Writing Bumps

Joining another writing group is always hazardous to my health. New people. New opinions. Are they versed in the foundation of storytelling? The only way is to jump in and find out. I'm already part of an ongoing workshop, and for one writer, we finished his book and hopefully helped him revise it to the point where he'll get an agent.

So why am I looking into another one?

To say that the first pages have to catch the eye of a literary agent is putting it lightly. Those pages are the most important because if the words don't capture the readers' mind with a master hypnotist's touch, then they'll never venture further down the rabbit hole and revel in the delicious story that you've weaved from the fabric of your imagination.

I decided to attend a session with the group and see how they work. Sitting down in a conference room in a restaurant, I gazed at about eight storytellers who varied from beginner to published. The task was that they would read their pages, and we would lay some knowledge, critique.

The first set of pages described a father trying to fight this monster. And this monster was too powerful and killed his wife and kids. They were nameless. Faceless. Characterless.

After he finished reading, he asked, "Was it too violent?"

"You're asking the wrong question," I decided to answer. "You could kill a million people [in your story], but if I don't care about them, then the violence doesn't matter." I wasn't sure he understood, so I continued, "But if you rooted me to one character and killed her, then I'd cry."

Again, not much of a reaction. So I sat back, while someone threw in their comments.

Another writer read the first chapter of her fantasy. From my perspective, she had put a lot of elements of her world within the first pages without explanation or reasoning. When building a world the reader will need to know why certain fantasy elements are being shown. Otherwise, why show them? The reasoning doesn't have to be there when the fantasy element is introduced, but it should be soon after the introduction. But when too many of these elements are shoved into the first pages without knowing why they're there, readers are then tasked to remember all of these elements. And that's hard. It's like learning a foreign language, and you have to remember 100 new words without knowing the definitions. Good luck.

A third weaver of fables read his short story. This was interesting because he was a man writing from the perspective of a woman, a difficult task. This was a treasure hunting adventure to be unfolded through her eyes. As he read, it took a few paragraphs to establish her point of view, like "She felt the cool breeze." Afterward he didn't reveal her thoughts, emotions, sensations as the adventure moved forward until the end of the story. It's like getting on a train for a fun ride, but unbeknownst to us, the ride had ended.

I'm not sure how advanced these writers are. And I can't tell you how advanced I am. I'm my own harshest critic. But when I noticed basic problems from rooting, world building, to point of view, I wonder if I should read my first pages. Can I trust their critiques?

But the purpose of reading my first pages was to see if I could capture their imaginations and not necessarily how good my mechanics are, since I had worked through them with my writing coach. So I chanced reading my first chapter.

My initial expectation was, "Holy shit! Yo shit is some good'n tootin' writin'"

What actually happened was...

I think part of the issue is the format of this writing group. In my current workshop, we send each other pages to be reviewed over a week's time. That way we can read and reread, think about the pages, and provide a thoughtful line by line critique. The new format: a writer would read their work to us, and we're listening to these pages for the first time while critiquing. I'm a dude. I don't multitask. Often, I was rereading as others were giving their comments so I could give some coherent advice.

However, I did get some good responses and suggestions and have tightened my first pages. What helped me the most was giving my suggestions on the fly. Spotting these basic writing issues helped me realize that I had learned something from my writing coach. I never doubted that, but I've always wondered to what degree. And passing what I've learned only helps cement those lessons for me.

Cliche

Cliches. Adverbs. Telling. Flash backs. Talking heads. Exposition. Predictability. Inconsistent point of views.

These are some of the no-no's of writing fiction. There's a ton more. So it's no wonder that writing something original can be difficult. They say there's nothing new under the sun. I don't know who they be, but I never seen them.

It's been six months since the start of the writing group, and so far we've all been pretty consistent. One of the writers remarked that one of my characters seemed to be God-like. Not that the character had magical powers, but the way I characterized him made him seem that way. He's sorta the Yoda of this book, where around he goes and wisdom he dispels.

In one scene right before the first major battle, he flies along side the main character and has a short but deep conversation. One of the critiquers said that a God-like character should have a God-like entrance: the clouds parting and the sun shooting rays. This writer meant well and often has great input. But I can't think of anything more cliche than having such an entrance, except having birds chirp, cherubs circling the character, playing violins and trumpets, throwing flower petals, while angels sing angelically.

Now, doing the opposite is becoming all too common. The anti-hero is one example.

I love Breaking Bad. You have this character, Walter White, a father of a son with cerebral palsy, married to a devoted woman who's pregnant with their second child, working a thankless job teaching high school chemistry, making barely enough money to support his family. Then he gets diagnosed with terminal cancer. The procedures to fight the cancer alone would destroy his family financially. What is a man to do? Partner with a small time drug dealer and make meth.

Unlike other attempts at anti-heroes, Suicide Squad...cough...ahem, excuse me, Walter starts out as a redeeming character in that we can relate to his troubles. We understand not making enough money. We understand working thankless jobs. Corporate world anyone? We understand sickness. In the face of it all, he tries something unconventional to earn that paper. Money for any of you ghetto-challenged.

I think that being unconventional is the key to skirting the trite. But what do I mean by unconventional?

Thinking from a normal person's perspective, Walter could have gotten another job. Or a higher paying job. Or begin a startup. Or given up and die.

However, going the deep end, like whoring out his wife would make Walter unlikeable. At least in the beginning. He does a lot of despicable stuff in the nine seasons that the show had ran. But hooking the viewers first is important. And it's a good hook.

Obviously from a storytelling point of view, he can't sell meth forever, so upping the ante by having Walter commit increasing heinous crimes pushes the envelope. But he's doing them to protect his own interests, his family being one. And that helps keep the audience sympathetic.

In the aforementioned Suicide Squad, no one has any redeeming qualities. The closest that I can think of is Will Smith's character, Deadshot. He has a daughter that he loves, but that's it. To say that a father loves his child isn't enough to hook us to a character. There's no conflict. The film also doesn't do a convincing job showing his daughter being disappointed at knowing her father is a killer. And Deadshot doesn't show that he regrets letting her down. There are scenes that depict these things. But Deadshot doesn't do anything to try and stop. The tone of the the character is that he's an assassin. It is what it is. There's no real guilt, hence, not redeeming.

With Mr. White, we see him taking the time to calculate the cost of his procedures, calculate his family's financial needs after he's gone, assuming the procedures didn't work, and made the total amount as his goal. Noble.

People understand doing bad stuff. But doing bad stuff for the purpose of doing bad stuff has no emotion behind it. For most people who aren't psychotic, they can't understand that and will not feel sympathy for the character.

Feelings, Nothing More Than Feelings

Is Batman really Superman?

Is Batman really Superman?

I’d just gotten back from the San Diego Comic Con, 2013. If you search for that on the net, then everybody and their mothers’ brothers’ cousins’ roommates’ acquaintance who met at the bar the other night has written about it. So I’m not gonna add to that but will give my take as a storyteller and what this massive wet dream for fandom means. Hmm…women don’t have wet dreams so forget I wrote that. Can’t I just press the delete button? And Zack Snyder, director of MAN OF STEEL, made a surprise announcement:

Anyways, I’m letting my thoughts on Comic Con simmer before I ramble about it.

Today at work, I was catching up on all the emails that had accrued while I was out. Most of it was either deleted or filed away, and very little of it required my attention. I tried to get everything done before I left for the four-day weekend. When asked what I do for work, I often find myself stating that I manage emails, since it seems to be the main focus. And I also find that other people in the corporate world manage emails, too. So people go to university, study hard all night, go into deep debt with student loans to manage an email box. Woot! Love the corporate world.

Cynic? Yeah. What else do you expect of me?

I've won a million dollars!

I've won a million dollars!

As I was managing my email box, I was listening to a lecture. Not that deleting or filing emails isn’t fulfilling…but if I can learn something and work at the same time, then why not? Two guys were talking about knowing oneself, and that you can’t know yourself and not be vulnerable to emotional pain. For example, to be in a healthy and successful relationship where two people come together, be it plutonic or romantic, they suggested that we have to open ourselves up totally. It’s only then can relationships flourish toward whatever they are working for. Romance novels, movies, and Hallmark Specials often depict failing relationships due to miscommunication, and there’s truth in that. But to be that open, we do leave ourselves vulnerable. And the two guys support that whole-heartedly. If we do get hurt, then it’s exhilarating because it means we’re alive, that we’re feeling something.

That took me back to my martial arts days when my teachers were sparring. They said they weren’t alive until they felt pain. I was a lot younger and ignorant then, but I thought they were psycho.

But, again, there’s truth in that. Not the psycho part…well maybe.

When researching what it took to be a good writer, I ran across a book that stated you need to feel.

And that makes sense. Everything we do as artists, be it storyteller, actor, painter, sculptor, fighter, we’re communicating with emotion. As a writer, I'm trying to tie the reader to the character with emotion.

Watching an interview with J.J. Abrams when he started work on Star Trek, he asked himself, why care about James T. Kirk? Essentially, how does he get the audience to care about Kirk, who is an egomaniac? It’s an interesting question because Kirk has such a huge fan base. Abram’s answer: kill his father. I was like, he stole my idea! Not really, but the main purpose of my prologue is to root my main character to the reader.

As humans, we’re given emotions for a reason. It tells us what’s going on, it informs of us of any changes that need to be made, it's data of some sort. Man, I sound like I work in IT. I suppose it’s a good thing. But it sucks when we’re in it, freeing when we’re out.