Adventure

Adventure2

Thanks to a dear friend, whom I originally met through WordPress, I just discovered that this is my 5th anniversary on this platform. That said, it would be completely understandable if my supporters wondered that I was still here, I have posted so rarely in the past year.

Although not an excuse, I have become a victim of the adventure I sought in life. In short, my life is full and it has kicked the crap out of my blogging.

Teaching gigs, story analysis gigs, magazine writing responsibilities and my continuing passions with screenwriting, novel writing and photography of all stripes has simply become too much of a moment-by-moment focus (oxymoron?), no matter how delightful.

This will change, sort of.

With the launch of my story analysis website SoWhatsYourStory.ca last year, and the upcoming launch of my photography website, I will focus this blog on one particular topic that complements the other two platforms. What that topic is remains to be determined.

I appreciate that some of you may not be interested in the isolated topic, but then, I am incredibly grateful that any of you have stayed with me through the creative chaos that is my brain and blog.

Here’s to the next adventure!

(In the meantime, some colour from the past year.)

Why story coaching?

Coaching

No matter where you are in your writing career, your work can almost always be helped by feedback from fresh eyes that do not have a vested interest in the work itself.

Story analysis can help you see challenges in your story that might be invisible to you, whether through inherent biases or because you see the story clearer in your head than it has been recorded on the page.

Story analysis can also help you see opportunities in your work that you overlooked, if only because you are too close to it. Your priority for that early draft, in all likelihood, was simply to get things out of your head and onto the page, and we all walk with the fear of wandering down so many blind alleys that we never come out of the other end, wherever that end may be.

 

So fine, story analysis is helpful. But what the hell is story coaching?

Almost by definition, story analysis happens AFTER you have completed a draft (or several). It comes AFTER you have wandered the desert of creative confusion. It comes AFTER you have bled your creative juices onto the page and have become smitten with your creation.

And in some very unfortunate cases, it never comes at all, because the storyteller never completed the project, whether due to fear of failure, a sense of being intractably lost, or simply because Life intervened to distract from the task at hand.

This is where story coaching can help.

Story coaching is about a work-in-progress, whether a screenplay, a novel, the writer him or herself…whatever the storyteller needs most.

Hurdles

As with life coaching, business coaching or athletics coaching, story coaching is about providing guidance to the storyteller on a regular basis, whether simply as a second set of eyes to critique the work or as a mentor who uses the work-in-progress as a framework within which to help the storyteller develop as an artist.

Story coaching is also about commitment and accountability for the storyteller.

By hiring a story coach, the writer has made his or her creative art a priority in life. Why else spend the money?

And working with the storyteller, the story coach establishes expectations and deliverables, whether that is new story ideas, number of newly written pages, rewrites. These are the foundations of creative habits that can be difficult to develop and entrench in solitude because the creative process is so personal and fraught with self-doubt and self-recrimination.

 

But I can get this from a writing course or a writers’ group.

Yes, this is true…to an extent.

Writing classes can be invaluable, depending on the composition of your classmates and the skill of your instructor.

With a roomful of students, however, it can be difficult for the instructor to provide truly focused guidance to an individual student. More typically, the student is presented with a spectrum of general direction, all of which can be valuable but only some of which may be germane to a given work-in-progress.

Writers’ groups can also be a wonderful resource, again depending on the composition of the group. That composition and the individual writer’s position within the skill hierarchy, however, are critical.

Most writers’ groups are comprised of peers with relatively equal experience, and so may not be able to provide the more advanced analysis and mentorship that an individual wants or needs. And if an individual is the most advanced or skilled within a given writers’ group, he or she may find little opportunity for improvement.

[NOTE: I firmly believe that you will always find something in the feedback of any group of readers. The question is more whether it is worth the effort you put into the group.]

Sports

Although it is not impossible, you are very unlikely to ever become a professional football or hockey player by spending any amount of time playing flag football or pond hockey with friends. Why would we expect storytelling to be any different?

 

How do I know a story coach is right for me?

You don’t. Well, you don’t until you start a conversation with him or her.

 

Oh, hey! Is the story coach going to try to tell me what stories to tell?

Absolutely not.

The story coach is here to understand what story you want to tell or help you understand it better yourself, and then help you tell it in the most effective manner.

You are the Creator. The story coach is not.

 

If you want to learn more about Story Coaching, feel free to reach out to me (no obligation) at:

So, What’s Your Story? (web site)

So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook)

SWYS-Facebook-Cover

Many levels of review – Part Two

Whenever someone asks me to review their writing, I try to be thorough and look at it from many levels. Yesterday, we looked at how I approach writing from the 30,000- and 5,000-foot levels. Below, we dig deeper.

1000_foot_view

The view from 1,000 feet: Now that I’ve identified the major structural and thematic issues and determined there is a reason to keep reading, I go back to the beginning and really start to peel things apart.

If I have a thing for character—and I do—I might follow an individual character through the story to see if I can reverse engineer the writer’s profile of that character. I am making this sound much more formal than it really is. Basically, what do I know about the character and are his or her actions and reactions consistent with that knowledge given: (a) where that character is now in the story; and (b) where he or she is trying to get or accomplish?

From the plot perspective, I begin to look at individual scenes and ask if the interplay between characters makes sense for their relationship and respective goals within the scene. For that matter, does each character in a scene have a clear goal?

How have the characters within the scene changed from one end of it to the other? Did one start with the upper hand and that power shift somewhere through the scene to the other character? This last point is not a necessity, but is merely one way a scene can experience reversal.

Likewise, is the scene clear with one predominant purpose or has the writer tried to accomplish too much too quickly, muddying the scene and leaving the reader uncertain as to what refers to what?

At a slightly broader level, how do the scenes play against each other? Are there smooth or logical segues from one scene to another, and if not, does the hard plot swing work? Does the scene in question set up a future one or pay off a previous one, and has it done this job effectively?

200_foot_view

The view from 200 feet: Now I really start to get into the weeds, looking at paragraphs and individual lines. From the narrative perspective, does the reader have all the information he or she needs to make sense of the story? Does the scenery or environment serve almost as another character at this point, representing a source of conflict or support for your characters? Again, this last point isn’t necessary, but can be quite effective such as in movies like The Perfect Storm.

Alternatively, has the writer massively over-written the narrative, demonstrating his or her superhuman vocabulary and/or visual imagination at the expense of the story and poor befuddled reader? As a personal aside, this is my greatest sin as a writer…but then you probably already knew that. Can I recommend any broad strokes edits (not copy edits) to help reduce the clutter and maintain the flow for the reader?

If it’s a screenplay, does the writer interrupt the reader too often with small directorial nods to the actors? For example, during a particularly heated scene of dialogue between the protagonist and antagonist, is the writer constantly reminding the actors to furrow their brows or shrug? I try to determine whether these narrative directions are absolutely necessary to get the idea of the scene across.

The problem here is that the regular intrusion of direction takes the reader out of the moment, disrupting the story and the emotional power of the characters. The senses, if only at the mental level, are forced to trip back and forth between things like subtle movements and emotive energy. Thus, in even the most action- or tension-packed scenes, too much narrative can sap the energy of the scene such that the read becomes plodding. By removing these superfluous lines, the reading speeds up and the energy of the scene is renewed.

This brings us to dialogue, which is easily my greatest challenge in screenwriting. I think novel writing gives you a bit more leeway with dialogue but I am less familiar with the medium from a writing perspective.

When I review dialogue, I try to sense how natural the dialogue feels…perhaps even reading it aloud, if I am not certain. Are these sentences that real characters would say and are the lines apt for the character who is saying them? From what I have surmised about the character, would he or she use those particular words in that way or to that purpose? Is the character saying exactly what he or she is thinking (on-the-nose) or is there some sense of subtext, whether known to the character or not?

Similarly, is the dialogue as tight as it could be, saying only what needs to be said and in the best way? Now, please note, I did not say or mean to imply in the shortest way, with the fewest words. People rarely keep their sentences to a minimum, but rather when caught up in the heat of the moment, tend to spew a bit more than necessary. There is a cadence to an individual’s speech patterns, so each of the characters should have their own cadences.

In a conversation between two or more characters, is the subject and banter clear or am I left with some uncertainty about what line corresponds as a response to what previous line or thought. To map it out somewhat mathematically, it might read something like A then A’, B then B’, C then C’, etc., rather than ABC then A’, D then B’C’, etc., where each of the letters and its prime counterpart represent a thought and its response or reaction. By the same token, however, I have to be alert and sensitive to cases where it is perfectly natural for that character to blurt out a series of thoughts and the resulting confusion may be consistent with the plot.

splashdown

Splashdown: Only once all of that has been settled, do I get to the cosmetic aspects of story review. This is where I might recommend copy edits and what have you to ensure the screenplay or novel is clean. This can include looking for stylistic inconsistencies (e.g., capitalization) or spelling errors. Personally, this part bores the hell out of me and I know that for every error or inconsistency I find, I have missed two or three others. As a courtesy, however, I will point out those that I do find and hope someone else catches the rest.

I find that by the time we reach splashdown, writers either love me or hate me…and I am okay with that. Although I prefer the former, I understand the latter and don’t take it personally. Putting your work out there for critique and possible criticism is difficult and not just a little nerve wracking. I applaud anyone who does that almost as hard as I applaud them for having written in the first place.

I just hope that, at the end of the day, I have helped the writer improve his or her work.

(Images are the property of their owners and are used here without permission because it’s more impactful.)

Many levels of review – Part One

puzzle

Every time I read something, I find something I never found before. Thus, when someone has built up the nerve to ask me to read something he or she has written, I try to read it in several waves, each one moving deeper and deeper into the details of the subject or story.

30000_foot_view

The view at 30,000 feet: Particularly if it is a complex narrative, such as a novel or screenplay, I try to make my first read an uncritical one. This may sound counterintuitive to the requested task, but until I’ve read something from front to back, I don’t feel as if I have sufficient information to be critical.

A thought or comment made at first read may be rendered moot or significantly larger one, ten, fifty or a hundred pages later. I need context to see what the writer is trying to accomplish before I know what is working or what isn’t.

If possible, I will remove all writing implements from my pockets and move somewhere completely isolated so that I can give the piece my full attention. If I become immersed in the work, absorbed by the story and characters, then I know less work is needed, and I can drill to the deepest, most detailed level of comment quickly.

If, however, I find myself drifting from the story, or worse, struggling to move from page to page or scene to scene, then I know there are larger structural or thematic issues at play. Things that potentially make detailed feedback moot upon rewrite.

If you can’t resist using a pen at this stage, try just adding an asterisk next to the line of interest for a quick reminder later. Attention to details breeds attention to details, and you’re apt to miss the bigger picture.

5000_foot_view

The view from 5,000 feet: In the second read, I try to focus my attentions on the larger structural and thematic questions that arose in the first read. By being familiar with the story and knowing who is whom, I am less likely to need to flip backward through the pages to remind myself how I got here.

More importantly, I know where the writer is trying to go with the plot and characters, which should make it easier to identify bumps or inconsistencies along the way.

These moments typically take the form of a quick shuffling of pages to see if I’ve missed something or if two pages have stuck together. In my head, if not aloud, I find myself using phrases like “Wait. What…?” and “Hold it. I thought…”

If I did my first read well, I may remember struggling at this point in the story, and if it’s big enough, having to force myself to move on. Alternatively, I didn’t bump the first time through but now that I know the full story, this scene or moment has become a problem. What made perfect sense an hour or two ago has now become confusing. Regardless, it is a moment that has to be recognized, understood and adjusted.

Most writers in my experience have the greatest problem with notes at this stage because it often cuts to the core of their story and changes her can have a significant impact on the direction of the story. In some cases, this is where the writer might find out the story doesn’t work and needs a complete overhaul.

New writers, in particular, may either completely refute the notes to avoid being so fundamentally “off base” or simply give up the piece because they feel incapable of sacrificing all that hard work, ironically enough, and trying to rescue what was working.

At this stage, I’m asking pretty broad questions. Do I understand why this story is happening (why today)? Do I clearly see who is playing what role in the narrative (e.g., protagonist, antagonist, etc) and how they interrelate?

Can I recognize the plot and subplots, and do they make sense? How do they relate and am I seeing a coherent theme? Is there any conflict in the story and does it rise in scale or intensity as the story moves forward?

Part Two: In the next section, we will continue our journey into the depths of how I review stories with complex narratives, rapidly approaching ground level.

(The images are the property of their respective owners and are used here without permission because they’re beneath me.)