NBC’s Perfect Harmony & the Problem with Beginnings

[Photo credit: NBC]

NBC’s new fall comedy Perfect Harmony has some of my favorite things: choir, jokes about conservative ideals (I grew up conservative, so it “strikes a chord” with me, har har), and Bradley Whitford (most recently of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale). As a friend put it, it’s like a reverse Sister Act. I’m all about Sister Act. I’m probably the perfect, targeted viewer for this show. With high hopes, I watched the pilot episode.

“Pilot” is industry-speak for season one, episode one. The pilot of any series is potentially the most important episode of that series that will ever be made.  It set expectations for literally everything else in the series. This is sometimes why a pilot episode is noticeably more violent than episodes two and three: it’s signaling the viewer that stuff like this can happen in this story. It’s often used to pitch the show to producers and network honchos, and after it has passed those tests, it’s used to pitch the show to potential viewers. The only way viewers will become fans is via the pilot. The run of the series, the livelihoods of its writers, directors, crew, and actors all depends on a solid fanbase that begins growing (or not) with that pilot.

Kind of important. And, as far as I’m concerned, a problem for Perfect Harmony.

***SPOILERS FOR THE PILOT OF PERFECT HARMONY BELOW***

There were lots of little problems with this pilot, but I think all of them can be traced back to one major storytelling issue. Here’s my diagnosis.

They tried to jam an entire season into one episode.

Some of the negative effects are:

Not enough time to imprint on characters, especially Bradley Whitford’s character, Arthur. We don’t get a genuine connection with him or his emotional state. His attempted suicide within the first five minutes of the show is glossed over and ignored (which is also not a proper way to handle suicide, but that’s an entirely different issue). There’s a huge missed opportunity to really dig into his grief. I get that this is a comedy, but there’s quite a bit of good, dark comedy that can be mined from grief. (Grace & Frankie, for example.) We get caught up on what happened to him as the episode progresses, but he’s already being an asshole in those moments, too, so the viewer’s not 100% on his side.

The crowd of supporting characters (the choir) also gets the shaft. They’re introduced all at once, which is overwhelming, and they’re treated as caricatures. There’s no other way to do it; there’s simply not enough time in the forward-leaping pilot. Each character gets about one defining detail, and that’s it.

Series Expectations: Trite one-liners and fast, surface-y exchanges will be the norm. Legitimate emotional experiences will be expedited for the cheap, less-earned laugh.

An unsteady sense of how time will work. Within one 21-minute episode, Arthur’s tiny choir goes from out of tune, out of whack, populated by singers who really don’t understand how to use their own instruments, to winning an award at a competition with a performance-ready sound and full choreography and a boatload of unearned confidence. It’s not super clear how long the choir has until the competition to prepare, so I’m not sure exactly how long they were able to rehearse. We see two, maybe three rehearsals, which–my fellow choir nerds know–is not nearly enough time to see that kind of progress.

Series Expectations: Passage of time and episode structuring are unclear. Maybe each episode will end on a performance. This is a believability problem. Will there really be enough venues for choral performance in Small-Town, Kentucky to hold up multiple episodes?

An unrealistic depiction of choral music, and how people learn to sing and/or improve musically. One of my day jobs is teaching private voice lessons. I know the lingo, and how people improve their voices. Some of what Arthur tells the choir is dead on (aligning the spine, string from the top of the head, how emotions/posture affect sound).  But then there’s that scene where Arthur telling a man to imagine his voice as a little ball of light literally unlocks a MASSIVE, rich, baritone sound with mature vibrato. That is pure fantasy. That kind of work would take at least weeks, if not months or years, not minutes.

The idea that Arthur directed choral music at Princeton is another believability problem for me. A choral musician from Princeton would be an expert conductor. Whitford’s conducting just isn’t good enough. He should have taken far more conducting lessons, and actually conducted some live performances, led some rehearsals, etc. before filming. I had a problem with this when watching Mozart in the Jungle, too. Mozart got around it a bit by having their conductor be a “prodigy” and by generally being hyper-accurate with every other element of classical music they explored. All Perfect Harmony had to do was make it NOT Princeton, and I would have been fine. They could have even made up a school name.

This element also gives me trouble identifying their target audience. If they’re appealing to the hardcore music nerds, they’ve already lost us. If they’re trying to appeal to a broader audience, why make it about choral music? It can’t be this specific, and have that broad of an appeal.

Series Expectations: The show will be only very loosely based around choral music. References to choral music will probably be borderline inaccurate. It’s not a show written for musicians.

Conclusion . . .

If the end of season one had been the competition at the end of the pilot, Perfect Harmony would have had time to dig in deep, start right, humanize its characters, get the audience connected, stabilize time, improve believability, provide more evidence of musical improvement, and demonstrate that the writers understand how choral music works by inserting easter eggs for the music nerds along the way.

It’s too bad; I really wanted to like this one. But it’s an interesting study in how setting expectations can win or lose your audience’s attention.

What did you think of Perfect Harmony’s pilot? Am I totally off base? And what do you think is the hardest part of writing beginnings and setting audience expectations?

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NaNoWriMo What Now?

I’m going to try NaNoWriMo this year.

That sentence is terrifying.

Well, not if you don’t know what the abbreviation stands for.

It’s National Novel Writing Month, which is November 1-30 every year. Basically, a bunch of psychos try to write 50,000-word novel drafts in a month. There’s a little more nuance than that. But it’s essentially a month of crazed word production. You can sign up for a free account and use their website (https://www.nanowrimo.org/) as a platform to connect with other writers and report your word count, maintain accountability, stuff like that. I did make an account (search me: awritingwall), but I’m not sure how much I’m going to use the site yet.

I tried to do NaNoWriMo some years back, but it didn’t pan out. I produced like 2k+ words a day for a couple of days and burned out. Like, supernova burned out. My pantser/gardener/exploratory drafting style was NOT compatible.

Since then, I’ve shaken my head in nervous awe at those who participate. I assumed it wasn’t for me.

I generally label myself a “slow” writer. But I was at this conference (Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Conference) back in September 2019, and was struck by the writing schedules of the novelists getting published on a regular basis, and who receive steady income through book sales. They write fast. They write, like, a book a year. Like, 12 literal months.

I was like, “Shit.”

So I’m going to try NaNoWriMo. To speed myself up. To challenge my word production.

I think there’s some things I did “wrong” last time, and I’m going to try to fix those before November 1, 2019. It boils down to…

PREPARATION.

Here’s how I’m (TRYING) to prep for NaNoWriMo 2019.

  1. Character development. I’m taking more time up front to write notes about my characters. I’m naming them, and jotting down their central desires, details about their personalities, physical characteristics, and for those who will be more important to the plot, what their arcs, or patterns of growth, will be. That way, I have something to shoot for with each character. I’ll also have an idea of how each character might behave in different situations, how they’ll talk, who likes who, etc. I’m also trying to make this list comprehensive, so I know exactly who all will be included. Backstory also tends to influence the story of the novel itself, so I’m trying to flesh out a little backstory for each character. For one in particular, who believes she knows what happened to her, but has been lied to, this will be a huge plot point.
  2. World building. I always seem to be attracted to stories that require intense world building. This one is no exception. I’ve done some research, and started a world building bible: basically a massive Word file with all kinds of info on the world from geography, to countries, to cities, and the history of those cities, neighborhoods, politics, and etc. There’s a good list of world building questions by Patricia C. Wrede here. It’s geared toward fantasy novels, but I’ve used it with sci-fi, too, and am sure it would work with just about any genre of book.
  3. Point of view decisions. I’m making a conscious choice to go for a distant, third-person narrator. My last project was in first person, and I want to try something different. I also think I need to not be tethered to a single POV character for this story to work. I also don’t feel strongly drawn toward any of my characters so far, so for this first draft, I think a distant POV will help me see all the action and get to know everyone.
  4. Plotting in advance. Like I’ve said, I am really not a plotter. But with word-production targets anywhere from 1,000-2,000 words per writing day, there’s no time to meander through scenes and plots. So I’m actually plotting. I know. This may be what kills me. I’m still waffling between an Excel spreadsheet and a Word doc. Neither of these feels like the right medium, but I need the outline to be flexible up until I start writing, at which point I’ll probably print it out. I’m attempting to go scene-by-scene through the story. I’m never super concerned with chapters–these divisions just don’t feel significant to me.

Writing fiction is all about making decisions, then following the consequences of those decisions to their most logical/interesting/dramatic conclusions. The more decisions I make up front, the more time I’ll have for straight word production.

I think plotting as far out as I can, in as much detail as possible, will be significant in order to actually get through the month. I do worry that I’ll start to “feel wrong” about things as I go. I’ll just have to try to make things work. It is supposed to be a rough draft, after all.

I’m also going to do most of my actual word production on my typewriter (a gorgeous 1964 Olympia SM9), which (in addition to just be fun) will keep me from wrist-soreness/carpal tunnel, screen-tired eyes, and, more importantly, help me break the urge to go back and edit as I write. It may also make it harder to keep track of my word count. Hmm. Will have to think on this…

Anybody else out there taking the November plunge?? What are your pre-NaNoWriMo-craziness strategies???? ANY TIPS?????????

The Feminine Creative Process

Novel outlining methods look so great on paper. Everything is in neat steps. You basically have an organized checklist for writing a 50k+-word book. But none of them work…

…for me. And maybe for you, too.

A large part of being an artist is understanding your own creative process. If you can learn to work with yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, patterns of burnout and inspiration, your schedule, and work with persistence, there’s a pretty good chance of improvement.

I feel like I have a pretty good handle on my day-to-day creative process. I know the kinds of environments I can do certain kinds of work in, how to get myself at the desk, and so forth.

My long-term creative process has been mysterious–partly because I’ve been mostly in the thick of it for the last couple of years. Can’t see the forest for the trees. That kind of thing. But I’m approaching the finish line (read: my self-imposed deadline because I need to be done with this book) of a long, long cycle of novel writing and revision. I’m getting to the edge of the forest, and I’m gaining perspective on my long-term writing process.

I’m a pantser. That’s writer-speak for: I prefer to write new stuff without planning ahead and discover what’s happening as I go. The opposite would be a plotter, someone who writes outlines, knows how many chapters they’re going to have, and so forth.

George R. R. Martin (A Game of Thrones) has more poetic terminology:

The architects do blueprints before they drive the first nail, they design the entire house, where the pipes are running, and how many rooms there are going to be, how high the roof will be. But the gardeners just dig a hole and plant the seed and see what comes up. I think all writers are partly architects and partly gardeners, but they tend to one side or another, and I am definitely more of a gardener.

Being a pantser/gardener is exciting. It keeps me interested in the project. The problem is that it seems to drastically increase the amount of time I spend drafting. I’m not sure when something is “done” because I have no idea what my goal for any particular scene/chapter/plot line is. I’m the fairy tale character who left the path and is wandering around in the woods, hoping to find the magic whatever to do the thing.

At various points during the writing of this particular book, I got sick of being lost in the woods. I attempted to plot. But very quickly, frustration with being lost turned into frustration with plotting. I never stuck with it very long.

So, slowly but surely, I made my way to the story that’s now in the hands of beta readers (god help me).

I have multiple writer friends who seem to be able to make this linear process work for them, who outline whole books before writing them, who ask confounding questions like, “How many drafts have you written?”

In her book The Heroine’s Journey, Maureen Murdock (quoting Sheila Moon and her book Changing Woman and Her Sisters: Feminine Aspects of Selves and Deities) talks about the creative process as having both masculine and feminine sides. (I don’t think these terms are any more gendered than yin and yang, but I’ll let you be the judge of that.) The masculine side of the creative process involves a linear progression from start to finish. Here are the plotters, the “architects” as George R. R. Martin calls them. Decision-making, forward motion, clear progress.

The feminine creative process moves not in a straight line, but in a spiral. Intuitive. Ever closer to the center, circling, narrowing, nearer and nearer to completion.

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Photo by Ashley Batz on Unsplash

The process of my maybe-almost-finished book has a strong spiral shape. It has involved times of great productivity and breakthroughs, and times of waiting, or confusion, backtracking, and starting over. It can be maddening to wait and trust a process that seems circular, without realizing it really is spiral-shaped, and constantly angling closer to the center.

It would be nice if I could write a book from start to finish in straight-forward, sequenced steps. Instead, it’s a murky struggle for understanding. Somehow, though, that feels right. The novel is a long form that tends to be concerned with the way people live their lives, or a portion of their lives. And living, in my mind, involves a lot of murky struggling for understanding. So maybe it’s fitting that my process imitates the very thing the form is trying to capture.

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Photo by June Wong on Unsplash

What patterns do you find in your own artistic process? Do you identify more with the feminine or masculine? What process do you wish worked?

As always, love and luck and persistence to you…

Writing Contest News…

Got a little good news RE: the novel I’ve been working on. If that’s interesting to you, awesome, and if not, no harm no foul. Ignore, click away, and good juju to you.

Back in May, I entered my post-apocalyptic novel in the Colorado Gold Writing Contest. It’s a novel-writing contest for unpublished writers that includes the first 4k words and a synopsis (one of the single hardest writing things I’ve ever written holy god). It’s associated with the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Conference in Denver, which I attended in 2018, not knowing about this contest.

Found out about it, prepped the pages, wrote the synopsis (that fucking synopsis), submitted. Got a call in August that I was in the top five, which meant that a professional agent/editor was going to read and judge my work and four other writers’.

Attended (great experience, highly recommend), and on Saturday night was awarded…..

2nd Place!

So I have this inherited spiel from my dad about how 2nd place is psychologically worse than 3rd place, blah, blah, blah, but I’m super happy with the result, especially since I’d never written a synopsis before (I DON’T recommend writing a synopsis. It’s awful.).

Only good things came by entering (joining a writers’ group, encouraging comments, a contest judge offering to beta read, a pitch session that went well), and have a TON of fuel and encouragement that I’m going to try to use to finish a draft of this damn thing and get it off to some beta readers, and then, hopefully, off to agents.

I don’t so much intend to get you all to party with me (though that’s of course welcome) as to remind you that good things come with hard work and persistence. Especially in something as fickle as fiction. The only way you lose FOR SURE is if you give up.

Cheesy?

Yeah.

Book published?

Nah.

Ton of work to do yet?

Definitely.

But another milestone in the process. So bring it on.

And in your endeavors, good juju to you.

Scarcity Mindset and the Writing Life

I’ve been thinking about scarcity mindset and abundance mindset lately. The terms seem to be coming up a lot. Generally, as in this NPR interview, they are applied to the way people spend their money or use their resources. Stephen Covey (the man who coined the terms) applied them to the ways people do business. I think there is an application for writers. But first, what do these terms mean?

They first appeared in Stephen Covey’s business self-help book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I haven’t read this book, so I can’t recommend it, but it has sold over 25 million copies since its publication in 1989.

A scarcity mindset can occur when you believe there is not enough of something to go around. When you really want that something you see yourself as not having enough of, you focus on it. You get obsessive about it, and that tunnel vision can cause you to think of yourself as a victim with not enough whatever-it-is, and to lose sight of long-term goals, things you could be doing that could be making you more successful/healthy/happy in the long run. Because all you want is that one thing.

Let’s translate into writer.

So say you want to be a published writer, and you’ve got a piece you think is really, really cool. Maybe it’s a comic science-fiction short story about an alien invasion, in which the only commodity the aliens value is opera music. Maybe it’s something else. The content doesn’t matter. It’s just an example. You start thinking this piece could really put you on the map. Get you noticed. Get your career moving. So you polish it up real shiny, research markets, and start sending it out.

Rejections start rolling in. That’s normal. You tell yourself that’s normal. But it feels…bad. You start to feel…panicky. You get feedback from writer friends about it, apply their revisions, and try again. Nothing. And you start to feel like you’ll never be published, never be recognized, never be able to have the kind of life or career you wanted…

…all because ONE short story (that’s really niche, if we’re being honest) isn’t getting picked up.

That’s scarcity mindset. Really, a single short story is never going to launch anyone’s career, or sustain it. Pinning all hopes and dreams on one story isn’t fair to the story, nor is it fair to the writer, or to the craft of writing.

There’s never just one good idea, or one idea that will help you break through and find an audience for your work. Writing flows.

Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. –Annie Dillard

The world is teeming with ideas. Every moment of every day could provide enough inspiration for a lifetime. Scarcity mindset tells you, “It’s all on this short story, all my hopes and dreams ride on it.” But that’s simply not true. Your hopes and dreams ride on your ability to flex and grow, and keep on taking ideas as they seep into your conscious mind. Shaping those ideas. Practicing craft. Learning more about grammar, and sentence structure, and paying attention to the ways other writers sculpt the ideas that they have.

Even if that short story really is the best thing you’ve written to date, time flows, too. Your peak moment when you finished that story is in the past. You can be better, each day, if you practice.

You are limitless. You participate in Writing, an Art bigger than yourself. There are infinite ways for you to write, infinite subjects to choose from, and infinite chances to share out of the overflowing of your work.

That’s an abundance mindset. And it strikes me as a far healthier, fertile place to create from than the grasping, fearful place of scarcity. It’s also a clearer, more right view of what happens in the creative process.

If you’re interested in developing an abundance mindset, check out this article from The Chopra Center, and a blog post I wrote a while back about purposefully cultivating positive thoughts about my own writing.

I’M AN EDITOR Y’ALL

Just dropping in this peaceful Sunday morning to share some good news…

I’m thrilled to announce that I am the new Book Recommendations Editor at The Bookends Review! I am excited about this opportunity to participate in the writing community in a new way.

And, wouldn’t you know it, the reading period for The Bookends Review just happens to be open! We take all kinds of pieces, but in particular, I’m looking for thought-provoking book recommendations. Take a look at our Submittable page for specifics. The summer open reading period ends on August 31.

I would LOVE to see your work in my inbox!

Happy writing…

…and, I hope, happy submitting!!

Is The Lord of the Rings Really That Great?

When I started seriously studying the craft of writing fiction, the way I understood story evolved. Grad school and all of the amazing professors I had and the amazing things I read rewired my brain to read in a technical way: as a writer, not a reader. It feels a little like x-ray vision. I can see a story’s bones, and the way everything hooks together. I can usually dissect what’s going right–and what’s not.

Since then, I’ve been nervous to re-read some of my favorite books. I’m afraid they won’t hold up under my story x-ray vision. But with successes with The Secret Garden, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Gormenghast, and others, I decided to finally tackle The Lord of the Rings.

J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings was my first real fandom experience. I got into the books around the same time Peter Jackson’s films were coming out, and read and watched and watched and read. I’ve seen all three movies in theaters for special showings, I’ve done the extended edition marathon multiple times, and my paperbacks of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King are well worn. Hadn’t read them all in years.

Here are some of things I noticed when re-reading The Lord of the Rings with x-ray vision (and adult/feminist perspective).

I want to make it clear that, though I may level some serious criticism at these books, I am not suggesting they be removed from their place in literature. They are beautiful, flawed books that revolutionized and elevated the fantasy genre. I do believe the world is a better place because they exist. By pointing out problems, I hope to inspire myself (and others even) to do better. 

1. The Fellowship of the Ring is by far the most cohesive, standalone book.

Time progresses linearly and events are easy to follow. All of the major characters are physically together, and want the same thing: they literally have the same quest.

Tolkien is very judicious about how much history he includes and where. Right up front, Gandalf tells Frodo a TON about Middle Earth’s history, but it’s situated in a place where the reader WANTS that information. Weird shit has happened in our Shire, and we want answers. It’s interesting, necessary, and puts our hero, Frodo, in immediate danger: all huge fiction pluses.

2. The Two Towers is the hardest book to get into.

I had massive trouble getting through this one as a pre-teen. Now, I can see why that might have been.

It’s hard to get into from the first chapter. The book begins in Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli’s point of view (POV). This is problematic, because these are the characters I cared the least about in the FOTR. I connected very strongly with the hobbits, and Tolkien sets his readers up to do that. He begins the whole epic in the Shire with hobbits, so readers will imprint on these characters. The hobbits also have practical, down-to-earth concerns, and talk the most like modern people; the others use high-sounding, formal English (and other languages). However, for the whole first half of The Two Towers, Frodo–our main character–is MIA. In fact, whole chapters go by before we even get Merry and Pippin’s point of view.

(It’s ironic to me that Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli are actually LOOKING for hobbits during all of this. Us too, Tolkien, us too… This definitely feels like an instance of the writer’s work talking to him from the page!)

Also, The Two Towers is structured totally differently than The Fellowship of the Ring. The first is a continuous narrative from Frodo’s POV, and the second book is a multiple-POV book that presents the reader with a lot of questions to sort through up front. How is time progressing? Where are the characters I care more about? When will we get to them? WILL we get to them? Whose POV might I get next? Tolkien uses the same structure in The Return of the King, but because he sets this new narrative structure up in The Two Towers, the reader already knows how to navigate it. But the transition from The Fellowship of the Ring to The Two Towers in terms of structure is a bit rough.

Tolkien also starts to get carried away with backstory. The large majority of Faramir, Frodo, and Sam’s “conversation” is Faramir basically reciting a history book. The same with Treebeard, when he’s with Merry and Pippin. Some of it is interesting, some of it isn’t, and a lot of it isn’t necessary for the plot to move forward.

3. There are only two female characters.

…who talk, do things, and effect the story. I’m talking about Galadriel and Éowyn.

Arwen doesn’t count. I appreciate Peter Jackson expanding her role in the films, but in the books, Frodo sees her at dinner one time, everybody talks about how beautiful she is, and then she has like two half-scenes at the end of The Return of the King.

Éowyn is my favorite. Because let’s be real, she’s a badass. She rode willingly into one of the worst battles of her time, has that amazing exchange with the Witch King of Angmar

Witch King: “Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!”

Éowyn: [laughs] “But no living man am I!”

and sticks a sword into the frickin’ Witch King’s face. Come on.

Interestingly, when the men are all gathered around discussing the cause of Éowyn’s depression (instead of waiting till she wakes up and just fucking asking her), Gandalf says this to her brother:

My friend, you had horses, and deed of arms, and the free fields; but she, being born in the body of a maid, had a spirit and courage at least the match of yours. Yet she was doomed to wait upon an old man, whom she loved as a father, and watch him falling into a mean dishonoured dotage; and her part seemed to her more ignoble than that of the staff he leaned on.

I got hyped, reading this as a criticism of Rohan’s patriarchal culture. But, of course, the rest of the bros immediately bat Gandalf down, going, nah, that can’t be it. Even so, this piece of dialogue makes me wonder if maybe Tolkien got it, just a little bit.

Of course, one paragraph doesn’t make up for how alienated I felt as a female reader. Realizing there were only two strong, active female characters was pretty disappointing, especially when I remember how much I adored this story. I wasn’t really represented in it. Which leads me to…

4. Serious issues of race.

It’s not that there are no people of color in Middle Earth. The Orcs are black-skinned, and the Haradrim and people of the south who also fight for Sauron are brown- or black-skinned. These are all antagonists.

Overwhelmingly, Tolkien uses BLACK for the antagonists and evil, and WHITE for the protagonists and good (the hand of Saruman being the only exception I can think of. This is also an instance of WHITE being corrupted, which is interesting.). As far as I could tell, all of the protagonists are white, and many are blond and blue-eyed. Every elf is white, every orc is black.

I’m so glad there are strong writers of color in the fantasy genre today (Nnedi Okorafor, Tomi Adeyemi, N. K. Jemisin, and so many others) who actively use the genre to explore issues of race and discrimination, and to empower underrepresented peoples.

5. It’s all really, really magical.

The popular complaint with Tolkien is that he describes scenery too much. I absolutely disagree.

The delicate and detailed way he paints his world gives it a hyperreality. I can see Tom Bombadil’s house, the mallorns of Lórien, Ithilien, all of them places I’d love to go, as well as those I wouldn’t: Shelob’s lair, the Mines of Moria, the dark path where Sam abandons Frodo, thinking him dead. The city of Gondor inspires pride and allegiance.

Goodness, this is getting long! and I think I’d better cut myself off. Maybe I should make this a Part One! What do you think? Wanna hear more?