The Red Pen of Doom impales FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

Photo by Nic McPhee

As is my custom, and habit, and my Bobby Brown prerogative, I’m going to go with the first page — as printed.

You know, printed with ink at these places we used to call “stores full of books,” where you handed the nice folks who live there paper decorated with dead presidents and they let you walk out with ALL KINDS OF YUMMY BOOKS.

So if you read the first page of this thing on a Kindle or iPad or Atari 2600, your page 1 will doubtless look different and such. Please give my regards to the Complaint Department.

After a line edit of Page 1, we’ll talk about our general literary impressions — about how metaphors are like similes, only different; about how my hatred of semi-colons runs deeper than my loathing of A-Rod; and how somebody wrote a mainstream and incredibly successful novel about sexy nonsense without putting any sort of sexy nonsense whatsoever on page 1.

Note: I’m striking out text, with any replaced text or notes in red, because my version of this novel would be called ONE SHADE OF RED after all the red ink we spill on this thing. Also, I don’t know what happened to this post. A friend wants to use it as an editing example, so I’ve resurrected it and updated the piece a little. Enjoy.

Also: If you have a famous novel with a brilliantly awful first page that needs serious red ink, send me your nomination.

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror.  (This may be a world record: bam, in the first sentence, she breaks a cardinal rule of fiction writing: don’t tell readers what the hero or heroine looks like by having them stare into a mirror, gaze upon their reflection in a pond or, I don’t know, whip out their driver’s license and say, “Huh, five-foot-ten, a hundred and twenty pounds, red hair, green eyes and a few freckles. Howbout that?” Ugh. This is not exactly “Call me Ishmael.”) Damn my hair – it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal. (Unless the heroine’s hair is crucial to the plot — unless she starts out with unruly hair in Act 1, switches to a bob in Act 2 and shows how much she’s grown and changed by rocking a purple Mohawk in Act 3, the hair, it is Boring, and a Distraction. Also, nobody refers to friends and such by their full name. If she’s your bestie, you say “Katherine.”) I should be studying for my final exams, which are next week, yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission. I must not sleep with it wet. I must not sleep with it wet. (Enough already with the hair. Seriously. The only two words with any kind of real conflict and potential are “final exams,” and unless she flunks those, and therefore gets kicked out of university and has to live under a bridge in a cardboard box, it does not matter for the story.) Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush. (More about the hair? MORE? Not necessary, not interesting and not entertaining, unless her hair is secretly a sentient being, organizing a plot to take over the world, one follicle at a time. I’m guessing Bruce Willis, being immune from such attacks, will foil this plot.) I roll my eyes in exasperation and gaze at the pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up. (Back to the staring-at-the-mirror trick, which has to go. Find another way to describe the heroine.) My only option is to restrain my wayward hair in a ponytail and hope that I look semi-presentable. (Now we’re beating the Dead  Hair Horse on its way to the glue factory.)

Kate is my roommate, and she has chosen today of all days to succumb to the flu. Therefore, she cannot attend the interview she’d arranged to do, with some mega-industrialist tycoon I’ve never heard of, for the student newspaper. (Awkward. First reference is Katherine Kavanaugh and now she’s Kate — just call her Kate both times, and let’s clean this whole thing up. Also, how many student newspapers score interviews with “mega-industrial tycoons” … who you’ve never heard of? If they’re really mega, then you have herd of them. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and so forth. If they you haven’t heard of them, they aren’t mega at all. Edited text follows in red.) Kate is my roommate and she’s chosen today, of all days, to succumb to the flu. That means I’m stuck interviewing some industrial tycoon for the student newspaper. So I have been volunteered. (Redundant.) I have final exams to cram for, (already said that) one essay to finish, and I’m supposed to be working this afternoon, but no – today I have to drive a hundred and sixty-five miles to downtown Seattle in order to meet the enigmatic CEO of Grey Enterprises Holdings Inc. As an exceptional entrepreneur and major benefactor of our university, his time is extraordinarily precious – much more precious than mine – but he has granted Kate an interview. A real coup, she tells me.

Damn her extracurricular activities. (The last sentences were brought to you by the letter E: enigmatic, exceptional entrepreneur, extraordinarily, extracurricular. There are other modifiers that start with the letter E: extraneous, excruciating and ejector seat. I am looking for the handle, because it’s time to pull it.)

Kate is huddled on the couch in the living room.

“Ana, I’m sorry. It took me nine months to get this interview. It will take another six to reschedule, and we’ll both have graduated by then. As the editor, I can’t blow this off. Please,” Kate begs me in her rasping, sorethroat (compound modifier) voice. How does she do it? Even ill 

(end of page 1)

Editing notes

Are you kidding me? ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

So this the first bit of a novel that sold a gazillion copies and rocked the literary world. It starts with an extended riff about wet hair and ponytails, as the author tells us how the heroine looks by having her look in a flipping mirror, goes back to the hair, uses every adjective and adverb in her dictionary that starts with the letter E and sets up the incredibly high stakes of whether or not a college student can tame her unruly hair and cram for her finals when she is forced — FORCED — to drive to Seattle and interview some billionaire for her friend.

I thought THE FOUNTAINHEAD was a bad Page 1, but Ayn Rand is flipping Shakespeare compared to this first bit. Related: The Red Pen of Doom murders THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn Rand

God bless anybody who sells a ton of books or movie tickets. I adore books and movies, and the more people read books, and see good movies, the better.

HOWEVER: the first page of a book is a lot like the trailer for a movie. You start out with your best stuff, and it’s a rock-solid guarantee that the writing doesn’t get magically better ten pages or 100 pages later. The first page, and the first chapter, get polished and polished until they are a shiny diamond made of words.

Maybe you could argue this book is the one exception to that rule. From the reviews of this book, though, that’s not the case.

Why did it sell so well?

I believe, deep in my soul, that packaging matters more than the product.

The title of a book — or a movie, or a TV show — can save your bacon or kill you dead.

The cover of a book, or poster for a movie, is the next most important thing, because it’s what people see when they decide what to buy in Barnes and Noble or what to see on Friday night at those giant buildings where popcorn costs $9 a bucket.

You can’t pitch quality.

If you gave this a more typical title for the genre, and a more typical book cover, you’d probably end up with a title like A BUSINESS AFFAIR and some kind of Ryan Gosling looking guy wearing a suit on the cover with the heroine nearby, messing with her ponytail while she wears the highest of high heels and a business suit with a skirt that is just this side of immodest. Or the cover would feature a blindfold and a pair of handcuffs. That sort of thing. You know, something like this:

See? Here we go. The cover above isn’t just a good representation of what I’m talking about. I bet it’s a far, far better book. If you gave FIFTY SHADES OF GREY a more normal title like this, and more typical cover, I would bet you my house, my car and my first-born son that the book would not sell like hotcakes and get turned into movies.

The unusual title and cover isn’t a side issue. I believe it’s the entire reason this book went viral.

True story: guess what the author of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO wanted as a title for his novel? Go ahead. Guess.

Here’s the answer: MEN WHO HATE WOMEN.

Raise your hand if you think that title would have set the world on fire and led to hit movies.

The title and cover — the packaging — are 90 percent of the battle.

The packaging matters more than the product.

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY is an interesting, literary title. The cover photo of a grey tie is also atypical of the genre and really stands out. The combined effect gives the book a literary veneer.

Some people might feel embarrassed getting on Flight 435 to Frankfurt and pulling out a paperback with A BUSINESS AFFAIR on the cover with a blindfold and handcuffs on the cover. And you can bet the male audience for such books is hard to find with a microscope.

Give it the gloss of lit-rah-sure, though, and that makes it okay for some people to read what they might never do: romance and erotica. 

And hey, I respect the hell out of romance authors. Have learned a ton from them. So I’m not talking smack about the genre here–I’m specifically talking smack about the first page of this specific book. There are far, far better examples of romance out there. Amazing writers. Go support them.

FIFTY SHADES reminds me of the early Eric van Lustbader novels, like THE NINJA, which I think were hot sellers because they slipped in naughty bits to readers — mostly men — who expected, I don’t know, ninjas sneaking around at night and fighting. It was like a James Bond movie where they didn’t fade out when 007 kissed the girl. I can tell you 14-year-old boys around the globe had their minds blown. You can print this kind of stuff without getting arrested? I can buy it at the store and they don’t ask for ID? NO WAY.

And let’s give respect where it’s due: there’s an editor somewhere who came up with this title, and a cover designer who thought up the idea, got the right photo and nailed it. 

Open up that brilliant cover, though, and you eventually get to the first page, which is a hot mess. And from the reviews, it doesn’t get better on page 2 or 152.

VERDICT

I truly thought, deep in my soul, that you couldn’t top the first page of THE FOUNTAINHEAD for a famous novel that is famously bad. But yes, we have a new champion.

Ripley sums up my mood here.

Writing should spark joy–in you and the reader

Yes, that headline is an intentional nod to Marie Kondo and her method of tidying up, where you hold up each possession and ask yourself, “Does this spark joy?”

I keep seeing some writers talk about how hard, or even painful, writing can be. 

And sure, writing at a high level isn’t easy. It takes a lot of time, talent and sweat.

Yet I’m going to argue that conventional wisdom here is completely wrong. The entire process of writing and editing not only can be, but SHOULD BE, a joy. And if it’s not, you should switch things around to make it fun rather than torture.

Reason Number 1: A better product

Humans are designed, through millions of years of evolution, to seek out pleasure and avoid pain.

If your writing and editing process are inherently painful, your body and brain will rebel every time you sit down at the keyboard or pick up a pen.

That’s unhealthy and unsustainable. And it makes for a bad product, because you’ll rush through it as fast as you can, to get that pain over with.

I’m not arguing against speed here. Writing fast, and in the flow, is a beautiful thing that should be embraced.

Yet if the process itself is painful, you’re going to (a) avoid it, (b) catch writer’s block a helluva lot and (c) not produce what you’re capable of doing.

Reason Number 2: You have to make a mountain, then let things go

Marie Kondo’s key instruction when tidying up is to make a mountain–of your clothes, your books, your papers, whatever it is you’re cleaning up. Then you go through each item and decide whether it sparks joy. If it doesn’t, you give it away to Goodwill, recycle it or send it off to Never Never Land.

Writing anything important should begin the same way.

Never try to research and edit while your write a first draft. Make a mountain of your research, ideas and notes. Look at each item. Does it spark joy?

Put the ones that spark joy in a special file or folders.

Keep the marginal things in Give Away place, a scratch file. This is also a good way to let yourself edit ruthlessly, and avoid feeling terrible about possibly killing words that took you hours to research and write. You’re keeping them in a safe home. They’ll be fine, and you can recycle them for something else if needed.

Trash what you’ll never use. And surprisingly, doing all this tends to cut your mountain down to a hill that’s only 25 percent of your original pile.

When you’re only dealing with a tiny hill instead of a mountain, writing anything of length becomes insanely easier. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, you feel confident, and all the raw material’s you’re working with spark joy. 

Writing anything of length takes discipline to get through the hard parts. Which will happen.

Joy is the fuel that gets you over those speed bumps. It’s hard to crank away at something kind of boring, like proofing a document, or doing layout, if you don’t have a reward waiting on the other side. If you only anticipate more drudgery and pain, why push through it?

Cutting down your mountain of raw material to a small hill that sparks joy also helps make these tough spots a lot smaller and more manageable. 

Reason Number 3: You have to feel the emotion you want readers to feel 

This is literally the advice we give, as speechwriters, because simply delivering lines without mangling them–in a speech, a play or a movie–isn’t enough.

You have to actually feel the raw emotions you want your audience to feel.

Because an audience doesn’t feel what you TELL them to feel. They mirror your emotions.

And I’ll argue that the best writing and speaking evoke the emotions of joy and wonder.

Sure, there are times in novel, screenplay or speech when you want the audience to feel sad or angry. But you can’t write anything of length that’s entirely angry or 100 percent sad. There has to be a mixture of emotions.

What do people want? They want joy, wonder and laughter. The other emotions, like anger, fear, sadness and horror, are powerful spices you can’t pour into a dish. They need to be used carefully and sparingly.

The best writing I do is full of joy and wonder because that’s what I feel while writing it. And yes, if you’re doing a story or speech about something sad, it’s a good sign that you tear up while writing it. If I don’t cry a little when writing something profoundly sad, then I’m doing another draft. 

And if something buried in your mountain doesn’t spark joy–whether it’s a chapter in your epic novel about elves with lightsabers and the trolls who love them, a play where all the actors are hanging upside down the entire time or the process by which you edit and proof something–try something else. 

Talk to other writers and editors on Twitter, by email or in person at conferences. They’re a friendly bunch. Ask what they’ve figured out to make some of the hardest and sometimes painful tasks into activities that are fun. Personally, I find the final spell-check and editing of a novel to be a long, hard slog, so I’ve turned it onto a game to see how many words I can kill, especially repetitive words or phrases. And now it’s a kick in the paints.

So please, embrace the pleasure of writing and editing. Feel the emotions you want the audience to feel. All of them.

Because writing and reading should do always, always spark joy and wonder. 

You can pitch ANYTHING except quality

Quality matters. Oh, it matters a lot.

Nobody wants to pay money to see a movie that stinks, a book that you can’t get past Chapter 1 or an album where every song hurts your ears.

You want quality. I want quality. Everybody wants it.

But you can’t pitch quality.

And you can’t package it.

So unless you’ve got something else — a quirk, a hook, a unique twist — quality alone won’t get you anywhere.

It won’t get people to look, listen or read in the first place.

So let’s pitch and package random, made-up things. Why? Because it takes practice and because you’re too close to your own stuff to do it right. And because it’s fun.

First up: two different bands.

Band A is a trio: drummer, guitar and bass / lead singer. They’re all recent music school graduates in their late twenties. They’re serious, seriously talented, good-looking and ready to break out. Let’s say they play a lot of punk rock and post-grunge.

Band B looks like a sure-fire loser. They’re all five years old. College degrees in music? Try “Hey, we’re potty trained, and we know our ABC’s.” They don’t know how to read music, write music or understand music theory like the other band. The guitarist knows one trick: crank up the distortion and make it loud. But they know the rough melodies and words to three different Metallica songs, and they do a cover of ENTER SANDMAN that’s close enough to be damned funny.

Here’s a real-life example of this sort of thing. A ton of people — 383,000 plus — have watched this kid sing, DON’T BRUSH MY HAIR IN KNOTS while her brother or neighbor kid banged on the drums.

Alright, here’s your homework: Write a one-sentence pitch for each band. Four words, if you want to ace this. Six words if you feel like a Cheaty McCheaterface.

Do it now. Find a piece of paper or fire up Word and do a pitch for each. Don’t even think about it.

I’ll go find silly videos on YouTube about swamp monsters in Louisiana or whatever.

OK, time’s up. Let’s compare pitches.

My best shot at the music majors: “Nirvana minus flannelly angst.” Four words, and I’m sort of cheating by turning flannelly into a word. Hard, isn’t it? You can’t get anywhere saying any kind of variation on, “This band, they’re really, really good.”

My pitch for the kids: “Kindergarteners cover Metallica.” Three words. Doesn’t have to be poetry here. Are you going to click on a link that says “Nirvana minus flannelly angst” or “this band is amazing?”

No. Not when there’s another link that has five-year-olds playing heavy metal?

Who wins the quality test? The serious music majors, by a mile.

Who wins the pitch and packaging test? The little kids who play bad covers of heavy metal. It’s so much easier. I would have to kidnap reporters to get them to cover our post-grunge band of music majors.

Could I get free ink and airtime with the Heavy Metal Monsters of Hillman Elementary? Absolutely.

Next: two different books

Our quality book is a literary masterpiece that will make you cry while snorting coffee through your nose, then take a fresh look at life and possibly quit your job and join a Tibetan monastery. It’s about a middle-aged man who works in a cubicle farm and lives in surburbia with a wife who’s on industrial amounts of Prozac and a teenage daughter who’s too busy thumbing her iPhone to notice who provides her with food, shelter, clothing and a VW Passat with only 13,000 miles on it. The hero’s life changes when he gets mugged on the way home. Also, a mime is involved, and a janitor who lives in a shack but says witty, wise things before he gets hit by a train.

The other book is a cheesy sci-fi novel with horrible dialogue. The premise: dinosaurs didn’t die off after some asteroid hit. They were smart. Really smart. And they left the planet in a fleet of spaceships to escape Earth long before that asteroid screwed things up for millions of years. Now they’re headed toward earth. And they want their planet back.

Ready? One sentence pitch for each. Four words.

GO.

OK, let’s see what we’ve got. Here’s my instant, no-thinking pitches.

Literary book: “Hell is a cubicle farm.” Five words. More of a title than a pitch. It sings to me, though, in a small, squeaky, off-pitch voice.

Sci-fi nonsense: “Space dinosaurs invade earth.” This is a kissing cousin to “Comet will destroy earth,” which has been the basis for about six different movies, including five by Michael Bay, with the other one starring Morgan Freeman for some reason, despite the fact that Morgan Freeman has ZERO CHANCE of flying up in a space shuttle with Bruce Willis and that dude who is an old college buddy of Matt Damon to blow up the comet,  asteroid or whatever with nuclear bombs.

VERDICT

The bottom line is, quality is one thing. In the end, it’s probably the most important thing.

Yet nobody will read your masterpiece, listen to your amazing album or see you act like no actor has acted in the history of acting-hood if they don’t get hooked by your pitch and packaging. They have to know you exist first.

Quality isn’t a pitch. “You should see that movie — it’s really good” doesn’t work. Your friends and family will ask, “What’s it about?” and if you don’t have four words to explain it, to give them a pitch, then forget it.

The next time to read a book, see a movie or listen to a great new song, think of four words.

How would you package it? What could you possibly say, just to your friends so they could see it, but to a reporter or a TV producer?

Back from the dead!

No, I’m not a zombie, sparkling vampire or Jean Claude Van Damme-ish universal soldier.

I simply haven’t posted in forever, and have missed the readers of this silly blog, who’ve taught me a lot and are always, always witty and entertaining.

So: with a crazy busy session at work, my evil choice was (a) come home and write a blog post, (b) hang out with the wife and son, (c) do laundry, pay the bills and possibly sleep or (d) finish and edit a novel.

I chose everything but (a) and it was the right choice. And now I’m coming up for air.

To folks who are into these things I like to call “books,” here are a few things I learned finishing a new novel, which is the most fun you can legally have as a writer.

(1) Keep switching it up and taking risks

If you keep writing the same sort of story with the same sort of heroes (6-foot-4 and Hollywood handsome) and villains (posh British accent and disfigured somehow) in the same sort of scenarios (stolen MacGuffin could destroy the world!), then hey, it’ll get stale. Same thing with non-fiction, whether it’s newspaper and magazine pieces, speeches or whatever you’re into.

Mix it up. That’s how you grow and learn.

There are endless ways to structure and execute writing. You can steal from anywhere:

  • Stand-up comics are amazing at setups and payoffs, and can do them in the most ruthless shortage of words.
  • Poets make sure every line is a magical spell.
  • Narrative non-fiction is actually a secret treasure chest of great stories that totally work as fiction except they actually happened, and they use the same structural tools as narrative fiction, also known as fiction.
  • Playwrights spell their own names wrong, yet they’re the masters of dialogue.
  • Linked movies and serial shows show you how to plot mega-stories (22 movies by Marvel that all tie together!) and how great beginnings can go completely wrong (Season Eight of GAME OF THRONES). 
  • Screenwriters are the absolute best at structure, which is the evil secret to anything of length. And everything has SOME length.
  • Even if you write stark Nordic mysteries or spy thrillers, romance authors and horror writers show you how to do emotions right, and nothing matters without emotion.

(2) Writers are helpful souls–take the help, and offer help whenever you can

I only started this blog after romance authors found my silly ad to sell the Epic Black Car. 

And I learned an amazing amount from them. Am still learning. 

For a journalist-turned-speechwriter, writing thrillers for fun, romance is the last place I expected to look.

Look in those unexpected places.

Ask questions.

Answer questions from folks starting out.

The other person who taught me an insane amount is my sister, Pam, who won a Nicholl Fellowship for screenwriting. You wouldn’t think screenwriting has anything to do with speechwriting or novels. But you’d be completely wrong. Screenwriters are the absolute best. They’re building skyscrapers that hold up to hurricanes. Meanwhile, other books on writing tell you to build a two-story house out of drywall, then you wonder why the thing falls down after the first rain.

Also: there are authors, writers and editors I met here from around the world, folks who are continually witty, talented and interesting. I want to give a shout out to two in particular — Alexandria and Joshua the Sharp — for their help this year. You two rock.

Keep on meeting people, on Twitter, the Gram, the Book of Face or whatever new thing Silicon Valley invented last week. You never know who’ll turn out to be amazing and will change your life, or whose life you might change. YOU NEVER KNOW.

(3) Take things apart to see how they work

If you read this silly blog (and hey, you’re doing that now), it’s clear just about every post involves taking something apart to see why it’s either (a) horrifically good or (b) beautifully bad.

That’s the interesting and fun part of stories, books, movies, music videos and speeches. How do they work and why?

What could you do to fix a flawed piece or improve something that’s already amazing?

Complaining about something is the easiest thing in the world. You can throw a Nicholas Spark novel across the room (go ahead, that’s kosher any day that ends in Y), walk out of a lame movie or end a show on Netflix after 5 minutes and say, “That sucks.”

Except there’s behind those words. Zero intellectual weight. Anybody can kvetch about something that stinks, or gush about artistic things that are seven separate flavors of awesomesauce.

It takes no talent to do those things.

Figuring out HOW things rock or stink–that’s the fun and difficult part.

The best part.

And I hope this blog helps you do that.

Why heavy writing requires heavy equipment

Firing up Word is fine for writing anything short. For anything big–novels, screenplays and such–you need specialized tools. 

Believe me. I’ve done it both ways, and trying to do something large and important on a word processor will drive you to drink.

Word processors don’t cut it 

Writing a big project is like building a house. To keep on track and make sure the thing doesn’t fall down, you need (a) solid blueprints and (b) heavy equipment.

Short writing projects are like the little bits you can tackle in your garage, with the tools sitting around and the scrap wood in the far corner. 

And sure, you can try to wrestle Word into doing heavy lifting by going wild with navigation options and headings. It’s sorta possible.

Sorta.

Yet no matter how hard you try to force Word into being able to handle a giant project, it’s like trying to excavate the foundation of your new house with a shovel instead of a bulldozer.

Even if you try to organize a single Word file that is organized enough to hold all three acts of a screenplay or all 100,000 words of your epic tale of when the elves rose up against the great tyrant, Santa the Claws, there’ll be all kinds of OTHER files hanging around.

A file about settings and another for characters. One for ideas and notes.

Another for loose text you cut out of a scene but might want to use elsewhere. You get the idea.

Switching between all those files is tough. Just getting a feel for things are is hard. How many words are all the chapters in Act 2 right now versus all of Act 1? Dunno. Get ready for a whole lot of highlighting and scrolling.

One tool to rule them all

I don’t care what you pick–Scrivener, yWriter, Manuskript, OneNote, Atomic Scribbler–as long as you test drive a bunch. For starving artists and writers out there, some of those choices are open source and free.

Try them all and pick one. You won’t go back.

There’s nothing like being able to see the whole project at a glance, then dive into different bits without digging around for which Word file or folder you put in all that stuff about pickpockets in Istanbul.

I just typed THE END on a novel written in Scrivener (yes! very excited about this one, and to beta readers, let’s chat). Am in the middle of transferring into Word for the final formatting and editing. Believe me, writing 80,000 words in Scrivener was a happy walk in the park compared to when I climbed that mountain using Word.

Haven’t used every single alternative, though I use OneNote at work and home and it’s both (a) pretty common and (b) pretty good. 

A few lessons learned from my own silly mistakes

First, don’t get in a hurry to export your screenplay, Great American Novel or picture book about knitting hats for cats from Scrivener into Word.

You don’t want to export the whole thing right off because there’s an excellent, excellent chance you’ll have to import it all back in, which is a massive pain. Because once you look at it all in Word, you’ll spot six zillion structural things to fix that are a sweaty endeavor in a word processor and far, far easier in something like Scrivener.

And yes, I’ve made this mistake. As in last week. 

Heavy equipment, right? If you’ve got a choice between hundreds of hours with a shovel versus two hours with a bulldozer, pick the dozer.

The second thing is don’t ever export the entire project.

Seriously. Do it in pieces.

Sure, every program out there has some kind of magical option on the menu tree that saves your entire creation as a .docx, PDF or whatever. Resist temptation.

Put the first few scenes of your screenplay or novel into Word for that final editing and polishing. Meanwhile, keep on doing heavier work on the later stuff of Act 2 and 3.

Only export scenes or chapters into that Word file when they’re truly, truly ready.

The third thing is that paragraphs that seem short and sweet in something like Scrivener–especially if you have a big screen–turn ginormous when you pop them into Word on double-spaced pages. 

Finally, get religious about making backups. OneNote, Scrivener and similar programs work their magic in mysterious ways, especially in how they save all those separate bits. It’s complicated. I believe quantum particles and gravitational waves are involved.

The way these beasts save their files is nothing like a Word doc, where you can see that solitary file and copy the thing to a thumbdrive or email it to yourself. OneNote in particular is tricky with saving. I’m still not sure where, exactly, it’s saving things half the time. Be careful out there. 

But those are little tips and tricks. There are no giant tradeoffs, like a choice between a moped and a pickup truck. The switch to heavy writing equipment is always worth it. The only real question is what type and brand of literary bulldozer you should drive. 

P.S. What heavy writing equipment do you use today–and what other ones have you dated or divorced? 

Storytelling insights from 3 minutes of glorious film with subtitles

tinseltown tuesday meme morpheous

Yes, I watch movies with subtitles, even if they’re in black-and-white, with people smoking French cigarettes while speaking French and watching things happen to other people in some scrappy, destitute part of Paris or, for variety, a tiny farming village in Normandy. 

We are talking about a different sort of foreign film with subtitles.

  • Bonus No. 1: This film is 3 minutes long instead of three hours.
  • Bonus No. 2: There is hardly any talking, or any need to read the subtitles at all.
  • Bonus No. 3: Most importantly, this little film can teach us all great big lessons about storytelling and structure.

Also, unless you have no soul, it will make drops of water drip from your eyes and scurry down your cheeks.

Here. Watch the clip in high definition. Or low def, it that’s your thing. Whatever floats your boat.

Okay. All done?

Let’s take it apart and see what makes it tick.

Strong bones

This little film has strong bones. The structure is a roller coaster: things are bad (son is running away), things get even worse (son nearly dies, is paralyzed), then in the climax, things get resolved and the world is forever changed, at least for this family.

The father is not sympathetic at first, right? My first thought was bad casting. No. Good storytelling. The main narrative question is, “Will they get together?” This is a love story, which doesn’t have to be a rom-com with a high-powered professional woman who eventually gets together with a chubby, unemployed virgin who owns the Largest Comic Book Collection Known to Man, because for some reason, that’s what half the rom-coms are these days.

The other half of rom-coms star Matthew McConaughey.

Back to this little film: if they’re getting together in the end, they must be split apart in the beginning.

Another narrative question is, “How do these people suffer, change and grow?”

The father moves from stern, humorless taskmaster to loving and dedicated. He’s the hero of this little film, because it’s his actions that matter most. The normal thing would be for him to let the doctors do their work, right? But it’s his turn to rebel. He carries his son out of the hospital, out of the wheelchair and back into the world. Rehab isn’t going to be nurses and machines and doctors. It’s going to be father and son, learning to walk again.

And all that suffering and sacrifice pays off. The son also transforms. In the beginning, he’s rebellious and aloof. In the end, he’s loyal and connected to his family.

The mother is a flat character. She suffers, but she doesn’t change. That’s OK. Having two characters go through all this in three minutes is plenty.

Real stories beat Michael Bay explosions

This tiny film, which is a flipping COMMERCIAL, moved me far more than bazillion-dollar CGI blockbusters involving dinosaurs, vampires or robots that transform themselves into Chevies.

You can take those $294 million budgets full of special effects and a scripts credited to five different writers. (Pro-tip: the more screenwriters you throw in the kitchen, the crazier the thing that comes out of the oven.)

Give me a story with strong bones and a tiny budget.

Give me people I actually care about, because I don’t give a hoot about Shia LaBeuf and Megan Fox fighting robots or whether the awkward teenage girl gets together with the Sparkly British Vampire vs some kid who used to be a Power Ranger.

Give me a story. A story like this.

The Red Pen of Doom sends LIKE A FOX ON THE RUN into hyperspace

This isn’t my usual thing–it’s not the first page of a Classic Novel professors decided in some secret meeting, probably in a Best Western outside Cleveland, they’d force all of us to write term papers on. And it’s not a bestseller which absolutely stinks.

It’s a random book I saw on the Twitters.

I did read out the first page of the prologue, and the first chapter. The cover and synopsis are more fun to play with, though.

Let’s check out the cover, then the synopsis / back page text, and we’ll chat.

The cover

like a fox on the run novel

The synopsis

Southern Syfy has arrived in this “Dukes of Hazzard meets Buck Rogers” adventure tale.

In a future spawned from the headlines of today, enter a world of contrasts, where Man has conquered the heavens, while at the same time becoming quickly obsolete on his own world. A world where science and technology brings exotic fantasy creatures to life … for the right price. Where hot rod rockets and redneck “spacers” rule the skies.

Tiger Thomas was a rocket pilot during the Great Space Rush, when humankind colonized the Solar System in the twenty-second century. Now, all that’s winding down, and so has the demand for old spacers like him. He makes a living now doing whatever jobs he can find, legal and otherwise.

Returning to his hometown of Huntsville, Tiger looks forward to a relaxing weekend back on Earth. Who knows, he might even re-kindle that old flame with Lulah Carter, “the one that got away” years ago. A dinner and dancing … who knows what might happen.

But when he rescues a genetically engineered, anthropomorphic fox girl from a clan of vicious, hillbilly thugs, his homecoming quickly turns sour.

Somebody wants this sexy, furry darling back. BAD! And they’ll do whatever it takes, including killing anyone who stands in their way. Tiger and newfound companion soon find themselves on the run from a deadly, high-tech unit of bounty hunters. And if that ain’t bad enough, revelations about this beautiful vixen starts to disturb him. Is she really a victim? Is there more to her than just a pretty face and a bushy tail? Is there something else? A part hidden and dangerous, waiting for the right time to manifest itself? And with all that to ponder on, there’s also one other small problem … he finds himself irresistibly attracted to her.

Oh, and then there’s that whole Lulah thing again. As if things weren’t complicated enough.

Well, so much for a relaxing weekend.

Edits and notes

The cover: Hey, I like it, especially given this looks like an indie book on a low budget. Does the job for a sci-fi novel just fine. Thumbs up.

The synopsis: This is what got me to write a post. You had me at “Dukes of Hazzard meets Buck Rogers.”

Here’s a shot at the synopsis to pump up the wild stuff and slay boring bits:

Southern Syfy has arrived in this “Dukes of Hazzard meets Buck Rogers” adventure tale.

In a future spawned from the headlines of today, enter a world of contrasts, where

Hotrod rockets and redneck spacers rule the skies. Man has Yet conquering the heavens made man  while at the same time becoming quickly obsolete on Earth, his own world. A world where science and technology brings exotic fantasy creatures to lifefor the right price. Where

Tiger (If your love interest is a fox-woman, don’t make your hero’s first name Tiger–confusing, and no, you can’t call him Tiger and reveal in Act 3 that he’s a genetically engineered tiger thing) Thomas was a rocket pilot during the Great Space Rush,  when humankind colonized the Solar System in the twenty-second century.but now that space is civilized, he’s a cast-off, all that’s winding down, and so has the demand for old spacers like him. He making a living now doing whatever jobs he can find, laws be damned. legal and otherwise.

Returning to his hometown of Huntsville, Tiger Thomas looks forward to a relaxing weekend back on Earth. Who knows, he might even re-kindle that old flame with Lulah Carter, “the one that got away” years ago. A dinner and dancing … who knows what might happen.

But when he rescues a genetically engineered, anthropomorphic fox girl from a clan of vicious, hillbilly thugs, his homecoming quickly turns sour.

Somebody wants this sexy, furry darling back. BAD! And they’ll do whatever it takes, including killing anyone who stands in their way. Thomas Tiger and his newfound companion soon find themselves on the run from a deadly, high-tech unit of bounty hunters. And if that ain’t bad enough, revelations about this beautiful vixen starts to disturb him. Is she really a victim? Is there more to her than just a pretty face and a bushy tail? Is there something else? A part hidden and dangerous, waiting for the right time to manifest itself? And with all that to ponder on, there’s also one other small problem … he finds himself irresistibly attracted to her.

Oh, and then there’s that whole Lulah thing again. As if things weren’t complicated enough.

Well, so much for a relaxing weekend.

Edited synopsis as straight text

Southern Syfy has arrived in this “Dukes of Hazzard meets Buck Rogers” adventure.

Hot-rod rockets and redneck spacers rule the skies. Yet conquering the heavens made man obsolete on Earth, where science and technology brings exotic fantasy creatures to life–for the right price. 

Thomas was a rocket pilot during the Great Space Rush, but now that space is civilized, he’s a cast-off, making a living doing whatever jobs he can find, laws be damned.

Returning to his hometown of Huntsville, Thomas looks forward to a relaxing weekend. Who knows, he might even re-kindle that old flame with Lulah Carter, “the one that got away” years ago.

But when he rescues a genetically engineered fox girl from a clan of vicious, hillbilly thugs, his homecoming turns sour.

Somebody wants this sexy, furry darling back. BAD! And they’ll kill anyone who stands in their way. Thomas and his newfound companion find themselves on the run from deadly, high-tech bounty hunters. And if that ain’t bad enough, revelations about this beautiful vixen starts to disturb him. Is there more to her than just a pretty face and a bushy tail? Is there something hidden and dangerous, waiting for the right time to manifest itself? 

#

Feels faster and smoother. Mostly, it’s a matter of killing words. Could we have killed even more words? Maybe. Always worth trying, though I was working hard to edit with a light touch. Itchy Pencil is a real disease. There is no known cure.

The other bit I wanted to delete is everything dealing with his old flame, which felt like the B plot. You don’t see her on the cover, and there are no high-tech Boba Fett types chasing her around the galaxy. The fox girl as the A plot, though fox girl NEEDS A NAME if she’s so important to the story, and that name better not be something like Fox Amber Harrison, or I will throw the book clear across the room.

What say you–how else could we give the synopsis of “Dukes of Hazzard meets Buck Rogers” a boost into orbit?

Everything they taught us about stories was WRONG

writing cat, writers, writing, why is writing so hard, writer's block

Let it be known: Romance authors have a good point when they say, “Romance is not a type of story.”

There are all sorts of different romance stories.

Which brings me to a deep, dark truth that needs to be said: They’ve done us wrong.

All of them.

Teachers and professors, authors and instructors and writing gurus of all stripes.

My secret lair includes a turret that is a library, full of Every Book on Writing, Rhetoric and Journalism Known to Man, and those books are 99 percent useless claptrap about either (a) the correct placement of semi-colons, which I believe should simply be shot, or (b) finding your happy place while you write at the same time every day.

These books are only good for kindling during the zombie apocalypse.

Aristotle was full of falafel when he told his eager little fanboys that there are only two stories: tragedies and comedies.

Your corduroy-clad creative writing teacher was wrong to say there are only three kinds of stories: man vs. self, man vs. man and man vs. society. Those are three types of conflict. Not stories. Also, there are far too many reference to “man” in there.

George Polti made things far too complicated when he gave us 36 Dramatic Situations, when what he really did was list 36 complications and conflicts, and if you want to drive down that twisty path, hell, I can write you a list of 532 Dramatic Situations before noon. If you gave me a pot of coffee, by 5 p.m. we’d get to 3,982 Dramatic Situations. (Yes, Mr. Internet Smarty Pants, you a genius for using the google to find a Wikepedia thing explaining that Polti was merely following in the footsteps of that literary giant Carlo Guzzi, but hear me know and believe me later in the week: Carlo Guzzi was also an overcomplicated doofus.)

Also: just as there is no romance story type, there is no such thing as a Western, though if you watch THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, you are required by law to take a swig of decent tequila whenever Clint shoots a man and down two shots if he actually speaks a line of dialogue.

For you D & D and World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings dorks–I say that lovingly, though I want you to put down the Cheetos and the Playstation controller to go out in the world to kiss a girl, though please make sure she wants to be kissed first, and does not Mace you–there is also no such thing as a sci-fi or fantasy story, per se.

You can set a story a dusty Arizona mining town in 1875, or put the guts of that same story into a space station orbiting the second moon of Zenon or whatever. Either way, it’s the same story.

You can add elves and dragons and trolls. It’s still the same story, just in a different setting.

Blake Snyder cut through all this tradition and nonsense with his SAVE THE CAT books.

Blake points out that it’s patently stupid to call FATAL ATTRACTION a domestic drama and ALIEN a sci-fi movie and JAWS a horror flick, because they are all the same basic, primal story: there’s a monster in the house. Either you kill it or it kills you. Period. End of story.

I will not summarize Blake’s book here by giving away all his other evil secrets. He’s boiled things down to ten primal stories, and yes, you can insert as many Dramatic Situations as you want into those ten stories.

Blake has done all writers a great service with his two books, which do have silly titles and a cover that always features a cat. As the writer of a silly blog, I give him slack for that. He is not pompous. He is not arrogant or overly complicated. Blake was simply a freaking genius when it comes to storytelling, and the world is a poorer place now that he died young.

If you write, go buy his book. DO IT NOW.

Everything they taught us about stories was WRONG

writing cat, writers, writing, why is writing so hard, writer's block

reading, books, types of stories

Let it be known: Romance authors have a good point when they say, “Romance is not a type of story.”

There are all sorts of different romance stories.

Which brings me to a deep, dark truth that needs to be said: They’ve done us wrong.

All of them.

Teachers and professors, authors and instructors and writing gurus of all stripes.

You’ve been done wrong, bamboozled, hornswoggled 

My secret lair includes a turret that is a library, full of Every Book on Writing, Rhetoric and Journalism Known to Man, and those books are 99 percent useless claptrap about either (a) the correct placement of semi-colons, which I believe should simply be shot, or (b) finding your happy place while you write at the same time every day. These books are only good for kindling during the zombie apocalypse.

Your corduroy-clad creative writing teacher was wrong to say there are only three kinds of stories: man vs. self, man vs. man and man vs. society. Those are three types of conflict. Not stories. Also, there are far too many reference to “man” in there.

Aristotle was full of falafel when he told his eager fanboys there are only two stories: tragedies and comedies.

George Polti made things far too complicated when he gave us 36 Dramatic Situations, when what he really did was list 36 complications and conflicts, and if you want to drive down that twisty path, hell, I can write you a list of 532 Dramatic Situations before noon. If you gave me a pot of coffee, by 5 p.m. we’d get to 3,982 Dramatic Situations. (Yes, Mr. Internet Smarty Pants, you a genius for using the google to find a Wikepedia thing explaining that Polti was merely following in the footsteps of that literary giant Carlo Guzzi, but hear me know and believe me later in the week: Carlo Guzzi was also an overcomplicated doofus.)

Also: just as there is no romance story type, there is no such thing as a Western, though if you watch THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, you are required by law to take a swig of decent tequila whenever Clint shoots a man and down two shots if he actually speaks a line of dialogue.

For you D & D and World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings dorks–I say that lovingly, though I want you to put down the Cheetos and the Playstation controller to go out in the world to kiss a girl, though please make sure she wants to be kissed first, and does not Mace you–there is also no such thing as a sci-fi or fantasy story.

You can set a novel or movie a dusty Arizona mining town in 1875, or put the guts of that same story into a space station orbiting the second moon of Zenon or whatever. Either way, it’s the same story.

You can add dragons, trolls or elves with lightsabers and it’s still the same story in a different setting and context.

Because in the end, story is about structure–how you put the pieces together. Is the ending up, down or mixed? What are the setups and payoffs, reversals and revelations?

They don’t really teach us structure or storytelling

Blake Snyder cut through all this tradition and nonsense with his SAVE THE CAT books.

Blake points out that it’s patently stupid to call FATAL ATTRACTION a domestic drama and ALIEN a sci-fi movie and JAWS a horror flick, because they all three classic movies are the same basic, primal story: there’s a monster in the house. Either you kill it or it kills you.

Period. End of story.

I will not summarize Blake’s book here by giving away all his other evil secrets. He’s boiled things down to ten primal stories, and yes, you can insert as many Dramatic Situations as you want into those ten stories.

Blake has done all writers a great service with his two books, which have silly titles and a cover with a cat. As the writer of a silly blog, I give him slack for that. He’s not pompous, arrogant or overly complicated. Blake was simply a freaking genius when it comes to storytelling, and the world is a poorer place now that he died young.

If you write, and care about your craft, go buy his book. DO IT NOW. Then come back here to talk smack about structure, the real secret to writing of all sorts.

The Red Pen of Doom reluctantly nukes THE GREAT GATSBY

I take great pleasure in dissecting the first page of Popular Novels Which Actually Stink, or finding first pages that absolutely sing and figuring out why they’re so glorious.

The first page matters. A few examples:

The Red Pen of Doom puts a stake through TWILIGHT

The Red Pen of Doom impales FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

The Red Pen of Doom guts THE NOTEBOOK

The Red Pen of Doom murders THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn Rand

By request, today we’re taking on page one of a classic of lit-RAH-sure: THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Sidenote: There are 5,832 various editions and such, so you’re page one may end on a different sentence and such. I tried to stop at the end of a paragraph, though as this is an older book, back when paragraphs lasted longer than most CBS sitcoms, this is kinda hard.

THE GREAT GATSBY

In my younger and more vulnerable years, (missing a comma here) my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

He didn’t say any more, (this feels like odd, unplanned repetition of the “any one” in the previous graf, so strike “any”) but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. (Listen, we’re on the third graf already, and I’m not inclined to reserve all judgment, seeing how you’re coming off like a veteran bore.) The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was became privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Most of the confidences were unsought — frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon.; for the intimate revelations (“intimate relations” twice in this sentence, so close together, doesn’t work at all) of young men, or at least The terms in which they express them, (comma deleted) are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, (here we get repetition with a purpose for once and it does work) a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth. (This is an awkward mouthful)

THOUGHTS: This is 100 percent interior monologue, which isn’t required by law to be boring. Though it sure leans that way.

Maybe it sets the mood.

However: If you’re basing a tragic hero’s entire motivation for making a ton of money to become a rich snob to impress a girl he loved and lost, and you’re hell-bent on starting page one with interior monologue about backstory, MAKE IT ABOUT THE GIRL.

Not the narrator. Not the narrator’s dad.

Not boring people who tell the narrator secrets while he pretends to sleep.

Make it all about the girl and Gatsby.

A huge part of the novel is throwing fancy parties to impress each other, right? I’m going off my memory from doing my own term papers on this thing. Never saw the movies. And when I do a first page, I try NOT to cheat by reading plot summaries and such, even if I’ve read the book.

Put a gun to my head and I’d delete this first page and start with the real inciting incident, which should be Gatsby and the narrator meeting the girl at a party way back when, so you can echo that later.

Or make it about about a small betrayal, from college or back during the war, to foreshadow the bigger betrayals and tragedies to come.

VERDICT: Doesn’t make me want to read more, which I wouldn’t unless the English 101 prof gave me no choice.

Sorry, F. Scott F.–can’t lie and say I liked this. Nuke the first page and go with a better hook.