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Archive for the ‘process’ Category

Back in my relative youth when I was learning to write screenplays I came across a fascinating tidbit. What it came down to was that on a deep thematic level, everything a writer writes is about what is currently gnawing away at them in the moment. It didn’t matter what the plot or the story was about, deep down all the character issues and concerns were the manifestation of the bubbling subconscious fears and anxieties of the moment.

If that were true, a story written five or ten or twenty years ago would have characters behaving one way, while if that story were being written today they would behave differently. And it wouldn’t be that one version of those characters was more “true” than the other, or that I had learned more about them, but that the things that concerned twenty-something me were different than fifty-something me. The characters — if this line of thinking is to be believed — were mere reflections of my state of mind.

But then, what of these stories? Do their themes not change with the desires of the characters? Aren’t those old plots with current characters like an old man trying to put on the clothes of his youth?

Earlier this week I had a little down time and no access to my current larger WIP so I doodled around with a short story idea. Three pages into the idea I found myself writing a variation of a scene from a project I started working on over 20 years ago. The characters were different, their motivation and reasons totally unlike the older piece, and the eventual outcome would be… similar?

Both stories are about a group of boys who create a club on campus, both clubs are mere shells designed to allow the boys to act outrageous with some semblance of school authority, both ending in a sort of disaster that would raw national scrutiny. The moment I realized the new story was on the same path I stopped and took stock. Who the heck were these two boys, and more importantly, what did their appearance say about where my head is currently at?

Originally, 22 years ago, I had finally come up with a story I thought was a perfect encapsulation of high school. I was planned as an epic tale, with so many subplot and character arcs, that I jokingly referred to it as The Great American Young Adult Novel. In truth, that original story contained over a dozen plots worthy of their own books, some I’ve attempted, some I realized were a bit goofy. At the heart of them all was a story about a club of mostly boys who ventured out through three years of adventures that eventually lead to a cataclysmic ending that garnered national attention.

And my main character was some kid trapped in the now yearning for the future away from the madness.

All those years ago I didn’t know what I was doing, what I wanted, what I’d hoped to achieve. Today I do, and the fact that those old feelings are manifesting themselves again in stories is an equal combination of alarming, reassuring, and frustrating. It’s not the same story, it’s a better story, this time with a character who knows where he stands and is clear about what comes next.

So I’m really writing two stories now, one on the page and one in my life. I have a good feeling about both of them.

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Okay, this isn’t me lecturing you, it’s me convincing myself.

Because rejection is hard, and I need to suck it up if I’m going to keep doing this writer thing for real.

To be fair, some rejections hurt more than others, and I’ve discovered that the more I invest emotionally in a particular submission the bigger the hurt. Or actually, the less I thought in advance about what I was doing the more surprised I was when something good came from it.

It’s that fine line between caring deeply for something you’ve invested a lot of time and energy into, and not really giving a crap about what happens to it (while secretly caring a lot).

Everything I’ve read and been told about the process of becoming a writer points out that rejection is part of the process, perhaps more of the process than any other part of it. I know that, and I get that, intellectually, but how do you shut off the emotional stuff? That sensitivity is the font of all that creative joy after all.

Or is it?

I long ago learned that creativity could be taught and learned; heck, I used to teach art to kids who protested they didn’t have the talent they assumed you had to be born with to execute. The difference between kids and adults in these matters is that kids are more flexible in their thinking, more willing to give things a try and shrug them off, and less experienced in their failure. They can still be taught to build on failure because they’re more vested in gaining the experience than they are in preconceived expectations. Sure, if their first drawing doesn’t look like the work of a master artist they are disappointed, but over time they can and will improve and in the end are easily convinced that creativity is a question of persistence.

I hear that rejection isn’t personal, that it’s merely a question of timing, finding a champion, reaching that one person who sees the way you see. It’s not about you, it’s about the work, I’ve been told.

Bull.

Rejection is personal, just as it’s an individual’s personal tastes that rejects something. Agents, editors, anyone with the power to say no (if they bother to say anything at all, which is just rude beyond rejection) is making a personal decision. They may hide behind market forces or some other polite excuse, because this is what we’ve become as a society: Nobody wants to get hurt, nobody wants to hurt anybody.

Rejection is not only personal, it’s a challenge, a dare if you will. Rejection asks How much do you believe in this project, in yourself? Do you believe enough to try again? Do you believe enough to take another hard look at what you’ve done and critically decide if it’s your best work? Rejection is the heckler in the audience trying to throw you, the comedian, off balance, the guy in the stands shouting accusations that you, the ref, are blind, the surly kid in the back row unimpressed by anything you, the teacher, has to offer.

Ultimately, rejection stands as a sort of proof-of-effort, tangible markers on the journey that proves, in the end, you’ve earned every right to be accepted in the first place.

It still stings like hell along the way.

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PUBLISHERS!

How would you like to guarantee stagnant sales from the moment your book dropped in stores?
Do you want your books to have a sameness that will allow them to be lost on table displays?
Are you tired of actually having to pay designers to think?

Why not use this revolutionary new tactic proven to cause book buyers eyes to glaze over in stores all across the country?

USE WHITE!

That’s right, the most brilliant of colors (or absence of color, depending on whether we’re talking spectral or reflected light), white is the cure-all for all your design woes!

Nothing projects the image of newness like white. Nothing says “this is the future, this is NOW!” quite like white. Nothing focuses the attention on the fact that your book looks like hundreds of other new releases (and ignore the political implications!) like white!

YES, WHITE!

Granted, this has been proven on cover after cover in the non-fiction genres of science and business, but there’s nothing to stop you fiction publishers from trending into white! Start with that hot area of Young Adult fiction and watch your sales plummet like a boulder in a pool full of clear gelatin! Then kill sales of that hot new author and keep yourself from the bestsellers list with a simple serif font (Helvetica, no!) and maybe a splash of wingdings to separate the title from the author.

Nothing says generic, bland, boring, thoughtless and vapid quite like white!

GO WHITE!

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Because I’m writing. Or rather, I’m rearranging.

Not editing, mind you, and they’re not even my own words. And to top it all off I’m not even getting paid for it.

To the right there you’ll notice a little badge for a thing called the Pulitzer Remix. For the entire month of April, National Poetry Month, the Pulitzer Remix project will post a new poem daily from 82 poets who have “found” poems within each of the 82 books that have won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature.

I know the collective noun for poems is (mundanely) an anthology, and that the collective noun for poets can be an attic, mezzanine, cellar, anteroom, a scansion, break, stanza, break, deign, mope, peppering, ego, havoc, madness, rejection, and so on, but this… the Pulitzer Remix seems to require a new collective.

An extraction, perhaps?

Found poems are exactly what they sound like, poems found within some other context. Shopping lists, stacks of book titles, a note found on the ground can all hold poetic nuance, but also in larger bodies of text like books or magazine articles words and phrases can be culled to create new and previously (by their original author’s) unimagined meaning. It’s within the realm of this last context that the Pulitzer Remix operates. Each poet has one novel as their Urtext from which they can apply any number of rules and choices in which to create new poetry. The challenge is to ferret out the new and unexpected from the old, not entirely unlike musical sampling where a beat or a motif creates a new framework for new music, bringing the old to new ears.

While it sounds new (and perhaps sacrilegious) to maim and mangle the carefully chosen works of literature the concept isn’t far from what artist Tristan Tzara once described as a recipe for creating a Dadaist poem nearly a century ago.

Take a newspaper.
Take a pair of scissors.
Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.
Shake it gently.
Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.
Copy conscientiously.
The poem will be like you.
And here are you a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.

The poem will be like you. Because no one else would have made the same conscious choices, or could have produced the same exact results, not without a great deal of trial and effort. The found poem, like the Dadaist poem, exists as the hard truth within the joke that goes “I have all the great works of literature in this one single book!” wherein the teller brandishes a dictionary. Perhaps that is the ultimate challenge for the found poet, to create a new work from the dictionary that uses as many words contained in the dictionary without repeating a single one.

And so, in a few short weeks I, along with an extraction of 81 other poets, will begin a massive excursion into the rearrangement of American literature. I will post snippets and links throughout April.

I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

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If you’re not scared, you’re doing it wrong.

It’s one of those clichés that shows up in movies as an unimpeachable truth, a type of suffering artists grok and continue to believe is necessary in order to create great art. Ray Bradbury’s own advice to writers is to make a bucket list of fears and write about them as a way of conquering them, and in his own work those fears, guilt, and anxieties he possessed all manifested themselves in great stories; his fear of flying was the source of his writing about ships heading into deep space!

In the kidlit game, writers are encouraged to mine the depths of their childhood anguish in order to render a realistic world for their young readers. This is what allows a 40- or 50- or 60-year-old to capture the imaginations of those just barely into their double-digits. The advice to writers is to put the reader into the main character’s head, then keep putting the main character into increased danger, and at the very last minute pull them to safety — the requisite “hopeful” if not happy ending.

A bit sadistic when you think about it.

The danger in a culture, a media, an entertainment that continually relies on fear, pain, and anxiety as its inspiration is that it diminishes the value of other emotions and experiences. It trains individuals to respond more and more (and ultimately only) to fear to the extent that our political discourse is almost entirely based on our reaction to manufactured dangers. The worst part of all this fear-conditioning is that as a society we have also been trained to expect someone to come to the rescue at the last minute and save us.

If our ancestors had that same expectation during the Great Depression we might never have recovered as a nation.

In children’s literature, more so in middle grade that YA books, there is a fervent cry for realistic stories with hopeful endings. The idea is to give kids something they can relate to and then let them know they can rise above whatever crisis or turmoil is at stake. The problem is that the world around them, around all of us, isn’t interested in making the hopeful happen. We aren’t interested in the same gas or food rationing that was the result of the last Depression because it wouldn’t produce the “right” kind of fear; the fear of imaginary assault on our protected freedoms as opposed to the real fear that would cause us to rise up against the banking, corporate, and political entities that do well by courting our collective fear.

While I certainly agree that the traumas of our past make great fodder for the stories we tel,l I think writers owe it to kids to tell them the truth, the whole truth, and without the sugar-coating of a false hope tacked on. Perhaps this is what makes realistic fiction difficult for all but the best writers, and why fantasy gluts the shelves, because when you control the world you can control the outcomes better. But writing about the fears or growing up, the pains of adolescence, the anxieties of the world requires endings equally bold. If you want young readers to remember what they have just read you need to leave them hanging with all the suspense that the world has to offer. When it comes to endings writers might do well to remember:

If you’re not scared, you’re doing it wrong.

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Every couple months or so I get the urge to tinker with writing a musical. Theatre isn’t in my background, though storytelling is, and this urge isn’t so strong that I feel this is what I was truly meant to do. I would be happy to realize this one story idea as a musical (and hopefully have it be mildly successful) and leave it at that.

It’s most likely a certain lack of “true” conviction that prevents me from realizing this project. In short, the need to do isn’t as compelling as my other writing projects.

This idea of the compelling need is fairly crucial to the idea of modern Western narratives. We want to read about and follow main characters with a compelling need that will, ultimately, drive the story and the character’s development though the story in a way that we cannot put it down. In short, the reader must be equally compelled to want to find out how it ends.

It was while I was tinkering with this compelling need for the main character in my musical – sometimes also called a controlling desire – that I realized how important it was to instill this sense of compulsion within the reader/audience. This idea of building a character whose desire lines are strongly etched that in turn cause the reader to become invested in that character’s needs that the, the reader/audience, adopts those desires themselves. It isn’t simply a question of manipulation, it’s a form of narrative alchemy that (when done correctly) subtly eases the reader into a position where they care about how and whether a character realizes their desires.

But then I thought: whose desires are really being actualized here, whose wants and needs?

Like a Möbius strip my thoughts circle around and I find myself wondering about the artist, the writer, the musician who feels compelled to create. We talk about the creative act as something the creative person cannot help but chase down. Like mountain climbers, creative people do what they do because they must. It is their controlling desire, their compelling need.

Or is it a want?

No one can be said to actually need to create. We need to eat, and breathe, and fulfill social and moral obligations, but the act of creation… can that really be something the individual needs? And this want (or need) in the writer, its to create a character with desires of their own, designed to compel a reader to care about those fictitious needs to the point where all three – writer, character, reader – come to a satisfactory meeting place where all needs are fulfilled.

Suddenly I understand what is wrong with a lot of the fiction that I find wanting. It is easy to say that the story didn’t interest, or that the plot was unbelievable, or that the characters were simply flat and two-dimensional, but the real problem is that I simply didn’t feel the writer’s compelling need to tell the story at hand. It may have lacked conviction, or somehow been muddled, but in the end no matter how sincerely the author may believe in their story and characters, they have failed in the same way a person fails to be funny at a party when they cannot retell a joke correctly. The parts may all be there, and in the correct order, but without the conviction to deliver the lines with care and precision – what is sometimes called comic timing – the punchline comes with tepid and polite laughter. Worse if the joke has to be explained.

I have been reading graphic novels lately, and though I am not ready to discuss them by name – they aren’t released for a few months yet, and I’d like to digest them a bit more – I am finding the ones that have been falling flat for me fail to convince me of their authorial need to tell the story. Naturally, those that I enjoy deliver so completely that I don’t even notice at first how well they are conveying their author’s urgency.

In the end what I’ve finally understood (because I can’t believe I haven’t been taught this in dozens of ways) is that the difference between “good” and “bad” writing is the difference between the way a small child wants and needs. The want is cloying, whining, and churlish while the need is essential, enthusiastic, and inclusive.

So my question to all my writer friends, real and virtual, is this: Are your stories telegraphing your wants or your needs?

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It’s a very simple equation, one I’m sure others have come across elsewhere, but it struck me with an arrow of truth last week. If there is a problem with the publishing industry as it stands it comes down to the disconnect between the motivations of the writer and the publisher.

I came about this a roundabout way. I happened onto a marketer’s blog post discussing what made Steve Jobs, and by extension Apple, so successful. The crux came from a quote from Jobs at the end of his recent biography:

“My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products. Everything else was secondary. Sure, it was great to make a profit, because that was what allowed you to make great products. But the products, not the profits, were the motivation.”

Many companies have this upside down, or if they start as innovators they quickly switch over to a profit-first mentality to maintain their position. The idea is that if you innovate, people will come, and profits will grow, allowing you to innovate further. This lead me reconsider what I felt about Steve Jobs last year when he died, how I had come to think of him as the Edison of this century. But that’s not exactly a good analogy, because where Edison may have refined existing patents he is credited with creating the technology that is still with us. Jobs did not invent nor is he credited with inventing the computer, the phone, the television, or the music playback device. He didn’t even invent the MP3 file technology that the iPod uses to store and playback music. What he did was take what was familiar and ask the question: How can I make this consumer product more friendly, inviting, fun, and turn it into a brand people can trust?

Essentially, Jobs is the Disney of our age, not the Edison.

Walt Disney did not invent movies, animation, or the amusement park. Hell, he didn’t even create new characters or stories to tell in his animation once he started making feature films. What he did was insist on instilling passion into great products that people would enjoy. He may have been a tyrant to his employees, as has been reported, but he was no petty dictator. He pushed his people to innovate and his legacy of creation continues nearly fifty years after his death. People don’t often remember (or know these days) that he mortgaged his personal property and his entire company to create Disneyland. Had that gamble failed it’s difficult to imagine what would have happened, but Disney was passionate and he was certain that if his people were motivated to make something great, then success was assured.

In reading about the history of publishing in America over the years I have come to believe there may have been a time when publishers were more in line with Jobs and Disney than the corporate entities they have become. There was a time when author and editor were both striving for something great, that profit was not the determining factor. Editors built stables of authors and nurtured talent because they believed in them, and in return that quality generated profits. Today, the profit-first model prevails, and a movie-tie-in complete with residual merchandising trumps the notion that quality is a motivating factor.

Are writers similarly motivated by profit in creating a work, or are they more interested in the quality of storytelling first? This gets tricky, as writers are now expected to market their works and to nail that sales pitch before anyone will bother to look at it. In many craft books there are instructions for plotting a narrative arc only after the summary has been honed as a guide stone. Lord help the writer who can’t rattle off their elevator speech at a convention even before they’ve finished their first draft!

It’s reductionist to insist that all writers, publishers, and editors behave as a unified front, but its hard not to wonder if all parties have lost their way.

“Traditional” publishing (or “Legacy” publishers, if you buy into Amazon’s propaganda machine) will most likely need to revert back to their old ways in order to survive. Editors will need to operate free from the chains of corporate acquisitions and, more importantly, spend more time personally guiding talented people toward great ideas. The motivation to publish books will then fall back in line with the writer’s motivation.

Great books will be written and published when both parties can’t imagine doing anything less; the profits will sort themselves by-the-by.

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