Fri, Jun 26, 2009

: Transformers 2

I hated the first one so my expectations were low. I will say this one is better, but that doesn’t mean much. You don’t watch a film like this for the story, but for little scenes of humor or drama, robots, explosions, and of course, Megan Fox. I would have been just as satisfied with 90 minutes of watching her chew gum, frankly, instead of pretending to act, but you know what your getting when you go to a film like this and I got it.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Jun 25, 2009

: Epiphany

Today I finished my novel. Yes, the day Farrah and MJ died is historic for me.

Why is me finishing a novel significant? I have been trying to finish a novel for 20 years. It’s like I’ve been wandering in a desert and finally found civilization (I just hope it’s not a mirage).

A couple months ago I had an epiphany. Really a series of epiphanies (which is why there is no exact date). Like many epiphanies, my revelation seems blatantly obvious in retrospect. But when you’re blinded, it’s tough to see your flaws. In eighth grade I made the decision to be a writer. That was part of my problem. You see, I used the word “writer” and not “novelist.” Yet all I read back then were novels. Novels were what I adored. I loved being able to escape into another world. That was what I wanted to do: create worlds of real people. Yet because I had chosen “writer,” I got distracted. In high school I got into journalism and I wrote short stories, poems, short plays. Later I wrote magazine articles. I wrote lots of things, but no novels. I expected novels would just come. But here’s one of the things I’ve learned: novel writing is about the craft of constructing a story. Really a novel is many stories in one, but so interwoven in terms of plot and themes that it is one long story. Because of that, story crafting is essential. Short stories you can “wing.” Just start writing and see where it goes. If it takes a wrong turn, weave your way back, try something different, explore. Not a huge problem as you’re only dealing with a few thousand words. But with a novel, you end up wasting thousands of pages and years of journeying with that approach. It’s like trying to draw a map in pitch black darkness. You might end up with something, but it probably won’t be very good.

The bottom line? You cannot learn how to write novels by writing short stories.

I used to think that writing had to be done like that. All instinct and no plan. I approached writing the way I approached reading. In reading, a great deal of the pleasure comes from the unknown. Where is the story going? What is going to happen? Will the ogre save the princess? Will he eat the princess after rescuing her? You don’t know. You’re just the reader. But the author needs to know. I see that now. But always feared that if I knew too much about the plot the writing would be boring. I was writing as a reader, and that’s a grave mistake.

Writing a novel is all about story craft. It’s about structure. I used to read wonderful, amazing novels and just be astonished at how perfectly everything worked out. Even novels that had endings that surprised me — one of the major characters suddenly dies, the killer turns out to be the last one you’d expect — the ending seemed to fit in retrospect. Why was that? That’s because the author intended that ending all along. There were hints of that ending throughout the book, so that by the time I got to the end it subconsciously made sense. But how can an author put in those hints, frame the story in that direction, without knowing where he or she is going in the first place? It can be done, of course. The author can go back and insert those references via revision. But it’s a lot more work and I’m not convinced it’s as effective.

Here’s the other problem with “writing from the hip.” You’re doing two jobs at once. Worse, these jobs have opposite agendas and focus. I liken it to golf. What makes golf ridiculously challenging is that it’s made up of two games, long and short. In the long game, power and vision rule. In the short game, it’s all about reading the green and having a delicate touch. Writing a novel is just like that. Structuring your novel is the long game, all about the power of story and long-term vision. The “short game” is putting the actual words together to form sentences and scenes. Those are different skills. They require different parts of your brain, a different focus. It’s impossible to concentrate on two things at once. So how can you play the long and short games of novel writing simultaneously? You cannot. Yet that was exactly what I was trying to do. Now wonder all my novels stopped about 30,000 words in! I had no vision, no direction.

Keep in mind I thought I did. I had a destination in mind. But I didn’t have a path. It was like knowing I needed to go to New York and just starting to walk without a compass or map. What did it matter that I knew New York was my final destination if I was going to take a wild path to get there?

Thus every novel I wrote started off well. I had a basic vision. I had a vague idea of my ending. I knew my main characters. I knew my setting. I was able to write a few chapters and establish the beginning of the story. Then I got stuck. My story ran out of energy because I didn’t know, precisely, where it was going. Worse, I needed to make decisions about the story and I didn’t have the information or the thought process necessary to do that.

I used to make decisions on the fly. I’d get to a chapter and realize I needed another character. “Ah,” I’d think. “My Hero needs a best friend.” So I’d pull a best friend character out of the air and stick it in the scene. Then I’d have to go back and rewrite earlier chapters, to include the new character. Then I’d realize that the best friend character really messed things up plot-wise, as wouldn’t my hero ask his best friend for help in chapter 3? So I’d rewrite chapter 3. I’d end up throwing out 50 pages and starting over. Then I’d suddenly realize that the best friend character really messed with my overall theme of loneliness, that the hero is supposed to be alienated and alone. He wouldn’t be the kind to have a best friend in the first place! And I’d have to go back to my earlier version and of course everything would be in a huge mess by that point, as I’d made other corrections and changes I wanted to keep. The bottom line is that I was trying to make large-scale changes while focusing on the narrow, on just one scene.

Let me give you another example. It’s frightfully easy when you’re writing a scene to throw something in you don’t think much about. You’re describing your teenage hero’s bedroom and you stick a trophy on a bookshelf or a rock poster on the wall. It’s needed for verisimilitude: teens have that stuff in their rooms. But what have you done? By those tiny things that seem insignificant, you’re changing the character dramatically. What’s the trophy for? A sport? You’ve made the character an athlete. Or maybe he’s a spelling bee champion or a debate wizard. Or maybe the trophy’s one of those “everyone who participates gets one” kind of things. Any answer is valid — it’s your story — but my point is every answer changes your character. He’s a different person as a skateboarding winner than as a former chess champ. The same goes with that rock star poster: who is it? Is your hero a Motley Crue or Michael Jackson fan? Or maybe it’s one of those kids Disney promotes as the newest teen singing sensation. The choice of poster says all kinds of things about the era, your hero’s influences, values, dreams and desires, and tastes. You need to think about these things.

Even broader, small aspects of your characters like this have an impact on your plot and storyline. They seem insignificant, but can be crucial. If your hero shows no signs of physical dexterity but saves the day in the end by suddenly revealing that he’s a martial arts expert, your ending will come off as flawed and faked. But if you fill his room with martial arts trophies and Bruce Lee posters, suddenly that ending works.

Again, it is possible to realize this late in the process and fix things via revision, but is that the best way? Isn’t it better to plan?

My flaw was that I always thought of good writing as magic. I couldn’t imagine the world of Narnia being any different from the precise way C.S. Lewis described it. Yet who knows what ideas he originally had that he threw out because they didn’t fit his theme and plot? The reality is that writing isn’t magic. It isn’t all inspiration. It’s a lot of hard work, thinking, and planning. Trying to plan and write at the same time is like using your putting strategy on the fairway. You may get there, but it won’t be quick.

I was terrified that planning would make the actual writing of the chapters boring since I already knew what was going to happen. But do you know what I discovered? It was exactly the opposite. Knowing where the story was going enhanced my writing by a magnitude of ten. Suddenly I knew what I needed to accomplish in the scene. For instance, I might know that the following scene contained death, so I could foreshadow it in this one, with an ominous tone. Without having to worry about the plot, I could concentrate on vivid writing, interesting dialog, etc. Before I was always trying to do two jobs at once: write the words and formulate the story, and the result was that neither worked well.

There’s a lot more to my epiphanies, but this is the crux of it. Separating the planning from the writing freed me from the curse of “magic” writing. Suddenly I could see story creation as pure craft, not magic. I’m still learning, of course. I have a great deal to learn. That’s fine. But I’m no longer stuck. I know how to do it. It’s just a matter of perfecting the craft, now. Every novel I write will be better than the previous. But it’s frustrating to realize that all these years I’ve been struggling to write a novel, I wasn’t even trying to solve the correct problem!

The conclusion to all this is that once I figured this out I was able to set aside my writing and plan out my novel. I planned it out in intricate detail. This particular novel’s a form of murder mystery, so tight plotting is crucial. There were a million tiny details that needed to be figured out so that everything would lead to the conclusions I sought. Nothing could be forced: it had to come naturally from the situations. I thought about the psychology of my characters, how they would react. I thought about their motivations and desires. I worked out real world scenarios. I tested many and threw them out for various reasons. Sometimes they didn’t work. Sometimes they did but introduced other complexities I realized were distractions. Sometimes they just didn’t fit with the theme. In the end, it was difficult. It was frustrating. It was time-consuming and it felt like I was wasting time I should have been using to write. But it was infinitely easier than my old way of trying to figure out the story as I wrote the words. So I stuck with it. I didn’t stop until every detail of my story was figured out. I went over and over it, testing it to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, that the plot worked. When I was satisfied, then I returned to the writing. And an astonishing thing happen.

I wrote.

I mean, I wrote. I pretty much dropped everything else in my life and for nearly two months, I wrote. I hardly saw any films, watched TV, or anything. I was starving to write. I would wake up at 7 a.m. and write until 10, have breakfast, and at 10:30 write until 2-3 and force myself to stop for lunch. Then I’d write until evening. After dinner I would write until 2 a.m. Then I’d be up the next day before seven so eager to write I wouldn’t even shower or put in my contacts, but rush to my laptop and finish another chapter. In three years I’d written 20,000 words of my novel. In the past two months I ballooned that to 74,000 and finished it.

Why was I so inspired? It was because I had a path. I had a structure. I could clearly see where I was going. It gave me focus. The writing itself came easily. I’ve never had a problem forming sentences. My struggle was with the structure and my foolish belief that writing shouldn’t be planned, that it needed to be “magical” and inspired (otherwise it wouldn’t be fresh but stale and boring). Turns out, it’s the opposite of that.

Now I know my process isn’t going to work for everyone. An astonishing number of writers write from the cuff. (I doubt that many are published, though.) Writing from the seat of your pants is a strategy. If it works for you, fine. But it stalemated me for 20 years. Planning is a hard switch and I’m still learning, but I am firmly convinced that the success of your novel (and the ease of writing it) is directly related to the amount of planning you do. Less planning = more work and weaker novel. More planning = easier writing and better novel.

Also note that everyone’s definition of a “complete plan” will vary. I’m still learning mine. For this particular novel, since it involves a murder and police investigation, it was essential that every significant detail be planned. I couldn’t wing anything. I probably still didn’t do enough planning. There were a few mistakes I discovered (and corrected) during the writing and revision process. One of those was something that seemed to be a major hole in my plot — I was terrified it ruined everything. But I came up with a simple and elegant solution, and the novel’s the better for it.

My point about this last is remind you that no matter how much planning you do, there is still plenty of room for inspiration and creativity in the actual writing. I occasionally made changes to small aspects of my plot during the writing when inspiration made me realize things about my characters I hadn’t known. Most of these were significant from the reader’s perspective, but they actually didn’t impact the plot much. They mostly just changed the perspective a reader would have on the plot. That was why they were significant.

So what I am doing with my novel? Well, first I’m having some people read it so I can get feedback. Next, I’ll be looking for a literary agent. This is a highly commercial piece of a writing, a psychological thriller, so I’m confident I will be able to sell the novel. It’s just a question of finding the right agent and publisher, which can take years from what I hear. It also could be the novel has aspects that make it unpublishable. Who knows? I’m too close to the project right now to see it. I’m sure it has first novel flaws, but it still seems better than a lot of books I’ve read. In the meantime, I’m using my newfound knowledge on my next book.

I’m also considering self-publishing it. Not as a permanent solution, but just for fun and perhaps a little bit of profit. I don’t have too much of an interest in marketing it: I want to concentrate on my next novel. I may put up the first chapter on this website if there’s interest. Please post a comment if you’d like to see it.

I’ll keep you informed as to my progress. And I may use this blog to post more “writing on writing.”

Topic: [/writing]


Fri, Jun 05, 2009

: Land of the Lost

I recently caught a replay of this series on the SciFi Channel and I’m glad I did. My recollection of the cheesy 1970s kids show was fuzzy and influenced by my adult standards of acting and special effects. Yes the original show was cheaply made with bad stop motion dinosaurs and horrible green screen effects, but the heart of the show was some quite brilliant science fiction, especially for a Saturday morning kids show. Extremely ambitious and innovative, and not actually that badly done considering the budget and the available technology. So I was looking forward to the film. I pretty much got what I expected. While I’d be interested in seeing a “serious” Land of the Lost film, this one was done as a comedy, and as such it works. It’s fun, entertaining, and utterly mindless. I like the way they changed things but kept them the same. For instance, instead of a dad and his two kids being lost, it’s a scientist, his colleague, and a stranger: the characters all have the same names as the original ones, giving it a familiar but different vibe. In another terrific move, the producers incorporated the cheesy TV show theme song in the film, but thankfully not as the main score, merely as a comic banjo scene. The film does that with a lot of familiar things from the show: what is old is new again. Of course the dinosaurs and special effects are terrific, and in the end you get what you expect: a silly romp with action set pieces and comic gags. My only real criticism is a minor one: there’s some surprisingly adult humor in the film, which I found odd considering the target audience. Many adults who saw the series as a very young children probably assume they could bring their kids and this has some sexual innuendo, a drug scene, gay jokes, and other inappropriate topics. I think the writers could have been more imaginative in their source for humor. But other than that (and the adult stuff is not that bad), I liked the film. It’s mindless and silly, but you’ll laugh and forget about it.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Jun 04, 2009

: The Brother’s Bloom

I have a love-hate relationship with con artist movies. Much of the time they are too clever for their own good, becoming so convoluted they lose any thread of story. Often I’m so aware of being deceived that I give up caring. I feared that in this one, but I’m glad to say that this film, though it treads the line at times, succeeds. The key is what happens at the very beginning, when the younger Bloom brother can’t get up the courage to talk to a girl so his older brother invents an elaborate scam and gives him a role to play. With a script, so to speak, the younger Bloom blossoms, and that becomes their life. Unfortunately, by the time he’s 35, he feels he’s never actually lived, and longs for “an unscripted life.” The script is brilliant: for as the brothers go to pull off one last con we are reminded that the best cons are when everyone gets what they want, so how can Bloom get an unscripted life? The object of their con is, of course, a woman: a wonderfully quirky woman, and of course Bloom falls in love, against the script’s rules, and that sets up a marvelous adventure. I won’t spoil the story with any more details, but if you’re a fan of con films, I must conclude that this is the ultimate one. That’s because instead of just coning money or even coning bad people for good reasons, this film is all about con artists coning themselves. That’s the ultimate con: a con so good even they believe it. Terrific. Strongly recommended.

Topic: [/movie]


Wed, Jun 03, 2009

: The Dead Girl

Interesting grouping of stories surrounding a murder victim. We follow the woman who discovers the dead girl’s body, a woman looking for her missing sister, the killer, and the dead girl herself. Nothing much is repeated during the stories, which I liked (the somewhat similar Vantage Point got really old as so much was repeated); instead we just learn about the impact of the dead girl on various lives. It’s surprisingly intriguing, though in the end, I’m not sure we’re left with much: it’s merely a tragedy with no explanation or resolution. Sad. But I guess I should have known that from the title. Impressive cast, though, and well-done. But not for all tastes.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Jun 02, 2009

: Goya’s Ghosts

This is a period film about the controversial Spanish painter Goya, during the Inquisition, involving his muse, a young model who is Inquisitioned due to her connection with Goya. Not quite what I expected. There are the salacious aspects of torture you’d expect, but it’s both glorified and unrevealed, which is odd — if they are condemning it, why hide it? The main problem is one of focus: is the film about Goya, the girl, or the strange priest? The girl’s the most sympathetic and the one we understand the most, but much of the focus is on the others, and unfortunately those people remain mysteries. The spans a large number of years and by the end I found myself more confused than enlightened. Interesting, but in a limited way, like a historical documentary. I would like to have learned more about Goya, but we are only connected to him via the story of the girl, and he remains a question mark.

Topic: [/movie]