Basic Plotting (Part 1)

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

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Basic Plotting (Part 1)

Right Brain (creative thinking) vs. Left Brain (critical thinking). Unfortunately, we need both halves.

The fiction writers I know—we’re all daydreamers at heart. The obstacle confronting us is that, well—we’re all daydreamers at heart. But daydreams don’t magically turn into completed novels. If I had a dollar for every plot idea that wiggled into my head, I’d be driving a Tesla. And I do not drive a Tesla.

The truth is that daydreams—those misty thought-bubbles from which all novels spring—and the reality of churning out a book; e.g.; sitting down to write for months or years, require two completely different facets of a writer’s personality. Our Right Brain—the artsy-fartsy, huggin’ and feelin’ hemisphere—is content to sit on a comfy couch all day, dreaming about pirates or unicorns or maybe what happened that one night at summer camp. Our Left Brain—the logical, mathematical, factual part—pays the bills. For many of us who write (or sing or paint or philosophize), our Left Brain may be underutilized—unpracticed, whiny and suspicious of both hard work and success—and must, at some point, take the cerebral baton from our Right Brain and run with it.

And trust me, that race will be a marathon.

Successfully passing the baton from Right to Left is, IMHO, where a majority of novels stumble and fail. A notion may sprout, may grow a leaf or two, but then the idea withers or stagnates, only to dissolve back into a hazy daydream. And while there’s nothing wrong with that—most novel ideas don’t go the distance—without an eventual, diligent merging of the Right Brain and Left Brain, no novel will ever leave the warm, fertile comfort of your mind. And that would be a shame.

Refer again to Rule #1: Finish the book.

Which of course means starting the book, and then powering through the middle; endless days developing a coherent plot, re-thinking and rewriting scenes, missing more than a few weekends with friends and lovers. And then diving back in, day after day, and always into the deep end, scrubbing every word, sentence and scene until you feel that you’ve “got it right.” No, it’s not an easy task. Oh, but when it’s complete, that’s a feeling unlike any other. I can promise you that.

I’m not certain if anyone can truly explain how an idea, a daydream, a concept, can ultimately transform into a cogent story line. Plot development is in the eye of the beholder. Writing is a solitary journey. Most of us begin with a kernel of an idea; maybe only a wisp of dialog, a half-baked scene that sparks a series of “what if” questions. What if Adolf Hitler had won World War II? Or, What if I found an old suitcase washed up on the beach that contained an enormous diamond, a severed human hand and a mysterious note?

Maybe: What would happen if a small, bespectacled orphan turned out to be a sorcerer with a mysterious past? Or even, What would happen if seven kingdoms vied for power in a medieval fantasy world where dragons once reigned and a frozen wall saved the people from the walking dead?

Just thoughts. Daydreams strung together and eventually made real by the diligence of a single writer, by the power of the written word. ‘Cuz that’s how all novels begin.

If you’re new to the idea of writing a novel, new to the concept of formulating a plot, I have a few ideas. If you’ve never written a novel (but you’re excited to try) sit down and attempt to write a short story—3 or 5 or 10 pages. Short story plots are relatively simple, or else the sliver of a complex issue, but simply told. (A.K.A.: A slice of life.) And if those few pages result in a definitive conclusion, give yourself a high-five, write ‘THE END’ and relax. Then (after the hangover subsides) start another story. Many budding fiction writers find themselves to be highly-efficient short story writers, first and foremost. (And short story collections do have a place in today’s market.)

As you write, however, you may discover new thoughts crowding into consciousness, vying for consideration. You might discover that a few short stories feel suspiciously like chapters in a book—and with a little extra cogitating, your collection can become a novel.

Or perhaps your idea begins with grandiose underpinnings. What if I traced the life of a small street urchin who battled an evil witch and ultimately became the queen of a magical fantasy realm… 2000 pages hence. It all begins with a simple “what if?” scenario that takes hold and won’t let go.

If you discover yourself in such a predicament; that is, ready, willing but paradoxically uncertain, just begin writing. Certainly don’t ponder too far ahead at this point—and certainly don’t fret about finishing, or even worry about the uncertain vastness between now and then… simply start. The only way to succeed is to concentrate on one page at a time.

Refer again, should you desire, to Where To Start. Also see Focus on the Now.
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Finding Your Voice (Part 3)

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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 3.)
Point of View: Narrative vs. Authorial Voice

 

A.K.A.: First Person vs. Third Person. (It’s a bigger issue than me or him.)

Note: Various writing teachers/critics refer to narrative and authorial voice as an author’s Point of View (POV). However, as not to confuse an author’s own voice with the author’s characters’ voices, I shall refrain here from using POV, and simply refer to narrative or authorial voices as first person or third person, respectively.

The Narrative Perspective—linguistically speaking, deictic referencing—is a grammatical stew of who, when and where, essential information that will greatly influence the tone and tenor of your novel. Who is telling the story—you, the author, or one or more or your characters speaking through you? Might you also choose to impart an all-knowing, omniscient voice to further describe your characters? And when is your story told? (Now or then?) Where? (Here or there.) All relevant questions to ask yourself before you begin to write.

Your options? A list of common perspectives:

• First person/past tense (e.g.; narrator’s voice): I loved Paris.
• First person/present tense: I love Paris.
• Third person/past tense. (e.g.; authorial voice): She loved Paris.
• Third person/present tense: She loves Paris.
• Third person/omniscient/present conditional): She would one day find love in Paris.

Less relevant and not recommended (except as dialog or inner monologue):

• First person/future tense: I will love Paris.
• Second person/past tense: You loved Paris.
• Second person/present tense: You love Paris.
• Second person/future tense: You will love Paris.

Jay McInerney wrote the entirely of Bright Lights, Big City in 2nd person. The novel begins: “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning…” This voice can sustain a novel—McInerney’s is a very good novel—but not easily and probably not without being regarded by your literary peers as ‘effusive.’ So, no, probably don’t use it.

Finding one’s own narrative perspective—that is writing a novel in first person (1P) vs. third person (3P)—is a bigger issue than simply writing “I am going to town” or “She went to town.” You’ll likely find that your sentence construction, your cadence—possibly your entire plot structure—significantly different, depending on which voice you choose. Visual cues will differ. Character depth will differ. Your character’s thought patterns will differ. Character motivations may differ in terms of your relying on dialog (two characters communicating) versus internal monologue (a character thinking unspoken thoughts to which the reader is privy). You may find your entire writing style shifting to some degree, to accommodate the voice you choose.

Also, when writing in 1P, using a narrative or narrator’s voice, you’re restricted to solely using the “I” character to impart knowledge to the reader. Mary may be thinking about killing me, but I don’t know that for certain. Only your principal character will reveal thoughts to the reader—an attribute that can be both incredibly illuminating and restricting. If you’re writing in 1P, you’re allowing the character to speak directly to the reader. For instance, Barbara Kingsolver begins her novel The Bean Trees:

“I have been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw a tractor tire blow up and throw Newt Hardbine’s father over the top of the Standard Oil sign. I’m not lying. He got stuck up there.”

However, should you, as author, choose to tell your story from your own perspective, you’re speaking in authorial voice. You’re writing in 3P, typically in either past or present tense. In the novel Prodigal Summer, Kingsolver begins:

“Her body moved with the frankness that comes with solitary habits. But solitude is only a human presumption. Every quiet step is thunder to beetle life underfoot; every choice is a world made new for the chosen. All secrets are witnessed.

“If someone in this forest had been watching her—a man with a gun, for instance, hiding inside a copse of leafy beech trees—he would have noticed how quickly she moved up the path and how direly she scowled at the ground ahead of her feet.”

Using authorial voice, you have the added bonus of alternating with—should you choose—an omniscient voice. As omniscient narrator, you’re essentially a puppet-master looking down upon your characters and providing the reader with an objective overview of their lives. Interestingly, in Prodigal Summer (above), Ms. Kingsolver shifts to present tense to reflect her omniscient voice in the second line.

Remember the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town? (It’s been a staple in high schools for decades.) Mr. Wilder ingeniously offers his omniscient voice a living stage persona, a character unseen and unknown by the other actors. Early in Act I, the Stage Manager states: “Over there is the Congregational Church; across the street’s the Presbyterian. Methodist and Unitarian are over there.” The Stage Manager is not speaking to the actors. He’s speaking to the audience. The actors are oblivious to the Stage Manager’s presence.

Another example—and advantage—of writing in 3P is switching freely between authorial voice (shown in italics below) and omniscient voice (in bold italics):

As Jonathan stumbled through the steaming Manaquirian jungle, he felt a sudden sting on his shoulder. Christ, he hated mosquitoes. He considered them nothing more than tiny, insufferable vampires, sucking the lifeblood from any creature who dared enter their blistering realm. Little did Jonathan know that this insect would infect him with a lethal strain of malaria that would, without an antidote, inexorably dissolve his brain into a soggy beef broth.

It can be a good way to build drama.

If you write in 1P, do realize that we, your readers, won’t know (until Jonathan himself tells us) that his brain is turning to mush. If Jonathan doesn’t know, we don’t know either. However, there exists subtle methods to invoke a similar sort of faux omniscient information. No, you’re not using omniscient voice. You’re cheating by creating a useful backstory. Or hearsay. Or conversations with convenient strangers. Thus:

As I stumbled through the steaming Manaquirian jungle, I felt a sudden sting on my shoulder. Christ, I hated mosquitoes. They’re insufferable buggers, little more than tiny vampires sucking the lifeblood from any creature who dares enter their blistering realm. Years ago, while camped in Tupana, I’d heard horror stories about a rare killer mosquito hiding in this part of the Amazon. It was a new breed of insect whose sting would slowly dissolve a human brain into a soggy beef broth. I hoped to God one of those little lethal bastards wouldn’t find me, as the nearest medical facility, and the nearest antidote, awaited me in Manaus, a good fifty miles away.

Different voice? Sure, and likely a different style, subliminal or not. For instance, I didn’t intend to alter the above translation (3P/1P), but each voice demands nuance and subtlety. It’s not as simple as switching from him to me. Your novel will be quite literally built around the specific voice you use.

So… not sure which voice to use? Might I suggest allowing yourself a few pages to toy with different perspectives? Write a scene in 3P and then rewrite those same pages in 1P. Try past tense. Try present tense. Does a particular voice call to you? Do you feel yourself able to better express yourself more articulately using a particular voice? Personally, I find this exercise to be one of the more enjoyable guilty pleasures of beginning a new book.
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Finding Your Voice (Part 2)

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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 2): Do your characters speak to you?

This one gets a little deep, so buckle in. To briefly recap: finding your writer’s voice is a combination of discovering your personality as a writer (See: Finding Your Voice. Part 1) and finding your characters’ fictional personalities. And the best way to discover those fictive voices? Listen.

So, basically, Rule #13 is: Shut up and let your characters tell their own stories. (And in doing so, you’ll discover your voice.)

Crazy, right? It’s a little like channeling Elvis.

As a fiction editor, I can discern—usually within a page or two—whether I’m listening to the writer speak or if I’m listening to the characters tell their own story. And I don’t want the writer’s version of what’s going down, I want the characters revealing themselves. You? You’re just the conduit.

Not that your characters should completely dominate their own fates. The writer’s job is all about forward momentum. Herd these people inside your head—some who may be obstinate, others cranky, some loving, others lazy—incessantly forward. Push that plot dramatically onward. You’re creating a road map from here-to-there, filled with tension and pathos (or emotion or zany humor) and profundity (or frivolity). And each character has an obligation to remain in the confines of the parameters you set.

How do you know that your characters are speaking their minds? Here’s a test. Visualize this hypothetical novel: You’re writing a happy/sad tale about four friends, all very different people from a variety of backgrounds, and each trying to live a life to its fullest.

It’s what I call The Lobster Bisque Variant. Picture these four characters sitting in a restaurant, enjoying the moment. Juan’s a middle-aged Hispanic blue-collar pipe-fitter, Andrea’s a 35-year old airline pilot, Zane is a young black Broadway dancer and Rosanna’s an old Italian grandmother. A waiter comes by and—visualize, in turn, four variations of the following incident—accidentally spills a bowl of lobster bisque in each of their laps. Juan gets the lapful in Version #1, Andrea gets souped in Version #2… and so on. Now, as a writer, describe their reactions.

If your results are:

Version 1/Juan: “Oh my God, how embarrassing. What a mess!”
Version 2/Andrea: “Oh my God, how embarrassing. What a mess!”
Version 3/Zane: “Oh my God, how embarrassing. What a mess!”
Version 4/Rosanna: “Oh my God, how embarrassing. What a mess!”

…then, guess what? You’re not listening to your characters, to the nuance of their unique personalities. You’re listening to yourself, confined to your own theoretical reaction. Ultimately, your characters may become little more than mini-you’s, clones of your boxed-in subconscious, and cookie-cutters of each other. Most readers will quickly detect such similarity, such ambiguity, and most likely find them (and eventually your story) flat and unappealing.

However, by discovering their various reactions to a wet lap can help determine each character’s emotional core. If you like what you hear, then continue (metaphorically, of course) to pour bisque in their laps every so often, careful to interpret and maintain the integrity of their distinct voices. 

When they speak to you, through you (and, believe me, they will) be aware of their cadence and vocabulary and motivation. A great novel, after all, isn’t about plot—it’s about people.

And so… voice? It’s partly your storytelling ability. And partly about each character’s unique emotional energy. Strip away voice and whatever’s left—however realistic, however meticulously constructed—feels dry, lifeless, vacant. He did this, she did that. I went here. I went there. A house on Main Street. It rained. John loved Mary.

Instead, allow your characters to reveal the passion that burns inside their souls. Give them sufficient room, sufficient stage time, to become real to both you and your readers.
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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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