Wednesday, June 29, 2011

“A Tale Shall Accomplish Something”: Writing Advice from Mark Twain

Image via Free Stock Photos
How do you know if you’ve actually written a story? How do you know if your story is, in fact, a story and not a vignette, a scene, or something else?

Mark Twain was answering these same questions nearly 120 years ago. In a scathing critique entitled “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” Twain took to task a popular author who violated 18 rules that govern good story telling. You can read the entire list at the link, but today we’ll concern ourselves with Rule # 1:

. . . a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.

It sounds simple, yet it's easy to violate this rule. Writers often complete stories that arrive nowhere or accomplish nothing. The situation established at the beginning of the story remains unchanged, and so does the main character.

This happens because the writer fails to consider one simple but all-important question: What has changed for the character as a result of the story?

The Illusion of Change

It’s easy to understand how writers violate this rule. As human beings, we have a built-in resistance to change. Change is scary. It’s often hard. It forces us to step into the unknown. And because we hate taking those steps, we resist the notion of making our characters take them as well.

Popular genres sometimes reinforce the notion that the “illusion of change” is an acceptable substitute for the real deal. In comics, Spider-Man can change his costume—but the new costume turns out to be an alien symbiote and, before long, Spidey is back in his red-and-blue longjohns. In the various Star Trek series, characters get promoted—which means they add an extra collar pip and sometimes take on a new position aboard the ship or space station—but these changes are cosmetic. They do not alter the character, his relationships, or his role on the show.

Instead, what passes for "accomplishing something" in most genre fiction is that the good guys win. After a long, harrowing struggle, they defeat the bad guys and all is right with the universe.

And that’s okay to a point. However, a story becomes predictable if it ends exactly where the reader thinks it should.

Changes that Stay with the Reader

So, what did Twain mean? How do you know if your story has accomplished something or arrived somewhere?

Twain provides a sterling example in his own novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Throughout the book, Huck shares adventures with a runaway slave, Jim. Even though Jim becomes Huck’s friend, mentor, and ally, Huck—raised to believe that slavery is justified by the Bible—continues to see Jim as property of his owner, Miss Watson. However, when Jim is recaptured, Huck and his friend, Tom Sawyer, scheme to free him—even though doing so means not only violating the law but that Huck will “go to hell.”

Huck’s change in attitude shows us that the tale has indeed “accomplished something” and “arrived somewhere.” Would Huck have made the same choice at the beginning of the novel? Probably not—hence the need for going through all those adventures with Jim.

Huck undergoes this change without altering his clothes or saving the world. Nor does he have to become a completely different character.  Deep, personal changes such as this make a story worthwhile and resonate with readers.

What do you think? How does your character change?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

An Immodest Proposal: Use Absurdity to Jump-start Your Creativity

As writers, we often get hamstrung by the demands of the craft: the need to write something every day, to say something relevant, insightful, or pithy.  We can give ourselves writer’s block if we strive too hard to say something meaningful on the first draft.

There’s another way to approach writing.  Be absurd.

Be silly.  Be outlandish.  Make an argument that no one would take seriously. 

I experienced the value of doing this in my comp class this week.  While preparing to write a proposal, the class read an essay that was pure satire—a genre that ridicules a particular foible or shortcoming to make a serious point, usually by shaming the audience into changing its ways.  The classic example of satire is Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” in which he advised that the way to solve the problem of overpopulation in 18th century Ireland was to eat Irish babies.

No one, of course, took Swift seriously.  But his “proposal” called attention to the callous attitudes many had toward the poor.

As an exercise, I told my students to write an “outlandish” proposal to some major societal issue of their choice, such as immigration, texting while driving, or political squabbling.  I wrote my own outlandish proposal, too, for the issue of smoking on campus.  Here’s how it turned out:

The trend toward college campuses banning smoking has led to furor among those who smoke. They protest that, as American citizens, they have a right to smoke and that they are harming no one but themselves. Besides, they argue, smoking calms them down before stressful classes or tests. Non-smokers counter that second-hand smoke endangers their health and, therefore, smoking should be banned everywhere.

My solution to this problem would be for every college to create a separate campus only for smokers. Students would have to smoke in order to attend classes on campus. If you decide to quit smoking, even for awhile, you would have to transfer to the non-smoking campus or face academic suspension.

Now, I can hear some protest that creating a second campus would be costly and might even foster a second class in society—a class of learners who might never interact with non-smokers and, therefore, would not understand or sympathize with them or be able to work with non-smokers to solve mutual problems such as wars, high taxes, and gas prices.

To the first problem, I propose that tax revenue on cigarettes, cigars, and even smokeless tobacco be used to pay for the new campus. The smoking campus could even promote the use of cigarettes to bolster enrollment. The dangers of smoking could be downplayed by comparing them to other dangers students face on a daily basis—carpal tunnel syndrome from typing, brain cancer from cell phones, and anxiety disorders brought on by tests.

As for creating a second-class society, this concern can easily be overcome by requiring students at either campus to do a practicum at the other. Sure, non-smokers would have to start smoking in order to take classes on the smoking campus, and smokers would have to quit before they set foot on the non-smoking campus. However, special withdrawal clinics could be set up to help students through these difficult transitions.

A smoking-only campus would alleviate tension between smokers and non-smokers and allow the former to indulge freely in their right to pollute their bodies and the air and ground around them. And what could be more American than that?

Of course, I’m being totally non-serious in the above.

Writing absurdly accomplishes several things.  It forces the writer to really look at the issue and see the absurdity behind it (and, no matter what issue we’re talking about, there’s bound to be an absurd angle somewhere).  It gives the writer permission to express a view without worrying overmuch about offending someone.  (There are, of course, those who will not pick up on the satirical intent and be offended.  There are, likewise, those who will pick up on the satirical intent and insist on being offended anyway.)

And it gives the writer carte blanche to do the one thing we all learned to do as children which helped us be creative: play.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Banishing Writer's Block: 7 Tips to Get Unstuck

Image via Microsoft Office
What Marvel Comics used to call the "Dreaded Deadline Doom" has descended upon me. It's Friday morning, and I'm bereft of content (which sounds I need a high-fiber diet or something).

I could blame it on having to grade 26 freshman comp papers (plus 14 more to go) this week, on having to make other deadlines for writing groups, or on general summer lethargy, but I won't. Instead, I'll direct you to one of my "greatest hits".

This article originally appeared at Banishing Writer's Block: Tips on How to Get Unstuck |

Writer's block can come on suddenly or slowly, and it's never pretty. Yet writers can get unstuck by following a few simple and daring steps.

A writer sails through her story. She has a clever idea, an exciting build-up, and a character who is going to set the world on fire. Then, midway through the first draft she realizes something: She has no idea what happens next.
She scurries back to her outline and reads what she had planned to happen. It sounded good when she wrote it, but now it reads like a kindergartener's plot! What was she thinking? Who told her that she could write in the first place? Maybe she should just throw it all out and start over. Maybe she should just throw it out, period.

If you find yourself assaulted by such thoughts, first realize that you are not alone. All writers have to deal with writer’s block sooner or later. Writer’s block—that feeling of suddenly reaching a dead end in the middle of your story—usually comes when the writer has expectations of himself that are too high, or expectations of the story that are not well thought out. Sometimes it comes from fear—the fear that one misstep will send the story plunging into a creative abyss.

If you find yourself getting stuck, here are a few suggestions to help stay the course: 


Take a Short Break

1. Go for a walk. Getting fresh air and physical exercise helps me feel better and makes it easier to tackle a writring problem with gusto.

2. Put the project aside for a few days. Getting away from the project can yield a fresh perspective on it. The only catch is that you have to come back to the project at some point. Having a "resume date" can make sure that the project isn't shelved indefinitely.

3. Discuss the problem with other writers. Sometimes, talking the problem out will help you arrive at a solution, and the perspective of other writers can provide a new slant on the story. One word of caution: Other writers may try to solve your problem for you or offer solutions based on how they would write the story. This is well and good, but understand that you are not asking fellow professionals for advice. You are merely using them as a sounding board (which may sound mercenary, but it's not. We all need a sounding board from time to time. They're usually called friends). When unsolicited advice is offered, listen politely but reserve all creative decisions for yourself.

Use Short, Crappy Writing (On Purpose)

4. Break the problem down into smaller problems. Writer Anne Lamott said that a writer needs two things to begin, one of which is a short first assignment. You can shorten your task by breaking the story down into acts and then into scenes. Focus on what must happen in each scene and how each scene contributes to the overall story. (Hint: If a scene can be removed without damaging the overall story, it should be removed.) You can do the same with your characters. Ask yourself how each character contributes to the overall story. (Hint: If a character doesn't make a significant contribution . . . well, astute writers can guess the rest.)

5. Write a crappy draft. The other thing a writer needs, according to Lamott, is a crappy first draft. (Well, she didn’t write “crappy," but this is an all-ages website.) This will be a draft that no one will see but you, and nothing is set in stone until the final draft is written (and sometimes not even then). Giving yourself permission to write badly liberates you from the fear of failure.

6. Skip the troubling section and come back to it later. Who says that every scene has to be written in sequence? Films are not shot in sequence. Comics artists often draw later parts of a script first. Writers can do the same.

7. Kill the main character! Again, nothing is set in stone. But by doing the unexpected, you can make the story exciting for yourself again. Back in the 1980s, DC's Suicide Squad comic book suddenly became much more interesting when central character Rick Flagg was killed off and replaced by secondary character Amanda Waller.

Whatever the cause, writer's block can be an opportunity to examine your story in greater depth, decide what is really important to it, and weed out the deadwood.

Above all, don't give up.

How do you deal with writer's block?

Lamott, Ann. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Pantheon, 1995.

Friday, June 10, 2011

What X-Men: First Class Can Teach You About the Choices Writers Make

[Spoiler Warning: The following post discusses plot elements of the film X-Men: First Class. Go see the film first. Then come back and read this.]
The sheer number of super-hero films this summer is both a blessing and a bane to comics fans.  

It’s gratifying to see long-time favorites such as Thor, Captain America, and Green Lantern finally getting their due in big-budget blockbuster films—a validation of sorts for those of us who had to endure snickering from classmates and co-workers who didn’t understand our obsession and from parents who kept waiting for us to outgrow comics.  

The mainstream, it seems, has finally caught up with us.

But films also provide fans with much to complain about. It almost goes without saying that films change characters and back stories to fit the needs of a different medium and audience, but when a film alters details established in previous films featuring the same characters, it gives fans cause to howl even louder.

Case in point: X-Men: First Class

Not only does the film depart substantially from the extensive continuity developed in the X-Men comic books, but it also contradicts story elements established in the first three flims, X-Men (2000), X2 (2003)  and X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), as well as the prequel, X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009).

Yet fans would be remiss if they regarded such departures as carelessness on the part of the filmmakers or insensitivity toward the characters and/or fans. Rather, analyzing such changes can help us understand the difficult choices all writers have to make.

Changes from the Comic Book Series

X-Men #1, published in 1963, introduced us to a team of five teenaged mutants—Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Angel, Iceman, and The Beast—led by their wheelchair-bound mentor, a powerful telepath named Charles Xavier (Professor X).  Though shunned because of their powers, they sought to protect humanity from their arch nemesis, an evil mutant called Magneto. All of these characters were featured in the previous films, set in the present day. 

This presented a huge problem when the filmmakers chose to set the new film in 1962, using the backdrop of the Cold War to escalate tensions between humans and mutants. Only three of the above-named characters—Prof. X, The Beast, and Magneto—were depicted in previous films as old enough to have been alive then.

So the filmmakers did the next best thing. They replaced the other original X-Men with two characters (Banshee and Havok) who didn’t join the team until much later in the comics. They also included the shape-shifting Mystique—a villain in the previous films—as an uncertain hero.  

Do these changes work? I think so. Banshee and Havok are relatively minor characters, so the slate is clean for the filmmakers to reinvent them as necessary. Sure, liberties were taken (in the comics, Havok is Cyclops’s younger brother and Banshee is older and speaks with an Irish accent). But these changes allowed the filmmakers to recast them as fun-loving and inexperienced teenagers. Come on—who didn’t laugh when Sean (Banshee) tried to fly for the first time, or when Alex (Havok) turned his destructive power loose in Xavier’s underground bunker? Who didn’t thrill for them when they finally mastered their abilities?

Best of all is the inclusion of Mystique. Outcast because of her bizarre appearance, she grows up living a lie—using her power to present herself as a normal-looking woman even to other mutants. Her journey toward self-acceptance is both heroic and heartbreaking. 

Changes from the Previous X-Men Films

X-Men: The Last Stand established that Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto) worked together to recruit mutants as late as 1986 (twenty years before the film)—and that Charles could still walk at that time.  (The Wolverine prequel, which I have not seen, is said to corroborate this.) However, X-Men: First Class contradicts both ideas.

I can only imagine that the filmmakers chose to go in their own direction for the benefit of the film. Even casual moviegoers these days know what is meant to happen to both Charles and Erik. Drawing their transformations out over the course of another film (or several films) would have left a hole in X-Men: First Class. The movie would be anticlimactic if it didn’t end with these characters adopting their familiar roles.  

What the filmmakers gave us instead was another heartbreaking moment wherein these two men—who had become friends in spite of enormous differences in personality, background, and worldview—must sever their friendship once and for all. As a viewer, I felt Charles’ anguish when he could not prevent Erik from killing. I also felt Erik’s anguish when he realized that he and Charles do not want the same future for mutants.

No Accents, Please

As mentioned above, Banshee does not speak with an Irish accent. Another character with altered speech patterns is Moira MacTaggert, a Scottish geneticist in the comics who is recast as a CIA agent in the film.

According to IMDb, director Matthew Vaughn told the actors not to use accents in this film, apparently so they would be free to reinterpret the characters instead of being enslaved to the depictions of previous actors (James McAvoy, for example, had planned to use Patrick Stewart’s British accent as Xavier). 

One benefit of this decision is that the film does not have to waste valuable time explaining why an American CIA agent has a Scottish accent.

An argument could be made, I suppose, that the character does not have to be Moira, but, considering the comics analogue’s long, personal relationship with Charles, it would have been disappointing if she had been recast as a completely different character.

Stradling the Line: Canon or No Canon?

Movies work on a much more emotional level than comics. The filmmakers certainly knew this and weighed the pros and cons of following canon against making a movie that delivered the biggest emotional wallop it could. 

X-Men: First Class delivers that wallop, I think. It also stands on its own, whether one has seen the previous films or not—and whether or not any further films are forthcoming. 

The merits of any given change can be debated, but, by straddling the line between following canon (and often reinterpreting it in surprising ways) and ignoring it, the filmmakers did what all writers must do: make difficult choices to serve the needs of the story.

Tell me your opinion. Did X-Men: First Class do a good job of "rebooting" the film franchise?

Friday, June 3, 2011

The First 100 Words: Hook Your Readers Instantly

Image via Microsoft Office
How long do you have to hook a reader into reading your story? One page? One chapter?

Try 100 words.

Hooking readers instantly seems almost de rigueur in today’s world of short attention spans and one-click-away information. However, I first encountered the 100-word rule years ago. Book editors (not article or short story editors, mind you) often decide to pass on a manuscript after the first 100 words. If you can’t sell your book to them in that limited space, the theory goes, you won’t sell it to a paying customer.

To test this theory, I turned to three stories in a literature textbook to see what the authors did with their first hundred words. All of these stories, written long ago, are considered classics. But at one time they were just stories their authors hoped to sell to an editor and, in turn, to a mass audience.   

Here are the first one hundred words of Mark Twain’s novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (the words in brackets continue the sentence after the 100th word):
You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly -- Tom's Aunt Polly, she is -- and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly [a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before.]

Twain’s use of regional language tells us a lot about our narrator/protagonist: his age, background, setting, and, most tellingly, his personality—he regards everyone he knows as a liar, even the author! Twain's use of voice makes us like Huck immediately and want to learn more about him.

For a very different opening, check out the first 100 words of Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War short story. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek”:
A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man's hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck. It was attached to a stout cross-timber above his head and the slack fell to the level of his knees. Some loose boards laid upon the sleepers supporting the metals of the railway supplied a footing for him and his executioners--two private soldiers of the Federal army, directed by a sergeant who in civil life may have been a deputy sheriff.

Unlike Twain’s first-person narration, Bierce tells his story in third person—but we immediately know what’s going on: Our protagonist, a soldier, is about to be hanged.

What makes this opening come alive are the details—the water, the cord, the rope, the cross-timber, etc., are all described vividly so the reader can “see” the action. No emotion is given in the passage, but none needs to be. The setting itself is dramatic enough for the reader to want to see if the man escapes.

Lastly, here are the first 100 words of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wall-paper”:

 It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer.
A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic felicity--but that would be asking too much of fate!
Still I will proudly declare that there is something queer about it.
Else, why should it be let so cheaply? And why have stood so long untenanted?
John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage.
John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror [of superstition . . . ]

In 100 words, Gilman tells us who her protagonist is (a married woman) and clues us in on her situation (she’s spending the summer with her husband in an upscale house very different from her usual surroundings). This, in itself, is not out of the ordinary, but notice the narrator's misgivings about the house and how her husband casually dismisses her feelings. The situation is ripe for conflict and danger.

Whether you’re writing a piece of fluff entertainment or the next literary classic, make those first 100 words count.

What happens in your first 100 words?

Sneak Peak at My Answers for the Local Author Fair Panel

On Thursday, November 5, I will be one of four authors participating in the Local Authors Fair Panel through Woodneath Library Center, Kansa...