Sunday, February 27, 2011

So You Want to Be a Writer?

From the In-Box:

Hi, Ami,
Random question for you. I am [doing] a major restructure and semi-retiring from the customer business... My question is this: in all my "free time" how best to study writing? Would love to know more and understand it better - just for interest and fun. Any tips? 

My response:

So you want to be a writer? You realize, of course, that there's more money to be made in playing the lottery. Seriously. At least there's a system to their winning tickets.

I assume that the writing you want to do is non-fiction (magazine articles, books, online articles, etc.). If that's the case, and you want to write about the industry you're already known in, you have a great platform -- you're well known and well respected.  [It doesn't hurt that, in this particular instance, the writer has a book to his credit.]

I'd suggest coming up with a column idea, something you want to write 1000 - 1500 words about every month, and pitch it to some of the larger magazines within your industry.  Build up your readership, talk about things that interest you, and maybe start developing the idea for another book.

If you want to do non-fiction writing that is NOT in a field for which you currently are well-known, then the story is a bit different. (Imagine, for instance, that you're a famous chef who is sick of the food industry and would rather write about travel). In that case, you don't have an established platform or name recognition. You'd have to come up with a proposal for the book or article series that you wanted to do, and shop it around to various publishers or magazines until someone sees the sales potential in it. Then you'd get an advance (if a book), and a green-light to start writing.

If the writing you want to do is fiction, I'd STRONGLY recommend buying that lottery ticket that I mentioned earlier. Getting any sort of $$ for writing fiction is difficult. (Full disclosure: Cracking the novel market remains my brass ring.) Still, if that's what feeds your soul, then learn all you can about writing and craft.

Some excellent resources include Stephen King's On Writing, Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones, and the indispensable Strunk & White's The Elements of Style

If you're doing any kind of writing, the best advice I can give you is to write what you love. Work on developing your voice -- the thing that makes your words uniquely yours. You already have a speaking voice.  Recording yourself teaching, speaking, or relating a story and transcribing those recordings can be an invaluable exercise in developing voice awareness.

Also, in your reading start paying attention to things like order and sequencing, use of description, and use of pace. Make note of the things you read that really speak to you, then go back an analyze what makes them work. Likewise, make note of the things you can't even bring yourself to finish -- then analyze them for what makes them suck.

If you're leaning toward fiction, you'll have to spend some time studying and understanding story structure as well. The gold standard is The Hero With 1000 Faces by Joseph Campbell. Chris Vogler has taken Campbell's ideas and run with them in The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. While you may not agree with the concept of the Hero's Journey as foundation for both plot and structure, I would argue that you must understand its prevalence in literature before you refuse to use it in your own writing.

In other words, ignore tropes at your own risk.

I realize that this is just the surface treatment of "how to study writing." But it's the best start I can give you in only a few paragraphs.

Good luck!

What do you think? If you're a new writer, what advice would be most useful to you? If you're established, what advice would you give someone just starting out?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

K.I.S.S.: Keep it Simple, Scriptwriter

I spent some time recently talking with my friend Paul, a scriptwriter and film director. He gave me some feedback on a script I was a little too close to. Then I gave him an opinion on a project he was working on. Then we bounced other pet ideas off of each other.

Throughout our discussion, one theme emerged, time and time again – keep it simple!

We both found areas of weakness in the other’s script where the waters were being muddied by Too Much Stuff. Too many characters… Too many things going on… Too much backstory. Just too much.

As Paul reminded me: you have only 90 minutes in a movie to tell your story. It has to be succinct and to the point. So now, I have two options – find the main story I want to tell in my screenplay, cut everything else, and spend the whole movie developing the single thread, OR keep everything, flesh it all out more, and make the screenplay into a novel.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – short stories translate into great movies (see “The Shawshank Redemption,” for instance).

Novels, however, rarely do. There is too much in a book to condense into two hours. Much must be cut, go by the wayside or be ignored in order to make the movie the right length. Often, that means tampering with a book’s structure and internal construction. Which is why great books often make for inferior movies – their stories require more than two hours to tell.

Once you have a work completed, ask yourself how much time will be allotted to it on the audience’s end. In other words – people can spend hours, if not days, with a book. With a movie, however, they invest 90 to 120 minutes of their time. A TV show needs 30 to 60 minutes of commitment (if you’re really compelling and they don’t have a remote handy). Articles require only 5 to 10 minutes to read.

Armed with that knowledge, edit your piece accordingly:

  • Find the most important part – the thing you most want to say – then focus only on it. 
  • Polish that Thing so it shines for the time allotted according to the medium. 
  • Strip out everything that distracts from the story. 
  • Erase all deviating  plot lines. 
  • Get rid of anything that needs explaining, unless it directly relates to your point. 
  • Axe all periphery characters.

Simplify, simplify, simplify. In doing so, not only will you make your story stronger, but you will also crystallize your point – making your future pitches for the project stronger and more focused.

Have any ideas for simplifying your writing and making your story stronger? I'd love to hear them!

Monday, February 07, 2011

Thoughts on Stretch Armstrong and Balls of Various Sizes

I never liked Stretch Armstrong.

I never saw the point in him. To me, he was a flaccid, creepy thing that encouraged toy torture and mutilation. Evidently, little girls weren't Kenner's target market, 'cause for a while Stretch seemed to be the Barbie for those sporting a Y chromosome.  When I was growing up, every boy I knew had a Stretch Armstrong, or a Stretch Monster, or a Stretch Hulk.

Few of my friends actually used Stretch for his intended purpose. Most were overly eager to find out what was inside him (red goo). They quickly discovered that puncturing Stretch's skin compromised his integrity, ruining his stretchability and remanding him to the pile of Cannon Fodder toys that got to die over and over again in epic battles against Godzilla, Transformers, and both the Empire and the Rebel Forces.

To this day, I try to steer clear of Stretch.

I am in the process of turning a completed novella into a novel. The novella began as a screenplay (which I am still in love with), and read like one: visual, action-packed, tight, and to the point.

In my humble opinion, I believe that short stories and novellas make the best screenplays.  The shorter prose format translates well into an hour and a half of screen time. Conversely, screenplays are relatively easy to turn into novellas.

But agents are notoriously *meh* about novellas. Probably because traditional publishers are even less geeked about them.  I really like the story and the characters, so I'm delving into their world more deeply, fleshing things out more and working to turn my sprinter into a distance runner.

What I don't want to do is turn my novella into the literary equivalent of Stretch Armstrong.  I don't want to slavishly adhere to the original story and merely ... st-r-e-t-ch... it... out... beyond... all... recognition... or... use.

If the story is going to merit becoming a novel, it's going to need depth that will support its added length. I can't let the added words pull the plot all out of proportion or distort the story.

In other words, I need to ditch Stretch and think: balls.

(I know what you're thinking. And you're wrong. Bear with me here...)

My story is complete. I spent weeks contemplating its arc, its characters, and their motivations. The B & C stories are also complete. These are all the Big Things that work together to make the story gel.  These are the structural equivalent of basketballs.

When I began writing the novella, I had a specific story space to fill. I filled it with the equivalent of plot-related basketballs. If I move a basketball, I will affect all of the other basketballs in the space. The major pieces of the story are in place. If I  dislodge (or stretch) any one piece, I jeopardize the whole story.

This does not mean, however that the story space has no room left for content. There is plenty of room between basketballs. One or two soccer balls will fit, as may a volleyball or three. The odd bowling ball may also find a place. What this means in practical terms is that my B and C stories have plenty of room for development. So do my characters with regards to their motivation, aspirations, emotional depth, and maturation.

After that, there will still be room in the story space for the literary equivalent of softballs, pool balls, tennis balls, racquet balls, and ping pong balls.  Heck, when those have filled in their gaps, I can toss in a whole mess of marbles just for the fun of seeing the sun glint off their pretty colors.

During this process, all I have to do is remember why I always distrusted Stretch. I never want to run the risk of stretching the story or plot beyond all recognition. I just want to fill the allotted story space with enough balls that there's something to engage the attention of everyone who is willing to read it and take me up on a game of one-on-one.

Do you have a favorite technique for adding depth (or word count)? Share it below! I'd love to hear it.