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Things I Learned in Writing Class This Semester (Part I) November 22, 2010

Posted by pacejmiller in On Writing, Study.
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My blistering year of writing and learning has finally come to a close.  Now it’s time to reflect.

Contrary to what a lot of people say, writing courses can be helpful for budding writers.  It’s not necessarily just learning the technical skills (which are of course important) — there are also many aspects of the business you can be exposed to.  This term, I did quite a bit of non-fiction and journalistic writing, as well as editing, subjects I originally thought would be quite dry — but it’s turned out to be the complete opposite.  As Cosmo Kramer once said, “I’m loving every minute of it!”

Here are some things I learned this semester (in no particular order):

Get a good editor

If my classes have taught me anything this semester, it’s that getting a good editor is one of the most important things a writer should put at the top of their list.  Even the most brilliant writer can use a good editor because editing is a different skill.  It’s not just picking up the typos and the spelling and grammar errors — everything from word use, dialogue, characters, structure, tone, style, voice — everything you can think of, can benefit from having an editor cast their eye over it.

I used to think if I spent enough time on something by myself, locked away in a room somewhere, I’ll eventually get it perfect.  Now I realize how silly that was.

Writing is all about structuring

I’ve never had much of a problem coming up with ideas and racking up the words, but what I found out the hard way this semester was how important structure is to writing.  Sometimes, just moving a few words or sentences around will completely change the shape and tone of a paragraph, or even the entire piece.

I used to think as long as you get whatever you want to write out of your system then everything else will take care of itself, but that cannot be further away from the truth.  Now, especially for non-fiction pieces, I spend most of my time figuring out how I will structure the writing before I write a single word, and then hours and hours restructuring it after I’ve written everything.

My main problem is that I waste too much time procrastinating over the structure before I start writing.  Sometimes you just need to get it all out and then trim it back and mould it into shape.  But then again, if I don’t structure it enough beforehand, I don’t know where to start when staring down at 6,000 words and knowing that I have to cut it down to 2,000!  It’s a dilemma.

Writing a good first draft is important

People say the first draft is almost always shit, but it doesn’t really matter because you’ll fix it up anyway.  The key objective is just to write it out so you have something tangible to work with.  I’ve discovered this semester that this is not necessarily always the case.  Writing a good first draft, while not imperative, is highly beneficial.

Once the first draft has been written, I find it very difficult to decide what to cut out, what to add, what to replace.  Clearly, the better the draft, the more difficult it is, but even crappy first drafts can get a little tricky.  It’s not easy coming up with a different way to say or structure things when it’s already laid out right there in front of you, especially if there’s nothing visibly or obviously defective about it.

So I say put in a bit more effort into that first draft, think it through more.  In my opinion it’s worth it.

More to come!

How Important Is Structure? March 16, 2010

Posted by pacejmiller in On Writing, Study.
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I really enjoyed last night’s screenwriting class.  We watched some intro scenes and short films and discussed the readings, which covered the importance of “structure” in a movie.

While there are no hard and fast rules, it did surprise me that most conventional films do have a three-act structure.  It’s just that we’re often too engrossed (or turned off) to notice it.  And there’s the more granular aspects, such as starting off with a set-up, a “hook”, so to speak, to capture the interest of the audience, then having a “catalyst” to get the story moving, then increasing the conflict through a couple of major turning points before the climax or final resolution.

Initially I was thinking that this was all too technical, too structured, too inhibiting.  But when I stepped back and looked at the examples, for some reason it seemed to ring true.  Then I looked at my own writings, and realised that my WIP fantasy novel actually had the exact same structure (broadly speaking).  It’s almost as though the structure came instinctively, or at least subconsciously from my years of movie watching.

So just how important is structure to a film?  With novels, it’s probably easier to manipulate structure, but with a film, it’s a lot trickier to get it right.  It’s much more difficult than I originally thought, and there is a real skill and art in telling the story in a way that makes the film intriguing.  It’s potentially even harder to nail the pace and rhythm and keep the screenplay tight.  Apparently, the problem with most films lies in the second half of the second act, when the action or pace of the film tends to lag because the writer is merely filling in time before the big climatic ending.

I also found it interesting how there are different ways to structure point of view.  There can be the “divergent” style where the audience is introduced to all the central characters at the very beginning, and then the story follows each of them separately (like say in The Godfather, which starts off with the wedding).  Or there can be the “convergent” style, where the characters are introduced separately but flow together inevitably all come together in the end (like say The English Patient).

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter how a film is structured, as long as it works.  There’s no magic formula.  Take Tarantino’s films, for example, (most of) which I love.  Pulp Fiction‘s structure is all over the place, but I didn’t care.  I just wanted to go for the ride, wherever Tarantino was taking me.  From Dusk Till Dawn is another good example, where the first half of the movie is a hold-up/hostage scenario, and then suddenly it becomes an all-out crazy vampire movie halfway through.  But it works too.

And there’s no need for the introductory set-up to let the audience know what kind of film it is going to be.  In some cases, I actually preferred films that kept me in the dark, kept me wondering “what the heck is this movie about?” (like Michael Clayton) because nothing seems to make sense, but then eventually all the pieces are put back together like a jigsaw, and you marvel at the brilliance of it because all the clues were foreshadowed right from the beginning.  It’s that type of inventive, experimental, structure-breaking creativity that makes certain films truly memorable.

That said, for my first piece (which will be assessed), I’m going to stick with the traditional structure to see how it pans out, and then maybe try something a little different to spice it up a little.

[PS: it seems I should also check out the Harrison Ford movie “Witness”, which is apparently an excellent example of the traditional three-act structure.]

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