Author Archives: Kevin Ikenberry

Those Last Three Minutes of Casablanca

Author’s Note: If you haven’t watched Casablanca, do so immediately. This is the movie that changed the way Hollywood made movies and it’s something every writer should understand. There are SPOILERS below, but you need the explanation to really make my points stick.

Casablanca (1942) is a landmark film and one of the top movies of all time. What most people don’t realize is that this movie, specifically the way it was written, changed filmmaking forever. Before Casablanca, the prevailing sentiment in Hollywood was that telling a character-based story required a much longer film. Take Gone With The Wind (1939) with a running time of 3 hours and 58 minutes as a good example of this. Most movies of the time period were shorter, nearly devoid of plot or substance, and played to the audience on a purely esoteric level.

My two favorite movies from this period come from my love of big band music (I was born 50 years too late). Sun Valley Serenade (1941) and Orchestra Wives (1942) feature Glenn Miller and his orchestra. Each of these movies are around the standard ninety minute timeline of most Hollywood features of the 20th century. If you watch them (and I do recommend them – pure popcorn fun), there is virtually no substance. This was a standard practice during this time. Casablanca came along and changed all of that by focusing on the character, Rick Blaine played by Humphrey Bogart.

What Casablanca did was very simple. Rick had several things (goals) that he wanted to achieve. Despite being an ex-patriot, Rick wanted to stand up against the Nazis, he also wanted to win back Ilse, his former lover, and he desperately needed friends in the local area to survive (mainly Henri, the police chief). The movie weaves the story of the “letters of transit” which are basically a “pass” from Nazi-occupied North Africa. Rick obtains them and they essentially are the ultimate “get out of jail free” cards. He’s prepared to use them when Ilse suddenly comes back into his life – with her new husband Victor (a famous Resistance leader).

Ultimately, the story puts Rick in the unenviable situation of having the letters of transit and not being able to win Ilse back. He goes to the airport to meet her and her husband and all of the audience’s emotional involvement in the storyline comes to a crescendo in the last three minutes and forty or so seconds. In that time period, Rick gives Ilse and Victor the letters of transit (“We’ll always have Paris”). When the Nazi officer responsible for the area arrives and demands the plane stop its departure, Rick kills him in front of the police chief, Henri. Instead of arresting Rick, Henri tells his men that Major Strosser is dead and they should round up the usual suspects. Henri and Rick walk off into the darkness – “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

The movie ends right there – fade out, roll credits, end scene. It’s brilliant.

Instead of a four hour character drama, Casablanca did the same thing in ninety minutes and it became a benchmark for storytelling. Not to say that movies after it, especially in the 1940s and 50s didn’t try to hold on to the fun, no substance formula – they did, but Casablanca proved that a character drama could fit in the same amount of time given to those popcorn flicks. How does that apply to fiction writers?

Very simple. Your book is likely going to be a movie in your reader’s head. Tie those emotional knots and deliver them to the reader as close together as possible for the maximum emotional response. If you’ve cried at the end of a movie, you recognize this. Try to do the same in your writing – your readers will thank you.

Finishing What You Start, Or Not

When I first started writing fiction in 2009, one of the first things I learned were Heinlein’s Rules. While they all have a place in the heart of every writer, the one that sticks out the most to me is “Finish What You Start.” It’s the single most often prescribed bit of writing advice I give to aspiring authors. The ability to sit down and finish a story, good or bad, is critical to learning the craft. However, I’ve also come to understand (and experience) that there are simply times when you shouldn’t finish what you start – you should put it down and walk away.

I’ve had an idea for a novel in my head for the last several years and I’ve toyed with outlining it here and fleshing out dialogue and characters there and I decided that I’d sit down on really focus on it last year. My intent was to write about 10,000 words and really determine if the story was something I could commit to fully. While it sounded good to me, and I was pretty sure I could write it, could I make it an authentic story? Could I answer the most important question in every reader’s mind – “Who gives $&@#?” I believed I could and I promptly sat down wrote about 8,500 words and stopped dead – seriously, like in the middle of a sentence.

At the time, I believe the words I spoke to myself were “What in the hell are you doing, Kevin?” My great idea wasn’t as great as I’d believed it to be. From my reading and occasional instruction of outlining and character dynamics, I realized that while I had a fun premise to explore, my character was simply horrible. I’d designed goals for them and tried valiantly to put them into some type of story line capable of captivating an audience. On paper, everything was a fit, but I realized that I didn’t “love” my protagonist. In fact, I kinda loathed them. Every time I wrote their dialog in that 8,500 starter, I cringed. It got to the point at the end that I threw up my hands and said “I’m not finishing this.”

A few years ago, this would have bothered me tremendously. Having learned that finishing what you start is critical to success as a writer, my younger self would’ve pressed on and turned out something vaguely akin to a novel that was destined for the circular file. Instead, I realized that while I’d seemingly done my homework, outlined and plotted the story, and built my character in a way I thought would work – the whole mess didn’t come together. Was it a result of my talent? Or my motivation? Or did I just not believe in the story anymore? Your guess is as good as mine. What mattered was that my brain said it was time to stop – that I wasn’t getting anywhere fast and that I was laboring over a first draft instead of letting the ideas around my outline flow. That story went into the dark recesses of my hard drive likely never to be heard from again. It simply didn’t work. I didn’t need to send it to my first reader or any beta readers – I could sense that the story was dead on arrival and I stopped.

I recently went back at looked at what I’d written in the 8,500 word, suddenly truncated start and completely agreed with my decision. In some similar cases, I’ve looked at something with fresh eyes and starting typing anew – pushing that gestated idea to finalization. As I read the first chapter, I thought I might be able to do just that. By the end of chapter three, I knew it was a lost cause. That character, and their storyline, went into the experience file. From there, I went back to another one of Heinlein’s rules – “Write something else.”

I’ve been busy ever since.

2017: Looking Back and Looking Forward

Over the last month, you’ve celebrated the year through the eyes of the Fictorians and our guests. I think it’s safe to say that everyone had their share of ups and downs this year. We’ve reached the end of 2017 and tomorrow many of us will look at the coming year with a sense of purpose or a sense of uncertainty. There are 365 days ahead of us as writers. Some of them will be good and some will not – this is the writing life. What matters is that we face them together and do the very best we can.

By now, I’ve completed a list of what I think my goals should be for 2018, but I know that I may not reach all of them. If 2017 has taught me anything, riding the wave of opportunities means that my best laid plans will most certainly change. Remaining flexible is critical. Some times, you have to actually quit your goals. That’s what we’ll be talking about in January here on The Fictorians. Before we do that, though, I’d like to leave you with one more thought about your year in review and the year ahead.

One of the books that’s immeasurably changed how I approach writing is The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. One of the tenets of Cameron’s book is the concept of Daily Pages. Over the last few years, I’ve used a couple of different notebooks to do this. The idea is simple. Every day, sit down and write three pages. What do you write? Whatever is on your mind. I think of it as clearing the mechanism – I just write whatever is on my mind – a pure stream of consciousness technique. Often times, I may start off with a regimented idea of my to-do list or something similar. Some times I’ll start with a favorite memory from the day before. Sometimes, I’ll just vent my fears, my anger, or my remorse. By sitting down and forcing it out of my head, I’ve found that my writing time is more productive. I’m less likely to fall into my social media distractions. I’m more likely to hit my word count goal for the day when I take the time to write my pages. Three pages may be too much for you at first. I tend to do two pages on a pretty regular basis. Find what works for you. Clearing your mechanism is a good way to look past the stress in our lives. Journaling is a great way to get in touch with your ideas, too. Simply put, I recommend it. Whether you’re committing to a New Year’s Resolution or not, one thing writers do is read. If you haven’t read The Artist’s Way, do so sooner rather than later. Your writing will thank you.

Best of luck with your writing endeavors in 2018. We’ll be right here cheering for you.

Unexpected Invitations and Opportunities

Earlier this year, I sent off my novel Vendetta Protocol for a blurb from Baen books author Charles E. Gannon. When he responded with an excellent blurb, I was surprised by the last line of his email. After reading my book, he recommended me to authors Chris Kennedy and Mark Wandrey. I’d never heard of either of them, but in the weeks that followed, I learned that each of them had authored one book in what they called the Four Horsemen Universe – a military science fiction universe where humans most commonly act as mercenaries and often find themselves on the short end of the galactic stick. Mark and Chris offered me a story spot in an anthology they were launching to flesh out their universe based on that recommendation alone.

I hadn’t read their books and Chris and Mark hadn’t read mine. As we emailed back and forth, a knot of self-induced pressure built in my chest. Could I pull this off? Could I make good on my friend’s recommendation? When I received their “primer,” a fifteen page document outlining the basic rules of the universe, I sat down to read it and immediately gravitated to the concept of a Peacemaker Guild. Combined with a timely thought about a really bad movie from the 1980s, I developed a short story idea. Over the course of two weeks, I wrote the story and then did something I’ve never done before – I sent them the rough draft of the story and asked if I was anywhere close to what they wanted with their universe. Their response surprised me.

Not only was the story exactly what they wanted, they wanted me to continue the story of Earth’s first Peacemaker in novel format. I looked at my writing plan for the year, the success of the two additional books they launched in the universe, and what they were doing with the anthology (of which there were plans for three) and said yes. I scrapped finishing my Protocol War series in 2017 and signed on to write an unplanned book in a universe I was still learning about, and I had about twelve weeks to do it. Could I?

I did. When I completed the novel Peacemaker and turned it in to them, I had no idea what to expect. Would they like the story? Would the rabid fans of the Four Horsemen Universe embrace it? Had I told the kind of story I wanted to tell in their universe? The answer to all of those questions unfolded in late August and was a resounding “YES!” From that unexpected invitation, I’ve now committed to writing a total of three books in the Peacemaker storyline and have just completed book two – Honor The Threat.

For me, 2017 was all about embracing unexpected opportunities. Doing so has led me into avenues I’d never considered and put my work in front of new readers and fans. It’s hard to believe that I’m writing a new series from a short story idea, but that’s the way this writing thing tends to work. I’ve paddled into a wave and I’m going to ride it as best I can. In the coming year, I have books to write and conventions to attend, but I’ll be looking for opportunities because they can come in the most unexpected places. Keep your eyes and ears open – you never know where things might go.