Friday, April 1, 2011

It's The Story

A few weeks ago, I visited Disneyland in California with my nephew, his wife and their six-year-old daughter. Everywhere there are stories. Each ride is a mini-story. The performances are stories. Even the fireworks tell a story.

This is very different from the last time I was at Walt Disney World in Orlando. The fireworks existed as something to distract people standing in line. Now there is music and narration. The theme of the year--another recent addition--is "Let the Memories Begin." The fireworks story is about that theme. About the first time you came to a Disney theme park, the first Disney movie you saw, the first Disney television show you watched.

Okay, you could say it's a fifteen minute advertisement for their movies, etc., but it was so much fun to watch. As was the photo show on the side of "It's A Small World." Still photos and home movies from family visits to the park, interspersed with images from television and movies. We just happened upon it the first night and stood, transfixed as it played out.

In California Adventure they have "The World of Color" show. Dancing waters with images projected on them. Again, very much like the fireworks story and the photo show at "It's A Small World." Just done differently, and with breath-taking results.

Why were they so much fun? The story of Walt Disney and all he created is inspiring--whatever you, personally, think of the result. The story of the families who have made a visit to one of the parks their vacation of a lifetime is moving. The story of the memories we all Disney movies--our first, our favorite, or the one we watched and realized we'd grown up too much to enjoy it (I haven't reached this stage yet, thank goodness) are something we all share.

I think we writers tend to get too caught up in all the rules and advice. We must have a knock-out opening so the agent/editor/reader doesn't put the book down halfway through the first page. Every word has to count. Each scene has at least six purposes for being included. Dialogue must sparkle like we Turtle Waxed it.

But what we often lose in all of that is the story. What we're really doing is telling a story. And if the story is good enough, the readers really won't notice the other stuff. Because they'll be entertained.

In one of my previous critique groups, I'd often find myself saying to a talented but sometimes too clever for his own good writer," Just tell the damn story."

I think I'll apply that advice to my own writing. How about you? How important it story to you? Can a good story overcome otherwise flawed writing?

Monday, March 28, 2011

What I Learned About Writing From

Top Chef

In the original version of this television series, a group of working chefs compete for $100,000 to start a restaurant. The challenges vary, sometimes making them team up. Other times they compete individually. There have also been a few season of Top Chef Masters, involving celebrity chefs. This week is the finale of the first Top Chef All-Stars. These chefs are those who made it to the final rounds of their season, but didn’t win.

1)      Do your research ahead of time

As with all of these skill-based reality shows, the contestants are not allowed to use the equivalent of notes—no recipes on Top Chef, no patterns on Project Runway, etc. So the chefs have to know their stuff ahead of time.

It’s been surprising that so many don’t bother to learn what others consider “the basics.” Pastry seems to trip them up time and again. If you’re going to the final and it’s held in Singapore, perhaps you might want to familiarize yourself with some local cooking methods. 

I love doing research. Time slips away as I look up locations on the Internet. I have wasted a lot of time mid-project trying to find the perfect Italian surname for a character or a particular detail about how a locksmith might try to pick a lock. 

While I can’t foresee every thing I might need to know to write a particular book, I’ve learned to anticipate as much as possible, and do the work ahead of time. Time slips away as I look up locations on the Internet, as does money when I order several books on the same general topic.  But it’s better to use that time before I sit down to right.

How much research do you like to do for a project? When do you research?

2.      Don’t make gnocchi unless you’ve done it—successfully—a million times before

For whatever reason, the chefs love to make gnocchi to try to impress the judges. [Gnocchi is a kind of potato dumpling, but can be made with other starchy items, like pumpkin.]  So many have gone home because of over- or under-cooked gnocchi that I’ve lost count. You can see the doubt on the judges faces when a plate of the stuff is set in front of them.

The ones who do pull it off, however, will win whatever challenge they are in. Because it is so hard to make a good gnocchi, the judges reward those who actually can do it.

Take whatever unusual writing style or format or voice or point of view you can think of and substitute it for “gnocchi.” If you want to write in multiple points of view or use first person past perfect or write the story backwards, please make sure you can and have done it successfully before you send it off. And don’t just take the word of your best friend or mother.

Doing something different and difficult can be a way to make your story stand out.  But, please, make sure it’s in a good way. Are your critique group members taking big steaming forkfuls or are they pushing it around on the plate?

3.      Keep it fresh

“Oh look, Jaime’s making scallops. Again.”

In order to avoid potential gnocchi-style disaster, many of the chefs keep returning to a go-to ingredient or style. The judges notice this. Even if they’re the best damned scallops ever, the question becomes, “Can she cook anything else?”

If you write romance, that doesn’t mean you have to switch to horror. But if your heroine is always a raven-haired peasant girl and your hero is always a tawny-maned noble, perhaps it’s time to shake things up. Can you change the settings? The status of the characters? Maybe the time-frame.

A friend of mine writes mysteries, and she realized she was relying on strangling as the means of murder in both of her series. So now she’s shaking it up.

One of my critique group mentioned that all of my heroines have dark-blonde hair. Oops. 

How could you freshen up your stories without having to resort to trying gnocchi?

4.      The better the chef, the less back-stabbing takes place

Many of the chefs are known for trying to trip up other contestants. If allowed to pick a protein first, they’ll pick a favorite of someone else so that chef can’t use it. They’ll taste another’s dish and not say that it’s under-seasoned. Or they’ll try to get into someone else’s head and make her doubt what she’s cooking.

Top Chef Masters, however, was a revelation. They shared ingredients and tools, gave real feedback on dishes and rooted for each other. The final four drew names and had to shop for that other chef. Whatever ingredients were purchased had to be used in a dish that would get one of them eliminated. What did they do? Every one of the four bought items they knew the other chef liked to use. “It’s not a real win if I’m not competing against his best,” one of the chefs said.

This is one of the reasons I enjoy hanging out with other writers. For the most part, we encourage and support each other. That doesn’t happen very often elsewhere.

But I have seen those few writers who relish tearing down others. The critiques that, at first glance, seem to be trying to be helpful, but that simply undermine the writer’s confidence. The offhand remark about a character trait or plotline that cuts to the heart of someone who has put their work out there for the first time.

What’s your experience with other writers been? Are Masters or line cooks? How about you? Do your do your best to encourage while critiquing?

I don’t know that I always succeed, but I do try to emulate the Masters.