Normally, on the entry before Valentine’s day, I try to post something about ways to effectively use love as an element in stories, or at least sex. The thing is, I haven’t really had any clever thoughts on these topics in the past year (well, not about writing it, anyway). Rather than bore you all with a straight repost—or a thinly-reworded one—I figured I’d just put up a few links to the old stuff and move on with something new.
February 9, 2012
October 6, 2008 / 2 Comments
Some of you engineering types (there may be one or two out there glancing at this) may recognize this little rant’s title. It’s an old, simple rule—Garbage In, Garbage Out.
This rule has been around for centuries in dozens of different forms. You get what you pay for. You are what you eat. People have known for ages that what you put into something has a direct result on what comes out.
And yet, so few people follow this rule. Many admit it’s true, but think it doesn’t apply to them. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen film producers “save” money by hiring untrained, bottom of the barrel crew members, then get upset because these people are doing untrained, bottom of the barrel work. Worse, then they have the gall to be surprised when it results in a bottom of the barrel film.
Closer to our end of things, I’m stunned how many people who call themselves writers all but brag about the fact that they rarely read– or don’t read at all. I saw one fellow online proudly announce “Real writers don’t have time to read.”
Truth is, real writers have time for almost nothing except reading.
You have to read. You must have input. There is no other way to be a writer. If you don’t take it in, how can you expect to put it out? If you want to be a writer and have to make the choice between a night out with friends, watching the killer NBC Monday night line up, taking in the new Quentin Tarantino flick, or getting caught up on the next Gaunt’s Ghosts book by Dan Abnett, there shouldn’t really be a choice at all.
Your whole body needs to hunger for words.
The sentences of John Steinbeck should be the best steak you’ve ever had, the phrasing of Ray Bradbury like a fine wine. Finish it off with a little King or Gaiman for dessert, and maybe some McCarthy as an aperitif. Classic stories by Burroughs, Lovecraft, or Dickens should be that rare vintage you’ve pulled from the cellar for a special occasion, to be savored on the palate for their unique taste, never to be made again.
Are you looking more at screenwriting? Consider the classic, subtle wordplay of Casablanca or The Day The Earth Stood Still (the original, please). Study the damned clever structure of Scott Frank’s Dead Again or Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. Find some scripts by Shane Black (screenwriter of Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) and see how much fun they are to read.
Now, there’s another important reason you need to keep reading. No one’s interested in what’s already out there. So your book idea about a little boy discovering he’s a sorcerer is neat, but J.K. Rowling beat you to it. Sorry. Television show about a lawyer getting visions from God? Done. Funny and action-packed film about a millionaire inventor who builds an armored battlesuit to fight injustice? Man, you just don’t get out much, do you…?
You need to read because you need to stay abreast of what’s out there, what people are looking for, and where your work lines up with current trends. A few more examples…
Behold my cool new idea for a series of linked stories about thinking robots. They dream, paint, and run for office. But they can never go bad or run amok, because their neutronic brains are hardwired with three rules that govern all their thoughts actions. I call these Pete’s Three Rules for Why Robots can Never Go Bad or Run Amok.
Behold my cool new idea for a feature film, about a computer programmer who comes to realize everything he knows is essentially a giant video game he’s trapped in. It turns out that in the real world humans are slaves to machines, and some people are actually just other programs interacting with the game. But a group of rebels have found our hero, and teach him how to hack into the game like they do. I call this one Trapped in Evil Marioland! Yes, the exclamation point is part of the title.
Behold my cool new idea for a novel. It’s about an art historian who discovers secret messages left behind by a Renaissance artist, and finds himself in conflict with the group trying to protect those secrets. I call it The Cipher of Michelangelo.
What? All been done you say? Are you sure? I thought they were pretty original… I guess I should’ve read more stuff…
Okay, what about a film where a little kid discovers the girl next door is a vampire? Two friends decide to make a porno movie? A has-been wrestler takes a last chance in the ring despite a heart condition? What about a remake of Omega Man?
Wait, wait… books! An unjustly imprisoned man escapes, takes on a new identity, and swears revenge on the people who framed him? An interdimensional cowboy assembles a team to travel to a dark tower that’s destroying the universe? Two friends in the ‘40s create a wildly popular comic-book character? A meek governess falls in love with her employer, but finds out his crazy wife is held prisoner up in the attic of their secluded home? Dracula squares off against Sherlock Holmes? A young man is sworn to vengeance by the ghost of his recently-deceased father?
Nope. All been done. Every one of them.
This doesn’t mean you can’t try to tell those stories, too. But there better not be any overlap, and yours better knock the ball out of the park. If not, though… don’t be surprised when your manuscript ends up in that large pile on the left and not the small one on the right.
So get off the internet and get back to writing.
Or, at the very least, go read something.
July 8, 2007 / 1 Comment
So, now you’re writing. Good. It may have been a slow, arduous process to get started, but you’re putting words on paper (or on an electromagnetic memory bubble) and that’s the important thing. You’ve got forward motion and momentum.
The question now is, how can you make sure you don’t lose that momentum? How do you make sure that you keep writing, and this doesn’t become a scattered, every- third-weekend activity? Well, this problem was covered in your driver’s ed class. The simplest way to keep moving is to make sure you have fuel.
Now, hold on, before we go any farther, let’s pause for a moment so I can explain my one, single, simple rule. What works for me may not work for you and it almost definitely won’t work for that guy over there. That’s one of the most important things about writing– finding out what methods and habits will work best for you. My girlfriend requires near-silence to work, but I usually put some music or a classic movie on in the background (the first draft of this little essay was written during The Day The Earth Stood Still). I also dislike too much input once I’ve got the idea in my head, while my friend Eric writes best working with his wife, Trish. I’ve read that Stephen King works mostly in the morning, while Neil Gaiman writes almost exclusively at night (but I’ve never met either gentleman, so that could all be a pack of lies I just made up to round out this paragraph).
In the end, if anyone (including me) gives you a rule for how you have to write, take it with a grain of salt. If they tell you this is absolutely the one and only way the process of writing can take place, have a whole spoonful of salt. Writing is a very personal, individual process, and all any of us can do is suggest what works in our own day to day lives to keep us at it. One of your jobs as a writer is to sift through all the hints, tips, and suggestions you hear and figure out which ones work for you.
Which brings us back to momentum and fuel. The simplest law to follow is the basic input-output rule we’ve all heard since our school days. What goes in influences what comes out. In order to write, you must read. And if you want screenplays to come out, you have to put movies in. Good movies and bad movies, screenplays and scripts, movies in your favorite genre by your favorite director, and movies you’d never watch by people you’ve never heard of.
Now some of you may be like my downstairs neighbor, the Vamp. She wants to write a book, but she’s not really into reading. She’s still pretty sure she can write a best-seller, though. If this also describes you, ask yourself this– if you don’t love watching movies, or if you hate reading scripts, how can you possibly hope to write one?
So, that’s what you need to be doing. Read scripts, watch movies, and study them with a passion. Where you can, read the screenplay and watch the film. Find the best movie you can think of in your chosen genre, examine it, and figure out what it does right. Why is he or she your favorite character? What makes this your favorite scene? Why do people like this film?
Now, once you’ve done that, watch the worst movies you can find and pin down what they do wrong. Yes, anyone can say “it just sucks,” but can you identify specifically what needs to change with the story? Watch the whole movie (not just a random scene or two) and track problems that plague the script. If you got hired for the remake, what would you change?
This is one of the hallmark skills of a good writer. Most of us can tell that a scene works, but being able to tell why things work in a scene is a separate skill altogether. How often have you seen a screenplay copy a scene from another film without really understanding why it worked originally?
Oh, and before you start downloading or running to the Writer’s Guild Foundation to read scripts, here’s one more additional tip. Don’t read screenplays from thirty or forty years ago and use these as your golden standard. Styles change; formats change, and while
So, now that you know what fuel to use, go forth and stoke your fire. Give yourself the energy to keep moving forward on your projects. And keep writing. Above all, you must write.