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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.


While the sociological construct of writing character interactions may be grounded in motivational polarization, the source of those polar opposite expectations typically has to come from each character’s diverse situation. It may sound like a physics equation more than a writing philosophy, but I’m taking all this for granted at this point, and just speaking to hear myself or on the benefit of some stray passer-by. Dara Marks however, has written a full article about the subject of turning a character’s flaw into the fulcrum of each sub-plot. “The fatal flaw is a struggle within a character to maintain a survival system long after it has outlived its usefulness.” Don’t we all know people who exhibit some form of obsessive-compulsive disorder? Where does it come from? Every action. Every movement. Give your characters a reason, and the scene just might write itself…

Coincidentally, Marks is doing a seminar Inside Story: The Power of the Transformational Arc on May 24-25 in LA. No NYC dates, apparently. Plane phobic?

Film Workshops Online is offering a free seminar Saturday, May 3 from 11:00 am – 12:00 pm on how to get a fresh start on new subject matter.

For some of us the problem is never shortage of ideas, but shortage of time. Most of us, even. I have a feeling large numbers of us are lunchers. However if you ever do find yourself stuck with a story you want to do, and a mechanical quandary you don’t know how to answer, this might just be the kick you need.

I thought this might be an apt topic considering the recent news of Harry Potter authoress J.K. Rowling, who’s suit against a fanfic writer attempting to publish an alphabetized list of her imaginary characters has many wondering why a study of the mythos surrounding a series that itself heavily borrows from myth would be considered infringement, or problematic to the author.

Ah, the meed-ja, as the British say. While I’ve sniffled in the past at the inability to quote full (short) works I’ve wanted to analyze and comment on, I must say that I’ve also found myself fully capable to express what I wanted to say without the crutch of the source materials.

Here’s the rub, and this goes for fan fic of all shapes and sizes: The BEST fiction, be it allusory to other work (most works typically are) or completely unusual (often in the way an in image system with a completely new metaphorical association has been crafted) all typically bring some sort of author-specific insight to the table.

In reading the Harry Potter “Secrets” paperbacks in the line at any chain bookstore, you will find, even after the incredibly insightful high points, that most of the content is a bit on the fluff. You might say this is because the author deftly uses the hot trend of the current pop subject matter to blend the reader into a more serious academic pursuit of deconstruction, but were that true, there would be no grounds upon which to have your trousers sued forth from your bottom.

One thing I protect dearly is the age old tradition of parody. I don’t mean meanness, for which it is sadly so often mistaken, but true parody in the sense of making light of the truly disastrous in an attempt to disarm our panic and lift our dread just enough to slip in a fresh, breezy injection of perspective that brings us all just a little further off the dirt floor of modern plasticine, and out just a little closer to the garden.

If you’ve ever read Rowling’s other self-written lexicons, they’re short little pamphlets anyone who comes in contact with children should at least be familiar with. But they’re also cute, and funny, with a hint of other information about her dizzying, operatic array of characters.

There have been rumors for ages about how she’s left her children alone and unattended while she went off to write, that she’s such a horrible writer from book one that it was made a children’s story, that she’s got a carrot for a nose and two lumps of cole for eye sockets and melts in the Summer until little children go and build her up again in the Winter time. Apparently the kids aren’t dead, none of the older ones look particularly starved or traumatized, except of course by the act of paparazzi stalking after them, and somehow the machine that is Harry Potter, whether you like it or absolutely despise it, has changed the whole map of modern English literature pretty much on the level that Charles Dickens did in his day.

It’s true, the first, from what I can tell in a flip-through, is simple simon. But that’s not the point, say her target fan base. Some of her later work, be it due to more relaxation on her editor’s part, or a more developed style gained through necessity, is quite moving, strangely at odds in some ways with the earlier books, but undeniably decent writing and well on par at the adult level. It’s not surprising young adult fans who have grown accustomed to her increasingly mature content to match their own developmental needs would then form a sort of cultural icon in her name.

In the face of that knowledge, a librarian who wants to make a book sorting a website’s worth of user-contributed fan-fic comments is possibly missing the point about what “Harry Potter” actually is — at least as much as an author who cares that a lexicon being published might actually even ding her titanium-plated hull.

But of course, she does make a good point. There’s only one author who can do the best job of writing a lexicon of all her imaginative inventions. It’s more a sign of the desperation and obsessive nature of fan writers that someone astute and determined enough to research and compile an entire lexicon of source research would, after all this time, never have it occur to them to use the million and one inspirational source works cited from ancient mythology to go off and write their own version entirely.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me. I do it all the time, and I’ve helped other authors let go of the bottle in joint ventures to separate their genuinely good, original source work from the sloppy rough patches where they’ve glommed on to pop lit cliché instead of really finishing what they’ve started.

I know from the gate that I will likely be despised for ratting the old chains of “originality” and “artistic integrity” at first, but I also secretly know when they’re finally plotting their own original stories, because they’ve stopped waving them about to show everybody before they’re finished.

Real work is terrifyingly personal. It should be. And we should all be allowed to write that way because that’s the difference between slaving over a content carping website versus a billion dollar franchise, one imaginary character at a time.

This is just a final reminder for all you champion procrastinators destined to log in and register last minute for this event for next weekend, only to wonder why you keep getting “the eye” from security for not having signed up soon enough to get a name badge printed. There, I’ve said it. Here’s the link:

The LA Times has a story about writers who paper the parking lot at NBC with their scripts. Apparently this is so common, the studio is requesting a bike trail not pass near their back lot for fear that it will encourage would-be writers.

“One bike advocate said Universal executives told him they feared that people would use the path to lob unsolicited screenplays onto the studio’s nearby production lot — something that apparently happens at other spots when a Universal film scores big at the box office.”

While the thinking outside the box is commendable, the fact that it’s so common roads are being rerouted suggest something.

You should do something better with felled trees. Buy some coffee. Get some work done.

Surrogate advice from my grandmother: You’re a writer. Don’t be tacky.

If you’re out in LA, or anywhere near New York or London, there’s a training seminar coming your way. It’s very reasonably priced, I might add.  Yes, you can pay ridiculous amounts for DVDs and videos that may have a small amount of realistic grit, but for around $350.00 you can have a seat in an auditorium like a film school fresher and learn about the roots of mythic story structure from possibly one of the last living possessors of that art.  At least, the last willing to stand up in front of a bunch of bat crazy emu children to teach it.

If you can’t go that route, there’s still the book itself, which will run you about $20 for the hardcover. The paperback is perpetually sold out.

And if you’re still desperate for something under $15, Blake Snyder’s “Save The Cat” will at least keep you headed in the right direction.