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The trouble with adaptations

One of the joys of my current class (Writing for Comics and Animation) is that I get to talk about adaptations and the art of doing one in comic or graphic novel form. As fans of popular properties, we’re always excited about the aspect that something we really enjoy will be presented in a different format: when we’re a fan of a book, we want to see the movie; when we’re a fan of a game, we want to read the comic. The problem with adaptations is that there is no possible way to make everyone happy. Let me ‘splain.

Most writers, when tasked with the responsibility of an adaptation want the freedom to make changes, most of them subtle, but changes nonetheless. Most of the time writers are forced to make changes of some sort simply to fit the medium. Since I’ve only ever done comic adaptations from other formats (I’ve done film, game and novel all to comic), the biggest challenge is fitting it all in. So the writer has to take the number of pages allotted by the publisher, and figure out what parts are vital and what parts can be cut or reduced. There’s a lot of work in that the writer wants to be true to the original…but there are only so many pages. In comics, the pictures don’t move!

The problem with changes, though, is hardcore fans of the property don’t want you to change it in any way. They’re hardcore fans because they love everything about it. They love it so much they just want to see the exact same thing but in a different way. Trust me, if you fiddle with their beloved story, you’ll hear how wrong you were to do so!

Don’t believe me? Think of recent films that have been released based on novels or games or comics. How many times did you hear someone commenting on the “changes” made? I heard people talk about the recent Ender’s Game adaptation and how it made changes at the end. Some liked it, some didn’t. Or what about the superhero movies? Just spend some time googling (what a cool new verb!) them and you’ll see endless debates not only about how good or bad the films are, but how “true” they are to the original (I personally hated the fact that the web in the Toby Spider-Man was biological—I thought it changed the character of Peter Parker too much!). I also remember seeing Starship Troopers when it hit the theaters. At the time I was so mad because it was nothing like the Heinlein book on which it was based. However, I saw it a few years later (it a group setting where the group wanted to see it, not me! So I just went along like a good guest!) and—knowing that it was nothing like the book, I thought it was a decent sci-fi movie. It was NOT the Starship Troopers of the book, but it wasn’t a horrible movie (this is in reference to ONLY the first film, fyi).

Then there are those fans who want to have something different, who prefer to get something that adds to the original so they don’t just get the same thing. Stray too far, though, and it ceases to become an adaptation. If you remain close, it’s “based on.” However, when you write completely original material simply in that setting (as I did for Planet of the Apes: Blood of the Apes), then it isn’t an adaptation at all. Those, from a writer’s point of view, are fun to write.

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Plotting for Multiple Characters (part 2)

I want to pick up right where I left off last week. If you missed part 1, you can get it here.

So, once I have this down with 4-6 entries for every character on my chart, I start weaving them together to build a timeline. Essentially, what I’m doing is deciding what has to happen before the other thing happens AND—maybe more importantly, in what order I want them to occur in the story. Back in the day when I wrote everything longhand, I’d draw lines and put numbers beside the entries. With excel, I just shift things around. I’ll use numbers for my example here. You’ll also note that I know I want the protag to have the relationship with the love interest; I’m not sure how they meet at this point. That’s okay, because as I begin to fill in the blanks, I can manipulate that to make it happen.

Protag 1 Protag 2 Antag Love interest
1 Parents killed. Lost in woods. Discovered by Mountain Man 2 Wins award for science essay. 3 Comes in 2nd with science essay. Wins nothing. Completes high school under care of single mom.
4 Lives with MM who teaches tracking, hunting and other survival skills. 5 Kicked out of college—accused of copying essay but did not. It was, however, based on research from Mom. 6 Father kicks out of house for losing. Immediately moves across country. 9 Graduates college with computer science degree. Hired by NSA to hack Chinese government computers.
8 Leaves MM to go to big city where he meets Protag 2 in an alley near death. 10 Begins job at high tech espionage firm. 7Joins gang in Eastern coastal city. Quickly establishes reputation for brutality. HOW DOES SHE MEET PROTAG 1?
While “espionaging” is captured and tortured and brainwashed. 11 Promoted in gang to a capo and given a territory. Moves (takes some of his underlings)
Dumped in an alley in the big city. Catches Protag 2—remembers her. Attempts to kill—THINKS he has.

This gives me a rough outline to start working from. Now, keep in mind that before I get to the task of writing, I figure out the goals and motivations for all the characters (at least the primary characters) and I have an idea of what I want their big character arc to be. In fact, I do that before I start charting this out—I’m kinda going by the seat of my pants for the characters in the example and I hope/trust you can look past that for the bigger picture. But what it also means is that the characters can change as I create, but that’s okay, it’s part of the creation process. It also means that my chart/grid is considerably longer than what I’m showing you, and it’s also wider with more characters. One of the things this can help you do is get all your characters “screen” time.

I’m hoping you can use your imagination and fill in the blanks with your own characters and ideas.

I’ve seen it done a different way, but it always felt more formulaic to me. It looked something like this:

A Character
A Character B Character
A Character C Character
A Character B Character
A Character

At which point in time, your A character rotates off (to the left or rather, to the far right) and the B character becomes the A character while the C character becomes the B character. This is mostly a formula for EPISODIC work.

Like I said at the beginning, though, this is just the strategy that I use…Hope it helps you some.

Now, GO WRITE!

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Plotting for Multiple Characters (part 1)

Seems my writing posts have been popular lately, so this will be another one of those and I hope you enjoy it and get something out of it.

I’m often asked how to plan out how to interweave storylines with multiple characters, or to create “B” and “C” stories. So this blog will walk you through my process and hopefully give you a new strategy for working multiple plots into episodic, short or long form narrative. It’ll be tough to cover them all effectively, so I hope what I do cover you’ll be able to translate to whatever format you’re personally working in. Keep in mind, too, that this is how “I” do it and it is certainly not the only way to effectively work with multiple characters. It’s worked for me, so I’m sticking with it.

So the first thing I do when I know I’m working with multiple characters is to create a grid chart. I use Microsoft Excel these days, but I still have—somewhere in a box—the hand written copies of the charts I used to plot out Cat & Mouse and some of my other early comics. I write my characters’ names across the top, generally the more prominent characters first. Like such:

Protag 1

Protag 2

Antag

Love interest

Support 1

Support 2

           

After I’ve got that figured out, I start dropping in the important events of the characters, usually leaving a few spaces between each entry because I know I’ll add stuff and move stuff around. I try to stick with things that are visual and have high conflict content or are major events in the life of the character. When I’m done entering stuff in, my chart looks something like this:

Protag 1

Protag 2

Antag

Love interest

Parents killed. Lost in woods. Discovered by Mountain Man

Wins award for science essay.

Comes in 2nd with science essay. Wins nothing.

Completes high school under care of single mom.

Lives with MM who teaches tracking, hunting and other survival skills.

Kicked out of college—accused of copying essay but did not. It was, however, based on research from Mom.

Father kicks out of house for losing. Immediately moves across country.

Graduates college with computer science degree. Hired by NSA to hack Chinese government computers.

Leaves MM to go to big city where he meets Protag 2 in an alley near death.

Begins job at high tech espionage firm.

Joins gang in Eastern coastal city. Quickly establishes reputation for brutality.

HOW DOES SHE MEET PROTAG 1?

 

While “espionaging” is captured and tortured and brainwashed.

Promoted in gang to a capo and given a territory. Moves (takes some of his underlings)

 
 

Dumped in an alley in the big city.

Catches Protag 2—remembers her. Attempts to kill—THINKS he has.

 

This is just for an example, so don’t get worked up about it. You’ll notice I’ve a little more about P2 than P1, but it’s usually not that way. Besides, I don’t ever worry about that at this stage because the characters are still being formed (you’ll also note that much of this reads like “backstory” and would likely be cut ANYWAY—just bear with me so you can get the idea). While I don’t do it in my sample here for you, I do try to take the entries to MAJOR conflicts because what I’m working to do is make sure the character intersect with one another at those points of conflict. After all, we know that’s where the heart of our stories are, right? CONFLICT?

Okay, I’m already at 600 words…so you’ll have to come back next week for the rest.

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My outlining process

My last blog on outlining vs letting it flow seemed to be a fun topic for many, so I thought I’d actually go through an “outlining lite” here. Keep in mind, this is the way that I try to do it, which is to say it isn’t the only way, just a way.

Stories can have multiple forms of origin (one of the most common questions asked of published writers is “where do you get your ideas?” The answer, of course, is EVERYWHERE!), but once the basic idea is there, the root story elements should be the same. Sometimes I start with what I think is an interesting character, an interesting situation, an interesting event…whatever. There’s no right or wrong. I’ll often scribble out some generics about the idea just to get them down on paper.

THEN, I start the outline process, I mean, there’s got to be a story, right? So what is that story to go along with the interesting character, etc? Based on the notes I have scribbled, I answer four basic questions: 1)whose story is it? 2)what is that person’s goal? (must be a TANGIBLE/ACHIEVABLE goal!); 3)what or who gets in the way of that happening? (whos are almost always better than whats) and then 4)does the person from #1 achieve the goal? They do not have to achieve it in order for the story to work—in fact, we’re often drawn to protagonists who fail, but we should have some resolution.

The first question may not be as easy as it initially looks, but it’s usually the one that I get answered first because I’m drawn to interesting characters more than anything. Once I answer that, I start working out what it is they want more than anything else. This is the thing that drives the character’s actions—all of them! Obviously, you can get into the wants vs. needs debate, but this is my blog, so we’re talking about what does the character want? What they want can definitely change, but you won’t know that until you start answering #3 and #4. That goal must be at the forefront of all the character’s actions or somehow related to it.

With #1 and #2 answered, I move on to #3. It is at this point that I generally have to come up with the antagonist (remember, I said whos are better than whats). I go through a mini-version of what I just did for the protagonist. The antagonist should be working to stop the protagonist from accomplishing their goal…and when you figure out the why, you suddenly find yourself answering a #1 and #2 for the antagonist.

With that answered, NOW you have conflict! And conflict is what readers/viewers want to read/see. We’re drawn to it and will keep coming back to see how it ends.

And once you’ve got that done…you have yourself a mini-outline that you can start fleshing out to a full-blown work!

So, I really will get back to normal posts here someday…for my own writing sake, I’m hoping that day is sooner rather than later. I do have a lot of exciting things beginning to happen with projects I’ll be pitching in the coming weeks and I’m excited to share those so you can see the cool art I’ve been seeing.

See you next week!

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Outline? Or let it flow?

One of my recent responsibilities for a class assignment was to respond to student essays about certain aspects of writing: influences, how to start a project, etc. One common comment about starting a writing project always makes me think, “hmm. Yes, you haven’t written very many things, have you?” That response always goes something like this:

When I start a new project, I just write. I don’t worry about the characters or the plot or the story, I just write and see where it all goes. I just let the character (or story) take me where he wants to take me. (This is not an exact quote, for those of you thinking such things!)

This line of thinking gets us to the debate of whether it is advisable for a writer to write as the muse strikes and just let it flow out of the brain and fingertips, or to compose an outline and then work from that.

When I sat down to write a novel the very first time (not Buying Time, a different, unfinished one), I wanted to just start writing and “let the character tell his story” and/or “let it flow as it hits me.” I’d heard a few writers talk about composing like that and I wanted to try it. I wrote forty-thousand words. I was well on my way. But when I hit that 40k mark, while I thought I had some nice scenes, I had no STORY. And you know, story is king!

When I sat down to write my next novel (finished, but unsold), I outlined extensively. I revised the outline quite a few times in order to work on pacing and conflict…y’know, story stuff. The writing went fast…and the characters STILL told their story, I just knew where it was going.

When I sat down to write my next novel (now we get to Buying Time), I did a combination of the two. I had a “concept” but not a story. So I thought I’d write 10-15,000 words and see how it felt, but I didn’t want to write 40k words that went nowhere again. Once I got to that stage (10k words), I stopped and examined the piece for what was there and pulled the story out of it…and then did a rough outline. Once again, I knew the story and the words came more quickly.

When I reached that 40k mark in my first book, I had no idea where the story was going. And if I—the writer—didn’t know where the story was going or what it was, how could I expect to sell it. Notice, I didn’t. Oh, sure, I may revisit it one day and see if I can find the story there…but for now, it’s simply 40k words of everyday scenes.

It’s a little easier to let it flow when writing a novel, though. There are no real “markers” you have to meet—it’s whatever floats your boat. With other kinds of writing (film, television, comics, etc), outlining is vital because you have limited “time” frame in which the story must fit. You can’t (normally) just write until the story plays out, you have to fit it into the chosen format. This requires good outlining or you’ll find yourself with a bunch of words that may sound good but mean nothing.

There are pros and cons to each, I guess, but ultimately, for most writers, outlining has to enter the process at some point. I guess that’s why I always suggest writers do it earlier rather than later. It’s a lot easier to revise in an outline stage than when you have seventy-five thousand words.

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NaNoWriMo and my burfday!

Most of you in the writing world have heard of NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. For those of you who haven’t, it’s a month long stab at writing a novel, or at least 50,000 words of it.

NaNoWriMo started in 1999, but I didn’t hear about it until middle 2000s. It’s gained in strength and popularity each year since it began and I’ve thought about doing it nearly every year since I heard about it. You see, the idea isn’t that you complete a 50,000 word draft of the next best thing, ready to be published right then and there. The idea is that you get the words on the page so that you’ll have something to work with, to revise.

It’s a great idea for those who like to call themselves “writer” but do no actual writing (I’ve known quite a few of those people in my day!), or for those who write, but have problems with the “solo” aspect of it and need the deadlines and the encouragement. And by that I mean the idea seems particularly geared to those sorts.

It wasn’t until last week that I realized the “rules” for NaNoWriMo are actually quite flexible: you can have your work “plotted” out as long as you haven’t actually written any of the actual text. Of course, there is no real way to adjudicate that…and there are no “prizes” for those who are successful except the feeling of success and accomplishment.

As I said, though, the thought of being pushed through an entire month (though why they chose November, with THANKSGIVING stuck there at the end confounds me) and watching the word counts of your writing pals rise…has been intriguing.

And so after my fellow Spalding alum and writing pal Kat Shehata tossed out the gauntlet…eh, I picked it up…and so I’m giving it a try this year. In fact, I should probably be writing on it now instead of writing this. If you’re participating, my username is rolandmann. Send me a buddy request and I’ll cheer you on as well.

And oh. It’s my birthday. Those of you on Facebook saw that my wife hacked my account! I’m hoping to be able to get back on soon!

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You Can’t Teach Motivation

It’s nearly impossible to be a writer today and not have attended a writer’s conference of some sort, even if it is simply as a speaker/presenter. I would definitely say it’s impossible to be a writer and at least not be aware of them. Writer’s conferences serve a lot of purposes and are particularly good, I think, for writers just starting out. For experienced writers it’s a great time to hang around like-minded creatives and yes, be reminded of all the writing-type strategies. And as a teacher of creative writing, I’m a fan of them and will encourage all writers (of all skill levels) to make an effort to attend at least one per year…even if you are going just to hang out.

But that got me thinking about all the things covered at conferences and in creative writing programs. We can teach (and learn) things like plot, pacing, characterization, dialogue, etc. etc. And if we know about them, we can be reminded of good strategies to use those tools effectively.

But there is one thing teachers/speakers can’t teach, and that’s motivation. I don’t mean fictional character motivation—we can teach that (even if hardheaded students aren’t willing to learn!), but what I mean is writer motivation. Yes, I believe teachers can inspire and encourage and think we should work to do that (but I also think if you love what you do, that’ll come through in the teaching)…but there’s nothing I can really do (not just me, all teachers) that will make a writer give us time on Facebook, or television and write…and then write some more…and then do more writing after that. And then when they’re done writing, finish up with a little more writing.

I don’t know who said it, or I’d give the credit, but I recently read it takes 10,000 hours for someone to reach the stage of successful whatever it is they do. SO, a musician must spend 10,000 practicing in order to reach the level of professional…and so on. So many writers think they’ll slap it down on the page and then they’re done. Oh, maybe an “editing” revision to look for typos and misspelled words—but some don’t even do that!

And with the Olympics just finished (it IS finished now, right?), we’re reminded of all the hard work and HOURS that these athletes (even the ones who lost) put in just to make it there. It takes motivation to force yourself to spend that kind of time practicing. It’s the “WANT TO” of achieving success.

That’s not something that can be taught…it has to come from within.

So whatever it is you do…how bad do you want it? Do you want it bad enough to spend 10,000 hours to get there?

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