setting, and even devices like comic relief.

Explore a revelation - If Bridget Jones wrote her diary entries as a blog posts, the ending wouldn’t work. Instead, it’s secret. And it comes to bite her at the last second, forcing her to reveal her heart without reservation. That doesn’t always work in a story, but it’s worth exploring as a possibility.

Make it consequential - Yes, a sacrifice can fail to achieve anything (which might be used for ironic effect). Or it can be unrecognized. Or partially successful. But it has to matter to the character. It has to reflect something real and important in terms of self-understanding and connect with readers emotionally. It’s easier if there are big consequences (like winning a war) beyond the character, but a sacrifice means nothing if it doesn’t impact the character’s identity.

Tie it to the main plot - Most of the examples above do more than cause a shift in the character. They move the plot forward, provide turns, or even create the story’s climax. If you can do this AND tie in the emotional arc in the same scene, you’ll create something unforgettable.

Make it surprising but inevitable - Make a list of why the character could not possibly make the sacrifice in question. Make another list of why the sacrifice is unavoidable. Play with your lists to make the sacrifice come as a shock but be completely believable.

Lots of stories (usually in novels) attempt to transform or deepen relationships between characters through decisions or insights or realizations. That approach tends to fall flat. Sacrifice in a story is usually compelling and convincing. It makes it clear that the new relationship is earned.

I mentioned that sacrifices and grand gestures are the flip side of betrayals. The list above? You may find it useful to consider if you’re including a betrayal in your story.