Saving Mr. Banks and Writing

I didn’t see the movie Saving Mr. Banks when it came out. In fact, I only watched it this week. I’m sorry I waited so long, as it is an excellent film. It’s about the making of Mary Poppins. Mary Poppins seems like a story for children, and I suppose the fact that P L Travers managed to sell a series of eight books about the magical nanny speaks to their effectiveness. But I’ve always gotten misty at the end of the movie, when they all go out to fly a kite. It’s just so wonderful that old Mr. Banks has finally seen the light and learned to break out of his shell and play again, or maybe for the first time. And no wonder, because as it turns out, there is a lot of truth in the story of Mr. Banks. He is based upon the author’s father, one Travers Goff (her real name was Helen Goff.) She took his name as her own, which says something about how much she loved the man.

He was “in a cage,” just like Bert tells the children in the movie. He never broke out, at least not before the consumption took him away. So, young Helen was left to try to redeem him all by herself. The movie is about her coming to terms with the real story behind Mary Poppins, and I won’t spoil it any more than to say that redemption did come. My thesis here is that the film works because of the genuine, heartfelt emotion that was written into it, both by Mrs. Travers and the Disney folks who translated the story on to film. In fact, that “Fly a Kite” scene is the exact moment when Mr. Banks, and by extension, Mr. Travers Goff, is finally redeemed. No wonder it’s such a wonderful scene: it’s real!

I look at the stuff I write and I wonder if I’ve put myself into it to that extent. Because I doubt if it will do well if I haven’t. This is the reason, I’m sure, that the #1 piece of advice for new authors turns out to be “only write stuff you want to read!” Sure, there’s craft, technique, word usage, all of that, but what it comes down to, I think, is whether or not your heart is in the story.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think that I have a kite to fly.

Foundation’s Friends

Stories in Honor of Isaac Asimov

Asimov was my first love of science fiction. My sister gave me a copy of the book Foundation when I was 11 or 12, and I was hooked. If you remember Han Solo’s speech about the difficulty of making a hyperspace jump in the first Star Wars movie, that was almost verbatim from Foundation. One of the coolest things about Asimov’s fiction is that he created a world that you could drop yourself into and forget that the real one was even out there. In fact, by the time he finished, he had tied up three of his worlds into a vast future history that is, frankly, one hell of a lot of fun to read. I was saddened when he died, because I thought I’d never get to see inside that world again. But, I was wrong.

Had I been paying attention, I’d have noticed that this book was already available at the time of his death. It was a tribute to a living author, and one well deserved. I’ve read only the first four stories so far, but they are, well, fantastic, amazing, and astounding. (Long-term fans will get that sentence. The rest of you, meh!)

The first story is about a girl who is a strip runner in future New York CITY. I mean CITY, as in the ones Asimov describes in Caves of Steel. A world where today’s New York is a sort of a bump on a log compared to the reality that is NEW YORK. In Caves of Steel, a detective names Elija Bailey is hired by “Spacers,” those who live on planets other than this one, to solve a crime. Elija comes from a world where paranoia about hygiene is rampant, and where robots are the common way to get everyday labor done. Spacers get colds, and don’t use robots. Our heroine must deal with those facts, and with her crime (strip running) as she learns some things about her world, her CITY, and the Outside. She even meets Bailey. Such fun! An excellent story, in a familiar world that is not the one we really live in!

The second story actually involves Thiotimoline! A practical use for it, and the solution to a difficult problem; a solution with cosmic implications! Thiotimoline is a powder that dissolves before you add water. The story of the powder was originally published in the journal Chemistry in 1948 as a bit of a joke. It reads like an actual thesis, which is what Asimov was also writing at the time. He got his PhD, we got two good stories. It’s a mystery with tongue firmly in cheek, just the way Asimov liked them. Just remember to resublimate your Thiotimoline before use.

The third story is another detective story, a tad grimmer, but still with a joking twist at the end. I think that if I’d been told that Asimov himself had written it, I’d have believed it. Somebody crossed a cabbage with, oh, no, I don’t want to spoil it, in case you haven’t read it. You should, you know.

And finally, fans will recognize the time that Gilmer sacked Trantor. This story is about the Second Foundation and how they deal with Gilmer. Right at the end one of them says something rather hubristic, and fans know the price of hubris, right? “What are the odds?” he asks. “Damned high!” we answer. Again, completely back into Asimov’s world. On Trantor, where you may recall “The Stars End.”

Well, I’m sorry I missed this book all these years, but at least I’m getting to read it now. Dammit, I like Asimov’s worlds, and I’m truly sorry that he had to leave this one.

Read it, you’ll like it!

Foundation’s Friends: Stories in Honor of Isaac Asimov

Edited by Martin H. Greenberg
Prefice by Ray Bradbury
Afterword by Isaac Asimov

Tor, 1989

No e-book, but still available at not outrageous prices used.

Writing Funny

A Fey Cow

Besides using a cartoon drawing of a goofy cow, writing funny presents a unique set of challenges. I like to write, you know that, but it turns out I also like to get up in front of people and tell jokes. You may know that too, but I discovered it only recently. But there is something you may never have considered about being a comic. That is, a comic is also a writer. You have to write all the time. Right now, I’m working on a YA romance, a chapter book involving some fourth-grade detectives (not that they’re low grade, they’re in the fourth grade,) and an endless series of jokes to be invented, refined, and worked into a routine that will, I hope, make an audience pee their collective pants. Or, at least get me hired at some corporate events. (My HBO special will be next year, of course.)

So, oddly it seems to me, every comic you see on television or in person is also a professional writer. In my case, I have never been able to get a serious point across unless I couch it in humor. Hell, I bet you’re bored right now, aren’t you? ‘Cause I haven’t made any jokes yet, have I? Well, be bored then. I charge for humor, after all. But my point is that every one of the comics, from Seinfeld to the guy at the club you dropped in on the other night when you were already too drunk to walk straight (we see you, you know,) writes something virtually every day. And he or she has to write something that’s funny! And that means studying what is funny. (That sentence certainly isn’t.) But, humor can be studied just like algebra, and that’s what comedians do. Can that be funnier? What’s the best punchline? How do I make it funnier? How can I add another punchline? And on and on.

I write regular stuff, so I’m hoping that by posting this about writing comedy I might help some of my fellow writers to appreciate the amount of thought and effort that goes into a comedy routine. I doubt that, just taken as a person, Lewis Black is any more angry than anyone else, but his anger schtick earned him a movie role as, well, Anger. And if you think Seinfeld is just a bunch of goofs kicking stuff around, I’m here to tell you that you’re wrong. Seinfeld is a bunch of professionals who polish and analyze and polish and analyze and polish some more, until it’s funny enough for prime time.

Think about that next time you see or read some funny stuff. A whole lot of serious work goes into making it that way. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

Stages of Anguished Joy

A short post this week. I want to mention the stages I go through when I’m writing a new work. It’s simple:

First, I draft the thing at a furious clip. Then I read it over, and guess what? It’s the most wonderful story ever conceived. I’m so lucky to be alive at the time of its creation!

Second, I put it away for a while, so that I can see it with fresh, and newly re-amazed eyes.

Third, I take it out and start reading through it, looking for things like superfluous modifiers, excessive gerunds, unclear phrasing, and so forth.

Fourth, I sink into the depths of despair because I now see that the project is some of the most awful, unworthy, boring and repulsive prose ever spawned. I can’t imagine what I was thinking when I drafted it.

Fifth, I start working on revising it anyway, looking for characterization, crisp prose, clarity, grammar and spelling. But all the while I stay depressed because I just know that no matter what I do it is going to be be a dog in the end. And I don’t mean dog in a good way, either.

Sixth, I put it away again for a while. Maybe a long while.

Seventh, I get it out again and read it. Now I’m surprised because it doesn’t actually suck. In fact, parts of it are actually reasonably good! So,

Eighth, I revise it again to clean up the stuff I missed the first time, and now the work is all ready to go.

To somebody else to read, after which I look at the revisions and sink deep into despair again. But, that’s all a part of the process, innit?

Stand Up, Sit Down

Fight, fight, fight?

Okay, it’s not a fight. But doing stand-up requires writing, of course, and just like other writing, the writing requires revision. I even have a few jokes about writing. They’re not great, but I did write them myself.

You may not know this, but query is an old Sanskrit term that means, roughly, “Throw it down a deep well.”

Okay, not that funny. That’s because I used it once, in my first stand-up class, and never used it again. It’s never been revised. But anything I do on stage certainly has. For instance, here’s a revision sequence for a joke I’m probably going to include with my next performance.

1. My cousin got a ticket the other day. Used his turn signal.

Not a bad idea, but is it funny enough? Who the hell knows? But could it be funnier? Well, almost anything could.

2. Traffic in Vegas is sort of weird. My cousin got a ticket last week for not using his turn signal. He caused a six-car pile-up.

More detail, probably be funnier when delivered. Is it funny enough, though? (See above.)

3. Traffic in Vegas is so weird, a friend of mine got a ticket for not using his turn signal. They’re sending him to traffic school to learn to be an asshole like the rest of us!

#3 is the funniest of those, and the most revised. I prefer it because it flows more smoothly, it includes more people in the punchline, and it’s a lot more unexpected at the end. That’s one joke that takes maybe fifteen seconds to deliver, and you can see what a bit of revision has done for it. I did a lot of that revision aloud, and I’m not saying that it will remain as you see it here, just that it got better at each revision. And now, I come to my point about writing and revision, to wit:

When I revise out loud, I stand up. Then when I type it into my file of material, I sit down. (See how I cleverly worked in the title of this post here?) Revising out loud helps me see where things hit snags, where I can make something stronger, and which parts maybe I should just toss and forget. (What? Forgettable jokes? Say it ain’t so!) And this technique works not just for comedy, gentle readers, but for any writing.

Right now I’m metaphorically bleeding as I slowly revise a YA romance I drafted during the last Nanowrimo. The revision will take a lot longer than the first draft, I can tell you. Sometimes I find that reciting a passage aloud provides a lot of insight into what’s right and wrong about it, which makes the process a lot easier. How about that? A perfectly serious book can be helped by a technique from stand-up comedy? Who knew?

You may not know this, but “First Draft” is an old Farsi phrase meaning “Five-Hundred Hours on Facebook!”

That last one is true, of course. ;-)

 

Rules to Sell Your Writing By

I’m not listing rules here. Sorry. But I am commenting on how hard it is to sell something you’ve written. How should you go about it? Get an agent? Skip the agent and query an editor? Skip them both and put it out in e-format and market the hell out of it? Well, sure. I’ve heard stories of each of those methods working really well. And the sale of a book, like the sale of anything else, depends upon some hard and fast rules. Unfortunately, those rules are not logical in the sense that you can parse them using a Ben Franklin Close (look that up if you want; it’s a real thing) or other hard, logical means. Like any sale, the rules of selling something you’ve written are perfectly logical, but they are emotionally logical. And the greatest story out there can be rejected a thousand times just because nobody reviewing it for possible publication felt like buying it at the time! That doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with it: there’s a famous story about somebody who changed the names in Casablanca and shopped it around Hollywood, where it was rejected by every single mover and shaker in that town! It’s even a true story, I’m pretty sure, and it illustrates my point very well.

Even if it isn’t a movie, there’s a lot of expense involved in publishing a book. You can check it out for yourself, if you want to. Just see how much a printer would charge you for five thousand copies of a three-hundred page book, library bound and with decent paper. But, e-publishing is different, you say. No books to print, or bind, or store or anything. Yep, that’s an advantage, and feel free to go ahead and publish your work. Like a speaker I heard recently pointed out, however, there are tens of millions of books on Amazon, but only those in the “top 200,000 in sales” actually are selling any. All those others? Well, as you might have been thinking, they didn’t cost much, did they? If you think about it, an e-book still needs layout, good cover art, and marketing. Lots and lots of marketing. You can opt to do that yourself, if you have any marketing talent. But it’s going to take more graphic talent than is evidenced by the average Garage Sale sign for your efforts to be successful. You’ll have to actually know how to do graphic design (or pay someone to do that for you.) You’ll have to know how to get people to want to read your book, even if it’s a great one. Ask your self what you think of television commercials (adverts if you’re a Brit.) Marketing people generally like them, so long as they’re well done. Thirty seconds of time in a second tier market will cost you thousands of dollars. Now how do you feel about them?

Selling comes down to appealing to potential buyers on an emotional level. Sad, but true. If you write fiction, then maybe you have a leg-up in sales, because presumably you can get inside your characters’ heads and figure out what they want. Maybe, if you can do that with real people, you have a chance at selling your own work. If you can’t do it with living beings, you can hire someone to do it for you. Which brings you smack dab back to needing a publisher. Aaaargh!

I think of my own moods. One day I may really like something, but the next day I think it’s really stupid. I’m not unusual in that. Maybe the second day I’m tired, or hungry, or I twisted my ankle in a pothole on my morning jog, or my kid got caught stealing from the candy store. Or any one of a million other variables that you, as the writer, can’t possibly anticipate or do anything about even if you could know about them. The only thing you can do, and this is the truth, is make your query absolutely irresistible. That way, even if the editor is having a terrible day, she may put it aside and read it later, when she knows she’ll feel more like doing so. An ordinary query, well, it’s just a part of a pile of work that’s interfering with thinking about being tired, or hungry, or, you know. And that’s a “maybe” only. Maybe she’ll just get frustrated and reject the whole pile just because it clears her schedule. Maybe. There’s no way to know, and no law says she ever has to tell you why she didn’t buy what you were selling.

Which brings up some more emotional rules. Such as “Don’t bug the agent/editor.” “Don’t be clever with them.” “Remember you will need to get rejected a lot before you actually sell anything.” It’s true. In sales there’s a rule that you make twenty contacts to get one prospect, and twenty prospects will yield you one sale. That’s 400 contacts to sell one item! Because, for some reason, the other 399 people just weren’t emotionally ready to buy what you were selling. In this case, they just didn’t feel like risking a lot of work on your book. It isn’t personal, it’s just the way it is.

So, I guess I do have a rule or two. Rule #1 is to be persistent. Keep learning, keep submitting, keep writing. You haven’t failed until you’ve quit. And rule #2 is be ready for tons of rejection, because that’s what you’re going to see. If Sony wouldn’t touch one of the greatest movies of all time, and Decca wouldn’t hire the Beatles (and they wouldn’t,) you must know that it isn’t personal, it’s just tough. When it feels really tough, just re-read rule #1, and keep on plugging.

Writing for Love

Writing For Love

Writers of Southern Nevada is proud to present Writing for Love, February 12, 2014 at the Downtown Cocktail lounge in beautiful Downtown Las Vegas Nevada. Meet authors! Hear readings! Maybe get a book signed! Mingle and enjoy cocktails with actual writers of romance and erotica, just in time for Valentine’s Day. This is the first in a series of events by Writers of Southern Nevada which will feature various genres and venues as it progresses. Plan your evening now, and I’ll see you at Writing for Love!

HAVE YOU SELF PUBLISHED A BOOK?

Then you should attend Fiction Writing in the Digital age in Las Vegas on October  11th and 12th! The Fiction Writing in the Digital Age conference includes several workshops on how to market your published books. The faculty includes indie and traditionally published authors in addition to agents and editors. Meet fellow writers and learn more about the industry from folks like Morgan St. James, Jo Wilkins, Peter Senftleben and many more. And on Friday evening there is The Atomic Book Signing at Atomic Liquors! Visit nevadawriters.org for more information.

 

MEET THE WIZARD OF E-BOOKS!

Peggy Richardson will be presenting at the Fiction Writing in the Digital Age conference in Las Vegas on September 11th and 12th. Peggy excels at making the unclear clear, bridging the gap between people and technology. She has been involved in publishing more than 200 books, eBooks, and information products, both for herself and for clients. She is known for taking complicated technical language and making it accessible and real. She’s a great asset for anyone thinking of publishing a book in electronic form, and she’s just one of the presenters at the conference! Visit nevadawriters.org for more information.