Editing a la Susan Spann

The brilliant Susan Spann (website and Amazon page) generously shared her editing process last month (Sept. 2017) with us lucky attendees at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers conference in Denver. Susan is an attorney specializing in intellectual property – another of her conference sessions focused on what to look out for in an agent or publishing contract – and an author of a mystery series set in 16th-century Japan starring a master ninja and a Portuguese Jesuit priest.

She stressed that this is her process – it works for her; if it works for you, great; if not, don’t do it this way. Before she starts, she spends 3-4 months reading and researching the world of the novel, and creates a brief outline of the 5-act structure and the events that occur on-stage and off.

Her process resonated with me in part because it ‘s similar to what I used to do while writing government reports in my previous career. We called it multi-pass editing, and the idea was that you’d:

1 – Get words on paper. If you don’t have anything to work with, you can’t make it better.

2 – Review the draft for content. Is the right information in the report, is there anything in there that doesn’t need to be, are the ideas adequately explained, using clarifying examples where needed, and is the information presented in context?

3 – Do another pass for organization. Does the report use headings and good paragraph structure, and does the information flow logically; can a reader skim the report and get the gist?

4 – The next pass was for style. You’d look for connections and transitions, active voice, clarity, conciseness, and any jargon that had snuck in.

5 – The last pass was for mechanics, like spelling, punctuation, grammar, and any errors you tend to make.

After we’d done everything we could to make it a good report, we’d pass it along to our in-house reviewers, editors, and quality control people, similar to fiction writers’ alpha and beta readers.

Susan’s approach seems familiar:

First draft: 

  • Unfiltered draft, written with the aid of a 3-page bullet point outline. She looks at the outline at the beginning and end of the day, but not while writing.
  • She writes on a device called an Alpha Smart Neo that only lets her see three lines at a time, for distraction-free writing; she downloads to Word every night.
  • No deleting anything till the draft is finished. Fix in editing is the mantra.
  • Set a word count goal.  Figure out your baseline – how much you’re currently writing in a day. Make that your goal till you can do it consistently on however many days a week you write. Then reset your goal to something attainable but that will push you, and stick with that till you can meet it consistently. Repeat. Using this approach, she went from a goal of writing 15 minutes a day, 200 words, to her current 6,000 a day in 4-5 hours.

    You have to touch the wall every day.

  • Don’t measure your speed against anyone else’s. She does her first draft in about 10 days now, but see above bullet for where she started out.
  • Write every day. She requires herself to write an hour a day, although she usually does more.
  • Stop for the day right before the cool thing happens, not at the end of the scene.
  • If you get stuck, think “what’s the least plausible, but possible in this book’s world, thing that can happen here?”

    Celebrate everything!

Second draft: 

  • She spends 2 1/2 months on this draft, editing 2-3 pages a day at a pace of about 2 hours per page. She doesn’t do a complete read before she starts; just starts at the beginning.
  • Focus on structure, plot/subplot, world building, big inconsistencies.
  • Remove unnecessary characters; maybe combine characters who fill small roles
  • Remove scenes where nothing’s really happening, it doesn’t advance the plot, or it duplicates another scene. Think about what information was gained in the scene and where else it could go if you delete it. Save deleted scenes in a separate file.
  • Make sure the character’s actions make sense. Is there a good reason they’re chasing down a killer instead of staying home and eating tacos?
  • If you notice a grammar mistake, typo, etc., fix it, but don’t look for them.
  • Put a square bracket where you need to research something, figure out how to fix something, or check internal consistency.
  • Make notes at the end of the manuscript of things you need to think about more. If she thinks the reader would have a question, she puts it at the end.

Third draft: 

  • Research and detail insertion. Take care of all those square brackets.
  • Make the characters distinct.
    • Every character gets something that sets them apart, as recommended in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. This could be a physical characteristic, a typical gesture, etc.
    • Make them sound distinct. Add their inner dialogue. With every line of dialogue, ask what they’re feeling (or what they want others to think they’re feeling), and how their gestures or movements convey that.
  • Triple verify everything you find on the Internet. Email experts; go to the place, stay there, and talk to people
  • If you have characters from a different culture than your own, research until people in that culture say you got it right. If you can’t do it justice, delete it.
  • Reverse engineer any subplots. Fill any holes in the plot.

Fourth draft: 

  • Add the chapter breaks.
    • Put the break where the reader will want to turn the page, not where they’ll want to put a bookmark in and go to bed.
    • She goes to the 5th page, scans the action to see where a break should go. If there isn’t a good place, she keeps reading. If the natural break isn’t till page 8, she cuts 2-3 pages out of the chapter so she can break it on page 5 or 6. Whatever chapter length works for you, be consistent.
  • Look at the chapters individually:
    • is there a beginning, middle, and end?
    • is there conflict on every page? You can add tension by making a character obstreperous, not necessarily related to the master story arc.
  • Make sure the dialogue is snappy.
  • Make sure the changes you’ve made haven’t messed up something else

Fifth draft:

  • First polishing draft
  • From here on, read the draft out loud. You want it to read smoothly, and reading out loud will also help develop your writing voice and lyricism.
  • Look for grammar, sentence structure, and voice.
  • Look for echo words that you’ve repeated over and over. Use the thesaurus to fix this, but watch out – some words are so high-impact you can only get away with using them once in the whole book.
  • If you fix something in a scene, go back and start reading 2 paragraphs earlier. It’s like smoothing a tablecloth, where you can create more wrinkles.

Send the draft to your alpha and beta readers. Her alpha reader is her son; her beta readers are her critique partners. None of them sees the draft until this point. Tell your readers to crush the manuscript with a mighty hammer. There’s nothing they can tell you that will be as mean as what someone will post on Amazon.

Sixth draft:

  • Integrate your readers’ comments and do a second polish.
  • Pay attention to the comments:
    • Even if reader has it wrong, there’s a reason they had the question, so look at why they had that reaction, and figure out how to change.
    • The change needed may not be what the reader suggests. Their question might be triggered by something you did earlier. Talk to them, ask why they had that reaction.

This is where she sends the manuscript to her agent. She has an editorial agent, so her seventh draft is integrating her agent’s comments.

If the process sounds grueling, I’m sure it is, based on my past experience writing and editing reports. But it makes sense, and I believe if I try to follow Susan’s process for editing my novel, I’ll end up with a much better final product than I’ve ever accomplished before.

What do you think? Do you have an editing process that works for you? Please share in the comments below!

 

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Screwball comedy – it’s not what I thought

I’ve been thinking of my current project as kind of a screwball comedy, modeled roughly after Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog and Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair. The key features I had in mind were:

  • Things spiral out of control in a crazy way. Ordinary events, like mislaid keys or misunderstood messages, pile on each other, leading to worst-case but wacky consequences.
  • The heroines are likable and capable though quirky, the supporting characters are even quirkier, and the antagonists are straitlaced and controlling.
  • Even though the stakes are high, like the end of the world as we know it, the reader doesn’t feel unduly anxious or stressed, because the whole situation is so absurd.

Through the wonders of Interlibrary Loan, I got my hands on Romantic vs. Screwball Comedy: Charting the Difference by Wes D. Gehring, who teaches film at Ball State University. He’s talking about movies, not books, and that’s an important distinction, since some of the features of screwball comedies only apply to movies.

As it turns out, screwball comedies have some features that never occurred to me. Some of them are irrelevant to my book, but others sparked new ideas for me, like these:

  • The central character is an antihero, a “little man” who’s always going to be thwarted, because he’s trying to create order in a world where order is impossible.
  • The plots often have couples from different classes coming together, a metaphor for reconciliation between classes, generations, genders, and attitudes (anxiety vs happy-go-lucky optimism).
  • The movies use nutty behavior as a prism through which to view a topsy-turvy period in history.

Other features of classic screwball comedies are more tied up in gender roles and romance. There’s typically a childlike man who has lots of leisure time and is frustrated in his relationships with women, and a zany eccentric woman rescues him from a domineering mother-like wife or fiancee. The movies involve ritualistic humiliation of the male, and Dr. Gehring says the vanquishing of male rigidity is the goal of all good screwball comedies.

Screwball comedies often parody more serious movies, usually romance (there’s a great sendup of Love Story’s most famous line in What’s Up, Doc?) but not always, as in Analyze This and others that spoof gangster movies. There’s usually a lot of physical comedy in screwball, unlike in romantic comedy, where attempted slapstick can be really awkward (I’m looking at you, Woman of the Year kitchen scene).

Dr. Gehring’s discussion of how the Great Depression and the transition from silent pictures to talkies influenced the development of the screwball genre is fascinating. For example, he talks about how screwball was intrigued with the wealthy classes but had a softer take on class differences than the class warfare and anarchy of some other comedies at the time, like some Marx Brother and W.C. Fields films. In screwball comedy, the idle rich are “entertainingly odd.” Talking pictures brought writers in from all over to produce the witty conversation.

Even though I was off base in my ideas about screwball comedy, I enjoyed reading the book, and I’ve assigned myself some movie watching homework. If you’re interested in experiencing some screwball comedy yourself, here are a few movies you might start with:

  • My Man Godfrey (1936), based on a novel by Eric Hatch
  • Topper (1937), based on a novel by Thorne Smith
  • Some Like it Hot (1959)
  • What’s Up, Doc? (1974)
  • All of Me (1984), based on the novel Me Two by Ed Davis
  • A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

 

Zombies and bestsellers

I just finished reading World War Z by Max Brooks, which is #87 on the list of 100 books the algorithm in The Bestseller Code (Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers) thinks you should read. I enjoyed it – my review is on Goodreads if you’re interested – and one of my compatriots in this 100-book journey suggested looking back at The Bestseller Code to try to understand why this was chosen.

Theme and topics

The algorithm says that bestsellers limit their focus. They give 30% of their paragraphs to just one or two topics. This focus brings both depth and a story that can be easily followed by the reader. WWZ clearly hits this mark: everything in the book is about the zombies – how the plague got started, how it spread, how it affected the world, and how humanity fought back.

As for secondary topics, an important one is work – TBC mentions Stephen King’s assertion that readers love to read about work, and in WWZ, which is structured in the form of interview notes with people who lived through the crisis, almost all the interviews are with people who were doing their jobs. We read about pilots, astronauts, soldiers, doctors, and sleazy profiteers.

Maybe the absence of human closeness as an important secondary topic – it comes up some, but not a lot – helps explain why this is ranked #87 on the list and not higher. On the other hand, the book is sound on dogs, another important feature to the reading public. And it includes lots of modern technology, with descriptions and even footnotes about military vehicles and weapons.

Pace and plotting

Bestsellers break up the tension with scenes of ordinary life, giving readers a chance to catch their breath. I think the lead-ins to the interviews serve this function: they provide a little background about the person being interviewed and the life they’re living now, after the worst is over.

The algorithm identified 7 patterns in ups and downs of bestseller plots. I think WWZ matches one of them pretty well. It’s the same one that fits Stephen King’s The Stand, another story where humanity is decimated by a terrible plague and the world is changed forever. The key seems to be that the curves need to be steep enough to grab the reader. WWZ gives us a plummeting downhill slope from warnings and blame to the great panic; gives us something to cheer about when people figure out how to fight back; and then drags us down again with what’s happened to the world and the seemingly endless task of eradicating the remaining zombies.

Style and voice

Readers like voices that speak with authority, like Jane Austen’s famous first line in Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” And many modern readers like language that sounds like the way people talk, which TBC calls the journalistic (as opposed to literary) style and, by the way, identifies with women writers. The structure of WWZ does this brilliantly. The interviewer barely appears, so each piece is the transcribed speech of a person who lived through events and has had time to reflect on them and decide what they think about it. While I was reading the book, my only quibble was that not all the voices were differentiated from each other.

Characters with agency

Finally, readers like characters who do things. WWZ‘s 100-ish interviews are all with people who did something. The algorithm identifies this through analyzing word choice. Flipping back through the pages of WWZ, I see flying, guard, make a stand, risk, drop, climb, slam, shoot, grab, drilled, jazzed, all showing characters doing stuff. The book also has some good, strong female characters. And let’s not forget the dogs, who sniff, hunt, launch themselves, and lure.

If you’d like to learn more about the Bestseller Code 100 or join us on our journey, check out the official book group site at Roberta and Karen’s It’s A Mystery blog.

 

 

Don’t give up: Lessons for discouraged writers from the Tucson book festival

Progress on my novel has been slow lately. Who am I kidding? Progress on whatever fiction I’m writing is always slow. (Except during NaNoWriMo, when I’ve produced quantities of highly questionable prose at a breakneck pace.) I look around my critique group and my online writers’ groups, and my friends are finishing projects, getting agents interested in their novels, getting short stories published, having their plays produced… I’m thrilled for them but sometimes it makes me wonder if I belong in such exalted company.

And then – I went to the 2017 Tucson Festival of Books and I came away totally invigorated, inspired, and encouraged.

Shannon Messenger: 20 drafts

The author of the Keeper of the Lost Cities middle grade series and the Sky Fall young adult series spoke on 20 Ways Not to Write Your First Book. What writer could resist that session title? They had to turn people away at the door because the room was too full.

The published version of her first Keeper novel is the 20th draft she wrote. Here’s the publisher Simon and Schuster’s website for the series now:

Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 8.10.17 AM

She didn’t even finish the first 10 drafts – she got bored, and realized the reader would, too. She finally figured out that working from a too-rigid outline was the problem; she was too quick to talk herself out of writing a scene so she could cut to one that was on the outline. (Her background is in screenwriting.) When she finished draft #11, she started working with a critique partner, who pointed out that her third-person narration needed to include Sophie’s internal monologue. The reader wants to know what she’s thinking and feeling so they can make an emotional connection and care about the character. With draft #13, she felt she was ready to start querying agents.

She landed a contract with her dream agent, who was looking for just this kind of book, but required revisions before she would start shopping the book. Shannon showed us the email – 4 pages, single spaced, 10-point font, including “the writing isn’t as strong in chapters 3-11 as it is in the rest of the book.” Little things like that. Holes in her world building. It took her a couple more drafts to satisfy the agent, and then the novel started going out to publishers.

The first editor who read it loved the book, but nobody else in the publishing house did, and they rejected it, as did 7 other publishers. All of them said the book was unmarketable: her main character was too mature for a middle grade series, but too young for YA, and some things in her book were considered “too JK Rowling”. She rewrote it to address the comments in the rejection letters. Her agent sent her a 13-page email this time: in her revisions, she’d managed to take out everything that made the book good.

She actually drafted her I-give-up email but didn’t send it. Instead, she burrowed back in and revised the novel yet again. This time, it sold, although it took from November to April for the agent to sell it. Draft #19 was to address 4 pages of feedback from the publisher’s editor, and #20 was minor polishing to get it ready for publication.

  • People think you either can write or you can’t – that it’s some magical talent you may or may not be born with. Not true! The torturous process taught her how to write a book. Time and perseverance is the difference between an aspiring writer and a published author.Her subsequent books didn’t take anywhere near 20 drafts to finish, although they did take at least two or three.
  • Do your homework on agents. Shannon worked in the film industry long enough to know that not every agent will be a good fit for you. Her agent was known to be an “editorial agent” who would give a lot of feedback, which was part of the appeal.
  • A good editor helps you write the book you thought you wrote the first time. You have to learn when to dig in your heels and when to make changes. For her, it comes down to “do I like the revised version?”
  • The first draft is dumping the sand in the sandbox, and the revisions are building the castle. 

Shannon Messenger’s 9th book is coming out in November 2017.

Charles Johnson: 6 years

The National Book Award winner for Middle Passage and former director of the creative writing program at the University of Washington – a man with a mindbendingly Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 9.09.49 AMimpressive list of accomplishments and awards (read his bio on Amazon) – spoke on The Art and Craft of Storytelling. Charles Johnson is my new hero, and I’m seriously considering following him around the country in a VW microbus. You can get a flavor of his conversation by listening to him in this recording from the Diane Rehm show.
Middle Passage 
took six years to write. He wrote the first draft in two years, barreling forward based on his outline, but the second idea that he needed to make it really work wasn’t there. The book is about a mutiny on a slave ship, and the second idea was that the crew also mutinied. It just took time to identify the “clean through line” for the book.

More recently, he wrote a novel, Dreamer, about Martin Luther King, starting with the idea that maybe King had a double to stand in for him, and maybe that’s who was assassinated. Before he even started to write, he spent an entire year reading everything he could about King, until he felt he knew him inside out and could write authentically.

Nathan Hill: 10 years

The author of the book I saw front and center in every bookstore I entered last year, The Nix, took 10 years to write it.

Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 9.35.19 AMHe turned the corner when he quit trying to write for publication and wrote his own truth, what he wanted to read. His book debuted at #5 on the New York Times bestseller list.

The author was on a panel about Satire and Dysfunction. My favorite comment in the session was a quote from Flannery O’Connor, who said that if you survived adolescence you have enough material for a lifetime of novels.

Keep on writing

I guess I was particularly attuned to this message at this year’s festival. In a panel discussion on Setting as Character, Dawn Tripp (author of Georgia) said she’d spent 5 years converting a 122-page poem into a novel that was universally rejected but taught her how to write; and Brunonia Barry (author of The Lace Reader) admitted that it wasn’t only research that made her latest book take 5 years to write.

I came home ready to dive back into the third major rewrite of my mystery novel. How about you? What are your tricks to keep you motivated when it seems like it’s taking forever? Please share them in the comments.

Storytelling in movies – Hacksaw Ridge and Hell or High Water

Third in my series about what makes a story good enough to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar,.

SPOILER ALERT – In order to discuss what makes these stories work, I’m going to ruin them for anyone who hasn’t seen them. Go see these movies and then come back.  

The Movies

Hacksaw Ridge

The synopsis from Metacritic says:

In Okinawa during the bloodiest battle of WWII, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) saved 75 men without firing or carrying a gun. He was the only American soldier in WWII to fight on the front lines without a weapon, as he believed that while the war was justified, killing was nevertheless wrong. As an army medic, he single-handedly evacuated the wounded from behind enemy lines, braved fire while tending to soldiers and was wounded by a grenade and hit by snipers. Doss was the first conscientious objector awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

And here’s IMDB:

WWII American Army Medic Desmond T. Doss, who served during the Battle of Okinawa, refuses to kill people, and becomes the first man in American history to receive the Medal of Honor without firing a shot.

I’m seeing a pattern in the synopses on these two websites. IMDB seems to be in it for the long haul, providing a very brief synopsis you’ll be able to look at quickly ten years from now when you’re trying to remember which movie it was that you saw Andrew Garfield in, or when you’re trying to decide whether to watch it when it comes around on tv. Metacritic seems to be using the advertising copy provided by the studio to try to get people to decide to see the movie in the theatre. I could be wrong. In this case, both descriptions are accurate; you just get a bit more detail from Metacritic.

After seeing the movieSPOILERS FOLLOW

The storytelling questions I came to this movie series with are how the movie establishes character and generates sympathy for the hero, how it orients us to time and place, how the plot and its beats are arranged, whether it follows the Hero’s Journey pattern, how music and cinematography contribute, and how a writer could accomplish the same thing on the page without benefit of sound and pictures.

Hacksaw Ridge was made by Mel Gibson. So it’s not surprising that the battle scenes (basically the last half of the movie) are graphic and bloody, and that the hero’s religious convictions are a major theme and motivator. It’s also a true story. The real Desmond Doss died about ten years ago, and he actually saved even more soldiers than the movie shows.

We meet the hero as a kid of about 10 in rural Virginia. Interestingly, the first scene in the movie is actually the hero’s father, drinking alone in a graveyard and talking to the dead. The first scene with the boy establishes his energy and his bond with his brother, and the next shows the boys fighting as their mother worries and their father drinks hard liquor from a pint bottle and watches. Des almost kills his brother and is horrified by what he’s done, suggesting an early reason for his later pacifism. We don’t see the whole story of why he refuses to touch a rifle until much later, in a flashback to a scene where he threatens his father with a gun, after stopping his father from shooting his mother.

When we first see Des as a young man, he’s in church. In the same sequence, he saves a guy who’s trapped under a car and takes him to the hospital, where a doctor praises his action and where he falls in love at first sight with a pretty nurse. The time-and-place orientation is through clothing, vehicles, and the way the hospital is equipped. Des is sweet, sincere, heroic, and decent; we know this within probably the first 10 or 15 minutes.

The plot moves along pretty quickly, following a hero’s journey story arc. Des lives an ordinary life, albeit punctuated by his father’s brutality that’s explained by his own experiences in World War One, until Japan attacks Pearl Harbor and every young man in town volunteers to serve. His brother signs up first, but Des follows shortly thereafter (we never learn what happened to his brother). Des is off to basic training, where the Army has put him into a rifle company instead of medic training as he says he was promised. Things are bad in basic training because he refuses to touch a gun, and he’s courtmartialed, but his dad pulls strings to get a letter from a general that straightens things out. We next see Des as a medic assigned to that same rifle unit, on its way to take a ridge in Japan. The rest of the movie is horrific battle and aftermath, and Des patiently, heroically, saving one wounded man at a time and lowering them off the ridge to safety.

I can’t say how music contributed to this one – I didn’t notice it at all. I did notice the lack of music in Fences, which was mostly dialogue and silence. I have a feeling that Hacksaw Ridge used music the way most good movies do, to subtly reinforce the emotions drawn out by the action and dialogue. The cinematography here is vivid.

What did I learn? Similar to Moonlight and Lion, the hero in this movie isn’t like most moviegoers, but he has qualities we recognize and admire. His motivations are strange; we understand the perplexity of the other people in the army, but eventually we do understand why he is the way he is. So, patience. Draw the character gradually, and trust the audience to give you time to do it, as long as you’ve given them enough reasons to like the character in the first place.

Hell or High Water

This is the first repeat viewing for me, out of the movies in this Best Picture nominee film series. From here on out, this will be my second time at all the remaining movies.

Once again, Metacritic provides a lot more information in the synopsis than IMDB. So far, though, Moonlight is the only one where I thought the two websites gave me different expectations about the movie.

Metacritic:

Two brothers—Toby (Chris Pine), a straight-living, divorced father trying to make a better life for his son; and Tanner (Ben Foster), a short-tempered ex-con with a loose trigger finger—come together to rob branch after branch of the bank that is foreclosing on their family land. The hold-ups are part of a last-ditch scheme to take back a future that powerful forces beyond their control have stolen from under their feet. Vengeance seems to be theirs until they find themselves in the crosshairs of a relentless, foul-mouthed Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) looking for one last triumph on the eve of his retirement. As the brothers plot a final bank heist to complete their plan, a showdown looms at the crossroads where the last honest law man and a pair of brothers with nothing to live for except family collide.

IMDB:

A divorced father and his ex-con older brother resort to a desperate scheme in order to save their family’s ranch in West Texas.

After seeing the movieSPOILERS FOLLOW

This is a heist movie, so the structure is different from the hero’s journey form, at least as I understand it. It follows two parallel tracks: one for the two brothers, and one for the Texas Rangers who’re trying to catch them. The relationships within each pair, as well as the west Texas landscape, are just as important to the movie as the characters and the action.

Brandon Sanderson talks about three major forces that make a character interesting: competence, likability, and proactivity. Younger brother Toby is high on competence and likability; his older brother Tanner is high on proactivity; ranger Marcus is high on competence and proactivity; his partner Alberto is more likable and seems competent in different ways from Marcus. The movie shows these qualities through actions and interactions, like the scene where Tanner impulsively robs a bank while Toby leaves a $200 tip for a flirty waitress, and the scene where Marcus drags his partner to the small town whose bank branch he’s figured out the pair will rob next.

One challenge for the movie is explaining the bank robberies sympathetically and organically. It does this by dropping bits of information into early scenes so we feel the brothers have a good reason for what they’re doing, and then through a conversation with a lawyer that spells it all out clearly.

The landscape also helps explain what’s going on. The brothers drive on roads with billboards advertising debt relief and going-out-of-business sales, the towns are nearly empty of people, and the scenery outside the towns is vast and desolate. One scene has a group of men on horseback driving cows away from a grass fire that extends as far as we can see in each direction along the horizon. Oil drilling rigs here and there are the only signs of prosperity. Alberto, who’s Native American and Mexican, comments that the land belonged to his ancestors until the army took it away, and now the banks are taking it away from the people who stole it 150 years ago.

What does this movie teach about storytelling? With a parallel structure like this, you need to spend enough time at the beginning of each storyline to let the reader get to know and care about the characters. The movie alternates between the two viewpoints, giving more screen time to the brothers early on and more to the rangers towards the end. Give the reader a chance to breathe: the action in the movie could have been relentless, but it takes breaks for banter between the rangers, a funny scene with a steakhouse waitress, and a playful scene with the two brothers roughhousing against the sunset. You can make your messages blatant, like the main plot about how the bank was ripping off Toby’s mother, or subtle, like what really happens when just about everybody is carrying a gun (people are more likely to get shot, and there’s always someone with a more powerful weapon than everyone else).

Up next: Hidden Figures tomorrow, then Manchester by the Sea on Wednesday, and finally Arrival on Thursday.

Storytelling in movies -La La Land and Fences

Continuing my quest to learn what makes a story good enough to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, thanks to Harkins Theatres’ film series.

SPOILER ALERT – In order to discuss what makes these stories work, I’m going to ruin them for anyone who hasn’t seen them. Go see these movies and then come back.  

The Movies

La La Land 

Very different synopses on Metacritic and IMDB. Here’s Metacritic:

Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, serves lattes to movie stars in between auditions, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a dedicated jazz musician, scrapes by playing cocktail piano gigs in dingy bars, but as success mounts they are faced with decisions that begin to fray the fragile fabric of their love affair, and the dreams they worked so hard to maintain in each other threaten to rip them apart.

IMDB is short and sweet:

A jazz pianist falls for an aspiring actress in Los Angeles.

Honestly, who writes these things?

La La Land is a musical, and I knew from the previews that it does homage to many classic movies and movie musical tropes, so I wasn’t sure if my list of questions about characters, plot, pace, and emotions would exactly work for it. I went in with an open mind.

After seeing the movie – SPOILERS FOLLOW

The movie opens with a musical number in a traffic jam on the freeway, and we don’t see the romantic leads till the horns start honking and the cars start to move. We follow Mia, who runs into Sebastian two or three times during the day, and then backtrack to follow Sebastian through the same day. It’s a while before we really begin to see the two of them as individuals; at first, they’re just romantic leads in a musical, and that’s okay. We’re predisposed to like them because, well, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, and because we’ve seen movie musicals before. There’s an engaging early scene where Mia auditions for a part and emotes up a storm while people are taking phone calls and ordering lunch.

The plot arc follows the standard movie musical structure for the most part, but it has some surprises. A fantasy sequence of music and dance, no dialogue, shows what could have been if things had gone differently.

Music is hugely important in this movie, naturally. Sebastian is a jazz pianist who venerates the old stuff, but gets sidetracked for a while in a successful band that leans to pop and electronics. Music and dance is what brings Mia and Sebastian together, and the quiet song they sing together is the theme of their romance. One of the best scenes in the movie is an audition where Mia sings, unaccompanied and surrounded by darkness, about her aunt who lived in Paris.

What does this movie teach about writing? Write your own story, do your own art. At one point, Sebastian is giving up his dream of opening a classic jazz club, because people don’t like the music anymore. Mia tells him that people will love it because of his passion; people love what other people are passionate about. Use shortcuts, like the tried and true tropes in this movie that made it unnecessary to spell everything out for the audience – know what the reader will assume or figure out on their own, and trust them to do it. And don’t worry too much about loose ends – if you dazzle people with the main story, they won’t care that Sebastian’s sister shows up for a scene early on and is never heard from again.

Fences

Metacritic:

In this adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play, an African American father struggles with race relations in the United States while trying to raise his family in the 1950s and coming to terms with the events of his life.

IMDB:

A working-class African-American father tries to raise his family in the 1950s, while coming to terms with the events of his life.

After seeing the movieSPOILERS FOLLOW

There’s a reason Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are nominated for Oscars and have already won other awards for their performances in this movie. They, along with everyone else in the cast, including a 6-year-old girl, are perfection.

It’s easy to imagine this one as a play. Almost all the scenes take place in the back yard or the kitchen of Troy and Rose’s Pittsburgh house. It’s all dialogue, too. Smart, fast, emotional, true. That Pulitzer is well deserved.

The opening scene introduces us to the main character, a garbageman, who banters with his partner and complains about the policy that only lets white employees work as drivers. We gradually learn more about him as the movie goes on, and also about his wife and son. By the end of the movie, we’re – okay, I’m – heartbroken over the things he’s done to them, but also heartbroken on his behalf.

This is what the movie does best. Troy is smart and charismatic and hardworking and responsible, but he’s also selfish – everyone else is a bit player in his life, seems to be his view – and hot tempered. Rose can sometimes get him to do the right thing, like loan ten dollars to the son from another mother who stops by on Friday nights, but not always. She’s unable to get him to see the college football recruiter who wants to sign up their son, and Troy deliberately sabotages his son’s chances out of what might be pique over a minor lie or, more likely, jealousy, since his own chance at playing pro baseball was spoiled. Early on, it seems racism killed his baseball chances, but later we learn that he spent 15 years in prison and was too old to play when he got out.

And by the end of the movie, Troy has betrayed Rose and kicked their son out of the house – a house we’ve learned he only obtained through the money paid to his brother for a World War Two injury that left him brain damaged – and yet – we’re still sympathetic to the character. We see all the worst aspects of him, but we also understand how his own father’s sins have affected him, and we see how he’s overcome at least part of that heritage.

What can I learn about writing from this movie? If I could analyze how it achieves what it does with Troy, I’d be a much better writer than I am. The playwright, August Wilson, was a poet who died in 2005 at age 60, and Fences is part of his 10-play Pittsburgh cycle. I read a bit of an interview with Wilson about his approach to writing, and he said, essentially, he just starts with a line of dialogue, and follows where it leads; he learns about his characters through what they say. Another commenter notes how you keep seeing different aspects of his characters. I guess the lesson is to follow your own instincts, keep digging deeper into your characters, and show who they are through their words and actions; trust your readers to see beyond the surface.

August Wilson was a prominent playwright and there are lots of articles, books, and YouTube interviews available on the web. Once I’m finished with this film series, I want to read more about him and read his plays.

Next up: Hacksaw Ridge and Hell or High Water.

Storytelling in movies – Moonlight and Lion

What makes a story good enough to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar? I’m going to find out.

Over the course of the next week, I’m going to be seeing all nine of this year’s best picture nominees. Our local movie chain, Harkins Theatres, is holding a Best Picture Film Series. $45 bought me all nine tickets, plus a souvenir cup and a popcorn voucher. (Such a deal, right?) I’ve already seen four of the movies, but I think seeing them all together in only a week is going to give me a different perspective.

SPOILER ALERT – In order to discuss what makes these stories work, I’m going to ruin them for anyone who hasn’t seen them. Go see these movies and then come back.  

The Movies

Moonlight

The first thing I noticed when I read about this movie online is the difference between the synopses on Metacritic and IMDB. Here’s Metacritic:

Moonlight is the tender, heartbreaking story of a young man’s struggle to find himself, told across three defining chapters in his life as he experiences the ecstasy, pain, and beauty of falling in love, while grappling with his own sexuality.

And here’s IMDB:

A timeless story of human self-discovery and connection, Moonlight chronicles the life of a young black man from childhood to adulthood as he struggles to find his place in the world while growing up in a rough neighborhood of Miami.

Which description would bring you to the theatre to see this movie? To be honest, I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to see it if I only read the Metacritic description. But that IMDB blurb? Heck, yeah, I’d go. I don’t know which description will feel more accurate once I’ve seen the movie, but the difference highlights the importance of the tagline and synopsis you develop to sell an agent on your book, as well as the blurb that ends up on Amazon and your back cover.

The movie is based on a play. Plays have a different rhythm than movies do – it’s almost like the difference between a poem and a novel. I’m curious to see how the 3-chapter structure works here.

What I’ll be thinking about while I watch, and afterwards:

* How does the beginning of the movie set us up – orienting us to time and place, getting us to engage with the main character?

* What’s the plot arc? I wonder if it will be three distinct arcs that fall within an overall arc. Where do the beats fall? What’s the pace?

* What emotions does the movie invoke, and how does it do it?

* How does the movie tell us how to feel about each of the characters? What are the signs and signals, and when do they appear?

* How do music and cinematography contribute to the experience? How could those be replicated in words on paper?

After seeing the movie – SPOILERS FOLLOW

The IMDB synopsis is more accurate. There’s an important romance in the movie, and it has a big impact on the main character’s life, but it doesn’t dominate the story.

The opening scene knocks us off balance with a dizzying, spinning effect where we’re circling around and around, watching a drug dealer trying to get rid of a user who doesn’t have money for what he needs, while the dealer’s boss drives up in his growling Chevy. At the same time as we’re off balance, we’re oriented to the world of the movie – there’s a two-story yellow apartment building and palm trees to tell us we’re in Florida, and we’re obviously not in the part where people live in mansions overlooking the ocean. The scene cuts to a kid in school clothes running through tall grass, desperate to escape the bullies who are chasing him. This sets us up right away to be on his side. He responds to kindness with stoic silence, and he doesn’t go home that night, making us wonder what’s going on with him and his family. We gradually get to see him loosen up, only to be knocked back down.

Beats in the plot come regularly. The arc flows through the whole film, and it hits some of the classic hero’s journey notes, although some is off-screen. The mentor dies between chapter 1 and chapter 2; and the huge adversity – jail time – that transforms the main character happens between chapter 2 and chapter 3. It’s an effective choice, because it keeps our attention focused on the main character, who he is, and his internal journey, not on external events. That dizzying, disorienting camera, like an animal circling its prey, comes back at the end of chapter 2, when we can see the betrayal coming, and we know what it will lead to.

This is an intensely emotional movie. It feels real, every step of the way, even in the artistically manipulated scenes where the lighting is strange and we stop hearing the dialog when the boy tries to shut his own ears. It takes us from hopelessness to cautious hope and romantic excitement and back to despair. The final chapter is so understated but so moving – we’re pulling so much for the main character to be the person we want him to be, and when he takes a chance and drives down to see the man who loved him then betrayed him, only to learn he has a wife and child now, we’re heartbroken with him, and when he confesses that there has never been anyone else for him…Cue the tissues.

The cinematography is brilliant. I read that one deliberate choice was not to use the dark colors and harsh light that makes life-on-these-mean-streets seem so brutal in a lot of movies – here, the colors are soft, the ocean where the boy learns to swim is pale greenish blue, the yelling mother is lit with pink light. It contributes to the real feeling here. These are real people, not caricatures.

 So what can I learn from this as a writer? Focus, I think. The filmmakers knew what was important about the story, and that’s what they told. They trusted the audience to make connections. And the importance of drawing on experiences you know intimately. Both the playwright and the screenwriter grew up in Miami with crack-addicted single mothers. And possibilities: the power of art to open people’s minds. We see the unfairness of sending Chiron to prison, and the human impact of that action, and by implication maybe we’re more receptive to people who tell us too many black men are locked up; we see the pain of a little kid who’s different, and maybe we’re more careful about passing judgment on people.

Oh – and be careful how your story is described on the back cover, on Amazon, and on social media. We might have missed this wonderful movie if it weren’t for this festival, because the Metacritic synopsis makes it sound like a steamy romance.

Lion

Interestingly, the synopses of this movie are identical on Metacritic and IMDB:

A five-year-old Indian boy gets lost on the streets of Calcutta, thousands of kilometers from home. He survives many challenges before being adopted by a couple in Australia; 25 years later, he sets out to find his lost family.

This one is based on a book, which is based on the author’s own experience. The screenwriter is a poet, a novelist, and a film and book critic. I wonder if I’ll be able to see the influence of that poetic sensibility in the way the movie story is told.

During this movie, I’ll be thinking about some of those same questions as for Moonlight, but I’m also curious to find out:

* Does the movie follow a Hero’s Journey type of storyline? I already know the author is an Australian businessman, so the major beats – leaving the familiar world, learning to navigate the unfamiliar world of adventure, and the homecoming – are all there. I’ll be looking for the threshold, the mentor, the helper, and the death and rebirth.

After seeing the movie – SPOILERS FOLLOW

This was a more Hollywood-feeling movie than Moonlight. Nicole Kidman is in it, and its geography is huge, spanning large swaths of India and a beautiful beach house in Tasmania.

Lion doesn’t waste any time before introducing us to the main character, a 5-year-old hopping on a train with his older brother to steal coal that they sell for milk. The boy is lively and brave, worships his brother and loves his mother. The movie conveys this with subtitled dialogue – they’re speaking in Hindi – and action. We’re immediately engaged with this kid and his impoverished, rural family. The mother is loving and hardworking, the big brother is fun and protective, and what gets the kid into trouble is his refusal to accept any limitations.

The pacing was unexpected. We spend a lot of time in India, getting to know the rural family, and then after Saroo accidentally ends up 1,200 miles away in Calcutta, seeing him struggle to survive on the streets and in a horrifying orphanage. The Tasmania portion is probably less than half the movie, and includes lots of flashbacks that return us to India to see still more scenes of Saroo’s early life. Even with the flashbacks, and with the terrific actor Dev Patel as the grown-up Saroo, the Tasmania portion felt slow. There’s a bit of getting to know the character again, which we need to do because twenty years have gone by, and then his memory is triggered by a Proustian moment – at a party with Indian food, he encounters a treat he begged his brother to buy him – and he spends the next five years searching for his birth family. The search boils down to using Google Earth to hunt for the railroad station he remembers, somewhere in a 1,200-mile radius of Calcutta. While he’s searching, he’s hiding his search from his adoptive parents, assuming they’d be hurt if they knew, and his obsession and his refusal to let anyone help drives his girlfriend away.

Hero’s Journey elements? There’s the ordinary life, then being thrust into another world, the abyss at the orphanage, the struggle to get home, and finally the homecoming. You could consider the big brother as the mentor early on, and then the hero has to go on without his mentor. The death and rebirth come in the middle, if you think of the orphanage as the death and the Tasmanian adoption as rebirth.

I noticed the music more in this movie than I did in Moonlight. It effectively set the mood, helped tell the story, and oriented us to the Indian settings. There’s a scene in the orphanage where the children sing a song to mask the sounds of what’s happening to one of them – it’s a strange, haunting song, and it dispels whatever familiarity we’re starting to feel with India. Here’s a link to a video of it with subtitles.

This is another emotional movie. In the early, India scenes, the emotions come out of the action – being trapped on a speeding train, lost in a sea of humanity, running from adults who want to do who knows what (we all saw Slumdog Millionaire, so we know their evil intentions), trying to explain where you came from when all you know is a five-year-old’s pronunciation of your home town and that your mother’s name is Mum. The Tasmania scenes’ emotions come from the actors’ performances. The most emotional scenes are at the very end, when Saroo has finally found his home and sees his mother for the first time in 25 years. The real photos shown with the credits further tug at your heart.

And then – just before the credits roll, there’s a card that says 80,000 children a year disappear in India, and the producers are dedicated to helping organizations that are trying to solve that problem. Unbelievable, right? Here’s an article about child trafficking in India.

So what does this movie teach me about writing? No matter how foreign the character is, we can relate to him through qualities we recognize, like spunk, humor, and love of family. Motivation is critical; some of Saroo’s behavior as an adult seems inexplicable – this is a true story, and people do act in inexplicable ways in real life, so  I think in a book you’d need to acknowledge how weird this is, and maybe propose some explanation. Subplots can keep things moving when the main plot is slow, as with the movie’s subplots about the disturbed brother, the girlfriend, and the adoptive parents when the main plot is basically a guy clicking on a laptop.

Next up for us: La La Land which we’ll be seeing tonight. I expect the audience will be bigger for this one – it’s Saturday night, and the movie’s had way more publicity than the first two did. I’m hoping for a little break from the emotional rollercoaster.

Have you seen Moonlight and Lion? What did you think? Please add your comments below.