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Emma Stone movies & embracing cliches

We’re often told to avoid clichés like the plague.

That’s good advice, except when it’s not. 

I was thinking about clichés after seeing two Emma Stone movies in quick succession: Crazy Stupid Love and Easy A. I have to say, I enjoyed both films and they did one thing the same way: Namely, they called attention to rom-com and John Hughesian clichés and made fun of them. The screenwriter  pointed at them (some call this writing technique “hanging a lantern on it”) to let us know, proudly, we know this is cliché and we aren’t apologizing. It’s not dumb if you know what you’re doing.

In Crazy Stupid Love, Steve Carell gets into an argument that destroys him. As soon as it’s over, he’s left alone to sulk and it begins to rain in buckets. “How cliché,” he says. Wink!

Easy A is a witty story with smart people saying funny things (so it’s the opposite of reality TV.) Stanley Tucci and Emma Stone are father and daughter and, in wordplay, are the same smart, funny person. The jokes are often about clichés that the protagonist recognizes are worn out repetitions, but she longs for them anyway. She wants her life to be like an ’80s high school movie. (Is Emma Stone old enough to get the reference to John Cusack with a boom box outside the dream girl’s window in Say Anything?)

Easy A is fun because of the clichés. I haven’t enjoyed a high school movie this much since Ten Things I Hate About You, so all those hanging lanterns didn’t hurt the movie a bit.

It’s okay to use clichés as long as you do so consciously and cleverly. In a rom-com, the couple are going to get together in the end. You know it. I know it. Everybody knows it. A few self-deprecating nods to the demands of the form (mixed in with original surprises and charming characters we care about) can make a rom-com much less cloying than it might otherwise be.

When forced to succumb to cliché, you can use the opportunity for wry dialogue and a wink at your audience through the fourth wall. Do so clumsily and your second draft will have a bunch of strokes through the too familiar and the repetitious.

Filed under: movies, writing tips, , , , , , , , , ,

Is your fiction “just made up”?

Recently I heard an author complain about a poet because she hadn’t done any research. The poetry was about prostitutes, their struggles and how they reacted to being raped. No interviews! No research! Worse, the poet had made the (hyper)critical error of not actually being a raped prostitute herself. The poet simply made up a story for her poem based on her own imagination. No, I haven’t read the poems, but I don’t think I need to know the details of particular human tragedy to extrapolate the feelings of violation that must entail. I’ve read a lot of fiction that was clearly “just made up”, but the writers I love still strike a common chord of humanity that spur me to cry, get angry and get engaged.

The writer was disgusted with the poet because she “just made up” her fictive poetry.

“Beyond the pale!” she said.

I’m skeptical of proponents of research, especially if it falls into the category of “exhaustive.” It’s not that knowing your stuff is a bad thing. It’s that knowing your stuff can often lead to recording instead of creation. (Sometimes military thrillers beat you over the head with the research so hard, you’d think the serial numbers on the missile casing is more important than the nuclear warhead exploding over Miami.) For me, the authenticity of the enjoyment of the writing — the feelings stirred — trump the details of the particular brand of cigarette available in certain cities at certain times. Which is a fancy way of saying I don’t give a shit as long as the story is plausible within its own world. For instance, do all prostitutes read Proust? It’s probably not required reading, but you could easily convince me one prostitute reads Proust if you can write a convincing context.

Is it necessarily better fiction because it springs directly from the real world? Kevin Bacon went back to high school for a day before filming Footloose, for instance. Do you think that was crucial to performing what was already in the script? And if the writer of the script hadn’t grown up in a repressed town that outlawed dancing, would Footloose be any less awesome? (I refer here, of course, to the original Footloose. There’s a remake, but I decree it shall not be discussed and anyone associated with that abomination can go shoot themselves in the face…I digress.)

There is a dangerous trend in fiction that many writers think is required. It goes like this: If you’re going to have anything to write about, you have to go have a lot of experiences, many of them bad. That’s the dry, sterilized version. In practice, it’s more like this: You can’t write about rehab unless you’re an alcoholic or a junkie first. Terrible life choices make for great writing, assuming you don’t kill yourself in stage one of the writing process in which you’re actively pursuing bar brawls each night. Unless you’ve experienced what you’re writing about, it’s not authentic enough.

And I call bullshit. It’s fiction. Make it up but make it seem real enough that I can suspend my disbelief. We all have human experiences and we can imagine pain and transfer it to the page. You’re experience doesn’t have to be exactly what you’re writing about. Otherwise, you’re not even writing fiction. That’s memoir.

About fictive memoir (since this case inevitably springs to mind): Some people bought into the overhyped nonsense around A Million Little Pieces because James Frey fictionalized some of his “memoir” of addiction (after first shopping it around as a novel.) Nobody gives David Sedaris a hard time for doing the same thing to very humorous effect. Also, a lot of people also said that A Million Little Pieces helped them kick their addictions, even though some of it wasn’t real. Placebos often work on people, even when they know it’s a placebo, so what’s the harm in a book that’s 80% correct to the facts of one junkie’s life and 100% true to the feelings of thousands?

I have censored myself when my fiction didn’t pass my personal standard for believability. I admit I have recently dumped two short stories involving military personnel because, though I grew up around the military, I’ve never been in the military. I just wasn’t confident enough that I had the details quite right. I was writing about people, but I didn’t think the environment they swam in was there to deftly suspend disbelief. However, I have written stories from the perspective of old Asian men, a little girl, an autistic boy, adult women and a gay dinosaur.

For the record, I have never been a gay dinosaur

(not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

A few years ago a group within PEN Canada insisted no one could write about the minority female experience except minority female authors. I think that idea kind of fizzled because of the unrealistic limits (and ghettoization) such a policy could lead to. First, it was censorship, which most writers are against and (Thank Zeus!) there wasn’t a way to enforce the decree, anyway. Second, its logical conclusion was that black women could never write about white men. We would all have to conform to our stereotypes and human beings are way more variable than our stereotypes. After a short hullabaloo, the idea lost traction. Shakespeare, after all, was not Italian and never saw Verona.

We’re often told “write what you know.” That would leave a lot of sci-fi and fantasy out of our lives. Instead, I suggest you write what you care about. Write what you can make me believe. If someone doesn’t think you did a good job of recreating their real experience, they can go ahead and write their memoir so the heroine smokes the authentic brand of cigarette (good for Writer 1, but I’m fairly certain I still won’t give a shit.)

Fiction is a work of the imagination.

It’s our job as writers to make it believable.

It’s our job as readers to get into the spirit of the art instead of looking for things to bitch about.

Filed under: authors, censors, censorship, movies, Poetry, publishing, Rant, Rejection, writing tips, , , , , , , , ,

Who disgusts me VIDEO (plus Walking Dead discussion)

Filed under: book reviews, Books, movies, ,

Regret: In your life and on film

You have to (must, must, must!) see this film trailer.

Get out your hankies.

Here’s the background: My friend Christopher Richardson was a journalism student with me 25 years ago. (He’d say I was with him, but this is my blog so I set the dynamic and bugger the facts!)

Chris is the big-hearted genius behind the documentary Where’s My Goat? Now he’s working on a new film about regret called (wait for it) Regret. The hub of the film is the valedictorian speech he gave to our class in 1987. Things went awry. Having no respect for institutions myself, I loved his speech, but a lot of people hated it and went out of their way to make Chris feel bad about it. Twenty-five years later he still feels bad about it. And now he’s on a journey to our reunion that will take him to dark places that make you think seriously about the inevitable clash of our hopes versus our experience. You think you’ve got it rough trying to lose a little weight before you hit your 25-year reunion? This amps up the anxiety and depth times 1,000.

See the trailer at www.regretthefilm.com.

If you have regrets to share, contact Chris Richardson at

Ihavearegret@RegretTheFilm.ca. 

I think Chris is already working through his valedictorian regret because he’s making lemons into lemonade and sharing the sugar with the rest of us. We all need to reflect on our mistakes and learn from them. This film will help us all on that path.

If your skin doesn’t crawl, it’s on too tight. If you don’t have a tear in your eye, you have no heart. If you aren’t thinking about what you should have done when you watched that guy drown, your mother was right. You’re soulless.

And it wasn’t just “some guy”! It was your baby brother, you monster!

Filed under: links, Media, movies, , , , , , ,

Writers: Your mistakes taunt you

The original Ruby slippers used in The Wizard ...

Image via Wikipedia

I saw the movie Limitless over the weekend. I loved it (and it helped the loser/hero starts out as a scrambled slacker writer who is hopelessly blocked . It’s a great time, but as I hit the parking lot I thought, (MINI-SPOILER! SPOILER! SPOILER!) how come they left the dangling thread of the unsolved murder? Was it lost on the editing room floor?

There are plenty of precedents for such mistakes. For instance, a truly great classic, Casablanca is brutally flawed if you think about the ending for a moment. The engine of the plot turns on there being only two travel passes so only two people can leave. Will Ilsa go with Rick or Victor? The resistance needs Victor so Rick must sacrifice his desires for Ilsa for the greater good. But there are no Nazis checking passports at the airport!

In fact, in the background at the end of Casablanca just a few little people (they were “dwarves” when the same extras were in The Wizard of Oz) pretend to fuel a cardboard cut-out plane. Rick could have escaped, as well. Instead he stays with Louie and they begin a beautiful friendship that, years later, would inspire the raw, hot homo-eroticism of Bert and Ernie of Sesame Street fame. (Okay, I made up that last bit.)

Sometimes people underestimate the importance of editing. When stuff is left out, it sticks out. Even if you enjoy a story, as you put it down, you think about that niggling deficit. I guess it’s just the way our brains are wired. You forget praise, but point out a screw up, that you remember forever.

I recently went through a writing sample for an author. I might have seemed harsh though I took great pains to be kind. The truth is, I found a lot to fix. The author wanted to send it off for traditional publication. Without those fixes, there was no way it was going to get past the first gatekeeper.

Publishing has changed. There are fewer editors doing more work and if they accept a new author at all, they do not want to have to do much editing at all.
With To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee‘s acquisition editor took a year off to perfect the book. There is no way in hell that would happen today.

You want your text to be excellent. If you publish it yourself, good might do. Even “good enough” might pass. But is that really what you want? Mistakes in books stand out and stick, burning you at the thought of readers stumbling over a glaring error and questioning your ability, craft or intelligence.

Errata are in all books. They shouldn’t be dancing around in neon taunting you.

 

 

 

 

Filed under: authors, Books, Editing, Editors, movies, publishing, Writers, writing tips, , , , , , , , ,

Come for the flash mob VIDEO. Stay to think about why word choice matters.

 

The power of the pink shirt inspires me. When I was in high school, a guy would have definitely been harassed and probably been beaten if he wore a pink shirt. (Notice I didn’t say beaten up. For some reason, “up” trivializes what it really is.)

I don’t even care for the word “bullying.” I know schools everywhere have anti-bullying campaigns, but that trivializes the act, as well. If an adult tries to bully another adult, we don’t call it that. We call it assault and we call the police and a lawyer. Children are more vulnerable because we say “boys will be boys” and “girls are just like that sometimes.” Boys fight. Girls typically employ social shunning behaviors to manipulate their victims. Both sexes do damage that lasts.

What is the point of videos like this? I think it shows kids there are better ways to be cool than to be angry loners. The kids in this video are having fun doing something positive together. Kids who bully or are bullied are not having fun. These issues tear me up now more than ever because I worry for my son. Perhaps because he’s profoundly colorblind (or way cooler than his dad was at his age), social anxiety around the color of clothing is a mystery to him. He’s much more open to trying new things than I was. His life is richer because it’s not ruled by fear of criticism, failure, derision or violence.

Unlike me. I was an angry loner. I was bullied until I learned self-defense. That’s how I coped at the time, but it wasn’t the best way. I mistook fear and wariness for respect. You can’t have a sense of humor when you’re wound that tight. You don’t try new things or go out of your way to meet new people and make friends because everyone is a potential risk.

Bullies and victims come to share something: oversensitivity to any slight, real or imagined. (Maybe they’re that writer in your critique group that went home enraged and never came back.)

My training did give me some confidence, but it also made me suspicious and hyper-reactive.  I was still trapped in fear. I was afraid I’d have to fight. I was afraid of getting hurt. I was afraid my rage would boil over and I’d go too far. (And yes, sadism breeds sadism and victims can become victimizers.) I was afraid to be honest and connecting with others was a risk. Community is a threat when all you expect is violence and criticism. Violence in our words and our actions  breeds life’s bystanders.

Your words matter. Choose them carefully. Use them well and they can stimulate, educate and entertain. Choose them poorly and you may rob yourself and the victim of dignity for a day. Or the victim may live a smaller life forever after because of your influence.

Are people glad to see you coming? Think about that.

And this:

Adults shamed as children.

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Filed under: getting it done, movies, Rant, Rejection, What about Chazz?, Writers, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Writers: Check out the Pay It Forward Contest

Cover of "Pay it Forward"

Cover of Pay it Forward

This post is a little  about a writing contest.

It’s mostly about being a better, happier and richer person.

Over at Market My Words, there’s a great contest for writers. The author will pluck the right query and sample from the entries and push the winner’s name to her agent. It’s a chance to get out of the slush pile. If your manuscript is worthy, this contest could save you an awful lot of time and energy.

What pulled my attention was that she called it the Pay It Forward Contest. Do you remember the movie? (SPOILER ALERT) It wasn’t cynical. It was inspiring. It might have caught on even larger if the ending hadn’t been such a downer. Still, it was a reminder we must all use our time well.

And it made me think of how I’ve been paid forward. I have a very successful friend. By the force of his mind and personality, he’s achieved a lot and continues to achieve a lot. People are always glad to see him coming. He’s gone out of his way to help me on several occasions. That spirit defines him and, precisely because he is so generous with his advice, time and money, his success is multiplied however you choose to measure it.

Too often we associate business success with a dog-eat-dog mentality. To succeed, we’re often told, others must fail. Instead, my friend looks for opportunities to reach out to people. He helps them and in turn, he is helped. He’s genuinely interested in other people’s problems and tries to help them.

It takes very little effort to slip into the human network to, with kindness, grease the wheels of interaction and eliminate friction. S.R. Johannes, the author of the Pay It Forward Contest is doing it. Though I must decline to specify how I’m doing the same, I can tell you I’m already on it (promise!)

You know what’s great about paying it forward?

It feels fantastic!

Key question:

Somebody’s helped you at some point.

How are you paying it forward?

Filed under: agents, authors, Contest announcement, DIY, movies, writing contests, , , ,

News Flash: Allan Stratton’s sales are about to go way up (even more)

Cover of "Chanda's Secrets"

Cover of Chanda's Secrets

This e-mail just in from my friend Peter:

The film Life Above All based on the lovely book Chanda’s Secrets by the
lovely Allan Stratton is on the Oscar nom short list. Fingers crossed!

Go see the movie and better yet go buy the book and see if you don’t blat before you finish!

I’ve met Allan Stratton and can confirm that he is indeed lovely. We had dinner at Garlic’s and then went to the Grand to see one of his plays. Lots of lovely all around. Yes, indeed, read the book! See the film!

For more information, follow the link from the press nugget below:

LIFE ABOVE ALL (CHANDA’S SECRETS) has made it into the Oscar finalist
pool of nine films from which the five nominees will be selected for
Best Foreign Film. Nominees announced tomorrow.
http://www.allanstratton.com
http://allanstratton.blogspot.com

Filed under: authors, links, Media, movies, Publicity & Promotion, publishing, Writers, , , , , , ,

Kevin Smith strikes out…on his own (explicit video)

Kevin Smith introduces Indie Film 2.0:

Self-distribution

“True independence isn’t making a film and selling it to some jackass.”

Kevin Smith is rejecting The System.

Writers:

What can we learn from thinking sideways?

People tell you shouldn’t go indie.

Think about what their motivations might be.

Filed under: DIY, getting it done, Media, movies, publishing, Rant, self-publishing, Writers, , , , , , , ,

Friday VIDEO Reward: Aspiring Writer Meets Writing Advisor

Filed under: Intentionally Hilarious, Media, movies, publishing, Rant, Rejection, Unintentionally hilarious, , , , , ,

Available now!

Fast-paced terror, new threats, more twists.

An autistic boy versus our world in free fall

Suspense to melt your face and play with your brain.

Action like a Guy Ritchie film. Funny like Woody Allen when he was funny.

Jesus: Sexier and even more addicted to love.

"You will laugh your ass off!" ~ Maxwell Cynn, author of Cybergrrl

Write to live

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