My drug of choice is writing--writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Vlog returns

[I gave up with a flawed take after...I dunno twelve tries?]

Hi everyone,

Today seems as good a time as any to reintroduce Vlogs here at Writing About Writing. We got a little side tracked there for a while because of the move and stuff, but life is getting back to normal and some of our old regular bits here are returning.

Now this one here is just a filler vlog, to kind of remind folks that this is something I will be doing, and that I always intended to get back to it as my life came back together and stopped looking so much like a post apocalypse movie.

We’ll probably only do about one a month.

I know some of you don’t like vlogs, preferring to just read. I’m the same way, so I’m going to put my write up in text at the bottom. It may not have every tangent I go on, every change I make extemporaneously, and my speaking rhythm is much different than my writing one, but for those of you who hate vlogs, it will at least have the basic information.

I also have a video editing program that came with my MacBook, so over the next few months, depending on the learning curve for that, I may be able to make videos that I don’t have to do all in one take.

The reason I’m posting this TODAY is because of Writing About Writing’s meta mission to bring you the “behind the scenes” of writing–to demystify the impression some people have that writers do very little work they don’t like, simply get hit by inspiration, and then birth a work of genius.

So let me tell you about yesterday….

Yesterday I sat down to work, because that’s what working writers do, and I stared at the same paragraph for 14 hours. The words just did not come. And I sat there and sat there, and I pecked at that paragraph and I finally got it done. But it took all day.

And some days are like that. You just have to sit down and have shitty productivity because that discipline and habit is the price you pay for the twelve and sixteen hour productivity days the next day or the next week.  Now today, I’ve managed to do a couple of hours of solid writing already but if I’d just given up yesterday, it would be that much harder today.

So I just want people to know… if you think that just because I have an audience and make money writing doesn’t mean I don’t have shitty days…it doesn’t.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Best Book Marketed to Young Women (Last call for nominations/seconds)

What is the best book marketed to young women?  

I've got a dozen things to do today that aren't blogging, so I'm going to just remind everyone that I'm going to start semifinals (quarterfinals?) for this poll THIS weekend. So get in your nominations in and second the titles you want to see on the poll. But do so on the ORIGINAL POST! I can't guarantee any nominations on this post will make it onto the poll.

Also the rules are there; probably worth a glance.

If I fall into the free time that is theoretically out there after all this basic crap is in the "Done" pile, I'll keep going on the Tab Cleanup Project™ which is about to enter the Facebook Page Stage–a handful of posts for the now half a million people following Writing about Writing on Facebook. You might see something going up later on today if that goes well.

Note: I've noticed that a few of the nominated titles are definitely NOT Y.A. (remember it's not when a bunch of bibliophiles reading way above their level got into it that defines what that means). I don't really have a way to enforce what gets nominated or even a good definition for where the line is, but I'm going to veto some of the clearly adult titles.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Five Steps to Motivational Rejuvenation (Mailbox)

How do you get back lost motivation for a project that's been on hiatus? 

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will try to answer a couple each week (after this week). I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. Thursday might look suspiciously like Wednesday when I am actually so far behind that this should have gone up six fucking days ago.]  

Antonio asks:  

I have a story that I had to put on hold for at least six months because of other projects. Now I really want to get on it. But every time I see the point where I left it... I kinda feel disconnected and unmotivated.


My reply:

I answered a question not too long ago about how important it can be to at least "poke" at a work in progress if you don't want it to go stale. One of the reasons for that is exactly this. If you leave a project on the back burner for too long, there can then be a divestment of brain from interest. Maybe you think of a couple of good things here and there or a twist you would love to add, but mostly that motivation has dried out and your passion for the project goes stale. It can be really hard to try and just pick back up where you left off when your mind is scratching at the inside of your skull to try and get your idea onto paper.

Before I let Ima Lister slap down the Patented Guide to Rekindling Your Passion....(for an abandoned work in progress)™ let me just make one more quick USDA Writing Guild required disclaimer. This is the reason that it's generally a good idea to keep a limited number of irons in the fire and is why so many writers who have "made it" yodle from the mountaintops, at the slightest opportunity, the advice to finish one's shit. It is so so so so so fucking easy to take a break that turns into forever. Finishing projects, especially before bounding off to new projects, is one of the most powerful skills a writer (any artist really) can ever learn.

From here, I'm going to hand my reply over to Ima Lister, who has a few things–well five of them actually–to say about this.

Hi everyone. Time for me to drop my Patented Guide to Rekindling Your Passion....(for an abandoned work in progress)™. Remember to try these steps in order as each may depend on the aggregate effect of the last. Skipping right to step four might seem like taking Percoset instead of Advil for your headache because "fuck it, I need the good stuff," but it'll actually be less effective if you haven't run the gamut first.

1- Reread your work. 

Simple. Elegant. Refined. And ironically so overlooked.

Many writers simply look at their stale work in progress and never pick it up. And when I say they "look at it," I mean they physically glance at it from across the room. Or think about it in passing as they're eating a chocolate cream pie and rewatching season 1 of Sense 8 to prepare for the coming of season 2 next month. Or perhaps once every few months they open the text file to that blinking cursor, skim the last paragraph for the thousandth time, and then close the file again because they're just not feeling it. And if they're really avoiding it, they might carefully tiptoe around the WIP, avoiding it at all costs. They glance down the hall to make sure it's not in the bathroom before darting to their bedroom, and listen carefully for sounds in the kitchen before going to eat so that the don't run into it at the breakfast table–a bite of bran flakes frozen halfway to its mouth as their eyes meet.

"Why aren't you working on me?"

"Eat your fucking cereal."

*eyes narrow*

But what they don't do is sit down and reread it–from the very beginning. They don't give themselves that jump back into the world of their fiction. They don't engage what once captured their imagination and let all those ideas come flooding back. They don't remind themselves of all the little things they gave attention to when writing it.

Honestly, give the old dusted off words a good once over. Let it take you back to where your mind was when you were writing it. Fire up a few of the old synapses. You're going to remember more about what you wanted to do and where you wanted to go than you even realized you forgot.

For the first time through, don't mess with it if you see some revisions you want to make. Let the urge to make it better go un-indulged and let that create a tension within you to return to the work.

And if reading it doesn't work by itself....

2- Do a little revision. 

Holding back from revising during your first read might have you chomping at the bit to make some changes.

That's okay. That's what you want.  Anything to get you back to this piece.

However, if you're not so enthusiastic even after reading over some things you really think you could have worded a lot better, go ahead and try to make a few changes anyway–even if it's just to clean up the language and tighten up the grammar. Lord knows that shit could at least use some proofreading.

Going under the hood of your story kind of forces you into that mode you were in when you were working on the story before. Like most of writing, it's recursive, and you are likely to think of improvements faster than you can make them. Hopefully this knocks over enough dominos to start a chain reaction and topple you back into the headspace you were when you were really hitting it on the regular.

But if that doesn't work....

3- Skip ahead from where you are, and write the next scene you are really into.

One of the problems with a project losing steam is that you just weren't as into the next thing that needed writing as the arc in general. Maybe the next scene you were really into was several pages from where you are now and the idea of the filler wasn't grabbing you. Maybe every time you thought about getting back into the writing, you were daunted because the next thing you had to write was a scene you weren't that into or some plodding exposition to get your characters from Cool Event 1 to Cool Event 2.

Setting aside for a moment that your reader is likely to be Just. As. Bored. and feel like something is mind-numbing filler if the writer does, the easiest way to deal with this as a writer who "doesn't wanna" right now is to skip ahead. Fuck it! There's no rule that you have to write the whole manuscript in order from first page to last. Do a scene you're really excited about to help get you back into the groove. Then use that momentum to swing back around on revision and fill in the stuff you weren't so hot on.

You may even think of a much a better way to get through that part you're not so hot on besides a slog of events you're less excited about writing.

And if this doesn't work, it might be time for some painful self honesty.....

4- Are you sure you want to write this? Like...really sure?

Okay, so you've tried everything else and nothing's working. You're just not feeling it. It's time to ask yourself a really tough question from that place of deep and profound honesty. Go to your happy place, align your chakras, and high five your patronus. And then ask yourself this question:

Do you really want to write this piece?

Remember you're not asking yourself if you think there's any possible story there or any writing value, or even if you might want to return to this story someday. Rather, you're trying to figure out if you really want to put in the time and energy to write this piece right now.

And please understand...you don't have to. You're not obligated to love everything you start. (It's a good idea to try to finish, but there's a difference between abandoning one project that just wasn't doing it for you after a while and having sixteen half finished novels lying around the house, all of which you're going to get back to "someday.") Maybe inspiration really did dry up. Maybe you've moved on as an artist. Maybe it'll come back around in a month or a year.

Sometimes writers get attached to projects because of the amount of time they've already invested in them. It's kind of part and parcel with this hubris that everything written must somehow be destined for future publication. They really need to remember that some things they write are only ever going to be practice.

Is it possible that what you really need to do is put that project on the shelf for either years or forever? Reach deep into your soul and be brutally honest.

You still want to do this? Okay, well in that case....

5-Physically rewrite what you have so far.

Take a copy, print it out, put it down next to you, and start to type the whole thing from scratch.

Hang on. Deep breaths.

I know you just felt your anal sphincter clench hard and that may sound very, very daunting, but this is actually something you should be doing anyway. Computers have made a generation of writers who are terrified of revision involving full rewriting, and they only want to tweak their completed computer drafts. Truth be told, the best thing most of them could do would be to completely rewrite their story at least once.

Can you imagine that this was once the only way to revise? Even ten, twelve, twenty times...always completely rewritten. We may not be fettered to archaic technology, but sometimes a good part of the writing process gets tossed with the luddite bathwater.

Two things happen here. Number one, you can't type as fast as you can think (by hundreds of words a minute) and if you're forced into the world of your story, you're probably going to be thinking about that. Now maybe this will simply yank your creativity cord like starting an old small engine. (Is it true lawn mowers don't have pull start engines anymore? KIDS THESE DAYS!). You may recognize this technique from the movie Finding Forester. (Or maybe you're way too old to have seen that and I am obviously a fossil.) But they did pick a trick that actually works pretty well. It's rather difficult to type something and not engage it in a creative way.

This may also lead to some of the really good artistic magic. Since you're rewriting instead of cutting and pasting, you will likely be willing to make bigger chances–like changing the tense or removing whole scenes or taking out a character. Redoing the whole thing means you're less married to all that draft and since you're doing the work regardless, you might find exactly the bit that was causing the wind drag in the first place. And with some surgery, your story is back where you were, looking better than ever, and with you excited about moving forward.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

It's Going to Get Weird Until Wed

Not that weird.
It's going to get a little weird for the next few days.

You might see posts going up late, early, or a couple one day and none the next.

It's going to depend on writing time and internet connectivity while I spend a couple of days and change in Yosemite balancing majestic vistas with the brisk cold that is April on a mountain.

I also will be continuing the "Tab Maintenance" this coming week, which means some days with multiple postings for those on feeds. Some of that information is three years out of date.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Logan: Why Character Matters

**Part 1: No Spoilers**

A year ago if you'd told somebody that arguably the most popular X-man movie of all time, and (to many) a rival for the best of all marvel movies, would only actually have two X-men in it–two older X-men way past their prime to boot–you would probably find yourself on the working end of some skepticism.

No Magneto? No multi-mutant fight at the end? No Apocalypse or sentinels chewing though two or three mutants every time they are on scene to prove the stakes are really, really high? Pfffffffft.

And if you said that a number of critics would hail it as the best superhero movie of the decade, perhaps ever, you would likely have to deal with a bit of laughter as well. (The snickering kind–not the good belly laughs you hear before someone asks if they can buy you a mug of the finest ale this side of The Dragon's Thirst Inn in Valacia.) Going up against The Dark Knight or The Avengers, as well as older titles like Raimi's Spiderman 2 or even something a bit genre bending like The Incredibles is not something genre fans would think could be done casually by two aged out X-men.

After all, the formula for superhero movies has been ramping steadily upwards to bigger and better fights with more and more superheroes on screen at a time, higher stakes battles, more CGI than you can physiologically process, and often the fate of the very timeline hanging in the balance.

Yet there's something undeniable about these movies as they become bigger and bigger special effects extravaganzas with more and more and more superpowered characters stacked in like cordwood. (And it's not just that I stopped considering them to be on my "Must See" list after X3.) Their interest to their audience doesn't grow exponentially. The epic-fury of their battles don't make the movie "good" or "bad." Even when a story does focus on a small cadre of characters, the focus on external plot instead of characters can make blockbusters imminently forgettable–and writers don't have the benefit of soundtracks, huge stars, or special effects budgets.

The conversations about these movies still end up being about the same thing: the characters. Were they interesting? Were they believable? What did they want? What were the stakes? Did the internal conflict matter in a way that made the story more interesting or did they just ho-hum stop the city from being nuked (again). Though film gross is based on a lot of factors, and some of these movies still do well in today's market, the more critically acclaimed the film and beloved by fans, the more their characters are interesting and not their battles eye-popping.

A lot of writers describe the epicosity of their climactic battle. ("It's this HUGE battle between three massive armies....") There's something in the success of Logan, and films like it, for writers to learn about what makes a character arc genuinely compelling and what stakes will drive the highest levels of tension. After all, while a writer has an effectively infinite "special effects budget" and seamless "CGI" for as long as they want to commit pages and pages to such descriptions, writers run the same risk that any summer blockbuster might of getting so caught up in the tools of telling a story, that we forget the story itself.

And as cool as that end battle is, if readers are not invested in the characters, it'll be forgettable–no matter the magnitude or scope, it'll be forgettable.

While I have my doubts that Logan is going to "redefine the whole genre," given the current Marvel plan for a thirty movie ramp up to a sixty character crossover two movie battle royale with each movie making more than the GDP of some European countries, its runaway success and spectacular critical reception is a cautionary tale to writers who forget that what readers are really interested in is the characters, and a reminder to us all that they're the engines of any story we have.

**Part 2: Contains Spoilers**

Look at how well these characters arcs played out.  Within just a minute we've established Logan's wants and needs, and that they are constantly struggling within him. He wants to get out, go away, take a boat away from everything. He wants to die. And he wants to not love things in his world so that he can let go. But he does love things. He's fettered by his concern for the things in this world. And though at one point it seems clear that had his body not betrayed him, he would have abandoned Laura at Xavier's grave, in the end he keeps stepping up to the plate again and again for those fetters.

And in the end, they are what set him free. Not just a physical release, but his own redemption as a character.

One of the greatest successes of the character arcs in this movie is how it shows without telling. Take this very early exchange between Charles and Logan:
Charles Xavier: Fuck off, Logan.
Logan: See, you know who I am.
Charles Xavier: I always know who you are, I just sometimes don't recognize you.
So much is said in this exchange. Not just about the devastating tragedy of neurodegenerative diseases and how they take away one's ability to recognize loved ones, but also on a subtextual level to establish a meaningful lens into Logan as a character. He is "unrecognizable," which might be same thing any fan of classic Wolverine might say at the outset of this film.

This exchange also establishes a bickering relationship that is the source of so much fun (and often well needed levity) in the film. Logan never says he loves Charles. But even though he wants Xavier to die (so that he can kill himself), he still spends all his time and energy trying to protect Charles from those chasing him as well as the memory of the abject horror that it is Charles who has killed all the other X-men. Logan even indulges Xavier's quest to find a "utopia" that he (Logan) believes isn't even real. Charles never says he loves Logan either. But he spends all his time and energy trying to give Logan's life the tiniest spark of redemption and connect him with his daughter. Their actions belie their constant fighting.

Actually the movie is really great about not spoon feeding the audience in general. They never came out and said that the mutant gene had been suppressed through corn syrup, but there's some evidence there if you pay attention. Trust your readers to be smart enough to get some things, especially about character relationships, without your help. You don't have to give them everything on a silver platter.

One of their best successes is finding the way symbolism fits into the story rather than shoehorning a story into symbolism. X-24 is how Logan sees his younger self–mindless, savage destructive rage. It is his past come back to haunt him....in this case literally. And that rage kills Xavier. Wherever Logan goes, that violence follows him and destroys the innocent bystanders around him (as he did the Munsons).  In the end Logan does not have the strength to defeat his past alone. He needs the help of his daughter.

The entire movie is a parable for getting old, dying and death (as well as the loneliness that accompanies these), how the past comes back to haunt us all, but at the same time about family, redemption, and the sacrifices of a parent. The guy who found walking excruciating was able to engage in mortal combat to the last once he had a reason.

In the end, there is even a poignant metaphor as the torch of all this power is passed to a wildly diverse group of children from two white men who have spent the movie protecting it from the hands of another group of white men who wanted to control it and keep it to themselves.

But none of this symbolism came at the expense of telling a fun story about bad guys who wanted to kidnap kids and good guys who would put claws through their brain pans.  They teased the symbolism out of a compelling romp rather than try to wrap a story around a bunch of symbolism. And that makes all the difference in how compelling a narrative can be.

And perhaps more importantly, the external plot was almost insultingly simple: "Mutant-creating bad guys want to get back a mutant they created who escaped." Everything beyond that was developed through character, whether it was Logan's reluctant willingness to indulge Xavier's fantasy of Mutopia or Xavier's want of some creature comforts that ended up placing the Munsons in grave danger. What drove Logan, through all its tragedy, angst, and eventual redemption was not a railroaded plot about stopping the end of the world but rather the characters.

Logan wasn't a perfect movie. It had pacing issues in the third reel, especially when Logan kept passing out to advance through the various plot points. The serum that made him Wolverine-y was kind of an awkward "Ha I'm badass again! Nope, just kidding!" plot point, and the grunting, limping, how-pathetic-am-I? portrayal was at times overdone. The "Chekhov's Gun" of the adamantium bullet being what would kill X-24 was stone-cold obvious about 90 minutes and change before it happened. The use of Shane was an excellent parable, and a fantastic choice for meta-media, but arguably was also a little heavy handed. A whole other article could be written about Logan and the "white savior" trope, and it never even gets particularly close to passing the Bechdel test. Overall though, Logan was an intensely character driven ride about the human condition that blew audiences away and brought the X-men arc that Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman began 17 years ago to a bittersweet and nostalgic, but satisfyingly crunchy end.

Logan's success, measured against a tiny handful of the best movies of the genre ever, carries with it a lot of lessons for writers. Characters are vital...more important even than a big exciting external plot. A couple of well thought out characters inexorably drawn towards a climax of high personal stakes in a tight, contained story within a story about how excruciating death without meaning can be is far, far better storytelling than a railroaded, save-the-universe plot with epic battles and dozens of heroes.