Horrible is Wonderful!

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Take the suits and the corporate executives’ notes out of the creative process, turn to the Internet and some very talented friends and relatives. Spin out the idea of a musical comedy of a “low-rent supervillain wannabe” and you get Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.

I kid you not. It’s wonderful, funny, sad and arch all at once. It’s 42 minutes long and was made for a budget “in the low six figures” according to creator and co-writer Joss Whedon. The fellow who gave us Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and Serenity TV shows, all which he made kicking and screaming at the TV execs about how much they cost and what the stories should say. (Fox screwed up Firefly so badly in broadcast order they didn’t even air the pilot as the first episode.)

Enough of that. Give a creator a chance to cook up a story, without concerns about what you can’t do. A death ray that doesn’t work very well. A superhero who’s not a nice guy. A villain with a crush on a girl he sees at the laundromat. All devised by Whedon, his two brothers and brother Jed’s fiancee Maurissa Tancharoen.

But I give too much away. Watch the show at hulu.com or from the drhorrible.com Web site. See what can be done when story is king, and then the demand melts down the Web servers that deliver it to the eager viewers.

In a recent Time magazine article about the juggernaut of movies based on graphic novels, the beautiful creative space of writer Mark Millar — creator of nihilist graphic novel (and summertime movie) Wanted — explains it best.

His next comic is about a 100-year U.S. war in the Middle East, with superpowered soldiers and flying Islamic fundamentalists. It’s the kind of idea that would get squashed at a studio meeting, where the poor performance of all the Iraq-war movies would be trotted out. But then, Millar doesn’t need anyone’s green light. He just needs an artist and a pen.

Now that’s what I call a wonderful world to create as a storyteller.

The Four Character Levels

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Peter Dunne, movie and TV writer who’s won Emmys and a Peabody award, has a great book in Emotional Structure to let you explore and define and show your characters’ emotions. Dunne talks early on about the Four Character Levels:

1. Individual: The outer layer, what is shown to the world
2. Familial: The belief system, secrets, seat of guilt
3. Social: Cultural, other-oriented, obligations and changeable
4. Emotional: The real deal, what the character really feels — whether they are aware of it or not.

In 11 pages which Dunne writes very early in his book, he breaks down how these levels show how your hero relates to the world. You can work on these things using the book’s exercises. Great stuff.

“Trust your growth,” he says to inspire us. “Every time you create a character or write a scene you grow, too. Just as you ask your hero to trust his process, you must trust yours.”

As I polish Viral Times in its extensive revision, I keep these levels in mind for my characters. Dorothy Bezder shows up in Chapter Six, to introduce a character she loves who is capable of great violence, all in the name of a vengeful god. What happens to Dorothy after Six? What are her levels?

Artist’s choices for me.

Mind-meld character and setting

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Donald Maass offers a lot of advice on getting your book written well enough to break out in Writing the Breakout Novel. In his first chapter he gives you all the motivation you will need: Scenarios of writers with ongoing careers, already published, but sliding downward. He calls himself the agent who gets the 911 call when the latest novel doesn’t get picked up.

That scary scenario is available for your consideration at the Amazon.com Web page for the book, in “Excerpt.” But the problems which Haass offers up also have solutions in the book. Amazon’s site lets you Look Inside the Haass book, and in a “Surprise Me” click I found this advice on making setting and character merge to lift a book into breakout:

You can deepen the psychology of place in your story by returning to a previously established setting and showing how your character’s perception of it has changed. A useful principle for making place an active character [in your story] is to give your characters an active relationship to place; which in turn means marking your characters’ growth or decline through their relationships to their various surroundings.

Haass has a good handle on how to do this, since he says it’s not as easy as it sounds. “Go inside your characters and allow them a moment to discover their feelings about the place into which you’ve delivered them.”

Making your point by changing POV

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In this morning’s meeting of our Writer’s Workshop Manuscript Group, we wrapped up response to five writers’ offerings with a brief talk about changing point of view. The writers who meet each first Saturday went home with advice from Josip Novakovitch (Fiction Writer’s Workshop) and Sherri Szeman (The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing).

POV gets tagged a lot during manuscript workshops, in part because deviating from the missionary-position of single POV is so easy to spot. Making POV changes is an opportunity for both failure and brilliance. Just make sure each change is worth the trip.

Which POV are you choosing, or using? There are many definitions. Across the two writing teachers listed above I compiled the following list:

First person
First person multiple
First person collective observer
Second person
Epistolary, or first person letters
Outer limited
Inner limited
Third person
Third person limited
Third person objective
Third person subjective
Third person limited flexible
Third person omniscient
Third person multiple
Multiple viewpoints

There’s the possibility of “combo” as well, mixing several of the above throughout a story.

Novakovitch offers consistency as a guideline to help authors manage their shifts. Start early with a definite pattern, then stick to it. He also says first-time novelists or short story writers will do better by observing the conventions of POV. However,

Switching POVs can … derive information about an event initially in the first person. After the story has been assembled by several witnesses, and enough inferences have been made to cover even what has not been told by the witnesses, the event may be described without references to the sources; things can assume an objective third person perspective — and a composite report can be written about the motives of everybody involved.

E.M Forster said that shifting POV is “the right to intermittent knowledge” and that it parallels our perception in life. “We are stupider at some times than others; we can enter into people’s minds occassionally but not always, because our minds get tired.”

The best reason to shift POV might also come from Forster, who said that “this intermittence [of POVs] lends in the long run variety and color to the experiences we receive.”

Headed west for vivid words

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This weekend I’m heading 400 miles west of the Workshop, to do some work of my own on my writing. The Writer’s League of Texas is hosting its first Summer Writing Academy, where about two dozen of us will learn about writing novels, screenplays, or in my case, Making Fiction Come Alive.

My instructor is Jodi Thomas, a USA Today bestselling author of romances who’s also the writer in residence at West Texas A&M University. I figured that with teaching experience in her background and more than a dozen books in print, Jodi would be a good choice to learn the language of vivid love. I bought a copy of her novel The Texan’s Wager. It starts strong, with our heroine stranded in the middle of nowhere, kicked out of a wagon train with no weapons in 19th Century Texas.

Trouble right away, the cardinal rule of how to kick off a compelling story. I’m looking forward to being a little more kicked out in the week to come, too, kind of a retreat away from the life that supports me and my family.

Alpine, of course, will be beautiful, in the summertime cool of the Davis Mountains. I’m especially keen to drive to Ft. Davis soon, to visit Dayton’s birthplace and the spot he fell in love with his wife. There’s nothing like being an eyewitness to detail to make the writing come alive.

Starting later, then saving on education

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Many writers begin their stories too early. In my novel Viral Times I’ve written three chapters of prologue. They likely will never see an editor’s desk, but I needed to write them to know more about some of my characters.

Starting too early in a story, even if it’s well-written, still won’t make it past an editor who wants to hear the tale, not revel in the backstory of vivid characters. (Don’t get me wrong, there’s a place for backstory. Just read Empire Falls to see how Richard Russo makes the history of main characters so essential to understanding their current-day personalities.)

But most of us aren’t so clever as Russo. Even an award-winner like Val McDermid, according to the blog site The Writing Show. Quoted in an online interview , McDermid tells about a difficult amputation that taught her, and where else a writer can get an affordable education.

How do you decide when and in what context to reveal details about your characters and your story?

VM: It’s not a conscious decision-making process. It’s a combination of instinct and acquired technique. The first draft of my second novel, Common Murder, began with five beautifully crafted chapters of back story for my protagonist, Lindsay Gordon. When I sent it off to my agent, she said, ‘Lose the first five chapters. They’re lovely, but they don’t tell the story. Everything you’ve told us here can be fed in as and when we need to know it.’ That taught me a very important lesson, and I think it’s now so deeply embedded I don’t have to think about it any more.

Do you make a conscious decision to tell a certain proportion of the story through narration as opposed to dialog, or do you go by feel?

VM: Always by feel. I’m not at all formulaic about my writing. Most of what I do is informed by what feels right to me. I think the best way to develop these instincts is to read, read, read. You can learn as much from a bad book as a good one. Other people’s mistakes are a very cheap way to discover what not to do!

Is it about the sexes, or sex?

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Every evening at the Writer’s Workshop group meetings we discuss a handout we call On Chair — because it’s left on the group members’ chairs as they arrive, or set down during the break for brownies. Last night I dropped off “Pry open your characters with sex,” revised with more detailed notes from the Small Spiral Notebook article by Steve Almond, “A 12-Step Program to Writing About Sex.”

It’s a ticklish subject. One group member asked, “Are we talking about the sex of a character, or characters having sex?” It was a fair question. We’re talking about characters interacting with sex, the character-driven scenes which are about relationships as much as they are about intimate moments.

The best book I’ve found on this subject is The Joy of Writing Sex by Elizabeth Benedict. In her acknowledgements she, well, gushes about the joy of the assignment, to write about writing about sex:

In addition to being paid to read sexy books and think for long periods about nothing but sex, another perk of writing this book is that I always have something to talk about at dinner parties that everyone wants to weigh in on, which is more than can be said about writing a novel. I am certain that I will never have it so good, conversation-wise, as I did while writing this book.

Benedict’s book is a recommended text for my upcoming “Writing About Sex” seminar at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, but I picked it up at Powell’s iconic bookstore in Portland, in the summer of 2003 when I studied at the Tin House Writer’s Workshop. Slim volume, worth owning — especially for the sly looks it can draw at the coffeehouse while you read it. Everybody’s interested in the subject. That’s why the writing about sex is so essential to knowing your story through the hearts of your characters.

How valuable is the idea?


Tonight over a few brews, after a bike ride, a friend asked me about ideas and writing. I mentioned that I’m heading back to Iowa for the Summer Writing Festival, and described the workshop process up there. Manuscripts get shared among those classes, we comment and mark up the writing, then tell the writer how we felt as readers while consuming the story.

My friend asked, “Aren’t you worried about people stealing your ideas?”

It’s a question I’ve heard before, so I had a ready answer. “Not at all. The idea is not the most important part of my creative writing.”

Why? For me, it might come from my years in the theatre, creating roles. We worked from the character outward, reading every line we had been given, looking at the relationship between our character and the others in the play. We were hungry for details of description, habits, beliefs, age, blind spots. All the things that make up a memorable, vivid character. We made up what we didn’t read, found motivation and meaning in costume and voice.

So I’ve learned to build my creative writing from that foundation. Who is it that reader is seeing and hearing on the page? What does that character want more than anything? Answer those questions for everybody in the story, and you’ll have an idea that flows from character. I’ve never been one to start from plot, the heartland of ideas.

The fellow who wrote screenplays like Mr. Holland’s Opus, Pat Duncan, schooled us on the relative value of ideas during the Heart of Texas Screenwriter’s Festival in Austin. He said he’s got a file cabinet full of ideas. Duncan said “Start with a character with a problem, or a situation or a place you want to explore.”

Stealing? Sure it goes on, and artists quip that “if you’re going to steal, steal from the best, the masters.” But what they mean is to steal technique, style, or structure; the substructure of story that is almost impossible to duplicate exactly. Start with the same idea, two writers might. By the time they finish, get through rewrites of their own, or from agents and editors, and they won’t have the same book.

Forget those copious copyright notices on your manuscripts. Make your characters vivid and original and give them tough problems. That’s where the ideas come from, and the ideas are like water in the sea. It’s the fish that draw our interest.

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