July 24, 2014

Writing Lessons from Project Runway

I’m about as far from being a fashionista as you can get. I'm one step above wearing mom jeans and flannel every day of my life. But, for some inexplicable reason, one of my favorite shows is Project Runway. It's taken me a while to figure out why, but I’ve finally decided it's because I love watching the creation of something from nothing.

The contestants are given bizarre challenges, almost no time to complete them, and are forced to magic up something beautiful and unique out of random materials to gain the approval of the highest reps in the fashion industry. It's exhausting and emotionally overwhelming, but the contestants keep going anyway. Why?

Because they love the craft.

Sounds kind of like writing, right? You have a glimmer of an idea. You plunk it out. You revise it until your eyes bleed, and then you present it as something beautiful and unique. Agents and editors and readers evaluate it. Some like it; some don't. Sometimes you fail miserably. But you keep going, because you love creating something that nobody else can.

Since a new season of Project Runway (PR) premieres tonight, I thought it would be fun to look at a few lessons on writing that can be gleaned from the show. All of my examples come from Season 12, because, let’s be honest, I can barely even remember back that far.

1. Be unapologetically you. Helen comes to mind. Throughout the season, several contestants talked trash about her—how she was a hack, not sophisticated enough, and only had a few looks up her sleeve. She wasn’t a fit in the beginning, but in the end she had the chance to compete for a spot at Fashion Week. She beat out most of the people who claimed to be better designers than she was.
 Don’t be afraid to be yourself. You have a unique voice to offer.
2. Don’t be a drama queen (or king). The loud, crazy personalities on PR (or any reality show) always make for good TV. They make for good fiction. But nobody likes dealing with them for too long in real life.

Every season has at least one high-maintenance personality, but two that stand out from last season are Ken and Sandro. Both yelled a lot, threw things, alienated people, stormed out of rooms, and otherwise made their obnoxious presences known. Ultimately, Sandro raged off the set, knocked over cameras, and refused to return. Ken was chastised by Tim Gunn, the nicest person in the world, and sent home.

No matter how talented and creative they were, in the end, they lost their chance to succeed because they couldn’t get along with others.

Writers have strong communities that include agents, editors, readers, and other authors. Being well behaved and polite, even with a big personality, is an absolute necessity.

Be nice. Use the Golden Rule. Don’t be a diva.

3. One size does NOT fit all. Your work, no matter how beautiful, will not appeal to everyone. One example from season twelve was Alexandria’s pants:

Heidi Klum loved them. Zac Posen called them “poopy pants.” 
Heidi was loud and proud in her defense of them, but all of the other judges hated them. (Seriously though, if Heidi Klum is on your side, who cares about anyone else?)

Nothing works for everyone, but chances are, somebody will love your work. More importantly, you will love your work.

4. Manage your time. This isn’t such a big deal for authors aren’t actively selling yet, but as writers, we have to learn to use our time wisely—especially since we have to be largely self-motivated.

With my first couple of novels, I spent so much time drafting and changing and figuring out precise word choices, that when it came to the actual hard work of rewriting, I was so burned out that I couldn’t keep myself motivated. I’ve learned, for me, it works best to write a fast draft, and then save my time and energy for making it shine during revisions. I’m a huge believer that rewriting is where the magic happens. It’s where you fine-tune characters, layer in themes and ideas, and make plot points come together seamlessly.

In PR, there are always those who spend so much time sketching, draping, or obsessing, that at the last minute, they’re scrambling for the runway show. There are inevitably errors and poor construction because they didn’t leave themselves time to execute and adjust. Sadly, the judges always notice sloppy work.

Find what works for you—everyone is different—but whether or not you have a deadline, make sure that you leave time to do your very best.

Plan, prepare, create, but save time and stamina to polish writing in revisions.

5. Make it personal.  One of the highlights of the season was when Justin talked about his three runway looks that were so personal to him. His looks didn’t literally say deaf/gay man, but when he explained his life’s challenges, it became clear how his designs conveyed his feelings, thoughts, personality, voice, etc.
The PR judges are no different from agents and editors—they want to recognize the artist in the art. Your writing should be a reflection of what matters to you, not the same tropes they’ve seen a million times by a million other authors. Keep writing and your ideas and voice will become more YOU.

Nobody has the same story as you do. Personalize your ideas, and they’ll be distinct and noticeable.

7. Take ownership. Justin’s hot glue gun dress was a disaster on the runway, and he was lambasted for it. A few challenges later, the contestants had a chance to pick an outfit from an earlier challenge and recreate it. Justin was sobbing as he walked onto the floor and picked his own hideous dress. He knew that he owed it to himself to do better.

In writing, don’t send something out there that you know is flawed. It’s easy to feel like you no longer have the time/energy to fix it, but if you sense something isn’t working, readers will be all over it.

Care enough about your craft to send out your very best finished product.

6. Enjoy the journey. While we’re talking about Justin, his designs had the theme of “transformation.” Transformation is essential for writers. We evolve. We grow and learn and develop. Enjoy that process. For Justin, it was a matter of coming to terms with his individuality and incorporating lessons he learned along the way to make him a better designer. Hopefully most of us are writers because we love the journey of creation. We mirror great character arcs in which characters take internal and external journeys to find themselves and where they belong.

Keep practicing, keep growing, and enjoy the journey while recognizing your own moments of transformation.

7.  Develop a Thick Skin.
There are countless examples of contestants being eviscerated on the runway (on national TV), only to pick themselves up and try harder the next time. The winners are those who take criticism and learn from it. 
 Dom, the ultimate winner, was a great example of this. She had a very distinct design aesthetic that didn't always go over well, but instead of arguing, she always listened to the feedback and found new ways to interject suggestions from the judges into her OWN style.
Accepting criticism doesn't mean losing your own voice, but it does mean learning to incorporate your best work with what the industry and audience are seeking.

And, of course, we can't forget Tim's self-explanatory, "Make it work!"

I love Project Runway because, even though I suck at fashion, I love (and empathize) with the idea of creating something from nothing.

There’s nothing more fulfilling than taking any art form—whether it's writing or fashion—from conception to execution, culminating in a physical representation of something beautiful that started out as merely an idea. As writers, could we ask for anything more?

What about you? Has anyone watched Project Runway and felt inspired in your own artistic endeavors? Any lessons I missed mentioning?

July 8, 2014

An Ode to Horror


I'll just put it out there—I love creepy, twisted, dark, messed-up, terrifying stories. I used to be self-conscious about all of the mystery, suspense, and horror books that I devoured, thinking that they were a lesser genre. So when I went off to college, I gave away all of my R.L. Stine and Stephen King. I boxed stacks of Mary Higgins Clark and Agatha Christie. I gave up fear-inducing books in order to focus on real literature like Austen and Steinbeck.

And here's the thing. I do love Austen and Steinbeck. I love a lot of classics and literary fiction, but I've realized that horror has its place as well.

I was able to start looking at horror in a different way when I took a course on fairy tales in contemporary society. I realized how much the tales I grew up on had been sanitized, and that the original tales were horrific. They were meant to be gruesome and terrifying. They were meant to scare as a way to moralize and teach—a far cry from today’s Disneyfied versions of fairy tales.

Stephen King argues, “the best horror films, like the best fairy tales, manage to be reactionary, anarchistic, and revolutionary all at the same time” (Google “Why We Crave Horror Movies”). I don’t agree with his entire article, but I do believe in the subversive nature of both fairy tales and horror. I think they both serve important functions in our culture, and those who appreciate horror, like those who appreciate fairy tales, aren’t deviants or future serial killers.

Stephen King’s Danse Macabre is a pretty interesting exploration of horror (mostly films) that anyone interested in the genre should pick up. He says that horror is about three things: Horror (when you experience something shocking), Terror (feeling of dread that something may happen), and Revulsion (the gross stuff—my least favorite of the three). When they are used in various combinations, the horror genre is created.

A couple of years ago, I saw a really interesting exhibit at the EMP Museum in Seattle called: Can't Look Away: The Lure of Horror Film. I was especially drawn to this wall:

If horror films and books scare us, why do we like them? I know everyone doesn’t like/get horror, but I would add thrillers, suspense, mystery, true crime, etc. to the list. Some of us are drawn to the heart-pounding feeling of wondering what’s going to happen next or asking why someone would do such a thing. I liked some of the reasons on that wall in Seattle:

-       It tests our courage in a safe environment
-       It reinforces good vs. evil (some even argue that horror is the only medium that truly explores the contrast between true good and true evil)
-       It creates a rush of heightened emotions
-       It allows us to safely explore taboo subjects
-       It reflects our nightmares and dreams

I think this is a great starting point, but there are many other reasons as well. I’ll go into some of those in a later post, where I’ll look at some aspects of fear that I find really interesting in literature.

But, King’s comparison of horror to fairy tales, and the EMP’s look at the draw of horror illustrate that horror does matter in popular culture. Fear is a powerful motivator. Think of any horror or thriller where a child is taken or a life is threatened or a person is tortured or chased—people are manipulated to do horrible things because of fear. They react in ways that are against their normal behavior or belief system.

To me, that’s one of the greatest draws of horror. What would I do if confronted by my greatest terror? Would I be true to myself? Would I be smart and able to fight? Would I survive?

I’m drawn to the ideas that horror lets me 1) grapple with my fears. Danse Macabre claims that in periods of fear, like right after 9/11 or during the Cold War, there are increased outputs and consumption of horror. Film and literature are safe places to confront those fears at a level that we’re individually comfortable with. If it gets too intense, we can always close the book. And, 2) preparation. I personally love to imagine what I would do if zombies or aliens attacked or how I would survive biological warfare.

I love the feeling of my heart pounding, of realizing I’m holding my breath, or when something drives an audible gasp from my chest.

I can’t think of another genre that creates quite the same physical, mental, and emotional responses. I think it’s a pretty powerful type of literature.

Do you enjoy reading horror/thrillers/mystery/suspense? If so, why? Why do you think we react so viscerally to stories when we know they’re fiction?