Thursday, October 28, 2010

John's Thoughts about NaNoWriMo, and NaNoWriMo John-style

November is NaNoWriMo, which is the month when all the writers, pretend-writers, wannabe-writers and folks who want to use the internet for more than masturbation and piracy (as if such a thing is possible?) to churn out a novel in a month.

It's a great idea. It's a great idea in the same way that eugenics could be a great idea in the Sims. Put out a novel in a month? Isn't that what every writer dreams about as they sleep near their keyboards? Isn't that what the sugar-plum fairies of syntax dance about?

But we're just talking about the idea. Not the practice. I know why people don't talk about the practice of writing a novel in a month. I didn't realize it for a long time, and even worse, I was afraid to admit it for a long time.

The reason why so few people talk the act of writing a novel in a month is that it's hard work, and a lot of people lack the talent to do more than craft a slightly above-average story, not a novel.

And "novel" is a misleading word anyway. It conjures up published books we can grab on Amazon or off the shelf. And that's not the case here. It's a few thousand words that sit in a little box on the internet (not unlike this blog). And, just like this blog, it's not screaming "four book deal! With movie rights!". No, this is just an exercise, a big way to get people writing.

My problem isn't with writing. I like when people write. I find it to be a satisfying activity. But the difference between "writing" and "writing a novel" is that you need the three things Elizabeth George talks about: Discipline, Talent and Imagination.

NaNoWriMo is a nice idea, and it meets that Imagination criteria. But those other two elements? I think they went out for lunch. There's not enough discipline. You can hang out with writers, go to write-ins, and then copy your words into that little internet box.....and then what? Wait for December 1 to go back to slacking off? NaNoWriMo is a discipline cocktease. It may take 30 days to craft a habit, but those 30 days require a pretty stiff schedule with deadlines. I don't see NaNoWriMo swinging the mighty hammer down on people who trot out prose for a month. Usually, this is because "it's supposed to be fun". Yes, it is fun. But do you know what's even more fun? Making a career out of writing. Putting together a schedule at a job where you're your own boss, you spend your days writing and your nights happy. And...NaNoWriMo dangles that dream in front of Susie Homemaker and Billie the Unemployed without showing them what's behind the curtain of hard work.

Also gone is the talent, and it's not really gone, I should qualify that idea. It's not gone, it's drowned. It's lost in a sea of average writing, written by people who think they're in the upper 2% of the talent pool because some Mormon chick wrote a BS story about surrogate perfect love and raped the language for four books and films now.

Hi, this is reality calling. Not all of you are going to survive this Darwinian exercise. Writing is tough but fun (I had a professor once say it's like having sex while hang-gliding) but the fun increases proportionally to your talent. If you need to brush up on your grammar and your style, don't expect a circus if you need to spend hours learning not to split infinitives and clarifying your pronouns. But, once you get through the boot camps of grammar and structure, you're free to be a lethal commando of the language, dispensing adjectival and predicative death from the printed page.

So, if you're going to crack open the laptop for 30 days and write your little story, go for it. Just remember, if you want to get it on shelves, you need to treat every month like NaNoWriMo. And you need talent.

Let's get past this. Let's build our own NaNoWriMo. One where we know we have talent and skill and don't need some jackhole you've never heard of giving you the rah-rah speech when you get stuck at the end of a rough week.

I present you with NaNoWriMo, John-style, also called Just Write the Fucking Thing, version 1.5

Here by thy commandments:

1 Thou shall write AT LEAST 6 pages a day, where at least 4 of those pages aren't dialogue where you sprinkle forty words on a double-spaced page.
2 Thou shall write these pages IN ADDITION to doing all the planning and development simultaneously. None of this "spend the first week scratching out notes." Sorry ladies, learn to think on the fly.
3 The minute thee hesitates, pauses, or swears you're going to come back to it later, thou shall add an additional 2 pages to that day's requirement. And then for every further procrastination, tack on an additional page.
4 Thou will either count hours writing OR count pages written. NOT BOTH. And thou will track these hours everyday and email them to your friends. (There's still time to make a friend if you need to, or email me.)
5 Thou shall spend 30 to 45 minutes MINIMUM A DAY reading. Not your own work, and preferably not even work within your own genre. I like to use lunch hours for this.
6. Before the end of the month, Thou shall find a writing group and join. If you're already a member, you'll attend and put forth your best effort as a member of those groups. (Tomorrow or later tonight I will post about how to find a writing group) You will get this 30-day novel critiqued. There's no way around it.
7. Thou will NOT compare yourself to other writers, authors, agents, editors, writing people that you know.
8. Thou shall not cheat and either pay someone to write for you, or ask for help. If you do, you're a sucky person. And you have cooties. And you're lame.
9. Thou will NOT spend undo amounts of time considering your "voice" or your "genre" or your "platform" - your sole purpose is TO WRITE.
10. Thou shall make no excuses for your writing. It's a binary decision - either do it and do your best at it, or shut the fuck up about it and go take up knitting or interpretive dance.

Bonus commandment 1 Thou shall not be a coward, and stop writing halfway through the month because "it's too hard." Man up nancy.
Bonus commandment 2 When faced with a choice (either for yourself or your characters) between safety and adventure, thou shall always choose adventure. Always.

So let's look at the math.

At least 8 pages a day for 30 days is 240 pages. And if you want to gripe about how you can't do 8 pages a day, you can easily do 8 pages if you're passionate. Spark up your imaginations, stop being a puss, kill your excuses and do it already. Or go away. So, you've created AT LEAST 240 pages...a short novel, but you can tweak it later for the remaining 60 to 75 or so later.

I should point out that it's 240 more pages than you had last month, and it's quite a feat to go from 0 pages a day to 56 at the end of a week. If you're like me, you consider 100 pages to be the first benchmark a story has to break, so in 2 weeks, you're already over the benchmark.

There are some people who I doubt have the talent to pull this off. There are some people I doubt have the discipline to finish. There are some people who I doubt have the imagination to get started.

Either do it or don't do. Don't treat NaNoWriMo the way these casual blase writers do, don't trot it out once a year like you spend the other eleven months working on your opus.

If you're going to do it, commit, and apply every bit of brainpower and knowledge you have. If you're not, then no worries. If you're on the fence, make up your mind and ask yourself how long you're going to remain the sort of person who dreams about getting things done and when you'd like to start being the person who actually makes their dreams come true, one word at a time?

Just write the fucking thing, write as if your life depended on it.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A snippet of some Character notes....

I've been teaching some Character construction elements...and here's November's contribution.

Character 201 - Three Good Traits of an Action Hero/Heroine
We begin the second tier of Character development by looking at more specific types of heroic characters. We will assume knowledge and familiarity with the six points Character 101 and may reference them regularly. We start with the Action hero/heroine.

I first must define the Action hero/heroine, NOT as the protagonist of the Action genre, but by the character-derived label and redefine the character as such:
The Action hero/heroine is that main character which undergoes an internal transformation due to external actions or consequence.

The key element here is “internal transformation due to external actions”, because the action-oriented character is driven to be a certain way (his internal philosophy) due to circumstances in his life.

Below I identify three traits that adhere to the definition given above –
1. If the external actions occur prior to the reader/character relationship, we are often told about those actions either through flashback or dreams, but in any case, the information is given to us through exposition, not dialogue. So Trait One of the Action Hero – Exposition/Narration reinforces the present philosophy.

2. If the external actions occur during the reader/character relationship, we see the starting-state of the character to often be divergent from the proposed philosophy. Trait Two of the Action Hero – The character experiences an upward or downward character slope overall, not a sine-wave.

3. The Action Hero is more than the sum of the problems, but is known for how he handles a particular problem, one that the audience is often referenced to or hears about secondhand in exposition. Trait Three of the Action Hero – The past plays an important part for the hero, but the reader is only given full access to the present. Any past at all is lensed through the perspective of the Hero at the time.

Let’s identify each one in-depth
Trait 1 Exposition/Narration reinforces the present philosophy – Whatever the character is experiencing presently in the story (I mean presently as whatever page the reader is on, not the specific tense), is going to reflect, demonstrate or be expressed through the character’s philosophy.
If the character is hard-boiled, with a dislike for women, then the experiences with women (should and) will show this. In the first-person, the narration should not to outright say “this is how I feel about X” but that feeling about X should be able to be picked up by the reader without too much effort or too great an inference.
Granted, we want this character to grow and arc through the story, even in the slightest margin, so over the course of the plot, and as consequence or by-product of his actions, the philosophy will change, and as a result, the nature of the character changes. This change need not be some massive Freudian accomplishment, it can instead be something simple or even the start of change, but change will occur and it will result in a changed character.
A character that lacks change can still be heroic in nature, but if the character does not change, then the story and the plot may not hold sufficient challenge as to clearly test the character. Remember: at the very least, the character is tested. It’s hard to be heroic when you’re not breaking a sweat or risking anything.
Trait 2 The character experiences either an upward or downward trend, not a sine wave in terms of progression. I refer here to the character arc, and in its largest, story-wide setting, not the individual chapter progression (if any is written or plotted). What I am discussing here is an overall trend in film, and how to avoid it in writing – in film now, the focus is on the average, or slight average character discovering extraordinary circumstances (like having to fight the seven evil ex-boyfriends or having to travel across country to woo the woman he loves), these are “safe” characters, as their character arcs are clipped – the character sits within a wide z-score, the sweet spot of the bell curve so that the character’s low moments “aren’t so bad” and the high moments “aren’t too unbelievable.” A character like this is neutered, jacked up on Thorazine and is only compelling in situations or saved by single lines of dialogue. This character development is a recent evolution and goes as follows:

80s nerd -- Had to face the jock (usually) and overcome adversity to get the girl

90s nerd -- Had to survive a series of trials (get into college, fight the preppy kid, pass math) in order to be “good enough” to get the girl. The girl is no longer the reward for accomplishment, it becomes a meritocracy, and the hero has to jump through hoops to get what he wants.

Current nerd -- The character’s negative traits (shyness, anxiety, virginity, etc) are amplified and exaggerated so that the character is heroic in name only. There is no profound in the character, the traits do not wither or recede, and it seems as though the events happen despite the character’s faults.

In short – the character is no longer tested, and by definition is the hero of the story, but not a heroic character.

Trait 3 The character is known for how he handled one problem in the past, but furthers his “legend” in the current story. This is most true in the Action/Adventure genre, when past exploits are often mentioned by secondary or tertiary characters as a way of demonstrating how badass the main character is. While this is not always true of main characters (especially for fish-out-of-water or young characters), there are invariably a number of heroic leads this can apply to. In fantasy, it’s the all-powerful wizard or warrior who assists the main character. In detective stories, it’s backstory, how the detective managed or bungled one case and it’s labeled him a success or failure. The “legend” is usually only broken out to educate the reader, and is often poorly done in dialogue. If the legend can be told in part, or told through a particular point of view, it’s far more effective and compelling, without “giving too much away too soon”.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A link elsewhere...but it's really good.

I saw this via StumbleUpon (a total timesink that is occasionally indispensable).

75 books every writer should read

This will replace the majority of my reading list(s).

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Musical Interlude

I share this with you:


Flashbacks are the most often used crutch by writers looking to expand their particular story without moving the chronology or pace forward in real-time. They are a convenient way to shoehorn a lot of information into a short passage of time. They are also a convenient way to explain things that may be considered too abstract or too vague in another form.

However, because they are a crutch, they are open to abuse. And abuse of flashbacks comes in several flavors, a few of which are described below.

The flashback is tangential and almost irrelevant to the present moment – Any flashback that has its start based on a small item and then diverges greatly from that item can be seen as tangential. (For example, in soap operas, flashbacks start when a phone rings, but within the flashback itself, the phone ringing is a wrong number or completely inconsequential to the nature of the flashback). Just because an event occurs both in the present stream of the story as well as within the confines of the flashback DOES NOT make that event relevant enough. As creatures of habit, characters have many events occur regularly (they eat, sleep, talk, etc) so making the jump from the present-moment to the recalled flashback through a regular occurrence is vague and erodes the importance of the flashback. Don’t believe me? Imagine I’m trying to describe to you some intense memory, perhaps the time I fell down a flight of stairs, and I start the description with something to effect of, “When I fell down the stairs, I was breathing, just like I am now…”

Having too narrow a tangent makes the bridge to the flashback weak, and does not imbue a great deal of confidence in the information gained by them. It can lead to a scene or information feeling forced into the story, as if you realized too late you had to include material or explain something.

Likewise, when the flashback is too obvious, the information gained is also seen as disingenuous and unnatural. This is the reverse of the above situation. More often than not, the flashback in this case is a memory, usually cued or started with an object, often a photo or sound. When the guy sits at his desk and stares at the picture of his dead wife, naturally we have an expectation that we’ll then be whisked away to a particular scene, to show that he does love his wife and he was happy then, but dammit now he’s miserable without her. This spewing of vacuous cliché does not show any quality as a writer, other than the fact that you too can sound completely boring and elementary.

Yes, there are many great ways to cue memories and to then use those memories as tools for growing insight and information, but do you have to use all the same tools as the person next to you?

Consider please for a moment that instead of the picture of the wife on the desk…..

· The smell of burnt coffee reminded him of a time when she burnt his coffee
· He stared out the window and saw a shadow pass by, surely it was a bird, and not the shadow of a woman plummeting 40 stories to her death exactly the way his wife did?
· He bent down to tie his shoe and heard the sounds of heels clicking on the floor, the way his wife did just before she left to go out to the theater.

There are multiple and innovative ways to segue from the present moment and introduce expansive information, please make an effort to keep your approaches new.

There also exist rules of flashbacks, as in structure that must be followed for a flashback to work properly. They are detailed below:

1 Flashbacks must be closed loops – A flashback is essentially a scene within a scene, and must possess a beginning, middle and end unto itself, and must clearly conclude before the present-moment may resume.

2 Putting a character into a flashback, making them remember, must remove that character from the present-moment-action – No character in the middle of remembering their pet dog will be consciously aware enough to be able to avoid the assassins chasing them down the street. Once engaged in a flashback, once that memory is cued, that person doing the remembering is INCAPABLE of acting within the present, as all their faculties are tied up in remembering and to some extent recalling, the past.

3 Flashbacks are character relevant – Unless there are shared experiences, telepathy or supernatural forces at work, Character A cannot recall the flashback of Character B in exactly the same way Character B could. Even if A was right next to B at the moment the event occurred, their memory of it MUST be from the perspective of A.

4 Not all dreams are flashbacks – Those dreams that are predictive in nature or that foreshadow, are not technically flashbacks. Flashbacks deal specifically and only with the past. Whenever the future enters into it, it’s foreshadowing, which will no doubt be discussed later.

Flashbacks fail when they do not naturally, natively or seamlessly impart new information or understanding about existing information. Flashbacks fail when they come when we expect them, and when they rob us of the emotion of the present moment.

Remember, a flashback freezes the thinking character and the audience out of the present moment. So, if a character has a flashback of his family in the middle of a war scene, when the flashback ends, we’re smashed hard into the battle. Either the line between present and flashback must blur somewhat or the audience is in for a jarring reconnection with the present.

Practice with them. Keep them small, and ration the information you give out in them. Give away too much in a flashback, and the information will be taken as previous character knowledge, and the audience can therefore (rightfully) ask: If they already knew how to do it, why didn’t they?