I Bought Plotto

A book arrived in the mail yesterday from Amazon. Hardcopy book; real mail. I hope the texture, heft, and aroma of a book will never stop bringing my day to a halt so that I can imbibe the sumptiousness of a new one.

This one is an odd duck of a book. It is a reprint of a book from the late 20s, and it is a Mechanical Turk for plot construction.

I’ve always been skeptical about learn-to-write books and software. Maybe it’s the too-good-to-be-true sense I get for the effort of writing. Maybe it’s the instinctual knowledge that writing is a gifted art. But since I still struggle with unloosening that gift from the packaging and finding the batteries, I rubber-neck these types of books. I’m sure all these books have at least one morsel of value, but the good books are the ones which have more morsels than gristle. I’ve read a few of those.

I think this new book, Plotto by William Wallace Cook, out-gimmicks all the gimmick riddled how-to-write books. The intriguing part, the characteristic which brings the value, though is that it is the grandaddy of such books. It is the how-to-write book that this generation of books forgot existed. I’m looking forward to finding out how this genre read for our grandparents.

So far, it seems genuine and lacking of self-awareness. And complicated.

229 words on day 935

Overthinking Practical Magic

I chose not to write yesterday morning. My loose plan was to write in the evening after a day at work which would not be satisfying but at least over. Once that day was over, the prospect of writing anything more substantial than a waste of both our times increased from very likely to basically inevitable. For two hours I thought I might find inspiration in watching Practical Magic. I was inspired to choose not to write after all—that was more the late hour than the material.

Going in I recalled that I liked Practical Magic, but hadn’t seen it more than twice. I guess when I’ve got nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon it’s always “While You Were Sleeping” day and not “Practical Magic” day on Lifetime. Having now seen it three times, I’d say the movie is just OK. It tries hard to be better than it is. Those stunted attempts don’t get it marked down, but they don’t get it marked up either. You can see the filmmakers’ solid efforts to remain true to a book that must have been packed with stuff while also trying to fit that all into a two hour package.

My meager schooling in older movies, black and white ones, reminds me there used to be explicit scenes showing a person in NY packing a bag, driving to the airport, waiting at the airport, on a plane, and so forth until they were finally rooted in LA. As movies have matured those travel scenes have been truncated to a telegraphing line in Central Park about moving to LA followed by a shot of the character unpacking a bag with a In and Out Burger visible through the motel window. No packing, no driving, no airport, no plane. Unless its a road movie, we never see travel much these days. Practical Magic did much of the same thing but with emotional travel. Two young girls casting a spell cuts to one of them as a young adult sneaking out and the other staying behind. That fast forwards to the stay-behind lonely and unloved which turns into a magic induced first kiss, marriage, two kids, and then a widow making. Back in the days before pausing, if you’d gotten up to pee prior to this you’d have missed the whole thing and been wondering where the hell those daughters came from.

Sometimes strategic gaps are fine. Sometimes when they aren’t fine they are still necessary. Sometimes they aren’t fine at all. As often as they were fine or needed in Practical Magic they were also jarring. I doubt anyone was satisfied with the exorcism at the end—the stay-behind had no trouble marshaling her sneering neighbors to form a coven and save her returned sister. I have little doubt the book spent time showing how those women overcame their petty disgust of the sisters’ witchery to identify with the returned ones man-trouble or how a few of them had secretly coveted their powers and saw this as an in. Or maybe there were cut scenes which showed the two-faced women of the town sneaking help from the witches in private only to denounce them in public and stay-behind blackmailed them. Whatever the motivation in pulp, it was lacking from the celluloid. And I noticed.

And I don’t know what that means.

Does it mean that I know movies aren’t books and books aren’t movies? Does it mean that I’m developing a more critical eye toward the pieces of a story? The first I knew; the second I need but don’t know how to wield.

601 words on day 837

An Alex Toth Magnet

>>On Thu, Dec 16, 2010 at 9:59 PM, Chris wrote:
>>You may have already seen this – seems like the kind of topic you
>>are interested in (comics that is, not the searing criticism).



I find it somewhat interesting that this isn’t the first time I’ve been asked my opinion on Alex Toth’s opinions:

Professional creative people rely on critical assessment from colleagues, mentors, and others with similar skill sets to keep them in check in some instances and to challenge them in others. The subjective practices of drawing and sculpting and storytelling and dancing all suffer from the Xerox effect–the copying of a copy, and without someone calling bullshit, without someone saying this iteration simply isn’t good enough, each new generation of artist gets by with less than the previous generation.

However, a faulty premise lingers in this common relationship between fellow artists. We assume that when a person is great at drawing or sculpting or storytelling or dancing that that person is also great at explaining how to do those things to others, but giving criticism is a learned skill as well. Some people critique well, others mirror what worked on them, and still others give bad direction. Without knowing anything at all about how Alex Toth was trained, I’d estimate he fits in the second group more than the other two. I think he had a mentor that sensed in Toth a tendency to respond positively to harsh criticism, and Toth probably excelled under such duress. I doubt he even gave much thought to how he’d help others. I’m sure this “great gives great” assumption forms the crux of the widespread interest in Toth’s critique of Steve Rude.

The cognitive dissonance attracts people to this car wreck. The crowd says to themselves, Toth was such an excellent artist and a legend that he must be correct, but holy hell he seems to have gone to the extreme.

The best evidence for Toth’s poor criticising skills is ironically his only real compliment in the diatribe. When he indicates that one of the panels is “…Okay—I guess—” my interpretation is that he feels compelled to have a response to every single thing Rude drew: each page, each panel, each character, each item, and each line. He’s compelled by his poor criticism skills to deliver a note about ever portion of the work. He’s lumped minor flaws in with major flaws. A better criticiser would have defined a threshold and only noted mistakes above (or below) that threshold. In my writing experience, highlighting positives along with negatives is considered good form.

There are stages to becoming great. I won’t outline them all, but this conversation between artists provides excellent examples of two of those stages. Steve Rude recognizes his internal appraisal of his work needs a bit of external guidance so he seeks that guidance from Alex Toth. Rude’s cool-headed reply indicates that he’s able to distinguish between true flaws and ranty ones. I’d say Rude’s at the uppermost level of that particular phase. Alex Toth resides further along the process. He’s great because he can effectively self-criticise. He can lazily draw a character and then recognize the need to fix it. Now doubt he doesn’t even get lines on the paper before he’s roughed out several panels in his mind first. Unlike Rude, Toth is at the lower end of his phase; Toth assumes what works for him works for all.

584 words on day 622