Saturday, September 23, 2006

Deleted Scenes

I remember with the advent of DVD's how exciting it was to get special features along with your movie. In the world of VHS or the theater, you never had the chance to get all that juicy information, to see what happened behind the scenes on set, to hear the creators talk about their work. Back then, the top of the heap for me, though, was delete scenes, those snippets of the movie that never actually made it to air. Whenever I watched a movie on DVD, I would religiously work my way through the delete scenes.

Over time, though, a strange thing happened. Although I still watched the delete scenes, I found myself becoming less and less interested in them. At first I thought maybe it was the lack of post-production--no music, grainy pictures sometimes, little editing. But that didn't explain why these extras, these tidbits I had always looked forward to were leaving me less than fulfilled

The reason came clear to me just a couple weeks ago, though. The answer stems from a recent trend in my thoughts about writing. I've been working on determining what the core of my novel is, paring down what I've written so that everything on the page supports and builds on that central arc. In the process I've dumped probably 200 pages worth of material as either unnecessary or so far off the mark that it's easier to rewrite it from scratch than to rehabilitate it in place.

And that's the problem with the deleted scenes for movies--there's a reason they ended up being removed from the film. If you listen to the commentary, often it's because the pacing just wasn't right, or the information is already conveyed elsewhere, or the scene didn't quite gel. Like my discarded pages, the filmmaker discovered that these pieces weren't necessary for the story, so they stripped them out, only to return them to a half-life in the "special" features for the DVD.

A good story stands on its own. No amount of deleted scenes and creator commentary can change that fact.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Miss Snark's Crapometer

I don't think I've mentioned Miss Snark on this blog yet, but I've been faithfully reading her for the past couple months. She's an anonymous agent in New York, and she fields questions from the world with, well, snark! She's frequently quite hilarious and always cuts to the meat of what matters in the publishing industry. I've learned a ton from just reading her blog posts every day.

Anyway, as great as that is, she also has periodically run what she calls the Crapometer. She accepts submissions of query letter and first page from people, randomly selects from them and reads them like she would the slush pile. The only difference is that she then posts the results online for everyone to read and learn from. It was really quite amazing to read through, and I'm sure that when I'm getting ready to pitch I'll go back and study in more detail. In any case, the take-aways:

  • That's Miss Snark. Not Ms, Mrs, or "Dear Agent." You've heard it before, but properly addressing your letter to a person is vital
  • Query letters need to indicate plot. I remember reading that over and over again--"This isn't a plot, just a bunch of events." Plot has conflict, a course of action and resolution.
  • Less common, though, plot is also not a complete synopsis. Keep it sharp, keep it short.
  • Only publishing credits count. It doesn't matter where you live, what your job is (unless it's pertinent to the story), or how many of your stories you posted online have gotten great comments. If you don't have publishing credits (like yours truly), just don't say anything at all.

Hopefully I'll be able to put these tips into practice in the near future.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Clear sailing ahead

Don’t know if I’ll feel that way in a couple weeks here, but at the moment, the world of writing is full of hope and excitement. I’ve reached the point in my editing where I am leaving the old behind and charting a (mostly) new course to the end of my story. Once more, I’ve got broad spans of blank pages before me, and nothing to do except to fill them up.

Coinciding with that, my wife is helping her parents paint and finish projects around their property, so I’ve had several very quiet days and evenings completely to myself. The writing has gone quite well, and I feel invigorated and ready to keep blazing a trail forward. Having long stretches to come and go at writing has helped matters a lot more than I would have thought. If I’m in the flow of things, then I can keep going for a long time. But if the writing is hard, or there’s a new scene to chart out in my mind, being able to step away for a half-hour, do something different and return when I’m ready has been quite useful.

For the moment I’m simply basking in the joy of creating something anew, making over the old last half of my novel into a better, stronger story that will carry the reader along. Editing, aw, that can wait a couple weeks!

Review: My Name Is Asher Lev

My sister-in-law loaned us My Name Is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok. It came with several other books, and she didn't say much about it other than to suggest that we read it. My wife read it first, and I watched her devour it in the course of a couple days. Afterward, she had a sort of shell-shocked look in her eyes as she told me “You have to read this.”

Encouraged by her reaction, I put it on the short-short list (the one with only about a dozen books on it), and finally got around to reading it as I set off on a business trip. The trip back was delayed by several hours, but in light of the book, that couldn’t have been a better thing!

The story chronicles the life of a young artist, Asher Lev, growing up in a Hasidic household in Brooklyn. The atmosphere of Jewish culture is rich and thick throughout the book, lovingly shown in details that help to build up the neighborhood that Asher lives in. The place has a central position both in Asher’s life and the story. However, Asher’s artistic abilities, urges and impulses that he can’t seem to control threaten his place with his people.

The language in the book is fantastic, so sharp and beautiful. Asher’s viewpoint, how he sees the world in lines and shapes, tones and colors is brought vividly to life in a way that I wouldn’t have thought possible. I found myself engulfed in his development as an artist, sucked into a world that isn’t my own.

It’s also a story about family, the ways that we hurt the ones we love most. The characters are so well drawn, they feel like your own family. And as the conclusion draws near and you see the shape of the world that Asher’s choices make, it’s breathtaking to behold. My heart pounded hard in my chest, and my mouth went completely dry as I read the last chapters of this book. I can’t remember the last time that a story has grabbed hold of me as powerfully as this one did.