Monday, February 08, 2016

False Starts

False starts are a thing I assume every writer has to deal with.

Sometimes these false starts happen because you merely tried starting the story in the wrong place. Other times, you're trying to get a story out into the world that you haven't completely thought through and you've picked the wrong opening because you didn't really know where you were heading.

And sometimes, you just find that the story just wasn't working the way you hoped, in the same way an experiment might go wrong. You put all the ingredients in the beaker of that first chapter and it blows up in your face instead becoming the concoction that will turn lead into gold.

I'm working on a manuscript right now and spent the last few days crafting a first chapter that I thought was going to work. But the more I lied in bed, mulling over where I was going next and how to make things pop for a reader, I realized my opening was the wrong one. It needed to either be backstory that we don't ever get to read in detail, or it needs to come as information we get much later in the story to help explain a character.

I'm notorious for beginning stories too early. Operation: Montauk and The Serpent's Head both had a chapter or three cut from the beginning because I tried starting the story too early when I sat down to write. On the other hand, I thought I'd learned my lesson with The Aeronaut, and found that I'd started about three chapters too late. It's a balancing act. And I think I'm finding it, but it's taken me constant traveling on that tightrope to find it.

Part of finding that balance is having great early readers that can help you find your bearings. Another part of it is having the guidance and instincts of a good editor to help you start your story in exactly the right spot.

And we ask ourselves what makes a great opening to a book. There are a lot of answers to that question and they could all be right or wrong for your book and you'll never know until you spend some time exploring and developing your own instincts. Do you want to open with a hook, with your characters in media res? Or do you want to start with a day-in-the-life of an utterly fascinating character, slowly building to the moment their life changes? Or do you start with the moment the character is scrambling to deal with that life changing moment?

There are a few things I know you probably don't want to do, though. You don't want to have your character wake up in a situation they have no idea about. It's been done to death. You probably don't want to open with a passage of your character walking past a mirror and describing themselves to the audience, either.

More than that, you need to read lots of great books and watch great films and see how they open. What is it that makes their opening great? What can you do to bring that into your own unique story? That factors into what we talked about last week with needing to always be learning. You need to explore what others are doing to see how you can improve upon it. And it never hurts to approach a piece of writing to work on a specific aspect of your writing that needs improvement.

More importantly, you need to be able to recognize one of these false starts and start over without stressing out about how much work you might need to throw out. That chapter I wrote that isn't going to work as the opening? I figured out what I needed to do with it after pondering the structure of Casablanca. It was information that won't be as interesting until you know the characters better and how it affects them. So I cut the whole chapter, pasted it to the end of the document, and have all of those details to fall back on and reference in oblique ways at the true beginning of the story. And when the audience needs to know what happened, that old opening chapter can be tailored to fit that purpose.

I haven't really lost anything and, to be honest, I might understand the story better than I did before.

Sometimes it'll happen with short stories, too. It's much harder to restructure a short story like I did with this novel. You might just need to put it away and let the problem work on you and then come back to it once you've had a break-through. There's no shame in that whatsoever.

False starts are a part of writing.

Figure out how to use them to your advantage.

I did a really fascinating piece for HowStuffWorks about how BB-8 got his voice. It came out of an interview with Matt Wood and David Acord, who are nominated for Oscars for their work editing the sound effects of The Force Awakens. It's worth a read.

I also got another piece about favorite quotes from The Force Awakens up to StarWars.Com.

I'm doing a regular gig at HowStuffWorks.com now that's all about Ridiculous History. The first installment came out today and is about Mother Prodgers, the scourge of London Cabbies.

As a reminder: The Aeronaut and Escape Vector are still out and still need your purchases and reviews. If nothing else, they can use you telling people about them. If you want signed copies, visit the shop here on this page.

Also! here's the full list of "rules and guidelines" I've been collecting over my years of studying writing advice and process

As far as my work outside of all this: There's a lot of great stuff on Big Shiny Robot! and Full of Sith for you. 

And please, please, please don't forget to check out any of my books, drop reviews of them on Amazon or Goodreads, and follow me on twitter and Facebook!

Monday, February 01, 2016

Always Be Learning


Lawrence Kasdan once said that "being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life." Perhaps some writers don't have to work as hard at learning and studying as I do, or as hard as I strive to, anyway, but it's something I think is important for writers of all skill levels. We can always get better and that's because we can always be learning.

I go out of my way to discover what works for other writers in their process and understanding of the craft so that I may adapt it into my work. I might not take everything they have to say to incorporate into my writing routine, but I definitely take their words and use it to refine and hone my process. That way I can be a better, more effective writer, whose craft gets better on a consistent basis. 

But how do you learn? 

There are many ways to do this. Obviously, there are books of untold quantities on the subject and I've read many of them. Last week I mentioned Robert McKee's Story and it's something I'd recommend for everyone. But Stephen King has a book On Writing.  Vonnegut discussed his writing process in many of his books. I've read about the writing process of everyone from Ernest Hemingway to Terry Brooks and almost all of them have taught me at least one thing I can adapt into my method of writing. 

But reading about the craft of writing isn't the only way to take that in. There are countless lectures on youtube, podcasts, audiobooks, and other ways to put that input into your brain. Try this one:




This is the first (well, the second) part of a 14 part lecture series from Brandon Sanderson. In fact, this is his entire 321 class on writing from BYU. Every class period is recorded and put on here. It's illuminating. Granted, for many of us this will seem like nothing more than a refresher course, but we need refresher courses, too. Sanderson also works on the Writing Excuses podcast, which is another great, bite-sized resource if you can get over the sometimes patchy audio quality. 

You can use just about any author or writer and type the following into Youtube's search bar to find great lectures: "Woody Allen on writing" or "Patrick Rothfuss on writing." Or Chuck Wendig. Or Ursula K. Leguin. Or Rod Serling. Or anyone, really. A lot of these videos are shorter. If you need a creative shot in the arm, I've found these are perfect, bite-sized bits of writing guidance and learning to kick my brain off.

There's another way, too, and that's by talking to other writers. Asking them about their process. You can even learn about your own process just by explaining it to another writer. This is part of why it's so important to be a part of a writing community in your local area. You need to be exposed to people who can talk to you about what it is your doing and they need to be able to respond in a way that will help you. It's why we have conferences for everything that requires craftsmanship and creativity. You need that sort of interaction, whether it's one on one or a lecture setting, it's something you need.

But going out of your way to learn about writing is only half the battle. We don't want the craft of writing to disappear up its own asshole, as it were, by only studying how to tell a story. You need to be consuming stories. Devouring them. All kinds of stories. You can't dive into a hole of one favorite genre or one author, you need to expand your pool to include things you'd never expect to read. Since last year, I've been focused on reading things outside of my wheelhouse for at least half of the time. The other half I dedicate to reading the work of my peers or work that specifically influences the projects I'm working on. But when you read, you need to evaluate the story, the words the make up the story and the way the author puts things together. You need to read with a critical eye in an effort to understand why the author is doing what they're doing. The more you read, the more you'll learn about how to do the same for yourself. You need to understand why they chose one word over another, why one scene came after another, why one character behaved the way they did. Because it will make it easier for you to do the same in your work.

But reading stories isn't the only way to experience them. Listen to people around you as they tell stories. Watch how a comedian might construct a punchline in a story. Watch good movies. Some of the best storytelling in the last hundred years has been in the cinema, why not learn from that medium as well? The work of great filmmakers has taught me the importance of juxtaposition of images in my prose to tell something greater than I'm describing. It's taught me a lot of other things, too. But there's no harm in seeing the moving parts of those kinds of stories work. It's vital. 

Take a look at great adaptations of novels on film as well and deconstruct why the story had to change to fit the medium the way it did. Read and watch L.A. Confidential or The Shining or Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban or The Maltese Falcon or Gone With the Wind or a hundred other great books turned movies. 

But you can't disappear into the works of fiction completely, either. You need to learn from history and the world around you. You need to learn about it and experience it. Make observations. Ask yourself questions. One way I maintain part of this connection is the religious intake of the Stuff You Missed in History podcast. And I add non-fiction pieces to my reading list, whether that's a biography or a history book, or even just articles on topics I knew nothing about in the realms of science or politics or anthropology or mysticism. You want to cast your net as wide as possible. 

It's homework. Every night.

And you can't slack. If you skipped your homework while you were in school, you weren't going to get a passing grade, if you skip it as a writer, your stories aren't going to pass muster. If you want to be a writer, you're going to have to work. All the time.

As for my writing, I've got a new piece at City Weekly in print about piracy.  There was also a new review of A Children's Illustrated History of Presidential Assassination at the Reading for Sanity blog. 

I've got a lot of new things coming soon as well. I'll be doing much more regular work at How Stuff Works in the realm of history, and I'm very excited about that. I've got more Star Wars analysis coming out all over the place, too. I also spent the weekend sending out queries for three different manuscripts I've prepared for publication. I've already had a couple of nibbles, so fingers crossed that all works out.

As a reminder: The Aeronaut and Escape Vector are still out and still need your purchases and reviews. If nothing else, they can use you telling people about them. If you want signed copies, visit the shop here on this page.

Also! here's the full list of "rules and guidelines" I've been collecting over my years of studying writing advice and process

As far as my work outside of all this: There's a lot of great stuff on Big Shiny Robot! and Full of Sith for you. 

And please, please, please don't forget to check out any of my books, drop reviews of them on Amazon or Goodreads, and follow me on twitter and Facebook!

Monday, January 25, 2016

Writing Advice from Kurosawa



At the moment, I'm working on a screenplay in addition to drafting my 11th novel. It's how I learned the art of story structure and how the moving parts of a story worked. I wrote or co-wrote a dozen screenplays before I turned to write my first novel and it was an invaluable experience.

Granted, the first thing people asked after they read my early drafts of my early work was, "You were a screenwriter, weren't you?"

It showed. They really are different media, and it can be easy to ease too far into one or the other, but I think both are valuable forms of storytelling. I mean, at my day job I work with telling stories with moving pictures every day, and at night I work with words. Or the morning, rather. I still find advice people dole out to screenwriters valuable to all writers, though. In fact, I pretty much insist anyone who is interested in telling stories read Robert McKee's Story. And then re-read it every time you're plotting a new story.  (Tip: you can get the equally helpful audiobook version with your leftover Audible credits...)

But the screenplay I'm working on is heavily inspired by the work of Kurosawa. He's one of my favorite storytellers, and I sought out some advice of his as I worked.

I found some pretty great quotes that I think apply equally to novelists, short story writers, and anyone else that wants to be a professional storyteller.

First:
"In order to write scripts, you must first study the great novels and dramas of the world. You must consider why they are great. Where does the emotion come from that you feel as you read them? What degree of passion did the author have to have, what level of meticulousness did he have to command, in order to portray the characters and events as he did? You must read thoroughly, to the point where you can grasp all these things. You must also see the great films. You must read the great screenplays and study the film theories of the great directors. If your goal is to become a film director, you must master screenwriting."
I think this obviously holds true for anyone. You need to read and watch thoroughly any sort of medium constantly. If you're not consuming all manner of stories and evaluating how and why they worked, yours will be nothing special.

Then, here's another piece about how to read (or even watch movies) in order to accomplish this endeavor:
"I‘ve forgotten who it was that said creation is memory. My own experiences and the various things I have read remain in my memory and become the basis upon which I create something new. I couldn’t do it out of nothing. For this reason, since the time I was a young man I have always kept a notebook handy when I read a book. I write down my reactions and what particularly moves me. I have stacks and stacks of these college notebooks, and when I go off to write a script, these are what I read. Somewhere they always provide me with a point of breakthourgh. Even for single lines of dialogue I have taken hints from these notebooks. So what I want to say is, don’t read books while lying down in bed."
I think this next piece is one we all struggle with in every book or screenplay, and it's helpful for me to understand that even the greatest of storytellers struggled through the same thing:

"At some point in the writing of every script I feel like giving the whole thing up. From my many experiences of writing screenplays, however, I have learned something: If I hold fast in the face of this blankness and despair, adopting the tactic of Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen sect, who glared at the wall that stood in his way until his legs became useless, a path will open up."
And finally, this piece about working every day toward your goal. I have no patience for people who tell me they don't have time to write because they absolutely do. If they really want to, if it's something that's important to them, they will.

You can replace Kurosawa's profession with any profession or lifestyle and the words still ring true.

"Those who say an assistant director’s job doesn’t allow him any free time for writing are just cowards. Perhaps you can write only one page a day, but if you do it every day, at the end of the year you’ll have 365 pages of script. I began in this spirit, with a target of one page a day. There was nothing I could do about the nights I had to work till dawn, but when I had time to sleep, even after crawling into bed I would turn out two or three pages. Oddly enough, when I put my mind to writing, it came more easily than I had thought it would, and I wrote quite a few scripts."
As far as my work being published lately, the new Star Wars Insider came out and it contains the first part of one of my favorite pieces. 


I was able to interview two people I greatly admire as storytellers in the media of radio and film: John Madden and Tom Voegeli. Madden directed one of my favorite films, Shakespeare in Love, and together he and Voegeli were responsible for the Star Wars radio dramas from NPR. It was a fascinating behind the scenes interview and worth your time to check out.

As a reminder: The Aeronaut and Escape Vector are still out and still need your purchases and reviews. If nothing else, they can use you telling people about them. If you want signed copies, visit the shop here on this page.

Also! here's the full list of "rules and guidelines" I've been collecting over my years of studying writing advice and process

As far as my work outside of all this: There's a lot of great stuff on Big Shiny Robot! and Full of Sith for you. 

And please, please, please don't forget to check out any of my books, drop reviews of them on Amazon or Goodreads, and follow me on twitter and Facebook!