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Become a Manuscript Whisperer

You’ve seen those strange shows. Reality tv aimed at getting your pet/horse/strange Japanese youtube character to follow some unspoken direction. Creating a cohesive whole – otherwise known as story design – is a lot like getting some animal to animate in convincingly human terms.

‘Writing’ is ‘what I did on my summer vacation/personal fantasy on the train’ – but ‘Story Design’ is laying the bricks of a very rugged and methodical oven. It’s so unlike initial creative instincts to ‘just write’ – because it’s practically antimatter by comparison. It’s supposed to invisibly hold everything together, creating a speed and direction that seems like magic to the outside observer.

Writer’s Myth # 1:

Writers come up with a what-if and that becomes the premise of the story, right?

You’d think, but not from what I’ve seen. New writers get zapped with what-ifs meant to drive the dialog, but they usually end up being the arc of a specific scene, which will echo by and then be recorded. The larger story design has yet to materialize.

Which brings us to the tools of Manuscript Whispering…

Manuscript Whispering Step 1: The Notebook that Never Was

Keep the smallest moleskin possible on your body at all times. You are diabetic, and that notebook is the antidote. Be subtle if you need to, make it an address book, etc. but you need that notebook more than your laptop, keys or the litany of other usual suspects in distracting devices.

When some what-if story idea appears, one you really feel strongly would be a good story, write it down. You’ll know when it’s the right kind of thought bubble. It will demand your pen immediately. But before you set your pen down afterwards, write down whatever the characters would do or say in that situation in order to…

A. PHYSICALLY and EMOTIONALLY *GET* to that scene…
B. REACT after it happens… (and with who?)

You will naturally come to the end of the scene using these before/after prompts, and what’s more, you’re creating cohesive, self-contained units of story building blocks that don’t depend on you knowing the end of the entire story arc to constructively develop on their own.

Other uses for your Whisperings:

a. character names
b. ironically juxtaposed character profiles
c. titles and unusual little symbolisms
b. your theme/pitch/unique gimmick.

This is your primordial goo of evolving ideas. No one should see it but you. Moleskins come with convenient elastic straps for this purpose. You’ll be surprised how many people feel better once their loved ones have their votes reneged.

Manuscript Whispering Step 2: The Gimmick that’s Not

Give up on the idea that you would never use a ‘gimmick’ and understand your ideas will need to be looked at with a critical marketing perspective. Something unique or starkly differentiating your story from all the others like it – that is a gimmick. That’s all it is. You can have a pure art. Finding a playful way to make it worth reading to someone other than you is unavoidable. Also, it’s easier to agree with yourself on that gimmick from the beginning. Back-peddling on this is a bear.

Writer’s Myth #2

Pitch-writing is hard and takes a certain extroversion writers don’t have.

I will challenge you to a duel on this one. Writers are excellent communicators. Most writers who find they can’t pitch will discover the problem is with their ‘gimmick’ or uniquely differentiating idea. It’s not there. Ideas which are cliche are going to sound lame because they are. A little secret? Your gimmick is your story arc. They’re like mirror twins. Don’t look!

Manuscript Whispering Step 3: The Character in the Negative

A lot of a writer’s time is spent on defining what a character IS. This isn’t bad. But what if you read the blocks of story dialog you’ve collected over, say, a six month period, realize what kinds of characteristics are being projected in these discrete expressions of your growing story DNA, and then reversed them?

Balance in a story is what conflict is made – and resolved – from. If you have a lot of blocks that are red (heated dialog) – what is their common subject? If not a subject, a motivation. Once you’ve defined the similarities, next come up with characters to defy the ones you’ve already created on these common themes. If you already have too many characters, as many detail-oriented writers tend to create, begin to consciously ‘shadow’ the negative characteristic in another character. Likewise, a villain can only be so ‘bad’ before he or she is totally inaccessible, and therefore unrealistic, un-scary, and even worse, un-problematic. People cause us problems because we care about them. Dabbing similar shades of kindness and cruelty from your villains to your catalyst gatekeeper-types and vice-versa will give you the bridge conversations to ultimately net your story blocks together.

Even with the extraordinary adventures of every-day life, I’ve slowly built up an armory of these personal blocks. Writing software brags about them, but to DIY makes you a writer and gives you a chance to come up with the illusive, so-called “unique” idea that every writer is after.

You’ll dog-ear and number those blocks – it even helps to keep different color pens to separate them, or quickly color-code the mood or character of your off-hand writing in your notes. And in a about a week of on-the-side typing, you’ll have something you’ll actually like. It will stand on its own legs and look finished, even without the sheen of buffing and editing that will finally send it out of the plant.

Now does it sell? That’s a post for another weekend. But if you’re tired of manuscripts taking forever, and shouting the story out as a one-block continual narrative doesn’t work, try a little whispering.

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In a meeting this weekend to go over some scene construction, the discussion came around to how do you best transition a scene while keeping the present behavior of the character active and interesting? This is pretty fundamental, but often lost, and easy to add.

The key is often what’s known as a closed transition, or in the case of an introduction to a new character, a closed entrance.

In step one, you just have to define their point of reference in the scene – ie. what is their state? You can think of it almost as “what color are they wearing?” or “what emotion?” What’s their chord?

Indiana Jones has his hat and his stoic sense of watchfulness – he was always on to something, doing something and caught in the middle. In class he was already at the chalk board / interacting with students. In an action scene he was planting his whip on some tropical tree branch / yelling directions.

Multitasking has to be kept simple, but if used well it does three big things to enhance the experience of the introduction. The first is simple: It sets the character within a scene instead of awkwardly out of the ether. It closes the entrance like a camouflaged army unit strafing in an unrecognized pattern across the field. As the audience or reader, you’re never quite sure when you began to notice the character from the meaningful visual explanation of the backdrop, and that leads to a very realistic scene that doesn’t seem as contrived as it might otherwise.

The second enhancement of the closed entrance provides the needed connection with the image system. If you haven’t read or downloaded, or been to the McKee Story Seminar yet, then you really should. But if you have, you will be familiar with the metaphorical connection good films have to their mythologies – an often poetically unique substructure of meaningful metaphors that tie in external imagery to the internal motivational and emotional states of the characters.

The image system is an invisible, common bond between each character, who will react differently enough each in turn to the same symbols such that the audience is treated to a double layer of camouflage through the entrances and exits of the characters, and the meanings behind their actions. This is also the layer at which sub-plots arise, as mini-narratives that human beings will intrinsically find more narratively cohesive and will work to piece together on the sidelines as they maintain their interest to the main plot arc of the story.

Say you have a character who’s fundamental role in a manuscript will be the secret-keeper or handler of the insert-artifact-here. Having them come through a door that leads to a smoky back room in a casino, having just stuffed a large wad of bills into his or her purse or wallet is a closed entrance. Instantly the audience has a reason presented to them to be intrigued by the character. There’s never a sense that the character is waiting for their cue – they’re in action, moving props, body and expression. Readers need this entertainment, too, and what’s more it’s a lot easier to include actions and thinking in a novel, so they must be narrowed down all the more to make sure only the meaningful stuff is there to count. The rest can be swept away.

Probably the most important reason to write closed entrances though, is that as a writer you will need to know as you are writing what each of your characters represents. Each closed entrance is a checkpoint for the mechanics of how a character relates to the image system as well as how their state has changed relative to the rest of the scene.

Including a healthy dose of active dialogue and taught closed entrances and exits also leaves the energy of the scene all intact for the next scene change. Similar to come in late and leave early, the closed entry automatically creates just such an event, however minor, to incite a reason for your characters to relay the plot information you’ve intended.

On that note, it’s time for bed… yawn.

Rather than point out a new article or contest today, I thought I’d do something a little less parroting. The traveler’s guide to writing while on business. We’ll start with New York. As the rule goes, never save your best work for some other project. You have to run through the wall and keep running.

Upon my first inundation with the city, all creative work went into a halt for about three weeks while I got used to existing in a technicolor universe. People shoved, snarled, talked to themselves, and slammed into me as they passed. I found them rude. The crazy people leapt out at me. I was terrified. No longer.

Just yesterday morning a man baring a striking resemblance to Napoleon walked by me, wide eyed with hand slipped into shirt between third and fourth button that was hanging lopsided out of his kakis. At eight in the morning he was showing obvious signs of a three day bar binge. Yet he walked by, stately and wide-eyed as if he was a stranger in a strange land. His own fairly tale, lost in the crowd.

I find these sort of sidewalk shows colorful reminders to be enjoyed and savored. Life is strange. People are strange. In New York no one remembers your name. Rejoice in it. Oh, and if they do, and it doesn’t get you a good table, there’s always five more restaurants right next door.

On that note, what does a writer DO when in need of a good, quiet, but-not-too-quiet place to sit down and write?

Consider these, and tell your friends. I’m officially at the point where I can write trapped in an elevator filling with halon if I need to, so consider these my secret stash of burrows, from me to you.

Where to write while traveling in New York:

1. Tea Spot. 127 Macdougal St. (corner of W 3rd St.) Two words: fire place. Skip the pastries and find the stairs to the basement for that cozy half-underground feel.

2. Union Square park bench. It’s spring, the kids and lovers and dogs and skate boarders and frisbee throwers are all out at the first hint of dusk. A park bench and a laptop are allowed, and the din of shiny happy people works wonders.

3. The Irish Memorial. Actually, not the memorial, the fish pond just below it. The marble is warm at dusk and the fish nip at the water in the Summer so you’ll know they’re still there, thinking dreamy thoughts. About croutons. It’s tucked away. Some people miss it entirely unless they’re walking past. You have to start out walking away from where you think you should to end up where you want to go…

4. Franchias. The tea pagoda on Park. Hit the stone eagle and you’ve gone too far. Hit the brass eagle with the quill of arrows and you’re at Grand Central. How did you manage that? When you go in for tea, remember to look up. Flowers on the ceiling. Michelangelo would approve. Try the plum tea and some dumplings.

5. Sardi’s. 234 West 44th Street. Where people will see you open your laptop and mistake you for someone important, then think the better of it, then decide you might be anyway and they don’t want to tick you off, so you get really good service without the pain of having to fake an autograph. Between chapters you’ll get to hob nob with the locals who miss the “real Sardi’s” back before it got sold. Kindly people who only stop in now “because it’s closer than the diner.” People like Ed Koach’s old lawyer. Order coffee and eat ahead. Red walls will guide you to your last page. Yes, they’ve heard people mouthing redrum with their starched napkins before. …Not that it isn’t still fun.

6. The Harlem Tea Room. Madison Avenue and 118th Street. Poetry readings, book signings, musical events, art shows and seminars. Jazz on occasion.

7. Chez Betty Cafe. 256 E 3rd St | Btwn Ave B & Ave C. Cheesecake to sin for by a little old Italian woman, or so they will tell you in the most languid and perfect poise of which French woman are naturally adorned. Lovely decor, comfy seat cushions, and a hostess who is fine with you sitting quietly to contemplate at the end of a long day. Also enough off the beaten path that a flash mob is uncommon, barring NewYorican Poet’s Cafe gatherings.

8. Sympathy for the Kettle. 109 St. Marks Place. How could I not?

9. Battery park boardwalk and pier way. Get down below Clark Street by the West Side Highway and you’ll also have a few of those nice harbor inlets with a clear view of the Statue of Liberty and the sun setting on the dappled river. Bring a blanket and there is actual grass upon which you may actually bask, notebook in hand.

10. Please Don’t Tell. 113 St Marks Place. This may sound familiar. You go into a hotdog shop. You find the phone booth in the back. You pick up the phone. You clandestinely tell a mysterious person who your reservations are under. Suddenly you step into an old speak easy of a bar where you can knock a few drinks back and feel glad to be on somebody else’s ship for a change.