….wherein I use the catch phrase from a spoof of Star Trek to discuss studying the craft of writing.
There’s a great moment in the movie Galaxy Quest* between Dr. Lazarus (played by classically trained actor Alan Rickman, playing classically trained actor Sir Alexander Dane) and the ship’s… I mean…show’s captain (named Jason, played by Tim Allen, star of Home Improvement). For the unfortunate few who have yet to see this film, run out and do so at once, because you are missing out.
This particular great moment is when Jason (who has removed his shirt) is fighting off a ginormous rock monster and the rest of the crew…I mean…cast is watching helplessly. Dr. Lazarus offers some wise advice:
Dr. Lazarus: “You’re just going to have to figure out what it wants. What is its motivation?”
Jason: “It’s a rock monster! It doesn’t have motivation!”
Dr. Lazarus: “See, there’s your problem, Jason. You were never serious about the craft.”
I work with a lot of new writers, and experienced ones, too, and being serious about the craft is advice I would steal from Dr. Lazarus. You may not be fighting rock monsters, technically, but figuring out motivation, how to seal up plot holes, use secondary storylines, and engage a reader from word one can feel like a battle if you don’t have an arsenal of knowledge at your disposal. Writers learn by writing, but we also learn by continuously studying and applying knowledge.
So, while everyone is announcing their resolutions and personal goals for the new decade, I’d like to throw one into the ring: Pick an area of weakness in your writing. Set yourself a course of study to address and conquer that weakness. Do it for 2010. In 2011, you can choose a new area of weakness. And so on.
In 2009, I studied short stories. I’d received a grant from the Delaware Division of the Arts based on a short story project, so it was only right and fitting to use the grant funds for that purpose. I attended the Rosemont College Writers Retreat and spent a week honing my short story skills.
But not everyone can afford or spend a week in a college dorm and focus on one area of writing (although I highly recommend you give it a try.) So here’s a more do-it-yourself version, and my own plan for craft study in 2010.
I have a weakness in scene writing–specifically, knowing where to break off a scene and end a chapter. Because, I suspect, I’ve written so many short stories, I have a tendency to wrap things up very tidily. In a short story, this is a good thing, even if the ending is open-ended and left for the reader to interpret. In a short story, a reader wants some sense of resolution, some answer to “Why did I just read all of that?”
However, in the middle of a novel, a big dose of resolution is the antithesis of a good thing. If the reader feels a sense of closure, what will she do? Shut the book. Go to sleep.
Choosing where to end a scene is tricky. You don’t want your scenes to end at a place where you reader feels that she can stop now, snuggle under the covers and go night-night. You want your reader to reach the end of the chapter and say, “Darn! How can I sleep now? Captain Jason’s in the middle of fighting a rock monster!”
This is not my first round with studying scenes. A couple of years ago, two writer friends and I began a do-it-yourself study course. We met every month at historic Greenbank Mill and called our course Let’s Make A Scene! We traded copies of novel openings and dissected them, studied various books on scene writing, and basically talked about what constitutes a scene. I’d started work on a mystery novel, so it was good for me to discuss and then apply the knowledge.
But like many good intentions, thanks to time and summer and life, our study group dropped off before we got to the part about studying scene endings! Aargh!
Now, as I edit my mystery, I see that I need to do more work. This fall, I attended the Seascape Writers Retreat and learned that I’m a dribbler. I reach a point of high action or a confrontation at the end of the scene, but instead of ending there (and driving the reader to turn the page), I add a few more lines. It’s a habit, because I did it over and over. I’m sure it’s from short story training. In a novel, that kills the dramatic tension of the moment.
So now I have to retrain myself. I’m thinking of calling the study group and begging for a refresher course. If not, I’ll do it solo, and if anyone reading has advice, I’ll gladly take it. This year, I conquer my personal rock monster.
Happy 2010. I hope you all continue to study our craft.
By Grapthar’s hammer, let’s make Dr. Lazarus proud!
*Thanks to DreamWorks for the photos. In case anyone is on Team Jason, he gets revenge against Dr. Lazarus, and calls him a “scene-stealing hack.” Heh.
15 thoughts on ““Never give up. Never surrender.””
Interesting blog today, Ramona. I love the idea of a scene-study group. If ever I can find some other writers to gather for this, I will try it. I am amazed by the large number of published mystery writers who round off their chapters with closure, allowing me to put their books down for days sometimes before I pick them up again.
Hi, Llyn. Once you start noticing, it’s an education to see what other writers do, both “right” and “wrong.”
If you are interested, I’d be happy to email you the list of materials we used in the scene-study group.
Oh, I would be interested! Thanks! I’m having trouble finding actual classes that meet my needs and schedule, so self-teaching is my route for now.
I’ll watch Alan Rickman in anything, and his turn in this dual role was a hoot. Which got me thinking about dual roles for writers—as the one who generates the entertainment and who must first be entertained. Which—okay, nevermind, but my own weakness is plotting in a surprising way, so that’s my resolution goal this year. Great post, Ramona!
Nancy, plotting in a surprising way is something very interesting to ponder. Throw out the traditional story arc and high/low graphs and try a new approach? I like it. I think we should hear more on this.
Great post Ramona. I’m with Nancy on Alan Rickman. I hope to find a good writer’s group in L.A. in 2010. About the dribbling thing. Until it’s resolved try a bib and a sippy cup.
Pam, you are too funny! You should write a humorous mystery novel! *chuckle chuckle*
Good luck with finding a writer’s group. That’s going to be one of my upcoming posts. Stay tuned.
I’m with Nancy on Alan Rickman AND the goal of plotting. I want to be better at plotting so I don’t just throw in the towel on my 67,000-word whatever-it-is-I’m writing. There are times it’s agony not to be able to plot!
I wonder if Alan Rickman would consider doing a guest blog? Everyone loves him. We take his advice. He inspires us to think creatively.
But since he’s ALAN RICKMAN, no one would dare ask him to a guest blog, right? What if it’s one of his secret desires, and it will never happen? Poor Alan.
Hey, Ramona — I’m up for a refresher of “Let’s Make a Scene!” And, as you pointed out, we didn’t get to scene endings, we could focus on scene endings and also building tension into scenes, since it isn’t only action scenes that need tension. All scenes need some type of tension. I’m in, if you are!
Don’t have time to do many blogs, but like your stuff (briefly from Seascape) and ditto your thinking. Perhaps Rickman is like Sandra Parshall (great blogger) who was sad that no one invited her to post. Just ask. Do you find you have a hard time reading anything without internal critique? One of our author’s books had almost too much scene tension, page turner endings. Never a moment peace plus protag nine month’s pregnant (a sure-fire read to end device). Do you think this machine gun pace, even in a thriller, strains ‘reality’ and needs some R and R? Best, Ann
LOL, Ann, on asking Alan Rickman to guest blog here. Maybe that should be a goal for 2011.
I like your question about reading without internal critique. Because I work as both a writer and an editor, I’ve taught myself (most of the time) how to turn off the critiquer part when I want to read for pleasure. It is a conscious effort sometimes. I hope I never get to the point where I can’t read without questioning a fellow author. I still want to keep the part of me that is the reader seeking entertainment.
About pacing, I think it’s part and parcel of what defines particular genres. The very nature of a thriller is to be that roller-coaster ride. Whether or not it strains “reality” depends on which reality–ours (the reader, in the real world) or the fictional reality created by the author for the story.
Good comments! You’ve made me think.
I love Galaxy Quest! As for chapter endings, I’ve always thought that was kind of artificial. Obviously, you don’t want to have some big resolution that stops conflict and narrative flow *anywhere* before the end of your book, but this cliff-hanger at the end of chapters strikes me as silly. What’s to stop people from putting the book down two pages later? I don’t put books down at the end of a chapter. I put them down when I have something more important to do, or when the plot fails to grip, whether there’s a big number at the top of the next page or not.
Esri, you are right about chapter endings being artificial. Chapters in and of themselves are a device, because the story action goes on and on without any kind of break, with scenes happening simultaneously. But modern books are not written that way, hundreds of pages of narrative, with no physical breaks.
But many readers do sit in bed, or wherever, and read a few chapters a night. The writer has to stop somewhere. Sometimes it’s a natural stop–if you want to switch character POV, for instance–but sometimes it’s for dramatic effect. So the author has to make some kind of choice.
You hit the big one, however, with your comment that you put the book down when it is no longer engaging. Don’t we all wish to write a story that the reader never wants to put down for a moment?
At Murder 203, one author (Ken Isaacson, I believe)told us he had his wife read his MSS and had her put a Post-it tab in whenever she put the book down. Then he re-wrote that page to bump up the tension, etc.