Today I’m going to talk to you about critiquing with "double vision." It's always fun to analyze a work and give it your undivided attention, but sometimes looking too long at just one work makes it difficult to imagine what might have been. At some point in history, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, and Virgil all made narrative choices. Their works were once "in progress." With the ever-growing popularity of retellings, franchises, and sequels, writers and editors need to hone their "double vision" so they can see how subtle, small changes can completely change the meaning of a work.
WARNING: There will be minor spoilers for Disney’s Moana in this post.
Last week I talked about the importance of the false goal, and I wanted to expand on that topic this week. And sometimes, the easiest way to explain what something should look like is to give you an example of what it shouldn’t. Enter Moana.
Sometimes storytellers get so excited about getting to the end, the gooey center gets forgotten. And really, who doesn’t love the gooey center? A lot happens in the heart of that murky swamp of act two that gets pushed aside. We know how to start, and we certainly know how to end (you know, WITH EXPLOSIONS) but the weird, swirly middle doesn’t get the same love and attention. So what should you be doing in the murky swamp? One thing the brilliant Matt Bird emphasizes in his Secrets of Story (a book so good I returned my library copy and bought my own) is that your protagonist should “pursue a false or shortsighted goal for the first half of your story.” (pg 107) Since this topic doesn’t get enough dedicated pages, let’s talk about false goals.
I worried and sweated over my dissertation the most while I was avoiding it. At dinner, at the movies, singing karaoke-- it loomed. I hefted this 200-page boulder around (literally and metaphorically) for years as it poisoned my life. I remember sitting down to a pleasant lunch with some old friends about six months into drafting. One friend bravely inquired about my writing. My (very mature) response was:
“I hate it. I just HATE IT!”
This week I wrote for Ava Jae's popular blog, Writablity. It's some advice to help creatives maintain sanity in an artistic environment that demands constant public exposure to your fans and your critics. Also Margaret Atwood. Enjoy!
Andrew Price’s video listing the seven habits of highly effective artists has great insights you should start using immediately. He’s talking about practice, not craft, so any artist will find his tips useful.
Since it’s also thirty minutes, I’ll summarize.
I’ve waded through so many podcasts on writing and creativity, and Writing Excuses has risen to the top becoming one of my favorites. This podcast does something many others have failed to do: get to the point. Their tagline is “15 minutes long because you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart.” And they mean it… the first part anyway.
They are very diligent (almost zealous) about staying on topic-- or at least their fearless(?) leader, Brandon Sanderson, is. Perhaps the reason I like this podcast so much is Sanderson (like myself) believes the world can be explained with a proper outline and detailed bullet points. The podcasters are very conscious of their position as teachers as well as writers. They may begin with abstract ideas, but then they immediately ask: ‘yeah, but how do you do that?’
When I’m not reading or writing, I indulge in my other passion: I watch competitive gaming (video games in which players battle against eachother). Competitive video games and professional writing have some things in common. One of them is an ever-changing metagame. Broadcast personalities analyze competitive matches much like ESPN sportscasters. In their analysis they often discuss the game’s “metagame.”
“In the current meta…” They explain.
“This meta is very aggressive.” They all nod, ties bobbing.
The metagame is the strategies and environmental factors that affects the way a game is played. Most average players don’t pay attention to these shifting tactics. And even if they do, average players don’t know how to apply that knowledge to improve their game.
Understanding the metagame and knowing how to use it is what separates the amateurs from the professionals. So ask yourself, do you know your writing meta? Do you pay attention to the shifting environment that dictates your chosen field?
Sometimes a work gets under your skin, and it itches. You don't know why, but the novel/play/film sticks to your soul. I'm talking about that lingering sensation there's a puzzle piece missing but you just can't...
If you ever feel this itch, sit up and pay attention. Epiphany is on the horizon. Ernest Cline's novel Ready Player One clung to me this way. I kept thinking "Why does everything feel just a little off, as though I've fallen through a dazzling mirror?" That's when realized, Cline saturated his novel with the very nostalgia the book critiques. The characters, situations, and themes are all extensions of a 1980’s imaginative universe.
It wasn't only the characters in Ready Player One that are obsessed with the '80's. The tone, themes, and the very architecture of Ready Player One celebrates the '80's in every way possible. It is an immersive experience that rivals virtual reality. Ready Player One's level of cohesion should be an aspiration for writers.
To supplement your veracious appetite for fiction, there are a lot of great books about the creative process itself. I'd like to introduce you to one of my favorites: Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic.
This is the first Elizabeth Gilbert book I’ve read, and her work hadn't tempted me before. But I heard Big Magic’s praise on (Pub)lishing Crawl’s podcast one morning and saw it in the library’s return pile that afternoon, it seemed meant to be. I’m sure Gilbert would think so.
Big Magic turned out to be exactly what I needed to push me through the final weeks for writing an academic article with a strict deadline. Gilbert’s book is both idealistic and practical at the same time (which is quite the accomplishment). It’s not a book about writing mechanics, though. She won’t help you establish style, build a narrative, or develop characters. This book is about how you treat your creativity in whatever form it takes. Gilbert seeks to orient you toward her north stars Gratitude and Perseverance and away from the black holes Bitterness and Martyrdom that tend to beleaguer the creative process. Big Magic is a navigational tool, not a step-by-step guide.
She offers gems like:
“My fear became boring to me, I believe, for the same reason that fame became boring to Jack Gilbert: because it was the same thing every day.
Around the age of fifteen, I somehow figured out that my fear had no variety to it, no depth, no substance, no texture… My fear was a song with only one note-- only one word, actually-- and that word was “STOP!”” (pg 19)
“He was lazy, and he was a perfectionist. Indeed, those are the essential ingredients for torpor and misery, right there. If you want to live a contented creative life… you must learn how to become a deeply disciplined half-a**.” (pg 166)
Creative journeys require constant reorientation and adjustment to keep on track. This book is the perfect tool to get you out of a creative slump and (importantly) keep you out of it. Read it devotionally: one chapter a day, every day, until the "slump-threat" is gone. Then slide it under your bed, close at hand and ready to battle the inevitable next slump.
One virtue of Big Magic is its breadth. Gilbert uses her own passion for writing to divulge lessons about creativity in general, so it works just as well for actors, chefs, designers, and master paper-folders. And yes, some of Gilbert’s lessons are as naive and sentimental as you expect (“the universe loves you” and the like). However, when you’re in a slump, and find yourself eating salt and vinegar chips and bemoaning your latest rejection, that’s the message you need. Even if you don’t believe the universe loves you all the time, believe it long enough to get out of the crater you’re making in the cushions and get back to work.