Fail Less

So, I think about writing all the time.  About characters and settings and plots; about, in the end, the stories that are more than the sum of all those things.  I think about not just the stories I write, but also those I read.

It’s important to think about, and to learn from, the stories and writers you admire.  Whether that admiration is for the whole package, or for just an element or two, there is (almost) always something to study and learn.  But just as important — if considerably less pleasant — is the need to learn from the…err, less successful* stories and writers.

*And, yes, I am in fact using “less successful” as a euphemism for BAD.

When I watch some jackass set himself on fire in a drunken stunt gone wrong, I learn that most important of human lessons: don’t do that.  When I read some book where everything falls apart in a raging inferno of shitty characters or bad plotting, I (hopefully!) learn that same lesson: don’t do that.

But learning don’t do that isn’t enough, no more than is just learning the other great lesson of be more like this.  No, you have to continually work and think to apply those lessons to your own writing, too.  You have to be able to look at your own stuff like a reader, and to find and understand the flaws in your stuff even more than you do in the works of others.

There are a great many people who can identify the flaws in what they read.  Whether they have knowledge and vocabulary to explain those flows is immaterial, they can see and feel them.  What sets the “few” apart from the “many” in this respect, however, is the ability to see and feel the flaws in your own stuff.

Failure-350x264.jpgMy whole object in thinking about writing all the time is to learn that third great lesson of life: try to fail less.  You can’t beat yourself up about failure — that way lies madness, trust me — but nor can you be afraid of it.  If you’re afraid to fail, you’ll never try…and that lack of trying is the greatest failure of all.

Look, everyone who writes starts off rough.  Everyone has their collection of “trunk material,” the stuff that will never (and should never, honestly) see the light of day.  As Stephen King once said, the first million words are practice.  But those initial, arguably necessary, “failures,” those opportunities to learn, are one of the greatest barriers to making this whole thing work.  The vast majority of folks, no matter how great or how small their talent, often give up the authorial ghost with that first “failure.”  They simply stop trying.

Which of those failures was worse?  Writing a bad story?  Or refusing to start on the next one?

By now, you probably know my answer to that…

Now, I do have to add one caveat here.  If you write that first bad story, then start on the next one with no effort to learn from the first, nor to improve…well, let’s just add that to the list that defines writers who are less successful.

The military has this concept of the After Action Report.  It records everything that happened in a particular incident (battle, accident, event, etc..).  Now, the record itself is valuable, but the greatest value is found in explaining and understanding the mistakes — of judgment, of execution, of command — that are part of any operation.  Listing those mistakes, and going on to define the Lessons Learned for the future, is the heart of the whole damned thing.

In writing terms, that translates to doing an After Action Report on what you write.  What went right?  What went wrong?  What can you do differently to improve the next one?*

*By the way, this whole concept works in pretty much any sphere of life — I used to do it after every single project, back when I was still living the life of a cubicle-weasel.

I would guess that most writers already think about that stuff when wrapping up a story, but just thinking about it gives far too many chances, and too much excuse, to “forget.”  Or even, sadly, to ignore.  No, do yourself a favor and do an actual written AAR document.  It is really hard to not internalize and understand/learn the lessons when you write them out.

On a personal level, I have an ever-growing spreadsheet of Lessons Learned from every story I’ve written — good, bad or indifferent.  And I fully expect to keep that sheetWarGames-Trailer-700x300
growing as I keep writing.  Remember, my goal is not to not fail, it is to fail less.  In the end, the only way to not fail is to go all Wargames and not play, and that’s just not an option.

The Movie Marathon

I started thinking about movies…both the good and the bad.  More importantly, I started thinking about the greats that stand the test of time, and their contrast with, well, the rest of the shit.

Okay, okay…so I’m grumpy and ranting at the moment, but have you really looked at the formulaic crap the current studios and directors and actors are trying to pawn off on us?  If they think I’m going to waste my Netflix subscription — let alone the $567,834 a trip to a movie theater costs — on “Boss Baby” or a remake of “Jumanji” or **shudder** “I, Tonya”…

Oh, for God’s sake, just how low can we sink?

Where the hell are the real writers and directors?*

*Before you ask, I know essentially nothing about writing screenplays.  I’m a prose guy — my only interactions with scripts came in various high school and college acting classes.

I mean, c’mon…when even STAR WARS fails, when even those “remakes” are so bad as to make the damned prequels look like outstanding cinema, we’ve reached peak-stupid.

This all got started when I watched an Andrei Tarkovsky movie the other day (Ivan’s Childhood).  Shit howdy, what a difference.  Maybe it’s because I’m writing “dark” in the current stories, but I have a real thing for Russian writers and directors at the moment…

The thing is, that movie got me going.  It started a movie jag — a GOOD movie jag: Casablanca, The Shining, Unforgiven, The Godfather (I & II), Fargo, Bridge on the River Kwai, Dr. Strangelove, Empire of the Sun…and the gut-punch at the end of the (multi-day) marathon, one of my all-time favorites, Au Revoir Les Enfants.

Shit…how do you go watch The Commuter after that?!

I’ve said it before, but I want to stress again this point: stories are stories, no matter the medium.  You can — and should — learn from all forms of storytelling.  And movies — good movies — have a great deal to teach about storytelling.  Go watch the movies I list above, and pay attention to how they develop the themes, and the characters…pay attention to how they communicate, and how they elicit emotion and thought.

And don’t stop there.  Go watch a bunch of Kurosawa films, then change things up with some Mel Brooks.  Watch the classics (African Queen is another great Bogart movie), then dive in to some foreign stuff.  Watch the indies and the low-budget, then change things up with some anime (Akira still stands the test of time).

Watch to enjoy, yes, but also watch to learn.  How Spielberg tells Jim’s story in Empire of the Sun is a freaking masterclass, and when you follow that up with Eastwood’s handling of Unforgiven…well…if you can’t learn something from those, I don’t know what to tell you.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I can hear Terry Gilliam’s Brazil calling my name…

Inspiration And Influence

C6ucM8rU0AI0vbtI’m pretty sure anyone who writes, or creates, can sympathize with this!

As an aside: greatest comic strip ever.  No, really…Calvin & Hobbes had it ALL: art, writing, humor, and the right touch of feeling and honesty.  Even more than the next two on my list — Bloom County and The Far Side —  Bill Watterson was a freaking genius.

Today’s strips?  That’s harder…Dilbert comes to mind…but that’s about the only one that really stands out at the moment.  Some of the web-comics are interesting, but nothing out there comes anywhere near those “top three”.

[Note – apparently Berkeley Breathed is drawing Bloom County again, via Facebook and GoComics … I haven’t yet had a chance to check it out, but that might very well be enough to get me to create a Facebook account…we’ll see.]

At any rate, due to lack of anything resembling coherent thought at the moment, I decided to call out some things that, well, just plain work for me.  Not necessarily things that are groundshakingly amazing, but things I admire…and learn from.

Simple, powerful prose is a wonderful thing, especially when it has a sense of humor.  From Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere:

“Richard found himself imagining the earl sixty, eighty, five hundred years ago: a mighty warrior, a cunning strategist, a great lover of women, a fine friend, a terrifying foe. There was still the wreckage of that man in there somewhere. That was what made him so terrible, and so sad.”

Dammit, but I love that passage.  As a character description? It is incredibly evocative, and paints a picture in a mere fifty words that well and truly nails the character.

Writers, they say, write.  Well, writers also read.  And in reading, they study and they learn…and, hopefully, they improve.

To stay on theme, here’s another passage*…one that nails its setting (London) in an equally effective way (actually, this quote is pulled from the single longest run-on sentence I can think of — don’t try that at home…not, at least, until you are as successful and well-known as Gaiman himself):

“It was a city in which the very old and the awkwardly new jostled each other, not uncomfortably, but without respect; a city of shops and offices and restaurants and homes, of parks and churches, of ignored monuments and remarkably unpalatial palaces…”

*Can you guess what I’m re-reading right now?

Books are not the only thing from which to learn…not by a long shot.  I’ve talked enough about my love of music, even quoted from a few songs.  Well, there are some lyrics out there that are, quite simply, powerful.  As with good prose, good lyrics evoke and inspire…they make you think and question, and bring to mind thoughts and feelings far in excess of their few words:

“With everything discovered just waiting to be known,

What’s left for God to teach from his throne?

And who will forgive us when he’s gone?”

—The Gaslight Anthem, National Anthem

 

“With nothing left but a chord to stretch

And a word to get on by

Sometimes you reach for the bottle before the sky”

—Chuck Ragan, Nothing Left to Prove

There are dozens of additional examples I could give…an entire iTunes library, in fact, from which I could pull quotes and lines.  That’s not the point of this.  No, the simple point is this: words have meaning, and power.  Poetry and music just as much as prose.  Give yourself the time, and the reason, to study and to learn how others have harnessed that meaning, and that power.

Read the good and the bad, the new and the old…read to enjoy, but also to understand, and to learn.  There’s an old saying about “standing on the shoulders of giants.”  Well, that applies to writing as much as to science: read what has been done, read what has worked, and take it onboard*.  Pull it all in, mix it around, and feed your own style…

*An interesting writing exercise I’ve heard about a few times (but have never done): instead of reading a story you truly admire, transcribe it.  The thought is that, by writing, you will internalize the structure and words in a way you would not through simply reading…  Hand-cramps and time aside, that is an interesting thought. If anyone out there has actually done the exercise, let me know how it worked!

Nonverbal Communication In Writing…?

Note — this was supposed to go up yesterday, but…err…well…I screwed up.  I load and schedule these posts in advance (usually).  When I loaded this one I…ahem…selected the wrong date.  D’oh.

I’m a music guy.  I love music, and I don’t mean just one or two styles — I love, and can appreciate, the talent and appeal of all kinds of music.  I don’t think there is a style I won’t listen to, if the artist has talent and commitment.

Music, in fact, plays a huge role in my writing.  I’ve mentioned before that I have to have the right “soundtrack” playing in order to really get the most out of a scene.  Not just the message of the music, but also the beat, the tone, the character…they all help create the environment I need to write effectively.

Well, when it comes to the actual stories we write, those things matter, too.  We don’t talk about them enough, in fact.  Oh, folks love to talk about the tone and “color” of a scene.  “Pacing” generally gets in there, too.  But we talk about those things like they are discreet and separate.

They aren’t.

I mentioned music to open this because the rhythm and beat of a song underlies everything, is the structure on which the whole song is built.  Think back to some of your favorite music.  Better yet, think back to those songs that moved you emotionally, either to joy or to tears.  Think about the rhythms and beats they used, as much as the notes and words, and how those changed and adjusted to shape the message.

That applies to writing, as well.  The beat and rhythm of a story is important, as important as the words themselves.  Unfortunately, we far too often mistake “pacing” for that necessary rhythm.  Now, don’t get me wrong: all stories need the right pacing for their contents.  But that pacing is a “big picture” concept, is the flow of the story as a whole.

The rhythm of the story?  That’s different.  That’s granular, and intimate, and needs to change and adjust to reflect what is happening at any particular point.  It is needed, also, to build and reinforce the emotions and feelings you want your reader to feel.

Scenes long and languid, full of description and character development…

Scenes short and staccato, with just a few words to paint each picture and action…

Scenes with the slow, smoldering intensity of emotion (whether love or hate)…

I could go on, but I think the point is made.  A good story needs all of these…all of these, and more.  If you want to be more visual, you can come it from the perspective of movies (another passion of mine):

The slow panning of an establishing shot: peasants in the fields.  Verdant green against the deep blue sky.  A gentle breeze bending the young grain.  Slow and stately…a mood is created.

Then erratic, staccato jump-cuts as black-clad raiders thunder through on horseback.  The flash of a sword.  A bit of red to mar the green.  Fire.  Screams.  Hints of faces, of horror and savagery.  But never does the camera linger long enough to truly focus on any one thing.  The horror, and the emotion, comes from those flickering flashes of disturbing images.

The raiders leave, sated…and the rhythm changes again, communicates something different: a long, lingering shot that lets you see the bodies.  Men who died badly.  Women sobbing.  A young boy, the sword in his hand nearly as big as he, lying in his own blood.  A slow, painful zoom onto another child, clutching in horrified, wide-eyed silence at one of those bodies…

The scene is easy enough to imagine, and to write…but it is the changes in rhythm of the movie’s editing — and the changes in the soundtrack from slow and pastoral to brassy and loud, and finally to the minor key of mourning and death — that creates the emotion of the whole thing.

Short, choppy sentences.  Dynamic, strong words.  One detail on which to focus…one detail to carry the message of the whole scene.

Or sentences of depth and complexity.  Sentences that tell the reader he or she is safe, can linger a bit over the words and concepts.  Words that carry emotion and description.  Words and sentences that are gentle, even, and convey all the detail of your characters and your world.

Too many stories use one structure, and one rhythm, throughout.  Too many stories worry about the pacing of the plot, without thinking a bit about the rhythm and pacing of the scenes, or the actual words.  I well-and-truly love me my Tolkien and my Asimov (to provide just two examples), but have you gone back and really read them recently?

They are, to put it gently, dry and monotone.  Tolkien’s battle scenes read like the narration of a history professor centuries removed from the conflict…and Asimov?  His (small) handful of battles read like they are in the stories because they are required, not because they actually belong.

And both use one rhythm, and one limited emotional range.

This is, by the way, why I listen to music of such variety…and why I watch — and try to learn from — so many movies: to find other rhythms, to find other ways to communicate emotion and meaning.  The ultimate writing challenge, for me, is to study and learn, and to find ways to communicate in words the nonverbal emotions that have so much meaning in those two far-different mediums.*

*One of the coolest lessons from my linguistics days involved nonverbal communication: we watched a horror movie with the soundtrack and effects removed.  There was just dialogue to carry and convey all of the information and emotion. It didn’t work…at all.  That lesson stuck with me…