Writing Books and Movies: Three Critical Distinctions

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A writer asked me this week, “Can I start my novel contest submission from a place other than the beginning chapter of my book?” You can start anywhere. The challenge you meet with any beginning other than the beginning is knowing who is who and where your story stands.

a_jay_shermanUsing a mid-book entry, you must establish character and underscore the theme of a book at an incredible pace. The judges will determine your ability to create characters as part of their scoring. This can be a challenge while starting mid-book. Not necessarily, of course. An author can always color outside the lines of accepted practices.

Think for a little bit, however, about why it’s important to start the sample someplace other than the start. The samples of film stories, trailers, illustrate the distinction in showing your audience your story.

First, a movie trailer may be a cousin to the book sample, but the trailer is edited so you get the essence of the story. If you can do this for a book “writing sample” (the phrase for a passage of a book sent to agents, contests, and editors) then good for you. But movie editing and novel writing have great differences. The phrases that apply here are collages and medleys for movies, and guidebooks and maps for novels. In a book you have to know where you’re at when you begin. You have a legend for a map. It’s not easy to carry a judge’s or reader’s imagination across half the story without a legend up front.

Second, visual storytelling is not the same craft as creating fiction on a page. A movie lets your eyes see settings and your ears hear actors to establish your place in the story. On talk shows, the actors are asked to “set up the clip” we watch. This takes up words to do in a writing sample, words that might help more if they’re used in dramatic, descriptive, evocative writing.

Third, you get more time to establish the magic when you’re writing a movie. Music, colors and lighting, the spoken word: they all splash over your screen in a trailer in a matter of seconds. The theme of the movie, its main questions, often roll toward you in phrases that float across the screen. “What would you do,” it might ask, “when salvation costs you everything?” In books you get this with your jacket-flap or back cover writing. A writing contest gives you a shot at this with a synopsis, if they accept one as part of your entry.

When you’re tempted to start a writing sample in mid-book for a contest, look over the categories on the scoresheet and ask yourself if you can demonstrate competence in each section. If you can see the way, go for it. You’ll probably not be the only person to so this. A judge must understand who is who and where the desires and motives lay in this new land, however.

Although you get about 300 words of synopsis to set up your clip, in the Writers League of Texas Manuscript contest, you’ll work with 2,450 words at most to show your drama. It’s not an impossible constraint to overcome. But choosing first steps in a writing sample is like crossing a stream using steps upon rocks. You find your path starting from the bank where it’s dry. Beginnings give book samples better traction.

Using Truth To Develop Your Writing Voice

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Voice is an important part of growing as a writer, because it’s a gateway to writing more effortlessly. Creating anything will always require effort. But struggling in a first draft can be a sign of over-thinking your writing. Ron Shelton, the screenwriter of Bull Durham and White Men Can’t Jump, says he’s got a sign that sits next to his laptop where he drafts. “Don’t think — just write,” it says. (The time for thinking is during revision, but that’s a pleasant task for another article.)

ernest-hemingway-simplest-wayThis time out, we can look at how to make an effective voice on the page. One exercise we use in the Workshop is what I call the Mimic Technique. Students choose a topic and write it on the top of a blank page. For example, it might be “On Breakfast Habits of Mine” or “The Tears at the End of Prom Night.” They also bring in a passage from a favorite author whose voice they’d like to adapt. They read that passage aloud, just a paragraph, to let that voice seep into their writing spirit. Then they write, just a simple draft, on their chosen topic, working to infuse the voice they’ve just read aloud. It’s an experimental, playing process that helps tune up the writing ear for an author’s voice.

Voice also represents a way to carry stories of your life forward. Our most natural voice is the one we heard telling us stories while we grew up. I call it the Birth Voice, and it often sounds like that voice in our head that talks to us 24×7. A writer might use this voice in telling stories, but they’d like to be heard on the page the same way they’re heard in person. Making that transfer from speaking to writing involves a few tricks that can be useful.

Voice is essential to writing truly and deeply. Ernest Hemingway was a novelist whose stories and views are not for everybody, but no one disputes he was a great writer. One key reason for his success was the tone of truth he could use in his writing.

“All you have to do is write one true sentence,” he said. “Write the truest sentence you know.” Writing can sound simple, as he intended. That direct simplicity brings our voices to the reader with the right amount of effort.

Readers Want Plot. Accept It. Thrust It Into The Heart of Your Stories.

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Over at Writer Unboxed, Dave King advises us all to embrace the power to make things happen in our books and stories. Beauty in the writing is grand, yes. But the level of satisfaction — more important, the attraction to readers — rests upon things happening.

buffyIt’s so easy to go the other direction and make the world’s most exquisite sentences, paragraphs, the nuance of metaphor and simile dancing across our pages. You need good prose. But to grab readers you need a story — told through events we see, then seeing a character’s reactions to those actions.

King says, about one beautiful New Yorker story

In short, nothing happens.  It does it quite beautifully, but . . .

I understand why some people might love quality characterization and beautiful writing so much that they’re willing to read a story for these pleasures alone.  But most readers need something more to keep them going.  They want to hope that something good – or fear that something bad – will happen to characters they care about.  They want to watch those characters take action to change their fates. They want to be surprised.

They want plot.

This hunger for plot is, I think, one reason comics and YA fiction, and the movies based on them, are so popular.  The best practitioners of these arts know and value the power of story, and one of the best of these is Joss Whedon.  He’s the force behind the current revival of the Marvel Universe (The Avengers, the Agents of Shield), but the work I know him for best is the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

He goes on with specific praise for Whedon, one of the great storytellers of our time. Have a look at the article at Unboxed to see more.

Include action. Great books are plot plus story. Make readers want to pass along your book, and tell a friend how much fun it was to experience

Essentials for a Compelling Memoir

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Memoir is a story told with the author as the hero. But also told as the goat, buffoon and dupe. You see, a memoir needs to balance its heroism and sacrifice — easy enough to write in the first person — with the mistakes and flaws we observe about ourselves. Or have noted about ourselves by friends, lovers, and rivals.

I try to remind writers of memoirs they should be asking hard questions of themselves while choosing their material. (After all, it’s a memoir, so it’s selective. An autobiography makes sure that all the ground is covered over a lifetime.) The questions are

1. What are my flaws that are revealed in this story?
2. How am I being fearless in the writing of this story?
3. How am I being vulnerable in this section?
4. How can I be more fierce in drawing conclusions or showing the lessons?

Memoirs also unreel stories that a narrator is compelled to relate. But that’s not the most entertaining way to tell the story, in some instances. That can be the scene. One basic definition of a scene is a short period of time where people grapple with a task or a goal to be accomplished, a striving that includes conflict or struggle. And at the end of a scene something is resolved, and something is not. The unresolved yearning pushes our heroine — yes, the writer — into the next event or choice.

These scenes provide the open glens which are the complement to the dense forests of narration. The showing versus telling give-and-take in any story can gain the essence of showing, even during narration. Include specific detail, the more unique the better, in any stretch of narration. As they say in journalism to reporters, if a dog bites a man, get the name of the dog.

Hunt for fearlessness, fierceness, and flaws in your memoir writing. Telling has more than one definition. When an action is telling, it means it’s representative of a larger truth. Using this ideal, even your showing can be telling.

Blogging tips? Writing tips!

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One of my blogs — the day-job journalism — is hosted on TypePad, a combo of the Moveable Type blog engine and a hosting service. Great value at $15 monthly for up to five blogs. Recently they offered advice on blogging better, ten tips.

I loved the first, words to live by as a writer:

1. DO write about what matters to you.

Blogging is a different kind of writing than most, except maybe the personal essay. That doesn’t mean that blogging can’t serve the masters of oh, journalism (see open.salon.com) or instruction on craft.

Most important, it’s a way to keep your fingers on the keyboard, a warm-up if nothing else. Plus you will get known by people you want to gather into your life, if you’re lucky.