Anecdotes

Here are some anecdotes that make some good points about all of this. When Tom Wolfe had his first major assignment as a reporter, he did all of the legwork and got all the information ready and then became totally blocked. He went to his boss, the editor, and told him that he couldn't do it. The editor said, OK, get all your material together, put it down so someone can make sense out of it, and I'll have George do it. Wolfe went home, wrote, Dear George, this is what I have, at the top of the...

Audience As Enemy

How would Olivier and Harrison have felt if they had no audience, if it were just a rehearsal They wouldn't be panicky if there were no audience. Do you have an audience when you write Readers are your audience, but do you have an audience while you're actually performing the act of writing Yes, you do. The audience is yourself, and that's the toughest audience in the world. No one can terrorize you like you can terrorize yourself. Actors often perform without an audience,...

Blocks Of Anything

Check your work for long, thick paragraphs of EXPOSITION. Exposition is information the reader needs to know to understand the story. Often it's information you only think the reader needs to know. The reader needs to know who's who and what's what so he can have the same experience the character does. He needs to know what the character knows that's relevant to the immediate situation. But he needs only what's necessary. For example, if a husband is accusing his wife of cheating on him, we...

Cause And Effect

So, where are we What have I given you so far I've given you an understanding of what stories do. But have I given you anything you can actually use to put together a story I have not. I've given you theory, and I've talked about the effect of the story, but I haven't given you one thing that you can actually use to put together a story haven't given you the first step to actually make it happen. Identification is what the story does the effect, what it makes happen, but not how it makes it...

Contents

The Second Time Around Rewriting 9. Method How To. How Not To. 10. Under the Sun Uniqueness. Universal Plots. 12. The Ticking Clock Fitting It In 13 Dead Weight What You Can Ignore 14. The Long and the Short of It From Short Story to Novel 15. Hitting the Wall Blocking and Unblocking 17. To Market to Market When to Submit, How, and Why Conclusion A good story cannot be denied. Like falling in love, it's irresistible. It hits you before you have time to think. It...

Cutting

Writing is rewriting is the old writing rule. To that we need to add, Rewriting is cutting. Cutting is one of your most important skills. Often, cutting alone will reveal what needs to be done. So, what is cutting What do you do when you cut And what exactly do you cut What you do is go through your story and cut every word, every phrase, every sentence, every paragraph you can possibly do without. Now, I'm not talking about destroying it for all time. You're just marking it to see what you can...

Dialogue

Some people are long-winded and go on a tirade and can't be stopped, and there are some wonderful long speeches in literature, but we're always looking for opportunities to reveal character. To do that, the characters must express themselves not only to reveal themselves but also to pressure the other characters into doing the same. Also, in a heated exchange, people interrupt and talk over each other rather than taking turns. Even three lines of dialogue in a...

Double Dutytriple Duty

Your story and you, the author, should never be doing only one thing at a time. Only setting scene (describing setting), for example. You never want the reader to be sitting around waiting for you to set things up so the story can begin. Set scene, OK, but at the same time you can be revealing character. We get character if the setting has meaning for the character, if the character is affected by it, if he has strong feelings about it. The setting should be a necessary element of the story,...

Exercises

Pick one and see what you can do with it. Blind date. First is getting set up, including the character's worries, fears, and hopes. Then the first contact on the telephone, which needs to raise both anxiety and hopes. The want is to have a wonderful lover. The obstacle is having to go through the anxiety and sense of humiliation to find out if this person is the one or is even worth the effort. Going home to visit family (parents, siblings, etc.) for a holiday visit...

Feeling It

Writing is something you want to do at least part of you does. But rarely when you sit down to do it, will you feel like it. And rarely will you feel like even sitting down to do it. So, never wait to feel it. Once you sit down to it, you will usually encounter more resistance. Especially at the beginning. Don't be surprised if you feel something like This is crazy. What can you do in five minutes I don't even get warmed up in fifteen minutes. A writer in five minutes a day, B.S. This is...

Final Thoughts On Thoughts

As I said, the workings of a character's mind is the hardest part of all of this. It's the thing that you will have the least access to in the early drafts. Often, the physical reaction will be what emerges first. When it does, put it down, recognizing that there's more to it since the mind leads the body. Just keep moving, knowing more needs to be done next time around. On each successive draft, you'll get more and more of the character's mind, and eventually you'll have what you need. Once...

Five For Thirty

The other critical part of this method is that you must commit to following it for 30 days straight before you evaluate or reconsider it or debate with yourself about the value of it. Since it takes a while to get used to and since the goal is to accumulate momentum, the only time you'll be able to see the results and possibilities is after you've done 30 days. So you must make a nonnegotiable contract with yourself to do them. Just do them. Thirty days. Keep your mouth shut. Don't evaluate....

Flashbacks

If you need them, use them, but use them properly. Like exposition, a flashback should be broken up and sprinkled through a scene the way it might naturally come into a character's mind. Never launch into a long flashback mid scene. For example, you wouldn't do this Hey, punk, what you doin' 'round here the stocky, redheaded Chicano said as he strutted down the alley toward Harry. Harry reached into his pocket and pulled out the switchblade he carried ever since...

How Deep

OK, it's a need, but exactly how deep a need is it How far will we go to satisfy it How much of an influence does it have on us, and can we find a way to measure it Yes, we can. I take you to the world of crime for the answer heist crimes (banks, Brinks, famous jewels). Let's say three guys pull off the perfect Brinks robbery, except for killing a resistant guard in the process. Nobody knows a thing no clues, no evidence. There's no chance they can get caught if they play it safe. They each...

How Long Is Too Long

Heller and Wolfe took 10 years to get their novels done, but, as I pointed out in chapter 1, Nabokov wrote Lolita in 3 months. A famous novel of some years ago, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, was written in 4 days. It was a slim little novel, but if they had been written at the same rate, Heller and Wolfe's novels would have been finished in months instead of years. A number of full-length novels have been written in a couple of months. So, the question is how long should it take Well, that's going to...

How Many

Who's a more complicated character, Dan Quayle or Lyndon Johnson The answer is obviously Johnson. What was it that made Johnson complicated Can you guess It's related to emotion. Quayle is seen as rather shallow and bungling. He's pretty much a one-note personality. Johnson, on the other hand, was a symphony of contradiction. He was capable of enormous generosity and great viciousness at the same time. That's why we think of him as complicated. A complicated character is one who embodies many...

Ideas That Help

That doesn't mean ideas are worthless. They can work sometimes especially with a mild case. (I'm contradicting myself, I know.) But you can't count on them to do the job. Stronger medicine is needed for a severe block. But ideas can help. They can loosen you up and make it easier to act. Here are some ideas that I've found helpful. The Muse What about the Muse You know, the spirit or goddess who inspires writers and artists, the source of inspiration, a magical presence that pours wonderful...

Land Of Lunacy

Some common notions Artists and writers are a little crazy. You have to be loose in the head, detached, unhinged to create. You need a special sensitivity, perception, and self-awareness to be creative. None of it happens to be true. Your personal psychology has nothing to do with it. You can be plenty wacky and be a good writer. On the other hand, sanity is no disadvantage. Writing is apart from all that. Writing is an act of discovery. You write not because you have awareness, but to achieve...

Let Nothing Be Easy

Create and take advantage of every opportunity to cause trouble. Think about how difficult things were for Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Ahab, Gatsby, Scarlett O'Hara. Who made them difficult Who drove Hamlet crazy It wasn't his father's request for revenge. It was Shakespeare. The whale wasn't the real cause of Ahab's death. Melville was. You, the author, do it all. Make all the trouble. Exercise sadistic license. One way to do that is to raise the stakes as...

Process

A story is not just a thing, but a process a process that connects us to each other. If someone you work with sat down across from you and said, I brushed my teeth this morning, you'd look at him waiting for more, for the connection. So you'd say. What's the point Even if he embellished his story with, I got this great new curved bristle brush and mint-flavored, baking soda and peroxide toothpaste. I really got in there. My mouth has never been so clean, you still wouldn't be related or...

Remedies

The first thing to do is to recognize that you're blocked. It's possible to be wandering around avoiding the idea of writing without realizing you're doing it. It's like when you feel sluggish, lazy, or depressed, before you realize that you're getting sick. You must realize it's got you the writer's affliction. Now the way you acknowledge it is key. You acknowledge it by acting, by sitting down to your desk and writing, I'M BLOCKED. Remember that nothing counts until it's on the page....

Selfediting

I like this. This is damn good. If that's your response, you're lucky. Often, you'll be feeling something like This isn't moving. This is kind of dull. What's wrong with this Still, that's pretty mild. The trouble comes with stronger reactions like God, this is stupid. This is so awful. This is such boring, pretentious, shallow crap. What am I going to do now Exactly What are you going to do now First, you need to realize that your strong negative reaction is the most...

Showing

If I say, He was a dangerous person, a walking time bomb, are you gripped by the character You may be interested or even a little hooked since a walking time bomb promises action and excitement, but you're not there yet. He was going to kill somebody. Maybe kill himself before it was over. His six-shot Smith and Wesson lay in the glove compartment. She had a six-inch, ventilated, blue steel barrel, a tight coil hammer that bit into your thumb when you drew it back, and one of those polished...

Stage and Screen

This chapter may seem too short to cover both screenwriting and playwriting. But it's not, because the story form (conflict, action, resolution) is identical whether it's on the page, stage, or screen. There is no difference. So, what you've learned about story up to here has given you everything you need to create a story for the screen or stage. Also, because stories for stage or screen don't get into the mind the way the written story does, they're actually easier to write. It's important to...

Stage Play

Once again, I remind you, story is story, no matter where you find it. The form is the same in a stage play (conflict + action + resolution) as in any other kind of story. Traditionally it's Act One conflict, Act Two action, Act Three resolution. The difference is that it's all dialogue (no thoughts) and a confined space. As a beginning playwright, don't write anything that requires elaborate staging. Keep it simple and inexpensive to stage, with as few set changes as possible. Pay attention to...

Story As Need

We don't just happen to have stories. We need them. The story process involves the kinds of experiences we must talk about, experiences we cant wait to tell someone, experiences we can't stand not to talk about. If a man comes home from work, flops into a chair, and says to his wife, I almost didn't make it home tonight, he's had the kind of experience he needs to talk about and his wife now needs to hear. Some idiot, he says, cut me off on the expressway. When I blew my horn, he gave me the...

The Affliction

OK, where does it hurt How does it hurt What's the experience of it Exactly what happens when you're blocked what goes on inside you You sit there in a knot staring at the wall or your computer or a blank page or something you've written, thinking, Writer Who do I think am trying to be a writer. I'm wasting my time. I'll never publish. I have no ideas. I have no talent. I used to think I had it. I wrote a couple of decent pieces once. But that was long ago. They weren't that...

The Big I

Typical answers to that question are It's escapism. It takes me away from my troubles. It tells me something about life. I relate to the characters. Well, only one of those answers is true in all cases. Stories can be escapism, but what about Schindler's List It helps you escape into the Holocaust. Would you like those troubles in place of your own Stories can tell you something about life, but so does a sociology book. Which excites you more You relate to the characters. That's the answer, and...

The Emotionthought Connection

So, what's the nature of an emotional thought What might be going on in your mind with that gun in your ribs Anger If you wrote, He was angry, would that give you a real sense of the character and how he experienced anger The word anger is a label, not an expression of an emotion. How about This bastard. This rotten bastard. Just one chance. Give me one chance, and I'll take that gun and pistol whip him to death. Those are angry thoughts, yet the word angry or anger isn't used once. Also, the...

The Jagged Slope

In everything you do, some days you're a whiz, and other days you're a dud. Writing is no different. It's like everything else in life. So, when you have a bad day, don't despair. Just keep plugging away, because how you handle your slumps is what makes you or breaks you. And it's not all bleak because it will get good again always. You will bounce back. I guarantee it. Not only will you rise out of your slump, but you will reach your best level of writing, and you will...

The Long and the Short of It From Short Story To Novel

The short story versus the novel, the difference between the two, and how you can turn any short story into a novel, are the subject of this chapter. The first question is, What's the difference between a short story and a novel The outstanding difference, of course, is length. The question then becomes, How long (or short) is a short story, and how short (or long) is a novel And then there's that novella thing that comes in there somewhere. A novella is too big to be a short story but too...

The Numberone Ingredient And Some Thoughts About It

Conflict is the first, most important, and trickiest ingredient by far. There are a number of reasons for this. The first is a social reason. The first time I was told by a writing teacher that nothing happens without conflict, I went home and wrote a story, working conflict in at every turn, making everything difficult for the characters in every possible way. How do you think I felt after making all that trouble I was worn-out. Working the conflict was stressful beyond the usual struggle of...

The Payoff

That's an answer, but still not a final answer. We can push it to a deeper level to its limit, to its emotional extreme to where we need to go always. We become the characters. We feel what they feel. OK, but if we're going to understand this story stuff, this story process, fully, we need to know why we are drawn to that. What does it do for us What are we getting out of it We go to stories for this emotional connection, but why Don't we have enough emotions of our own Is there something...

The Root Of All Evil

We've looked at the condition of being blocked and what we do to contribute to it, but not at the root cause. For that we have to look at the creative process itself and uncover what it is that brings on these attacks. The problem is that the very skills we have to master in order to create a story can also cripple us. A carpenter's best tool may be his saw, but not if it's used the wrong way, slips off the table, and cuts into his leg. There are two processes that you must master in order to...

The Rules

Creating stories is never a neat, orderly, or predictable process. Mess is inevitable. You make a mess. You clean it up. You lose your way. You find it again. Your writing veers away from the story. You rein it in, or you follow it to see where it takes you. You do this many times until you get where you want to go. So, accept the mess as inevitable and good, let it happen, work with it, and you will get there a lot faster. You must write badly first. Trying to get it...

The Second Time Around Rewriting

See if you recognize it. Yesterday, December 7th, 1941, a date that shall live in history . Know who that quote is from FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt, president). He was responding to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, which forced us into World War II. If you know your history, you might remember the quote differently. Even if you don't know your history, it's such a famous quote that you might have heard it anyway. And you might recall that FDR said, a date that shall live...

The Uses Of Happiness

Even though it can't be easy, it can appear to be easy. What would you feel if, in a 300-page novel, everything got good, the trouble seemed to be over, and the characters were home free on page 150. The characters are rejoicing, This is great. Our worries are over. Life is wonderful. But you know damn well that trouble is going to strike soon otherwise, it's over. Early in The Great Gatsby, several pages are spent showing us Gatsby's grand mansion and describing how it glows through the night...

The Why Technique

This could also be called the why-what-how technique. With this technique, you go through your story and ask why of every single line. Now it won't make sense in some cases, so you just move on to the next line. Fiction is about finding answers, not raising questions. So, we're asking why in order to find answers. And we ask why of things that we would never question in normal society. So, if someone said, Fred's depressed, we could ask, What's wrong But if they then said, His mother died, we...

Treatment

What do you do Well, I once had an inspiration that got me out of a block. I was feeling, This is crazy Why torture yourself Life would be so much easier without writing. But I had a bit of perspective and realized that I was in the dumps and that it was no time to be making a serious decision (which means it wasn't a severe block). So, I said to myself, I'm going to write until it gets good again, and if I still want to quit, I will. And that got me back, plugging away, not...

Try The Reverse

Consider having your character do the opposite of what he's now doing. This may seem like a violation of your character, but there's truth in it. The frustrated mother who says of her bratty kid, I give him everything he wants, or I beat the crap out of him. Nothing works, is expressing this truth. When we're desperate, we go to extremes. So, the powerful man, after trying to intimidate his wife into not divorcing him, may fall to his knees and beg. The nerd who tries to avoid being harassed by...

Use or Abuse Selfediting

Now that you've done your second writing exercise, the first thing to do is to go back, reread it, and see how you respond to it. More than anything, this is an emotional game, so relax, let it affect you, and pay attention to your reactions as you read. It's a passive game on your part. Working with your reactions on this level is the first step. If you haven't reworked your writing much, you should have some perspective on it. If you've reworked it a lot and feel stale, you might need to wait...

Whatyou Know

You may have heard the old rule Write what you know. It's what many writing teachers tell their students they must do. Here's a little anecdote that addresses that issue. When E. L. Doctorow was being interviewed about his book Billy Bathgate a novel about a young boy who ingratiates himself with Dutch Schultz the gangster, the interviewer asked him about a particular scene in which a veteran gangster takes the kid out in the woods, gives him a pistol, and shows him how to shoot it. The...

Worries Fears Hopes

I've devised a simple, direct method for helping you find out what's going on inside the character. With this technique, you go through your story and ask, every place it could possibly apply, What are the character's worries, fears, and hopes There should be plenty of places where emotions are kicking up on every page and in every scene. Stories are about conflict, about threat. If something of great value to you is truly threatened, you have to be worried and fearful that you will lose it...

Youve Got It Or You Dont

There are those who say, You've got it, or you don't. There's no substitute for talent. Talent what part does it play in all of this How do you know if you've got any What if you don't Can you get some How much do you need Is it necessary Is it worth worrying about Well, I can tell you There's no special talent needed to write publishable stories all you need is your own emotions and your own life experience. In the other arts music or painting, for example you may need a special, inborn...

The Active Ingredient

I knew what you were thinking, not because I read your mind, but because I led you there with story. I gave you an experience that hooked you in. Fine, so far, but where do we go from here We left me standing there, watching my wife talking to Larry. What's next Well, I've raised your expectations, so I have to give you what you want or something better. Let's go with the kiss. My wife says something. Larry laughs, opening his arms. They embrace and have a nice long kiss. What now She kisses...

Screenplay

What you need to sell a screenplay, besides a good story, is a spec script. A spec script is not what is used to shoot a movie. That's called a shooting script and has all the technical directions for shooting the movie. It's not the best way to showcase your story. You want your story to be as readable as possible. So, you should only put in enough shooting directions to allow the reader to understand the story, and no more. If you're not a filmmaker, you shouldn't get into them, because...

The Active Ingredient Emotion

Suppose a committee went to Mother Teresa and said, Mother, you've done so much for others. You've been so generous, so giving, so loving, so holy, and so self-sacrificing. No one can ever repay you. That's impossible, but there's an opening in Donald Trump's penthouse, and we've arranged for you to go and live there for the rest of your life. You'll have servants waiting on you hand and foot. You'll never have to lift a finger for another living soul as long as you live. It's high time you got...

The Little Man Upon The Stair

One way to get some insight into the state you're in when you're blocked is to compare the symptoms to those of psychological depression. One of the symptoms in clinical depression is a sense of doom eternal gloom and doom. Things are awful. They're going to stay that way. They'll never be good again. The depressed person doesn't think, I feel horrible, but I'll get through this, recover, and feel good again. And when you're blocked, you're never thinking, This is awful. I feel worthless and...

The Ticking Clock Fitting It In

Someday Which day When you're suddenly faced with a few free hours on a weekend, when the work levels off on your job, when you get promoted and have less pressure, when you go on vacation, when you retire How much free time do you need before you start How long should you wait Will you know when the time is right, and will you know what to do when it comes Well, I can tell you, do not wait until your life opens up and you're faced with starting cold with no...

The Road To Here

It's important because I did get here and even more important because many don't many who could and should, but don't through no fault of their own. It's a trip along a tangled path, one you may be on already, one that may have led you to this very course. It's one you will avoid if you haven't set out upon it already. My journey isn't about me as much as it is about the world of writing and the teaching and learning of writing. I took my first writing...