Friday, November 6, 2009

Who is Else and how did she get in my story?

What I'm reading right now: Your First Novel by Ann Rittenbert & Laura Whitcomb

Lately, I've been sharing some insight I gleened from Orson Scott Card, largely from his Literary Bootcamp. In a previous post I talked about elsing your way through a story. You can see that post here. Continuing that theme (of the cliché shelf and elsing your way through,) I have another list compiled from Richard Roeper's observations. He wrote a book called 10 Sure Signs a Movie Character is Doomed. As a movie critic, Roeper has seen thousands of movies. He compiled this book of observations he extracted from his endless hours of movie watching, things he’s seen over and over again.
This section refers to specifc scenes. He has endured these tired sequences so often he has reached the point of saying:  "I could go the rest of my life without seeing any more variations on the following scenes." You will recognize most of these because you’ve seen them too. If you’re writing characters or scenes similar to the ones on the list, stop and ask yourself, “What else could I do? How else could I achieve the same goal?” And my personal favorite, also coined by OSC, "There's a thousand ways to write it right and a million ways to write it wrong."

The following scenes are used again and again because they tend to work. They evoke a certain response in us: the underdog reflex, the hero complex, love everlasting and so on. As well, some of these events have happened to us, so we relate better to the character.

I'm sure if you've seen as many movies as Roeper has then these scenes get old quickly. I don't mind some of them, if a given scene is ensconced in a great story. But consider this, there are scenes that you don't mind, there are scenes you enjoy, then there are scenes that stay with you--they are indelibly imprinted on your mind and soul. Those are the scenes that evoke the underdog/hero/love reflex and do it every time we read or watch them; just like those listed below, but they do it in a unique way. Those scenes were written by someone who said: Yeah, but what else could he do? Don't you want to be like that guy? I do.

Here's the list:

1) After hailing a cab, getting caught in traffic, jumping out of the cab, running through the streets, hijacking a moped and racing through the airport, the guy catches up with the gal just as she’s about to board the plane, and he tells her that he loves her and he doesn’t want her to go away because she completes him or whatever. The smiling flight attendants close the door to the ramp and the plane takes off, as the young lovers make out in the terminal. (One of my favorite variations of this scene is in Love Actually.)

2) A seemingly defenseless little old lady defends herself by kicking the bad guy in the balls.

3) A seemingly defenseless young lady defends herself by kicking the bad guy in the balls.

4) A seemingly defenseless little kid defends himself by kicking the bad guy in the shins.

5) In a crowded public square, a couple gets into a nasty, loud fight, but then reconciles—and everyone around them breaks into applause.

6) During a practice run on the track, a group of cocky, macho race car drivers (or motorcyclists) are blown away by a mystery driver with reckless tendencies. Just when one of the macho guys is about to punch the new young punk, the mystery driver takes off “his” helmet—and a mane of beautiful hair falls free. It’s a girl!

7) Any and all musical montages showing the weakling getting whipped into shape.

8) A year after his wife has disappeared, a man sees a woman in a crowd who looks and dresses like his wife. He chases her through the streets, finally catches up to her, says, “Honey!” and taps her on the shoulder—and she turns around and looks at him as if he’s nuts. “Sorry,” he says. “I thought you were someone else.”

9) A rogue hero gets shot in the shoulder and it doesn’t even slow him down—but late, when his girlfriend pours alcohol on the wound, and sews him up, he winces and howls in pain, and she teases him about being a big baby.

10) Dogs who greet visitors by sniffing their crotches.

11) At the conclusion of a brutal rooftop duel, the good guy is hanging over the ledge and the bad guy is cackling about this turn of events. And that’s when the good guy makes a quick move and throws the bad guy over the ledge while somehow managing to maintain his balance just long enough for the girl to regain consciousness, race over, and pull him to safety.

12) Somebody points a gun, and everyone says, “Whoa, take it easy!” Then, to prove how serious h/she is, the gun-wielding character cocks the trigger. When this happens, we know the gun will not be fired and reason will prevail.

13) An attractive woman is alone in a bar when a handsome cad approaches and tries to hit on her, much to the amusement of several guys who have already been shut down. She explains to this new guy that she’s happily married, but he keeps hitting on her. Just when we figure she’s going to throw her drink in his face, she wraps her arms around him and gives him a sexy smooch. Surprise, surprise, they’re husband and wife!

Have you got a scene that just gets you every time you watch or read it? Share it, I'd love to experience it too! Here's one of mine, gets me everytime: Costner, For Love of the Game, final out of the ninth inning. Every time!

Monday, November 2, 2009

So What? Oh Yeah? Huh? Orson Scott Card Just Tell Me You Love Me

What I'm reading right now: Your First Novel by Ann Rittenbert & Laura Whitcomb

Today's logophilic post falls more on the side of loving the way words are grouped together than the characteristics of a given word. Taking seemingly random words and arranging them in an interesting order, it is this act that drives us, whether personal, hobbyist, or within a professional context it is what we do.

Recently I attended a reading by a local author, Sara Zarr. She writes YA Fiction, more or less aimed at teenage girls, so not a genre I'm familiar with. However, after hearing her talk and listening to a reading from her new book, Once Was Lost, it was clear that she knows something about putting seemingly random words into an interesting order. I now have two of her books.

While I sat in the audience, I was fortunate enough to share a space with her husband, Gordon. During the QnA, someone asked Sara how much Gordon gets involved in the writing process. Does he give critiques? Brainstorm? Sara said, "No. He does not get involved. All I want to hear from him is good job; I love you." 

If that works for her, then good on ya. This leads me to my question: Can our loved ones read our stuff and give us valuable feedback? It's possible, yes. Tracy Hickman and his wife Laura have written many novels together, but I find that for me, when family and friends read my stuff the feedback I get is, "I like it. It's good." Sometimes I get a bit of something, "I like your voice." Don't get me wrong, I love the fact that they are willing to read anything I write and I appreciate anything they have to say. But can they do more than that, if prompted? I think yes.

Back in August of 2007, I was selected to attend Orson Scott Card's Literary Bootcamp. It is a week long writer's workshop. The first two days are open to anyone who wants to attend. The remaining four days are for the selected Bootcamp participants, usually around 15 people. You spend one day writing a brand new short story and the subsequent three days reading and critiquing everyone else's short story, which includes OSC. Yes, Orson Scott Card reads and critiques your manuscript (that's way cool. Although he does not write one of his own. How cool would that be? As if any of us would dare to critique it if he did.)

One of the things he teaches in the two day course is how to have anyone critique your work, including family and friends. It is called Oh Yeah? Huh? and So What? You simple have whoever is reading your work make a mark on the page anytime he becomes bored, distracted, or confused. As a writer, you don't want your reader to experience any of those three while reading your work. Many readers don't know why a certain section doesn't work, they just know that something is not right.

Those three categories are lesser examples of Oh Yeah? Huh? and So What? I am fortunate enough to belong to a fantastic writer's group where we give each other salient feedback. To give valuable feedback, you want to look for any instance of these three:

Oh Yeah? Questioning or challenging believability
Huh? Confusion or misunderstanding
So What? Why should I care about this? How is this relevant?

If you can get your reader/critiquer to make that distinction over just a mark, then so much the better.

I felt compelled to bring this up because OSC just announced the dates of his 2010 Literary Boot Camp and this year he is doing something new: two sessions. One in Utah and one in Virginia. If he is coming to your town, I would make every effort to attend. Check it out: Uncle Orson's Writing Class and Literary Bootcamp.

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