Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Characters who draw your reader in

It's been two weeks since my intensive week at my MFA residency. I like to write blogs on things I've learned because it helps reinforce the knowledge for me and hopefully gives you something to work with as well. As Jonathan Mayberry said in his workshop, "Writers need to help each other out." That is the goal of this blog. To pass on what I learn, so that we can all make our writing stronger.
I sat in a great workshop given by Randall Silvis, novelist and character writer. The following is from my notes on the workshop:
The reader wants characters they can relate to, identify with and care about. How do you get that? By creating a character who is inherently dramatic. They should have traits, motivations and contradictions that invite drama. They should stand out with a distinctive voice by taking interesting actions, making interesting choices based on their motivations. The events of your story should grow out of the character's choices and actions.
There should be external and internal conflict. The external conflict drives the story while the internal conflict drives the character and the character drives the external conflict. Think of it as the circle of life for your story.
How can we fashion conflict? By identifying the characters needs or desires, then identifying the tasks or goals the character has to fulfill their needs, finally identify and create the obstacles to their goals. (Work from the least dramatic to the most dramatic as you build your story.)
Take a moment to do this little exercise with your current main character (or any character you're working with.) Answer the following:
1) what is their external need?
2) what is their external task?
3) what is their internal need?
4) What is their internal task?
How are these different, exciting and dramatic for readers of your genre? What kinds of obstacles can you use in your plot to block them from fulfilling their needs or completing their tasks?
Here's my example:
Toni Ryder's external need is to build a successful gluten-free bakery business. Her external task is to drum up business, create customers, bake goods. What blocks her from doing this? She set up her bakery in her home town of OilTop Kansas, where wheat farming is a big part of the community. She must convince the community and the wheat farmers her bakery is not a threat to their livelihood. The biggest block to her task-a man is murdered on her doorstep. All kinds of things happen after that in a cascade of trouble that block her need to build a successful business.
Toni Ryder's internal need is to find her place in her hometown and fit into the community she has recently returned to after her mother's death. Her task is to create relationships with people she once abandoned as too small-minded, and to build a family and a web of support for her internal needs. What blocks her is her own feelings of rebelling against the community. After all she did pick a wheat town to build her anti-wheat bakery. Then there is her struggle to accept her "unconventional" over-sized family and the characters that are related to her. Her struggle to date after a nasty divorce. Her own lack of confidence in her choice of males. Her grief at the death of her mother and her unwillingness to make the home her mother left her her very own.
Do you find her dramatic? Does she stand out? Can you identify with her?
I'll leave you with a final quote:
"I would never write about anyone who is not at the end of his rope." Stanley Elkin

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

January book review by Ted

Have you ever wondered what a person in his 70's does when the weather is not good enough or "arther" is hurting joints that you did not know you had? Well, we had quiet holidays and I actually spent more time reading than playing computer games on Pogo. So I have 4 books that I read---actually 5, I'll use the 5th for next month.
I am a writer's best friend.....I actually buy books! Thank goodness there are book clubs, it saves me a lot of money. I always have a stack of them around that I have yet to read. I also have recently discovered a used book store that sells and then buys back older books. Fixed incomes in retirement are not fun.
I've been talking in this blog about different types of readers, tailoring stories to a focus group, and I want to add another this time. Using catchy gimmicks to catch the readers attention and enhance the story. Well, I want to mention one of those. I bought a book called "Santa Clawed" by Rita Mae Brown & Sneaky Pie Brown.
Our youngest granddaughter has a 6 month-old kitten and since she ( not the cat) was spending several days with us, I thought it might be a good book for her---she really does not like to read. I read it first-- The story is a mystery, in addition to the people, there are a pair of cats who talk ( to each other ) . So now meet a person who does not like cats. That is OK, because they don't like me either. Now how do I write a book review about this book? It is well written, well constructed, definitely not for a 9 year-old. If you like cats, it is a good useful gimmick......but for a non-cat-lover, I would not buy another. A bad book? No! A bad reader? No, just a case of the focus group did not include the possibility of a person not liking cats.

Ever read anything by William Peter Blatty? NO?!! While neither had I, in fact I do not remember hearing his name before. Yet his work is well known. He is the author of " The Exorcist".
"DIMITER" is an excellent mystery---it catches and holds your attention. It begins with a strange story and then moves forward...you wonder what the connection is. Just about when you think you have it figured out, there comes a new twist...I'll leave you with the problem of trying to figure out what a body was doing in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, lying on the slab of rock in the tomb where Jesus was laid. Love a good mystery??? This is one.

Do you like Country Music? I don't mean Taylor Swift, I'm talking about the country of the 70', 80's,90's. " Nickel Dreams" was written in 1997---found in another pile of books that I had not read!
If you like biographies, want to know about how stars begin, become superstars and come close to becoming a Super Nova, then "Nickel Dreams" by Tanya Tucker ( Yes, the "Delta Dawn" singer) tells it all from her early beginnings to the time of the publishing of the book. Child star, the Lindsey Lohan of her day, battered woman, single mother of two children, Tanya tells the whole story. I made it to about the first 10 pages and came across the name of one of the people she looked up to, a personal friend of mine, Johnny Western---singer and writer of " The Ballad of Paladin" for the "Have Gun, Will Travel" TV series. I was hooked. The book is not great literature--- she tells it with the aid of Patsi Bale Cox--authors, another way to make money as a writer. Great literature? No, not supposed to be. It tells the story and holds your interest......What else is it supposed to do?

Now for the fourth and best book , I am highly recommending "The Wolves of Andover" by Kathleen Kent. I almost said the best book I read in 2010, but I am not sure that is true. Kathleen wrote " The Heretic's Daughter" which I also read last year. She is a newer author- these are her first 2 works ( published anyway). They both deal with the Carrier Family legends of which she is the 10th generation.
The time frame is the 1600's in the area of Salem. Now, if you remember your history, this is the time of the Puritans, Salem Witch Trials, the Restoration of the Monarchy in England. I'd highly recommend you read "The Heretic's Daughter" first, though it is not a requirement.
"The Wolves of Andover" shifts back and forth between the Salem/Boston area and the streets/palaces/dives/brothels of London. She accomplishes this by alternating the places between the chapters...first in Salem, next in London, and so on until the action is all in the new world until the end when the salt barrel is opened in London.
Characters did actually live---most anyway. Their adventures, lives, loves are all part of the story. Is it all fact? Of course not--it's a novel not a history book, but it is well told and one of ( or two) those books that is "Hard to put down" once you begin it. This is one of those books written by a woman that will make an interesting read for males readers also.
Kathleen also has her own website: www.KathleenKent.com Check her out---she reminds me a lot of Nancy.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Anxiety and High Drama

Creative people live for drama. To the friends and family members who are horrified by my sometimes too loud outbursts, and over emotional thinking, I say, "I'm a passionate person." I try to hide it. Really, I put a lot of energy into appearing as normal as possible but the drama pops out of me. I get so excited my hands shake. I get so mad I have an all out crying, stomping, shouting tantrum. I get so sad there is no consoling me...over something as little as a rejection letter. "Get over it," people mutter. Said people are not creative. Said people do not bleed into a computer and then send out queries because said people are afraid of rejection. But, I digress. The point being that creative people often use anxiety and high drama to prevent themselves from being creative.
I have a friend who has a terrific idea for a middle grade book whose hero is a boy in a wheelchair. She won't write it, though. Why? Because when it makes the NY Times list her entire life will change and she doesn't want the responsibility. I know at least three people who can't get farther than the first three chapters of a book because if it's not perfect something awful will happen. Something so humiliating and terrible that their stomachs pinch and their hands shake and they go back to the first page because this time they might get it right. For my Master's degree program you must write and polish and defend a genre novel. Having done all this over two years, when it comes time to put that novel on a CD and leave it in the school library for others to read, the students balk. "No, it's not ready." Trust me, folks, it's never ready.
"Creative people are dramatic, and we use negative drama to scare ourselves out of creativity with this notion of wholesale and often destructive change. Fantasizing about pursuing our art full-time (and the terrible things that might happen if we did), we fail to pursue it part-time--or at all."~Julia Cameron
Ex: I can't be a writer and raise children. I can't take a class and keep my job. If I hit the NY Times list--and I will--I'll be busy touring and my spouse will leave me.
"Most...creatives have an active addiction to anxiety. We prefer the low-grade pain and occasional heart-stopping panic attack to the drudgery of small and simple daily steps in the right direction." ~JC
Oh, how I wish these quotes from Julia Cameron's, The Artist's Way, were not true. But they are. Our own fears and passions keep us from doing something daily to live the creative life we were born to live. The scary thought of "What will people say?" or "Will I have to start wearing flowy skirts and bangle bracelets?" "Will I have to quit my job, leave my family, move into the deep city, stay up late, smoke dope and hang out with intellectuals?" Or worse~ "That agent rejected my book, now she hates me." "That editor is laughing at me and telling her entire staff how awful my work was."
No wonder we freeze up, run away, keep putting obstacles in front of our creative soul. Stop the madness. Take a deep breath. Blow it out slow. Put that all aside and ask yourself, "what small thing can I do today-right now- to feed my creative soul?" I can open a word doc and write a title. Can't figure out a title? Use someone else's title. Don't stop. Write a sentence. Write a paragraph. Read a craft book, one page a day. Attend a workshop. Make a space-however small- to create. Push through the doubt and keep going-step by step, page by page.
I have discovered that in every book I write 1/3 of the way in I freeze and think, "this is horrible. No one will read it. It's a bad idea. I can't write." I push through anyway by giving myself permission to write terrible, horrible, no good stuff. I tell myself no one is reading this but me. I write the next page. Then things pick up and I go along happy and merry until-yep 3/4 of the way through the book. The end is coming up. I'm afraid there isn't enough story. It doesn't work. It's no good. Again I have to take a deep breath and write the next page and the next page. I give myself permission to write a book that is too short or too long. I write. I revise. I polish. I query. I send it in. I revise more. I send it in again. I cry. I scream. I am petrified. I imagine all the terrible things. I write anyway. Bit by bit I create. It's in the doing that we actually live.
So...I've spilled my fears and dramas. What are yours? Care to share?