Friday, April 16, 2010
When I was around six, my father took my twelve-year-old brother Tom and me to a carny in New Jersey. Not a circus, mind you, but a CARNY. Circuses are full of animals, some clowns and cotton candy. A carny is a traveling freak show. Going to a carny was like going to a family reunion. But I digress.
My brother and I were two introverted spectacled intellectual children whose idea of a good time was drawing for hours listening to the Star Wars soundtrack. Thrust into a world of sun-baked carny rides housed within death-trap double-wides operated by miscreants who drank and snorted their breakfast was not our idea of fun. More like hell. Needless to say, we were terrified.
Dad shoved my brother and me into a line marked “Haunted House.” My brother, ever the cautious one, used me as a human shield and let me go first. I stood my turn in line, my brain busy trying to process why it was called a house when in actuality it was a trailer truck with wheels. I wore green, corduroy overalls that day and, when our time arrived, Tom used my suspenders like reins, steering me into the dark chasm while dad gnawed the end of a Dutch Master cigar, laughing and smoking it up behind us.
The moment I was inside the pitch-black trailer, I freaked. I broke my reins and ran into the darkness screaming bloody murder. THWACK! My head connected with a wall. To my right a fish tank containing a bright pink skull lit up. I instinctively turned to my left and ran CRACK! into another wall. Another fish tank and skull lit up. Turn, THWACK, repeat.
By the time I saw daylight again, my overalls were down around my ankles, my underwear was bunched up my ass and a bump on my head had grown to the size of an ostrich egg. I cried for my mom, too young to realize I’d been scarred for life by that day at the carny. No different than a family reunion.
What the hell does the above story have to do with setting? For me, everything. When I first started writing seriously, I used to write myself into corners. I had no idea where my characters were in time and space. They’d smack right up against walls I didn’t even know were there. Just like I had back in the haunted dump truck. Except no skulls lit up.
A writer has to know where characters are before you or your characters know where to go. That said, character and setting are not mutually exclusive because they both co-exist in service to the story. Now let’s add dialogue.
Characters initially present themselves to me through lines of dialogue. Within the dialogue, I can discern what kind of character they are, what they look like and sometimes a clue as to where they’ve come from. But only recently did I realize that if I listened closer, they would tell me where they were when speaking to me.
Dialogue in a screenplay doesn’t have tags. You know who’s speaking because the CHARACTER NAME is above the line. PARENTHETICAL DIRECTION, the line placed between CHARACTER and DIALOGUE lines to describe what the character is doing or who they are addressing when they speak, is and should be a rarity. That’s up to the director and actor. But in novels, it’s imperative that tags be used to identify who is speaking, where they are (i.e. SETTING) and what they’re doing. That’s up to you, the writer, to tell the reader.
Setting is not something a fiction writer can afford to be sparse or vague with. Setting describes the character as much and as well as dialogue can. Remember, setting in a story is site specific for a reason. A richly rendered and accurate setting adds credibility to the writer so the reader knows they are in good hands. And what characters in the setting are doing while they are speaking can often illuminate what they are feeling when they speak.
Consider a character furiously hitting the table with his fist, screaming profanities while seated in a fine restaurant during the lunch rush. These actions will not only produce loud SOUNDS, but also VISUAL ECHOES reverberating and reflecting throughout the physical and emotional state they inhabit. Putting this action in the tag will heighten the reader’s appreciation for where the character is mentally as well as physically. How they are interacting with their physical environment gives the reader an added dimension to how they are feeling internally. What kind of material the table is made of (i.e. metal or wood) will produce a different sound, as will the china table setting, the walls, windows and furniture surrounding the character. Then you have the other patrons and how they react to consider. This rich detail will make the reader feel they are in the room with the character and be ever more emotionally invested in the outcome.
All characters, like real people, exist within a three-dimensional world. A writer needs to discover and reveal that space with as much detail as necessary to convey what kind of world the character inhabits. And when all three story elements – character, dialogue, setting – work in concert, a reader doesn’t have to work as hard to understand where the story is set and where it is going.
Setting is what grounds us all in reality, so it must be present in fiction, albeit a fictional reality. If not, the reader will just stumble around in the dark until they hit a wall, or, even scarier – they throw your book at one in frustration.
Thursday, April 8, 2010
In the screenplay version, James Pressman is a late twenty-something nobody living in Los Angeles, trying to make his Hollywood dream a reality. He’s spent five years toiling away in indentured servitude to Martin, a scumbag producer of cable docs by day, soft-core internet porn by night. Desperate for a coveted co-producer credit, James convinces Martin to travel across the country on the promise of an exclusive story about movie goddess Greta Garbo. But Seth, an old and dying tabloid reporter with the greatest untold story of the twentieth century, has something else in store for him.
James was part of the wraparound, or B-story of “Garbo’s Last Stand,” the script. A present day character meant to be a counterpoint to Seth, the old man telling the 70-year old story of Greta Garbo’s finest off-screen moment. A device to lead contemporary audiences by the hand into a previous era, where World War II loomed and Garbo reigned in glorious black & white. James’s plight bookended the larger, grander story of Seth’s life, told from the old man’s deathbed.
James’s character arc in the script was in keeping with his “screen time.” By the end of the movie he’s grown, but only in as much as his interaction with Seth has set his life on a new course. His emotions were limited to wonder, excitement, anger and sadness. His backstory was vague at best. The audience discovers the truth with James. Seth’s story is true. Then James can finally realize his Hollywood dream on his own terms. This was James’s climax in the script. I would find out later, his epiphany in the novel went a lot deeper.
When I first considered adapting the screenplay into a novel, I thought I’d drop James. Novels, unlike screenplays, can be set in another era and readers don’t necessarily have to be reminded what relevance the story has to today’s movie audience. In a novel, Seth could tell his story directly to the reader. No need for a wraparound, or bookend, at all. Simple, right?
Then I realized James was in the script for a reason other than giving a contemporary audience a point of reference. He had more to offer than that. A lot more. So much more that he ended up being the Main Character. But for him to ascend to a main character, I’d have to explore James’s world more fully than I ever had for the screenplay. Who was James and why the hell should anyone care about him? Least of all a dying old reporter who he’d just upstaged by becoming the main character of the novel.
Charlotte thought James had potential as the main character of the novel. Me, I wasn’t so sure. I decided to give him equal billing, have the story be told in dual first-person narratives with Seth and James taking turns, checker-boarding chapters. What Charlotte saw in James was that his arc was larger and therefore the advantage over Seth to be the main character. I just thought he was a snotty young jerk-off with a nasty temper who lacked backbone.
But James did have a backstory. A very interesting one that made him the arrogant, overeager individual in the screenplay. Once I listened to him, I understood his fear of pretty women, wariness of Seth and his inability to leave Martin and take charge of his career. Now, instead of a contrivance, James became a lens or focal point to ground Seth’s Garbo story. James grew by leaps and bounds, responding not only to what was happening to him in the present but what had happened to the characters he cared about 70 years before. James began having mini-epiphanies about himself and the world around him in nearly every chapter. He could be the main character. And I’d nearly thrown him out.
The most interesting thing about writing James now is seeing how he is different from the other characters and from me. The way he shows he cares for Seth, never straightforward and nearly always with a stinging touch of sarcasm. The way he holds grudges for decades. His incapacitating obsession with how things should be and not how they are. He’s totally there. Transparent because he doesn’t have a filter and therefore holds nothing back. James is flawed in a way that makes people laugh.
But what makes James a Main Character in the novel is how everyone around him conspired to make him whole. By the end, he wants to be whole too. Don’t we all.
Monday, April 5, 2010
We began with a common calling of writer and editor to bring out the best of Jon’s writing and story for his novel. Somewhere along the way, we discovered that we agreed that “great literature” was in Story and Characters and not limited to words on the page or film that captured performances and worlds. In fact we have a fairly liberal acceptance of the different mediums we accept as literature--because it all boils down to Story.
We’ve been functioning on the shared experience of what’s Story and what isn’t when we discuss a book or film. Writing Adapting Sideways made us stop nodding and question the fine points on which we do agree. Here’s the best of what we’ve assembled as a definition of Story:
Story is a narrative about a Character progressing through a series of connected incidents--often defined as Scenes--in a manner of increasing challenge to the Character’s well-being or in opposition to his/her goals or ambitions--often defined as Conflict--until, well, the momentum of the Character’s drive or fears culminate in a moment of Epiphany or Climax during which the Character chooses to do something, not do something, or deserts the situation (mentally, emotionally, and/or physically), which in turn brings Closure--often defined as Change--to the Character and wholeness--we like the word Integrity--to the work, all the while engaging an audience of readers, watchers, or listeners for the duration through the vulnerability of the Character to his/her circumstances.
Jon and I not only subscribe to this amalgamation of elements but feel that an appreciative or sympathetic audience is a critical but secondary component, thereby listed near the end of definition. Certainly an audience makes the challenge of creating the piece rewarding. But the Character and therefore the writer are not obliged to focus on the audience. Certainly not in place of drawing all the other elements from the Character him or herself.
Now, from what I understand about screenwriting, that audience’s engagement in the Story is THE critical component. James Cameron said in a recent interview that the movie is “for the audience.” So choices are made with the audience in mind.
As a story purist, I’d go the other way--I’d say that really playing out the Character draws in an audience. I think I can safely say that Jon and I are more likely to stake our creativity and storytelling on both the personality and dangerous, difficult or otherwise unfortunate plight of a Character. If we do our writer’s work well, the audience will find an irresistible dynamic, and we need do nothing gratuitous to garner their attention.
So, what do you think? Plenty of room for different views, particularly in how a writer defines Story. Want to take a try at this?
Friday, April 2, 2010
Different factors come into play at different moments in a partnership such as ours. Up until deciding to do Adapting Sideways, we’d worked as writer and writing teacher/editor, fellow students of film and fiction, filmmaker and filmgoer, screenwriter and fiction writer, and fellow fiction writers. We’re also friends because of our shared values and ambitions. And now we’ve become co-authors and workshop partners.
So we proofed and printed out a clean copy. Wrote cover materials. Annotated a table of contents. Assembled a statement of the market. Filled out mailing documents. Only the post office was left. Then the package was in the mail. We were done. Or were we?
When we mailed out our manuscript that morning, I had this familiar sense of false closure. I’ve been here before with new ideas and material--certainly other manuscripts, my own and that of the novelists I’ve published or edited. Even previous partners. Once again I knew something had been achieved--but nothing had ended. In fact more had begun than concluded.
Jon and I were at the start of a partnership more than at the completion of a shared project. We had come to agreement. The book and the workshop seemed to “seal the deal.” That was as big a deal as the completion of the manuscript. Awesome is the word that best fits my overall take--simultaneously inspiring and daunting.
Particularly daunting regarding what Jon calls “The Waits.” How do I occupy my time while we await word from our agent? What revisions will she want? What publishers will she contact? What will be their response? More and more screenwriters are being directed to write novels. Right now we are the only ones with a methodology track record--aren’t we? And all we can do--at one level--is to wait.
But, having been here before, I know that “The Waits” is valuable time too. All I have to do is turn to my calendar and stack of things on my desk to find valuable occupation. I can’t just wait. There’s so much work to be done. What if--worst possible case--our agent doesn’t take the manuscript? Then waiting is wasted time, lost momentum, a frivolous use of precious creative juices.
First, the Redwood Writers audience gave us an opportunity to realize we were fine together. Our timing and shared perspective could be informative, maybe dynamic. So, we need to look for tweaks to pursue. We need an alternative opening. We may have to revise the handout. We certainly need to capture any new concepts and ideas. Again, thank you, Redwood Writers. The event was rich for us.
Then there’s postings for our blogs. More concepts awaiting attention and consideration. Calls and emails to answer. Marketing materials, workshop logistics, clients . . .
And “The Waits” calls for something else as well. Rest and restoration. I’ve slept long hours the last few nights from fatigue. Enough fatigue to manifest dreams of sleeping within dreams while I sleep. And I need to put healthy food back in my refrigerator, meals again cooked from scratch. And then a little vacuuming and a stack of dishes . . . I need to be fresh to keep being creative.
After posting our manuscript to our agent, I realized that Jon and I had come together in thought and effort in less than eight weeks to produce a 250-page book. Being nonfiction, the word count is incidental. Not like publishing a novel where word counts range from 65,000 to 210,000 words. And not someone else’s writing that I had brought to publication.
This co-authored book was equally my work and experience. Two hundred and fifty pages of writing, several pages of graphics, a table of contents that lists some one hundred plus topics explored. And all accomplished with an equally committed, experienced and articulate partner. Lots of discussion and revision. No arguments, no ego.
What we did to get here needs to be kept together and nurtured because, as the book is our future, so is our partnership. The ideas and resources that combined for the book need to keep integrating and challenging us. If nothing else, we need to keep talking and keep writing--moving forward.
But it’s easy to look at what’s passed. Other opportunities and rites of passage hover before us. I must admit, awaiting our agent’s response to the manuscript casts a huge shadow on my life right now. Behind that is a tickling sensation that having now collaborated with Jon on the manuscript and preparing for our up-coming presentations and workshops, I’ve entered an important new phase of my own creativity as well as a new world of people and ideas. And just like the tension in a good novel or film catalyzes questions about the story, I’m wondering: And then what happens? Where are we going?