11/4/19

Save the Cat, Marvel Movies, Scorsese and Coppola

Due to travel and a wee bit of exhaustion, I broke the #blogtober chain. I wondered how long I could go, posting something every day. It turns out one solid car trip is enough to break the run.

But that’s okay! I’m not doing NaNoWiMo this year. I’ve got too much other stuff going on. All good things. That means I have more time this year to be active here, so hopefully I won’t disappear for months on end like I have before.

As I mentioned, I spent a good chunk of the day driving from LA to Sacramento. I finished the audio book I started when I drove down to LA on Thursday, and then I listened to music and thought about writing and the book I just listened to.

The audio book was Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. A lot of people rave about it online, and I wanted to see what all the buzz was about. Now that Snyder’s book is in my brain, I have a lot of thoughts I want to share.

Save the Cat – A Summary

Save the Cat is directed towards screenplay writers, spending time not only getting into the nuts and bolts of writing a screenplay, but also touching on the business side of it. The author makes bold claims about how the methods and rules described in the book are the difference between a screenplay being successful or failing in obscurity. Snyder describes success in financial terms, and is very clear that writers should focus on the bottom line more than following their heart. They will still make art, as long as they follow the rules and don’t paint outside the lines.

The term “save the cat” is itself one of the rules described in the book. It refers to a moment in the screenplay where the protagonist does something likable, making it easier for the audience to engage with them. They can save a cat, show mercy to a criminal thug that brought their son to a baseball game, or engage in a conversation about French cheeseburgers before doing a bunch of gun murder.

There are other rules in Save the Cat which I thought were interesting. Pope in the Pool, Too Much Rope, Black Vet… these were all great tips which have direct application in other forms of writing.

Save the Cat – My Reaction

I think the book has a lot of value. I recommend other writers read it, even if you’re like me and have no desire to write a screenplay. I know Save the Cat Writes a Novel exists, but I heard it’s not as good as the original. I may give it a try later when my to-be-read pile is a little thinner.

That said, I had some problems with Save the Cat. For starters, Blake Snyder took issue with movies like Memento and Unbreakable, movies which don’t easily fit within structure described in the book. He also bashed Signs, but I thought that was fair. A movie he didn’t mention is the original Rocky, which would have been ruined by his three act structure methodology.

The overall attitude of Save the Cat is that success is measured in dollars, and if you want to be a successful writer, you must adhere to the structure laid out in the book. The structure is rigid enough that it describes the number and placement of scenes, the emotional curves, and the overall journey of any story. It’s rigid, mechanical, and guarantees that the movie goer is going to get the same basic movie experience every time.

Novels are different, but like I said, I see people online applying the terminology and methods of Save the Cat to novels, and it makes my teeth hurt. I think something is lost. It’s exactly the same as telling a musician they can only write songs using the same four chords.

Four chord songs are extremely popular and successful, but it’s not the only way to write music. The three act structure is handy and reliable, but it’s not the only way to write a screenplay. It is definitely not the only way to write a novel.

Scorsese, Coppola, and The Marvel Cinematic Universe

Recently, Martin Scorsese said that the Marvel movies were not cinema. Francis Ford Coppola joined Scorsese in admonishing the films, going a step further and calling them despicable.

Some people may agree with them. A lot of people disagree. Emotions can run hot because these are very popular movies. If you don’t like Marvel Movies, we can still be friends, but I’m of the opinion that these are some of the finest experiences I’ve enjoyed at the theater for the last decade, and I respectfully disagree with the legendary directors disparaging the MCU.

But let’s take a step back and put this in context. Let’s break apart some of these Marvel movies and examine their structure. Actually, let’s be a little bit lazy and let the more educated and eloquent Lindsey Ellis break it down for us. In the following video, she breaks down 3 act structure and includes Iron Man as one of her examples.

Let’s also listen to Michael from Lessons of the Screenplay’s video, which dedicates the entire run time to analyzing the structure of Marvel movies.

Both of those videos are excellent. If you don’t have time to watch them now, watch them later. They’re worth it.

In the mean time, accept my word when I say that Marvel employs the three act structure, adhering strictly with the rules Blake Snyder describes in Save the Cat.

The Paradox Spelled Out

In case you missed it, here is what I’ve said so far:

  1. I don’t like reflexively applying the three act structure to stories
  2. Scorsese and Coppola don’t like Marvel movies
  3. I LOVE Marvel movies
  4. The Marvel movies successfully use the three act structure as if they’re trying to replace all their toilet paper with dollar bills

Am I being inconsistent?

On the surface it looks that way, but I don’t think so. What turns me off of Save the Cat isn’t the content, it’s the attitude that it is the only way. That attitude is backed up and supported by individuals in the writing community. I don’t actually have a problem with the three act structure itself. I have a problem with the inflexibility surrounding it.

When I constructed the outline for Synthetic Dreams, I used a three act structure as a framework! And as the story has grown, I’ve broken away from the structure a little, organically allowing the novel to take its own form. The tension has escalated in the third act, dropped off, then escalated again. There have been two scenes that could be described as “whiff of death” moments.

And it’s fine. For one thing, I’m not writing a screenplay. For another, I’m not writing a screenplay, so we shouldn’t strictly apply screenplay rules to my novel. If it ever gets adapted to a movie, we’ll have a different conversation about how my story will be adapted.

But let’s get back to Scorsese and Coppola. Are they criticizing the three act structure the way I am?

No, they’re not. Many of their movies, especially Coppola, adhere to a three act structure.

So what are they bitching about? The spectacle? The big budget action thrillers based on pop culture media?

If that’s what their pointing at, Coppola is a hypocrite. The Godfather movies were exactly that, in their time. Moderate budget films based on books that were popular.

Are the Marvel Movies Cinema?

I honestly don’t know what Scorsese and Coppola are saying. They’re geniuses, and they’re entitled to their opinion. It seems like they’re saying that cinema should teach. That the movie goer should leave the theater having gained something.

From Tony Stark, we learned about taking responsibility. We learned that we are more than the legacy we inherited, and that we need to rise up out of the mud when we’ve been knocked down. We learned that sometimes doing the right thing comes with a cost. We saw a man conflicted, dealing with grief and loss, falling into his more base humanity and losing one of his closest friends as a result. In the final movie, after escaping the fight and having a taste of the happy ending he deserved, he walks away from retirement, puts on the suit on last time, and gives his life to save the world, fulfilling the promise of his story laid out across ten years of cinema.

That’s just one of dozens of characters that have compelling character arcs across multiple movies. From Steve Rogers, we start with someone that seems to already have it together, their physical body becoming as perfect as their morality and integrity. But then we see him challenged, force to put down naivety and make difficult choices. Can he just be a soldier when the organization he’s fighting asks him to do wrong? Can he be the man he wants to be without leaving his friends behind? In the end, to be a complete person, he must lay down a little bit of what makes him The Perfect Soldier and simply be The Good Man that the doctor saw in him when he was first chosen. It’s then that he becomes worthy to lift Mjolnir. It’s then that he decides he is worthy enough of the life he always wanted, full of love and joy with the woman that fell in love with him before he became a living Adonis.

This is cinema. This is story. These are characters that we can love and learn from. And thanks to Marvel, we can have a damned fine time doing it.

Parting Thoughts

I want to reiterate that I do not have a problem with the three act structure anymore than I have a problem with four chord songs. Media made with these structures in mind can still move me. And sometimes, I am inspired to make my own stories that adhere to this structure.

One of the jobs of the creature is to be true to the characters, and speak truth through the characters. Truth, in this case, is not the same as facts, and it may not be the truth according to the author. An optimistic writer can include a nihilistic protagonist, and the truth of the character is different the truth of the person that created them.

If you find yourself forcing a character to act against their truth in order to adhere to the three act structure, you are probably doing something wrong. Characters are the story. The three structure is just one of many delivery mechanisms.

11/2/19

A Great Day at World Fantasy

It’s Saturday, my third day at World Fantasy 2019, and before I get too far into the day, I want to talk about yesterday. Yesterday was a really great day.

To Panel or Not To Panel

When I first started going to conventions, I’d take out my laptop and take judicious notes. I mapped out my schedule to maximize the efficiency of my day, going to panel after panel, filling my brain with the wisdom of the panelists. I did this several times a year for several years. For a while, I even posted my notes to this blog.

Over time, the efficacy of the panels began to wane. I started to hear more and more repeat information. I kept taking notes, but I was writing down the same thing I’d written before. The faces changed, the words changed slightly, but the content remained the same. Learning stopped happening, and I stopped enjoying panels. It felt like being a college student taking the same courses over and over and never advancing. A waste of both time and money.

I went to a panel early in the day yesterday about ways to make sure your manuscript isn’t dead-on-arrival when it reaches an agent or editor. I took out my laptop, prepared to take notes as usual. I listened attentively the entire hour, then left. Outside the panel, I ran into someone that arrived late.

“Oh, I can fill you in on what you missed,” I said. “Here it is in its entirety. In order to make sure your manuscript has the best chance of landing, do the following two things: 1) Do your research. 2) Be professional.”

The panelists didn’t say that in so many words, but everything they did say fell into those two categories.

That’s when I realized I wasn’t going to worry so much about panels at cons like this. If there are people on the panel I like listening to, I’ll go. If there’s nothing better for me to do, I’ll go. Otherwise, my time is better served hanging out with friends or writing. That’s what I did most of the rest of the day.

Writing! Getting to The Sweet Stuff

A week or so ago, I talked about how I felt stuck in my writing. The words were coming, but they were slow. I had to really work to get through a part of my manuscript, and frankly, I felt depressed that I was going to miss my goal of completing the first draft before November.

Yesterday, I wrote over 8000 words, and it felt great. The words were easy. The scenes were clear. I like what I wrote, and I’m finding greater depth in the story than what I originally envisioned. The themes I wanted to include are there, but there are others that are popping up I hadn’t consciously intended, and I love it.

Some of this is because I’m relaxed. I probably put too much pressure on myself before November to finish, which caused me to clench.

More importantly, I’ve reached scenes I’ve been looking forward to writing for months. These are fun, pivotal scenes, where everything is coming together. The tension is ratcheting up as we get closer and closer to the climax. This is the Sweet Stuff. I’m fulfilling for myself the promises I made when I set out to write this story. These aren’t necessarily the same promises the story makes to the reader, but there is overlap.

I understand the appeal of writers that are able to jump around in their manuscript. I’ve always written chronologically because so much of the interesting stuff happens during discovery. I can’t write a call from chapter 30 to chapter 15 if I haven’t written chapter 15 yet. Non-chronological writers work the callbacks in during revisions, sure, but I like to include them as I go.

It’s Not What You Know, It’s Who You Know

So, if I’m not getting much from the panels at this convention, what am I doing here? I could just write at home, right?

The real value of cons is the networking. It’s meeting peers and business associates that are working in the same field. This isn’t just predatory or transactional. In fact, I advise against trapping an editor or agent into a conversation, because that’s the worst possible impression you can leave.

Conventions are full of people, so the main benefit of attending is meeting people. You can meet some people at panels, but the real opportunities happen at the parties (if they have any) or at the bar. BarCon is real. We would not have The Dresden Files if not for BarCon.

The problem for me is that, while I can maintain my end of a conversation once I’m involved, I have a hard time meeting people. I’m shy, introverted, nervous, anxious… I approach the noise and chaos of the crowds near the bar, and I feel the blood drain out of my face. I don’t know how to engage. Several times last night, I stood at the edges looking in, seeking a familiar face or an invitation. When I didn’t see an opportunity, when I felt tired from the efforts of trying to engage, I retreated to my room and worked on my novel.

You’re starting to see how I wrote 8000 words in one day, aren’t you?

Fortunately, my buddy Michael didn’t let me off the hook. He found me in my room, talked me into going back to the bar, and helped me find ways into conversation. And then I was fine. I met some cool people and I had a good time.

Parting Thoughts

I’ve spent the morning near the bar at a tall table meant for people with laptops. Several people have approached, often delighted by my keyboard, and I’ve been able to engage in conversations. I have also managed to write several hundred words and this blog post.

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again. Do, or do not. There is no try.

Whatever cliché or phrase you want to use to describe it, the trick is to not give up and to keep doing what you can do. I’m seeing incremental successes. And at this moment in time, I feel like I have what it takes to have a career in writing.

Speaking of… CHECK THIS OUT!!

11/1/19

NaNoWriMo 2019

Blogtober is done, and now it’s time for Nation Novel Writing Month. Most years, I stop posting to my blog and just focus on getting 50,000 words finished before November 30th. I’m not quite ready to do that, yet.

For starters, I’m probably not doing Nano this year. I can’t work on two first drafts at the same time, and I still haven’t quite finished Synthetic Dreams. Would I have finished if I hadn’t written all those blog posts? Maybe, maybe not. I reached the most difficult part of the book during October, and it took me a while to see my way through to the other side.

I’m over the hump and the words are flowing into that story, so I’m going to remain focused on that. If I manage to finish the first draft by November 7th, I will start Nano on November 8th and see if I can do it. I wrote 50,000 words in 19 days last year, and that story was more challenging than the one I’m looking at next.

I will probably also keep posting here daily while the habit is still with me. I think I’m done doling out writing tips for a while. I’ll probably just talk about what’s going on with my writing, the successes, rejections, and prospects that make up my writing life.

Currently, I’m in a hotel room in Los Angeles. I came down for World Fantasy 2019, and it’s been pretty great so far. I’ve met up with several people I only see once or twice a year.

NaNoWriMo

If you’re doing Nano this year, I want to encourage you! Let me know what you’re working on. Share with me your victories so I can sing your praise! Tell me your dilemmas so I can provide appropriate encouragement, even if that’s just being a listening ear.

I’ve seen some people bashing Nanowrimo on Twitter lately, and I get it. The focus on word count is not necessarily healthy, and producing pages and pages of unprintable garbage isn’t doing anyone favors. These are reasonable criticisms.

However, NaNoWriMo for me isn’t just about the word count. For me, it’s an excuse to make writing my top priority for thirty days. It’s also about sharing the experience with the larger writing community, because we are all writers defeating the monster that is the blank page. It’s through NaNoWriMo that I found #WriteFightGIFClub on Twitter, which is still a fantastic online community.

If the word count is stressing you out, let it go. It is just a metric for measuring progress, and since it doesn’t take into consideration the quality of the words being counted, it doesn’t mean that much. If you only write 500 words a day, that’s still incredible, and I celebrate that victory with you. If you write 3000 words a day and it’s all terrible, I also celebrate that victory with you, and I look forward to reading your story once you’ve gone back and taken the time to revise it.

Parting Thoughts

In 2011, after WorldCon in Reno, I decided to take my writing more seriously. Since then, I’ve been doing what I can to make sure that writing is a larger part of my life. I changed jobs, scheduled time, connected with writing communities, and I’ve submitted my work for publication.

NaNoWriMo is usually the one month in the year where I get to pretend I’ve made it, and that I need to write for a purpose. It’s not just a hobby or pastime. I get to pretend that my writing is actually important, and I get to assume a deadline that isn’t just self-imposed.

These are the reasons I enjoy NaNoWriMo. If you are on the fence with participating, you can use my reasons as your own. You have my permission to pretend to be the writer you’ve always wanted to be, even if it’s for only a month.

Good luck, and let the words flow ever in your favor!