Breaking Rules

Students, seminar attendees, and visitors to our online writing guide have complained that my insistence on knowing (and adhering to) traditional story structures ignores “real art” in favor of production and publication.

“You can break the rules after you master the rules,” I respond. “And then, only break them when you can defend the choice.”

Imagine my frustration when a play was rejected because it lacked the “journey” of the main character.

When I decided to write a play without a complete Hero’s journey, it was an intentional act (pun), a choice to parody a genre. There are characters in myth and legend that do not change. They don’t mature. Mocking that notion of the invariable being seemed promising.

One of the readers providing coverage clearly didn’t get the joke. The comments on the coverage sheet indicated the story needed a clear journey and transformation. Oops. My choice must not have been obvious.

There are two lesson: 1) breaking the formula is risky; 2) if the reader doesn’t know the original, parody doesn’t work.

The other reader did like the script and scored it “highly recommended,” but you need to run the gauntlet to be produced.

Both reviewers liked the dialogue, the wit, yet only one got the joke. That isn’t good. I’m not sure following the traditional formula would have helped.

Will I break the rules again? Of course. But I also understand the risks.

Using a Spreadsheet to Write

Beat sheets, outlines, storyboard, and other tools help me organize my thoughts when writing. Too many writers stick with word processors as their sole “digital tools” when many other great applications exist — and “applications” for various applications, too.

How can you use a spreadsheet to write? And why might you try this?

A spreadsheet’s columns and rows, a reflection of the ledger books they replaced, make an ideal way to track your pages, words, minutes, or other metrics. My writing spreadsheets range from simple checklists to complex sheets with calculations reflecting how much I need to cut or add to parts of story. (Scrivener’s outline view is similar to this, so allow me to plug Scrivener yet again.)

My basic story sheet resembles the chart on our website page “Plot and Story”.

Some plot points should be reached at specific pages, especially early in a story, while others should be reached within ranges of pages, as a percentage of the overall work. Using a spreadsheet helps me track these personal ideas.

For example: I like to have the “perceived problem / challenge” and the “real problem” within the first ten pages of a 90 minute screenplay or stage script. In a book, I might want those within the first “ten percent” of the work. Express each plot point in 25 words or less.

Major Beat 3 -> Perceived / Immediate Challenge -> Bomb ticking in a subway tunnel
Major Beat 4 -> Real Challenge -> Corrupt leaders creating the chaos to gain powers

Using Excel or another spreadsheet, I include columns reflecting page counts, minutes, real time, literary time, and more. These metrics help me pace my stories.

Do you have a checklist? If not, create one. Every creative writer using narratives should have a beat sheet, because it forces you to recognize when things are missing from a story.

Writing is Planning

As I finished the draft of a short play, a colleague sent me a message asking how many new manuscripts or adaptations I have written in the last twelve months or so. It seems best to list them:

  • Billie’s Girlfriend, written in early 2014 and submitted to Acting Out! Pittsburgh Pride for consideration. It might not be selected, of course, but it is a new play.
  • Twists of Choice, written in early 2014 for The LAB Project, premiering in 2015.
  • Women Say F*ck, Too! written in late 2013 and premiering during the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival in May, 2014.
  • The Fertility Dance, written in 2013 and submitted to a regional contest. The company passed on the script, but it found a home for 2015.
  • The Cat Lady, written in 2014, about to be submitted to a regional contest.
  • Under Development, written in 2013, received a staged reading by Organic Theater Pittsburgh.

That would be six new works, with another two or three outlined. My goal is to complete seven new works in the 20-minute or longer range during 2014. Most of my plays run 70 to 80 minutes, not counting intermissions.

Friends say it seems like I’ve done more. That’s because older works that had been collecting dust are now finding homes as I dedicate myself to completing them, too. Older plays that have been revised or rewritten in the past year:

  • A New Death, my oldest unproduced script was rewritten and submitted to Throughline Theatre and will be premiering in July 2014.
  • The Gospel Singer, premiering in August, 2014, received as staged reading in 2013 as part of the “In the Raw” festival of Bricolage Production Company.
  • Clown and Mime, revised in 2013.
  • The Garden, which was produced in 2012, has been revised for a future production. (I can dream.)

I have at least ten scripts I hope to revive by 2015.

These counts do not include scripts I edited, revised, or completely wrote for other individuals as a consultant.

I don’t sit around waiting for ideas and I’ve stopped trying to perfect my old ideas. Now, I aim to get as many good scripts to producers and directors as possible. A good script becomes better, or even great, during the development process. Trying to perfect plays by editing alone for ten years was an ineffective approach to writing scripts.

Writers write. It’s that simple. Some of what I write will never be produced, some of it will be. You can’t write one or two manuscripts and then spend years and years trying to craft perfection. Write, and write some more. You never know when a script will find a home.

When Good Writing is Bad

“This is an engaging read, but can you revise it to sound more academic?”

Most of us want to read writing I describe as demonstrating the Five Cs: clear, concise, compelling, correct, and complete. I tell my students and creative writing seminars to resist overwriting. Avoid affected academic prose, with words you’d never use in a passionate, but professional, conversation with colleagues. Stop trying to adhere to high school writing “rules” that generate more fluff and filler than refined thought.

Imagine my disappointment when a journal editor said, “You should being with, ‘In this paper we…’ and then outline your points. Frame it, state it, repeat it.”

Wow. If ever there was bad writing advice, that would be it. Imagine a novel written with that structure:

In this novel we will follow the actions of Jane Eyre, though childhood to marriage. The themes explored include….

If your writing has to be “framed” beyond basic foreshadowing, you write weak prose. Fix it. Punch up the paragraphs and streamline the sentences. We don’t want a world of five-paragraph SAT-ready essays that only impress a handful of English teachers and test scorers.

Academic writing represents the worst writing a reader must endure. Often pretentious and inefficient, we should leave the formulas behind and break free from the tyranny of “rules” that foster creating complicated compositions with little content. Write with passion and flare. Compel your readers to move from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph.

When I tell students to be concise, I explain this does not mean leaving behind a good stylistic twist. A student recently mentioned that I advised parallel construction and repetition, devices other writing instructors warned against. They preferred “variation” of words, so every “said” in an essay became a sighed, yelled, asserted, declared or other action.

“What about Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech?” I asked. “The title phrase appears nine times, with two additional variations. Does that make it bad writing?”

“It breaks the rules,” the student asserted.

I explained that some “extra words” and “repetition” strengthen writing. That’s why we like rhyming poetry and alliteration as readers, especially as children unaware of artificial rules. Give me Dr. Seuss over most modern free-form poetry any day. Learning when to repeat, and why to repeat, takes practice.

One rule should guide writing, including academic writing: Engage the reader. If you fail to engage the reader, nothing else matters. The reader honors you; treat the reader with respect. Drop the annoying academic filler, weak transitions, and empty academese. The “rules” about framing, stating, and summarizing help students reach arbitrary word counts, but they do not encourage good writing.

Academic writing treats readers with condescension and bores them with the routine. Being able to engage in “academic discourse” might earn a student better grades or help a scholar publish research, but it is a lamentable metric by which to measure writing ability.

Yet, I did rewrite the academic paper, because I must. It is now properly dreadful.

Author Interview: Peter Gloviczki

Peter J. Gloviczki is a talented poet — and an assistant professor of communications at Coker College in Hartsville, South Carolina. Peter earned his doctorate at the University of Minnesota, where I was fortunate to study writing and “new media” alongside him. Peter’s research specialty is social media and how these networks are shaping and reflecting public reactions to traumatic events. Online memorials and shared grieving can alter news coverage and historical  perspectives.

Yet, it is his work as poet that most interests me. Maybe it is because we both study online culture that I appreciate the direct and personal nature of poetry. What we post online seems ephemeral, especially when compared to a book sitting on a shelf, waiting to be read again and again.

Peter’s success as a poet is impressive, yet he remains a humble and generous colleague and teacher. He easily could lead seminars in poetry, world literature, journalism, and communications research methods. I believe it is breadth of his interests that makes him such a gifted and perceptive poet.

Your poetry has appeared in many publications, and you have a new book. What would you like readers to know about the book and your other works?

I have written poetry for many years, and I’m very pleased to share this new book, Kicking Gravity (Salmon Poetry, 2013), with the world. The book was written over the past seven (or so) years and it brings together some of my best work across that period. I am honored that my poems have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, New Orleans Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review and elsewhere. In Kicking Gravity, I write in many different voices and tell the stories that interest me the most; those about life, love, travel and the processes of disconnection and reconnection. I am fortunate to have worked with several talented teachers and mentors over the past several years, including Ray Gonzalez, Maria Damon, Eliot Khalil Wilson, Kim Addonizio, April Ossmann, Hilda Raz and William Reichard. I believe the poems in Kicking Gravity, and my work as a whole, has been considerably strengthened as a result of these experiences.

In school, we encourage children to write poetry. We often assign basic poetic forms in high school, as well. Unfortunately, too many students start to view poetry as strange and difficult to write. What do you believe led to your passion for poetic forms? How was that passion maintained?

I was always encouraged to write and to express myself and I feel very lucky to have had this early support—from my family, friends and teachers. If a student feels called to write, I encourage them to follow that calling and to seek out the writing of others. There are so many great writers at all levels—writing for young children, for elementary, middle and high school students and for adults. To someone who is new to writing, I would offer the following as recommendations: Mary Ann Hoberman, Naomi Shihab Nye, Sandra Beasley, Sandra Cisneros, Adrienne Rich, Gary Soto, Gary Snyder and Mark Levine.

You seem to have an appreciation for short-forms, such as haiku. What about these forms appeals to you?

I am attracted to the challenge of writing with clarity. My favorite poems are those that mean what they say, and do so in a way that is compelling and fresh. I admire those writers who can work within the constraints of the form and yet produce something that sticks in the reader’s mind.

Your Ph.D. is not in literature or poetry. Instead, your specialty is social media and their role in major events. What relationship do you see between social media and poetry?

While there is no formal relationship between the two, I can say that I truly enjoy them both. I love teaching, researching and serving my community, and I enjoy writing and reading poetry. In this way, I am sure that I have been inspired by my parents. My mother was a stage actress and is now a ceramic artist. My father was a slight-of-hand magician and is now a vascular surgeon. I was always encouraged to pursue those things that interest me, and I do so with a great sense of discovery.

You will be relocating from the Twin Cities soon. Could you reflect on the rich literary culture in Minnesota? How did the region help you as a writer?

Minneapolis/St. Paul has a true appreciation for the arts and humanities, including for creative writing Institutions such as The Loft Literary Center, great bookstores such as Magers & Quinn Booksellers and Common Good Books, have helped this area immensely. They create spaces to showcase new voices and encourage new work. I have seen the enthusiasm for poetry first-hand while giving readings and sharing Kicking Gravity with the community. For me personally, I think this region—and the support for the arts that is here—just encouraged me to be myself and write my best poems. I believe there are many great literary communities around this country and around the world, and I would encourage all writers, young and old, to seek out supportive spaces for the production and consumption of new work. These might include bookstores, writing centers, reading and writing groups and community organizations.  I believe that the best tool for a writer anywhere is to be persistent; find opportunities to always keep writing. Just a few minutes a day, or even a few minutes every week, of reading and/or writing can help build the creative habit. I try to read and write when and where I can, as often as possible.