….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.