What Crazy, Stupid Love taught me about pacing (spoilers!)

A week or so ago I saw Crazy, Stupid Love, and when I left the theatre, I felt like a Crazy Stupid Loser for having spent almost $10 to sit through that movie.  When I saw the previews, I wanted to believe, but I had my doubts.

I haven’t seen a good ensemble movie since Love Actually, and I allow that movie generous leeway because it is a Christmas movie, and a very happy one full of upbeat Christmas music, which I cannot dislike.  Even if someone were telling me he/she planned to choke me to death with my own dirty socks, as long as upbeat Christmas music were playing in the room, I probably wouldn’t mind.  Hell, even a song from the somber sub-genre of wish-you-were-here Christmas music would make the whole scene poetic.

But then other movies tried to follow this recipe but forgot to add the Christmas.  That’s how we ended up with horrible crap like Valentine’s Day.  Christmas ≠ Valentine’s Day.  One is an entire season of hope and love; it’s the half of the Christian narrative that everyone likes because no one feels guilty about it.  (When the other half rolls around, every trip to Easter-basket-central CVS invokes massive guilt over stolen office staplers and live-in boyfriends.  [As it should, sinner!  *thonk*  Okay.  I shouldn’t have thrown it.  I’m not perfect either…  But I’m close!  Ha-ha!  *throws another stone and runs away* then *returns, remorseful, covered in cuts and bruises*])

The other “holiday” is a season of resentment.  Married people wish for the early days when they could stand to be in the same room without plotting the perfect spousal murder.  Single people hate the world and everyone in it.  Dating people worry that he/she’s not the one, or they worry that he/she is the one, or they worry that the one is a he/she.  The only people who like Valentine’s Day are high schoolers too stupid to realize they’ve been tricked into spending $30.  (What do you mean ‘I bet you’re single?’  *throws another stone*  No, I’m sorry.  That was uncalled for.  Throw it back.  Not that har–*knocked out*  *wakes up hours later, dying of thirst and confused about name and other people occupying residence*)

But let’s be honest: the only good ensemble movie is It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.  Don’t argue, because you know it’s true.  (BUT, you say, WHAT ABOUT THE DEPARTED ETC.?)  Sure, some movies have more than one famous person, but an ensemble movie follows a formula much like a collection of short stories with a common theme and a few common characters.  Maybe they’re all after the same thing, but each story could stand alone, because each member of the ensemble carries his or her own narrative.

However, I was sucked in by my fondness for the principals in Crazy Stupid Lossofninedollars.  All four (five if we’re counting Marissa Tomei, who rides through Hollywood on the back of her Oscar like it’s a broom) of them are wonderful in their own right, and I thought it couldn’t go wrong if they were all together.  Once again, my judgment failed me.  Just like when I said Marissa Tomei’s only good work was My Cousin Vinny.  Just like the time my friends convinced me to go sledding in my bikini because it’d be funny if we filmed it.  Just like the time I dated the guy who collected bowie knives.

The principals are certainly acceptable in their roles.  Likeable, even.  But… HERE BE SPOILERS… I saw the “surprise” coming like it was a deer staring at me from the middle of an icy road.  I didn’t want it to happen.  I wanted something, anything to happen instead.  I wanted to have accidentally driven into Jurassic Park so a T-Rex would come along and chomp the deer right out of the road.  But there was no magical movie T-Rex.  The surprise smeared its offensive self all over my windshield.

Emma Stone is shown early in the story.  Her hair is dyed darker than usual in this movie.  Hmmm.  How curious.  Oh, and then Julianne Moore’s hair is also that same shade of reddish brown…  Hmmm.  How curi…o… wait a second.  I bet she’s her daughter.  1 hr 45 minutes later: yep.

But that’s not the real problem.  The real problem is the pacing.  Way too much of the movie focuses on Steve Carrell and Ryan Gosling in some bar learning and teaching how to be a smooth lady killer, respectively.  In real-world time, that part of the movie is only about 20 minutes, I’d guess.  But in the movie it felt like at least an hour.

This causes fatigue later in the movie, when it seems to keep going on and on and on and why are these floors so sticky I mean have they never heard of a mop?  The initial break up between the adults only takes a few minutes.  Then Ryan Gosling takes Steve Carrell under his wing (GOSLING–WING–GET IT?  Ahahahahahahah–*thoink*  *passes out*).  It’s probably several weeks long, this transition.  Carrell has to go from loser to smoother to slick.  And once he’s there, the story picks up again.  But that was twenty minutes, and by now we’ve forgotten about most of the rest of the movie.

Remember the club scene in Black Swan?  It feels like it goes on for five minutes or more, but in reality it is under a minute.  The whole scene = images and sound and more images.  It doesn’t try to interpret anything.  It just shows us images and lets us decide.  We infer the passage of time.  To its detriment, Crazy Stupid Love tries to tell us too much, and I think this applies to fiction, too.

I often find myself laying out way too much of a scene that can be summarized in a line.  If a character has a phone conversation, the content of which must then be relayed to another character, it’s tempting for me sometimes to relive the entire thing for the other character.

Example:

“What did he say?”

“It wasn’t good.”

She was quiet for a few seconds.  “Are you going to tell me?”

“He said that he heard about you.  About you throwing the rocks and claiming to be perfect.”

“What?  Who told him?”

“I don’t know.  But he said that he knows you’re not perfect, that he has proof, and that maybe you two should break up.”

“But what about Valentine’s Day?”

“That’s a terrible movie.  Oh–you mean coming up.  He said maybe it should be a stag night for both of you.”

“What an ignorant boob.  Stags are male deer in England.  How could I be a stag?”

I shrugged, confused and annoyed to be in the middle of this.

______________OR______________

“What did he say?”

I told her everything.  About what he’d heard, stag Valentine’s Day–everything.

“What an ignorant boob.  Stags are male deer in England.  How could I be a stag?”

I shrugged, confused and annoyed to be in the middle of this.

Shakespeare, right?  *thud*  STOP THROWING ROCKS AT ME.

The first adds nothing to the story, assuming these characters are already established.  We don’t need the conversation a second time.  The only time we would is if one person were to lie about the contents of the conversation.  Then we would need to see it happen.

The same thing is true of change over time.  It’s better to show the reader things have changed.  A character can be looking at the short green stalks of corn in one section, and walking noisily through the cobb-less, brown rows in another.  We get it.  Time passed. Steve Carrell’s transformation could have taken 5 minutes if imagery were used properly.

If they wanted to show that he was changing, but still holding on to the old Steve, a 10-second scene of him putting away fancy new shoes in his closet, while considering throwing away his old nerdy ones, but deciding at the last second to hide them in the back of the shoe rack would have done all the work we needed.

The moral of the story is this: your audience is not as stupid as you think they are. 

They will understand.  They see clues.  They notice chronological markers. They remember past scenes.

Of course, there are other problems with Crazy Stupid Letmeoutofthistheatre.  They are (list not exhaustive):

  • 95-99% of it was filmed on the studio lot, and it’s obvious.
  • The cliche little boy in love with an unattainable woman.  Snooze.  Love Actually did it better, and even then it was a smidge lame.
  • Emma Stone’s connection to the plot is obvious because she is so unconnected–we know she’s got to be related to everyone somehow, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure it out.  (Then again, I am a gen– I take it back.  I take it back…)
  • Unmotivated character changes.  Ugh.  Steve Carrell demands his daughter leave his house because she’s dating Ryan Gosling.  What?  Wait, which movie is this?  Was I rufied and dragged into a different theatre?  All throughout this thing, we’ve been shown Steve Carrell’s character.  And suddenly he’s going to demand his 27-year-old daughter leave because she’s dating a reformed Lothario?
  • Unmotivated characters in general.  Emma Stone is thinking Josh Groban will propose to her, but she obviously doesn’t like him (at least, we’re given no indication that she does; plus, he’s a skeeze).  And then when he doesn’t propose, she chugs booze and is instantly drunk (if only it were true!) and chews him out in a big ol’ I AM WOMAN HEAR ME ROAR moment that was entirely unmotivated, cliche, and stupid.
  • A teenager taking nudey pictures for a grown, married man.  I’m tempted to call this unmotivated, but really it’s just stupid.
  • Aforementioned teenager giving aforementioned nudey pictures to aforementioned married man’s adolescent son.  I guess she’s just a jailbird all around.  Sex criminal at 17.  You go, girl!
  • Big public forum in which characters profess their undying love… for one… anotherzzzzzzzzzz  *thonk*  Oh–gosh–how long was I out?

It fails as an ensemble film because the story lines don’t stand on their own; it fails as a romance because the only romantic part is between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, and that part is told to sit down pretty quickly; it fails as a comedy because it just does; and it fails as a movie because the pacing is abysmal.

And that’s what I learned about pacing from Crazy Stupid Lurve.

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Writing through distraction

As I type this, my chair vibrates.

No, the chair isn’t from Brookstone, but the guy downstairs is blasting techno from what must be 30″ subwoofers.  I’m not sure if I should be glad that techno has no memorable melody or not.  It does tend to give me headaches, but I’m never familiar with the song, so my mind never subconsciously follows along with the (alleged) tune.

Often when I read, see or hear something I enjoy, I remember it so well that I anticipate its progression.  I can’t sleep if my favorite movie is on because my mind is actively and accurately predicting each line and swell of the score.  If someone is reading a poem I love, my mind fixates on waiting for my favorite lines.  In college, to get away from the noisy hall, I’d have to turn on ESPN or QVC, the only two channels with predictably unpredictable noise.  Unfortunately, I began waking up several hours after going to sleep to ESPN because Sportscenter starts looping in the middle of the night, and my brain began following along.  Finally, a TV with a timer and a back-up white noise maker solved this issue.

OCD?  You decide.

My neighbor plays his music at 10am and 5:30pm like his life depends on it.  And maybe it does.  Maybe there’s a troll living with him that stares out from under table and chair legs and forces him to play deafening techno at a scheduled time lest terror worse than directionless noise ensue.  That’s probably it.  But it’s possible that he’s alternately psyching himself up for work and unraveling from it.  No, I’m pretty sure it’s a troll.

His noise schedule is set.  At 10am, that music is thumping.  My writing schedule is also set.  I write in the mornings, when I’m fresh and haven’t looked at the news or my email, and I really hit my stride by 10am, right as DJ Swisscheesebrain and the Ecstasytwins’ woofers are warming up.  This has presented me with a unique challenge: how to write through distraction?

  1. Don’t.  Take a break and leave some words untyped.  When the distraction fades, situate yourself again and reenter the fictive dream.
  2. Eliminate the distraction.  This is easily accomplished when the distraction is a blaring television or stinky trash, but considerably more difficult when the distraction is another human being.  When people who aren’t your children bother you, asking nicely and unselfrighteously will often do the trick.  Never accuse.  Offer solutions.  Say, “Hey, your music is really loud [he/she knows], and I’m trying to do some work upstairs.  Could we work out a schedule of loud and quiet hours?”  Don’t: bang on the floor/ceiling, play your music as loud as you can, or shut off the electricity.
  3. Don’t put yourself in distractionland to begin with.  I often see people “writing” at Starbucks, but most often they are staring or mousing more than writing.  If you do write well in such a place, do it.  But if you’re distracted at home, you’ll be distracted when you’re out.
  4. Clean up.  The cluttered desk / cluttered mind saying is very true.  Each thing you see that isn’t what you’re working on is a potential concentration saboteur.  It’s just a piece of paper.  But it’s the paper you’ve printed your first outline on.  And it has some faded streaks.  That means a new printer cartridge, which means selling a kidney.  One kidney and you can’t drink as much tea as you have been or you’ll get kidney stones, so you’ll have to switch to coffee, even though it irritates your stomach and makes you antsy.  Decaf, then.  But still it’ll irritate your stomach.  What about just drinking a cold caffeine drink?  No, that doesn’t have the ritual feeling a hot drink does.  The drink you had is cold now anyway.  Better make another.  Why have you been writing for 2 hours and only have a paragraph?
  5. Plan extensively.  If you know where you’re going, it’s easier to get there.  When you’re not waiting for the muse to light on your shoulder and whisper in your ear, it’s easier to complete a first draft, even when DJ Dumbdumb is throwing a one-man rave.  Make an outline and follow it.
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Working through Writer’s Block

For a long time, I thought writer’s block didn’t exist.  It always seemed like nothing more than a convenient indie-movie character trait meant to show someone as a very deep thinker with the oft-denied desire to produce.  Paper Man, for instance, has Jeff Daniels’ character’s writer’s block (holy possessives, Batman!) signify the entire character arc from dependent to adult.  Instead of confronting the irony of Daniels’ writer character not “know[ing] what to do with [his] hands,” the film seems satisfied to conflate all types of creation together–from creating a baby to creating a novel to creating a couch.  But Richard (Daniels) can’t do any of these things because he has writer’s block.

What then, is writer’s block?  Most say it’s fear.  Fear of producing trash and being disappointed that you’re not Hemingway or Fitzgerald each time you try to get something down.  I think this is very true, and that’s why writer’s block has gained a wide reputation as a debilitating and very real dysfunction.

Psychological writer’s block

But let’s think about it another way.  If I buy a lottery ticket and never look up the winning numbers to see if mine match, I might have won.  For as long as I hold that ticket without checking it against reality, there’s a chance I’m a millionaire.  Writer’s block is the same.  For as long as I continue to not write, I might sit down one day and have a Pulitzer winner on my computer screen.  If I don’t sit down, though, I also don’t have to see myself write poorly.  It’s a win-win writer’s neurosis.  I can keep feeling like a genius while doing nothing at all.

That may not be the rational justification of writer’s block, but that’s why it’s so common. But there’s another type of writer’s block.

Physical writer’s block

Your brain works by talking to itself through synapses.  Synapses are like the telephone wires of the brain, and you must have them in good shape for your brain to do specialized work on demand.  Anything that causes your synapses to be sluggish, redirected, or interrupted is going to make creative work more difficult, and should be avoided.

Sometimes, however, these things can’t be avoided.  Having a cold, for instance, isn’t going to do you any favors in this department.  Being sleep-deprived won’t help either.  But these things do happen.  The good news about physcial writer’s block is that it passes quickly unless you let it evolve into its ugly cousin, psychological writer’s block.

How to avoid writer’s block entirely

  1. Make rules about your writing.  Have a set time to write and stick to it.  During that time, you don’t have to produce, but you can’t do anything else.  You can sit at the computer and stare at it, or you can write.  You can’t check facebook or your bank account, (egads) and don’t play with your phone.  It’s writing time.
  2. Stay healthy.  Get enough sleep, wash your hands, eat your vegetables.  We hear about heart, lung, liver, and breast health, but no one seems to think about keeping the brain organ healthy until the brain is malfunctioning.  Play word and number games to keep your mind sharp.  Spend time thinking every day.  Your butt isn’t going to get in shape by itself, and neither is your brain.
  3. Put down the booze.  Alcohol may not kill brain cells, but it does interrupt synapses.  That’s why hangovers are brain-dead hours.  Avoid it if your writing matters to you, and remember that many of the greats were rewarded for their heavy drinking with early deaths.
  4. Examine drafts of the greats.  If you’ve got a nasty case of WB, look up some draft copies of your favorite canonized authors and see how many times they went over their words and sentences.  It helps to know that they weren’t perfect the first time either.
  5. Have fun.  Writing a book is like reading a book; if you hate it, choose a different one.  Don’t write a story unless you need or want to.  This isn’t contradicting #1; this means that you should write about something that excites you and take the time to discover that subject.
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Day One: Mission Statement

Welcome to my blog.

For a long time I thought a blog authored by me would be an entirely worthless endeavor because I had nothing to say that anyone wanted to hear.  When I published my book, however, I realized that there are some things that I do want others to hear or read, and that it’s my duty as an idiot to bring those things to captivated audiences.

Because I spent approximately 2 semesters in a science class (or was it math?) where I learned about the scientific method (or was it algebraic meth-heads?) I feel the need to state my porpoise:

  • Firstly, this blog is meant to entertain you.  Internet entertainment is a billion-dollar industry, and I want in on the action.  Of course, I’m almost positive 99% of that billion is made from fetish porno, but nevertheless, I will assume the role of a meek, country lawyer and take on the tobacco-industry stand-in of the hour: porno.  (Someone write that down as a potential fetish porno theme: meek country lawyer vs. tobacco-industry stand-in.)
  • B: I will contribute writing tips/advice to the world of writers laboring away in an ever-increasing swamp of new indie titles.  I have a good deal of formal (read: useless) creative-writing training, and I want to pass it along.  My posts will attempt to bolster your writing abilities so that you might rise from the depths and dominate all who venture near the Amazonian swamp.  (Someone write that plot down.  We’ll call it Swamp Thing.)
  • And #3, I’m going to relate the hilariously pathetic stories from my life that I wouldn’t dare tell anyone face to face.

I hope you’ll visit often if only to laugh at me.

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