Writers: You don’t have to do this … but you probably should

It’s a simple enough line of dialogue: “You don’t have to do this.”

But it’s also one of the most common and, perhaps, overused lines of dialogue in today’s movies and TV shows as well. Listen for it, and you will hear it uttered more often than not.

The line exists for one reason only: It represents a decision point.

The main character has one last opportunity to consider his or her course of action. Do they take on the bad guy even though it puts them, their family, their career, etc., at risk? Do they choose the action even if it goes against every moral fiber of their being?

Of course, the character faced with the choice always does move ahead. If not, the movie or TV episode would fizzle on the spot. The goal would go unfulfilled, the viewer would leave unhappy.

It’s unfortunate, however, that so many screenplays telegraph this choice in such a way. It’s not very original in terms of writing, and it sounds cliched. But there it is, time and time again. It’s clearly an audible cue to the viewers that this is an important decision to be made. It is a moment that everything in the film has been building towards. In other words, the big payoff is at hand.

I’m not sure if this line of dialogue has its own chapter in the many how-to screenplay books out there, but it should. Your story, your screenplay, is nothing without it.

 

 

Journalism do-over? I don’t think so.

There’s an interesting discussion going on over on Linked In among journalists about whether, if they knew what they know now about the industry, would they do it all over again? Would they still become journalists if given the chance to do something else?

As a journalist who has been out of work for a year now, the profession has left a somewhat bitter taste in my mouth and my  initial response to the question is a resounding HELL NO! But a more rational response would be: No, but let me explain why.

Here’s why:

First, let’s start with why I got into the business in the first place and its many upsides. As I’ve said elsewhere on this site, I’ve always loved to read and I dreamed of one day writing my own novels that would fly off bookstore shelves into the arms of loving readers. I imagined my name, G. Robert Frazier, on the spine of books between the likes of authors F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Grisham. Many times I would put my finger in the space between books in the store and say, “That’s where my book is going to go.” (I still do that from time to time, even noting whether the space is on a shelf that’s eye-level or on the bottom row.)

With that goal in mind, I wrote my first three novels while in high school. I used reams of notebook paper, bought for the purpose of doing homework, to scribe my novels instead. My study periods and lunch periods became my writing periods. I wrote all the time. (I don’t know if this is a blessing or curse, but I didn’t have many friends in high school to speak of since we moved around a lot as a family. I went to three different high schools. So, instead of friends, I had my books.)

And, yes, I wrote with a pen. Not a typewriter. Not a word processor.

As graduation neared and thoughts turned to what I wanted to study when I entered college, writing was clearly the answer. I worked on the newspaper while in high school and enjoyed writing stories about people and events. I enjoyed seeing my byline. So, it became clear that one way to write and make a living writing was to study journalism. That way, I would be doing something I like while getting paid and I could write my novels on the side.

I didn’t know then what I know now.

Journalism is a grueling task master. It is work. Hard work. Long hours. Low pay. And it is largely a thankless business.

Yes, there were numerous times that the work excited me. Where else could you interview U.S. senators, governors, and celebrities? What other job gave you access to major sporting events and concerts, simply in exchange for a short article about the event? Over the years, I covered everything from government budget meetings to elections, from business openings to closings, from murders to burglaries, from Bonnaroo to Mule Days, from NASCAR to college sports. My byline in the early days ran the gamut, to be sure.

I sometimes lamented about the long hours and the piss-poor pay, but I was good at what I was doing. I built a solid reputation of fairness and accuracy in my reporting. I was a respected and award-winning journalist among my peers. What’s more, I was writing important stories that mattered to people.

The profession eventually took me into the editor’s office where I eventually became a managing editor of the newsroom. Now, instead of chasing stories and writing them on deadline every day, I was working with reporters on their stories. I assigned stories, I edited stories, I coordinated story layouts with designers, etc. And the pay was substantially better than when I was a reporter.

Throughout this, I continued to grow with each new role.  I picked up new skills along the way. Editing. Layout and design. Management and personal skills.

Incredibly, I worked even longer hours. And when I got home, my mind was still working. I watched and devoured the news. I constantly looked for new stories, new angles, new things to do and how to bring those things down to a local level. Even when I was on vacation, my mind was at work. I was obsessed with emails and press releases and news, news, news. It was my life. I hated it, and I loved it at the same time.

And then, of course, the bottom fell out.

The industry took a turn, thanks in large part to the great recession of 2008 and big corporations’ love affair with the digital future. I somehow survived round after round of personnel cuts for several years.

Until last year.

It was my time. Middle managers like myself were being eliminated left and right in the name of restructuring. The newspaper industry had become enamored with the idea that it could make more money by posting more videos to its websites than it could with good, old-fashioned investigative stories. Reporters were being asked to not only write stories for the newspaper, but for the website. They were expected to shoot their own pictures with their smart phones. They were told to shoot and edit videos. They were even told to edit their own stories. (All for the same lousy pay, mind you.) And with reporters doing all that, there simply was no room for so many editors at the paper, especially the ones making good money.

I should make mention here that during this entire career, aside from a short stint in the early 2000s, I was not writing any fiction. My dream of becoming a published novelist had been shoved aside by my career. I was making a living, yes, but I was also drowning in my work.

Now that I’ve been out of the profession for a year (the layoff happened one year ago this month), I’m happy to be free of it. I’m happy to finally have a chance to do what I’ve always wanted to do: write fiction. I’m working on a mystery-thriller novel. I’m writing short stories again. And I’m actively learning the craft of screenwriting. I have several ideas in the works.

So, now back to the big question. Given what I know now about the profession of journalism, would I do it all over again?

While there are numerous reasons to say yes as I’ve described above, there are also ample reasons to say no. I sincerely wish instead that I hadn’t let journalism become my life. I wish I had devoted more time to my own writing dreams. The long hours, low pay and heartache that is the world of journalism is something that I would not wish upon anyone. Some people may have the notion that they are doing good, valuable things as a journalist. That’s true, to an extent. But the question is, is it what you really, really want to do?

In my case, the answer is no. I don’t lament the real-world experiences I’ve gained. I’ve met fascinating people and written incredible stories. Some of that is likely to inspire my fiction. So in that sense, it was time well-spent. But, if I had to do it over again? Nope. I’d stick to my original guns. I’d write.

The layoff from my job has given me a chance to do just that. I’m writing. I’m not turning back.

What about you? Given what you know about your profession and your dreams, what would you do different if you had a chance to do it over again? I’d love to hear your comments.

 

When the pieces fall into place…

I’m getting a late start today (I slept late). But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Last night was a wildly productive night. I used up one ballpoint pen and another is nearly spent of all its ink. I have page after page of hastily scrawled notes relating to my work in progress, or, more specifically, the main character of my work in progress.

What’s interesting is that I thought I had all this hammered out previously. I mean, I knew who my main character was. I knew what his job was, I knew what inciting incident was about to befall him, I knew he was facing a plethora of challenges that were about to make his life miserable.

But somehow, last night more pieces of the puzzle just clicked into place.

I think that comes from having spent much of the past few days, or weeks, reading about characters, character flaws and character arcs. I’ve been outlining my novel for months, trying to come up with plenty of scenes and situations to throw at my main character. I have a pair of small corkboards I bought at Walmart that I’m using to organize my scenes on, using sticky notes.

I’m approximating needing sixty scenes or chapters, averaging about 1,500 words each, to reach my 90,000 word novel. However, I noticed that I still have a number of gaps on the corkboards: missing scenes or scenes yet to be discovered. I also realized that while I have an exciting plot, I didn’t really have a great character arc.

Now, I believe I do.

Everything sort of coalesced last night. I woke up three times in the middle of the night and grabbed the notebook each time. The words spilled onto the page and with each new word my character’s flaw and arc began to take shape. I think I already knew this information, somewhere in the back of my mind. Yet, here it was flowing out of me onto my notebook, suddenly complete and completely logical.

Somehow, seeing it all on the page like that is immensely rewarding in itself. I feel like after my months of struggles and self-doubts over whether this story would work, my questions have been answered.

I’m determined to start pounding out the words now. I won’t call on luck to help guide me through the process. I don’t need it. I will instead call upon persistence.

So, excuse me if you will. I’ve got a book to write. Talk to you later.

 

Twisted questions can peel back deepest layer of characters

The Daily Post here on WordPress posted this writing prompt today:

A Pulitzer-winning reporter is writing an in-depth piece – about you. What are the three questions you really hope she doesn’t ask you?

Whenever I’ve gone on a job interview, the typical “where do you want to be five years from now” question has always bugged me. Obviously the interviewee wants to know about your aspirations and your commitment to the company. So you give some answer that you think they might be excited about. You certainly wouldn’t say, “I sure as hell hope I’m not here, hahaha!!!” Although, you may secretly be wishing it the whole time. Just be thankful you’re not strapped up to a lie detector when you are answering it.

Another question that always bugs me is the “what is your greatest weakness” question. Here, you are supposed to humbly acknowledge that you are not perfect, but that you have taken such and such steps to strengthen your skills or abilities regarding your weakness. This shows the interviewee that you can overcome adversity with commitment, training and resourcefulness. If you want the lie detector answer, I’d say one of my greatest weaknesses is lying. I just can’t do it. I can’t keep a straight face.My mom brought me up right.

How about this one: “Do you have any questions for us?” Oh, yeah. How about, “whose ass do I have to kiss to get ahead in this company?” Hey, you need to know what the office politics are like in any job, don’t you?

Characters are at the heart of every story and as an author you need to know them inside and out. One of the coolest things about being a writer is creating a profile sheet for your characters. Such character bios offer a glance at who they are, where they came from, what influenced them, what events shaped their lives, etc. Yes, you need to know all the basics about them: a physical description, family lineage, what their childhood was like, education level, work history, goals/aspirations,  likes/dislikes, etc.

But today’s  prompt got me thinking about some questions to ask that could further peel back the layers surrounding my characters. For instance:

  • Have you ever fantasized about killing anyone, and if so, what stopped you?
  • What’s the biggest mistake you made in your life?
  • Who or what are you most loyal to, and why?

Here’s a bonus question to ask your character:

  • If you could do things all over again, what would you do differently?

Questions like those above, while twisted, may lead to answers that deeply enrich your characters and, as a result, the story about your characters.

What questions do you ask your characters?

Today’s adventure in writing begins …

I thought I might chronicle my day today to see just how I spend my time. I’m hoping to finish editing a short story today so that I can submit it to L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future Contest. So, here goes:

Monday, March 31: 9:50 a.m.

Woke up about five minutes ago and ate a little something, then fed the cats. Will now make a quick run-through of my e-mails and Facebook, then hit the showers. I never feel fully awake until after I’ve showered and changed.

11:35 a.m.

Back at the keyboard…

Found some interesting articles while surfing Facebook feeds and Twitter. One is about a Pulitzer Prize winning series of articles and book written by a pair of journalists exposing police corruption in Philadelphia. The article interests the former journalist in me as well as the novelist in me, as I am working on a thriller involving a corrupt sheriff. I’ve bookmarked the site to read later and added it to my “To Read” list I keep near my computer.

I also came across an interesting blog post from Bare Knuckle Writer here on WordPress about those “inane” Buzzfeed quizzes you see all over the Internet. You know, the ones where you take a quiz and it reveals what type of super-hero or Star Wars character you are. I generally regard the quizzes as a total time suck that keep me away from what I should be doing, which is writing. But BKW makes a good point on how the quizzes could be useful by putting yourself in your character’s shoes. How would your character answer the quiz, and what would the quiz in turn reveal about your character? Neat idea.

OK, I’ve got to pay a couple of bills online now and then set my DVR to record the Red Sox season opener (to watch this evening when my brother gets home). Then I’ll start on my short story edit.

4:17 p.m.

Making good progress on editing my short, I think. Probably about halfway through. Story is coming along nicely, I think. I shouldn’t have any problem submitting it in advance of Hubbard’s midnight deadline. (Knock on wood).

I stopped for a short lunch break, started a load of laundry and the dishes, strolled to the mailbox and even took a 10-minute nap. Back at the keyboard again …

2:02 a.m.

Yeah, I’m still up. I’m a night owl. Stay up late, sleep a little later. It’s how I roll.

Anyway, I finished the edits to my short for the WOF contest and submitted it around 8 p.m. So, mission for today accomplished.

Am I happy with the story? Well, let’s put it this way…I like the idea of the story. It’s unique and it’s kind of a fun “what if” type of story.

Will it win or place? Honestly, who knows? Depends on the competition for the quarter. Depends on whether the judges believe I pulled off an effective story. I think I did, but we’ll see.

Short stories are tricky and I haven’t had much luck with them as yet. I feel like I’m learning from each new short I finish and submit, though, so that’s got to be a win right there. Time and perseverance, as they say, will tell.

I rounded out the day by watching the Red Sox lose their season opener to the O’s (Boo!), and by taking in a couple of my Monday evening shows (The Following and Intelligence.) The Black List and Bates Motel will have to wait ’til later tonight. Some time during the course of the afternoon and evening I even managed to do a first run-through on my taxes and my brother’s taxes.

So, what’s next on the writing block, you ask? I’m going to participate in Camp NaNoWriMo and kick my novel into high gear. I’ve been plotting and character-building  off and on for past five months, so ready or not I’m diving in. We’ll see where this story takes me and if I can manage a mad-dash month of writing without letting my finicky inner editor intervene.

Anyone else taking part in the novel-writing free for all this month?

 

Short story gives new respect for country’s veterans

I got something accomplished today, and I’m kind of proud of it.

I submitted a new short story I wrote, “Deadwood Soldier,” to the first-ever Nashville Reads Short Story Contest. It’s a short 1,200 words about a nontraditional family consisting of a young girl, her aunt and uncle, and her father, who has just returned home from the war in Afghanistan and is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.

In writing the story, I did some initial research on the web as to the symptoms, causes and treatments for PTSD. The research included reading numerous accounts from military veterans of the traumas of war they endured and how that trauma has affected them since their return home. Their real-life stories are, quite frankly, among the most haunting and moving stories you will ever read. You cannot help but feel a newfound respect for these veterans and what they went through to make our lives safe and secure.

My short story was not an effort to simply regurgitate their stories in a fictional format, but to focus in on the family, particularly the daughter in my story. I hope that it captures some semblance of how this sad condition affects not only the veteran but his family as well. We’ll see.

An important tool of the writing trade…

Image

 

I spend a lot of time sitting on my ass.

It’s true. I’m a writer.

It’s important to have the right surroundings when writing, and that includes what you are sitting on. My new chair from Staples is just the thing for hours of creativity at the computer. I used to have just a plain armless task chair to sit in. And it was a real pain in the ass, let me tell you.

I wish I had more desk space for my notes. You can see from this picture that I’m something of a note-taker. I’ve got Post-Its on the computer, an old-fashioned notebook and pen, folders, etc., etc. But, hey, at least now I’ve got me a nice chair for my derriere. No more excuses about not sitting at my desk now.

It’s time to write.

Rejected, but not dejected

I’ve been rejected.

Fortunately, I’m not overly dejected by the news. I wasn’t really that thrilled by my entry in the latest Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition, so why should the judges be? It’s a good story, I have no doubt of that, but I didn’t feel like it was my best effort. I rushed just to get it submitted. And in a sea of 6,000 entries, with only 25 winners, good just doesn’t cut it. It’s got to be the best.

With the contest period over, I’ve got a chance to revisit the story and revise it. I’ll probably take it to my writers group for its feedback as well to give it more of a fighting chance.

My Adventures in Writing continue …

 

Take note: Writing things down helps you remember

I just read an interesting info-graphic on lifehack.org about how writing affects the brain. One of the elements of the graphic mentions how writing information down stimulates a certain area of the brain to help you remember. I always thought that was the case, because taking copious notes always seems to help me remember things better.

When I was a journalist just starting out, I wrote down everything someone would tell me in an interview as quickly as I possibly could. The biggest problem was simply keeping up with them since I didn’t know shorthand. (I still don’t, though I have my own version that seems to work.) The notes were vital to helping shape the story later on, especially if you had to do something in between that delayed the actual story writing.

As I grew more experienced as a journalist, I began to listen more than I began to take notes. I listened for key phrases, quotes or information, and that’s what I wrote down. I knew all the extra stuff, while interesting, probably wouldn’t make it into the final story. I listened for context. I remember some of my sources telling me how amazed they were that I took so few notes and yet ended up with a story that was spot-on.

These days, I’m back to taking a lot of notes.

For instance, when I attended the Writer’s Digest and Screenwriters World Conference in Los Angeles this past summer, I took a notebook to a lot of the sessions. I scribbled notes into it at a fast and furious clip, even though I knew I would get the audio recordings sent to me at the conclusion of the event. I was among only a few people doing so, as many other participants simply sat and listened. Call me a geek, if you will, but I  wanted to get the most I could from the experience. Taking notes in my own way, in my own format, is just what works for me

When a thought flies into my head I try to jot it down. If it’s a story idea or an idea to add to a story I am already working on, I have to jot it down if I want any chance of remembering it later on. I don’t know if that’s because I’m on the verge of early Alzheimer’s or if it’s just because I’ve got so much on my mind. (I’m always working on a couple or three projects at a time, which might explain things.)

Are you a note-taker? Do you find yourself jotting down notes at seminars and workshops? What methods work best for you in remembering key information?

The Walking Dead gets it right

Those familiar with my blog will recall a recent post in which I decried the writing job on American Horror Story: Coven. I’m pleased, on the other hand, to praise the writing for the latest episode of The Walking Dead.

Scribed by Dead creator Robert Kirkman, and based on two of the issues from the Dead comic series, this past Sunday’s episode, “After,” was riveting and deeply moving from the start.

As fans of the series know, the humans who had been occupying the prison are now all on the run following a devastating attack by the Governor in the midseason finale. Prior to Sunday’s episode, I had been growing a bit critical of the Dead because the cast had grown too large and the prison setting seemed, well, confining. But with everyone on the run, without the shelter of the prison walls, the show has taken a turn for the better.

“After” focuses heavily on Rick, his son Carl, and huntress Michonne. Both Carl and Michonne endure deeply emotional crises that require them to make life-changing decisions. In Carl’s case, he starts off as deeply angry at his father for failing to adequately protect the community at the prison. He believes he is capable of surviving on his own and would be better off without having to look after Rick. When he kills three walkers on his own, he declares: “I win.”

But when Rick falls into a coma from his injuries and reawakens, Carl mistakenly believes Rick has become a walker. In facing a decision to kill his own father, Carl finds he can’t do it, revealing that he still needs him in his life, that he’s not ready to take things on by himself. Fortunately, Rick isn’t quite “dead” yet. Rick realizes that Carl has grown up and declares him a man.

Michonne, meanwhile, goes on her own journey of self-discovery. After coming across Rick and Carl’s tracks in the mud, she opts not to pursue them and go her own separate way. Ever the loner, it took a couple of seasons for Michonne to feel at home as part of Rick’s group at the prison. But after losing everything, it seems Michonne isn’t willing to put her faith in anyone else again and can do better on her own. She thinks back to her earlier life in which she had a child, a boyfriend or husband and possibly brother, all of whom she lost to the dead plague.

With her life at a crossroads, Michonne joins a herd of walkers, literally, by disguising her presence among a pair of dead she has enslaved. All of them walk aimlessly toward some unknown destination, mindlessly numb to anything and everything. At this point, she notices a walker who looks very like her, which only serves to make her snap. In a fit of rage, she kills the entire herd of walkers. Finished, she backtracks to where she found Rick and Carl’s footprints and follows them to the house where the pair are hiding out. She, too, has discovered that she doesn’t want to be alone, that she does want to be with others.

If good writing is about the transformation of characters — and all the how-to books, conferences and webinars say it is — then “After” is the perfect sample script/episode that every writer should take to heart. Not only was it an emotionally moving episode for Carl and Michonne, it was a deep examination of their characters and what motivates them.

Next week’s episode, and subsequent episodes, are supposed to focus on some of the other survivors of the prison attack. If they prove to be as emotionally powerful as the past one, this will be a welcome change of pace for a series that had become overloaded with too many stock characters.

I’m hoping we also see more scary scenes like the pile of walkers attack on Carl. This is a show about zombies, after all. With some exceptions, the zombies have become all-too-easy to dispatch and, frankly, somewhat laughable. If worked into scripts like they were in “After,” the scare factor will be back big time.