We figure that since 1989′s The Burbs was such a smash box office hit, it was time to dig in and see if there’s a true sequel in there. Now, if only we can get Hanks and co. to come on board…
Yesterday was a stereotypically lovely autumn day. The trees were a host of seasonal colors, though not quite at their peak; the sun was out, a hint of the cold soon to descend on this region was carried by the wind, and the endless azure sky stretched soothingly overhead. I walked through a meadow still somewhat green but with the drying stocks of rapidly fading wildflowers dotting much of the landscape. The creeks I crossed burbled pleasantly as an assortment of birds sailed overhead at play on the air currents.
Why am I writing this self-indulgent remembrance? I’m getting there.
I also stopped at an overlook to pause and observe the distance between me and the cluster of buildings that are downtown Columbus. I asked my brother-in-law how long it might take to walk from that overlook to downtown. We talked through some educated guesses and decided it might take roughly five or six hours on a good day. But then again who has the time or desire to take five or six hours walking someplace when most people could reach it in about twenty minutes by car? But what if we lived in an age where that wasn’t an option?
The question has me pondering how our modern mentality has affected our relationship with nature. The Romantics and the Transcendentalists obviously felt a need to explore this topic so why can’t I dedicate a few moments to it as well?
I took a flight this summer out to San Francisco. At one time the trip I took would have taken months and required the traveler to endure any number of dangers and hardships; my trip lasted under five hours. I flew at night going out and was too high up during the day to see much other than clouds. What all did I miss seeing below? Obviously the main point of the trip was not to commune with nature but to get out there safely and efficiently. I’m also fine with the fact that I can visit family on the other side of town in half an hour instead of it taking the better part of a day to get there. Still it does make me wonder what natural sights and experiences I’m missing because I choose convenience.
By extension I feel that sometimes we as a society can’t full appreciate some of the literature of the past because many of the hardships and wonder of natural discovery they present to us is mitigated by modern society. This means some of the meaning; some of the richness of the work is lost on modern readers. How often do you go someplace to get out and enjoy nature and bring a set of headphones or talk on the cell? Thoreau would probably chuck your iPhone into the pond. Hawkeye and many of the other characters in The Last of the Mohicans would shake their heads in dismay. And Coleridge might adorn the phone around your neck like the mariner’s albatross.
Humans and nature have a unique relationship and are inexorably bound. And as we all know nature can still be quite harsh. But it also maintains a dialogue, as it has for countless eons, to those who are willing to listen. So when the world gives you a moment to relax and nature is having a good day, take the opportunity to connect to your life and the world around you. You might be surprised where a moment of peace and reflection can take you.
At some point, early on in the creative process, you settle on a setting for your story. Great. You can check that off the list. But is setting more than just a time and place? How important is it to shaping your characters, the plot, types of conflict, or themes of your literary endeavor? Are you overlooking the emotional environment of the story? If you’re unfamiliar with this term it is basically how elements of the setting help to shape and give emotional weight and complexity to your characters. Emotional (sometimes called social environment) also plays into shaping the tone and mood of your work.
Let’s examine this concept by picking a setting: a bedroom.
Make the details you present about your setting count for the story, for the characters, and for your readers. First, we want to give the reader a physical sense of the place without overburdening them with too many unimportant details like how many walls it has (we can assume four) or if the light switch is flipped up or down. Focus instead on giving dimension to the character by making the room feel lived in by the character who inhabits it.
Do certain colors or objects stand out or play an important role, either directly or symbolically? Can we gauge what they value by what they include or fail to include in their room (family pictures, religious icons, art, etc.)? What is the lighting like? Do they have a window? If so what view of the world greets them when they look outside? Has the view/environment shaped them as a person or do they exist to defy their surroundings thanks to their strong personality? Are they connect or cut off from nature or natural elements in this bedroom? What is the temperature or atmosphere (humidity, noises, smells, silence) of the bedroom like? Is their life a jumble like the pile of dirty laundry in the corner or are they so uptight the room feels sterile? Are your characters renovating it, discussing doing so, or does it look the same as it did 40 years ago? What does that say about them and where they’re at as a person or in their relationship? Are they holding on too tight to the past, rushing too quickly into the future, living a balanced and pleasant existence?
The main feature of any bedroom is typically the bed itself and can symbolically be used to represent a host of information about your characters. What comes to mind if I mention the only bed in the room is an infant’s crib that has never been used? How does that empty crib play into the story or how the characters interact with one another because of it?
A bed could be a symbol of passion, romance, fear, peace, sexual independence or confusion, joy, faith, infidelity, escape, imprisonment (if a character is sick, suffering from a disability, or even directly restrained to it) just to name a few. You could switch out one bed for another during the story if say it’s a coming-of-age tale or a person is forced to move because of choices they’ve made (or failed to make) and are forced to move or deal with the absence of another character.
Consider what your bedroom (or house) conveys about you to others. Who interacts in this place? Is this a room that the character shuts themselves off from the world in as they seek solace in isolation, a place where they can truly be themselves, a safe environment that allows them time to reflect or connect with another?
Whether you do so initially or during the editing phase of your story, you should work to make the setting an integral part of adding dimension and complexity to your characters, plot, and themes. Remember that setting is more than just a time and place.
An interesting notion popped into my head the other day: if I was put in charge of creating fortune cookie sayings for writers (hey, it could happen…) what type of sayings or advice would I include? I’m sure someone, at some writing conference, somewhere, has already tried this but it seems like a fun idea so why not kick it around. If not, let’s get on this thing.
Before you read my ideas below take a moment to consider what you’d want to say if this challenge was put to you. Would you go for comedy, sage wisdom, or just something that you can cleverly add “in bed” to the end of? Go get a few cookies for inspiration. Just remember to open the cookie before you eat it this time.
Ideas for Cookie Publications for Writers by Pete Planisek:
Comedy is easy, creating it is hard.
Write for yourself before you write for everyone else.
Mistakes can be divine teachers; now edit them.
All writers have critics; the ones we remember are the ones who didn’t let the critics win.
Inspiration takes many forms, be open to them.
The worst writing I’ve ever done was the story I refused to begin.
If you don’t care about your characters no one else will either.
Write. Edit. Repeat.
Creativity is a river. Treat it as such.
A spirit sustained by curiosity is never hungry.
Reflect upon rejection but do not be ruled by it.
Feedback can bite back or further your dreams. Be ready for either outcome.
There’s no such thing as perfect writing; only perfect procrastination.
A writer’s true purpose is to translate thoughts and emotions.
Writers are like mountain climbers, except for the actual climbing.
A writer reads a fortune cookie as all of the sudden a dark shadow looms over the table…
The best legacy for an author is to inspire another to begin creating.
You will have days when nothing you try seems to work. It just makes tomorrow easier.
In order to succeed you have to allow for the possibility of failure.
Writers are travelers; seek someplace interesting.
Congratulations, you’ve read this. Now go write something.
I put a time limit on this exercise but hopefully you find some wisdom or entertainment in it. Try to create your own list.
In case you missed this news on Facebook, my Goodreads blog, or Twitter, I wanted to let you know that Encleadus Literary now has a page dedicated to hosting new and original short stories and poetry.
I’ve published two of my own short stories, which you can read for FREE here.
Short stories afford writers an excellent format for honing their skills with character, dialogue, setting, tone, theme, etc. It compels writers to be concise in their storytelling and is a wonderful way to begin building or to maintain an audience. Poetry allows us new and creative ways to express ourselves and our thoughts and emotions.
So if you’re interested make the most of this opportunity. I’m happy to review and host your writing and link back to author pages as well. More details can be found on the Short Stories and Poetry page.
Stuck without a muse? Creative spirit gone on vacation?
At times all writers experience moments of doubt, laziness, or disinterest in their efforts. We make excuses as to why we’re not working on a story but some times, lets face it, we need a break. Other projects catch our eye; we want to go on that vacation; we need to get away from the computer before our eyes fall out from staring too long at the screen. So how do we get back to form when we’ve been away for a while or feel stuck or uninspired? Sometimes the best way is just to get back to the basics and do some simple writing exercises.
Through these exercises we can hone our skills, boost our self-confidence, and cast away nagging problems. So if you’ve suffered a summertime slump or just want some ideas for a rainy day, here are a few suggestions you might try:
1. Find the muse with music- Some people love to write using music for inspiration but not everyone shares this sentiment. No problem. While it might not work for the novel or script you’re working on music can be a fun place to reconnect with your creative impulses. Find something new that you aren’t overly familiar with and let your mind wander through the piece. See if it takes you to some new setting or allows you to envision interesting characters. Maybe it will free your mind to create something totally unanticipated – a story or poem you never had in you. Maybe this is your big chance to try your hand at creating some original lyrics for the song. Go with the flow. Discover new artists or soundtracks, let the tone influence what you create, and have fun.
2. The nonfiction cure – What? I’m a fiction writer. How is nonfiction helpful? Life and art are hopelessly intertwined. A good dose of nonfiction might be just what you need to get some creative ideas rekindled. Not in the mood to read? There are some great documentaries available on about any subject or person you can think of so don’t limit yourself to the gospel of print alone. Just like fiction, nonfiction can put you into new realities, present interesting characters, and get you to look at an idea or subject in a new way. Nonfiction can put fiction writers onto any number of interesting and unforeseen paths so get moving.
3. Embrace the love-hate relationship - Often writers gravitate to creating characters they can relate to or feel compassion for but what if you cast that aside? Try to image a character you wouldn’t normally feel comfortable writing. Why? It will get you to leave your comfort zone, allow you to play with point of view, and possibly help put you in touch with a side of your creative self that you never knew existed. You might create a character you love to hate. Play
4. Single purpose pieces – It’s easy when you’re working on a longer piece to forget all the smaller literary tools that make the whole more interesting. Create short pieces that have a single goal. For example, a short story that only works to establish a specific tone, explores symbolism, is centered on a single type of conflict, or explores a highly focused theme. Brevity is the soul of wit.
5. New medium of storytelling – If you’re feeling in a writing rut don’t get down; instead, use it as an opportunity to try creating something in another storytelling format. You might be a novelist but have you ever really tried to work on poetry? Artistic? Why not try making a short graphic novel? Ever tried to write a screenplay? Well, why not today?
Bonus: Revisit a story or storyteller who inspires you – Don’t measure yourself against these stories or artists, especially if you’re already feeling down about your own creative efforts. Enjoy what they have to offer. Remember what drew you to them. They are a part of your creative journey and sometimes it’s just nice to “go home” and see a familiar face.
As any artist (especially we indie folks) will tell you, marketing is hard. It takes time, money, effort, a fair amount of patience, and holds no guarantee that a given marketing effort will be successful. It’s the same problem the big players face.
On a recent episode of one of the regular podcasts I listen to, they started discussing news from this year’s annual Comic Con. Most of this discussion centered on news announcements from Marvel and DC Comics about major superhero films to be released next year or in 2015. This has me reflecting on the business side of storytelling and how much we all collectively suffer from genre chasing.
What’s that mean?
For a moment we’ll stick with films to explore this issue. Several decades ago almost none of the studios were willing to finance and market a big budget superhero film. The perception was that such films were inherently campy, would attract only die-hard comic fans, and would basically bomb at the box office. Fast forward a few decades and the biggest film news (and films with the biggest box office return) comes from two comic book companies. What changed?
Back in the 1950’s the safe money was primarily in stories from the Western genre; this year one of the biggest flops of the summer is Disney’s The Lone Ranger. The late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s witnessed a resurgence in the science fiction genre (also big in the ‘50’s). Eventually that trend too was replaced. Sooner or later the glut of big (and small budget) superhero films will also dissipate. The billion dollar question then becomes: what genre do audiences want now?
Authors suffer a similar problem. We want to tell stories that people will find interesting and hopefully read. Big publishers want to sell books and make money. The easiest way for them to do that is to push or embrace hot trends in certain genres. Harry Potter becomes an international sensation and suddenly you’re better off telling stories about magic. Twilight makes a big splash; good thing you had the foresight to write about vampires. The Hunger Games hit; quick, write a dystopian novel aimed at YA readers. 50 Shades of Grey has sex and sex sells…
Oh wait, your work doesn’t have these things? Your book doesn’t follow the same structure as these stories? Your book is in what genre?
It can be maddening to try and deal with the genre chasing. Again, it’s understandable that big publishers (like film studios) want to make money but as a storyteller it can be extremely frustrating to have worked so hard on a writing project only to have genre chasing limit its chances for success.
But remember that this is nothing new. Publishers, authors, and readers have been dancing this waltz for a very long time. And it’s unlikely the music will stop any time soon.
So what’s an author to do? Do you give in to a genre trend and craft a story that has a better chance of getting serious notice from publishers because it appeals to the audience of the moment? Do you ignore these trends and tell the story you want to tell, regardless of the genre and try to discover your audience? Should you go visit a local fortuneteller to guide you to the right genre? Hire a bunch of people in business suits to predict what will be the next genre to mine?
My simple advice is this: write your story first. Write what you want to write. Tell the story you feel passionate about telling.
Decisions about marketing often begin to fully take shape during the editing process. The feedback you receive might give you new directions to explore that take your writing in a completely different direction than the one you originally envision. Pay service to your story first before you pay a service to help market it.
If you end up with a story that doesn’t neatly fall into a genre that’s currently rife with bestsellers — don’t panic. If your story is well-crafted, interesting, and something you truly want to share it will find an audience in time. Besides, the genre chasing never stops so who knows; you may just be ahead of the curve.
In a recent interview, two giants of the film making industry, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, predicted that the theater going experience (and movie making in general) will cease to exist in the near future. (Click to read the interview.)
Lucas and Spielberg feel that the film industry distribution model is fundamentally changing. Similar to many of the issues that authors (well-known or not) face when trying to get a book released or marketed in the mainstream publishing industry today, studios want to score big on what they view as sure fire hits. Hence fewer and fewer screenplays, that aren’t part of an existing brand, are being produced by the mainstream media.
As someone who enjoys seeing and discussing films (see the Hindsight is 20-20 podcast) and has aspirations of selling a screenplay some day, I have to say that these remarks by two Hollywood icons caught my attention. They contend that due to the costs involved in producing and marketing the big blockbuster films today that studios and theaters will attempt to offset those costs with tiered pricing for tickets (example: a special effects laden film like Man of Steel would cost you $50.00+ per ticket while a film like Argo might cost you $9.00+), far fewer “big” spectacle movies (the blockbuster movie model would cease to be and films might run for a year in the theater), and more and more movies/media content will be delivered directly to the consumer at home through a service like Netflix with no true theatrical release.
While all these types of predictions may not come to pass it’s impossible to deny that change is (and has been) underway in how we as a society consume media. I recently watched Season 4 of Arrested Development on Netflix streaming. The entire season was released at once. Was I glad I could watch the show at my own pace, without commercials, at the same price as everything else I can watch on Netflix streaming? Absolutely. Was something of the experience with new content lost since I watched it in a relatively short amount of time? Probably. This new on demand form of media means I have to watch spoiling the show for others or can’t discuss it until weeks later when they’ve finished watching it. The model also arguably lessens the viewer’s connection to the content. I can view it all at once, quickly, then move on to the next thing without really allowing time for it to sink in or really reflect upon it. When a show is released an episode at a time it allows the viewer additional time to evaluate how they feel about a storyline or character, speculate what will happen next, involve others about their insights and opinions about the show. The viewing becomes a shared experience because of the discussions that spring from it. How many relationships have been enriched by talking about a movie or television show?
There is a huge social aspect to movie or television viewing. People love to absorb, share, discuss, and critique stories. It’s in our nature. We’ve all had bad experiences at the movie theater: obnoxious people in the audience, rising costs to go, sold out shows,etc. Still there’s something wonderful about going and sharing the experience of seeing a film on that big screen and escaping, if only for a short time, into the world on screen. I’d hate to see that experience end because the flaws in the Hollywood studio system.
If the movie industry follows the path envisioned by Lucas and Spielberg, how will that impact not only the consumers and Hollywood industry but the creators and writers as well? Some claim the more innovative productions and storytelling are already taking place on television. Obviously they’ll follow the money into whatever viable forms of distribution present themselves but will the quality of the storytelling change (good or bad), will the craft of screenwriting itself weaken, how might the demise of movies impact other mediums of writing?
In an age of brand driven film projects, reboots, re-imaginings, and blockbusters of the week it’s difficult to predict where all of this is ultimately going but lets hope that the power of films to connect, inspire, and entertain us is not lost as an industry tires to reinvent itself for the 21st century.
Ever wanted to see the 1930′s classic film Bride of Frankenstein towering over you, under the stars, while eating ice cream? You’ll get your chance on Thursday, June 20th, when the Wexner Center for the Arts will showcase the film as part of their Wex Drive-In series. Details can be found here.