Writing Past Premise

In the last week I’ve finally made it through my podcast backlog, including those last few 2015 Nerdist episodes I’ve been saving. One of my favorites was with a couple of the guys from Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Rob McElhenney and Glenn Howerton. They talked a lot about television and I was struck by one of the discussions involving creativity, ownership, and premise. Here are some thoughts from Rob McElhenney to give some context:

It’s much more organic…when you’re writing your own material, writing to your own strengths, writing to the strengths of the people around you…it’s a much more organic thing…yeah, there’s that chemistry that’s built in, as opposed to writing something and then casting actors. It’s like, it’s even more difficult for the stars to align to where it works in a way that’s really, really special and unique…

The Nerdist guys then bring up trying to adapt shows for American audiences; in effect, finding a show that works very well in the UK and attempting to export it to America, but changing the actors. With shows that are built by comedy teams like Mitchell and Webb and Fry and Laurie, it’s hard to migrate that concept with actors who haven’t built a professional relationship over years and don’t have a shared sense of comedic timing. Think about Key & Peele trying to do the Flight of the Concords and vice versa.

(Although the more I think about it, the more I would absolutely watch the hell out of that.)

Anyway, Glenn continues with:

So what are we buying? Just the idea for the show. And we’re like, the idea for the show is fine, but that’s not what makes a great show. The idea for our show is five people who own a bar in Philadelphia. There’s not a great idea; Seinfeld was a show about nothing, The Simpsons is about a family in Springfield. It’s about who’s gonna execute that particular vision…you’re hopefully buying the people that create it.

Most of my favorite stories are less about plot devices and machinations than they are about great writers crafting memorable, realistic characters who shape a three-dimensional world. Premise can be broken down into a simple one-liner.

For example: A young boy goes to school and deals with the enemy who killed his family.

If you guessed Harry Potter, that’s great. But it’s also (so far, at least), a description of the Kingkiller Chronicles. Two series that both fall into the fantasy genre, but feature very different writing, young male protagonists, supporting characters, and setting.

My lovely starter manuscript was a hot mess of plot points and moving everyone from Point A to Point B, Mary Sue characters playing at progress. I was so focused on gimmicks that I couldn’t provide a concise summary. And if I as the creator can’t explain, how will that come across for the reader? If you can’t see the forest for the trees, how can you orient yourself?

I’ve talked about not getting ahead of myself before, and while there are a few things that I’ve captured so far in my drafts, what I’m ultimately writing is a survival story. Stripped to its core, it’s  about people figuring who they are and what they save when there’s nothing left.

Try boiling your latest piece down to the barest of bones. It might help you identify if you’re spending too much time focusing on plot threads. If your premise is overwrought and needs significant explanation, rein it in and revisit your characters and the world in which they live. Focus less on plot points and let your characters drive the piece. See what emerges.

Thanks for reading! How will you move past premise in your writing?

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Writer Wednesday | Controversial Writing Advice, Part II

Last week, I discussed the concept that some of the advice you hear or read may be wrong. I asked you to instead consider elements within your genre. Sometimes what doesn’t work in one novel may work quite well in another. Consider the following examples:

  • Don’t start with a prologue.
    • Well, not to geek out or another, but GRRM’s prologues are phenomenal. They’re just different enough to start each book on a high note and really set the tone for what’s to come. 
    • From being a fairly avid reader, I’ve rarely encountered a good non-genre prologue. I tend to see more small vignettes in media res (Erin Kelly’s books do these quite well, actually, and she is more of a genre writer IMO).
  • Never have your character alone reading a letter (or email, or text message, or whatever).
    • Oof. Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth, anyone? It’s literally a classic.
    • Bella and her mom email back and forth every so often. Snore.
  • Read only your genre so you know the trends.
    • This is a mistake! Other genres can help you write stronger, more layered scenes – my big go-to is mystery, because it tunes me into crafting a page-turning plot and building suspense…when well-written, of course.
    • Okay, but yes – you should be reading your genre and knowing the trends. Also, this really helps with book titles which I totally suck at creating.

From personal experience, I hear the prologue one a fair amount. I’ve done a lot of work on my prologue – it’s the first few pages, and people do tend to stop reading if their interest isn’t piqued. It’s the first thing I bring out in writing groups and sessions. It’s been retooled quite a bit over the years, but I refuse to cut it from the manuscript. It works in my genre, and I’m repeatedly told by my readers that it draws them in.

On the other side, I initially had a very long “Hey, here I am reading a book! I’m so…literary!” scene that was really just about how cool it is to sit alone and read books without anyone bothering you.

(Sometimes I find some pretty meta references in my manuscript and it’s kind of fun to try and figure out how they a) made it in and b) how they stayed in despite ruthless revisions.)

Anyway, that reading scene? The one all about…reading? It was the first protagonist scene and it was just so boring. It just didn’t work because as awesome as reading is, reading about reading being awesome is actually boring reading. And while there’s plenty of “reading” happening in books, there’s other stuff happening – back story reveals and info dumps, self-reflection, espionage and spying under the guise of reading…you name it. It starts with a book, it ends with a book, but there’s a deeper layer in the middle. That’s what I had to find, and that’s what makes the scene “work” now.

What controversial writing advice have you encountered? Why did you find it controversial?

Writer Wednesday | Controversial Writing Advice, Part I

I’ve been working on this awesome writing conference bingo card. It’s not something I’m spending a ton of time focusing on, since I’m trying to do some cool stuff behind the scenes with the blog, working on the never-ending revisions (seriously, the novel’s been “done” for almost a year now), and trying to find some additional outlets to channel my creativity. Not to mention, you know, the non-writing parts of my life: family, work, researching MFA programs, exercise, and all that jazz. However, in the background, there is a really cool little bingo card with squares like “Attendee asks a question that is intensely personal” and “Speaker makes fun of James Patterson (or Dan Brown).” One of the first entries was “One of the ‘don’ts’ is in your manuscript.”

Yes, this happens.

Yes, it is okay. In some cases, it may force you to come to terms with reality and make some changes. That is not a bad thing. You’re strengthening your manuscript.

In other cases, you may decide the speaker is wrong.

I know, I know. Chances are, the person giving audience is more of a content expert than you are, and they have a good track record. You are probably an unpublished author with no track record. You may be a self-published author building your brand. For whatever reason, you feel you can’t afford to disregard this guidance.

Let’s not get into the whole “rules are made to be broken” and “if you do it well, you can get away with anything.” Instead, let’s think about the writing and the technique in question. Here’s what you have to ask: Does this work in my genre?

Tune in for Part II next week!