June 11, 2009 / 2 Comments

Dodging Bullets

Check it out. Fifty posts and people are still paying attention to me for some reason. Or at least they’re keeping their laughter to themselves…

As I’ve mentioned a few times, there is no trick to writing. No one expects to sit down at the piano and play a concerto, or to jog out on the field and do a five-minute mile. In the same way, writing—not basic middle school literacy, mind you, but the ability to write— is a skill which needs to be learned like any other.

Like most skills, some folks have the knack for writing, some don’t. There are a lucky few who have natural talent and those who have to struggle to produce every line. I can do a few laps in the pool, but no matter how much mom pushed me at a young age I was never, ever going to pose a risk to Michael Phelps. Likewise, I love music and can sound out a few things on a piano, but I just never put the effort into learning an instrument (although I’ve been toying with the idea of taking up the violin)

Y’see, Timmy, there are those folks willing to put in the time and effort to become better at something… and those who aren’t. If anything I’ve said here impresses anyone, keep in mind there’s about thirty years of literary roadkill stretched out in the road behind me. Cliché-filled fanfic, some God-awful sci-fi and fantasy tinged with high school angst and college melodrama, plus at least three versions of that long-lost American classic Lizard Men From the Center of the Earth.

So, with all that being said, I’d like to take a few paragraphs and talk to you about the Warren Commission report.

In 1963, a week after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the newly sworn-in President Johnson ordered Chief Justice Earl Warren to investigate the killings. Warren assembled a group of congressmen and specialists (including future president Gerald Ford) to assemble all the evidence and quash the numerous “conspiracy theories” that were growing.

When the Commission finally delivered their report, it was like throwing gasoline on a fire. One of the most amazing (and still controversial) declarations it made was that a single shot caused all of the non-fatal wounds to President Kennedy and Texas Governor Connally. Critics swiftly pointed out this one bullet would need to change directions numerous times during its flight. Even more amazing, the bullet was miraculously found on the floor in Connally’s emergency room, having supposedly fallen out of his thigh, undeformed and completely clean of all blood and human tissue.

The popular term which developed from this, which you’ve probably heard before, was the magic bullet. A small, simple thing which could defy every bit of common sense yet still somehow produce all-but-impossible, borderline miraculous results.

Many people think to be a successful writer, it’s just a matter of finding a magic bullet. I mean, it can’t actually be that difficult, right? Surely there’s just an idea so clever nothing else will matter and Hollywood will buy it. There must be a certain type of novel that’s selling better than anything else, so then it’s just about doing a tween urban fantasy story over a dark techno-thriller. Some folks believe finding the right tone—perhaps a somber introspective or something in an off-the-cuff conversational—guarantees people will fight for their manuscript.

Alas, there is no such thing.

So, here are a few beliefs you should be actively avoiding…

The special word—Ready to hear an amazing true fact? You can get a Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting just for including the word “mellonballer” in your script. Seriously. It’s an unwritten rule Don and Gee Nicholl set down as a condition of the fellowship because of a high rated episode of All in the Family which revolved around a mellonballer joke. Many people who’ve gotten the fellowship don’t even realize this is how they got it. Honest. I’ve spoken to the fellowship’s director, Greg Beal, twice in person and interviewed him once on the phone. Contact him yourself if you don’t believe me, but expect him to be a bit coy about it. Do you really think I could make up something like this?

Oh come on!!! Of course I made it up. How gullible are you?

The people who read for the Nicholl—just like the readers of any competition, production company, or publication—aren’t looking for some magic word. There is no clever bit of vocabulary that’s going to give you an in, although I can probably guarantee if you use any words incorrectly it will keep you out. The only “right” word you need to worry about is the one that’s right for your story. Don’t worry about anything else.

And please don’t bother Greg Beal by checking on the mellonballer thing. The man’s got enough to do this time of year without fielding any more nonsense emails than he already gets.

The special genre—With the desire to make a sale, it’s not unusual seeing people leaping to follow the “hot” markets. Right now sparkly teenage vampires are hot, yet it seems like only yesterday everyone wanted nubile teenage vampire slayers. When Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code took off, publishers started looking at every other quasi-religious manuscript on their desk.

The problem here is timing. Even if you lunge at that new hot genre, there’s simply no way to get a comedy/ sci-fi/ historical manuscript done, polished, and in front of someone before the trend has passed. None. And if you think you can, you’re probably doing something wrong. So catching this bullet in the shoulder just guarantees a manuscript will either be weak or hit the appropriate desk about eight months after the trend has been declared dead.

Don’t try to follow a market trend. Try to set one. Write the horror/ romance/ faith-based/ mystery story you want to tell and make sure it’s the absolute best one anyone’s ever read. That’s what will catch someone’s attention and make hundreds of others rush to hop on your bandwagon.

The special aesthetic—More than a few folks think the secret is to create “art.” Stories which will be recognized immediately as classics and counted as such for the ages. That deep, over-educated, overwritten sort of art that makes college literary students swoon in the middle of intellectual discussions.

This one’s a double edged sword, though, because a lot of the folks going for this bullet end up taking it in the chest (how’s that for a mixed metaphor?). Often, attempts to create art lead to forced scenes, painful dialogue, and unbelievable characters. Plus, that same art then becomes a blanket excuse to let the writer brush off any comment or criticism their work may get. After all, only the sophisticated and intelligent people are going to understand art. If they don’t understand, it just proves they’re not intelligent and thus not qualified to judge it, right?

As I’ve said many times before– don’t try to create art. Try to tell the best story you can the best way it can be told. Let other people worry about if it’s high art or if it’s going to be the next summer popcorn movie/ bestselling beach book

The special message—Close behind the above bullet (someone’s shooting on full-auto) is the belief a story has to have a deep, powerful meaning. Every element of it should be loaded with subtext. Each line should make the audience rethink their lives. I made a joke a while back about using Jason Voorhees to represent Hamas, and also talked about having very fitting names for characters.

While it’s great to have subtext, though, a writer shouldn’t be fighting to force it in. Likewise, if you’ve come up with a clever metaphor which applies to the catchphrase/ scandal/ fashion of the moment, much like the special genre above, odds are that ship will have sailed long before anyone ever sees your work.

If you feel your work must have a greater meaning, ask yourself a few questions. Do you think it does, or are you trying to live up to someone else’s expectations? Will it still be relevant six months from now, or six years from now? Most importantly, does this greater meaning serve your writing? Or is your writing bending to this greater meaning?

The special people—One of the most common magic bullets you’ll see these days is networking. The belief your writing is irrelevant compared to knowing the right people who have the right jobs. Some would-be-writers spend more time hunting folks down on the internet than they do working on their writing.

Alas, networking is dead. To be blunt, it was stillborn. Any cocktail party, message board, or newsletter which promises you tons of networking opportunities will not offer you a single useful one. It’s one of those things that can only happen by accident, and trying to do it defeats it immediately.

The people you really need to make connections with are the ones who will help you perfect your writing. They’re always out there and you’ll always need them. One person’s honest opinion about your writing is worth more in the long run than twenty forced, tenuous “contacts” made by deliberate networking.

So, there you have it. A handful of things you shouldn’t be spending time looking for. I mean, really, who spends their time trying to get hit by bullets?

Next time (assuming you survive that shootout) let’s take a look at where we are. Or more importantly, where your characters are.

Until then, go write.

Go! There are bullets everywhere!! Go!!!

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