The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Splinter of Truth

In writing, sometimes I start with an idea and build outward. Sometimes I start with a character and ask what is most important to that character, or what would be the worst thing that could happen to him. And in other cases a writer can begin with a technological development, and ask whose life would be most strongly impacted (is that a real word?) by this development.

οΎ Then...ask yourself where you, as a real live breathing human-type being, have experienced some similar change, similar development. How did you feel? Or have you ever observed someone experiencing some similar shift? What emotions did they experience? Once you can connect with this, you have a splinter of truth, have grasped hold of a sprout of emotional reality in the midst of a fictional storm.

Hold onto it for dear life. Once you've found that core, every word, every image, every interaction, every extrapolation...everything must be viewed in reaction response or relation to this grain of essential truth. Don't worry about the first draft--first drafts should be written as rapidly as possible. But during re-writing, continue to refer to the core of truth, and it will act like a spark, igniting the rest of your writing. Truth has the tendency to do that, you know...


I think we may be finished with the third draft of our script for State Street. I am so jazzed...never written anything like this project. A "dramady"? Where I'm specifically going "funny"? (Not, as Robert Downy warned: "full retard", however) This is so bizarre. My entire life I've complained that I couldn't write "funny" and now there is a very good chance that my first produced film will be a chuckle-fest? God has a sense of humor. I guess I can roll with that.


Nicki has finished her first play up north. I wasn't able to get there--Daddy duties. But there is another one coming up in a couple of weeks, and I'm dying to see her shine. She'll actually be home this evening, down to pick up her boyfriend from LAX. They'll be back and forth to Paso Robles, but I'll have my muffin here for Thanksgiving. And that definitely gives me much to be thankful for.


So great to have Tananarive home. Boy, do I sympathize with single parents. And feel angry toward anyone who would deliberately set out to get pregnant without a partner. I'm sure in some cases it works out, but frankly I have just heard and seen too much "I'm overwhelmed" leading to "I have a right to have fun" and being out at the club instead of home with the family. My mom was a divorced mom, but she didn't start out trying to do it that way. I've gone out of my way to provide a male figure to some spectacular young people whose Moms were struggling with this, and it is no joke. Yeah, I said it: kids deserve both parents. Two parents. The raising of children is just too important to address without a Mastermind partner.


Ooh! Free association rocks! The Mastermind principle from Think and Grow Rich demands that you have one, just ONE person who is aligned with you in your goals. You speak to this person at least once a week. The only non-negotiable aspect of this relationship is that it must be harmonious. I suggest that you make this your husband or wife--the primary unit of human life, a dyad. A good friend, or family member could fill this role. BUT YOU NEED THIS. Someone to hold you to your goals, keep perspective on where fear is stopping you, and offer advice. If you don't have such a person, might I suggest Coaching? Find someone locally, or over phone/email who understands how to support you, and won't let you be less than your best. The more I examine this process, the more I like it.


I've been watching "Desperate Housewives" on DVD, having fun, but I feel a little sour right now. One of the wives arranged for her husband to run over his own electric guitar, because she didn't want him jamming with friends. And that just seemed mean-spirited and petty. The problem was that this happened in the one relationship that seemed relatively healthy. I guess I'm just not set up to watch soap operas. I have the same problem writing comedy. I want to keep saying: "but that's not honest!" or "she knows better than that!" I just have a problem "going there," and Tananarive has to remind me to go broader, wider, be less logical. I can do it, but when even fictional people are dishonest, it irritates me. Probably reminds me of all the trouble I've gotten into on such issues, and why I promised myself to walk a different path. Ah, well...


The Question of the Day Is: Can you think of a moment when something entertaining ceased to be so, and why?


Pagan Topologist said...

from 1959 until the mid 1960's, I was thrilled watching ballet performances. After I stopped studying it myself, it often happened that watching a ballet performance would depress me since I know I would never be able to dance that way myself. eventually, this reaction lessened, but around 1971 I internalized a feminist argument that ballet, in spite of its ostensible female centeredness, was just one more kind of propaganda that women are helpless without us men: Men lift women so their jumps appear higher, support them in otherwise impossible turns and positions, etc.

Between these two effects, it was decades before I could enjoy a ballet performance again. I still worry a little about the second one, but I have in essence made peace with it and sometimes I enjoy a dance performance nowadays, though not with the obsessiveness of my teenage years.

I don't know whether this is the kind of answer you are looking for or not. If another example occurs to me, I will post it, too.

David Bellamy

Robin James Burchett said...

Something entertainint ceased to be: Borat became very tiresom. I wasn't offended, but it's attempts to offend me became very tiresome.

Recently I tried to watch Dodgeball, and thought it had enough meat on it to make a good SNL skit.

I've tried to watch House and Grey's Anatomy with my wife, but after a few episodes, they start to make my skin crawl. If I have time to think "there's no reason for that to happen other than to keep my eyeballs focussed on the screen", it's lost me.

Steve Perry said...

Sure, not funny, not believable any more? Put it down. It isn't entertaining when the writer screws up and when s/he thinks the reader/viewer isn't bright enough to notice.

There's a well-known mystery writer with a long-running series. First time she had her private eye do something stupid, I let it pass. People make mistakes, and it set up a good action scene.

The stories were interesting enough when the PI did something similar in the second book, I let it slide.

Third book? Same kind of mistake? I'm done.

I understand why -- you see writers do this all the time. For the plot to work, the protagonist needs to be in peril, and the writer will sometimes go a long way to get them there. Unarmed against the bad guys is better than packing.

But consider the set-up: You are an investigator, licensed to carry a gun and all, and you step outside your front door and somebody takes a shot at you, barely missing. Because of the story, you have to go out the next day.

Are you going to leave your gun at home? Did you somehow forget you'd been shot at twenty-four hours earlier? Somebody been putting stupid pills in your corn flakes?

Or if you are being chased by the bad guys, you manage to take one of them out, and you don't pick up the gun they had, keeping yourself unarmed?

Martial arts movies do this a lot, because they need unarmed for the big fight scene, but it's stupid, and at that point, I start rooting for the bad guys. Protag like that? Deserves to die, taking the book or show with him.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

It's not a moment, but I'm having a lot less fun with fiction (I'm hoping it's just ordinary genre fiction that's the problem), but it's beginning to seem like it's just shuffling the same simple emotional reactions again and again.

Marty S said...

Nancy: I have the same problem. Particularly with my favorite genre science fiction. While science fiction always contained its share of cautionary tales there was also a lot of upbeat science fiction which saw a better future even if there was conflict in it. Today an awful lot of science fiction is of the after catastrophe type or other down beat themes.

suzanne said...

marty and nancy___
have you read China Mieville's novels?
especially Perdido Street Station
The City and the City
though the other two
are also fantastic
briliant ideas and execution

Mike Ralls said...

Sitcoms. I was about 12 or so and had been enjoying sitcoms my entire childhood. One day I was watching a particularly inane one (I think it was Full House) and a friend started laughing every time the laugh track came on. It got very tiresome very quickly, but it really just showed me how stupid the show actually was, and I haven't really watched sitcoms since (with an exception for the Office).

Joseph Lewis said...

I've been watching the Stars Wars cartoon recently, which is just a bit of fun, but a few weeks ago there was an episode "Landing at Point Rain" which was deliberately designed to mimic the landing at Normandy, complete with lots of on-screen deaths and enemies being burned alive with flamethrowers. Now I am bitter.

Christian Lindke said...

I can give you two examples of things that started out entertaining, but ended up becoming disappointments for me.

The first is "Grey's Anatomy." I didn't mind that it was an evening soap and my wife and I enjoyed watching what was essentially non-stop verbal foreplay as the characters went from one relationship to another. There were also some good moments of medical drama, but nothing quite as good as ER.

Then Chris O'Donnell came to the show. Long story short. O'Donnell's character was a vet brought into the show in a storyline involving the title character's dog. When the romance with O'Donnell had run its course, the show writers killed the dog to end the relationship. That's right...they killed the dog for an unnecessary plot point. Boo!

Haven't watched it since.

The second is with "Accidentally On Purpose." The show has from the start been clumsy and hasn't found its voice, but there were funny jokes and a pleasant -- but in need of improvement -- cast. My disappointment with this show wasn't as sudden as Grey's, rather it stemmed from a building sense of disconnection between the situations being written and the situation the lead character is in.

Long story short -- Thirtysomething woman gets pregnant "accidentally on purpose" and moves in with twenty-something soon to be father who wants to be there for the kid. There's a lot of potential dramatic baggage here that I was willing to over look if the show got the "pregnancy worries" right. They haven't.

There is no worrying about cribs. I don't mean the expense of cribs, that has been covered. I mean the "should we get the bumper lining or not" worry. No bumper lining and your kids might end up bruised and battered. Add bumper lining and it might lead to SIDS. The shear amount of SIDS worrying that a prospective parent goes through is overwhelming and very funny from the outside. I could actually write about the things they are leaving out in vast quantity, and will likely blog about it thanks to your question.

Point is...lack of verisimilitude killed it for me.

LaVeda H. Mason said...

Question:Can you think of a moment when something entertaining ceased to be so, and why?

One year, a long time ago, while I was at a friend's house for Thanksgiving, their family was verbally going back and forth at the table, teasing one another, and I realized, mid-laugh, that THEY WERE NOT JOKING.

Oh, the context was humor, and the tone of voice sounded like it was humorous, but it wasn't.

They were using humor to say angry, hurtful things that would have been better said in private. The person that was the butt of the joke wasn't laughing, either.

It made me intensely uncomfortable, especially since I had admired this family's easy camaraderie and openness... I've never been back, and I decided then that if I'm going to make anyone the butt of a joke, I'll make sure it's me.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

It looks as though I was being sloppy when I said I might be tired of "genre fiction". It seems to be more that I'm no longer able to enjoy some of the more cliched stuff like average paranormal romance.

I've since had some fun reading better fiction.

As for Mieville, I enjoyed Perdido Street Station very much, but haven't gotten to The City and the City yet. I recommend his Un Lun Dun as playful, inventive YA fiction, with excellent heroism in it.

Anonymous said...

I was an actor at Renaissance Faires for many years. Then I got involved with, married, and left a man with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. After a few years of hard therapy to help me find out why I kept getting involved with people with NPD, I don't enjoy the Faires anymore. Most Faire people seem to be involved for the purpose of playing make believe with their friends, not entertaining the audience, and I'm no longer down with that.

Mark Jones said...

I'm pretty sure I know the series Steve Perry is talking about--and I had the same reaction. First couple of books were fun. Yeah, the character made dumb mistakes, but the series is largely comic and she was a newbie learning the job as she went. But the problem was that she never DID learn.

Instead of learning from her mistakes and then going on to make all-NEW (and funny) mistakes, she acted like someone with a learning disability. It just got stupid.

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