Bonnie Dodge placed third in the 2009 writing assigned teen fiction contest with her short story, The Pleasure of his Company.
Category Archives: Archives 2009
Perhaps the best way to define creative nonfiction is to first define nonfiction. Generally, nonfiction is anything that isn’t fiction, or made up. In other words, nonfiction writing is the truth as reported by a reporter or a journalist.
Creative nonfiction goes one step further. Based in fact, rather than a story being told in the journalistic manner of who, why, when, what, where, the “reporter” or narrator of the story shapes the facts to read like fiction. In addition to “only the facts, Ma’am,” a reader will encounter the elements of fiction–plot, setting, character, conflict, symbols, and point of view. In creative nonfiction, the facts come alive, and a reader will encounter the narrator’s voice and style as themes of the story are shown rather than told. At its heart, creative nonfiction has an interest in universal human values, not just facts.
Personal essays, memoir, food writing, biography, literary journalism, autobiographies, travel writing, history, cultural studies, nature writing–all fit under the broad heading of creative nonfiction.
Authors noted for creative nonfiction include Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Maya Angelou, Russell Baker, Wendell Berry, Truman Capote, Rachel Carson, Pat Conroy, Annie Dillard, Gretel Ehrlich, Maxine Hong Kingston, N. Scott Momaday, David Sedaris, Alice Walker, David Foster Wallace, and Virginia Woolf, to name only a few.
If you’ve never read creative nonfiction, give it a try. It’s an entertaining way to learn something new.
Bonnie Dodge and Patricia Santos Marcantonio will present workshops at the Idaho Writer’s League state conference, “Paint with Words,” in September. Bonnie will present a workshop on “The Organized Writer,” and Patricia will present a workshop on “Using the Writer’s Senses.” Conference registration information can be found here.
I admit it freely. I’m really late with this month’s column. Life got in the way.
A vacation and wedding got in the way, and preparing for vacation and a wedding. Excuses, you say. Justification, you think.
You’re absolutely right, it is in an excuse. It is also a reality for every one of us writers who have a day job, who have life outside the computer and beyond the pad and pen. I’m talking to those with children to raise and parents to watch over. It is a time to take care of the business of living, of loving, of being a part of this sometimes crazy, often wonderful world.
That is not to say I totally cut myself off from writing during my vacation. I took one of my manuscripts to edit, which I did at the airport or when my mom retired for the night. During my trip, my writer’s brain often kicked in, that is the observer in me who steps outside my life and takes mental notes of the way people dress, talk or behave. I think, “Boy that would make a good character in a story.”
Life away from the computer also is a time to reflect about life. Why I am here. Why people act the way they do. Which way will the world spin. There are times when I can’t write because I’m too tired or too busy because of life that got in the way. I become frustrated because without my writing life, I’m not whole, just as I would be incomplete without my life away from words and sentences.
So the conclusion of all this is — letting life get in the way is an absolute necessity. Unless we let life get in the way, what do we have to write about?
PATRICIA SANTOS MARCANTONIO
In today’s troubled economy, it’s easy to become discouraged. Especially with long-standing newspapers folding, free-lance opportunities evaporating, and more and more publishers shaking their heads, “No.” What then, is a frustrated writer to do? This may not be the time to write the book of your heart and expect to see it published, but there are some things you can do until this sluggish economy turns.
1) Stay positive. Pull out some of your old work and pat yourself on the back for that well-written sentence or thought-provoking chapter. Be generous with your praise. As writers, our job is to write no matter what, and by praising yourself you build the confidence you need to keep writing.
2) Be disciplined. Writing, like playing a musical instrument, requires practice. Practice on a daily basis requires disciple. It’s hard to write when you are tired, but successful writers know the more they write, the better their work becomes. Instead of waiting for their muse to appear, successful writers treat writing as a job. They know that discipline gives them the endurance to meet deadlines, and meeting deadlines keeps editors and readers happy.
3) Patience may not only be a virtue, it might just be the thing that saves your sanity, especially in a flat market. What do you do while waiting for the economy to turn? Successful writers know that waiting is part of the business. The best way to “weather the storm” is to be patient and put your waiting time to good use. Instead of pacing and whining, plot your next story or work on something completely out of your genre. Experiment. Develop a blog or a writer’s platform. Or put on your shoes and go for a walk. You might be surprised at the fresh ideas that pop into your head and urge you back to the keyboard.
4) Love what you do. Approach each new day with a positive attitude even if worldly events are upsetting. Many writers acknowledge that they hate getting up early every morning to write, but they will also tell you that they love their job.
5) Let go of fear. Fear keeps us blocked and unproductive. Fear of rejection can keep us from submitting what could very well be the next bestseller. Instead of using fear to quit writing, let fear motivate you. Keep writing and submitting while you wait for the market to turn.
6) Stay focused. Don’t let this sluggish economy distract you or keep you from attaining your goals. Remember why you started writing in the first place, then get back to the keyboard. You still have stories to tell.
Several years ago, I had the pleasure of attending a weekend workshop by Robert McKee on writing comedy and thrillers. It was a great time and I can truly say that I consider him one of the best writing teachers I‘ve ever encountered. He’s full of life, full of ideas and challenges. He is a force and no matter if you agree or disagree, he will get your writer’s blood moving through your body.
After I received the interview posted below through one of the many writing e-newsletters that come my way, I passed it on to the other members of The Other Bunch. Our fellow writer and Web master Bonnie Dodge decided to share it with the readers of our site. What struck me most was his discussion about perseverance.
It is such a rich and daunting word for writers. How many times have we got rejections or have been consumed with self-doubt and thought, Why the hell am I doing this? Why continue? Why persevere?
As writers — the kind of writer who loves the written word and telling stories — we are left with no choice but to persevere. We are compelled to continue for our sanity, for our emotions, for our life. When we don’t persevere, then we are left feeling emptier than a blank page.
McKee talks about persevering toward perfection.
Perfection is another big word and I think about that wonderful speech in “Moonstruck” when Nicolas Cage’s character says that only snowflakes are perfect. So correct.
When I think perfection, “The Great Gatsby,” “Catch-22” and some of my other favorite books come to mind. For me, they are perfect when the language, character, story and emotion come together and bring the book to life.
How do we accomplish our own bit of perfection? Write, read, study the craft and keep writing.
Now, that is something to which we can all aim, to which we all can persevere.
-Patricia Santos Marcantonio
Screenwriter Robert McKee recently took the time to answer several questions about writing, story, advice for writers and inspiration:
Q: What are the critical questions that a writer should be asking prior to crafting a story?
Robert McKee: Beyond imagination and insight, the most important component of talent is perseverance-the will to write and rewrite in pursuit of perfection. Therefore, when inspiration sparks the desire to write, the artist immediately asks: Is this idea so fascinating, so rich in possibility, that I want to spend months, perhaps years, of my life in pursuit of its fulfillment? Is this concept so exciting that I will get up each morning with the hunger to write? Will this inspiration compel me to sacrifice all of life’s other pleasures in my quest to perfect its telling? If the answer is no, find another idea. Talent and time are a writer’s only assets. Why give your life to an idea that’s not worth your life?
Q: Does a story always need to be believable? What makes it believable?
Robert McKee: Yes. The audience/reader must believe in the world of your story. Or, more precisely, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous phrase, the audience/reader must willingly suspend its disbelief. This act allows the audience/reader to temporarily believe in your story world as if it were real. The magic of as if transports the reader/audience from their private world to your fictional world. Indeed, all the beautiful and satisfying effects of story – suspense and empathy, tears and laughter, meaning and emotion-are rooted in the great as if. But when audiences or readers cannot believe as if, when they argue with the authenticity of your tale, they break out of the telling. In one case people sit in a theatre, sullen with anger, soaked in boredom; in the other, they simply toss your novel in the trash. In both cases, audiences and readers bad mouth you and your writing, inflicting the obvious damage on your career.
Bear in mind, however, that believability does not mean actuality.
The genres of non-realism, such as Fantasy, Sci-fi, Animation and the Musical, invent story worlds that could never actually exist. Instead, works such as THE PRINCESS BRIDE, THE MATRIX, FINDING NEMO and SOUTH PACIFIC create their own special versions of reality. No matter how bizarre some of these story worlds may be, they are internally true to themselves. Each story establishes its own one-of-a-kind rules for how things happen, its principles of time and space, of physical action and personal behavior. This is true even for works of avant-garde, postmodern ambition that deliberately call attention to the artificiality of their art. No matter what your story’s unique fictional laws may be, once you establish them, the audience/reader will freely follow your telling as if it were real – so long as your laws of action and behavior are never broken.
Therefore, the key to believability is unified internal consistency. Whatever the genre, no matter your story’s specific brand of realism or non-realism, your setting must be self-validating. You must give your story’s setting in time, place and society enough detail to satisfy the audience/reader’s natural curiosity about how things work in your world, and then your telling of the tale must stay true to its own rules of cause and effect. Once you have seduced the audience/reader into believing in the credibility of your story’s setting as if it were actuality, you must not violate your own rules. Never give the audience/reader a reason to question the truth of your events, nor to doubt the motivations of your characters.
Q: How do you design an ending that keeps people talking?
Robert McKee: By “an ending that keeps people talking” do you mean the hook at the end of a series episode that keeps people wondering so that they’ll tune in the following week? Or do you mean a Story Climax that sends the reader/audience into the world praising your brilliant story to their friends and family?
If the former, I know two methods to hook and hold the audience’s curiosity over a span of time.
A. Create a Cliffhanger. Start a scene of high action, cut in the middle, put the audience into high suspense, then finish the action in the head of the next episode. 24 does this brilliantly week after week.
B. Create a turning point with the power and impact of an Act Climax. A major reversal naturally raises the question “What’s going to happen next?” in the audience’s mind and will hold interest over the commercials of a single episode (for example, Law and Order), or over the week between episodes (for example, The Sopranos).
If the latter, the most satisfying, and therefore talked about, Story Climaxes tend to be those in which the writer has saved one last rush of insight that sends the audience’s mind back through the entire story. In a sudden flash of insight the audience realizes a profound truth that was buried under the surface of character, world and event. The whole reality of the story is instantly reconfigured. This insight not only brings a flood of new understanding, but with that, a deeply satisfying emotion. As a recent example: the superb Climax of GRAN TORINO.
Q: What are the typical weaknesses you find in scripts?
Robert McKee: Three that jump to mind:
Dull scenes. For reasons of weak conflict or perhaps the poor shaping of beats of behavior, the scene falls flat. The value-charged condition of the characters’ lives at the tale of the scene is exactly what it was at the head of the scene. Activity never becomes story action. In short, nothing actually happens, nothing changes.
Awkward exposition. To convenience the writer, characters tell each other what they all already know so the eavesdropping reader/audience can gather in the information. This false behavior causes the reader/audience to lose empathy.
Clichés. The writer recycle the same events and characters we have seen countless times before, thinking that if he or she writes like other writers have, they too will find success.
McKee – Lisbon Interview Photo 2008
Q: How important is the process of rewriting?
Robert McKee: Rewriting is to writing what improvisation is to acting. Actors improvise scenes countless ways in search of the perfect choice of behavior and expression. The same is true for writers. All writers, no matter their talent, are capable of their best work only ten percent of the time. Ninety percent of any writer’s creative efforts are not his or her best work. To eliminate mediocrity, therefore, fine writers constantly experiment, play with, toss and turn ideas for scenes tens of different ways, rewriting in search of the perfect choice. The perfect choice, of course, is dependent of the writer’s innate sense of taste. The unfortunate truth is that most struggling writers are blind to their banality.
Q: I thoroughly enjoyed your keen analysis of Casablanca, a movie made in 1942. Damn the crass modern movies (and I’m really not that old). My question: Whatever happened to subtlety and innuendo?
Robert McKee: They pulled up stakes and moved to television. Given hundreds of 24/7 channels, crap is unavoidable. God did not give out enough talent to fill those thousands of hours with McKee Quote 2quality. But setting the inevitable drek aside, we now live in a golden age of television drama and comedy. The finest writing in America is on TV. From HBO and FX to FOX and NBC, cable and commercial networks have become treasure chests of writing excellence. From Law and Order to In Treatment to The Wire to Damages to 30 Rock (to name a few of my favorites) television dramas are complex and subtle; comedies are rich in wit, irony, innuendo and outrageous schtick.
I never worry about the future of story art. Fine writers will always find a medium to express their visions of life. Today and into the foreseeable future, that medium is television.
Q: In the Story Seminar you say the best way to succeed in Hollywood is by writing a script of surpassing quality. If you have a great script, how do you get past the Hollywood system so that your script ends up in the right hands?
Robert McKee: If you write a lousy script, you haven’t a prayer. But if you create a work of surpassing quality, Hollywood is still a motherfucker. Because unless you can network a back pathway to an A-list actor or top-shelf director, you must sign with an agent. And the first thing to understand about literary agents is that although they may or may not have taste, they all have careers. Selling scripts is how they put gas in their BMWs. What’s more, like everybody else, they want their gas money today. So they have little or no patience for spending months or even years submitting your work, one submission at a time, to dozens of production companies, and then waiting forever to hear back. They want to read work they can sell and sell fast. So the quality of the writing absolutely matters, but what any particular agent feels is fresh vs. clichéd, arty vs. commercial, hot or cold, who can say? Luck is a big part of a writer’s life.
[But] to get started, first rent every recent film and television show that is somehow like your script. Write down the names on the writing credits. Call the WGA, ask for the representation office and find out who agents these writers. This creates a list of agents who have actually made money selling scripts very much like the one you’ve written. Next, go to Amazon.com and buy The Hollywood Creative Directory and find the addresses of these agents. Do not call them. Instead, write an intriguing letter about you and your story and send it to every agent on your list. Wait, God knows how long, to hear back. If your letter captivates curiosity, and if you send out enough of them, the odds are that a few agents will actually want to read what you’ve written. When that happens, pray that your work is of surpassing quality.
Q: As a beginning fiction writer, the greatest challenge always seems to be the start. What advice would you give?
Robert McKee: By “start” do you mean writing the opening chapter or just getting into your pit and hitting keys? If the latter, you’re blocked by fear. I suggest you read Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. He’ll help you find the courage to face the blank page. If the former is your problem, first scenes or opening chapters are usually discovered after you have conceived of your Inciting Incident.
If you feel that your Inciting Incident, without any prior knowledge of your characters’ biographies or sociologies, will immediately grip the reader, then use the Inciting Incident to launch the story. For example, the Inciting Incidents SHARK EATS SWIMMER/SHERIFF DISCOVERS CORPSE in Peter Benchley’s JAWS, or MRS. KRAMER WALKS OUT ON MR. KRAMER AND HER LITTLE BOY in Avery Corman’s KRAMER VS. KRAMER, dramatize Chapter One of each of these novels respectively.
If, conversely, you feel that you need to provide your readers with exposition about history, characters and setting in order for them to grasp the importance of your Inciting Incident, then this exposition – well-dramatized, of course, perhaps even building into a set-up subplot – must start the telling.
The principle is: Bring the Inciting Incident into your story as soon as possible, but not until it will hook reader empathy and arouse curiosity. Finding the perfect placement of the Inciting Incident is the key to starting any story.
Q: Do you think the state of the economy will force studios to take more risks with lower budget films, or will they become more cautious and stick with what they know works?
Robert McKee: In fact, Hollywood has never sold more tickets than this past year. 2009 looks even more promising. The worse the economy, the more people go to the movies and watch television. Hollywood is recession proof.
Q: Do you think Slumdog Millionaire would be as commercially and critically successful if we weren’t in a recession? Are people looking for happy endings now?
Robert McKee: Life is hard, no matter the economy. Happy endings always make more money than tragic endings because life turns many people into emotional cowards who cannot face tragedy in life or fiction. Besides, why worry about it? By the time what you are now writing is finished, sold, packaged, produced and distributed years will have passed. Who knows? In the next decade down endings may go through the roof. To contrive an audience-pleasing, happy ending before you’ve created your characters, told their story and discovered a truthful climax is to think like a hack.
McKee – Adaptation Brian Cox as McKee Pic
Q: How did you end up as a character in Adaptation? Do you think it was a fair portrayal of you?
Robert McKee: Ask Charlie Kaufman. It was his idea. I just said, “What the hell,” and had the great pleasure of casting my dear friend, Brian Cox.
(Photo: Brian Cox as Robert McKee in Adaptation)
Q: Do you see the art of story via screenwriting evolving over the decades, and if so, how?
Robert McKee: No. Tastes and trends come and go, but the essential art of story has not changed since Cro-Magnon storytellers sat their tribes around the fire and held them slack-jawed with tales of the hunt. Personally, I wish filmmaking would devolve from the nervous cut-cut-cut move-move-move herky-jerky camera of today back to the expressively lit, framed, fluid images of the past. Too many contemporary directors seem inflicted with HADD.
Q: What are one or two pointers you would offer a documentary filmmaker to help guide his crafting of a story as he films his subjects?
Robert McKee: Study the classic cinema verite documentaries of Frederick Wiseman– Racetrack (1985), The Store (1983), Model (1980), Meat (1976), Welfare (1975), Juvenile Court (1973), Basic Training (1971), Hospital (1970), High School (1968), Titicut Follies (1967). He will show you how life shapes into story.McKee Quote 3
Q: What’s the best advice you can give for emerging screenwriters today? Is there one thing that you could say is most important when trying to break in?
Robert McKee: Go the gym and work out. Writing burns you out, but then you have to get up off your tired ass, put your script under your arm and knock on every door ’til your knuckles bleed. That takes the energy of a five-year old, the concentration of a chess master, the faith of an evangelist and the guts of a mountain climber. Get in shape.
Statistics suggest that six weeks into the New Year, most resolutions have been broken or forgotten. Resolve is strong, but following through is tougher. We are sick, we get interrupted, we are just plain lazy. Like Bloody Mary says in South Pacific, we may have a dream, but we have no idea how we’re going to make that dream come true.
It isn’t easy, but here are some ways to help keep your writing resolutions.
1-Write it down. Putting your goal in writing makes it real, something you can strive for. Something you can see. Tape your goals to your monitor so every time you sit down to write, you know what you want to accomplish.
2- It isn’t enough to write it down, you need to be specific. Instead of saying I’m going to write a novel this year, say I am going to finish the first draft of my novel by June 1. That gives you something concrete to aim for. Whatever you are working on, be it a short story or a novel, set a deadline, and resolve to stick to it.
3- Create Manageable Chunks. Like money, to be successful, you must budget your time. If you want to finish a draft of your 400-page novel by June 1 and it is now the middle of February, you have approximately 112 days to write 400 pages. You will have to write 3.5 new pages every day in order to finish your draft on time. If you take weekends off, you will have to make up those 7 extra pages sometime during the week. Breaking your task into manageable numbers lets you see what you need to accomplish on a daily basis.
4- Keep a daily calendar. Write down each day what you need to accomplish and refer to your calendar often. Keeping a calendar helps you stay on track.
5- Hold yourself accountable. Unless you have an agent or a publisher, no one stands over you with a whip; you have to be your own taskmaster. Give yourself consequences. You can’t read until you finish your daily pages. You can’t take in a movie or go out to dinner until you have finished so many chapters. Make your writing a priority. If you don’t take yourself seriously, no one else will either.
6- Read as Much as You Write. Great writers are also avid readers. Make it a goal to read as much as you write. If you don’t already have one, make a reading list and start knocking those books off one at a time. Read inside your genre and outside your genre to keep yourself knowledgeable and your writing fresh.
7- Publicize Your Goals. Telling others makes you accountable to someone besides yourself. If you have a blog, post your goals for everyone to see. Or call a friend and tell them what you want to accomplish. Then, if you feel lazy or like slacking, not only will you be letting yourself down, you will be letting down the people who are rooting for you.
8- Ask for help. Writing is a lonely and frustrating business. Few of us can keep our writing resolutions without some form of encouragement. If you hit a roadblock, ask for help. Find a writing partner, and call them if you feel stumped. Talking to another person always helps. If you are working on something technical, don’t be afraid to ask an expert for help. They are always willing to help you get the details right.
9- Collaborate with other writers. If you’re a writer, chances are you have other friends who also write. If you’re feeling creative, start your own website like I did with my writer friends. Since we started The Other Bunch, we have been more productive. In addition to posting a monthly question for writers, we are working on an anthology of short stores. Being with a group of like-minded people brings energy to the project and keeps it from becoming routine and boring. It also helps keep you focused.
10-Don’t let fear or rejection keep you from reaching your goals. Voltaire is credited with saying, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” If you break your resolution today, try again tomorrow. Don’t give up. Rather, exercise the power of positive thinking. You are what you think you are. So think of yourself as a powerful, professional writer and others will too.
Good luck keeping your writing resolutions!