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Back to Writing Class…and I’m Excited! March 3, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Misc, Novel, On Writing, Study.
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Kiss goodbye to not writing enough!

Following a lengthy period where I didn’t do nearly as much writing as I expected or wanted to (though I did find out that I’m about to, ahem, become a ‘published’ writer, in a ‘book’, no less), I finally returned to writing class this week.

Admittedly, I was a little frightened, a little concerned about whether I’d be able to get back into the swing of things, whether I could handle the workload, and whether I could handle even more workshopping.  This term, the final term, is where I would have to put everything I’ve learned together and produce a lengthy piece of work — with a view of getting it published.

And so I was somewhat nervous before class last night — I could tell because I was extremely thirsty.  But things got slightly easier when I saw that our lecturer was the same one that taught me last year for another subject.  I really enjoyed his teaching, even if he did like to show off a bit.  It also helped that there were a few other familiar faces in class (including a couple of brilliant writers).

As the class got underway, I relaxed a lot more.  As it turned out, the syllabus was very similar to previous subjects.  Yes, there are presentations and lots of workshops, none of which I really like, but I know they are effective in building me into a better writer.

Anyway, back to this major project.  I’m very lucky because I’m doing this term full time and don’t have to worry about work (apart from the occasional freelance article or review I sign myself up to).  Others who are working full time have to squeeze time out of somewhere, usually on the weekends — though on the flip side I guess you could say that they might be more efficient because time is so precious.

I had actually considered applying for a full time job (well, 35 hours a week, flexible) at a well-known magazine publication, but after last night’s class I think I’ll hold off for a bit.  I absolutely need to nail this major project, and I’m prepared to pour everything I have into it.

The question is, should I write a novel (or novella) or a screenplay?  Both will be based around the same idea, but they are very different formats.  Some say I should do a screenplay, because it is potentially easier.  Others say maybe a novel first, and then adapt it into a screenplay.  Our lecturer told us yesterday that screenplays is where the money is at.

However, the one thing that is making me hesitant about writing a screenplay is that my supervisor will be somethat that doesn’t exactly share the same tastes as me.  He/She did give me a good mark when I did the screenwriting class last year, but we disagreed on a lot of things.  He/She is more of an ‘arty’ filmmaker, whereas I like my stuff fast-paced, witty and sharp.  He/She does appreciate humour but does not think violence can be funny, whereas I think it can be hilarious, in a dark comedy sort of way.

So right now I am leaning towards a novel, a fictional memoir of sorts I’ve been contemplating on writing since about this time last year.  Either way, I’m excited because I know having this as a ‘subject’ will force me to get myself into writing shape and minimise the procrastination and laziness.

I need to break these bad habits I have formed while living a life of relative leisure.  I need to use the power of my mind, like Charlie Sheen.


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!

The Importance of Location in Writing March 24, 2010

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Last night’s narrative writing class was about the use of location in writing.

To be honest, it wasn’t something that I had given much thought to before.  When I write a story, the location is not really something I consider.  I think about the plot, and I think about the characters, and what they want to do and where they want to go.  Those things usually dictate the location where the events take place.

But what if you take a scene from a story and change the location?  How would that change things?  If you take a murder and place it in the back of a hospital as opposed to a dark alley?  Or if you take a road trip and put it through the desert rather than the jungle?  How does that change the dynamics, the tone, and the imagery?

Do you ever wonder why a particular story or event takes place in a certain location?  For instance, why do some writers always write about the outback, where it is open and barren, while some others like to write stories about confined spaces?

And how a character perceives a location or setting is always telling of that person’s mood.  If you get a person who just found out about their impending death to describe a setting, it would no doubt be completely different to the description of a person who just fell madly in love.  The way a setting is described can give plenty of clues as to what the character is feeling.

I’m usually horrible at describing the setting and location.  I never know how much to put in and what to leave to the imagination of the audience.  I always end up going with the cliches and hoping that I’ll be able to fix things up in rewrites.  I envy those authors who are able to pinpoint a few features of a setting that stand out, and just focus on those things.  While it might not give you a full picture, it does give you enough to get a feel of what the place is like and what the character is seeing or feeling.

I found it all to be quite fascinating, and can’t wait to apply more thought to it in my own writings.

[PS: Unfortunately, we had the insufferable lethal duo in class last night.  Up to that point, the two dudes had, by some stroke of fortune, never been in the same class.  One guy was always away for whatever reason.  Last night, the two of them sat together for the first time, and the results were brutal.  One of them loved to comment on everything, and felt the urge to comment on everything we read or what anyone says.  The problem is, the comments are usually always negative, and as we found out last night, often wrong.  Various comments he made were shot down by other classmates as plainly incorrect (eg the meaning or use of a particular word or phrase), but he somehow managed to hold on to those erroneous views to the death.  The other guy spoke less, but he was a waffler that loved to talk about the past and his many old stories, even if they had nothing to do with the discussion.  Once he starts on something you might as well take a nap.  The two of them worked like a well-oiled machine, not jumping over each other, but like the perfect wrestling tag team.  It was one after the other, a negative comment followed by an old-time story, and vice versa.  A seamless performance.]

Getting into it! March 18, 2010

Posted by pacejmiller in On Writing, Study.
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We are currently studying the "realism" of Madame Bovary

So I’m sitting here in the computer labs at university waiting for my next class.

I’m really enjoying the course at the moment, and finally getting into it.  By “getting into it” I mean I am going to all classes, doing the readings on time, doing the writing exercises on time, and doing all of it with enthusiasm.  I haven’t really gotten into my own writings though.  But I have a feeling it’s coming.  Soon.  Every now and then when I am doing my readings I get a burst of inspiration and I randomly scribble down some notes or prose for one of my projects.  Even though most of it is crap, it still feels good when I do it.

The best part about the course is that most of my readings are things I would read in my spare time anyway.  An interview with a famous director or screenwriter about their methods.  Breaking down scenes in a popular film.  Tips and guidelines to help you become a more proficient writer.  Excerpts from classic novels and books and award-winning short stories, most of which I had never read before.

The only thing that is killing me right now is my writing theory class.  It’s brutal.  The readings are so dry.  Slightly more interesting than my law readings (maybe not even that), but most of it sails right over my head.  I still don’t understand why we need to read these complex articles written by life-long academics with massive words I’ve never heard of, circular reasoning and Latin/French-infused passages with no translation, written always twice as difficult to understand than they should be.  I wonder whether there is a point to what they are saying (or trying to say).  And if so, if there is a point in understanding that point.

Speaking of which, I better get ready for the class.

How Important Is Structure? March 16, 2010

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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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