Everything they taught us about stories was WRONG

writing cat, writers, writing, why is writing so hard, writer's block

reading, books, types of stories

Let it be known: Romance authors have a good point when they say, “Romance is not a type of story.”

There are all sorts of different romance stories.

Which brings me to a deep, dark truth that needs to be said: They’ve done us wrong.

All of them.

Teachers and professors, authors and instructors and writing gurus of all stripes.

My secret lair includes a turret that is a library, full of Every Book on Writing, Rhetoric and Journalism Known to Man, and those books are 99 percent useless claptrap about either (a) the correct placement of semi-colons, which I believe should simply be shot, or (b) finding your happy place while you write at the same time every day. These books are only good for kindling during the zombie apocalypse.

Your corduroy-clad creative writing teacher was wrong to say there are only three kinds of stories: man vs. self, man vs. man and man vs. society. Those are three types of conflict. Not stories. Also, there are far too many reference to “man” in there.

Aristotle was full of falafel when he told his eager fanboys there are only two stories: tragedies and comedies.

George Polti made things far too complicated when he gave us 36 Dramatic Situations, when what he really did was list 36 complications and conflicts, and if you want to drive down that twisty path, hell, I can write you a list of 532 Dramatic Situations before noon. If you gave me a pot of coffee, by 5 p.m. we’d get to 3,982 Dramatic Situations. (Yes, Mr. Internet Smarty Pants, you a genius for using the google to find a Wikepedia thing explaining that Polti was merely following in the footsteps of that literary giant Carlo Guzzi, but hear me know and believe me later in the week: Carlo Guzzi was also an overcomplicated doofus.)

Also: just as there is no romance story type, there is no such thing as a Western, though if you watch THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, you are required by law to take a swig of decent tequila whenever Clint shoots a man and down two shots if he actually speaks a line of dialogue.

For you D & D and World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings dorks–I say that lovingly, though I want you to put down the Cheetos and the Playstation controller to go out in the world to kiss a girl, though please make sure she wants to be kissed first, and does not Mace you–there is also no such thing as a sci-fi or fantasy story.

You can set a novel or movie a dusty Arizona mining town in 1875, or put the guts of that same story into a space station orbiting the second moon of Zenon or whatever. Either way, it’s the same story.

You can add dragons, trolls or elves with lightsabers and it’s still the same story in a different setting and context.

Because in the end, story is about structure–how you put the pieces together. Is the ending up, down or mixed? What are the setups and payoffs, reversals and revelations?

Blake Snyder cut through all this tradition and nonsense with his SAVE THE CAT books.

Blake points out that it’s patently stupid to call FATAL ATTRACTION a domestic drama and ALIEN a sci-fi movie and JAWS a horror flick, because they all three classic movies are the same basic, primal story: there’s a monster in the house. Either you kill it or it kills you.

Period. End of story.

I will not summarize Blake’s book here by giving away all his other evil secrets. He’s boiled things down to ten primal stories, and yes, you can insert as many Dramatic Situations as you want into those ten stories.

Blake has done all writers a great service with his two books, which have silly titles and a cover with a cat. As the writer of a silly blog, I give him slack for that. He’s not pompous, arrogant or overly complicated. Blake was simply a freaking genius when it comes to storytelling, and the world is a poorer place now that he died young.

If you write, and care about your craft, go buy his book. DO IT NOW. Then come back here to talk smack about structure, the real secret to writing of all sorts.

Why are all writers lazy bums?

writing cat, writers, writing, why is writing so hard, writer's block

I don’t really think writers are lazy bums. I just want us all to talk about the elephant in the living room: why does writing take so long?

The average person types 50 words per minute.

And that’s slow. I type about 80 or 90. Faster, if I have coffee.

Here comes the math

Fifty words per minute =

  • 3,000 words per hour
  • 24,000 words per eight-hour day
  • 120,000 words per week

That’s a ton of words. An incredible amount.

Let’s do a little more math to see how much we should be cranking out, if we’re not surfing the net, Twittering our lives away and checking out Facebook photos all day.

Here come the word counts:

  • 200 words = letter to the editor
  • 500 words = five-minute speech
  • 600 words = news story
  • 800 words = oped
  • 1,000 words = 10-minute speech
  • Up to 3,000 words = profile or magazine piece
  • Up to 8,000 words = short story
  • 3,000 words = 30-minute keynote speech
  • 15,000 words = screenplay
  • 20,000 to 60,000 words = novella
  • 60,000 to 120,000+ words = novel

Let’s say half your day is eaten by meetings, research and other things, and you only write four hours a day, or 20 hours a week. Even then, we’re talking about 60,000 words.

That’s most of a novel, four screenplays, 20 keynote speeches or 100 opeds.

In a single week.

Nobody writes that much. NOBODY.

Not even Stephen King, back when he was fueled by industrial amounts of caffeine, nicotine and other substances.

In fact, writers of all sorts are happy to produce between 500 and 2,000 good, usable words a day.

I know novelists who are happy to produce one good novel per year. If you divide 100,000 words by 52 days, you get a smidge less than 2,000 words per week.

I know reporters who crank out two stories a day, five days a week and columnists who do one or two opeds a week.

There are speechwriters who take a solid week to nail down a 3,000-word keynote.

Before the invention of word processors, writing gods like Hemingway would pound on their Underwoods and count every word, quitting for the day when they hit 1,000–or even 500–that day.

But let’s be generous and say 2,000 words a day is a good day.

Where are the missing words? Why are we writers — reporters, novelists, poets, speechwriters –producing about 20 percent of what the math says?

Suspect No. 1: It’s not really eight hours or even four hours

This looks like the obvious culprit, because it’s the only person sneaking away from the crime scene with a guilty look and blood on the bottom of their shoes.

Reporters have to cover stories, get quotes from sources and meet with editors.

Novelists need to do research, talk to their agent, go on book tours and so forth.

Every writer, reporter and novelist has to do research and go to meetings. They’re not chained to the desk the entire workday, pounding on the keyboard like a typist. They need to eat of the food sometimes, and drink of the wine, and have a life.

HOWEVER:  A lack of hours isn’t what’s wrong here.

Let’s say even more of the day is toast. Research. Meetings and phone calls. E-mail. Lunch with some big important person. Twittering to your buddies.

Fine, we’re down to two hours of banging on the keyboard.

3,000 words per hour X 2 hours = 6,000 words a day.

And the most writers typically can hit, day after day, is 2,000 words.

If the “75 percent of the workday doesn’t count” theory is right, where are the missing 4,000 words?

Also, I know writers who spend four hours a day in meetings, doing research, returning e-mail and all that — and they still bang on the keyboard eight hours a day because they’re working at least 12 hours. A lot of writers work weekends, too.

Yet 2,000 words per day seems like a kind of universal wall for writers of all stripes. Why?

Suspect No. 2: We type slower than narcoleptic turtles

This suspect doesn’t even get handcuffed and taken down to the station for a chat.

I used 50 words a minute because it’s the average typing speed.

Professional writers are typically a lot faster, unless they’re hunting and pecking on an Underwood because that’s what they’ve always done since they first got published in 1926. There aren’t that many authors in that category.

If you dictate your stuff with Naturally Speaking or whatever, it’s more like 100 words a minute.

But let’s be generous again and pretend we all type really, really slow.

25 words a minute = 1,500 words an hour.

Even if we say Suspect No. 1 (Miss Four Hours) and Suspect No. 2 (Mr. Types Slowly) shacked up in a cheap motel and conspired to murder the creativity of all writers, it doesn’t get us down to 2,000 words a day.

Four hours at the keyboard at 25 words per minute is still 6,000 words a day. Two hours is 3,000 words, which is closer, but not plausible. Professional writers aren’t much slower than average typists–they’re a lot faster.

We need a better theory of the crime.

Suspect No. 3: Writing requires deep, deep thinking

Ah, this one is good. It’s lurking in the shadows.

It’s evil. Hard to refute.

How can you say that writing is shallow and easy?

How can you deny the art required, the creativity?

This isn’t an assembly line. It’s not a factory where we churn out widgets. Writers create something original, whether it’s a 500-word story for the newspaper or a 100,000-word novel.

Except I know better. Because I’ve been watching.

Going off my own experience wouldn’t be proof of squat. Maybe I’m an anomaly. Maybe I type 80+ words per minute (true) and separate writing from editing (also true).

But I know writers of all sorts. Reporters, speechwriters, novelists, you name it, and just about everybody who writes for money bangs on the keyboard at least four hours a day, and they’re all faster than 50 words a minute. That’s 3,000 words per hour.

Even going with four hours a day of actual writing, we should be at 12,000 words a day. Except we’re not.

Suspect No. 4: We’re creating while destroying

This is our killer. I’ve seen him at work.

I’ve helped other writers catch the evil scumbag, convict him and send him upstate so he can’t do any more damage.

We are typing away on the keyboard, and we’re not doing it at 10 words per minute. We are writing fast. It’s just that we destroy those words just as fast.

Why do we writers destroy more than we create?

Not because the words aren’t pretty. Sentence by sentence, they’re fine.

It’s because the structure is wrong.

I’ve looked at bad drafts that hit the roundfile. The sentences were pretty. It was the structure that failed.

We spend so much time trying to fix these things because we nobody teaches us structure.

Oh, they taught me the inverted pyramid in journalism school, which is the best possible blueprint for a story if you want to give away the ending right away and put people in a coma the longer they read.

Creative writing professors teach us characterization and the three types of conflict in creative writing.

Rhetoric professors give us logical fallacies and different types of arguments in speech and debate.

Journalism profs teach us hard and soft headlines and the different types of ledes.

Yet that’s not really structure. It’s tiny bits and pieces.

Building a house one room at a time, without blueprints

They way most of us write is like trying to build a house one room at a time. Winging it, without any blueprints.

Pour the foundation for the front door and foyer.

Frame it. Wire it for electricity. Drywall it. Paint it.

Now dig the foundation for the kitchen and build that.

Where should the living room go? OK, we did that, but forgot to put in stairs to the second floor, so we’ve got to tear it all down and start over.

That’s how I used to write. It’s how most writers I know do it.

You start at the beginning and work your way through it, trying to fix any problems with structure along the way.

My old friend and mentor, Robin, was guilty of this. He’s spend a week on an oped, which is only 800 words. He was a brilliant man, one of the smartest I’ve ever known, and a good example of why mixing research, writing and editing into a single process slowed everything down to a snail’s pace. He’d create and destroy thousands and thousands of words before he had 800 on a final draft.

Doing research, writing and editing all at once is no way to run a railroad. It’s building a house without blueprints, blindly hoping the beginning will magically connect with the middle and an end you haven’t figure out yet.

I’ve had houses designed and built. If a contractor tried to build a house the way we writers work, it wouldn’t take six months to finish it. It’d take six years, or forever.

So this is our killer, our time-suck, our nemesis.

Question is, how do you DO structure — and how do we, as writers, learn to draw good blueprints, so we stop spending 80 percent of our time at the keyboard destroying what we created?

Romance novelists are a secret, epic army

Let it be known: we men must rethink our natural manly instinct that romance novels are something to ignore or avoid, like SEX AND THE CITY 2, which is indeed worthy of scorn, and woe unto any man whose girlfriend or wife coerced them into wasting two hours of their life to see that stupid thing. No bribe is sufficient.

Romance novelists are not only smart and funny, but many can write circles around most writers I know. These women are more talented than most folks writing about elves and spaceships, or elves riding spaceships, because there is so much freaking competition with romance novels.

Are there bad romance novels out there? Sure, just like any genre. But with so many books and writers, it’s like throwing 10,000 authors into the Thunderdome, tossing in a single chainsaw and refusing to unlock the door until there’s only one woman left. That woman is going to kick tail. She will be a writing goddess.

And the message is good. Romance novels don’t want men to be to be office drones, worried about TPS reports, or the moody, over-educated basket cases you read about in literary novels.

Romance novels want men of action and charm, packing swords if not guns, and sometimes guns and swords. Any man can learn this from hitting up the google for “romance novel covers.” IT IS AN EDUCATION.

romance novels, fabio, romance novelists, rwa
Fabio and a sword is all you need. Shirts are optional.

Another bonus: romance is the largest part of the book business, which we need more than ever. If you care about books, literature and ideas instead of whatever is on the glowing tube today about the Kardashian idiots, you want to keep a healthy foundation of romance in the world’s fortress of books.

If we are truly men of action, we should band together, pool our resources and give romance novels serious tax subsidies, because romance authors and readers are a secret army doing a $16.5 billion public relations campaign for men everywhere. And, yes, the genre is bigger than that. It’s a big push for love of all stripes, which is a good thing. Life isn’t about having the biggest pile of dead presidents. It’s about family and who you love. As a husband and father, I get that.

So, romance novelists and readers, I am holding a mug of Belgium beer, which I raise your direction. Keep up the good work.

Zombie movies are NOT standard horror movies

zombie woman angelina jolie

Zombie movies are epic and wonderful and far, far superior to the Standard Horror Movie featuring horny teenagers getting mowed down by the Boogeyman, or silly scientists who create genetically modified super-sharks which, of course, escape their tanks and EAT EVERYONE.

People–especially those who wear tweed and like to talk about “dialectical materialism” all the time–tend to lump horror movies along with other B movie trash, including zombie movies.

They are wrong.

Zombie movies are NOT like your Standard Horror Movie.

Here’s why:

(1) They are better.

(2) They feature zombies.

(3) Zombies rock.

Seriously: zombie movies are different. Let’s pry open the skull of moviegoers — and people who read Stephen King and other horror novels — to see what’s really going on, which is more interesting than you’d expect.

Continue reading “Zombie movies are NOT standard horror movies”

TAKE ME TO CHURCH by Hozier is film-noir goodness

music video meme sound of music

Here’s the acid test, for me: I drive MANY MILES each day, listening to the radios, and if a song is good, I don’t care who sings it.

Only then do I check out the music video, and maybe blog about it on the WordPress machines.

TAKE ME TO CHURCH rocks on the radio.

However, having watched 4,092 bazillion music videos in my life, including a brief period where MTV actually played music videos, I’ve learned not to expect much from the actual video part, except for (a) boy bands dancing, (b) pop divas dancing in front of backup dancers who are far better at the dancing thing, (c) rock stars trying dance with the microphone stand or (d) hipster bands trying to be artsy and deep while mostly being bizarre.

Good music videos are rare.

I’m not talking “Bigfoot is in my backyard and I shot thirty minutes of film of him playing with my dog” kind of rare.

No. I’m talking about “Snooki is at a philosophy conference at Yale, presenting a paper on Nietzsche” rare.

So here are two music videos, both black-and-white, and both surprises.

First up is Hozier, the one from the headline. Great song on the radio, different and strong. The video makes it ever better, wonderfully shot in true film-noir style, it’s not afraid to have a non-Hollywood ending. Well played, Hozier.

The second song and video is also black-and-white and the same kind of slow burn. Had no idea who sang it when it played on the radio. Good stuff, full of pain and longing, and not your usual “baby baby” bubblegum pop nonsense with a guest rapper to give it some grit and soul. (How many times can pop stars go to that well? Apparently, forever.)

This second video shocked me by being by Selena Gomez, not known for this sort of song. And yes, she looks like every bartender in the world would card her, and the song is about Justin Bieber, who simply needs to go away. Despite those handicaps, which are huge, it works. So let’s give it props. Watch and listen.

 

Video

Sam Smith makes a sweet short film out of I KNOW I’M NOT THE ONLY ONE

Well shot. Well acted. It’s an itty bitty movie, people.

Your typical music video about a man stepping out on his wife has the woman scorned (a) trashing that cheater’s Beemer after (b) she gives away all his Armani suits to Goodwill and (c) the ending has her slapping him while he (d) sadly spots the FOR SALE sign next to all his other worldly possession currently being burned in the front yard.

Sam the Smith avoids the Hollywood ending and gives us ambiguity. Will she stay or leave? How long will the masquerade last?

Now, there are little things to nitpick. Sam is a man with a great deep voice, and this is shot with the female actress being the one cheated on, so that does start out a little odd. Also, Sam’s rocking a haircut that’s very, I don’t know, British. HOWEVER: you can always scratch at itty bitty details.

Overall, this music video stands out for great cinematography, which most bands can’t even spell, with great acting and the guts to avoid a Hollywood ending, even if they hired all kinds of Hollywood talent to pull this off.

I tip my hat to Sam the Smith and pray to the music gods that he makes more like this, if only to counter the effects of new One Direction videos.

Harry Potter hops on the Tonight Show and absolutely nails ALPHABET AEROBICS by Blackalicious

Daniel Radcliffe is (a) rocking a beard, and doing it well, and (b) can spit with the best of them. Seriously.

He didn’t do something quick and easy. Daniel the Radcliffe went on The Tonight Show and nailed an insanely fast and hard rap, by heart, no cue cards or teleprompter. Bam.

The only thing he didn’t do was drop the mike.

This reminds me of Chris Pratt, star of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, randomly doing some old-school Eminem on a radio show. Brilliant.

What star has surprised you by actually being able to sing? (Hugh Jackman doesn’t count. Too easy. Also, Pierce Brosnan, God bless him, should not have sung on that ABBA movie. Big mistake.)

###

This is Guy Bergstrom the writer, not the Guy Bergstrom in Stockholm or the guy in Minnesota who sells real estate or whatever. Separate guys. Kthxbai.
Guy Bergstrom. Photo by Suhyoon Cho.

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award and is represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

BLACK WIDOW pays excellent homage to KILL BILL

music video meme sound of music

Music videos tend to come in a few generic flavors: (a) pop divas singing with backup-dancers, (b) boy bands singing while serving as their own backup dancers and (c) rockers howling while they sort of dance. For variety, musicians sometimes (d) try to get deep and artsy by filming their video in black-and-white. Whoa.

Truly different music videos are rare.

The exception: 30 SECONDS TO MARS rocks at almost every music video they do, but that’s because Jared Leto is a legit Hollywood actor who knows how to make big honking movies, much less short films. The man has an Oscar and such.

So whatever you think of Iggy, she does put effort into her music videos. FANCY was a nice riff on the movie CLUELESS, and now she pays homage (hipsters: go fight about how to pronounce that word) to the classic KILL BILL movies.

This is all good movie-music karma, since KILL BILL has one of the most epic soundtracks of all time.

 

This is not a photo, I kid you not

random thursday crazy kittteh meme

Listen: I know enough about photography to be dangerous. (See related posts: The Nikon D-50 of Infinite Beauty and Pieces of the World)

HOWEVER: shooting great photos with a Nikon of Infinite Beauty is insanely simple compared to what this man did with an iPad, his finger and talent on loan from the gods.

The artist is Kyle Lambert of the United Kingdom.

Great writing tips from reddit, of all places

writing meme spiderman dear diary

Oh, there’s gold buried in here. 

Scroll through this post on writing and you’ll find all sorts of useful bits.

If a writer is Cookie Monster, this reddit thread is your Ginormous Chocolate Chip Cookie.
If a writer is Cookie Monster, this reddit thread is your Ginormous Chocolate Chip Cookie.

Wonderful stuff. Also, reddit is the rabbit hole of the Series of Tubes and always, always entertaining.