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Monday, November 28, 2011

Writing Tips: The Dirty Dozen

Any writer worth their salt (hey, there’s one!) will instantly recognize this list as the dirtiest collection of overused phrases and concepts known as a clichés. Without a doubt, clichés emerge in all genres and styles of writing by accident, an unfortunate happenstance of the written word sometimes offers no other turn of phrase. I suppose, that is excusable. If done intentionally, I would hope the insertion was meant to be ironic; otherwise their very passing suggests a serious reconsideration of the source material. At least in this writer’s opinion (whose opinion is often snarky…You have been warned). Take careful note of their use so you can avoid the same pitfalls:
1. Mary / Gary Sue. I had to put this at the top because a flawless person can only be found in bad writing. Humans have flaws, so characters should too. I wish everyone would just accept that.
2. Everybody Dies / Lives. The culmination of a great story, no matter what medium, needs to have an original ending. The collective deaths or happily-ever-afters are just plain embarrassing.  
3. Villain Monologue’ing or Giving Hero Time to Escape. It’s ironic and comical in James Bond. It shouldn’t be used anywhere else. A well written villain does not allow for an easy escape nor do they detail their plans to the hero. It’s just bad for business.
4. It’s Been Done Before. This is something writers say. They fear the attempt of a story because the concept has been done before. Everything has been done before in some fashion. Take a chance and make it yours.
5. Friends Marrying Each Other. Two friends from a group getting together stretches this cliché enough. But when everyone marries each other…ugh…if you can’t tell…I’m shaking my head.
6. Bad Boy Can be Turned Good. For some reason this attracts all the ladies. But it’s not realistic. It makes for great emotional scenes, but take it as a red flag. People who are damaged need to work themselves out of the hole. The “bad boy” should too.
7. Damsel in Distress. Women are not all helpless flowers in need of saving. Period.
8. Calm Before the Storm. I’m not sure what storms these people have witnessed. Storms can take a while to build, but they can also be abrupt and violent. Avoid phrases like this that generalize.
9. It’s Quiet. A Little Too Quiet. I wonder what will happen next. Will someone jump out and startle me? I would have never guessed.  
10. The Orphan Hero. If you need to emotionally abuse or seclude your hero at their introduction in order to gain sympathy from readers, perhaps this isn’t your biggest problem.
11. Characters are Either Good or Evil. In life there is a gray area. There should be in writing. Characters can be loyal to a team, yes, but they can also play both sides, or switch sides. These alterations can make this age-old battle interesting.
12. Black as Night / Bright as Day. Redundant much? Description of places, people or things should be done in a manner that avoids obvious or worn-out ideas like this.
Some of these clichéd ideas can be executed well, but typically they just stink of a lack of creativity. Although this lists the twelve most shameful clichés a writer can use in my opinion, I’m sure each and every one of you has several of their own to add. Feel free to comment if you have a particularly irksome cliché you would like to share!  

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Conundrums of a Pre-Teen Writer

Age ten is a tumultuous transitional period between elementary fundamentals and middle school regimented work across the spectrum of classes. Pre-teen me was none too happy to discover the workload increasing and my enjoyment in school decreasing. Everything revolved around homework and projects in addition to being introduced to the semi-real world of teenagehood.
One ordinary day in the pastel classroom, wallpapered with artwork and timetables, my teacher assigned to us a short story that would be read in front of the kindergartners. At first this mundane event did not remotely catch my attention. Little did I know, this landmark day gave my creative, proverbial ball another great kick.
While other children were still thinking up ideas, I had started my first outline. While the others fashioned a single sentence, I was three pages in. While my class went to recess, I stayed to write. I had found my calling! Not long into the project, I was instructed that the story only needed a few sentences per page. Ten of them in total. I had ten pages, all right. Ten full pages.
What was I to do? I had barely begun to know my story’s lion family (The Lion King was my favorite movie…ok, it still is), and now I was being asked to cut apart their tale? This not only expanded my experience in writing, but it introduced me to editing. The final sprint to the “finished” line.  More like sprinting on a treadmill. I sat in my cozy desk learning the fine art of being concise. I had to choose what was most important. And I thought it was difficult then, ha.   
I was none too pleased with reducing my wonderful story to a few meager statements, but this lesson played a decent part in preparing me for the continuous road of editing to come. Finally, I presented my story to the kindergartners as planned, but what was not planned was me going off script. My lion tale was written and all I needed to do was read. But I was a budding story teller and my story needed to be told! I recited the story, from memory, to the bright faces of the young students. And although to this day I couldn’t tell you what my narrative was about (beyond lions), I do remember how happy the kids were to hear a good story.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Writer’s Sketch 4: Action

For the expression map, I focused on portraying realistic emotions. An important practice to hone your ability to write expressions realistically is in observing how real people react— the same fact remains true for writing action.

Coming from the experience of writing a heavily action-based series (think: Lord of the Rings), it can be as stimulating to the imagination as it can drain all of your creativity. And to be completely honest, I am glad my future plots do not rely as strongly on extensive action scenes. But a story without action is nothing more than a postcard. A still picture lacking movement. If you want your narrative to be successful, engaging the reader in moments or scenes of action is vital.
The conflict is always set up before any action comes to pass. And action does not need to be a war or fist fight. They can be an argument or evading capture. Even something as simple as a daily routine is an action. For the purposes of this exercise however, I’ll be focusing on heavy action scenes (aka- combat).
Sure, watching human interactions is one option for the study of action, but I find films to be a better decision. Not only can you pause a film (something you cannot do with real life) but you can note the directional cues for showing the specific action. Directors are like visual writers, they have to determine the best manner of portrayal for every situation. Does the light illuminate or obscure the scene? Is the view from the character or an external shot? Does the event take place quickly or frame-by-frame? 
Let’s review the Neo vs. Mr. Smith fight scene from The Matrix. Before they begin to toss punches, the subway is scanned over. It’s vacant. It’s dusty. There’s a tumbling newspaper. Neo has an escape route, but he chooses to stand against the agent. As they fight the perspective changes between Neo and Mr. Smith as well as external shots. Some actions are highlighted while others pass by without further detail. Sure, the atmosphere is tense and the physical exchange is riveting, but you can only learn so much from observation.
When you have chosen a scene to review, watch it several times. Pause to note the intricacies of how it is represented. To sketch an action for practice, use words to describe the same conflict and see how realistic it reads. Sounds simple enough, right? It’s more challenging than you think. After you have executed this sketch several times over, being able to describe your own imagined action will be second nature.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Playing Around with Writing

I would categorize myself as a novelist, first and foremost. I have written short stories (which will be detailed in another post) that have entertained and amused me…for a short while. Although my passion lies in the complexities of a deeply involved story (or more specifically, a series) I don’t shy away from trying my words at another venue. For a class, I even investigated poetry. If a short story was too compact for my over-active imagination, I should have known poetry would not satisfy my need to create a narrative.
Recently, however, I have dabbled in the art of screenplays. I’m finding it especially difficult to subdue my creative urge throughout this journey and yet I keep reminding myself that mimicry is the best form of flattery. I have been so taken by the clever humor of How I Met Your Mother that I decided to base my speculative script on it.  
Although my current fiction series has plenty of dialogue, the skills I have acquired from years of novel practice needed to be adjusted to work correctly in the white-spaced frame of a script. The dialogue laden script has forced me to keep my descriptions succinct while focusing on the verbal interactions of characters.  Admittedly the project isn’t too strenuous because it is a speculative version of Monday night’s greatest comedy, but nevertheless, it is taking careful focus to replicate the characters believably in an entertaining situation.
Seems simple enough. So, what is driving me over the edge? Formatting. Every piece of the script requires different margins and annotations. I wish it would be as straightforward as novel writing where the author can essentially create his or her own format, similar to how one might create a meal. A little of this, some of that, but nothing too strict. No, it’s more like baking where the recipe must be adhered to exactly or something will go awry.
Mimicking the tone of the show provides great practice. After all, writers have to stay on their toes and keep practicing like a visual artist might (as I have previously stated) to encourage the perfection of their talent. Playing all the options and styles gives the practiced writer a distinct advantage. So dearest writers- keep practicing.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

How to Overcome Writer’s Block

You’re sitting silently in front of your writing nook, the backlight of your computer bathing the dark room in a heavenly glow. Hovering above the keys, your fingers are eager to begin typing out your thoughts, but an irritating sensation clouds your mind. A slight pain zips between your ears as if your train of thought has halted on the tracks before a wayward cow. You feel distracted. Drowsy, bored, frustrated even. These are classic signs of the onset of WB: Writer’s Block.
Don’t worry. You are not alone. All writer’s experience it. Whether you’re overwhelmed with a blockage for weeks or just troubled for a few hours, there are some surefire ways to overcome this creative obstruction.
Fight Fire with Fire: Feeling unfocused can be beaten by distracting yourself even further. Run errands to take a break from writing or reorganize your priorities on another project. Spending time away from your challenging task will allow your thoughts to flow easier.
Natural Inspiration:  As I noted in a previous post, you can take a walk in nature to clear your mind and find motivation from your backwoods neighbors. A staycation or vacation can also be included in this category as relaxation is paramount to generating new ideas.
Magnify the Problem: Instead of removing yourself from the situation, taking the block head-on can be just as effective. Ask yourself, Why am I stuck? What is the primary problem? Following this assessment, make an outline covering all facets of your current struggle. Now you can move forward with a clarified perspective.
Subconscious Solutions: Your inability to conquer the block is all in your head. Trust me. Counteracting this internal struggle can also be found within. Free-write without any direction for ten or fifteen minutes and see what comes out. Somewhere inside your answer will arise.
Writer’s block comes down to two solutions: removing yourself from the block or writing through the block. For writers just now facing this age old complication, try all of the options to see which helps you best. Seasoned writers will know whether they need external or internal inspiration. The bottom line is that writer’s block does not last forever. It is curable. It takes a healthy dose of determination and a renewed prescription for inspiration.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Review of Once Upon a Time

No, this isn’t the beginning of a story. It would be a bit cliché don’t you think? I promise I’ll refrain from commenting on the lack of creativity in the title (oops, just did) during my review of ABC’s new fantasy drama based on its writing merit.
To start, I must mention that given the intense promotion of this television show and the constant reminder of its successful assembly of writers from LOST, I was disappointed in the premiere. Once Upon a Time (here on referred to as OUT) lacked the same hook of its predecessor and the pilot episode seemed too focused on instant character development where it should have centered on setting up the plot to lure viewers in for subsequent episodes.
With that said, there is plenty about OUT I found intriguing. The parallel worlds are entertaining in two fashions: 1- the fantasy world acts as a traditional escape from reality, 2- the real world hosts playful Easter eggs that hint at their relationship to the fairytale (my personal favorite is the mayor’s apple trees). Suggestive moments where the citizens remember their fantastical past provides depth to both the story and its characters. Generally speaking, fantasy protagonists are adolescent boys (which I suppose they achieved with Henry) so it’s refreshing to have a nearly grown Emma Swan* as the main character and eventual Storybrooke savior. The age twist of Emma’s parents essentially being her peers could also provide comic relief or a dramatic upheaval in the future, but it is likely the focus will continue to shine on Henry for the time-being. As far as characters go, the cast is varied enough to satisfy the many point-of-views and backstories people (read: I) often crave.
The first half of the season will largely be exposition, and the two episodes that started this journey certainly informed viewers of the necessary basics. It wasn’t until the third episode that OUT started to remove itself from expected fairytale drivel into a reinvented, modern take on these classic stories. The Evil Queen or Mayor was more or less one dimensional. Even the removal of her father’s heart didn’t quite sink in giving his short cameo. In episode three however, she took on a compassionate side that expanded her character, giving her room to become a unique villain. Undoubtedly the best part of this episode was the unconventional story of Snow White and her Prince Charming. For one, they actually gave him a name: James. And secondly Snow was not the detestable and gullible girl from childhood stories; she was an independent, thieving miscreant with class.
Although the dialogue is predictable and the stories have been done before, there is a good deal of fresh spin (specifically the characters) on these tropes to create the longevity OUT deserves. This is certainly a tale that cannot be told over a season, and much like LOST it requires numerous installments to properly communicate the intricate narrative. I cannot comment much further since the program has barely stepped into the spotlight, but from this juncture I can say that Storybrooke holds a great moderntale in store for faithful viewers.         

* I felt I had to comment on the last name Swan. Sure, it has a nice symbolism of purity (if only people really knew the ferocity of swans, ha) but it has become overused. Elizabeth Swan, Bella Swan…now Emma Swan? Come on, writers, any other last name would do.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Writing Sketch 3: Fidel Castro, Beijing, Yo-Yos.

Running a fine-toothed comb through his beard, Fidel smoothed out the smog knots that clung tightly to his hair. If only he hadn’t visited Beijing. What a terrible waste of a weekend, Fidel thought coldly. He recalled the city’s buildings poking above the clouds like the eyes of a hungry Cayman staring down its prey. Disgusting.

He sat irritated in the newly reupholstered leather chair that tucked beneath the awning of his stately mahogany desk. With a few squeaks he inched the chair closer to feel more at ease in his solitary office. Perhaps that was when tranquility should overcome him, but instead Fidel felt an itch. Stretching across the matted top, he reached a calloused hand for the specialty box of Cuban’s that lingered just beyond his finger tips.

A dense, musky smell taunted him as its phantom scent tickled Fidel’s nose. As the perfume seeped into his nostrils and blanketed his tongue with the heavy taste of unbridled pleasure, his craving intensified and he required immediate access to his cigars. Kicking back his chair, he found it blockaded by a pesky floorboard. He was stuck, imprisoned from gratification. “What luck”, he grumbled.   

But, alas! The Yo-Yo from Beijing! Rustling a hand deep into his pocket, Fidel retrieved the meager souvenir. A bright sheen came over the polished wood as Fidel jostled it in the light. His skills were amateur at best, but a proper throw would result in the repossession of his beloved Cubans. Cocking his arm back like a gun hammer and preparing the yo-yo as a bullet, Fidel let off a shot that swung parallel to his desk. The novelty kicked back with a fury, grazing the cigar box and bouncing aloft before squaring Fidel in the jaw. If only he hadn’t visited Beijing.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

National Novel Writing Month

A true challenge in writing is the annual program NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) that encourages writers to start a new project on November 1st and complete it by November 30th. There are no prizes as it is not a contest, but your final product must be a minimum of 50,000 words although anything over that is acceptable. That is one tall order, if you ask me. Granted, my first novel is around 90,000 words, but it took me a few months to write and several years to plan (and I’ve been working on its sequels ever since). I adore the concept of NaNoWriMo as it supports authors and promotes them to dig deep and uncover one of the stories hidden within.
Even though this task may seem daunting, I would gladly be an advocate for this exercise. Are you going to come through the month with a polished final draft? In all likelihood, no. Regardless, you will have a solid draft that is completed! And in the process you have the opportunity to network with other writers from across the country and the globe. For a new writer or struggling author, this is the precise atmosphere You Are What You Write endorses.
If I wasn’t already undertaking two other projects, I would try my luck at the NaNoWriMo. I could finally get the idea written that could be best described as a Disney novel. There are so many classic tales out there that could be developed into a Disney themed story. Red Riding Hood for example…well that might be tough to get around the murder and grandmother-consumption. Few tweaks here and there and it could work. Or maybe my long-desired prequel to The Lion King. Did you know Scar’s real name is Taka. That’s a fact, look it up. What made him so sour and delectably disgusting? Coming up with the idea is half the battle. Spending November writing your novel is the other half of the journey.
Take the chance and see what you come up with. If you’d like, share what ideas you have for NaNoWriMo.