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Cinematic Story Telling

I‘m often confused by the way different people refer to “cinematic” story telling. When some people use the words they get a wistful look in their eyes, like they’ve been swept away to a far off land. Others say it with a bit of a smirk – as if the author has somehow failed to be literary enough in their story telling, and has instead fallen into a cinematic (intoned with ickiness) sub-genre.

The difference seems to be the degree to which we as readers as privy to the interior of the main character’s head. The more we know their thoughts, the more literary the resulting story.

I was thinking about this the other day when I was channel surfing while nursing. Mid-day TV is leaves much to be desired, but I stumbled upon “Even Cowgirls Get The Blues.” The book, by Tom Robbins, was the first book I ever read twice. I was more or less obsessed with his books from the age of 19 until about 25, and “Cowgirls” was always my favorite. I knew it had been adapted to the screen, but never sought it out, since the reviews had not been so favorable.

Though it’s been a while since I read “Cowgirls,” I remember feeling transported by it, as if were unfolding on a screen. Everything was so easy to imagine, to picture in my mind. It seemed like a story that was just screaming to be a movie. So why was it so utterly unwatchable?

Seriously, I changed the channel after five minutes. The idiosyncratic characters that had been so charming on the page were simply awful on the screen. Cliche, weird, even racist and insulting. Why? If memory serves, the movie is very true to the book. What happened? And why is it that such a cinematic story could make such poor cinema?

My best guess is that good books, cinematic or not, engage us by hitting just the perfect balance of detail and freedom to imagine. When a filmmaker tries to take the story and fill in what he or she sees as the details, they limit the vision of the story to their own.

So is it true what they say? Do good books make lousy films? A survey of recent attempts certainly points to yes; Lovely Bones, White Oleander, Love in the Time Of Cholera. I’m already dreading Water For Elephants.

What do you think? Are there films out there that you feel really capture a book you loved? If so, would you consider the book “cinematic.” I’m curious to hear some thoughts.

“I Wrote Something”

Today my dad, who is working on his memoir about being a lift-out helicopter pilot in Vietnam, sent me an email with the subject heading “I wrote something.”

Here is what he wrote:

I am going to write something……
I am thinking…
I am About…
To get ready…
To commence…
To prepare….
To start…
To begin…
To write something.

We all have those days, don’t we?

Listening To My Own Voice

This summer, at the Skidmore Writer’s Institute, one of the pieces of feedback that I got from Rick Moody was that my writing struck him as cute. He cringed as he said it, as if it were the worst thing in the world, but really I could have thought of a hundred different things he could have said that would have upset me more.

I walked away from the review session thinking “cute’s not so bad,” but now, after having had six months to mull it over, I’ve decided that “not so bad” isn’t what I’m shooting for in my writing. What’s more, my current draft does read as cute. Kind of a girly Joss Whedon tpe of prose, which isn’t surprising given that I’m a huge Joss Whedon fan and I am, after all, a girl.

But I’ve been listening to “Another Bullshit Night In Suck City” by Nick Flynn (to keep me awake while I’m nursing though the night) and I’ve come to really like his style. His voice is great. I feel like I’m having a conversation with the guy. The prose feel natural, unforced and engaging. That’s what I’m going for. So I’m thinking about my own voice.

I’m a person who gives it to you straight. I do occasionally swear (thought that is slowly being trained out of me by the little one who repeats everything). I enjoy a raunchy turn of phrase or joke at my own expense.

My character has none of these characteristics. Now, she is not me, but as the writer, I do hope the story will come across in my voice. So I find myself wanting to go back and revise, revise, revise. And there’s the second challenge. I generally work under a policy of “never go back.” I have about 100 pages of rewrite to go before this draft is done.

I guess what I need to do is keep typing until I get to the end and then go back and change what needs to be changed. That’s how I’ve always done it. It’s just too frustrating to jump back to the beginning of an unfinished project. It makes me feel like it will never get finished. I could revise the first chapter forever, but if I don’t write an ending, it won’t be a very good book.

Now back to work before the baby wakes up.

Writing Tips From Janet Fitch

The following is a guest post by Janet Fitch, author of Paint it Black and White Oleander (an Oprah’s Book Club book). Her upcoming book is titled Marina Makarova, and is set in the years of the Russian Revolution. On Janet’s own blog she shares her writing based on single word prompts. Here are her thoughts on writing while under the influence of children:

1. The number one essential tool for the new writer/parent–The Baby Swing. If you didn’t get one, GET ONE. Put the baby in there, and guaranteed, 45 minutes of peace to get some work done. Buy the one that takes the whacking big D batteries, those suckers last forever and you’re going to be using this a lot.

2. Give up on cleaning. Triage your precious spare time. First, write. Then, take care of the animate–kid, spouse, dog. Tend to the inanimate only when you have to. Give up gardening.

3. If you have help for a few hours, or if the kid’s at pre-school–LEAVE THE HOUSE and go work. It will remove the temptation to do the laundry or wash the dishes.

4. Find a mother’s helper babysitter, a junior high kid who can use a few bucks and will keep your toddler amused while you’re home. Be prepared for your child to love that kid more than you.

5. Don’t be a prima donna. Forget unbroken stretches of time. If you have a few minutes to write, grab them. When I first started writing I couldn’t work if someone was in the house. Then I couldn’t work if someone was in the room. Once I had a kid, I could work at Grand Central Station. Just give me 15 minutes.

6. Art projects are a godsend. “Draw me a spaceship, honey.” There’s five minutes, ten if you’re lucky… Get them to include details, like rivets and eyelashes. Don’t forget to expand the assignment. “Draw me the inside of the spaceship.” “Draw me the controls of the spaceship.” “Draw me the planet the spaceship comes from.”

7. Why do they always want to draw on the couch with the Chanel lipstick? Can never be the Maybelline. But when you need five more minutes, what the heck. “Looks good, honey.”

8. Bedtime should be inviolable. Make sure there’s an early enough bedtime that you can see your spouse for an hour, and then go to work for an hour or two. Even if you have to go to bed after your spouse. Suck it up. You both wanted to be parents.

9. Forget gourmet cooking. You’ll learn to make something pretty good out of semi-prepared stuff from Trader Joe.

10. Deflect guilt. Embrace the concept of the good-enough mother. Keith Richards left his kids with Anita. You’re mother of the year by comparison.

11. Do not enroll your child in more activities than you can reasonably cover without feeling resentful of losing your life driving to soccer games. Art classes are once a week. Soccer practice is three times a week. Do the math. (And do not feel you have to pay attention to your kid while you’re sitting there–a well-known book critic and I met at YMCA kid’s swim class when I saw her annotating an advanced reading copy. You’re just the driver.)

12. Books on tape are a great way to get some reading done while you’re nursing.

13. Take notes. Someday you will forget all this, and need to write a scene with an hysterical nursing mother.

14. Dads working at home will get more respect than moms working at home. Accept this sad fact. My daughter’s friend had a work-at-home songwriter father. She would look at the closed door of his studio and whisper, “Shhh, Dad’s working” like he was doing open heart surgery. My own closed door was opened fifty times a day with requests like “Mooooommmmmmm, will you pin this?” or “Mooooooooooommmmmm, why does Daddy have a penis?”

If you can at all possibly get out of the house to work, do so. Even if it’s just into the backyard. In the treehouse. With the ladder up.

15. Don’t overlook the great national resource–Other Mothers. Other Mothers like Disneyland, Other Mothers will take your kid along with theirs to see those crappy movies about Christmas and stuff. You’ll have to reciprocate eventually–like taking their kid on New Year’s Eve, say, or for their anniversary. But overnights are way less of a pain than shlepping kids around and sitting through Snow Dogs. They’ll keep each other amused. You’ll get some writing done. WELL WORTH IT.

16. Earplugs. Headphones. Parents are notoriously cued into the tone of distress in a child’s voice, the sound of things crashing in the kitchen and so on. If you want to get anything done, headphones are a godsend. Take them off every half hour or so just to check the tenor of things, make sure nobody’s crying.

17. Childproof everything. DUH. The better your childproofing–and the sturdier your sense of indifference to a royal mess–the more you will be able to concentrate on your work.

18. Get your kid a library card very early. It’s important to instill respect for the written word, so they have some idea how cool you are.

19. Make sure to have intellectual conversations with adults on a daily, or near daily level. Facebook isn’t enough. You have to keep your vocabulary above the high school level, and talking to four year olds all day isn’t going to help.

20. Teach them about commercials. That the toys are crap, the food is garbage and that advertising is hypnosis, designed to stimulate demand. We used to chant, “You need it, you want it, you gotta have it” during the kiddie commercials. Ask them, “how big do you think that [fill in the crap toy in the cereal] really is?” They’ll show you ten inches tall. Tell them to look at the hand that’s holding it, to look at the thumbnail. This serves twofold purpose–first, it keeps your time and patience from being constantly swallowed up by demands for an overwhelming range of crap, and second, well– hey, you’re a writer. Last time I looked, most of us were still paying off our student loans.

21. Share rejections with your child. Model how it is to be a determined, creative person–how every week, people say ‘does not meet our needs at this time’ to Mommy, and she shrugs it off. “Screw them,” Mommy says, and keeps on going.

22. You have a right to create art. Think of it as a child. It will die without your attention. It’s a child that no one else can care for. It will only eat if you feed it. Someone else can make Kraft Mac and Cheese just as easily as you. But no one can write your book for you.

Writing Productivity: Create Impeccable Systems

The following is a guest post by author Sage Cohen. Her new book, “The Productive Writer,” was released in December. She will be checking in throughout the day to answer questions about how to be a more productive writer, so if you’ve set writing goals for 2011, and could use a little professional advice on how to reach them, now’s your chance! Also, everyone who leaves a question or comment on today’s post will be automatically entered to win a signed copy of Sage’s book. Enjoy!

Happy New Year, writers! If you’d like to be even more productive in 2011, you can expedite success by making the most of every minute of writing time you have. Following are two strategies that can help.

Track your time carefully

To get a handle on how I spend (and waste) time, I use a daily time sheet, which is a table that I create in Word, print out, and fill out by hand. I keep one for each project, as well as one that illustrates the big picture every day. For each task, I record start time, finish time and total time taken. I also note its category, such as: writing; family; business; self-care.

This may seem daunting at first, but it’s actually quite easy to do; and very quickly it will become second nature. Once you have a clear picture of how you’ve spent every hour of every day for a week or two or three, you’ll know: how much time it takes you to do the work you’re doing, how much time you’re wasting, and how much time you’d like to reassign to your writing practice.

Schedule your time effectively

You may or may not be a “perform to a schedule” type of writer. Largely, this will depend on who you are, how you write, and what you’re writing. However, I believe that

no matter what type of writing you’re doing, whether there is an external deadline or not, a schedule can help.

I have come to appreciate schedules as little maps of the possible to guide us in the deep and sometimes overwhelming waters of time. When I have a big project (let’s say a book) and a somewhat long-term timeline (let’s say six months) and some other significant work and family commitments (including a full-time freelance writing career, part-time teaching, a toddler, three cats, and two dogs) the fact of the matter is that I need to see––clear as a successful simile––where and how the writing time for the book is going to fit into my life. So I make a treasure map for arriving at the doorstep of this finished book on the date promised. When taken out of its romantic mood lighting, this map is simply a schedule.

What I mean by a schedule, for something like a book, is that I set both targets and timing. Let’s say the book has twenty chapters, and I plan to write one chapter per week over the course of twenty weeks, then spend the last four weeks revising. I’d block off in my computer calendar the hours I expect to spend writing that chapter each week. (Don’t know how much time it takes to write a chapter? No problem; use the time-tracking log suggested above to find out.) For me, the greatest value of this process is having hard proof that there are actually enough hours in my life to accomplish what I have set out to do.

When I see those orange blocks of “write book” time floating through the days and nights of my computer calendar, a sense of calm comes over me. I can see my path of progress; I can trust it will get done. And even if I don’t choose to stick to the schedule in a given week, or ever, I still have that visual map of how my current life could shift to accommodate something new – and a general sense of what will be required of me to make that happen. And that lends confidence and comfort as I enter the unknown.

If you have any questions about tracking or scheduling time – or about how to be more productive in any aspect of your writing life – please feel free to post them here. I’ll be stopping by throughout the day today and will be happy to answer them.

About Sage Cohen

Sage Cohen is the author of The Productive Writer(just released from Writer’s Digest Books); Writing the Life Poetic and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. She blogs about all that is possible in the writing life at, where you can: Download a FREE “Productivity Power Tools” workbook companion to The Productive Writer. Get the FREE, 10-week email series, “10 Ways to Boost Writing Productivity” when you sign up to receive email updates. Sign up for the FREE, Writing the Life Poetic e-zine. Plus, check out the events page for the latest free teleclasses, scholarships and more.

Don’t forget – one lucky reader will receive a free signed copy of Sage’s new book, “The Productive Writer.” The winner will be chosen at random. To enter, leave a comment or question for Sage by clicking the “comments” link at the top of this post. Good luck!