don’t mind me, i’m just taking up space

Sometimes you look back on your week and wonder where all the time went. I don’t work a lot. Well, I mean 35 hours a week is a lot to me, but there are a lot of people who work much more. And I don’t really have any hobbies. I started working out, but that doesn’t really eat into my schedule. I write. Okay, now that takes some time, especially since I spend more time thinking about what to write than actually writing. I watch TV. Occasionally. Hell, I’ve only seen the first two episodes of this season’s The Walking Dead! (I watch other shows, I’m just being specific about that one.) But we come to Friday, and I try to figure out why I felt like I accomplished so little. And why I don’t want to do anything else for the rest of the weekend. Like write this post.

But here I am, running on fumes–creatively. Let’s see what happens.

I’m a really quiet guy. I mean, really quiet. In the past, I have been accused of being a (real-life) lurker. I prefer to think of myself as practicing to be Batman. I stand there, all quiet, and no one realizes I’m there until they turn around and whoa! Hey, sup? No, I haven’t been here long. Yeah, I know I didn’t make any noise. Maybe I should wear a bell around my neck?

My quietness extends even further. I don’t usually say hi to people, family, friends, strangers, acquaintances, anyone. Why? I don’t know. I just don’t. If someone says hi to me, sure, I’ll reciprocate. I’m not a dick. I just… seem to be one sometimes. It’s hard for me to fill the space with words whose only value is social. Hi. How are you? What have you been up to? How do you feel? Etc. How other people manage to do that on a regular, several times a day basis completely blows me away.

What it all comes down to, though, is that I leave a very light social footprint. Not sure what I mean? You’ve heard of carbon footprint, right? And you’re familiar with the concept of a footprint in general, I assume. Social footprints, then, refer to people’s general awareness of your existence in a normal social setting. I’ve gone to parties without anyone even noticing I dropped in. I swing by an old haunt, and nobody sees me. Seriously. I’m Batman or something.

I wouldn’t even qualify as an extra, if life was a film. You notice the presence or absence of extras, even if you don’t really notice the extras themselves. (Sort of like black holes. You don’t see them, but you know they’re there by the effect they have.) Now let me be perfectly clear. This isn’t a rant. I’m not complaining about anything. I’m just pointing out a recently-discovered realization. I’m okay with being the ghost in the room. Except when I need to actually make my presence felt. Then it gets tricky.

Writers need to self-promote, and they need to be bold about it. Even audacious, I daresay. Would-be authors or screenwriters just can’t be bashful when talking about a project. I’m pretty sure I covered this on a previous post, but it bears repeating.

Interestingly, this also has some storytelling application. Your characters need to serve a purpose. They can’t just sit there on the page, taking up space, doing nothing. The hero, the love interest, the villain, the foil, the audience. If you find a character in your story that doesn’t play a part, then you should think about cutting him, her, or it. Or even better, combine said character with another character of middling value to make a character of higher value. This happens all the time in adaptation from one medium to another. Book to screen writers learn how to do this, because cinema places an even higher premium on storytelling room. (Ironically, cinema also maximizes the use of background. That is, extras and characters who appear on the screen as, well, background.) If you can tell your story, beat for beat, theme for theme, without a certain character, I suggest you seriously question whether you keep that character. For first-time authors, (maybe even second-time authors), word count has some importance. Not a ton. Don’t start ticking off words like calories. But I think the old adage of “less is more” applies in storytelling. It definitely does in screenwriting. Write big, but write with economy. Don’t use a cast of ten when a cast of five can serve the same exact function.

Don’t get me wrong. I love ensemble casts. Six characters was perfect for Friends. Game of Thrones definitely wouldn’t be the same story with a more traditional-sized cast. Parks & RecCommunity, even Downton Abbey all depend heavily on a rich ensemble. On the other hand, Lost could’ve definitely been improved by some belt-tightening with its ensemble run amok. And Heroes. The list could go on.

We writers have something to say, right? Try to make it count.

adversity

It pretty much drives the story, doesn’t it? Some would say it is the story.

It also drives real life. I faced a recent setback, serious enough for me to stop and take measure. Unfortunately, I don’t deal very well with serious adversity. I tend to ignore, deny, pretend, avoid, eat, sleep, play, cry, write, eat again, and many more things. Not good. I’ve been in worse places in my life. I’ve been in better. I’m at that middle ground, I guess. I have a roof over my head, and I don’t have to worry about where my next meal is coming from. I have access to a computer and the internet. I have clothes on my back and a car to drive to work. But I’m not totally independent. In fact, I’m not really independent at all. I’m facing some significant financial issues. And, as my mom has pointed out, I’m single. (Thanks, Mom.)

But I’m a writer, and I’m writing. And for me, that’s really all I need. That is, if I wasn’t writing, if I had the block (which has happened before), then I’d probably admit that my life kind of sucks. As it turns out, I tend to write a lot more when things aren’t going well.

When I write fiction, (which is pretty much the only thing I write), I love conflict. I enjoy–maybe pathologically–putting my characters through the most harrowing circumstances. Kill people off, maim them, break up happy couples, it’s all much more interesting to me than when things are going well. When I watch TV, I have  a very complicated love/hate for seeing my own favorite characters suffer their own personal hell. I love it, because I know there’s a point to it. (At least I hope so, trusting the writer/producer knows how to craft a story.) And then I also hate it, because to me, pain–even the fictional kind–isn’t that fun to watch for individuals I care about. It’s been a rough season for beloved TV characters, too. (Downton Abbey and Person of Interest come to mind. And let’s not forget addictive killing-sprees like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead!) Even when it tears us up, even when we throw the remote, we thrive on adversity.

Maybe because we hope the deeper the valley, the greater the glory when our hero/heroine climbs out of it. Rare is the show or movie (or book?) that will take us on a suck-fest without showing us some light at the end of the tunnel. I mean, I’m a narrative sadist, but even I know that life isn’t just a series of bummers. There’s good in the bad. There’s mercy. There’s balance.

Like my job. It’s great, no doubt. I love it. It’s 95% peaceful, giving me time to think, chat a little with co-workers, and sometimes even read or write a little. (Not much, of course.) But it’s the 5% that’s really not that great at all.

Like my “love life.” Yes, I’m single. No, I don’t really love that, not being able to chat with someone special about philosophy and pie, TVD and Joseph Campbell, politics and Halo. I definitely miss the physical stuff. (Not just sex, you pervs.) But I must also admit, I love the independence. I love not being accountable to a significant others. I love having my time for me.

Like tonight. My buddy at work fixed my old desktop–which is a wonderful thing since I paid out the yin-yang for it years ago. But I needed him to fix it because my new desktop broke and is in the shop. (Yes, I know, first world problems. But they’re still problems!) I wasn’t even sure I’d get the chance to toss up a post tonight, which would have been absolutely unforgivable. I had planned it to be every Thursday, and clearly the last few have been on Fridays. To bump it to Saturday would have been a surrender that I just didn’t want to accept.

Anyway, I may have gotten a little OT. I was talking about adversity. As many of us who may have taken an English class, literature course, or gone to film school know, characters evolve through conflict. It’s sort of the water and sunshine to their chlorophyll. Without an antagonist, without obstacles to overcome, our characters–main and supporting–stagnate. They don’t grow. They don’t change. Characters that don’t grow get boring. Okay, so yes, Joey from Friends pretty much stayed the dumb Don Juan all ten seasons, but he did mature in some ways. He learned some degree of responsibility, purpose, and even the value of platonic love. Maybe it’s a stretch, but that’s how I saw it, otherwise I never would have survived ten years of that show. I definitely wouldn’t have put up with daily DVD marathons of it in college with my Friends-fanatic roommate. And I’m not going to talk about animated shows. They play by different rules. But animated films don’t. Disney, Dreamworks, and all the rest understand that the hero/heroine must face a major challenge and must come out the other side a changed person.

I recently had to stop and examine my own book. Oh sure, it’s full of action, violence, and conflict, but did my hero face a personal challenge? What was it? Was she changed by the end of it? Thankfully, yes, I could check those things off, and that brought me one step closer to completion. But I still have hurdles ahead before I can step back and say it’s ready. Finish editing, add one last scene, proof it. Or if I go another route, the route I prefer, find an editor–a significant challenge in itself. I know so many writers, but so few editors.

Well, hopefully, I’ve made a little headway on that. I have a couple of possibilities that I’m in the process of following up. We’ll see how it goes. Then… then… well, I guess then on to the next conflict!

On Writing: Theme

They say every writer’s got something to say.

So I figured maybe it was time I shared some of my thoughts on writing itself. You know, good writing or bad writing. The seven steps or whatever. I think many of us know in our heads what good storytelling/writing is, but we may experience difficulty communicating that to others (ironically). Even more ironic, I had this whole big thing worked out in my head about what I was going to say on this topic. But, as with most other things I write, I may have very little “to say” after all.

It’s my opinion that good writing–that is, a good story–doesn’t need to have a message or theme to be good. Some have entertainment value, and sometimes that’s good enough. Although, I think one of those things (message/theme) will happen organically, anyway. Focus on the story. Don’t stress on what you’re “trying to say.” I’ve fallen into this before. In high school, we’re forced to read some of the classics. For me, it was Shakespeare’s primary four plays (Romeo & JulietKing LearMacbeth, and Hamlet), Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and This Side of Paradise, and a handful of lesser known classics by Bellow, Salinger, and Ellison. Certainly, those guys knew how to weave theme into their storytelling, but I wonder how much of that was deliberate. I’ve noticed that critics can really turn, well, critiquing into its own art form. Was Fitzgerald providing a social commentary on the Roaring 20’s in Gatsby? Or was he writing more from personal experience and describing his own emotional turmoils at the time? Maybe both.

When I was younger, I had dreams of seeing my name among those giants. Ahh, the masters of 20th Century literature. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Orwell, Steinbeck, Tolkien, Vonnegut, Marquez, Faulkner… me. And so on. As I’ve matured, my interests as a reader and a writer have evolved. Now I aspire to the company of writers like Martin, Erikson, Jordan, Herbert, McCaffrey, Le Guin, Zelazny, Pratchett, Donaldson, Butcher, Roddenberry, and Whedon. If you’re familiar with the last two, we should probably be friends. If you’re not, well… look ’em up. (Hint, look up Star Trek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.) It’s a fantastic genre (no pun intended), perfectly designed for the integration of theme.

When I was in film school, my teachers constantly drilled us about what we were really trying to say in any given scene. What’s the emotional investment? What are the stakes? I always hated that, but it was hard to argue with. As readers/viewers, we’re always looking to be provoked, engaged, drawn in. The best way, maybe the only way is through our emotions. Whether it’s through the painful ending of a relationship or the thrilling theatrics of a car chase, if we aren’t feeling it, it’s not working. Maybe you’re thinking, well it’s hard to put theme into an action-oriented story. Yeah, I can see that. I wrestle with that dilemma (allegedly) in my writer’s group. Sometimes, they disconnect from what I’ve shared. Usually when that happens, it’s because I’ve brought in something action-y. But sometimes, they’re sucked in. And when that happens, it’s most often because I’ve brought in some meaty relationship stuff. I think I’m digressing a little from my original topic, and I’m sorry for that, but trust me, this is all related. (And there’s no way I’m gonna delete all this!)

Emotion. Theme. Message. Truth. Their relationship to story is like food’s relationship to flavor. Which is which? Oh, I don’t know. I can get all kinds of tangled up in arranging metaphor and simile. You figure it out. The point is, it’s very hard to write a good story without theme. Maybe impossible. I’m not sure… that’s an interesting challenge. Write a compelling story that has absolutely nothing to say about anything… hmm. I don’t know. We write what we know, and unless we’re emotionally dead inside, we have things to say–about everything. Love sucks. Love is great. Friendship above all. Friends are useless. People are good. People suck. Money is the root of all evil. Money can buy happiness. All truths (themes) we may have experienced at one time or another, and are more than likely going to find themselves in our writing at some point in time. (Careful now, I might start waxing philosophical.)

But no. I’m always running short on time. There’s another theme. There’s never enough time.

i’m not procrastinating, i’m sick

That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.

But seriously, I am sick. And I’m also a procrastinator. When the two come together, it pretty much means I stop doing anything except eat, breathe, and sleep. All essential, sure, but soul-crushing for creativity. Of course, add depression to the mix, and I guess the deck is fully stacked against me. Sometimes I take that as an excuse to temporarily give up. I think we’ve all been there. We run dry on inspiration. Real life kicks us in the crotch. Financial worries flare into financial crises. Or we get sick, like me. (It started as a cold but has transmorphed into a sinus infection.)

Or regular, everyday concerns intrude. We need to spend time with the family, the spouse, the kids, friends, raid team (shout out to WoW!) etc. We have to work. We need to run errands, shop for groceries, pay bills, go for a jog. Again, these are all real, important things. I don’t mean to demean any of them. I do all of them myself–except spend time with family or friends. (Yeah, I’m kind of a hermit.) I’ve been given these reasons by other talented writers before right before they tell me they don’t really have time to work on their book/script/whatever. Sadly, I missed out on working with a brilliant writing partner because she just didn’t have the time she thought she had. I’m not judging, and I’m definitely not saying it was the wrong decision for her to put writing on the backburner for the foreseeable future.

But I think there is always going to be something that threatens to get in the way of taking the time to sit down and write. That’s life. Isn’t it? My personal favorite–the reason I most often use–is that I need to clear out the clutter on my DVR. Which is… pretty full of this and that. I won’t provide a list of what… maybe for another blog. And it’s true, watching TV and movies can fill the brain with ideas, with motivation, definitely a lot of interesting imagery. Great tools for creativity, especially when you’re running on empty. Oh yeah, and I’ve recently gotten hooked on Assassin’s Creed. (It’s a video game.) I like the story, the artwork, the characters (sort of). I’m definitely making it harder for myself, and now my desktop is headed into the shop for about a month to get fixed. I have some serious adjusting to do to keep active writing.

My point is, if you’re a serious writer, I mean a SERIOUS NEED-TO-BE-PUBLISHED writer, then you will absolutely make writing a part of your schedule, as fixed and unbreakable as dinner or taking a shower. Sometimes it takes a while to write something–as I’m discovering in this blog post–so sometimes you may need to allocate more time or longer sessions, whichever way works best. Sometimes you might reach your writing goals faster than expected. As I’ve been told by other writers (who’ve made it their full time job) that when you reach your goal, call it a day instead of going on.

My goal is, and has been for a while, to finish my book. I “finished” it last year, but in the process of editing I discovered it needed some serious work here and there. So that remains my primary goal. But I have a writing partner currently in New York who’s also counting on me to carry my weight in the TV pilot we’re developing. Then there are a couple of other script projects that are very important to me: a web series and a full rewrite of A Shallow Grave. But the book comes first, because I need to send out more query letters as soon as I finish my major edits. I don’t have specific daily goals, but I have a pretty good idea of when I’ve done enough for the day, and I’ve reached a level of honesty with myself that I can admit if I’ve fallen short. The thing is, editing is hard work and so unlike writing. I’m still figuring out how it goes.

Speaking of, I have some more editing to get done before I call it a night.