Marching across the dunes

(Note: There were a few missed messages about who would be writing the farewell post for the last of the month, so here is a ¡Special Bonus! farewell to March, the final “Monday with Bob.”)

By guest blogger Bob Sabatini

Hello! I hope A Writer’s March has been an enjoyable and inspiring experience for you. On this, the final day of the month, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the challenge, not as the end of a process of growth, but as another step in the journey. A chance to pause and catch our breaths and take a look back before continuing this march on into April and beyond. At the beginning of the March, Sam shared a video of a commencement speech given by Neil Gaiman. One of the most striking devices Gaiman uses in this speech is the metaphor of the mountain. He gives the directions for anyone who wants to pursue a life in the arts to think of their goals as being on the top of a mountain, and to make decisions—life defining decisions, sometimes—based on what gets you closer to the top of that mountain.

After hearing the speech, I spent nearly a week trying to determine exactly what my mountain was. The conclusion I’ve come to is that I don’t have one. I am wandering—not exactly lost, but without definite purpose—through a desert where my horizon consists entirely of dunes. I clamber up to the top of one dune, slipping in the sand as I go, sometimes getting winded and needing to take a short rest, but getting there eventually. Then I take a look around and—still not seeing any mountains off in the distance anywhere—pick another dune and start the climb all over again. Continue reading

Write it!

By guest blogger Bob Sabatini

Last year, I took part in some writing challenge for March, the name of which escapes me for the moment. I set the “modest” goal for myself of a thousand words a day, for a grand total of thirty-one thousand words. I called this “modest” because I’d easily cleared fifty-two thousand words for NaNoWriMo a few months earlier, during a month which is one day shorter. I put “modest” in quotes because I failed miserably last March. Quite simply, in March I stopped myself from writing anything I didn’t consider meaningful, while in November I let myself fully explore whatever I felt I had to say. In other words, by stopping myself from writing anything that wasn’t “meaningful,” I stopped myself from writing, period.

I feel it’s important that I make it clear the advice I’m about to give is not just meant to help writers better meet some arbitrary word-count goal, it is meant to make them better writers: do not stop yourself from writing. Don’t worry about what anybody else is going to think when they read it, whether you feel you “know enough” about the subject matter to write convincingly or that you know you’ll never be able to publish it. I am a firm believer in writing for the sake of writing and the writer’s right to write for nobody other than him or herself (try saying that five times fast). Anything you write—whether it is suitable for anybody else or not—is a whetstone for further sharpening your craft; practicing dialogue, understanding characters, testing images, whatever you feel your weaknesses may be.

You ever have an idea for a scene you’d like to write, but then stopped yourself because “it’ll never work in this story”? Think character x from story A would be a worthy adversary for character y from story B but don’t want to mix story A with story B? Write it anyways. Here’s a helpful equation:
—————————————x+y=practice writing dialogue.
Maybe there’s a situation you’d like to put a character in just to see how he handles it? Write it, it’ll help you get to know that character better. Want to write a sex scene but feel it’s totally gratuitous? Don’t even worry about justifying it, if it wants to be written, then write it!

Don’t stop yourself from writing because you feel you need to do more research. Let’s say you want to set a story in a cheese factory but don’t know the first thing about making cheese. You will need to do research in order to create a believable environment and believable characters to inhabit it, but don’t let a lack of research keep you from getting whatever wonderful idea that had you wanting to write a story about a cheese factory in the first place down on paper. Write it! Make it up as you go along, and make adjustments as needed when you do get that research done.

Last but certainly not least, do not stop yourself from writing something just because you know you’ll never be able to publish it. You know what I’m talking about: fan fiction. Interesting characters and settings from established books, movies and television shows should spark the imagination, and just because those characters are somebody else’s “intellectual property” doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with them for your own personal use. If you think it would be fun to have Alex from A Clockwork Orange steal the TARDIS, escape to the antebellum south and run afoul of Scarlet O’Hara… WRITE IT! Sure, you’ll almost certainly never acquire the rights to publish it, but that’s not the point, the point is to practice writing. Alex and Scarlet. Just try writing a page or two of that without needing to flex some underutilized imaginative muscle.

So, your writing prompt for today: Alex from A Clockwork Orange steals the TARDIS and takes it to________.

Up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a plot hole!

By guest blogger Bob Sabatini

Note: Ok, so, nobody told me about this sky-themed week, but for me, it’s turned into a blessing—and not even a disguised one at that—because the post I’ve been trying to write all week about nitpicking simply was not coming together for me. (Maybe I was picking at it too much…)

If you know me, you’re probably already aware that I am a huge fan of the movie Up. If you’ve spent any time discussing narrative structure with me, you’ve probably heard me say quite a bit about what Up does very well. (If you haven’t, how many hours do you have free?) To put it as briefly as I know how: there are two stories in Up. One is the big, silly “Hollywood” movie, featuring action-adventure sequences, big sets, lots of spectacle and a “to-the-death” conflict. Then there’s the smaller, more intimate and much more touching narrative of an old widower named Carl who hasn’t reconciled himself to the loss of his wife. What Up has the guts to do that so few mainstream films do these days is to make action and spectacle subservient to the human drama. At the climax, the big “Hollywood” story comes to a screeching halt until Carl can find some resolution to the smaller, quieter inner conflict. It satisfies both as a lighthearted cartoony  action film and as a very real human drama.

Well, I do know the focus of this blog is writing and not movie appreciation, and I do indeed have a point that has to do with writing. I have a number of writer friends who have wonderful, fanciful ideas for stories they’d like to write. One of them will be so excited about an idea and will spend the better part of an hour explaining or even brainstorming the characters and the world and a general outline of what he or she would like to have happen to those characters in that world. That person will leave itching to get it written, and leave me itching to read it. More often than not, when I next see him or her, I’ll ask how the writing’s going, only to get the disheartening response, “It just wasn’t working out,” followed by a litany of plot holes that can’t be filled. Usually, my suggestion that they try writing their stories anyways falls on deaf ears.

And this is what brings me back to Up. As perfectly constructed and as personally satisfying as it is for me, there’s a monumental plot hole in the movie that I didn’t notice until the director pointed it out to me on the commentary track of the DVD. The basic premise is that Carl—under pressure to sell his house and generally mad at the world—decides to get away by tying thousands of helium balloons to his house in order to get away:

To get both plotlines started, the writers needed to strand Carl in the middle of the wilderness of South America with an unwitting stowaway, an 11-year-old named Russell who just happened to be under his porch when the house lifted off. How do they get there? What’s to keep Carl from dropping Russell off at some police station before he gets to the wilds of South America? A giant storm comes out of nowhere (while Carl is in the middle of trying to ditch Russell, as a matter of fact), buffets the house around and knocks Carl unconscious. When he comes to, there is no hint of a storm and the house is floating within a few kilometers of his goal. Pretty convenient storm, don’t you think? I’m trying to decide whether to call this “Hurricane Plot-hole” or “Tropical Storm Deus ex Machina.”

Which brings me—finally—to my point. Suspension of disbelief is no mere myth. If your story is compelling, your characters engaging and with an emotional heart that resonates deeply, then readers (or viewers or listeners) will happily grant you that suspension of disbelief, and either not notice or choose not to care when you need to hedge “reality” or common sense in order to tell that story. You’ve got a story that wants to get out for some reason. Have trust that the story will resonate with someone else, someone who won’t mind a giant cumulonimbus plot hole any more than I did.

Week 2 – Post 2: Shape it up

By guest blogger Bob Sabatini

You may recall last year Sam shared a video of a talk by Kurt Vonnegut on the shape of plot. If you’re new to The March or if you want to refresh your memory, you might want to check it out here. Don’t mind me, I’ll wait. Now, I enjoyed the video immensely and suspect that Vonnegut is pulling our collective leg. However, there was something about the idea of writing stories to fit specific shapes that I found deeply unsettling.

I’m a firm believer that stories should tell themselves, that while broad structures could be useful in giving guideposts to a writer who is lost in a piece, but if the writing is going smoothly it should be allowed to explore. After all, what’s the point of taking a road trip if you don’t get off the Interstate once in a while?

I thought of doing a sarcastic response to this video by charting some of my own work. (Shameless plug in ten… nine…) “What did he plot?” you’re probably thinking. Well, I’m glad you asked. I decided to plot the first section from my book of short plays. Ok, was that too shameless? Perhaps, but it is pertinent. At no point when I was writing any of these plays was I thinking of structure, and yet each one is—to me, anyways—very satisfying.

At first I thought I’d just draw a random mess of lines on a page and call it a plotting of that section of plays, but struck by a sudden and inexplicable bout of honesty I decided to do my best to accurately chart each one of the 33 short plays according to Vonnegut’s grid. I mean, what if I’ve so internalized the “boy gets girl” shape or the “man in a hole” shape that I’m writing them without even thinking of it? What if I’d charted out my plays and found them clustering around those few tried-and-true curves? It would seem to invalidate my argument, don’t you think? I sat down with the manuscript and three different colors of pens. Here’s what happened: Continue reading

Week 1 Post 2: Add it all up

The first of several “Mondays with Bob”
By guest blogger Bob Sabatini

In some ways, I’ve got an ideal writer’s job. Without going into too much detail, I work from home for a call center that doesn’t get very many calls. I’ve come to the realization that I’m not getting paid so much for the work I do as I am for agreeing to tie myself to a phone eight hours a day and watch the nicest February/March weather I can remember out my window. As someone who likes to be kept busy, it became clear that I had two options. I could sit there and bemoan the fact that I was inside doing nothing, or I could find something to occupy my time. Naturally, the bulk of that time is spent writing.

The goal I set for this Writer’s March was to fill out a 100-sheet comp book from cover to cover in the month. After two days of sitting next to the phone and answering it when it deigned to ring, I can see that I might need to expand my goal. I noticed even with frequent distractions and interruptions, I’d average about 1 page an hour, and when things got really slow and I found myself in a groove, I could get closer to three or four pages in an hour. At the pace I’ve set, I could very easily get through the 200 pages well before the 20th.

“Well,” you may be saying, “that’s all very nice for you, but what about those of us who have to do work?” Or school? Or parenting? Or—in some cases—work and school and parenting? No matter how modest or grandiose your goals, you should take some time to celebrate your accomplishments. One thing I told fellow wrimos over and over again during the course of the madness that is NaNoWriMo is that no matter what, whether they were working on a single novel or if they were using the month to sketch out many different projects, they should keep everything together in one document. It was extremely gratifying on November 17th to open up my NaNoWriMo Word file and scroll down to page 100 to pick up my writing for the new day.

And I’m suggesting something similar for the March: take a moment to put together everything you’ve written. If you have the time to fill out a 200 page comp book in the month, feel the heft and the thickness of it and revel in the fact that it was blank at the start of the month. Of course some of it will be crap, of course it’ll “need a lot of work,” but we’re writers: cleaning up crap is part of our work. And unlike waiting for a phone to ring, writing is work. Even if you’ve only got the time for a page a day, that’s still 31 pages. It’s a healthy chunk of a tree, it’ll need quite a bit of extra postage to mail. Enjoy that feeling. Heck, if you’re so inclined, mail it to yourself so you can see that great big envelope with all those stamps arrive and know it was something you accomplished.