July 3, 2015
I’ve been doing something kind of different lately. Different for me, anyway. I’ve been looking at some of my old writing — and fixing it. And it’s been kind of mind blowing, some of this stuff I put in the trunk because it never sold — I know how to fix it now. I have this novella I wrote 10 or 12 years ago. It never sold, but I’ve been working it over to turn it into a novel proposal. It’s actually nice, because I’m so clearly a much better writer now. Clearly. I’ve got the old draft sitting on my desk, and while I’m using it as a guide, I’m pretty much rewriting it as I type scenes into a new file.
Because I’m such a big advocate of revision, I thought I’d show you what that looks like.
The old version, from 10+ years ago:
Just two weeks ago, I was safe in my ivory tower. Assistant Professor of comparative literature, with nothing to worry about but when I had to be at my office for office hours. Well, publishing and getting tenure, but those were too big to worry about right now.
Technically, I didn’t really have to be at my office for office hours, since students never actually came to my office, not like they did in the old days. But they did call with all the usual questions and I had to be near my screen to answer them.
“Professor Cox?” said one of my Intro to Mythology students. I touched the screen to open a chat window and saw the face of a nineteen year old’s desperation looking back at me.
“I know I was supposed to turn in my paper yesterday, and I know I didn’t, but I was really hoping I could get an extension, just an extra day or two–”
I had a script for this. “You got the syllabus along with everyone else, you know my policy–no extensions.”
The anguish in the young man’s twisted face showed the pain of someone who’d never had to worry about anything worse than a late paper. “But Professor Cox, I really need this grade. . .”
I let him go on for a minute. It was part of the script. Finally, I let out a heavy sigh. “All right. Just this once. But I need it by the weekend and it had better be good.”
Just like that, he became the happiest person in the world. “Thank you, thank you so much.“
And the new version (still rough, I haven’t really proofread):
I really shouldn’t have been here. But here I was. I hadn’t decided yet if I was sorry. Give me a couple of days.
Just a week ago, I was safe in my ivory tower, nothing to worry about but camping in my office for office hours. Well, publishing and getting tenure, department politics, course loads. But those were too big to really worry about.
Not that students actually visited office hours anymore. It was all emails and messaging.
“PROF COX PLS NEED 2 MOR DAYS FOR ESSAY HELPP!!!!111!!!!!!”
I emailed back a file of the syllabus–that they’d gotten at the start of the term along with everyone else–with the due date highlighted. If that made me a terrible professor, so be it.
If any of them ever actually showed up in person, I would give them an extension.
In a word, the second version has more personality than the first. It’s punchier, with less exposition, it’s less mechanical. The exchange with the student? That’s basically irrelevant to the story and is mostly there for contrast, to show Addie’s normal life. I reduced from 10 paragraphs to 5, and it conveys all the same information, and it’s funnier now. At least I think it is.
The new section has voice. That’s what I was missing in my writing 10+ year ago.
June 24, 2015
May 22, 2015
Just for fun, I was recently thinking about historical figures I’ve written about. (Not just mentioned or talked about — had to have lines of dialog.)
- Babylonian Emperor Darius (“The Book of Daniel”)
- Henry VIII, Arthur Tudor, Catherine of Aragon (“A Princess of Spain”)
- Elizabeth I, Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard, Jane Grey (“The Haunting of Princess Elizabeth”)
- Shakespeare (“Draw Thy Breath in Pain”)
- Edward Alleyn (Kitty Steals the Show)
- Emily Dickinson (“In Time”)
- Queen Victoria, Princess Alexandra, George V, Princess Victoria, Maud of Wales, Carl of Denmark (the whole damn family!) (All the Harry and Marlowe stories)
- H.G. Wells (Harry and Marlowe again)
- Rose O’Neill (“Goodness and Kindness”)
- Joseph Kittinger (who is still alive!) (“This is the Highest Step in the World”)
- Janis Joplin (“Just Another Word”)
I think there may be a few I’m missing. Like, all the pirates in Steel and probably a couple of walk-on characters in Discord’s Apple.
Some of these characters I’ve done a ton of research on. I’ve read multiple books about the Tudors. I did a ton of research on Janis Joplin for one single short story. Rose O’Neill, creator of the Kewpie doll, has an autobiography that I read. I took a whole seminar in grad school on Emily Dickinson and felt very confident writing about her — or rather my interpretation of her.
On the other hand, I did zero research on H.G. Wells and Darius, just using general knowledge and context to portray them, and mostly making them do what I needed for the story.
I probably worried the most about Janis Joplin — hence all the research — because she’s so iconic, it was important to at least try to portray her accurately. I definitely worried about using Kittinger as a character, because he’s still alive, and the story was so fantastical and symbolic I didn’t really make an effort to portray him as he really is. I wasn’t writing about him, really, but about the situation. Where I did do the research was in reading multiple accounts of his Excelsior jumps, so I could at least get the details right.
I have to admit though, having used Kittinger to inspire a character, I had a really good time a couple years ago watching him (via livestream) as capcom for Felix Baumgartner’s high-altitude jump that finally broke the record after 50 years. He had exactly the wry, calm, old-school test pilot demeanor I expected him to have.
May 8, 2015
I am having One Of Those Weeks. Reverse 911 calls, bank freezing the credit card, broken printer, a week of rain, not going to ride TinyHorse because I cannot face the rain, predictions of snow for the weekend, some really annoying paperwork. The couple of unexpected checks I got (the “Hey, this’ll buy a bag of groceries!” kind of checks for short stories written years ago) couldn’t even cheer me up.
But mostly I think it’s because I’m working on this screenplay and it’s kicking my ass. I have a self-imposed deadline on this one and I really want to get it finished, because I think it’s going to be pretty good. My problem: I write short. I know I write short. I zoom through plots. Not a single one of my published novels is longer than 100,000 words. I’ve never had to cut a novel down to size. Now, on a novel, short or long doesn’t really matter as long as it’s in the ballpark. Someone picking up a 70,000 word novel or an 85,000 word novel is not going to be able to tell the difference. There’s a lot of wiggle room.
A feature length film screenplay has to be at least 90 pages. You calculate about a minute of film time per page. This is strict industry standard. But I write short, and I’m coming up short.
So, what to do? Well, a B plot would help. Looking at every single scene and seeing what opportunities for character development I might be missing. Adding to the story without padding it out, making it drag.
This is really brain-cramping work. But I can tell the thing’s going to be better for it — a more developed story, richer characters, etc. I know intellectually this is really good for me as a writer — this is actually something I’ve been trying to do on the last couple of books, to go through every scene and look for missed opportunities, look to flesh it all out more than I have.
But holy crap I’m tired and cranky about it.
(I’m not going to talk about what the screenplay’s about until it’s finished, and until I feel like I won’t jinx it by talking about it. I don’t know when that’ll be. I’m sorry.)
May 6, 2015
1. Decide to do a Thing.
2. Study other examples of that Thing.
3. Read up on how other people have done that Thing.
4. Practice doing that Thing.
5. Get feedback from experienced Thing doers.
6. Do that Thing some more.
7. Put that Thing out there.
8. Repeat forever.
May 1, 2015
My iris are blooming like gangbusters, which is great because my tulips didn’t do anything this year. Bummer. But the iris are great. I tried to take a selfie of me sprawling amidst my sea of iris, but I mostly got a nice clear shot up my nose. Not very good at this selfie thing so much.
I watched Iron Man 3 in preparation for seeing the new Avengers tonight. I think it was the right choice, especially during the “House Party” scene when all the suits fill the skies over the oil rig. Yeah, that looks like foreshadowing. Also, I had forgotten the Joan Rivers cameo bit at the beginning, and that made me sad.
Work wise, after something like three weeks of feeling like I’ve been spinning my wheels, I’m back on track. At least for now. I’ve been working on this screenplay since December — I finished what I thought was a first draft, but it was only 50 pages long, which is not long enough for a feature-length film. More like a TV episode. The story needed a B plot, and my brain turned to mush and I couldn’t figure out how to do it.
I figured out how to do it this week. And I’m really, really excited.
I need to write a big post about branching out, learning to write in different formats, and trying to figure out an entire new field from square one, which I haven’t had to do since I was figuring out the whole novel thing twenty years ago. My brain is getting a workout.
But right now I need to write that B plot.
April 29, 2015
Lesson I’ve been reminded of this week: Don’t compare myself to others. Especially don’t compare my blooper reel to other people’s greatest hits.
I’m back to that thing where I’ve got a bunch of projects in progress and if I could just finish some of them, just get a couple of things out there, I would feel so much better.
But hey, I’ve got tickets to see Avengers: Age of Ultron on Friday. So there’s that. No idea what to expect with this one. I’m sure it’ll be a fine ride. It’s weird, the Marvel Cinematic Universe feels like it’s turning into this really high-end TV show that only has two episodes per year. And you know what? That’s okay.
People are passing around this link: Shit People Say to Women Directors. And it’s horrifying. It’s one thing to know that sexism is pretty darned rampant. It’s another to get individual stories and specific examples. Imagine going to work every single day and hearing this stuff. Imagine going to work at a job you’ve dreamed about doing for your entire life and hearing this stuff. Imagine the courage and will it takes to keep going. Yeah.
Heading into an election cycle with Hillary Clinton as a front runner after the kind of backlash to feminism we’ve been experiencing over the last couple of years — we’re all about to hear a lot more of this kind of shit. Brace yourselves.
It’s almost May, isn’t it? Geez.