Writing, Reading, Watching

I stumbled into this idea by accident, but nonetheless I think it’s been helpful to me as a writer.

For most Americans, the primary way we access and process stories is through movies and TV shows. I know that’s stating the obvious, but walk with me for a moment.

For most writers, the thing we’re writing is a novel. Again, I’m stating the obvious, but novels are very different than screenplays, scripts, or (especially), finished tv shows.

We’ll start with the most obvious difference: length. Even a relatively short novel is usually twice the length of a movie’s screenplay (110-120 pages, according to the “Save the Cat Beat Sheet), and four times as long as a one-hour drama’s script (50-60 pages, according to MovieOutline.com). Now, granted, prose often takes more space to get the same amount of action in than a script does, but the actual amount of story is radically different.

But let’s look at some more subtle differences. First, for a TV show, you have an episodic structure, with short individual stories, one long story broken up into one-hour blocks (a long story that would itself be MUCH longer than a novel, even for a 12-episode short series), or a Burn Notice-style combination of the two, wherein a few major episodes form a major arc, and are referenced or mentioned within the bulk of the (otherwise self-contained) episode in the season. This is obviously a very different story structure than even a series of novels.

Secondly, the nature of the presentation is different. TV and movies are very visual media, and visual things are very impressive in that media (stunts, sets, etc.). However, prose descriptions of impressive visual things usually aren’t that impressive. They’re out of sync with the nature of prose, which engages less forcefully, but can pull the reader deeply in through engaging all five senses as well as through the prose style itself.

I’ve had to stop watching much TV in order to make time to write. It wasn’t a choice I made to improve my writing style, but a choice I made to allow myself the time I needed to write consistently. I still shoehorn in some documentaries and YouTube videos (more of the latter than I should), but watching actual TV shows has pretty much fallen by the wayside.

And I’ve become a better writer for it. I was too distracted by the neat things I’d seen in visual media to think about how they don’t apply to writing novels. And, this has shifted the balance of how I mostly get my stories. Now, I mostly get my stories through reading novels, and so my brain thinks more in prose. It’s been a real improvement.

I think the key isn’t so much that watching TV and movies inherently distracts from writing prose, but rather, that having my primary method of absorbing story be audiovisual distracted from writing prose. I still watch movies, and I still watch TV with my daughter (I’m particularly fond of Sarah and Duck, My Little Pony, and The Deep), but the proportions have shifted, and that’s made a real difference.

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My 2017 Project: Become a Writer

In 2016, I earned my Ph.D., went vegan, and got my cholesterol under control. I was on a roll.

But I hadn’t successfully finished a piece of fiction (except one short story that I didn’t and still don’t like) since January 2014, when I finished the novel I’d begun the one time I legitimately won NaNoWriMo.

I realized I was never going to be a writer at this rate. So my 2017 project was learning how to write. Not how to get published or how to indie publish, but how to write fiction.

I wanted to break writing down into step by step aspects I could address directly. Writing is a HUGE “thing,” and I honestly didn’t know where to start. But I trusted that if I DID start, eventually I’d get traction.

For the first several months I studied Kishotenketsu, which was a fun warm-up to my serious studies.

Then Dannie, an awesome horror writer and long-time friend, told me about Holly Lisles’ online courses and Brandon Sanderson’s course lectures on YouTube.

The first thing I did was take Holly Lisles’ free flash fiction course. It honestly changed my life. I learned so much about structure and felt so much thrill of success planning and writing story after story.

I learned, proved to myself, that writing IS a repeatable phenomenon. It’s not magic we can’t explain, or lightning that doesn’t strike twice, or a wind that goes where it wants.

I started her novel writing and character courses, but she’s a serious outliner, and I’m much closerto a discovery writer, and that mismatch made them less useful to me. I still learn a lot by reading her blog. I’ll write a whole post about her later.

Then I started watching Brandon Sanderson’s lectures, and I learned so much about novels, including how to approach things from a discovery writer perspective. He’ll get his own post, too.

Brandon Sanderson recommended Dan Wells’s presentation on plotting, and I watched that. I also read Rachel Aaron’s article on planning a novel.

At that point, around July 1, I realized I was ready to start planning my own novel.

And so I did. But that’s going to get its own post, too.

The Problem with Passable

This video from Nerdwriter explained something I’d felt but never been able to put into words:  so many movies today don’t observe, imitate,  and speak to life,  but rather to other,  older,  usually better movies. 

This is a temptation for a lot of writers, I’m sure; it certainly is for me. 

Why? Because we know the movie, tv,  and fiction tropes. We’re confident that.  We’re not always confident in our own insights into people. 

We don’t feel like we really understand people that well,  and we don’t want to not write because of it. 

We also don’t want to take the risk of writing what we see as real,  and then having people tear it  apart. 

But I think that is the risk we must take. Otherwise, we’re just adding to the passable problem. 

The Brilliance of Moana’s “Shiny”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=93lrosBEW-Q

In one scene, Disney accomplishes so much:

  1. A fun and catchy song

  2. A memorable (if minor) villain

  3. A great action sequence with brilliant visuals

  4. A great reminder/introduction to just how vast the supernatural world is: Tamatoa is bigger than any house Moana has seen,  and he lives in a giant clamshell

  5. Tamatoa’s expression of terror when Maui takes hold of his hook for the first time shows just how powerful and feared Maui was back in the day. It proves that “You’re Welcome” wasn’t just puffery and showing off.

  6. Setup for an ongoing difficulty/twist: Maui’s inability to use his hook’s powers like he used to, and his sense that without his hook, he’s nothing.

  7. The sense that Maui isn’t the only one who thinks he’s nothing without his hook: Tamatoa agrees.

  8. Demonstration of Moana’s fear when faced with the supernatural world, then her courage to recover, and her resourcefulness to trick Tamatoa

  9. Revelation the Maui was abandoned at some point, feels alone, and does great deeds for humans mostly to feel wanted and accepted

  10. Moana saves Maui, which elevates her to his level, and puts them on more equal footing.

All in less than four minutes.

As they say on Firefly, “Shiny.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BFpgtYJLVW4

Wanna see something else shiny?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=knlw6kFP_RU

Don’t Proceed with a Boring Lead 

Looking back at NaNoWriMo 2016, I can see a few mistakes I made. 

The first was trging to do NaNo in the stressed out state I was in. I should have just started my self care resolution two months early. 

But then,  I didn’t realize how much I needed to address my loor self care until December, so maybe NaNoWriMo helped me realize it. 

The mistake was writing something that was too … undemanding … with a lead who was just too blandly “good.”

It was the best I could do in the state I was in,  which was itself a clue. 

She wanted to save the village because out was her home and she loved it and … yawn … what was I saying? I  nodded of there for a second.

I think I will revisit that story,  and my first change well be her backstory and motivations.

The story will take a slightly darker tone,  she’ll be slightly less sympathetic, but it will all be a lot more interesting. 

NaNoWriMo Final Report: Victory!

nanowrimo_2016_webbanner_winner

I actually crossed the finish line two days early, late Monday night. Woohoo!

Things I learned, in no particular order:

  • For me, the most important part of writing is making decisions. Writer’s block is often just the fear of making decisions. Be Bold!
  • I have a bit of a depressive personality, which I mostly manage through self-care. Writing dark, morally ambiguous, cynical stories is not good self-care
  • Writing can and should feel good. If it doesn’t, maybe I’m writing  the wrong story. That’s not to say that it will always be easy, or always flow freely, but it will be feel right and good.
  • I need to simplify characters, starting with a couple of broad roles (this time, I used the four classic temperaments and role within the classic “five man band”), so I can differentiate them early. Complexity will come from the interaction of roles and their interactions with other characters
  • “Surviving in nature” shows are good inspiration for nonviolent action and peril scenes (Dual Survival, Remote Survival, River Monsters, etc.)
  • I still need help with plotting. The Hero’s Journey (especially Christopher Vogler’s simplication of it ) and Kenn Adams’s Story Spine (aka “The Pixar Story Spine”) are good guides to keep me on track.
  • Back to characters, to keep myself from making the same characters over and over and muddying them up, I made cards, shuffled them, and randomly drew for role, temperament, etc. I didn’t bind myself to the results, but I used them to get myself flowing.
  • The key is making decisions, being bold, and not being afraid to try something new, to go against the mold … especially the “white male antihero solves problems by beating up the right bad guys” mold. 🙂
  • Nightwish makes some great writing music