Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Writers, Try This at Home 6 — Three voice exercises

I sympathize with editors and agents who have to wade through piles of manuscripts, most of which sound the same. The second rate versions of Nora Roberts or Stephen King or Clive Cussler can wear you down. And the anonymous bestsellerese of some writers attempting to be glib is impossible to connect with.

In conferences, on webpages, and in blogs, the professionals looking for fiction make it clear that each day they hope to find, somewhere in the slush pile, a distinct voice — language and perspective that stands out as individual and authentic.

I've written a few posts about voice in the past. I think there are some right ways to develop your own voice open: using dictation, writing dialogue–only scenes, and (ironically) writing pastiches that capture the voices of other writers. There are wrong approaches: writing diatribes, writing essays in ways dictated by long-forgotten sixth grade teachers, and any sort of "how to" writing — which needs to be clear and often becomes generic.

So, for this addition to the blog, I'm going to suggest three exercises that may help you to develop your own voice. They all begin in the same place, choosing an individual you know well to address with your work. Picking out someone in particular forces you to deal with intention, interest, pacing, and word choice that writing for an audience can't match.

Do you have someone in mind? Good. Now try this:
  • Describe your favorite scene from a story. It doesn't matter whether it's from your own work or from an author or movie that you connected with. Just communicate the images and the feelings in a way that would be understood by the person you've chosen to address.
  • Write about an occasion in your life when you were hurt, but not wronged. We all have cases where people around us, including people who love us, cause us harm. And it can be difficult to put these in perspective when blame isn't easily assigned. The hurt itself becomes more vivid when you try to explain why it felt bad without complicating your explanation with accusations or intentions.
  • Imagine a circumstance when you felt wonder or gained a positive insight about people, society, your world, or life. Then relate this incident as clearly as you can while including all the reasons why it mattered to you.
For each of these, the goal is to identify something that's meaningful to you, but is not overwhelmed by relationships, feelings of guilt, or feelings of injustice. The language you use to bring these experiences to someone you know well is likely to be distinct and completely owned by you.

If you wish to, you can return to these exercises and write to different people you also know well. This will give you a different dimension of your authentic voice. If you can do this work by dictating it, you'll probably have better results than if you simply type the words out. If that doesn't feel comfortable, take the time after you've finished your writing to read your exercises out loud. This will help you to connect with your own voice and smooth out any pieces that didn't come naturally.

Once you've done this, the trick is to take the voice you've discovered and move it into your novels, short stories, scripts, or whatever else is your usual writing. This may not happen automatically, but with practice, the sound of your work will change in ways that will help it to stand out when it reaches agents, editors, and other gatekeepers.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Writers, Try This at Home 5 - Creating the best secrets

I've become borderline obsessed with the use of secrets, surprises, lies, and revelations in stories. These turns creates excitement and delight. They capture attention and keep readers and audiences engaged.

The fun can range from someone shouting "boo!" (or coming through the door with a gun) to curious facts to stunning images to deep, life-changing insights. All of them are valid and, minimally, increase the entertainment value of the story. Often, especially in terms of secrets and revelations, it's assumed that these are developed in plotting. This does happen, but I think the most fruitful secrets and revelations emerge from deep knowledge — of characters and of the worlds in which they operate.

For me, surprises appear in two ways. Some of their by design, having emerged from analysis of the characters and the worlds. Others — which interest me the most — seem to come from someplace else. There is no real chain of logic that I can identify. Intuition may be at work. Effectively, the surprises that thrill me most are those that blindside me. A character whispers in my ear or an image appears in the daydream.

I'm not sure this can be turned into a repeatable approach. But an exercise I do, which I call connect the dots, often creates situations that lead to unexpected ideas. Here's how it works:

For a world, especially a world that is intimately tied to the story's premise, I make a list of captivating images or scenes that might belong in the story. Then I activate my logical, analytical brain and try and see how they might be connected with each other. I don't do this once. I do it several times.

This pushes me to go beyond the obvious. It helps me to create a narrative that makes me uncomfortable and even shocks me. When I feel that what I have is both exciting and disturbing, I know that this will take the story to a new level. As an added bonus, since I have created parallel narratives, I sometimes can use one of those as an alternate explanation that may change expectations for readers and audiences enough so the turn in the story will be fair, but won't be anticipated.

For a character, I focus on intentions. There's nothing more powerful than a deep understanding of why a character is doing something (or series of actions). Often, the character is motivated by the needs (at times, hidden even to them) and the approaches they take are twisted by some trauma.

After I’ve played around with ideas around the character's intention, I think of three specific critical actions or tasks. It's best if these come separately like the captivating images or scenes explore to uncover secrets about the story's world. The less they have logical connections, the better. Then I work, once again, to connect these three in a variety of ways. Once again, I'm hoping to come up with something that's exciting and disturbing.

So here's what I suggest you try at home:
  1. Take your story, your work in progress.
  2. Look closely at either the world or the protagonist.
  3. Find your three images, scenes, actions, or tasks.
  4. Connect these in 3 to 10 different ways, making sure at least one disturbs you.
With luck, you'll have secrets, surprises, revelations, and lies that will make your story more vivid. And here's one more thing to consider. If you are far enough along to have a sense of what the theme of your story is, look at some of these connections and see if any of them express your theme in an intriguing and memorable way. If so, it's likely that you are on your way to providing insights that will delight your readers or audiences.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Writers, Try This at Home 4 -- The character flaws trick

A good character flaw can enhance every element of your story. Flaws create risks and conflict. They lead to decisions that raise the stakes. Ultimately, a powerful flaw will reveal character and provide depth to the story’s theme.

The easiest place to begin looking at flaws is with your villain. Obviously, if nature is an antagonist, this won't work. And it won't work if some faceless organization takes the place of the bad guy. So think in terms of an individual with bad intentions.

This has to be someone who has some strong points. Most villains that catch our interest are intelligent. Some have clear (though often twisted) virtues.

Okay, do you have a villain with redeeming features in mind?

This one should be easy. Your villain needs to want something desperately. Unless they are (uninteresting) sociopaths, they need something and have a reason why they need it. In fact, they may even have justifications that make sense.

So now you have a villain with positive traits who desperately want something for what he or she believes are good reasons. I'm interested already. Now comes the fun part — give the villain a flaw. Not a simple vice. A villain may park in handicapped spots, but he or she needs more than that. Greed is good. Lust can be effective. Murderous rage always leads to (delightful) trouble. A good definition of a strong flaw is something that creates havoc in almost any context.

Now think of three things a villain would do in your story. If you can, make them essential tasks. And go beyond normal limits. Make these actions as extreme as you dare.
By now, you should have a potent brew of bad intentions, self-justification, a flaw, and evil actions. If you're like most people, you probably had some fun sticking your toe into the deep waters of the dark side. It's time for me to ask you to do something difficult. Give your hero as much of what you've just developed for the villain as possible. In particular, give your hero the villain's flaw.

That's got to hurt. And it will leave a mark — on your readers as well as you. But it's not as crazy as it sounds. Most writers identify too closely with their heroes and give them namby-pamby flaws nobody cares much about. Killing any prospects of having a powerful character arc in the story. They don't like their heroes to make mistakes or do bad things. They worry that people will not be able to identify with flawed heroes. This is nonsense.

This exercise takes advantage of the ease with which most writers can attribute evil to villains. Interestingly enough, this often leads to them giving all the best parts of the story to villains. A classic activity by some actors playing heroes is for them to mark the best lines in the villain's dialogue and ask that they be given to the hero (adapted as necessary).

If you do this exercise often enough, it will become easier for you to give your heroes the flaws they need to act with true heroism. Courage is not doing something dangerous. Often, that's foolhardy behavior. Courage is doing the right thing when you're terrified.

Have some courage here. Take on this challenge and make your hero work harder to get to a happy ending.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Writers, Try This at Home 3 - The power of images

A great movie has three great images. This wisdom was imparted to me by a producer decades ago. I've always kept it in mind, and I've made a point in all my stories – whether scripts, novels, or short stories — to take a step back and check to see if I had images that meant something to me.

For my current work, I decided to explore imagery more methodically. I listed 10 films I love and, under each, noted three visuals that first came to mind. I didn't research or review or do any preparation, and I was very careful to avoid movies where the trailers were too familiar.

All those images were freighted with emotions, and, in my mind's eye, I was more likely to see clips than stills. For most, I could easily remember what happened before and after the images.

My next step was to note next to each image whose eyes it was seen through. Some seemed to be godlike views. For example, the transition from bone to satellite in 2001 A Space Odyssey. Some were a little more personal. In Casablanca, when Rick and Captain Renault walk away together, the camera shows both men, but it's arguably Rick's point of view. The look on Doc's face in West Side Story is from Tony's point of view. And there is an interesting level of irony because I feel Doc's anxiety and I know Tony doesn’t.

Doc: Buenas noches? So that's why you made it a fair fight...
Tony: I'm gonna see her tomorrow an' I can't wait!
Doc: Tony... things aren't tough enough?
Tony: Tough? Doc, I'm in love!
Doc: And you're not frightened?
Tony: Should I be?
Doc: [after a pause] No. I'm frightened enough for the both of us.

For the most effective image in my collection, everything came together to connect immediacy, emotion, action, and character. It's when photographer Jeff Jeffries in Hitchcock's Rear Window feeds flashbulb after flashbulb into his camera to blind his assailant. The hero has gone from selfish voyeur to a participant who has taken on his responsibilities as a member of the community. He fights back with a weapon that is distinctly his. He's fighting for his life. And the visual itself is stunning and a perfect fit for cinema.

Many of the images I listed are visually arresting and perfect in tone. In The Natural, Iris Gaines, in her haloed hat, rising from the crowd to offer the redemption Hobbs needs so he can regain his power. The horrible triumph of Salieri in Amadeus as Mozart's shrouded body slips into the common grave. Joe Gillis's body floating face down in the pool in Sunset Boulevard.

At this point of my exploration, I looked for patterns. An essential question I asked myself was, why do these images resonate with me?

I won't go into any deep analysis here, but I was surprised to find how often images had to do with previously powerless people who found the capacity within themselves to make a difference. Similarly, there were cases where people who seized power for good reasons were nonetheless destroyed. Moments of redemption were also common among the images I'd chosen.

This exercise has provided me with insights as to my tastes, my concerns, and how the great artists of film have used imagery to make their work indelible. So, if you want to try this yourself, here are the steps:
  1. List about 10 films that are your favorites. Be leery of those that are less personal – many older films tend to use an omniscient point of view. Also be careful of those instances where clips from the trailers are fixed in your mind.
  2. Note down the first three images that come to mind for each of the films you've chosen. Don't spend a lot of time thinking about whether you have the "best" images. This is about you, your memory, and your emotional responses.
  3. Determine whose eyes you see the scene through. This can be as direct as the photographer's view of the murderer in Rear Window or have the distance of Rick's walk into the sunset at the end of Casablanca.
  4. Give yourself the opportunity to feel what you felt when you first saw this scene. This may take a while. In fact, shifts in emotions may need to take place throughout your day. It's not a bad idea to contemplate one image, write the emotion down (or sequence of emotions for that image if it's a clip), and do something else for a while before returning to your list to consider a new image.
  5. Analyze the visual content and see if you can figure out what about it touches you and makes it distinct and brilliant.
  6. Look across all the images that you've selected and see if there are any patterns that provide insights you might use to improve your work. Make this personal. Focus on the elements and characteristics that resonate with you.
If this exercise works for you, it may provide some direction on how to more effectively use imagery in your storytelling. It also may offer an opportunity to deepen the emotion and meaning of your work.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Writers, Try This at Home 2 - Visualizing your characters

At one time, I worked for a company that was very big on education, and I ended up having dinner with a communications guy who also was prominent in voice acting. As soon as I found this out I immediately flashed on a cartoon character he resembled — McGruff the Crime Dog.

This flash turned out to be absolutely accurate. In fact, it turned out the cartoonist had drawn the character's face based only on the voice. My dinner companion looked like he sounded.

Much of my introduction to characters as I write comes through an experience of what they sound like. Long before I know who they are and what they look like, I have their voices in my head. But at some point, I need to be able to see them, too. This helps me both to visualize scenes and to provide apt descriptions for readers.

Many of my writer friends begin with pictures. I know some who have folders full of magazine clippings that represent their characters. I've also found online that people search actors directories and use gaming software to make it easier to see their characters. Some writers actually sketch out entire casts and even specific scenes.

The best hint I ever had on how to visualize a character comes from a friend who said if you want to remember what someone you love looks/looked like, think of them in motion. I found that to be excellent advice for recalling memories, but it easily extends to seeing characters I know only by voice.

The first thing I try to imagine is a scene that has both motion and emotion. I want the character to be feeling something — joy, rage, terror, love. Ideally, I place the action in an environment that allows me to see it, without forcing things, from afar. Then I work in cinematic terms by viewing the action as a long shot, a medium shot, a close-up, and in extreme close-up. The particulars are likely to change, but, almost always, I end up seeing the person's full body, hands, face, and eyes.

Now, I may not know enough about the story to create a scene that is relevant. Because of this, I have three "go to" activities to explore with my characters:
  • Flying a kite.
  • Loading a gun.
  • Lighting a candle.
Motion is obvious in each of these cases. And it's easy for me to imbue each with specific, powerful emotions.

So try this at home:
  1. Choose a character you want to visualize clearly.
  2. Select an activity that includes both motion and emotion. (Feel free to use one of mine.)
  3. View the scene in your imagination from different distances. You can go from distant to close (as I usually do), close to distant, or at random distances that suit your mood.
The main point for all these is to get at least a few visual cues in your head. Be sure to write these down for later use. You can even create a complete description of the scene in great detail if you wish, just don't overdo your descriptions and your actual story. The reader usually wants to participate by filling in some of the blanks.

One more thing. I poked around and found a few references if you want to dig more deeply into character visualization.

https://writeitsideways.com/how-to-bring-your-characters-into-focus/

https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/get-cclose-characters/

https://mythicscribes.com/community/threads/how-do-you-visualize-your-characters.3138/

https://www.reddit.com/r/rpg/comments/2tgjkc/looking_for_some_character_visualization_software/

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Writers, Try This at Home 1 — Is this a good idea?

Most writers I know come across new ideas every day. Which is great. Linus Pauling said the best way to have good ideas is to have a lot of ideas. But which should you choose?

There is no one answer. It is always best to make your own decisions on what you should be writing. Realize, however, that these are important choices for you and for your career. Not every idea is worth investing a lot of time in. So let me offer three suggestions to guide you.

1 Write the idea down in a full sentence. Not only will this make it clearer, but it will also save you from confusion and mis-remembering later on.

For example:

A man discovers keywords he can use to reach and influence large audiences without fail.
Or

An easily cultivated fruit is discovered that makes women more physically powerful than men.
Or

A woman whose lifelong dream is to travel to Mars falls in love right after she gets selected for the mission.

Now, while I believe these are evocative, none of them are as complete as they would be once developed into loglines. Still, they represent sentences that could become part of a regular harvest for a writer. And there's enough to work with in each case.

Typically, I would have 10 to 20 of these collected across a week. Half of them would be struck out the first time I reviewed them. What about the rest?

2 Explore who the audience might be or the genre for any of these ideas.

Sometimes, the answer seems obvious. I usually try to put down three or four different audiences/genre even when all my instincts tell me only the first one that comes to mind could possibly be valid. One trick for getting at least one more audience is to think of it in terms of a horror story. And, if you feel comfortable writing humor, you can consider who might be interested in the story if it were treated as a comedy.

The keywords story above could be written as a political thriller. Powerful forces might compete to obtain the services of this genius. Or could be treated as a fantasy, where the protagonist is, perhaps, a social media version of Midas, turning his keywords to gold. And, of course, there are a lot of ways to go with a comedy of this sort. I primarily would look toward unintended consequences, like badly formed wishes in folktales.

3 Apply 10 criteria to test and score the idea.

These are up to you, and I'd suggest putting together a list of 20 criteria so you have some choice. It would be good to weigh them, with different points available, as well. Not every criterion you work with will be of the same value to you.

Here are some criteria to think of:
  • How passionate am I about this idea?
  • Does this idea fit in with a genre or other work for which I'm known or have a platform?
  • Could I write this now, or what I need to do a lot of research first?
  • Would working on this idea help me to grow and develop as a writer?
  • Would a successful execution of this idea improve my reputation?
  • Does this idea have possibilities for reuse or adaptation?
  • Is this idea interesting and distinctive enough to set me apart in a good way from other writers?
  • Is this idea promising? Can I think of variations and ways to modify it that might make it significantly more appealing?
  • Does my gut say I have to do this?
  • Am I the right person to tell this story?
  • Am I connected to a network of people who could dramatically improve the idea?
  • Does this idea have the potential to make me a lot of money?
  • Will this idea put me in contact with people I'd like to meet or establish relationships with?
  • Will I be proud to be associated with this idea?
  • Does this idea present risks to me? Of abuse? Of lawsuits? Of legal entanglements?
  • Could the dramatization of this idea creates positive social consequences?
  • Could the dramatization of this idea create negative social consequences?
I hope you get a sense of possible criteria from these examples.

With all these in mind, here's what I suggest you try at home.

Write down three ideas in full sentences.

Choose one to explore with regard to potential audiences/genres.

Ask 10 criteria questions about the idea and see how it scores.
(It's best if you develop your own criteria, but feel free to work with some of those I provided.)

Feel free to reply to this blog with your answers. It might be fun to see how other readers react. And I'll be happy to offer comments.

One more thing to consider when looking at ideas. It's perfectly fine to jump in and write a few pages on a story based on one of your ideas. Often, I'll write whole flash fiction (1000 words or less) stories to better assess the potential of an idea. Effectively, this is a way to implement business's "fail early" strategy for innovation. It can also be fun.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Fighting Through the Beginning - Worries that stop storytelling

How do you start your story? What gets in the way of writing it?  There are all sorts of chronic problems that derail the creation of the first few pages.

Dithering -- where you don't commit to a Work-in-Progress, so every day is a big decision -- is one of them. Distractions (snack? coffee? chores?), which keep your from sitting down to write or keep taking you away from the page (email? social media?) can stop you before you really start, too.

Then there's the blank page. Accusing you. Taunting you. Daring you. There's an apocryphal tale the Winston Churchill (who wasn't a man associated with fear) needed to have his teacher splat paint on the pure white canvases before he could get going. True or not, I like it. A little bit of mess can lead to wonder and joy.

I've already written about "in which" sentences. (As it happens, I'm reading Neil Gaiman's Seasons of Mists, and each section begins with one of these.) In addition to forcing you to commit to a defined task and prompting your subconscious, you can grab this sentence and use it like an essay topic to launch you into writing. It makes a pretty good pain splat.

And it rescues you from the difficult business of having to develop a perfect hook, a catchy phrase, or an engaging voice. You get time to  get your bearings, warm up, and find your rhythm before doing something challenging (and, perhaps, unnatural).

If hooks come, good. If you finish a first draft without any, that is not a problem. It doesn't mean you aren't a writer. It means, like most of us, a lot of what draws the reader in comes in the second or third draft. Or even later. You may even discover that what you've created, after the inevitable trimming of your prose, is a kind of "hook" you would never have considered. One that emerged organically from the storytelling.

Storytelling is always your first job. Even when you are working without an outline. Depending on how you work, the beginning of your composition may begin with an image or a feeling or furious action or a character who won't shut up. Note: This would be the beginning of your storytelling, not he chosen beginning of the work you present to the public.

I only realized recently that I am inhibited at the beginning (though not for the first few sentences) by mechanical considerations that have to do with the final product. What I'm writing might not feel tight enough for a flash fiction story or the scenes may be coming too much one-upon-the-next for the correct pacing of a fiction script. Or it might not have enough jokes per page for a comedy or it might have too much humor for a work that's dark and tragic.

On some level, I think all of these represent a part of me that is trying to get it "right" before I get it down. As if taking care will help me avoid extra drafts. Which is crazy because that kind of thinking hobbles the work and takes the fun out of it. It even insidiously undermines the freshness of the voice. Any impulse to "get it right" during a composition stage kills the flow and tends to approve of cliches. (Cliches are the non-creative mind's way of getting it right from the beginning. They are comforting. They don't raise alarms. They are pleasantly... bland and unoffensive.)

"Requirements" should be gathered ahead of time, reviewed the day before, and ignored in the first draft. There are a lot of "shoulds" for beginnings, regarding setting things up, introducing characters, creating immersive scenes, presenting the story question or the protagonist's desire, informing the reader of the dire consequences of failure, etc., etc. Please make sure all of these are established by page three or four. (It gets worse when marketing provides requirements for alpha males, series tropes, and such.) Talk about inhibiting.

You can't fill out a crossword puzzle and tell a story at the same time. It's okay to hope to get a few of these in as your write the first, second, and third pages (and keep getting more in through the first quarter of the story, when a new set of requirements come due). But don't worry if you don't.

Worry instead about your reader. Leave the rest behind, take on a story you have to tell, and imagine your perfect reader (use one person you actually know if you can) leaning in, nodding, and expressing the emotions you are trying to evoke. This, not the hooks or alpha heroes or immersive descriptions of settings, will get you successfully through the beginning of your story.

Not enough? Still unsteady? Here's one more thing to have in your kit before you begin your composition -- a good ending. If you have a great ending, that's even better, but a good one will inspire a beginning more reliably than anything else I know of.

A great character can get you going with charm and eloquence, but might let you down -- more show than substance. A high concept can generate twists, turns, and must-have scenes, but may not be right for you (being clever, but not essential to who you are) or may not have a satisfying resolution. A world like Tolkien's may create the perfect space for rich evocative stories, but you might get bogged down in narration. But a good ending is a destination that pulls you toward it and keeps you on the journey.

In my experience, a good ending also morphs in the telling of the tale to a better ending. There's no guarantee that it will be the best ending ever, but it is the closest thing to an insurance policy on getting a solid first draft that works as a story.