Sunday, June 4, 2023

In the Summertime

by Gary Fearon

Down here in the South, most students have just wrapped up their school year and begun their summer vacation. Up North, many kids are still hitting the books, and will continue to well into June. Officially, the calendar says the first day of Summer is June 21st. But the days have been hot and summery enough lately that many Southerners consider Memorial Day Weekend the start of the sunny solstice.

"Summertime and the livin' is easy," said George and Ira Gershwin (actually, it was DuBose Heyward, the author of Porgy, the novel on which Porgy and Bess was based). Regardless of whether your daddy's rich and your mama's good lookin', there are plenty of folks who dispute Porgy's sentiment because Summer often means juggling even more things than usual. 

It's not necessarily bad stuff, just more stuff. We tend to fill our summers with as much as we can, hoping to make up for all the months when we've worked so hard, feeling like this is the only chance we have to do the things we don't have enough time for.

Which brings me to the question, did you make any writing resolutions back in January? Did you pledge to write a page a day? 500 words a day? More importantly, have you been successful? I've pondered that very subject with a number of authors lately, and, like me, most of them were faithful to their goals for about a week. 

As honorable people, we make it a point to live up to the promises we make to others. Commitments we make to ourselves, however, are too easy to break, since no one's around to punish us. But don't we do just that, with feelings of disappointment in ourselves, regret, and lost opportunity? If we had started on that novel in January and kept at it for the last 150 days, even a 500-word goal would mean 75,000 words under our belt today. 

Stephen King says he writes 2,000 words a day. Julia Cameron shoots for three pages, roughly 750 words. Your own mileage will vary, as it should, and you might do well to start small. On those days when you surprise yourself because you've written 3,000 words, you'll know you've gotten back your groove. 

To those authors who manage to write two or more books a year, I'm preaching to the choir. I don't know how you do it, but I love you for being a source of hope for the rest of us. 

500 words a day is an easy task when you're having fun. As a matter of fact, this blog post is exactly 500 words long. 

As you enthusiastically make your other plans for the summer, I encourage you to include a recommitment to (or the initiation of) your writing resolution. Remember how important writing is to you and how good it would feel to get your book written by December 31st. 

Then your resolution for 2024 could be all about your next book.

Saturday, May 14, 2022

The Seven Basic Plots

by Gary Fearon

If you're a writer who's been on Facebook or YouTube, you've probably been presented with a video ad for Ron Howard's Master Class on Directing. In the promo, he makes reference to a theory held by some that there are "seven stories". I thought we might briefly explore those seven story lines from which most tales spring forth.

Christopher Booker is credited for writing the book on the subject, namely The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories. At around 700 pages, it's a thorough analysis of each story line, breaking each down into their own set of stages. For the sake of this post, here is an oversimplification:

Overcoming the Monster
Not always a literal monster, but a major threat to our hero, who takes up the challenge to destroy it.

Rags to Riches
An underdog overcomes the odds to become top dog.

The Quest
Our hero must find a treasure of great value, and embarks on a journey to find it. 

Voyage and Return
Our hero lands in a place unlike home and must learn new rules to prevail. Eventually he/she returns home better than before.

A goal is impeded by funny obstacles.  Often, if the main obstacle is a person, they get a come-uppance in the end.

Our hero is his own worst enemy, with qualities that lead to his downfall.

The ultimate character arc, in which the hero transforms into a new being, literally or figuratively.

In reading these, you may have already assessed that many stories contain more than one of these plots, and you'd be correct. For example, isn't The Wizard of Oz a quest for a treasure as well as a voyage to a strange world? Booker himself acknowledges the frequent overlap of two or more of these plots, and even mentions two more which he considers less common:

The hero rebels but ultimately surrenders to, and perhaps joins, the powers that be.

The hero seeks to discover the truth of a murder or other unexplained event.

Some analysts of story feel that there are as many as 25 plots, not merely seven. Ron Howard implies that there is just one, but we may have to buy his Master Class to learn what that is.

There are writers who dismiss such advice in the name of originality. They contend that referencing previously established templates will make their story too predictable. But in order to break rules with intention, first it helps to know the rules. In his classic book Story, legendary screenwriting expert Robert McKee declares: "A rule says you must do it this way. A principle says this works, and has through all remembered time."  Why reinvent the wheel from scratch when someone has already rounded off the edges for you?

The fact that we can think of our favorite movies or books and see how they fit into one or more of these story lines is testament to their enduring effectiveness and popularity. Could you possibly insert your hero's name into one of these seven plots and refine it into the logline for your next novel? Your own creativity will make the time-tested tale uniquely yours.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Who wrote the Oscar movies of 2019?

by Gary Fearon

As any writer of creative nonfiction will attest, taking a real person’s life and determining the right parts to give it maximum impact is no easy feat. This year, most of the screenwriters vying for the Best Picture Oscar succeeded in doing just that. Six of the eight nominated stories had their origins in flesh and blood protagonists.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban director Alfonso CuarĂ³n drew upon his childhood to write the semi-autobiographical Roma. He also directed, produced, shot and co-edited the film. This character drama about a housekeeper in Mexico bucks Hollywood tradition: it’s in Spanish, is in black & white, has no musical score, and stars an actress who never acted before but now is up for a Best Actress Oscar.

When a screenwriter has done time as the head writer for Saturday Night Live, it follows that his projects will project a propensity for parody. Such is this tongue-in-cheek take on the political career of former Vice President Dick Cheney. Adam McKay – whose credits also include Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Talladega Nights – wrote and directed this satire, which was originally intended by Paramount Pictures to be a drama.
The real Queen Anne (well, a painting)

Set in 1708, the black comedy The Favourite centers around Lady Sarah and her cousin Abigail, who compete for the attention and affection of Queen Anne. Co-writer and former journalist Deborah Davis went to night school to learn how to write a screenplay, specifically to tell this story of women in power and a female triangle. She admits to having known nothing about Queen Anne before doing research that included Lady Sarah’s memoir and a corresponding account from Winston Churchill.

Sasha Baron Cohen was originally enlisted to portray Freddy Mercury in the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, but when his reputation as a comedian was deemed to be too distracting, the role (along with a prosthetic overbite) was given to Rami Malek. Mercury’s singing was a combination of Mercury, Malek and an impersonator in this film written by Anthony McCarten, whose other biographical screenplays – The Theory of Everything (Stephen Hawking) and Darkest Hour (Winston Churchill) – were previous Best Picture nominees and garnered Best Actor Oscars for their stars. No doubt Rami Malek is equally hopeful.

The only Best Picture candidate that started out as a book is BlacKkKlansman, based on the memoir Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth. In the 1970s, Stallworth was a black detective who set out to expose the local Colorado chapter of the Ku Klux Klan with the help of a white partner who walked among the KKK. A bombing that is part of the story never actually took place in Stallworth’s experience, but director Spike Lee added it to heighten the action.

Black Panther is one of just two Best Picture nominees not based on a real person. This Marvel comic book hero was brought to life by writers Ryan Coogler (Creed) and Joe Robert Cole (The People v. O.J. Simpson). The movie had its origins when actor Wesley Snipes felt that Africa had been poorly portrayed in films and wanted to do a project of nobility. The project was delayed for many years because of confusion associating it with the Black Panther Party.

The other non-biographical nominee is a story that’s been retold every twenty or thirty years (1937, 1954, 1976, 2018). Each script reflecting the time in which they were made, A Star is Born always centers about a talented ingenue (either an actress or a singer) and her alcoholic mentor from whom she ends up stealing the spotlight. Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) and actor Bradley Cooper co-wrote the script with Will Fetters, who says this most recent installment was inspired by Kurt Cobain.

The actual Anthony Vallelonga ("Tony Lip") and Don Shirley
A casual coffee shop conversation between old friends turned into silver screen gold when Nick Vallelonga asked screenwriter Peter Farrelly (Dumb and Dumber), “Did I ever tell you the story about my father and Dr. [Don] Shirley traveling the South in 1962?” Nick’s father, a bouncer from the Bronx, had been hired by black jazz pianist Shirley to be his chauffeur and bodyguard during an eventful concert tour of the deep South. Aided by Nick’s own memories and letters by his late father, he and Farrelly collaborated with Brian Hayes Curry (Con Air) for months to write the screenplay for the comedy/drama Green Book.

Enjoy cheering on your favorites during the 91st Academy Awards this Sunday night (February 24). In the meantime, you can hear the aforementioned pianist Don Shirley performing his single “WaterBoy” on YouTube. But first, I invite you to check out the 2019 version of my annual video parody/tribute to the Oscars here or below. See you at the movies!

Saturday, December 22, 2018

8 Things Writers Can Learn from Mary Poppins

by Gary Fearon

Thanks to the December 2018 release of Mary Poppins Returns starring Emily Blunt, many moviegoers have been revisiting the 1964 classic starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke.  Fans of the original can still hum along with the songs of Richard M. Sherman and his brother Robert B. Sherman. They may not be household names, but the story songs they wrote are beloved worldwide via Walt Disney films and parks, including what they considered their crowning glory, Mary Poppins

What many writers don't realize is that, in addition to their Oscar-winning score, the Shermans were key players in developing the story structure of Mary Poppins as well as other Disney favorites. Here are eight things all writers can learn from the prolific songwriting team Walt himself affectionately referred to as "the boys".

There are eight books in the Mary Poppins series. Scenes and concepts from different books were brought together to create a storyline for the original 1964 screenplay (an approach used for the 2018 sequel as well). Are there any ideas you've put aside that could find a new home in your latest work?

The magical English nanny had many colorful adventures, but Richard & Robert determined that these episodes had no character arcs and weren't enough to carry a story. They convinced Disney that Mary's employers should be distracted parents who rediscover the joy of childhood along with their children. Once a moral was chosen, the adventures took on a common purpose.

For Mary's signature song, the Shermans wanted to give her a clever proverb, like "An apple a day..." or "A stitch in time..."  The end result ("A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down") was inspired by Robert's young son, whose school had administered a polio vaccine placed on sugar cubes for easier consumption. You never know what phrase you write could become an instant classic.

In the books, Bert was only a minor character, a street artist known as The Match Man. He has much more prominence in the film, and his role as a chimney sweep was borrowed from a different character in the P.L. Travers series. Bert was given a presence and personality strong enough to be a companion for Mary Poppins. His equally charismatic signature song, "Chim Chim Chiree", won the 1965 Oscar for Best Original Song.

The Shermans moved the story from the depression-era 1930s to the more hopeful turn of the century. Setting the story in 1910 London also allowed them to develop one character into a suffragette. Speaking of whom...

Actress Glynnis Johns thought she had been cast to get the title role of Mary Poppins, only to learn that Julie Andrews had already been enlisted to play the title role. Walt appeased her by assuring her that the Shermans had written an especially great song just for her to sing. In truth, it wasn't even a thought up to that point. But Richard and Robert picked up the gauntlet and delivered a big and brassy number to give her lesser character a chance to shine.

The Shermans wrote 32 songs for possible inclusion in Mary Poppins, but only 14 were used when Walt declared the rest "unnecessary" for the story. Some were repurposed in later Disney features including Bedknobs and Broomsticks and The Jungle Book.

The Sherman brothers avoided distractions like the plague. When it was time to write, they shut out the world around them to concentrate on the project at hand. 

In everything they wrote, Richard and Robert believed that story always comes first. By adopting that same focus, we can give our writing a little extra magic that is practically perfect in every way.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Plug Thy Neighbor

by Gary Fearon

If the golden rule of writing is to do unto other writers as you would have them do unto you, that's a pretty easy assignment.  It could be summed up thusly: good will, good wishes, and a good plug.

The majority of authors are expected to do most, if not all, of their own publicity.  So it's a helpful shot in the arm when a fellow author offers their endorsement. When someone says, "So-and-so's new mystery is a page-turner I stayed up all last night to read," that's a convincing testimonial.
We all spend time propping up our platforms, building our branding, and staying savvy with social media.  We sometimes ...

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Thursday, June 1, 2017

What Sgt. Pepper Can Teach Writers

by Gary Fearon

It was fifty years ago this week that The Beatles released the album that made the music world's head spin. Sgt. Pepper may have "taught the band to play", but he also provided some teachable moments for writers.

A little friendly competition can be a good thing
Wordsmiths readily draw inspiration from other wordsmiths. The Beatles' Rubber Soul album (1965) motivated The Beach Boy's Brian Wilson to create their most ambitious album, Pet Sounds (1966). Then, after hearing Pet Sounds, Paul McCartney set out to create ...

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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Unfinished Business

by Gary Fearon

Having recently attended the funeral of a former professor, a writer friend was exhibiting a more philosophical side of himself than I usually get to see.  His contemplations led us to the question:

If you knew you had only a year to live, how would you spend it?

I think most of us would share some of the same answers.  We'd make sure our affairs were in order. We'd express our love and thanks to the people who've meant something to us.  We may travel to some place we've always wanted to go.

I'd like to take that question a step further and ask:

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