Remember October?? It was filled with Hurricanes and scary presidential candidates but also good friends and weddings and travel and food. Looking back, it was also a mixed bag of books.
#39: Sammy’s Hill by Kristin Gore - Stephanie let me borrow this when I asked for something light and fluffy. I got exactly what I wanted here. It was so cheesey and full of exactly what you’d expect twists. Not to mention, there’s the political drama with which Gore would obviously have plenty of experience. This one is recommended if you too want a break from the serious.
#40: The Pharmacists Mate by Amy Fusselman - I bought this book on a whim at Dog Eared Books in San Francisco and as I checked out, the clerk said “What a phenomenal book.” Quite an accolade for something so small, but he was certainly right. There is so much punch packed into just a few pages. It’s autobiographical about losing a parent while simultaneously trying to get pregnant. If you’re like me and have too many feelings sometimes, you might end up crying about it on the bus on the way to work. But it’s okay, I can tell you it’s a happy cry.
#41: Aerogrammes: and Other Stories by Tania James - It’s nice to pick up a book based on it’s cover (this one is lovely) and have the writing beat even the lion on the front. James’ stories are about India and the people inside are full of longing, hope, and wonder. I connected with each one in a different but meaningful way. Tania James now might now go into my collection of favorite female short story writers along with Danielle Evans and Susanne Rivecca.
**I would like the record to show that I actually spent most of October attempting to read Memnoch the Devil by Anne Rice. It has been a while since I’ve so strongly disliked a book, but I just could not bring myself to care about it at all. On the surface the plot of eerie vampires, questionable theology, and New Orleans seemed like something I should enjoy. That just wasn’t the case however and ¾ of the way through I finally gave up. No regrets here!
1. FINISH IT Actually finishing it is what I’m gonna put in as step one. You may laugh at this, but it’s true. I have so many friends who have written two-thirds of a screenplay, and then re-written it for about three years. Finishing a screenplay is first of all truly difficult, and secondly really liberating. Even if it’s not perfect, even if you know you’re gonna have to go back into it, type to the end. You have to have a little closure.
2. STRUCTURE Structure means knowing where you’re going; making sure you don’t meander about. Some great films have been made by meandering people, like Terrence Malick and Robert Altman, but it’s not as well done today and I don’t recommend it. I’m a structure nut. I actually make charts. Where are the jokes? The thrills? The romance? Who knows what, and when? You need these things to happen at the right times, and that’s what you build your structure around: the way you want your audience to feel. Charts, graphs, coloured pens, anything that means you don’t go in blind is useful.
3. HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY This really should be number one. Even if you’re writing a Die Hard rip-off, have something to say about Die Hard rip-offs. The number of movies that are not about what they purport to be about is staggering. It’s rare, especially in genres, to find a movie with an idea and not just, ‘This’ll lead to many fine set-pieces’. The Island evolves into a car-chase movie, and the moments of joy are when they have clone moments and you say, ‘What does it feel like to be those guys?’
4. EVERYBODY HAS A REASON TO LIVE Everybody has a perspective. Everybody in your scene, including the thug flanking your bad guy, has a reason. They have their own voice, their own identity, their own history. If anyone speaks in such a way that they’re just setting up the next person’s lines, then you don’t get dialogue: you get soundbites. Not everybody has to be funny; not everybody has to be cute; not everybody has to be delightful, and not everybody has to speak, but if you don’t know who everybody is and why they’re there, why they’re feeling what they’re feeling and why they’re doing what they’re doing, then you’re in trouble.
5. CUT WHAT YOU LOVE Here’s one trick that I learned early on. If something isn’t working, if you have a story that you’ve built and it’s blocked and you can’t figure it out, take your favourite scene, or your very best idea or set-piece, and cut it. It’s brutal, but sometimes inevitable. That thing may find its way back in, but cutting it is usually an enormously freeing exercise.
6. LISTEN When I’ve been hired as a script doctor, it’s usually because someone else can’t get it through to the next level. It’s true that writers are replaced when executives don’t know what else to do, and that’s terrible, but the fact of the matter is that for most of the screenplays I’ve worked on, I’ve been needed, whether or not I’ve been allowed to do anything good. Often someone’s just got locked, they’ve ossified, they’re so stuck in their heads that they can’t see the people around them. It’s very important to know when to stick to your guns, but it’s also very important to listen to absolutely everybody. The stupidest person in the room might have the best idea.
7. TRACK THE AUDIENCE MOOD You have one goal: to connect with your audience. Therefore, you must track what your audience is feeling at all times. One of the biggest problems I face when watching other people’s movies is I’ll say, ‘This part confuses me’, or whatever, and they’ll say, ‘What I’m intending to say is this’, and they’ll go on about their intentions. None of this has anything to do with my experience as an audience member. Think in terms of what audiences think. They go to the theatre, and they either notice that their butts are numb, or they don’t. If you’re doing your job right, they don’t. People think of studio test screenings as terrible, and that’s because a lot of studios are pretty stupid about it. They panic and re-shoot, or they go, ‘Gee, Brazil can’t have an unhappy ending,’ and that’s the horror story. But it can make a lot of sense.
8. WRITE LIKE A MOVIE Write the movie as much as you can. If something is lush and extensive, you can describe it glowingly; if something isn’t that important, just get past it tersely. Let the read feel like the movie; it does a lot of the work for you, for the director, and for the executives who go, ‘What will this be like when we put it on its feet?’
9. DON’T LISTEN Having given the advice about listening, I have to give the opposite advice, because ultimately the best work comes when somebody’s fucked the system; done the unexpected and let their own personal voice into the machine that is moviemaking. Choose your battles. You wouldn’t get Paul Thomas Anderson, or Wes Anderson, or any of these guys if all moviemaking was completely cookie-cutter. But the process drives you in that direction; it’s a homogenising process, and you have to fight that a bit. There was a point while we were making Firefly when I asked the network not to pick it up: they’d started talking about a different show.
10. DON’T SELL OUT The first penny I ever earned, I saved. Then I made sure that I never had to take a job just because I needed to. I still needed jobs of course, but I was able to take ones that I loved. When I say that includes Waterworld, people scratch their heads, but it’s a wonderful idea for a movie. Anything can be good. Even Last Action Hero could’ve been good. There’s an idea somewhere in almost any movie: if you can find something that you love, then you can do it. If you can’t, it doesn’t matter how skilful you are: that’s called whoring.
“From the critically acclaimed author of Atlas of Unknowns and Aerogrammes, a tour de force set in South India that plumbs the moral complexities of the ivory trade through the eyes of a poacher, a documentary filmmaker, and, in a feat of audacious imagination, an infamous elephant known as the Gravedigger.
Orphaned by poachers as a calf and sold into a life of labor and exhibition, the Gravedigger breaks free of his chains and begins terrorizing the countryside, earning his name from the humans he kills and then tenderly buries. Manu, the studious younger son of a rice farmer, loses his cousin to the Gravedigger’s violence and is drawn, with his wayward brother Jayan, into the sordid, alluring world of poaching. Emma is a young American working on a documentary with her college best friend, who witnesses the porous boundary between conservation and corruption and finds herself in her own moral gray area: a risky affair with the veterinarian who is the film’s subject. As the novel hurtles toward its tragic climax, these three storylines fuse into a wrenching meditation on love and betrayal, duty and loyalty, and the vexed relationship between man and nature.
With lyricism and suspense, Tania James animates the rural landscapes where Western idealism clashes with local reality; where a farmer’s livelihood can be destroyed by a rampaging elephant; where men are driven to poaching. In James’ arrestingly beautiful prose, The Tusk That Did the Damage blends the mythical and the political to tell a wholly original, utterly contemporary story about the majestic animal, both god and menace, that has mesmerized us for centuries.“
Tania James is the author of the novel Atlas of Unknowns, the short story collection Aerogrammes, and the novel The Tusk That Did the Damage, all published by Knopf. Atlas was a New York Times Editor’s Choice, an Indie Next Notable, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, and a Best Book of 2009 for The San Francisco Chronicle and NPR. Aerogrammes was a Best Book of 2012 for Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal, and The San Francisco Chronicle.
Her stories have appeared in Boston Review, Granta, Kenyon Review, One Story, and A Public Space. Two stories from Aerogrammes were finalists for Best American Short Stories 2008 and 2013. The Tusk That Did the Damage was named a Best Book of 2015 by The San Francisco Chronicle and NPR, and was a New York Times Editor’s Choice.
I’m kind of obsessed with Tania James after last night’s Granta event, so check out her lovely website and read some of her writing and buy her books and join me in obsession. (via Books | Tania James)
“I haven’t had trouble with writer’s block. I think it’s because my process involves writing very badly. My first drafts are filled with lurching, clichéd writing, outright flailing around. Writing that doesn’t have a good voice or any voice…
Nebraskan author Rainbow Rowell was recently described by Flavorwire as ‘the next YA sensation adults need to know about’ . Her second novel,Eleanor and Park, was the Goodreads Best Young Adult Book of the Year, with Dreamworks buying the film rights earlier this year. Rowell’s third novel Fangirl was written in 2011 as part of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), the project that challenges writers to complete a 50,000 word novel in a single month. In 2013 she wrote the following inspirational letter other authors undertaking the month-long writing challenge.
I was very skeptical about NaNoWriMo at first.
It seemed like something that amateur writers would do. Or young writers. People who needed to be tricked into finishing their books. I’d already written two books by October 2011, and sold them to publishers, and I couldn’t imagine writing either of them—or anything good—in a month.
That’s not writing, I thought, that’s just piling up words.
But then I thought about how wonderful it would be to have a pile of 50,000 words…
Maybe some writers enjoy the first draft—the part of the writing process when anything is possible, and you’re out there forging your own path. I hate that part. All I can think about when I’m starting a book are all the words I haven’t written yet. I actually feel them, hanging around my neck, tugging at me. First drafts always make me feel anxious and a little desperate—like, “Oh God, I just need to get all of this out and on paper, so that I have something to work with.”
I like having something to work with.
That’s why I eventually decided to try NaNoWriMo—to fast-forward through that desperate, blank-page phase and get to the good stuff. I told myself that it didn’t matter if my first draft was bad. All my books have required major revisions, anyway. And even if NaNoWriMo was a complete waste of time—if I ended up with a chaotic mess—a month isn’t much time to waste. (Not compared to the five years I worked on my first novel before showing it to anyone.)
Maybe because my expectations were low, I didn’t have a detailed strategy for the month: I took a few days off work, and warned my husband and kids that I was going to be gone a lot until Thanksgiving. And I set three goals:
To write every day. To write at least 2,000 words every day. And—this was crucial for me—to keep moving forward.
Normally I start each writing session by rewriting whatever I wrote in my last session. With Fangirl, my NaNoWriMo project, I picked up wherever I’d left off and kept moving. I never looked back.
What I noticed right away was how easy it was for me to pick up. One of my challenges as an author is staying inside the fictional world I’m creating. I have to write in blocks (at least four hours at a time, at least four days in a row) to make any progress. During NaNoWriMo, I never left the world of the book long enough to lose momentum.
I stayed immersed in the story all month long, and that made everything come so much smoother than usual. I got a much quicker grasp on the main characters and their voices. The plotlines shot forward…
I mean, I still didn’t know whether what I’d written was any good. (I hadn’t even read it all in one piece!) But I was so excited about the novel, I wanted to write every day. And even when I wasn’t writing, my brain was still working on the story.
So… I didn’t actually finish my book that November. I met the word goal, but was only about halfway done with Fangirl. I continued working on it through January, then did a pretty heavy rewrite the next spring. Here’s something that really shocked me during my revisions: I kept almost every word I wrote during NaNoWriMo.
That 50,000-word pile I made wasn’t a mess at all. It’s some of the bravest writing I’ve ever done, and it includes my all-time favorite character, a guy I think I would’ve second-guessed to death under normal circumstances. NaNoWriMo helped me push past so many of my doubts and insecurities and bad habits. And I think that’s partly why I love Fangirl so much now—because I remember how swept away I felt when I was writing it.