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Friday, May 26, 2006
Characters are defined by what they usually don't do, not by what they usually do. What they usually do is the canvas of the painting called "character"; that which they usually don't do, but do now, is the paint.
Another way to say this: a story is about a character who acts against his/her nature (or better judgement).
I really came to understand this while I was editing one of the UglyTown books. I was discussing my notes with the author. The beginning scenario of this book was superb, but it soon fizzled out. The drama and suspense that the author created was immediately dissipated by the main character.
I suggested that the main character lie to his wife about the event that began the book (as opposed to nonchalantly confessing to it). The author expressed great reservation bordering on distaste. "My character would NEVER do that," he told me.
And that is exactly why he must, I replied. That is the story. If your character were to go through his life doing everything we expect him to do ... that's a still life, not a novel -- certainly not a mystery novel.
Don't be so slavish to the canvas of a character that you forget about the paint.
Monday, May 22, 2006
I wouldn't have thought that I would do a Writers' Tip on remember to save and save often. But sometimes the simplest things bear repeating.
Save. And save often.
I'm normally a fanatic command-S addict. But I've been writing these online tips in TextEdit -- it's a simple stripped-down program that is fantastic for small composition, and I like using it as electronic scrap paper. Though these tips aren't long, I usually try to jot down thoughts in between writing other things, because I don't really have the luxury of dedicating a particular time of day just for my Web site.
Unfortunately, that means I've been opening a new untitled (read: unsaved) text file and just keeping it open until I'm ready to post it. I mean, really, how often does my Mac crash?
Well, today's REAL tip was lost. And it's always a painful and humbling process to rewrite words you've lost to the digital dustbin. So today's tip has become: SAVE!
Friday, May 19, 2006
Last year I had the extreme pleasure of speaking to an elementary school audience for their annual "author's day." I never cease to be surprised at how excited young kids can be about characters (like Kim Possible) that they love. I was surprised by a question the teacher in charge of the computer lab asked me.
He asked if I write using a computer (I do), and he asked that I explain how I use a computer to write.
I have no idea what in the world he expected me to say. But I quickly realized I had a very specific answer.
I write with three windows open.
At the beginning of a project, I open a Microsoft Word document. And I throw down anything and everything that helps me brainstorm on the page -- character names, possible titles, cool scenes, whatever. More than half of these badly spelled and punctuated ramblings take the form of questions. This document becomes a lovely, messy thing called NOTES.
When the notes document becomes several pages long and I can't remember what I wrote when I started the document and I can barely stand to reread it because it hurts my head with its sheer inanity, I know it's time to move on to document #2 -- the OUTLINE.
I have tried putting an outline at the end (and at the beginning) of this notes document ... just doesn't work. I like a clean page. This allows me to retell the story, get it a little more in focus.
So I go back and forth, two windows opens, cutting and pasting back and forth, referring to one and the other.
But at some point early on, I start itching to do actual writing ... and not just typing. Up comes window #3 -- the main text of the story. Sometimes I'll start with a single line or an inspired bit of dialog. Usually though, it's about looking over to the outline window and following course.
When I'm in full swing, I like to have my outline open on the left of my screen, the text window in the center, and a reduced window (adjusting the margins in Word to wrap my text around the 4" mark) for notes. Sometimes I will start a NOTES2 document, because the original notes are incomprehensible ... and as the story progresses, they begin to become irrelevant. A new, clean notes window allows me to jot down quick reminders to myself that don't get lost in the outline or don't get in the way in the main text document.
This all is made possible because I do all of my writing on a 17" laptop. I've thought about shifting down into a smaller, more-portable portable. But how would I fit all those windows on screen at the same time?
Thursday, May 18, 2006
If you're in the mood for pure comedy genius, drop what you're doing right now and head over to my absolute new favorite site.
How to Write Screenplays. Badly.
My gut still hurts from laughing.
Tuesday, May 16, 2006
I am very pleased that my first volley at putting down a Pasconian Manifesto generated a lot of emails and conversations. Specifically the first and last bullet points, to which many people responded.
A member of my fictional Iraqi cabinet had this to say about the last point ("The things that you make are never as important as the process of making them."):
"Engineers typically take the opposing view -- the final product is worth the trials of its production (a take I agree with in the context of engineering). Of course, as a musician I agree with the journey take -- the whole point of jazz, in my view, is the journey. Jazz is intensely personal, and the pleasure of the listener is not the goal of it. It's the process of its construction that matters."
Certainly writing, art, music, and engineering are crafts. Many of these acts create an end product that is more satisfying than the things that went into making the end product. But this is an "audience-centric" point of view. As a user -- or an audience -- of a bridge, I only care about the final product ... and that it works!
But for the craftsman -- or if you will, the artist -- of the bridge there is no button that you can push labeled "MAKE BRIDGE." Building bridges requires experience, support, and vast collaboration. It's the process that makes all of that possible.
I know people who want to be writers who don't write; people who want to be artists who don't draw. What I'm saying is simple: If you want to make art, do it. (Emphasis on "do," not on "it.")
And now to take the discussion in a new direction, another aphorism:
• Making inferior art is more important that thinking about making great art.
Monday, May 15, 2006
This weekend, I thought a lot about the process of fine-tuning a project as you reach the finish line. There is a delicate balance in the last mile: I have always found the detail work to be the most fulfilling for me. I love to revel in the glory of a turn-of-phrase, a great line of dialog, nailing that perfect moment. However, if you have done a good job of outlining and breaking down the action of a story, you could be left with this often-time debilitating feeling -- the story feels complete to YOU, because you can see clearly every scene and how it all plays out. All that's left is to write it all down.
Which can be a LOT harder that it sounds.
It's important for a writer to be able to approach a piece of work from the POV of a reader. What assumptions will the reader bring to the story? More importantly, what in the story can NOT be assumed?
It can be very helpful, when you're running that last mile to build the momentum of a long distance runner, while (unlike a runner) distancing yourself from the singular goal of finishing the story. Try writing up a last-minute checklist, things that you know you need to include, wrap up, or mention ... whether they be plot points, bits of back story, or a line of dialog that wee help bring it all home.
The most important thing is not to confuse reaching the end with seeing the end.
Wednesday, May 10, 2006
I have heard this kind of advice: "Where do I begin writing?" "Anywhere but the beginning!"
I rebel against this idea. If I had it my way, I would begin with the first sentence of a book and finish with the last.
• If you're excited to start the book in the middle, maybe that's where the book should start.
• If you write a great ending and dread going back to fill in the details, maybe those details aren't that important.
There are some folks -- mostly screenwriters, it seems -- who write what appear to be self-contained scenes and then, using index cards, shuffle them to proper effect.
Not only can I not imagine doing this, I would rather be mouse-flavored in a warehouse filled with hungry cats than rewrite a scene that was reshuffled to a new location chronologically.
Of course, I'm not against rewriting. However, for all those writing preachers who praise rewriting seemingly over the primary acting of WRITING in the first place, I have a secret: Each scene has a moment -- beyond what needs to happen in terms of plot or character development or suspense or what-have-you. This moment is precious, and can be lost.
The time to work out-of-order is in the outlining stage. Go to town with those index cards. But when it comes to the good ol' wordsmithing, I like to do it my way.
One foot in front of the other.
Monday, May 08, 2006
At one point, early on, I was anal enough to want to write in my journal only using the same pen -- not just because of the superstitionistic fetish of the writing object, but because I liked having the lined notebook filled with the same color ink.
No more. My long-hand notes and first drafts make a Jackson Pollock painting look like formalism.
Is this my attempt to embrace another ugly aesthetic? Nope. One of the major foundations of my writing philosophy is the concept of "collaborating with yourself."
Now I always write with two pens, currently a Waterman fountain pen filled with green ink and a Fisher Space Pen filled with black. I let my mood dictate with which color I start. And when I hit a stumbling point, I don't stare at the page; I switch colors.
Switching colors usually involves changing my writing POV. Not the protagonist's POV, but mine. I will question myself, argue with myself, and express hopelessness that I've painted myself in a corner. It's a way to keep editorial comments right there on the same page -- that's one of beauties of writing long-hand: you don't have to stick to the rigid structure of a word processing document.
I suppose I could switch paper: one set of pages is for laying down the dialog or prose; the other set, for critical/editorial comments. But then I would have to organize them, and that strikes me as too much work. Much easier to read through the maze of my multi-color scribbling.
I've also begun writing in pencil -- one blue and one black. But "ink vs. pencil" has the makings of another tip for another time.
Sunday, May 07, 2006
In the last post, I threw out the term "comic book philosopher." As much as I always feel like I'm still learning my trade, the truth is I've picked up a trick or two when it comes to writing stuff.
Some of these Writers' Tips will be practical, real-world how-tos. Others, like today's installment, are practical on a very different level. Being a writer means believing in something.
This is what I believe.
• Making things is more important that thinking about making things.
• When I moved to Los Angeles, when Tom and I formed UglyTown (before it became a publishing house), I had an idea that being a writer meant I could write anything that needed to be written: television, film, books, video games, Web sites, etc. We found out that this city, and the entertainment industry in general, does not work this way.
• I actually had this moment: at a party I was talking with some guy. I asked what he did for a living (something I have since tried to avoid). He said he was a television writer; he asked if I was "in the industry," and I immediately said no. I paused, thought about it. "Well, I won an Emmy -- does that make me in?"
• During the last two years of high school, I spent a ridiculously large amount of time painting a mural 10' x 60' on the school's cafeteria wall. My senior year schedule went something like this: I woke up early, got to school about 2 hours before class, got a cup of coffee from the faculty lounge, and painted until the first period bell. I mostly slept through class. After school, I when to work at an environmental lab and performed experiments on hazardous industrial waste. I came home for a quick bit of dinner and went back to the school, where I would paint alone in the empty building until after midnight.
• Teachers in high school would always say to me: "You must want to be an artist when you get older. I take it you'll be going to art school after you graduate." No, I would always respond, I'm already an artist. When this painting is done, I will be done with painting. Then I'll do something else.
• The things that you make are never as important as the process of making them.
Wednesday, May 03, 2006
Fifteen years ago I received a grant from the NEH to organize a symposium on comics, film, and literature. In many ways, I think of this event -- which introduced me to Don Simpson, Rich Veitch, Clive Barker, Steve Bissette, and Kevin Eastman -- as my first real step into the professional world of comic books ... even though it would be years until I had a comic book published. But from those humble days as a comic book philosopher, I seem to have come full circle. The philosopher is back, now as a professor.
This summer I will be teaching a 10-week course at UCLA Extension. The class: Writing Comics, Graphic Novels, and Manga.
Here's the course description: From big-budget mainstream superheroes to critically acclaimed graphic novels to the Japanese manga that's blazing up the sales charts, comics are hot. This workshop provides a comprehensive introduction to the craft of writing comics in all its forms. We begin our exploration by focusing on visual theory and critical thinking about sequential storytelling. Detailed exercises allow students to take a story from pitch to outline to breakdown to completed script, while along the way learning script formatting, pacing, and dialogue management. Various styles are discussed, both in structure (loose versus tight scripts) and content delivery (monthly serials versus long, single-volume work). Finally, we go over some tips for breaking into the business. All genres are welcome. The goal of the workshop is for each student complete a 22-page comics script. Includes special guest speakers.
The Writers' Program summer catalog came out this past weekend in time for the Festival of Books. Those folks living in the greater Los Angeles area can sign up for this class now. The Reg# is S2185W, and the course fee is $375.
As excited as I am about the several new writing projects I've got going, I'm particularly thrilled about this class.
© Jim Pascoe. All Rights Reserved.