Thursday, July 31, 2008

Looking for Subtext? Make it Musical

I was watching the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Once More With Feeling" (That's ep 7 of season 6) last night, and it got me to thinking about how Joss Whedon uses the songs to show things the characters are thinking and feeling that they would never otherwise express to each other.

Of course, this is a longtime tradition in American musical films, and Joss is brilliantly following in illustrious footsteps here. But how does this apply to my (or your) writing? Well, bear with me. I'm going to weird places here.

The conceit in this episode is that the characters are all keeping secrets from each other. Then a demon arrives in town with the power to force people to sing and dance in musical numbers that reveal these secrets. So Buffy sings to the vampires as she stakes them, confessing that her heart's just not in it. Spike tries to get make Buffy leave, but is musically forced to confess that he loves her but knows she's using him.

When it come to dialogue, the best has both text (the actual words you're reading) and subtext, which is what's underneath the words. The classic example is a couple bickering in a romantic comedy. Sure, the text has them fighting. But the subtext is that they are wildly attracted to each other.

So how do you find the subtext? It's not always as obvious as that romantic comedy example. Even in scenes where the text is most important, I like to have a bit of subtext to add layers. There's a scene right at the top of my novel where the heroine converses briefly with her family. The text here is vital, conveying backstory and exposition. But one of these people is the villain, and I want to foreshadow that without giving it away. I also want to convey the villain's attitude toward the world and the heroine, to hint at the personality traits that make him/her a villain.

How the hell do I do that without mustache twirling or outright stating it? And just what is this villain's attitude toward these things? I need to do more character work on him/her and nail it down.

So Buffy the Musical inspired me. Here were characters singing their real attitudes and feelings. So I imagined a musical number in this problematic scene in my novel where the villain sings, revealing who s/he is and what his/her agenda might be. None of this will ever appear in print. I'm no lyricist or musician. But I did picture him/her, suddenly alone at the top of a staircase, looking down on the folks s/he considers to be ants, singing narcissistically about plans to take over the world, and the weird mixture of love and hate s/he feels for the heroine. The mood and tone of my imaginary music, the posture of the singer, how I'd shoot the number, all these things clue me in on what's going on with the villain and the subtext of the conversation.

Now I just have to somehow incorporate what I've learned into the dialogue in the scene. Still not easy, but at least I have a handle on what it is I'm trying to convey.

So what type of musical number would your problematic scene become if you suddenly made it a musical? Is it a rocking number with guitars and a heavy baseline? Or do scantily clad dancing girls appear as your hero dons a straw hat and tap dances? Just another crazy way to get inside your characters and scenes and figure out what the hell you're doing.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Private Snapshots

I was rereading Stein on Writing by Sol Stein, a terrific book on writing, and came upon a chapter I hadn't noticed before. In it Stein talks about a technique that can add a whole new layer of depth to your writing.

He recommends thinking about a snapshot from your life that you would not be comfortable showing anyone, something you would NOT carry in your wallet. Then think about how adding that snapshot to your story might help. What he's getting at (I think) is that writers must not be afraid to show readers things that are far too intimate to discuss or show people in real life. The best writing illuminates these dark corners of our secret lives in some way.

Oy. So that means I/we/writers are supposed to confess our most secret personal snapshots in our writing? Scary stuff. But Stein uses an example that isn't all that freaky. He's not trying to find out your sexual kinks. He talks about a woman writer whose book about a female cop wasn't really resonating with him. He asked her about her own personal snapshot. This writer was herself a cop, who had to be a tough cookie in her job. The shapshot she didn't want to show people was the moment where she tenderly kissed her daughter good night every night. So after talking to Stein, she added a scene just like that to her novel, adding a depth to the cop character that hadn't existed before.

I'm not sure my private snapshots would suit my lead character, but it's an interesting idea. I think I unconsciously sort of stole what I thought might be a (now deceased) friend's private snapshot, morphed it a bit, and used it as my own character's biggest fear. But right now I'm trying to flesh out my villain, who desperately needs depth. Maybe I can come up with a snapshot for him.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Wanna Write? Take a class.

I just have to rave for a second about the online writing class I just finished taking. It was a class specifically for YA writers offered by MediaBistro and taught by the fabulous Kristen Kemp.

Over 12 weeks I completely revised my outline, finished my 200 page first draft, and came away with a strong idea of what I should do in a rewrite. Keep in mind that I had about 200 pages of rough scenes written and a first version of an outline going in, so I started ahead of some of the other writers who came in with just an idea. (In other words, I kind of cheated.)

The key to the success of the class for me came from my own self-motivation, the wonderful instructor, and the feeling of camradarie and support from my fellow students. To be honest, I knew most of the info offered in the handouts because I tend to buy too many books on writing that are full of this kind of advice. However, for newbies, the handouts and suggestions for reading will be very important.

However, what I did NOT know was what worked and did not work in my own writing. Kristen encouraged us to submit as many pages as we could each week and gave amazing, insightful, respectful notes that made a huge difference. In particular she suggested I start my story later on and to start with an action scene. My protagonist is sort of an action heroine, so it made sense. But I resisted this at first because I was stuck with a vision of how I thought the book should start. I rewrote my first chapter twice before taking her advice and hitting the jackpot. Well, I least I think I did. We'll see. Beyond that, Kristen had great notes throughout, reading dozens of pages from me and other students every week. She understood my characters sometimes more than I did and pushed me to stay true to them. I now have a total girl crush on her.

Part of the class involves you reading other students work and giving them your thoughts. This made for a buttload of work because everyone was so motivated and turned out huge chunks of prose. I was reading hundreds of pages of their writing every week. But I think you can learn a lot from reading other's writing - both what works and what does not. And the other students were diong just as much as I, and many of their comments were terrifically helpful.

Getting notes from 10 - 12 people every week can be a bit overwhelming, though. And not every note is going to resonate with you. You can't please everyone! This can be a problem if you're a real people pleaser or if you get easily discouraged. In a good way, the class can toughen you, both in getting constructive criticism and in recognizing criticism that isn't helpful. Take what works for you. Think about the rest, give it a good hard think and examine your own motives, then move on if you're sure it doesn't work for you.

Don't take it personally! This is the hardest thing of all when you're in the midst of a first draft. The writing feels like your baby. But it isn't. It isn't you. It's words on paper, which almost always can be made better. Listen, nod, throw out what doesn't work, and move on.

So if you're stuck or, like me, you thrive on structure and work well to deadlines, think about a class.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

How Not to Start a Story

Great post by genre writer JA Konrath on his blog today on How NOT to start a story.

My favorite is starting with weather. Yeah, don't do that, for crying out loud.

I'd add - Don't start (or ever write) with a scene where your character is looking in the mirror, describes themselves physically, or speaks to themselves.

Don't start with a dream.

You'd be shocked how many writers violate these basic rules. Sometimes they do get published. Sometimes the books are actually good and succeed in spite of beginning with a mistake. Konrath says not to begin with a description of character, but I vividly remember the first sentence of Gone With the Wind: "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful..." which goes on to describe how fascinating she is with her green eyes and inky lashes. GWTW is a terrific book and (I think) the top selling novel of all time. But notice that even if Margaret Mitchell starts with a character description, she goes against expectations by telling us the main character is NOT beautiful.

How do you start? There's no one answer, but I recommend starting with your protagonist in action. That doesn't mean he or she has to be gunning down bad guys in the first sentence. They could be picking up their handicapped kid from therapy or confronting their girlfriend about her cheating, fleeing an abusive husband, or... gunning down baddies. Action shows us who that person is in an entertaining way. Action will force you to show us who this person is, rather than tell.

UPDATE: I apologize to JA Konrath, whom I referred to mistakenly as "her" when I wrote this post. Konrath is in fact a man, so I've edited this post to reflect that.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Dr. Horrible Rules the World

Teaser from Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog on Vimeo.

I saw Joss Whedon's scripted musical internet series Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog last night, and it's a must see for anyone who enjoys laughter, music, or frozen yogurt.

Joss has outdone himself on a low budget with this hilarious series starring Neil Patrick Harris as the eponymous (always wanted to use that word in a blog posting) Dr. Horrible, a villain struggling to qualify for entry into the Evil League of Evil. We can't help but root for Harris's feeble attempts at villainy even as he weakly flirts (and wonderfully sings!) with his cute crush Penny at the Laudromat, played with girl-geek awesomeness by Buffy alum Felicia Day. His arch-nemesis, the narcissistic superhero Captain Hammer (toothesome and shameless Nathan Fillion of fabulous Firefly and Serenity fame) clashes with him mortally (and with music!) when Captain Hammer wins Penny's heart.

Joss wrote the series during the writer's strike, since it was forbidden at that time for WGA types like him to write film or television scripts. You can see his letter explaining all here.

The first of three episodes will start airing at the Dr. Horrible website July 15, with the other two airing in subsequent weeks. After a brief stint airing thus for free, they will vanish and eventually be available for download somewhere at some kind of fee.

How did I get to see all three eps a few days before they officially air? My feeble Hollywood contacts got me into what constituted a cast and crew screening last night at the marble edifice where CAA now lurks. Joss himself was there. He's my writer-hero, and I was too frozen with shyness and admiration to approach him.

I sat way up high in the spiffy Ray Kurtzman screening room as everyone else circulated and smooched and reminisced about shooting the series. Joss and Nathan Fillion hugged, and kept hugging, and then started grabbing each other's asses as the room got quiet, then broke into laughter.

Joss spoke briefly beforehand, thanking everyone, and confessed he'd been nurturing this story for years because he saw himself as ineffectual and geeky (Geeky in the best way, yes. Ineffectual? Anything but, oh storytelling man!) and invited us all afterwards to join him at X-bar across the street.

Now of course, I wish I'd gone and introduced myself and told him how much his work has meant to me. But I was too shy and alone and felt all geeky and ineffectual. See why I love Joss? Did you know Joss did an uncredited rewrite on Iron Man? The dude is brilliant, but all his work has heart. And for all its laughs and clever lyrics, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog has a heart as well, albeit a broken one. Watch it and you'll see.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Why Desks Are Important

Have you ever tried writing for hours using your laptop while holding it on your lap in 90 degree weather?

Today's tip for writers is for laptop users: on hot days, write at your desk and point a fan at your laptop's undercarriage. And at your own undercarriage while you're at it.

While writing this weekend with my MacBook on my lap, I got a condition known as "hot lap" where the heat of the laptop transfers itself to your thighs. But you get so involved in your writing, you don't really notice it until suddenly it feels as if your legs are being barbecued. The removal of the laptop at this point doesn't really help. Cold compresses and colder drinks become necessary.

So on hot days, use that desk you spent money on and write there. Or stock up on ice. Or both!

On the plus side, the first draft of my novel is almost done. Ack! Then, the rewriting will begin with a vengeance.