Monday, June 4, 2012

Pretty But Hollow

"Pretty but hollow" was my summary of the new Snow White and Huntsman movie, which I went into with something of an expectation that it would be actiony or gripping or would move me in some way other than to squirm in my seat and ask "This is still going on? How long have we been here, six hours?"

Ultimately the movie starring Mrs Twilight and Thor looked pretty. It was colorful, striking and visually engaging - more for the color palette than the pretty people. And the score was rich and added great atmosphere, but on the whole, there just wasn't anything going on - I mean, yes, I know the story, but still, there wasn't anything to take away from Mrs Twilight's "acting" (looking like she's constantly going to say, "Umm" and then staring off-camera like she's trying to remember why she's walked into the kitchen and opened the fridge) or from Thor being Thor in a fantasy setting. (Okay, I'm sorry: for being a 3rd or 4th level Ranger, and doing the bulk of the heavy fight scenes.) He can sort of convey emotions, I've seen him do it, but he can only be as good as the template in place by the script, and the script, well, I think it was practically criminal how they took good actors (Hoskins, McShane, I'll even throw in Theron) and reduced them to colorful imitations of a cartoon.

And all this got me to thinking about what it takes for a manuscript or book to dazzle me and how many of them can be called "Pretty but hollow". Let's talk about that today.

Now before I get into this any further, let me point out that I'm not saying all books need to be original, but...all books need to be original. You don't always have to reinvent the wheel, but you do have to demonstrate how you're differently interpreting the wheel when you compare your creation to the benchmarks of your genre or concept.

You no doubt know what the 'other guys' are doing in your respective fields. It pays to know your competition when you're creating something, and no one wants to have the idea that one thing clones or copies another tossed around. The problem with that is you only have so many basic templates (Man v Nature, Man v Man, Hero's Journey, Lost Love, etc), so you can easily be sort of a dick about writing and say that everything copies something else - but I find that attitude doesn't encourage people to do anything other than to panic and not write. Also, it's silly to waste your time thinking about who copied whom. This is no longer the elementary school playground, and you're totally able to do whatever you want (so long as you understand the consequences of your choices).

On the outermost layer of the story, whatever the genre or ideas, your work may look like generic or typical, but there have to be hooks that pull the reader in deeper and there has to be substance underneath that veneer of "this is what I'm used to" so that people can see what you've done differently.

And by "differently" I mean "done what demonstrates your talent and your abilities, rather than your desires just to do something to earn a fast buck or create a profit stream. Because this is an art above all else, if you wanted to get fast money, there are other more suit-and-tie ways to get it (although I suppose there can be an art to bank robbery and the burdening of the middle class by corrupt corporate dickwagons).

There's a formula I want to pass on to you here, that will help you find the meat beneath the surface.

It is Y, but then what?

Y is the genre or type of story you're writing. The answer to the question though is what you're doing to distinguish yourself and draw the literary-talent Excalibur from the stone and proclaim yourself the once and future king/queen of your awesome writing kingdom.

So your question might look like one of these:

It's a memoir, but then what? But I'm telling this story that emphasizes the heart of one character, told through a drunken lens of bad Thanksgivings.


It's a detective story, but then what? The main character only eats waffles.


It's a non-fiction instructional to help people train their cats to speak, but then what? Dude...it trains cats to talk.

Am I expecting you to know what makes your story interesting? Yes. It's not that much to ask really. If I'm holding your book in one hand, and anything else (let's say you're trying to get me to read your book and not play Ticket to Ride), what would you say in order to convince me that I don't have to go be a train baron of the 19th century?

Knowing your hooks is critical. Knowing what you're doing differently (because you have a talent for it) is absolutely positively a must when writing. During those down moments, spend some time hunting down what makes your work special and unique and what you've got a talent for....and try to get those ideas into a single sentence or phrase. Practice saying it. Believe it. Know it the way you know that few things in this world are cooler than nachos and good tunes.

Finding out and building those things makes your story NOT hollow. Like good shampoo it gives your story body. It also lets you do something you're good at, which is awesome for your self-confidence. (What I'm saying is that there's no downside to figuring out what you're good at and then doing it)

Also, totally save your money and skip Snow White and the Huntsman. You'd be better off spending the time talking to people you can't stand while scrubbing your tear ducts with bleach-soaked glass shards. Yeah, it was that bad.

Rock on.

Happy writing, see you guys later in the week.


Oh, post-script: In two weeks I head to California for a week. There likely won't be a blog post then, but if you want to follow my adventures, find me on Twitter, and Facebook.