Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Mr. Spock's Tips for Writers

Last week, while over at a friend's house, I noticed the intriguing title, I Am Spock, on the spine of a book. Of course I'd heard of Leonard Nimoy's previous book, I Am Not Spock. Sure enough, this book was another Nimoy memoir, published twenty years after the first one. I wondered what had made him change his mind.

I asked to borrow the book, and as I read it I learned that Nimoy now considers his previous title something of a mistake. He was only trying to be clever, not denounce his role as one of the best-loved science-fiction characters of all time. Nimoy cares deeply about the character of Mr. Spock, and has fiercely defended him against script writers and directors that just didn't understand the half-Vulcan, half-human Starfleet officer.

Which brings up two invaluable things I learned about storytelling as I read this book.

First of all, the audience will not always understand what you're trying to do. The title, I Am Not Spock, for instance. Fans were furious. It haunted Leonard Nimoy for years. In fact, he almost lost the chance to direct Star Trek IV because the producer erroneously thought Nimoy had written a whole book about how much he hated Spock. That's not what the book was about at all. Few had bothered to read it, apparently. They'd only looked at the title and jumped to a conclusion.

What to do? Beware ambiguity. When misunderstood, move on to your next project.

Sub-point: Being misunderstood can be agonizing, but it won't necessarily ruin your career.

Now for Mr. Spock's second tip for writers. This one is about character. It took a  few episodes of the original Star Trek series for Leonard Nimoy to get a firm grasp on who Spock was, on what made him tick. But once he knew, he was ready to defend his concept of Spock. Time after time, a script-writer would come along who wanted to have Spock lose his temper, or be violent, or let down his Vulcan dignity in some other way, and Nimoy would have to go in and say, "I can't play this scene." He got some writers mad at him, especially since most of them had two other scripts to finish yesterday and they didn't want to re-write some scene for this pointy-eared alien. But because Nimoy insisted, and because Mr. Spock was so true to his character on the show, the fans responded. They loved him. They believed in him.

Know your characters. Then be willing to fight for them. Don't let anything compromise the integrity of their personality. If they wouldn't do something, it doesn't belong in the story. Rewrite!

Subpoint: Audiences love a character with a powerful internal conflict. But don't make the character constantly swing between one side and the other. That makes the character seem wishy-washy. Mr. Spock succeeds as a character because he almost always goes with his Vulcan side, though there are enough glimpses of the human side to let the audience know what a pressure-cooker is going on inside.

Thanks for the tips, Mr. Spock.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Technology and Fiction

I recently read a contemporary romance novel, Someone Else's Fairytale by E.M. Tippets, in which the college-aged characters were constantly video-chatting on their lap-top computers. If that book had been written ten years ago, it would have been science fiction.

It used to be that I could tell a book had been written in some previous decade by the technology alone. Now I can almost pinpoint the year. When reading World War Z, I could tell it was written before social media became a massive phenomenon. If there were zombies anywhere on the planet, my Facebook friends would totally have told me about it. World War Z Publication date? 2006. I thought so.

The world is changing so fast that if you write a piece of contemporary fiction, by the time it hits the shelves it's historical. Maybe this is a good thing. As author David Farland has pointed out, the biggest best-selling novels are stories that transport the reader to another time and place. Now it's nearly impossible not to transport your reader away from here and now. Even authors who write about now can't capture now fast enough. They're writing about then already. If you want to read about now, you have to go blog trawling.

Fortunately for me, I've never wanted to write about here and now.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Writers Club Wednesday: The Objective Correlative

“The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an "objective correlative"; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”
    --T.S. Eliot

Translation: when it comes to emotion, SHOW DON'T TELL.

We've all heard that, but HOW IS IT DONE?

When does tell become show?

George was nervous. (definitely telling)

George's heart pounded. (Sort of showing, but still mostly telling. I'm telling you his heart pounded. Why is that different from telling you he was nervous? It's even more ambiguous. Is he scared or excited?)

"Relax. This won't hurt a bit." The dentist held the drill poised over George's face. The drill motor whirred. George stared at the yellow-brown stain on the ceiling and wished he had paid for better dental insurance.

Now I don't need to tell you that George is nervous or that his heart is pounding. I've put you in his head and you're seeing things through his current emotional filter. He's noticing the drill in front of his nose, the sound of the motor, the stained ceiling. How does he feel? Mommy, get me out of this chair!

This is the objective correlative. You've got to choose what your characters notice based on how the characters are feeling at the time, then relate those things to the reader. Paint an emotional picture with objects, situations, and events. Give your reader the facts, and let the emotion come out on its own.

Here's your writing exercise. Get your notebook and write down four emotional states, spacing them out on the page. Then walk into another room in your house. Any room you like. Describe that room through each of your four emotional filters.

Happy writing!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Writing Exercise: Telephone Poem

At our last Laie Young Writers Club meeting, we did an exercise I learned from Tim Wynne-Jones at this year's Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers Workshop.

1. Write your phone number in a column down the left-hand side of the paper.
2. Write a poem. Each line has the same number of words as the telephone number. A zero is a wild card, you pick the number of words.

Here's my example (slightly altered so you don't know my phone number)

Waves leave lines in the sand
Delicate ridges
At the farthest reach of the water.
Rainbow foam
Sparkles and fades
Along traces
Like ridges
Of distant mountains
Etched momentarily
On the sandy canvas smoothed by the sea.