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.

Trim out your filters to connect readers

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Some easy writing advice to follow, offered all the time, is show instead of tell. But it takes careful work to remove showing while you remove filter words from your writing. These are words that make a story less vivid and make the writer more obvious.

coffee-924948_1280You don’t want the latter to happen. We tell stories, but we don’t want our readers to focus on us as storytellers. Write memoirs or essays if you want to be seen while you tell the story. Fiction has several key elements, and none of them give writers a reason to show themselves telling. Not even first person.

Make a list of these filter words and post it next to your computer screen:

  • saw
  • looked
  • watched
  • noticed
  • smelled
  • heard
  • touched
  • felt
  • knew
  • realized
  • thought
  • remembered
  • reminded
  • decided
  • seemed

You rarely need these in fiction’s narrative writing. (In dialogue you can do almost anything—but the dialogue has to propel the plot, or reinforce character traits, or make extra conflict). At the hardest end of the filter cutting, thought and decided can be erased by first-person limited point of view.

He thought he could wrestle the gun from Steiner’s hand.

becomes

He could wrestle the gun from Steiner’s hand.

At the easiest,

Randolph saw the wagon sink in the mud

becomes

The wagon sank in the mud. We should know it’s Randolph doing the watching.

Let a reader observe the action itself in the writing. Visuals rarely need watched and saw. Sensations like smell (one of my favorites) should be unique or pungent enough to stand without the verb smelled. The fuzzy one is felt: it’s almost useful while you describe a texture. But the stubble on his chin felt rough can easily become The stubble on his chin was rough.

Go through and check your writing during revision. After awhile, you won’t even write first drafts using filters.

 

 

What You Need To Win With A Coach

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coachwhistleMaking a choice to employ a writing coach is an important step for an author. How do you choose? Ask a prospective writing coach how long they’ve been paid to write and edit. Ask about salaried writing and editing, editorial projects, articles, and books. Your coach should be able to answer the questions in years. Just like being an incumbent politician, that’s a record of work a seasoned coach gets to reference, and you get to check. That number of years is not any more important than those hard-earned Masters degrees. But it’s no less important, either.

I had the pleasure of working with Steve Adams to help coach me and develop my memoir Stealing Home: The Road to the Perfect Game. There’s the whole element of counseling and listening that turns out to be much more important than any Magic Famous Acronyms from a school. Steve had his MFA, yes, but he also had practical experience in working with writers. A Masters can be helpful, but being able to relate to an artist who’s finding the voice of their story — that is crucial. Some people want repairs to their work. Others like to have the way suggested. Your coach will know what you want because they will ask you, then do a test evaluation or a sample edit.

Like choosing a therapist, surgeon, or minister, it comes down to what kind of person your coach is at heart: you hope it’s someone with integrity and a following who’ll vouch for that integrity and the value of the coaching. There’s no certificate that says Writing Coach, not even an MFA. I like to say that doing your diligence about experience is the best way to find a winning match with a coach.

Great heroes transform a story from the inside

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While there’s plenty of formulas and types of story breakdowns to follow, there’s nothing like an inside job. Things happen in stories because what’s inside the main character, as well as what’s buried in the villains, too.

luke_skywalkerPeople, and how they fare amid trouble, are what keep us reading once we begin. You can start with a fine premise (a college essay falls into the wrong hands and student is called out for an old misdemeanor revealed on its pages). But going deeper keeps me engaged. Showing me why our student was carrying that small amount of dope (her crime) is more important than the circumstances of her arrest or punishment. Knowing what was in her heart when she revealed this secret is a good driver, too.

External events like arrest, breaking the rules, sentencing and being shamed — these are vehicles you employ to show a transformation in your main character. That hero is opposed by antagonists who want something the hero does not want. But even the antagonists must desire something they do not have. It can as simple as denying a hero their desires, or exploiting the hero’s innocence.

“I’m Luke Skywalker and I’m here to rescue you” are words the young Luke has been dying to say all of his life. Why he wants to say those words, beyond the sound of it being exciting, is a key to knowing why to care about this character across five movies (so far).

Everyone who’s a significant character in a story follows a path of transformation. The why that leads them to change the world of the story is the most important engine to push them down the path. Doing character work is rarely wasted time when you apply it to serving the transformation in a story. I always want to know what a hero desires, what a hero fears, what a hero must hide than is forced to reveal. Desire, fear, secrecy: They all can be agents of change in a character and in a story, too.

In an old Murder She Wrote, mystery writer Jessica Fletcher said that “character is the soul of plot.” Something interesting taking place is a good start. Learning why it’s interesting—that’s a story.

How to build metaphors in less than 5 minutes

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how-to-build-metaphorsSpeaking metaphorically. It’s a phrase we all understand. We use metaphor as a way of making something stand in for something else. A bad employee isn’t on the way to being fired. No, he’s a dead duck. We love metaphor in stories because it helps us in two ways. We understand better. We enjoy the images that metaphor brings us, too.

Metaphor is a device in writing and storytelling. But most of us think of something easier when we play with metaphors. We employ simile, the phrases that use “is like” or “as.” She was sweating like a harlot in Easter Sunday church,” me might say. Or “That show was flat as day-old pancakes.” Great fun, similes. You know, using them leads up to an easy road to making metaphors. Here’s a fun exercise you can use to make metaphors.

Write a list of 7 nouns down one side of your page. Specific nouns are better. Not “tree” but “live oak.” Not “car” but “minivan.” You wanna see these things better. You want to know what makes them unique.

Now “is like” next to each noun. Or “are like” if you’ve written something “dalmations” for a noun. Remember? Specifics. There we go. Now for the first round of fun. Finish each sentence. Don’t sweat this. You have seven of these, after all.

There we go. Seven similies. Now for the magic. Strike out the words “is like” and just use “is” or “are.” Instead of dalmations are like checkerboards, it’s dalmations are checkerboards. Or, those checkerboards of dalmations. Voila, metaphor.

You can play with this when you want to call attention to the details of something in a story. They can be events: a Second Wedding. Or places: A Greyhound bus station. Or objects, like plastic wheelbarrows. You’re making poetry, in a way. This is lyrical writing, the kind you hear in songs.

Remember that metaphors are quite a way up on the pyramid of writing skills. The legendary director at Iowa’s Writing Workshop Frank Conroy shows us a pyramid of writing skills. At the bottom are the foundation of meaning, of sense, or clarity. But a couple of levels up is building block of metaphor.

Try making some today, and have fun. You can go too far, of course, and have crazy combinations. That’s what rewriting is for. And as a lot of us writers say, writing is rewriting. Nobody gets it as perfect as a Marine’s haircut on the first draft. (See what I did there? Didja see?)

Writing to Get Into Someone’s Head

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brain-emotionsMalcolm Gladwell writes in What the Dog Saw, “Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. It succeeds or fails on its ability to engage you, to think, to give you a glimpse into someone else’s head.” This is true whether you write non-fiction, novels, or the blend of these two: the memoir. The getting a reader into another head? That’s the work of good character-building.

Building characters comes from a knowledge of behaviors. The Meyers-Briggs personality tests rank people in four areas, using questions that measure whether you are more of a:

• Introvert vs. Extrovert
• Thinking vs. Feeling
• Sensing vs. Intuitive
• Judging vs. Perceiving

Giving yourself a test lets you ally yourself closer with one of the ITSJ combinations. It’s a great starting point for understanding aspects of a character. The book Plot vs. Character outlines the 16 types of personality combinations you can arrive at. Best of all, it derives a personality summary from each combination. For example, here’s ESTP, the extrovert who needs sensory motivation, thinks more than feels, and perceives more than judges:

Tolerant and flexible; actions, not words; the doer, not the thinker; spontaneous; implusive; competitive.

It’s much easier to dream up a character, for some writers, if you can peg that person on one of those 16 summaries. Best of all, since the basic types have been summarized, it helps get the plot-first writers motivated about characterization. The summaries and the types are an easier step up into someone’s head. You have to take this step to make a strong character, or at least one who makes sense when they act.

That’s an important step to get your writing into someone else’s head: the reader’s. “Oh yeah, I know somebody well who’s like that” is the kind of connection you want readers to make with your story’s actors. A plot can be brilliant and lure a reader to the story. They stay more often, and bring away more from their story time, when the actors are memorable.

Discount training: worth all you won’t pay for it

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plasticflowersI have an old friend who’s embarking on a new book. His first, in fact, although he’s been writing for his business for many years. A book demands more of a writer than an article, of course. I brought more than 20 years of journalism editing and writing to my first day of creating fiction. Making a 4,000-word article is not enough experience to create an 80,000-word book. You can’t just create 20 stories and stitch them together. You need to practice skills you might not have polished yet.

The same kind of calculation is part of choosing a coach or a class for your writing. People go to the gym and pay $30 for a hour with a trainer. Ask them to pay more than $50 for a writing coaching session, and some will point to Udemy on the Web. “It’s just $40 for 35 modules of writing. I can do that.” Ah, the Web, the great discounter of all learning.

There’s been a revolution in buying and selling services. As writers, we now can choose the world over for our writing lessons. Coaching, too, if your coach provides you 1:1 time. Some of the lessons come from far away, places where English is not the common language. But it’s not just the native language that matters. Mistaking coaching for such instruction is commonplace. Instruction is only as good as the practice it triggers. If a $40 Udemy course doesn’t require you to write and turn in for an evaluation, you’re not going to pay for all of that expertise which reveals what you know—and what you still need to master.

“Why should I care about getting graded?” you might say. “I never liked that part of school anyway.” To avoid all that grading, we then audited courses instead of taking the tests. College systems didn’t discount tuition for audited courses, though. Remember, right alongside you were students working to prove they learned the lessons. Submitting work. Hearing evaluations. Seeing where you misunderstood, so you can master the skills.

I’m making a series of Write Skills videos this year. Just about one a week is my goal, and you invest about 4 minutes watching each one. When you finish each, you’ll have one more tool in your writing belt. Write Skills are free, but you won’t get your practicing afterward evaluated. (If you don’t have a plan for practice, you’re not growing your skills. Short lessons, yes. Longer practice.) That’s what coaching does, or sitting in a real class in-person, or online. You measure your training through evaluated practice. You won’t have to pay for that training when you buy a $40 writing course. You might be paying later on, though, when your writing hasn’t seemed to improve as much as you desired.

Desire drives genuine growth. It’s worth the investment to build a book that people will finish reading and remember. Other kinds of books are everywhere, of course. They’re set aside unfinished, or leave an impression that no writer wants. Whether you’re creating your first work, or just the latest, all of us need to keep growing our craft. I like to think of discount training like plastic flowers. They look great. But if you want the aroma of a genuine bouquet, then an arranger working with the fresh stuff gives you what you really desire.

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