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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What’s your intention?

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

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What’s Your Intention?

Each chapter (or individual scene) that you write must have a specific intention. Your goal is to propel the story rationally forward in terms of: scene-setting, character-setting and/or plot development. (Refer to Rule #5.) Each scene has, to some degree, a beginning, a middle and a conclusion—or if not a definitive conclusion, a consequence. A predicament. Each scene moves the reader from here to there with both precision and passion.

Even truncated scenes, brief interludes and segues—often the most difficult scenes to write—have an intention, if only to kill time (The icy grip of winter passed slowly while Martin languished in prison…), foil a protagonist, set a trap, build emotional tension or intentionally mislead the reader. Thus, each chapter—each scene,  paragraph and single line within—must be lovingly manipulated to best accomplish that task. When you’re finished writing a scene, ask yourself: How has the story improved? How has the novel advanced? If you can’t answer precisely, rethink your intent.

Remember, whatever your intention: clear and concise sentence construction, told dramatically and passionately.

While editing, I’ll sometimes come across a scene containing a character who is confused or muddled (or an amnesiac or drugged or dreaming) and the writer decides to mirror the character’s vague and perplexed state by writing vague and perplexing prose. Absolutely not! Rule #29: Your characters may be elusive or distracted, but your prose must remain clear and concise. The writer must always maintain clarity, and in solid communication with the reader.

This excerpt from Mind Games (written by me, so I’m free to plagiarize):

He remembered only colors.

Neon spirals morphed into a myriad of indecipherable images, bright kaleidoscopic fragments of light that filled his sleeping mind—colors he had never before known, nor would remember again. He felt both terror and awe and swam chaotically through the illusion, toward the encroaching pallor of consciousness. Finally, exhausted, he opened his eyes to an empty room, the residue of color fading from memory. The dim haze of approaching dawn painted the small room’s only window and, standing unsteadily, he peered toward an unknown and distant landscape, mute with the greys and browns of an unwelcomed reality.

Meaning that my intention had been to introduce a character in some sort of mental anguish, perhaps on the verge of emotional collapse. Yet told (one might hope) with a lucidity that hints of both a specific setting and the character’s state-of-mind. Once established, it’s time to move the plot forward.

Hollywood’s directors are often screaming at struggling actors; “What’s your motivation?!” In fiction writing, that relentless director inside your head should be screaming those same words. What are my intentions on this page! What am I trying to achieve here? If you’re writing a visual scene, are you providing sufficient clarity, grounding the reader in sights, sounds and textural richness? In an action scene, are you including only what’s necessary; excluding elements that slow pacing; e.g.; eliminating passive voice and avoiding unnecessary inner monologue?

From On The Edge—again, one of mine—and deep in the midst of an action sequence:

Nikki had neither the time nor the inclination to announce herself as a federal agent, bringing her revolver into a two-handed firing grip, pointing at the gunman who’d invaded her night. She squeezed the trigger repeatedly and saw the back of the pea green jacket pucker several times between his shoulder blades—her fifth round exiting high, spewing bone and teeth fragments from the side of the intruder’s face.

“You shit,” she seethed. He’d crumpled to the floor, leaving a dark smear against the wall. She stepped quickly, her pistol still trained, one left in the chamber, ready to blow out whatever remaining brain matter at the slightest inkling of life. She nudged the shotgun away with her bare toe.

Keep the pacing taut, not bogged down (in red) with extraneous or irrelevant—for the moment—information.

Nikki had neither the time nor the inclination to announce herself as a federal agent, bringing her revolver into a two-handed firing grip, pointing at the gunman who’d invaded her night. Who was this stranger? Might he be the same man she’d seen around town for the last several days, following her? She squeezed the trigger repeatedly, the way she’d been taught years before at the academy, and saw the back of the pea green jacket pucker several times between his shoulder blades—her fifth round exiting high, spewing bone and teeth fragments from the side of the intruder’s face. She had never killed a man before and wondered if her sleep would be filled with nightmares from this day forward.

“You shit,” she seethed. He’d crumpled to the floor, leaving a dark smear against the wall. She stepped quickly, her pistol still trained, one left in the chamber, ready to blow out whatever remaining brain matter at the slightest inkling of life. She nudged the shotgun away with her bare toe. Now what, she wondered? What would happen next? How could she explain this to her boss, special agent Raleigh, who’d warned her to stay out of trouble?

In other words, in action scenes, your intention is to embroil your reader in a sudden rush of adrenalin. The verbiage in red may indeed be integral to the story—but not here. No flashbacks. No philosophical rhetoric. This is a literary inhale. The extraneous facts are the exhale (Refer to Rule #8)… and belong elsewhere, when the action is complete.

Or, should two characters fall in love, are you clearly identifying those characteristics—two young, confused lovers pondering their next move? Even if your lovers are doomed to ultimately fail, are you clearly elucidating only those first tender moments—and not telegraphing the heartache that will appear 200 pages later? Because revealing too much is as erroneous as revealing too little. Your intention—in this scene—is only to delve into their burgeoning passion. What comes before and what occurs next—well, everything in its own sweet time. (See Rule #16: Focus on the now.)
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Show. Don’t Tell.

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

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Show, Don’t Tell. (Take the long road home.)

Show, don’t tell. Most writers are aware of the axiom, and many are aware of the literology behind it. Yet some of us continue to persist in taking shortcuts that scrape the passion off our creative intentions.

However, since the adage is bandied about so often, it’s not always easy to glimpse that archetypal forest through the proverbial trees. Perhaps the time has come to dissect the meaning of the phrase, splatter some metaphoric blood, and see what makes the damn thing tick.

A writer I know once elucidated, rather ineloquently; “It means make love to me with your prose; don’t just fuck me with words.”

Or, as Wikipedia states: ‘Show, don’t tell’ is a technique often employed…to enable the reader to experience the story through action, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author’s exposition and summarization.

Wikipedia further states: Author Chuck Palahniuk goes as far as recommending a ban of what he calls ‘thought verbs’: (“Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires…”) favoring instead the use of specific sensory details: “Action, Smell, Taste, Sound, and Feeling.”

I’m quoting from Wikipedia because I happen to believe Mr. Palahniuk’s essay is a particularly brilliant perception, profound and intelligent—and rather than read my attempt to paraphrase him, you can read his words here.

Simply stated, some writers are so busy telling us a bare-bones story1 that they forget to show us the underlying excitement: John came home. He went upstairs. He found his wife lying in a pool of blood. John ran screaming out the door, and then he called the police. An hour later, an old sergeant named O’Malley said; “It looks like murder, Mr. Smith. And you’re the prime suspect.”

That’s descriptive, sure—but it’s also a “shopping list” of chronological events. We might see John, but we certainly don’t know John. But by showing, not telling, the writer is breaking open John’s soul, and allowing us a long, honest, revealing peek inside.

I do equate showing with Active Voice and telling with Passive Voice. Not that sensory details and voice structure are synonymous, but they are compatible. I usually find that a writer plugged into the showing/not telling psychology is likely more aware of the importance of exciting, passionate writing. To me, a good novel is one that continually imparts basic grammar and story-telling mechanics (Subject-Verb-Object)2 with a powerful, dramatic voice.

I consider the above-mentioned exposition and summarization to be lazy writing. Or at least tired writing. (Certain stylistic machinations can effectively work, if properly orchestrated.) But let’s face it, even Hemingway used active voice only marginally—imho—and often slipped into a dispassionate “telling”. Would Hemingway be published today? Good question.

Because if you find yourself constantly beginning sentences with: “It was…” or “He was…” or “They were…” you’re pretty much writing in a passive, superficial voice that most readers will discover devoid of feeling. I guarantee that 9 times from 10, a writer can easily find a more passionate resonance. Consider: John was late for work.

With little effort, one can concoct a variety of active, far more visual solutions:

The alarm bell’s shrill scream sliced through John’s sleeping brain like a hot knife.

John hated mornings. He hated the sunlight playing peek-a-boo through his blinds, tormenting his eyelids with brain-numbing brightness.

John hazily recalled having closed Wiley’s Tavern the previous night with a final whiskey sour, and grinding out his last cigarette an hour later. He dreaded the encroaching dawn with a mental anguish that bordered on physical pain.

Thus, even the ordinary can become an unexpected and pleasurable experience for the reader. Plots are finite. Imagination is not.

Passion should be—must be—a staple constant in your novel. If you find yourself writing dispassionately, ask yourself whether the content belongs in your book. Often, you’ll discover the material extraneous, or redundant, or not fully refined, and your brain’s sending you signals. If your brain doesn’t want to be here… a reader probably won’t want to be either.

Writing is passion. If you don’t consider a novel as you would a jealous lover with expensive tastes—one requiring the diligence, the selflessness, the patience and the isolation (from all your other friends)—think again. And if you’re not ready for the commitment, perhaps its time to find a new lover.

1 Understand that the ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ axiom isn’t a license to kill. Numbing a reader’s senses with unchecked imaginative spewing isn’t going to play either. So stay away from this sort of showboat overload: The fiery explosion of daybreak shattered the tranquility of John’s repose, scattering his thoughts into a billion imprecise fragments that danced in tiny pirouettes throughout his subconscious mind as might a shower of meteors bursting toward far-off galaxies on their disparate journeys through the harsh, relenting silence of space, never again to know the love of a good woman or the taste of a good beer.

Because simple, coherent prose is the yin to creativity’s yang. So, yes—free the reader’s senses to run wild, but do so in basic, uncomplicated sentence structure: Cogent thoughts, simply told, in precise chronology.

Subject + Verb + Object (SVO); otherwise known as Active voice. Conversely, OVS is often viewed as a more passive voice. Consider—once again—the Jumping Cow Rule:

Active: The cow jumped over the moon. (SVO)
Passive: The moon was jumped over by the cow. (OVS)

Bad passive: It was the moon that was jumped over by the cow. (O,OVS)

‘It’ being an abstract representation of the object (and also a repetition of that object): Basically a clunky sentence structure… although the rare exception exists when you might find this phraseology perfect for your needs. If so, by all means use it:

“It was beauty that killed the beast.” (Fictional Carl Denim in King King.) And how could that line have been spoken any other way?

Rules can be broken…but sparingly, please.
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