Plussing and Other Fundamental Elements of Good Writing

November 22, 2010

Want to learn the craft of writing?  Want your writing to go beyond good and step into extraordinary?  You don’t need to enroll yourself in a writer’s conference.  Try visiting the Pixar Exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California. 

This special event highlights all aspects of animated film-making, from character development, to world-building to plussing.  Never heard of plussing?  I hadn’t either.  Apparently, the term was coined by Walt Disney who would challenge even the best ideas put before him.  He’d tell his team of talented individuals to “plus it.”  Make it better.  Make it different.  Take it to the next level.  Every writer should take plussing to heart.

John Lasseter, Chief Creative Officer of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios says it takes three things to make an animated film:  world, character and story.  The same, of course, can be said of writing a good novel.  In the Pixar exhibit, each of these three elements is described within the essential foundations of creativity and believability.   One idea that hit on the mark was the idea that creativity is enhanced when parameters and restrictions are in place.  In line with that idea is the need for believability.  In order to have believability, there must be consistent application of the rules of the world.  The example that was given was the rule that toys must always become inanimate when humans are present in the Toy Story films.     

I found myself marveling at one picture in particular from the film, Ratatouille.  The night-time scene shows a restaurant sign in the foreground with a rat in a chef’s hat and a lit-up Eiffel tower in the distance.  Even if you were not familiar with the storyline, this one image would tell you world (Paris restaurant), character (rat) and story (chef’s hat).  The dark background could represent either the promise of conflict or be a sign of underlying realism since rats are active at night.  The Eiffel tower aglow in lights could represent the bright or comedic moments in the film or even the promise of a happy ending.

I ended my tour in Pixar’s Artscape where the audience quite literally enters a projection of digitally-processed images.  This animated delight is dialogue free and provides the viewer with an experience of exploring the exquisite details of the original artworks.  The experience holds all the elements of visual detail often enhanced with background noise.  If you’ve ever pondered what constitutes a scene, this presentation nails it.  Sometimes a given scene ends with a seamless entry into the next artwork, other times the scene provides a clear beginning, middle and end. 

The Oakland Museum of California is open 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (9:00 p.m. Fridays) Thursday through Sundays.  Admission is $12 for adults.  The Pixar exhibit closes January 9, 2011.  This is one exhibit that should not be missed!

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One Approach to Critiquing

September 2, 2009

The Writers on the Journey critique group first formed in April 2006.  Back then, the group consisted of five aspiring authors: Margaret, Fran, Susan, Nannette, and me.  We met at one of Charlotte Cook’s creative writing workshops (Charlotte’s website) and struck up a friendship. Once the class ended, Fran and Margaret proposed that we continue to meet to encourage one another in our writing.

Over the years, the composition of the group has changed as former members left to pursue other goals and new members joined.  If you’ve read our bio pages, you’ll see that we’re a fairly diverse group.  You can’t pigeonhole us by genre, manuscript length, or audience.  In spite of our many differences, we all share at least one common experience.  We’ve all been students of Charlotte’s workshops, and her critiquing philosophy informs our meetings.

Submissions for critique are distributed or emailed ahead of time to give everyone ample time to read.  We read each submission beforehand and come prepared for discussion. We begin by reading excerpts that we particularly liked and thought were well-written.  The critique continues with a discussion of story, arc, and what works in the manuscript.  We follow that with offerings, noting passages that were confusing and giving suggestions for improvement.  Our goal is a balance of honest praise and constructive criticism, acknowledging strengths while encouraging growth.  With each revision, we hope to be one step closer to a polished manuscript and one manuscript closer to becoming better writers.

— Cheryl