Thursday, August 26, 2010

Review 85: On Writing

On Writing by Stephen King

When I was in college, I sent a letter to Stephen King. It was the first letter I'd ever sent to an author - to any famous person, as far as I can recall - and I did my best to not sound completely fannish in it. I told him that I really liked his work, especially The Stand, and how I looked forward to seeing how other books came out, The Dark Tower series in particular. As far as I can remember, I kept my head. I was cool.

But I also did what I reckon many people do when they write to their favorite authors - I told him that I enjoyed writing as well, and I hoped I could be an author someday. In retrospect, I imagine King gets a lot of these letters, and after I'd sent it, I figured that was my stupid fanboy move. I knew what I wanted to happen next - I'd get a call from Stephen King who says, "You know, judging from the well-written letter you sent me, I would like to see an example of your fiction," and so I'd send him the short story I was working on and he'd write back and say, "You're BRILLIANT! I'm going to devote my remaining days to seeing that you become a writer of greatness! Stick with me, kid, and the world is your oyster!"

The advantage I have over other people with overactive imaginations is that I know when mine is bullshitting me. Honestly, I figured I'd never hear from him at all.

On that point, at least, I was wrong.

A few weeks later, I got a letter from none other than Stephen King himself! Included was a card, on which he thanked me for my kind words about his work, as well as a couple of photocopies of articles he had done about writing. I figure he had a whole stack of these, ready to send to every prospective writer out there, but it meant a lot to me that he had taken the time. The articles talked about how he wrote, and the advice he always gave to budding writers.

I figure he must have gotten a lot of letters like mine, because he eventually wrote this book. In it is nearly everything he knows about how to write well. I figure that he hoped people would stop asking when he published it, though I doubt people did. Those who want to be writers - and you can ask any published writer about this - believe that there's a Secret to getting published. That there's some special club of writers and agents and publishers who all know each other and in order to get in you have to go to live with John Scalzi and become his personal cat waxer for a year.

But it ain't so. What those who are already in publishing will tell you is that the best way to get a story published is to write a great story. Do that, and your chances of success are much improved.

How, then, do you write a great story? All King can tell us - all any writer can tell us - is how he does it.

The first of the book is his Curriculum Vitae, in which he tells us about how he became a writer. It's not a particularly surprising story, really. He gives us his memories of writing as a child, from knock-offs of horror comics to original works of horror and fantasy. The stories he tells, the memories that he relays to us show that he was interested in writing all his life, and the desire to write - no, the need to write - was something that has always been with him.

It follows him through his days as a neophyte novelist, breaking into the big time with the sale of Carrie, and how the personal and financial success he gained from that propelled him to write more and better. And, of course, there were the Dark Days. The drugs and the alcohol, the books he can't remember writing and the days he can't remember drinking through. He's sober now, of course, but this is a warning - one of many peppered throughout the book: beware the Writers' Traps. The illusion that you must be a drunk, a la Hemingway, to be a good writer, is one. He fell for it and, fortunately for us, he climbed his way out again.

Much like any trade, skill in writing is built by experience, and having the faith that you have something worth saying to the world. But even just having something to say and an unshakable faith won't make you a good writer, so the second part of the book is a bit more practical: how do you make a story? Well, much like any trade, you need your tools. You need your grammar and structure and vocabulary so that you can present your ideas in a comprehensible form. You need your metaphor and simile, so that you're not being too obvious in what you want to say. You need your symbolism, description and characterization, foreshadowing and nuance and dialog. But what you need the most is practice, patience and faith.

He walks through the steps of composition, character creation, and coming up with the essential through-line of your story. He gives us his own pet peeves as a writer (he hates adverbs passionately and says that the passive voice is to be avoided at all cost) and exhorts us to read as many different writers as we can. He gives us the benefit of his years of experience and the things he has learned, and says to us, "Now you try."

King sets a very challenging bar, though - 2,000 words a day, every day, no exceptions. Well, for people just getting started he's willing to be a little lenient: 1,500 words a day and you can have Sundays off. And you have to take it seriously, as you would any true craft. King recommends that you establish a Writing Space, ideally somewhere where you can close the door. Lose the distractions and take care of the reasons not to write.

And, as the fine folks at Nike would say, just do it.

Of course, if you're new at this, most of what you write will be crap. In fact, even if you're not new, the odds are that your first draft will be a mess. But if you have something to say, and you know what that is, then the story will shine through. You can polish it, revise, tweak and massage it until it's something that you're willing to let the rest of the world see.

It's hard work, that's for sure. At no point does King say that being a writer will be easy. He says that it's sometimes thrilling, scary, exquisite, weird, toilsome, difficult, Sisyphean even. But never, ever easy. And there's no guarantee that you'll end up where he is. In fact, the odds are that you won't be able to make a living as a writer. It's certainly not impossible, of course - many men and women make that bar every year. But to write consistently at that level requires even more practice, patience and faith.

In the end, King is one writer who has most certainly made it big. He avoided destroying himself, and survived an accident that should have destroyed him, and he's still writing. And if you get nothing else from this book, perhaps it is this lesson: a writer writes. No matter what, no matter why, a writer writes because that is what a writer must do to survive. If you're willing to do that, if you have stories that you need to tell, then you might be a writer. It's a scary thing to do, but who knows scary better than Stephen King? Take a read through this book, open up a fresh Word file, and get to work.

"What follows is everything I know about how to write good fiction. I'll be as brief as possible, because your time is valuable and so is mine, and we both understand that the hours we spend talking about writing is time we don't spend actually doing it. I'll be as encouraging as possible, because it's my nature and because I love this job. I want you to love it, too. But if you don't want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well - settle back into competency and be grateful you have even that much to fall back on."
- Stephen King, On Writing

Stephen King on Wikipedia
On Writing on Wikipedia
On Writing on
Stephen King's website

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Review 84: Story

Story by Robert McKee

Why are there so many bad movies out there? I mean seriously - you and I both know that of all the films that are released every year, we probably get only one or two that are actually good. There's some that are good enough to spend an afternoon watching, maybe enjoyable enough that we'll want to watch it again on DVD later. But so many are just... bad.

It is my own fault, I think, for seeing Transformers 2. I have no one to blame but myself.

The really scary thing is that, in the summer of Transformers 2 and G.I. Joe, these were the best stories they had available. Seriously. If they had a better movie to make, one that would get a bigger audience and thereby bring in more money, don't you think they would have made it? The only reason you put a piece of misery like TF2 together is because you have no better options available.

Why, then, should this be so? What happened to the great scripts of long ago? You know, back in my day, when we had good movies, dammit, and we didn't need all this fancy See-Gee-Eye to fill up screen time. When we could go home quoting movie lines and we had characters that inspired us and stories that shaped our lives?

Well, it's probably important to note that even in the Good Old Days, the good stories were still grossly outnumbered by the mediocre and bad ones, and there's a very good reason for that: writing is hard.

If you take nothing else away from this book, you will remember that - writing a good story is work, and if you're not willing to do the work that it takes, then you're not going to write a good story. Oh, you might luck out and write a story that's good enough, and there might be enough truly bad stuff out there that someone will be willing to publish or produce your "good enough" story. But that won't make people like it, watch it, read it or care about it. If you want your work to have real resonance, to have an effect on people long after they've put it down or walked out of the theater, then you have to be willing to do more than just type a couple thousand words every day. You have to know your story from the inside out, know the characters better than they know themselves, and have a clear vision of what it is you want to say.

A good story, McKee believes, is the writer telling us "Life is like this." And if it's a good story, well-told, then we'll believe him.

And that's the reason for the title of this book - STORY. Everything serves the story, McKee says, including you. But if you know how the story works, and how to make the story serve your own ends, then you can create a piece that will live on in memory.

This book is not an instruction manual, and the things that McKee talks about are not rules or even guidelines. They are principles of storytelling, guiding ideas that underpin every good story ever told, and the lack of which are what leads to mediocre or even bad storytelling. If you follow these principles, McKee believes, keep them in your mind and be willing to work with them, then you'll be able to produce work that will sell.

One of the examples that gets used throughout the book is the idea of the Gap. People who want something, you see, will usually do the minimum required to get that thing. So if I want to get into my friend's home, I won't bring my lockpicks and jimmy open the door. I'll probably just knock on it and ask to be let in. If that happens, then I get what I expected to get, and that scene should therefore be cut from the manuscript.

What if, however, I knock on the door and my friend refuses to let me in? There is the Gap, a difference between what I expected to happen and what actually happened. Now I have to react to that, and his reaction to my reaction will drive the scene on. By asking yourself what the character expects, and then asking, "Okay - what's the opposite of that," you can drive the story along, make it interesting, and provide your characters with more to do than just knock on doors.

He also talks about the Controlling Idea of a story - what is the meaning of your story? It could be something like, "Love brings people together through adversity," or "Those who use others lead meaningless lives," or "The best life is one where challenges are overcome." It is the spine of your story, the idea that holds everything together. By knowing what your story is really about, you can make sure that every scene, every chapter serves that end.

From the big ideas of characterization, symbolism and the Controlling Idea, McKee moves to structure and the true nuts and bolts of screenwriting - the beat/scene/sequence/act structure that governs a film and determines how the overall structure works. He looks at different movies and analyzes how the story is structured, both in regards to the main plot and any sub-plots (which are really good for propping up a slower second act), points out different ways to introduce the Inciting Incident of your story, where the climaxes and turning points might go, and how to get there and keep your audience interested.

There's so much in the book, it really is like a handbook of story-writing. While it's geared towards screenwriters, the principles of storytelling can apply to any medium. He does talk a little bit about other media as well, mainly in the section on adaptation. If you're a playwright or a novelist, there's lessons in this book that you can definitely use, while ignoring the exhortations not to try and put stage and camera directions into your screenplay.

I've had an on-again, off-again love of writing since I was a kid. There have been times when I wrote non-stop, putting out stories left and right. Not necessarily good ones, mind you, but writing nonetheless. And then there have been periods - like now, for example - where there are no stories that burn to be told. I miss it, honestly, but reading this book kind of stoked the flames a little. I got to thinking about old stories that I could revise, and a couple of ideas that I had consigned to the filing cabinet of my brain proved to be good guinea pigs for some of McKee's principles.

Does that mean I'm on my way to literary superstardom? Not without a whole lot of hard work it doesn't. Much like with Stephen King's On Writing, one of the biggest lessons you get from this book is that creating a story of any quality requires hard, consistent work, and lots of it. McKee gives some good tips on the kind of writing process you should use to shorten the writing time - making more efficient use of your time and creativity, essentially - but at no time does he claim that making a good story is easy. What he does do, though, is make you believe that the hard work is worth doing.

As much as I would like to heap praise on McKee, though, there was something that stuck in my brain like a splinter when I read this. It's a little thing, it's a very nerdy thing, but it's a thing nonetheless.

At various points in the book, in order to illustrate one principle of storytelling or another, McKee uses the scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Vader reveals that he is Luke's father. McKee is right in that it's an excellent example of a perfect storytelling moment. At that instant, we re-think everything we've seen before with regards to Luke and Vader. We understand that Yoda and Obi-Wan weren't necessarily worried that Luke needed training just to be a good Force user - they were worried that he'd turn out like his father. Everything we thought we knew about those characters had to be re-evaluated, and in terms of simple storytelling, it was a brilliant moment.

Take the Gap principle I talked about earlier. There's Luke, at Vader's mercy. Luke expects that Vader is going to kill him, but what happens? He says, "I am your father." And then what does Vader expect? He certainly doesn't expect Luke to throw himself off the antenna, choosing death over giving in to the Dark Side. The viewer doesn't have any idea what to expect either, and that's what makes for a great movie moment.

The trouble is, I don't think McKee has actually watched that movie in a very long time. He gets lines wrong ("You can't kill me, Luke. I'm your father") and gets entire sequences of events wrong - he has Vader reveal his paternity to Luke, who then attacks him, forcing Vader to cut off his son's hand. Vader offers to let Luke rule by his side, in response to which Luke hurls himself to what he imagines is his death. And every time McKee brings up Star Wars as an example, I found myself wanting to scream, "Did you even see the movie? Or at least look up the script??" I mean, I know the book was published in 1997, but if he's big in Hollywood, he should at least be able to get his hands on one precious copy. Or go to Blockbuster and rent the damn movie.

Anyway, that was my one little gripe with McKee, and it did make me wonder what else he might have gotten wrong in his details. I mean, his reading of the scene worked, and wouldn't have been any different if he had gotten it right, but still - it's a pretty big mistake to make. I can only hope that he managed to fix it in later editions.

That much aside, the principles he puts forward are sound, and it's the kind of book that you want to keep close at hand while you're putting your story together. If you find yourself hitting a wall, just start browsing through the book again and something will come to you. Whether you're a writer of screenplays, stage plays, novels or short stories, this is a book you really should read. It'll help you see what you're doing in a whole new light.

"Story isn't a flight from reality but a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality, our best effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existence."
- Robert McKee, Story

Robert McKee on Wikipedia
Robert McKee's homepage
Story on

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Review 83: Crooked Little Vein

Crooked Little Vein by Warren Ellis

The world is a weird place. This is as true now as it was fifty years ago, but there's one big difference between us here in the twenty-first century and our primitive twentieth-century forebears: they didn't have the internet.

With the democratization of information, what was once only whispered about is now available to anyone who wants to see it. What few people knew, they can now share with the world. This is certainly true of science and history, culture and arts, but what concerns most people on the internet is not the finer, more cerebral aspects of culture.

It's the porn.

Have you heard of Rule 34, for example? The Rule states that, if it exists then there is porn of it somewhere on the internet. Remember your favorite childhood TV show? The one that you used to look forward to every week, and which perhaps you watched with your parents and/or siblings? You have fond memories of those times, I'm sure, and cherish the characters in your heart - characters that you grew to love and thought of as, dare I say it, family.

Well somewhere on the internet there's a picture of them engaged in acts that would make the Baby Jesus weep. Weep, I tell you. [1]

And that's not the worst of it. Warren Ellis is arguably one of the current superstars of the internet, with a huge online following. He produces content every day, and it's followed by thousands of readers all over the world. Much of the time it's talk about fiction and the industry of fiction, perhaps promoting up and coming artists or talking about the projects he's working on. Sometimes it'll be a commentary on the World Today, though that's less often. His output is varied and always interesting, and occasionally comes with a link that says, simply, "Don't look."

You looked, didn't you? Serves you right.

Well when Warren sends one out, the consequences are much more severe. He links to people who are doing things - usually to their bodies - that I would shudder to describe. There are graphic photographs and descriptions by people who willingly cut, mar, mark and sever things that (in my opinion) really shouldn't be cut, marred, marked or - and I'd like to stress this - severed. Should you be so brave as to click on one of Warren's links (these days usually reading as, "Conan! What is best in life?"), you will see something that you probably never wanted to see, and which you most certainly cannot un-see.

Keep in mind that Warren doesn't create these people. He doesn't find them and put them on the internet, unless he is far, far more diabolical than we give him credit for. He simply shows us where they are and lets us make up our own minds. To look, or not to look. To condemn, or not to condemn. Regardless, what he's showing us is a side of the world that most of us never knew existed, and were probably happy to have been ignorant of. The question then becomes, what are we going to do about it?

In his book, Crooked Little Vein, the U.S. government has the answer to the rising tide of deviation that seems to have engulfed the country in the latter days. There exists a book - a Secret Constitution of the United States. It was allegedly bound in the skin of an extraterrestrial and is weighted with exotic meteorite stones. The act of opening the book creates a sonic pulse that resonates with the human eyeball and forces you to read it. In it you will find the secret Constitution and its twenty-three invisible amendments that tells Presidents what the true intent of the Founders was. For nearly two centuries this hidden document governed the country, until it was lost in the 1950s. Since then, America has slid into perversion and degradation, and the White House Chief of Staff wants private investigator Michael McGill to track it down.

For his part, McGill wants nothing to do with it. Despite the huge amount of money that he stands to earn, he knows that taking this case will refocus the Universe's attention on him and he'll start to draw the freaks like iron filings to a magnet. And since finding the book is all about stopping the freaks, Mike is in for all of the weirdness that America can throw at him. Before he can find the book, Mike will have to confront the twisted, kinky and perverted side of the country and decide what is to become of it.

This book works on a lot of layers. For one, it's a fun read, and you'll probably get through it pretty quickly. Ellis is an accomplished writer, with a vivid imagination and an excellent ear for dialogue. He also has a very good sense of written rhythm, which probably comes from his main gig as a writer of comic books. Some of the chapters are single sentences, meant to be read and absorbed in a moment, but also to be thought on. When you get to Chapter 6, which simply reads, "I wish I still had that photo," you're meant to take a moment to think about what that means, both to the character and to the story.

What this means is that not only does Ellis know that he's telling us a story, he's vividly aware of the medium through which he is doing it and exploits that very well. It shows an awareness that most authors lack, or at the very least don't often take advantage of.

I have only one nit to pick about Ellis' writing, though, and I'm sure he will subject me to Horrors the likes of which you cannot fathom for pointing them out, but not to do so would mean I was shirking in my duties. This is how much I love you all.

While it is set in the United States, and is something of a dirty love letter to the country, there is a distinctly British English tone to some of the writing. Not too much, just enough to make you notice, if you're the kind of person who notices these things. His narrator uses the verb "trod" at one point, as in "I trod on her foot," which doesn't sound very American to my ears. Likewise, he refers to wainscot and leatherette, words which ring with a certain amount of Britishness. Maybe it's just me, but they kind of stood out. Your experience may vary. [2]

Anyway, beyond the simple entertainment of reading the book, there are some very real things to think about in there. For example, in an age where anyone can put up a webpage, what does it mean to be "mainstream?" What's more, what does it mean to be "underground" these days? Fifty years ago, homosexuality was something that most decent, God-fearing people didn't even know about, much less experience. Now there are openly gay actors, athletes and politicians, and the "gay next-door neighbor" is already a character so common that it's become a cliche. Is S&M, for example, "underground" when we've been making jokes about it in TV and movies for years? How about swingers? Hell even the pedophiles are mainstream, which you'd know if you were a viewer of Family Guy. How long with it be until we see saline injection fetishists, macroherpetophiles or functioning heroin addicts as being simply part of the endlessly variegated crazy quilt that is American culture?

What's more, should we allow all these people into the cultural mainstream? Is there a kink limit for society? Is there something that people can do to themselves, or to other consenting adults, that is just so Out There that we have to draw the line and say "No further, weirdo!" For those of us who are a bit more open-minded than most, can we turn around and decry the whitebread people who like their vanilla lives and sexual predictability?

Who will make that judgment call, and how? In this book, it's the U.S. Government that's trying to do it, and they'll roll the country back to the Fifties if they can. One of the wonderful and scary things about living in the Internet Age is that these cultural rules have yet to set in. We're looking around and seeing all the strangeness that we never knew was there and deciding in the moment what's acceptable and what isn't. Should we appreciate these unusual practices for their creativity and for the flavor they lend our culture, or should we snuff them out in the name of some notion of "Decency?"

Ellis' answer is pretty clear once you get through the book, and I have to agree with him. I've always been on the side of personal liberty, so long as you're not hurting anyone who doesn't want to get hurt. As for those of us who might be a little weirded out by knowing what it is that people get up to in their bedrooms, remember - you don't have to click on the link.

Either way it's a serious philosophical issue for the 21st century, and Ellis has done a very fine job of presenting it to us. Beyond the book, I have no doubt he will continue to do so.

"You don't get to keep the parts of the country you like, ignore the rest, and call what you've got America."
- Mike McGill, Crooked Little Vein

[1] Rule 35, by the way, states that the if no porn is found of it, it will be made.

[2] Warren's eels are doubtless on their way for me now. Run! Save yourselves!!

Warren Ellis on Wikipedia
Crooked Little Vein on Wikipedia
Crooked Little Vein on
Warren Ellis' homepage

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Review 82 - Dave Barry Hits Below the Beltway

Dave Barry Hits Below the Beltway by Dave Barry

When an election year comes around, I try really hard to stay above the fray. I know that there will be rumors and speeches and policies that get everyone really riled up, and I like to think that I can remain emotionally detached and not allow things to get under my skin.

I usually last until about the Conventions, at which point the slumbering poli-sci major in my brain wakes up and grabs the controls. At that point, I start to take things WAY too seriously. I write long, link-filled diatribes about why certain candidates (who shall remain nameless, in case I ever want to recycle this review during another election year) are completely wrong, utterly bereft of any kind of legitimacy or moral standing and how the American people obviously have the intellectual capacity of zucchini if they vote for them.

It's easy to get caught up, because that's what they want. Logical, well-reasoned approaches don't go over well with the public, so they rely on the emotional heartstrings, and sometimes they get me. I turn really serious and absolutely devoted to the idea that I Am Right.

The only antidote to this is humor. It's why I love watching The Daily Show - the more seriously you take things, the more self-assured you become in the absolute rightness of your position, the more you need to be taken down a peg. You need to take a breath, take a step back and allow yourself to laugh at the process. If you don't, you end up risking becoming one of those humorless, fanatic talking heads that just drive everyone crazy.

So, if you need some laughs, and we all know we do, you could do worse than to pick up this book.

This is an original book, rather than a collection of Barry's columns, and he promises right from the outset that he would do absolutely no research whatsoever. "To do an even halfway decent book on a subject as complex as the United States government," he says, "you have to spend a lot of time in Washington, D.C. So the first thing I decided, when I was getting ready to write this book, was that it would not be even halfway decent."

He is, of course, wrong. The book is at least three-quarters decent.

The government is a great source of humor, probably going back to the very first government when a particularly strong hunter-gatherer decided that he was the one best suited to tell the tribe what to do. Barry looks at the evolution of government, back from those early caveman days up to the early days of the twenty-first century. These days, instead of a large, heftable rock to beat possible opponents over the head with, they use commercials. Otherwise, the methods haven't changed.

Barry's sense of humor relies on him being The Common Man, someone who's not really interested in the intricacies of how the government works, but is perfectly happy just sitting back and making fun of it. He has a great time re-writing the Constitution ("Article IV, section 1: There shall be a bunch of States.") and illustrating the continual growth of the U.S. Government with the use of handy free clip-art pictures.

One of the best things he does is point out the fact that no politician ever, ever actually reduces the size of government, no matter what they promise. Government gets bigger, departments get more and more complex all the time, and there's really nothing that we can do about it but try and get a laugh. So whether it's the futility of trying to call prunes "dried plums" or trying to get Congress not to buy things that the military neither wants nor needs, the people in Washington that we trust to run the country are, obviously, insane. Why we keep sending them back is beyond me.

There is, of course, a section on the 2000 election - this book was written in 2001, so there was no escaping that - and a look at it from the unique perspective of those people who screwed it up for everyone. South Florida. The book gets kind of tangential at this point, going from making fun of the US government to making fun of Miami, but he does give us some warning. And in his defense, it is both funny and, in its own way, relevant. It has been argued that Florida is the reason why we had eight years of George W. Bush, so perhaps if we understand it better we may avoid such... unpleasantness in the future.

But I doubt it.

So, if you're looking for a good laugh and something to remind you that you can't take all this too seriously, pick up the book. It won't solve your problems, and it won't stop you from wanting to strangle everyone on the internet who disagrees with you, but at least a moment's respite is worth it.

"What the Founding Fathers were saying, basically, was: 'Why should we let people over in England saddle us with an unresponsive government and stupid laws? We can create our own!'"
-Dave Barry, Dave Barry Hits Below the Beltway

Dave Barry on Wikipedia
Dave Barry Hits Below the Beltway on
Dave Barry's homepage