Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Creating Unforgettable Protagonists—Creating Condo Joe

It wasn’t the moment I received the letter from the publisher that they had accepted my manuscript, nor was it the moment when I held the newly published manuscript in my hand.

“Condo Joe” was the first official novella I had written. It was also the first novella I had written that I had actually felt something for the main character, in this case Condo Joe. It was a major moment in my journey as a writer and a moment I know I will never forget.

The inspiration for “Condo Joe” came from Charleston, SC, more specifically The Morris Island Lighthouse of Folly Beach, James Island, but I had not actually begun the novella until I had returned to my home town New Castle, PA.

We are all familiar with Dicken’s “The Christmas Carol” or “The Grinch that Stole Christmas”. The more I wrote “Condo Joe” the more it reminded me of “The Christmas Carol” and it could easily have been entitled “The Grinch Who Stole Folly Beach”. Titles are everything. Things changed when I had flipped the title from “Joe Condo”, a title with not much of a ring to it, to “Condo Joe”. Much better.

Anyway, I had finished “Condo Joe” and immediately sensed a sequel. It was a sequel that I had not anticipated, but nonetheless, it was a sequel I had felt very strongly about writing. I would call the sequel “Condo Joe: King of Carnival”.

In “King of Carnival” Condo Joe is elected major of Charleston. One of Condo Joe’s major accomplishments is completely restoring The Morris Island Lighthouse. The only thing that had gone wrong with the project involved the lighthouse’s windows—one had to be slightly relocated. The citizens of Charleston were not too thrilled about it at first until engineering had explained that the window had to be relocated to preserve lighthouse’s structural integrity.

At the time Charleston is on the verge of bankruptcy—Condo Joe used his own money to restore the lighthouse. The only hope Condo Joe has of saving Charleston was found its history with pirates, in this case Stede Bonnet, the “Gentleman Pirate” who had been hung in Charleston in White Point Garden.

Condo Joe had heard a rumor that Bonnet had buried treasure on Folly Beach. The problem was no one knew where he had buried it if it was, in fact, buried there.

Well, Condo Joe knows the City of Charleston does not have the funds to dig up the entire beach for the treasure chest, so he has to explore other options.

Well, I am not going to go into the entire story, only to say that it involves Condo Joe, of course, the Charleston Mermen minor league baseball cheerleaders, and Condo Joe’s angry ex-wife who wants to destroy the lighthouse with a missile.

Well, the missile reaches the shores of Folly Beach and The Morris Island Lighthouse, but, due to its trajectory, the missile actually misses the lighthouse, going right through its windows. The missile does leave a huge creator on Folly Beach, which in turns uncovers an object of what Condo Joe and the people of Charleston think is the treasure chest.

Condo Joe, too excited to think, ventures down into the creator, discovering that the buried object is, indeed, the treasure chest. Unfortunately as he tries to climb up out of it its walls begin caving in.

This is where I had my moment as writer. I could not believe how attached I had become to Condo Joe. There was a strong possibility that Condo Joe would not make it out of the creator, and I did not want him to die! It was a very emotional moment for me. I had not planned it, but I had become attached to Condo Joe, which meant I had done something right as a writer.

Now, I am not going telling you how the sequel to “Condo Joe” ends, but I will say that the moment he is climbing for his life from the creator, I had a choice to make, and I wondered if it would make or break the story.

Why every novelist should write a feature screenplay

In an earlier post, I explained why I thought every writer should own a manual typewriter; in this post, I will explain why I think every writer—especially the struggling novelist like I was—should write a feature script to build a solid foundation for writing fiction, in particular the novel.

Description—or lack thereof—became a major weaknesses in my writing and may have been why I could not exactly write the Great American Novel, having to settle for the Great American “Short” Novel—that and had been told that I could have embellished my thoughts more, which, I thought, could have been purely subjective. 

Well, like I have said, lacking in description was a major weaknesses in my writing; the other—I am more so convinced—my lack of understanding structure as in “story structure”—the beginnings, middles and ends of stories, inciting incidents, character arcs—all that good stuff that involves writing fiction.

Back in the 90’s when I was still laser-focused in the pursuit of writing that Great American Novel, I would say for the most part that I really did not know what I was doing. In flight school, student pilots begin flying with a “visual rating”, meaning that they are only permitted to fly during daylight hours, but, once they get their “instrument rating”, they are permitted to fly at  night and navigate their way through bad weather, too, when all you have is your instrument panel to guide you through it. 

Well, in aviation terms, I wrote with a visual rating; I could only write during daylight hours. No, I am just kidding. What I mean when I wrote, I really only saw the words on the page. If something I wrote was not working like, for instance, with structure or theme, I was not aware of it. I did not know how to check the “math” of my story. I wrote with more style than structure with things like alliteration, or what I sometimes called “broken alliteration”. Structure would have been one gage on my writing instrument panel I could read; the other would have been theme. 

It was not until I was in college, again, this time to pursue a teaching degree—which I did not attain—that I really began understanding things like structure and theme. It had come through the novella I had been writing called “Bad Blood” which eventually became one of three novellas in a collection I published called “Three by the Sea” now entitled “Jamaican Moon and Other Stories”.

I am not saying that during this time, when I wrote “Bad Blood”, that I had mastered structure, but it was beginning to sink in. I was becoming aware of it, which is why I thought my fiction up until this point, even though I had to settle for novellas, was good enough to publish.

Then there was a brief period, a year or two, where I spontaneously wrote and published two children’s books—“Finny the Friendly Shark” and “Timmy the Timid Dolphin”—the later I had illustrated as well.

Several more novellas had followed, which, of course, I had hoped would be long enough for novels; sadly they were not.

 Like the children’s books, the phase of my writing that followed next I had not planned for. It involved writing a script—not a short script but a feature script.

But it was not until I had written my second feature script “This Ain’t No Vacation, Sweetheart” that I had to and got officially acquainted with what is formally known as the “Three Act Structure” in Hollywood. It is, I think, the formidable foe at first, the organic chemistry of screenwriting, and I also think it is used to describe screenwriting more than it is to describe novel writing. 

Anyway, it was through the second script that I wrote that I officially formed a somewhat solid foundation for structure through the theory of the Three Act Structure—that and, of course, script coverage—when your script gets critiqued by a professional screenplay reader, and more often than not, you are offered or served up several pages notes.

I think screenwriting is more of a technical art that it is a literary form like writing novels. It is like writing a story in code—not, of course, to take away anything from screenwriting. Screenwriting is a “visual art”, and it was in this “visual art” that I got a good stronghold on structure.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Semicolon Anonymous—using the semicolon in moderation

I had first encountered the semicolon in classic literature in college. It seemed to appear in short stories like Barn Burning by Falkner. It seemed to turn what I thought was prose into technical writing—which I was not a fan of.

But back then I didn’t really understand the semicolon or its function in punctuation, but, once I had understood the semicolon and its purpose in prose, I got very comfortable with it. I thought it made my prose look so intellectual, so sophisticated. I used it whenever and wherever I could, and soon my prose spiraled out of control until the semicolon took over me. 

I remember a critical paper I had written for a college literature class. Even though I had gotten a descent grade on the paper, the instructor, after I had asked him, pointed out in the paper where I had gotten a little too happy with the semicolon.  

But even after that moment with my instructor, the problem I had with the semicolon still hadn’t quite sunken in yet—that is until it really mattered—just after I had published my first work of fiction Jamaican Moon and Other Stories, a collection of three novellas. 

I had taken it for granted that the publisher would take care of all the proofreading—until I had received a telephone call from a good friend who had bought the book. 

Although she had read and enjoyed the book, “The book,” she informed me, “was riddled with errors!” but luckily for me, she didn’t hold me responsible—even though I really was. 

I went through the book. Typos were everywhere, on every page. They were very distracting. An average of three typos plagued every page. Very unacceptable! What was acceptable—one book with an average of only three typos! Clearly I had not used the semicolon in moderation. 

I immediately telephoned my publisher in Texas who had informed me that proofreading manuscripts wasn’t their responsibility. The price you pay for a non-traditional publisher. 

But thank God it wasn’t too late to correct all the typos.

Page by page, wherever possible I replaced a semicolon with a period. 

I guess that process—going through the manuscript and getting rid of all the unnecessary semicolons—was time I spent in semicolon anonymous.

Having gone through semicolon anonymous, I am, by no means, an expert on the semicolon, and I am by no means cured. I still use it—sometimes more than I probably should—but I do try to use it in moderation.

If there is one author I think uses the semicolon correctly that author is mystery novelist Carl Hiaasen. Not only does he begin each sentence with the preposition on he also uses the semicolon quite sparingly, but I’m sure there are many more authors who do.

I don’t know what rule Hiassen uses with the semicolon, if he even has a rule, if he even needs a rule, but the rule I have now with the semicolon is that if I can eliminate the semicolon all together, I do, splitting the sentence up into two or more sentences. 

This may sound a little extreme, but this practice with the semicolon has led me to believe especially as a screenwriter that a perfectly clean sentence with exception to, of course, the period is a sentence with as little punctuation as possible, including the comma, yes, even the comma. 

Using short simple sentences, at least for me, is the way to write. Short simple sentences will keep you out of trouble like the trouble I had with the semicolon.  

Cover your act!—when is your script ready for script coverage?

When is your script ready for script coverage? The short answer—not after you have completed your first draft.

For you first-time screenwriters, in case you are not familiar with the protocol of script coverage, I will explain.

Script coverage is a report. It is a rating all scripts receive by script readers based on the quality of the script. These readers are cold-blooded and either work for the studios or use to work for the studios and now own a script coverage firm. A script either receives a Pass, a Consider or a Recommend, Recommend being the highest rating. Pass, to clear things up real quick, is not good.

No matter what kind of writing you do, re-writing will always be a big part of it, seventy-five percent or better of the battle. Screenwriting is no exception. Actually it is more of an exception than novel writing because screenwriting is an even more competitive field.

Okay, so, you have completed the first draft of your script, but trust me. It is far from finished. It is just the beginning. Now the real work begins—re-writing it. Sometimes it takes several drafts before a script is polished to a glorious shine.

And when, you might ask, is a script polished to a glorious shine? When the re-writing becomes less and less, when all loose ends are tied up, when you are touching up your script rather than going through more major re-writes. It is when you believe you can do nothing more to your script to make it any better, when you cannot take it any further, when you can describe your script in 25 words or less.

Now, there are two ways your script receives coverage, which I have mention seven paragraphs earlier. Studios automatically give scripts coverage whether you are ready for it or not or whether you want it or not—that is the chance you take when you submit it directly to them. If your script receives a Pass, this may be the end of your screenwriting career before it ever begins. You may not get a second chance.

However, the safer or smarter way to go is “not” to send your script directly to a studio first but rather to a script coverage firm.

Let us say you feel your script is ready. You have taken it as far as you can go. You send it in with souring confidence to a script coverage firm, but, instead of receiving as expected a Consider, your script receives a Pass, which feels like a shot to the gut.
But, this is the most critical difference between studios and script coverage firms—with a script coverage firm it is not necessarily the end of the world for your script writing career but rather it might just be your initiation into the screenwriting world.

Script coverage firms only give scripts test drives. They are actually on your side, and even though they will not act as your agent they are looking out for you. If your script receives a Pass, it is just plain bad, script coverage firms will save you the embarrassment and heartache served up by studios and offer you notes how to improve your script. Script coverage firms will save your ass. They will save you second or even third chance to get a script right—or strongly suggest you chose another career path by “freeing up your future”.

In short, script coverage firms will tell you whether or not your script is ready for the merciless eyes of studios. If they advise you not to, do not send it to a studio. Re-write your script until it receives at least a Consider. Yes, Recommend is always best but it very difficult to receive. A Consider is good enough.

You should not be thinking about script coverage until you feel you cannot improve your script anymore. Even if you think you have written the perfect first draft, imagine how much more prefect it will be after several more drafts. After that and your script sings, before you send it off to a major studio that will automatically give it coverage, send it to a private script coverage firm first. Cover your act!

Why every writer should own a manual typewriter

I am so grateful that computers hadn’t already found a permanent place as an appliance in our life and household during most of my early childhood—and smart phones certainly weren’t around. If they were, they probably looked and felt like bricks, and computers, well, at one time, probably looked like modern pipe organs. If you did have one in your home, you didn’t need a desk. You needed to build an additional room!

What I am grateful for are manual typewriters, and they were still hanging around throughout my childhood.

My first official introduction to the manual typewriter came in high school, when, thanks to my parents, who had drafted me into College English, I had to write, and type, two term papers, one five to seven pages and the second ten to fifteen pages; the regular English class only required one term paper, a mere five pages long. Needless to say, the manual typewriter “was not” my best friend, nor writing.

The manual typewriter I had to use was a Royal typewriter. It hand been handed down to me by my father, well, it was there to be used. My mother had bought the typewriter as an engagement present for him who really needed it for college.

Of course, I didn’t see the sentimental value of the typewriter. To me, manual typewriters meant work. It was manual labor. Using them was probably the equivalent to making license plates in prison or placing shirts into automatic folding machines like Woody Allen had to do in Take the Money and Run.

In 1992, I discovered writing the traditional way, in college, where writing, surprisingly, had then gone from work to recreation. I began to use the manual typewriter more and more—occasionally in the college library I would use the sadly soon-to-be-extinct IBM Selectric typewriter with its magical silver ball and super sensitive keys if it was available—and it usually was—to type papers that were due that day or minutes before class. Somethings never change.

I don’t remember when exactly it had happened or who had suggested it, but they were surprised that as a writer I still used a manual typewriter and did not use a computer or word processor.

Of course, change is hard, and is probably why we don’t like it, forcing us out of our comfort zones.
I continued writing with a manual typewriter.

Now to be quite honest, computers had made it into our home before they had found a permanent place as an appliance in everyone else’s home. My father, a high school math teacher, had brought us an Apple II computer home from work then later on he had bought us a Commodore 64, complete with a 5 ¼-inch floppy drive and a dot matrix printer, but we, mainly my big brother and I, did not utilize the computer for educational purposes, which my father had hoped for.

For us, the Commodore 64 was an exciting new video games counsel, a major upgrade from the Atari 2600, and with the floppy drive, we pirated as many computer games as we could—even rigging the disks so that we could save games on both sides.

My baby sister was the first one to type a term paper on the Commodore 64, but we, certainly I, hadn’t paid much attention to what she was doing.

Years later, my big brother bought a PC from Sears, but that, too, equipped with dual floppy drives, was mainly used for video games.

Finally, in, I think, 1997, when I realized I enjoyed writing enough to know I’d be in it for the long haul, I borrowed $200 from the Bank of Grandma to buy a PC with a fast 80286 processor, no mouse, no Windows. It ran a program called Professional Writer. It was Heaven, white text against a sky-blue background.

I began using Professional Writer, and from that day forward, it had changed everything for me as a writer. Sadly, as a fiction writer still learning the structure of storytelling, I never returned to the manual typewriter, wondering how I had ever gone without a word processor.

With the word processor there were magical tools like spell check and cut and paste. I could take a sentence—a paragraph—even an entire page—highlight it and drag it up and down and across pages, without yanking out a single page in sheer anger and frustration from a manual typewriter and having to go through the hassle of typing it all over again. It was a process I remembered all too well in high school when, as Last-minute Matt, I had to pull an all-nighter to finished a term paper, missing the school bus and having to chase it down several stops later.

But all that said, with all the technology that the word process had to offer, I realized it still didn’t—and it still couldn’t—write the paper or manuscript for me. Yes, even though things like spell check and cut and paste were nice, it couldn’t write the story for me.

If I had to step into a high school classroom and talk to students about the profession of writing, and a student were to ask me what they thought would be stupid question: Do you need a computer to be a writer? I’d reply in rapid fashion, “Absolutely not!” In fact, I’d have to be careful not to forbid it!

Again, computers are wonderful tools for writers—for advanced, professional or accomplished writers, but for writers just starting out, the most efficient and effective way to learn how to write is to use a manual typewriter. The road to becoming a proficient writer goes through the manual typewriter.

Computers cannot slow you down like manual typewriters can, and what I mean by slow you down is that computers do not allow us to think our thoughts through before we type them out, unlike computers that make it way too easy not to—I’m speaking more to the folks who type their thoughts directly into the computer.

Computers can be bad for the thought process, allowing us to form the bad habit of not thinking our thoughts through. We know that we can instantly delete words, sentences, entire paragraphs, even entire pages with the touch of a single key. It’s way too easy! Writing is rushed on a computer, and you know what they say about folks who rush in.

Manual typewriters have a way of slowing you down. They have a way of allowing you to see the scenery or graffiti of your thoughts before you type them out. They force you to think your thoughts through much more carefully.

No, the manual typewriter, like the computer, will not write your story for you, but manual typewriters will force you to think your thoughts out through. Manual typewriters will teach you to be efficient enough with writing to enable you to check the math of your writing, to understand why your story may or may not be working, and more importantly how to fix it. Computers won’t do the thinking for you—nor will manual typewriters, but manual typewriters will sure slow you down, enough to get you into the habit of thinking your thoughts through.

Once you’ve gotten into the habit of thinking through your thoughts and are able to go back and check the math of your story, it might be bitter sweet, but you are ready to graduate from a manual typewriter to a word processor, which then becomes a wonderful tool for real or true efficiency.

Remember. Whether you’re using a manual typewriter or a word processor, you are still only typing, not writing, and there is a big difference between writing and typing. A computer can’t write for you, only make bad writing look good on a neatly typed page, which you won’t get away with once it’s read.

When you write, slow down, think your thoughts through, and in the end, it won’t matter which tool you choose, a computer or a manual typewriter, you’ll save a whole lot of time and paper. A computer can’t help you a whole lot if you don’t know how to write. Yes, a computer may be able to tell you if the sentence you’ve written is a fragment or not, but do you know why it is a fragment? If you don’t, sadly you are at the mercy of the computer.

I still have the Royal typewriter I began my journey as a writer with. Sadly, it’s stored in its case in the attic, but one day, when my income affords me the time to, I’m going to get it out and type out an entire manuscript on it—all 350 pages of it. No, it’s not an Underwood, the typewriter that screenwriters typed screenplays with in the good old days of black and white films, and I don’t own one, but, typing on my father’s Royal typewriter is just as sentimental, maybe even more.

Creating Unforgettable Protagonists—Creating Condo Joe

It wasn’t the moment I received the letter from the publisher that they had accepted my manuscript, nor was it the moment when I held the ne...