Sunday, April 29, 2012

My Two Favorite Writing Things This Month

I was talking with a writer a few weeks ago, and she noted that one of her favorite writing lessons had come from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park and The Book of Mormon, among many other imaginative and foul-mouthed productions. After she described the principle, I went and looked up Messrs. Parker and Stone talking about it, and found this fantastic video from MTVu:

I like their advice on moving on at 2:40 -- when you stop learning from a project, it's probably time to stop fiddling with it and try something else. But I love, love, LOVE what they say around 3:58 about "Therefore," "But," and "And Then." As I wrote it out for my recent Plot Master Class (giving full credit to the gentlemen):

So much as it is possible in a manuscript, every scene should be followed by another scene that dramatizes either a “Therefore” or a “But,” not an “And Then.” So if, in one scene, a girl has intimate eye contact with a beautiful male vampire, the next scene should either dramatize the consequences of that eye contact, which will likely raise the stakes or escalate the emotion—THEREFORE she kisses him; or introduce a complication/obstacle—BUT she remembers she hates vampires, so she drives a stake through his heart. If they continue to stare into each other's eyes, or maybe they just get some tea, that’s an AND THEN—nothing new is happening, because it’s at the same level of emotion as the previous action, and so while movement is occurring in the plot, it isn't necessarily dramatic action. And action is ultimately what keeps readers reading:  change, challenge, consequence, growth, for a character in whom they're invested.
(There is one other category here, which is "Meanwhile": If, MEANWHILE, the girl’s werewolf best friend was running shirtless through the woods, and came upon a rabbit and ate it, that’s an acceptable followup scene to the eye contact, because you're following a different plotline. But the rabbit scene would then need its own BUT or THEREFORE, and I would hope to heaven that you ended the eye-contact scene in an interesting place, so that readers will be excited to switch back to that plotline and find out what happens there.)

My other Favorite Writing Thing of late is DAVID MAMET'S MEMO TO THE WRITERS OF "THE UNIT," which I put in all caps because by God, this is an all-caps document. This applies more to TV writers than to novelists, who do not have the camera to convey information. But every scene in either medium should involve a character's desire, for certain, for an object or something emotional from another person or an answer to the internal question that he's trying to work through; and it's very useful to identify that desire when you're going back to revise a scene, and then show how the character has that desire satisfied, changed, or denied through the course of the scene's action.


While I'm here, a little conference stuff:

I will make a guest appearance at the Highlights Revision Retreat and Critique Group Recharge at the end of May. Spots are still available if you'd like to join for the week!

Since I was not a winner in the New York City Marathon lottery, alas, and hence will not be running three-plus hours on the weekends in the autumn (though why I feel "alas" about this, I'm not sure), I have an opening in my schedule this fall, and would be up for a conference or my Plot Master Class in either September or November, should anyone still be looking for an speaker.

And I'm also on the faculty for the pretty damn amazing-looking Speakeasy Literary Society Retreat next April in Lake Tahoe, California.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Egomaniacal Link & News Roundup

Because it's all about me and my books; because I haven't posted in forever; and because ... I'm sorry, my creative/essay/thoughtful-blog-post-writing muscle seems to be taking some time off for the time being. This may have to do with the fact that I've been exercising all my other muscles a lot -- training for some long runs -- and also writing a lot of editorial correspondence; and also sharing a lot of my immediate thoughts on Twitter (meaning, if you follow me there, this post might be quite boring for you. But I'll throw in a joke to make it worth your time). Thank you for stopping by as ever.

(The physical training paid off, I must say:  This morning I ran my fastest 10K ever, in 57:57! I give all credit to Rihanna and this extremely earwormy song.)

Erin Saldin's wonderful The Girls of No Return is reviewed in the New York Times today! Elissa Schappell calls it "A smart, absorbing story about damaged girls realizing how hard it is to connect with other people when you don’t trust anyone," and damn straight. It's racked up another starred review, too, from the BCCB.

Trent Reedy and I recently talked about writing across cultures (and editing books written across cultures, like his Words in the Dust) for the website Women on Writing. Words in the Dust also recently won both the Christopher Award and a Golden Kite Honor Award, and I know I speak for Trent when I say how much we appreciate his hard work being recognized. (The lovely Uma Krishnaswami also did a terrific in-depth interview with Trent on the subject of writing across cultures last summer: Part 1 and Part 2.)

This checklist of Ten Quick Ways to Analyze Children's Books for Racism & Sexism is another great resource if you're trying to write or read books outside your culture. And Teju Cole's thoughts on sentimentality and "The White Savior Industrial Complex" are worth keeping in mind as well.

Guus Kuijer won the Astrid Lindgren Award! His The Book of Everything is a wonder -- one of those books people still discover and then write to thank us for publishing it -- and an adaptation of it will open on Broadway later this month.

This review of Above, by Leah Bobet, made me do a fist-pump on the street, because it fully appreciates the magnitude of what Leah accomplishes in that book, and that is an exceedingly rare thing for a review to do, sadly (sometimes because of space issues, sometimes because of reviewer-book chemistry). (Beware major spoilers, though.) It also got a starred review in Publishers Weekly, which called it "a dark, dazzling tale." When my thoughtful-blog-post-writing muscle comes back, I'm looking forward to talking more about this novel, which you should check out in stores now. 

Vicky Alvear Shecter shares a deleted scene from Cleopatra's Moon and a little bit of the editorial/authorial thinking that went into it being deleted. I'd add to what she says that it's not just about tone, it's also about pacing, and this scene came very early in the book, when the young Selene was just starting to become aware of the conflict between Rome & Egypt that will shape the rest of her life (and the novel). And it felt more important to me as a reader/editor to get into that conflict quickly than to have what is definitely a very sweet moment. If the scene had come later in the book, at a moment when the action was already humming along nicely, we might have kept it there.

My alma mater, Carleton College, interviewed me and fellow alum Kathleen Odean about the Meghan Cox Gurdon foofaraw last summer. (Or was it a kerfuffle? Both, I think.)

And the super-interesting and smart blog The Whole Megillah asked me some insightful questions about Second Sight, writing, and revision. Which I then answered.

The joke: What do you call a dyslexic agnostic insomniac? A person who stays up all night wondering if there is a dog.

I recently received copies of the second printing of Second Sight -- yay! -- and the book was mentioned by commenters on Jennifer Crusie's website as a recommended writing book -- double yay! (And many thanks, Robena, if you're out there.) Jennifer Crusie is one of my very favorite writers, so it was a thrill to see my book on her site. ("My name and book title went through her brain!" I think. "Even if it was just in cutting and pasting the title in! Wow!") 

Here's a non-me link: If you're looking for a writing skills tune-up, I bet Ms. Crusie's forthcoming series of online writing workshops, The Writewell Academy for Wayward Authors, will be pretty amazing.

And another one, if you need inspiration:  Dear Sugar/Cheryl Strayed's excellent advice to "Write Like a Mofo." I'm reading her memoir Wild now, and it is terrific.

Other things I've been loving:  the return of Mad Men; this recipe for spaghetti with Brussels sprouts; 21 Jump Street -- an unexpected delight; this list of "Lines from The Princess Bride That Double as Comments on Freshman Composition Papers" (or Manuscripts); string cheese.

There, now it is no longer about me. Go forth and write like mofos.