31 January 2010

Writers: It's not life or death. Have Fun

I forgot to say, Have fun!

In deepest gratitude to each of you responsible for the 3 sold-out plot workshops -- at the overall story level, scene level, and thematic significance level, I send a final message that includes writers everywhere -- loosen up and have some fun.

Writing is not life or death. We artists like to imagine what we do is so dramatic. And, yes, those elements -- life and death appear in the story. Just like in the natural world, over and over again. For you as the writer, both at the physical level and beyond, life and death stands more figurative than literal.

Yes, writing a book will transform you. And, yes, just like your protagonist to get there you have to pass through hell. It's your character's emotional reactions shown in scene on a thematic or universal language level that defines her. Your reactions in the Middle (1/2) define you.

You've created some cool characters. No? Rewrite history. Your characters have certain qualities you like and admire. Others you abhor and deny. Have fun. Create a cool exotic world to hang out in.

Don't take it too seriously. Don't take yourself too seriously.

What I offered in the workshops is analytical and lists to the cerebral side. Now? Get out of your head. Let the practice settle in your body. Take walks. Write. Walk. Write...

Be in the moment of the scene. Shut out the rest of the world. Breathe and dive deep...

Oh... and don't forget -- rumpus!

Thanks for coming...

29 January 2010

Long-term vs Short-term Protagonist Goals

One of the more difficult aspects of creating a compelling Dramatic Action plot for highly creative, so-called right-brained writers is to come up with concrete goals for the protagonist.

I have written an article for March issue of The Writer magazine that will be out in bookstores mid-February and will not go into all the details about the importance of goals, examples of goals in literature, and how to create them -- you can read the article for more.

What I do want to cover here is the difference between the long-term protagonist goal(s) and the short-term scene goals.

The 1st element on the Character Emotional Development Plot Profile is to determine your protagonist's long-term goal. This often changes or shifts after the major turning points in your story.

This goal is different than the Goal column on the Scene Tracker template. The Scene Tracker Kit is designed to help writers create plot at the scene level. An essential element of scene is the protagonist's part in the scene which revolves around her goal. The scene goals are the steps she takes in hopes of reaching her long-term goal.

Both Goal elements demand a clear vision of what the protagonist desires on a concrete, attainable level. These goals much be within the protagonist's capabilities of achieving (of course you will develop all sorts of antagonists, both internal and external, to interfere with her success). However, the more well-defined the protagonist's goal at the overall story level and scene-by-scene the more grounded the reader in the story as they know what is at stake and when the protagonist is getting closer to her goal or is sent further away from her goals.

For more on Goal setting:

28 January 2010

Flashback versus Memory

A problem I often find in the plot consultations I provide to writers is the misuse of flashbacks.

During a plot consultation, a writer outlines her historical novel to me. Before long, the story takes a u-turn into flashback. My immediate reaction is to refocus myself. I quickly scan the Plot Planner I am creating for her for what I know of the story so far ~ the time frame, the place, and the characters ~ in order to keep in perspective the time and place change.

If you've read Blockbuster Plots Pure & Simple, you know I am not a fan of flashback. Mostly, I dislike the whiplash effect, but also because I have seen too many writers, especially writers just starting out, overuse and abuse flashback. It is more difficult and takes more thought and creativity to integrate the pertinent backstory seamlessly into the front-story than it is to create a flashback. Flashback is a depiction of a past, literal experience. Full integration of back-story into front-story involves more nuance and skill.

Three plot tips when it comes to flashbacks:

1) If you feel you just have to have a flashback, wait to use it in the Middle of the story. By then, the reader has had time to ground themselves in the front-story and is better able to transition back and forth in time

2) A flashback is portrayed moment-by-moment in scene. Consider instead using a memory (summary)

3) If flashbacks are integral to the overall plot and structure, do like Audrey Niffenegger in The Time Traveler's Wife, make the story line non-linear and create the very structure of your story based on time jumps.

19 January 2010

Writers on the Hero's Journey

Last Saturday I taught the 1st in a series of 3 Plot Intensives in Capitola, CA. I covered plot at the overall story level. This Saturday I teach the 2nd plot workshop to cover plot at the scene level. Next Saturday I teach the 3rd and final workshop; Plot for Meaning at the overall plot level.

Saturday for the first time I asked writers to fill out the Character Emotional Plot Profile for more than just their protagonist and antagonist. This time, they also filled out one for themselves as a writer and another for themselves personally. 

I felt a bit weird about asking for their own personal profile and after glancing at a few, I knew for certain I won't do that again. I don't need to know a person's secrets to help her with plot. However, the writers' profiles were fascinating in their universality.

Everyone wants to write a story and everyone suffers from the same doubt, insecurity, fears which begs the question: if a writer stands back and analyzes where she is on her writing journey, will it help her as much as standing back and looking at the overall plot of her writing story on a Plot Planner?

You tell me.

Where are you on your writing journey? 

  • Still in the introductory mode (Beginning - 1/4) and mostly talking about writing, how you're not writing, what you want to write about, thinking about writing, wanting to write but don't very often? 
  • Stepped over into the land of the exotic and solitary world of writing filled with antagonists of every kind (Middle - 1/2)?
  • Clawing your way to the Climax (End - 1/4)

Does your answer surprise you? 

Does the understanding of where you are on the Universal Story form or your life's journey give you a deeper understanding of you are in relationship with your writing?

Does it give you a deeper understanding of the journey your protagonist is on, too?

14 January 2010

Crossing Thresholds

Take advantage of every moment your protagonist crosses from one symbolic place to another. Every threshold has the potential to alert the reader, audience that the character is transitioning from the known to the unknown = creates excitement, expectancy, and an element of fear of the unknown in both the character and the reader.

The use of crossing a threshold is especially effective when the character moves from the Beginning (1/4) to the Middle (1/2). After the scene that represents the End of the Beginning, the character crosses over into the Middle. This is a big moment and often comes as the character leaves her world over everyday ordinary for the exotic world of the unknown.

Another symbolic moment is when the character leaves the Middle and moves into the End (1/4). You will likely find other thresholds or transition to take advantage of in your story.

This moment of crossing over the threshold deserves a emphasis with the use of pacing and introduction of authentic details and "showing" (not telling) the character's emotional anticipation of the moment of crossing, the actual sensations as it happens, and possibly the reaction when the action is complete and the character understands there is no turning back.

The character will likely be confronted with Threshold Guardians, but for now, go through your manuscript and locate any sections that could constitute a threshold. Rewrite that section to give it the significance it deserves.

For more on Crossing the Threshold:

12 January 2010

Blah Protagonist

Character makes the story. Character draws us into the story. The reader and the audience have to like the characters before they will commit to the story.

A blah protagonist, passive, and pretty quiet (like writers often tend to be) makes for a blah, passive, quiet story.

To spice up the protagonist, give her a goal. The goal has to be specific and quantifiable. Gets her moving. Gets the story moving.

Give her something to do.

Start the story with a dramatic question:

Is she going to... or not? Will he.... or not? Did they... or not?

She takes steps necessary to answer the question.

A concrete goal gives protagonist action so the reader can react to what the character does rather than merely follow her internal monologue.

Get her moving. Let her actions define her.

Cut all flashbacks.

For more on goal setting:

  • read my article in the March '10 issue of The Writer (on book stands mid-Feb.)

11 January 2010

Connecting to the Character

People read stories and go to the movies 70% for the character. We love to peek into other people's lives, even if the other people are mere characters in a book or movie.

This last writer's story is filled with dramatic action, which makes for an exciting story. I find myself anxious to hear what happens next, and what happens after that. The writer masterfully provides more and more compelling action, and does so seamlessly through consistent cause and effect. The Dramatic Action plot line rises quickly and effectively.

Still, the more intriguing the mystery, the scarier the suspense, the more cardboard action figure-like the characters become as they passively allow the dramatic action to happen. The more exciting the action, the more the characters are ignored and the less I find out about how the characters. especially the protagonist, are affected by the dramatic action. Without the help of the character to draw me closer, I find myself separating further and further from the story.

At this point in the consultation, I go over the importance of goal setting for the protagonist ~~ both at the scene level and the overall story level. The better a writer is at establishing concrete goals for her characters, the easier it is for her to keep track of the affects on the character as the character succeeds and fails in achieving her goals.

[Note: At a recent Plot Planner Writers Workshop, one of the writers expressed confusion between a goal and a dream. A goal is quanifiable and under the protagonist's control. In other words, the character is capable of succeeding. Whether they actually do or not is up to them. A dream, on the other hand, requires a bit of magic or help from outside sources. The protagonist cannot fulfill his or her own dreams, but must rely on the help of others.]

In the consultation, I never find out why the protagonist is missing when her husband is nearly killed. Why? Because the writer doesn't know either. A critical door into the character on a deep, personal level is never opened by the author and thus, would have robbed the future readers or movie-goers from the intimate bond of knowing.

The writer uses the protagonist to advance the Dramatic Action plot line, but ignores the Character Emotional Development plot line almost completely.

Still, she has done the hard part. The story is written. The dramatic action propels the story in quick and exciting ways. Once pointed out, the doors are easily opened. By attending to what is behind each door, the writer's chances improve for bringing satisfaction to future fans through knowing the character even better than the character knows herself.

10 January 2010

Caution: Writing May be Hazardous to Your Health

Not every writer I work with admits to her flaw(s) but many do. The more prevalent flaws I encounter operate exactly like the protagonist's flaw in a story = the internal flaws of feeling not good enough, smart enough, or producing enough do more to sabotage the writer (and protagonist) from achieving her goals than any outside antagonist ever can.

Writers who have labored for years start when hopeful and stop when fraught with insecurity and fear (both of success and of failure). They do this over and over again. Sadly what often happens as they strive for their dreams with perseverance and determination is only to give up in the end.

Then there are the writers who find strength and determination not within their own personal power but with drugs and alcohol. These writers concern me the most because of my own demons I have struggled with over the years. 

These writers often start when sober and stop when the drugs and alcohol become more important than the writing. Often what triggers the angst is the writing itself. In supporting these writers through a writing project I am always asking myself if what I am doing is helpful or even healthy for an addict. 

Heavy-duty addicts in my experience are generally too sensitive for the world around them and they believe that being numb is the only way they can deal with life. In guiding these writers deeper into their writing projects, we wade deeper and deeper into the pain that first brought on their self-abuse through drugs and alcohol. 

Recently one writer kindly wrote to me: You keep coming up with new ways to help us poor struggling writers.

I try, yet still after all these years and all these writers I have worked with, I have not found a way to help a writer write about their nightmares without having them relive the pain as they write. Yes, if the writer can slog through the Middle and survive the Crisis, they come away not only better writers for it, they come out stronger in their own personal lives as well.

My only saving grace is the confidence I hold in the writers I work with and all those of you out there I will never have the honor of helping that you are better than the addiction and that you are strong enough to find solace in leaving the drama on the page. 

06 January 2010

Author Plot Interview

Most writers have a preference for writing one plot line over another. Some are Character-driven writers. Others are Action-driven writers. Some have strengths in both. Not many are Thematic-driven. 

The deeper meaning of a story comes up out of the story itself over time. Thus, the Thematic Significance plot line is generally saved for the last or ignored or overlooked all together. 

The more aware a writer is about their own personal themes, the more attuned the writer will be in the search for deeper meaning. 

Shana Mahaffey author of Sounds Like Crazy begins writing with theme on her mind. I recently interviewed Shana about her plot process. Read more about this up-and-coming star who is currently working on book two of a two-book contract from Penguin Group, the second largest trade book publisher in the world behind Random House. 

For more on theme:

02 January 2010

After PlotWriMo

Give yourself permission to follow your energy.

If you have energy to write something even if it means writing and rewriting, so be it.

Just remember, you are not looking for perfection here, you are looking to build the structure on which to rest the story (1st draft) or (subsequent drafts) opportunities to dig deeper and, as Kate Braverman once said to me: find the doors and open them.

Do like Hollywood movie directors and cup your hands around one eye like a telescope. Write about that one moment in your story.

If it takes you time, fine. Just make sure you revise your expectations (goals, dreams) of when you will reach the end.

  • Do I finish draft by (insert date)?
  • Do I reach that goal when I get there
Either way is fine. Do it.

Better yet.

Forget the expectations.

Surrender to the incredible gift of writing.

Let the story unfold as it does.

Keep showing up.

You'll get there...