Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Writing with a Purpose - Putting together next year’s plan

Where do you want to be next year as a writer? That’s the question I asked myself last November, and it led me to the most serious career planning I’ve done. Looking back at the people I’ve connected with, the works completed, and the contests and workshops I’ve participated in, I see strong accomplishments.

I’m back to planning, and I’m going to share my process here. There’s nothing absolute about my approach. Take from it what works for you and leave the rest. And, as you develop your plans, limit the time you’ll invest. It is all too easy to get distracted and take too much time away from actual writing. As a rule of thumb, commit to dedicating no more that 1% of the time set aside to this sort of career planning. Intend to spend 400 hours writing next year? Spend four hours planning.

Brainstorm - Who do you want to be as a writer? A novelist who publishes a book once a year? A showrunner for a TV series? A speechwriter? Someone who writes tentpole features? The family memoirist? You get to decide. And dream big. The impossible may become possible or you may come up with an alternative.  My answer was showrunner, which led to plans to create a fiction podcast series, which led to a search for actors, which led to an invitation to join a Web Series writing team. Reach high and be creative. (It might be useful to review my six-part Write Who You Are series.)

Review Your Projects - Some people never have more than one going. I try to keep to one new project and one dedicated revision. But your projects (completed) can tell you a lot about what you like, what you don’t, where you’re strong, where you’re not, and the themes, genres, and media you connect with. Your review (which can include your work in progress, your unfinished works, your completed works and your concepts of interest) will point directly to the content that you should feature in your work and suggests the form (feature film script, stage play, short story, etc.).

Review Your Opportunities - Assignments, spec work, volunteer work, conferences, workshops, contests, and courses all represent specific investments in your time, often with defined deadlines and budget items.

Evaluate Your Options Strategically - If you know where you want to end up, you can form a strategy that includes current opportunities, opportunities that might be created (through education, achievements, and contacts), possible pathways, and areas of exploration. The last is aimed at creatively learning more so the scope of opportunities can be expanded. For me, strategy is more Zen than setting goals. (Just as the Zen archer seeks to master the elements — stringing the bow, nocking the arrow, drawing the string, aiming, etc. — I look toward mastering project selection and concept development and building a synergistic portfolio.) I find scoring options and force ranking them to be helpful.

Evaluate Your Options Tactically - One thing leads to another. Sometimes a collaboration is less about the project than about the relationships. Providing a peer with feedback sharpens critiquing skills, but it also can build your reputation. My whole career got kicked off with a review written for a give-away newspaper. That credit led to others, making me less of a risk for future editors. Again, you may wish to score these options and force rank them, though here the latter will be more subtle. I think of tactical efforts as the mortar between the bricks of strategic efforts.

Make Your Project Choices - By now, a lot of options will be eliminated based on scores and your ambitions. There will still be some that don’t make obvious sense but are alluring. Put all (well, maybe all but one) of these aside. These can be kept in reserve in case you complete your main tasks or they popped up because your intuition was smarter than your brain. In all probability, none of these will claim spaces on your calendars in the near future. A few may find spots in the coming years.

But… now that your list is much shorter, you need to decide what will claim your time in the coming year. It is valuable to have definite criteria for your choices. (It may be useful to review my four-part series on Decision Making for Writers. I recently found the article How to Make a Big Decision, and I recommend it as well.) If you have no other criteria, here are my big three: Payment, Portfolio, and Passion. Well paying projects tend to edge other things off the list. Projects that enhance my writing Portfolio are also prioritized. And Passion? Well, if you can’t do projects that get your juices flowing, why are you writing?

List Your Tasks - There is some real work here. Break down the projects into specific tasks. This means going beyond, say, “rewriting,” to reach details like articulate content in each scene, identify story beats, correct spelling, read text aloud, etc. Tasks, by the way, include writing up loglines and pitches, researching markets, analyzing comparable works, and more. As you go for a comprehensive list of task (and it’s likely many will not occur to you in your first try), estimate the time required to complete each of them. Estimate high. I like to add 50% to my optimistic times.

Build Your Calendar - Block out already committed time from your calendar. None of that is accessible. Then look toward any deadlines in your top priority project. Get these on the calendar and block out the time you need for each task that must be completed before those deadlines. Move onto the second priority project, and do the same. Third, same. Etc. You may find that some projects are undoable (or don’t fit into the year’s schedule). Be flexible. Adjust. But don’t make things impossible for yourself. Triage is your friend.

Identify Triggers - Sometimes you get a yes. Sometimes you get a “please revise.” Sometimes, a credential or a course or a meeting with an influential person is on the horizon. I keep a list of these and add to it throughout the year. Imagined new opportunities can become real and trigger a plan revision (or the execution of Plan B). The more you can anticipate these, the more you can make of them. I blocked out 2018 days for a conference I never made, but I also blocked out days for one I thought would never happen, but did.

Be Generous with Yourself - Life gets in the way. Sickness, unexpected expenses, family duties, power outages, and more can disrupt your plans. So don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get everything done. Life can be like that. In the midst of demands, commit to keeping some writing time to yourself. (I have recommended 15 minutes a day, five days a week to even the most harried and that seems to be both doable and valuable. It keeps you in the game.)

On the other hand, be ready for good things. Consider a stretch goal. Mine that list of alluring projects if time permits.

In my case, some of my plan went away because I said yes to good things I’d hoped for but saw as unlikely and, in some cases, I hadn’t even imagined. It’s not a bad problem to have.

Don’t expect to have everything, no matter how well-planned, go as expected. As Helmuth van Moltke (more or less) said, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Next year’s plan will be better because of the lessons of this year.

The most fundamental advice? Finish something and submit, even if it’s only 1,000 words long.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The Adventurous Mindset - Taking more risks in writing

I love off-the-wall thinking. Brainstorming fresh scenes, turns, and solutions to story problems is always a delight — when I’m assisting another writer. Similarly, I can quickly guide other people toward making good choices when they need to prioritize projects in the face of new projects.

Why is it easier for me to come up with options and give advice to others than it is to determine what I need for myself? A Harvard Business Review article, Why It’s Easier to Make Decisions for Someone Else provides some perspectives on this. In essence, it claims that the mindsets when we are guiding others and when we guide ourselves are very different. And, not surprisingly, those perspectives are tied to risk. I can suggest more adventurous choice for others because I won’t face any consequences. For myself, I’m likely to be more cautious. And I’m more likely to imagine trouble than opportunity.

In addition to seeking safer choices, we tend to drown in information when we’re making decisions for ourselves. As the article states, “Rather than exploring and collecting a plethora of options, the cautious mindset prefers to consider a few at a time on a deeper level, examining a cross-section of the larger whole.”

But success (in terms of satisfaction, achievement, and quality) depends on making bolder choices. I believe this is especially true in writing and other arts, where timid choices suffer by comparison in the competition for attention and engagement. 

Can you give yourself the best advice? Can you make more daring decisions? I think it’s possible and I have several suggestions.

For opportunities:

Choose a fail-early option. Have an idea for a novel? Write a flash fiction story. A nonfiction book? Write an article. In other media, think one-act plays and pilots and treatments. Put small experiments on your pathway to big decisions. And get started early, before you know enough to stop.

Eat dessert first. Philip Pullman writes that dialogue is intrinsically easier to write than description because the inspiration is already in the form of words. Characters talk, while a clear vision of a locale in a story must be translated into language. If this is true for you, do an easy part of a project before plunging in. Write some scenes just in dialogue. And don’t feel obliged to create a complete outline or to write in sequence before exploring a project. Write the scenes that easily come to mind and see if they engage you.

Get out of your comfort zone. Do some work on a project you have no business doing. Write from the point of view of someone who is different from you. I rarely watch horror, much less write it, But recently, I took are course on horror and wrote my own story. It was not pleasant, but it pushed me into new territory, and what I learned found its way into a new story that was more to my liking.

For your story rewrites:

Let the story sit. Stephen King recommends this. Being too close, attachment to cherished words and scenes, and having too much in your head, gets in the way of being daring. Distance can add a level of objectivity, so, even though you may not be able to give advice to yourself as boldly as you would to someone else, it’s not as frightening to imagine changes.

Go back to your logline. A good logline reveals the heart of your story. In the actual writing, it’s possible to drift away. It’s also possible to be so driven by one version (and its logic) that great opportunities are missed. So I try to come up with five scenes (describe in 2-5 sentences each) implied by the logline that never got written. I don’t insist these five fit the story in the draft. I do insist they tantalize me.

Tell your story in “big animal pictures.” Before you look back at your project, write a synopsis (no more than four pages) that tells the whole story in a compelling way. This probably will indicate strengths you can emphasize, while also freeing you from less vital parts of the story. In other words, you’ll know what to keep and what is expendable.

Explore models. You got your draft done. Now think about the comparable stories that are out there. Read at least one (three is better), and see how these take chances you haven’t taken. Come up with 5-10 scenes that might explore your story in ways the other authors would have.

Engage with your theme. This is probably the toughest. Articulating the theme is often difficult and may leave you with something that sounds less interesting than you’d like. (I’ve found the most success when I’ve identified and explored the story’s pivotal scene.) But it often suggests opportunities that have been missed — both in terms of pushing the story into scary spaces and in terms of cutting wonderful but unneeded scenes.

In addition, I’ve found it helps not to take things too seriously. I tap into my sense of humor and brainstorm ridiculous scenes and imagine spoofs of my story.

I haven’t mentioned draft-stage exercises (except by implication with the opportunities). Because there is less information during the early creative process, I believe it is easier to be more daring. And not much is at risk because the investment in ideas and drafted pages is low.

Overall, I suspect just knowing fear and too much focus on details can hold you back may be enough for some people to explore bolder moves. The article also makes suggestions (including imagining what advice someone else would give you), and these might be worth exploring in your own way.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Understanding Power 4 - The character falls

Nothing demonstrates a change in power more than a scene or a sequence of scenes where a character loses power in a big way. The boxer gets knocked out. The spy's identity is revealed. Boy loses girl.

Scenes and sequences that involve loss of power can be among the most memorable in a story. And, though they are often near the end, they may be earlier on.

In The Natural, near the beginning, Hobbs is at the top of his game when he gets shot.

In It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey finally has the girl and a fistful of money for travel, and there's a run on the savings and loan.

One of my favorite examples is from Jerry Maguire. Jerry (played by Tom Cruise) believes his new concept in sports agenting will bring the profession to a new, more humane level. He is so convinced by his insight ("The answer was fewer clients. Caring for them, caring for ourselves, and the games too."), he writes up a new Mission Statement ("THE THINGS WE THINK AND DO NOT SAY"), prints it up in the middle of the night, and distributes it to everyone in his firm. Then he questions the wisdom of his actions, but it's too late to call the manuscript back. Still, it looks like success, like a high point. His peers applaud him. Then a hint: just for the audience:

AGENT # 1 How long you give him?
AGENT # 2 Mmmm.  A week.

More hints follow. Until he's fired. And he fights back. And loses with almost every client he has. And turns off the lights to his office. And keeps falling.

As I looked across these and other examples, I found some commonalities:

The protagonist is generally at a high point at the beginning. Full of power and confidence. (It's an illusion or an incomplete perspective.)

Then, there usually are hints of trouble that are not seen or are ignored. Those hints comes from the larger world in some way (experience, bigger network, larger concerns at play).

There often are opportunities to limit the damage, and the protagonist charges forward ignoring them. Often these headlong rush into disaster is driven by flaws or a distorted virtue (like overwrought duty).

Finally, though it might be anticipated by the audience, the disaster blindsides the protagonist, and drags him or her down. The loss of power is great. The loss is unbearable.

Looking across, I often find what I call the Big Fish in Small Pond Syndrome. The protagonist sees his power relative to a very narrow worldview. The fall is connected to a larger world (or Pond) asserting itself.

Not every big loss of power scene follows this exactly, but it may be a useful template to use as you analyze a scene like this for your own work.

Here are a few questions that might be helpful, too:
  • What is the protagonist's obvious power?
  • Why does he lose it? (Bad reading of the land? Betrayal? Blinded by arrogance?)
  • How is that power lost? (Consider step by agonizing step in your scene or sequence. There should be at least three steps.)
  • Is the loss emotional for readers?
  • Is it convincing?
  • What is the power that matters to the story as a whole?
  • How quickly should this fall happen? (Is it more effective stretched out? Sped up?)
As I alluded to, there is usually a big power loss toward the end -- the black moment for the protagonist. Often, there is a gain as the happy ending is realized. In both cases, some of the ideas here might help you to improve the scene or sequence. And, since almost all scenes include some sort of power shift, you can use these ideas and questions as tools to figure out how to make scenes that aren't working (or are just weak) better.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Understanding Power 3 - Power corrupts (characters)

I’m fascinated by corruption. The Godfather shows a sympathetic, promising young man who becomes the ruthless leader of a criminal enterprise. Citizen Kane shows how a clever, idealistic boy transcends his loneliness to change journalism and then yields to temptations that overwhelm him. An eagle scout studies chemistry when racism forces him to abandon his quest for a PhD. Instead, he dedicates himself to leading the fight for Civil Rights, becomes a successful mayor of Washington, D.C. and then gets caught up in drug abuse (Marion Barry).

The essence of corruption is power revealing a character flaw. Power acts as an amplifier, opening up him or her to new or bigger temptations and/or giving the character the opportunity to get away with harmful behaviors. The amplifiers could be physical power or skill (think of star athletes), wealth, charm, authority (as in politics), information (secrets, knowledge), allies, or anything else that could give a character an advantage. Note that any of these might be used for good, for evil, or for both by the character. Also, the power need not be absolute. It can be relative. A ten-year-old bully is not apt to dominate a town, but he can easily dominate those in fourth grade or younger.

As with the opening examples, a whole story may be built around power leading to corruption. Some great tragedies and wonderful villains can emerge when the whole arc is explored by a writer. Once you, as a storyteller, recognize how corruption might transform a major character in the tale you have to tell, you can find those moments, often small decisions, that make the victory of evil inevitable. It is these scenes that can make or break your story. While the larger arc may make a great logline, it is the small compromises that engage readers emotionally.

One of the best choices is getting the readers to sympathize when they probably shouldn’t. For instance, a bullied kid might get justice at last and have readers cheering. Taking that a half step further, tipping it into revenge or an out-of-proportion punishment of the bully is likely to keep the readers on the hero’s side, pulling them along as co-conspirators until things begin to go out of control.

Balancing good choices with small bad choices that add up (or slowly escalate toward evil) provide a seductive pace that can lure readers into deeply problematic situations. But attention must be paid to justifying bad choices, either to balance a grievance or because allowances seem fair (the character is so good, the rules really don’t apply or the vice makes up for noble sacrifices).

Here’s something I’ve found to be most effective. Look for change in power in a scene, where your character (usually the protagonist) is on the winning end. And have the character respond to that win by using the new power in a way that crosses a line — slightly, early in the story and grossly, later in the story. In other words, build slowly so it feels authentic and a little unsettling. Do it right, and you may create as powerful (and corrupt) a character as Walter White in Breaking Bad.