Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

Process, Preparation and Prose

iStock_000072638051_SmallI am not a writing coach. I am not a writing teacher. I can’t tell anyone how to write. So much for disclaimers. What I can do is share my process. Writers are always sharing their damn process. Most of us love to huddle over a cuppa and tell each other ad nauseam how the heck we do it. In my younger days, I used to talk about sex like this. Now I’m in my sixties. Nuf’ said.

If you are someone who writes by the seat of their pants, this essay is not for you. Stephen King, the grand Pooh-Bah of pantsing is holding court elsewhere and maybe he’ll let you buy him a beer and you can talk about us mere mortals who must prepare everything that we write in order to earn the name author.

You know that the name author comes from the word authority, right? When you write, you are an authority over what you write. You become the god that sees everything and everyone in the world you write. And why would you write about anything unless you took this position?

But it’s not as easy as sitting down and just letting the words rip, is it? Wish that it were so. Writing is hard work. It means getting a good idea (that’s not easy either) applying process and doing the preparation before you ever write a single word of prose.

Process: For me this is the Larry Brooks template. I sketch out that structure with first plot point (inciting incident), mid point (the protagonist becomes the warrior), second plot point (against all odds, the protagonist sprints toward resolve) and ending. Yep, I don’t write a word until I know the friggen’ ending. And it is on this framework that I hang my preparation. I’d like to believe that discovering your story gets easier, but I don’t think it does. I’ve sat in enough Larry Brooks classes, listening to broken manuscripts to know that knowing your story is what separates the women from the girls.

The Dreaded Synopsis: The first time I had to write a damn synopsis, I about pulled my hair out. I couldn’t do it in a half page. I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of boiling 80,000 words down to 300 in order to tell you my story. Now, I write out a synopsis as a matter of fact. Do you know your story well enough to write a synopsis? If not, you need to begin again. An early synopsis will hit the first plot point, mid-point, second plot point and resolve. I don’t discover the story as I am writing along. I am aiming for the milestones along the way which my scenes must support.

Robert McKee tells the story of the great film, Casablanca. The script was about 100 pages. The treatment for the film was about 300 pages. What? That story was so well-known to its authors, scene by scene that once implemented, it became a classic that would never fade away. Novel writing, if we respect it, should be the same–careful, thoughtful preparation.

Preparation: I am in my office with door closed. I snarl at my dog if he looks at me like he has to go out. “You just went out. Go lie down.” Don’t dare knock. Don’t dare interrupt. My nose is pressed to a yellow legal pad. My hand is cramping. I am writing out everything I know about the character, who they appear to be and who they really are. This involves pages of questions. Some things I circle. Some things I cross out. I begin to see scenes and since I know what my plot points are, I know basically where I have to steer the car. At the end of a couple of hours I have filled pages and pages of questions and answers. This exercise will go on for weeks.

It’s all about the questions and “what ifs” at this point. Who are the people surrounding the character and how do they reveal the character? What do I know about my life experience that can inform this character? If the antagonist is involved in criminal behavior what non-fiction book do I need to look at to help me? (I like Sean Mactire’s Malicious Intent for such things.) And on and on it goes until I finally see how to construct the four sections of the book. Then I begin a scene list and from there a sketch of each scene, carefully placed so that the sequence of scenes slowly ramp up to the plot point climax.

Prose: Finally! It’s hard for me. I like to play with words. I love to construct sentences and paragraphs. I delight in whatever cleverness I can muster. But delight to soon, and you are screwed. Writers, especially rookies, like me, must remember that readers like your stuff not because of clever sentences, but because of good story. At the end of the day your good writing is just the prerequisite and your story is what matters.

Lost in a sea of yellow legal pads and questions that demand answers, I work on a new story for new novel. As much as a whine about it, I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. Process, preparation and then prose. That’s the work and I do it every day whether I want to or not, striving for excellence. Craft and the very best that you know you can do. Constant study. Read everything. Watch films. Always be looking at and for “story.” It’s not just the novel you are writing, it’s a friggen’ lifestyle. I labor under the belief that this is how I become better at my craft. “Do the work,” says Mckee, “and the results will follow.”

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

Hear No Evil and Not Much Else Either

iStock_000015756375XSmallDaily Prompt: Hear No Evil – a WordPress “daily prompt”
Tell us about a conversation you couldn’t help but overhear and wish you hadn’t.

My prose teacher at college lived an artist’s life. I am not going to name her or my college, because I adored her. But…she was part of what I called the “angry poets and suffering artists” group– politically correct and wildly self-righteous about it. A socially liberal and fiscally conservative misanthrope like myself didn’t stand a chance in that environment. They, meaning most of my instructors at the time, would probably cringe to think that a former student saw them in such a way, but it is liberating to state it now, and I doubt that any of them read this blog.

Anyway, back to my prose teacher, a woman who taught me to appreciate the basics of reading and writing in a whole new wonderful way. She demanded a constant stream of short stories and journal entries that all seemed like they were due within hours of the assignment. She also had an ongoing exercise that all of her students were required to do, regardless of the class.  Every one of her students carried a small notebook–the kind that fits into a purse or your back pocket. The instructions were to write down snippets of conversations that you heard in the coffee shop or at the grocery store or wherever. Obviously you did this covertly and without intrusion.

Each week we all sat around and shared what we had recorded in our notebooks. The idea was to develop an ear for real dialogue. People speak much more inanely than what writer’s tend to conjure. Most of the conversations that I strained to hear, went something like this:

“Mama, can I have this?”

“Put that back.”

“Nooooo, mama!”

“Put that back right now”

“Arrggggh mama” — As the mother steps over the child screaming on the floor in the grocery store aisle, pretending that it is not hers.

I hoped for meatier conversations, but they just never came my way. Restaurants were always the best, because you could sit in a booth behind someone and have a tabletop to put your notebook on and write down what you heard. Once I heard a very upset man telling a woman that his hedgehog had died. I didn’t know if he was talking about a car or an animal and unfortunately he spoke so softly, I couldn’t hear all that much to of the conversation.

The other day I was getting my hair cut and I heard this from a woman with a dog:

“Don’t take it personally, he is much more interested in the food than he is in you. Can you sit Rosco? Can you sit?”

I waited for the dog to answer, but it never did.

The exercise of listening to how people speak is more difficult now than it was when I was in college. Everyone is texting or tweeting and I sometimes wonder what would happen if all of our cell phones just died one day and we had to look up, look into someone’s eyes and try to communicate. It would certainly make eavesdropping easier.