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Archive for the tag “writing tips”

IS ALL WRITING THE SAME?

Years ago, I attended a novel-writing workshop. The presenter, a prolific novelist, opened the session by putting a DVD in the player and playing the opening scene from the movie My Cousin Vinny, the Joe Pesci comedy where Joe is a street-wise, New Yorker who just recently passed the bar ex.He is called down to a small town down south to defend his cousin and his cousin’s buddy who are charged with murdering someone while passing through town on their way to start college.

But you probably knew that.

The opening scene of the movie has no dialogue. it’s just a music montage following the boys’ car as they travel from New York, down south, headed to college. We know all this just by looking at the details; road signs, what they have in the backseat of their green convertible, the license plates. That, in fact, was the point of the exercise: to see how much information we could glean about these characters just by what was given to us on screen with no narration and no dialogue.

It was a very effective exercise. But it strikes me now as a weird choice for a novel writing class. We were learning about writing prose, not screenplays. One is all about the written word; conveying ideas on the page through reading. The other is about telling a story visually.

So why, when writers teach other writers,do they always go to movies and TV shows for examples? My Cousin Vinny. Mad Men. Lost. These all get trotted out for examples. A novelist and blogger I really like, Chuck Wendig, frequently cites the Die Hard movies when he talks about plotting. (By the way, check out his site, terribleminds. It’s fully of awesome, profane wisdom)

Why not try to prove a writing point about setting by citing a passage from a Michael Chabon novel; or vivid characters in a Stephen King novel? Do writers just assume other people don’t actually read books? These seminars are often writers talking to other writers. Surely other writers have read books?

Of course they have. So why not use some of those books as reference points? Is it because we watch more TV than we read? Do we assume a greater percentage of the attendees have seen the same shows than have read the same books? Is there something inherent in the visual nature of TV that emphasizes the SHOW in “show, don’t tell” better than passages from the books we’re supposed to be learning how to write?

Writing books should just be different than writing TV right?

Well, maybe not. All story telling is fundamentally the same. Make up characters, build a world, progress the character from A to B, screw with them a lot along the way. Maybe you could have a bunch of writers read from photocopies of some novel to get a point across, but watching a film clip makes more of an impact, fits more with the showmanship aspect of any presentation. And it’s simple.

Confused? Well, here’s let’s just watch this clip from …

Hey, that is easier.

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THE PLAY’S THE THING…THANKS TO THE CREW

My latest play “Calling Home” debuted this past weekend (as a full production; it previously lived as a staged reading) as part of the New Ground Theatre annual playwrights festival. If you missed it, shame on you. All will be forgiven, though, if you go to one of next weekend’s shows. And bring a friend. Or seven.

I am by far not a veteran of the theatre. I’ve acted a little and had now several things I’ve written produced for the stage, but the whole thing is still a fairly young medium for me work in.

The giddy thrill of hearing words I wrote spoken by actors on a stage and going out to entertain a roomful of strangers looking to be moved or amused or (ideally) both hasn’t completely left and I hope it never will. But, I have gained enough experience to tamper the giddy ( not to be confused with gilding the Lilly. No, I’m not sure what it means either.).

This time, during production, I found myself watching more of the behind the scenes stuff. The words on the page are hugely important, of course. But they make up only one part of an enormous machine, a juggernaut of entertainment. There are the actors, of course. And the director.

But there are lots of other people too. There’s the producer/theatre who picked your show to begin with. There’s the crew that builds and paints the sets. There’s the crew that changes out the set between scenes. The lighting and sound people. The wardrobe people. The person who made the poster.

We all know this, of course. But it’s easy to forget. We shouldn’t, but we do. Remember that, writers. What the audience sees isn’t just your words, but the culmination of a lot of people’s work. You’re just a part of a bigger whole.

There’s good theatre in that lesson.

Not a bad lesson for life either.

SO, WRITERS, DOES IT GET ANY EASIER?

In 2007, on a whim, I wrote two short plays and submitted them to an open call for submissions to a playwright’s festival at a local college; one comedy and one more serious piece. I’d acted in several plays before this, and done lots of other writing, but I’d never written a play.

To my surprise, the festival accepted both plays. The night of the performance was…amazing. I’d been on stage a lot before this and had many other types of writing praised or criticized. But this night…this night hearing my words, words I wrote, characters I created, brought to life…well, it was a weird mix of frightening and giddy, out-of-body surreal-ness. It was a rush at least equal, if not perhaps even greater than the thrill of acting.

I’ve been lucky enough to have a number of other plays I’ve written at festivals since then, most recently this past weekend when my play “Calling Home” was given a public reading, which could lead to a full production in the future.

One of the other playwrights, Michael Carron, made his playwriting debut at the event with his work “A Decent Interval”. He also acted in the reading of my play and the third offering of the night, “Wheelies” by Shea Doyle. When the event was over, Michael was elated and relieved. The experience was, he said, the most frightening thing he’d ever done. Here was a guy who has been on strafe thousands of times – doing Shakespeare, no less. And even he was intimidated by the experience of watching an audience watch lines he wrote be performed.

I totally understood that sentiment. And yet, I surprised myself when he asked me about watching your work Be performed, “Does it ever get easier?” I said, “yes”.

I have no idea why I said that. I was just as stressed this weekend as I was that first time years ago. The rush of seeing your characters come to life. The joy of the audience laughing where they should and being reverent where they shouldn’t. But still…the stress was, I dunno, differentthis time. Unlike crust first night years ago, this night I was thinking more about technical things – tweaks to lines and characters I might want to make. Tightening to be done, points to be clarified.

So, in that sense, I guess it is easier now, the playwriting, because I don’t worry as much about the act of putting work in front of an audience as I do about what that audience will say about it.

As I write more and put more out there for public consumption, if the fear wants to continue to evolve, that’s fine with me. But I hope it never goes away, not completely anyway. I kind of feel like if the process of writing for the public gets easier, the work will suffer.

Am I wrong about that? What say you?

CLUTTERED DESK = PRISTINE WRITING?

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This is my writing area. Actually this is the tidy version of my writing area. It usually looks far, far worse.

Yes, I do have Daleks and Snoopy on my desk. It’s hard to see, but there’s also a box of Pop Tarts. That’s how I roll.

Yeah, my wife thinks I’m a dork too.

BUT…based on the results of some studies done at University of Minnesota recently, I should be a flippin’ genius-dork.

Much to their own surprise, scientists concluded after some experiments, that working in a cluttered office actually, somehow, enhances creativity, originality and a search for novelty.  The scientists don’t draw any real conclusions other than there’s something about orderliness that kills free thinking.

I have something to say about this. Hang on…

*shoves aside a pile of paper*

*no, the other pile*

*no the other other pile*

*Eww. Is that a ham sandwich?*

Oh, here it is:

Messy offices make you smarter, you say? DUH.

Judging by the typical state of my office, my thinking is running free all over the place; a wild, naked jaybird of ideas with its wang of creative thinking flapping in the novelty breeze.

I’m the guy who owns electronic devices with no less than – what? – a half dozen notepad apps. Yet, I hardly use any of them. Hell, look at my laptop. It’s covered in post-its.

I constantly have scraps of scribbled-on paper in my pockets.

I read somewhere once that some people who tend to pile stuff have their own system of organization. What looks like a jumble to you, is  a filing cabinet to me. Need the Sniggerson Contract? Well, it ‘s right here in the middle of this stack just above the 2008 “Family Circus” calendar and below the “Girls of the Big Ten” pictorial (I SWEAR I don’t know how that got in there.)

I’m pretty sure every office in the Congressional office building is neat as a pin. Not a lot of original thinking going on there.

Great, topical jokes like that are what a messy office will do for you. Thanks, University of Minnesota!

WRITERS: WHEN IS YOUR BOOK NO LONGER YOURS?

The estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has been freaking out for several years. In the Unite States, Sherlock Holmes is not considered public domain. Based on the dates they published, all of the books are public domain, except one, the last one. The estate says that is sufficient to tie up the copyright for all the Holmes works. Their theory is that the books and stories are not separate, distinct entities. Holmes and Watson were created in the very first story and grew and developed all the way through all the stories. That evolution runs through the public and private domain stuff and you can’t separate the two. Ergo, says the Doyle estate, it should all be copyrighted. Never mind that when that last story came out, 1927, copyright law said the longest time copyright protection could run was fifty-six years.

Disney has been freaking similarly. In 1998, the entertainment industry lobbied for and got Congress to extend copyright protection to all published works by an extra 20 years. The big news at the time was that this bought Disney another twenty years before their mascot, Mickey Mouse, fell into the public domain because the copyright on Mickey’s debut film in “Steamboat Willie” was due to expire.

As a reader and a writer, I’m of two minds about copyright. As a writer who strives (hopes? dreams? pines?) for a steady, paying, writing income, I’m ALL FOR HOLDING ONTO A COPYRIGHT AS LONG AS I CAN. BACK OFF! THAT’S MY KIDS’ INHERITENCE, DAMN YOU!

On the other hand, as a lover of the written word, I’m all for getting those words out there where the most people can access them at the lowest cost. Why should mega-corporations reap profits long after that writer is dead? Why shouldn’t I get a part of that?

Money stuff aside, I’m a little squeamish, as a writer about THE PUBLIC DOMAIN out of fear as to what, exactly, the carnivores out there hiding in the public domain bushes waiting to pounce on and eviscerate my precious work. No wonder the Doyle estate is peeing themselves. They’re scared of the inevitable plot of “Smurfs 3: Elementary, my dear Smurfette”.

On the other hand, Sherlock Holmes is such a great character, just think what some other great writer could do with it. Look at what Stephen Moffat has done with the excellent “Sherlock” series on the BBC, a modern retelling of the Holmes and Watson adventures. If more people could access those characters, the possibilities are limitless.

A lot of it could be crap. A lot of it could be wretchedly offensive. But is that a reason to withhold it?

It’s this last bit that also makes me nervous about when estates commission other authors to write new books in long established series where the original authors have died. They did it with Robert Ludlum’s Bourne books. The Godfather. The James Bond novels too. I haven’t read any of them. They may be great, but I’m scared.

Michael Chabon wrote a novel called “The Final Solution” which is clearly about an elderly, retired Holmes, though he’s never mentioned by name. The character stuff in the book is interesting, but the plot…well, it just isn’t a Holmes novel.

“Star Trek Into Darkness”, the second installment in the rebooted “Star Trek” franchise hits all the right character notes. They’ve got Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest nailed. But…the plot just isn’t there.

Ultimately, you can’t beat the original. Of anything. You can imitate. You can copy. But you can never reproduce.

The question is do you have the right to?

And if you do, should you?

WRITERS GOTTA WRITE. I GOTTA LISTEN

I like to write.

No, I really like to write. I like building a world in my head and seeing if I can move it to paper and have it look as cool s it did rattling around my brain. Sometimes it does. Often it doesn’t and that’s actually more fun, because it means I can keep on building that world to make it better.

But the thing I like to do when I’m not writing (or reading) is listen to other writers talk about what they are writing and reading. One of my favorites is Chuck Wendig (@ChuckWendig on Twitter. Do, please, go follow him.) Chuck writes urban fantasy – always profane, often violent, sometimes really violent, and occasionally humorous – but filled with some of the richest, grittiest, emotional writing ever. Check out his Miriam Black books Blackbirds and Mockingbird for starts. As a palate cleanser look for his Dinocalypse books coming soon which are much cleaner, but oh so much fun.

Urban fantasy is a genre, frankly, I only got interested in because Wendig is so damn captivating with his tweets and even more so with his blog at terribleminds where he dishes out really, really good (and dare I say it, sometimes inspirational) writing advise. He also curses a lot and can spin the hell out of a whacked-out metaphor. So there’s that.

One of my favorite shows right now is the Sundance Channel show “The Writer’s Room” where the host sits down with the creator, some of the writers, and a star from a popular TV show and they just talk about what goes into breaking stories and turning ideas into TV. So far they’ve done “Breaking Bad”, “Dexter”, “Parks and Recreation” and “The New Girl”.

I subscribe to a number of podcasts: The Nerdist, The Nerdist Writers Panel, Book Riot, and others. I like the ones centered on writers the best. Others, like Thrilling Adventure Hour, or even the NPR show Fresh Air have lots of great stuff I enjoy, but I’ll still zero in on the writers. My iPod scrolling is like, “Yeah, yeah, interview with the doctor who cured cancer. Oh, another episode about how the US just got sold to China which is turning it into condos. Boring. Blah blah…ooh, Neil Gaiman!”

Side note: I’ll listen to Neil Gaiman talk about anything anytime. His voice is awesome. He could describe the workings of the large intestine and make it sound magical.

The special features are my favorite parts of DVDS. I love this stuff.

I love it because (1) listening to people who are passionate about what they do is just fun. Even if I’ve never seen that show or movie or play they’re involved with, I love hearing them talk about it; (2) it’s also infectious. It makes you passionate about what you do.

As much as I’m enjoying the final eight episodes of “Breaking Bad”, I’m enjoying the “after-show” called “Talking Bad” where Chris Hardwick interviews the creator and stars of the show about what just happened on the episode that night just as much.

So, yeah.

I may have a problem.

WHAT MAKES YOU STOP READING?

Goodreads recently posted a list of the books its members most often set aside without finishing and the reasons why. The results were interesting. You can read them here.

Not surprisingly, the reasons people stopped reading boiled down to bad writing. But it was more than that. Only a few people were bothered by “ridiculous” plot or “immoral” content, but a whopping forty-six percent said the book was slow or boring. Nineteen percent blamed weak writing. So apparently readers are willing to overlook a LOT, if the writing is good.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere. I wonder what it is…

I don’t remember ever not finishing a book. There’ve been many I’ve been disappointed in, but I always power through to see how it ends (as do twenty-five percent of Goodreads respondents). Likewise, I’ve never walked out of a movie, though I’ve been tempted. (Looking at you, Battlefield Earth). One time I did turn off a rented video half way through. It was Diabolique with Sharon Stone. It was stupid.

Sorry, Sharon.

No, I’m not.

It was awful.

Anyway, there is usually something I can find in a creative work – book, film, TV, fortune cookie fortune – to keep me involved. A character I like. A good story. Cool special effects. Nice crunch. Whatever.

But I know a lot of you aren’t like that. What makes you guys bail on a story? Comment in this space and I’ll read all of them. Unless I get bored.

MY FIRST LINE

So. I’m writing a novel.

Still.

Not the same one. Another one. Whenever someone asks if I’m writing, I usually say, “Oh, I’m always writing something.” It’s true. There is a constant rotation of plays and novels and blog entries; not even a rotation. More like a mas jumble of projects out of which one will tumble, I’ll work on it until the Giant Ball of Work rolls back by and scoops that project up into it and deposits another at my feet.

Because I like you, (Damn it all. I love you, man!…and lady…and unicorn.), I felt like giving you the first line of what is still very much a work in progress. Here it is:

It wasn’t so much that the cheese dip had sausage in it that offended him.

Nice, huh! Huh? No more lines for you. No context. Not even a title of the book. That’s all you get. Reactions? Okay, go!

Is that fair? Can you really get a sense of what I might be writing from this? If so, tell me, because I have no clue.

What’s your favorite line of a book? “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”? “To be or not to be?”, which actually isn’t from a book, but rather a play, but it’s still pretty cool.

How important is the first line anyway? Can you judge a book by it? You can’t judge a book by its cover (unless you’re my kids), but what about those first few words? Why just the first line? What about the first paragraph? Or page? Or chapter? Why so arbitrary, readers?

What is the first thing that makes you want to read a book?

LITTLE WAYS TO MAKE THE DAY JOB BEARABLE

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I have a secret.

Several really, but one in particular is relevant here.

Making sweet blog missives week in and week out is intellectually satisfying, but doesn’t really pay very much. So…

I have a day job. At night, I sit around in my underwear; one hand on the keyboard, the other on a bottle of gin, cranking out Internet goodness. But by day, I sit around in a tie in an office doing GROWN UP THINGS.

It’s an old story: the writer who supports his artsy habit working for THE MAN.

The Day Job: Purgatory for Creatives.

Well, that might be overstating it. But for someone who wants to be their own boss, do their own thing, make a living creating things, working a day job can be a toil. Fortunately, there are little ways to tow the company line while still maintaining that quirky whatever that makes you YOU.

I’m not talking about gold-bricking. That’s a thing, right? “Gold-bricking”? A thing that fits in this context? Anyway, the little defiances against the drudge of the work-a-day world that I’m talking about aren’t about goofing off. No looking at porn when you should be compiling a spreadsheet. No two hour lunch hours. Nothing that detracts from what you’re getting paid to do.

I’m talking about little acts that let you do your job while still making it just a smidge more entertaining for yourself. Here are some that I like:

Up at the top of this page is a picture of a mini TARDIS. I picked it up at Barnes & Noble and it is parked now on my desk at my day job. When the mid-afternoon slump hits or the fevered paper-shuffling that is most mornings is particularly stressful, the TARDIS whisks me away to anywhere else in time and space (“All of time and space; everywhere and anywhere; every star that ever was. Where do you want to start?”) that I would want to go. I take a little mental trip (insert your own joke here), then I’m back. Work goes on.

Once in a great while on a work day, for the hell of it, I don’t shave. It’s a little thing. My beard is pretty light (shut up – it doesn’t make me any less of a man, I tell you), so it’s unlikely anyone notices. Or cares. But I do it anyway. For me.

Twitter. Some people take smoke breaks. I take Twitter breaks. This is a tricky one. Twitter. Facebook. They suck you in and can be total productivity killers. I’m not talking about a long session. A few seconds here and there; enough time just to get a sense of what’s going on out there, then back to work.

Look out the window. The key here is my office doesn’t actually have any windows. I actually have to walk around the maze of cubicles to find an exterior wall with a window to the outside world. Its a way to remind myself there’s still a world going on outside with sun and rain and snow and life bustling along – probably doing something more fun than me. But still.

I carry a briefcase TO WORK. It has pens and paper. And books. Books I actually want to read, not books I have to read. Most of this stuff stays untouched all day, of course. I just like having it nearby. Having books nearby is to writers like frilly underthings are to cross-dressers.

No judging.

Hey! Reading this post might have been your subversive act of defiance against your employer. I’m like a revolutionary.

Sexy, ain’t I?

Before you put down your preferred blog reading device, let me know what ways you’re taking down the economy from within your workplace.

SIDEKICKS AND COMPANIONS

Remember Jar Jar Binks?

*Pause for the throwing of rotten tomatoes*

I know…I KNOW. He was an awful character in a mediocre? sucky? awesome? movie. (Don’t really care where you come down on Star Wars: Episode One. That’s a post for another time.) At best, Jar Jar was an annoying waste of CGI. At worst, he was a thinly veiled racist stereotype.

But Jar Jar was also a good example of a recurrent problem in film/TV/books, particularly sci-fi: cookie-cutter sidekicks and companions. The heroes in these things – your Luke Skywalker, Captain Kirk, Mal Reynolds or The Doctor – have their issues too. You could probably count on one set of hands of feet the number of prominent sci-fi heroes who weren’t men and probably on one hand the number who weren’t white guys. But, they tend to be at least reasonably well thought out, straight-forward characters.

Companions and sidekicks often don’t flesh out as well. Doctor Who has long been pilloried for the companions to The Doctor being primarily hot, young women. I can only think of maybe six or eight male companions in the entire fifty years since the show debuted. The new series that started in 2005 has done a (somewhat) better job making the companion more than somebody who stands there looking pretty and screaming at monsters, but still, they’re mostly hot, young women, many of which are openly or subtly in love with The Doctor. It would be nice if the show included more male companions and more woman who are as clever and kick-ass as The Doctor.

The original Star Trek series broke ground with Uhura, a black woman in a prominent role on the Starship Enterprise, and the show had a pretty diverse cast. But the Star Trek franchise has taken some hits over the years at the otherwise limited role of women. The new movie Star Trek Into Darkness (which I haven’t got to see yet) has taken some flack for an apparently gratuitous scene of a woman in her underwear.

The only prominent woman – only woman at all? – in Star Wars is Princess Leia. The original film series anyway. Then, in the second batch of films (Which is really the first batch? Still confuses me.) We get Princess Armadillo or whatever her name was. That’s it.

I don’t know why all this is. Obviously, it’s not only white men who write sci-fi. But with maybe the exception of Margaret Atwood, you really only hear about the men. And, just as obviously, not all those white guys are racist or biased against women. They’re just not writing, or not good at writing, diverse characters. Or so much work goes into the hero that the other characters get short-shrift. Sidekicks and companions, then, turn into stereotypes.

I feel bad for them.

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