Monday, July 29, 2013

Three big lessons I've learned about writing

So I've got a draft of the first novel done, and I've gotten some feedback from friends. It's been surprisingly positive. I say 'surprisingly' because writing the book was a slow and difficult writing process, and getting it above novella length has been a struggle. Being much more used to writing screenplays, I knew that there would be a learning curve, and that by the time I got to the final book I would know a lot more about writing, knowledge that I could then apply to revising the earlier volumes. (I'm not gonna think about publishing – self or otherwise – until I'm sure the books are as good as I can make them.)

Now I'm starting to write the second book, and I find it's flowing a lot better. Thinking about why that might be, and thinking about things that I and other people have written, has made me think about some lessons that I've learned about writing.

These are lessons I learned by doing. Some of this is stuff that I've always believed but couldn't articulate until now, and some of it is stuff that I learned only after making mistakes.

LESSON ONE: Your character needs to be active. He or she needs to have a goal, and be willing to do something to achieve it.

The biggest mistake that people seem to make when they first start writing is having a character who doesn't do anything, who is introverted, alienated, lonely, and passive.

Everybody does this when they start writing. Everybody. Even people who are proudly anti-art and anti-independent in their tastes, who never watch a movie with subtitled dialogue that isn't spoken in Klingon or Huttese, seem to want to write an Antonioni film on their first attempt. If they ever go to film school or take a writing class, and have to read or watch the equivalent efforts by their fellow students, they would probably discover how boring that is for the audience, and it might make them realize that their own version is probably just as bad.

Why do new writers tend to fall into this trap? I can think of two possible reasons. One is that, as a new writer, you are trying to Express Your Personal Self, and writing is an internal process anyway. So it just feels good to write a character who is caught up in his or her thoughts, cut off from the world.

The other, and much worse, reason is that they allow themselves to think that being weak and passive and doing nothing is somehow … deep. I'm not sure how this attitude caught on. Once upon a time, even punks and hippies and grungies wanted to actually do things and make things. But nowadays I notice that a lot of people – especially on the Internet – really can't identify with anyone who had a dream and put in the effort to make that dream come true.

Somehow the people who strive and aim high, and pick themselves up when they fall, are the villains that deserve scorn whenever they do even a single thing wrong … while the people who just sit back and do nothing but complain about everything have somehow convince themselves of their own superiority.

All I can say is that when I was first trying to teach myself to write screenplays, I tended to look at movies that I liked, and try to figure out how they work and what made me like them. I know that many other people have done that also, but it might be less common than I thought it was. How else to explain why people who take pride in only liking genre films – movies about characters who DO THINGS – keep wanting to write dramas about navel-gazers who are helpless and passive?

When people write, they reveal a lot about their own psychology. People who are unambitious, and see life as one big conspiracy against them that they can do nothing about, are unlikely to be able to lead a main character through the process of changing the world. The people who write one page of something, and then can't think of what happens next, are perhaps struggling to understand how a person might go about making things happen.

Sometimes I hear people say “Well, I want to write about character rather than plot.” But here's a secret: Plot is what reveals character. What your character does to achieve a goal, how s/he treats people, how s/he responds to challenges … those are the things that reveal character. Not just sitting around spouting monologues.

So if you're thinking about writing about a character who does nothing, try writing about a character who does something. If that's not true to who you are, then watch some movies or TV shows, or read some novels or comic books. See how fictional characters respond to stuff, and try to learn from that. Study some successful models and try to follow them. Get your character off the sofa, wipe the streaked mascara off her face, and send her out on a journey!

And just having your character do what other people tell him to do? Not quite enough. It's a step in the right direction, but it's not quite enough. Ever heard of the “refusal of the call”, that Joseph Campbell moment when the hero doesn't want to accept the mission he's been given, before eventually agreeing? Until now, I never thought about why that trope is there. But now I realize why it works: It shows the character actually doing something. By choosing the life that's familiar to him over the one that's being presented to him, he is taking a stand. And when he decides for himself that the mission is actually important and that he is willing to take the risk – often for personal reasons other than the ones initially presented to him – he is again taking a stand. Without this element, the character is merely a pawn.

I've certainly written – and even filmed – scripts about a character who is introverted and alienated, as a vessel for my own feelings at that particular stage of my life. So I can't be too smug about this. However, a trick I used to compensate was to surround my alienated protagonist with more assertive and colorful characters who get pulled into his or her orbit.

Which brings me to ...

LESSON TWO: Your character should have, or make, friends.

I'm calling this a “should” rather than a “needs to” because it's certainly possible to tell a decent story about someone who is alone on his or her journey. However, it's damn hard to do this well.

And why do you want to? When have you ever seen a movie that you liked, that did this? I guess it gets back to the “I'm alienated, no one understands me, so I'm going to write about loneliness” approach again, so I won't repeat points I've already made, except to add one thing: Stories with multiple characters are more interesting.

You know how a lot of people say that TV is now better than movies? Why might that be? One reason is that there's more time for big story arcs, but another reason is character. A modern TV drama tends to have an ensemble of characters, each of whom gets his or her moment in the sun, and viewers often have a particular character that they love (or hate).

An important thing about writing for an ensemble, rather than a solitary protagonist, is that you have to write characters who aren't you. Rather than just having a sullen loner who is meant to represent your own sad-sack viewpoint, you have to imagine characters who stand on their own merits as fictional creations, who have their own hopes and dreams and quirks and strengths and weaknesses.

Maybe it's just me, but I always liked movies where there was a gang. I always liked it when there were a lot of characters with different abilities or personalities. You know, obscure arthouse fare like Star Wars and Aliens and, I don't know, The Goonies.

Having a gang means that your characters can talk to each other about the plot. When something happens, they can all have different reactions. The brave one, the fearful one, the smart one, the naïve one, all can have different perspectives on the action. Also, you can split them up and send them off on different subplots. This might be a challenge if you have difficulty coming up with one plot, let alone two or more, but that's part of why you should try it.

What can I say … As a writer, I guess I've always found the Wizard of Oz template more appealing than the Eraserhead template. Even though I like both of those movies.

LESSON THREE: Having a story is more important than having themes or a message.

You might be expecting me to drop the Sam Goldwyn quote “If you want to send a message, call Western Union,” but I personally think that's too cynical and discouraging. Film and literature are certainly capable of having something to say.

I prefer a quote from Orson Welles, who said that “most movie messages … could be written on the head of a pin.” I take that to mean: you can put a message in a movie if you want to, but it won't actually amount to that much. It won't be as important and earth-shattering as you think it will.

There certainly have been moments when it seemed like movies could change the world. The late 60s/early 70s has been widely hailed as such a period. I would argue that the late 80s through the 90s – an indie-friendly period stretching from Blue Velvet and Do the Right Thing all the way up to Fight Club – was another one.

I'm not sure we're living in a time like that right now. Maybe once upon a time it was oh-so-shocking if a movie made a political statement or criticized something about our society. But now we have blogs, talk radio, and entire cable TV channels devoted to decrying how much worse things have become since … well, since the last time people said how much worse things have become.

With indie cinema seeming to become ever more marginalized by franchise Goliaths, I don't really like to discourage anyone from consciously putting a personal philosophy or political viewpoint in their scripts. However, I'm not sure any philosophy is likely to be compelling enough to compensate for the lack of a decent story.

First of all, with all the chattering going on out there on the Internet, the chance that you genuinely have an absolutely unprecedented opinion about something is somewhat low. If you think you do, then by all means go for it. But you can't just (to paraphrase Team America) read the news and then repeat it like it was your own opinion.

And usually what people have to “say” is grouchy and negative. Every once in a while we get an Amelie or a Ferris Bueller's Day Off or something that tries to convey a positive philosophy, but usually we get A Hard Hitting Satire rooted in anger. To some degree that's the rebellious spirit of youth and/or art … but man, we are so knee-deep in that toxic negativity now. It used to be a brave thing to create art that challenged the status quo, but that hostility is now so omnipresent that it has become the status quo.

For me the absolute worst is when people write a script or make a film that merely exists to criticize something ephemeral ... like a particular politician or celebrity who's going to be out of the limelight before you know it anyway, or a current pop-culture trend that you find annoying (often for no better reason than that it differs from the pop-culture of your own childhood). When I see something like that, I tend to think: Come on, dude. You had a chance to make something cool. You could have been part of the solution. Instead you gave the problem free publicity.

I guess it's easy for me to say all this stuff now that I'm more experienced. I've done much of the above, and have now gotten it (largely) out of my system. Maybe people need to do it wrong first, not just for practice but because you need to get those things off your chest somehow. But what motivated me to write all this up was encountering a lot of scripts recently that are about self-absorbed inaction.

Two decades ago, indie filmmaker Hal Hartley complained about the “empty formal posturing” of suburban film students trying to make urban gangster films. He said that, instead, they “should be writing stories about sitting on their couch watching gangster films.” But since then, we've gone so far in that direction. We've had so many Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino wannabes who've embraced the “dude, we can make a whole movie just about guys in one place talking” aesthetic of both directors' debut films without demonstrating the wit or cleverness of either. Spouting opinions has become a substitute for actually doing anything or having any ambition.

So I think a little of the “formal posturing” that Hartley complained about 20 years ago – understanding how drama and storytelling and genres work, rather than just snobbily rejecting them or nerdily critiquing them – would go a long way toward making off-Hollywood scripts and movies better.

And novels, too. Speaking of which, time to get back to work ...

Friday, July 12, 2013

Quit your griping and start your typing: Or, the future of art and storytelling and stuff

As both an independent filmmaker and a punster, it's tempting to refer to the recent July 4th holiday as Independent's Day. But this year, for me at least, the label fits.

As I've mentioned before, I often attend events at Visual Studies Workshop, particularly their screenings of old 16mm short films. Their most recent screening was July 5, and had an Independence Day theme.

I'd been in kind of a creative rut recently. I still wanted to complete the books I was trying to write, but I was wondering if my heart was still in it, or what I would do with these books when they were done. I still considered myself a filmmaker at heart, but the complexities of low-budget moviemaking are not to be treated lightly and I wasn't sure if I was quite ready yet to re-enter those waters.

Anyway, at the VSW event, I inquired about a two-day course they'd announced for that weekend called “Performing Books”. I wasn't sure what this course was about, but it seemed to have something to do with combining elements of literature with elements of film/video and live performance. It seemed like it might offer a way to bridge these two worlds in which I was trying to rekindle my interest.

I hadn't had a weekend completely to myself in a long while, and I was looking forward to spending the holiday weekend catching up on things and trying to get back into my writing. I wasn't sure I wanted to give up 16 of those hours. But my gut feeling was that I should take this course.

And I'm glad I did, because it rekindled my creativity. The teacher, Tate Shaw, showed some different types of unconventional books that artists have made, and also showed some videos of various artists who had combined live readings with multimedia. A few of these were by people I knew of – Marina Abramović (the subject of The Artist Is Present, a documentary that was shown at the local High Falls Film Festival), Laurie Andersen, and of course Crispin Glover – while others were new to me.

I didn't “get” absolutely all of the work being shown, and some of it was the kind of stuff that my college-age self would have sneered at as pretentious and boring. But years after college ended, as a working adult studying this stuff by choice, I now appreciate why less accessible forms of art exist. The whole point of it is to challenge you, to make you think, to see things from a different angle. Even if you don't “like” it, it's good for you in a way. And it made me excited about my own work again, because it caused me to think of new ideas and new approaches.

The timing of this class was perfect. It was a case of one door opening when another closed.

Because some time earlier that week, I happened to vist the sci-fi website io9 for some reason. I have a love-hate relationship with that website – there's some fun and interesting stuff there, including science news and some good articles about writing ... but also some snarky junk, especially in the user comments. Anyway, one of the headlines was “When is the right time to finally give up on a series?

My patience with nerd negativity had been declining for several years now, but against my better judgment I clicked on this link. As someone who was trying to write a book series, I thought I might get some insight into what elements make a series work, and what mistakes cause the audience to lose interest.

But when I read the page, I saw no insights into the art or craft of storytelling, or appreciation for the challenges of doing it well. All I saw was one fan grievance after another, as nerd after angry nerd listed a series they hated and the moment they gave up on it, and how as a result they now hated Stephen King or Orson Scott Card or whoever.

The one halfway thoughtful comment I saw was from someone named Rob Bricken, writing under the handle of Superman villain “mxyzptlk”:

“Maybe a better question is why we persist in keeping up with stories that have long ago made us question "Why am I keeping up with this?" ... maybe completism is a geek flaw — we're continuously drawn back to a flawed storylines [sic] because they tap into our weakness for identifying flaws, and that coupled with our completist tendencies make for craptastic bait we have a harder time ignoring than taking.”

I would have liked to take that observation as something constructive – that fans have the perfectionist mind of an engineer or programmer, and have an instinct for spotting bugs. More cynically, though, it seemed to indicate that these people just like to complain and criticize.

And that was the moment when I finally realized that this was not the audience I wanted to reach out to. This was not the community I wanted to be part of. Not when there are other communities of artists and DIY-ers and even some 'normal' people with minds more open than they get credit for.

Prior to that, I'd been thinking about why I originally wanted to make movies, and why I was so passionate about science fiction and fantasy when I was younger. Cinema was something that entertained and excited people ... and if it didn't, that just inspired the restless and creative souls to want to create their own original visions and put them on screen. At the same time, the sci-fi fan community seemed to be a haven of smart and friendly people in an otherwise brutish world.

But something seems to have gone sour. It's weird because I don't think fans have ever had it better. The biggest TV shows in the world right now seem to be Doctor Who and Game of Thrones, and maybe Sherlock. Every halfway decent drama on TV nowadays, genre or otherwise, has gone the Lost / Babylon 5 route of epic story arcs that span multiple seasons. Every tentpole studio movie seems to be based on an established franchise and marketed to the Comic-Con audience.

So I don't completely get where this growing anger is coming from. However, I do get the sense that Hollywood isn't liked right now. The studios seem to be putting more and more eggs into fewer and fewer baskets, trying to please everyone and instead pleasing no one. Their losing strategy in the last couple years has been as follows:

  • Instead of ever making an original movie, just buy an obscure property whose core audience is very small, but also very vocal and determined to create bad publicity
  • Hire an auteur director who will want to put his own original stamp on the property, thus alienating the aforementioned core audience
  • Spend so much money on the film that it will have to be an all-time blockbuster just to break even
  • Produce a really generic marketing campaign that doesn't tell you what the story or premise is, or why you should see the film, instead relying on the obscure brand to sell itself
  • Generate nothing but apathy or hostility from the fans (who don't like auteurs), the critics (who don't want to see an auteur wasting his talents on a remake of something), and the general public (who don't know what this thing is or why they should care)

A similar formula admittedly worked for the Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but recent attempts to duplicate those successes have grown ever more futile.

There also might be a class resentment of some kind. I never fully appreciated how deeply Hollywood directors and actors are hated right now until the recent backlash against Zach Braff. If you somehow haven't heard, the former sitcom actor recently decided to fund a follow-up to his cult film Garden State by raising money from fans on the Internet (“crowdfunding” as da kidz call it nowadays). From the bitter backlash he received in some quarters, you'd think Braff was some pampered Tudor who bathed in a diamond-encrusted bathtub full of champagne and baby seals' blood, while raping orphaned migrant workers at the same time.

Most of the criticism of Braff I've seen essentially boils down to “Braff is in the Hollywood system, and therefore all-powerful and evil! He already has all the power and influence required to get a movie green-lighted and distributed by the studios!”

A cooler, calmer head might point out that if Steven freaking Spielberg has trouble making the movies he wants (his recent Lincoln apparently came within a hair's breadth of being made for cable TV instead), then maybe creative clout isn't that easy to come by in the studio system anymore. Nearly every name director who's been a major influence in my lifetime, from Steven Spielberg and George Lucas to David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderberg and Kevin Smith, has been in the press recently bemoaning the difficulty of getting their movies made and/or announcing their imminent or eventual retirement from filmmaking.

In the midst of all this chaos and frustration, maybe it's time to ask: If Hollywood cinema is really that much of a dinosaur, then why are we still so obsessed with it anyway? We have video cameras, which are better than ever. We have computers. We have the Internet. What's wrong with just making something on a smaller scale, something you truly believe in, instead of trying to compete with the Goliaths? Do you just want to complain, or do you want to be part of the solution?

I can think of at least one person out there who might have the answer. There's a website called which, about five years ago, discussed the DIY movement and online distribution with a guy who crochets but also makes web videos. Here's something the guy said:

“I mean, let's face it, in the media there are now eight companies. ... Everything is becoming consolidated, so where there used to be lots of variety, there are now, like, ten giants and tons of tiny little villagers. And yeah, the villagers are going to start making their own stuff because the materials will be available to all of them, and we can't all just do things the way the giants want, because it does seep something out of your soul. I think it's absolutely true on every level of art that this is the worst of times and, like some guy might have said once, the best of times. ... we are now in a situation where everybody can do what they do. ... I will always give them credit for trying to find a way to steal Christmas, but this time they might not be able to. There's always been an independent side to the industry. And for this particular medium, I think it's going to be a lot harder for them to crush it.  .

“[A]t the end of the day right now, you can create something; what you can't usually do is make a fortune off of it. But ... it's not about, "... I'm going to be [a] millionaire without enjoying the process and the product." Ultimately, the artistic expression can't be squelched; it's just they'll try to cut off any avenues for that expression to be, shall we say, monetized in a realistic fashion. Like I'm saying, the sort of people who understand the DIY mentality are more about the doing than the having. So I think that ultimately, my advice is what my advice always is: Make stuff. ... Right now, because of digital technology, you can make crafty little movies, you can make crafty little things that go up for millions of people to see. ... It is no longer the time of sitting around and thinking about doing something.”

It's been five years since the guy gave that interview, and he's since been busy making other stuff but he probably still feels the same. And it seems to me that if that guy wants to crochet and do web videos as well as make Hollywood blockbusters ... and if Crispin Glover wants be a spoken word artist in between Hollywood comedies ... and if Zach Braff wants to crowdfund an indie film … and if George Lucas wants to retire and make experimental films in his garage … and if Ethan Hawke wants to do whatever it is he does … then what the hell is stopping the rest of us?

So I think the smart people are gonna be the ones who stop bellyaching about what Hollywood does, and how mainstream pop culture does this and doesn't do that, and are willing to embrace new technologies and new opportunities, and actually show people how it should be done.

And it doesn't even have to be a traditional movie. That used to be the dream – make a full-length movie and show it in a conventional theater to a live audience. But if that medium is dying (as it seems to be), there are other ways of telling a story. You can make a web series. You can write books. You can be like the folks I learned about last weekend, and find ways to combine existing media into something new.

I think J to the W was right. These are the worst of times and, “like some guy might have said once,” the best of times.