May 2009


My last agent gave me a piece of advice that I thought was absolutely perfect, and it rang so true for me that I thought I would share.  This isn’t necessarily going to apply for everyone out there, but on the off chance…

He told me that I didn’t need to write the “biography of the story.”  In order to explain what that means, let me describe the way I tend to generate a first draft.  (And to be clear, we’re talking about long-form works here – screenplays, novels, etc.  This isn’t as much of an issue with short stories).  I usually begin with the seed of the idea, or the hook: the thing that makes me feel like the story might be interesting enough to spend roughly a billion hours working on it and thinking about it.  If the hook is good, I start having ideas a mile a minute about how to turn the hook into a story – they usually pop into my head from all parts of the story’s timeline.  If I have enough, I write them down in a Moleskine notebook (LOVE THOSE) I keep for the purpose, or type them up in a very rough outline format.

Next step is to make a fairly complete synopsis.  This, if done right, should read as an extremely abridged version of the story itself.  I often include bits of dialogue, and most of the big story beats will be present.  There’s always room for movement, though – I sometimes shorthand parts (a la “NEO & AGENT SMITH FIGHT” in the Matrix scripts), either because I don’t know what I want yet, or occasionally when I want to leave some room for a collaborator to do their own thing (this happens with comic work quite a bit, especially in the fight scenes). 

The synopsis is often what I hand to my core group of readers – friends, family and other writers who are willing to check out my stuff in rough format to provide comments.  Every writer I know who gets anywhere has their own set of critical first responders.  In my opinion, it’s essential to find a group of people who will read your work and give you actual criticism (not just an emotionally-tinged whitewash, tantamount to your mom liking every piece of art you brought home from preschool).

Anyway, once the synopsis is squared away, I’ll start a first draft.  And here’s where the problems can start for me.  I have a tendency to set up my snyopses like Rube Goldberg devices.  Plot occurrence A sets up character moment B sets up payoff C sets up new plot occurrence D.  Every event that happens to my characters within my story’s timeline tends to show up in the synopsis.  That’s what my agent meant when he mentioned the “biography of the story.”  Readers don’t necessarily need A-B-C-D.  They’re sophisticated enough that just A-C might work, and then we could skip to K, and maybe hit B in a flashback or an oblique reference.  The unfortunate thing for me is that I don’t always see the structural possibilities outside A-B-C-D until I’m well into a full first draft, or even finished with it.  I think it’s just the way I do things.  I need to build the whole skyscraper before I can see what floors are actually worth visiting.

I’m trying hard to get better at cutting before I write, but it’s not always a snap.  As I think I’ve mentioned here, I’m writing the first draft of the script for Strongman 2 in longhand, in a lovely Moleskine (LOVE THEM) I carry around with me everywhere these days.  I was about 60 pages in when I realized that I was taking way too long to get to the meat of the story, and I could cut almost all of the New York City-set prologue I had originally written.  That’s better than realizing it after I was finished, or worse, not realizing it at all, but I was able to cut almost 15% out of the planned length of the book with just that one change, and I think the book is much stronger for it.

So, if anyone were ever to ask, yes, I could explain exactly what Tigre and Bujo were up to in New York City before they embark upon their trip back to Mexico in Strongman 2.  It’s my job to know that sort of thing – it’s part of the biography of the story I’m telling, after all.  But unless I decide to include it as a deleted scene in the back of the book, I’ll be the only person who ever knows.

I’ve been a fan of crossword puzzles for about 17 years, although there was a considerable break in the middle of that period.  When I was in college, the school paper (the Daily Pennsylvanian) would run the New York Times crossword puzzle each and every day.  I used to do it at lunch.  Back then, Mondays were usually pretty easy for me, and I could reliably do up to about Wednesday, but anything further became extremely tough.  (For those of you who don’t know, the NYT makes its crosswords progressively more difficult as the week goes on.  Monday is relatively easy, and then they scale up to mind-bendingly muderous on Saturday.  They run a much larger puzzle on Sundays, but it “only” has the difficulty level of Thursday or so).

I remember using the dictionary in my dorm room as my resource for knocking down some of the harder Wednesday clues.  For example, if I could get the first two letters, say ‘de,’ and the clue was 7 letters long, I would just flip open the dictionary and scan for the words that began with ‘de’ with seven letters.  It wasn’t as time-consuming as you might think.  Sort of cheating, sure, but it was sufficiently effort-intensive that I didn’t feel too bad about it.  I was still working hard for that filled-in grid.

After college, I dropped the puzzle for a while, although I would intermittently try my hand at a Sunday, with mixed results.  Crosswords are always fun, but mostly when you beat them.  Sundays typically have a meta-puzzle or theme buried within them, which is usually a shared element among the long clues (10 letters or more).  It might be puns that use numbers, or movie titles, or hidden codes.  I used to like doing the Sundays until I figured out the theme/code, and then I often wouldn’t bother to finish them.

I picked up the crossword again more regularly about five or six years ago.  I started with Sundays, again, but realized that somehow, they weren’t as challenging as they used to be.  I think that’s mostly because the NYT crossword requires a very broad base of knowledge – you need to have a working knowledge of French, Spanish and very basic Latin, you have to be pretty well-versed in pop culture references of the past 25-30 years and moderately aware of cultural touchstones for the past hundred, you have to know your history, your geography and of course, you have to know what any number of 50-cent words mean.  So, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned more, and have a deeper well to draw from when I’m working on one of these things.

Eventually, Sunday puzzles seemed to be  bunch of work for not that much fun.  I could get the clues without much effort, but it was time-consuming to work through the puzzle (as I mentioned before, Sunday puzzles are about three times as big as the regular Mon-Sat weekly puzzle).  So, I decided to try for the brass ring and check out some Saturdays.  The Saturday puzzle is the bitch-goddess of crosswords.  Here are a few representative clues from this past Saturday:

“Corriere della ________, Italy’s top selling newspaper”; 4 letters

“Foals:horses :: crias:__________”; 6 letters

“Sideshow Bob’s last name on ‘The Simpsons’”; 11 letters

“Radiodensity indicators”; 8 letters

I got all of those, but I’m still stuck on five or six clues.  Still, I’m proud to be able to say that I usually don’t have to Google to complete a Saturday anymore.  When I started doing them, it was very rare to make it through a full puzzle without looking something up.  Crosswords, though, like anything else, get easier with practice – even really hard ones.  You start to recognize common clue patterns.  For instance, the novel “Omoo” by Herman Melville comes up as an answer over and over again.  They try to disguise it with different clues, but almost any time you have a clue asking for the name of a novel with 4 letters, it’s going to be Omoo.  I suspect that O-M-O-O is a pattern of letters that comes up a lot when people are creating these things, and they must thank god that there’s even an answer they can use. 

Anyway, I’ve come to love the Saturday, and I make it a part of my weekend routine.  My weekends aren’t anywhere near as mellow as they used to be – I was up at 5:55 this morning, for example – but working the puzzle is a way to prove to myself that I haven’t gone soft, despite all sorts of distractions.  That being said, I haven’t cracked this week’s yet – any idea what “My God” in Aramaic might be? (4 letters).

Oh, and by the way, SERA, LLAMAS, TERWILLIGER and CATSCANS.

Just a few additional inked pages from my Strongman follow-up, “27.”  This one’s going to look great, although it’s taking FOREVER to get work out of the artist.  At this rate, it’s looking like 2011 – and I had expected it out this year! 

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