Finding yourself in a rut with your writing this weekend? Why not watch Neil Gaiman’s ‘Make Great Art’ speech to the graduates of Philadelphia’s University of the Arts to get you back on track?
The True Detective Season 2 trailer has arrived, teasing a lot of unhappy looking people doing unhappy looking things. Rachel McAdams, Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughn all look the part, but I am most excited to see Taylor Kitsch of Tim Riggins fame and Kelly Reilly from Calvary involved. Reilly has a knack for solemn material and seems like a perfect fit for this series, while Kitsch is Tim Riggins, so he can be in everything as far as I’m concerned. I don’t care if people didn’t like John Carter and Battleship. He’s Tim Riggins! He’s a Dillion Panther! He won state, man!
True Detective Season 2 returns to HBO on June 21st.
This Sunday (4/12) marks the return of Game of Thrones to television, sending viewers scrambling to reconnect with distant relatives at Easter dinners so that they can piggyback off their HBO Go accounts and once again enjoy the popular character generator/mutilator that is George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.
Season 5 will see the return of many fan favorite characters including Tyrion Lannister, Arya Stark and poor ol’ fingertipless Ser Davos (pictured above), who mystifyingly continues to put up with Stannis ‘no one wanted to go to Prom with me’ Baratheon (also pictured above looking like tons of fun) for no good reason. This season will also dive into material from the fourth book of the series ‘A Feast for Crows’ (and some of the fifth ‘A Dance with Dragons’, too, since both books take place chronologically at the same time), bringing us ever closer to the quandary of what will happen when the show catches up with the source material.
This week we received an answer to that particular dilemma when show creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss announced that the show will surpass the books and inevitably spoil the ending, putting to rest the fear that the tv series would fall into an endless limbo after season 6 until Martin finishes the rest of the books. I actually like this decision. I will of course read the books when they come out, but I’m also supportive of the show pushing on toward its own conclusion. I’m sure there will be enough compelling material in both mediums to justify their respective existences. And in even more promising news, George R. R. Martin has stated that he’d like to finish the next book, ‘The Winds of Winter’, before the arrival of Season 6 of the show in 2016.
To further support this sentiment Martin has cancelled a lot of appearances this year and decided not to write any episodes of the show this season. So, that’s promising. On the flip side, he also appears to be developing a new show for HBO called Captain Cosmos, which seems to counter all those other previous statements, but truthfully, he can do whatever he wants on whatever schedule he sees fit, and I hope he does just that. All I ask is that the show finishes up relatively soon so Maisie Williams is free to do the ‘Last of Us’ movie. She and Hugh Jackman have some zombie/clicker hunting to do together.
– An Illustrated Guide to all 465 Deaths in Game of Thrones (washingtonpost)
– George R.R. Martin Developing New HBO Series ‘Captain Cosmos’ (rollingstone)
– Overanalyzing the New Game of Thrones Excerpt (flavorwire)
– Random House To Publish Terry Pratchett’s Final Discworld Novel (terrypratchetbooks)
– Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright on Writing (youtube)
– Science Fiction Writing Tips: How to Make a Vampire Not Suck (writersdigest)
– How I Turned Writing Every Day From a Chore to an Insatiable Itch (reddit)
– Randy Ribay: The Importance of Diversity in Fiction (writinginthemargins)
– 100 Best Films Decade So Far (avclub)
– Apparently the Brontosaurus Had Been Pluto’d and then Unpluto’d. Who Knew? (scientificamerica)
Mad Max: Fury Road continues to impress with each new trailer they roll out for it. The mayhem present is unparalleled and if it weren’t for Star Wars and Furious 7, this would definitely be my most anticipated movie for the year. It really does look like it could be the two hour chase scene that some people are predicting. I mean, in a recent interview, Tom Hardy estimated that he might only have four to twenty lines in the movie. And he’s the main character. So, unless this is just generic trailer voice over, Max’s lines in this trailer could be the extent of his dialog for the entire movie, which would be kind of awesome if the only things he says are allegorical abstracts and he ignores all other opportunities to speak or answer questions like, “What’s your name?” or “Why is there a guy playing a flame thrower guitar on top of a dump truck?”
Although there are an endless number of topics that can be addressed in regards to what goes into writing a compelling story, today I would like to focus on the often overlooked topic of pacing. Admittedly, I may not place pacing above character, dialogue, prose, point of view or style (although I think pacing can greatly influence all of them) on the totem pole of story importance, but when used effectively, it can really enhance your story.
One of the reasons I think pacing’s importance is often marginalized is due to the fact that people often mistake it for as the occurrence of action or the arrival of plot to usher a character along on a somewhat contrived journey. People interpret “your pacing is a bit off” as “there aren’t enough cars blowing up.” Somehow pacing is assigned this odd stigma as being a sort of gimmicky element of genre used to string readers along and keep them turning the pages. Those in this mindset unfairly confuse it as a means to bookend your chapters with cliffhangers and wedge action into every narrative lull.
Pacing is much more than action though. It is the ebb and flow of your story. It is the pulse of your narrative. Even within literary fiction where there are generally few occurrences of car chases, dystopian zombie landscapes or alien invasions, effective pacing can be the key to great emotional payoffs. Do you have a laconic, somewhat internalized protagonist headed toward an impending meltdown? What would be more shocking? A pg 15 outburst or a simmering rage that cataclysmically erupts on pg 210?
Truthfully, you can make either work, but if you are really looking for those big emotional payoffs in your stories, you are going to have to build up to such moments to earn them and when you arrive there, make sure the impact isn’t dulled by a sloppy flow. Even within the context of genre fiction (and arguably all fiction), pacing at the beginning of your story can be just as important. Do you start your story with immediate action, leaving out any context your protagonist’s situation, or do you take some time to set the scene and risk the dreaded information dump through heavy expositional passages? If you hit the extremes on either of these polarizing approaches, you run the risk of losing your reader within the first thirty pages.
Just to further illustrate, let us say your protagonist is in a story where he is unexpectedly jarred loose from a comfortable and familiar life. For this particular narrative yarn, you could have the catalyst enter the protagonist’s life and force him out of his shell on pg 4, setting the plot in motion, but what did we really know of the protagonist’s old life from only reading pgs 1-3? Certainly, you can revisit elements of his old life as your character is propelled forward. He can meet people from his past and reflect on the life he once knew, but that requires a gradual release of exposition over time in bits and pieces. On the flip side, if you spend the first thirty pages establishing his life, routines, friends and family, and then have him jarred out of that existence, you have a better feel for what he is leaving behind, and as a result, what is at stake for him. The pitfall of this approach is that you can fall into a slow developing exposition heavy first section.
So, how can you make sure the pacing of your story is in a good place? Well, one way is to sit down and outline your book. This will give you a broad sense of how your novel flows. You probably won’t be able to make too many declarative statements from an examination this broad, but it will give you a head start on isolating any problematic sections. Another approach is to go through each of your chapters and look for sections with long dialogue exchanges. This isn’t necessarily a red flag in itself, but you should pay close attention to these sections and make sure that they do not become long meandering diatribes. These are the sections where you run the greatest risk of losing the interest of your readers.
I personally prefer to dive right into anything I’m writing with a little bit of action. However, I also suffer from the dreaded exposition dump, bringing any sense of established pace to a screeching halt. This always leaves my first thirty pages as something of a bloated mess. Not really a desirable place to be, but this is where the editing process becomes invaluable. It is within revisions that I am able to trim and redistribute information, finding some semblance of pace to begin the story. So, do not despair if you think the flow of your story is a bit uneven. Editing is a great place to tighten that up.
Because I tend to write genre fiction, I actually do like the function of cliffhangers as chapter bookends (not for every chapter though, moderation is key). Cliffhangers and twists can be easily misused if you stuff the belly of your chapters with filler information and then try to rescue them by tossing in some unexpected cheap thrills to close. Utilizing this approach, you run the risk of having a notably hollow story strung along by unearned moments of shock and awe. But, if you can use cliffhangers well and you put time and effort into crafting moments of genuine surprise, these moments will pay off for you.
Ultimately, I think pacing is about balance, flow and consistency. If you’re writing a thriller, you can’t count on 300 out of 307 pages of car chases and shoot outs to be an involving experience. You really have to work at the other elements of your story and pace the action, so that when your character is placed in a tense or dangerous atmosphere, we care about them. So, yes, you could argue that the other elements of writing (character, setting, dialogue) are directly effected by pacing in your story. Because they are. If you don’t take enough time to develop your characters, you will leave the reader disconnected or apathetic to their plight. And on the flip side, if you spend too much time developing your characters and don’t place them in any situations of dramatic tension, readers may tire of the experience. For an example of really effective pacing in a genre novel, I would cite Suzanne Collins’ ‘The Hunger Games.’ That’s a great example of a book that utilizes effective pacing without skimping out on the core elements of what makes a compelling story.
For the majority of the writers out there, a platform, usually accomplished through an online presence (a website, blog, equivalent soap box), is necessary to let readers know that their work exists and should be purchased at the soonest possible convenience. Of course, there are writers who can thrive without websites, twitter accounts and the like, but their names usually end in things like King, Rowling, Meyer and Gaiman (and that’s not to say that these authors don’t put a lot of time and hard work into their platforms, signings, appearances, etc, because they do).
But for the rest of who don’t share such last names, prestige, or wildly successful Mormon vampire franchises, the online presence is almost a necessity. And one of the biggest questions that arises when talking about an author’s platform, is how much time should a writer dedicate to their platform and how much time should be spent actually writing their manuscript?
Well, there really is no easy answer to this dilemma because there is no rule that says either of these things are necessary. Some people may just want to blog and socialize, working on their books in a very casual and gradual manner, and some people just want to write books and be left alone. That’s absolutely fine for an author to do that, but I think this post is more for the writers out there who are trying to find some semblance of balance between the two worlds.
If I had to come up with an ideal ratio, I would say I personally shoot for an 80/20 split in favor of my time being put into manuscript writing. Do I always hold to that? No. Absolutely not. Realistically, I think most days I probably fall into a 60/40 split with my platform occupying a bigger chunk of the day as a mild procrastination tool on the creative front. On the really bad days, I drift into an unenviable 90/10 split in favor of blogtwitterfacebooking and those nights often come to a notably unproductive end with me making pancakes, watching ‘Empire Strikes Back’ and cursing my characters for not being as cool as Han Solo.
If you really want to get a feel for where you are in the ongoing manuscript vs platform battle, there is an easy test. Close your eyes and ask yourself this question. When you have a full day free for writing, is your biggest problem for the day trying to form your characters, outline your plot and punch out your 1,000 words or is it trying to break out of the cycle of constant twitter checks, website maintenance and email drafts? If it is the latter, it might be time to try to limit your time spent on social media and forge some new routines. Try to dedicate certain times of the day to answering emails instead of checking every five minutes. Treat checking a chunk of your tweets, posts, etc at the end of the day as a reward for a productive day on the narrative front. Or if you have a word count goal for the day, check your messages early in the day, then work straight through until you hit your goal. Then you can dip back into the twitterverse guilt free.
Another easy way to get your writing back on track? Subscribe to a writing magazine like Writer’s Digest or Poets & Writers. I know you would think that periodicals like this might provide another excuse to distract yourself with interviews, contests and writing prompts, but for me it has the opposite effect. After I read a couple of articles on inspiring author successes and upcoming writing conferences, I always find myself back at the computer in a matter of minutes with a renewed sense of inspiration and clarity for my writing. These magazines also feature a lot of helpful articles on budgeting your time as a writer too.
I know it may be cliche to suggest that the beginning of a new year is the perfect time to forge new routines and find new motivation for your work, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Why not take a shot at improving your word count output or page revisions in a day? Use some mid-year goals for motivation. Is this your first novel? Then why not shoot to be drafting a query letter for agents by July? Are you working on a series? Why not try to have the series outlined and in progress by May? Either way, it’s up to you to take the initiative and make 2015 a memorable year in your writing career, so get going!
I have to agree with John Green. I’ve always been a supporter of the high school is such a small slice of your life mentality. There is so much beyond the horizon of being eighteen. Don’t think it’s the end of the world if you’re not the world’s greatest high school student.
The official Season 5 trailer for Game of Thrones arrived today, showcasing some new footage of Tyrion and Varys scheming in exile, some clutch Jonathan Pryce (High Sparrow) voice over and a few quick shots of Arya and Needle looking badass. It certainly has me excited for the upcoming April 12 premiere. Also be on the lookout for the February 17th blu-ray release of Season 4.
This is my Favorite Movies of 2014 list (along with a second opinion from Midwestern correspondent Eric Sweeney). What a great year it was for movies. Even as I assembled this list, I struggled to find a proper order for them as it was such a strong crop to pick from this year (admittedly this list could be reshuffled on any given day). There are still quite a few movies that I haven’t gotten around to seeing yet (I really want to see The Imitation Game and Nightcrawler, but haven’t had a chance) so no yelling about your favorite film being excluded if it appears on the haven’t seen yet list at the bottom*. If it didn’t make either of those lists, then have at it with the internet yelling.
My Favorite Movies of 2014
1. Whiplash – The last ten minutes of this movie were by far the most compelling and intense moments I witnessed on screen this year (the Raid 2’s kitchen fight might be equal, but it’s more impressive in the context of a relatively bloodless movie about jazz). Whiplash is fantastic and I hope J.K. Simmons wins an Oscar for his performance once award season rolls around. There are so many things in the last ten minutes that I’d love to rave about, even seemingly small decisions made by writer/director Damien Chazelle, but I don’t want to spoil too much. Go see it in theaters while you can. It is an outstanding film.
Watch This If You Like: Black Swan, J.K. Simmons yelling at people, Jazz music
2. Guardians of the Galaxy – What was once projected to be Marvel’s first bomb at the box office turned out to be the year’s most pleasant surprise, succeeding both with critics and fans alike. Some questioned handing off such a large franchise to filmmaker James Gunn, whose credentials were more indy-oriented, but much like when the LOTR franchise was handed off to fellow morbid kindred spirit Peter Jackson, it worked out beautifully. Guardians is fun and entertaining and that’s about all you can ask for in a summer blockbuster. It’s not a high brow movie that will head many top 10 lists, but I don’t care. Hopefully Gunn’s success will ease the minds of nervous studio heads who have recently handed over large summer products to lesser known directors (Colin Trevorrow directing Jurassic World, Rian Johnson tapped to finish episode 8 and 9 of Star Wars and Josh Trank helming the Fantastic Four reboot along with a Star Wars spinoff of his own) and open up the door for other rising talents.
3. Interstellar – Interstellar easily wins the most devastating checking of an answer machine award (I honestly don’t know what sort of competition it has for that award though, Little Miss Sunshine?) and also deserves some consideration for the best space movie with semi-plausible/well researched science behind it award. I’m a sucker for space travel movies, so it’s not surprising that I thoroughly enjoyed this sc-fi opus. While Interstellar had some noticeable blemishes (there were more than a few head scratching moments), I’d say the good things far outweighed the bad; a killer score, great effects, a solid cast, surprise Matt Damon cameos (potentially gearing up for his role in the Martian later this year?) and walking Tetris blocks round out the good.
4. Calvary – Calvary is choppy, disjointed and in giving with the McDonaugh brothers tendency to write witty scripts that read like plays, but I enjoy their style. It stands as a solemn film, anchored by a stellar performance from Brendan Gleeson who plays a priests that struggles to get his affairs in order after receiving a death threat. Set against the distinctly ominous landscape of Sligo, Ireland, Calvary is a bleak exploration of personal pain and the various ways we choose to hide it from others. Gleeson’s performance is a quiet and restrained one and will be overlooked come award season due to its relative lack of showy and fiery sermons, but I think it’s the best performance (Michael Keaton, J.K. Simmons and Rosamund Pike are in the mix, too) that I saw on screen this year. Oh, but what a very sad and haunting ending this film has. Good lord.
5. Snowpiercer – As this was my most anticipated movie of 2014, I had already convinced myself that I loved it even before I saw a single frame, so it’s possible there might have been some bias in play. Snowpiercer was another film that could be considered a surprise hit (albeit on a smaller scale), garnering a lot of positive attention after Miramax essentially tried to bury it in limited release and VOD. In an earlier post I cataloged how much I liked this movie, so I won’t really get into it again, but I don’t think it’s any coincidence that two of my favorite directors found their way into my top five this year. Joon-ho Bong and Christopher Nolan consistently put out movies that I find interesting and engaging on a number of levels. I know Snowpiercer wasn’t for everyone and seemed to produce some rather divisive opinions amongst viewers, which I understand, but I thought it was great. Tilda Swinton hamming it up as Minister Mason? Easily worth the price of admission.
Watch This If You Like: The Host, Trains, Claustrophobic date movies, Movies that aren’t really date movies
6. The Raid 2 – The Raid 2 was definitely the best action movie of the year (with some serious consideration for best all-time, too), a blistering, violent gang epic from the mind of rising action director Gareth Evans and his talented cast of Indonesian martial arts stars. I was ridiculously excited going into the theater to see The Raid 2 and left with the same buzz I entered with, which is a rare feat these days. Admittedly, the movie is too ambitious for its own good at times and could stand to lose twenty five minutes from its run time (along with a subplot or two), but those minors qualms are erased by the insanity that is the last hour of this movie. If you don’t mind heaps of gratuitous violence and want to see what has to be one of the best fight scenes of all time, then the Raid 2 is for you.
7. Birdman – Michael Keaton is excellent in this movie. Well, everyone who gets significant screen time in Birdman is excellent, but that’s besides the point. All signs point to director Alejandro González Iñárritu picking up some technical mastery from his good friend Alfonso Cuarón (along with borrowing his DP Emmanuel Lubezki), as the majority of the film is brilliantly constructed and edited together to appear as one long seamless tracking shot. Technical mastery aside, Keaton is the showpiece and he is the best he’s ever been as washed up star Riggan Thompson. What a great role and performance from him (especially considering the semi-autobiographical nature of the material). Hopefully we’ll see more of him on the big screen once again. He has been missed.
8. Boyhood – Boyhood is unique. Other than the 7 Up documentary series, I can’t think of anything quite like it, and the result is mesmerizing. Linklater should be commended for such an ambitious and poignant project. It’s a fantastic film beyond the perceived gimmick and I’d be surprised if you didn’t find yourself still seated long after the credits have rolled, contemplating the many odd twists and turns of your own life.
9. The Lego Movie – The Lego Movie is the best animated movie of the year and also one of the funniest. Everything from the animation to the jokes to the more heartfelt moments work well. It’s the epitome of clever and evokes some comparable moments to Toy Story without feeling too derivative. This could have been terrible, but isn’t. It’s wonderful.
Watch This If You Like: Toy Story, Legos, Heart warming product placement movies
10. Gone Girl – David Fincher’s near perfect adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s best selling novel was a great showcase for Rosamund Pike, who was tasked with playing the role of the infamous ‘Amazing Amy’ Dunne. Kudos to her and Fincher for pulling off what should have been very tough material to adapt and making it look easy. And even though it was a thankless role, credit to Ben Affleck, too. He nailed the feel of scummy old Nick Dunne. Also, as strange as it sounds, Tyler Perry was really good as Tanner Bolt. Seriously.
11. Edge of Tomorrow – This film is much better than it should have been, bolstered by the supremely wise decision to sprinkle the script with humor instead of rolling out the bleak Nolan-esque fare it was most likely destined for. It’s a shame it struggled at the box office, but hopefully it will get a second life on DVD (if they stop renaming it that is). If you want to check out a solid sci-fi movie, give it a shot.
12. The Grand Budapest Hotel – I think at this point people know whether or not they like Wes Anderson’s movies. I do, and thought this one was delightful.
Watch This If You Like: The Wes Anderson catalog, whimsy, lobby boys
13. The Rover – Guy Pearce stars in this semi-dystopian companion piece to The Proposition as a drifter who is dead set on getting his truck back after it’s stolen. I’m a big supporter of Guy Pearce and admired the scuzzy ego-free performance he turned in as the film’s drifter, a role that most actors wouldn’t have even entertained playing. The Rover is an undeniably bleak, dusty, dirty and depressing movie, so stay away from this one if you’re looking for feel good material. This is not it. And for all the hate Robert Pattinson gets, he was actually solid in this movie. It’s tough not to feel sympathy for his tragic dim-witted character of Rey.
14. The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies – This CG heavy conclusion to the Middle Earth story certainly seemed to be losing a bit of steam and direction as it came to a close, but there were still some things to like. Martin Freeman continued to be a reliable anchor for the series, the opening scene was thrilling and the battle scenes were executed on a grand scale, but it was tough not to feel the tapestry of Middle Earth starting to fray. I love this series and all its entries, but some of its troubling tendencies were becoming harder to ignore. A entirely CG dwarf character? Why? A guy that turns into a giant bear only getting seven seconds of screen time in an epic battle scene? Also why? Three movies for a skinny paperback? Explain?
Watch This If You Like: Movies with Hobbits in them
Honorable Mention: Locke, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Life Itself, Blue Ruin, Under the Skin, How To Train Your Dragon 2, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, Godzilla, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, 22 Jump Street, The Signal, Begin Again, X-Men: Days of Future Past, John Wick, The Fault In Our Stars, God Help The Girl, Wild, the synth soundtrack in The Guest
Had High Expectations For: The Drop. I really wanted to like it, but was ultimately a bit disappointed. Tom Hardy was great in it and so are the last fifteen minutes of the movie, but as a whole it seemed messy. I think I need to give it another shot though.
Worst Movie: I’m don’t want to linger too much on the negative, but what the hell happened with Transcendence? It was awful. And Pompei, too. You shouldn’t be allowed to plagiarize that much of Gladiator and not call your movie Gladiator 2: Jon Snow’s Revenge. Equally terrible.
*Still Haven’t Seen But Want To See: Nightcrawler, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Get on Up, Foxcatcher, Lucy, Inherent Vice, Only Lovers Left Alive, Comet, Fury, Manakamana, Jodoroski’s Dune, Force Majure, Coherence, Norte: The End of History, Unbroken, American Sniper, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, Big Hero 6, Selma, A Walk Among the Tombstones, Citizenfour, Obvious Child, Cold in July, Frank, Dear White People, Ida, St. Vincent, The Book of Life, We Are The Best, Chef, A Hard Day, Starred Up, The Homesman, Enemy