Tag Archives: Michael LaRocca

The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman

Michael LaRocca of MichaelEdits.com

There are no rules to assure great writing, but there are ways to avoid bad writing.

That’s from the introduction to The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile. It’s also the focus of the book.

Lukeman presents examples of what not to do. If you see something in them that reminds you of something you’ve written, then you know what you need to fix.

I feel like adding that you should be grateful to have something written and fixable. The empty page is the worst.

Anybody who’s been in this business a while has seen thousands of manuscripts from all over the world. Remarkably, writers everywhere are doing the same things wrong. If you read tweets and blogs from most editors, you see a whole lot of snark about it. But Lukeman decided to group these mistakes into categories, set forth definite criteria for rejecting manuscripts, and write one of the most helpful books I’ve ever laid my hands on. Hence this review.

Lukeman also acknowledges something I’ve been saying for years. We don’t always need five pages. We might shoot down a manuscript within the first five paragraphs. Does that sound cruel? Well…

Agents and editors don’t read manuscripts to enjoy them; they read solely with the goal of getting through the pile, solely with an eye to dismiss a manuscript — and believe me, they’ll look for any reason they can, down to the last letter.

I do this. By starting his introduction this way, he hooked me. Absolutely. I was reading to figure out why my work in progress wasn’t going so well. But once I found the answer, I didn’t put this book down. I enjoyed learning from all of it.

I could list his criteria, but that’d be kinda like stealing. Read the man’s book. I got mine at the library. If you can’t do that, Amazon comes to mind. So does my favorite, Better World Books.

People send me manuscripts, wanting me to evaluate them. I’ve told more than one author to go read The First Five Pages and then get back to me. Yeah, I’m turning work away, but that’s because some manuscripts require too much of it. Lukeman will teach you how to do that work yourself, if you’re willing to learn. If you’re a real author, you’ll enjoy learning. If not, that’s a valuable lesson too.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to return to my regularly scheduled snarking.

Technical editing since 1991. Business editing since 2006. MichaelEdits.com

© Michael LaRocca 2017

Finding Forrester

Michael LaRocca of MichaelEdits.com

The existence of a movie — any movie — about the topic of writing is surprising enough. But for it to actually be a good movie? Wow.

I taught Advanced English Writing in several universities in China from 2002 through 2006. Showing this movie became an integral part of those classes, because so many of its themes are identical to what I was trying to teach. I was happy to watch it over a dozen times with my students, and lecture about it in a style more Robin Williams than F. Murray Abraham.

But all these years later, will I still think it’s a good movie? Let’s find out.

We begin by meeting Jamal, the student who hides his intelligence in order to fit in. Fair enough.

Jamal is also a writer who hides his writing. Do they still exist?

Sean Connery is William Forrester, the reclusive genius of a writer.

Jamal is writing all the time. By hand. He’s constantly practicing his basketball. He’s constantly practicing his writing. That’s how a person gets to be the best he’s able to be at either pursuit. Or any pursuit. So if you’re not writing every day, listen to Sean Connery and Rob Brown. Write every day. You’re never going to write like Shakespeare or shoot hoops like Michael Jordan, but if you write every day, you’ll get better at it than you are now. Unused potential is worse than lack of potential, because the former is a choice.

Jamal and Forrester are both obsessed with reading. As writers must be. Jamal snoops in Forrester’s shelves both to learn about him and for suggestions. I already know you’re reading every day. Aren’t you? How many times have I said it? If you don’t enjoy reading, you can’t write something that somebody else enjoys reading.

Jamal: “You read all these?” 
Forrester: “No, I keep them to impress all my visitors.”

Amusing because Forrester’s an agoraphobe whose only visitor is the guy bringing his royalty checks and his groceries. (Wouldn’t you love to be an author living well on royalty checks for something you wrote 30 years ago?) But also a chance for me to riff on people who keep all the books they’ve ever read shelved at home. You know how much I love the written word. But Goodreads tells me that in the past three years alone I’ve read over 1000 books. Why would I keep them? I’m not going to read them all again. (Just the five-star books.) I do love a library, but I choose not to own one. I know where they are.

Jamal gets his writing notebooks back from “Window,” that strange old dude who we don’t know is Sean Connery because we haven’t seen his picture on every movie poster ever made. And what has this man of mystery added to the notebooks? Honest feedback. It’s not all kind. Not even close, actually. Brutally honest. That’s what we all need. And if we’re mature, it’s also what we want, because this helps us improve. Jamal’s first reaction was negative, but the next day, he’s knocking on the door. He says: “I was wondering if I could bring you more of my stuff.”

Finally, Jamal reads a book by Forrester. When Forrester gets the book back, he says, “Christ, you’ve dog-eared one of them. Show a little respect for the author.” I say screw the author. Have a little respect for the next reader. Don’t vandalize your books.

In the film, Forrester wrote one book. It won a Pulitzer. He reacted to a mix of critical praise and personal tragedy by not publishing another one. I don’t think you have to be an author to enjoy the pot shots he takes at critics.

Forrester: “I know what it is. The last thing I need is another person telling me what they think it is.”

I know the feeling.

Forrester: “Critics spend a day destroying what they couldn’t create in a lifetime.”

True.

Jamal: “What’s it feel like?” 
Forrester: “What?” 
Jamal: “Writing something the way you did.” 
Forrester: “Perhaps you’ll find out.”

I like that little exchange because, while I remember what it felt like to write at my very best, I’ll be damned if I can explain it to you. Write your own books and you’ll find out for yourself.

Jamal: “Did you ever read your own writing?” 
Forrester: “In public? Hell no. I barely read it in private.”

I used to say things like that all the time. But I did finally reread all fourteen of my published books last year. In private. Not bad, Michael. Not bad at all. Oh, and they’re better “inside proper covers and everything,” just like the author’s wife noted in the second Robert Galbraith novel. Don’t act like she’s weird for waiting.

[It’s eighteen books now. When the hell did I write this movie review?]

Forrester: “A lot of writers know the rules about writing, but they don’t know how to write.”

We know it’s true. But let me add that the writers who don’t even know the rules are screwed. You need not obey the rules. But you do need to know them. I break writing rules all the time, but never out of simple ignorance.

Clever dialogue about starting a sentence with a conjunction. Who knew such things were possible?

Forrester just sits at a manual typewriter and immediately starts writing. Jamal likes to think first. So do I. Hell, I’ve even used an outline once or twice. Also, I start with pen and paper or (more often) computer keyboard. Not a typewriter.

Forrester: “No thinking — that comes later. You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is… to write, not to think!”

I’ve used freewriting in class and given it a spot in my textbook. It’s a good technique, and I’ve seen a lot of students surprise themselves with the results. But I’ve also never written anything publishable that way. Blogable, perhaps. I do agree with the heart/head thing, of course.

Using other authors for inspiration can be a complex issue. Plain old stealing is wrong, but even the most original thinkers seek inspiration. The movie finally moves its dramatic conflict into high gear by examining all that. It was probably a bit predictable the first time I watched it. It was certainly predictable the fifteenth or twentieth time I watched it. But it still works. It’s still powerful, moving, and five-star all the way.

Enjoy!

Technical editing since 1991. Business editing since 2006. MichaelEdits.com

© Michael LaRocca 2017

9 Things Star Trek Can Teach You About Writing

Michael LaRocca of MichaelEdits.com

1) Readers Matter

In the first STAR TREK film, Gene Roddenberry finally had the budget to create all the footage he wanted of ENTERPRISE just sitting there, looking real purty, and by gum he was gonna use it. While I don’t mind watching all those minutes, 22 or 187 or whatever it was, most folks think that’s too much. If most of your readers say something needs to be changed or added or deleted, listen to them.

2) Characters Matter

When the second pilot was filmed, it was pre-ordained that William Shatner was the star. Since Spock was the only character from the first pilot to also appear in the second pilot, it was safe to assume Leonard Nimoy was a costar. McCoy and the chemistry just kinda happened.

When I write, character comes first, and plot etc. unfold from there. Even if you start from some other place, character always matters. Nothing happens unless it happens to somebody, and that somebody is who your reader cares about regardless of species.

When you write, have some sort of plan, and have some control, but be flexible. If your story’s telling you to go in a certain direction, listen to it. That might be your characters talking to you. (And yes, I know you made them all up. Don’t bother me with details.)

3) Turn Weaknesses into Strengths

Why did the ENTERPRISE have a transporter? Because it wasn’t in the TV show’s budget to film launch and landing sequences for shuttlecraft on various and sundry new planets every week. This forced the writers to invent the transporter, and that’s some seriously cool tech. STAR TREK wouldn’t be STAR TREK without it.

4) Forget Grammar

Okay, not really. Spock used English with scientific precision and it wasn’t even his first language. Speaking as your editor, please don’t forget grammar. You can break any rule you want if you have a good reason. Never break a rule from ignorance. But if you’ve got a reason, go for it. That’s how we as authors change the language.

Why did Shakespeare invent 10% of the words he used? Because if he’d invented 20% or 50% he’d have confused too many of his viewers.

Meanwhile, the “rule” about splitting infinitives is totally bogus. “To boldly go” is a perfectly good English phrase. In Latin, it isn’t possible to split an infinitive because “to go” (for example) is one word. You can’t write “to boldly go” in Latin because “to go” is only one word. Someone decided English grammar should follow Latin grammar — that sounds like some of Noah Webster’s rubbish — and was soundly shouted down for being too stupid to live. Feel free to boldly split infinitives like James Brown split tight pants. Then jump back and kiss yourself.

5) Wishful Thinking Is Allowed

In the STAR TREK future, everybody quotes long passages of Shakespeare from memory. If I say it like that, it might sound hard to believe, but in the context of the STAR TREK world, it fits. It’s allowed. Dagnabbit, people should quote Shakespeare from memory. I taught a customer’s cockatiel to recite Hamlet’s soliloquy without warning the humans. I never could teach him context, though.

6) It’s Not About the Money

Okay, sometimes it was about the money. But in roughly two years of the original show and roughly ten years of Next Generation, it wasn’t about the money. In most of the films, including some of the stinkers, it wasn’t about the money.

I’ve always said that you should write what you’d like to read, then find readers who share your interests. Yep, that’s what Gene Roddenberry did. He believed in world peace, racial and gender integration, trying to shake off old prejudices to the best of our limited abilities, freedom of religion and non-religion, true equality for women rather than today’s lip service, gay rights, cooperation rather than killing, the Prime Directive of non-interference in viable developing cultures, war as a last and not a first resort, and seeing just how much political and religious commentary he could slip past the censors, who weren’t as bright as the average STAR TREK viewer. (I like to think the censors weren’t always as clueless as they pretended to be.)

7) Choose Your Battles

That’s what Roddenberry had to do every time he butted heads with TV executives. It’s what I do as an author when I disagree with my editor, and what I expect an author to do when I’m his or her editor. “I’ll say Starfleet pays its officers in credits if you let the white guy kiss the black girl.” Or whatever.

8) YOU Are The Writer

Remember when I said to listen to your readers? That doesn’t mean you have to always agree with them. When Gene Roddenberry’s vision put him at odds with the majority, he went with his vision. We should all do that. Such judgment calls are what separate the great writers from the merely ordinary. And to pull all that off within the confines of a 1960s TV show is nothing short of extraordinary. You could do far worse than to follow his example.

9) Posterity Matters

How long has it been since Captain Kirk first flexed those biceps and paused in funny places during his speechifying? It’s been over 50 years since Roddenberry started writing STAR TREK, and we’re still talking about it. That’s what we write for. I don’t want you to love my writing now and forget it tomorrow. A novel is not a blog or a tweet. Write something timeless. Something to annoy future generations the way it does your immediately family, something teachers can torture students with, something that just will not die.

Technical editing since 1991. Business editing since 2006. MichaelEdits.com

© Michael LaRocca 2017