Oh, it kills me to say this: we are doing it backwards.
Maybe you’re the exception to the rule. Perhaps you’re that rare writer who figured this out 10 years ago.
But I doubt it. Most of the writers that I know — novelists or journalists, speechwriters or screenwriters — go about it roughly the same way:
Step 1) Research, whether it’s six months of intense study or six minutes of looking at Wikipedia and playing Angry Birds“to let it all percolate.”
Step 2) Boil down the research into useful nuggets of meaty goodness.
Step 3) Use their secret recipe of writing methods to cook up their piece (outlining first or winging it, 3 x 5 index cards or spiral notebook, Word 2016 or Scrivener, one draft or six drafts, coffee or bourbon).
Step 4) Hand the draft to our editor, writing partner, spouse, co-worker or cousin Joey to get all coffee stained and edited.
Step 5) Spend five or fifty minutes thinking about how to present and sell the sucker for suitcases stuffed with twenties.
Those first four steps, they’re essential, right?
Here’s the thing: We writers are incredibly talented at screwing up Step 5.
Backward is bad
Step 5 is the monster lurking under our typewriters. (Yes, I know most of you use computers. Maybe I have a magic typewriter connected to the Series of Tubes.)
It’s the troll under the bridge, snarfing our lunch and saying, “Whatcha gonna do about it, tough guy?”
Now, boiling down a novel clocking in at 100,000 pages is rough. I have author friends who’d rather leap out of a perfectly good airplane, trusting in the bouncy power of their Nike Air Jordans, than write a three-page synopsis. Tagline? Logline? Forgetaboutit.
Doing Step 5 for anything, long or short, is tough.
Tough for screenwriters, who need to boil it down to an elevator pitch.
Tough for editors in newsrooms, who have to write headlines that fit into tiny nooks and corners of the newspaper layout.
Yet nothing else matters if we botch Step 5. Because nobody will see the fruits of our labors, the hard work that went into Steps 1 through 4, if we can’t condense the whole idea into a killer pitch and hook.
Instead of performing the labors of Hercules before even attempting the torture of Step 5, reverse course.
Before you invest hours, days, weeks or months into research. Before you sweat bullets to put words on page after page.
Begin with the shortest and most important words.
The logline(or pitch, but in a sentence, not a paragraph) — “An alien monster stalks the trapped crew of a spaceship.”
The tagline – “In space, nobody can hear you scream.”
The headline – “Alien devours spaceship crew; heading for Earth?”
Test that out, not with friends and family, who are constrained by the need to live with you, and be liked by you.
Try that single sentence on people in line at Safeway or Starbucks, neighbors you barely know, visitors from out of town, tourists, people who won’t wound you forever if they make a face and tell you the idea is stupid.
And to get inspiration, use the series of tubes to check out “movie loglines” and “movie taglines” and “great headlines.” Or head to The Onion and read their headlines, which are seven separate flavors of awesomesauce.
Don’t do a thing until you have a logline, tagline and headline that sing.
Not one thing. Don’t spend six months writing a first draft or six minutes plotting the first chapter.
Go do it. Throw ideas around on a piece of paper or whatever — and not about whatever you’re working on. Dream up a few crazy ideas and write down loglines, taglines and headlines that are shorter than short. Then kill every word you can to make them shorter.
You’re going to notice a few things.
First, the hero doesn’t matter.
Second, the villain matters a whole bunch. If you remove the villain and threat, it kills the logline, tagline and headline. Because stories — even newspaper stories — are about conflict. No villain, no conflict. But if you take out the hero, it usually makes the logline a lot shorter and a lot better.
Here’s another example I’ve used before and will use again, because it is short and sweet and the logline for about six movies that have already been made: “Asteroid will destroy Earth.”
See? We don’t need Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck (Matt Damon‘s buddy, the one who dates & marries Jennifers) in there at all. Heroes just clutter things up.
Third, shorter is better. If you can get it down to three or four words, you are golden.
A new way to write
Let’s get practical. Here’s a new way to write anything.
New Step 1) Nail the logline, tagline and headline.
One sentence apiece, as few words as possible, and yes, it is cheating to have sentences that go on and on forever, sentences with six different commas and possibly semi-colons, which are a sin against the English language in the first place and should be taken out and shot.
New Step 2) Make it work as a paragraph.
Expand it a little, but not too much. Half a page, maximum.
New Step 3) Nail it as an outline on ONE PAGE, treating each side fairly.
Whether you’re writing an oped or an opera, a novel or a speech, figure out the biggest possible difference between the beginning and the end — and do it from both POV’s. The villain and the hero.
So: if it’s a romance where the heroine ends up as a great cook who’s happy and in a great relationship, what’s the greatest possible distance she can travel? On page 1, make her (a) the worst cook in the world, (b) unhappy and (c) alone. How can you take that up a notch? Make her a nun who loses her sense of smell (and therefore taste) in a car accident. I’m half kidding, but not really. You get the idea.
If the ending is crazy happy, the beginning better be insanely sad.
If the ending is full of sad, the beginning should be Happyville.
If the hero is a tough guy in the end, the best story shows him start out weak. Only after he suffers and sacrifices does he prevail (THE KARATE KID), and not necessarily by wining (ROCKY).
And you’ve got to make it a fair fight. Nobody thinks they’re a villain. The other side — whether it’s an speech about taxes or THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK — has a point. If you don’t give it credence, your writing will be one-sided and weak. Cartoonish.
I used ALIEN before. What’s the story for the alien creatures? Maybe they’re a dying race. Maybe that crashed ship contains the last of their kind. The stakes just got a lot higher for the alien, right? You are our only hope, little facehugger. Get in that ship and lay some eggs.
Put yourself in the shoes of Darth Vader and the Emperor, who don’t see themselves as enslaving the galaxy. They’re helping people by establishing law and order. If nobody is in charge, it’s chaos and confusion. A strong empire means safety, security and economic growth. The rebels are violent terrorists who don’t appreciate what they have and will kill whoever it takes to gain power.
Now figure out your turning points. Put in your setups and payoffs. Make it work as an outline before you move on.
New Step 4) Research only what you need.
New Step 5) Write and have a professional editor bleed red ink on the pages until the draft is A SHINY DIAMOND MADE OF WORDS.
You’ll notice that what used to be an afterthought — Step 5 in the original way of writing — becomes the first three steps.
I did that on purpose.
Say you write a beautiful oped, 700 magnificent words about why the death penalty should be abolished or whatever. Now you’ve got to pick up the phone and pitch an editor at The Willapa Valley Shopper or The New York Times.
The first five seconds (aside from the “hello!” nonsense) will determine if they even look at the piece. Maybe six or seven words, if you talk fast. Part of that will be confidence, tone of voice and other things you can’t learn via a blog post.
Your pitch, though, will matter. A lot. A great speaker with a muddled pitch will lose out to a mumbler with a tremendous idea they can convey in four words. That’s what a logline, headline and tagline are really about, three different ways of explaining something in the fewest possible words.
Hollywood calls this five-second kind of thing “the elevator pitch.” There are websites that devote many, many words to it. Use the powers of the google and check them out. They are useful.
Bottom line: those four words matter more than all 700 words of the oped, all 3,000 of the keynote speech, all 15,000 of the screenplay or all 100,000 of your epic novel about elves with lightsabers riding dinosaurs.
When was the last time you went to a movie and wanted to stay behind and watch it again?
What was the last political stump speech that made you laugh and cry and want to go knock on the doors of your neighbors to make sure they voted?
When was the last time you read a newspaper story that built up to an amazing climax instead of petering off into boring little details?
More people are writing more things than ever before. Movies and TV shows, blogs and newspapers, hardcover novels and digital e-books. Yet most of it is forgettable. Trite. Boring.
It used to be, blockbuster movies were the ones that had amazing special effects. STAR WARS showed us things we’d never seen before, like lightsabers. Who doesn’t want a lightsaber? JURASSIC PARK gave us dinosaurs that weren’t claymation or puppets. Today, though, any old TV show can afford to have great special effects.
And with the written word — novels, speeches, non-fiction and poetry — every author has the same unlimited special effects budget. You can do whatever you want for absolutely nothing.
So what’s the problem?
College does you wrong
You won’t find the answers in college. Everybody teaches a tiny piece of writing, happy in their little silo, isolated from the rest of the world.
Journalism school teaches you writing to INFORM.
Rhetoric and speech classes teach you writing to PERSUADE, though hardly anyone studies rhetoric these days. They should.
Creative writing classes are supposed to teach you writing to ENTERTAIN, but how many college professors wrote entertaining bestsellers instead of obscure literary novels that went nowhere?
I have a degree in journalism from a great j-school, competed in speech and debate, took creative writing classes and won silly awards from not-so-silly organizations for editing, reporting, speaking and fiction.
None of that really taught me how to write or speak. You get thrown into the deep end of the pool, and you either sink or doggie-paddle. Doggie paddle isn’t good enough.
Your whole life up through college, people are required to read what you write. Your kindergarten teacher gave you a star, right? Your college professor had to read your term paper.
Out in the real world, nobody has to read our stuff. You have to persuade people to read your stuff. And hardly anyone gets an education in rhetoric and persuasion. So there’s a huge switch right there.
Oh, if you have a degree in journalism or creative writing, sure, you can write a lot better than the man on the street. Technically, your writing will be sound. These programs are good.
So tell me: why are so many smart, well-educated people with degrees in creative writing, English Literature or journalism driving 15-year-old Hondas or selling insurance?
Correct is not spectacular
Hear me now and believe me later in the week: Pretty words and grammatically correct sentences don’t mean a thing.
Sure, you’d look like an idiot if you couldn’t string a sentence together. It’s just that correct grammar and well-built sentences are expected. It’s standard.
Think about literary novels. I’m not talking about really good books that aren’t easy to classify as thrillers or mysteries or romance. I’m talking about Serious Literature. If pretty sentences were the trick, then the people who write Serious Literature would be billionaires, not folks like J.K. Rowling, who is now RICHER THAN GOD.
Now, there’s some great stuff out there. I read literature and watch serious, literary movies. Yet some authors of Serious Literature, and makers of Serious Movies, take it as a badge of honor if their book or movie is hard on their audience (“the text is challenging”). It’s seen as wrong to have a happy, “Hollywood” ending, so the endings tend to be intensely dour.
Yes, you can do this right. But it’s easy to make it a tough experience for the reader or moviegoer. The topic also tends to be tough, since a lot of literary novels and movies feature angsty rich people having affairs and spending crazy amounts of money and still being unhappy about it all. Sometimes, to switch things up, literary novels feature miserable stories about grinding poverty or the emptiness of suburban, middle-class life.
Are the sentences pretty? Yeah. They’re gorgeous. Serious Literature can be poetry, and Serious Movies have amazing cinematography and acting, like THE ENGLISH PATIENT. Is it genius? Maybe. It looked great, and the acting was good. Do I want to see it again? No. You couldn’t pay me to sit through it.
The secret truth about writing is THIS ISN’T ABOUT PRETTY WORDS.
The trick is persuading people to read your stuff, watch the movie or listen to the speech when they have 5.9 million other things they could be reading, watching or doing.
Now, I love newspapers, novels, speeches and movies. But I’m not everybody, and I know a lot of folks who think like this instead: Why listen to some politician speak when you can watch the Packers beat the Bears? Why buy a novel when you can pretend to be a space marine and shoot aliens on the Playstation? Why read a newspaper story about a natural gas refinery blowing up in Texas when you can go to a Michael Bay movie and watch all sorts of stuff blow up in super slow motion while Megan Fox tries to emote in short-shorts and a tank top?
So if it’s not about pretty words, what’s the evil secret to writing?
The inverted pyramid MUST DIE
Big city newspapers love to do these monstrous investigative stories that start on Page One and jump inside for two or three more entire pages.
I’m an ex-reporter who still loves newspapers, and I can’t drag myself through these never-ending stories. Is the writing bad? No. Reporters spend serious time polishing the words on these pieces.
It’s the flawed structure of newspaper writing.
The inverted pyramid is great for short pieces and headlines, for telling people the most important thing first and the least important thing last. However: the inverted pyramid should be taken out and shot, because it’s a horrible blueprint for anything of length.
The inverted pyramid is like (a) having an amazing honeymoon on your first date, (b) kissing on your second date and (c) holding hands on your third date.
It gives you payoffs without setups, events out of order and people popping in and out of the story randomly. It doesn’t take the reader on a journey. Instead, it teleports the reader directly to the best part, then beams the reader all over the damn planet until you don’t care anymore. It’s not showing a gun in Act 1 that goes off in Act 3 — it’s just a gun going off in Act 1. You don’t know why.
I know the inverted pyramid inside and out. I’ve studied it, used it and abused it. It sucks like Electrolux and needs to be retired. It’s part of the reason why people are reading The Economist and blogs — because they’re going back to the roots of journalism, which was “somebody’s journal.”
That journal, those journalists, started out as first-person accounts. The reporter wrote exactly what they saw, felt, smelled, touched.
Early novels were disguised as journals.
First person again. Visceral, emotional and personal.
The dog was yellow
When I worked as a reporter, I’d write 10 to 15 stories a week. Let’s say 500 stories a year. And yeah, I won awards, but if I’m publishing 500 freaking stories a year, 200 of them should be pretty good, 12 should be amazing and six should rock the house.
A while back, I wrote one freelance newspaper story the entire year, about a man losing his dog on top of a mountain, because that man was my friend. The dog, too. My friend — and a bunch of old mountaineers nicknamed the Silver Panther Rescue Squad — went back to that mountain and rescued his dog from a cliff, just off the summit.
That solo story won an award. I batted 1.000 that year, and not because I’d grown so much as a writer since my cub reporter days.
Oh, my sentences were a little prettier. Just not THAT much prettier.
It was because I took the inverted pyramid out back behind the barn and shot it between the eyes.
If I’d had written the story using what they’d taught me in journalism school, the headline would give away the ending — “Man rescues dog on top of mountain” and the lede (first sentence) would be something like this: “After four days of being stuck on a cliff without food or water, one lucky dog is happy to be back home with his owner.”
The story would only get less interesting from there. The last line of the story would be what editors could chop if they were short on space. That last line would be something like, “The dog was yellow.”
To hell with that. I wrote it like a story, because giving the ending away in the headline and first graf is CHEATING THE READER.
College types call this “narrative non-fiction,” which is an overly fancy way of saying storytelling.
Good storytelling is the hardest thing any writer does.
It’s also the most powerful, and the most fun you can legally have as a writer of any sort.
Structure and storytelling, not grammar and comma splices
I don’t care if you’re (1) a speechwriter for a U.S. senator, (2) a romance novelist writing a novel about Men in Kilts and the Women Who Love Them or (3) a screenwriter sipping margaritas by a pool in Hollywood while you pen a movie about a zombie attack during a high school musical.
Storytelling and structure is the hard part.
The bodywork is not the most important part of the car. The engine under the hood is what makes the car go fast.
What they teach us — in college, in most books in writing and at writing conferences — is mostly bodywork.
I don’t care how pretty the car looks. If the engine is a mess — or is completely missing — your readers aren’t going for a ride. At all.
Storytelling and structure is why every Pixar movie has been a blockbuster. The other computer-animated movies look just as pretty. The folks at Pixar simply are ten times better at telling stories.
It’s why novelists who frankly are pedestrian, line by line, sell millions of books while brilliant literary novelists who write gorgeous sentences, every phrase a poem, starve in obscurity.
Clive Cussler may have an ugly bare frame, a glorified go-cart painted seven different shades of bondo. Next to the shining Lexus of a literary novel, his car looks horrible. However, Cussler has a honking V-8, while the Literary Lexus has a lawnmower engine put in backwards.
Cussler, John Grisham and Stephen King understand the structure of stories. They draw the blueprints. They spend most of their energy on the storytelling engine and a lot less time polishing the chrome.
And right there, with those three authors, you see three entirely different levels of writing ability:
Cussler is meh.
Grisham is workmanlike.
King is great. I’d read his Safeway shopping list, because he could make it epic.
Yet all three made it big despite the vast differences in writing skill, because all three mastered an entirely different skill: THEY KNOW HOW TO TELL A DAMN STORY.
Do I hate Cussler’s writing style? Yeah, it grates on me. Do I want to know what happens next? Yes.
Does Stephen the King sometimes ramble on too long and give you a 1,000-page novel when 400 would do? Yes. But we forgive him, because he is a God of Writing and Storytelling, and also because he looks kinda scary, like he might kill you if you pissed him off.
Bad blueprints make people forget beautiful writing.
Good blueprints make people forget bad writing.
It’s not the intensity that matters — it’s the distance you travel
Think of any B-movie, and they all have the same flaw. The structure is bad. The storytelling is horrible.
You might say, hey, it’s a low-budget flick. That’s what you get. No. Indie movies with no budget can be great.
B-movies are bad because they’re built wrong. They’re full of repetition without a purpose.
Right now, you and I can write a better story than the script of TRANSFORMERS 2, which had an army of screenwriters who got paid — I kid you not — something like $4 million for a script about explosions and computer-generated robots born from a cartoon meant to sell toys to seven-year-old boys in the 1980s.
Here’s a short version of the script for TRANSFORMERS 2.
Megan Fox in shorts and a tank top, washing a car or whatever
Humans running, robots fighting
Megan Fox has a rip in her short-shorts
Humans running, robots fighting
Megan Fox has some dirt on her cheek
Humans running, robots fighting
EXPLOSIONS! Bad robots die, but they’ll be back for the sequel.
This also works, in a pinch, as the script for TRANSFORMERS and TRANSFORMERS 3.
Is it intense? Sure. Lots of running, lots of fighting, lots of explosions.
Yet it’s boring in the same way most martial arts films get boring, and I love those movies. Here’s the problem with them: Oh, look, it’s another fight. Man, it’s been almost three minutes since the last battle. Why is the hero fighting the blue ninjas? Three minutes ago, he was getting chased by a gang of fat shirtless dudes waving meat cleavers.
After an hour of this, you start praying for a training montage with the old wrinkled mentor who farts a lot and picks his nose and teaches the hero some secret fighting technique before the Big Bad Guy snaps the old man’s spine and kidnaps the old man’s daughter, who happens to be hot, and now the hero will go fight 4,082 different henchmen until he gets to the Big Bad Guy and battles him on a rooftop with rain and lightning going crazy. Yeah. You know I’m right.
B-movies have the same intensity throughout the movie. They crank it up to 11 and stay there.
If every scene in a movie — or every paragraph in a speech — has the intensity cranked up to 11, then you’re shouting at the audience. It becomes noise, and it makes for a flat ride. There’s no momentum, no velocity, no meaning.
Don’t shout at your audience
Most bad speeches have the same B-movie problem. People shout their way through them, confusing volume with passion.
The structure for 99 percent of speeches is also wrong. Listen to any random stump speech from that and there’s nothing holding it together. There’s no story being told, no setups and payoffs, no real structure. This is why the rare candidate who says something different gets hailed as a political rock star.
Ronald Reagan wasn’t a great speaker in a technical sense. He had a lot of verbal tics. What he was great at was telling a story from his days as an actor. He knew that audiences didn’t want to hear just about policies and programs. He made sure to talk about people, too.
Barack Obama was quite different. He also isn’t technically perfect; there are flaws in his delivery that you don’t notice because he and his speechwriters really care about the bones of a speech, about making sure the pieces fit together. They work on the engine first, THEN make it look pretty. Obama’s best speeches are structurally amazing. You can take them apart and see how the pieces intertwine. Or turn an Obama speech into an epic music video.
Velocity and power
No matter what you’re writing, what matters is the journey you take the audience on, the distance traveled. That’s what gives you velocity and power.
This is why tragedies have worked for 2,000 years.
You start UP, say with a wealthy, powerful man. You end DOWN after he falls from grace through hubris. There’s power and velocity there, because it’s a big fall from King of the World way on down to Hobo Begging for Change.
The opposite — Rags to Riches — works as a structure because it’s a big jump.
The bigger the trip, the better the story.
Little jumps don’t work.
This is why most literary novels about grinding poverty go nowhere, because a Rags to Riches story would be too happy-happy Hollywood, right? That sort of text is not challenging! So instead, things go from really bad to even more miserable.
Except that’s a bad structure, because it’s a small hop. It’s not a fall from the top to the bottom. It’s going from the gutter to a different, less desirable gutter, where the food scraps are inferior and the cardboard boxes aren’t as roomy.
Non-jumps don’t work, either.
If you’re a French existentialist director, the last frame of the movie is the hero being hit by a bus, not because he deserves it, but because life is random. There’s a reason why only college students trying to be hip take their dates to French existentialist movies. That reason is this: the movies stink. Give me something that will make me laugh, make me cry, scare me silly. Don’t give me “Life is random and pointless, so let’s have random and pointless things happen to characters for two hours.”
Tales of redemption are powerful because you’ve got the full a roller coaster: UP, DOWN and UP again.
Here’s an easy example: all six STAR WARS movies are really about Darth Vader’s redemption. Luke is only in the last three movies. Vader is in all six. He was good, then he turned bad, and in the end, he sacrificed his life to save his son and kill the real bad guy, the Emperor with Seriously Angry Wrinkles.
Take the audience somewhere
For any kind of writing, this is a law: Take your audience on a journey that actually goes somewhere.
If you’re going to have a down ending, you need an up beginning.
Together to alone.
Democracy to dictatorship.
Life to death.
If the ending is up, the beginning better be down.
Alone to together.
Dictatorship to revolution and democracy.
Hopelessness to hope.
Here’s a non-story example. I bet you’ve seen a lot of TV ads about drunk driving. A tough issue. The usual way people talk about drunk driving — or any problem — is wrong. You’re trying to persuade them to DO something. To take action. The typical way is to beat the audience over the head. “This is a problem. It’s bad. Really, really bad. I’m serious: the problem is bad. Just look at these numbers. Don’t let it happen to you.”
Not persuasive. Not a good structure. It’s all down, isn’t it? Just as flat as a Michael Bay explosion-fest or a literary novel swimming in misery and angst. Sure, the ending should be down. It’s not a happy topic. Then the beginning better be up. And like Reagan, you should talk about real people instead of numbers. So let’s start talking about a real person:
At 7:15 a.m. last Thursday, eight-year-old Ashlyn hugged her daddy goodbye and got into the Subaru with her mom, Jane, to drive to school. Across town at 7 in the morning, Billy Wayne was getting out of the county jail. At ten in the morning, Ashlyn practiced singing the national anthem, which her third-grade class will sing at halftime during the high school homecoming game. Half a mile away, Billy Wayne stole a twenty from his baby mamma’s purse and drove down to the Qwik-E Mart to buy two six packs of Corona Light. At a quarter past 3, Jane picked up Ashlyn from school and they met Billy Wayne at the intersection of Broadway and Sixth Street, when he blew threw a red light at fifty-six miles an hour and his Chevy pickup turned that Subaru into a pile of smoking metal. It was the fourth time Billy Wayne got arrested for driving drunk. People like Billy Wayne get second chance after second chance. Little Ashlyn and her mom won’t get a second chance. But we can change the law. We can lock up chronic drunk drivers.
That’s a far more moving than statistics. Even something tiny like this — it’s less than 200 words — needs structure, because that’s what gives it emotional heft and persuades people. Statistics can come in later.
Those words I just wrote are rough and raw. Not pretty at all. The thing is, they don’t need to be pretty. There’s an engine in there.
Is that plot? Sort of. Except if I’d looked up what specific plot fit this situation and tried to cram in inciting incidents and turning points and all that nonsense in there it would take hours to write instead of two minutes and make my head explode.
All I needed to know was the ending was down (death) and I wanted a big contrast (life) without giving it all away in the first sentence. So there’s tension in that single paragraph.
Emotion matters most
Cussler, Grisham and King understand that fun is OK, that people like a good story that makes them laugh and cry, to feel thrilled or scared out of their minds.
People want to FEEL something.
Misery is actually fine, if you start with misery and take people on a journey that ends in joy. Or if you do the reverse. What you can’t do is pile misery on top of misery for 100,000 words or two hours in a dark room where the popcorn costs $15 — or even two minutes at a podium.
And you can’t stack joy on top of joy.
Also, you want to run far, far away from the Invincible Hero problem, which explains why Batman (no powers) is beloved while people sorta kinda hate Superman (invincible) because it’s never a fair fight. No villain has a shot and you know Superman will win without paying a price.
The only books on writing worth anything, I learned from my genius screenwriter sister, were about screenwriting, because it’s all about storytelling and structure. There’s no way to hide bad structure with pretty words, not in a screenplay. It’s pared down to bare bones anyway. Setups and payoffs. Public stakes and private stakes. Emotion. Turning points. Revelations. Raising the stakes. Building to a climax.
Asking questions without answering them. Will they get together? Who’s the killer? Can the planet be saved from the aliens / comet / zombies?
Let’s fix THE MATRIX, right now
Movies are the easiest to talk about because most people have seen them.
THE MATRIX was amazing. Both sequels were terrible. Why? Same writers and directors, same cast, same crew. Giant budget.
The sequels sucked like Electrolux because of structural problems. Story problems.
The first movie had a down beginning and up ending.
The last two movies were flat and boring, despite all the action and fights.
I didn’t care about the last scene of the last MATRIX movie because I wasn’t watching it with some fanboy who could explain to me why the Oracle made a deal with the Architect or whoever, with the deal being the robots take stupid pills and declare a truce after Neo dies killing Agent Smith, when any five-year-old would know that if they continued to fight for three seconds, they’d wipe out the rebel humans once and for all.
Maybe I’m too stupid to fully enjoy the ambiguity and philosophical BS involved. Or maybe the last movie sucked, and the fact that the first movie rocked, making the train wreck the second and third movies all the more painful.
Let’s fix it. Right here, right now.
Who’s the real villain in THE MATRIX? Not Agent Smith — he’s a henchman, a virus.
The real villain is whoever controls the robots while keeping humans as slaves and batteries.
Neo is alive in the beginning and dead in the end. It’s a big leap, a real journey. We can roll with that. His death simply has to mean something other than preserving a bad status quo and an endless war. What are the stakes? Freedom vs. slavery. Life vs. death. Humans are slaves in the beginning. A good ending — a true leap — would have all the humans be free.
Here’s our new ending: Neo sacrifices his life to free the humans and win the war, leading the humans as they finally beat the evil robot overlords and retake Earth.
This way, you’ll care about the last scene, and root for Neo to take out the Evil Robot Overlord in the Most Amazing Fight Scene Known to Man, because if he wins, humanity wins. If he loses, every human starves. We are wiped out.
The stakes are raised, aren’t they? Yeah. Can’t get any higher. Plus, I’d much rather have Neo fight something like the Borg Queen than endless clones of the same stupid henchman he’s been fighting since the first movie.
Take things apart and put them back together
You learn to write by editing, and you learn to edit by taking a red pen to what other people write. Where we need to switch it up is how we edit. Not line by line. Don’t worry about pretty sentences. Worry about pretty BONES. The bodywork of the car can wait until the V-8 under the hood can pur and roar. Focus on that storytelling engine.
Take something short — a newspaper story, your favorite movie, a column by Paul Krugman or George Will — and outline the structure, the bones.
Roughly. Quickly. Without overthinking it.
Circle the setups and payoffs.
Is the beginning up or down? What about the ending?
Does the writer make it abstract, talking about ideas like freedom or justice — or are there real paper in there, with names and families?
You can learn from amazing writing and horrible writing. Mediocre writing is frustrating. To hell with it. Ignore that stuff.
Look for the best of the best and the worst of the worst. Take apart the best to see how the author put it together to make it magic. Restructure the worst to make it work.
Slaying sacred cows
Maybe all this is sacrilege and rebellion. It could be that my pet theories are completely insane and that what you really should do is sign up for journalism school or get a master’s in creative writing or attend seminars about the correct use of semi-colons in headlines and how to write dialogue that sings.
Frankly, I don’t care what you do — follow your heart. Not selling anything here. What I do know is this: every day, I see writers, professional and aspiring, banging their head against the wall, spending hours and hours destroying a house while they’re building it, taking six days to write something that should take sixty minutes.
I see other friends of mine holding something it took them ten months to write, something they slaved over and just can’t fix with line editing because the bones of the story are broken, and they have to hold their baby over the round file and let all those pages, all that work, hit the bottom of that trash can.
It makes an awful sound.
I don’t want to hear that sound.
I don’t want my friends thinking they have to suffer when they write.
Writing doesn’t have to be painful.
It should be fast.
It should be fun.
And it should be magical, for the person banging on the keyboard and for the people who read it.
And that’s slow. I type about 80 or 90. Faster, if I have coffee. Even quicker with headphones blasting, or on deadline.
Coffee plus headphones plus a deadline? Fuggetaboutit. That keyboard is gonna sing.
The thing is, all the speed in the world doesn’t really matter.
Here comes the math
Let’s say you write full-time, all day, every day. No day job to worry about, no cramming in writing at 4 in the morning when the kids are asleep or scribbling forty minutes a day on a yellow legal pad (are there other colors? why yes, there are, including PURPLE) as you ride the train from New Jersey to the NYC.
Say you’re not that fast. Fifty words a minute.
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
Of course, people don’t type every second of the workday.
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 weeks, you get a smidge less than 2,000 words per week and, I kid you not, less than 300 words per day.
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 pro speechwriters, brilliant people I’ve known for years, who take two solid weeks to nail down a 30-minute keynote speech (3,000 words).
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 all sorts of pro 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, travel and attend meetings. Nobody is 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. Phone calls. E-mail. Lunch with some big important person. Twittering to your buddies.
Fine, let’s go all the way down and say six of your eight hours are toast, and there are only TWO HOURS of actual banging on the keyboard.
3,000 words per hour X 2 hours = 6,000 words a day.
And yet the most writers typically can hit, day after day, is 2,000 words.
Where are the missing words?
Also, I know writers who spend six hours a day in meetings, doing research, returning e-mail and all that — and they still bang on the keyboard at least four to eight hours a day because they’re working crazy hours. A lot of writers work weekends, too. Writing is often a daily habit.
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 of the general population.
Serious and 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 Most Hours of the Day Get Wasted) 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 30 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’d 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?
If you’re attempting NaNoWriMo and are on track to finish the Great American Novel, congratulations. Carry on.
If you’re doing NaNoWriMo and there’s no way you’ll give birth to a full novel by Dec. 1 without quitting your job, getting divorced and downing pots of coffee along with stimulants sold by a sketchy long-haul truck driver—then congratulations, this post is for you.
Hear me now and believe me later in the week: given the choice of holding in my hands (1) an absolutely finished hot mess of 100,000 words or (2) a single page blueprint of a brilliant story, I’d pick B.
And you should, too.
Blueprints and structure are also the way you FIX a hot mess of a novel.
Hundreds of thousands of people around the world are driving themselves nuts (a) trying to write beautiful sentence after beautiful sentence that (b) build upon each other to (c) craft a novel during NaNoWriMo (National Write a Novel Month).
The word that matters in that first paragraph is “build.”
You don’t build with beauty.
Because pretty words aren’t what truly matters. Not for anything of length.
Writing is like building a house, except most writers get taught that it’s the surface stuff that matters–the drywall and the paint, the cabinetry and tile work. Then we’re surprised when our pile of 75,000 pretty words crumbles because there’s no foundation.
Sure, pretty words can hide a bad structure when you’re talking about something small, like a beautiful wooden beach hut sitting on the sand. You can hang out in there for an afternoon or a weekend. Sooner or later, though, it’ll get blown down or swept away by the waves, because the hut isn’t built to last.
Every year in November, writers around the world attempt something noble and worthwhile: to not just write a novel–the Toughest Writerly Thing A Writer Can Do–but finish the thing in an insane amount of time, as in the 30 short, rainy days of November.
This is a huge, organized thing, nicknamed NaNoWriMo, the kind of acronym only writers could come up with after a marathon viewing of BLADE RUNNER and THE MATRIX trilogy. (Spoiler alert: first one with Neo is perfect while the second and third will ruin your childhood).
HOWEVER: writing an entire novel in 30 days is would be more accurately described by the non-acronym of Crazytown.
With logic and numbers, I’ll show you: (a) why this is nuts, even if you really, really want to do it, and (b) how an alternative is easier while (c) giving you better results.
When logic and math fail, I’ll resort to dirty rhetorical tricks. You won’t even see them coming.
Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment. So come closer and listen to what I’ve learned from experience: Editors are a writer’s best friend.
Not when they’re patting you on the back, because anybody can butter you up.
They’re your best friend when they take a red pen and blast through your complicated writing pets, when they check your wildest instincts and find order out of the natural chaos that comes from banging on the keyboard to create anything of length and importance.
So it’s wrong to say that every writer needs an editor.
You need more than one, if you want to get serious about any sort of real writing.
It’s like building a house. As a writer, you’re trying to do it all: draft the blueprints like an architect, pour the foundation, frame it, plumb it, siding, drywall, flooring, cabinets, painting–the whole thing.
Every step is important. And getting the right editors is like hiring great subcontractors.
My bias is to think of structure first, because if the blueprints are bad, it doesn’t matter how pretty the carpentry is, and how great the writing is line by line.
This is why every professional architect hires an engineer to do the math and make sure the foundation is strong enough to hold up the house, that the roof won’t blow off and your beams are big enough to handle the load.
So you need different editors for different things. The best possible professional editor for the structure, the blueprints. Then beta readers to look over the whole thing another time, looking for medium-size problems. A line editor to smooth things out and make it all pretty, and finally a proof-reader to take a microscope to the entire thing and make it as flawless as possible.
That sounds like a lot, and most pro editors can wear different hats. But I’m going to argue for dividing it up, because when you’ve been staring at the same thing for weeks, or months, you stop seeing things. A fresh pair of eyes is always smart.
Even though I’ve always had editors, starting way back in college when I was putting out newspapers, there’s a natural inclination for writers to screw this up, to see using editors as some kind of sign of weakness. The thinking goes like this: “Hey, I have (1) a master’s degree in creative writing or (2) have been cashing checks as a journalist for years or (3) am far too talented to need the crutch of a professional editor, which is for wannabes who can’t write their way out of a paper sack if you handed them a sharpened pencil.”
I’d did editing wrong by having friends and family beta read, or asking fellow writers who yes, wrote for money, but cashed checks for doing something completely different.
And it was a waste of time.
Here’s how I learned my lesson, and no, I am not making this up: On a whim, I posted a silly ad to sell my beater Hyundai and romance authors somehow found my little blog that started from that. Pro editor Theresa Stevens got there somehow and I started talking to her, and on a whim did her standard thing to edit the first 75 pages of a novel, the synopsis and query letter. Didn’t think anything of it and expected line edits, fixing dangling modifiers and such.
But she rocked.
I learned more, in the months of editing that entire novel, than I could’ve learned in ten years on my own. It’s like the difference between a pro baseball player trying to become a better hitter by spending six hours a day in batting practice, alone, versus one hour a day in hard practice with a world-class batting coach. I’d pick the batting coach, every time.
As somebody who used to lone-wolf it, let me say this: I was wrong.
And so on this Friendly Friday, I want to plant a big smooch on editors of the world, and encourage writers of all backgrounds and specialties to see editors in a different light. That having an editor isn’t a sign of weakness, but of strength. That it says you’re crazy serious about what you do and not afraid of working with the best of the best rather than a cheerleading squad of yes-men who think your 947-word epic about elves with lightsabers riding dragons is the best thing ever.
That it’s not about you, and doing whatever you want, but about making the finest product you can give to readers.
Writing long will suck the life out of your words and ideas. Embrace short and pithy. Hug the glory of writing short tightly to your bosum, even if you’re not sure where your bosum may be, or if the FCC will fine you for using that word on the Series of Tubes.
Take photo memes, which are really one-liners with an illustration. They’re boiled down and refined, without a word wasted. That’s why they work. Extra verbiage would drown the funny.
Once you’ve read his books, and fully appreciate his literary genius, you can watch this low-definition video with horrible audio that still rocks because it has KURT FREAKING VONNEGUT.
I would have paid monies to have him as my professor. Now that I think about it, I did pay monies to have professors. Hmm. Though my journalism profs were top-notch. Props to you all.
Now, it’s not so complicated, is it?
Hero in a hole.
Boy meets girl.
Girl with a problem.
Albert Einstein — and thousands of other people far, far smarter than you or I put together, even on our good days when our fingers spark magic and the coffee we drink would do better on an IQ test than Michele Bachmann — spent many years trying to come up with a unified theory of everything.
See, the whole E=MC2 was only part of the answer. That’s the equation for energy. He wanted to do an equation that also explained gravity and whatnot. IT IS COMPLICATED. We will not get into it.
Oh, people get all mystical and complicated, and come up with their own jargon and rules. Yet these self-appointed writing gurus all disagree, and they specialize so much that they know more and more about less and less until they know absolutely everything about nothing.
You’ve got screenwriters and reporters, poets and novelists, playwrights (who spell their name wrong) and songwriters (spelling it right, good job), copywriters and non-fiction authors — all with their own rules and jargon, their own writing conferences and groups that hand out awards.
You’ve got endless shelves of books about the craft of writing, each expert giving their own special equations to maybe solve a piece of of the puzzle.
Hear me now and believe me later in the week: We could unify this sucker, and we could do it without a lick of calculus or a single imaginary number. (Having -1 bottles of rieslings does nothing for me.)
So let’s do it. I have evil ideas, and have scribbled on the blackboard while cackling with glee.
But I’d like to hear what my brilliant writer friends say. How would you smash the walls that separate the different houses of writers?