The top 8 rules for writing you can possibly ignore, and the one that you can’t

1) Write like a ninja.

You gotta be able to write anytime, anywhere. No prep, no routine. Just write.

2) Write constantly and always.

On your phone, on napkins, on your hand.

3) Stories are emotional moments.

Whether it lasts a few seconds, or a hundred years.

4) All writing has motion.

Emotion, action, plot, psychology, humor… something must always be evolving.

5) Justify the emotional truth of every scene.

Every scene.

6) Every character needs an emotional POV.

They all think they’re the hero. They all want something. They’re all going somewhere. They’re all thinking their equivalent of “I am Iron Man.”

7) Follow EVERY path in the first draft.

You have no idea what the novel is at the beginning; you only know at the end. So don’t shut down ANYTHING when writing the first draft. Often huge problems that come up later have solutions earlier in the text that you thought were throwaway moments. They weren’t throwaway. You were seeding your solutions.

8) Dream between the lines.

Dream… wander in your mind palace if that’s your bag… worry about the lines, but dream between them too.

…And finally, the big kahuna, the one you must obey above all others:

9) Story is the only rule.

The most important rule of all… the one rule to uh, rule them all: do what’s right for the story.

And do it well.

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SouthLAnd: “Another f***ing happy day”

What a season this is turning out to be for SouthLAnd. Each episode is an aggressive evolution from the one before, while still retaining the show’s core truths, values and style. It’s at the top of its game right now. Not that it ever wasn’t — it’s notable how strongly this show started with Unknown Trouble — but this season it’s powerhousing its way through complex storylines and brutal, unflinching character work.

If there’s a theme emerging for season three, it’s this: pitting the characters against the massive disintegration of their values, emotions, psyches and even their lives, in some cases. As a writer, you learn quickly: drama is conflict, great drama is high-stakes conflict — which pretty much makes SouthLAnd the reigning king of Shakespearean tragedy on cable TV. Everything the characters hold dear is f**ked with brutally and relentlessly. It’s like Hamlet with a shotgun and a badge, only the ghosts are real and never go away.

The Winds started and ended with John coming apart in the desert as the Santa Anas grew wilder. A bare, unforgiving landscape for his breakdown. Nelson McCormick directed this  — he’s becoming SouthLAnd‘s go-to director for the “disintegration” episodes, having previously handled Ben’s shattering revelations in Discretion. With a beautifully layered script from Heather Zuhkle, McCormick did an excellent job of bringing us into John Cooper’s complex world.

The episode could have been subtitled “fatherhood.” Cooper found himself inadvertently becoming a father figure to an abandoned child, in a series of low-key, moving scenes. Later, he aggressively stepped into the role of a missing father to a kid who called the cops because his mom beat him. And finally, he gave his verdict at his own father’s early parole hearing. His father was in jail for rape and murder, and John was as uncompromising as we knew he would be, despite the massive personal cost. Michael Cudlitz gave a heavyweight, authoritative performance this week, shouldering the massive burden of Cooper’s many demons and making you care, painfully.

The rest of the show was taken up with Lydia and Josie pursuing a series of rape cases, and developed their conflicts and partnership in a natural, seemingly effortless way. The two fought over policy, philosophy, technique, and I have to say that as great as Jenny Gago is as Josie, Regina King is a legend. It’s that simple.

The Winds had its moments of comedy too, best of all being Dewey and Cooper arguing over whether one victim “hanged” or “hung” himself. Dewey lost it and turned to Sherman: “Google it, Boot.” Needless to say, Cooper was right.

Of course, we couldn’t forget what happened last week: Nate’s death haunted the edges of this episode, and when Dewey asked Cooper if he was going to the funeral, Cooper responded with, “yeah, another f***ing happy day.”

Which could be the subtitle to this entire series. The Los Angeles streets are tough, brutal, unforgiving, and SouthLAnd does a tremendous job paying tribute to those who serve there.

Terminator Mode

It’s been a Swedish kind of week. I feel like I owe Stieg Larsson.

Here’s how it played out: low key, lots of coffee, read the last few chapters of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, completed the entirety of The Girl Who Played With Fire, started The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest, watched the Dragon Tattoo movie on DVD, and saw the Played With Fire movie in a beautiful old-school cinema like the ones I would go to in the summer when I was a teenager, taking a break from the books I was reading to go and sit in the dark and see other worlds (once the strangely loud local ads were finished running).

But… I also found out the wonderful news that I’m getting a story published in the Momaya Annual Review anthology. The story is called Love Like A Shooting Star Across The Dream-Night Of The World. It’s about dreaming of worlds and making them real, searching for truth, giving yourself to your feelings, and never giving up.

In some ways, this is what Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy is about, and this is also a good way to think of the existence of a writer: we’re mystery-solving, obsessive fighters for new worlds. One of the sections of The Girl Who Played With Fire is entitled Terminator Mode; it’s perfect for that point in the story, and it got me thinking.

As writers, we must always be in terminator mode: we must not stop, ever, until we get want we want. Whether this is publication, a TV, film or stage production, or jokes in a routine, we must pursue it relentlessly and unflinchingly. We need to dream it and then make it real. We have to go to the third dream level every day and plant our ideas, achieve Inception. It can be dangerous and exhausting and requires infinite patience, adrenaline and verve. As someone once said, there’s a word that describes writers who never give up: PUBLISHED. You could insert “hired on a TV show” and “got a movie script made” there also. It’s talent plus luck plus persistance. This is the writer’s trinity. Creating and constructing a dream-reality is a painstaking, deliberate and sometimes overwhelming task. These dreams become real with many thousands of accumulating elements. They coalesce in small increments: a story published here, a script reaching the semi-finals of a contest there. (Thanks to sitcom screenwriter and blogger Evan Shaw for the increment idea). These increments are always deeply meaningful, because each one gets us closer to that promised land. There’s another blog to be written about the journey being the destination, but that’s another story: this one’s about that destination, arriving at the citadel of accomplished dreams.

Making It.

And the only way we can do that is to act like Lisbeth Salander and James Cameron’s Terminator. We must always be in terminator mode. We must be relentless until we get there. And even then, because this is what we do, we’ll dream the next reality, and we’ll fight our way towards it.

Inception

Christopher Nolan’s Inception is many things: a great heist movie, a metaphysical thriller, a metaphor for life and creativity. As writers and artists, we exist in three worlds: the “real world”, the world of our consciousness, and the world of our creations. All those worlds are narrated to a certain extent. Narratives are overlaid by others or by us, and events are given meanings and connections.

We collectively impose stories upon the external world, whether in broadsheet newspapers, on TMZ, CNN or The Daily Show. We have to create reasons, causes and effects, to make sense of our surroundings. It starts when we’re infants and everything is a mystery. We have to tell ourselves stories about why this leads to that, so that we can simply survive. This process just gets more sophisticated as we get older.

Likewise with our consciousnesses. One theory states that our brains have an ‘interpreter function’ that adds motivations to our thoughts, which is how we attempt to understand our feelings, impulses and desires. When we wake from a dream, those seemingly random images and feelings usually have a narrative, which some dream scientists and philosophers believe is only added in the moment of waking. Think about it. You wake up to a loud noise: in your dream, a complex series of events led up to something that made that noise, and yet only a second went by between the noise and your waking up. Our brains are incredibly agile: as Leonardo DiCaprio’s character states in a key scene within Inception, we create and experience simultaneously in dreams. It’s the same when we’re awake. We want something; we want someone. Until you question it, the feeling drives you and your actions. When you do question it, you search for the why. Why do I want this person? You search for clues, for a chain of causes leading to this effect. You add your motivation to explain why you did what you did. The interpreter theory says that this motivation is a story we tell ourselves, nothing more. We could have told ourselves a different story, gone  a different way. We experience ourselves and create ourselves, and we don’t always notice the seams, the joins. When we are in therapy, discovering why we took the paths we did, are the connections we make real, or simply useful fictions?

The third level, for creative types, is the creative world. We go deep into the creative trance state, the dream-world, where we are simultaneously architects and forgers, extractors and thieves. We create worlds, people, psychologies and emotions: we get lost in them. The external world, our internal world, and the world of our creations bleed into each other; the levels mingle, realities collide. It’s no wonder that many creative individuals lead intense existences; we are navigating multiple realities, all the time.

With Inception, Christopher Nolan deftly skips between worlds, displaying a seemingly effortless control and the lightest of touches (which is also a fantastic testament to and argument for the power of multiple script drafts). It’s an intense, thrilling experience, partly due to the story, and partly because such accomplished, bravura, show-stopping creativity is exhilarating to watch. We rarely see that in cinema anymore; but we do it ourselves, all the time, every day. We’re all creative geniuses; that’s what being human is.

the first post…

So here it is, the inaugural post on “dreaming between the lines” (thank you Flaubert), my first foray into the world of blogs… I should probably start by explaining what all this will be about. To put it simply, I’ll be writing about writing. Helpfully, I’m a writer, of novels, stories and screenplays, and I’ll be exploring thoughts about writing, theories, ideas, philosophies – manifestos – as well as sharing tales of my own experiences as I try to gain my way into the citadel, the promised land of publication. I’ve had a small taste of this so far, with stories published in two anthologies (Bristol Tales, Watermark). The story published in Bristol Tales is the first chapter of a novel, which I will be sending out into the writing world in the hope of finding a lovely agent… Having completed numerous and brutal edits, I now have the fully realized version of that original dream…