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Don’t miss a beat: Get into the heart of your character

In a previous post I wrote about a little technique I learned from author and writing instructor, Rhay Christou, who teaches for the online Lawson Writer’s Academy.

Develop your characters through dance” highlights a short video by actor Kevin Cox demonstrating how to unlock your body and mind in order to delve deeper into your characters.

Another tip I learned from Rhay is called, “Don’t Dance. ACT!” In this exercise, you pick a moment in your scene where your character is having (or is supposed to have) an emotional response to something. Choose one emotional beat. Now get up, stand in the middle of the room, and close your eyes. Picture yourself in your character’s setting. Become the character. What do you feel? Hear? Open your eyes. What do you see? Does your setting affect how you feel?

How are you holding your body? Tense? Relaxed? What is your body doing? Facial expressions? How do you feel? Angry? Sad? Frustrated? How does it show up in your body? Are you having a visceral reaction? A thought?

Now grab your journal and write as much as you can without stopping. If more feelings come up, write them down. Keep writing. Can you add anything to your scene to make it stronger?

In my chapter one, my protagonist, a veterinarian, struggles to save the life of a dog. Her boss forces her to use her mysterious powers that she has tried to run from ever since her mother died (she blames her powers for her mother’s death). When I close my eyes and become my character, I ask, “How does it make me feel that my boss has forced me to use my powers?”

Here’s what I wrote: “I’m angry. Pissed off. Want to hit something. My body feels tense, rigid, so tense my breathing is labored and tight. My chest feels like it’s in a vise, pressed together like a moth between glass. How dare she! She has no right to call on my powers. Total invasion. And what’s worse is she doesn’t realize the consequences. She doesn’t know that somebody could be injured or die. I never should have trusted her. Should have kept my mouth shut. Granddad was right—don’t trust anybody with my secret. Let this teach me…never again.”

Do I have any of these feeling in the chapter? Noooooo. After she saves the dog, my protagonist and her boss have a nice little chat about their dating life. Right. Revision time.

Ever notice how sometimes when you write, your brain kind of does a little hop-skip-and-a-jump ahead of itself? Mine does. Sometimes, I miss whole reaction beats. My character skips from one thing to the next without really processing what’s happening.

These exercises help me slow down and pay attention to how my character feels. They get me out of writer-brain and into the heart of my character.

I highly recommend any of the Lawson Writer’s Academy online courses. You’ll learn tons and meet some really cool writers. Check out their September classes here: www.margielawson.com or see the list below:

Master The Synopsis!
No. More. Whining.
MASTER THE SYNOPSIS! Starts Monday.
Instructor: RITA Finalist Jennifer Archer.
Sept 1-26;  Fee:  $50
http://bit.ly/MasterSynopsis

Submissions That Sell
Make your query SELL your MS.
Instructor:  RITA Winner Laura Drake.
Sept 1-26;  Fee:  $40
http://bit.ly/SeptSTSell

From Blah to Beats: Giving Your Chapters a Pulse
In 14 short lessons, learn how to make your chapter a lean and mean beating heart.
Instructor: Rhay Christou, MFA
Sept 1-30, Fee:  $50
http://bit.ly/GiveChaptersPulse …

From Homeroom to Last Bell:Hero’s Journey in YA Fiction
YA Writers: Fab class.
Instructors:  Jennifer McAndrews, Linda Gerber
Sept. 1 – 26;  Fee:  $50
http://bit.ly/HeroJourneyinYA 

Story Structure Safari
Instructor feedback, priceless. You’ll find your Story GPS.
Instructor: Lisa Miller
Sept. 1 – 30; Fee:  $50
http://bit.ly/SeptSSS

Getting Serious About Writing a Series
Lectures, plus tips from 18 fab authors.
Instructor: Lisa Wells
Sept. 1 – 26;  Fee: $40
http://bit.ly/WritingSeries 

Virtues, Vices, and Plots
Need a New Approach to Plotting?
Sept. 1 – 26:  Fee: $50
Instructor:  Sarah Hamer, MFA
http://bit.ly/SeptVVP

 

 

 

Deep editing: Make each word count

In July, I took Margie Lawson’s Immersion Master Class, an intensive three and a half day workshop on deep editing. My brain is still teeming with all the tips we learned to turn our manuscripts into bestsellers.

One day, as we reviewed one of my first-draft chapters in my current project, we came across a short paragraph about a character’s driving skills.

In the scene, my character is driving along a dark, windy road in the mountains at night when he comes across my protagonist walking along the side of the road after she’d just seen her maybe-boyfriend sucking face with another woman. (Every time I hear the words “sucking face,” I think of the 1981 movie “On Golden Pond,” where I first heard the term. The power of fresh writing!)

Anyway, the driver of the car offers my protagonist a ride home (she knows him—he’s the new man in town). She learns more about him and why he’s in town. He ends up giving her relationship advice and flirting heavily with her.

Here’s the paragraph in question:

“Hmmm,” he said, tapping his brakes before the next curve, then laying off them during the turn. He handled the vehicle as if he’d had years of experience coaxing the two-ton beast into compliance. “Any news on your grandfather?”

Questions that came up in class: Read more

Shake yourself out of a creative brain freeze by taking a walk

I have a love/hate relationship with my computer. I love it for the way it connects me with people and makes it easier to do research and write. I hate it for how fried I am after sitting in front of it for hours at a time. And as much as I can accomplish with a computer, I find that sitting in front of it isn’t the best place to find those epiphanies that can change everything.

Some of my best ideas come when I’m taking a shower, going for a swim, driving my car,  and going for a walk. As it turns out, scientists have proven that people generate more creative ideas when they walk than when they sit.

Santa Clara professor of psychology Marily Oppezzo was the lead author on a study that measured creativity among participants based on if they were walking or sitting. Oppezzo and professor Daniel L. Schwartz wrote an article based on the research: “Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking” that was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition in April of this year.

Research findings proved that walking leads to more free-flowing thoughts and more creativity. Read more

Step away from your desk and fuel your writing life

It’s easy as writers to hole up in our writing caves. We’re busy operating under the influence of words and we don’t want to be interrupted.

But sometimes you have to get out into the world. It’s how you pick up telling details that add more authenticity and authority to your work. And then there are the times when you’re stuck. Stepping out just may spark an idea or epiphany.

Deborah Harkness, author of A Discovery of Witches: A Novel (All Souls Trilogy),wrote on her website about the act of trying to make conversation with a “living human” after a day of writing. She writes that if she could give one piece of advice to an aspiring author, it would be this:

“Say yes.” The world is asking you to try new things, have fresh experiences, meet people, see foreign places, and learn things. Most of the time we say no. Say yes. Go for it. Try. Live. Dream. Refuse to be negative. Be generous with your own time and gifts. See what happens then.

Changing your routine routine can reveal unexpected insights. Read more

The writer as double—will the real writer please stand up?

Reading Margaret Atwood’s book Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, I’m contemplating the writer as double. We all have doubles, in a way, whether we’re writers or artists or scientists. We have our public persona and our private self or what I sometimes call my inside voice and my outside voice. (And, it’s that inside voice, when she gets loose, that often gets me into trouble).

Atwood says that this concept of the double started early in her life with superhero worship. Superwoman, Superman, Spiderman, etc. are all strong and kick-ass when in their saving-the-world-mode but their “real” personas are weak and fallible, i.e. Clark Kent.

Writers can be seen this way, too. We have our normal everyday self who walks the dog and washes the dishes, then we have our writing self who causes an innocent young paraplegic to die a horrible death at the hands of a time-shifting serial killer.

Atwood writes: “All writers are double, for the simple reason that you can never actually meet the author of the book you have just read. Too much time has elapsed between composition and publication, and the person who wrote the book is now a different person…”

She goes on to write, “When writers have spoken consciously of their own double natures, they’re likely to say that one half does the living, the other half the writing and…that each is parasitic upon the other.”

Throughout time, writers have written much about this double—probably most famous is the Jekyll/Hyde duo but writers have also written about their own writing doubles. Jorge Luis Borges did so in his work “Borges and I” where the first-person narrator of the person of Borges separates himself from the writer Borges.

Atwood asks, “Can an “author” exist, apart from the work and the name attached to it? The authorial part—the part that is out there in the world, the only part that may survive death—is not flesh and blood, not a real human being. And who is the writing “I”? A hand must hold the pen or hit the keys, but who is in control of that hand at the moment of writing? Which half of the equation, if either, may be said to be authentic?”

I believe both aspects of my double are authentic. My public persona—the one who runs a business—is fed by connecting with and helping others. My inner persona is fed by time spent alone putting words on the page (and all the attendant thoughts and ideas that fuel those words on the page). When these two aspects of myself get out of balance is when I fall into trouble.

And, really, it’s not like I’m two separate people–unless I’ve had one too many glasses of wine or a shot of Mama Juana I brought back from the Dominican Republic (shh…don’t tell). But parts of me rise up as needed or as the project demands. When I’m deeply involved in my writing, all my energy is directed onto the page. If someone were to interrupt me and ask a question, they likely might walk away wondering how a blathering dunderhead could write anything.

I think Atwood’s Alice Through the Looking Glass analogy sums up the double dilemma best:

“The act of writing takes place at the moment when Alice passes through the mirror. At this one instant, the glass barrier between the doubles dissolves, and Alice is neither here nor there, neither art nor life, neither the one thing nor the other, though at the same time she is all of these at once. At that moment time itself stops, and also stretches out, and both writer and reader have all the time not in the world.”

Does your protagonist have a life theme or motto?

At the beginning of each year, my writing partner Carly chooses a short phrase or sentence that she uses to remind herself of what she wants to focus on for the coming year.

She says she likes to keep the sentence short so it’s easy to remember and can easily be turned into a daily mantra. For the last several years, she’s developed a personal writing theme.

To read more about her idea, please read her posts, “My 2014 personal writing theme revealed,” and “Short story writing method reveals New Year’s theme.

I noticed while re-reading Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods,” that the main character Shadow has a motto that he lives by. In the first chapter, Shadow is in prison and we learn his survival motto is, “Keep your head down. Do your own time. Speak when you’re spoken to.” In other words, you do your own time in prison. You don’t do anyone else’s time for them. You don’t get mixed up in their dramas. You keep your mouth shut.

Later, after Shadow is let out of prison and he begins working for Mr. Wednesday and is kidnapped by men in black, he repeats his old prison motto to himself:

“He pretended he was back in prison. Do your own time, thought Shadow. Don’t tell them anything they don’t already know. Don’t ask questions.”

By the end of the story—well, I won’t put in any spoilers—but basically his motto gets turned on its head. And this is part of his growth as a character.

Does your character have a motto they live by or a life theme like Carly and Shadow that they can sum up in one or two sentences? Is there a belief that drives them from day to day? Having this theme firmly in mind while writing your scenes will help ground you in your character’s reality.

Exercise: Set a timer for six minutes and free write about what your protagonist’s life theme might be. Do the same for your antagonist and then every major character.

If you’d like, please share your character’s theme in the comments below.

 

 

How to create a great villain

In Award Winning Screenwriter Jacob Krueger’s short video below, he answers the question “How Do You Create a Perfect Villain?”

Krueger says we have to remember that the antagonist thinks he is the hero of his story. Most characters believe they are the good guys even if they are doing horrible things.

Example: in “Star Wars” all Darth Vader wants is to rule the galaxy with his son–he just has a twisted way of going about it. Each antagonist has a story they are telling themselves that makes them feel like a good person every day. Their desires are as important to them as the protagonist’s desires are important to them.

Krueger also says a great antagonist comes at the world with a point-of-view that is so truthful it forces the main character to deal with something they’re not confronting in themselves. A great antagonist will force the protagonist to face their flaws, overcome them, and be changed in some way.

For more tips in creating a great antagonist watch Krueger’s video below:

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