Saturday, April 23, 2011

Writing Like Stanislavski

There are certain truisms that serve as inspiration for me. Here is one: "Stories are about people."

That should be written backwards on the forehead of everyone who writes so that they see it whenever they look in the mirror. We can love plot, we can focus on theme and genre, we can talk about word use and grammar, but unless we write about people and give the reader someone with whom to identify, we are not writing our best. How can there be catharsis, that satisfying purging of emotion that Aristotle wrote about, unless we first care about the protagonist?

But the issue of how to develop character is far more complex than agreeing on the importance of character development. Anybody who has taken any literature class has heard the teacher's mantra: "Character is developed through what the character says and how they act, and how other people respond to them." But oh, how difficult to incorporate this development seamlessly into a narrative!

In the last few weeks I've been reading up on Stanislavski, the person who gave "method acting" to theater. Stanislavski believed actors preparing for a role should give careful consideration of a character's psychological motives and that they should have personal link with the character. They should, if possible, become the character. But what about writers? If a character springs from a writer's mind, then shouldn't he already have that link? Already have a grasp of the character's psychological motives? 

Maybe, but then again maybe not. In my opinion, many authors approach characters by sweeping a paint brush across a canvas. They have some ideas, and they believe the character will define himself as the tale progresses.

"I want to discover the character as I write," someone told me once. "I can always go back and edit out inconsistencies." Hearing this made me worry that the character might become merely a projection of the writer at that point in time, and not have a life of his own (admittedly an illusion since a writer creates the character). If a protagonist is clearly set down ahead of time, then  character becomes the centerpiece of the writing. 

Like Stanislavski, I want my characters to be real for me. I find a picture of someone who I believe represents my character, and then from there I proceed to write a biography. It can be long or short, it can provide excessive backstory which will never make into the writing process, or a brief sketch---but it gives me a framework for understanding who I am dealing with. It establishes a foundation. 

Peter Styles and Ember Quatermain (yes, the daughter of the great explorer),  protagonists for THE BREACH, a steampunk novel which Christine Purcell and I are at this point shopping around, were created in just this manner. In fact, since THE BREACH is a collaboration, it was even more important that they become solid characters for the authors. Since two minds bring two different perspectives, having a pre-established profile kept us consistent and on the right path. 

I know there are many people who don't want to write this way. They believe a work should be organic, that it should evolve through a natural process. They want to discover who they are writing about. And that's fine. There is no one way to write. However, discoveries often take you down false trails and you have to backtrack and rediscover the one that feels right. The reader often doesn't have the patience to follow you down those false trails if you forget to go back and edit them out, or worse, leave them in because they are interesting for you and satisfy your vanity. A false step for a character can pull a reader out of a story and thus destroy the suspension of disbelief necessary to build the connection between writer and audience.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Creative Writing or Literature Classes?

I was chatting last night with someone about classes in creative writing. I've taken a few, but didn't gain as much from them as I gained from taking literature classes. Listening to other bad writers as an interested but distracted teacher tried driving home elements of plot, character development, and POV, using neat catch phrases like "show-don't-tell" and "Stewart, what the hell?" made it difficult for me to appreciate the venue. If you get my drift?

Literature, on the other hand, was mellow. Studying proven authors, seeing how they utilized theme and motif, and how they developed character arc along with plot helped me understand how elements of writing fit together. It was far easier to understand the concept of voice in a literature class than it was to find my voice in a creative writing class. Perhaps it helped that literature classes didn't pressure the student to submit his own  work, a potentially ego threatening proposition.

So, am I suggesting literature classes are the path for the would-be writer? No.

Approaching one's development as a writer isn't an all or nothing proposition. It is a process. And perhaps what I came to understand about a structured approach to learning writing is that one needs a balance. The literature classes are valuable, as are the creative writing classes, and when they are combined intelligently they are the best hope a student has of developing skills through an appreciation of what he saw in the works of others.

When reading advice from famous authors, one will always hear two strong themes. First, write---only by practicing one's art can one improve it (of course, by practicing, we mean with a self-critical eye). And second, read. Read and study other authors, not with an eye for imitation, but for understanding how that person executed his craft.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Is It Penguicon Time Again? Where's The Tron Guy???

Hard to believe I won't be on a panel about zombies at the upcoming Penguicon, and yet it is so. That doesn't mean I won't be in the audience taunting the panelists. Of course, I shall have to hide from editor Chuck Zaglanis, who insists that I behave myself. And while Chuck may be able to stalk me, he won't be able to keep me away from fellow troublemakers Daniel Hogan and Christian Klaver. No, he won't. And  my collaborator Christine Purcell, with whom I am working on The Breach, the first of the steampunk series, The Dark Reality Chronicles, will be bad. Very, very, very bad (notice the bold faced 'very'?). And furthermore, there's Rick Moore. Enough Said.

If you're interested in participating in my bad behavior, then join me at one of the various panels I'll be on: Social Networking for Promotion, Writers' Groups (somewhere my own group just did a collective gasp), and Is It Steampunk Yet? (the answer to this question is, of course, yes it is.)

And if we're really lucky, the TRON GUY will be there.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Harold And Maude---an old friend

Do you ever wonder why a particular film touches you? The film may not even be very good, and it may only be one scene, but it reaches you at a deep level, provoking all manner of emotional and intellectual response. And what happens when you try and share the experience with someone else?  Yes, they often patiently slip side-glances at you, trying to smile encouragingly at your enthusiasm. And even worse, what happens when you watch that film a second time and feel nothing???

The litmus test, of course, is being able to watch a motion picture over and over again, finding new levels of appreciation. Sure, the original blast lessens with time and exposure, but the film becomes an old friend, someone with whom you enjoy sharing time together, and whom offers you new things to discover. Casablanca is one of my closest friends, so is Harvey, starring Jimmy Stewart. And who can forget The Big Lebowsky? I wonder what these titles reveal about me?

And then, there's Harold and Maude. Some of you born after 1970 are saying, "Never heard of it." Don't feel bad. It was a flop at the theaters, although the American Film Institute has it listed as one of its one hundred funniest films. I suppose a motion picture about a twenty year old who keeps playing at killing himself striking a romantic relationship with a seventy-nine-year old woman isn't exactly the sort of topic matter which immediately strikes folk as a typical date flick.

I'm not sure why I identify with the story so strongly. Perhaps it's the theme--- it's about outsiders finding one another and learning to appreciate life in what has become for each, a lonely and sterile existence. They're odd ducks, funny and snarky, and the film is blackest comedy. That being said, it is also filled with comforting optimism and it reminds me of the importance of living in the present and trying to appreciate the people around you.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Looking At Theme (part two)

An imaginary conversation to further develop the earlier post. Before reading this, you might want to check out Looking At Theme

     The first author shook his head.
     "Maybe theme is something to consider if you're writing 'literary' work, but I write genre."
     I mulled over the statement and responded, "Why should genre writing be exempt from development of theme as a major component of the writing?"
     "Because people don't necessarily want to be bogged down thinking about what something is about," someone countered. "Because people want a story. They want something to happen. If you have interesting characters, and people care about them, and they are doing something, then who cares about theme. As long as the action is kept going, people are happy."
     "All stories have theme, even if the theme is buried. Even if it is unintentional," I said. "I'm just suggesting the work is stronger when the author is working with theme in mind."
     "All stories have theme? What about Twilight?" someone asked with a snarky tone.
     "The theme is about the difficulty of the outsider. Bela is an outsider, the vampires are outsider within the greater society, both because of their behavior and their innate status. There are subthemes there as well, such as man's separation from nature, the intolerance of people for those different from themselves..."
     Someone laughed.
     "Maybe the weakness of Twilight as a narrative, and its lack of durability as literature, is because the themes I just mentioned aren't planned and don't work together as a whole. It's a mire of themes, but they're there, and they obviously speak to the reader, considering the sales."
     "What about movies? What about Iron Man II?"
     "It's about how members of one generation sometimes pay for the sins of their fathers, it's about the dangers of excess and the danger of power without responsibility."
     "With great power comes great responsibility," someone said. "Spiderman."
     "What about Get Me To The Greek? The one with Russell Brand? It's just a goofy comedy."
     "It's about the personal price we pay when we surrender integrity for gain. It's also about the cost of excess, the importance of friendship, and the shallowness of society where there are no checks and balances on behavior."

Friday, April 01, 2011

Looking At Theme

I apologize for what, I don't.

There is a breed of writers who come late to the craft, feeling they can slip into their work with a superficial understanding of literature. Hey, they like to read, don't they? Then what the heck? These folk tend to do a good deal of mimicking of their favorite authors without a deep appreciation of the underlying writing principles. Many flock to writers' groups, present their efforts and receive feedback without giving consideration to dedicating themselves to improving their different problem areas. Instead they concentrate on the one short story or chapter without addressing the overall issue, which is sort of like turning up the volume on the radio to cover the sound of an unpleasant engine noise.

I have therefore decided to do a series of posts, not necessarily as a writer, but as a teacher. I thought I would examine certain literary concepts which span all genres. If someone reads what I have to offer and it sparks ideas or self-examination for improvement, so much the better. If all it does is allow me to revisit certain ideas for my own introspection, then that's fine, too.


This is perhaps one of the most important concepts for me as a writer and as a reader. It also seems to be one of the most difficult ideas for some writers I know to grasp. "Not all stories have theme," someone argued. "I just write. As long as I tell a good story, what's the problem?"

My response is that where the writer gives careful consideration to theme, you have a stronger story, one where the characters and the plot have greater impact. The theme is quite simply the glue. If Yoda were teaching a class to Jedi writers, he would explain : "Theme is an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, it penetrates us, it binds the galaxy and your writing together."

Theme, quite simply, is what a story is about. It's the underlying idea. In Christina Myers-Shaffer's excellent book The Principle of Literature, A Guide for Readers and Writers, the idea of theme is defined this way:

"Unlike topic (the subject of the story, such as war, love, business, or children), the theme is what the story is about, its plot, setting, and character blended with the writer's perceptions to make a statement about a subject." Some folks will attempt to classify conflict as theme, stating all stories boil down to either man v. man, man v. nature, or man v. himself. This simplified attempt to compress an idea is wonderful for multiple choice quizzes, but not so good for picking apart complicated concepts or for giving a writer or reader a true sense of what an author is trying to accomplish.

The theme of a story is usually not directly stated, but instead revealed through the characters' words, actions, and through plot. While some themes may stand out to the readers, others may not be so apparent. And sometimes, to make matters worse, a single work have different themes, some even competing, others layered.

Perhaps for the sake of clarity, it would help to look at an example. I will use a well-known work which I hope most people are familiar---Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird. 

The novel is about the coming of age of a young girl, but to present that as the dominant theme ignores the other themes which are part of her loss of innocence (although I would argue Scout doesn't entirely lose her innocence). Perhaps the richest complementary thematic thread to this is the idea that lack of understanding and acceptance causes tremendous damage to people who are perceived by others as different.
This theme is front and center, and given voice in her father's admonition: "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view---until you climb inside his skin and walk around in it."

When you stop and see examine the characters and the plot development in To Kill A Mockingbird, it's easy to see how the author has woven together some possible disparate threads into a unifying and satisfying whole. Without the theme, you have a number of touching elements coming together, but they have no anchor.

Aristotle wrote about this idea of creating a whole in The Poetics. He addresses the idea of unity in writing (and we can express unity as being the combination of elements of writing in forwarding a theme or idea. According to Aristotle:

"As therefore, in the other imitative arts, the imitation is one when the object imitated is one, so the plot, being an imitation of an action, must imitate one action and that a whole, the structural union of the parts being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole."

Perhaps the easiest way to break it down is to describe the theme as a compass. When a writer sits and considers elements of plot or how a character behaves, he might stop and ask how these things fit into the theme he or she has chosen as the spine of their work.