The Consequences of Caring

Every once in a while I sit down in front of the computer and pull open a story and feel… nothing. No inspiration, no real urge to continue on with what’s happening in the current moment. This happened last night, when a pair of characters were entering a section that could be described as ‘character-building conversation’.

Part of me wanted to have the scene. To have the characters talk about themselves and banter back and forth. Share their love of beansprouts and ginger ale. The kind of conversation you might have with a buddy at a bar.

But man, when I looked at the page and thought about that conversation, I just could not do it. Could not think of a way to make it interesting. I sat there for more than ten minutes trying to structure a scene around it, and slowly felt that creeping dread that the night’s writing was going to be lost to this dumb talk-fest that I thought was necessary for some reason.

The frustration turned out to be a catalyst. I realized that I didn’t really care about the conversation these two would have, and if I didn’t care, my readers probably wouldn’t either. So I threw it out. Devoted a line to it and then skipped to the next day, and a more interesting encounter. The writing came quickly then, and I was able to pound out a thousand words in under twenty minutes because I was having fun with the scene.

So, next time you think you care about something in the story and the writing isn’t coming easily, consider whether you’re really interested in it. Whether the scene itself is necessary. Because if you don’t really care enough to write it, your readers won’t care to read it.

The Man in the High Castle

No, not the Amazon show. The book. The Phillip K. Dick sci fi piece that serves as a dystopic introduction to the alt-history genre. In this one, the Nazi’s won. Japan did too, and now the world is split into halves.

The fun part about reading books on the Kindle is that you can see the sections that other people thought were worthy of highlighting. Meaning that as you’re perusing Mr. Frink’s journey into jewelry-crafting and Juliana’s Denver shopping spree, you’ll occasionally come across little lines telling you that other people found this meaningful. Or, at least, worth quoting.

It’s like getting an older textbook at the start of the year, and finding you caught the one last held by Scribble McGee, captain of the wandering pencil who found every other word worth a graphite epitaph.

While the highlighted passages themselves seemed fine from a quality perspective, they did have one thing in common. The same thing that permeated all of Dick’s characters in the book. A philosophical sense that the place that they inhabited wasn’t right.

In other novels, that theme might be used to propel change. Spur the heroes onto a quest to defeat some evil and right the world. Here, though, the feeling is a tantalizing thing that, even when some come close to escaping that world, they give it up. Go back to the dismal place they know, but perhaps more at peace with it.

I could strain the message and say that I take it as a push to keep on going. That the current world of working hard and writing little isn’t the world as its supposed to be. The difference, hopefully, is that when, if, I reach a point where change is possible that I don’t back down. Because I’m not sure I could find any peace that way

Storywriter

So, Amazon has this nifty new thing out if you’re interested in screenplays at all. If you read my last post, and let’s be real, I wouldn’t be upset if you hadn’t, you’d know that I think fiddling with a screenplay is a great way to learn dialogue and to-the-point writing. No room for fluff in Courier font.

Anyway, this tool seems to be one more way to bring faster formatting to the masses. Not that it was particularly expensive before – $40 programs like Scrivener and such give you at least some weapons in the auto-formatting war even if you don’t want to spring for the pricier prince of programs, Final Draft. The latter, though, is pretty good and (like right now) is frequently on sale, so if you want it you can wait for a good price.

Still, if you want to play in Amazon’s party, you’ll have to acquiesce to some not-so-nifty requests. If you want to submit your work to Amazon’s studio directly from the app, anyway. And that’s, like, the main selling point here. While I haven’t used Storywriter personally, reviews indicate that it’s a fine tool that doesn’t improve on any of the things I mentioned above.

Except, of course, that submission opportunity. Now, who knows how long it’ll take for Amazon to be overwhelmed with submissions and turn into the same studio swamp we writers recognize everywhere in Hollywood. But, for now, it’s a free and clear window to throw up every Alf re-imagining you’ve been penning in secret and hope Amazon sees the hidden genius you tell all your friends about after another lite beer bender.

The watch point in all this is that Amazon reserves the right to essentially spin off your idea and claim it was someone else’s submission provided there aren’t verbatim copied sections from your script. In other words, it’s on you to prove your Muchkin Murder Mysteries anthology series was only your idea and not Aaron Sorkin’s. The idea here being that you should read through the terms of the agreement before you submit, and don’t get upset if something familiar wanders onto Prime video without nary an email getting sent your way.

As for me, I might try it with some fun little ideas I’ve had floating around. It’s like taking a chance with minimal real consequences. As you can import other documents into Storywriter, you don’t have to write them entirely in Amazon’s app, making a crossover from your existing program an easy move.

So, why not. My sitcom based on a soiree of 18th-century salty sea-captains stuck in modern-day Portland, Oregon won’t write itself.

The New Thing

A new story is a shiny thing. So much possibility all swirling around in your head. Sometimes, if it’s a real good idea, you can almost take the entire thing and picture it in front of you. A completed manuscript, full of twists and turns and all kinds of juicy characters.

It’s dangerous, addictive stuff. The idea that an idea can be more than just an idea with a bit of effort. When you’re picturing that great new tale, whatever it is you’ve been working on seems a little dull. The sparkle is gone. Why keep working on it when there’s this wonderful thing you just thought of?

There’s a value to finishing projects you’ve started that isn’t immediately apparent when you’re in the trenches. Even if it’s a story that won’t sell. Or you’re halfway through and realize that it’s not the best thing ever. Finishing a project teaches you things that you don’t get from throwing it out the door. Plus, then you have something else to wave at people who wonder about your qualifications.

In short, when you have a great idea, drop it down on paper. Flesh it out and file it away as something to play with next. You have all the time in the world to write, but if you never finish what you start, it’s going to be a habit that keeps you from getting where you want to go.

The West Wing

Why am I titling a post after a late-90s political drama?

Because The West Wing‘s writing is just so damned good. The whip-snap of sentences thrown back and forth by the characters has a cadence to it that’s addictive. The allusions to literary, theatrical, film, and history that pepper every episode make it seem as though everyone in The West Wing‘s universe has a masters in every humanities discipline. It’s unrealistic, and incredible.

There’s a battle when writing dialogue that I struggle with, that probably most authors struggle with. And that is how real to make the words coming from the character’s mouths. Listen to a person talk in the real world and it’s full of idioms, stutters, likes and uhs to the point where actually putting that on the page would be inviting the reader to throw their hands up in despair and chuck the book into the nearest fire.

By the same token, dropping high-dollar words and references ala The West Wing is risky. In a TV show, where the action keeps moving whether the viewer understands what’s been said or not, there’s a bit more pliability with the Ph.D caliber quotes. With a book, where a reader has time and may feel compelled to look up any given mention, there has to be a careful balance between verbal fencing and, you know, sounding like a professor trying to impress a board of peers.

I try to aim for the middle. Truth to the character – meaning that I’m not going to have my Southern Gentleman start dropping ghetto slang. Truth to their background – meaning the teenager who’s grown up among native Pygmies isn’t going to start quoting Aristotle. Truth to the story – meaning I’m not going to write down all the breaks, pauses, and broken sentences a real conversation tends to consist of (unless it’s adding something to the scene).

Something to try if you’re not confident in the dialogue skills – and let’s be real, just about everyone, myself definitely included, can use practice in this area – swing through a screenplay. It’ll force you to power scenes and character through dialogue, and you’ll start to take more notice of the words you choose and how they reflect on the character speaking them.

Can I have a minute?

One of the things about working with novels is that they are, in fact, novels. Not quick little blurbs – like this blog post – but big, smashing things that demand time and attention for weeks and weeks. Each one is a relationship – ups and downs, needy attachments and frustrated procrastination from doing what’s necessary.

Which is why I’ve enjoyed sprinkling in the smaller pieces. Again, like this blog post. But also short stories, even light journalism pieces here and there. It doesn’t even matter if they gain any traction (though that wouldn’t hurt). The main value is that I’m writing, and exploring different ways to structure sentences, paragraphs, and narratives outside of the stately confines of the full-length novel.

I try to do these little bursts between meetings or in the dead spaces of the work day, time I would otherwise use to browse news sites or read up on pointless filler. At first I thought I’d miss the constant rush of information, but turns out that it’s more fun sometimes putting together a paragraph than reading one.

Reliably Unreliable

The ideal image of a writer as interpreted by more popular media than this blog incorporates the scrivener sitting at a desk, possibly reclining in a chair, pen in hand with notepad on the legs. Modernized, there’s a computer sitting off to the side, though the screen is blurred and indistinguishable.

The point being that the place for this auteur of allegory is special, a zone of contemplation, a mosh pit for the muses. But you have to be there for them to find you.

I can’t give you a working routine that’s one hundred percent effective. I’m lucky enough to have an office in the house, or at least a space I can dedicate to writing, but splitting the time from the day job to find my way there is probably the most difficult part of my day.

I’d list out the reasons, but when the bullshit is blasted away it comes down to one thing:

I’m not trying hard enough.

There’s a million things that are easier to do than write. Plenty that are more appealing after nine hours of work. That’s why, when I can, I try to write in the mornings, when I’m fresh. Like, from 6-7 AM.

That’s the muse hour. When the ideas come to play. In the evenings, when I’m tired and trying to figure out what scraps can be turned into a dinner, I’m not looking to spin an epic yarn. That is, though, a perfect time to turn on a basketball game and spin out a blog post, or a short piece, or fiddle with the blog.

Point being – relegate the various writing tasks to the times of day most suited to them. You’ll be happier. You’ll be more willing to try hard, and if you miss one of your tasks for some reason (late flights, too tired to get up, etc.) then you’ll still be able to accomplish some things later. And you’ll build those habits.

At least, that’s what I’m trying to do.

The Status

Have you read Stephen King’s On Writing?

Have you read it lately? I’ll wait.

You read that book and you start to think to yourself that there’s a certain joy to be had in climbing the slow ladder of fiction. That through submissions of dozens of stories to magazines, you’ll be able to earn your place with an agent and a publisher.

I don’t know if that world really exists anymore – the number of places publishing and paying for fiction, at least in any real denomination, for someone starting out, seems to be declining. Or they’re hard to find.

But, after re-reading the book this past weekend on a pair of longish flights from California, I think that the point of what King did during his short-story period wasn’t the actual publishing. It wasn’t the selling of stories to the magazines that helped him so much.

It was the writing of them. The practice of crafting characters and situations, oddball and not. Submitting to magazines provided that extra bit of motivation that might have been lacking otherwise. That push to keep him putting words down on the page that eventually built the foundation that led to King’s novels.

I have, right now, a novel and a novella done (though still in need of editing work) and, while they’re fun, I have no illusions about them being great works of fiction. I’m going to self-publish them, and finish out the short series, because it’s a lesson. A long one, but important.

So even if you’re not dishing tales to mags on a weekly basis, even if you don’t have a nail covered in rejection slips, keep on writing. Because everything you put down makes the next thing a little better, a little tastier to the readers. Heck, it’s what this blog is for.