Tuesday, September 30, 2008

What advice would you give to someone wanting to make a career out of writing? Part III

Per my last series of posts, we have discussed the importance of articulating theme. It’s an essential ingredient to being able to create a career out of your writing. But how do we become objective enough in our own life to be able to really decant our own essence and put it into words?

We do it through a series of questions that you have probably answered before.  But we’re going to look at them in a new way!

1.       I want you to think back to your greatest failure in life.  I’m talking about a time you fell on your face hard.  Maybe it was in your career. Maybe it was related to love.  Maybe it was related to education. Maybe it was related to family, or to health. Whatever it was, it caused you humiliation and embarrassment.  So much so that you might have taken months to recover, if you ever recovered at all.  Now I want you to think about the pain that was caused by this failure.  The pain that devastated you.  And I want you to analyze that pain. I want you to dissect it and find its root.  I’m not talking about a shallow response to this question, like “my business failed,” or “I didn’t win the race.”  I’m talking about the real root of the pain.  What did that failure prove that you were not worthy of?  That you were incapable of? If you can articulate that in its rawest form, you might be on to your theme.
2.       Now I want you to think about your greatest accomplishment. Your greatest success. The time you were on top of the world. Maybe it was in your career. Maybe it was related to love.  Maybe it was related to education. Maybe it was related to family, or to health.  And I want you to think about that joy you experienced. I want you to analyze it, to dissect it, and again, to find its root.  What did that accomplishment prove to you that meant so much? What did that accomplishment validate in you? If you can truthfully articulate the root of that joy, you might be on to your theme.
3.       My last question to you is this: If you found a magic lamp, and in that lamp was a genie that granted you one wish that you could not use for yourself—one wish that you had to use on someone else in your life—what would you wish for?  If you can answer that question truthfully, you might be on to your theme.

The intention with questions like these is to truly look at what is important in your life based on your behavior; not on your idealism, but on your reality.

Start to look at what is the real essence of you. What makes you get out of bed in the morning (other than the idea of that cup of coffee, and the screaming kids).  What drives you?  What means more to you than you?  The reason we have to find this piece of the puzzle is because the road to building a career will take tremendous energy, discipline and dedication, and the only way you will barrel through the obstacles ahead of you, is to have a reason more compelling than the fear of failure that will prevent you from getting where you want to go.

So articulate that theme that is all you. Respect it.  It’s a gift. Then take responsibility for it. For doing something with it. Once you’ve done that, we can begin the real work.  The next stage? Building your business.

Monday, September 29, 2008

What advice would you give to someone wanting to make a career out of writing? Part II

Once you have determined where you fit in the equation of writing (see previous post), then you are ready to investigate your selling point.  Whether you are the writer looking to get hired to tell someone’s story, the blind old man in the park looking to hire a writer, or the blind old man and the writer combined and looking for a publisher; the one thing you all need to do is sell yourself. The goal is to make a living putting words together, yes? So we have to be able to sell ourselves. To do so, we have to be able to articulate our theme. And I’m talking not about the theme of any given story. I’m referring to the theme of our lives. We each have a major theme that we wake up every day and play out—and if you can articulate that, you can sell what is uniquely you.

Consider one of my partners, Robert Renteria. Robert grew up in the barrio of east LA. He slept in a dresser drawer as a child in a one room bachelor apartment. When he was three, his father abandoned their family in search of heroin and alcohol. When Robert was six, his head was crushed by a carnival ride and as some of his family members were mentioning funeral arrangements, Robert made a miraculous recovery. In his teen years, Robert followed the path of too many Latinos and dropped out of school to help his family put food on the table.  During that time he also ran with gangs, did and dealt drugs, was shot at and stabbed and gave back his fair share. Robert was headed straight down the path to where his father would die when Robert was 17—on Skid Row.

But Robert’s Grandfather challenged him to get out of the barrio.  To make something of himself.  And when Robert was in his early 20s he took that challenge, went back and got his GED and entered the military. He served our country for over 7 years and when Robert returned to LA, his so-called friends had graduated to hard-core drugs. Some of them were in prison and some of them were dead. So Robert left again. He moved to Chicago with $200 in his pocket and he slept on a friend’s floor until eventually he got a job.  He worked every single day for years, not seeing his family, but dedicated to making something of his life. Five years later, Robert was the VP of a publicly traded company and he never finished high school.

But today Robert couldn’t do that.  Kids need to stay in school and get their education. Especially at-risk kids. They need that education to level the playing field. And so Robert wanted to tell his story in the hopes that he might inspire a few other people to make better choices in life as he had been lucky to do.

Today, From the Barrio to the Board Room is supported by Princeton University professors and ghetto and barrio middle school teachers alike. Congressman and Mayors have endorsed the book. Organizations and individuals are buying the books by the hundreds and the thousands and donating them to their community schools and churches. Most importantly, the kids are reading the book and talking about their own lives. To them, Robert is a symbol of hope.

Per my previous post, Robert is the old blind man, I am the writer, and these children around the world are the passersby in the park. We are all part of a new legacy. We are all part of Robert’s theme. That theme is Chasing the American Dream. Robert wakes up every single day and goes to work proving to himself that he has the right to that American Dream, and proving to everyone he meets that they have the right to it to. It’s part of his DNA.

What you need to determine if you’re going to have a successful writing career of your own, is ‘what is your own theme.’

I have worked with over 300 writers and every single one of them had a theme. Most could not articulate it until we started working together. Until we started being intentional about putting it into words. In the next post, we’ll discuss how you can look at your own life and start to put your theme into words.

Friday, September 26, 2008

What advice would you give to someone wanting to make a career out of writing?

I’m sure that I could write about this for days.  There is so much advice that someone needs to make a career out of any art.  I have three main steps that I believe are pieces of the equation. I’ll detail the first here and that is knowing who you are and how you fit into the equation of storytelling.

This weekend, I am giving the keynote at the Wrangling with Writing conference in Arizona and I am using this story to illustrate my first point. It’s a short film I saw recently that opens on a part on a traditional summer afternoon.  A breeze blows through a nearby Jacaranda tree as couple stroll through giggling. A little girl runs through a flock of pigeons feasting on bread crumbs. A little boy chases a balloon. A squirrel nibbles on a date.

Eventually the camera pans over to a pair of shoddy tennis shoes, and we pan up to see an older man in a dirty blazer with an unshaven face. Next to the old man is a tin can and a sign that reads “Have compassion, I am blind. Now people who walk through the park and pass by the old blind man, all read that sign, but very few are moved by it. Occasionally someone drops some change into that tin can, but for the most part, they all continue on with their day.

Eventually a young man in a business suit walks over and stares at the sign. After a few moments, he picks the sign up, flips it over and with a pen of his own, writes a new message on the back of the sign.  Then he sets it down and walks away.

For the rest of that afternoon, nearly everyone that walks by deposits change or bills into that tin can.  So much so that it’s ringing like a slot machine and the old man is trying to stuff all the change into his pockets, but it goes spilling all over the sidewalk.

Later that afternoon, the young man returns and the old blind man recognizes him from the sound of his footsteps and the feel of his shoes.  The old blind man asks, “What did you write on my sign?”

The young man responds, “The same thing with different words.”

The camera pans over and reveals that what once read, Have compassion, I am blind,” now read: “Today is a beautiful day. And I cannot see it.”

In this scene in the park, the old man had something to communicate, but not the words to reach beyond himself.  When the writer came by and helped him to articulate what was in his heart, the old man’s world changed. And so did the life of the passersby who were moved to act and in so doing opened themselves up to something larger than themselves. They all became part of a community that day.

So the first question I ask people who say they want to write, is where do you really fall into this equation?  Are you the blind old man with something to say, but not enough experience with words to communicate your message?  Are you the writer, looking for a muse?  Or are you a passerby in the park?  Once you answer that first question we can move onto the subject of theme.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Secrets of Character Development

Seven steps to creating characters that write themselves:

1. Label the Desire Essences of each of your main characters: The first key to deepening your work comes from finding the major motivators in the lives of your characters. What drives their actions and reactions? Do their desires stem from specific experiences? We all have deep-seeded aspirations that spur our choices, thoughts, acts, and responses. These stimuli are what differentiate us from one another and we will refer to them as “Desire Essences.” Some examples of Desire Essences are the desire to: be intellectually brilliant; be socially famous; hide from the world; belong to a group; be loved; party wildly; or end your suffering and die. Desire is at the core of every being. We naturally aspire to be, do, or possess something that is just beyond our reach. Desire can be simple or deeply passionate. Write down the ten most important desire essences of each of your main characters!

2. Label the Fear Essences of each of your main characters: What lies at the root of each of your characters’ darker sides? For every desire they possess, they should also exhibit the antithetical fear of failing at attaining that desire. These fears will battle their aspirations for control over their behavior. Understand and then label the darker sides of your characters. This step is imperative to creating the dimensional and imperfect characters you are after. Some examples of Fear Essences are the fear of being: stupid; ordinary; socially exposed; rejected by a group; loathed; boring; or having to face life or love. Write down the ten most important fear essences of each of your main characters.

3. Get specific with your backstory: Human behavior is made up of a string of moments and the reactions to those moments. A character’s present is carved out by her past. Current behavior is a battle between fear and desire, and your character’s immediate choices are based on very specific (yet unconscious) experiences from her past – experiences that leave imprints much like DNA. Though your characters should be unconscious of these past experiences that have influenced them, you the writer must create these histories in your preparation of their backstory and be fully aware of them before you move into your manuscript or screenplay. Here is an example of what won’t benefit you versus what will when you get specific with backstory.

Bad example of getting specific: Rachel is a pretty girl who thinks she is unattractive. She prefers to live in her books as opposed to being with friends or family. Her father abused her sexually throughout her youth. She hates attention.

Better example of getting specific: On her graduation day, at a party her mother is throwing for her, Rachel’s father shows up drunk and congratulates her, hugging her too closely, grabbing her rear end with both hands, and calling her pretty in front of a room full of her friends and family. She runs away humiliated and hides in her room, escaping into one of her fantasy stories. That night she moves out to stay with a friend and doesn’t tell anyone where she is going. Two weeks later she finds out through another friend that her father died in a car accident. He was drunk.

In the better example of getting specific, the reader can have a visceral reaction to your words and you as the writer can more easily understand what motivates your characters while you are writing them. This is caused by the detail. The generality of the bad example is logical, but lifeless. In the better example, it is easy to determine what the essences of our leading lady might be: desire to hide, maybe even desire to die, desire to live in her books, desire to be valued for her intellect instead of her body, fear of loneliness, fear of her appearance, fear of the opposite sex, fear of losing a loved one, fear of being abandoned, fear of people who drink.

4. Describe their current behavior: Take the essences and the specific examples you have created and determine what kind of behavior your character might exhibit as a result of their past.

Simple examples: our leading lady, a woman who: hides her body; avoids friends from her past; mistrusts anyone who comments favorably on her appearance; desires to control her education and her intellect; avoids alcohol.

5. Raise the stakes: Emotions are extreme. Play in the realm of this extreme when dealing with the fears and ambitions of your characters. These essences are all encompassing; meaning that we spend our lifetimes with them. Don’t cheat your characters by being afraid to raise the stakes as high as you can. Needing to find a precious stone to sell to an art dealer by midnight to raise the financing to save your character’s mother’s house before the bank takes it away from her tomorrow is exciting! Look back at your own life and think of how seriously you take your essences. When your essences are threatened, will you fight to extremes to defend them? Just as when they are fulfilled, do you enjoy some of your greatest moments in life? Play in the realm of the extreme. Raise the stakes. Your essences are life and death to you – let them be that way to your characters.

6. Don’t meddle: Of course, you might be saying to yourself, “How do I not meddle? I’m the writer!” But a truthful story is going to grow from your willingness to let your characters make their own decisions, based on how you have defined them (which, after these exercises, will be in great depth). As their “parent”, you have to let your children go; this is the point at which your story truly begins. DO NOT MEDDLE IN THEIR LIVES. Continually remind yourself that it’s not about you. You just serve the story. Let your characters make their own decisions. If you ever find yourself not knowing what decision they might make, question your homework and rework their essences, behaviors, and stakes until their choice becomes obvious.

7. Let your characters play: Once you have developed several characters by labeling their essences, getting specific, defining their behavior, and raising the stakes, you are ready to begin to let them interact. It’s like the first day at a new school, ripe with possibility. When properly developed, there is no way to predict how your characters will behave in any given situation, but they are so full of life and their own agendas that they are ready to interact with other characters who have been developed to the same level. If you have done the work to get to this place – this is where your characters will begin to write themselves.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Art of the Pitch

A pitch without passion is NOT a pitch.  You must find the core of your story and the core of you as an author. You’re selling BOTH!

The necessary ingredients:

1.     The perfect logline

2.     The heart behind the book

3.     An understanding of your reader

7 Questions to help you to get to the heart of your pitch:

1.     Does your logline have the five essential ingredients:

     a.     External conflict

     b.    Internal conflict

     c.     Goal

     d.    Motivation

     e.     Setting

2.     If you had five copies of your book in your hand and I told you to give them to five people who needed them, who would they go to?

3.     Why are you the perfect person to write this book? (Use your core values in this response as well as your most personal pain points!)

4.     How are readers going to see themselves in your leading characters?

5.     I’ve heard thirty pitches today, what is special about yours?

6.     If your book was never published, why would it devastate you?  (if the answer reflects your own failure, you’ve got the wrong answer!)

7.     Why does the world need your book???

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Shot from the Block Doc: 7 ways to barrel through writer’s block

1.    Ask yourself, “If I had to write five crappy pages today, what would I write?” Then write that!

2.    Have you set up a schedule for the chapters you are responsible for delivering? A sense of urgency is imperative!

3.    Who is waiting to review your pages and when do they expect them?  Nothing like having someone to deliver to if you want to keep on track!

4.    Who do you discuss your writing with weekly?  It is important that you have someone who is helping you remain accountable to your progress.  Nothing like a flame at your backside to get you to produce!

5.    Write 5 crappy pages everyday and remind yourself that first drafts are supposed to stink!  They are a launching pad from which the real work will take place.

6.    If you are seriously stuck, assume you just don’t know your characters well enough and dive back into your character bibles! If you have truly brought them to life, they will dictate the story and you will merely be a conduit!

7.    Put your head down and write anyway. Starting is the toughest part. Even for those of us who write every day, sometimes just getting going is the toughest part.  Shut up and do it.