Storycraft

Whiplash: The Power of Story

Sunday afternoon, in the warm, dark cocoon of a movie theatre—my husband working, the rest of the immediate universe watching the Superbowl—I saw a powerful, brilliant film. One of the best I've seen.  

Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle, is a small-budget marvel that brings home the power of story, reminding us how few bells and whistles are needed to rivet an audience. A simple plot, a clear theme, a setting that inhabits the characters, but doesn't draw attention away from them. A story driven by the will and force of its characters. Characters you cannot turn your mind away from.

 

Andrew (Miles Teller), a freshman at a fictionalized New York music conservatory, is a gifted, introverted jazz drummer who goes to movies with his dad (Paul Reiser) and stares longingly at the pretty girl who serves him up a bucket of popcorn (Melissa Benoist). Andrew's talent catches the ear of the school's reining jazz God, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), and he's invited to join Fletcher's studio band. Studio band is the school's most prestigious—the one that wins competitions and makes or breaks careers. What follows is an emotional thriller that is as taut as the skin stretched over a drum.

 

It's been twenty years since I've reacted so viscerally to a movie (The English Patient. It still destroys me. Oh, that movie.) At one point, I felt a hot, woozy wave wash over me and I feared I'd either faint or vomit. I dropped my feet from the seat—I'd been curled in a tight ball of tension—and slid them back into my tennis shoes, preparing to flee if need be. That's how wrenched and gutted and caught up in this story I'd become.

 

It's facile fun to get lost in a fast-paced nail-biter, to fall over the edge into a cliffhanger, yet I don't read many thrillers. But that's not what I'm talking about here—the power of Whiplash isn't in hitting the conventional story arcs at the right times; it's in the profound dynamic between Andrew and Fletcher, a story that shoves aside all unnecessary filler and fluff to drive right at the heart with searing emotion and at the intellect with questions of ethics and the cult of personality.

 

One theme: power. Arguably, how hard one is willing to work for a dream could be another, but I find that trite. This movie is about power. Two characters. A limited range of settings used to stunning effect. A tightly-plotted script. Realistic, unaffected, loose dialogue from one character; a calculated cascade of abuse or soothing manipulation from another. A story that is largely autobiographical, from a director and screenwriter working out his own rage and hurt. He isn't showing us what he knows, Chazelle is showing us what he feels. He lets the characters work out what they know, or what they convince themselves of. A denouement that releases you into a false sense of relief, before electrifying you with an ending that offers both redemption and ambiguity. It is storytelling perfection.

 

As a viewer, I was captivated. Twisted into knots. Gutted. Exhausted. As a writer, I was all, THIS. THIS is how it's done.

 

 

Of all the gin joints in all the towns...

Two years ago, I wrote a story based on someone who slipped in and out of my life in a matter of weeks, set in a place where my heart swelled, then shattered. The short story was published earlier this year and I was so pleased. But it's an unfinished work. It is the foundation of an idea I'd considered developing into a novel, before I settled upon the tale I'm writing now. The characters knock around in my head, waiting. When the time is right I know they'll still be there, ready to tell me what's been happening since we last met.  

Round about the same time my short story found its way to print, a slim and elegiac novel landed on bookshelves. It came to my attention over the summer and a few weeks ago I read it. I hadn't heard of the author, but the novel had solid recommendations. The high praise is merited. It is an introspective, fragile story written in quiet but lyrical prose. It's a book I'm glad to have read.

 

Except.

 

There is a French word which combines disappointment with a feeling of having been set up, somehow: déçu. I read this lovely novel and I said, "Je suis déçue."

 

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.

 

The similarities between the novel and my short story are striking. All the more so because the similarities are completely coincidental.

 

Which writer hasn't heard the maxim, "There are only seven basic plots, but thousands of variations"? But I'm not just talking plot here. We each wrote a story with the same evocative setting, about a woman struggling in isolation who meets a vulnerable soul in need of rescue. The same kind of rescue, through the same means and bureaucracies and from the same sort of community. And in the distance stands another character, eager to help, if she'd only drop her defenses and let him in.

 

There's a certain beautiful karma to the thought that perhaps we worked on our stories at the same time, that there are ideas, a place and themes big enough to carry us both in similar directions but which allow us to explore different emotions, interactions and outcomes.

 

But there's a part of me that says,"Well, shit. Now what do I do?" Change the setting? No way, José. It's as integral a part of the story as any of my characters. It is a character. And if I changed the story, well, that doesn't work for obvious reasons. I feel deflated. Flattened.

 

Deçue.

 

And yet. The story I have written, the one that rattles around in my heart saying "Write more of me" is still mine to tell. As much as the other author owns the story that appears in the novel. Our stories may not be unique, but our voices are. I'll admit, I'm relieved my short story was published before the novel appeared, so there can be no question that any similarities are coincidental should I ever take my plot and characters further. But I believe once I begin writing it again, something very different will emerge. I will, as Melissa Donovan advises (paraphrasing),"Forge ahead and believe in the story I want to tell." 

 

Here are a couple of posts from great writers/writing coaches which help me keep perspective.

Melissa Donovan, Writing Forward: Are There Any Original Writing Ideas Left? (this is the post where I pulled the paraphrased quote above).

And because every writer keen on storycraft should read Chuck's rockin' blog

Chuck Wendig, Terrible Minds 25 Things Writers Should Stop Doing

 

And thanks to Casablanca for having the best quotes at the right time.

Gore Bay, Cheviot, New Zealand

Book Club Redeemed: Doc by Mary Doria Russell

DocDoc by Mary Doria Russell My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you follow me Goodreads, you’ll know I’ve disliked, vigorously, most of the titles our book club has selected in recent months. My reading philosophy forbids wasting time on books that don’t capture me in their opening chapters, but I’ve had to bend my rules to honor book club commitments. Number Five—a memoir—fared better, but only by a thread. Number Six was my pick. I loved it. I feel sheepish because it was my selection, but after months of insufferable duds, I went after an author I adore.

Enter Lucky Number Seven. Last month one of our club members selected Doc by Mary Doria Russell for our November read. Cue inner cheer and moan. Russell has been on my “must-read” list for eons. Okay, truth. She felt like one of those writers I should read. But the spark hadn’t lit. A book club obligation seemed like a good way to tick the Mary Doria Russell author box. But, God, a WESTERN? Do I have to read a book about Doc Holliday? Seriously? Sigh.

O vos pusillae fide

He began to die when he was twenty-one, but tuberculosis is slow and sly and subtle. The disease took fifteen years to hollow out his lungs so completely they could no longer keep him alive. In all that time, he was allowed a single season of something like happiness.

And from this sentence on, I was spellbound. I have a new writer crush (sorry Jess Walter, you’ve been displaced. Love ya,babe).

Doc is based on a very brave conceit. Russell takes an element of our collective cultural imagination—the sepia-toned Wild West—and gambles that we’ll embrace her rendering of its most iconic figures and places. Or that we'll even care about one more depiction of the Earp boys and world-weary, hack-a-lung Doc Holliday. What Ms. Russell needs to know is that she touched this reader, who had to go out of her way to pick up a novel set in the American west, with some of the most sublime storytelling I’ve read.

John Henry Holliday became a dental surgeon at twenty-one and was stricken with tuberculosis that same year. He boarded a train for the West, in search of drier climes. By twenty-two he was a heavy drinker and gambler. By twenty-six he was a frontier legend with a permanent limp from a gunshot wound and a multi-lingual Hungarian aristocrat-turned-prostitute on his arm. And he hadn’t yet set foot in Dodge City, Kansas.

But follow Mary Doria Russell there, as she takes Doc to his single season of happiness. She will prove to be a cracker-jack guide—nimble, sophic, soulful. Doc is a character study, with its title protagonist the sun around which a host of personalities spin. Russell sinks the reader into the skin of her characters-and there are heaps, as evidenced by The Players section that prefaces the narrative. But it’s Doc as the sun, Kate Harony, his companion, as the moon, and Wyatt Earp as the grounded Earth who make this universe breathtaking and epic.

Russell creates a world that will consume each of your senses until you are wiping the Kansas grit from your skin, gasping at the sweet-sour burn of bourbon, pausing to wonder at the beauty of a prairie sunrise, cringing at the wet iron scent of fresh blood, and hearing the crack of gunshot and drumming of hooves as Texas boys pound into town for a night of cards and whores. The details of time and place are artfully offered without ever being cliché. We know this world—we grew up with these legends—yet Russell brings freshness to the American frontier. It’s not retread. It’s raw and unaffected worldbuilding.

The narrative is a slice of Doc’s life. Outside the brief chapters chronicling his early years and an even shorter Epilogue, Doc takes between April 1878 and April 1879. It’s the year Doc spent in Dodge City, Kansas, endearing himself to Wyatt, Morgan and James Earp, an Austrian priest, an Irish entertainer, a Chinese entrepreneur, not a few prostitutes (though Kate was his only lover) and making enemies with just about everyone else. Russell weaves a subplot into the narrative—the suspicious death of a young faro dealer of black and Indian heritage. The investigation of the boy’s death becomes the linchpin of the story, allowing us to witness the players and politics at work in Dodge City.

This is as fine a work of historical fiction as I any I have read. I’m not well-versed in literature of the American west, but I have taken John Steinbeck, Wallace Stegner, Ivan Doig, Louise Erdrich and Cormac McCarthy out for a spin. Doc slips easily into the tremendous canon of these writers.

The moment I turned the final pages of the Author’s Note I hopped lickety-split to Mary Doria Russell’s website, where she had announced the same day a sequel to Doc, entitled Epitaph, will be released early 2015: Epitaph update: bad news, good news And she’s committed to writing a novel about Edgar Allen Poe. Oh, we lucky readers!

Doc makes up in spades for the months of dreary book club reads which preceded it.

Mary Doria Russell, you are my huckleberry.

View all my reviews

If I wanted your opinion, I'd...Oh, wait...

It's been a wobbly week here in Paradise. I received, in two separate batches, the first sets of anonymous critiques of my opening chapter. And that's my post. Thanks for stopping by.

No, seriously. When the critique bundles landed in my e-mail, I scanned for disaster, then perused them without breathing (maybe that's why I nearly passed out). I set them aside and eliminated 5,000 words from Chapter One. As a start.

A few days on. I reread the critiques. And I smiled. Eight writers saw my work. Eight published authors had criticisms and suggestions--some delivered far more gracefully than others--to make my story cleaner, snappier. Richer.

But I have to admit, I've put myself in a bit of a sticky place. I submitted these pages to a group of writers planted within a specific genre of fiction. More than that: a sub-genre of genre fiction. I picked a thematic element of my novel and tossed it to authors who write solely within this genre. The challenge is to extrapolate from a limited definition of story construction--according to a tried-and-true formula and for a specific group of readers--to the larger world of satisfying, engaging reads. And with some exceptions, I think the feedback was spot on. In the days since receiving these critiques, I've made enormous changes to my manuscript--not because I accepted everything offered as Gospel, but because I recognized the patterns. There were consistencies between the criticisms. And nothing my gut hadn't already warned me about.

This morning, while my coffee was hot and my mind was clear, I read the feedback and read it again. Honest. Encouraging. All of it useful advice, even if I choose not to follow it. Here are a few comments I grabbed:

The setting, the writing, the premise, the history, the - everything. I loved it.  

[[none of this is needed. I'm not trying to be harsh. This is publication ready writing. But this scene, while perfectly fine, is NOT moving the story forward.]] 

Your writing is lyrical and highly polished. I recommend that you spend a little more time on the main character’s scene before moving to a different historical time.

...That was a bit confusing. Otherwise, the writing is brilliant.  

...The writing is beautiful, but the distant viewpoint leaves me emotionally distanced from the characters. Good luck—you’ve got lots of talent.

Whenever I’m doing anything related to art (writing, acting, painting, cooking) I think of Thoreau. “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” Structure first. What is the main character’s goal, motivation and conflict. Establish those first and then decorate to best underscore the story elements. I believe this story will be fantastic.

In a sweet twist of serendipity, I read William Kenower's book of essays for writers, Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion, the day before I received the first set of these critiques. He has this to say about facing rejection and criticism:

The world does not want you to fail. The world is forever supplying you with the information needed to do exactly what you want. Whether you accept this information is up to you. But do not fear the information. The only thing to fear is your judgment of that information. When those letters come back, look with friendly eyes upon what the world wishes you to know, and be grateful that you are one letter wiser.

I have so much to learn about storycraft. So much work to do before this novel is ready for a real editor to shred to bits. Mired in my isolation, I've had no idea until this week whether what I've been working on for the past fifteen months is viable, publishable work. I still don't know that, but I feel more confident I'm on the right path. I believe the world does not want me to fail.

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow

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The Sun Also Rises. Every Single Day.

Related Posts from wise writers~astute bloggers:

Five Reasons You Should Embrace Rejection Linda Formichelli for copyblogger

Doubt, Fear, False Alarms, and "Giving Birth" To Our Dreams Kristen Lamb

When Writers Face a Constant Climb