Archive for April, 2015

On Writing Versus Storytelling

The first book I ever read was “The Bachman Books” (so technically the first book I read was “Rage”, the first book in “The Bachman Books”) by Stephen King writing as Richard Bachman.  I was in sixth grade.  I had previously tried to read other books such as “The Hobbit” and “Something Wicked This Way Comes”, but there was something in the language of those novels in which I was having trouble accessing.  So I had to write a book report and my parents brought me into B. Dalton books (anyone remember those?) and I looked at the gruesome cover and I thought it was cool.

Throughout my life I have said that Stephen King is my favorite writer.  But then I started getting into writing myself late in high school.  I loved being able to tell a story, just like Mr. King.  I loved being able to evoke emotion out of the people who read my writing, but I never considered myself a wordsmith.  I never considered myself literary.

In college my love of writing deepened and I began to expand my reading repertoire.  I read everything under the sun and I practiced writing in styles of these writers.  I soon came to the realization that there was an inherent difference between being a writer and being a storyteller and I attribute Stephen King to creating the difference in modern popular culture.

I would not consider Stephen King a literary writer (and when I say writer this is what I’m talking about) and I think that he would probably say the same thing about himself (he has often spoken out against the literati crowd.  Specifically people like Jonathan Franzen who purport that they are disparaged for writing in a literary vein.).  He writes stories which capture your imagination through character and place such that I’ve never really experienced in another writer.  His characters jump out of the page at you and no matter how ridiculous the situation King brings reality by making the characters human.  I would not call his writing beautiful the same way I would Thomas Pynchon or or John Irving, or in a more modern literary crowd Kevin Brockmeier or Paul Auster.  However you cannot discount his stories or his characters.

The writers of the world focus more on subterfuge and the aspects of the words used.  It is the difference between utilitarian and aesthetic.  Are you writing to make the language beautiful or are you writing to make sure the story is clear?  Both of these mediums (and yes they are different mediums. Most people who read King will never read a Pynchon book and vise versa) are acceptable and both of these mediums are beautiful.


Characters Welcome

First and foremost I have to print a retraction from the previous post.  I said that TNT was the network which had the slogan “Character’s Welcome”.  The correct network was USA.

To that note however, because of my propensity for writing more character centric, I thought I’d comment on how our television media has changed into what I would consider a new “Golden Age” of television.

I’ve thought back onto where all this began and I’ve traced it back to one show that really got the ball rolling.  To one man, really, who broke from conventional archetypes to create a new type of character.  Something more than the classic Hero/Antihero standard which we had been working with.  For better or for worse, whether you like him or not, Joss Whedon is this man.  He was a writer for many movies before he wrote the screenplay for Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a feature length movie.  The point was to flip the horror trope of a blonde teen girl running down the alley and being chased.  He wanted a character who would take charge of the situation, to empower while blending horror, humor, suspense and coming of age into one movie.

Being just a script writer, he had no power over the end result and has been purportedly upset over the result.  His response was to develop a TV show to encapsulate his original vision and the WB network signed him on.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered in 1997.  Before this television was primarily sitcoms and formula dramas (think Law and Order).

Buffy  went on for seven years, featuring a spinoff.  The WB network also held other less popular shows like Charmed and Smallville which tried to help corner the market on the teen ratings.

These shows captured the imaginations, but the situations went beyond the everyday occurrences and production values began to rise.  Suddenly a show that had more to do than just police procedure were getting budgets which would make the shows a bit more realistic than the old Hercules special effects debacle.

Then despite the success, the WB went against these shows and other networks took on the character mantle.  They began to understand that television could do more for us than just to give a cheap laugh or thrill.  In 2001 other networks took up the mantle of the “Character”.  As the WB fell into obscurity, USA network began to emerge as the leader of interesting character centric programming.  USA came up with the slogan “Character’s Welcome” and came out with a with a new spin on the police procedural with Monk in 2002 and then a multi-layered drama called Burn Notice in 2008.

You may ask, why had HBO not been mentioned here?  After all they did start out with their original programming in 1997 with OZ and continued on with shows like The Sopranos at the same time.

The most interesting thing with HBO is budget.  They have far more budget to deal with the characters that creators want to create.  For example Deadwood had two very well funded seasons before they started to have to worry about ratings.  The difference is that the people who watch HBO pay for that right.  Because they do HBO creators can be much less discerning about what the audience wants because they’re going to get what is put out.  This is not the case with network television.

Then in 2011 at the pinnacle of the reality TV push (thanks a lot Fox), Netflix announced it would release it’s own shows.  Netflix has put the budget where it matters and the production value has never been higher.  Now all other networks are pushing through their own shows to match these budgets and are working on coming up with new and unique concepts.

Now the question is, will it become a battle of the premium cable networks (of which Netflix is included because you pay for it) or are the remaining networks going to continue with provocative shows?

Singing the Mid-Story Blues

I’ve been working hard on “The Book of Antiquity”.  I’ve worked through a second draft (a second draft of a 550 page book) and now I’m working on a third.  I have recently started a writers group to help me in this process, which I have to say is maddening, difficult and frustrating, but it’s also one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had.

I worked on my first book “A View of the Edge of the World” by myself.  I wrote all the stories through various means.  I have outlined.  I wrote and let the voice of the story take me where it wanted to go.  I wrote plot heavy stories.  I wrote character heavy stories (thanks TNT, now all I can hear is “Characters Welcome” when I think about character driven stories, but that’s a discussion for another time).  I wrote character sketches.  I wrote histories of place.  I wrote to shock.  I wrote to pull on heart strings. I wrote to scare.  I wrote to provoke.  In all this time I spent writing and re-writing and editing it was always about what the end product was like.  I seemed to have lost focus on what writing should really be about.  Namely the love of writing.

I quote Stephen King a lot because I respect him as a storyteller (I’ll have to get into my rant about the difference between a storyteller and a writer later on) and I’m in awe of his ability to focus.  He’s been said to be able to sit in front of the computer for hours knocking out story after story, or page after page of novel.  He never seems to have a problem with where the story is going to go, but instead is very vocal about letting the character dictate where the plot will go (This could also explain why so many people hate the ending of his novels, because sometimes they feel as though they weren’t thought out).  In fact he is said to have sat in his chair writing for hours just after being hit by a truck and bleeding out.  Blood dripping down into a pool on the ground underneath him because a stitch broke while he was writing, but he had such focus he didn’t notice.

I have often thought about this focus and why I seem to lack it.  Does it have something to do with personality?  Is it the fact that Stephen King has an addictive personality and he gets addicted to writing and cant quit?  Is it because he comes from another generation?  A generation without MTV, without “Real Housewives” and without twitter where people could stick around for more than 140 characters?  Is there a focus gene that people are born with?  Is this a nature versus nurture issue?

I know for a fact that others whom I’ve spoken to have this same issue.  They have trouble with focus and writing a outline feels as though it’s cheating, or its a crutch, or it’s too strict for the natural course of the novel.  I have talked to people at length about the mid-story blues, where they know where the story starts and where the story ends, but when they get past the beginning and wade into the proverbial deeper end of the pool; into the darker second and third acts, they get lost and writers block settles in.  Suddenly twitters 140 characters rules your life and you burn the midnight oil with Facebook as a companion instead of your protagonists.

Is this truly an endemic?  or is this a shift in perspective?

I work full time to support my writing habit.  I have a wife and a dog.  I have a house which constantly needs work (and I am never endingly grateful for all of these, don’t get me wrong).  I think about all of these things when I sit down to write.  I think about my life, I think about the lives of others, I think about money.  I think about promotions.  I think about what my wife wants for dinner.  I wonder if I fed our dog that morning.  Then I stress myself out and think that I have to write the Great American Novel, so I can do all of these things while doing what I love and not worry about any other type of working.

I focus so much on getting just right what the potential agent, or publisher, or future reader might think, that I think about them instead of my character and what they are thinking about.  This is why the mid-story blues hits so strong for me.  I’m worrying about all the other things that might happen instead of just enjoying my time with the characters and trying to force something amazing to happen to them.

I’m taking the character pledge.  I’m going to write for the character and the world they live in instead of writing to improve my own.  I’m writing for the love of the story instead of the love for what the story can bring me.

Its a new dawn, a new day, a new life, for me

There’s been a lot going on in the past two years.  I got married, started a new job (no not the writing gig I’ve always hoped for, but a pretty sweet deal to pay the bills), moved to a new city and moved into a new house.  Needless to say that I’ve let the site go by the wayside for good or for ill.  Now that life has finally slowed down and I can feel a rhythm on the horizon, I decided I need to get back to roots.  Now where I’ve never stopped writing (because, come on, those who write know that; to stop means to stop living) I’ve slowed down a bit.  However in the past four or five months I’ve picked the pace back up enough  to warrant the blog to continue.  So in the future, you will see poetry and some new fiction, as well as lots and lots of book reviews and in depth writers critiques, as well as editorials.  So I thank whomever has stuck with it over the long haul and lets get back at it again!