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5 Key Takeaways from Neil Gaiman’s 5-Hour Master Class

Neil Gaiman, the author of Neverwhere, Ocean at the End of the Lane (my fav), American Gods, and many other novels, recently did a Master Class on fiction writing. Below is a summary of the lessons I learned from his class. He did delve into the craft a bit, which is why I started the course, but what I really learned is the psychology an aspiring writer must have.

1. Readers are not writers.

“You always have to remember when people tell you something doesn’t work for them, they are right. It doesn’t work for them. You also have to remember that when people tell you what they think is wrong and how you should fix it and they’re almost always wrong.”

This is an excellent point that I’ve seen Gaiman make before. He is right because most people have good taste when it comes to experiencing stories.

And why wouldn’t they?

Everyone in the world has a wealth of experience hearing, reading, and or watching stories. But only writers have experience creating them.

So when it comes to experiencing a story, most people can point out when it isn’t working, but only the experienced creators can tell you why it isn’t working, and even then, they might be wrong. At the end of the day, as Gaiman says himself, you need to tell your story, not someone else’s.

2. Don’t get crippled by perfection.

“You cannot fix nothingness.”

This is probably my biggest obstacle. I often get so disheartened by my inadequate skill that I have difficulty moving forward or even summoning the courage to write.  It’s understandable of course. As I explained in the previous point, I, like most people, are experts in experiencing stories.

But my craft is nowhere near the level of my taste. And when I try to write, I sometimes get bogged down by rewriting the same paragraph again and again. And if I can’t get it perfect, then I get discouraged and give up on the entire thing. Other times when I do get it to where I do think it is perfect, it has eaten up so much time that progress is a slow crawl.

The fact of the matter is, finishing things is what moves you forward. Spending five years to write 100 bad stories will improve your craft far more than spending five years to write “one perfect story”.

3. You are going to be rejected.

“The trick is to ‘go on.’ Write the next thing. Write the next thing. Write the next thing.”

Getting rejected sucks, and it is so easy to give up when it happens. But it happens to everyone, and the people who keep going are the ones who end up succeeding.

I’m guilty of being one of those people who believed their stuff was magic and would instantly lead to success, only to be demoralized when things didn’t work out. Now I believe rejection is just part of the process.

Life goes on. The writing goes on.

4. Short stories are a great way to learn the craft.

“You can have an idea for something. You can it out. You can succeed or you can fail. The important thing is you wrote something. The important thing is you learned something.”

Short stories are small commitments that take less time and energy to finish. I’ve started several novels. I’ve finished zero. I don’t read short stories often and I’m not very interested in the format, but I’ve been able to finish two of them, and I’m now working on my third. Forcing myself to finish them is just easier. I started with a flash fiction piece under 1000 words, my second was 4000, and now my next one is likely going to be around 12,000 words. It’s like going to the gym and building up your endurance and in the process, you learn proper form and technique.

5. Make many mistakes and learn from them.

“Your job is to get the bad words and bad sentences out.”

Trial and error and the process of doing is the way to become good. Gaiman really advocates writing as much as possible. Not only will you improve upon your craft, but you will discover your unique voice that might be hidden in your first tens of thousands of words.

***

If you’re interested, you can sign up for Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass here (non-affiliate link). I do recommend the class for aspiring writers, especially those that need a kick in the butt. Those who already work semi-professionally will likely not get as much out of it.

Dear script readers, for the love of God, stop telling me that my characters need to change at the end of the story. THEY DON’T.

So I’ve been getting paid feedback for a script I rewrote recently, and I’m getting the same kind of notes: “I thoroughly enjoyed reading your script. Your characters and structure are great. But your protagonist doesn’t change at the end.”

What? Are you going to movie theaters to watch protagonists go through the typical character arc, or are you going to be entertained?

And look, I get it. Great character arcs make for great stories. But NOT all great stories require character arcs.

This is ESPECIALLY TRUE for action scripts.

I once read a review and analysis of Bourne Ultimatum by a film student that concluded the movie was garbage because “Bourne is still the same man at the end of the story.”

<Insert gif of my head exploding.>

Are people going into that movie to watch the ultimate badass outsmart the agency that created him, or are they going for some emotional character drama?

Again, if your story has room for both, that’s great. But if you’re going to force a character arc into a story that just doesn’t need it, it’s going to make for a bad story.

One of my favorite fictional characters is Jack Reacher, created by Lee Child. It’s one of the most successful novel series ever written. I even really enjoyed the first movie adaptation written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie.

If you haven’t read the series yet, the stories generally go like this: Jack Reacher arrives in town and kicks the shit out of the bad guy causing trouble for the local residents, then he goes on his way. 20+ novels and the guy never goes on a character arc.

He’s basically a modern Shane. Does Shane go on a character arc? No, he doesn’t.

There’s a reason for this. The action genre often has protagonists that don’t change is because the protagonists are the AGENT OF CHANGE themselves.

They aren’t the stereotypical farmer that gets pulled into a new world by external forces and pushed and trained to become a Jedi. They are full-fledged Jedis that show up to the new world on their own volition and are like “Hi, I’m here to fuck some shit up.”

Look at the 2nd and 3rd Captain America movies (even the first one really…). Cap doesn’t change because the entire story is about him bending everyone else to his will of doing the right thing. He changes the world, not the other way around. And those movies end up being some of the best in the marvel universe.

I could go on about this, but I think you get the point.

So script readers, let’s just keep things real simple.

If you really enjoyed yourself reading a script and loved the characters and the action and the twists and the structure (and even the ending save for that one thing), maybe don’t suggest an overused mantra from a screenwriting book.

There are no rules to writing, only guidelines.

Slugline Review (2019): Still the Best Screenwriting App for Focused Writing

slugline header image toomanystories

Of all of the screenwriting apps out there, Slugline might be the most minimalistic of them all. There are no toolbars, sidebars, stats breakdown–even the dropdown menus are kept to a minimum.

This Mac app was created to help you focus on doing one thing and one thing only: screenwriting.

Slugline has been around since 2013, and I’ve been using it since 2014. It’s still my go-to screenwriting app. Below are the five reasons why it keeps me coming back despite the plethora of alternatives on the market today.

(Small note: This post is basically going to be me raving about this app, but I just want to note that I have no affiliation with Slugline and I’m not being paid in any way to write this post. It’s just that good.)

1. Slugline is a WYSIWYG editor.

WYSIWYG is an acronym for ‘what you see is what you get’. That means the printed script looks the same as the written page as you work in Slugline.

There is one exception to this–when you have a long dialogue that extends into the next page, Slugline will add a “CHARACTER NAME (CONT’D)” at the beginning of the second page of dialogue that doesn’t show until you are in Print View:

dialogue split in Slugline

(Dialogue being split in Slugline’s Print View.)

This is automatic and it doesn’t affect the positioning of your page.

2. Slugline auto-formats your screenplay as you write.

No need to hit tabs or space bars or any other wacky nonsense to let the software know that you are writing a scene heading, or character dialogue, or an action line. Slugline automatically readjusts to your writing. AS IT SHOULD.

Screenwriting already uses syntax that is unique to defining character, location, dialogue, action, etc.

If you’re writing a scene heading, you’ll start with INT. or EXT. Once you type these characters, Slugline will format the script accordingly.

scene headings in Slugline

For dialogue, all you need to do is use capitals on a character’s name and it’ll reposition it to the center of the page. The next line is then auto-formatted for dialogue.

dialogue in Slugline

The same is true for transitions, and if you ever need to force a specific syntax, you can easily do so through the Format dropdown menu.

3. Slugline imports and exports .fountain.

Fountain is a simple and straight forward markup language created by Stu Maschwitz and screenwriter John August.

You can use fountain markup to write feature screenplays with any text editor, then import them into screenwriting software like Slugline to export a formatted script.

Most screenwriting software accepts .fountain files nowadays, so if you ever needed to add additional functionality to your scripts after writing them in Slugline, you can do so easily by exporting as a .fountain file.

I typically write my first few drafts in Slugline, then I’ll switch to Highland (John August’s professional screenwriting software) and do rewrites there, especially if I need to mark changes in different colors or do numbered headings.

But for the basic stuff, Slugline is great.

4. Slugline is great for notes, outlines, and navigation.

Although there are no toolbars and sidebars, there is an option to show an outline tab that can display scene headings and any sections (#), synopses (=), and notes ([[]]) that you’ve made using fountain syntax.

notes in Slugline

I like to section all my major scenes throughout my script and use the outline tab as a table of contents. All you need to do is click a section in the outline tab and Slugline will move to that location in the script. This makes for very easy navigation as you’re making revisions.

5. Slugline’s scripts use about 1-2 pages less than other screenwriting software.

This is major for anyone that writes long scripts. As you probably know, the unwritten rule of screenwriting is to keep your scripts below 120 pages.

This matters a whole lot less when you’re an already established writer (“My story finishes when it finishes, damn you!” *throws coverage in reader’s face*), but if you’re just starting out, you find yourself getting comments from industry readers to keep your script under 120 pages.

Okay, but what if I’m at 121 and I just can’t find anything more to shave off? 

One solution is to export your script in Slugline. 

I don’t know what it is about their formatting, but somehow it uses less space. However it doesn’t show on the page, and I’ve never gotten a complaint about incorrect formatting or length.

I haven’t compared this with every script editor. But from what I’ve seen, it generally means about 1-2 pages shorter than other screenwriting apps.

In Conclusion

Slugline is a great tool to add to your screenwriting workflow. But best of all, it’s minimalistic and easy-to-use functions keep you writing.

The desktop version of Slugline is $39.99, available for MacOS only. The iOS app on iPhone and iPad is $19.99.

Analysis of The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas (Full Breakdown)

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula Le Guin is a 2800 word short story published in 1973 that won the prestigious Hugo Award and has gone on to be discussed and analyzed in classrooms and amongst literary and fantasy readers every since.

If you haven’t read it yet, you can do so here.

In this post we will analyze and cover the following:

  • A breakdown of the story.
  • What is Omelas?
  • Who are the ones who walk away from Omelas?
  • The story’s underlying message.

Breakdown and Summary

Omelas is essentially broken into four parts.

Part 1 paints a vivid portrait of a great and thriving city on the day of a summer festival.

Le Guin’s language here is lush and tantalizing, you almost think you’re reading fantasy that is both epic and literary.

With a clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring, the Festival of Summer came to the city Omelas, bright-towered by the sea… All the processions wound towards the north side of the city, where on the great water-meadow called the Green’ Fields boys and girls, naked in the bright air, with mud- stained feet and ankles and long, lithe arms, exercised their restive horses before the race.

Part 2 breaks this spell. The narrator speaks directly to the reader, cracking jokes, and asks the question–how do you define ‘Omelas’?

Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time. Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, assuming it will rise to the occasion, for certainly I cannot suit you all.

It is then we realize that this isn’t really a traditional fantasy story but a philosophical musing of utopia looks like.

The story is, in fact, almost entirely metaphorical.

What is Omelas?

Omelas turns out to be the shared agreement of societal perfection. Emphasis on shared here because the tone that the narrator takes is “let’s describe a perfect society that we can all generally agree with”.

But what else should there be? I thought at first there were no drugs, but that is puritanical. For those who like it, the faint insistent sweetness of drooz may perfume the ways of the city, drooz which first brings a great lightness and brilliance to the mind and limbs, and then after some hours a dreamy languor, and wonderful visions at last of the very arcana and inmost secrets of the Universe, as well as exciting the pleasure of sex beyond all belief; and it is not habit-forming. For more modest tastes I think there ought to be beer. What else, what else belongs in the joyous city?

The third part of the story adds a twist to the previously agreed-upon utopia: the direct cost of all this perfection and happiness is that one innocent child in the city must suffer horrendously.

And CRUCIALLY: the residents willingly accept this cost in return for their prosperity and happiness.

Now the way Le Guin explains how the residents accept this terrible cost is revealing to the story’s underlying message. They talk themselves into it:

Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it. Yet it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendor of their lives. Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not free. They know compassion. It is the existence of the child, and their knowledge of its existence, that makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science. It is because of the child that they are so gentle with children. They know that if the wretched one were not there snivelling in the dark, the other one, the flute-player, could make no joyful music as the young riders line up in their beauty for the race in the sunlight of the first morning of summer.

This paragraph is followed by two sarcastically phrased questions:

Now do you believe in them? Are they not more credible?

Why is Le Guin depicting and targeting the residents of Omelas in this way?

My interpretation is this:

Le Guin is making a critique against the willingness to justify wrongful means for “the greater good”. She’s not targeting a specific political theory or method of “the greater good” (such as Communism), but she is pointing out the hypocrisy and willful blindness that occurs in the pursuit of a perfect society.

The residents of Omelas, who have achieved their desired utopia, find out that their utopia comes at a great cost. But they choose to accept it, despite the virtues they espouse and claim to embody.

Le Guin asks the question: If your utopia comes at the cost of harming innocents, is it still a utopia?

In the final part of the story, Le Guin reveals another type of Omelas citizenry: the ones who walk away.

At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates.

So if the residents of Omelas are idealist hypocrites…

Who are ‘the ones who walk away from Omelas?’

I think the answer lies in the final lines of the story:

The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

To achieve their utopia, the residents of Omelas sacrificed their integrity and morality.

In contrast, those who walk away from Omelas are unwilling to give up their morality to justify their end goals.

Omelas’s prosperity comes at a great cost–one’s morality. Those who walk away are unwilling to give up their morality, and therefore they will probably not be able to achieve the same prosperity.

Their society (the place they are walking to) is “a place even less imaginable” because it is a place that tries to be good, but doesn’t necessarily succeed in doing so. It’s easy to imagine a society where everything is great, but it is hard to imagine a society that tries to be great.

When Le Guin says, “It is possible that it does not exist“, she is saying that perhaps such a society isn’t possible.

When she says, “But they seem to know where they are going”, she is saying people who are truly good do not waver in doing the right thing no matter what rewards evil might bring. 

This is the underlying message of the story.

That concludes my analysis of The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. If you enjoyed this short story, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND reading Ursula Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed (Amazon), which is an absolute masterpiece.

The Dispossessed covers similar themes of utopian society and its critiques albeit in a different way. It shows what a realistic utopia might look like, but also gives the reasons why it is unfortunately impossible to realize.

Writing Lessons from a Fantasy Classic: David Gemmell’s Legend

I decided to pick up David Gemmell’s Legend after reading good things about his action prose on Reddit. As a debut novel, I found the prose pretty much as you would expect: uneven. Some moments felt like scenes from the best episodes of Game of Thrones, while others felt like I was reading the first draft of Eragon.

Dialogue was definitely his weakest point. I found myself falling out of the story again and again because I kept thinking “who the hell talks that way–are these guys millennials or battle-hardened warriors?”

Characters were definitely the highlight of the novel, although the female characters could certainly have used a bit more work.

Other gripes include a disappointing Act III, deus ex machinas, and strange and sudden turns of personality in the characters.

I’m guessing Gemmell got a lot better in his later works, as this was his first novel, and you should almost never judge a writer based on their first works. But then again, this is also his most famous publication.

But enough about what sucked. The thing that really surprised me was that I was able to tear through this novel in three sittings. Despite all the issues mentioned above, at no point did I struggle to keep reading. That, ladies and gentlemen, is an amazing feat of writing. Especially for a fantasy novel published in the 80s.

I’m terrible at finishing books that get even a little tedious. There are as many half-finished books on my kindle as there are finished ones. The reason I did not have this issue with Legend is because at no point in time did I get bored. The pacing of the story is FAST. Gemmell skips all the boring parts of the story with chapter breaks, and his prose doesn’t spend paragraphs on monotonous descriptions.

Exposition and backstory is generally a major trap in fantasy writing because the author has to explain the backstory and how the magic works and the histories of all the power players. But Gemmell sidesteps this by starting very simple. By the time you start getting these details, you are already invested in the characters.

I strongly believe Gemmell’s pacing is the reason why Legend is a popular fantasy novel. The story itself isn’t all that different from what you’ve read before. Though perhaps it was original in its time.

There are several books in the series, but Legend was written at a standalone novel, so you can still pick it up without signing up to start a library. Recommended if you want a fast fantasy read that’ll keep you hooked.

On Amazon: Paperback, Kindle

Analysis of The Huntress by Sofia Samatar (Flash Fiction)

The Huntress by Sofia Samatar is a 375-word flash fiction story about a foreigner and a monster. I’m guessing you found this post by searching “The Huntress Explained”, so let’s get to it. For those who have yet to read it, you can do so here. The story ends on a twist. On the first read-through, I had no clue as to why the Huntress “was there as a witness.” But before we answer that question, let’s look at the clues. First, from the lines below, it would appear that the narrator is also a monster.

Exiles and insomniacs share this feeling: that each is the only one. I feel like I’m turning into this fierce person. A taskmaster to myself, like a ballet dancer or a monk. The Huntress left dark patches wherever she passed. She left a streak. In the morning, the hotel staff would find me unconscious, gummed to the floor. The fierceness can be seen around the mouth. I compress my lips when I’m thinking. Our dad was the same way.

These last two lines made me think at first that the narrator is the Huntress terrorizing the locals. But that doesn’t make sense as it is clear that the phenomenon of the Huntress is occurring before the narrator (who we learn is an American) arrives.

I feel like I’m turning into this fierce person. A taskmaster to myself, like a ballet dancer or a monk. Are monks happy? No, they are not interested in that category of feeling. But I’m supposed to be. I’m an American.

This paragraph suggests the narrator is unhappy with herself (I’m guessing the gender here), and pushes herself to be happy. If we read into the previous lines a bit deeper, perhaps the narrator is unhappy because she has been exiled from her country. This line, found two paragraphs down, continues the thought:

The fierceness can be seen around the mouth. I compress my lips when I’m thinking. Our dad was the same way.

Now let us return to what the Huntress is witnessing. What are things that are “witnessed”? I only can think of crimes, or more generally, events. But there is no hint of a crime taking place in this story, and the only event is the narrator “turning into a fierce person.” So it would appear that the Huntress is witnessing the narrator becoming a fellow monster. I also wonder if the Huntress is the narrator’s sister. But without any other hint of the sibling also being in the foreign land, I don’t see any reason to believe this.

Things that I still don’t understand:

1. Is the narrator staying in an embassy or a hotel? Or is there a hotel in the embassy?

2. The significance of this line: “I went to slam it shut, but instead I stood there, fingers gripping the edge of the frame. I closed my eyes in the searching heat.”

3. Which lion is the narrator referring to when she says, “This lion didn’t sound like any lion from movies or games or anything. It had a whining hunger. It was a tenor lion.”

In the end, I feel as though the entire story is up for interpretation. Ask 100 readers the meaning of the story and you’ll get 100 answers, which hey, is fine, people should be free to write what they want and express what they want. But as a reader, I don’t find the experience much different than reading a string of random sentences.

Anyway, I think I’ll end the post here. Perhaps follow up with another post with my thoughts on literary stories versus genre stories in the future.

If you liked The Huntress, you can check out some of Sofia Samatar’s other short stories in her collection Tender.

What to read next: A full breakdown of the groundbreaking short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.

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