Sunday, 19 October 2014

Short stories v Novels v Movies: which to write, and how to go about it

My writing activities have evolved a little over the course of the year, compared to what I was concentrating on last year. Traditionally, I've focused on the traditional prose forms, ie short stories and novels, but this year I've been working more on movie plots, which I think (hope) will improve my storytelling skills overall.

To be honest, both the short stories and novels have been a little frustrating this year. I've been working on the same set of short stories for the last few years - the better part of a decade - without making much progress. One of them did get picked up by, a monthly contest, for which I'm super grateful - actual money for getting a story published somewhere! Someone at World Fantasy Con last year was even super nice when I mentioned it, saying that it meant I could actually call myself a writer now.

Only problem is that I haven't followed that initial success up with any further publications. I've submitted the hell out of a couple of other stories this year (probably racked up more submissions between those two than I have over the last few years combined, which should give an indication how much I was slacking on that front), but no bites. More frustrating, when I workshopped one of those stories, one of the pros kept suggesting magazines that I'd already subbed it to.

With the other stories, the ones that I haven't deemed ready for prime time, I'm stuck in another quandary: namely, do I go back and revise them once again, or do I give up on them? The reason I'm a little reluctant to give up on them completely is because I don't seem to have any short stories in me anymore - I eked one out last year, which was my first since 2010, but I'm not sure it's worth going back and revising. And I'm not sure any of the others are, either.

It's similar on the novels front. After spending three years drafting and re-drafting my "vampires vs superheroes in an epic fantasy setting" book (I still love the idea, btw), I hit an impasse that so drained my momentum that I ended up throwing the manuscript in the trunk (the metaphorical trunk, because it's on my hard drive, of course). I have another idea that's been percolating, and that reuses characters and settings from another trunk novel, but I haven't really had the brainpower to devote to it.

Which is why the movie treatments I've been working on have been so valuable. I finally picked up Robert McKee's Story a couple of years ago, which introduced me to the idea of formalized, three-act story structure. Following that, I also bought Screenwriting for Fun and Profit by Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant, which dismisses McKee as the domain of Greenwich Village-haunting intellectuals and lays out a very simplified story structure:

Act 1: Get a likeable guy stuck up a tree;
Act 2: Throw rocks at him;
Act 3: Get him down out of the tree.

Using that, and the script treatments that Lennon and Garant kindly publish at the end of their book, I've written up a few treatments of my own, and I feel like I'm starting to finally crack this story structure thing. After setting myself the goal of doing one each quarter, I feel like I've seen a visible improvement in how I move the characters and scenes along - I just finished the third last night, and it seems to have gone much more smoothly than the two before it.

My hope for the long-term is to use these skills in improving my novels - although if I could use them to break into screenwriting I'd be pretty happy too. I slightly question how slavishly we need to follow McKee's three-act structure, or Campbell's "Hero's Journey" template, when writing prose, but I'm kind of encouraged to know that two published authors I knew back in London said they used another screenwriting book, Blake Snyder's Save the Cat, for their own structure.

As far as the short stories, I'm still deciding whether or not to give up on them completely. I think the idea that writers need to focus on them first has fallen by the wayside - although some writers, like Daniel Abraham or Myke Cole have taken that route, others have just skipped straight to novels, like Peter Brett and Joe Abercrombie. Not that I'm comparing myself to any of those four - I'm just using them to prove a point (and remind myself how much work I still have to do).

And all four writers prove Steve Martin's maxim of being so good that no one can ignore you. My shift from short stories to novels and then movies is in this same vein - as long as I prove I can write, does it really matter what form I write in first?

What's keeping me from giving up on short stories altogether, beyond the fact that I genuinely think I have some neat ideas in the ones I'm submitting/revising, is the advice from Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich. He points out how success frequently comes just after the moment of deepest crisis, when the successful person was on the verge of quitting. It may be silly, but it's what keeps me submitting the stories that I really think have potential - the next magazine I submit it to may be the one that takes it and sets me one step further on the road to success.

On the other hand, I don't really read a lot of short fiction (although I do have a collection of Ted Chiang stories on my Kindle, which I bought with the intention of studying the form from a writer who's widely held to be a master). I do read novels and watch movies though - so it feels like that's where I should be focusing my craft.

The main problem, when making decisions like this, is avoiding going in circles (as I just did above). Whichever happens, I can at least assure myself that I'm working toward the goal of living off my writing (and amassing immeasurable wealth and power in the process, of course). And as long as I'm working on it, I can hope to come back to the short stories or novels if my improving craft allows me to crack the problems that previously stopped me completely.

Fingers crossed!