Story by Robert McKee

Life changing.

It’s changed the way I watch movies. As I watch I’m now looking for the beats within each scene, paying attention to the rise and fall of emotional charge throughout the film.

It’s altered the way I’m approaching the novel I’m currently writing, helping me to think more clearly about each scene and its purpose in the book.

It’s even got me thinking about going back to outlining everything before starting.

If you’re a writer, I think this book is essential. It’s forever altered the way I approach my writing, and somehow made me more confident in what I’m doing, even as it’s shown me what I’m doing wrong.

Three of the many things I learned:

  • Archetypal stories uncover a universal human experience and wrap it in a singular cultural expression. Stereotypical stories do the opposite: dress a singular experience in generalities.
  • An honest story is at home in one, and only one, place and time.
  • California scenes: two characters that hardly know each other share deep secrets about their past. It happens, but only in California. Nowhere else.

How to Fix: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

What Went Wrong

Man, this movie tried to pack it all in. Dark wizards, magical creatures, conflict between governments and the individual, romance, the tension between preserving wild beasts and keeping people safe. It feels like they didn’t think they had enough material for a single movie, so they stuffed it with extras to try to fill it out.

Unfortunately, they had enough material for at least three movies. Stuffing them all into the same film just squeezed them all so they couldn’t breathe.

But we can fix that.

How to Fix It

Break it up into three different movies.

There’s at least three plots I can see that could carry their own films. First, there’s Scamander and the gang searching for the fantastic beasts that escaped from his bag. Second (the least-fleshed-out plot), there’s Langdon Shaw (son of the newspaper man) and his attempts to impress his father with a big scoop. Finally, there’s Graves and his hunt for the obscurus’ host.

Each one of these could easily be their own movie. It would give us more time with all the characters, allow their relationships to deepen, and give more time to setup Graves as a friend that betrays Scamander and the gang, instead of leaning on “oh that’s Colin Farrell, he’s definitely the bad guy.”

So how would we fill out each of these plots, to make them a full movie?

The first plot doesn’t really need anything. Having Scamander come to New York and meet the other main characters while trying to re-capture his fantastic beasts is enough. This time, though, we make Graves a friend of the group, someone who understands them and argues with the President (who is the antagonist for this first film) for leniency.

Of course, Graves is only doing it because: a) he wants to use Scamander’s knowledge for his own ends, and b) the beasts in question are illegal, and anyone willing to break laws is a potential ally of his.

Also this way, we don’t have to have Kowalski lose all knowledge of Queenie. We can give them a proper happy ending, with them starting a secret romance.

The second plot needs the most filling out. We already have a hook to get it started, though: Scamander comes back to New York to hand-deliver his book to Tina. While there, they go to see a circus, where there just happens to be a magical creature that’s been captured. It’s on display as something other than it is, and everyone thinks it’s fake.

But: Shaw’s son suspects it might be real, and starts investigating. Meanwhile, Scamander and Tina are arguing because he wants to rescue the magical beast, while Tina (and her bosses) want to keep it under wraps, for fear of revealing magic to society at large.

Eventually, the creature escapes, forcing all four of the gang to join forces again to track it down and trap it before it causes so much damage that Shaw’s son gets his scoop. After they succeed, we get to see Scamander’s mass obliviate trick (just not the whole city, that’s ridiculous). Shaw’s son, frustrated and angry at being embarrassed in front of his father, stumbles upon the Second Salem group, who tell him what he’s come to suspect: witches live among us.

The third movie is the hunt for the obscurus. Scamander is again visiting Tina — maybe to ask her to marry him? — when Creedance’s powers start to spin out of control. This time, when Senator Shaw is murdered, we’ve got a lot more invested in the newspaper family, and Langdon’s step forward with the “solution” for his father will carry a lot more emotional weight.

We get the same climax, the same reveal of Graves as the villain, etc. But now we’ve spent three movies with all these characters, and everything that happens means more.

Wanted: More Time

Novel’s at 19,170 words.

Limped along with 500 words a day through the week, then managed to crank out 2,000 words yesterday. Hoping to do the same today, and tomorrow, and Sunday.

I need to be writing about 5,000 words a day, to make the NaNoWriMo deadline. That’s…probably not going to happen.

I have to try, though. Even if I don’t get to 50,000 words this month, I’m still going to finish the novel. So every word still counts.

The Problem with Programmer Interviews

You’re a nurse. You go in to interview for a new job at a hospital. You’re nervous, but confident you’ll get the job: you’ve got ten years of experience, and a glowing recommendation from your last hospital.

You get to the interview room. There must be a mistake, though. The room number they gave you is an operating room.

You go in anyway. The interviewer greets you, clipboard in hand. He tells you to scrub up, join the operation in progress.

“But I don’t know anything about this patient,” you say. “Or this hospital.”

They wave away your worries. “You’re a nurse, aren’t you? Get in there and prove it.”

….

You’re a therapist. You’ve spent years counseling couples, helping them come to grips with the flaws in their relationship.

You arrive for your interview with a new practice. They shake your hand, then take you into a room where two men are screaming at each other. Without introducing you, the interviewer pushes you forward.

“Fix them,” he whispers.

You’re a pilot, trying to get a better job at a rival airline. When you arrive at your interview, they whisk you onto a transatlantic flight and sit you in the captain’s chair.

“Fly us there,” they say.

You’re a software engineer. You’ve been doing it for ten years. You’ve seen tech fads come and go. You’ve worked for tiny startups, big companies, and everything in-between. Your last gig got acquired, which is why you’re looking for a new challenge.

The interviewers — there’s three of them, which makes you nervous — smile and shake your hand. After introducing themselves, they wave at the whiteboard behind you.

“Code for us.”

 

No Crisis

I refuse to believe that Trump’s election is a moment of ‘crisis’ for liberalism.

We’ve always been under siege. We’ve always been fighting uphill.

We were fighting uphill when we were abolitionists. We were fighting uphill when we worked to win the right to vote for the women of this country.

We were even fighting uphill when we wanted to stand with Britain in World War II. Not many people know this, but many in this country wanted to stay out, to let the Nazis and the Soviets divide up Europe between them, and let Japan have Asia. It took liberals like FDR to stand up and say, “That’s not the world we want to live in.”

Every time, we have been in the right. It has just taken a while for the rest of the country to see it.

I am reminded of MLK’s phrase, “the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.” I remember the victories of the recent past, when we expanded the right to marry to same-sex couples. When we finally decriminalized a drug less harmful than alcohol. When we made health insurance affordable for 20 million more Americans.

This is not a crisis for liberalism. It isn’t the last gasp of conservatism, either, a desperate attempt by the powerful to stave off change.

They are always fighting us. And we are always winning.

This time will be no different.

Behind

Novel’s at 12,104 words.

I’m seriously behind. About 18,000 words behind, to be more specific.

Trying to tell myself that every word written is a victory, and it’s enough to just have the novel started. That works. Sometimes.

And sometimes I just want to take the day off work, so I can write.

Because I’m also looking at the short story I’m supposed to revise, the previous novel I should be editing, and the one before that that I should be sending round to more agents.

I put all that on hold so I “focus” on NaNoWriMo. But if I’m already slipping behind on this month’s writing, maybe I shouldn’t have?

How far behind am I going to get on those projects, while I struggle through this one?

SPQR by Mary Beard

Fascinating. Covers the first Roman millennium, from ~750 BCE to 212 CE, but with the specific goal of highlighting where our common conceptions of ancient Rome are wrong, and how many of our current political and cultural debates go back to the days of the Republic.

This means the chapters aren’t strictly chronological, and sometimes double-back on the same period to illuminate a different side of it. Each is written well, though, and offers interesting facts of its own.

Three of the many things I learned:

  • Many of the things that make us squeamish about the Romans (gladiator fights, Caesar’s brutality during the wars in Gaul) were criticized at the time by the Romans themselves
  • Unlike most ancient empires, Rome was welcoming to immigrants and former slaves (in fact, their system of manumission was the first of its kind)
  • Ancient Romans were clean-shaven, going back as far as 300 BCE

Getting Back to Work

Haven’t been able to write since Tuesday. I’ve been too hurt, too confused, too angry to spin up my imagination and write about what’s happening in that other world.

It doesn’t help that it’s supposed to be a light book, full of whimsy and humor.

I don’t feel very funny anymore.

But I’ve got to get back to it.

Maybe the book will turn out a little darker than I’d intended, now. Or maybe I’ll find a way to recapture the fun spirit I started with, and use the book to remind myself of the good things that are still out there: the wife that loves me, the friends that support me, the peers that understand what’s happening, and forgive.

But most of all I need to finish it because this book has suddenly become more explicitly political than I intended.

My main character is a lesbian, which when I started out was just the way the character came into my head. Now it feels like writing her is an act of defiance, a way of pushing back against Trump and his ilk.

No one else may ever read this book, and it may never be good enough to be published. But damned if I won’t finish it, and make it as good as I can make it.

Because the importance of minority representation in fiction has just hit home to me, and I want to do my part.

Heartbroken

How can I write, when my heart is broken?

How can I work, knowing my country doesn’t want me, or my wife, or my friends, to live how we want to live, or believe what we want to believe?

How can I stay, when staying means accepting?

How can I speak, when every word marks me out as different?

Tomorrow may be better.

But today, today my heart is broken.

There’s More, Thank Goodness

Went back to finish the short story, as prep for converting it into a novel for NaNoWriMo…and found I couldn’t finish it, because there was too much more to tell.

Which is a relief, actually, because it means I don’t have to throw the short story away and start over, or worry about having enough depth in the setting and the characters for a novel. The short story is the intro to the novel, the opening scene(s), setting the stage for everything that follows.

This has never happened to me before. But then, it’s only my third novel, so what do I know?

Now I’m working up the outline of the book, discovering plots and subplots I didn’t know were waiting inside the short story.

It’s a process that’s both fun and terrifying, like doing improv sketches in front of a video camera instead of an audience: you have to hope the jokes land, because you won’t know until long after you’re done performing.