Look, for a lot of us, writing is like a drug. We got a little taste, probably as kids, and we just couldn't stop. Fiction, poetry, and even academic writing consumes us. It doesn't matter, really, as long as we get to sling some ink and manipulate words. You know I'm right, because you feel it in your bones. You sit down from time to time and you either write furiously, like W.S. Burroughs chasing a fix, or you sit and stare for a long, long time into the void because you're overwhelmed with ideas, and you want to make the time count. I get it. I'm a word junkie too. Thing is, we’re junkies that need direction. We can masturbate until our hands are covering in gooey, sticky ink all day long, but we might not ever produce something substantive from our passion. No, being a junkie isn’t enough to be successful: we need to learn to focus. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that people can be auto-didactic about damn near anything. I have a wealth of knowledge just waiting to be unleashed at Alex Trebek, because he’s probably the only motherfucker who cares that I can name the first film Clint Eastwood was in, or the reason Kenner convinced parents to give their kids an empty box for Christmas in 1977. We need to learn structure though, and it isn’t easy, not by a long shot.
Make sure the Academy doesn't show this "Black Lagoon" shit when I die, okay?
Wait, where was I? Damned insufferable distractions! I needed a break, I told myself, so I took one. I smoked a Camel, got something to drink, brushed my hair, and then my teeth, and then I read some blogs that I like. All the while, somewhere in the back of my brain, I wanted to finish my fix, but I procrastinated. See, the problem of writing is that the addiction is psychological. We get so deep into our heads that sometimes we drown in it. That’s why we need structure. Here’s some examples.
The closest I could get to Hogwarts.
One of my favorites. I’m currently closing in on my Master’s Degree. I’ve gotten to study at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee with Ann Angel, 2011 winner of the YASLA “Excellence in Nonfiction” award. It’s more than just learning to get better at the craft though, it’s the grueling deadlines. Normally, as writers we can write and write and write. The program demands we write pages upon pages in a short amount of time, and then edit those pages, and then write some more, and then edit some more. By the end of one semester, I’m sitting on the first 20,000 words of a novel, and they aren’t crap. Without those school-imposed deadlines, I might have 2000 good words, or 50,000 shitty ones, but probably neither. School takes the ink-needle out of your hands and teaches you how to make it last.
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As writers, we often do things that make other's cringe. Stephen King once joked that he had "the heart of a young boy... In a jar under his sink". For many writers, this kind of humor makes a hell of a lot of sense. We aspire to put our characters through the worst days of their existences. We also aspire to make these characters feel like living, breathing people. The more "real" we can make those characters, the harder it is to make them victims of rape, or force them to pull the trigger when their family pet gets bitten by a zombie.
Yeah, like that...
Sure, there's the old cliche that we, as writers, should "kill our darlings", but what happens when we get there? After all, in order to write this stuff, we need to live in the skin of these people, and really embrace the good and the bad, so what does that make us? Are we all just schizos looking for a victim, putting it off by putting on the page? Should we avoid going to that dark place so our readers feel better? Is our very humanity in some kind of danger because we spend so much time in these dark places? I say no. We're just expressing the crap the average Jane or Joe thinks on a daily basis. When we do it well, we get fans and haters alike, but that should be the goal. Look for ways in your writing to ruin someone's life, fuck up their paradigm, and make them deal with the worst, most vile shit you can think of, and you'll find something called a story.
Think of it this way: What happens if Old Yeller lives at the end? What if the black guy in Night of the Living Dead doesn't get shot? If The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo doesn't get raped in the ass, what then? Well, we lose credibility, for one. Horrible things happen to people all the time. They happen to everyone, and what we like to write about isn't the horrible thing so much as how these people deal with what happens to them. Sometimes, we aim to make the audience deal with it, because that's real too. Reading or watching well-written stories is a visceral act. We are supposed to connect to the characters and empathise with them. When John Harker gets cuckolded by Dracula, we're meant to feel his outrage. I mean, shit, wouldn't you be pissed if your significant other turned into a necropheliac? That shit's gross, even if you're into the whole "sharing" thing. The secret is, as writers we don't get the same reaction writing it as when we read it. A strong writer will go there. A strong writer will make the hero shoot his son in the head just moments before the military was going to save the day and probably feel none of the catharsis the reader feels. So, then, what's in it for us?
Well, as writers, we're still living vicariously, but we do it through our readers. We push their buttons and gufaw with glee whenever we see someone doing the "holy-shit-that-hurt-please-stop-electroshocking-me!" dance. We just want a reaction, and we're willing to push your buttons to make a point. Let's take a look at some examples from the world of cinema. It doesn't matter what the medium is; the motivations of the storyteller are universal.
Old Yeller: I'd kill the dog to make you cry, because the loss of innocense isn't enough on its own. Look, the story isn't about a fucking dog, it's about growing up. I'd want you to lament the loss of childhood so bad that I'd kill the boy's mom instead, but let's face facts: You don't care if the mom dies. Not really. Killing an animal though, no matter how understandable his rabies makes that decision, is gut wrenching. Everyone hates it when that dog dies. Everyone except my own kid, I guess. I showed him Old Yeller once, and I had to ask him why he wasn't upset. Turns out, I'd shown him too many zombie movies. He said, "The dog is like a zombie, Dad, and you HAVE to shoot zombies!". He then promised he'd shoot me in the head if I became a zombie. Damn, kid...
Night of the Living Dead: This one might be obvious, but you kill the black guy (his name is Ben, by the way) in order to create outrage in what you presume to be a racist audience. You see, the important part is that Romero and Russo spend that whole movie brainwashing you, the viewer, into seeing society differently. Instead of Christian vs Non-Christian, White vs Black, Men vs Women, or any other self-imposed seperation we may come up with, we start to see the world as Living vs Dead. That's important, because then, when he kills Ben, you are pissed. You're ready to upend your theater chair and march through the sticky aisles of that theater to scream that the black guy didn't deserve to be shot like that. Remember, that movie came out in 1968, and for white audiences to come out of a story pissed that the black man got shot unjustly, well, that's a kind of social accomplishment.
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