Saturday, November 27, 2010

Trust this mysterious voice in your head

You’ve planed enough. You have a clear set-up, development and climax. You’ve sliced your project into sequences. Your plot and subplots are clear and cohesive. Your characters are motivated. Their objectives are comprehensible. Their goal set.  

Fine!  What to do next?

Well, forget about all you’ve planed and ignore all the rules!

When it’s time to write and struggle against the white pages, no advise, no expert, no script doctor or MFA can help you -  all you need is to fine tune into this voice in your head.

Just like Joan of Arc right before she charged the Brits!

Louis Ferdinand Celine called it his little music…And writing is the ability to tune into your inner music.

If you can’t tune into this voice of yours – your very own style -,  if you don’t feel that voice within you, and don’t get excited and moved into action by it, writing a full manuscript is going to be very difficult - by my experience, impossible.

We all have stories to tell. Great stories, really. Packed with actions and emotions. Twists and turns. But that doesn’t matter - because stories, and writing in general is not about what we have to say or report. It is NOT about how dramatic the situation or how original the set up.

It’s all about how we say it. How we hear it. When we follow and trust that voice in our head.  

So fine tune into your mental music… and dance…

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Oh baby we really need to talk about Love

Don’t worry. I’m not about to get on my knees and babble about the inevitability of us.

This post is not about being in love (though I wish it was), this post is about the need of a strong romantic subplot in any given story.

You can’t escape it. Even if your story is an action packed intergalactic slasher affair, they will be an element of love. The main question here is not if you need a romantic subplot in your story – because you do – the real problem is to build and intertwine it with your main storyline so they flow harmoniously and naturally together.

The best way to do that is by connecting the main events in your storyline with the main event in your romantic subplots.

Let me explain:

When you map your project, you can build a timeline connecting all the major events that form your story.

If you’re writing a survival story, all the major events on your main timeline will be related to surviving a given ordeal. If you’re writing a crime story, they will be related to finding who committed the crime, etc.

Beside the main timeline, you can build a set of secondary timelines, where you list chronologically all the major events that form the romantic subplots of your story.

For example, if you’re writing a story where all the major events relate to surviving a giant ape and escaping Skull Island, you can also build a set of secondary timelines (or romantic subplots) strictly focusing on all the events related to the developing love between Ann Darrow and Jack Driscoll as well as the destructive love between an ape and the girl.

You’ll find yourself with series of timelines that would look something like this (that’s my own timelines and subplots for How I Stole Johnny Depp’s Alien Girlfriend, by the way - and there's my chin and fingers too ;) :

The trick is to connect all the major events in the main storyline with all the essential turning points in the romantic subplots.

For example, Kong kidnapping Ann Darrow is definitely a major event in the main theme of surviving and escaping Skull Island. But it is also a main event in the romantic subplots concerning Ann Darrow and Jack Driscoll (Jack decides to go after the girl and save her) as well as in Kong and Ann subplot (the Beast meets the Beauty).

If the major events in your main storyline are disconnected from the romantic subplots, there are big chances that the love story within your main story will feel artificial, unbalanced and somehow unmotivated.

Your work as a writer is to connect the dots between the different timelines and make sure that every major event in your main storyline says something about your romantic subplots.

If you do so, you can successfully convince people that a girl can fall for a monkey.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Further slicing: sequencing your story

When you’re writing, there are tools and tricks that will help you sail through this vast chaotic ocean that’s a first draft.

Slicing your story into comprehensible and clear segments known as "sequences" is one of the important tricks I learned as a student of the late Frank Daniel.

Frank Daniel thought that any story could be divided in smaller units that carried their own coherent dramatic spine.

Sequences are like the building blocks of your story. I like to think of them as "mini-stories" with their own conflict and resolution.

Each sequence's resolution creates the situation which sets up the next sequence, moving the story forward. Basically, it means that when you start working on your story, instead of sailing off into an endless ocean of situations and words, you step out into a carefully mapped collection of short stories.

Each short story will be a single coherent step in the full journey of your character.

Personally, I like to divide all my projects into 8 “mini-stories” of about 5 to 10,000 words each (an arbitrary habit I developed while working as a scriptwriter - but the number of sequences needed to tell a story really depends of the particularity of any given project.) 

All my “mini stories” play an essential part in my manuscript, but I write them as if they stood alone.

What’s the point in that?

It allows me to ignore the fact that I’m sitting down to write a daunting 80,000 + words novel.


Divide your work into smaller pieces. Drive your character from one resolution to the next. And you will be right as rain.

And if your goal is to write the next Great American Novel – plan your work as if you were writing the Great American Collection of Short Stories ;)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Are you a surfer or a writer?

Why do we do it?

Why do we spend countless hours typing words and chasing a dragon no one really cared about in the first place?

We don’t do it for the hard cash (for those of you thinking there’s plenty of money in publishing, I’d advise turning to more profitable enterprises, like waiting tables, car washing, or lawn mowing).

It’s not for the fame – I mean, your uncle Wayne has more chances of getting famous for eating 66 hot dogs in a row than you’ll ever be for getting published.

It’s not to shine.

Not to be different.

Nor to find a place in the world.

No, we do it for a reason no one would have ever suspected: we do it for the love of paddling out there, struggling and fronting the waves.

Writers and surfers have a lot in common.

Sure, there are a few writers and surfers becoming famous, enjoying PiƱa Colada with other celebrities while gazing at the grey blue ocean.

Most surfers and writers will never get famous - but then again I'm convinced most of us don’t give a dam about pictures, celebrity, money, or the quality of the rum in our cocktails.

We just want to do it.


Paddle. Rise. Surf.


I don’t know…

I guess it’s what we were meant to do. Writers. Surfers. Struggling. Paddling, Finding the perfect momentum for the perfect wave and… whoosh… off we go, like Icarus to the sun.

"Sometimes in the morning, when it's a good surf, I go out there, and I don't feel like it's a bad world."

Saturday, November 13, 2010

You want to help your character: become his worst enemy

You love your character so much, you’re ready to spend the next six month of your precious life telling his/her story.

But your job is not to help and protect.   

YOUR JOB AS A WRITER IS to hurt your HERO/HEROINE as hard as you POSSIBLY can.

There are two factors to assess the worth of a fictional character:  (1) the amount of troubles he’s in and, (2) the amount of energy he employs to solve them.

The more troubles, the more fascinating your story.

If your character’s problems are small or artificial, his actions will be proportionally small and artificial. You will end up with a weak story.

You should never help your character. Never lead him to a crucial clue. Never save him from a grave danger – your job is to hide the clue deeper and create even greater dangers. Then, you let your character solve his problems all by himself.

Actually, each time you fix a problem for your character, you’re closing the door for more storytelling and development. Instead, when you’re adding yet another set of insurmountable obstacles, you’re pushing the story forward and giving your character more opportunities to prove his worth and captivate our interest.

If your character wants to be the world fastest running athlete, cut is legs
If he needs to save the world, make him weak and cowardly
If he loves the girl, kill the girl


So remember, as a writer, you’re the baddy J

Thursday, November 4, 2010

My friend Karl needs to finish writing his novel - and so do you

I met Karl in central Stockholm yesterday. We talked about the novel he’s writing. Karl is an American expat, living in Sweden for the past 7 years. He’s writing wacky pieces about the life of a vinyl collector obsessed with the 70s rock scene.

The last time we met, he was just starting the very first pages.

3 years and 50 000 words later, Karl is sort of lost. He's right in the middle of his manuscript, but he’s not sure what he’s got so far and what to do with it next. Is the manuscript good? It looks like a mess right now. Does it make any sense? Surely there are pages that should go - others that should be added. And what about refining his ‘voice’ and making his novel funnier altogether.

Should he go back to page 1? Re-read it, and start rewriting it until the first 200 pages look like the proper first half of a novel?

What I told him is this: if he starts rewriting his novel before it’s finished, he will never complete it. He will spend the next 3 years rewording, rephrasing, randomly deleting and adding chapters until he will probably give up, like so many other writers before him.  

This is an important trick: first you COMPLETE a first draft. You push your project, add words, scenes, chapters all the way to the final page - no matter how unreadable, awful or sketchy the writting. Only then, you can start rewriting and making it great.

A story is always written from the stand point of the last chapter. Frank Daniel used to compare it to the Greek mythology. When a hero dies and climbs up Mont Olympus, Zeus sees the man's life in reverse - from death to birth -, making sense of an entire existence through the stand point of the very last moments of the hero's life.

It’s exactly the same with a story. Until you’ve reached the very end, you can not know what fit or doesn’t fit anymore in your manuscript. Until your character has completed his journey and said his/her last word, you don’t know what pages should go and what chapter you must add.

So here the rule: if you ever want to complete your manuscript, once you’ve started it, you must always push forward. Don’t try to reword it, don’t try to correct it. Don’t read the opening chapters the hundredth time.

Always move on!

If you don’t find the exact word, or the sentence, or dialogue, just describe it roughly and mark it ***like so***
As in:

She threw the ball at him, “good catch,” she said and smiled.
“I thought so,” he smiled back ***an interesting action here to impress her***

Also, COMPLETING a manuscript, no matter how messy and sketchy, is going to give you a feeling of success and an energy that are going to be most needed for the rewrite. 

So here’s the idea, Karl: finish the damned thing, add pages everyday until you reach a satisfactory and unavoidable conclusion to your story.

Then, we will talk about rewriting.

And with that said, we went for a beer at a cool place he knew near Medborgarplatsen and made more plans for more beers over the weekend.