Tag Archives: poems

The Best Lecture on Story Structure Ever

Probably the best lecture I’ve ever seen on story, Kurt Vonnegut lays out the arc of the Hero’s Journey in it’s most elegant form (see video for the joke). In truth, Vonnegut is a hilarious man who knows the craft so well he’s able to entertain and enlighten the audience by poking fun at how obvious stories are. Good story structure doesn’t need much explanation. Stories are simple.

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A wise man once told me that a story is never complex. No matter how deep and complex something may seem, 99 times out of 100 it’s just a series of simple points you’ve experienced since the start of the tale. The art of the craft is making those points tie together in such a way that your story seems complex. And it is, in a way, but not by making each story beat circuitous.

All the rules I’ve ever heard from Vonnegut are pure and simple. Take his eight tips on how to write a good short story:

  1. Use a time of a total stranger in such a way that he/she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character they can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character, or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading character is, make awful things happen to them in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense! Readers should have as such complete understand of what is going on, where and why, that they should be able to complete the story themselves should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
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Writing Process (9 of 9)

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Letting Go…

… continued from part 8: DEADLINE

This is probably the hardest part. I’ve looked at the book for so long I don’t even know what to think of it anymore. I love it and I hate it. I’m also indifferent about it. Overall, I’m just way too close to it. I could noodle with this or that forever, but I’ve hit my deadline and now it’s time to let it go.

This is where, if you’re self-publishing, you really have to be hard on yourself. You are never going to get it perfect. There is no such thing as perfection. Every author, every director, every artist has to at some point just let it go. Pass it off to your editor to send to the press, upload that file to Amazon and start worrying about how much to charge.

Glaring corrections can be fixed in subsequent editions. I’ve found copies of Fitzgerald that have some pretty bad typos. Who knows how long they were in there. But the important thing to realize is that you’re done. A work of art will never truly be finished in the eyes of the creator. But therein lies the beauty of it. It’s not supposed to be. I don’t write books for myself–I might come up with an idea I like but ultimately, I write it to be read by others. It’s the reader who finishes my books. And they finish it a thousand times over with endless variation. What wonders I would see if I could crawl inside their mind as they flip through the pages, deriving meaning from the unintended and totally missing meaning I tried to put in. But that’s the beauty of it all. Some people will love it, some people will hate it. Never in the history of the world has there been one piece of art that everyone came to love equally.

So that’s it. You’re done. Get it out there and let the readers have at it. I try to learn from my mistakes and improve on my next creative endeavor. And as an artist, I know damn well that I’ll be on my death bed, still with the desire to grow.

I’ve currently finished a short story, Meet Me at the Falls, with fellow authors Zack Keller and Ben Tuller… and for as much as I think I have it all figured out for this book, I know my next book may be an entirely different journey where I abandon these methods deeming them useless and naïve. I’d like to think that I won’t, but for me the point of writing… and for that matter, reading what people write… is to gain a glimpse into the soul and see the wonder and magic in the expression of the human condition.

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Campfire Language

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Despite the fancy phrasing and tickled sentences, all massaged and beefed up till they’re practically poetry, most of the language in some of the greatest books is ordinary and plain. And it should be. Why?

Clarity

Complex sentences can be beautiful, but hard to digest and it’s exhausting if the entire novel is written that way. For a select few authors born with a gilded tongue, they can create a feast for the eyes of the reader. But most of the time readers want clarity. It’s easy to overwork a sentence until it’s the best thing you’ve ever written. But is it really serving its purpose? The story is what should be engaging — the characters and how they interact and react with each other and the problems they face. And the funny thing is, you’ll remember a book as having been much more elaborate and painted than it actually was.

Tell your stories aloud to a friend, to yourself, to your dog. If it starts sounding verbose and awkward to spit out … if you can hear yourself getting bored, eyes glassing over at the detailed descriptions … STOP. Re-write it like you were standing around a campfire, keeping everyone engaged. Your friend’s grandfather should be as interested as your ten-year-old nephew.

Walt Disney had a rule when he would pitch ideas around the studio. The moment someone looked away when he was telling them a story he knew he had lost them. He would often start over, changing the story on the fly for the next person he told, or finding a better way to say the same thing. Pitch your ideas to someone. Part of it, of course, has to do with how engaging your material is — but a lot of it is just the language. The simple way that you speak/write. It’s important to discover what keeps people engaged. Suck up your pride and experiment with that.

The Power of 2+2 in Description

Stories build on each other. What’s true for film should remain true for a novel. There are really never too many “complex” moments in stories. Any complexity comes from many little–but meaningful–instances peppered throughout the story. 

Whenever I start a new project, or if I’m stuck on some phrasing I’m not totally pleased with, I’ll turn to my dozen or so favorite novels for some re-inspiration. I was working on my latest book Wonderful World of Zombies and really felt that this one description was lacking that vivid detail I remembered from books like Crichton’s Jurassic Park. There’s a part that they cut from the movie (though, Spielberg added it in to the second film) where the kids are hiding behind a waterfall from the T-Rex. I remember the scene vividly in my mind.

“Timmy and Lex were shivering with fear behind the roar of the waterfall when suddenly, the Rex let out a bellowing roar as his giant head came crashing through the thundering veil of falling water with tremendous force in hot pursuit of the children.”

I’m sure some of you might remember this too, right? Wrong. Here’s how the text actually went:

“And then, with a roar, the tyrannosaur’s head burst through the waterfall toward them.”

That … that was it?! I thumbed through the rest of the book at random, just to see if my mind was playing tricks on me. Surely this was an isolated event.

Nope. All over the book, I found nothing but short, simple and concise phrasing with one or two very select descriptors attached to very plain language. At first I was so disappointed.

“The room was filled with yellow stones.” … ” It scurried into the underbrush, dragging a fat tail. ” … “The raptor snarled in frustration, twenty feet above him on the catwalk” … “Tim felt rain”

You’ve gotta be kidding me. It was so plain. So ordinary. And it wasn’t just Crichton. I found instances in Hemingway, Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, Dan Brown and more. 

Then, I realized why. When an author allows the reader to digest the story so quickly without getting caught up on how beautiful the words are, the result is 2+2=4. Just as John Hammond used frog DNA, the reader fills in the gaps in their mind and takes away the lasting memory of how the scene felt. In the end that’s all that matters. I remember one instance in particular in Brown’s The Lost Symbol, where the room was described as having “an impressive array of technology.” That’s really all you need. The right, simple adjective and the subject. People tell their friends about a book because “Oh man, it’s so scary. You have to read it!”

The phrase “Tim felt rain,” has become a staple among my fellow authors and writing partners. It’s a reminder to both go easy on the verbiage, but also to remember to let the story happen to your characters. But, we’ll save that topic for another discussion.

Everyday Language

I was also shocked at how many sentences started off with “and”, “but”, “so”, and any number of other conjunctions we were taught to be grammatically incorrect at the start of a sentence. I remember so much red on my homework. It was bad writing. It wasn’t proper English. It was wrong! Yet in so many highly regarded novels … there it was. How did they get away with that? Surely they flunked out of Creative Writing.

But no, when you talk to someone in person you don’t speak that way at all. And often times you’ll continue a thought in the next sentence, tacking it on to what would be considered a grammatically finished statement. So don’t be afraid of writing it the same way on the page …. See? Screw proper English!

It can be pretentious to speak so god damned properly all the time. Most of the time, you’re not going to impress your audience with overly-descriptive language and incredibly witty phrasing. There’s certainly a time and place to do that, and one should strive to say things in a fresh and unique fashion — but you’re not Faulkner. In response to such criticism, Hemingway once noted:

“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.” —Ernest Hemingway, Quoted in: A.E. Hotchner, Papa Hemingway

It’s not to say the sentences like, “The raptors were snarling at Arnold when the animal on the left simply exploded, the upper part of the torso flying into the air, blood spattering like a burst tomato on the walls of the building,” shouldn’t be included. Because they should. And they are great. But they are few. Authors should remember to include language people understand and are used to hearing spoken out loud. Among friends. At a lecture. As if you’re sitting around a campfire with friends, family and strangers who all want to hear the tale you have to tell.

Some of the most memorable lines in history are some of the simplest and direct, deriving great meaning from their implication, and no more than three letters long.

“To be or not to be…”

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Creativity is Playtime

Every Tuesday, Thursday and sometimes Saturday, I meet my friend and trusted cohort Zack Keller at a local coffee shop at the butt crack of dawn and we work for three hours before heading into the studio. Be it a novel, script, our web series, a collective short story, a poem or even just an idea for something. This dedicated schedule gives us the time we need to be truly creative, bounce ideas off a trusted mind, and especially to suggest terrible ideas and avenues that ultimately lead to the right solution – from pure process of elimination, if nothing else. It’s almost as important as coffee.

The more pots I have on the stove, the more I find myself researching and coming upon revelations for the craft itself. Often times, these revelations surface only after the “hard work” was accomplished. A few years back, I adopted the creative workflow of the great master comedic writer John Cleese, of Monty Python fame. It’s difficult accepting any sort of structural formula into what’s largely an open, creative thing. But I gotta say – this technique WORKS!

The basic philosophy is that creativity is NOT A TALENT. It is a way of operating.

It’s much like playing a game. A very specific game with rules and boundaries and time limits. This is very important. Creativity is Playtime. Period. And the best thing about play is that when you’re playing, you’re not afraid to make a mistake. You learn things from the unexpected and adapt on the fly, finding new opportunities and abilities you didn’t even know existed before.

Remember that first time you swung a bat and it finally hit the sweet spot and you scored the winning home run? That moment, that new skill, that “A-ha! Moment” was during a game. A game you likely played for quite a while before you earned the nickname ‘Slugger’. The problem now is repeating it. And just like that winning swing, it probably happened when you weren’t paying full attention and didn’t expect it at all.

According to Cleese, there are five steps to a productive creative work day. They won’t leave you burning the candle at both ends or suffering a creative block for days, weeks, months… These conditions help make it more likely to get into an open mode and make it more likely for something creative will happen. More likely. No guarantee. Sometimes nothing will happen at all. But without taking these steps, you’ll likely never get that revelation a few days later whilst driving to the store or the next morning in the shower:

  1. Space – An oasis of quiet, isolated space away from your daily demands.
  2. Time – A specific period of work time before you resume your normal life. Start time. Stop Time. But first, time to do nothing. Let your mind run through the mess of your life: I need to make sure to call back Ben. Oh and that shirt needs to be fitted. I think I’m out of coffee. I wonder what Stacy is going to think of the gift I got her. I should really reorganize my contact list … This continues for about an hour and half until your mind quiets down again.
  3. Time – Yes, Time again. Now it’s time to use the oasis. Take the other hour and a half you have left to concentrate on the problem at hand. Even if you abandon the puzzle when your work/play time is up, you ultimately put in more time thinking about your problem than those that literally sit down until 3am every night trying to solve it, exhausted and totally spent. Don’t just take a snap decision. Defer your decision until the last possible moment for maximum pondering time for the most creative solution.  Give your mind as long as possible to come up with something original. Keep your mind gently around the subject. Daydream. Bring your mind back, just like meditation in a friendly but persistent way. Sooner or later you will get a reward from your unconscious IF you’re put in the pondering time first.
  4. Confidence – While you’re being creative, nothing is wrong. There are no mistakes. No fear of being wrong. When you play you’re comfortable. You’re sure of yourself because it’s just a game. What if it’s this? Or that? Or something completely different. Spontaneity. Risk illogical, silly, or things you might consider to be “wrong”. Anything could lead to the breakthrough.
  5. Humor – Laughter brings relaxation. Humor is playful. The easiest way to get yourself into a creative mind is through humor. Every time before I write or draw, I pull up a list of animated gifs on Reddit (a technique I adopted from Dick Figures creators Ed Skudder and Zack Keller), or tell some jokes with a friend, or make fun of something in the news that happened the day before. It’s the mental equivalent of stretching before you play. Humor is the most important thing, especially when your work is serious.

On that last point, I’d like to quote Cleese directly on the topic of Seriousness vs. Solemnity:

“How many times have important discussion been held where really original and creative ideas were desperately needed to solve important problems, but where humor was taboo because the subject being discussed was ‘so serious’? … I suggest to you that a group of us could be sitting around after dinner discussing matters that were extremely serious, like the education of our children, or our marriages, or the meaning of life — and we could be laughing and that would not make what we were discussing one bit less serious. Solemnity, on the other hand, I don’t know what it’s for. What is the point of it? The two most beautiful memorial services that I’ve ever attended both had a lot of humor, and it somehow freed us all and made the services inspiring and cathartic. But solemnity, it serves pomposity, and the self-important always know at some level of their consciousness that their egotism is going to be punctured by humor. That’s why they see it as a threat, and so dishonestly pretend that their deficiency makes their views more substantial, when it only makes them feel bigger.”

Full lecture here:

[youtube http://youtu.be/f9rtmxJrKwc]

 

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Writing Revelations

My fellow writers from Pen, Pint & Pyre will often meet over a pint to discuss the craft and the importance of coffee. I’d like to share a few of the more notable revelations and general guidelines we try to think about while writing:

  • Write in a language people know. Flowery words and descriptions can impress from time to time and say what you mean in a sort of poetic flow, but more often than not the best and most memorable, meaningful prose are just a few simple words — none of which are more than three letters long. “To be or not to be.” BOOM. What simple truth are you trying to say with all that pretty language?
  • Tell a story like you’re sitting around a campfire with people of all ages. Write naturally.
  • Respect the intelligence of your audience. They’re likely three steps ahead of where you think they are. Give them 2 + 2 and let them discover 4.
  • Let the description happen to the characters. Experience the story from their point of view. The story isn’t happening to the characters, the characters are experiencing the story.
  • You can’t work on anything until you have something to work with. Get that first draft done. Just shit it out and get it down on paper.
  • Storytelling is all about taste, so you need to add your own flavor.
  • Hitchcock would stop production whenever he a block. Stop and do nothing to do with what you’re trying to do. You’re working too hard. Relax. It will come.
  • When you’re at a road block in your production, you can’t figure out what the characters should do, start making a list of what you know they would NOT to and watch how easily the obvious solution pops into your mind.
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