May 11, 2014

One Night Only: Chuck Wendig's Beard

As I have mentioned in a few previous posts, particularly those that revolve around NaNoWriMo, I am a pantser. Even the idea of planning out something before I write it gives me the heebie-jeebies. The problem with this is I am slightly (i.e. very) compulsive about certain things and in order for me to make decent progress I have to plan.

The same goes for any self improvement activity, whether it's a new hobby or honing the skills of a particular craft like photography or writing. I got a new camera, a shiny new Nikon D90 a few years ago and read a couple things online and started snapping pictures. I had taken a photography course at the local community college a decade ago and figured I would just wing it. The results were better than average, but they weren't great, so I took a couple more classes specifically geared toward the camera I owned and then started taking tonnes of pictures. The result? I wouldn't classify them as "great", but they are certainly better than anything I've ever done and I'm quite pleased.

When it comes to writing I've done a lot of reading, but not as much reading about how to write as I have much as I have for research and pleasure. This is not a bad thing, but just as reading about rocket science isn't going to actually make me a rocket scientist, reading books isn't going to make me an author. I've also done some writing, though not nearly as much as I should. I haven't even amassed half a million words yet, in spite of finishing a first draft of a novel, having written 50,000 words towards a second novel, 20,000 words toward a third, and 52,000 words on my blog in the last 16 months.

So, when my friend and Orange Karen: Tribute to a Warrior publisher Christina Esdon sent me a message on Facebook a few months ago asking if I wanted to go to an all day writer's workshop given by none other than Chuck Wendig I didn't even have to check the calendar twice. I bought a ticket within minutes and yesterday morning she met me at my house and we carpooled into Toronto to go learn how to "art harder", as chuck is wont to say from time to time (usually with a well place expletive at the end).

I own (but have not yet read) all of Chuck's books on the writing craft and get every one of his blog posts over at Terrible Minds but didn't have any idea what to expect. If you want the executive summary now here's all you need to know: it was worth every penny ($90) and I'd do it again in the beat of a heart.

The room we set up very formally, with a podium at the front and rows of tables that each sat three people. After some background from Chuck on how he came to be a full time professional writer we got right down to business. We covered a wide range of topics and he had us do exercises for each one where we got to share with the class, get feedback from him and the others, and even participate in crowd-sourced story creation. It ended with a Q&A session on writing and storytelling and then a book signing / photo op.

Some of the stuff we covered:

  • Log lines
  • Themes
  • Characters
    • Problems
    • Solutions
    • Limitations
    • Complications
    • Strengths
    • Boons
    • Character Log lines
I'm not normally much of a note taker and even mentioned to Christina that I wasn't sure I would take any notes, but I did have this wonderful pen my brother bought me for Christmas and a notepad just in case. By the end of the all day session I had taken six pages of notes (including stuff written for the exercises). In addition to that, I came up with one new idea for a series and several improvements for the novel that I'm editing.

On top of all that, I got to eat lunch with Chuck and spend some time having normal conversations. Well as normal as they could be given the fact that he's this hugely successful writer on his first trip to Canada and I'm a newbie writer Chuck Wendig fanboy who grew up 15 minutes from where we were sitting noshing on some tasty Pickle Barrel sandwiches.

I scribbled down a little humorous line in my notebook while Chuck was talking with Christina and at a break in the conversation asked him if he'd do me the pleasure of signing it. He went one better and added a line of his own before penning his name to the bottom. Day = made. In addition to being a great writer and knowing his shit when it comes to the craft I can honestly say that he's also one of the most genuine dudes I've ever met as well as beyond patient when it comes to his fans and fellow writers (especially considering how creepy I was being).

Hopefully this won't cause Chuck any problems at the border

Finally, as if all of the above wasn't enough he's also got that awesome beard, which would come in really handy if I were in need of a good name for a punk band or thoroughbred racehorse.

Chuck Wending's Beard

~ Andrew

May 04, 2014

Fill In The Blanks

First off, an apology to all four of you that were expecting posts the last couple of weeks. I decided  I would take some mental health time away from blogging. Also, I had exactly zero ideas for posts and was becoming quite frustrated so I decided to do other things.

Anyhow, a few things happened while I was away from the blogosphere but today we're going to focus on storytelling. I was in a bit of a funk and having a hard time getting words to flow. Call it writer's block, call it whatever you want. I was stuck and having a hard time getting out. Before you knew it though the day was saved... by none other than Rob Ford.

I know it sounds a little suspect, but it's true! Before you think I'm just another person jumping on the let's make fun of Rob Ford bandwagon (I'm not) I have a question:

What do Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, former President Bill Clinton, and former football player O.J. Simpson have in common?

Answer: in spite of mountains of evidence to the contrary they all chose to deny, deny, deny... and then admit.

Well, two of the three eventually copped to some reasonable facsimile of the truth. One of those two could very well be in the White House again in a couple years (albeit as the spouse of the President this time) and one could still be Mayor of Toronto in the fall (though still the butt of late night television jokes). The one who is still denying everything? Well he was sued for every penny he had an is now in jail for an "unrelated" conviction.

So what is it about denying something until you're blue in the face before coming clean at the last second that actually works?

Answer: imagination.

In storytelling you have to lead people down the path but you can't spoon feed them every detail. If you did there wouldn't be much of a story, and if there's one thing we humans love it's a good story. We also have wonderful imaginations, especially when we're given just the right amount of information to work with. If you can leave out certain bits and carefully highlight other ones you end up leaving enough room for the reader to fill in the blanks with their own fabulous ideas.

Good stories live inside negative space. 

By constantly denying, what those people are doing is allowing everyone's individual storytelling machines to work overdrive. At the end of it all they can just stand back and put their arms up and say, "Well look at that, everyone's got a theory. My 'theory' is I'm innocent. [smiles and waves] No further comment."

After a while, because people have dreamed up such amazing stories to fill the space in between, when the truth does come out (and it always does eventually) it's really quite an anti-climactic event. We forget all about how incredulous we were back when it all began. The redemption story starts to take hold. Everyone deserves another chance. Blah blah blah. Humans are also suckers for the happy ending. Film has been taking advantage of this for over a century (the finest example I can think of is the film adaptation of Bernard Malamud's "The Natural". Watch Robert Redford in the movie and then read the book).

The problem is we live in the real world and not in the pages of a best selling novel or some Hollywood tale. I want real people, especially leaders and role models, to be able to produce a list of end notes and reference checks as long as their arm like you'd have at the end of a research paper. Just as it is with that list, I'm never going to follow up on everything on it, but I'll feel much but I feel much better knowing it's there. This way we can spend more of our precious creative time coming up with stories that actually matter.

~ Andrew