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Day: October 19, 2009

Hunter Application Round 2… GOU SHORYUKEN!

So, I like totally forgot something I wanted to talk about in the previous post. That is, I wanted to discuss my decision to write a short story or to share the beginning of a novel. I can hear your brains saying, “WHAT!?” But let’s talk about this.

In the previous post I quoted Hunter’s creative requirements, but let me put it here again in case you missed it last time.

If you’re a fiction writer, send us 20-25 pages (a short story, the start of a novel, or several short stories that total 20-25 pages). Sending more than 25 pages won’t help your cause.

I have three choices here. First is to write a short story that is between 20 and 25 pages. This seems, to me, to be the least attractive option, mainly because a lot of tweaking and pulling and shoving has to go into something to try and make it between 20 and 25 pages. What if the piece feels good and ready at 18 pages? Do you try and add two pages? What if it’s just barely scraping by at 28? Do you try and take away three pages? With the former example, you could always just add a 5 or 6 page short story and have your total come out to a perfectly acceptable 23 or 24 pages. Then you have the option of letting the work stand as is fits best, without needlessly padding. That is a fairly attractive option. Or maybe you submit four 5 page stories? That’s good too. You can show your breadth. I feel like I’ve got about 47 of those due by the end of the year, so maybe some of those will go toward this purpose.

But what about the latter example, the 28 page story that you would have to seriously cripple to make fit within 20-25? You could always argue that you should be able to remove 3 pages from just about anything and help make it better. But then you’ll find another area that needs to be expanded upon, so there are your three pages back in action again. What to do? Well, you could expand upon the idea even further until it becomes the beginning of a novel or a novella. Then you don’t need to worry about crafting your resolution into a short space. Instead you have the opportunity to focus on doing the best writing you can, which is the whole point, right? Of course you pedantic bastards out there can argue that editing a piece to meet certain constraints is part of the writing process. That’s true, but for the purposes of this application it is better to provide samples of your voice and talent, than your abilities as a copy-editor. That can come later. For now it’s about the writing.

This all got me thinking. What happens in the first 20 to 25 pages of a novel or novella? And you know what I realized? I have no fucking idea at all. That’s not for lack of reading either. I just could not tell you beyond the broadest sense—characters are introduced, settings, maybe a plot thread—what happens. I don’t mean in terms of actual plot, like Dude goes to eat pie and falls down, but in a dramatic structure sense. I suppose we can think of it in the same way as we think of films, that being that the first 20 to 25 pages of a novel or novella is the beginning or whole of the first act, depending on the length of the work. Let’s go back to my film school text book on screenwriting for a definition and description of what happens in the first act.

Act I, the Setup, joins the story at a critical moment. The main character and the premise are introduced. Approximately one-third of the way into Act I, a catalytic event kick-starts the plot or another source of momentum for the story….The First Act ends with a turning point that takes us into the Second Act.

Let’s say that a novel is 250 pages long. Sure. That’s a fine metric. If the first Act is 1/4 of the novel, that’s about 62 pages—way more than 25. Still, the three act structure is a highly restrictive mode, best used only as a guideline for what to start with and how to get your plot moving along. Most novels, and many films, don’t even come close to fitting.

Then what is the best way to understand what happens in the first 20 to 25 pages of a novel? It’s to read the first 20 to 25 pages of well written novels. Duh. My next step is to go back and read the first 20 to 25 pages of a bunch of the books on my book shelf and make note of what happens in each. I will be posting those notes here (probably) as I go along, and for discussion, not that anyone discusses anything here. For me to discuss.

Does anyone have suggestions of books they think have amazing beginnings? I can’t promise that I’ll read them, but I’d love suggestions nevertheless. Here’s an incomplete list of the books on my shelves. See anything there you feel strongly about? Do you like to party? Help a ninja out.

Gearing up for Hunter Application Round 2… FIGHT!

The open house for Hunter’s Creative Writing MFA program is coming up in just a couple of weeks. Not getting in last year was a disappointment, for sure, but it also motivated me to really kill it this year. When I was in high school, I only ever applied to one school—NYU—because, god damn it, that was the school I wanted to go to. When my utterly dismal high school grades didn’t get me in, I taped the rejection letter to my wall above my desk, spent a year at Foothill Community College, made a better film than the last time, and got in. Round 2 is for killing it. I’ve learned that much in my life.

And with that, Round 2 begins now.

It is time for me to look over last year’s work and evaluate it to see what did and what didn’t work. If I am going to make a better showing this time, and a better showing is what is needed, then I am going to have to be cognizant of my weaknesses as a writer so that I don’t let them get the better of me. Conversely, I must be aware of my strengths so that I can play to them, accentuate them, give them room to shine.

Last year, I submitted a piece I wrote called “Julian & Clive. But, before I get into what I think did and didn’t work in it, let’s look at the submission requirements for the program, yes?

2. Demonstrate talent
We’ll look at your grades, of course; but what we are really hungry for is talent, so we need to read what you can write.
If you’re a fiction writer, send us 20-25 pages (a short story, the start of a novel, or several short stories that total 20-25 pages). Sending more than 25 pages won’t help your cause.

All the fiction and nonfiction pages you send us must be double-spaced and in a twelve-point font. Poetry may be single-spaced or double-spaced.

4. Write a story about yourself
Tell us about yourself, why you write, and why you wish to come to Hunter. You’ve got 500 words to do this, so that does not mean 600 words. This personal statement might be the piece of writing that gets you into the program, which is not intended to make you worry excessively about it, but to remind you to make it real. A statement that feels fresh and true will be a treasure to those of us who read for admissions.

Clearly, the story I wrote was for section 2 above. Overall, it’s a decent story with some funny ideas and some well executed points. However, I think I tried to shove WAY too much into what ended up only barely fitting into 25 pages with some creative margins. This story could have easily filled many many more pages, and been served better for it. I had to throw out too much, keep things too brief, not allow the story to breathe, to try and fit it into the 20-25 pages allowed. There’s no space for nuance or subtext when I’m trying to hammer home this grandiose idea I had about a man’s inability to take responsibility for his own actions in such a short format, around 7500 words. Basically nothing! The characters come off as one dimensional since they are not given space to exist as anything but caricatures. A more skilled writer might have been able to pull it off, but I’m trying to get into writing school, not run the damn thing.

I tended to write the thing as if it were a treatment, that is, describing everything we see and focusing on the action. With a treatment, that makes sense, since what you are doing is describing what the movie will look like before it is even a screenplay. It’s not so great for a short story. It ends up feeling stilted and boring. If you can freely enter the thoughts of your narrator or characters at any time it makes sense, why wouldn’t you? If you can jump around through time and space as it’s appropriate, why wouldn’t you? If you can describe things, anything at all, however you want with images and references impossible to show on screen, why wouldn’t you?

I also think I tried to make the thing too fucking dramatic. This is a hole I’ve fallen into before. Some unconscious part of me thinks that good = dramatic, which is obviously not true. And not even really my strength. Quirk and humor are good. There doesn’t need to be fire and death and doom.

Finally there’s the ending. What the fucking fuck was I thinking? Jesse was right. I should have just ended it when he lost consciousness outside the burning ice cream truck. What’s wrong a little uncertainty at the end? Nothing, I tell you. Nothing!!!

This year I have a handful of things to keep in mind as I concept and write.

  1. Keep it simple – DUH.
  2. Stay away from dull action sequences – This isn’t a treatment; it’s a short story.
  3. Embrace illusion and uncertainty – Fuck it, man. Not everything needs to be spelled out.
  4. Let your characters breathe – I just need to make sure each character feels properly nuanced so that the piece doesn’t end up feeling like a comic book. I’m not writing Spiderman and my villain isn’t Doctor Octopus. There doesn’t even need to be a villain.
  5. Allow lightheartedness – Good and funny is better than serious and dull.

That sounds like it might be a lot to keep in mind, but it’s not really. If Christians can remember 10 Commandments, I can remember 5 guidelines. Right? Right.

The other part of the submission process is to write 500 words about why you write, why you want to write, and why you want to go to Hunter. Here’s what I wrote last year.

I am a grocery store clerk, a salad bar operator, a construction worker, a real estate agent, a motion picture editor, an actor, a voice over artist, a musician, a production assistant, a web designer, and a great many other things. I am a son, a boyfriend, a brother, an uncle.
I believe in language and its power to create and shape the world we live in. I look for the darkest, most shameful aspects of human nature and draw humor from them. I find greatness in the mundane. I spend every step of my commute to and from work devising biting ways to start stories and introduce characters. I send my older brother particularly choice phrases of cynicism for amusement.

I write because losing my younger brother cemented in me that life is far too short, too fleeting not to embrace passionately. Despite the wisdom of Eastern sages, I’m not sure we get the chance to try again.
I write because there is nothing more human than to write. Whales sing. Monkeys scream. But only humans can commit their thoughts, feelings, fears, and dreams to words and share them with people they might never meet in an exchange that may last centuries.
And I write because, as part of that timeless exchange, I want to make people laugh and feel and think and remember.

I want to be part of Hunter’s tight-knit community of writers. When the speaker mentioned at the open house that only 6 students are accepted each academic year, a chorus of groans swelled in the room. Yet I was enticed. I have always thrived in small groups focused on intensive hands-on work. The challenge compels me. The selectivity excites me. But more than those things, the strong sense of community calls to me. It is a testament to the strength of the group that Hunter was able to get all the current students out on a weeknight to come talk to prospective students at an open house. Obviously you all have each other’s best interests at heart.
Most importantly, I want to work on my craft as a member of the Hunter community. Writing is a difficult, personal pursuit easily kept squirreled away from the potentially scornful eyes of the world. But, it is difficult, if not impossible, to grow as a writer without opening yourself and interacting with other people. For my part, I hope to serve my classmates as a reliable, insightful reader providing thoughtful criticism . From the faculty and my classmates, I hope to receive unflinching critique and analysis. I will strive to be an integral part of my fellows’ education and growth as writers since there is no better way for me improve my own craft. I don’t want to just be told my work is good—my mom can do that. I want to be challenged to make my work the best it can be, and I know Hunter can do that for me.

Am I serious? I thought this was pretty good when I wrote it, but now I can’t help but think that it’s the silliest thing I’ve ever put down on paper. Or arranged into bits on a hard drive. But you know what I mean. There’s a whole lot about this that could be better. But let’s distill it all into one, single word.

What was I doing, delivering a eulogy? Speaking to the court? Apologizing to the family of the man I killed? Jesus Christ. How about I incorporate a little bit of my personal voice into this thing next time, huh? The whole thing sounds like shitty 6-grader poetry. I can do better.

To sum it all up, I’ve prepared a little visual reference of my intention.


In case you don’t understand, I’m Akuma (awesome) and the Hunter Application is Ryu, and I’ve just kicked the living shit out of him and a bunch of Jamaican people are dancing because it was so awesome. I don’t think I can make it any clearer.