More Confessions of a 54-year-old Rocker — I write about my experience singing backup for a band!
Readers put pen to paper about their take on aging
Minnesota, the U of M Alumni Magazine
I wrote these stories for the Anoka-Ramsey Community College newsletter in collaboration with Clayton Bennett of Right-Word. I wrote pages 1, 3, and 4. -arcc-newsletter-summer-2016-013
Written for the Loft Literary Center Website:
7 Reasons to Read a Movie by Miriam Queensen
Why should anybody read a screenplay? They’re not written to be read. They’re not meant to be final products. They are the blueprint of a film, from which a large group of collaborators will create a final product. But here are some reasons you might want to read a screenplay instead of just watching a movie:
1. To learn how to write screenplays.
If you want to learn how to write them, it’s obvious that you ought to read screenplays. You wouldn’t claim to know how to write a symphony just because you’ve gone to lots of concerts, would you? Granted, a screenplay isn’t quite as complicated as a musical score, but it does contain requirements for structure and format that you can’t learn from just watching a movie.
2. To understand more about how films are made.
Screenplays are interesting for students of film. You can tease out everybody’s contributions, from the actors and director to the art director, cinematographer and more, if you begin by studying what a film started with: the script.
3. To learn how to identify the spine of a story.
The screenplay contains only the bare bones of the story. It is the scaffolding on which everything else is hung. The script is the plot, the characters and their arcs, choice of setting and tone, plus dialogue, concise description and actions that reveal characters. Would-be novelists can easily drown in the rich detail and the luxury of countless words, poetic language and description, adjectives, adverbs, qualifiers, internal thoughts of the characters—and the spine of the story can be lost. Not so in a screenplay. Without that spine, there is no screenplay. There’s nowhere to hide.
4. To understand the differences between novels and films.
Novel lovers often find film adaptations unsatisfying, because it’s not possible to duplicate the experience of reading a novel. In a screenplay you can’t reveal characters’ inner thoughts or a narrator’s opinions unless you resort to lots of voiceover narration (see About a Boy and The Cider House Rules, to cite only two examples). Even then, you can’t include everything that takes place in a novel within a screenplay for reasons of structure. Not all novels conform easily to the three-act dramatic structure we expect from movies (whether we realize it or not), and the sheer length of a novel is usually daunting as well. In order to fit into the two-hour (or so) time limit of a film, something’s got to go.
5. To study how other works are adapted to film.
Many novelists find it difficult to adapt their own work to screenplay form. I give great credit to John Irving, for example, because he translated his own 640 page novel, The Cider House Rules, into a very watchable film. Obviously, he had to make choices about what to jettison to turn it into a workable movie. What did he choose? The arc of the main character Homer (played by Tobey Maguire) is his coming of age story, wherein he falls in love, becomes an adult, and finally has to separate emotionally from the doctor who raised him (played by Michael Caine). This was the spine of the film. A lot of other material, while rich in content and satisfying as part of a novel, had to be discarded. Backstory, history, medical information, and lots of description and action involving other characters had to be abandoned in favor of elements directly related to the main character’s arc.
6. To examine how creative artists make choices.
In the introduction to the book version of John Irving’s screenplay The Cider House Rules, Irving writes that it took fourteen years to adapt the novel to screenplay form, during which time he worked with several different directors. He went back and forth in different drafts with these directors, emphasizing or de-emphasizing Homer’s first love affair versus the maturing of his relationship with his father figure, the doctor who runs the orphanage where he grew up.
When he wrote the final version of the screenplay with director Lasse Hallstrom, Irving says: “Homer’s relationship with Dr. Larch is the dominant relationship in the film, as it should be.” The relationship with Homer’s first love is important, but it is not THE most important thing in the story. Neither is the tons of research about obstetrics and gynecological surgery that Irving did to inform the content of the novel and the background of the orphanage/women’s health/abortion clinic where the story takes place. The film, ultimately, is about growing up, and leaving the only “father” Homer has ever known. In that way, it’s everyone’s growing up story.
7. To learn to identify the core, the emotional heart, of any story.
That’s the beauty of the best screenplays: strip away the details, settings, subplots, and you reach—hopefully—a universal story that everybody can understand. That’s the core a screenwriter creates, or extracts from a work that he or she adapts. It’s easier to locate this core in the pared down world of a screenplay. Keep this in mind and read an original screenplay like Django Unchained or a screenplay adapted from other material like Argo or Anna Karenina first, before you see the movies. Away from the visual distractions and pyrotechnics of a film, focusing only on the words in a screenplay, you can determine whether the screenwriter has successfully expressed that core. This is the heart of any great story, memoir, novel, play, also: within the particulars of any given creative work is an aspect of simple, universal human experience. That is the core. All the rest—the adverbs, adjectives, flowery description, poetic language, or the costumes, sets, camera work, special effects—is window dressing.
Many screenplays are published in book form, or you can find screenplays on websites like www.simplyscripts.com. Some websites provide earlier drafts, which are interesting in a similar way to watching extended DVDs or deleted scenes.
Originally posted on The Writer’s Block Blog, Loft Literary Center, 12/21/12, https://writersblock.loft.org/2012/12/21/1826/7_reasons_to_read_a_movie
Joining a Community of Writers: The First Step
I’ve been teaching at The Loft Literary Center for nine years. I’ve met an incredible number of interesting and creative writers, and they form the community that exists at the Loft. Every class brings a new batch of talented and curious learners—and in some cases, repeat customers. Many writers who take my classes have stayed in touch with me and with each other. I cherish the friendships I’ve developed with students, and I love to see familiar faces in an intermediate or advanced class.
Kate St. Vincent Vogl, Loft teaching artist and author of Lost & Found, a Memoir of Mothers, confirms that one reward for teachers is the chance to see the growth and development of students’ writing over time. She says, “I love seeing students come in for another class of mine. The best part is getting to see the growing depth and richness in their writing.”
I believe that the writers in my classes learn a great deal from each other. To me, being part of the Loft, whether by attending a reading or workshop, or taking a longer class, means joining a writing community. The Loft community encourages writers to help one another, whether as teachers, students or colleagues.
Creative process expert and teaching artist Rosanne Bane, author of Around the Writer’s Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer’s Resistance describes part of the teachers’ mission at the Loft: “We help students create their own mini-community in class, and many of those groups continue after the class is complete. We invite students to join the larger community of writers. We do this as teaching artists because we ourselves are part of the community of writers.”
This community supports and enriches all of us, teaching artists and students alike. It becomes not just a source of emotional support and encouragement, but a wellspring of creative energy, feedback, and intellectual stimulation. This community is especially important for us writers, who spend so much time working alone.
Teaching artist Linda Back McKay, author of Out of the Shadows: Stories of Adoption and Reunion and The Next Best Thing, a poetry collection, says: “I’ve had quite a few returning students over the years. For some of them, I’ve become an ongoing mentor, providing encouragement and direction as they continue to grow as writers.” That relationship, which is equally rewarding for Linda, is a vital component of a writing community. Writers learn from and are encouraged by more experienced artists who know and understand their often solitary striving.
How do you join the community of writers? The first step is as simple as signing up for a class or workshop. Rosanne Bane describes Loft workshops as an easy way to get started: “I think of one- or two-day classes as samplers. They give students the opportunity to see if a topic really interests them, if a teaching artist’s style engages them, and meet other writers with similar interests.” It starts with meeting other people who also love reading short stories or poetry, or who also have always wanted to write a memoir, novel, or screenplay.
Screenwriting student Robin Sanders Decaire tells me, “I thought it was wonderful to go once a week and spend a few hours with other people who were working through the same creative process as I was. I got to see my project through fresh eyes—something that I really can’t do myself when I’m immersed in it. And I was excited to see the works of others in the class.”
Writers who take that first step show courage, and reap the rewards of taking that risk. Teaching artist Carrie Kennedy says, “In my six week classes I can see tremendous growth in Loft writers’ courage and confidence. I mostly teach beginning classes, and many students are embarking on a completely new journey. Week one they are enthusiastic, but often terrified, but then in weeks three through six they are writing, responding, discussing, and are amazed at what they are producing. As a teacher and writer that is an incredibly rewarding experience.”
Beginning writers sometimes worry that they don’t yet belong to the community of writers. Rosanne Bane explains, “Some of my students aren’t sure if they’re ‘real writers’ yet or if they’re qualified to join the writer’s community. If you write or if you yearn to write, you’re already part of the community. You get to choose how you participate.”
Amber D. Stoner, a writer who has explored her talent for poetry, creative nonfiction, and screenwriting at the Loft for nearly ten years, explains the importance of the writing community to her: “I consider the Loft my writing home. I feel supported, nurtured, and yes, admired as a writer. Because of the Loft, I get to share this writing journey with talented, passionate writers whose energy and enthusiasm keep me going on the days when the page is blank. And on the days when the page is full, my writing groups offer feedback and make it better. I am not alone in this writing life and that makes all the difference.”
All Loft teaching artists and students are writers. Sharing our experiences, techniques, practices, and even failures helps us to understand our journey. A writer, like the work we create, is a work in progress. Writers need other writers, as peers, mentors or students, to explore ideas with, share our triumphs and frustrations, and to continue to grow as artists and human beings.
Originally posted on The Writer’s Block Blog, Loft Literary Center, 9/26/12, https://writersblock.loft.org/2012/09/26/1323/joining_a_community_of_writers_the_first_step
What Screenwriting Teaches About Writing (Part I)
You may think screenwriting is too specialized, and anyone who wants to learn it is a Quentin Tarantino wannabe. Learning about screenwriting may seem so foreign that it wouldn’t help you with any other type of writing. That’s not what I learned. After I practiced screenwriting, I felt able to tackle what had seemed most daunting to me: the novel.
Structure is everything. When I was younger, I thought that I could just sit down and write a novel if I wanted to. All it took was time for sitting, thinking, and writing. Then I tried it. Not surprisingly, it was harder than I thought. What I wrote was an episodic series of adventures starring a thinly disguised me, with no discernible story or character arc. Stuff just happened.
After discovering screenwriting, I found out that structure was the most important contribution a screenwriter makes toward the end product—a film. Bits of dialogue come and go; settings and other details are jettisoned or altered; but structure is the scaffolding the entire thing hangs on. It is the bare bones of the story—the spine—without which a film doesn’t stand up very well.
Screenplays demand a three-act structure, which novels do not. In a screenplay, a big event, the “inciting incident,” must happen well before page 30. The sooner, the better, especially in action movies. In some movies, something blows up, or someone gets killed, kidnapped, or threatened. In others it’s a proposal, graduation, or getting fired. Something happens to your main character to shake up his world. While in a novel something big does not have to happen by a certain page count, it’s good to learn that your readers do expect something important, at least emotionally, to happen before too long. Readers of novels are more patient than your average Hollywood producer or moviegoer, but you shouldn’t test that patience too much.
In the middle of a screenplay you need to create increasing complications, obstacles, and hurdles, plus probably a villain, all of which the hero has to battle, overcome, or destroy. He has to face tough challenges to reach that final goal, or die trying. Viewers expect twists and reversals, unforeseen consequences of the characters’ decisions and actions, as well as a rise in the stakes. It must really matter whether the hero wins or loses. What we want to see is the main character making decisions and taking actions, right or wrong, that have an impact on the world of the character. A passive character who has stuff happen at her is no good. Show what your character is made of by throwing her in the middle of the action, and make sure that what she does—or doesn’t do—affects those around her.
You need a clear picture of your ending before you start. Without an idea of where you are heading, you can’t set up what will pay off at the end. Whether you’re writing a novel, story, or even memoir, it helps to have a clear idea of what you’re trying to say, both in terms of plot and theme, as the plot should embody your theme. For example, if you want to say that love conquers all in your story, you’d better have an ending that proves it, that makes your readers feel it. Then you might start your story in a place where your character feels unloved, and create a progression of events that ultimately show us your meaning. The key to any story is how it ends. So think clearly about where you want to end up, or expect to do a lot of rewriting. The ending needs to fulfill the promise of the beginning. The question you ask at the beginning of the story should be answered by the end. The problem is solved; or if not, the hero has learned something important through that failure.
That sounds difficult. But within the strict format and structure of a screenplay, limited to 120 pages, it all felt more doable to me. A novel can be any length, so the idea of writing hundreds of pages while maintaining a coherent story seemed too hard. But creating a through line, character arc, and theme through a series of structured scenes in a screenplay forced me to make it happen. Then I thought: “If I can write 120 pages this way, surely I can do it for twice as long and come up with 240 pages.”
Originally posted on The Writer’s Block Blog, Loft Literary Center, 6/6/12, https://writersblock.loft.org/2012/06/06/1066/what_screenwriting_teaches_about_writing_part_i
What Screenwriting Teaches About Writing (Part II)
Every word counts. Poets know this. So do writers with limited space to get their ideas across, such as journalists and copywriters. It’s easy to forget when you are allowed (or required) to come up with a minimum of 75,000 words. Back in school, we were encouraged to gush words, to use as many adjectives and adverbs as we could, as if more always meant better. Not so with screenwriting. Adjectives and adverbs are frowned upon, and the shorter the words, sentences and paragraphs, the better.
Screenwriters learn to choose words carefully as a result. We don’t settle for the first verb that springs to mind. We don’t write, “He goes to the door,” which says little, when we can write, “He shuffles to the door,” or “He rushes to the door,” which conveys much more. You make your language more vivid and expressive simply by word choice. When you’re trying to reach plot milestones in a screenplay, plus keep the page count low, you learn how to pare down to the words that really matter.
Not all novels need to read like a newspaper articles, however. Some authors have written successful novels that are spare and streamlined, but many others have relished in the abundant use of language. It may seem that those writers are just gushing words, but don’t let the more florid authors fool you; they are choosing their words carefully, too. They’re just choosing more of them. There is beauty in the sheer variety of approaches to language usage by different authors. We wouldn’t want Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway to sound exactly the same. Word choice is how you express your own style.
Nick Hornby (About a Boy) writes in Housekeeping vs. The Dirt, “I am not particularly interested in language. Or rather, I am interested in what language can do for me, and I spend many hours each day trying to ensure that my prose is as simple as it can possibly be . . . I do not wish to produce prose that draws attention to itself, rather than the world it describes. . .”
This is the lesson to be learned from screenwriting: don’t throw words around like they’re going out of style. Use them carefully, for a clear purpose. Choose your words.
Characters matter. Some novels are comprised largely of internal thoughts and ideas. But for most writers, and especially in certain genres, action is required. Your characters need to do things, make decisions, and impact the world around them.
In a screenplay, you show a character trying really hard to get something he wants (or to prevent something really bad from happening). This is a good way to think of any story. Yes, in a novel you have the luxury of exploring the characters’ minds, philosophizing, or revealing your command of the English language. But ultimately your readers—like moviegoers—are primarily engaged in your story because of the characters you create. Characters with wants, needs, problems, and fears are the ones your readers identify with and care about. Even unlikeable characters are compelling if we understand how they got that way, if we see them change, or watch the downfall created by their tragic flaws.
As the creator of your characters, you need to know what makes them tick. If you don’t know what their motivations are, create them. Your characters are your creations, to mold, improve, or destroy as you see fit. You are God in their world. That’s the fun of writing. Screenwriters like to visualize the “movie” that we see in our heads. I would argue that all writers do this to some extent. So even if you are writing a novel or short story, see your characters and how they act, and your readers will be able to see them, too. Reveal their inner workings through what they do and how they behave. Don’t just tell us how they are feeling; show us.
These things have helped me conquer my fear of novel writing. I no longer let myself just write freely and hope for the best. I think ahead, planning ways to get my characters to that final goal. I keep the big picture structure in my mind. I hold the knowledge of where my characters are ultimately headed while I create each scene, and I choose my words carefully to follow that route to the end.
Originally posted on The Writer’s Block Blog, Loft Literary Center, 6/13/12, https://writersblock.loft.org/2012/06/13/1067/what_screenwriting_teaches_about_writing_part_ii