Jack Hight

Author of Historical Fiction

Archive for February, 2010

In honor of the Academy Awards next Sunday, I have decided to write on one of my favorite subjects: movies.  And while this blog is mainly a convenient excuse to discuss my favorite films of the year (see the list below), it is also an opportunity to discuss how to become a better novelists by watching movies.  Before I wrote my first novel, I wrote several screenplays.  None of them were very good, but writing them did teach me three things that proved very useful when I began to write novels.  These are the same three things that every good movie has to teach.

First, visualize every scene you write.  In film, the writer, director, and cinematographer work very hard to get the visuals just right because part of what makes movies great is the beauty and grandeur of the spectacle that they afford.  The deserts in Lawrence of Arabia; the T-Rex dropping a goat leg on the car in Jurassic Park; the athletes running on the beach in Chariots of Fire: these are powerful images.  Even without the benefit of cameras, novels can and should produce images that are equally powerful.  When I write a scene, I always start with a very specific image in my mind of what it should look like.  My characters are not just in a room; they are in a windowless room in which the dark stone walls are lit red by the light of a banked fire.  Even if you are not going to describe it in detail, you should start every scene with a precise image in your mind—preferably one that looks cool.  This may sound obvious, but it’s easy to get so caught up in dialogue or advancing the plot that you lose track of the setting.  If you focus on visualizing each scene, your novel can be a “filmic” as a movie… and that’s a good thing.

Second, concentrate on action, not narration.  In movies, action is everything.  There is no internal dialogue.  (Yes, movies can use voice-overs, but generally the more they are used, the worse a movie gets.)  Everything must be shown, so plot and character are developed exclusively through action and dialogue.  All novels do not need to replicate this: there’s nothing wrong with books like Crime and Punishment, which take place largely inside a character’s head.  But if you want to write the sort of genre fiction that will land you on the best-sellers list—thrillers, historical epics, sci-fi, romance—then focusing on action and dialogue is the way to go.  Get rid of narration.  Don’t tell us that a character is sad; show us their tears.  Don’t tell us that time has passed (i.e. “she spent months preparing the fields for planting”); give us one or two detailed scenes to show us what happened (struggling with the plow, for instance).  Think of your novel like a movie: a series of scenes in which each one either develops character or advances plot.

Third, listen to what your characters say.  I know that when I write, I’m often so wrapped up in getting a plot point across or in developing the arc of a scene that I lose track of what the dialogue sounds like.  In movies on the other hand, when the dialogue is bad, it is painfully obvious.  For all that I love Avatar, it is a perfect example.  Some of the lines may have seemed fine on paper, but when spoken, they sound ridiculous.  So take a tip from the movies and make sure to read your dialogue out loud after you write it.  And prepare to be dismayed at how clunky some of it sounds.

Visualize; concentrate on action; listen to your dialogue.  Every movie you watch is a chance to think about and to work on these skills.  Notice how the director and cinematographer frame scenes: do the same thing when you write.  Concentrate on which scenes advance plot or develop character, and which ones could be cut.  And most of all, listen for good dialogue and use what you hear to improve your own writing.

Which movies should you watch to do all of this?  Well, I just happen to have compiled a list of my favorite films of 2009.  Just to be clear, these are not what I consider the “best” films (whatever that means); these are the movies that I must enjoyed watching.  And, of course, there are a number of films that I still haven’t seen, which might someday make this list (most notably: A Single Man, Invictus, The Road, The Last Station, Un prophète, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans).

And now, without further ado, my favorite films of 2009 (feel free to comment):

1)      Avatar – One of the best theater experiences that I have ever had.  A brilliantly creative world provides the setting for a rock-solid story.  Yes, the dialogue is occasionally off (i.e. “It was time to take things to a whole new level.”).  But the plot is very well-crafted.  Cameron introduces an entire world without ever slowing down the flow of the story.  The movie has some absolutely brilliant scenes—the first night in the forest of Pandora and the fall of the home tree in particular.  For all that people say the story was predictable and trite, it still kept me guessing: I had no idea how the avatar / real Jake issue would be resolved.  On that note, the idea of making the entire planet an interconnected neural network was quite brilliant.

2)      Star Trek – So much fun, and the idea of creating an alternate timeline as a way of rebooting the franchise was quite clever.

3)      Inglorious Basterds – A series of exquisitely crafted scenes that might not add up anything that makes sense.  But who cares!  The ride is exhilarating.  This is the best Tarantino has been sense Pulp Fiction, and in some ways, better.

4)      Food, Inc. – This movie made me stop ordering Domino’s pizza.  Ok, it was only for three weeks, but still, that’s impressive!

5)      Up – The montage at the beginning was perhaps the most powerful piece of filmmaking in 2009.  The rest of the movie was pretty darn good, too.

6)      Coraline – A perfectly magical tale and a beautiful film.  Those button eyes are damned creepy.

7)      Zombieland – There are a few small mistakes at the end, but for the most part this is a very fun movie based on a wonderful concept.  Two men—a nerdy college student who runs from conflict and a brawny redneck who embraces it at every turn—are poorly suited for modern life… but turn out to be perfectly suited for Zombieland.

8)      Orphan – A well-written, taut thriller.  Not even occasionally clumsy directing can overcome the wonderful script.  The film not only provides a wonderfully creepy antagonist, it also transcends the horror genre by creating well-drawn characters that make you care about them.

9)      Crazy Heart – Jeff Bridges is wonderful, and the songs sound just right.

10)  Away We Go – If you believe that true love—real, true, perfect love—still exists in our modern world, then you’ll enjoy this movie.  If you don’t, you probably won’t.  I do.

11)  Moon – Let’s hear it for models!  Moon shows that you don’t need a giant special effects budget to make a great sci-fi movie.

12)  An Education – A nice story about an old truth: the most important things in life are not learned in the classroom (although the classroom still turns out to be pretty important).  The characters are beautifully drawn, complex, and every thing they do seems both believable and understandable.  That’s surprisingly rare in movies these days.

13)  Goodbye, Solo – Solo is by far my favorite film character of the year.  The subject matter (suicide) is depressing, but Solo is so charismatic that he transforms sadness into poignancy.

14)  The September Issue – I don’t think I’ve every read a copy of Vogue, but I found this film surprisingly entertaining.  The characters are so good, it’s almost hard to believe they’re real.

15)  District 9 – Creative, well-shot, and surprising: not something one sees a lot in sci-fi action films.  I do feel like the film lost a bit in the second half, when it shifted from social satire to action, but still, it was loads of fun.

16)  The Hurt Locker – I liked the Hurt Locker, but I have some bones to pick with it.  It’s well directed, has good acting and showcases a very interesting world, but it doesn’t have much in the way of a plot, and what story exists is painfully obvious (who didn’t know the doctor was going to die, or that Beckham would show up again at the end).  It’s also a little offensive.  The Hurt Locker is ambitious in attempting to answer a very interesting question: if war is so horrible, then why do people go back?  Judging by the main character, the answer seems to be that soldiers are socially maladapted (the guy struggles to buy cereal) adrenaline junkies (breaking rules to put themselves in danger) who are only really good at war.  Er, ok.  Thanks for the insight.

17)  Up in the Air – The film is a bit breezy, but like its lead George Clooney, also quite charming.  Who knew a movie about firing people could be so much fun?

18)  Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs – I don’t remember the book version having much of a plot.  Amazingly enough, the movie not only has one, it works.  Cloudy starts out with lots of wacky humor, but almost every zany joke has a plot payoff later on.  All in all, a surprisingly good time.

19)  Sin Nombre –  A well-crafted story about people whose paths cross while they are trying to escape to a better life.  It is set in a fascinating world that I knew little about: that of Mexican drug gangs.

20)  Sherlock Holmes – I didn’t expect a lot from this film, but I thought it was both surprisingly good and surprisingly true to the books.

21)  The Time Traveler’s Wife – I will readily admit that I probably enjoyed this movie far more than the average filmgoer.  What can I say?  I loved the book, and I thought the film did a nice job of bringing it to the screen.

22)  The Hangover – An brilliant premise and a very funny movie.  It loses its way a bit in the middle, but still, a very fun ride.

23)  Adventureland – A good year for Jesse Eisenberg and films with “land” in the title.  I found this movie equal parts sweet and funny, and absolutely endearing.

24)  In the Loop – A fun, snarky movie, but in the end, I don’t feel like it added up to much.  Maybe that was the point?

25)  State of Play – The plot has two too many twists, but it’s worth watching to see Russell Crowe’s performance.

Next week: Draft 3 (more on getting the most out of editing)

I have grown tired of winter.  The Friday before last, it snowed twenty inches (that’s 50 centimeters for those of you across the pond) in Washington, DC.  Three days later, the city was hit with another blizzard that dropped fifteen more inches.  Plows have pushed most of the drifts off to the side, creating mountainous piles of dirty, gray snow that are slowly turning to ice.  Walking the streets is like living inside a giant freezer.  I’ve had enough of it, and my disenchantment with winter seems to have infected my attitude towards blogging.  For the past week and a half, I have come up with any number of excuses to put off writing my blog.  I found myself longing for simpler days, when authors didn’t have websites or blogs.  Alexander Dumas got by fine with no web presence.  So did C.S. Forster, Robert Graves, and Hemingway.  All they had to work on was their novels.  Wouldn’t it be nice to return to those simpler days?

Well, on second though, not so much.  In Dumas’s day, writers lost all rights to their novels after they sold them.  The solution was to write serially for a newspaper, publishing a chapter each week.  If you could build up a big enough audience, then the papers would pay handsomely for your services, but you had to produce continuously.  Dumas wrote up to ten novels at a time this way.  Personally, I’d rather blog.

What’s more, in Dumas and Hemingway’s day, writers did a lot more than just write.  Before the internet, they went to salons, parties, or bars where they spent a great deal of time doing more or less the same thing I do on my website: creating a brand for their audience.  Hanging out with Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald in a Parisian bar would no doubt be more fun than blogging, but it was also an exhausting way to live.  Hemingway rarely got home before 2am.  Dumas didn’t do any better.  Then they started writing.  Is it any wonder that these guys met tragic ends?

The author’s website is the modern equivalent of all this boozing and networking, and while it might not be quite so much fun, it is easier on the liver.  It has also become a necessary part of being an author.  One of the first things my publisher asked after they signed me was if I had a website.  And while I had planned on eventually creating one, I never thought in a million years that I would write a blog.  Yet here I am, and I am far from alone.  Go to your local bookstore and try to find a new book that doesn’t include the address of the author’s website.  Or better yet, save yourself the effort.  These days, it seems like every novelist has a website, and many have twitter feeds or blogs.

Is all of this really necessary?  Well… yes.  Websites are here to stay, and if you are planning on writing for a living, then you probably need one.  This isn’t a top priority: write your novel first.  But while you’re writing, you should be thinking about how you will create your website and what you will put on it.

Let’s start with content, because you’ll need to know what you want in your website in order to build it.  Some things are essential: a brief author’s bio; info on your books; a link to amazon.com where the books can be purchased; and some way of contacting the author.  After that, what you put on your site is up to you.  I recommend listing your favorite books: it will give visitors unfamiliar with your work an idea of what to expect from your books.  Blogs help to attract visitors to your site, and I have found mine to be a great way to force myself to think about what makes writing good.  (Until last week, for instance, I had never really thought about what makes for a great story.)  On the other hand, blogs are a lot of work.  I have seen several websites where authors take a less time-intensive approach, writing occasional articles related to their books (i.e. travel guides to places in their novel or recipes drawn from their books).  These are all good ideas, but the best way to get a feel for what you want on your site is to check out the sites of some of your favorite authors.  I think Stephen King and Conn Iggulden both have great sites, and I used them as models in creating my own.

Now for the hard part: how to go about creating your website?  I took the easy way out and hired someone to build it for me.  I provided the content and some design guidelines, and they did the rest.  I’m a writer, after all, not a programmer.  And while I have built websites before, I wanted something a cut above my foosball league website (don’t ask).  Think of how important book covers are in attracting readers.  Websites work the same way.  It’s worth paying for a nice one.  If you are lucky enough to have a friend who will design your site for free, then even better.  Otherwise, to find a designer, go to websites you like and check who they used.  Prices for designers very widely, so you can probably find someone within your budget.  And if you’re reluctant to pay for your site, just remember: the site will be up forever, and you only have to pay for it once.  If you really want to create your website yourself, then go for it.  WordPress is a good platform for building sites with blogs.  A note of caution, though: even if you are a programmer, building a site takes lots of time, time that could be spent writing.  And writing is, after all, your first job.

For the extroverted authors out there, a final option is to eschew a website and spend more time networking in bars and at parties: i.e. to become a personality.  If you choose this option, then I recommend adopting a distinguishing trademark: a pipe; a strange haircut; a monocle; or perhaps a very bright jacket.  Strange hobbies (like bullfighting or collecting umbrellas) work too.  It is a good idea to cultivate a mysterious silence, which you only break to talk about your book or critique other authors.  (“Hemingway?  Hmph!  A fool!  Now my book…)  Otherwise, you can go for the loquacious and urbane approach, but be warned: this requires a lot more work and a fair amount of wit.  Being silent is much easier.  Most importantly, becoming a personality will work best if you live in New York, London, or Paris.  No matter how charming you are in Omaha, Nebraska or Dallas, Texas, you’re not going to become a literary personality and best-selling author.

I don’t think I have what it takes to be a literary celebrity (and besides, I live in DC), so I think I’ll stick with my website.  In next week’s blog–Movies, Movies, Movies—I’ll discuss how to become a better novelist by watching movies.

Finding a story is not hard.  There are thousands upon thousands of them.  In fact, I have far more stories that I want to write than I have time to write them.  I found most of these stories without looking.  I’m an historian, so when I read about an historical event or person that might furnish the story for a good novel, I sit down and write up an outline.  That’s how I found the story for Siege.  Long ago, during my university days, I took a class in which I had to write a narrative history of the fall of Constantinople.  My professor liked my paper, but said that I had introduced to many elements of fiction, such as assumptions about the sun glinting off cannons (I had no way of knowing if it was sunny during the siege).  Very well, I thought.  If the problem is too much fiction, then I’ll turn it into a novel.  Problem solved.

I have stumbled across other plotlines while reading the paper or during conversations.  Some stories seem to come to me completely out of the blue—often during long walks.  I always carry a small journal with me so I can write these ideas down as they come.  More than once, a story has come to me in the form of a dream, and I’ve woken up in the middle of the night to write it down.

The hard part is not coming up with a story.  There are plenty out there.  The hard part is knowing if the story you have is worth writing.  Several of those plots that I dreamt up at night turned out to be decidedly uninspiring when I took another look at them in the light of day.  They lacked that key component, the one that makes people say, “Wow, I want to read that.”  But what is it that makes some stories more appealing than others?  What makes a story great?

To be perfectly honest, this is not a question that I had ever really considered before.  I knew greatness when I saw it.  Harry Potter: great idea.  Simon Scarrow’s Roman legions in Britain: brilliant.  As for my work, I simply picked stories that I loved and hoped that others would love them, too.  And that is important.  The number one requirement of a great story is that the writer think it is great.  You need to be excited to tell your story.  You’d better be, since you’ll be spending at least a year with it.  But there is more to finding a great story than just loving what you’re writing.  So, after much thought, I present my Six Ingredients for a Great Story:

1)      Find a great title.
This may sound trivial, but a great title can be the difference between people wanting to read your book and passing it over for something else.  The Devil Wears Prada is a great example.  That is a bestselling title.  And sometimes picking a title can help you to decide whether or not you should write the story in the first place.  Which of these books would you pick up first: Defender of Rome or Defender of Athens (or any other city not named Rome)?  Most people would go for the first title, because ancient Rome sells.  So does Britain, and to a lesser extent Egypt.  This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t write a book set in medieval Russia or Mongolia, but you should be aware that it will be a harder sell.

2)      Find an interesting setting.
The setting can be the difference between a decent story and a story that people cannot wait to read.  There are countless murder mysteries and love stories, but a mystery set in ancient Rome or a love story set at a school for wizards instantly becomes much more appealing.  In some cases, setting makes the book.  The Harry Potter series is all about setting.  The plots are pretty typical for the fantasy genre, but Hogwarts is absolutely brilliant.  The same could be said for the smash hit Avatar: a movie with a simple plot but an incredibly creative setting.  The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series is a collection of more or less typical mysteries, made much more interesting because they are set in Botswana.  So give some serious thought to the setting of your novel.  Instead of placing your police thriller on the streets of New York, why not set it in Spain during the Inquisition, or on an intergalactic spaceship?

3)      Make the stakes high.
The higher the stakes, the easier it will be to engage your readers.  A coming of age story is not intrinsically interesting, but the coming of age of Caesar or Genghis Khan is a different matter.  Their lives mattered on a huge scale, and so there are high stakes in even the trivial moments of their childhood.  Similarly, a detective story will usually be better if the detective’s life is a risk.  A love story will be easier to sell if more than just a relationship is at stake.  Or, if you are writing a military epic, then make the battles count.  The siege of Vienna in 1529 might be a fascinating military conflict, but what makes it interesting is that if Vienna fell, then western Europe would have been overrun by the Turks.  Drive up the stakes, and you’ll engage your readers.

4)      Know your genre.
There are certain expectations attached to stories in genres like science-fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, or mysteries.  Playing against those expectations can be effective, but don’t overdo it.  People like having their expectations fulfilled.  That’s why they buy genre fiction.  If you are writing an historical epic and have set two characters up as mortal enemies, then while it may be surprising for readers if the characters do not fight at the end, it might also be highly disappointing.  Know your genre and use its conventions wisely.

5)      Have at least one strong character.
Your story will only be as good as your protagonist.  Make sure you have at least one character who is likeable, interesting, and who has an arc.  They need to start in one place—psychologically, socially, romantically or otherwise—and end in another.  If your lead character never changes, then that is a sign of trouble.

6)      Know the beginning and the end.
Nothing is more important than knowing the endpoints of your story before you start writing.  You can blow almost everything else, but if you have a solid beginning and a powerful ending, then you’ll be alright.  This is especially true for endings.  How many movies have you seen that start great, then blow the ending (Eastern Promises being the ultimate example)?  How many books have you read that drift aimlessly in the middle, not sure where they are headed.  These are unforgiveable mistakes.  All great stories must have great endings.

There are three classic ways to satisfactorily end your story:

–          Emotional resolution – The romantic couple at the heart of the story get together, or are separated forever.  One character sacrifices his life for another.  The man driven by revenge finally triumphs over his arch enemy.  There are a hundred ways to do this, but the constant is that the emotional tension that has run throughout the book is resolved.

–          A twist / big reveal – New plot details come to light that alter the way the reader understands the preceding events, or that allow the reader to finally understand the plot in full.  Every mystery must have a big reveal.  Every story benefits from one.

–          Catharsis – A final conflict in which the book’s major conflict—whether within the protagonist, between two characters, or between two armies—is finally resolved.

The best endings will combine a bit of all three.  Regardless of which type of ending you choose (or even if you use one that I neglected to mention), make sure that you know where the story is going when you start writing.  It will save you time, prevent your plot from dithering, and improve your story.

Once you know your genre and have a solid title, an interesting setting, high stakes, good characters, and a brilliant ending, then start writing.  You’ve got a great story on your hands!  Even if you can check off only four of the six ingredients for a great story, then you’re probably ready to get going.  All you have to do now is tell the story.

Next week: Let’s get digital (on whether or not writers need a website)



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