You suck (How awesome is that?)

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You suck. It’s true. No need to be embarrassed.

I suck, too; quite regularly, in fact. Possibly unlike you, however, I revel in that fact.

In almost any facet of life, when we are called upon to do something, many of us have concerns that we might not be up to the task, that we suck.

Depending on the task, the individual, the timing and innumerable other factors, this fear may give only the slightest pause or it may result in complete catatonia, leaving us bereft of the will to do anything let alone the requested task.

And I think this fear of suckage—yep, just made that word up—is perhaps the greatest in creatives as it is in creativity that we face our harshest critic: ourselves.

I have myself, and seen others, stare at a blank page, completely immobilized, incapable of the first squiggle that would start the creative process.

At best, we’re trying to consider every starting concept in our heads, lest our suckage be recorded for posterity and later ridicule. But just as often, it is blank-screen paralysis, our thoughts as immobile as our body.

I’m here to tell you that they are just negative manifestations of a positive experience.

In many ways, sucking is not only normal, it is also wonderful.

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When I teach screenwriting, I start every lecture with the same question:

“Who sucked this week?”

And at least until the students have adjusted to the question, mine is the first hand that goes up.

You cannot help but suck at something until you don’t, and the timeline of skill is different for every individual and every task.

But actually sucking—as opposed to the fear of sucking—means you are trying. You are making an effort to push through your personal suckage, and that is amazing and wonderful.

Even the fear of suckage is a good sign, if not a good feeling, because it is an indication of how important the assignment is to you. If it wasn’t important to you, you wouldn’t care if you sucked.

So suck. Jump in with both feet, ignoring as best you can that little voice that warns you of doom should you suck.

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Take the next step, and then the one after that

For one thing, even once you have developed great skill in a field or activity, you will still have occasion to suck.

With apologies to the magnificent screenwriter Terry Rossio, for every Shrek and Pirates of the Caribbean, there is the odd Lone Ranger.

For every record-breaking season, Wayne Gretzky missed an open net on occasion.

No professional photographer keeps every shot she takes, nor painter every painting, nor songwriter every lyric or note.

You are going to suck.

The silver lining, however, is that the more you suck now, the less likely you are to suck later.

God knows I still do. And I’m very happy about that.

 

To learn more about effective storytelling and maybe gain insights from my years of suckage, visit:

So, What’s Your Story (web site)

So, What’s Your Story (Facebook)

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Whither the losers

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History, we are told, is written by the victors. So, it also seems, are books about writing; although it is perhaps more accurate to say that books about writing only talk about winners.

Whether we’re talking about Star Wars, Unforgiven, Casablanca or The Wizard of Oz, almost any model of screenplay structure or character development or dialogue construction can be retrofitted to suit the film in question.

It’s like one of those mysterious illustrations that test whether you see two faces or a goblet. Once the secret is pointed out to you, it is virtually impossible to unsee.

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Faces or a vase? Old woman or young?

Now, I’m not suggesting that these films or scenes or characters within aren’t good examples of the methods and approaches being promoted. Rather, because they are good examples, I question how much you can learn from them.

If you know the film well, it can be virtually impossible to imagine it any other way. And that is what the lesson should be telling you.

What happens when you don’t follow the model?

What does bad writing look like and how can you fix it?

Without that last part, learning to write well becomes the typing equivalent of being given paint, brushes, canvas and the Mona Lisa. Now, go out there and launch the new Renaissance! (The Rerenaissance?)

A couple of years ago, I had the good fortune to take a comedy writing workshop given by Steve Kaplan. Aside from providing our small group with a series of tools to not only analyze but also develop comedy—nicely captured in his wonderful book The Hidden Tools of Comedy—Steve walked us through examples of where these tools were used to great effect AND examples where they weren’t.

Alongside excerpts of Groundhog Day, we watched scenes from Alex & Emma. After considering the classic sitcom about nothing Seinfeld, we were inflicted with the show’s original and quite terrible pilot.

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Like with the positive examples, you see the failures when they are pointed out to you. But the nice thing about the failures is you can ask what could have been done differently to make the idea or scene work better.

(Note: Sometimes, the answer is nothing, because it was a weak idea or poorly written.)

You may not have committed the specific sin you’re studying, but it at least gives you the opportunity to use the tools you’ve just acquired and see if you can’t make that “Elvis on crushed velvet” look more like the Mona Lisa.

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And particularly for the relatively novice or untested writers, examining failures helps to keep from establishing an impossible bar of success. Rather, it suggests that whereas we always strive for greatness, mediocrity can make it to the screen, and more importantly, we do not need to (and never will) achieve gold with every piece we write.

Which is good, because for every Pirates of the Caribbean and Shrek, there is a The Lone Ranger (all written in part by the wonderful and giving Terry Rossio).

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See also:

The Hidden Tools of Comedy (Steve Kaplan)

Story is everywhere

[First part of a weekly series related to my new story analysis service So, What’s Your Story.]

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Even the most esoteric subjects have story, with all the elements of a fictional novel or screenplay…even text books about business or biochemistry or writing.

There’s no story in text books!

Yes, there is.

Only here, plot is less about action sequences and more about the interplay of the different aspects of your subject and the causes and effects that drive your theses or perspectives forward. This can be reflected in the cadence of your descriptions, as you walk the reader through your arguments, leading them to your conclusion.

Likewise, your characters are less about personalities and more a sense of the…you guessed it…characteristics of your subjects. In the broadest sense, the conflicts and synergies between the component parts or ideas of any topic are what effectively humanize the topic, providing a familiarity to the reader or viewer.

Without story, your manuscript or presentation has no narrative drive, nothing to draw the reader or viewer forward. Instead, it reads like a specification sheet or spreadsheet; a series of minimally connected facts and figures that provide information but only to the most intrepid reader.

Story is one of the reasons why you can have hundreds (thousands?) of different versions of the same facts, and how publishers and book retailers stay in business.

So, if you’re working on a nonfiction manuscript or presentation, let’s talk and see how well you are bringing your ideas to your audience.

Reach out and tell me: What’s your story?

Twitter: @createdbyrcw

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/storyanalysis/

Website: [to come]

Write what you—No!

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The adage I hear a lot in writing circles and books is “Write what you know”. By that, people mean write about the things for which you have a passion, because that passion for the subject will shine through your writing and become infectious to your reader or viewer.

To a large extent, I agree with this sentiment, but I think there has to be codicil. When you know how to write, write what you know.

Let me explain with an anecdote.

When I first started writing, I was coming out of a career as a biochemistry researcher who had spent the bulk of my training in protein biochemistry and genetics. That was where my passion lies. So, perhaps as no surprise, when I decided to become a science writer, I focused much of my initial energies on writing about protein biochemistry. I understood the science; I could see the story quickly; I could write about it with some fluency.

Unfortunately, despite or perhaps because of my passion and fluency, I was completely unreadable to anyone who wasn’t already a protein biochemist. I wasn’t speaking to my audience in terms they could understand but rather in terms I could understand. To a greater or lesser extent, I might as well have been writing in Klingon, which I suspect would have given me a broader audience.

When I finally realized what was happening—thanks to all of the people who beat me about the head—I made a pact with myself. Until I felt that I could really tell a story, I would do my best to avoid writing anything about that at which I was most expert. I had to become my audience: the relative non-experts.

About a year into writing about topics I had to research and for which I had to ask potentially stupid questions, my writing had matured to the point where I could go back to my area of expertise and approach it in the same way. I had finally arrived.

I think the same holds true for any kind of writing, whether news, novels, screenplays, blogs.

Until you are capable of telling a story that your audience can decipher, and more importantly wants to read, you are probably better served to stay away from the topics you know best. To do otherwise means running the risk that you will leave out the “obvious” and the “well, yeah” that you know in your bones, but that could be vitally important to an audience member trying to understand why certain facts or behaviours in your story exist.

Give yourself—and by extension, your audience—a chance to learn your story, to experience it at a visceral level. As you develop your story, you’ll likely find yourself asking questions of your plot or characters that your audience would ask. You want your audience to think, but you never want them to have to research. Until your work becomes part of a school curriculum, it shouldn’t require a study guide.

It is easier to remove the truly superfluous common knowledge or understanding later than it is to convince yourself that the information you need to add isn’t common knowledge.

When you are ready to tackle it, the subject(s) for which you have passion will still be there. Consider them the reward for all the hard work you did up front.

In a future post, I hope to discuss a flavour of this topic: “Based on a true story”.

Receiving Feedback – Part Two

In Part One, I talked a bit about the challenges of asking for and receiving feedback. Below, I offer some thoughts on how to resolve some of those issues, but again, want this to be an open discussion.

When to ask. Feedback can be valuable at any stage of an exercise, but the type of feedback you need will change as your work progresses. Out of the gate with draft one, you really just need to know if the story works. After that, you’ll begin to explore things like character arcs, scene/event order (plotting), etc. Give specific direction on what you want from the reviewers.

Whom to ask. Ask for feedback from people whose sensibilities and/or writing you respect. If they think in a manner that attracts you or write in a style that you find interesting, then they are more likely to give you feedback that meshes with your goals for your work. As your skills mature, you can venture further afield and test yourself against people who think significantly differently from you.

Give direction on what you want. If you simply give someone your work and ask them to let you know what they think, then you deserve what you get. Ask for their thoughts on specific aspects of your writing so that they can focus on just that aspect. Alternatively, tell them what you worry about and let them interpret how to give feedback to address that need.

Ask questions. When you receive feedback, don’t simply say thank you and then go read it in a corner, deciding whether to commit hari kiri. Make sure you understand their feedback so that you know how to use it. It may be that they have totally misunderstood what you have tried to do—which is itself something to look at—so the specifics of their feedback may be of limited use.

Think about the feedback. In some cases, simply incorporating some feedback will make sense; however, you generally want to see what the feedback is telling you at a broader, more basic level. Does all the feedback come down to the same one or two things? For example, if a lot of the feedback is asking why your characters did certain things, then maybe the bigger issue is a need to more deeply or transparently explore character motivation. Not an easy task, but ultimately more rewarding than simply explaining away the why’s through exposition or on-the-nose dialogue.

NO FEEDBACK IS GOSPEL. If a burning bush offers you insights on your project, always remember that this is just one plant’s opinion. The smouldering conifer a few feet over may have totally different or contrary suggestions.

Don’t rely on one source of feedback, as it will include personal biases that may not be germane to your work. And even when you get feedback from multiple sources, look for patterns in the feedback. If 70% of people have issues with your climax, it’s probably time to review your climax. If, however, 30% don’t get your antagonist, you may want to look at that, but it’s not a priority.

This is also why it is important to request specific feedback. If 10 people give you 10 thoughts each and none or few of them overlap, you have no idea what is important and what is personal taste.

Remember who’s in charge. This is your work and you should be prepared to defend it while being open to ways to improve it. You DO NOT have to incorporate feedback you get. You may feel it’s off base, doesn’t really fit with what you were trying to do or the story you wanted to tell. Fine. Stick to your guns (or weapon of choice). Just because you asked for the feedback, doesn’t mean you have to take it (not even mine).

Tell your story, your way.

As my first and only tattoo, I wanted something that spoke to how I wished to be remembered

As my first and only tattoo, I wanted something that spoke to how I wished to be remembered

Receiving Feedback – Part One

Feedback is always difficult, or it should be.

When a sound system suffers feedback, it is a loud resonant noise that increases in pitch as it slowly and achingly bores a hole into your head. Feedback on a piece of writing (or any other piece of art) can feel very much the same.

Unlike the sound system example, however, feedback is vital to the survival and improvement of your art. It will help you understand the places in which people struggle to see your vision. But just as importantly, it helps you see where your efforts resonate—in a positive way—with your audience. The challenge is understanding how much weight you should put on the feedback.

When we first start writing, we tend to wait forever to ask for feedback, often for fear of being told our work sucks. And when we finally do receive feedback, we take all the negatives to heart and may never hear the positives. We then destroy our work by either shelving (deleting) it or by trying to incorporate every piece of feedback into the work. The latter effort results in a work that is either a complete mess that makes no sense, or worse, reflects the tastes and preferences of the person providing feedback and not us, the artist.

We also tend to ask the wrong people for feedback—friends, parents, partners—perhaps in the hope they’ll be gentle with us. Unfortunately, these people don’t tend to have experience with this kind of thing—the “but I know what I like” syndrome—and so the feedback runs the brevity gamut from “I really like it” to “I’m not sure I get it”, none of which is particularly useful or informative.

As we mature in our writing, we may ask a larger number of people to review our stuff, but then we run into the problem of conflicting opinions. And as with the eggs in one basket scenario, we may try to please everyone with changes—destroying our own voice—or simply shelve the whole project. There’s also the possibility that we’ll take the attitude that everyone’s crazy and we’re brilliant, but that doesn’t happen very often at this stage.

We still may not be asking the right people, but we’re more likely in the right ballpark, focusing on other writers. If those writers aren’t at our level or higher, however, the feedback we receive will be helpful but probably won’t get us to the next level. Nobody’s fault. They just probably haven’t developed the critical skills needed to help us find not just challenges but also ways to solve them.

So, what’s a poor writer to do?

In Part Two, I’ll offer some thoughts on how best to approach the challenge of asking for and receiving feedback.

I want this to be an open conversation, however, and welcome you to contribute your experiences or thoughts to the conversation as well.

My brother has his own way of dealing with feedback, but he's a pretty good guy nonetheless.

My brother has his own way of dealing with feedback, but he’s a pretty good guy nonetheless.