Monthly Archives: November 2012

When Muse and Plan Collaborate — One Writer’s Journey

Prologue (from Larry): What you’re about to read is a response to a recent Storyfix post about good vs. “bad” ideas.  It’s from a guy whose mind, I’ve learned, is massively alive and deep in a “Life of Pi” sort of way, embracing ideas and integrating mental models into an interpretation of life and its submission to natural law.

It’s raw, unedited, heavy… and totally brilliant (IMO).

And it may be you, as well.  All of us bring some hint of pantsing to our planning, and/or planning to our pantsing, and  the ensuing dance can be the stuff of crazy-making.  For me, and hopefully for you, Kerry brings a little sanity and clarity to it all while poking the creative bear with a provocative get-off-your-ass stick.

Enjoy.

*****

A Guest Post by Kerry Boytzun

That was a great article, at least it was timely for myself as I’m struggling with finding my story, or perhaps just proceeding normally for someone who never wrote a novel, read your book, and really when it comes right down to it— doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing.

So I let the Muse or my Intuition run it. Most of the time. I find that it’s a balancing act—“searching for the story” that’s just outside of the light my idea is shining into the darkness of the creative ether.  I’m not sure but I think this is all natural. I am going back and forth from “designing” (Left Brain?) a story to letting my imagination (right brain but really the Muse) see what it can make of what I’ve given it from the design shop. If I let my Muse run unchecked, it’s akin to getting high and describing how my day went up to the point the nebula of the inner black galactic circle had giant flying bunnies bounce out asking me where the nearest 711 is for a slurpy (remember slurpies?). BUT if I just do the Story Structure stuff—I find myself staring at a bunch of characters and possible plots without any feeling into it. In fact I find myself losing interest. Maybe it’s just me and my Alien genes (I must be alien cause I’m so different from everyone else).

In spite of all that, I find that my best writing, whether non-fiction or fiction, comes when I let my Muse freewheel on a subject I am pondering over. Preferably pissed off and agitated enough to go dust off the soap box. Okay my soap box is well worn from use and has speakers mounted on it…

Thus you’re accurate with the description that the search for story is a courtship. Because that’s how the above feels to me. Great writing too, regarding the more it relies on work instead of the hormones that got you into this—if that ain’t the bloody truth I don’t know what is. Kind of like the guy who chased the bad guys down (and they ran from him) until he cornered them all in the caverns and found out that he was over-matched from the get-go.

I think that some, perhaps all, of those Amazon toads that are bashing your system are in the same boat I’m in BUT they’re not realizing that they have to use BOTH sides of their brains, the planning part and the imaginative part. Hell we’re not educated that we even have two halves of the brain and what that signifies.

My metamorphosis of a so called wannabe writer, has been to read lots of novels and watch lots of movies, and then discern what made them different and why (this was 20 years ago). I read Jerry Cleaver’s Immediate Fiction (8 months ago) which was good but wasn’t much for planning, and then I read Editing books by publishers, etc. Oh yeah, years ago I read How to write a damned good novel which was good but not much for planning. Then I read the software book theory Dramatica Pro (about 5 years ago) which is very intriguing and very complex—unwieldy for planning.

Let me elaborate on that: in NLP and in Dramatica Pro, both of which are dealing with psychology, they will ask questions to which one would hopefully be able to answer. BUT here’s the catch: what they’re really asking for—searching for—is that which I, the customer, do NOT have an answer for, otherwise I wouldn’t be interested in their system (NLP or Dramatica). It’s no different than the Master asking the Grasshopper what he wants from life. It’s a stupid question because a grasshopper by definition — doesn’t know anything. He’s not the all-knowing one because he hasn’t had the (life) experience yet. Thus I find myself unable to answer many questions about my story—for which I don’t know because I haven’t found the story. **That being said, nobody will find the story for me but me—kind of like life experience—so I HAVE to search for these answers that I don’t know—in order to find the answers.

That’s bloody hard!

Hence, the attraction to pantsing because one avoids the weight of the burden of not knowing what you’re asked to know—but instead just moves forward and writes away in this case (no different from romancing the girl that gave you that look from across the room and taking it from there…see if you get along instead of asking her what she values in life…NLP) to see what you can make of what your wrote. Kind of like driving to an unknown destination while checking the rear view mirror to see if anything is of interest that you’re leaving behind.

Okay I got sidetracked (imagine that). Back to my metamorphosis: Four years ago I figured out I couldn’t use Dramatica and instead got one of the founder’s lite replacements called Story Weaver which asked me yet again a bunch of questions that I didn’t have answers to. Larry, realize that YEARS of my life are flashing by while this is going on. I started it back in the late 90’s, but because I don’t know where to go—I get stuck and then get distracted by having to make money to eat, etc. LOL. So, what 5 months ago I get back into it, read Cleaver’s book and then was reading Outlining your Novel where the author had interviewed YOU. She’s to blame. Always a woman…Jimmy Buffet (I love Key West) Anyhow, I get on your website and then get your book. I’m back in the saddle, you’ve filled in a lot of gaps. And I’m still stuck searching for the story.

What I’m doing currently, is I’ve created a bunch of characters that have surrounded an idea. Okay more than one idea. And there’s back history and research.  If you saw the attachments I’ve sent you, the mind map picture shows a LOT. And that’s all real good. What I’ve found is that I have given my Muse something to do.

As of late, my Muse told me to write as if I’m one of the characters describing their life, just as if you met them at a bar and are asking them what do you do? I’m writing what the characters are saying, describing, and thus fleshing out what my story idea looks like on stage or the screen. For me that works. I’m seeing different characters and their life goals and desires, intertwining politics and how all their lives cross over one another’s path. That’s the key for me.

Somewhere in that collage of character’s life path’s is revealed an authentic story whereby ONE of the characters did something that affected ALL of the other characters. Interestingly, this wasn’t the hero, nor the actual antagonist. This character decided that he didn’t like the way things had gone for the “family” or “organization” or “syndicate” that he was a member of. No, he had the foresight and the wisdom to see that they were on course to destroy themselves without them even realizing it. It’s common actually amongst the powerful. Power takes over wisdom and eventually the organization becomes neurotic and implodes. Call it Nature. This organization was destroying its own food supply of sorts. Thus this character decided he had to do something. BUT this isn’t something that is done overnight or in a few years. It will take probably over 5 years and will involve changing the perceptions, understandings and thus goals of key people that can change an organization. Some call it mutiny. Others call it a revolution. The USA called it…America. It’s good if you’re left standing.

Moving along, my hero is caught up in the scheme of things as a glorified consultant who was invited to the party. When his life changes as a result—that’s his FPP.  I’ve come to realize that this Epic Story had a beginning long before my hero got involved most unwittingly. That was the back story. Now I’m searching for what part it plays in the big picture scheme of things so that the concept can be flushed out and the Ending be obvious  Overall my Story involves Change, personal, inner, and the outer regime type.

But I can’t find it by answering questions. But I can’t create the basic building blocks to arrange the above back story stage without the questions. What a tangled web that Story ideas weave into a concept.

I don’t know how much of this is helpful. Half of it is to help others and yourself. The other half of it is for myeslf. I am finding out that if I think to myself—that’s one thing, but if I write to myself—that creates something that seems to be more powerful. And I can look it over and get more ideas from it.

On another note, you’re dead-on with the Bad Ideas bit. Oops, I was going to use the computer hacker figures it out but after what you wrote, I decided that what needs to be shown not told is HOW the hacker found out the secrets. For example, I’m in IT, and if I wanted to find out what the CEO was thinking about X and Y—all that has to be done is to hack his mailbox from the Exchange server and look at his emails. This was done in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo novels somewhat. Hacking in novels and Hollywood has hardly been accurate—not even close. But even if it’s done well, it’s not as scary as getting information the old fashioned way, where the hero places bugs in the CEO’s office, or taps his phone. Better yet is talking to his secretary and bribing her or blackmailing her for information. NOW we’re talking…do something that gets us worried, that makes us unsure if WE could do this (for moral reasons or that we’re chickens) but that’s why we read novels—for those who have the guts to do what we wished we had the guts to do—and see if they get away with it.

While I’m at it, another thing to blog about one day is what Ben Affleck spoke about in a recent interview regarding Tone in movies. Tone is the ambiance that the audience applies to your story. Publishers call that Genre. Today we have artists saying you can mix genres, such as comedy and drama. That’s bullshit. Ask the guy I was talking to yesterday about a movie he watched the other day (new one) where he couldn’t figure out if the movie was a comedy, drama, love story—or as he put it—what the Frack was supposed to be happening with this movie? Ben—in the interview—said that he was directing a drama and by the time you (he) are editing the movie—it’s too late to change things IF you have messed up your Tone. In other words, he said you can’t have too many jokes in a drama or the audience will think (perceive, respond) that the movie is a Comedy—AND as a result won’t have any FEAR for what happens to the heroes. Because it’s a comedy and bad things don’t happen (if they do then it feels weird and the audience feels like they’ve been fooled—not good for the writer) to the characters, only funny things. Maybe that’s why I don’t like most of this new Hollywood crap. Anyhow Ben said you’re Fracked if the tone has changed and there’s nothing you can do about it.

For me it’s simple: is your story Serious or Light. Serious is drama. Light is humor. Action—well that’s a story minus the depth…blow them up real good…fun but shallow…chase scenes. Patterson makes tons on it for reasons I can’t give other than he appeals to those who can’t figure out anything complicated. Or they’re just lazy minds. Love stories…can be both but the scene moments are the same but the end results are serious or light.

I’ve decided to write it seriously. Jim Butcher writes the Dresden files of which most of the time the hero, Harry, is a smart ass and it’s comical. Hence I’m not worried about what happens to him or his crew. Ever. It’s exciting but not fearsome. But I feel unfulfilled reading his books as the love is never deep and it’s never serious, other than the odd scene that it seems someone else wrote (Butcher wrote a scene where at the end Harry’s nemesis White Council Wizard sacrificed himself for the woman he loved and told Harry he was sorry…it was awesome…someone needs to tell Butcher that’s what he needs to get into).

But for a serious book (not the movie) Michael Crichton’s book, Jurassic Park was scary with the dinosaurs. They were eating people like popcorn. Getting off the trail at the park was tantamount to being added to the menu. BUT that book was Fracking GREAT. I remember the scene where the archaeologist and the kids are on the raft floating down the river and the T-Rex is ignoring ALL the other dinosaurs and instead pursuing these guys like they owe her alimony. The T-Rex showed incredible intelligence, craftiness and intelligence—Crichton’s point for the whole DNA GMO thing in the first place: your creation will kill you because although you think you OWN them, think again—like a Honey Badger…your creation doesn’t give a (swear word, rhymes with “frack”) what you think. It will eat you for dinner first chance it gets.

THAT’S a story! It wasn’t number 1 for nothing.

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Two New Movies That Demonstrate Story Physics

Watch and learn.  And have some popcorn while you’re at it.

I saw two movies this weekend that made me itchy to get back to you with a strong recommendation.  Not just because they’re excellent — they’re both in the thick of the emerging Oscar conversation — but because they have something to show you. Teach you.

You… me… anyone who aspires to write compelling fiction.

Even if you’re a novelist and not a screenwriter.  Especially that.

The first is “Lincoln,” the Steven Spielberg opus that previews like a life story… but isn’t.  It’s a small sliver of time in Abe’s life — four months, to be precise — and it showcases two things that are sometimes hard to wrap our writerly heads around.

This film shows us that even when the centerpiece of a story is the hero… even when the times and the setting are part of the appeal… when history is the star… even when there is an entire life worth writing about…

… what makes it all work is this: the hero NEEDS something, the hero WANTS something,… the hero DOES something heroic to achieve it… and there is OPPOSITION to those needs and wants… in the midst of compelling STAKES.

In other words, a PLOT.

A plot driven by EXTERNAL conflict becomes the stage upon which character, theme, and historical relevance are given a voice.

Oscars all around for Spielberg, Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln, Sally Field as his wife, Tommy Lee Jones as the unsung hero of the day, and Tony Kushner (of “Angels in America” fame, who also wrote “Munich” for Spielberg) as the screenwriter, working from a 2005 book by Doris Kearns Goodwin called “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.”

The other film is…

“The Sessions,” starring Helen Hunt and John Hawkes (who, coincidentally, has a key role in “Lincoln,” as well), based on an article by the real like hero, Mark O’Brien.

Bring a hanky and a hat — this is a sexually-oriented tale that pulls no punches.  Helen Hunt will be in the Oscar race if nothing else than for her courage.  It’s as thematic a film as I’ve ever seen, and you don’t have a clue that it is until you’re in the parking lot wondering why you suddenly want to reassess your entire life.

Like “Lincoln,” this film is character driven but relies on a PLOT to make it work.

Such stories always do.

THAT’s the thing I hope you’ll take away from this.  As a story coach I frequently see concepts that seem to forget this, that substitute character and history for dramatic concept and are left with no real story milestones to propel an unavoidably episodic narrative.

The other learning point here is THEME.  

Theme is one of the Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling, but the hardest to engineer into exposition.

The best themes are an outcome of the story, rather than a focus or an agenda of it.  Like conceptually-driven external conflict, theme is a tool best understood when witnessed and, even more effectively, consumed.

Both films deliver a banquet of consumption on these critical storytelling skills.

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