Walking and Talking and Writing

Thought I ought to share what I’ve found out about dictating and writing. In some ways, it’s easier than normal writing with your fingers. I’ve known about it for a long time but, lately, I’ve begun to think it might apply to more people than just me. I know of two.

Courtney Stevens, who wrote the amazingly excellent YA novel, Faking Normal, walks and writes. She feels it has changed her approach to her material, story, and characters.

To learn about the characters in her new novel, The Lies About Truth, she walked a certain route every day for two or three hours. The exact same route, so that there is nothing new to discover, see, or take her mind off the game, which is to think. She goes on the road with a prompt, a question about a character that needs solving. And she walks and thinks. At the end of the walk she comes in and writes down notes. She doesn’t do any “writing,” just making notes.

My son, W. M. Akers, is a playwright, novelist, book editor, and sports journalist. He walks, talks, and writes. He carries a tape recorder. He talks into it and never listens to the recording. When the walk is over, he writes down the most important things he remembers.

This is what he told me about it.

***

Whenever I want to think through a new idea, or try to solve a problem with a story I’m currently working for, I go for a long walk in my neighborhood with a tape recorder. I talk into the tape recorder, asking myself questions and trying to sort through the answers.

“Okay, so, why isn’t this chapter working?” “What does she want in this scene, and how can she try to get it that’s an approach we haven’t seen before?” “What happened to him before the story started that affects how he’s behaving in this scene?” “What are some locations we could use that are more interesting than the ones we currently have?”

I find that talking into the recorder forces me to organize my thoughts more than if I were just thinking to myself, but isn’t as restricting as brainstorming straight to a pad of paper. Being outside, and moving my legs, probably helps get my brain moving too. Thankfully, since I live in New York, nobody really looks twice at someone who’s talking intently into his hand.

And here’s the best part: I never listen to the tapes. Once I’ve worked through whatever questions I was asking myself, how I got there isn’t important. I’ll scribble down the answers, either while I’m walking around or as soon as I get home, but I never need to go back to the files—which is great, because I hate transcribing, and really hate the sound of my voice on tape. Just forcing myself to talk out the problem is enough to get my brain working—and getting a little exercise along the way probably isn’t a bad thing, either.

***

When you’re talking, your brain engages in a different way. When you’re walking and talking (or just thinking), your brain engages in another different way. The thoughts seem to come easier when they are not slowed down by your fingers. One thought triggers another thought in a different way than when thoughts are flowing down your arms to the page.

I can get in the car, having absolutely nothing to say, and pick up the recorder. Then I start talking. And, whether I have a thought in my empty head or not, ideas come. They trigger different ideas, which trigger different ideas, which trigger new, better, more unusual ideas.

I use Dragon Dictate for Mac software to type up the notes I dictate. That means I have to speak the punctuation for the software to put it in. It takes almost no time to learn not to think about it. I use pretty simple punctuation… not even punctuation as high up the food chain as the semicolon. And, hey, it spells every word right.

Dictating is easy for notes, harder for “writing.” For it to sound like “writing” when it gets to the page, I had to practice.

An added benefit of walking and writing is… you’re walking! It’s actually good for you.

Unlike sitting at a desk feeling your back muscles turn to goo.

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Work on the big stuff first.

Don’t waste time on sentences if you haven’t fixed your paragraphs. Don’t waste time on the paragraph if you haven’t fixed the page. Worry about big picture first, then the details.

If you spend a monumental amount of time tweaking sentences and then cut the whole scene, you will feel like an idiot.

This is true in editing as well as writing. Get the story structure right, then start worrying about what’s happening in the scenes.

What you don’t want to do, ever, ever, ever, ever, is spend one second on something you’re going to throw away later.

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A tad more on happy endings.

Yesterday, watched a very old movie with Gerard Depardieu. At the end, he’s dead. It’s very sad. I felt awful.

But.

They bury him outside the walls of a lonely fort in a Saharan desert hell, with a ton of his loyal soldiers looking on. And his young and elegant wife. And their little boy, holding her hand… His adoring commander says wonderful things about dead Depardieu. It made me feel a little better. Then, the little boy looks to one side and there, standing on the edge of the desert is the Arab soldier whose life Depardieu had saved long ago.

The boy runs over and takes his hand. They tell each other their names. I got choked up.

Then the Arab puts the boy on a camel and they take a ride. Wonderfully moving. I felt great.

And that’s all the happy ending I needed. Just a bit to make me fee there is hope for us all. And as I felt that jolt of a feeling, I thought I should share it.

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TRUTH. Shoulda had a happy-ish ending.

Have you seen TRUTH? I doubt it. It flashed through the theaters as fast as a writer feeling good about his work while a producer reads it.

I haven’t looked up the box office because I don’t have time.
But I bet it didn’t make a ton of money.

God, the ending is depressing. I felt bad about America, the news, politics, and myself for being alive.
Not my advice to writers.

Give the viewer / reader an uptick of happiness, somehow. TITANIC ends with “everyone alive.” That’s a happy ending! We walk out of the theater and don’t want to slit our throats. Unlike TRUTH. I just felt awful when it was over. They give Cate Blanchett a hell of an end speech where she kicks ass, same for Topher Grace, but everyone still loses. The bad guys win and win big. The lesson I took from that: Move to France. But that’s not possible. If it were, I’d have done it years ago.

TRUTH is a motivational speech wrapped in script pages: “power corrupts and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. Even if you’re rich and powerful and connected, there’s someone above you who’s richer, more powerful, and better connected.. and evil.” I guess the film did motivate me in a way. It motivated me to step in front of a bus.

I have no idea what they could have done to make this film end on an upbeat moment. What happened in real life was horrible and the off screen bad guys held all the cards. The fix was in. But I don’t want to buy a ticket to see a movie where the fix is in and the good guys get clobbered.

See SPOTLIGHT. Same story: evil, powerful opponents who do whatever the heck they want… but at the end, they get crucified and we feel good when the phones start ringing with phone calls that will destroy all those stinking bastards.

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JOY. Best “low point” in recent memory.

Go see JOY.
Learn a ton from the “visit to death” “low point” etc. moment.

Whatever the hell it’s called by writing teachers, the low point in JOY is the clearest and “worst” in years. It was so low that someone I was with said something OUT LOUD to the effect that she couldn’t believe what was happening.

Not gonna tell you anything more. Go to the theater and see for yourself. I’ll discuss it later, when it’s out of the theaters.

Reminds me of an “in theater” moment eons ago. Went to a screening of SNOW WHITE at UCLA. A man behind me had his little girl on his lap. Right at the moment when the Queen, disguised as an old hag, reaches out to Snow White with the poisoned apple and tells her how good it is…

The little girl behind me, with true horror in her voice, said, “She’s lying…”

An amazing moment where the drama was real to the viewer. Just like my friend, who didn’t believe the bad part in JOY.

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What “The Music Man” teaches about dialogue research!

Do your research. Get your dialogue right! When it’s right, no one notices because it’s so smooth and accurate. When it’s wrong, you go to hell.

The film was made in 1964. The musical, 1957. The story takes place in 1912. The dialogue is incredibly specific.

“Trouble in River City”

Great scene. You can learn a lot about story structure from this scene! Look how the action builds!

Here’s a guy with a burning desire, for money (as well as the local librarian). He wants to stay in town to court the librarian and, to do that, because he sells band instruments, he must create a need in the townspeople to have a boy’s band. Does the town need a boy’s band? No town needs a boy’s band.

HAROLD
Well, either you are closing your eyes
To a situation you do not wish to acknowledge
Or you are not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated
By the presence of a pool table in your community.
Ya got trouble, my friend, right here,
I say, trouble right here in River City.
Why sure I’m a billiard player,
Certainly mighty proud I say
I’m always mighty proud to say it.
I consider that the hours I spend
With a cue in my hand are golden.
Help you cultivate horse sense
And a cool head and a keen eye.
Did you ever take and try to give
An iron-clad leave to yourself
From a three-rail billiard shot?
But just as I say,
It takes judgement, brains, and maturity to score
In a balkline game,
I say that any boob can take
And shove a ball in a pocket.
And I call that sloth.
The first big step on the road
To the depths of deg-ra-Day–
I say, first, medicinal wine from a teaspoon,
Then beer from a bottle.
And the next thing ya know,
Your son is playin’ for money
In a pinch-back suit.
And listening to some big out-a-town Jasper
Hearin’ him tell about horse-race gamblin’.
Not a wholesome trottin’ race, no!
But a race where they set down right on the horse!
Like to see some stuck-up jockey boy
Sittin’ on Dan Patch? Make your blood boil?
Well, I should say.
Now, friends, lemme tell you what I mean.
Ya got one, two, three, four, five, six pockets in a table.
Pockets that mark the difference
Between a gentlemen and a bum,
With a capital “B,”
And that rhymes with “P” and that stands for pool!
And all week long your River City
Youth’ll be fritterin’ away,
I say your young men’ll be fritterin’!
Fritterin’ away their noontime, suppertime, chore time too!
Get the ball in the pocket,
Never mind gettin’ Dandelions pulled
Or the screen door patched or the beefsteak pounded.
Never mind pumpin’ any water
‘Till your parents are caught with the cistern empty
On a Saturday night and that’s trouble,
Oh, yes we got lots and lots a’ trouble.
I’m thinkin’ of the kids in the knickerbockers,
Shirt-tail young ones, peekin’ in the pool
Hall window after school
You got trouble, folks!
Right here in River City.
Trouble with a capital “T”
And that rhymes with “P” and that stands for pool!
Now, I know all you folks are the right kinda parents.
I’m gonna be perfectly frank.
Would ya like to know what kinda conversation goes
On while they’re loafin’ around that hall?
They’re tryin’ out Bevo, tryin’ out cubebs,
Tryin’ out Tailor Mades like Cigarette Fiends!
And braggin’ all about
How they’re gonna cover up a tell-tale breath with Sen-Sen.
One fine night, they leave the pool hall,
Headin’ for the dance at the Armory!
Libertine men and Scarlet women!
And Ragtime, shameless music
That’ll grab your son and your daughter
With the arms of a jungle animal instinct!
Mass-steria!
Friends, the idle brain is the devil’s playground!

TOWNSPEOPLE
Trouble, oh we got trouble,
Right here in River City!
With a capital “T”
That rhymes with “P”
And that stands for Pool,
That stands for pool.
We’ve surely got trouble!
Right here in River City,
Right here!
Gotta figure out a way
To keep the young ones moral after school!
Trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble…

HAROLD
Mothers of River City!
Heed that warning before it’s too late!
Watch for the tell-tale signs of corruption!
The minute your son leaves the house,
Does he rebuckle his knickerbockers below the knee?
Is there a nicotine stain on his index finger?
A dime novel hidden in the corn crib?
Is he starting to memorize jokes from Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang?
Are certain words creeping into his conversation?
Words like “swell?”
And “so’s your old man?”
Well, if so my friends,
Ya got trouble,
Right here in River city!
With a capital “T”
And that rhymes with “P”
And that stands for Pool.
We’ve surely got trouble!
Right here in River City!
Remember the Maine, Plymouth Rock and the Golden Rule!
Oh, we’ve got trouble.
We’re in terrible, terrible trouble.
That game with the fifteen numbered balls is the devil’s tool!
Oh yes we got trouble, trouble, trouble!
With a “T”! That rhymes with “P”!
And that stands for Pool!!!

And here’s the meaning of the specific dialogue that the writer got right.

rig — slang for any carriage or coach

tank town — A small town. So called because trains would stop there only to replenish water.

grip — A suitcase or valise.

Billiards — Also known as caroom (or carom) billiards, played with three balls (one cue ball and two object balls) on a pocketless table

Pool — Developed much later than billiards. Also known as pocket billiards, using a cue ball and 15 object balls on a table with six pockets
iron clad leave to yourself from a three-rail billiard shot — leave is slang for a favorable position for a stroke in billiards (circa 1850). Three-rail billiard shot refers to the fact that in caroom (or carom) billiards, the cue ball must contact at least 3 cushions before it hits the second object ball in order to score any points. This sentence seems to imply that the player has, through excellent strategy and difficult maneuvers, put the balls in such a position as to give him an excellent shot at making points.

balkline — A line parallel to one end of a billiard table, from behind which opening shots with the cue ball are made.

pinch-back suit — from pinchbeck – serving as an imitation or substitute; “pinchbeck heroism” (noun): an alloy of copper and zinc that is used in cheap jewelry to imitate gold. Made of pinchbeck; sham; cheap; spurious; unreal.

Jasper — any male fellow or chum, usually a stranger

Trotting race — A horse that trots, especially one trained for harness racing. Very genteel pastime.

Horse race — With a jockey on the horses back, running much quicker than the trotting race.

Dan Patch — (1897-1916) Most famous trotting horse ever, from Indiana. Dan Patch was a pacer, under his second owner he lost only five heats in 56 starts. Dan Patch had his own private railway car to travel in, and at home he lived in a huge barn that was so grand it was called the “Taj Mahal.” There is still a trotting competition named for him, and an historical railroad line because “Dan Patch was a famous race horse a hundred years ago, and the railroad was named after him because its tracks between Minneapolis and Northfield passed very close to his owner’s farm.” There seem to be whole districts in Indiana still named after this horse, and there was a movie called The Great Dan Patch (1949)

Frittering away their time — To reduce or squander little by little; frittered his inheritance away. To waste.

cistern — A receptacle for holding water or other liquid, especially a tank for catching and storing rainwater.

knickerbockers — Full breeches gathered and banded just below the knee (which is why moving them above the knee is such a shocking thing to do)

shirt-tail young ones — 1) Very young; shirttail kids. 2) Of little value; inadequate or small; a shirttail cabin in the woods

Bevo — From Anheuser-Busch. A non-alcoholic drink that tasted like beer. “Anheuser-Busch introduced Bevo, its new nonalcoholic beverage, in 1916 and elsewhere the flood of cereal beverages (near beer) were introduced during the 1917-18 period.”

Cubebs — the dried unripe berry of a tropical shrub (Piper cubeba) of the pepper family that is crushed and smoked in cigarettes for as a medicine for catarrh, an inflammation of the nose and throat with increased production of mucus. There were several cubeb cigarettes made–Marshall’s Prepared Cubeb
Cigarettes are perhaps the best known.

Tailor Mades — A tailor-made cigarette referred to any cigarette made in a factory on a cigarette making machine. A roll-your-own cigarette was made by the smoker from a sack of Bull Durham or the like. James Jones in From Here to Eternity mentioned tailor-mades being smoked by soldiers when they had money. Until 1883 cigarettes were handmade. In 1880 a 21 year old Virginian named James Bonsack invented a cigarette making machine that dramatically increased production. A skilled cigarette roller made 4 cigarettes a minute, whereas Mr. Bonsack’s machine turned out 200 a minute. These were called “tailor mades” to distinguish them from handmade cigarettes.
NOTE: This section talking about the boys down at the pool hall means they are trying to mimic adults, and look as if they are drinking beer and smoking tobacco, although they are drinking fake beer and smoking fake cigarettes.

Sen Sen — When a country swain went courting his rural sweetheart, he often carried in his pocket an unobtrusive little envelope of Sen-Sen. When his younger brother indulged in smoking behind the barn, he too, had use for the exotic little pellets. For Sen-Sen was to the 19th century what breath mints are to our time. Any country store worth its salt, prominently displayed a box of the handy little packets within easy reach of its customers.

Rag-time — A style of jazz characterized by elaborately syncopated rhythm in the melody and a steadily accented accompaniment.

corn crib — A structure for storing and drying ears of corn.

Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang — Started in 1919 (too late for Music Man, but I guess Wilson wasn’t worried about that!). From the book Humor Magazines and Comic Periodicals, “Few periodicals reflect the post-World War I cultural change in American life as well as Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang. To some people [it] represented the decline of morality and the flaunting of sexual immodesty; to others it signified an increase in openness. For much of the 1920’s, Captain Billy’s was the most prominent comic magazine in America with its mix of racy poetry and naughty jokes and puns, aimed at a small-town audience with pretensions of ‘sophistication’” This publication was to the male adolescent culture of the 1920s what Playboy was in the 1960s. Quit publishing sometime from 1932-36. This magazine created the foundation for Fawcett Publications, the publishing company that later created True Confessions and Mechanix Illustrated.

swell — (slang) excellent, wonderful, delightful (mid 19th century)

so’s your old man — catch phrase from 1900. An exclamation, used as a retort to an insult or slur.

The Maine — U.S. battleship sunk (Feb. 15, 1898) in Havana harbor, killing 260, in an incident that helped precipitate the Spanish-American War. The cause of the explosion was never satisfactorily explained, and separate American and Spanish inquiries produced different results. But the American jingoistic press blamed the Spanish government, and Remember the Maine became the rallying cry of the war.

Plymouth Rock — Plymouth, Massachusetts, is the oldest settlement in New England, founded in 1620. Plymouth Rock is on the beach where the Mayflower landed.

The Golden Rule — saying of Jesus, from the Bible — As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. Evolved into modern saying — Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

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The Handcuffs Of History

Had a conversation with a student today about a script he wants to write. A short film, that he’ll write in the spring and make in the fall. He was writing about an incident that happened with his father, a chore that his father wanted him to do, never mind the fact that in real life, the chore was very dangerous and part of the conflict came out of the fact that he didn’t want to do the dangerous part… Which means that he won’t be able to film it, because it’s too dangerous!

But, forget that.

The point of this thought, and what I told the student, is that “you are handcuffed by history. Your first, second, and third natural motivation is to reproduce what happened in the past. This is not a good idea. It is not the best way to tell a story.”

What I told him, and what I tell you, is that you need to tell the emotional story, the true story of your emotions… Not blindly reproduce what happened in the past, “just because it happened that way.”

Your job as the writer is to tell the best story you can. Your job as the writer is not to reproduce what happened to you in the past, even if you think what happened was amazing. Your job is to tell the absolute finest and best story about the finest and best characters you can come up with… Not necessarily you and someone else who is also real.

The other thing, among the 1,000 other other things, is that you need to write something that you are going to be terrified to show to the person who was involved. If you are basing something on real life, you want to be so real, so deep into the guts of your own feelings, that if you showed it to the other people who were involved in the real life story, they will want to shoot you.

If you’re operating at that level of personal involvement, that means your story is probably going to be pretty emotionally sound. The funny thing is, the people who are really involved, most of the time, don’t recognize themselves in your story. They just say, “wow, how do you think up your stuff?!”

Reproducing history is dangerous. Going into your soul and ripping your guts out and putting them on the page is an excellent way to approach a story.

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