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Telepathic Writing

I saw a great video from Max Landis, the writer of “Chronicle”, “American Ultra” and the stellar comic “Superman: American Alien”. You can see it below (minor content warning):

Landis’ “drunk writing advice” is, as per usual, spot-on. I completely agree with his take on the writing process. It’s not a singular activity. Most of us think writing is something we only do when we are facing a blank word processor (or if you are lucky, a typewriter). But the truth is, we can (and should) be mentally writing first, even if it’s just in the car, at the gym or at work. The end result might not matter much to our word count, but it gives us a head-start before we have to face the dreaded blank page.

Don’t get me wrong – “not having time to write” is a frustration, because it usually means we aren’t making any progress on the page. Still, just mentally writing up a scene in your head can help your writing efforts immensely when you finally do get enough time to sit down and write.  I often times find myself circling around block one, two (or maybe six) times while I mentally plot out a scene step-by-step. I’ve also found a good walk can accomplish wonders towards getting my story ready to go on the page.

One of the worst things a writer can do is leave themselves at the mercy of inspiration. Sometimes you boot up your computer and the words just flow out of you like watercolor on a canvas. Other times it feels like you are trying to squeeze blood (probably your own) from a rock. And even mentally preparing your scene has its limits, because so often our productiveness is directly correlated with how we are feeling at that very moment. But mentally writing out your scene is a still a good way to get momentum going in your writing, even if it’s a bumpy ride going forward.

As Landis eloquently states, writing is telepathy. You are communicating a thought from your mind to the page right into another person’s mind. But it all starts in your mind – so it’s good to remember our own thoughts on a story are every bit as important as what turns up on the page.

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One Million Words

Malcolm Gladwell once said one needs at least ten thousand hours of practice to be truly good at something. His examples ranged from Bill Gates to the Beatles. So what does it mean to write for ten thousand hours? Many writers have theorized it is somewhere in the neighborhood of one million words.

As I’ve written before, the goal of one million words requires context. I’ve heard writers at a conference tell me they haven’t hit their million words yet, as if it was a homework assignment. Now I do think the one million word mindset is a worthy goal (I’m currently sitting around 360,000 words). But it comes with a few caveats.

You need a certain level of humility when you write. You also need to be realistic as you tackle project after project, writing draft after draft. And you need to keep writing, even if your current project falls apart on the last page. A goal of one million words is a good way of accomplishing this, because it gives writers a hard metric to strive for. But you also need to get excited about what you are writing. You need to know if this does work, it’s going to be freakin’ amazing. And that’s where some writers misunderstand about the One Million Word goal.

You can write a great book at any time in your writing career. It might be within the first two hundred thousand words, or might end on your seventh million word. But it doesn’t matter if this is  your first book or your fiftieth book – you need to keep rewriting and keep pitching to agents. Because even though these don’t add to your word count (unless you count query letters), revising and selling also takes quite a lot of a practice, and the more you do it, the easier it will become.

Writing a million words will make you a better writer, but let’s be honest: there is never a point in your writing career where you won’t be focused on learning or improving. Brandon Sanderson has written more than three times this goal (at least by at the time of this infographic) and yet he’s still working on integrating the lessons of other genres into his own work.

Trying to hit one million words is a worthy assignment, but it doesn’t lead to any kind of degree. Instead, it just leads to more lessons and skills on the road to being a better writer.

 

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Heroes in Orbit: A Critique of Batman v Superman

Picture this: you are writing the next Justice League movie. But you can’t do it alone. So you have Zack Snyder sitting in front of you at a restaurant. Snyder directed “Batman v Superman” – and he’s directing the next Justice League movie. So here’s the the million dollar question (or in this case billion dollar question): what would you do differently in “Batman v Superman” to make Justice League a much smoother picture? (And remember, Zack Snyder is sitting right across from you the whole time.)

Last week I wrote about how to tap into your inner critic to make your writing better. This week, I’m going to show that critiquing in practice – by digging into a movie I have mixed feelings about, “Batman v Superman”. This is going pretty in-depth, so there’s a SPOILER warning in advance.

It’s about two weeks since I saw the movie, and my mind keeps coming back to one pivotal character: Batman. Ben Affleck’s Caped Crusader kicks a lot of butt in this movie. We see him beating up, branding and burning criminals alive (I’m not a big fan of that last part). We see him investigating the mysterious White Portuguese in Gotham. And later we see him preparing for the fight of his life – against the Man of Steel himself.  Dictionary.com defines a protagonist as “the leading character, hero, or heroine of a drama or literary work.”

Batman protags the hell out of this movie.

Like Indiana Jones or Han Solo, Batman is a man of action. He’s always moving towards some goal, whether it’s stealing Lex Luthor’s supply of kryptonite or inventing a Batsuit capable of taking on Superman head-on. Wonder Woman is also a force of nature, and though she doesn’t figure prominently in Batman v. Superman’s first two acts (her character shrouded in mystery), she does have a particular goal in mind – reclaiming a picture from Luthor. The proactive drive of both characters throughout the plot makes them among the most interesting and engaging figures in the film.

By comparison, Superman isn’t protaging – instead he is orbiting around the plot. While Batman and Wonder Woman both plunge into a Luthor-centric conspiracy, Superman isn’t really going in any direction. Sure, we see him being Superman, saving people in montage after montage, but we don’t see him moving in any goal, whether its earning the trust of humanity or just making making the world a better place. Perhaps its because Clark Kent is wracked with questions on what and who Superman should be in this modern world.

Now, it should be pointed out that conflict needn’t be external. In fact, internal conflict is one of the best ways to develop a character. And the theme of accountability for the incredibly powerful certainly resonate – since this very theme will also be explored in BvS’ competition, “Captain America: Civil War”. But the problem is the movie prematurely ends this conversation when the Senate hearing on Superman is blown up by a pawn of Luthor’s. By the end of the movie, there is no more conclusion on the nature of Superman – even as the world mourns for his death.

Beyond the characters, the structure of the film presents a key problem. Most stories involve a movement from reaction to action. But “Batman v. Superman” runs in the reverse direction, from the proactive push of Batman to Superman and everyone else being caught up in Lex Luthor’s fiendish plot. (And like Superman, Luthor is another character whose goals are neither established or concluded.) Even though most superhero films usually end with the main characters reacting to the threat presented by their arch-nemesis, the hero usually decides to dramatically confront the villain and the end the threat.

No such decision is ever made by any of the characters (save perhaps Wonder Woman, who is leaving Metropolis when Doomsday attacks). None of the characters make the crucial decision to stand against the villain, leaving the themes of the movie vastly undefined. Instead, they are merely caught reacting to his plan. (The theme of heroes cooperating with one another, doubtlessly important for the upcoming Justice League movie, is also undermined by Superman’s sacrifice, which seems needless when there are two other people capable of wielding a kryptonite spear on the battlefield.)

Ultimately, there are several merits of “Batman v. Superman” to learn from – and several mistakes to avoid. Chief among the merits are that characters are much more compelling in action – which is why Batman and Wonder Woman both appear as breakout characters of the film. On the other hand, “Batman v. Superman” lacks the necessary progression, not only from reaction to action, but also towards a unifying theme, which crucial to any story.

Critiquing can definitely be a valuable learning tool for a writer. While critiquing can highlight the p(l)ot holes to avoid in our own stories, it’s still secondary to the real challenge of the process – writing and creating – and that’s something you can’t do from the backside or the armchair.

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How To Harness Your Inner Critic to Improve Your Writing

It’s true: everyone’s a critic. What makes reviews so frustrating is that they are often written by people on the sidelines who haven’t attempted a piece of art. But you are different – you’re a writer, an artist, a creator. You know how it feels, because you’ve been there. Which means you need to take steps to ensure you view this from a different angle than the ever-popular armchair.

Picture this: you are meeting the creator of this work for coffee, whether they be a writer, director, artist, etc. You’ve experienced their work – and they’ve read your review. While sharp and witty might work for the news sound bites, that’s not what you’re after – your goal is to learn how to improve your writing. To do that, picture a person sitting across from you for coffee – and not for high praise or trash talking. Here are some other things to keep in mind:

If You Like This Work, Finds Things You Hate or If You Hate This Work, Find Things You Love

When critiquing a work or creator, it’s easy to choose love or hate. But both can blind you from learning crucial lessons about the creative process and your own writing. That’s why it’s important to have a list of what works and doesn’t work in any given work.

Often times, we have to replace our fan hat with our hard hat and look at structure instead of overall satisfaction. For instance, I didn’t really like the recent “Batman v. Superman”, but there were parts of the movie I really, really enjoyed. Isolating and analyzing said parts can help improve our own writing (more on this next week).

Think Choices

When a writer makes a choice to pursue a certain story, they open one door at the expense of closing another. Thus, every decision a creator makes in a work has a cost. Sometimes the payoff of their decisions are worth it – but sometimes they are not. As a result, we have to analyze works beyond simple terms of “good and bad”, and evaluate the decisions and consequences of storytelling decisions.

For instance, without going into spoilers, one of the precise moments “Batman v. Superman” stopped working for me was when a story beat sacrificed theme for tension. The move dramatically upped the stakes, but heavily damaged the overall theme of the movie, causing the third act to feel unfocused and incoherent. Raising tension is a necessary element of writing suspenseful stories, but themes are also important, especially in a story of character-driven conflict. The resulting decision ended up costing the story more than it gained, creating a painful negative value in the work as a whole.

Respect the Opinions of Others

Like I said, “Batman v. Superman” is a polarizing movie, with plenty of opinions on either side. The last thing you want to do is enter into a flame war on YouTube or IMDB over the merits or lack thereof on this movie. People bring different perspectives to every work of fiction or art. It’s part of the creative process that allows us to make something our own, and it’s definitely a process we creators can learn from. Respect the opinions of others – especially those you don’t agree with.

I loved the reviews of the late Roger Ebert. I didn’t always agree with his take on a movie, but I always found his reviews insightful and well-written. And more often than not, I ended up learning something upon reading his reviews. As creators, we need to keep an open mind when critiquing a work, and part of that includes listening to the observations of others.

Next week I will post a spoiler-filled critique of what I thought worked and failed in “Batman v. Superman”, and how we as writers can learn from this.