Friday, June 22, 2007

Playing to My Strengths

I have two strenghts in my writing: dialog and action. Description, not so much. I write genre, so plot isn't a problem once I figure it out; but action and dialog are the tops in my talent pool - as limited as it is. I had an instructor who told me that we all write to our strengths after telling me how good my dialog was. Now she is incredibly flakey, and as someone else pointed out, absolutely nuts; but she is also very smart when it comes to writing fiction - she consistently presented some of the most thought provoking and intellectual seminars at Stonecoast - so her observations were usually right on. (However, she wasn't as widely read in most popular fiction genres. Genre writers in MFA programs who get mixed in with the general population need to develop the skills to weed out the great writing advice from the usual prejudices toward pop fic.)

I also had an agent tell me that I write terrific action (and this was a few days after he had dinner with Lee Child), but again, the agent didn't represent genre fiction - as to why he was reading my creative thesis, well that's a long story - so, his observation was taken with a few grains of salt. He also suggested my main character needed a unique feature like running an antique shop or work as a chef - great ideas if I wrote cozies, but the novel is heavy on dark emotions and violence. I don't know too many antique dealers who routinely shoot people.

Where was I? Strengths. I'm guilty of leaning on what I do best. First drafts are dialog heavy, but a lot of crime fiction tends to be conversation heavy anyway. There is also some pretty good action, which for some reason I have to write in the present tense and then edit back to past tense (if that's what I'm using in the rest of the story). Again, a lot of crime fiction has plenty of action, so I'm not incredinly worried. But I have a goddamn MFA degree, which means I should be a little better with the whole prose thing, description, etc. when I write my first drafts - but the initial writing usually sucks. Now, I know from Anne Lamott that first drafts are usually the shit drafts, but mine are very shitty indeed. I actual put notes in my writing like "add some description here" or "better prose needed" rather than take the time to do it right then.

So, why is this on my mind? Well, I'm avoiding my current story and have made the mistake of taking a break to think about it. The entire thing is mostly dialog with a few stage directions - I haven't even gotten to any action. But once the time comes for the second draft, I should be in a better place, but I do hate re-writes. I really really do; even though I'll go over drafts at least a dozen times. To me, it's the second hardest part of being a writer - the first thing is actually getting started. But I guess I'll use my lopsided talents as crutches to get through this draft - even if the damn thing will take me the rest of the summer. Oh well.


Bryon Quertermous said...

I envy you on being able to do action well. Like you, I do dialogue well and tend to play that up (have you ever tried playwrighting by the way??)and I'm good with scene and character descriptions, but I SUCK at action and it is a vital part of our genre. Any tips?

Steve Allan said...

I think the reason I can do dialog so well, and the reason my prose tends to suck at the beginning, is because I studied screenwriting in high school when I initially wanted to go to USC film school. I read nothing but screenplays. I'd like to try a play at some point.

As for action, even though I'm qualified in the eyes of academia to teach writing, I don't exactly know how to instruct someone on how to write action. It just comes to me. Suggestions, and I know some people, especially lit fic folks, who hate using movies as storytelling examples; but I think watching some action movies will be a big help. They don't have to be the best written movies, but just saturate yourself with them. Tony Scott, Kurasawa, Andrew David, Wolfgang Peters, Michael Bay, John McTiernan, Martin Campbell, the Wachowski brothers, the Hughes brothers, Richard Donner, anything written by Shane Black, the Bourne films, Jackie Chan, John Woo - I mean do nothing but watch those movies and see how the characters move and try to translate that on the page. Like a lot of writing excercises, flat out copy whatever it is your watching - write it out so you get the rhythm until you can take those training wheels off. Take what you see on the screen in relation to pacing, especially the editing and try to duplicate it. Other films to check out: anything editing by Stuart Baird. A book to check out is Walter Murch (another editor to watch) called IN THE BLINK OF AN EYE about film editing theory, which talks a lot about pacing and why film cuts make sense to our eyes and brains. I definitely think his theories (or most of them) can apply to writing fiction. That's the best I can do.

Christa M. Miller said...

I'm getting better at description. It helped the most when I realized I didn't have to do paragraphs of exposition - just a few choice sentences would do, scattered about, that create atmosphere and/or show character.

I'm not sure how I do on action. You'll have to let me know. ;) As for dialog, I think I'm actually best at internal monologue! Can you say "boring"?

pattinase (abbott) said...

Action really alludes me. I'd like to set it all offstage and just stick to dialogue and description. Come to think of it, I do.

Erin Underwood said...

Great post, Steve! My strength is also in dialog (because I too wanted to be a screenwriter) and in cool concepts. However, the prose is still a little shaky.

I think the biggest problem with my prose is that I currently lack of confidence in my writing style. I am hoping that my upcoming two year stint at Stonecoast will help me to turn that first draft shit into shiny, pretty shinola. :-)