Tag Archives: Aaron Sorkin

Getting back on the horse

horse

So you’ve gathered it’s been quiet around here lately.  Perhaps the most ubiquitous topic for bloggers, aside from the Buzzfeed-esque “18 Reasons Why Something In Particular Rocks And/Or Sucks,” is the struggle with writing, in its many forms, whether it be the challenges in completing a manuscript and subsequently editing it to near-perfection and getting someone to pay to read it, or simply maintaining the often herculean effort of grinding something out with consistency of quality and schedule.  The problem is the easiest thing in the world to do is not write, and there are innumerable distractions standing between us, the keyboard and the time required to produce.  External factors such as the kid wants me to put together Lego with him, we have nineteen different errands to run, the laundry needs to be folded and put away, so-and-so is coming over, there’s a new episode of The Blacklist.  Internal factors like I had a long day at work, I’m tired.  I don’t feel like it today.  I have nothing to say.  I’m intimidated in living up to what’s come before, or the work of my peers (a frequent fallback for those of us who continue to be convinced despite copious evidence to the contrary that we’re  Just.  Not.  That.  Good.)

My writing teacher Lynda used to tell a story about the Muse.  She reminded us that those who sit and wait for the Muse to arrive are more likely to have Godot show up first.  You have to be willing to force your fingers to strike the keys in even the most random and nonsensical of motions to drag her goldbricking ass off her seashell and plop her down next to your page.  Basically, the best way to get over not being able to write is to write.  Even if what comes out in those initial phases is more suitable for flushing than publishing.  There’s a terrific reason why “getting back on the horse” is such a lasting metaphor for the dogged resumption of effort, as standing next to said mount and staring at it expecting forward movement is the very picture of futility (as expressed in my never-painted Impressionist work, Silly Man Staring At Horse And Scratching His Head At Its Total Lack of Motion).  I used to do show jumping when I was much younger, and as intimidating as some of those jumps might be, they weren’t going to get any less scary by circling them in perpetuity.  You just had to shake the reins, give your horse a kick and go full tilt.  And man, did it ever feel good to clear them, even if on occasion the horse’s rear leg caught the bar and tipped it over.  The occasional fault doesn’t diminish the nobility of the pursuit, nor does the fact that there are other more skilled jumpers out there who clear every obstacle without a single flaw.  It is easy to let oneself be cowed into stasis by the seeming facility others have with their words, the depth of their respective vocabularies and their capacity for assembling the most breathtaking imagery from limitless reserves.  Show me a writer who isn’t insecure to some degree – even Franzen-sized inflated egos have many strategic holes leaking helium.  But the choice is either succumb to that self-imposed pressure and never create anything again, or persist with stubbornness and get better by doing more and trying new things.  Write poetry, song lyrics, short stories, reviews, lengthy op-eds on whatever issue-of-the-day made you stop and think about it for a minute or two.  Eventually you find your wheelhouse, and once you do there’s no stopping.

In The King’s Speech, a movie I absolutely adore, King George V (Michael Gambon) rues the rise of the importance of radio communications in monarchical affairs, claiming that “in the past all a King had to do was look respectable in uniform and not fall off his horse.”   In the modern era, the opportunity to pull a Salinger, to create one lasting work and fade from the collective pages yet retain relevance, is a distant memory.  Our information-driven age is a ravenous monster consuming and digesting information as fast as, and in some cases faster, than it can be produced.  To vanish voluntarily from the zeitgeist for even a few days at a time is to invite the chorus of “I can’t wait for his next” to change its refrain to “Whatever happened to?” and eventually “Who was that again?”  Laurels are not rested upon easily, nor should they be.  Whatever the circumstance, you have to stay on the horse.

So as I climb into the saddle, I look ahead.  What can faithful readers expect?  Well, I’m going to see some pretty big-ticket performers over the next month so there will be reviews.  The recent political tribulations both at home and down south have provided plenty of fodder for some (ill-?) informed opinions.  We may look back at some classics and cast our spotlight on up-and-comers we find worthy of attention.  We may talk about being a dad, approaching 40, dreams of the future and regrets of the past.  The usual staples of dissecting Aaron Sorkin and dissing spam.  Laughter and tears and occasionally pretentious meandering.  But above all, there will be heart.  Always heart.  Because what is the written word really other than the beats of a human heart transformed into elegant strokes of ink?

Hi-yo, Silver.  Away.

Advertisements

Criticizing the critics

"What's the best part of this blog post?"  "It ends!  HAW-HAW-HAW-HAW-HAW!"
“What’s the best part of this blog post?” “It ends! HAW-HAW-HAW-HAW-HAW!”

Did you know “hate-watching” was a thing?  I suppose it’s been around for decades, an extension of the phenomenon that makes everyone slow down to gawp at an accident on the freeway despite the same everyone complaining about rubberneckers (i.e. everyone else).  We have this weird fixation/fascination with things that repel us, and in the same way we will gravitate towards stories in the news that piss us off, so too are we drawn to watching shows we don’t like so we can… well, I’m not exactly sure what, other than write snarky columns about them, gloat about them with friends and continue to wallow about in our own high-mindedness, supremely confident of our genius turns of phrase.

A focal point for hate-watching is Aaron Sorkin and The Newsroom; in fact, I hadn’t heard the term until it surfaced in more than a few snotty articles about this particular show.  For the life of me I can’t find another program that is so piled on by sniping television critics both amateur and professional, steering clear of the low-hanging fruit of reality shows and looking instead to take one of Hollywood’s most successful writers down a plethora of pegs.  It has not escaped my notice that the tone of many of these pieces resembles retribution for a past slight, as if Sorkin’s dog once soiled their lawns.  The counter-argument is that Sorkin brings it on himself in how he deals with things he doesn’t like – either depicts the advocates of his bêtes noire in his fiction as inarticulate, uneducated simpletons begging to be schooled at every turn by smug know-it-alls, or just attacks them outright in the public sphere (you don’t need to be an English major to see the irony at work here in the writings of those who respond to him in kind).  Back when his ire was focused singularly on the Republican Party – the West Wing years – we were happy to play along, but when he turned his pen on the media (Studio 60 and now Newsroom) the knives came out.  As for his public persona, I can’t comment, except to remind us with a nod to Citizen Kane that the perception of the man through the filter of other people’s words is not the same as knowing him.  Maybe he’s a great guy, maybe he’s a jackass.  I’ve never met him and have suffered no injury to my person or property from him, or any of his works.  The worst I can say about him is that there have been a few of his projects I haven’t cared for as much as the others.  I am not going to then write a series of “10 Reasons Why Aaron Sorkin Sucks” articles while continuing to DVR The Newsroom obsessively and live-vent my spleen in 140 character bursts every time one of the actors delivers a cadence of familiar patois I might have once heard on West Wing.  I’m a fan.  Every time I fire up the newest episode I want to be blown away.  If I’m not, I may have some modest suggestions about where I felt things went off the rails.  I’m not approaching the show from the perspective of “well, let’s see how he disappoints this week.”  I am, and remain, a love-watcher.

Drew Chial wrote a fantastic piece yesterday about the glut of ridicule in our culture and why it’s foolish for anyone to think it needs a supply-side solution.  You can blame the spread of snark on any number of factors both socioeconomic and not, but ultimately, snark succeeds because it’s the comedy of apathy; that is, it’s cheap and anyone can do it without expending much effort.  Why bother trying to write a thousand words of reasoned analysis when you can just follow the lead of the Ain’t it Cool News comment section and dismiss something as a “crap-spewing donkey abortion oozing from a gangrenous sore on Satan’s left ass cheek”?  It reminds me a bit of that famous comedian’s joke that they made the documentary about, “The Aristocrats,” which is a can-you-top-this exercise in inventing examples of inconceivable raunch, sleaze and gore.  The same goes for the state of criticism, in which the object is not to offer suggestions for improvement but to find the most incisive way to reduce the subject to the tiniest, most pathetic, withering shell of its actual self, something we can all have a good guffaw at while it cries in the corner.  How dare they even try.

As has gone political polarization, so has criticism.  Moderates, the ones who do it because they’re fans and they want the best for the genre they love, are an endangered treasure.  Rather, the critical mass (pardon the pun) has split, with the intellectuals twisting themselves into polysyllabic, pretentious knots to fly above the fray (the nadir was The New Yorker’s review of the Vince Vaughn-Owen Wilson comedy The Internship, which for no discernible reason managed to include a paragraph about the collected works of Michelangelo Antonioni) and the lowbrows hiding behind online aliases acting like a thousand monkeys on a thousand keyboards flinging verbal feces, yet both self-tasked with the singular objective of tearing down instead of building up, as though validation for a life misspent can be achieved only in annihilating the accomplishments of others.  The late Roger Ebert was lambasted in many circles along with partner Gene Siskel for reducing the nuances of film criticism to a binary “recommend/don’t recommend” state, but one of the things I always appreciated about Ebert was that he always evaluated a movie for what it was.  He didn’t attack Dumb and Dumber because it wasn’t Schindler’s List.  He was not above succumbing to snark once in a while (as his famous “I hated, HATED this movie” rant about North proved) but he was first and foremost a movie fan and hoped each time, as the lights went down, that what he was about to see was the greatest movie ever made.  This I think is a sentiment that has largely been lost, perhaps in the wake of the tsunami of disappointment the planet felt as the words THE PHANTOM MENACE scrolled in front of us and we learned about the galactic dispute over taxation of trade routes.  Our primary instinct now is expecting things to suck (and then, ironically, raging about them even though all they’ve done is meet our lowered expectations).

It’s telling, and fortunate, that Facebook and its social brethren (like WordPress) don’t have a “Dislike” button anywhere, as we hardly need to make being a snarkily dismissive asshat more convenient.  But we need to get away from the whole “hate-watching” concept, where we aren’t just saying we don’t like something but are instead devoting hours of our time to viewing and then regurgitating and ripping apart every single flaw, in furtherance of whatever the endgame is – proving ourselves better, smarter, wittier?  What, truly, is the goal in hate-watching The Newsroom:  getting it canceled or making Aaron Sorkin cry?  And will either of those (one a little more likely than the other) outcomes result in a substantial improvement in our lives or the lives of our fellows?  Criticism for the sake of itself misses the point.  How do we get better?  We improve upon our mistakes.  At its best, criticism is how we help each other do that, by pointing out the missteps the subject may not see and giving them the opportunity to address them or ignore them as they see fit.  The key to good criticism lies in the nobility of its motivations, and if the motivation is the aggrandizement of our own egos, then We’re Doing It Wrong.  And anyone who thinks otherwise is a crap-spewing donkey abortion oozing from a gangrenous sore on Satan’s left ass cheek.

Knocking on the Glass: A Rejectee Copes with Rejection

graduate

Fair warning for the squeamish – some NSFW language today.  Don’t worry, I grawlixed it up for you.

Don’t know about the rest of y’all, but I had a pretty nice weekend – lots of quality time with the wife and kid, getting to see my best friend and his wife and kid for the first time in some months, eating too much, ramping up my vitamin D content by getting out in the sunshine.  And starting to go running again, because yay exercise.  So I’m feeling quite a sense of uplift as the long weekend comes to a close and I pop onto my laptop yesterday evening to check and see if another friend has posted any more updates from his Las Vegas wedding.  Right off the bat I see a notification in my email.  From a literary agent I queried recently.

It’s a rejection.

I’ve done enough research on querying and read enough tweets and blogs and other material by agents to recognize a form rejection when I see one.  It has no salutation and is the usual canned rigmarole about the market being difficult and terribly sorry but this didn’t do it for them.  My shoulders slump and my stomach hurls a tablespoon of acid against itself for about half a second and I sigh.  Intellectual me says, yeah, you don’t really want anyone representing you who doesn’t think your work is so awesome that they would proudly stand between you and a mob coming after you with torches and pointed sticks.  So thank you for your time, fare thee well, best wishes and all that.  Onwards and upwards.

Emotional me thinks otherwise.  Emotional me wants to channel this fictional character and yell, “@#$@ you, you @#$@ing literati latte-sipping snob, how DARE you dismiss my insightful yet entertaining BRILLIANCE without so much as a by-your-leave!!!  DON’T YOU REALIZE WHAT YOU’VE MISSED OUT ON IN YOUR PEON-LIKE SHORTSIGHTEDNESS???”  You know, the pitiful wail of the wannabe knocking desperately on the glass a la Dustin Hoffman in the last scene of The Graduate.  They say you have to develop a thick hide in this profession, but what they fail to mention is that you only callus up by absorbing punch after punch.  And a punch @#$@ing hurts.  It’s not just a quick sting.  It’s a body blow that rings down into your guts and slaps your confidence around like an angry frat boy wielding a wet towel with a bar of soap rolled into it.  It’s the girl you’ve had a crush on for years friendzoning you after you finally summon the courage to ask her out – you question your competence, your very existence as a man.  The same goes with your ability to write after a professional turndown, no matter how inconsequential it might seem.

Sunday night I put together something for Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s hitRECord about The Other Side.  Here is an excerpt from that piece that seems topical given the subject under discussion today:

We will always come up against people who do things differently, who do them better, who are less successful or more successful than we are in our chosen vocation – even in the basic vocation of being human.  In this case, the other side can be a construct of intimidation, a reminder of things we can’t and will never have, of charmed lives beyond our reach via accident of birth.  It can warn us about things we never want, of pitfalls we risk falling into if we are not careful.  It can be a source of incomprehension, a place that is totally abhorrent to our values and our morals.  Yet it can also challenge us by beckoning, daring us to try to cross over.  Forcing us to better ourselves to earn the right of passage.  The choice we have to make is in how we will look at the other side, if it is to be defined, somewhat crudely, as an enemy to be vanquished, or instead as an opportunity to better who we are.  If we are going to look into the depth of the mirror and bare our teeth, or smile and say, I got this.

As a writer, nothing is more intimidating than the blank page.  But second to that is the success of other writers, particularly when you haven’t, at least from your sulky perspective as you pore over that single rejection email, had anything comparable.  Most of us have run into the soul-splintering “That’s nice, dear” from friends and family who think it’s positively peachy that you’re writing a novel but kindly get back to them when you’ve accomplished something quantifiable with it, i.e., made a @#$@load of money.  We’ve also, as we’ve begun to take part in an online community of fellow writers, happened upon that insufferably cheerful blog post that can be paraphrased somewhat like so:  “I worked as a claims adjuster for twenty years and then thought it would be fun to try writing a book.  Two months later I had SEVEN OFFERS OF REPRESENTATION for my story about a privileged yet endearingly goofy girl who just can’t find the right man!”  Sometimes it’s enough to make you want to chuck the laptop against the wall and settle into a monotonous life of trying to accomplish nothing more than finding the last gnome in Fable III, elusive bastard that he is.

I’m glad I’ve started running again, because for me nothing is better for working through anger and frustration.  You channel each pissy thought into a determined flail of your legs and arms and burn the petulance out with each increasingly agonized stride.  @#$@ you, flabby body, @#$@ you, pedantic writing twits, @#$@ you, uncaring literary world, @#$@ you, unfairness of life in general.  You tear through your neighbourhood as the sun rises and hope that the few folks you pass won’t notice the look of homicidal rage etched on your face and call 911.  Finally the app tells you you’re done, and you slow to a cooling walk and realize as you reach your door, drenched from head to toe in eye-stinging sweat, that you have purged those thoughts in a cleansing, cathartic fire.  And as intellectual you reasserts his dominance you realize, in the mode of Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life or Richard Dreyfuss in Mr. Holland’s Opus, that you are a successful writer, and here are a few reasons why:

1.  You covered an election for the largest newspaper in Canada.

2.  The leader of the Liberal Party and the potential future leader of the country liked something you wrote about him so much he shared it with his over 200,000 Twitter followers and thanked you by name.

trudeautweet

3.  Arianna Huffington invited you to write for her online news service.  Pretty nice club to be in, given that your writing hero Aaron Sorkin writes for it too.  And you’ve written 20 more articles for it than he has.  A post of yours was featured over Kirk Douglas once.  YOU WERE PLACED HIGHER THAN KIRK @#$@ING DOUGLAS, the man who broke the Hollywood blacklist for Christ’s sake.  (UPDATE:  And now Stephen @#$@ing Fry writes for it too.)

4.  Rob @#$@ing Lowe thanked you for something you wrote about his character on The West Wing.  This guy.

lowe

5.  A fellow writer whom you’ve come to admire asked if she could quote you on the back of her debut novel.  Um, yeah, holy @#$@ing @#$@balls.

6.  Look at this map.  Look at it.  Every single color on the map represents a country where someone has read something you wrote.  Some of these places don’t even have running water, and yet someone there knows who you are.  (And you still suck, Greenland.)

hitsmap2013

7.  You have fans.  Honest to goodness fans.  And they’re awesome and they are always there to prop you up, without fail, when you’re wallowing in a cesspool of self-doubt and flagellation.

8.  A friend once told you that a post you wrote about your father made him want to be a better dad.  And you cried when you heard that.

9.  When you weigh the compliments, shares and positive feedback you’ve received versus the rejections, uninterested shrugs and outright insults, the ratio is still about 500:1.  And when you’ve been insulted, it’s because they didn’t like something you said.  Not one of them said you were a bad writer.

10.  You’re still at it.

Sorry for the diversion down Ego Street there, but these are the kinds of affirmations that writers need to poke themselves with from time to time – that the very act of putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard is in itself a form of success.  Even if nought but a single soul retweeted an otherwise ignored blog post, it should be another brick to add to the wall you’re building to shield yourself against the slings and arrows that will inevitably come as you continue to knock on the glass to The Other Side.  So we beat on, boats against the current, as FSF would say.  Of course I’m going to keep writing, and blogging, and querying, and if I can’t get a single nibble on this novel then I’ll write another one and push the hell out of that one until the glass cracks – lather, rinse, repeat.  I might even query that same agent again someday if I have another project I feel might be more up their alley.  A rejection can be many, many things, but what it NEVER should be is a reason to pack it in, or worse, lash out in anger at the futility of existence.  So have your pity party but wrap it up after last call and get back to work.  There are words to be written, bub.

What the @#$@ is next?

Failing the Bechdel Test

HBO
HBO

The Bechdel Test, while not, admittedly, without its detractors, should be in the back of mind of any men who write female characters.  I first became aware of it about a year or so ago and it is quite amazing how many fictional works don’t live up to its very simple requirements.  The cartoonist Alison Bechdel who created it in 1985 describes it as follows:  the creative enterprise (film, play, novel, what-have-you) has to have at least two women in it who talk to each other about something other than a man.  Watching this week’s The Newsroom last night I found myself thinking of the Bechdel Test and how the episode (“The Genoa Tip”) failed it.  There were at least four scenes involving two women speaking to one another, but on each occasion the subject was a man or men in general – even dropped into conversations that ostensibly had nothing to do with dudes.  Sloan and Maggie, Maggie and Lisa, Maggie and Mac – men hovered invisibly between them as both sub- and super-text.  You couldn’t help but shrug, especially since the show keeps replaying the clip of Maggie teeing off on Sex and the City (in the form of an embarrassing YouTube video) for its depiction of women who have nothing better to do than talk about men.

It’s important to remember that the Bechdel Test is not an absolute for judging whether something is worthy of your time.  For example, The King’s Speech fails the Bechdel Test because the plot focuses on the bond between two men and the only conversation between two female characters in the movie is also about them.  Perfectly serviceable material nonetheless, and the theme of the story transcends gender.  But it’s disappointing when a television series in particular that features ostensibly strong, professional female characters can’t get them talking about anything other than guys they’re dating/want to date/love from afar/can’t stand the sight of.  Most women I know define themselves and the scope of their lives far beyond the parameters of their romantic relationships, or lack thereof as the case may be.  They are people of greater substance than the boy-crazy constructs our screens and e-readers tend to be littered with.  The problem is that success, as defined by (largely male-driven, let’s be honest) popular culture, means very different things for the sexes.  The man wins the big game, scores the important account, kicks the villain off the precipice to his doom.  The woman gets Prince Charming and the happily ever after.

The key to starting off any story is figuring out what the character wants.  What’s interesting is that for most male characters, “getting the girl” is almost always the secondary goal.  In any James Bond movie that consideration comes only after the cat-stroking baddie’s plan to blow up the world has been thwarted.  By contrast, “getting the guy” is usually the primary goal for a female protagonist, and her professional goals (if there are any) are depicted as less important in the face of the possibility of true love.  (In stories where getting the girl is the man’s primary goal, said “getting” often means “getting between the sheets with” and an apple pie’s honor gets besmirched in the process.)  It therefore follows, given this premise, that conversations between characters, whether the same gender or not, would be oriented exclusively towards the pursuit of the primary goal.  In the case of two women speaking to one another, this means the subject will be a man and/or men, and thus, bzzzzt!  Bechdel Test fail.

No one is suggesting that we should stop writing love stories, or, more to the point, stories where love is all you – man or woman – need, or want.  Love is so indelibly part of the human experience that to expect otherwise is unrealistic.  It behooves us though, particularly male authors, to consider the Bechdel Test as we craft the interactions of our characters.  It’s a premise as simple as the old advice about avoiding clichés.  Instead of writing lazily that something is “as black as night” or comparing the blackness of said object to coal or ravens, force yourself away from those hoary old examples toward something new.  Likewise, if you’re writing a conversation between two women, say to yourself from the outset that the subject of men is verboten and see where the words take you instead, once you manhandle them (pun intended) onto a different path.  Yes, a large portion of “The Genoa Tip” was devoted to the aftermath of Maggie’s breakup with Don, the implosion of her friendship with her roommate over her now-very-public feelings for Jim and so on, but did a perfectly reasonable and professional discussion between Maggie and Mac over whether or not Maggie could go to Uganda on assignment have to be spoiled by Mac’s unnecessary comment about Will’s doucheyness?  I may be picking nits a little, but when the episode (and indeed, much of the series to date) had already ventured so deeply into Bechdel-fail territory it was just one tiptoe too far.

Ultimately, the lesson of the Bechdel Test, and why I consider it useful in approaching fiction (and even non-fiction opinion pieces such as this one) is this:  there is far more to a woman, and to women, than the men they fall in or out of love with, and our stories about them should reflect that.

First Thing We Do, Let’s Change the Theme Song: The Newsroom Season 2

newsroom2
HBO

Aaron Sorkin took his fair share of flack over Season 1 of The Newsroom.  Some of it was merited, some of it was the inevitable result of riding high on an impossible sense of public anticipation.  If you had The West Wing and a fresh Oscar for writing The Social Network on your CV, you’d be hard-pressed to come anywhere near meeting, let alone exceeding, those expectations.  It also does not help that Sorkin is on record in several places as a hater of the Internet in a world where that’s the equivalent of proudly declaring your undying allegiance to the carrier pigeon in the face of the emergence of the telephone.  It’s too bad, too, that he gave up on Twitter after a mere two messages – an ignominious third was a hacked spam fragment about some working-from-home scam.  Be that as it may, it was probably just as well, as more than a few of us scribes have bemoaned how much Twitter eats into our productivity.  And he’s got an entire season of television to bang out, not to mention a movie about Steve Jobs.

As an Aaron Sorkin aficionado (Sorkinado?  If that term doesn’t already exist I’m trademarking it) it’s often difficult to separate the work from the man, for his is not a style that disappears easily beneath the veil of the proscenium.  In terms of recent efforts, Moneyball was probably him at his lowest key, but in fairness he wasn’t the final writer on that movie.  Compare him to other prominent TV showrunners – would you be able to distinguish, say, Mad Men‘s Matthew Weiner’s writer’s voice in another work?  With Sorkin the tropes stand out.  In a way, watching a Sorkin program is a bit like television geocaching.  Or, more crudely, the stuff of drinking games.  “Musical theatre reference!  Do a shot!”  And so, as Sunday night’s “First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Lawyers” unspooled, we saw an old favorite return – the flashforward/flashback and catch-up, set in a familiar Sorkin environment, a lawyer’s hearing room.  For those of you really paying attention, one of the lawyers’ names is “Gage,” and at least three prior Sorkin projects (The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The Social Network) feature – wait for it – lawyers named Gage.  Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) finds himself in a hearing with a $1500-an-hour attorney played by the wonderful Marcia Gay Harden, over a colossal cock-up apparently committed by his NewsNight broadcast – the airing of a false story accusing the U.S. government of using nerve gas against Pakistani civilians – which will, it seems, form the main thrust of this season’s story arc.  We then race back to the aftermath of Will’s Season 1-ending remark accusing the Tea Party of being the American Taliban, which has resulted in Atlantis Cable Media being shut out of Republican-led House hearings on the SOPA Internet copyright bill, much to the disgust of ACM president Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda).  Changes are in store around the newsroom as well as the lovesick Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.), despondent over his failure to win over Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) asks to be reassigned to the Romney campaign bus (we’re still in mid-2011, show time), resulting in the arrival of a new producer who sets the wheels in motion for the revelation of something called Operation Genoa, which can “end presidencies” according to the TV panelist who first drops the hint.  We also see the ever-hungry Neal Sampat (Dev Patel) trying to get executive producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) interested in the rumblings of something called Occupy Wall Street.  And there’s the usual lightning-speed banter, reversals, repetition, what you’ve come to expect when you sign on for a Sorkinfest, with the occasional F & S bomb since it’s HBO.

My ongoing issue with The Newsroom is that I’m finding it difficult to latch onto any of the characters.  I can’t even remember their full names at any given moment.  Perhaps it’s not fair to compare it to The West Wing, but as an ensemble, that cast was considerably stronger than this group, who still haven’t learned how to sound like they came up with the words spilling from their mouths.  Ironically, far less attention was paid to the personal lives of the Bartlet White House staff, but we still managed to get a better sense of who they were and what they stood for.  The archetypes emerged fairly quickly:  Sam Seaborn was the idealist, Josh Lyman was the scrapper reveling in the fight, Toby Ziegler was the conscience, and so on.  By contrast, The Newsroom‘s second tier doesn’t seem to stand for or want anything, and their personal lives are deadly dull.  I’m still not sure why Thomas Sadoski’s Don Keefer is even there, as Don officially abandoned NewsNight in the series premiere and Sorkin seems to be struggling to find excuses to have him hang around – and since he’s now broken up with Maggie in this episode, his raison d’etre is even less.  Rather, the characters are little more than rotating mouthpieces to deliver Sorkin’s judgments.  I was particularly let down to see young Neal (Scott Pilgrim reference!  Drink!  Okay, that’s just me…) belittle the Occupy Wall Street organizers with the same line conservative media ultimately used to discredit them, a surprising and condescending sentiment from the left-leaning writer of the “American Taliban” line and a little out of character for the wide-eyed Neal, especially when he called it America’s own Arab Spring earlier in the hour.

Similarly, the center of the show, Will McAvoy, remains a cipher.  What he wants and why we should care about him remain gray.  Despite his willingness to make bold statements from time to time, i.e. the sorority girl rant and his opinions on the Tea Party, he is forever sliding back into inertia and uncertainty, sitting on his balcony listening to Van Morrison and smoking joints in the middle of the night – unreachable, impenetrable, aloof.  Fundamentally, one must ask, what is the worst thing that can happen to Will, or any of the people he works with:  NewsNight gets cancelled and they all go home?  Screwing up on The West Wing usually meant a cost in human life.  On The Newsroom mistakes mean the unspeakable tragedy of lost rating points, the same flaw that doomed Studio 60.  When the stakes are so low, it’s difficult to find reasons to care overmuch for these people.  The only person we then find ourselves caring about is Aaron Sorkin, and what he is saying about the state of news and the delivery of information in the world, which, at its worst, is all The Newsroom is anyway.  Would not a simple documentary suffice, then?

Off-screen, Sorkin made much of the revamping of the show which now includes a much larger staff of writers and consultants to assist him.  One change I’m disappointed with though is the remix of the great Thomas Newman’s beautiful theme music.  When you’re lucky to get music at all in most programs nowadays, a lush and lovely theme is a rare treat, and they’ve gummed this one up by remixing it to make it faster-paced and sound more like breaking news.  Aaron Sorkin of all people should know that slapping on a fresh coat of paint ain’t gonna fix rotting timber, and that if one is relying on an update of the theme to draw in new viewers (a la Star Trek: Enterprise Season 3) then one is going to be sorely disappointed, not to mention the target of the wrath of folks who thought the old one was just fine.  Imagine a similar choice on the part of the makers of Game of Thrones?  Red Wedding anybody?  Besides, one should not mess with Thomas Newman.  Period.  (To quote the panelist from this episode.)

I’ll stick with the show, of course, as television is always better with even a mediocre Sorkin offering than without it.  But these characters need to find something to go after with real stakes attached, and soon, otherwise they, and the show with them, will continue to flail under accusations of being nothing more than a weekly lecture on how news is Doing It Wrong.  We don’t want to be lectured, we want to be captivated for however long you’ve asked for our attention.  Please, Aaron, this stupid basement-dwelling blogger* begs you.  Learn how to captivate us again.  And for the love of Gilbert and Sullivan, don’t f*** with the theme song anymore.

*For the record, I have a basement, but I do not live in it.  I am unfortunately, however, a blogger.  Stupid, not stupid – that decision is entirely up to you.

A dialogue on dialogue

From the new Bravo series, "Graham on Graham."
From the new Bravo series, “Graham on Graham.”

Graham (G1):  Good morning Graham, how are you?

Graham (G2):  Meh, pretty tired.  The cat decided to wake us up at three in the morning again.

G1:  That sucks.  Frickin’ felines.

G2:  Yeah.

G1:  So I saw on Twitter last night you said you thought you might write a post about dialogue today.

G2:  You must have been up late.

G1:  I was.

G2:  Couldn’t sleep either?

G1:  What “either”?  You and I are the same person.

G2:  True enough.

G1:  I’m just choosing not to be snippy and cranky about it this morning.

G2:  “Snippy” and “cranky”?  What are you, channeling our grandmother now?

G1:  Do you think we could get on with this, Mr. Snarkypants?

G2:  Fine.  Where do you want to start?

G1:  Well, it occurred to me that there is a lot of contradictory advice about dialogue floating around out there.

G2:  I’ve noticed that too.  Some people think too much dialogue is a bad thing.

G1:  I don’t get that.  I mean, obviously a novel is not a play and you need to create a balance of description and dialogue, but come on.  I think that’s an excuse invented by people who can’t write dialogue well.

G2:  And you accused me of being snarky.

G1:  Well, if I didn’t think I was a good writer of dialogue, I would pare it back as much as I could.  But do you remember when we were watching There Will Be Blood, how pretentious it seemed that there was no dialogue at all in the first half hour?  Characters were going out of their way to not talk.  It was forced and artificial.  Real people are insatiable chatterboxes.

G2:  Our son would certainly agree with you there.

G1:  He’s kind of the singular example.

G2:  Yeah.  But you wouldn’t write a character like him, would you?

G1:  No.  Because a lot of what he says is just random stuff that pops into his head – half-remembered lines from TV shows, updates on the video game he’s playing, stuff he did at school that day.  It doesn’t have a lot of coherence to it, or readability if you were to type it out word for word.

G2:  Naturally.  He’s twelve, and he’s a real person, not a character in a novel.  We’re not expecting erudition and fully formed sentences with multiple clauses.

G1:  No, no one would believe that, even in a novel.  Unless you were portraying him as the most preternatural, linguistically-gifted twelve-year-old in the history of the human race.

G2:  We love him very much, but no, that’s not who he is.

G1:  Nope.  So there’s a balance between the accurate portrayal of a twelve-year-old’s mentality and the need to establish a readable character, one who serves the narrative.  People just don’t talk how writers need to write them.  We yammer on about everything but what’s actually on our mind – we tell silly jokes, we blather about the weather.  In a story you have to get to the point.

G2:  That’s what you mean about serving the narrative.

G1:  Yeah.  Every conversation needs to push some aspect of the story, if only the slightest of nudges.  The relationships between the characters need to develop, or the characters have to get closer to their goal.  If your guys are going to stop for a five minute exegesis on hamburgers, there had better be some payoff to it.

G2:  Hamburgers… you’re thinking Pulp Fiction again.

G1:  You know me so well.  That’s a really good example.  That whole conversation between Jules and Vincent has nothing to do with the plot, but it helps establish their relationship, and shows us that these guys are interesting, endearing people we’re going to dig spending time with.  Even though they are on their way to commit a series of murders.  Would we have liked them if they’d devoted the conversation to the methodology of how they were going to kill the guys once they got to the apartment, or worse, said nothing at all?

G2:  That would have been the insufferable arthouse version.

G1:  So, I come back to this idea of balance.  You can go too far the other way, where characters become plot explainers.  I’ve seen this in fantasy a lot, where two people who have no real reason to talk to each other do an information dump about where they are in their quest, what happened over the last couple of days, and what has to happen next.  There’s no nuance to the conversation – the characters just agree with each other for pages on end as they lay out the story so far.  It’s the “As you know, Bob” problem.  Or Basil Exposition, depending on your preferences.  If the sole purpose of your dialogue is to tell your audience things they could learn another way, You’re Doing It Wrong.

G2:  My eyelids sag at the mere thought.  Of course, you and I are basically just agreeing with each other here.  What did you mean by nuance?

G1:  Characters should never talk about what they’re actually talking about.  Concepts and pellets of information should be implied, not blatant.

G2:  Oh, so we would talk about mochacinos in the guise of discussing dialogue?

G1:  I like to approach conversations from oblique angles.  Like yeah, maybe I would compose a scene of two writers (or two halves of the same mind, as it were) discussing dialogue and set it in line at a Starbucks while they wait for their lattés.

G2:  Yeah, because you’d never find a writer at a Starbucks.  Real original.

G1:  You get my point, though?

G2:  Not really.  Please explain it to me with statistics and visual aids.

G1:  You cribbed that line.  You really need to get more sleep.

G2:  I really need a lot of things and sleep gets in the way of them.

G1:  Suit yourself.  Picture it this way.  When you’re building dialogue, you have a couple of elements to consider.  You have the setting.  You have the goal – the piece of information that you need to convey.  Maybe it’s a simple fact, maybe it’s a clue to the mystery, maybe it’s the next step in a relationship.  That’s where you’re heading, but you don’t start with it.  You start in the wilderness and build towards it.  Imagine a scene of a couple eating in a restaurant.  The husband has to tell the wife that he’s lost his job, but he doesn’t know how to break the news.  His first line, then, is not going to be “I don’t know how to tell you this, but I lost my job.”  Is it?

G2:  I guess it could be, but that seems a waste of a lot of potential dramatic tension.

G1:  Exactly.  Instead, you might start with them talking about the food they’re eating, other restaurants they’ve been in, you know, casual, everyday, innocent stuff.  They might recall fond memories of when they were first dating.  The husband will realize that losing his job means they won’t be able to have nights like this anymore.  That will start to creep into what he’s saying to his wife.  She’ll notice something’s wrong and she’ll ask him about it.  He’ll deny it.  She’ll ask again.  He’ll deny it again, until he breaks down and confesses – or maybe doesn’t at all.  You see how 95% of the conversation won’t be about the main piece of information that comes at the very end, right?  Instead, you find your way in from the edges.  Organically.  The characters will lead you there on their own.

G2:  Like the scene in our novel where the two leads talk about their respective parents.  It begins with the heroine humming a stupid old folk song, and the guy noting that he recognizes it.

G1:  Or the scene later on where a conversation about the role of women in the world begins with a chat about sandwiches.

G2:  Pick the oddest thing and work your way back from it.

G1:  You are learning, young padawan.  The other thing to keep in mind too is that unless you’re writing a 1920’s silent movie, characters don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves.  Nor do most people.  Subtlety and understatement are the way to go.  A solemn declaration of undying love shouldn’t sound like it was scripted for daytime TV.  In fact, avoid solemn declarations of undying love altogether.

G2:  Something just occurred to me.  We’re unpublished – where do we get off flinging rules around like so much confetti?

G1:  There are no rules, only our interpretation of our own truth.  There is every possibility that this exercise has been one in utter nonsense.  We can only pass along what works for us in the hope that someone else might find it useful.  And this is a rich topic that could go on for thousands upon thousands of words, but eventually, folks will want to tell us to shut up.

G2:  Are there some resources we could point people towards?

G1:  I think you just have to read a lot of books, watch a lot of movies written by great writers, listen to a lot of different kinds of people talking and process it all in the mind’s blender.  And then try and fail a few times on your own before you figure it out.

G2:  You were going to mention Aaron Sorkin, weren’t you.

G1:  We both know he’s a big influence on us, it goes without saying.  Look at him, look at people like David Mamet, Richard Curtis, and David Seidler, who wrote The King’s Speech, to name but a very few.  Listen to their rhythms, listen to how someone like Mamet deconstructs patterns of speech to convey character.  Glengarry Glen Ross is a terrific example of this.  The scene between Moss and Aaronow “talking about” versus “speaking about” is fantastic.

G2:  You haven’t mentioned any actual novelists.

G1:  Well, funny you should bring that up, because we’re reading a book right now, Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, which has an interesting approach to dialogue.  It’s a western, set in 1851 California, but everyone speaks in very elegant, grammatically precise phrases that are probably not an accurate reflection of how people in 1851 California really spoke.  Not the artistic choice I was expecting, but refreshing after plodding through Ian Fleming’s clumsy attempts at American slang which felt as artificial as nobody talking in the first act of There Will Be Blood did.

G2:  Way to bring it full circle, dude.

G1:  I know what you like.  Anyway, how to portray dialect, how to vary word choices to denote different speakers, the value of repetition, talking it out to make sure it sounds right – like I said, a rich palette and worth discussing further at a later time.

G2:  If you can persuade me to do this again.  I feel like I didn’t get to say very much.  You were doing all the talking.

G1:  You’re tired.  The cat, remember?  Just looking out for you.

G2:  Oh, yeah.  Thanks.  Cheers, mate.

G1:  You too.

(Re)Writing Challenge #1: Green Eggs and Ham

geah

Tired of your own voice?  Try writing as someone else!  When one is blocked, feeling intimidated by the overwhelming talent of others or otherwise discouraged about the state of one’s literary pursuits, one potential solution is to come at things from a different angle.  If your ego is tripping you up, just set it aside.  Become a different person.  Shapeshift (or as my malaprop-prone son sometimes says, ship-shafe’t).  It’s incredibly liberating.  You feel so much less pressure to live up to the standards that you’ve placed upon yourself, because what you’re producing isn’t really you.  It’s pastiche, it’s fun, and I’ve done it before, here and here.  So you can probably guess where I’m heading with this.  I’ve decided to take one of the simplest, most enduring stories, Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham, and speculate what it might have sounded like had Aaron Sorkin banged it out.  Enjoy it.  Or don’t, it’s entirely up to you.

FADE IN:

INT. LEO’S OFFICE – DAY

LEO MCGARRY is at his desk.  On the phone.

LEO:  Yeah.  Okay.  Thanks.

He hangs up.

LEO:  Margaret!!!

MARGARET pokes her head in, notepad and pen at the ready.

MARGARET:  You really don’t need to yell.

LEO:  Yeah, this time I do.  Send in Josh and Toby.  Tell the Secretary of Agriculture he needs to be up on the Hill smooth-talking the committee chair on 404.  And I need the next five minutes the President’s got.

MARGARET steps out.  JOSH LYMAN and TOBY ZIEGLER enter.

JOSH:  Leo, settle something for us.  You’re on a desert island and you have a choice between Iolanthe and the Mikado.

LEO:  Yeah, I don’t really care.  Listen…

JOSH:  This is about the Ag Bill, isn’t it.

TOBY:  It’s not the Ag Bill.

JOSH:  I bet it’s the Ag Bill.

TOBY:  It’s not gonna be the Ag Bill, the one that we just spent seven weeks negotiating, to the detriment of our physical and psychological health, not to mention every social relationship we ever pretended to care about.

LEO:  It’s the Ag Bill.

TOBY (resigned):  This is why I continue to hate the world.

JOSH:  What happened?

LEO:  I just got off a call with the Minority Whip.  Republican leadership is attaching an amendment.

TOBY:  To the Ag Bill.

LEO:  Yeah.

TOBY:  To the bill that cost us the support of the entire progressive wing of the Democratic caucus.

JOSH:  I’m telling you, we coulda used those three votes.

TOBY:  To the bill that is basically a laundry list of every Republican priority on agriculture in this country.  A bill that could not be more Republican-friendly if we called it the “Ronald Reagan Second Amendment Let’s Blow Up an Abortion Clinic and Drill in Yellowstone Bill.”

LEO:  Yeah.

TOBY (smirks, looks down):  Why?

LEO:  They’re not happy with the subsidies for organic hen farming and pork production.  They want them taken out or they won’t move the bill out of Committee.

JOSH:  The Republicans are threatening to block the bill because they don’t like green eggs and ham?

LEO:  They do not like green eggs and ham.

TOBY:  I do not like them.

LEO:  Sam!

SAM SEABORN is walking by the open door.  He stops and pokes his head in.

SAM:  I am!

LEO:  Siddown.  Republicans are attaching an amendment to 404.  We need to see if we can unlock some Democratic votes for it.

SAM:  If they didn’t like the bill before, they’re not going to go for it with another Republican amendment.  What is it this time?

TOBY:  Green eggs and ham.

SAM:  The organic farming section?

LEO:  Who do we have on our side that’s movable if that part’s gone?

SAM:  You might get Jankowitz, Stephens… Geller’ll vote for it just to stick it to Martindale and his three.

JOSH:  I can probably wrangle three more from the Blue Dogs.

TOBY:  Nothing like fighting for a watered-down joke of a bill we never wanted in the first place.

LEO:  Okay.  Time to make some calls.  We need this win, I don’t gotta tell you twice.  The latest Gallup says our poll numbers are softening and the country is crying out for a solid agricultural policy.

TOBY:  Which we’ll get by getting rid of green eggs and ham.

JOSH:  It’s okay, nobody likes green eggs and ham.

PRESIDENT BARTLET enters from the side door.

BARTLET:  What’s this about green eggs and ham?

LEO:  Republican amendment to 404.  Deleting the organic farming section.

BARTLET:  Well, if there’s one thing we can count on Republicans for, it’s screwing Mother Earth with her pants on.

LEO:  Sir…

BARTLET:  Did you know that organic farm subsidies account for a tenth of one percent of all federal spending on agriculture?  We’re happy to fork out the cash, so long as you’re spraying your fields with toxic sludge you wouldn’t dare use to wax your own car.  You know what the problem is?  No one’s ever been forced to try green eggs and ham.  We’ve become a country so accustomed to the comfort of familiarity that the thought of change has become a terrifying prospect.  Even if that change is for the better.  The problem with that is, it’s not what the Framers had in mind.  America was meant to be an experiment in constant change.  Forming a more perfect union is about forever trying new things with the understanding that some of them will be scary, and some of them won’t work.  Some will be spectacular failures.  But we have to try them anyway, because we’ll never know if we don’t.  It’s like Voltaire said:  we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the necessary.  Who knows – in the midst of all the noise, all the partisan bickering, maybe we’ll find out in the end that we do like green eggs and ham.

Determination settles upon the faces of his staff.

LEO:  About 404, sir?

BARTLET:  Let’s have a debate.  A real debate.  We the People can decide if they like green eggs and ham.

SAM:  Not for nothing, but I’ve always liked them.

LEO:  Sam…

SAM:  I am.

FADE OUT.

What’d ya think?  Anyone else want to give it a go?  Pick a different writer – novelist, screenwriter, whoever, and retell your version of Green Eggs and Ham in their voice.  Put the link to your story in the comments.  Anxious to see what you come up with!

I Suck at Description

The sky was blue.  The sand was not.
The sky was blue. The sand was not.

That’s my mea culpa for the day.  If I had to rank my perceived strengths as a writer in descending order, description would linger odiously in the basement with the lawn furniture and the dresser my wife keeps reminding me we need to sell.  I’m good at dialogue, at proposing ideas and batting them around, at the exploration of questions of human nature and our place in the universe, but, ask me to put any of these items in a setting that leaps off the page and I will curl up in the corner of that setting sobbing like an infant afraid of having his wooby taken away.  Every time I go back through my novel for revisions and start to think, “hey, this isn’t so bad,” I encounter someone else’s work that blows me back through the wall and turns my confidence to lime Jell-O.  I just can’t seem to crack that important element and it drives me bonkers.

I’ve devoted a lot of self-examination to trying to figure out why this aspect is so difficult for me.  Some writers seem to be able to do it flawlessly.  Within a few short, concise phrases you know exactly where you are – your imagination is triggered and the setting shimmers into existence around you as though you had stepped into the holodeck and announced “Run Program.”  Writing, as someone famous whose name escapes me for the moment has observed (I think it was Joyce Carol Oates), is about creating atmosphere.  My focus, however, has always been on character, though, and how the characters interrelate, and that usually means dialogue, and lots of it.  (And of course, you run into plenty of writing advice that suggests too much dialogue is a bad thing.  Can’t win, can’t even quit the game.)  In a perfect world, this is how I would describe almost every scene, so I could get on with crafting conversations (from Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett):

 A country road.  A tree.  Evening.

A few more words about Estragon trying to pull off his boot and we’re off to the races.  Okay then, you’re asking, why don’t you just write plays then?  I’ve written exactly one play, it was called Brushstrokes, a three-act examination of hidden love and the inability of men to admit their feelings tied together with a tenuous nail polish metaphor, and well, the less said about it the better.  That’s not to say I’ll never try another one, but in writing it I missed the ability to digress into stretches of narrative, to get into the heads of the characters and figure out what they were thinking.  It is not to suggest that novels don’t have to have structure, or limits for that matter, but they tend to be a freer place to play.  You can linger on a particular thought, explore its depths and its reaches, without worrying too much about a foot-tapping, finger-drumming audience waiting in exasperation for the next line.  It can be rather like the van that took forever to fall off the bridge in Inception without seeming to drag down the pace – again, depending on how you write it.  So it helps if you’re really good at that.

Many great writers are poets and can bring that sensibility to details as slight as a flake of ash falling from a burning cigarette, or the single flap of a hummingbird’s wing.  My description, by contrast, tends to be simple and straightforward.  What you need to know and no more.  Here’s an example from my novel:

Splinters of wood and crumbling brick from ramshackle buildings line the pockmarked street.  Lampposts bent by storms and vandals stand eerie sentry.  The rattle of broken window shutters is this rotting borough’s only tenant.

And another:

Dotted by whitecaps, the river is an icy gray.  Brine and rotting algae poisons the air.  The north side of the city lurks, cloaked, beneath frigid fog.  At the end of the jetty, a flat barge with a water wheel at its stern strains against the grip of the ropes anchoring it in place.  Creaking twin planks on its starboard side wobble under the boots of passengers laden with sacks and baskets who are shuffling aboard to claim a precious portion of the hard benches in the center of the craft.

One more:

A paved drive marked by a trail of brass lanterns on iron posts conducts us through spacious, garden-rich grounds, past a stone-rimmed lily pond watched by a gazebo, once-trim shrubs and dwarf trees grown wild with neglect.  The secluded manse that presides is half-hidden by branches yet still exudes wealth and pretense, as if trying to compete with its neighbors.  Long thin windows with black shutters adorn the exterior, while a portico supported by white columns protrudes over the front entrance.  A terraced second floor is set back on the high roof of the first.  A pointless relief of vine-entwined roses on the portico adds to the sense of superfluous money that permeates this place.

There is nothing technically wrong with any of these passages, but poetry they sure as hell ain’t.  Even looking at them sitting here out of context I want to rewrite them from word one.  One’s spirit crumples into crushed tinfoil at the possibility of being considered a candidate for a Bulwer-Lytton award, or as the latest Eye of Argon.  But you do what you can with what you have and keep trying to do better.  And though sometimes you gnash your teeth at the raw talent on display in some other people’s mere first drafts, you can’t let that stop you from moving forward.

The mistake that I tend to make and that many others probably do as well is in not having the description of the scene push the story forward in any way.  Think of it in terms of the last time you related a funny anecdote to your best friend.  You didn’t say, “So, I was at the grocery store.  It was a massive, soulless building painted in black and brown and the floor tiles bore the smudges of the soles of a thousand tired mothers dragging screaming children who were unable to comprehend the simple nutritional logic of why it wasn’t a good idea to eat chocolate at every meal.”  Your friend is sitting there saying “I don’t care!  What happened at the store?!”  You want to stage the scene and sprinkle in some color, but putting in that kind of description is like hitting the pause button.  It breaks the momentum and adds nothing.

Those who know what they’re doing, even writers who are incredibly journalistic and fetishistic about detail, like the late Ian Fleming, use that information to push the narrative – to tell you about the character they’re trying to sketch in your mind.  The sometimes excruciating manner in which Fleming waxes on about James Bond’s breakfast preferences still manages to tell you something important, that this is a man who defines himself very much by his tastes, and he is as much a social competitor with the villains he squares off against as he is a knight trying to slay the fearsome dragon.  It works, though, because everyone knows how Bond likes his martini, and “shaken, not stirred” has become entrenched in the zeitgeist (even if Aaron Sorkin insists it’s wrong).

Also, as human beings, we tend to notice individual details rather than the big picture.  This is crucial when you are writing first-person perspective as well because you can’t use that detached, “I SEE AND HEAR ALL” narrative voice.  When you spot an attractive person coming towards you, there’s probably one specific trait that strikes you first; their eyes, their smile, what have you.  And that characteristic will define them in your mind from then on.  That girl with the long dark hair, the guy with the shark tattoo on his right forearm.  (It does not have to be a visual characteristic either:  the girl who sings like a parrot with laryngitis, or the guy who smells like apple cinnamon soap.)  The same goes with scenery.  The tall building with the broken window on the top floor.  The car with the coughing exhaust pipe.  If your character has a particular perspective on the world, what they notice will flow organically out of that perspective as well.  Mine is accustomed to the peace of a silent forest, so the things she takes note of are what stands out to her as unusual – noise and artifice.  If I’ve done my job correctly, that should tell you something about her and how she views the world.  If not, then it’s back to the rewrite shed for another round of head-splitting angst and wondering why, despite people telling me contrary and often, I continue, in my own mind, to suck.

Anyone else struggling with this stuff?  Let me know.  Let’s help each other out.

Twitter bios: Who are you, really?

@MobyDick.  Whale.  Love eating krill and plankton.  Not fond of one-legged captains.  #GetOverItAhab
@MobyDick. Whale. Love eating krill and plankton. Not fond of one-legged captains. #GetOverItAhab

On Twitter, we are what we say.  We have the opportunity to craft a complete online identity through what we talk about, who we talk with and what we share.  I have met some amazing people through Twitter and had some engaging, thought-provoking and downright hilarious conversations, with folks I might otherwise be terrified to approach were I to see them out on the street (Russell Crowe, looking in your direction, mate).

Disappointing on occasion though are the Twitter bios people write for themselves.  A mere 160 characters to sit on your Twitter account permanently and try to encapsulate who you are and why people should be interested in you.  Folks who are using Twitter strictly as a marketing tool are the worst, describing themselves as flatly and as soullessly as the plastic widgets they’re attempting to push on you.  And some traits are dropped in so commonly and so lazily as to lose all meaning – “coffee drinker,” for example, which is about as distinguishing as saying you’re an “oxygen breather.”

I’m also puzzled as to why some Tweeps waste characters with “Tweets are my own,” “Retweets are not endorsements” and “I follow back!”  I understand that if you want to mouth off about how badly last night’s Stanley Cup playoff game went, you don’t want anyone to possibly infer that your profane criticism of the refereeing reflects the official views and positions of the ABC Company.  I think most people are smart enough to understand that although we all work, we all have private lives as well.  My Twitter life is entirely disengaged from my work life, even though there are people I work with who follow me (and I follow them).  But I don’t talk about work.  EVER.  I don’t say where I work and I don’t bitch about work.  Look, I’m at work all day, every day, and I have enough of it on my mind without it spilling into my social media life too.  Saying “Tweets are my own” is just dumb though.  Of course they’re your own.  They’re not Phil’s, and they’re not Uncle Frank’s, and people get that.

“Retweets are not endorsements” is another one that to me, is a waste of space.  I mean, I suppose there’s the fear that you might retweet somebody’s joke about airline travel only to find out a few weeks later that he once got arrested for masturbating in a park, and suddenly you’re a supporter of public self-pleasure by association or some such nonsense.  Look, I can think Braveheart is a great movie and no one would ever accuse me of sympathizing with some of the reprehensible views that Mel Gibson has espoused publicly.  When you retweet something, it’s because you thought that particular statement was worth sharing again.  You’re not suddenly a staunch enthusiast of everything that person has ever said.  I think this is one we just need to agree on collectively and then, just as collectively, remove it from every single Twitter bio on earth.

Finally, announcing “I follow back” or using the hashtag #TeamFollowBack is, as Ricky Gervais has said, a little bit sad.  It pretty much guarantees that people will only follow you to bump up their own numbers, and not because they are truly interested in hearing what you have to say.  I know I’m going against the advice of every single Internet marketing specialist here, but I think of Twitter as what the cable companies will never offer:  an opportunity to pick your own channels, a la carte, without having to pay for or suffer through programs you don’t want.  You can very easily build up a massive following by just following everyone you can and unfollowing those who don’t follow back, but what does that get you in the end?  An awful lot of noise.  I follow people who will add value to my day, and that’s my sole criterion.

So, what should you put in your Twitter bio?  Well, I’m not saying mine is the epitome of awesome, but I think it’s pretty good, and here’s why.  When you click on my profile, this is what you’ll see:

Writer, novelist-in-waiting, HuffPoster, Anglo, James Bond and Aaron Sorkin-phile, happy liberal, lover of martinis, women and song, preferably all at once.

1. Writer, novelist-in-waiting, HuffPoster:  Chuck Wendig has a great line about how you’re either a writer or you aren’t, the word “aspiring” sucks, and that you shouldn’t differentiate just because you may not necessarily get paid for your words.  Right now, I don’t make money for anything I write.  I hope that will change soon, but it doesn’t stop me from writing.  Ergo, I am a writer.  I say “novelist-in-waiting” because I do have one finished novel, but to me, “novelist” suggests that you have more than one.  I don’t yet.  When I do, the “in-waiting” will fall off.  And again, just because I haven’t published it and no one’s paid to read it doesn’t mean a thing.  It’s a novel, I wrote it, it exists.  Finally, I should think it’s fairly obvious why “HuffPoster” is there.  23 articles and counting, so yeah, that one I can back up with solid evidence and the hateful comments that go with it.

2. Anglo, James Bond and Aaron Sorkin-phile:  A small sampling of my popular culture interests.  I have been enamored with all things English since probably the first time I heard someone speak in an English accent, which, given the second item in the list, was probably in watching a James Bond movie.  It also covers Monty Python, the Beatles and the majority of my taste in music, movies, books, the lot.  And I’m an Aaron Sorkin fan because his writing helped me find my own writing voice.  (Which reminds me, I must get to that in another post sometime as I believe I did promise it a while back.)

3. Happy liberal:  I don’t talk about politics on Twitter (or here) as much as I used to because the anger and hate that it stirs up on occasion (read: constantly) is becoming a bit stomach-churning in my old age.  But in a way, this is a shorthand message to politically inclined folks who might like to follow me that this is where I start from.  If you’re a worshipper of all things Ronald Reagan, free market libertarianism and neo-conservative warmongering, I don’t think you’ll find me very interesting; in fact, I may make your blood boil.  I certainly won’t be seeking you out so I can crap all over your home feed with bleeding heart, namby-pamby communism.  Let’s just agree to disagree and leave each other alone then.  On the other hand, if you think we should base decisions on science, ensure that the rich pay their fair share, stop paving planet Earth indiscriminately and live in a society where we look after each other and help boost each other up, if you believe that government can be a force for good when the best people are involved in it, if you believe that a small group of committed citizens can change the world because it’s the only thing that ever has, then sign on up, glad to have you, I might even follow back.

4. Lover of martinis, women and song:  Yes, I do love me a martini.  All kinds – dry, fruity, decorated with chocolate shavings or plastic parasols, doesn’t matter.  It’s a drink of sophistication that makes a man feel comfortable in a jacket and tie – a throwback to the era when class and erudition was the real swag.  I’m old-fashioned that way, I suppose, but in a time when being a man seems to be a race to the bottom of a beer and nacho-cheese soaked barrel, I’m proud to be an anachronism.  A lover of women?  Yes, dear goddess yes, in all facets.  Not a day goes by where I don’t ponder a particular woman or women in general with awe and admiration.  I love them for their indomitable strength, their ability to take every setback life throws at them because of their gender and say, “is that all you’ve got, little man?”  I love their minds, I love their senses of humor, I love their ability to see right through us, to strip away our phoniness and our pretend selves and force us to figure out who we really are.  I love the music in their laughter, the poetry in their tears.  I love their connection with who they are and the world they live in.  I love the scent of their hair, the softness of their skin, the tone of their legs, the elegance of their hands.  I love that I’m married to the most incredible woman on the planet, that I’m the brother of the second most incredible woman on the planet and that I’m privileged to know so many of their sisters.  And I love to celebrate women in the words I write – which, I suppose, is the meaning of the “song” here.

5. Preferably all at once:  Because a perfect evening is listening to my wife croon Ella Fitzgerald while I sip a Vesper.

There you have it – not saying that it’s perfect or that it won’t ever change.  But if you want to get to know me, it’s a good place to start.  Then you have to let my words do the rest.

Putting it out there then:  How do you describe yourself on Twitter?

Novelists and central casting

It’s a dream shared by a great number of aspiring novelists; that someday they’ll be sitting in a theater watching their characters buckle their swash on the big screen.  Browse through the interwebs and you’ll locate many an author’s website with a special section devoted to who they’d like to play their heroes and heroines.  I’m not gonna lie, I’ve had this dream myself.  It’s perhaps unorthodox to admit, but I’m more of a movie person than I am a reader.  It probably has to do with the happier memories of childhood; more of them involve sitting on the couch with my dad watching James Bond or The Natural or rewinding that one part in Star Wars where R2-D2 gets zapped by the Jawa and falls on his face to giggle at it for the nineteenth time, than involve hiding under the covers with a flashlight in the wee hours of the morning flipping pages of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or the Black Stallion books.  But we all chart our course toward our dreams in different ways (Tele, you must be influencing me lately with these nautical metaphors I’ve become prone to).  Lately it’s been reading Percy Jackson as a family and noting how much was changed for the adaptation and thinking (blasphemy!) that the screenplay was an improvement.  Novels and movies are both in the business of telling stories, but they are drastically different media and what works in one fails utterly in another (see:  Tolkien purists’ criticism of the changes in the Lord of the Rings movies).

Nicholas Meyer, the director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, in his excellent DVD commentary for that film, talks about the limitations of certain forms of art:  a painting does not move, a poem has no pictures and so on.  The person experiencing the art has to fill in the rest with his own imagination, his own personality.  Only movies, says Meyer, have the insidious ability to do everything for you.  What does that say about the creative process of someone who writes a novel having been apprenticed largely in cinematic technique?  When I’m writing fiction, I’m going at it from two different angles.  On the one hand I love wordplay and the sound of wit and a phrase well turned.  On the other, when I’m staging a scene I’m picturing it in my mind as though I were directing it.  My first draft involved a lot of mentions of character movement – turning away, turning back towards something else, entries and exits from the stage as though they were actors shuffled about by a beret-wearing and megaphone-wielding auteur in his canvas chair.  I’m basically writing the movie I see in my head, with the dialogue timed the way Aaron Sorkin does it, by speaking it out loud and judging its flow.  (I do write a lot of – and probably too much – dialogue, but, without trying to sound immodest, it’s what I’m good at, and to me, there is no better way for characters to get to know each other and to reveal themselves to the reader.  I almost wrote “audience” there; see how the two media are so irrevocably intermixed in the recesses of my brain?)

I’m much lighter on physical character description, however, and I give just enough to establish those traits that are, in my mind, crucial (you may disagree).  I’d rather that you cast the part yourself.  You probably won’t see my protagonist the same way I see her, and that’s totally fine.  In fact, it’s against my interest as someone who is trying to captivate you with my story to tell you how it should look in your mind, and that your interpretation is dead wrong because I made her up and she’s mine and so are all her subsidiary rights.  You need to be able to claim her too.  With that in mind, I’m happy to let you indulge in your own speculation once I let the story out into the world but I’ll never tell you who I think should play her.  Let’s be mindful of the tale of Anne Rice, who famously blew a gasket when it was announced that Tom Cruise would be playing Lestat in Interview with the Vampire, only to publicly recant and offer Cruise heaps of praise after she saw the actual movie.  Besides, if we ever get that far, authors (unless they’re J.K. Rowling) have zero say in who plays whom.  Often the real world gets in the way anyway – the preferred choice either isn’t interested or isn’t available.  There’s also the possibility that you don’t get your dream cast but you end up with somebody better.  I seem to recall that on Stephenie Meyer’s website years ago she talked about wanting Henry Cavill (the new Superman) to play Edward Cullen; without getting into my opinion of the quality of those movies it’s probably fair to say that no one among the many Twihards of the world was disappointed with landing Robert Pattinson instead.  (Truthfully, had it actually been Cavill they would have lusted over his smoldery-eyed poster just as much.)

What, then, is the point of the preceding rant?  As the chairman of the British “Well Basically” society would say:  well, basically, I think authors and aspiring authors do their readers a disservice when they talk about who they’d like to see play their characters in a hypothetical big screen version.  Even though it’s usually done all in fun, that interpretation gets taken as definitive since it’s coming from the creator, and any ideas the readers and fans might have had, imaginative as they might have been, are immediately supplanted because, you know, the guy who actually made it up has spoken.  It was like when Harry Potter merchandise first hit the shelves and all the kids who had until that point been making their own creations out of spare cloth and construction paper now settled for making their parents buy the officially licensed, made in China plastic crap.

So, in the unlikely event that someone someday wants to make a movie about something I’ve written?  Don’t ask me who I’d cast; my own counsel will I keep on that matter, young padawan.  I’ll be perfectly happy so long as they find a role somewhere for this lady:

berenicesmile

You know, if she’s available and she’s interested.