U.N.C.L.E. the Show
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WRITING U.N.C.L.E. - FIRST AID AND COMFORT
No, this is not a column about medical research (though God knows, writing U.N.C.L.E. almost requires some emergency room experience). And it's not about writing hurt/ comfort stories (now, you don't really need instructions for that, do you?)
This is a column about first aid and comfort for the creator, the writer --- that's you. Can one be taught how to be a writer?
Umm, no, sorry. Talent, like height and eye color, is probably tucked away on the tip of a chromosomes or chromosomes. If you've led a reaaaaaally interesting life, that might help too, but only with ideas, not ability. In theory, everyone can write just as every human being can hum a tune. Only a few, however, are gifted with perfect pitch.
Can one learn to be a better writer?
You bet. You can't learn art but you can learn craftsmanship. An experienced mentor can do wonders, but if finding one is not possible, books can offer decent and useful advice.
Now, before you begin running up a tab at the local Walden's outlet, let me tell you that most of those volumes on the how-to shelf are pretty much worthless. Unfortunately, there are some hack pro writers out there who can't sell their own stuff, so they fill up the time by slapping together advice books for others. The blind leading the blind, so to speak.
Even when the advice is good, you'll find it repetitious. A hundred available books and they all say the same thing! That's because in writing, as with sex, although one might talk about individual techniques ad nauseam, in the end, there are really only a couple of ways to do it.
So what you need are a few basic manuals that address the basic points. Whether you're an aspiring scriptwriter or novelist, I always recommend Syd Field's The Screenwriter's Workbook (Dell, paperback, $9.95, ISBN: 0-440- 58225-3). Field offers good, concrete, practical advice on the classic three-act structure of story-telling with easy to follow diagrams. If you're having difficulties with plot, this is the book for you.
If you're wondering just how many plots there are in the world, Rudyard Kipling's answer was 69 and Aristotle's was two. Ronald Tobias essentially agrees with Artistotle, dividing them into plots of the body (driven by exterior action) and plots of the mind (driven by interior character). In 20 Master Plots (Writer's Digest Books, $16.95, ISBN: 0-89879-595-8) Tobias further delineates the two major categories into quest, pursuit, adventure, rescue, escape, revenge, the riddle, (any of this sound familiar?) rivalry, the under dog, temptation, metamorphosis, transformation, maturation, love, forbidden love, sacrifice, discovery, wretched excess, ascension and descension. Using familiar examples, he analyzes each plot and even offers a "checklist" of elements at the end of each chapter. There's also an excellent introductory section that discusses important issues like story vs. plot (there is a difference!), and the need for creating tension.
If formula-type thinking offends you, you might find better inspiration within the pages of The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters by Christopher Vogler (Michael Wiese Productions, paperback, $22.95, ISBN: 0-941188-13-2). I discovered this fascinating book only recently and I couldn't put it down. Vogler is a Hollywood story analyst who also did scholarly, work with fairy tales and folklore. He's a great admirer of Joseph Campbell (remember the guy with Bill Moyers on PBS?) and the book is an incredibly articulate discussion of human myths and archetypes as expressed through the "Hero's Journey." He uses popular culture to illustrate his points (for example, our Mr. Waverly pops up in the chapter on the Mentor character) and offers a visual model of the eternal mythic journey.
A strong selling point of the book is its examination of heroism. Heroes, it seems, come in several types: straight (including willing and unwilling) vs. anti-heroes (conventional and tragic); group-oriented vs. loners; active movers vs. catalysts. If you're looking for something to get the creative juices going, this is it.
In the category of useful, conventional textbooks, I'd rate Alan Armer's Writing the Screenplay (2nd ed., Wadsworth, paper, ISBN: 0-534-16668 -7) as number one. Again, like the Syd Field book, Armer's focuses on scriptwriting but it can be read by writers of more conventional narrative, too. There are good chapters on how to construct characters and how to write realistic dialogue.
Another broad-based book is the Mystery Writer's Handbook, edited by Lawrence Treat (Writer's Digest Books, paperback, $9.95, ISBN: 0-89879-080-8). It contains a series of short essays by almost three dozen pro writers covering various topics. I'm not usually fond of the personal anecdotal how-to approach (just because something works for one writer doesn't mean it will work for you), but the essays in this book are fun and informative. For example, in a chapter written by Gregory Macdonald, there's a really priceless lesson on how to write dialogue embedded in an actual dialogue between two characters.
For psychological support and comfort, I recommend two books --- well, actually, three but one's difficult to find. The first is Honk If You're A Writer by Arthur Plotnick (Simon and Shuster, paper, $12.00, ISBN: 0-671-77813-7). As Plotnick talks about the ups and downs of a writer's life, you'll find yourself laughing and nodding in agreement.
The second is Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg (Shambhala, paper, $8.95, ISBN: 0-87773- 375-9), a lovely book of essays. Goldberg is a poet so she often, er, waxes poetic --- perhaps a bit too much for some tastes. Neverthe- less, her gentle urging to be specific about details without becoming seduced by them; to "com- post" (ie: store experiences mentally for future use), and to be kind to other writers, gives you a warm feeling in your writing heart.
Finally, if you can find it, there's How to Enjoy Writing by Janet and Isaac Asimov. (Walker and Company, paper, $9.95, ISBN:0-8027- 7303-6). This is a hillarious book, full of witty and perceptive observations about the writing life. Unfortunately, I've not been able to locate a copy for several years and I fear it's out of print.
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