Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Multitasking Writer

I recently finished the second draft of my WIP and sent it off to readers. It was an awesome feeling knowing I had accomplished this. But it also put me in writing limbo. I was between drafts, stuck in a state of waiting. And because of my limbo, I slid into a writing lull as well. At first, I just breathe a sigh of relief that I finished. But then restlessness sets in: what should I work on next? should I start something new or wait until this WIP is completely done? Naturally, I fall for the Shiny New Idea in my head and begin brainstorming. I used to worry that focusing on a new idea would make me stop caring forget about my WIP. Shiny New Idea is 10X better than what I just wrote, I would tell myself. But 2012 is the Year of Finishing Stuff. And that means multitasking with my writing.

It seems a little difficult, juggling multiple projects. Different characters, different tones, different settings. But multitasking is what professional writers do. They're editing one book, promoting another, and drafting a third. When you're working with limited writing time or tight deadlines, the only way to get stuff done is to multitask. In 1992, Steven Spielberg was in post-production on Jurassic Park while he was filming Schindler's List. Nazis during the day; dinosaurs at night. Two movies that couldn't be any more dissimilar. But he multitasked and got it done. He did the same thing years later with War of the Worlds and Munich. In 1999, Robert Zemeckis was filming Cast Away starring Tom Hanks. He filmed all the before/after island scenes first, then took a long hiatus to allow Hanks to emaciate himself. Instead of spending that downtime lounging on his couch watching reruns of Wings, he filmed an entirely separate movie: supernatural thriller What Lies Beneath with Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer. Many TV actors also make good use of their summer hiatuses by squeezing in movie roles. Only a pro like Melissa McCarthy could go from Mike & Molly to Bridesmaids.

TV writers staffed on multiple series have to juggle different characters and plotlines. Chuck Lorre produces both Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory. While tonally both shows are the same (laugh track comedies), the characters and comedic rhythms are not. Ryan Murphy wrote American Horror Story and Glee concurrently -- two shows nobody would ever group together.

It's ok to succumb to the Shiny New Idea. We're human. We crave new things. A Shiny New Idea can energize us, inspire us to jump back into writing. But it shouldn't take up all of our brainpower. We have to learn to juggle projects new and old. It's all about multitasking. On the bright side, if you can manage this, then you'll never be bored.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Why I Fear for the Catching Fire Movie

I was worried about The Hunger Games movie living up to expectations and not trying to become the next Twilight. Luckily, the movie succeeded and has been a runaway smash. It was well-liked by critics and fans, and outgrossed every single Twilight and Harry Potter film. I was grateful that the film didn't shy away from the dark tone of the book. But just when I stopped worrying about The Hunger Games, I began to fear for Catching Fire.

With Catching Fire, Lionsgate, the producer, is trying to make a release date - not a good movie. Eight months before The Hunger Games was released, they had already staked out a release date for Catching Fire. November 22, 2013. The Twilight and Harry Potter sequels came out in quick succession, and Lionsgate wanted to follow that trajectory. I guess in our short-attention-span age, they worry that some other phenomenon will overshadow Hunger Games in the next two years and make Catching Fire a non-event. But then the director of the Hunger Games, Gary Ross, dropped out of Catching Fire, because he wouldn't have enough time to make that release date. The movie needs to begin shooting by the fall to make the November release date- so all writing, pre-production, costumes, etc have to be ready to go by then. Instead of pushing it back, Lionsgate frantically searched for another director.

Why is it so important to make this Thanksgiving release date? Because Harry Potter and Twilight once occupied it? Hunger Games came out in the middle of March and has earned close to $400 million. Obviously, release date doesn't matter to fans. But now, everyone on Catching Fire will be rushing. And when we rush, we tend to get sloppy. Catching Fire is a more complicated book. The story isn't as straightforward as The Hunger Games. Half of it is the Victory Tour, the other half is the Quarter Quell. You don't want to get sloppy adapting this book. Yes, you can create a shoddy film and it will still make piles of money. But that'll piss off your fans and keep them from Mockingjay. You don't want The Hunger Games to become the new Matrix trilogy.

First Matrix (1999) = awesome. Grossed $171M
Matrix Reloaded (May 2003)  = confusing, annoying, overall disliked. Grossed $281M
Matrix Revolutions (November 2003) = slightly better, but people had already given up. Grossed $134M

Because of the tight timing, they had a limited pool of available directors to draw from. So they went with Francis Lawrence. I'm not sure how I feel about this. Lawrence went from directing music videos to making films like I Am Legend, Constantine, and Water for Elephants. I liked I Am Legend, but I have heard bad things about the other two. It seems that Lawrence is great with visuals, but not with story or character. We need a director who can bring The Hunger Games to the next level, the way Alfonso Cuaron did with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Catching Fire delves further into the main relationships and the mythology of Panem. You need a director who can handle those elements carefully. I'm not sure if Lawrence can pull that off. I don't care about the flashy action scenes as much as I do about the characters. Maybe he will surprise me. I'm holding out hope.

I must sound like those typical fanboys that criticize every decision made about their favorite franchises. I just don't get the obsession with trying to make an arbitrary release date. Whatever happens with Catching Fire, I'll still see it probably. I might not like it, but it's besides the point.

And I guess that's good enough for Lionsgate.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

When Fact and Fiction Collide

All writers get their inspiration from real life. Even if you imagined your new WIP out of thin air, chances are, you can trace those thoughts to a real life trigger. Suzanne Collins got inspired to write The Hunger Games while channel surfing. As a fan of non-fiction, I love when the writer can take an actual event and turn it into a gripping story. They delve deeper and find hidden meaning in the facts. Here are some of my favorite examples of clever uses of fact in your fiction.

Six Degrees of Separation by John Guare (Broadway play)
plot: A black con-man charms his way into the homes of uber-wealthy Upper East Side couples, passing himself off as the son of Sidney Poitier.
How much actually happened? 75% Con man David Hampton did charm his way into high society homes in the early 80s. Some of his marks were Gary Sinise and Melanie Griffith. John Guare's friends also fell victim. They let Hampton stay in their guest bedroom, and they found him in bed with another man the next morning. (That exact scene made it into the play.)
Where fiction took over: Guare took this news item and turned it into a play that explored race, class, and the inter-connectedness of the world. Six Degrees revolved around fictional couple the Kittridges, who were profoundly effected by their night with Paul, even as they turn him into an anecdote they tell at parties.
Where fact and fiction diverged: In the play, Paul is eventually arrested and nobody knows what happened to him, or even what his real name was. In real life, Hampton went in and out of jail for the next twenty years, conning families from NY to Seattle before dying in 2003.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (novel)
plot: On an ordinary day in sleepy Holcomb, Kansas, the entire Clutter family is murdered without warning or reason. The book traces the investigation, capture, and ultimate execution of the two killers.
How much actually happened? 100% Capote transcribed conversations with dozens of people involved in the case, and the killers, too. Every word is true, he claimed.
Where fiction took over: All the events and conversations were fact, but Capote's brilliant, beautiful writing kept it from sounding like a news article.
Real-life inspiration: Capote first read about the murders in a 300-word blurb as he casually flipped through The New York Times one day. His desire to learn more, to understand who would do such a thing, prompted him to travel to Kansas and begin his research.

Mean Girls by Tina Fey (movie)
plot: New girl in school Cady Heron gets adopted by popular clique The Plastics and its evil, yet seductive leader Regina George, whom she both idolizes and plots to destroy.
How much actually happened? 10% The movie is based on a self-help book for mothers of teenage daughters called Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughters Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence by Rosalind Wiseman. Fey took real-life examples from the book and wove it into her screenplay. The scene, for instance, where one of the Plastics explains to Cady the rules for eating at their lunch table, was transcribed almost verbatim.
Where fiction took over: The characters and plot are all made up, yet they are inspired by the factual examples laid forth in Wiseman's book.

What are some of your favorite non-fiction works or "based on a true story" works?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Good Dialogue is like Flirting

The best advice I ever read about writing was this: If the scene is about what the scene is about, then you're in deep sh*t. In other words, it's all about subtext. Without subtext, you have no book. Dialogue is where subtext is needed the most. And to write good dialogue, the characters must be flirting.

This doesn't mean that all your characters must be trying to jump each other's bones.

On the Nose is a popular expression when discussing bad dialogue. It means that the character is saying verbatim what the writer is trying to express. That equals bland dialogue. Nobody talks like that, and your readers won't enjoy it. For dialogue to snap, crackle, and pop, there must always be subtext. What's going on beneath the words. If what the character is thinking and what they're saying is the same, then there is no subtext, no hidden layer for the reader to relish. In other words, you're in deep sh*t.

We don't talk like this in real life when we're gabbing with our friends and family. We say what's on our mind. The main time when we immediately switch to talking with subtext is when we flirt. Have you ever seen two people flirt? On the surface, they are having a regular conversation. But their body language is having a different discussion, and it's all about sex. What they are talking about has very little to do with their objective. That's something to strive for in your dialogue.

Which scene is more entertaining to read:

"You're very pretty and I want to kiss you," Guy says. He runs his fingers down Girl's arm.
"You're also cute and I want to make out right now," Girl says. She blushes and interlocks her fingers in his.
They kiss.


"I heard that it rains in Seattle ten months out of the year," Guy says. He runs his fingers down Girl's arm.
She blushes and interlocks her fingers in his. "Doesn't it ever snow there?"
"I guess not."
"So no white Christmas for them."
"Sad but true."
They kiss.

Both scenes accomplish the same thing and have the same description. But which was more entertaining to read? The first conversation had no subtext. Their words and body language were in sync. In the second scenario, their conversation has nothing to do with what's going on between them, and yet it works. If this were just smalltalk, it would put readers to sleep. But here, talking about the weather only increases the tension, making for an exciting read.  

Not all scenes you write will be as exciting as a kiss scene, but that's not an excuse to write bland dialogue. If the scene is about what the scene is about, then you're in deep sh*t. Jot down what your characters' objectives and feelings are in the scene and write their dialogue as far from that as you can. Remember, we are creatures of contradiction. We push people away when we need them the most. We are cordial to people we loathe, and rude to the ones we love. Our friends' happiness can make us miserable. That's what makes us interesting.