January 4, 2011

New Year’s Resolutions

By the time you read this, it might already be 2011. Think carefully on my words, o wise people from the future…

No, wait. It’s definitely 2011. Sorry about that.
And where the hell is my flying car? It’s the future, fer cripes sake…
As is my habit at the start of the year, I’d like to talk for a bit about one of the outer-issues, so to speak, of writing. Normally I try to stick to tips on the writing process itself, but I think it’s good once a year to bring up gurus or networking or one of those elements that has nothing to do with writing, but people are convinced is essential to it.
So, that being said… let’s talk about your New Year’s resolution.
This little rant is really aimed at two groups of people. I’ve mentioned them obliquely here once or thrice. So let me ramble on about them a bit more directly. Or better yet, let me tell you a few stories…
Story the first.
A friend of mine recently lost her job. These days, that’s call for a panic attack, granted, but she kind of lucked out. She actually got a sizable severance package she wasn’t expecting. About three months pay, when all things got added up.
Now, said friend has talked about writing a book for ages, so when I heard this my very first thought was “a blessing in disguise.” Three months pay can be stretched out to four or five months if you live tight, which means at least three months she could devote just to writing. How many people reading this little rant would love such a thing? Three solid months where all you had to do was write your current project?
I said so and my friend agreed, it could be great. But she couldn’t talk for long– she was heading over to a dealership. Y’see, with all this money, she could finally get a new car. Nothing wrong with her old car, mind you. I mean, it wasn’t new. It didn’t have an iPod dock or OnStar or anything. But it was a safe, functioning, fuel-efficient vehicle.
So, new car. Payments. Higher insurance. OnStar fees. Turns out she needed to focus on looking for a new job right away. Yeah, you may argue this is just poor money management. More to the point, though, it really hammered home where writing really sat on her priority list.
How many people do you know like this? They go out to clubs, they see movies, and they go to parties. They spend money on clothes and food and games. These folks insist they want to write, but it seems to be the one thing they never do. Will they give up anything just so they can have a little more writing time? High speed internet? Cable television? Name brand groceries? Dropping any one of these things would mean less expenses, which would mean less time at the day job (or watching YouTube clips) and more time writing.
So if you really want to be a writer, why would you keep doing stuff like that?
That’s the first group. As for the second…
There’s a mentality bubbling that I call special snowflake syndrome. I don’t think it’s anything new, by a long shot. I do think it’s grown in strength because the internet lets these folks get together and talk. If I believe something, and I bump into a stranger or two online who believe the same thing, then it must be true, right?
These folks believe that writing is easy. It’s an art that flows from fingertips easier than water from the tap. It’s a gift to be shared with the world. They’re also loose with labels and definitions. I’ve seen these folks claim you can call yourself a writer if you post on message boards. Or that you’re a successful writer if one person says they like what you wrote.
More to the point, because writing is so “easy,” these people believe they’re all entitled to success, regardless of their skill or effort. They will succeed. Because they’re all special! They expect it the same way most of us expect the sun to rise in the morning and politicians to mudsling during debates. We’d be stunned beyond words if these things didn’t happen. In the same way, the snowflakes just can’t grasp the idea that success may not be in their future. I mean, he succeeded and she succeeded and they succeeded– don’t I deserve to succeed now? My turn must be coming up soon, right?
Y’see, Timmy, the awful truth is that writing is hard work and most of you won’t succeed. No, not even if you know five other people who have. More to the point, you’re definitely not going to succeed if you don’t take writing seriously and put some real effort into it.
Now, if you just want to dabble in writing, that’s fine. We all have a lot of skills and talents we keep on the casual level and never develop. I can do an oil change and rotate my tires. Even once replaced a broken passenger-side window all on my own. But I’m no mechanic. I also dabble in cooking with a fair degree of success, but I’d never dream of calling myself a chef. And I’d never claim I was an artist, even though I sketch and doodle all the time.
Story the second.
In the opening scenes of Scott Frank’s phenomenal script Dead Again, detective Mike Church (who would go on to direct Thor) goes to visit a disgraced psychologist now working in a grocery store (who would, sadly, go on to do not as much). As their talk moves on, the psychologist notices Mike looking again and again at a pack of cigarettes and makes the following observation.
“Someone is either a smoker or a nonsmoker. There’s no in-between. The trick is to find out which one you are and be that.”
“Well, I’m trying to quit.”
“People who say that are pussies who cannot commit. Find out which one you are. Be that. That’s it.”
So here’s my New Year’s resolution suggestion for you. It’s going to sound a bit harsh, but if you’ve been coming here for any amount of time, it’s not for the milk and cookies, is it?
Yep, there’s been milk and cookies this whole time and no one told you.
The point is, do you really want to do this?
I know that may sound like a silly question, but do you? Really?
Are you willing to give up anything for this? Tiger Woods pretty much gave up his childhood to become the greatest golfer in the world by age twenty. Leonardo barely ever left his workshop. Galileo went to prison rather than stopping his work. Do you have that kind of dedication? Do you even want to have that kind of dedication?
Are you calling yourself a writer because you want to write, or because you want to be on bestseller lists or get invited to cool Hollywood parties? Do you want to put words on paper, or are you just looking forward to the results of doing it?
I don’t have cable television. Or high speed internet. My car is fifteen years old (but gets phenomenal gas mileage). I don’t own an iPod, a BluRay player, or any type of gaming system past this laptop.
What I do have is the freedom to write full time. Which I put to very good use, as all the Amazon links on the side can attest to. And I have it because I don’t have all those other things.
All I ask you to do as your belated resolution is to figure out if this is really what you want to be doing for a living. If you can be honest with yourself about this, you will be much, much happier in 2011.
Find out which one you are. Be that.
Next time (if I haven’t driven you away), I’ll be ranting again about writing. Just sitting down and writing.
Until then… you’ve got something to think about, yes?
And maybe some writing to do.
April 30, 2009 / 1 Comment

How Stupid Do You Think I Am?

A pretty loaded question, I know. And I’m sure I don’t want to hear all the answers you’ve got for me.

It’s an important question, though, whether you’re writing books or screenplays. The folks who just bought your new Harlequin Romance aren’t expecting a long lesson about the way colors mix to form new colors. If you’re billing yourself as the next Tom Clancy, the clue “man’s best friend” better not leave half a dozen codebreakers baffled as to what the three letter password is for the doomsday device. Heck, even if you’re hired to pen the new Yu-Gi-Oh movie, you probably shouldn’t spend a lot of time explaining why kids shouldn’t lick stove burners.

Nobody likes to be called stupid, after all. Not even children. Not even stupid people. We all hate being looked down on, being condescended to, or having things spoon-fed to us.

This is why so many people fell in love with the television show LOST, yet so many of these same folks despise the “enhanced” version ABC showed for a while. These episodes now had “pop-ups” added in which explained every single thing occurring on screen. Everything. Every name. Every reference. Every way every point tied back to other things. Now, it’s fun trying to figure out all the various, intertwining mysteries and stories on a show like LOST, but the moment there’s someone walking the viewers through every single one of them—even the ones that just got explained to you a few minutes ago—well then the show’s just become insulting.

Y’see, Timmy, when you spell out everything for your audience, what you’re really saying is “I know you won’t be able to figure this out on your own.” Your characters might not be saying it out loud, but the message is there. You’re too stupid for this—let me explain.

So, having established that nobody likes to be thought of as an idiot, it stands to reason everybody likes to feel smart. One of the easiest ways to make your readers feel smart is to let them figure things out on their own. Triple Academy-Award-winning screenwriter Billy Wilder once said if you let the audience add 2+2 for themselves, they’ll love you forever, and that advice holds true for writers of all forms (except maybe journalists, who should probably put a little more effort into spelling things out).

I’m going to fall back on a favorite example, Scott Frank’s amazing screenplay for Dead Again, also one of the best films Kenneth Branaugh ever directed. If you’ve seen it, you doubtlessly remember the scene when detective Mike Church finally gets to interview the old reporter. And as the octogenarian prattles on, he lets drop one word which twists everything we thought we knew about the story.

The real genius of this moment, though, are the two beats between when he says this word and Church realizes what he’s just been told. There’s just a breath of him brushing off the news as insignificant before it sinks in and his eyes open wide. And why are those two beat so important, you ask?

Because that’s when we figure it out.

The audience barely gets a second, but it’s enough. We get to realize the import of that fateful word just a hair ahead of Church. We figure it out on our own, and we figure it out before him. And even then, Church still doesn’t say what he’s just realized—he just runs out of the room.

A few easy ways to let your audience feel smart, so they will love you…

Know what your audience knows. I’ve talked a few times about common knowledge. It’s stuff you can feel safe assuming everyone knows. Nazis are bad. Jesus was good. Dinosaurs are extinct. The sixteenth president was Abraham Lincoln. The Red Sox are a baseball team. For all of you reading this, you’ll notice I rattled off the words Harlequin Romance, Tom Clancy, and Yu-Gi-Oh without bothering to explain any of them—I know for the folks reading the ranty blog these terms are all recognizable. Knowing what your specific audience knows is the most important part of making them feel smart, because this is what lets you judge what they’ll be able to figure out on their own.

Be smarter than your audience. The ever-quotable Esmund Harmsworth once pointed out mystery editors will toss aside a manuscript if they can figure out who the murderer is before the protagonist does. If you think about it, though, this is true of any sort of mystery, puzzle, or intellectual challenge in a piece of writing. If the writer has dumbed things down to the point of simplicity—or further—who would have the patience to read it? It grates on the nerves, and it makes us impatient as we wait for character to figure out what was plainly obvious twenty minutes ago.

Don’t state the obvious. The late Michael Crichton once explained a writing rule he got from his father. “Be very careful using the word obvious. If something really is obvious, you don’t need to use it. If it isn’t obvious, than you’re being condescending to the reader by using it.” Of course, this goes beyond just the word obvious. Looking at that first tip up above, should you be wasting words to tell your audience Nazis were bad, the sky is blue, or Harvard is a prestigious school? Within your own writing, when Bob finds Cindy clutching a bloody knife with a look of glee on her face, do we need to be told she’s unhinged and dangerous?

Take one step back. When something does need to be explained, we all feel the need to go the distance with it. You don’t always have to, though. Look at some of those explanatory scenes and pull it back to 85-90%. If you take your audience most of the way there, they’ll probably be able to go the rest of the way on their own.

Give them the benefit of the doubt. Every now and then, just trust they’ll get it. Not all the time, but every now and then make a leap of faith your audience can make a connection with almost no help whatsoever from you. Odds are that leap isn’t as big as you think it is. When your audience pulls those slim threads together all on their own, they’re going to love you for it.

So, now that we’ve (hopefully) established I’m not quite as stupid as you all thought I was, perhaps you’d like to stop by next week for a few thoughts on writer’s block.

Provided, of course, that I can just figure out how to get them all down.

Until then, go write.

So, enough with the ranting about only-loosely-writing-related matters. Let’s get back to the important stuff.

A few weeks back I went on about some of the tricks to writing a solid mystery. Today I’d like to talk about mystery’s fraternal twin– the twist.

I say fraternal twin because they look a lot alike at first glance, and share a similar DNA. It’s not uncommon for a mystery to have a solution that’s a bit of a twist. A good twist may also result in a few minor mysteries. They’re two very separate things, though, and each can exist without the other.

A correctly done twist makes a reader say something out loud (what depends on your own personal favorite interjective). It sucks all the air out of the theater as the audience takes one huge, collective sharp breath.

That’s also why it’s always apparent when a writer can’t tell the difference between the two and is using them incorrectly. Which happens far too often, in my experience. I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts that confuse a mystery with a twist, and a twist with someone going “HAH!!” really loud for no reason. If you’re not sure which one you’re doing, or how to do them, things can get ugly (and confusing, and pointless) very fast.

So, let’s stand the two of them next to each other and take a look.

As hinted at before, a mystery is when the main character and the audience are aware that a piece (or pieces) of information has been hidden or kept from them, and the story usually involves the search for that unknown fact. Who murdered Professor Peach in the library with the lead pipe? How did the killer get out of this locked room? What the heck does “Rosebud” mean? How did that ancient mummy come to life, and why is it so eager to get that old coin? At its simplest, a mystery is a question someone in your story is asking and trying to find the answer to.

A twist, on the other hand, is when a piece of information is revealed that your characters and the audience didn’t know was being kept from them. When a twist appears, it comes from out of the blue, a complete surprise to everyone. They don’t even suspect those facts are out there, waiting to affect the story.

That’s part two of a correctly-done twist. It’s very relevant to the story. The fact that I have a mother and father is not really a twist. Neither is the fact that I grew up within a mile of a large amusement park, nor that I like Doctor Who. They are revealed information, yes, but that doesn’t make them twists. This newly revealed information should not only affect everything that happens from here on in, it should also make the audience look back at everything that’s already occurred in a new light. As the term implies, it should twist how they see things. Stories and novels with a well-done twist are great to read a second time because all those earlier chapters take on a different meaning. The same goes for re-watching films that have a great twist in them.

M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense is the usual example of a story with a great twist. While it does meet every one of these criteria, for my personal taste, that twist happens too far into the story. That’s just me, but I’m the one writing this so I get to pull rank. I personally prefer the wonderfully theater-vacuum-creating Dead Again, by genius screenwriter Scott Frank and starring/ directed by Kenneth Branagh. I’m about to spoil it for you to give examples, so if you haven’t seen it you probably want to stop reading. Seriously. Just go watch it first, because it’s a phenomenal story and the reveals will make you scream.

So, two parts for a successful twist—

First, the audience doesn’t know the information is being withheld. In Dead Again, neither Mike Church (Branagh) nor the audience have any reason to wonder who Madson was as a child, so they don’t. I mean, he was just a young version of himself, right, like everyone else was?

Second, the twist changes everything. Once we know little Frankie and Madson are one and the same, every scene takes on a new light. His eagerness to help. The attempts to seperate Mike and Grace. The history of the antique scissors. Watching Dead Again the second time makes for an entirely different movie than the first time you see it.

If you’ve put a twist in your writing, just check and see if it meets these two simple requirements. It’s withheld information the character and the audience are completely unaware of. It’s also a relevant fact (or facts) that changes their perspective of all the story elements that have passed and alters the flow of the story with its reveal.

Two step process. Nice and easy. Feel free to take it on a test drive.

Next week, some important tips from this Nigerian prince who just contacted me. Until then, get back to writing.