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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Pearls of Writing Wisdom – a review

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There is something inside you constantly threatening to explode; an urgent feeling that simply refuses to be ignored. It keeps you from focusing on conversations. It keeps you from sleeping. It tears at the very fabric of your existence.

Now, unless you have recently ordered the taco salad at Chipotle or travelled interstellar space with Sigourney Weaver, these symptoms suggest you might be a writer.

Ned Hickson knows these feelings well, and recounts some of his own experiences in his latest book Pearls of Writing Wisdom: From 16 Shucking Years as a Columnist.

In many ways, the book is a writer’s version of that dreaded conversation between a child and loving parent/teacher about sex…and it’s just as awkward.

In his own nervously jovial way, Ned tries to encourage writers to explore their budding bodies of work and yet caution them about the challenges that lie ahead without scaring (or scarring) them into creative celibacy.

Without photos or illustrations, Ned routinely contextualizes the lessons he is giving with self-deprecating anecdotes—like that time he walked around a mall for four hours before someone mentioned his participle was dangling. The point being (I think) to highlight that even with these personal failings, he still managed to fool people into reading (and paying for) his stuff.

Given the subtitle, I originally expected this book to be a chronicle of things he’d learned in his day job with Oregon’s Siuslaw News, a newspaper for which he is Editor and writes a syndicated humor column.

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Ned offers insights on sex…I mean, writing

Instead, I found a book that covered all aspects of writing from understanding the inherent urges to the mechanics of satisfying wordplay to dealing with the social and legal ramifications of your actions…hunh, this really is about sex.

And speaking of sex, Ned’s book isn’t very long (97 pages) but what he accomplishes in those short, floppy pages is quite effective in nurturing new talent, as well as reminding those of us sliding into senescence why we write.

Whether you are a writer or know someone wanting to act on those urges, I highly recommend Pearls of Writing Wisdom as a way to bolster courage and encourage good practices, and maybe laugh a little.

 

P.S. If Sigourney Weaver happens to read this review, I would happily risk alien infestation to meet you at the Chipotle of your choosing.

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See also:

Humor at the Speed of Life (Ned’s blog)

Humor at the Speed of Life (Ned’s other book)

Port Hole Books (Ned’s publisher)

Feedback, not criticism (or worse)

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A friend of mine recently wrote a screenplay for a sitcom. Not a spec of an existing show, mind you, but rather an entirely new idea she developed.

In accomplishing this feat, she joined rarified company. For every person who has written a television pilot, there may be a thousand people who have written a spec script and millions who have never put pen to paper (finger to keyboard).

And like any good writer, she wanted her work to be as good as it could be, so she asked a handful of people she knew—including me—to read it and give her feedback.

Unfortunately, as I later learned on sending her my feedback, she was ready to chuck in the writing game because of scathing criticism from another reviewer, who essentially told her that her pilot was complete crap (or worse).

My friend is talented and is in the process of maturing her style. And the feedback I gave her was honest and critical, but it was also designed to help her improve, not make her quit. The pilot was still raw, but there was merit in many aspects of it, and the rest could be easily improved.

Sadly, it seems her other reviewer was less interested in helping her find the gems in her work.

To the writers out there, I say, pick your reviewers wisely, and before you take any of the feedback to heart, consider the source and get input from more than one person.

Feedback that is overly critical or overly praising is largely useless…and potentially lethal.

To the reviewers out there, I say, be honest but be constructive. It does no one any good to rip a work to shreds and leave it in tatters. It doesn’t make you more powerful. This isn’t even about you but about the work.

At the end of this post, I have links to pieces I have written previously on receiving and giving feedback. And below, without giving away my friend’s identity or her concept, I offer the opening of my notes to her.

Good luck and good writing to everyone!

 

My favourite insight of all time on writing for television is that pilots suck. Let me repeat that:

PILOTS SUCK!

The challenge with a pilot is you have to do soooo much structural heavy-lifting and still try to tell a coherent story.

  1. You need to establish the premise.
  2. You need to establish the perspective of your protagonist and therefore your concept.
  3. You need to not only introduce all of the regular characters and their relationships to each other, but also make them engaging.
  4. You need to give the audience a sense of what a typical episode might look like so they know when they can go pee.
  5. And did I mention that you also need to tell a coherent story?
  6. Oh, and one last thing for the sitcom writers…you have to be funny.

 

So, massive kudos to you for writing a sitcom pilot and doing a decent job of it. You’ve covered all of the points above, but you haven’t really nailed them yet. And for me, nailing them hinges on your decisions about point #2…

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See also:

Giving Feedback – The Reviewer Strikes Back

Receiving Feedback – Part One

Receiving Feedback – Part Two

Writing the prose angelic

If nothing else, using interviews in my magazine writing has given me a new respect for choir leaders.

The art is to harmoniously fuse voices that are roughly singing the same song and make it sound like the synchronized beat of angels’ wings.

A multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying "Glory to God in the Highest" Luke 2:13-14

A multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying “Glory to God in the Highest” Luke 2:13-14

Is writing Art?

Questions you are unlikely to ever hear:

  • How close to the edge of the canvas can I apply acrylic paint?
  • If I’m sculpting the bust of Zeus, at what moment should I work on his nose?
  • Is it okay to drum the body of an acoustic guitar with my fingers rather than pluck the strings?

Painting. Sculpture. Music. Three of the myriad art forms where practitioners typically acquire some degree of training, and then step away from that training to develop  their own style.

Art comes where the rules end

Art comes where the rules end

Questions you can fully expect to hear:

  • In a 90-page screenplay, on what page should the inciting incident occur?
  • In a poem, should I complete a thought within a line or break it up into two or more lines?
  • Can I describe more than one character’s point-of-view within a scene in my novel?

Writing.

Every day, billions of people across the planet write. Post-It notes. Shopping lists. Emails. Love letters. And perhaps because of this ubiquity—perhaps because writing is rivaled only by speech as a form of expression—the world tends to view writing in a different category from all of the other arts, assuming people see it as an art form at all.

Everybody writes, so how special can it be

Everybody writes, so how special can it be

Obviously, there are better writers and worse writers, but more often than not, that reality is viewed as difference in skill, not art or craftsmanship. It is as though the world believes that if we all applied ourselves a little more, we could all write a great novel or play.

If asked, I am confident few would think that the only difference between them and Mozart, Yo-Yo Ma or the guy playing bassoon in the subway (my friend Jeff Burke) was time in.

Certainly, most acknowledge the greatness of Shakespeare, Dickens, Moliere, Hemingway (forgive my Western bias), but those are seen as rare exceptions to the norm.

Art comes where the rules end

Art comes where the rules end

People will buy paintings on the roadside. You will sometimes stop and listen to a musician in the park. But how many of us will stop and buy a novel or collection of poems anywhere other than the bookstore or online?

And sadly, this sense that pretty much anyone can be a writer pervades the writing community itself in insidious ways, and is particularly debilitating to new writer artists timidly trying to develop their craft.

Unlike almost any other art form, to my eye, writers get hung up in the right way to do things, as suggested by the questions above. As an example, this post was prompted by similar questions raised by a novelist blogger I follow.

It is okay to emulate aspects of others’ writings, to follow certain conventions of grammar and syntax. But at the end of the day, you have to ask yourself why you write; because it is a passion within you or to please the universe?

“Write the way you want to write,” was my advice to her questions on acceptable style (my italics). “As your colleagues suggested, this is just your style and will either be liked or not liked by your readers.”

“Never be afraid to be yourself…your readers will respect that in you,” I concluded, “and anyone who doesn’t is frankly not your reader.”

No one questions the difference between the skill of painting a house and the art of painting a landscape. Why should the same not be true for writing a Tweet and writing a poem?

Writing is an Art Form, to answer the title question, and you—the writer—are an Artist.

Learn from those who have come before and who practice now, but be brave and divine your own path.

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”.