Sunday, September 12, 2010

10 Writing Lessons From Spaghetti Westerns

The Good, the Bad & the Ugly (2-Disc Collector's Edition)"In this world there's two types of people, my friend. Those with loaded guns, and those who dig. You dig." - Blondie (Clint Eastwood) in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
What could this quote possibly have to do with writing? A lot. A whole lot. If you are a writer, you have to be willing to be the type of person who digs. You have to be the type of person who gets things done. Procrastination is your enemy. If you are trying to be a writer, yet you can't find yourself completing a task, perhaps you should look for another line of work. Writing is about accomplishing. If you can never complete a project, an article or short story or novel or whatever, you're not a professional writer. You're a hobbyist, at best. And the people with loaded guns? Those are your editors and publishers, and often the readers, too, who want and need you to get down in the dirt and dig, dig, dig.

"Two hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money. We're gonna have to earn it." - Blondie (Clint Eastwood) in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
For most people, two hundred thousand dollars actually is quite a bit of money. But regardless of the actual dollar amount, if you are trying to be a professional writer, sooner or later you're going to have to write for money. Some people balk at that. Some seem to think any artist who is doing their craft for money is a sell-out. That's not true. Any artist doing their craft for money is a professional. And that money has to be earned.

"People with ropes around their necks don't always hang." - Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef), in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Fiction writers need to keep readers on a hook, to keep them hanging, at least until the end of a tale. This is done through building suspense, regardless of the genre of tale, through doling out certain amounts of information, usually about plot or character, but not too much information.

"The question isn't indiscreet, but the answer could be." - Colonel Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef), in For a Few Dollars More
This is related to the hanging quote above. The writer doesn't want to alienate readers by cheating them, by leaving out obvious, important facts early in a tale, but can keep the reader's interest high by revealing just a little, then a little more, and a little more, and so on until the story is complete and the reader knows all the information. Just remember, don't cheat the reader.

"Every gun makes its own tune." - Blondie (Clint Eastwood) in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Every writer is different. If you read Tolstoy's War and Peace backwards and forwards for years, possibly even had it memorized, then sat down to write your own version of the tale, your version would be unique. There's a saying that there are only so many plots. That might be true, but no one has seen a plot through your eyes and through your writing style until you've got it out there for others to see. Early on in your writing, don't worry so much about being original. When you're a beginner, you need to focus on getting things done. Later on, after you've some experience, then is the time to truly focus on your own voice. Just remember, each writer is different.

"When a man with a .45 meets a man with a rifle, the man with the pistol will be a dead man." - Ramon Rojo (Gian Maria Volonte), in A Fistful of Dollars
Actually, despite how the story played out in the movie, this quote is generally true. You don't bring a handgun to a rifle match, because the guy with the handgun will be outgunned. The guy with the rifle will have better range, quite often will have more ammunition immediately available, and usually will have a more powerful weapon. Of course, there are always exceptions, but not often. What does any of this have to do with fiction writing? Know your stuff. If you're writing about weapons, whether modern or historic or firearms or blades, make sure you know what you're talking about. You don't have to be an expert marksman or sword fighter, but you should at least know enough about weapons so your readers (many of whom will know about weapons) won't laugh at you. Because those readers might not be back for your next story or book, and they won't be shy about telling their other reader friends about how much of a doofus you are. And even if you don't write about weapons, you're going to be writing about something. So, to repeat, know your stuff,

"After a meal, there's nothing like a good cigar." - Blondie (Clint Eastwood) in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Actually, I find this one quite true. I love a good cheroot after a meal. But I digress. This quote relates to writing in this manner: After the climax of your story has come to fruition, that doesn't mean the entire tale has come to an end. Hopefully your climax lead to the main resolution of the story, but there still might be some lesser things needing said, or at least worth being said. Maybe it's a short examination of the resolution's effect about a character. Whatever it may be, this denouement helps to tie up any lose ends for the story and the characters. A denouement is not always necessary, but quite often it is. One key to a solid denouement is to keep it short; readers have already got the gist of the tale, and they're ready to wrap things up. And don't cheat the readers by leaving something out.

"When two hunters go after the same prey, they usually end up shooting each other in the back." - Colonel Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef), in For a Few Dollars More
This one basically means, "don't worry about what other writers are doing." Or, don't worry so much about following trends. Sure, vampire novels are really hot right now, but they might not be in a year or two. Another example would be young adult novels; those are popular right now, but will they be in six months? Maybe, maybe not. But you as a writer shouldn't worry about that, about trying to follow what's hot. Why? Because if you do so, you're likely to miss whatever window of popularity is still available for such literature. Unless you are an extremely fast writer and can have a novel done in a couple of weeks (which isn't impossible), then it's going to take you a while to write that novel. By the time the editing is finished and you've gone through a publisher or self-published, trends will likely have changed. That young adult vampire novel you wrote will possibly be considered trite or hackneyed by the time you can get it out to readers. That doesn't mean you shouldn't write such a novel, if that's what you feel inclined to do, but that you should write what you feel impelled to write, whatever it may be.

"Sometimes the dead can be more useful than the living." - Joe (Clint Eastwood), in A Fistful of Dollars
Learn from the classical masters of literature. Sure, their writing styles are outdated and will seem boring to many modern readers, but they can still teach a lot about plotting and characterization. Literary masterpieces are often also quite strong at helping to teach writers how to emotional involve readers, which is always important. You want those readers to like your writing, right? Then make them become emotionally involved with your characters, and those readers will love you and will be back for your next book or story.

"When you have to shoot, shoot, don't talk." - Tuco (Eli Wallach), in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Talking about writing isn't writing. Reading isn't writing. Only writing is writing. If you want to be a professional writer, you have to write. Don't forget that. Getting the writing done is half the job. The rest is editing and promotions and all kinds of other stuff. But remember, you have to have the writing part done before you can move ahead with the rest.