Midwest Book Review: The Evolutionary Testament of Co-Creation is “an impressive and unique contribution to Christian Metaphysics”


Small Press Bookwatch has reviewed Barbara Marx Hubbard’s latest book, available now from Muse Harbor Publishing:

 

An impressive and unique contribution to Christian Metaphysics, The Evolutionary Testament of Co-Creation: The Promise Will Be Kept is an informative, absorbing, and inherently fascinating read that is highly recommended, especially for the non-specialist general reader with an interest in an iconoclastic and gnostic approach to Christian Studies.

 

midwest-book-reviewSmall Press Bookwatch is a publication of the Midwest Book Review, which was established in 1976 as an organization committed to promoting literacy, library usage, and small press publishing.

 

 

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Finding Your Voice (Part 1)

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Rules-headerA notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. An editor’s perspective.

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Finding Your Voice (Part 1)

I firmly believe that finding one’s fictive voice is among the most important—yet nebulous—foundations of crafting a successful novel. Those of us who dare presume how to instruct writers usually have a vague interpretation of what establishes any specific voice. I’ve heard such sage wisdom range from the technically ambiguous; “It’s an individual writing style, one of diction, syntax, punctuation and dialogue…” to the similarly oblique; “It’s uniquely your own writing.”

So, yes—one’s voice can be an imprecise stew of indeterminable ingredients. My best guess (and this isn’t a rule, merely an intuition) is: Voice = the writer’s style (personality) + character personality. Voice is that delicate balance of your wordplay, your wit, your clarity, combined with your characters’ various personas—their wordplay (e.g.; dialog), their wit, their clarity.

Meaning that most great writers don’t write alone. (See Finding Your Voice Part 2: Do Your Characters Speak to You?)

Although for the moment, let’s concentrate on your perceptions.

One’s writing’s style might be construed as a blending of those ‘left-brain’ (mechanical) attributes, such as a conversational sentence structure, engaging vocabulary, practiced cadence and word flow, coupled with ‘right-brain’ (creative) linguistic skills that ensures the reader understands and interprets exactly the vision you’ve intended. Every word you choose to include in a novel—and every word you choose to omit—every thought, every perception, every nuance, will be unlike any other writers’. Think of your style as your literary fingerprint.

Equally as important, you must be able to preserve that singular style; a similar cadence, syntax, and cohesive ambient integrity, throughout the entire story. Stylistically speaking, if you begin your literary journey poised on the back of a snarling lion, you don’t want to end on the back of a bleating lamb. Maintaining your stylistic integrity from the first page to the last is integral.

Perhaps there is a rule at play here, at least about a writer’s stylistic intent. So Rule #9: A great novel is not so much what you tell, but how you tell it. That’s a writer’s style.

Still unsure as to what might constitute your own personal style? I don’t believe a writer chooses a style so much as it chooses you. Where to start? Sit down and begin writing with no particular destination in mind. No plot or direction or goal. You’re not starting a novel or a short story; don’t concern yourself with a beginning or end. You’re writing an abstract, a throw-away, and with no other purpose than to vomit words on paper for the sheer pleasure of doing so. You’re not worried about an audience or criticism or feedback—you’re simply attempting to please, even bedazzle, yourself. And when you begin to do so, maybe you’ve also found the beginnings of your style.

There is, within each of us, a deep and secret place where plots are bred and characters born. I’m not sure where it lingers—but I do know that when it wants me, it finds me. It exists in every writer. And as soon as your characters peek out from this hidden place, you’ll know it. You’ll soon begin to trust those voices and… ah, but that’s what Part 2 is all about.

But first, a secret. Most editors, agents, publishers and thinking readers are able to determine a novel’s worth in the first four or five pages. Sometimes in the first four or five lines. When I read a manuscript, these are the fundamental, stylistic attributes I hope to discover in a book. (And, yes, I look in this particular order):

  1. Great dialog.
  2. Clearly defined yet sufficiently complex characters (those who are uttering such insanely great dialog*).
  3. Continuity and sequencing from paragraph to paragraph. Meaning that each new paragraph is a puzzle piece that fits seamlessly with the last. Your segues are properly energized (not summarized) and information flows without the slightest confusion (unless intentional) to the reader.
  4. Continuity and sequencing from scene to scene. Each new scene—whether a continuation of the previous scene or an entirely new environment—is properly developed. Meaning sufficient scene/character setting is necessary: Where am I? Who’s nearby? How do I feel? What’s happening or about to happen? Yes, all a part of a writer’s style.
  5. Plot.

Yup. When delving into a new manuscript, your plot is the least of my concerns. Some structure must exist, of course. Getting the reader here-to-there in a cohesive, entertaining, electrifying manner is important. But during those first few pages, electrify me (and subsequent readers) with your joie de vie, with a total awareness of your characters’ complexities, cognizant of how they speak and engage and energetically carry themselves from page to page. That’s how you get me to read your book. I’d vastly prefer two amazing characters, speaking dazzling dialog in a dark room for 300 pages than all the zombies, vampires and rogue Vultarian robots gathered together in a single book to annihilate mankind. (And lose, of course.)

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* Please do not confuse Shakespearean eloquence or elocution as a substitute for “great” dialog. To me, great dialog is real dialog. If “Huh?” is the quintessential response to a poignantly asked question, relevant to the character and to the moment at hand, that’s what I want to hear.
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My Favorite Films About Writers

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Rules-headerA blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

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My Favorite Films About Writers and Writing. (An Aside)

Once upon a time, I functioned as a bona fide L.A. film critic, and using those past laurels as validation (as opposed to, say, spear-fishing), I hereby present a highly subjective list of my favorite films that I believe will inspire or motivate (or at least cajole) writers who want to write. Or perhaps who need to write.

However, don’t mistake this list as being Every Movie Made About Writing. I mean even King Kong featured a screenwriter (Adrien Brody in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake) but I’d hardly confuse that flick as an overt literary metaphor. And if I’ve omitted some worthy flicks in this admittedly idiosyncratic list, I’ve erred on the side of optimistic films rather than those fatalistic efforts… as our every waking moment in front of a rusting Olivetti or flickering PC screen is punishment challenge enough. Thus, a few too-close-to-reality based “bummer” films (e.g.; Girl Interrupted, Leaving Las Vegas) while undeniably writer-centric—and while excellent dramatic interpretations—don’t ignite that spark within me of seriously wanting to write. Thank you, but I’m depressed enough sitting comatose in front of my laptop, words swimming like hungry trout in a deep pond and my cerebral hook lacking the slightest worm of creativity.

I have ranked this list with little suspense—from my most favorite to the rest of the best, and with a few Honorable Mentions, in accordance with God’s midnight whispers and my own personal eccentricities. I have not seen every literary-inspired or author-depicted film ever made, and hopefully I shall find time for those I haven’t yet seen… just as soon as every novel on my own to-write list is finished and published.

By the way, the films presented are fiction or fictional biography, and don’t include documentaries. So, in order of personal preference:
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  1. Barton Fink. 1991. Wr(s): Joel and Ethan Coen. Dir: Joel Coen. • Barton Fink (a wonderfully twitchy-eyed John Turtorro) is a successful playwright, lured to Hollywood where his talents and soul are gradually disassembled by the unscrupulous, clueless powers-that-be. This one’s a hallucinogenic descent into a world gone mad—much like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Marc Caro’s The City of Lost Children—too mesmerizing not to watch on multiple occasions. The Coen bro’s aptly capture every writer’s waking nightmare, telling their tale of Faustian inevitability with haunting resonance—and yet retaining a shred of eerie optimism that continues to push the hapless Mr. Fink forward.
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  2. Ruby Sparks. 2012. Wr: Zoe Kazan. Dir(s): Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris. • Paul Dano plays Calvin, a literary prodigy who struggles after the astounding success of his first novel. To counter his writer’s block, Calvin invents (or thinks he’s invented) a muse named Ruby Sparks to spur his creative juices. Yet the muse grows impatient and Calvin becomes increasingly tormented—resulting in a brilliant, sensitive and poignant portrayal of a writer who must come to terms with both his creativity and sensitivity. Soon likely to be a cult classic. Additionally fantastic about this flick, Zoe Kazan, who plays Ruby Sparks, wrote the screenplay. Ah, talent!
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  3. Midnight In Paris. 2011. Wr/Dir: Woody Allen. • Just when you think he’s vanished into the celluloid mists of memory, Woody Allen concocts the perfect bedtime fable. Owen Wilson plays Gil, a struggling L.A. writer who is—well, who’s sort of lost in time. Amazing performances by various historical legends, with too many sly, respectful pokes at the cultural illuminari to even count. And since one could make the assumption that Gil’s illusions are merely hallucinations (personally, I don’t—but one could) I feel the flick most wonderfully personifies those many, many, many blissful hours of “thinking about writing,” rather than the brutal act of writing itself. But, yeah, both Wilson and Allen perfectly capture the soul and essence of every writer’s favorite daydream.
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  4. The Wonder Boys. 2000. Wr(s): Michael Chabon (novel); Steve Kloves (scnply). Dir: Curtis Hanson. • Woe be the aging lit prof with a best-selling novel seven years behind him and only half-baked, unfinished ideas ever since. Even worse, cue the bright, peculiar writing student with a natural ability and a bro’ crush on his professor. Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire cover two generations of literary eccentricity in a bittersweet (mostly sweet) tale about coming to terms with one’s talent. When an almost-finished novel blows away in the breeze, (no back-ups, of course) we feel the pain like few other cinematic punches.
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  5. Shakespeare in Love. 1998. Wr(s): Marc Norman, Tom Stoppard. Dir: John Madden. • Okay, so the guy’s work was obviously inspired by love. (And by ghosts, but that’s another list.) This is one of those rare films that captures an enticing love story, and a seemingly far-fetched, what-if scenario that ultimately plays out as utterly believable—and so aptly depicts the endless agony of writing and rewriting. (Seems, in fact, that Romeo and Juliet was originally conceived as a comedy entitled Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter). Take note of the wonderfully synchronized plot, a splendid piece of innovative writing. A great cast (Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush) maintains a marvelous balance of frivolousness and sincerity—and somehow, like the play itself, everything works out as it should in the end.
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  6. Anonymous. Wr: John Orloff. Dir: Roland Emmerich. • Conversely (re: Shakespeare in Love, above) 2011’s brilliantly addictive Anonymous depicts William Shakespeare as little more than a drunken hack, used as a convenient front by the highly educated Edward De Vere, who happens to be the Earl of Oxford, an heir to the British throne. The Earl delights to pen both romantic interludes and political propaganda pieces, meant to rouse the rabble. And thus—who really was The Bard? Might he have been the Earl of Oxford? The world’s first conspiracy theory perhaps. The facts, as presented here, are hard to dismiss as complete rubbish, and Rhys Ifans portrayal as the well-meaning Earl will itch your brain—and make for some stimulating contemplation with other illuminari over apple Martinis at The Algonquin (now the Blue Bar) or The Library.
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  7. Stranger Than Fiction. 2007. Wr: Zach Helm. Dir: Mark Forster. • (Also known as the only Will Ferrell film I like.) Ferrell plays Harold Crick, a mild mannered IRS agent. One day he wakes up to discover his life isn’t his own, but rather is being systematically created, one page at a time, by a tortured novelist. Surrealistic? Yeah, sure—but also unique! Worse, he comes to realize that he’s the doomed hero of a soon-to-be-completed modern tragedy. Emma Thomson plays the eccentric writer keystroking Mr. Crick to an early grave. (Basically, this flick’s looking at the writer from the written protagonist’s POV.) But one can’t get into a writer’s mind much more deeply than this. With Maggie Gyllenhaal and Dustin Hoffman.
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  8. The Muse. 1999. Wr(s): Albert Brooks, Monica Johnson. Dir: Albert Brooks. • One may question why I’ve include this witty Hollywood farce (rarely a favorite on any Top 10 “Hollywood-insider” lists) while omitting the far more recognizable, Robert Altman directed/Michael Tolken penned The Player. While the latter veers off into a darker realm of twisted wishful thinking, The Muse remains steadfastly on track, with wonderful performances by neurotic scriptwriter Albert Brooks. Also with Andie McDowel and a brilliantly ditzy Sharon Stone…as the muse. With tongue-in-cheek cameos by Jeff Bridges, James Cameron and Martin Scorsese, among others, The Muse manages to nicely balance pathos and desperation with a knowing chuckle or two. It’s not that I don’t like The Player… just this one rarely strays from the eternal struggle to produce word after word after word.
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  9. American Splendor. 2003. Wr(s): Harey Pikar, Joyce Brabner; Dir(s): Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini. • Should one dare to consider a cult graphic novel writer a writer? Of course, one should. One who writes, writes, est-ce pas? Paul Giamatti gives a stellar performance as the late, great Harvey Pekar, whose everyday struggles to simply survive are already legion in the graphic underworld. American Splendor nicely choreographs an ordinary day in an unordinary life.
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  10. Finding Forrester. 2000. Wr: Mike Rich. Dir: Gus Van Sant. • Marred (imho) only by one-scene-too-many before the credits roll, the film nevertheless nicely captures the emotional conflicts between mentor and acolyte. Student writer Jamal Wallace discovers the famous, painfully reclusive William Forrester (Rob Brown, Sean Connery, respectively) and a wary friendship follows. Despite the somewhat unique—albeit intriguing—perils that the relationship presents, the love of writing remains firmly cemented at the core of this film—and sometimes love hurts.

Some runners-up, and personal favorites, although not quite (imho) necessary rocket fuel for inspiring writing—although very good flicks!:
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  • Sunset Boulevard. 1950. Wr(s): Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, D.M. Marshman Jr. Dir: Billy Wilder. • This one’s perhaps the most dubious omission on the above list. (I thought it would make the cut, but surprisingly didn’t!) Billy Wilder’s psychological film-noir classic isn’t so much concerned about the act of screenwriting as it is about that deliciously unrelenting spiral into madness—both the writer’s and, metaphorically speaking, Hollywood’s as well. Whether the flick holds up as a current masterpiece depends upon one’s ability to pull 21st century values from a story already three-quarters of century old. Personally, I view most young writers today just as crazy as their literary forbearers; the act of writing is no less tormenting as it was way back then. What Hitchcock’s Psycho is to the crime thriller, Sunset Boulevard is to slow-boiling Hollynoir—and, yeah, this one holds enough enough to make writers blink twice. A spine-tingly little cautionary tale—and a primer for anyone looking for examples on how to craft extraordinarily bizarre characters. But I don’t think Sunset Blvd’s gonna make you jump up and race to finish your novel.
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  • Almost Famous. 2000. Wr(s): Cameron Crowe. Dir: Cameron Crowe. • Mr. Crowe’s semi-autobiographical film about a (too) young Rolling Stone spec writer trying to delve deeply into the psyche of his favorite band. This one’s a quintessential film about rock music (think Eagles) in the 70s, that peeks behind the stage lights and power amps; the superb journey of a young writer simply trying to get it right. The film’s at its best when young William (Patrick Fugit) struggles to get his writing off the ground, interviewing the band and occasionally under the cynical tutelage of crusty Lester Banks (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Nifty soundtrack, of course.
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  • Finding Neverland. 2004. Wr(s): Marc Norman, Tom Stoppard. Dir: Marc Forster. • Johnny Depp depicts playwright J.M. Barrie, whose friendship with a young family—most prominently inquisitive Peter—inspires him to write Peter Pan. Told with a soft, warming glow of reminiscence; the film shines as Barrie’s fertile mind plays out in various sequences of his cinematic daydreams.
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  • Slaughterhouse Five. Kind of a personal cheat—but I love Kurt Vonnegut’s 1972 antiwar homage to WWII. As seen through the eyes of hapless Billy Pilgrim, and directed with aplomb by George Roy Hill—the film is a gentle yet poignant joust with time. Including both war atrocities and alien encounters, knowing it’s based on Vonnigut’s own experiences (to a degree) makes the unfolding plot seem completely rational to me.
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  • Roman de Gare. 2007. Wr(s): Claude Lelouse, Pierre Uytterhoeven. Dir: Claude Lelouse. French/Subtitled. • A wonderfully eccentric ensemble film about a writer in crisis (but also a murder mystery and romantic farce). The catch is: What’s real, what’s fiction… and what’s the difference? French icon Dominique Pinon stars as novelist Pierre Lacois—who sometimes confuses reality with… well, something else entirely. Nice for a rainy afternoon with the subtitled-savvy.
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  • Squid and the Whale (The). 2005. Wr/Dir: Noah Baumbach. • The Berkmans are a family of NYC intellectuals (mom’s a fledgling writer and dad’s a published lit prof—I mean, how normal could they be)? Sons Walt and Frank strive for normalcy but completely fail. On the surface, just another dysfunctional family outing (e.g.; Running with Scissors; The Family Stone; Little Miss Sunshine, This is Where I Leave You…) yet as a writer, I can’t help but feel the subliminal lament of a writer’s unfulfilled destiny infusing every scene. (Maybe one has to be a writer to get it, or maybe I’m just confusing eccentricity as being part of the territory?) In either case, a nice ensemble cast includes Jeff Daniels, Jesse Eisenberg and Laura Linney.
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  • World According to Garp (The). 1982. Wr(s): John Irving (novel), Steve Tesich (scrnply); Dir: George Roy Hill. • My personal all time #1 Favorite Novel did not fully translate (at least in within the confines of this category) into a film about “writing” or about “a writer.” It’s a nice film, with a sweet cast, and yet Robin Williams’ portrayal of T.S. Garp was more about the escapades of the central character than the inner conflictions of the man as a writer. (The book delved far more deeply into Garp’s psyche.) Still, very much worth the ride.

And, yes, I know the following films are, however indirectly, partially about writing or writers. And yes, many of these films have admirable, even wonderful, cinematic qualities; themes and characters and overarching messages. I admire many of these films and a few—e.g.; Get Shorty, The Name of the Rose, Sideways—get preferential viewing every time I discover them on late night cable. However, for whatever reason, these miss the motivational or inspirational quality I seek in this blog. Some begin to interpret a writer’s inner demons, but end up in the mystery, murder or mayhem category. Or else a romantic jaunt that, if nothing else, proves that once in a great while, even a fiction writer can find love! So, while many of these films are worth a look, I wouldn’t exactly shop here implicitly for literary inspiration.

Adaptation. A nice, slick, sleight-of-hand flick… but ultimately a surrealistic, psychological thriller about a screen writer.
Atonement. Sorry, but I feel this one’s a gimmick flick—with a supposedly boffo twist that let the air out of this balloon for me.
Becoming Jane. A gentle brush stroke of a movie, more biopic than creative primer (especially if one chooses to view Pride and Prejudice as her own fictional autobiography.)
Bell Jar (The). A poignant journey into depression, this one’s not so much a writer’s anguish as it is anguished writing and, like Girl Interrupted, the story may inspire some writers with a stark verite… but for most of us, I’m not sure I’d call it inspirational. Frankly, a story like this (imho) should inspire survival, not capitulation—writing as a means of personal salvation—so I find it difficult to suggest it as motivational.
Bright Star. I should probably see this one.
Capote. More about the man’s eccentric lifestyle than his creation of work. Worth a look simply for Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Kathleen Keener, but a very good biopic.
Deathtrap. Less about writing than about manipulation. But terrific film-noir.
Deconstructing Harry. OK, let’s face it. Most Woody Allen films are about writers to some degree. But about Woody Allen to a greater degree. Complex and complicated. So take Midnight in Paris and run with it.
Door in a Floor (A). A primer in why writers shouldn’t drink. (Alas, but we sometimes do.)
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. More or less a biopic on speed, and whatever else one can concoct by mixing pharmaceuticals found in the bathroom cabinet.
Front (The). Awesome intentions, but more about the McCarthy era, with a light dusting of actually being a writer during that era. But Zero Mostel is priceless.
Get Shorty. A film I find utterly fun, and a nifty Hollywood farce. But not so much about the writing as, well—just about anything else that goes on in Hollywood. Based on Elmore Leonard’s novel… so what’s not to love?
Ghost Writer (The). Not really. It’s political intrigue that uses a writer as both a plot tool and fall guy.
Girl, Interrupted. As mentioned above, this intense psychodrama isn’t necessary a push toward writing, but for those writers who are desperate to bleed an intense personal story (fictive or not) on paper, this film may indeed be inspirational in terms of depth and honesty. An excellent drama, and excellent performances by Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie. It’s based on Suzanna Kaysen’s memoir of her own experience in a mental hospital in the late 60s.
Hotel New Hampshire (The). Lovely film. With a slight undercurrent of “being a writer” flitting around the edges. A coming of age tale—with beautiful performances by Tobey Maguire and Michael Caine.
Hours (The). Um, sorry—but no.
Infamous. This one’s that other Capote film (Toby Jones matching Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s panache in playing the title role). Sandra Bullock plays Harper Lee. No less poignant than Capote—and equally worth the viewing. If you’re a Capote fan, see them back to back. Seriously.
Julie and Julia. Okay, so this is a film about occasional blogging—and, yes, that counts as writing—and about relationships…and about food, of course (the titular Julia is, of course, Julia Child). But I can’t argue that some writers might find the film quite inspirational. So by all means, check it out. With Meryl Streep and Amy Adams; directed by Nora Ephron.
Kill Your Darlings. Ah, a murder mystery masquerading as a morality tale about the ‘Beat Poets’ era (in the late 1950s) with Allen Ginsberg (a surprisingly droll Daniel Radcliffe), Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs poised to invent the literary consciousness of the brooding ’60s. Yet the ambiance turns from period piece (cool enough) into a noir-esque caper of lust and mistrust—deliciously ironic perhaps—but, still, not exactly a primer for motivating novelists in the here and now.
Leaving in Las Vegas. New to writing? No, no, finish your book before you see this one.
Misery. More or less a film about a deranged and psychopathic relationship… with an unwitting writer. Personally, I think most of us would be thrilled to have a reader with so much passion…although probably with far less angst.
Motorcycle Diaries (The). Marxist revolutionary Che as a reluctant, journal-scribbling antihero? A sensitive portrayal and a worthy, well-crafted biopic. See you in Habana!
Name of the Rose (The). Mentioned for a slight—yet extraordinary—plot twist that earns the film a solid nod here. Not exactly about writers, but very much about writing—and particularly about “censorship.” A nifty period piece about the Dark Ages. With Sean Connery, too.
My Left Foot. More a biopic than a writer’s flick. But extraordinary man, Jim Sheridan. Profound drama.
Naked Lunch. Heh. Directed by David Cronenberg. Watch it with the lights out at night. Then we’ll talk.
Player (The). Yeah, but it’s really a spoof about Hollywood. From a writer’s POV. (But I did oh-so-love Tim Robbins in this role.)
Prick Up Your Ears. The moving and tragic biopic of 60’s British playwright Joe Orton, with a wonderful performance by a young Gary Oldman as Orton. However the film veers decidedly into Orton’s gay lifestyle (with failed novelist Kenneth Halliwell) and leaves any sense of art and craft in the distant background. Yet if you’re having trouble choosing your friends as a new novelist, this is a worthy, if horrific, cautionary tale.
Royal Tenenbaums (The). Um, sorry. No.
Shining (The). About a writer, but not really. A writer’s ghost story perhaps. Note: Stanley Kubrick had each—each!—of Nicholson’s faux-manuscript pages individually typed for that classic “All work and no play” shot. Classic Kubrick perfectionism!
Sideways. Not really. A funny poignant buddy film, and Paul Giamatti’s character plays a disgruntled writer, but this is more about a buddy-lovin’ road trip than writing.
Stand By Me. A coming of age story of four young boys—one who becomes a writer.
Starting Out in One Evening. I should probably see that.
Sophie’s Choice. Not so much a film about writing as it is about a writer’s passive passion with the eventual characters of an yet unforeseen novel.
Swimming Pool. Nice flick, but mostly murder mystery. What’s real? What’s illusion? Ah…
Third Person. Not what it seems. A nice approach, but it’s pretty much a psychological drama. A fairly low-key (very low body count!) Liam Neeson stars. Want to climb inside the mind of a writer? This one might work for you.
2046. I hear this one’s pretty astounding, a hypnotic, non-linear film by Chinese director Kar Wai Wong, about a sci-fi writer and his lost loves—present, past and future. I’m looking forward to finding this one somewhere soon.
Wilde. A marvelous, dramatic period piece about the life (and, of course, scandals) of Oscar Wilde. With Stephen Fry and Jude Law.
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Hammering it out

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Rules-headerA blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

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Hammering It Out.

Today’s particular stern finger-waggling isn’t so much about what we at Muse Harbor look for from potential authors as it is a personal observation about how I write, how the accomplished writers I know write, and how many writers who want to write—but who quite haven’t gotten past that first chapter—how they perhaps attempt to write.

Because the difference between finishing and not finishing a novel may very likely depend upon one’s ability to comprehend Rule #25.

Rule #25: Write one thought at a time. (And don’t worry about the rest.)

Success isn’t exclusively about passion and creative ability, but also about allowing ourselves the patience to write a single sentence (and write it well, of course), and then to write a second sentence, and then a third and a fourth and a fifth—concocting a methodical and polished collection of provocative threads that will one day bloom into a full fledged novel. I mean, what is a novel but simply an uber-long sequence of distinct, expressive thoughts, one after another after another? And within the brain of every true novelist, a myriad of motivated synapses will (trust me) weave those individual thoughts in proper order—like strands of cotton in a perfectly-fitted sweater. We may not know precisely how we do it, but it’s what we do.

When I sit down to begin a new novel, I may have a vaguely hazy notion of the impending plot or ultimate conclusion. I probably have an outline or a synopsis—either on paper or swimming around my head—but more likely than not, I have little idea where the tittering Nymphs of Creativity will ultimately lead me. Not a writer in the world knows, word-by-word, thought-by-thought, the exact outcome. I may introduce unknown characters or subplots or any number of as yet undetermined or unperceived variables, but I don’t concern myself about any of those intangibles. It’s not their “worry time” yet. Rather, I only concern myself with the sentence in front of me. Whether its completion takes a minute, an hour, or a day, so be it. But I don’t move on until I’m satisfied with that one coherent thought.

Understand that “being satisfied” need not be a permanent condition. Hammering out the perfect sentence isn’t an ultimatum to Saraswati.* Maybe tomorrow I’ll tweak that sentence, maybe rework the whole page or eliminate an entire chapter—if I’ve found a better way to express that thought. But I don’t worry about tomorrow either. I write what’s in my heart, my soul, at this very moment.

And then I do it again, in the next moment I choose to write. In a few hundred pages I’ll look back and think; hey, that wasn’t too tough. But like the man said, it’s easier looking back down the hill than up the hill ahead.

If you’re disinclined to believe nameless men of dubious existence—well, remember when your mother told you to chew your food carefully, one bite at a time? Because if you try to cram the entire chocolate creme cake into your face and swallow—well, life doesn’t work that way. Nor does your esophagus. Nor does writing a novel. Slow down and chew your words.

If you find yourself writing long, complicated, dubiously-detailed sentences, beware the ‘stream-of-thought’ conundrum. Like us, characters don’t always think or speak sequentially (linearly), but rather in a scatter-shot rush of near simultaneity, often tripping over thoughts and words. However, do be aware that readers can only read in a linear fashion—word to word to word—and complicated thought patterns can leave them utterly perplexed.

Can’t seem to get past writing the first page? The first chapter? Staring wide-eyed into the abyss, presuming unknown obstacles and those unspoken horrors alien to all of humanity? Take heart. It’s not uncommon for those of us beginning a new novel—or those of us attempting a first novel—to suddenly feel the enormity and weight of The Finished Product. And, like a deer caught in the high beams, we simply freeze. Yeah, that sometimes happens.

But begin by writing a single sentence. And if the spirit moves you, write another one. Then repeat until cured of any fear. Take deep breaths. Enjoy the ride. That’s the best—the only—way to finish a book.

PS: So how is this different from Rule #16: Focus on the now? Rule #16 is about writing style, this one’s about writing practice.

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* Hindu goddess of literature.
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Focus on the Now

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Rules-headerA blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

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Focus on the Now.

Writing the Now is crucial in those segments or scenes of dramatic relevance (particularly action or emotionally-charged sequences). The Now is all about focusing on an immediate moment in your plot or in your character’s story—and not reminding us of what’s previously occurred or inferring what might happen next. In those tension-charged “inhale” moments (see Rule #8: Keep your characters moving) one’s writing should never dawdle, or drift, or pull away from visual or emotional impact. Thus, this rule’s addendum to #8’s sage wisdom is this: Keep your characters—and the reader—grounded in space/time. (Seriously.) Keep us here. Keep us now. When you’re confronting drama, your writing should be its most concise and free of asides and philosophical segues. Keep your writing linear.

Ah, yes, linear writing! We humans lead our physical lives (and we writers tend to tell our tales) in linear progression. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to do otherwise. Yesterday, today, tomorrow. It’s how to build a house, how to prepare a meal, how to walk from here to there and how to write a book; word by word, page by page, chapter by chapter.

Yet in terms of thinking—that is, processing our thoughts—we’re typically all over the bloody map. In a single moment, we may be pondering the water bill, what we ate for breakfast—do I have clean clothes for tonight? What was her name again?—while concurrently anticipating a vacation to Maui. We’re a myriad, a kaleidoscope, a raging volcano of random and unconnected thoughts, every minute of every day.

Unfortunately, we writers have to mute this cerebral cacophony and assemble a string of linear thoughts sufficient to complete a coherent book. When we sit down to write, some of us have barely a vague notion of what comes next. But we typically begin with a single idea that will (and must) grow and expand in a polite and orderly fashion—that will eventually encompass several hundred pages.

So how do we squeeze out the fat but leave the gristle? My suggestion (and now Rule #16) is this: Focus on the now. Stay in the moment. Don’t remind us of what’s already happened, and don’t allude to what might happen.

Thus, midway through a daring cavalry charge against a hoard of angry hostiles, a writer shouldn’t suddenly decide that the protagonist once had an aunt named Rita who smelled like persimmon blossoms. Maybe the dear woman exists in your mind—but now isn’t the time to introduce her.

Or perhaps we’ve maneuvered Rhonda and Robby, a pair of young lovers, atop Misty Mountain, alone beneath a full moon and about to share that first kiss. Once the puckering begins, we shouldn’t decide to pause to extensively examine what Rhonda ate for breakfast this morning. If there’s a plot-specific reason for depicting breakfast, sure, mention it—but not here. Not now. See Rule #26: Don’t mix action and information (and vise-versa). Meaning that once you’ve decided on action, stay with the action—follow it through. When you’ve fully inhaled—that is, infused your scene with sufficient drama—then it’s OK to exhale.

Ideas often form in bits and pieces; can ease into a writer’s consciousness like fragments of a wispy dream. It’s too easy to sidetrack ourselves, or to take off on flights of irrelevant fancy. Our fragile minds generally lack the comprehension skills to immediately structure each necessary thought in proper sequence, chronologically from A to Z.

That precise chronology requires editing and re-editing and re-re-editing. Adjusting. Pruning. So replay each scene, stripping needless verbiage until you’ve whittled your prose down to raw excitement. If you determine that Aunt Rita’s germane to the story, then by all means include her—but at the proper moment, where she can enter your tale bringing her own excitement with her. (As Sophocles once said* about drama; “T’is better to crash through a window than stroll through a doorway.”)

It’s typical to write a draft or two filled with holes and gaps, fits and starts, of competing scenarios and conflicting timelines and ‘what if’ possibilities; additions, deletions, asides and notes-to-self. We’ll rearrange our thoughts—finding Aunt Rita a proper home at the proper time, for instance—and telling us, preferably, only what’s transpiring at this moment.

To more closely examine the two major culprits that I typically find bogging down the momentum of Now:

The Recap. Recapping is reminding a reader, or summarizing, passages or events that have already transpired. A good novelist tells the reader once and moves on. Typically, a recap tends to be an unnecessary reiteration of a previous scene or sequence. Yet strong prose needs no reassurance. If you’re unsure whether a reader will remember your relevancy, revisit that scene and strengthen its potency (in its own Now.) Then move along.

BTW: Beware summarizing any verbiage as a fictive device. Usually lacking drama and stylistic intensity, a summary is a limp noodle of a segue or brief passage. Say it eloquently, or not at all.

The Telegraph. It’s common for some of us to inadvertently sneak bits of clairvoyance to a reader. For instance, I already know that Sheriff Bob and the Schoolmarm are going to sneak a kiss in Act II, even if I’ve barely started writing Act I. So it’s easy to placate my own excitement by writing: One day, Sally Sue knew she’d share a kiss with Sheriff Bob, and had dreamed of little else for the last two months… if only because I’m damned excited about that impending kiss. So I deliberately or subliminally tease the reader to wait for the fireworks. But what I’m really doing is telegraphing that probability to the reader—defusing the tension—and when the moment of the kiss arrives, many readers may feel cheated. T’is far better than to surprise the reader than render the moment predicable by providing that unnecessary wink and a nudge.

BTW: There’s a difference between a telegraph and the perfectly acceptable foreshadow. The foreshadow is a whisper; the telegraph is a shout. Or, to revisit Sally Sue’s predicament in a less obtrusive way: Sally Sue had never been kissed. So, sure, in the midst of revealing her loneliness, such observation can provide insight, yet won’t tease away any secrets or deflate tension.

So… Beware of recapping past events. Of foretelling the future. Stick with the events of the moment. Mesmerize your reader with the vibrant immediacy of the Now.

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* Or maybe not.
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