The Rules: A Brief Instruction Manual for Writing Classes

The creative writing class is a beautiful thing. The longest journeys begin with a single step, and (I’m sure) just like countless colleges and writers’ centers throughout the world, the classes I attended at The Irish Writers’ Centre were safe, exciting places to put one figurative foot in front of the other. Though clearly my metaphors need a little work… The established rules are pretty clear to anyone who’s attended school: do your assignments, listen to the other students, respect your teacher. But of course, society is also filled with unwritten rules, observed by most and flouted by others. Don’t sip your drink too loudly at the movies; don’t answer your phone during a gig; and, if you’re attending a writing class, don’t do any of the things described below. 1. "I didn't know we could do that!" Lesson number one begins with a writing exercise that I love. Students are asked to turn to their nearest classmate and ask three questions about their life, then take 10 minutes writing the opening paragraph of a story using some of these details. For example, if someone mentions that they travel a lot, tan easily, and like the ocean, you could (if you're a genius) use it as the opening to a story like John Steinbeck's The Pearl. It's a great warm up if there's a big enough group, and a chance for people to express themselves to a new class in a safe way. That is until people show resentment for classmate's use of imagination. To illustrate: One student was told of a classmate's insomnia, love for travelling, and fondness of Latin America. This gave birth to a Latin variation on The Hulk (or Jekyll and Hyde, if you're feeling even more generous). It was a lively, pulpy little piece and the closing line "when he slept, he became Rodrigo, and Rodrigo was not a nice person to know" evoked gasps and a few knowing chuckles: This young man had taken some bare facts and built the foundations of a fun -- if slightly derivative short story. There were backslaps all round, at first. "I didn't know you could do that!" one student spluttered, so outraged she could barely get the words out fast enough. "He...he used supernatural elements. That's not allowed! Is it?" What was the real issue? That he didn't follow her imagined parameters of the assignment? Or that her story was a literal shopping list of what she'd just been told? She had broken the first unwritten rule of creative writing classes: Don't get sore if someone else has a better idea. 2. "Oh, I haven't read it." Early in one beginner's class, we were assigned to bring in a book we wished we'd written. I resisted the urge to bring in something classy like Ulysses, or indeed Slash’s autobiography, and instead opted for High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. Another classmate brought in A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe. She praised it eloquently, saying how the fall of a tycoon was relevant, how Wolfe writes with the authority of a gifted investigative journalist, and how it echoes Wolfe's idol, Charles Dickens. "What do you like most about it?" asked the teacher. "Oh I haven't read it," she breezed, without a hint of embarrassment or contrition. She later went on to correct other people’s assertions and interpretation of Wolfe’s opus, utterly oblivious to the inconvenient fact that they had read it and she had not. You would think it doesn't need clarification, but apparently it does: When told to talk about a book you admire, it's best to choose one you've already at least opened. 3. "I thought it was sentimental." Outside of medicine and pharmaceuticals, which profession do you imagine is most affected by the existence of incurable diseases? I imagine it's creative writing teachers. In the first class I attended, the writing-about-terminal-illness cases were approaching 50 percent. Terminal illness is obviously a serious subject, but even the most powerful subject’s impact can be dulled with repetition, or when it’s used as a narrative short cut. You’ll be surprised how callous you become when numerous consecutive students read aloud their story about the elderly neighbor (kindly or cranky), known only for one hobby (gardening or withholding children's Frisbees) who succumbs to a disease that reveals their true colors (humor and/or courage). Making someone cry is as hard as making someone laugh, and, in both comedy and tragedy, it's painful to endure a piece of fiction that tries and fails. This brings us to a student we'll call “Anna” and rule number 3: Appreciate it when classmates are being polite. Her short story was about a precocious and grating young child who didn't like her aunt. The twist is (you're way ahead of me) that it turns out the aunt is fighting a serious disease. It was a mawkish, deadly serious piece of work, and the 4the illness-themed piece in one class. After she read it aloud, everyone gave polite, vague, and very gentle criticisms. Many tongues seemed to be held and bitten. Then it came time to read my debut opus, in which a boy realizes he's getting too old for stunts on his BMX. It was a little rough around the edges, but not the bike-crash I thought it was before Anna piped up. "I thought it was sentimental," she snipped, oblivious to the fact that she had just read out a piece that Nicholas Sparks would have deleted and re-drafted. "Yeah, it was mawkish," she continued, louder this time, "I didn't get it". “Hey listen, lady!” I didn't say. "The only reason you're taking such liberties is because you wrongly think your story is nuanced and insightful.” “And if we weren't so polite during this fragile and important learning phase, you'd know how leaden and syrupy your misery mope fest really was,” I didn't continue. “Thanks, Anna, that's really helpful,” I actually said, meekly and sadly combing over my every word to look for manipulative or sentimental passages I could re-write. Image Credit: Flickr/Elvert Barnes

Films You Haven’t Seen Yet…The Sequel!

Hey! How excited are you about seeing Real Steel 2? Are you stoked? Are you drooling with anticipation to see what happens next to those memorable characters? No? Well I’m not a bit surprised. Real Steel (part one) is a forthcoming Disney/Dreamworks film starring Hugh Jackman about a washed up former boxer who trains a robot to excel in the sport. From what we’ve seen, it looks like a cross between Short Circuit and The Champ. The filmmakers are so confident in Real Steel that they’ve already begun work on a sequel. Sit back and think about that for a minute or two: a film you haven’t seen yet (and possibly haven’t even heard of) has a sequel in development. It’s the most depressing thing I’ve heard since the 1-2 punch of Cars 2... in 3D. You might think that Real Steel 2 is an exception. You might think that, even by the standards of Hollywood conservatism gone mad, work on Real Steel 2 is a damning, individual act of hubris. But it’s far from the only example. On numerous occasions (that we know of), studios have started work on sequels to films that haven’t even been released, and in some cases aren’t even finished. And we’re not just talking about three-part stories like the Lord of the Rings or Girl with the Dragon Tattoo films. It used to work like this: if a film was a hit and a follow-up was appropriate, then, and only then, would we see a sequel. So we saw second chapters to The Godfather, Jaws, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, but not to Cabaret, Network, or (sadly) Young Frankenstein. Then, sometime around the 80s and 90s, it became a case of making sequels to films (usually surprise hits) that didn’t really feel like they needed one. Hence, Father of the Bride Part II, Teen Wolf Too, and Grease 2. Thankfully they drew the line before Large Man Tate and Beaches: The Revenge. Surprise hits put studios in an awkward position; the dilemma isn’t whether to desecrate the original with a shoddy follow-up (they will), but what to do with a film that has no sequel-friendly ending. The solution is as ingenious as it is crass: now studios don’t bankroll individual films – they green-light franchises. As well as Real Steel 2, follow-ups were planned for The Hangover, for Sherlock Holmes, for The Hunger Games and The Amazing Spiderman, as well as for Green Lantern before part-one was released. What’s more – even the mediocre reviews and disappointing box office didn’t change plans for Green Lantern 2. Like the eponymous robot in The Terminator, these sequels seem to be unwelcome, unstoppable machines with no "off" switch. It seems once a studio decides on a franchise, nothing can stop it – not bad reviews (Cars), disappointing numbers (Superman Returns), or bad reviews combined with disappointing numbers (Hulk). A possible, and deeply cynical, explanation is that the studios don’t want to waste all that money that they spent on creating brand awareness; they’ve splurged a fortune telling us what a Green Lantern is, and they’ll be damned if they’re going to spend it all over again on a whole new character. Not only is this insulting to you, the filmgoer (“you’ll eat what we feed you”), but also to the filmmakers themselves (“your film is not a stand-alone product”). So what can be done? It used to be the case that you could vote with your feet – don’t see a film and they won’t make a sequel. But now it’s too late for that. All we can ask you to do is avoid any films that might have a franchise in mind, and eventually, with a hive mind, nudge the trend back to character-driven, stand alone films. Good luck with that.