Writing Sympathetic Characters, Never Giving Up, & the Fine Line Between Clever and Stupid: Lessons from the 2006 Austin Film Festival
Part 1 of 3

by Jay Robison

Paper Coach : Teach Yourself to Write (A Fiction Writing Course)

I didn't attend as much of the Austin Film Festival this year as I would have liked, but I still went to a good panel, and two post-screening Q&A's where I gleaned some great writing wisdom. Good advice can come from anywhere for an aspiring writer, even Bobcat Goldthwait.

PART 1 - Sydney Pollack and the Value of Rewrites (or, "There's a fine line between clever and stupid")

We all know that principle number one of writing is "kill your babies," right? We can never, ever be afraid of changing what we write, because far more often than not change will be for the better.

Consider, if you will, the movie Tootsie. It was written by Larry Gelbart, a screenwriter best known for adapting M*A*S*H from the movies to television (along with some uncredited work by Elaine May, wife and writing partner of writer/director Mike Nichols). According to Sydney Pollack, the first version of Tootsie had the main character as an embittered tennis pro who dons drag to become a female tennis player who then wins. Basically, this now-classic comedy, which had about a half-dozen Oscar nominations, was a rewrite removed from being Juwanna Mann.

It's easy to believe that what you write is absolutely brilliant from the moment you set it down on the page. On some level, I think you have to believe that as a writer—regardless of whether you intend to be published or produced—because to put a story on paper means that you intend to share it with others. But as writers, our first pass, or even our second or third, is rarely our best version of a story. I've found this to be true regardless of whether I'm writing prose or screenplays. Even the short stories I've managed to sell have gone through a minimum of two or three drafts, and that's when I've been lucky.

I'll share my experience here, limited though it is. I've had three story sales so far, all to Eric Flint's Grantville Gazette, an anthology series for stories set in the world of his alternate history novel 1632 and its sequels. My second published story started life as a sprawling epic that dealt with the invention of a press corps, the re-invention of the phonograph record, and a high-profile trial in this fictional universe where the 17th century meets the 21st. It turned out to be too sprawling. Even as I wrote the story, all my instincts were telling me that this piece was getting bigger and not really going anywhere. Paula Goodlet, the copy editor for the Grantville Gazette, suggested I make some major cuts, specifically the phonograph subplot.

I agreed. Eventually, I ended up cutting the story in two—very much to the benefit of both subplots. Part one was published in Grantville Gazette #6 under the title "Mightier Than the Sword;" part two, which I titled "Trials," will probably see the light of day at some point.

So remember: kill your babies! If you want to be published or produced as a writer, you never know what crucial change may make the difference between your story languishing in your file cabinet and appearing on the page or on screen. It is the difference between a classic like Tootsie and a turkey like Juwanna Mann. Or to quote the immortal David St. Hubbins of Spinal Tap: "There's a fine line between clever and stupid."


Thoughts As I Go #4: Love and Detail

Paper Coach : Teach Yourself to Write (A Fiction Writing Course)

I want to share a quotation from Julia Cameron's The Right to Write. If you haven't gathered it already, I like this book, what it says, and what I feel it doing to my head.

Here's the quotation:

"It is a great paradox that the more personal, focused, and specific your writing becomes, the more universally it communicates...specificity is freedom."
- Julia Cameron, The Right to Write

This is the conclusion of a discussion speaking to the difference between technical skill and profound emotional force. These two things (skill and force) are independent. Obviously, the best art happens when skill and force are both at their highest peak. But skill can be low, emotional force high, and we might prefer that work over a piece where skill is high but emotional force only middling.

I picture two overlapping sine waves. The intersection between skill and force denoting any given work. But that's just me.


Nugget #6: How much to write each day?

Paper Coach : Teach Yourself to Write (A Fiction Writing Course)

"...the best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck."
- Ernest Hemingway


Weekly Writing Prompt #4

Paper Coach : Teach Yourself to Write (A Fiction Writing Course)

Write a story that starts with these words: insane, squeegee, and pickle.

Feel free to post your results as comments.


Thoughts As I Go #3: Reader Disqualification

Paper Coach : Teach Yourself to Write (A Fiction Writing Course)

Working on Creative Activation (with The Right to Write), I was struck by Julia Cameron's comments on people who pick at little imperfections instead of appreciating the goodness of the bigger picture.

The sentence that really hit home was:

"...When people cannot see the larger picture of what it is we are trying to do, they will pick out some detail and pick at that."
- Julia Cameron, The Right to Write.

Do people in your life do this to you? If so, why? Generally speaking I don't have friends who are stupid, lack insight, or not inclined toward the arts. So if they miss all the good stuff and instead pick at small imperfections, what's the motivation? Do they imagine they are helping me?

I find at least two practical lessons here:

1. A nitpicky response immediately knocks a person off my list of readers. Why expose myself to that kind of disappointment for no gain to my writing?

2. When I offer criticism or suggestions, I will strive to always begin with what I think is good or what I enjoyed in someone's work -- without lying.


Weekly Progress Post #2

Paper Coach : Teach Yourself to Write (A Fiction Writing Course)

Phase:1, Month:1, Week:2
Phase:1, Month:1, Week:3

Cameron, Julia. The Right to Write: An Invitation...
Phillips, Larry W. Ernest Hemingway on Writing

This post is late. Five days into week three already. Since this is the second time, it suggests to me that my initial goal of doing one chapter a day was optimistic. At this rate, I'm doing one chapter every 2.1 days. Ok then. If that's my rate, that's my rate. But I do need to lose the thought of one chapter a day, or I'll become depressed and frustrated. So! 1 chapter ever 2 days it is.

Chapter 8, "Mood" was revealing. But I've really enjoyed reading my Mentoring & Encouragement selection, Ernest Hemingway on Writing. I've even found grammar interesting.

None at this time, really. Just sticking with the typing over longhand.

As mentioned above, I'm changing my pacing to match actual performance. No changes to the plan at this time.


Nugget #5: Essential Gift for a Good Writer

Paper Coach : Teach Yourself to Write (A Fiction Writing Course)

All these nuggets won't always be Hemingway. That's just what the course suggests for Mentoring & Encouragement, right now.

Meanwhile, I love this quotation:

"The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector. This is the writer's radar and all great writers have had it."
- Ernest Hemingway

New Vocabulary #1

Paper Coach : Teach Yourself to Write (A Fiction Writing Course)

I decided to share new vocabulary words (and their definitions) as I come across them. Here's the first one:

Scud, Scudded, Scudding

Intransitive Verb
1. to move or run swiftly especially as if driven forward
2. to run before a gale
3. Said especially of clouds: to sweep quickly and easily across the sky

4. Cloud, rain or spray driven by the wind

16c German or Middle Dutch schudden, to shake

Weekly Writing Prompt #3

Paper Coach : Teach Yourself to Write (A Fiction Writing Course)

Write the first page a story. Use these words: customer service, fling, and blue dice.

Feel free to post your results as comments!


Nugget #4: What do Hemingway and Schwarzenegger Have in Common?

Paper Coach : Teach Yourself to Write (A Fiction Writing Course)

I was reading in my Mentoring and Encouragement selection (Ernest Hemingway on Writing), and I came across this nugget (paraphrase):

"...make the person who is reading them believe that the things happened to him too...make the story so real beyond any reality that it will become part of the reader's experience and a part of his memory. There must be things that he did not notice when he read the story or the novel which without his knowing it, enter into his memory and experience so that they are a part of his life. This is not easy to do." - Ernest Hemingway

Is Hemingway advocating a sort of guerilla warfare of the spirit? People form opinions and beliefs on the basis of their experience. If writers can insert experiences into people's lives, then writers can change peoples opinions and beliefs.

Does it makes sense to try to do this with our work? Or would the very act of trying sabotage the story's effectiveness in this regard? Or would we just wind up preaching to the choir? And does that suggest we should trick our readers: try to write the kinds of stories we wouldn't normally write and infuse them with the potentially revolutionary experiences we would normally write? Thus luring the non-choir into a literary ambush of the spirit, so to speak.

These thoughts reminded me of Terminator 2, where the underlying moral message is, suprisingly, that it's bad to kill people. In Terminator 2?! Was this a hidden attempt to persuade a violence loving audience off guns and violence? A literary ambush of the spirit?

That is how Ernest Hemingway led me to Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Thoughts As I Go #2: Stressing Out

Paper Coach : Teach Yourself to Write (A Fiction Writing Course)

I'm behind again this week (more personal crisis), but catching up. The good news is that early in the first phase it is easy to catch up. This is by design. Later, the course gets more intense (assuming I want to keep the phases roughly equal months. Maybe that's a bad idea?), which requires discipline. The idea is that an easier first phase helps writing become habitual, so that by the time I'm tackling tougher material (where it really needs to be done non-stop, no breaks, no weeks off), the regularity is there and no need to work at it. Maybe this is just silly, and I should let it take however long it takes? On the one hand, I think some discipline is required. On the other, too much pressure can turn a joyous act into a painful slog. So where is the line between too much stress and not enough?


Weekly Progress Post #1

Paper Coach : Teach Yourself to Write (A Fiction Writing Course)
Phase:1, Month:1, Week:1
Cameron, Julia. The Right to Write: An Invitation...

I'm a little late with this first progress post, and I did not meet my goal of hitting a chapter per day in The Right to Write. My excuse is that a disaster hit my life this past week, and I had to give it all my attention.

Am I the only one who finds it tough to believe that it's ok if I didn't accomplish what I set out to do, because something difficult got in the way -- even when its true? I feel that if I let something difficult get in the way all the time, then I won't ever write, will I? Where exactly is the line between forgiving oneself and making excuses? I think this is a question about procrastination in general and not writing in particular, but I do hope I figure out an answer one of these days.

In fairness to myself, I think it makes my disaster this past week an explanation and not an excuse. On to the progress post:

This week I planned to read and do one exercise per day from Julia Cameron's The Right to Write. Well, like I said, I didn't do that. Instead, I read and did the exercises for 5 chapters. 2 shy, which, in retrospect isn't as bad as I thought.

Now why did I feel like I'd done 10% of what I set out to do, when I really did 71.4%? Kind of dysfunctionally unfair, self-injustice if not outright self-destructive. I'll have to work on that.

Since all the material came from one book, it's hard to pick a highlight. That said, Chapt 2 "Let Yourself Write" made an impression on me. If nothing else, it showed me how many bad opinions about my being a writer I've swallowed over the years. The exercise at the end of the chapter (all the exercises in Cameron's book are at the ends of chapters) helped vomit up a bunch of that injestion, which was a relief from a pressure I hadn't fully appreciated that I suffer(ed). Definitely thought provoking.

Cameron frequently talks about doing her exercises in longhand. In fact, she insists on the importance of longhand, but frankly, I type far more offten than I write longhand. Typing to me is more natural and self-connective; so, I'm going to keep typing instead of switching to longhand. Maybe I should try it first and see if there's any real difference?

Other than that, no concept has been all that puzzling (just stimulating). Interestingly, I described some of what I'm doing to my wife, and she (an ABD PhD in clinical psych) thinks that some of Cameron's exercises bear similarity to the more successful therapeutic approaches favored by congitive psychology.

I ascribe falling short of the plan to neither over-agressive objectives nor a failure in the material. Sometimes life just happens, and there's not much to do about it.

No changes planned at this time.


Weekly Writing Prompt #2

Paper Coach : Teach Yourself to Write (A Fiction Writing Course)

Write the first page of a story. Use these words: scarves, carbon, and sea horse.

Please feel free to post your story page as a comment.


Nugget #3

Paper Coach : Teach Yourself to Write (A Fiction Writing Course)

"Develop interest in life as you see it; in people, things, literature, music - the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls, and interesting people. Forget yourself."
- Henry Miller