That elephant. That one. Right there. In the middle of the damn room.

5 11 2009

There’s an old story that is sometimes told in journalism school. It goes something like this.

A new reporter, in his first assignment, is sent by his editor to cover a dog show for the evening edition. The reporter goes out, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and stumbles back in the office just barely under the wire. When asked why he was late the reporter tells him that on the way there a truck jackknifed on the freeway, spraying rocket fuel all over the road. A car flipped and caught the whole mess on fire, trapping the driver, when suddenly an off-duty fireman ran into the flames, pulled the truck door of its hinges with his bare hands, and pulled the driver to safety.

He then handed his editor a late, but thorough account of the dog show.

This story illustrates an important journalistic point. Go where the story is.

Still today, reporters don’t follow this advice. I just got done reading a story with a killer headline: Bricklayer shows up at his own funeral in Brazil. Now, who out there reading this post hasn’t fantasized about showing up alive to their own funeral?

So the story goes on giving a detailed account of how the local authorities misidentified the body. But no where in the entire article does it mention the WTF moment OF A MAN SHOWING UP ALIVE TO HIS OWN FUNERAL!!!

That’s the story! Sure, I want to know about the mix-up, but what did people think? Did he just run in? Did he wait in the back to see what people were saying about him? Did anyone have a heart attack and die?

It’s insufferable. But this isn’t just a problem for reporters; writers deal with this problem too.

Don’t get caught in the minutia of your story. Details are great. Yeah, you want to foreshadow that bit at the beginning, and refer back to it at the end. It’s so fricking cool. Yeah, you want to make sure every character has their little moment.

But remember what the story is about. And go over what you’ve written. Is there another, more interesting story growing out of it? Follow it.

Always follow the story.


Thoughts on Suspense

5 05 2009

My Dad once told me two stories that both had a large effect on my outlook as it comes to passing on your knowledge. One story involved my godfather, who is a respected magician (my father is also a magician). My godfather was once giving a lecture on performance and got a question about how one deals with heckling. He gave his opinion on exactly how he handles hecklers. I asked my dad about it and he pointed out something very important. My godfather doesn’t usually perform in front of crowds, he’s a trick designer. So he never deals with hecklers.

Don’t give advice on something you don’t know about. It’s tacky.

Suspense is not something I usually write. Sure, there’s suspense in just about any story; that’s about good pacing and wit. But hardcore mystery/suspense isn’t something I’ve had much practice in, so I’m not going to give you tips or lectures or anything.

But I can give my thoughts, and share some interesting things I’ve found.

Suspense, to me, is when you let the audience fill in the blanks themselves. There’s an axiom in writing: show, don’t tell. It’s a good one. That is very important to pacing. But in that same context, suspense can be summed up as: don’t show or tell; imply. There will never be a special effect or movie scene that can come close to anything the human imagination can concoct. All you have to do as a creator is when you do show, when the pay off does come, to not let it be a let down.

Here’s J.J. Abrams talking about this much better than I ever could, in a TED lecture, The Mystery Box.

Suspense, to me, is when the audience is presented with possibilities. Yesterday I was watching an episode of South Park from season 12 in which Wendy challenges Cartman to a fight after school. South Park isn’t the go-to show when one thinks about suspense, but I was actually on the edge of my seat for a bit, because South Park is known for twists and being unpredictable. Reputation is important in suspense. Take M. Night Shaymalan. People consider his movies suspenseful, many of them are, but The Sixth Sense isn’t really that suspenseful because the unpredictability of it comes at the end. The Sixth Sense is what made Unbreakable so suspenseful.

Anyway, in South Park I wasn’t sure how this fight was going to end. The odds were that Wendy would beat up Cartman. But maybe Cartman beat up Wendy. After all, he’s got, like, 100lbs on her. Or maybe Stan would jump in there (they put out the possibility) and fight Cartman. Hell, Stan might fight Wendy. Double hell, aliens might land. I mean, it’s South Park. Who knows?

The point is, because of the story, and in part, because of the reputation, I was presented with multiple, different results, each viable. It was like a Choose Your Own Adventure Book, except I didn’t get to choose, of course. I was in suspense because I didn’t know what was going to happen, and because of that, I had to watch until I found out.

Suspense, to me, is when something in me wants to know what something is for. In my senior year of school, in Advanced Writing Class, we did presentations. Alison McGhee, the instructor, gave us each the option of doing a verbal report on an author or a literary element. Everyone in class (for years, I think) did an author, I did a literary element. I wasn’t trying to be impressive, I just don’t care about most authors, and when I learn about the ones I do like, I’m generally disappointed.

I did my presentation on Chekov’s Gun and the art of introducing things in literature. Chekov’s Gun literally refers to something Chekov said which sums up as if there’s a gun placed on the mantle in Act 1, it had better be fired in Act 3.

More broadly, don’t introduce an item, a character, or even an idea into a story unless you intend to use that later. There has to be a pay off. You can’t leave loose threads hanging around.

It’s not just out of good form, it’s about people’s expectations. They expect you to use that item later. This works to your advantage, because the introduction of that item becomes foreshadowing.

In the future I’ll have to remember to write a post about Harry Potter and the Proper Placement of Chekov’s Guns

So that’s what I do know, at least, and I’m passing it on.

Oh, I almost forgot. The second story my dad told me which affected my outlook.

…I don’t have a second story. I lied. It was just a lame attempt at creating suspense. You can do that too, if you’re lazy.

Pimpin’ novels ain’t easy!

14 09 2008

I’ve written two and a half novels.

No, none have been published. For lack of trying. I’ve never written a book that I considered ready for submission, but two and a half novels is really a feather in ones cap. I think they’re pretty good, but for various reasons they aren’t ready for primetime.

My first novel was just over 50,000 words, which means it’s a NaNoWriMo novel, of course. It started as Date Night and eventually became The Greatness of Jackson Grady or Welcome to Nowhere. I never did settle on a title. Yes, it was every bit the angsty vomiting of emotions onto the page that it sounds like, which is why it’ll never see the light of day. The only real benifit is it made my girlfriend adore me (even though I wrote her into the novel as the psycho chick!).

No, it doesn’t normally produce the great American novel, but I highly recommend NaNoWriMo for any would-be writer. It’s a clinic in discipline and achievement.

My second novel, The Indignant Gentlemen, is an homage to Horatio Hornblower and all my other Age of Sail heroes. It’s about an American boy who gets pressed (actually spelled ‘prest’ for all those diehards out there!) into the British navy at the onset of the French Revolutionary Wars, and follows his friendship with three other midshipmen.

The reason it’s not ready for submission is due to two things. One, it’s terribly inaccurate. As much as I love the genre, I’m really not an expert on sea life, and I get in the weeds when I try to talk about tactics. The second reason is the theme I really wanted, the life and friendships of midshipmen (no, not in a gay way, perv), didn’t come through too strongly, any my main character, James Maddox, came across way too whiny.

Still, this novel has a lot of potential, so it’s on deck for a rewrite. Unfortunately, it calls for a complete overhaul.

My third, unfinished, novel has a wicked long name, but I’ll just call it Penny Dreadful in the Nefarious North. It’s about a Victorian journalist and paranaturalist who investigates curious phenomena for her weekly etiquette column, Dear Miss Dreadful…

It was going swimmingly for a good long while, then dried up, and I’ve been meekly plucking away at it for a couple years. It does need a rewrite, but at its core, it’s a very good book and very solid writing.

I’ve updated my Projects page with the latter two novels, and in the future I’ll post some excerpts.

It’s a very controversial thing among writers to share their babies. There’s a lot of fear about theft. I personally think this is overblown. First, great minds think alike, and frankly, great minds don’t have to steal things. People without great minds may possibly steal your idea, but they really won’t be able to do a lot with it, will they? Besides, it gives one great incentive to get cracking at finishing their novel and doing something with it.

Also, writers have to realize that this is a networking business. It’s nearly impossible to get successful at it through cold submissions (that shouldn’t keep you from trying though; persistance is key). You have to know people, and you have to pimp your babies. You have to talk about your novel to whoever will listen, because you never really know who may be in a position to help you out. Plus, talking about it will help you develop a pitch. A lot of brilliant writers can’t talk about their books for beans. And to an extent I include myself in that.

So get out there and talk about your stuff. Be enthusiastic about it. That enthusiasm, even if it’s fake, will be contagious, and will bounce back to you. And we all need enthusiasm. We eat it up.