Sunday, September 28, 2014

Six Spiritual Principles for Fiction Writers

Spirituality in everyday practice -- dying, for instance, or writing, or anything else of importance  -- is (I dare to propose) not about dogma or ritual. It is, I think, all about being present without equivocation or precondition.

These spiritually guided caregiving guidelines, created to support those remarkable people like +Lorree Ratto who have deep experience in easing the passage of the terminally ill, are not mine. I stumbled across them online. Reading them made me think of the wisdom that accompanies all practical spirituality. They also made me think of my sister Cassandra (below) and the great gift my aunt +Martha Kaufeldt gave her before she passed. Finally, the spiritual caregiving guidelines left me wondering how the same principles might be adapted to, say, writing fiction.

The list of Six Spiritual Fiction Writing Principles below came out pretty much by itself, so I guess they're mine. I happen to be writing about Cassandra these days, an intriguing synchronicity.


1. Take care of yourself before you try to take care of the writing.

2. Focus on posing questions, not providing answers.

3. Write to be in the moment of the character, and you will be present in your moment.

4, Express your feelings appropriately in the real world (with "I" messages, not "you" messages). Do that with the people you love, especially during hard times, and it will be easier for you to notice how your characters feel like expressing their feelings. Let them.

5. Assume there is meaning in every experience. Seek that meaning out, side by side with your characters.

6. Understand that nothing is going wrong. Landmark Forum advises people to "Let go of the interpretation that there is something wrong." This means (among other things) writing authentically without prejudging your characters or their motives. What they want is what they want. Let them want that. What happens to them is what happens to them. Let that happen.

A life lesson from Neil Young

If someone brings you down, you did that to yourself.

The part worth listening to over and over starts at 0:31 and ends at 1:32. All the other stuff in this 1969 between-songs riff seems a little airier, but that much is solid ground, and I encourage myself and others to step firmly upon it. Click the photo if you dare.

Life lesson from Neil Young starts at 0:31, ends at 1:32

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Mamet Rule: David Mamet's Memo to the Writers of "The Unit"

Note: I never saw this show, which has apparently been cancelled since Mamet's blistering call to arms to the writing team. I guess I'm glad it ran into trouble, because otherwise he would not have had to write this superb distillation of writing principles. I haven't changed anything in this memo other than taking it out of its irritating ALL CAPS mode. I don't own it. It seems to have entered the public domain. Let me know if I'm wrong about that and I'll take this down.

The Mamet Rule, as I condense it from the inspired rant below, runs as follows:

In order for a scene to be dramatic, the main character in it must have a simple, straightforward, pressing need which impels him or her to show up in the scene, and the attempt to get this need met must lead, at the end of the scene, to failure. 

To the writers of THE UNIT


As we learn how to write this show, a recurring problem becomes clear.

The problem is this: to differentiate between drama and non-drama. Let me break-it-down-now.

Everyone in creation is screaming at us to make the show clear. We are tasked with, it seems, cramming a shitload of information into a little bit of time.

Our friends the penguins, think that we, therefore, are employed to communicate information -- and, so, at times, it seems to us.

But note:the audience will not tune in to watch information. You wouldn't, i wouldn't. No one would or will. The audience will only tune in and stay tuned to watch drama.

Question:what is drama? Drama, again, is the quest of the hero to overcome those things which prevent him from achieving a specific, acute goal.

So: we, the writers, must ask ourselves of every scene these three questions.
1) who wants what?
2) what happens if her don't get it?
3) why now?

The answers to these questions are litmus paper. Apply them, and their answer will tell you if the scene is dramatic or not.

If the scene is not dramatically written, it will not be dramatically acted.

There is no magic fairy dust which will make a boring, useless, redundant, or merely informative scene dramatic after it leaves your typewriter. You the writers, are in charge of making sure every scene is dramatic.

This means all the "little" expositional scenes of two people talking about a third. This bushwah (and we all tend to write it on the first draft) is less than useless, should it finally, god forbid, get filmed.
If the scene bores you when you read it, rest assured it will bore the actors, and will, then, bore the audience, and we're all going to be back in the breadline.

Someone has to make the scene dramatic. It is not the actors job (the actors job is to be truthful). It is not the directors job. His or her job is to film it straightforwardly and remind the actors to talk fast. It is your job.

Every scene must be dramatic. That means: the main character must have a simple, straightforward, pressing need which impels him or her to show up in the scene.

This need is why they came. It is what the scene is about. Their attempt to get this need met will lead, at the end of the scene,to failure - this is how the scene is over. It, this failure, will, then, of necessity, propel us into the next scene.

All these attempts, taken together, will, over the course of the episode, constitute the plot.

Any scene, thus, which does not both advance the plot, and standalone (that is, dramatically, by itself, on its own merits) is either superfluous, or incorrectly written.

Yes but yes but yes but, you say: what about the necessity of writing in all that "information?"

And I respond "figure it out" any dickhead with a bluesuit can be (and is) taught to say "make it clearer", and "I want to know more about him".

When you've made it so clear that even this bluesuited penguin is happy, both you and he or she will be out of a job.

The job of the dramatist is to make the audience wonder what happens next. Not to explain to them what just happened, or to*suggest* to them what happens next.

Any dickhead, as above, can write, "but, jim, if we don't assassinate the prime minister in the next scene, all europe will be engulfed in flame"

We are not getting paid to realize that the audience needs this information to understand the next scene, but to figure out how to write the scene before us such that the audience will be interested in what happens next.

Yes but, yes but yes but you reiterate.

And I respond figure it out.

How does one strike the balance between withholding and vouchsafing information? That is the essential task of the dramatist. And the ability to do that is what separates you from the lesser species in their blue suits.

Figure it out.

Start, every time, with this inviolable rule: the scene must be dramatic. It must start because the hero has a problem, and it must culminate with the hero finding him or herself either thwarted or educated that another way exists.

Look at your log lines. Any logline reading "Bob and sue Discuss..." is not describing a dramatic scene.

Please note that our outlines are, generally, spectacular. The drama flows out between the outline and the first draft.

Think like a filmmaker rather than a functionary, because, in truth, you are making the film. What you write, they will shoot.

Here are the danger signals. Any time two characters are talking about a third, the scene is a crock of shit.

Any time any character is saying to another "as you know", that is, telling another character what you, the writer, need the audience to know, the scene is a crock of shit.

Do not write a crock of shit. Write a ripping three, four, seven minute scene which moves the story along, and you can, very soon, buy a house in bel air and hire someone to live there for you.
Remember you are writing for a visual medium. Most television writing, ours included, sounds like radio. The camera can do the explaining for you. Let it. What are the characters doing -*literally*. 

What are they handling, what are they reading. What are they watching on television, what are they seeing.

If you pretend the characters cant speak, and write a silent movie, you will be writing great drama.

If you deprive yourself of the crutch of narration, exposition,indeed, of speech. You will be forged to work in a new medium - telling the story in pictures (also known as screenwriting)

This is a new skill. No one does it naturally. You can train yourselves to do it, but you need to start.

I close with the one thought: look at the scene and ask yourself "Is it dramatic? Is it essential? Does it advance the plot?

Answer truthfully.

If the answer is "no" write it again or throw it out. If you've got any questions, call me up.

Love, Dave Mamet

Santa Monica 19 octo 05

(It is not your responsibility to know the answers, but it is your, and my, responsibility to know and to ask the right questions over and over. Until it becomes second nature. I believe they are listed above.)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

McKellan's KING LEAR via Trevor Nunn and the coming apocalypse

Re-watched, on DVD, Ian McKellan's magnificent 2007 performance of KING LEAR last night, and I have a feeling I will be watching it yet again and again as FREED moves forward. LEAR is one foundation-stone of the second novel FREED. Another is Dickens's NICHOLAS NICKLEBY.

The production (YouTube excerpt below) is directed by Trevor Nunn, and is, from all I can tell, a faithful video capture of this London performance, which I did not see. The review of that London show seems to be discussing essentially the same event, and references a "universe deprived of divine sanctions in which barbarism is rampant." Sounds like Gaza in the early twenty-first century to me.

McKellan rather looks like my Papa in this performance, another whiff of synchronicity. (Family members, note the resemblance in the screen grab below.) If this role can be performed any better than Sir Ian performs it, I for one do not see how.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Advice on #Writing from Ernest Hemingway

Q. Do you know what's going to happen when you write a story?

A. Almost never. I start to make it up and have happen what would have to happen as it goes along.


Q. How much should you write a day?

A. The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck. That is the most valuable thing I can tell you so try to remember it .... Always stop while you are going good and don't think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. If you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.


(To F. Scott Fitzgerald, in a 1929 letter:) You just have to GO ON when it is worst and most helpless. There is only one thing to do with a novel and that is go straight on through to the end of the damn thing.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Papa Hemingway to the rescue

The great Hemingway short story BIG TWO-HEARTED RIVER can, thank God, be found here.

Or click the photo.

Click this photo to read Hemingway's masterpiece BIG TWO-HEARTED RIVER

Hemingway does something extraordinary in these pages, something extreme, something that's easy to miss, something that amounted to a major breakthrough in modern fiction, something difficult, something that most writers I come across either don't know how to do or have no particular interest in doing. I tried to do this thing in a scene in my novel JIHADI: A LOVE STORY. I couldn't do it all the way through, as Hemingway does it here. It may only be possible to do this particular thing in a short story. It's hard to imagine a novel doing it successfully, from beginning to end, at the level Hemingway does it here. Maybe there's a novel out there that does it that I just haven't come across. If you find one, drop me a line.

Papa (the word is full of eerie resonances for me) does something in this story that no one else, as near as I can make out, has done anywhere near as well, including Ernest Hemingway. In that way, the story is kind of like Arthur Miller's play DEATH OF A SALESMAN . It's true that Miller never wrote anything to top it, but it's equally true that no one else has done anything to top it.

The technical/aesthetic accomplishment I'm talking about -- which I'm not identifying directly here, because people who like surprises may wish to be surprised by it -- is described in this Wikipedia article. If you like spoilers, or you just have no patience, go ahead and click the second link first. That's fine.