Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Story Development from another perspective

Randy Ingermanson is known as the “snowflake guy” for his approach to story development. His approach quite closely mirrors the approach I have designed over the last decade and what we use when writing fiction at Writers of the Round Table. He very eloquently, yet simply lays out an approach of how a story goes from being a simple triangle in your mind with only three distinct points, to be coming a snowflake, rich in texture and completely unique.


Friday, December 19, 2008

Character Bibles

I work closely (week to week) with about a dozen different writers every year and part of our process is a VERY in depth character bible for any character that makes a significant appearance in a story.

The process works like this:

1. Label the greatest failures and successes in your character's life up to the point in which they enter the story (as they relate to the major issues we all encounter: love, money, family, sex, drugs, art, accomplishments, education, career).

2. Using a narrative approach, describe the events of each and every one of those failures and successes.

3. When you've got 20 pages per character, summarize the major VICTORIES and SCARS of each character on a single page.

The product of this work is your bible; your contract with your character that you will write them true to their own life story.

Throughout the world of your story, your characters are subconsciously chasing the greatest moments of their past to repeat the glory, and running from their greatest failures to avoid the pain. Great stories arise out of circumstances where a fear has to battle a desire and one has to win at the cost of the other.

For example: Samantha

Greatest Failure: Dropped out of school.

Narrative description: When Samantha was in the 7th grade her mother was killed in a hit and run car accident. Samantha was the oldest of four children and because her father was passed out drunk, she had to go and identify the mutilated body of her mother. When she returned home, something clicked inside of her and she realized that with her father as incapacitated as he was, she was the new head of the household. She faked her age and immediately got a job at a local restaurant where she went every day after she sent her three younger siblings off to school. For the next two years, she worked her tail off to keep food on the table. Then her father took some pills in a drunken stupor and never woke up. From there she elevated her game to a higher level, finagled her way into a corporate job with a major theme park and took on the full role of caretaker. Her siblings are a great personal joy for her, but every day at work, she secretly worries that her lack of a degree will one day be found out and send her life and their stability tumbling down a steep hillside.

Greatest success: Employee of the year

Narrative Description: In her fifth year of working with the theme park she was promoted to a management position, and made responsible for an event that hosted 30,000 guests at the park. She had to manage the entertainment (a prominent young singer), the catering (over 300 staff), and relations with a VERY picky client who wanted everything done perfectly. The success of the event earned the theme park a series of very lucrative contracts for the next three years that generated an additional annual $3 million dollars and earned her the coveted employee of the year award, a job she competed against thousands of others to win. To her it meant that she could actually accomplish anything she set her mind to; that she was worthy, and that regardless of her lack of education, she had a place in this world and could compete with anyone, and take care of her family.

Notice that her greatest failure and her greatest success in this area are two sides of the same coin. This is by design. (Imagine 10-20 pages written out this way that highlight both sides of the coin for her as they relate to love, sex, money, family, etc.)

Now that you have outlined how important her status has become to her, imagine if her "secret" is threatened by another character with equally powerful fears and desires. How might she behave to protect her secret?

As you can imagine, this kind of work makes the eventual writing of the chapters rather easy because the characters have their own agendas that you have carefully constructed. I liken it to raising a child and then pushing them out of the nest. You hope you have raised them well, but ultimately, they will make their own mistakes and be accountable to the consequences as they learn how to live and behave and navigate their world.

Spending your time doing this kind of "homework" before writing lends to very powerful interactions between characters, like multiple balls being let loose in a pinball machine. They ricochet off of one another and are difficult to control, which mirrors life.

Happy writing!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Using POV in your writing

POV is a brilliant tool once you get the hang of it. Admittedly, it took me a year of intentional practice to get it right. I had submitted what I thought was a fantastic fantasy vampire manuscript to an agent and she pointed out all the "head hopping". Rewriting that forced me to learn. 

The way that I explain POV to writers I work with is by using a film analogy. The scene is the scene, what happens is what happens, but where you put the camera makes all the difference in the world. Consider a scene from your book and think of how it would be shot for a movie. Are you looking down on the action? Are you looking up at it? Are you seeing it from the perspective of a single person in the room?

POV is an opportunity to allow your audience to become intimate with your characters. To truly feel that connection, you want the audience to see the world through their eyes, thoughts, and emotional reactions. As the author, you control this by deciding whose perspective the story is being played out through.

I have a scene from a fantasy manuscript I am finishing that I'll use to demonstrate. It's an Arthurian Legend piece, where Merlin has been poisoned by his mother and is laying in bed in delirium. Initially we wrote the scene from the POV of Blaise, a priest from the Forest of Fire who is trying everything he can to heal Merlin. We initially saw the healing ritual through his eyes and his thoughts and his actions. Anything that happened in the room was interpreted by him. So when, in his stupor, Merlin cries for his sister Arianna, Blaise, not knowing who she is, has to interpret the meaning of the cries. The reader, like Blaise, becomes frustrated trying to communicate with Merlin who appears to be speaking gibberish.

Later, we went back and revisited the scene, writing it from Merlin's POV. Now we are putting the reader inside the delirium itself. The result is that the reader feels trapped inside Merlin’s poisoned mind as these phantoms chant over him and he goes from being lucid and hearing Blaise's prayer to heading off into the depths of the insanity caused by the poison.

Both options are relevant and both work. Both give the reader a different emotional experience. What does not work is flip-flopping back and forth sometimes being in Merlin's mind and sometimes in Blaise's. Less experienced writers take this omniscient POV and don't realize that they are preventing their reader from experiencing an intimate connection with their characters. Head hopping confuses readers because they are spending their time trying to stop the room from spinning instead of enjoying the story and being taken off into their own imagination.

If you really want readers to connect, you have to be very intentional about whose eyes they are seeing the story played out through.

I hope this is a decent starting point for the conversation. Ask more questions or make comments if you have them!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Blog Maniacs

With blogging taking off like mad and people and businesses realizing the potential of generating a dedicated readership, we have been flooded with those who want to blog, but are:

1. burnt out from already blogging for a while;
2. intimidated because they have yet to blog; or
3. just too busy to make time to blog.

As a result we have taken on nearly a dozen new clients that we blog for just in the last 30 days. And WOW, we’re having fun and they are just bowled over. Here are two responses I saw yesterday:

“Incredible, Awesome, wonderful, and on top of it all you have exceeded my expectations! Can’t wait to see the new blogs. You are Unbelievable!”

“Wow! Now that is impressive!”

Sue Publicover and I are in the process of building an entire business model around blogging. Here’s what we do:

1. Write and post exceptional blogs.
2. Generate multiple profiles on social networking sites for the blogs to feed into.
3. Find and comment on related sites, drawing those dedicated readers to the new blog.

This combination is explosive and if repeated over time, has the potential to generate great visibility and strong leads for our clients. And all at a price point that cannot be beaten for this type of quality. Blogging is such a cost-effective way of marketing what you do, and it is amazing how many bad writers are trying to write their own blogs and actually pushing people away when a service like this is available! I suppose we need to get the word out!

Happy Blogging!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

How reading makes you a better writer.

I’ve heard weigh-in on this question by the greats and the not yet greats, and there are so many varying opinions. Some don’t want to read the work of others, for fear that the words and metaphors they read will sneak into their own writing. Others crave the words of others and throw caution to the wind. I’m a firm believer that reading other’s work is imperative to your own. The act of reading exceptional writing is an injection of stem cells directly to your imagination. Great writing has a literal way of activating new pathways in your brain and opening up areas of new thought. As a business owner, I am constantly reading books on leadership. As an artist, I am constantly reading books on creativity. Both speak about similar topics but through completely different lenses. Consider it like a film. The scene is the scene, but where you put the camera makes all the difference. It’s the same argument of form vs. content. If you package the same thing in a different way, it becomes a different thing. With more than 6 billion people on the planet, there really are no new ideas (cliché because it’s true), there are merely new lenses, new ways of looking at old conversations. So dive into the work of others and let it expand your own horizons.

Friday, December 5, 2008

You know you're an author when.

I love this phrase. In my life I have taken more than two hundred dance classes, but I would never call myself a dancer. I cooked at restaurants for two years, but I am not a chef. I have acted professionally in more than a dozen national commercials, on eight different television shows, in several films and four dozen stage plays, but I don’t refer to myself as an actor. So what defines us? In an acting class I took in LA, led by the brilliant actor Jeff Goldblum, he once said it takes 20 years to build a true mastery as an actor. I believe that applies to any discipline. Twenty years of constant study. Twenty years as a full time occupation, not as a hobbyist.

Devotion is what defines you. What gets you out of bed in the morning is what defines you. What you do, not what you think, is what defines you.

My good friend and co-author Angelica Harris, had written and published two books when I met her five years ago, but she was still not a writer. About two years into our work together she started rearranging her life around her third book. She completely restructured so that her writing became a priority. That was the day she became a writer. Now she spends the majority of her time writing and speaking about her books, coaching other writers, and attending events important to her fantasy genre (renaissance fairs are huge for her!).

Many people do many things in life. We all dabble here and there. If you want to truly be recognized in a specific discipline, have enough respect for that craft to only call yourself a member if you have truly devoted your life to the consistent practice of mastering it.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The most important thing to remember when writing under pressure.

Honestly, when I’m under pressure, I just need to sit and keep writing. I remind myself that this is not the final draft, but I need to start somewhere. The goal is to put out the first crappy draft so I can move into revisions. Then I usually read the piece out loud and from that experience I find a dozen areas that need work. So I dive in on draft two and take care of those issues. Then I read it aloud again and find the weak spots. Around the fourth or fifth time of reading it aloud it really starts to flow. If I can, I like to then put it down for 24 hours. If time is not a luxury I submit the draft and look forward to comments from my client, editor, business partner or wife, whoever it’s going to. I let them help me find the areas that still need work and then I revise again. For something that is important, I have been known to revise a dozen times or more.

The first draft is a BRAIN DUMP.
The second draft is about making each section COHESIVE.
The third draft is about the overall FLOW of the piece.
The fourth draft is about PACING and RHYTHM.
The fifth draft is about SUBTLETY.
The sixth draft is about REINVENTION.
The seventh draft is about EPIPHANY.
The eight draft is POLISHING.
The ninth draft is PROOFREADING.
The tenth draft is when someone probably needs to take it away from me.

Monday, December 1, 2008

5 Critical Mistakes Most New Writers Make - and How You Can Avoid Them

This will be a five part blog! So hang onto your hats. Here is number 1 of the 5 critical mistakes most new writers make: Most writers just start writing—TRAGEDY! As writers, or artists of any kind, we feel that if it doesn’t just come naturally, or divinely, that we must be a failure. So how do we behave? We dive right in—hoping that the spirit moves us to brilliance. Shame on us! Do accountants just hope that equations come to them? Do Doctors just hope that they’ll figure out what to do with you once they’ve opened you up? Of course not!!! We have to prepare like everyone else. There is so much work to be done before we start writing, whether it be a manuscript, a piece of marketing copy, a speech, whatever…there is homework to do!

The problem that typically arises when we don’t prepare is that we either 1) lose faith when we hit a roadblock and give up; 2) have to expend 5 times as much energy to arrive at a halfway decent result; 3) find ourselves less than brilliant, and sometimes even pathetic to the point of depression. This can have dramatic effects on our psyche that then influence our professional and personal lives. The reality is that artists are typically rather fragile. Talk to someone with writer’s block and you’ll see a raincloud over their head. Talk to a dancer with an injury and you’ll see a fog around them. Talk to an actor who can’t find his zone and you’ll recognize that his expression resembles that of a zombie!

The first step is recognizing that we have to take better care of ourselves by doing the homework before diving into the pool of words. For our manuscripts, there is character development to embark on. For our marketing copy, we have to consider our core values, our core essence, our calls to action, the heart of our message. For a speech we have to structure out our presentation and how we’re going to lead our audience from A to B to C (the REVELATION!).

You create a blueprint before you construct a building. We can save ourselves and those around us grief of untold measure by preparing. Do the homework. Set the stage. Then begin writing.