Friday, March 31, 2017

[Amazing Stories] March's Writing Prompt: A Week at the Conference Table

Imagine seven people at a conference table.


On Monday, they show up as usual.

On Tuesday, though, each mind shifts one body to the left. Red's mind is in orange body and so on. On Wednesday, they shift again, so that red's mind is in yellow's body, and so on. By the next Monday, they're back where they started. In one full week, a mind has experienced the life of seven bodies, limited to one day of the week, and then the cycle repeats.

Do these people compete for the bodies in some way, or do they view all seven bodies as a corporeal commons?

Were they always like this, or did they wake up one day to find themselves in this predicament? Did they even know it'd happen?

Most pressingly, who are these people and why are they here?

Check out my blog post "A Week at the Conference Table" on Amazing Stories to see a few of the possibilities that emerge...

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

March's Book: Save the Cat

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
Non-Fiction (2005 - 195 pp.)

Blake Synder's Save the Cat is part memoir (he wrote Blank Check, after all), part DIY guide to screenwriting. Snyder's overarching theory is that movies fall into preset categories with predetermined plot arcs - but that doesn't mean just anyone can write the next summer blockbuster. There are rules about what sells, according to Snyder. The title comes from the notion that a sympathetic character must be one we see Save the Cat, or do a good deed that flaunts a redeeming quality.

As a screenwriting guide, it only makes sense that Save the Cat would apply, and not apply, to many screenplays. What can I, as a fiction author, take from Snyder's methods?

I don't usually open with something I don't like about a book, but Snyder is on such a solid foundation with the clarity and fun of his writing style that I can make an exception here. The 10 Types of Movies (25-26), while certainly 10 available types of movies that span a wide range, are far from a comprehensive list. His focus on theme rather than genre is impressive, such as grouping Dracula with Superman under "Superhero". However, he lacks movies centred on internal conflict or on the relationship between character and setting. If a book like 1984 were ever made into a movie, where would it lie? It could be "Institutionalized" ("about groups"), but that categorization would be so facile it'd be meaningless. "Institutionalized" seems better served for movies like Mean Girls and The Secret Life of Pets.

My favourite parts of Save the Cat are the most interactive ones. Each chapter ends in numbered exercises, textbook-style; I should do that in a novel sometime. Near the start of the book, Snyder introduces loglines: single sentences that answer the question "What is it?" using (1) irony, (2) a compelling mental picture, (3) audience and cost, and (4) a killer title. (16) Audience and cost are through images, like how "interstellar flight" probably costs more to produce than "two people sitting at a restaurant". A little later on is the Beat Sheet, one of Snyder's most famous contributions to the world of screenwriting. (70) Using that sheet, a would-be screenwriter can plan out an entire 110-page play, being careful not to miss a single plot point. It's fun to apply these sorts of tools to any form of writing or storytelling to see where there might be a plot point missing.

Notice I said "plot". Save the Cat is all about plot. When Snyder discusses the protagonist, with precious little description of the other characters, he calls the protagonist "the guy who needs the lesson most". (50) He does this in the middle of his list of plot points, with a subsequent heading up "AMPING UP THE LOGLINE". This is the extent to which Save the Cat prioritizes the plot. I appreciate this, though, given my stultifying aim toward character and setting.

A word Snyder uses a lot, and explains late in the book, is "primal". Every character has to be motivated by something base in Save the Cat: food, sex, survival, or some variation. (158) Expanding these terms, as Snyder does, the primal motivation makes sense on its face. Escaping the basement of the hockey standings can be survival. Romance can be sex. All kinds of things can be food. Whether all memorable motivations really are primal is debatable. What about nationalism or civic duty? I like the way Snyder uses the word to force the viewer to think about visceral reactions, though. Before someone is truly engaged with a work, some base level of attention has to be grabbed.

Something I frequently recommend during the writing workshops I attend is to describe something in narrative or in dialogue but not both. My favourite example is to say to a writer not to write, "'I am wearing red', said the man in red." Snyder agrees with me in his warning about "talking the plot":
Try "talking the plot" in real life. Seriously. Go to a party or meet with a group of friends and say: "I sure am glad I'm a screenwriter who was born in Chicago!" or "Gosh, you've been my friend for 20 years ever since we met in high school!" See what reaction you get to this kind of dialogue.
Considering how fabricated many of Snyder's plot points feel (All Is Lost always on the same page? Really?), it's nice to see him side with the realists among us.

As a writer and contrarian, I had to think: "What are some exceptions to Snyder's seemingly hard and fast rules?" The one that immediately comes to mind is My Dinner with Andre, the movie Roger Ebert once called "entirely devoid of cliches". The plot is simple: two men sit down for dinner, and the movie follows their conversation. The characters, and the settings imparted by their words, are what make the movie work. Neither character has a Save the Cat moment, the Bad Guys (who? the waitstaff?) never Close In,* and there's certainly not much primal going on. Then, I tend to believe that rule-breaking is for the classics anyway.

Ease of Reading: 10
Educational Content: 8

NOTE: Pages 186-194 list a glossary of the terms Snyder invents, converts and otherwise uses in the book. As someone who loves reference guides, I fell in love with this section immediately.

*Snyder cites "Bad Guys Close In", the part of the screenplay when the protagonist's nadir becomes an appetizing meal for the antagonist, as the toughest part to write. (85)

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

February's Book: Murder on the Orient Express

Happy Leap Day 2017!

I mean, Happy March 1st...

Speaking of being late to the party:

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Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Mystery (1934 - 137 pp.)

This is yet another of those books that has been read, reviewed and studied so many times I will focus on my personal experience with it, as well as try to bring up a couple angles I do not usually see. First, though, I have to consider what Murder on the Orient Express isn't. It isn't a police procedural. If it were, Hercule Poirot would be the worst police officer ever for many reasons.* It isn't noir.** It isn't Sherlock Holmes, as much as Holmes understandably influenced it.

Murder on the Orient Express ends is so old it's become mysterious again. For those who haven't read it, the premise is this: 16 passengers are in a train car from Istanbul ("Stamboul") to Paris. On the second night of the journey, somewhere in what once was Yugoslavia, the train is trapped in a snowdrift. It is then that one of the passengers on the train car is murdered. Our daring protagonist Hercule Poirot, with the aid of a Wagon Lit conductor and a doctor, must figure out who committed the murder.

Murder on the Orient Express is essentially two things: an inspiration for mystery dinner theatre, and a precursor to whodunit-style logic puzzles.

The logic falls apart for the benefit of the theatrics. Poirot sometimes misses clues that are plainly obvious, such as in certain omissions in the Ten Questions he asks based on the evidence. (106) At other times, his guesswork is so outlandish it leads to conclusions a reader could not possibly reach. (132) This removes the suspension of disbelief, making it appear less like Poirot is brilliant and more like Christie needed to get to the end of the book.

Almost as outlandishly, the women's nightgowns are discussed often, including during Poirot's luggage searches. Poirot notes that "I suspect it is the property of Countess Andrenyi, since her luggage contained only a chiffon negligee so elaborate as to be rather a teagown than a dressing-gown" (135) in front of the entire train car, yet the Countess doesn't bat an eye. Christie delivers the dramatic proclamations and garish outfits that would be fitting for a stage, which would probably make such revealing statements more interesting.

Christie's strongest suit is her language. She shows this right from the beginning, as in the introductions of Colonel Arbuthnot and Mary Debenham:
The Colonel, Hercule Poirot noticed, accompanied her back to her compartment. Later they passed through the magnificent scenery of the Taurus. As they looked down towards the Cilician Gates, standing in the corridor side by side, a sigh came suddenly from the girl. Poirot was standing near them and heard her murmur: 
“It’s so beautiful! I wish—I wish—” (10)
The setting is enchanting, Debenham's awed reaction conveys the scene's grandeur, and the dialogue is crisp. Dialogue is a strength that Christie maintains throughout the book, including in the lengthy conversations between Poirot and Dr Constantine.

This linguistic gift continues in her character descriptions. Her description of Princess Dragomiroff is at once hideous, mysterious and hilarious: "Her small toad-like face looked even yellower than the day before. She was certainly ugly, and yet, like the toad, she had eyes like jewels, dark and imperious, revealing latent energy and an intellectual force that could be felt at once." (62) The Count Andrenyi's more imposing manner is equally apparent: "There was no doubt that he was a fine-looking man seen face to face. He was at least six feet in height, with broad shoulders and slender hips. He was dressed in very well-cut English tweeds and might have been taken for an Englishman had it not been for the length of his moustache and something in the line of the cheekbone." (65) His character is the one that calls Christie's Sherlock Holmes influence to mind, from the tweeds to the inexplicable something calculating about him.

In both the time period and the genre, writing mechanics looked much different from the way they do now. An example is Christie's copious use of adverbs. Those atrocious, abolishment-worthy, overused, "shoot on sight"(!!!), "dumping ground" adverbs. (Yes, I know there's a debate. I'm firmly on the pro-adverb side.) In Murder on the Orient Express, Christie ends a word in "ly" 1044 times.** Subtracting words like "reply", and adding those sneaky non-ly adverbs, is probably a wash, so let's say she uses 1044 adverbs in a 137-page book. Removing the six pages of front matter and contents, leaving us at 131, that's approximately 7.97 adverbs per page. I shudder to think of what would happen to Christie at a writing workshop now. Yet... her writing doesn't suffer for it. That might be an interesting blog entry for a writing advice site.

The diagram of the train car is a fun addition. (42) I referred back to it quite a few times while reminding myself who stayed in which room. A zoomed-in diagram showing the inside of a room would have been good too.

NOTE: In my ebook, there is a massive list of Agatha Christie novels "Coming Soon". (2) I felt like I was reading it in 1934, if ebooks had been a thing back then.

FURTHER NOTE: I read Murder on the Orient Express largely on the TTC. Not exactly the Orient Express, but, like Christie's characters, I did experience a train delay.

Ease of Reading: 10
Educational Content: 1

*Improperly handling evidence, (90) harassing witnesses, (79-80) conducting warrantless searches, (89) telling his theory of the case to the entire traincar, (134-136) and - of course - doing all of this apparently unarmed and with no backup. (28)

**Oddly, only one precedes a semicolon: "'Do not distress yourself,' said the latter kindly; 'I cannot see that there has been any negligence on your part.'" (45) All other similar phraseologies place a colon after the offending "ly".