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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Yesterday’s post was long, so I’ll make up for it today.

“Writing fiction or plays or poetry seems to me to be a very messy business. To be a writer requires an enormous tolerance for frustration, for anxiety, for self-doubt.”

—Writer Harry Crews (A Feast of Snakes)

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“Movies are about life-changing events in these character’s lives.”
Screenwriter John August
Scriptnotes, Ep. 218

The 25 cent word of the day is synecdoche. Author/Princeton professor Joyce Carol Oates uses the word synecdoche in her MasterClass talk as a literary device meaning “one stands for the whole” and states that “it is the principle of all art.”

One example she gives is her book Blonde: A Novel. While the real life Marilyn Monroe had several miscarriages and lived in multiple orphanages and foster homes, Oates chose to write about one miscarriage, one orphanage, and one foster home. Limiting selections gives your story power.

Oates says this principle works in journaling and other forms of writing.

“If some profound thing happens one day out of 25, that’s the day you write about. So too with a short story. Most of my short stories focus on people at climactic moments of their lives. Like it’s the one event in their whole lives that’s really momentous— that’s what I’m writing about. I’m not writing about anything else.”
—Joyce Carol Oates
MasterClass, Principles of Writing Short Fiction (Message 2)

This principle works in screenwriting as well.

“If your movie isn’t about the most important moment in your hero’s life don’t write it.”
—Scriptshadow

Billy Ray used synecdoche in his screenplay Richard Jewell where he made a composite character named Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm). A singular FBI agent that stood for the many FBI agents on the case.

Aaron Sorkin used the technique when he limited his screenplay Steve Jobs to just three days —three acts—in the life the Apple co-founder. The 1984 Apple Macintosh launch, the 1988 launch of NeXT, and the 1998 launch of the iMac. The king on the throne, the king in exile, and the return of the king.

And when writer/director Lulu Wang chose to tell the story of a Chinese family in The Farewell, she chose the events surrounding her grandmother getting cancer and a lie.

Scott W. Smith 

 

 

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“The task of the successful writer is to lower the bar. You want to avoid areas of high difficulty. So a high difficulty task is having your story in your head before you write it. That’s too hard to do! You got to be really smart to do that. I’m not smart enough, so why would I put myself in that position? Just start writing and then work it out. You can always rewrite it, you can change it. That’s the great luxury of being a writer. We’re not surgeons. The world does not hold us to our first pass.”
—Author Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point)
MasterClass, “Drafts and Revisions”

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“You know, when you first start writing you’re going to suck. And so it’s good to keep it to yourself, until maybe you don’t suck as much.”
David Sedaris

The sweet spot for the essays that David Sedaris writes is five pages. The shortest are the two pages he does for CBS Sunday Morning and on the other end of the spectrum he says he “has a 12 page attention span.” Experience tells him that anything longer is hard to read on stage. He spends much time on the rewriting process, and encourages others to do that as well.

“Nine times out of 10, my only comment is you need to rewrite this, ah, 60 times. And most people don’t even want to hear that you need to rewrite it one time. But that’s what writing is—it’s rewriting. And sometimes something’s not worth rewriting. You think, oh, I’m just so bored with this . . . it’s not worth diving back into. And that’s fine because not everything is worth diving back into. But I would say, personally, I probably write something over 12-18 times before I give it to my editor.”
David Sedaris
Masterclass

While you can see doing 12-18 drafts of a short essay, how big of a climb does 60 rewrites seem. And have you ever done 60 drafts of a script you’ve written—or even 12-18. This is what screenwriter John Logan did on rewriting his first screenplay with Oliver Stone:

“We did 26 drafts of Any Given Sunday, one right after another, so I learned everything about the form from him. He was patient. I’d go to his house, he’d say, ‘Pick up that Oscar, hold it, it’ll feel good, you’ll enjoy it.’ And then we’d work. Any Given Sunday, like all these monstrous big movies,  was hard to get made.”
John Logan

And that was after he spent nine months on his own writing more than 20 drafts. Screenwriter Michael Arndt reportedly wrote 100 drafts of Little Miss Sunshine—his sixth script and the first one he sold.

Sometimes it takes a little time. Here’s a closing quote from another rewriter:

“It’s true I rewrite a lot . . . my talent is I just try and try, and try and try again, and little by little it comes to something that I think is okay.”
Francis Ford Coppola

Scott W. Smith

 

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“I know for myself, it’s important to write every single day. I meet a lot of young writers and I say do you write everyday, and they say, no, I write when it strikes me. I don’t know, I suppose that might work for some people—I’m not really the one to say—but it never would have worked for me. So much happens sitting at your desk when you don’t have an idea. So many things can happen, but they’re not going to happen unless you’re at your desk. So you need to sit there, and not have the internet, and see what happens. You just have to do the work. That means not going to the party. It means people are really going to think you’re a drag. . . . I’ve meet so many people who say I really want to write, but I work all day. So did I. You work all day and then you come home and write. If it means that much to you, you’re going to find the time to do it.”
Writer/speaker David Sedaris
Masterclass (Lesson 3), Turning Observations Into Stories

David Sedaris graduated from college in 1987 and worked various odd jobs (including cleaning houses) and wrote a lot until eventually Ira Glass called him one day asking him to read Santaland Diaries (an essay Sedaris wrote about being one of Santa’s helpers at Macy’s). Sedaris was 35-years-old when it aired on December 23 , 1992 on NPR’s Morning Edition.  That lead to an ongoing gig with This American Life, and eventually his books being published and paid speaking engagements.

Interesting things don’t happen “out there,” they happen right where you are in your day job. (All the better if it’s an odd, odd job—like being an elf.) Your job is to make observations with your special writer glasses and write them down in your diary. At least, that worked for Sedaris.

Related links:
David Sedaris, Ira Glass and 25 Years of “Santaland Diaries”

Scott W. Smith 

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Author Neil Gaiman was once on his blog was once asked what words or quote would he inscribe “on the wall of a public library children’s area” and this is the core of his answer from his essay Just Four Words (found in his book Stories: All-New Tales) mixed with his Masterclass on storytelling:

I’m not sure I’d put a quote up, if it was me, and I had a library wall to deface. I think I’d just remind people of the power of stories, of why they exist in the first place. I’d put up the four words that anyone telling a story wants to hear. The ones that show that it’s working, and that pages will be turned: 

‘. . .and then what happened?’

The four words that children ask when you pause telling them a story. The four words that you hear at the end of a chapter. The four words, spoken or unspoken, that show you, as a storyteller, that people care. And then what happened? And those words, I think,  are the most important words there are for a storyteller.”
Neil Gaiman (The Sandman, Good Omen)

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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“Feeling completely lost is absolutely necessary to finding your way out [of the dark forest] and becoming good.”
Stephanie Foo (@imontheradio)
This American Life producer

Last week Screenwriter John August launched the podcast Launch. It’s a creative way of exploring his getting lost in the woods as a six-year-old, through the inspiration and publication process of his new middle grade novel Arlo Finch in the Valley of the Fire (aimed for 4th-6th graders).

Here’s an excerpt from the first episode of Launch:
 “The book publishing industry in generally huge. In the U.S. alone books are a 28 billion dollar business every year. That’s more than the NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball combined. It’s not a dying business at all. Publishers make money. But are authors making money? That’s a little more complicated.”
John August

In the second episode (The Shadow of Harry Potter) August talks about how he overcame one of the challenges of writing the novel in Paris.

“The book is mostly set in winter in Colorado, but I had to write the bulk of it in the middle of summer in an apartment with no air conditioning. I end up finding these tracks on You Tube which are 12 hours of winter storm. I listened to it on my headphones. Seriously, this really helps me get in the right head space.”
John August

Some writers need total silence to write, while Stephen King writes to Metallica. Whatever works, right? One of the joys of writing this blog is seeing the polar opposites that many writers work. Some do their best work early in the morning, while others prefer writing at night. Some write from theme, others avoid theme altogether.

Listening to winter audio tracks while writing a winter story makes sense. Audio tracks of light thunderstorms, ocean waves, and babbling brooks for years have helped people meditate, reduce stress, and sleep. (Yes, there’s an app for that.) Last year when I was working through a coding tutorial I would often listen to the same Steely Dan song over and over again on headphones.  If your writing is lost in the dark forest, try some natural sounds to help get you in the right head space.

I look forward to listening to the whole season of Launch (episode three just dropped this morning), and reading Arlo Finch. And if you’re interested in the craft and business of screenwriting, make sure you check out the Scriptnotes podcast that August does with screenwriter Craig Mazin.

John August Related Posts:
Scriptnotes #300 & the Difference Between Screenwriting and Directing 
The 100th Podcast of Scriptnotes
Is It a Movie? (Touches on Scriptnotes episode #201)

Podcast Related Posts:
Power Your Podcasting with Storytelling (Part 1) 
Finding Authentic Emotions (part 1) Alex Blumberg
‘What’s Your Unfair Advantage?’ (Gimlet Media, Part 1)
S-Town, Brian Reed & Why ‘Podcasting is the Future of Storytelling’
‘Out on the Wire’ Podcast 

Scott W. Smith

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“Inspiration is never really very far away if you look for it. It’s all around you, you know…. When a song comes, it’s kind of magical. You know you’re picking up some kind of signal.”
Tom Petty
Interview with Charlie Rose in 1999

Here’s how Petty said he wrote the song Wildflowers:

“I just took a deep breath and it came out. The whole song. Stream of consciousness: words, music, chords. Finished it. I mean, I just played it into a tape recorder and I played the whole song and I never played it again. I actually only spent three and a half minutes on that whole song. So I’d come back for days playing that tape, thinking there must be something wrong here because this just came too easy. And then I realized that there’s probably nothing wrong at all.”
Tom Petty (Not sure where the quote originally came from)

Related Post:
Inspiration Flying Under the Radar
Analytical vs. Intuitive Writing
Creativity and Milking Cows

Scott W. Smith

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“I wrote at least a thousand words a day every day from the age of twelve on. For years Poe was looking over one shoulder, while Wells, Burroughs, and just about every writer in Astounding and Weird Tales looked over the other.

I loved them, and they smothered me. I hadn’t learned how to look away and in the process look at myself but at what went on behind my face.

It was only when I began to discover the treats and tricks that came with word associations that I began to find some true way through the minefields of imitation. I finally figured out that if you are going to step on a  live mine, make it your own. Be blown up, as it were, by your own delights and despairs.

I began to put down brief notes and descriptions of loves and hates. All during my twentieth and twenty-first years, I circled around summer noons and October midnights, sensing that there somewhere in the bright and dark seasons must be something that was really me.

I finally found it one afternoon when I was twenty-two years old. I wrote the title The Lake on the first page of a story that finished itself two hours later. Two hours after that I was sitting at my typewriter out on a porch in the sun, with tears running off the tip of my nose, and the hair on my neck standing up.”
Ray Bradbury
Zen in the Art of Writing 

Bradbury sold The Lake to Weird Tales for $20. And his original voice was off to the races.  Do the math… all it took for Ray Bradbury to find his voice was 2 hours of writing —plus the 1,000 words a day for 10 years.

Scott W. Smith

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When Emmy-winner Stephen J. Cannell died in 2010 his IMDB credits were extensive. I can’t image many others who wrote 450 TV episodes or produced more than 1,500 episodes. But there’s really no secret to how he did it—it’s basic math. He began his days at 3:30 AM:

“You know, when you say, ‘He created 42 primetime television series—how’d he do that?’ Well, you’d be surprised at what you can do if you get up and write for five hours a day everyday for 35 years.”
Stephen J. Cannell
Script magazine interview with Ray Morton

How did he get into that position where he was getting paid well to write for five hours? Again no secret—more basic math.

After Cannell graduated with a journalism degree from the University of Oregon he worked for his father. After work he went home and wrote for five hours every night. And he did that for more than five years without seeing anything he wrote get produced.

“I was like a machine. I swear I had a stack of material you could sit on.”
Stephen J. Cannell

That’s a great image to leave you with today. I’m not sure how big that stack of paper was, but if you measure the height of a 100 page stack of paper and multiple it by the height of an average chair you’ll come up with a pretty accurate number. Basic math.

P.S. And Cannell’s IMDB credit list continues to grow after his death. Most recently he was credited for the 2012 movie version of 21 Jump Street and the 2014 sequel 22 Jump Street because he was co-creator of the original TV series starring Johnny Depp.

Scott W. Smith 

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