Monthly Archives: May 2013

Writing Process (7 of 9)

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Final Revisions

(or How I Learned to Trust Readers, Eat Sushi and Believe in Dinosaurs)

… continued from part 6: That Dreaded Second Draft

When Michael Crichton sent his first draft of Jurassic Park to his usual test-readers, they hated it. All of them. They got angry, asking him why he would even write a book like that. But when he asked what they didn’t like, they didn’t exactly know. “They just hated it, every bit of it,” Crichton said.

There’s some sort of magic that happens the moment you set a draft in stone. Printed out, handed to a reader, or even just looking at a PDF on the same screen you were editing in, suddenly all the mistakes and ideas for re-writes spring up like rabbits. Fiery demon-rabbits from Hell. Some of my fellow writers and I are working on a term for this phenomenon. More on that here.

Letting someone else read my work, I wonder how I could have missed things so glaringly obvious, or I’m immediately embarrassed of certain sections. But this is good. It isn’t the final draft, so I can put out those fires right away, and embarrassment often means I’ve unlocked some truth — something personal and deep. It will resonate with readers who are just as vulnerable as I am. So much of writing is willingly putting your heart on the chopping block. And they’ll love you for it.

Addressing reader’s notes is more about trusting the reader than getting twenty of your friends to voice their opinion. I have three people look at my book. My two writing partners and my editor. I might show it to more people, just to illicit a reaction, but I take their advice with a grain of salt, and often don’t change much. Too many cooks in the kitchen.

Obviously if everyone starts pointing out the same problem or something lacking in the story, I’ll put those grains of rice in the cooker and make something of it. Rice … for sushi, maybe.

Obligatory photo of sushi, for good measure. You deserve some great sushi right about now — for following my silly blog if nothing else. And if you’re in the L.A. area, I highly recommend ‘Sushi Ike’ on Hollywood & Gower. Don’t be deceived by its humble facade. It’s one of L.A.’s hidden gems, as is their head sushi chef, Rick.

But I’m wary of this too … trusting test readers, not the sushi. The sushi is clutch. No, sometimes the problem isn’t the part of the story people don’t understand, but a failed set-up or pay-off somewhere else in the book. Adding in a single line ten chapters earlier may solve something in the climax. It’s important to really analyze the source of the problem and even test your new solution on your most trusted critics.

Crichton ended up writing two more drafts of Jurassic Park, but the response was the same. Just pure hate for the story. One of the initial problems he faced when coming up with the book was the excuse to bring dinosaurs back. He couldn’t see who would realistically pay for that scientific endeavor and the only thing he could come up with was for entertainment purposes. That was the only reason it took place in a theme park. Naturally, he wrote the story from a child’s point of view.

Finally, one of the test readers said they found it annoying that it was told from the child’s point of view. They told him, “I want this to be a story for me.” Crichton did a complete rewrite from an adult point of view, and that’s really all it took to save the novel. Without that simple adjustment, we would never have had the Jurassic Park we know and love.

“Writing is rewriting,” as the great Michael Crichton said.

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Continued in Part 8: DEADLINE

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Writing Process (6 of 9)

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That Dreaded Second Draft

…continued from Part 5: Critique

Aside from fixing all the grammar and polishing sentences, a good thing to focus on during a second pass are themes, character traits and general style and language. Here I really look at the story from a bird’s-eye view. How do certain characters talk? Is that consistent? Are their motivations clear and consistent? How do we see them change? Do I have convincing arguments on both sides of an issue? Is the audience feeling what I want them to feel at any given point?  How can this sentence be phrased better? How can I combine these two paragraphs into one well-spoken and concise sentence?

This pass may be the hardest of them all, and the hardest to keep track of. Use of character worksheets, location worksheets and anything else that might help keep track of things are highly encouraged.

Running through my story the second time, I keep a rather large one-sheet of notes for the polish phase … writing rules and snippets I’ve adapted over the years about things I like in good writing; little reminders for myself. Each story is unique, too, and I’ll add many notes specific to the story I’m working on in the one-sheet. It’s a cheat sheet and one should have no shame in referring to such an item.

Here are some helpful tips from some of our favorite authors:

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Seven_tips_from_F. Scott_Fitzgerald

Seven_tips_from_William_Faulkner

Writing Rules from other Authors

Author Zack Keller just recently put up a great post about Editing your book like a reader. Some really good stuff in there that I wholeheartedly agree with. I may even find myself cutting out entire chapters, as I read my story more like a reader. Certain things are just extraneous and don’t need to be there. I might absolutely love them. But deep down I know they shouldn’t be there and you just have to kill your babies for the greater good.

I polish, polish and polish the story until I am satisfied with every aspect and feel I have explored every corner of the world without going off on unnecessary tangents. This can take several passes. Patience is a virtue.

Continued in Part 7: Final Notes

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Writing Process (5 of 9)

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Critique

…continued from Part 4: Rough Draft

I finished the rough draft! I didn’t think my story would end the way it did, and that’s a very good thing. I’ve surprised myself, even if I knew roughly how it should end. So I’m done right? Not nearly. The journey is far from over. Now that I have something to work with, I must look at it objectively. I compile my massive amounts of notes and address them. I try to get everything into Scrivener and flesh out any parts that are underdeveloped. Then, once I’m satisfied, I’ll look at my general outline. This gives me a chance to really get a bird’s-eye view and switch on the story structure part of my brain.

For structure stuff, I loosely follow the guidelines laid out in the “Hero’s Journey” and even more so in “Dramatica” — but I really just make sure that it makes sense. If there aren’t gaping holes, sections missing or double-beats, I move on. Story theory and story structure are really just tools to analyze what I already have. In an extreme void of creativity they can prove useful to find a solution, but I would never start with an outlined structure in mind. How could I? I don’t know what’s going to happen in the story any more than the characters would, living it out in real-time. They will inform me of what happens next, what they want and try to do and what happens as a result of it. Story structure would get in the way, and at best it would work but come off contrived and formulaic.

Now if there ARE gaping holes or if I’m just feeling like something is missing, I might turn to the old Hero’s Journey outline and see what it might offer. There’s volumes of books and seminars on the subject.

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However, I took two years of story theory at CalArts that focused on the Hero’s Journey and I ended up learning more about constructing story from one year of Dramatica. I would urge anyone interested to check out their site, or take a trip on over to my professor Jim Hull’s blog, Narrative First (formerly Story Fanatic). Jim is an animator and story artist over at DreamWorks and really knows his stuff inside and out. He lays out the basics of the subject in his books.

Dramatica is more than a story book, however. It offers an interactive tool where one can plug in aspects of a story and it in return plugs plot holes, solidifies character interactions and helps complete your story in such a way that it will resonate with your audience long after they’ve put down your book. Worth taking a look, for kicks if nothing else. I honestly don’t use it the way it was intended, but knowing the story theory behind it has helped me out tremendously.

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Once I’m satisfied with the working outline, I’ll scrutinize the details of the story a bit deeper and get more into research. More notes, adjusting things and rearranging. Some parts remain largely unaltered, while others are expanded or improved upon based on the research I find or connections I hadn’t yet seen in the story. The second pass is perfect for making sure those through-lines, themes and foreshadowing are well-placed.

But as I said, the journey is far from over. Here is where the really hard part begins. One has to make hard decisions and really start to craft the story. A lot of the time, my rough draft doesn’t even read like a story. It’s awful, some of it still in bullet point form or a very rudimentary sentence describing the sentiment or action. Hopefully, I’ve gotten down the core of the story and answered the questions: What happens to the characters? What choices do they make? How does it all unfold? What does it mean to them? How does it affect them? Etc…

After writing out an entire novel by hand, I’ll often forget what it’s like to be a reader. Since my book really isn’t at the stage where I can read it like a reader, I find it somewhat therapeutic and informative to pick up some old favorites and re-read them just to remind myself what a book feels like. If something strikes me, I’ll make a note reminding myself to try and apply it to my own work. There is no one way to tell a story and no right or wrong way to write. Ultimately it comes down to taste. I love both Hemingway and Fitzgerald, though they’re vastly different in style. The same could be said about any number of authors. Finding what resonates with you will help unleash your own unique style as it challenges what you innately find appealing or not.

I’d really encourage writers to go with their gut. Use trial and error and pick apart your favorite stories and films as opposed to studying structure and writing. That being said, there are some other books on story structure I would recommend to at least throw into your head (but only after you’ve already written your story). I would NOT recommend the popular book “Story” by Robert McKee. It’s purely critical and offers nothing to the would-be writer — and on that note, take anything these books say with a grain of salt:

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Writersjourneysmall

Continued in Part 6: That Dreaded Second Draft

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Writing Process (4 of 9)

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Rough Draft

…continued from Part 3: Create Tent-Poles

Act Two is always the longest part of the adventure. The journey of writing a book is no exception. Still, that isn’t to say that ninety percent of the work isn’t done in the planning phase — because it is. And it’s nice to take a break between the planning and execution phase of your book. My mind needs time to reflect on what I’ve already done, what it all means for my story, and really whether or not I still like it. I’ll come back to my piles of notes and organize them so I can move on to the next step (see steps 1-4 here, if you missed them)

Now I actually sit down to write this damn thing. By hand, and with a pen! More on that here. I always try to work in the mornings, when my mind is fresh. I only write for three hours a day, maximum. Overworking my brain and not experiencing life would be detrimental to my story, my health and my social life. Not to mention, there has been so much I’ve included in my story as a result of getting out of my hole and taking in the world around me. It opens up doors and windows I would have never even thought of. I’m already finished with the rough draft of my novel, Wonderful World of Zombies, and I’m still taking notes when inspiration strikes.

This could go on forever, and it’s important to set goals. I’ll make myself a target word count and really try to stick to it. Every day I write I know I’ll write roughly a certain amount of words and then I can calculate a realistic deadline for that rough draft.

Another thing about working only a few hours a day is that my brain doesn’t shut off. As mentioned in that John Cleese video, the mind keeps working at problems for days on end after you’ve put in the hours and then put down the pen. I think most of my story has come out of moments driving in the car, scrambling for a notepad or my phone at a stoplight so I can get all the ideas down before I lose track of them. And let me tell you, they come in like someone opened a floodgate! Pouring out of my mind at lightning speeds, sometimes it’s hard to keep up. But by working in a method like Cleese describes, it really does allow me to find better solutions than if I were to have burned the candle at both ends. I’ve tried that method. It never works as well as I want.

I realize now, looking at what I’ve written about this part of the process, that I really don’t have much to say about how that rough draft actually gets down on the paper. And I think that’s because despite all the planning and character development I’ve done, writing is truly a loose, creative endeavor. There are no rules or guidelines that will tell you what an interesting and engaging story will be. But I do trust the process, nevertheless, and I trust my instinct.

Go with your gut!

This is play time!

I shit out the rough draft onto the page so I have something to work with, and I work in the most effectively creative way that I can. Alone in the dark of my mind, there isn’t much that would really help me except my own imagination … and no one to hear me scream! Okay, it’s not that bad … most of the time. I let myself go and open my mind to any possibility. Often times, I’ll bounce ideas off other trusted writers or just simply listen to the characters. It’s amazing when the story starts revealing itself to you by surprise. In fact, this is the part where the real magic happens. Let yourself be surprised.

Continued in Part 5: Critique

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Writing Process (3 of 9)

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Create Tent-poles

…continued from Part 2: Sketching and Research

This is something I took away from both storyboarding and animating. I’ve heard other writers use the same method and I find it to be much, much better than your standard “outlining” pass. The basic idea is “tent-poles.” With this approach, I outline only a few specific moments in the story that I find important, but leave the in-between unresolved. For example, in Star Wars:

  • Luke wants to help the rebels fight the Empire and learn more about his father from an old master he meets, Obi-Wan Kenobi.
  • Luke is devastated after his family is killed and he decides to go with Obi-Wan to Alderaan to help out Princess Leia and become a Jedi like his father.
  • Luke gets trapped by the Death Star, having chartered a ship from Han Solo and his sidekick, after they discover Alderaan’s been destroyed!

This allows me to discover the story alongside the characters for a more natural flow instead of just connecting the dots between plot points. Figuring out and filling in the story with the “how” and “why” is the good part … the juicy stuff!

In the end, I’ll have a dozen or so story beats that I use as targets to hit. Steven Spielberg always said that when he creates a film he creates moments, and the story is about connecting those moments. Animation is the same way, too. An animator draws the key poses he knows have to be in the scene — the story telling poses. Then he’ll work straight ahead, filling in the motion using those key drawings as guides. Often times they’ll change slightly, which is another point: Don’t fall in love with your ideas!

I find myself hitting impassable road blocks when I’m stubborn about some thing that I decided has to happen. The characters will tell me what must be included in the story, or how that moment I was aiming for must be altered. It’s important to be adaptable and learn to let go. Sometimes, I won’t even find what the story really is until the end. The best thing that could ever happen to a writer, is to be surprised right up until they unexpectedly write down the words “The End”.

Continued in Part 4: Rough Draft

“Suexliegh” Receives Honorable Mention

My good friend Zack Keller’s book, “The Success of Suexliegh” just held it’s own against giants like John Irving in the 2013 San Francisco Book Festival!

Zack Keller

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My novel, The Success of Suexliegh, received an Honorable Mention from the San Francisco Book Festival in the General Fiction category. Congratulations to the winner, John Irving, and all the other entrants, honorable mentions, runners-up and winners as well. Quite an honor indeed to be listed amongst such talented writers and wonderful books.

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Writing Process (2 of 9)

Even Gandalf Researches

Sketching and Research

…continued from Part 1: Develop Characters

It’s much, much easier for me to form a story when I already know who the basic cast of characters are. Even a preliminary one-sheet helps out tremendously. When I sit down to write a story, sometimes I start with images (literally a sketch of a particular moment), a potential log line or “what if” situation, or once in a blue moon I’ll start with a plot idea and go from there. Sometimes I’ll just start writing the first chapter. However, I find it’s always best when I begin with the end and work my way backward; figuring out how things ended up that way. In my experience, stories are always stronger and more impactful when they’re derived backward. It’s just like retracing your steps when you lose something.

So I’ve created this world and cast of characters, including story moments and a general idea of what might happen. Now comes the arduous task of filling the world with real research. I try to be as extensive as possible. I’ll look at images for locations, or actually go there if I can. Wikipedia and Google help my wallet out tremendously. I find inspiration. I often look to other artwork, music, or movies and novels (but I am very selective and try to turn a blind eye to anything too similar). I’ll research history, places, objects and even characters similar to my own. It’s always great to base your characters off people you know, or famous people. Write what you know! Whatever the story might possibly include: Research, Research, Research.

As the writer, I’ll know volumes more about the story than the reader would ever gather from reading it and I’m sure I won’t use all of it. In fact, I shouldn’t. Often times a writer will start a story way too early. One should start the story as late as possible! It’s part of the craft, discovering where your story really starts and where the audience needs to come in. I mean, there’s back story and then there’s back story. But doing all that R&D will inform every decision, every blink, every line of dialogue in the book.

An extreme example is J.R.R. Tolkien. He spent decades of his life building the entire world of Middle-Earth, from its creation to the bitter end, before he actually wrote out the first draft of The Fellowship of the Ring. The Hobbit was published in 1937, but it wasn’t until 1954 (nearly twenty years later) that he had completed the backstory and written up the final drafts. The man created entire languages, races, ancient locations and mythologies… even other stories that happened in distant lands, long before the events in The Lord of the Rings. It might not take me as long as Tolkien, but the principle is the same. Research! Build the world and know the characters within it. It’s important to look around you in the real world; to discover. One can only write what they know, and if all their time is spent behind closed doors or just in their head, many dead ends will be hit. By extensively researching, one will discover things about their characters and story they could have otherwise never imagined. As Tolkien put it in LOTR:

“There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”

By the way, the research doesn’t stop here. A good number of steps in my process are ongoing all the way till the end.

Continued in Part 3: Create Tent-poles

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Writing Process (1 of 9)

As much as it’s good to be free and loose when you do something creative, it’s equally as important to carve out a schedule and follow a specific creative process. A bit ago, I wrote a post about creativity that outlined how John Cleese understands creativity to work. I highly subscribe to his methods.

I’ve even adopted techniques from other artists and creative outlets like music and animation and film. I discovered that the creative arts all basically work the same way. Story is story. The process to create any piece of art uses basically the same way of thinking. It’s still an ongoing process, but as of today the following 9 Steps are basically how I work when I write:

Develop Characters

Fellowship Characters

I would encourage writers to do this step first. Character is King. There is no such thing as a plot-driven story. Story is the result of believable characters interacting with each other and making genuine decisions about conflicts based on who they are.

There is a great writing exercise to help develop characters. Create a list describing as many aspects and bits of history  for a character that you can possibly think of. It’s important to not go hog-wild. Keep it believable, even if it’s in a fantastical world. It’s highly unlikely you’ll come up with a genius twelve-year-old boy who likes snowboarding, flies into space in his free time, eats gummy worms, rides dragons in ancient China, and is one of twelve children — all different cross-breed species from the future.

Some of the questions may be: What are their flaws? What are their strengths? Do they realize either? Why or why not? What was their childhood like? What do they think they want in life? What do they actually need that they’re not aware of? Any number of questions to really get to know this character as best as they can. Include daily life stuff too like their least favorite foods, but create a reason why that is. And focus on deep level stuff. Remember that your character should come off as real. Are they afraid of snakes? Why, what happened? Did they have an abusive father who dropped them in a pit of snakes just for a laugh?

Next, repeat the process. Now that you have a character you really like, create another in that same world. Treat it like a potential alternate protagonist, but don’t even worry about it being related. Once you have these two characters, stir things up. Put their names in a hat and draw one out at random. That first “hero” you made? Yeah, now he’s your antagonist. Your story is only as good as the characters in it. And your hero is only as good as the villain. Develop the antagonist with as much love and care as you would your hero.

Now, come up with the first time these two characters meet. What is that situation? How does it happen? Why does it happen? Do they like each other? Maybe they’re best friends at the start. Maybe they just bump into each other on the street. Then, create the last time they meet. What is their last encounter? Project a potential moment when the two of them will have the final show-down. Of course, it doesn’t have to be some epic battle between good and evil. It might be that they were star-crossed lovers, and the last time they meet is a painful good-bye. Maybe they are mortal enemies in a huge final battle. Maybe they’ve become best friends and one of them is reading a story to the other on their death-bed. Maybe they’re anthropomorphic lollipops.

Finally, of course, come up with the moment in the middle where they’re most at odds with each other. Write down a bullet point list of what happens. Include key moments of dialogue. Often times, I’ll even draw the scene out in a single frame vignette (like a Rockwell painting) if I see it clearly enough. Soon, secondary and tertiary characters will pop up and before you know it, they will have created a world and a story will come out of it.

By putting your characters through their paces, you’ll start to get a sense of who they are, how they might react in certain situations. It will become clear what they would and wouldn’t ever do. You’ll start eliminating and molding who they are based on these initial tests. Or perhaps you’ll change them entirely because they aren’t working. But, when successful, the characters will be believable and richer than if you had started with the plot. No one cares about plot. They care about how characters react to problems. Story comes out of that.

Continued in Step 2:  Sketching and Research

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