The most special things are the things that don't really belong anywhere but here.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Writing Stories: Part One

I often feel that because I’m not yet published, I’m not allowed to talk about the creative writing process or really give advice outside of work, even though I'm a writing teacher by profession, and I write pretty much constantly-- I don't even sleep, eat, or waste time! (Not true.) This blog entry COULD be about the underlying pathology of all the things I feel I'm not "allowed" to do or be, but I'll save that someday for therapy. Instead, I'll share a few little things I've learned along the way, 'cus I've really been jonesing to!

A lot of people may say that media rots your brain, but it totally depends on what you're watching. I've noticed that sometimes the lessons that have helped my writing the most haven't actually come from books, but from movies and television and documentaries and even the news. Don't worry, I'm not going to tell you that writers don't really have to read-- that's RIDICULOUS-- but influences don't have to be exclusively literary. Story telling is story telling, and characters are characters after all.

I finished a novel last year after working on it for about three years, and one of the most frustrating things was character development. This surprised me, since I appreciate character-driven stories over any other kind. It was humbling to realize that just because I was passionate about something didn't mean I was good at it. DUH. (Someone needs to share that brilliant epihphany with many American Idol hopefuls.) The thing with characters is that if they are too much like you, they either come off as blank slates on the page, or you feel like you're writing a diary. It's also hard to make multiple characters have their own distinct personalities that aren't stereotypes or exaggerations of people who you really know.

A television show that I think is brilliant at characterization is The Office. The first three seasons are basically perfect, and that was largely because the writers were masters at doing so much in a small amount of space. The episodes are only about 23 minutes long, and there's a lot of characters, so every moment has to count. The talking heads are almost like their own version of flash fiction. (Is that going too far?) Literally every time--and I mean EVERY TIME I am struggling with my characters--I think of this specific moment from The Office

This short talking head of Kelly Kapor’s tells you everything about that character, everything, everything, and not a scrap less. I often ask myself, how many things can a character moment do at once? Can we see what the person cares about and how much depth they have and how they see the world? Is my character moment the “dead sister” Kelly Kapor talking head? If not, I best find a way to make it so.
It's sobering to finish an entire novel draft and write "who is she" by a line with your main character.

Also sobering to discover you've made your teenage main character repeatedly sound like a preschooler.
Another thing: if you push aside characterization and instead rely too much on some pre-concieved plot idea, your work will suffer. This seems obvious enough, but I really didn't fully realize how much until I watched the last season of Dexter. Oh boy. Where to even begin.

For years, Dexter, a drama about a nice serial killer trying to juggle his “hobby” and a normal life, was one of my favorites. It explored identity, family, and the construction of reality in ways that I had never seen before. Dexter took the command “make something new” and ran with it, so as a storyteller, I held the show in VERY high esteem... and then the final season happened. I’m not going to get into all the problems with season eight because we’ll be here all night, but basically, none of the major character arcs really made sense, and one of the biggest problems was with Dexter’s love interest, Hannah.

Hannah loved Dexter, and (spoiler alert!) her love made him want to stop killing. I bought none of this, and neither did the majority of the audience. Partially, this was because Hannah the character was just very ill-defined. First, she was a girl with a dark history, looking out for herself, then she was an abused wife, and then she was a potentially great mommy to Dexter’s son (which was “proven” when she took him to the hospital after he was attacked by a treadmill). Hannah was also very attractive and never criticized Dexter, ever. But isn’t that every sociopath’s dream? Wouldn’t a woman like that just make Dexter stay the same, or actually get WORSE? I mean, maybe if she had a peg leg or challenged him in some way or beat him at his own game, but no. She was more like a male fantasy than an actual person, and seriously, did the writers really think their female viewers would enjoy watching that? Okay, I’m getting off track… but basically, the characterization was a huge problem, and that problem flooded the scenes.

(Harrison=0, Treadmill= 1) 

While watching the final two seasons of Dexter, I was struck by the difference in how engaged I was during the Dexter/Hannah scenes and the scenes with Dexter and his sister-by-adoption, Deb. Deb & Dexter’s relationship is probably one of the most complicated, fascinating relationships I’ve ever seen on television. Their identities were completely symbiotic and dependent on the other’s perception of them. They never saw eye to eye or completely connected, not even in the end (which sucked), but at the same time, they were the center of each other’s world. There was a lot of anger, desperation, protectiveness, affection, and even semi-incestuous feels, so their scenes were eyes-glued-to-the-television worthy. Not a second was wasted, and the scenes always cut about two minutes before you wanted them to.

The Dexter/Hannah scenes, by contrast, were scenes that I found myself dreading, and near the end of the final season, I had diagnosed why. Almost all of these scenes involved:  A) repeating or narrating stuff that already happened B) excessive length C) prettiness D) no conflict, unless they were discussing Deb. E) dramatic pauses. I remember feeling particularly exasperated during one never-ending scene where Hannah and Dexter were driving in the car at sunset. I sighed loudly and yelled at the television, “I don’t care how pretty or how long you’re making this! I feel NOTHING!”


I literally ran* to my computer and took a look at the long-ass novel that I was trying to find an agent for. I knew what my problem was (well, at least the biggest one).

The novel I've been working on is speculative fiction, so it involves a series of “what if” scenarios: what if the universe really does repeat itself? What if we have doubles on another Earth? What if that Earth has proof of life after death? There’s a lot going on here, so the novel topped off at about 170K words. A few agents were like, “this is too long,” and I was like, “I know, but what's a girl to do? It is what it is.”

Well, that response was faulty. In truth, there was a big problem with my editing strategy. Whenever I felt like a scene wasn’t working, I almost always attributed it to pacing. I needed to make this scene longer, I thought. I needed to make the reader see it more. I needed to add more beats, more heavy sighs. If I could just be IN it longer, it would have the desired impact. In other words, the novel was FULL of Dexter/Hannah sunset driving scenes, scenes that I was pretending worked, even though deep down, I knew that I felt mostly nothing.

So my new goal became this: the next time something felt off, I could write more at first to figure out where the interesting stuff was between the characters, but then I had to subtract. I had to shave at least a page from each chapter. If I changed a scene of dialogue, it had to be shorter or at least as long as the original scene. My mantra was “richer, not longer.” When I was tempted to ignore a bad scene, I just thought about how angry I was at the Dexter writers for inflicting those Dexter/Hannah scenes upon me, and terrified of making their same mistakes, I worked harder. Every scene needed to be Deb/Dexter (metaphorically speaking), and no scene could ever be Dexter/Hannah.

Did the novel not only get shorter, but better after this epiphany? YES. So much. Oh my god. So, Dexter, thanks for sucking in the end, I guess.

I do have a cautionary tale about learning from television and movies though, and it has to do with how writers SEE scenes in their heads. We’ve all read those books where we feel like we are physically there because the descriptions are so intense (HARRY POTTER), but usually, the images we make up ourselves are more in the back-brain as opposed to the front-brain where an image might sit from television or film. I just made up phrases, and as I type this, I’m not sure if what I’m saying is
completely true, but let me just give you an example of where I'm going.

I love you, little Kevin.
Nick and Nite started airing The Wonder Years reruns when I was in junior high, and I became pretty obsessed. Recently, I watched some episodes on Netflix, and I was kind of taken with the realization that this show was the genesis of so much that I find myself doing in my stories today, like my focus on coming-of-age, the domestic, and friendships. It also made me obsessed with the idea of growing up next door to someone and then falling in love with them. Anyway, a while back, I was working on this scene in my novel that involved a school play. Oz, one of the main characters, is watching his neighbor and best friend on stage, Faylin (who he—you guessed it—falls in love with). Oz is the light guy up in the rafters, shining the light on Faylin. I wrote a line, something about how he felt like he was “holding her up with the light.” The scene came kinda naturally, you know? I could just see it.

Well, a great deal of time went by, and I wrote more chapters, and then suddenly, one night, completely out of nowhere, I was like, “Oh my god, I literally plagiarized that entire scene from The Wonder Years.” Until that moment, consciously, I had completely forgotten about the episode where Winnie was in the school’s production of Our Town and Kevin did the lights—which was nuts, but not the problem—the problem was that I was nearly positive that the line about holding her up with the light was from the show. I could hear Daniel Stern’s voice-over and everything.
Thespian Winnie Cooper, on stage

I don’t know why I suddenly remembered this episode (I probably watched it last when I was fifteen), but thank god, because who wants to accidently plagiarize? I was horrified and took out the line, which was a good move anyway, because it actually didn’t make any sense. Ever since, I’ve worried that the reason a scene just pops in my brain is because I  HAVE already seen it.  So… how do we avoid this? I don't even know. I'd say let’s ask ourselves if something feels a little too familiar while we’re editing, yeah? Especially if parts of it are sorta like the shows and films that have been in our brains for most of our lives.

Just because we learn something doesn’t mean we immediately master it, but the first step to fixing a problem is giving it a name. I’m still working on making scenes precise and rich and making my characters complicated, three-dimensional people, and I guess it’s okay if I work on that forever until I die, because it’s my favorite thing to do. But being published before I die, I mean, that would be nice.
And these are only the drafts I've PRINTED! This is enough work to be at Barns & Noble, right? I can stop here? NO?!
So now I turn it over to you: if you write, what non-literary sources have influenced you or helped you become better? Even if you don't write, have you ever learned a lot from something precisely BECAUSE it sucked? Do you want me to keep talking about everything that was wrong with the 8th season of Dexter? Because I can. Isn't it depressing how Kevin and Winnie didn't end up together in the end and married other people? Sound off!

* “Ran” means I was like, “hmm, this is familiar. I feel uncomfortable. I’ll think about why tomorrow.” Then I went to bed. I woke up the next day and went to work and it was all kind of swimming in my head still. I casually sat down at my computer later that night after my shower and took a look at my writing.

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