Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Little Headbanging

Here we are, kittens. The 27th of November is sliding down the hill, taking my four-day weekend with it.


Wasn't it lovely? And don't look now but my dodgy math skills tell me there are just 34 days left in the year. It was a good year, 2011. The entire world of publishing is changing all around us, but in the center, midst all the noise, we writers and readers are still here.

We can bang our heads all we like, trying to figure out delivery systems and income streams and things like that, but at the heart of it all are the people looking for a good book to read and the people working to write them.

And thank goodness.

On another note, my granddaughter, CR, lives all the way in Oregon. None of us has as much vacation time as we'd like to stay connected, but we have Skype, and it's a miracle. It's almost like living in the world of the Jetsons, isn't it? Those flying cars should be coming off the assembly line any time now.

When my daughter and her family were here in Maryland at the end of the summer, CR was a year old and fast on her feet. At one point, she slid on the wood floor and ended up banging her head. Not bad, or not that bad, at any rate, because all of us, including my granddaughter, laughed it off. But then, because we were laughing, she did it again, on purpose. Which of course made us all laugh more. So she moved to one of the throw rugs and did it again. Smart kid, right? I mean, I know I'm biased, but still. Same comic effect, now with less pain.

But for some strange reason, everybody blamed me for her new trick.  Which I thought was unreasonable--I mean, we all laughed, didn't we?  Until after they went back to Oregon and we connected again on Skype and when CR saw me on the laptop screen, she bent down and banged her head on the floor.

She still does this every time I see her and it still makes me laugh.

Sometimes, banging your head can be fun.

It's good to remember that, when all around you the world seems to be going cRaZy and you feel like banging your head.

I say, turn the bass up and go for it . . . just make sure you're on the carpet.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Thanksgiving Gifts in a Michael Hauge Onion Sauce

What, you ask, does Michael Hauge have to do with Thanksgiving?

Two weeks ago, Lisa posted here Michael's parting question from his seminar: "I would do anything to complete my goal. Just don't ask me to do ______, because that's just not me." He said our first answer would not be the real nut keeping us from our goal. Rather our first answers would be planted in our protective identities and it might take some digging to get to the essential root of what keeps us from accomplishing our goals. (Insert collective groan here)

As we prepare for the feast of Thanksgiving, I've been thinking about gratitude and what I'm thankful for. I've come to realize that there is room for identity and essence even here. My first answer when I ask, Keely, what are you thankful for this year? is pretty standard identity stuff: my job, my friends (you all rock!), my family.

These are all true, don't get me wrong. But they are also surface answers, protective answers, easy answers to share at the thanksgiving table before moving on to the main course.

So where does the essence come in? For me, it's when I peel back the layers of the onion by asking why.

Why am I thankful for my job? Beyond paying the bills, this job over the last nearly eight years has engaged my brain and my heart. It has challenged me, nurtured me, provided a safe space to grow and learn and grow some more.

Why am I thankful for my friends? Because when I had a really bad day last week, they rallied around me, offering support without telling me I was silly or lacking or to "just get over it."

Why am I thankful for my family? Because being in their space makes me feel - everything from grief to rejoicing to kooky humor to love. My family is present moment hijinks and long ago baggage and future hopes and dreams.

So there you have it. Thanksgiving gifts in a Michael Hauge onion sauce. As writers, that's what we're supposed to do, yes? Peel the layers of our characters' protective identity onion away until we reach their essential core? (yes, yes, this metaphor would be even better if onions actually had cores...maybe on the rewrite...)

What are you thankful for this season? What are your characters thankful for? Identity vs. essence: Is it either/or for you? An onion of many layers? Or do you make sense of it using some other construction or metaphor?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sustainable Conflict and Believable Setbacks

I got a lot out of Michael Hauge’s two-day seminar last weekend. More than I’d gleaned four years ago when he visited WRW the first time. I think his presentation is better today than it was back in 2008. Well worth the money I spent. He’s refined his material and deepened the concepts.

One of the biggest points to hit home for me was that all story must elicit a positive emotional journey for the reader/viewer and that emotion flows out of conflict. If I think about the books I read and the movies I watch, this is definitely true. When I say positive, I don’t mean all happy-go-lucky. But a journey that strings me a long and draws me into sustainable conflicts and believable barriers and setbacks, as well as triumphs. I want to experience the highs and lows with the protagonist. And I want to experience her growth over the arc of the story.

Readers pick up books and movies for the emotional journey. They want to lose themselves in the stories of someone else for a little while. At the hands of skilled writers, we find ourselves laughing, cheering, cringing, and crying with the best of them. It’s the credible twists and turns, confrontations, conflict, and successes of a character that allow us to experience universal truths that resonate with us all and showcase what makes us human. In his book, Writing Screenplays That Sell, Hauge says: “People do not go to movies so they can see the characters on screen laugh, cry, get frightened, or get turned on. They go to have those experiences themselves.”

I’d argue this is why we see certain movies and why we read certain books--because we enjoy the emotional journey that particular genre gives us. The tropes or reader/viewer expectations of that particular genre draw us like a magnet and speak to us in a satisfying way. I read books across the spectrum of genre fiction and enjoy them, however, I adore romance novels. And romance novels are the novels I choose to write.

No matter what the characters go through in a story, no matter what their personal arc, in a romance I know I will not get a tragic ending. While I know the ending will be happy, it’s the believable setback or the point where all hope is lost that makes me worry that these two characters won’t get their happy ending. Will the character be courageous enough to push through that final setback to find their happy ending? Or will they revert to their old life, the status-quo where they live a desperate life of mediocrity trapped by their fears? Isn’t it the secret hope we all cling to in life? That we’ll make a difference and that when adversity strikes that we’ll rise to the challenge and push through to find triumph?

The importance of getting this final setback right in a story and pinpointing an emotional journey directed at a particular audience hit me hard twice in the past two days. First, as I sat watching The Proposal with my youngest son and then as I sat watching Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II with my middle son. At the point of the final setback where all hope is lost for the protagonist, in each case, I heard my son sniffling.

These are two totally different movies. Drastically different stories. However, in each case, that final setback spoke to that teenager. So much so that the setback moved them to tears. In The Proposal when Margaret realizes she’s forgotten what it means to be part of a family and then admits to a roomful of people that she blackmailed Andrew into marrying her and then she runs back to New York, she sets off a whole series of events that show the other characters how much she truly loves Andrew to give him up and give him the life she believes he deserves. The audience is rooting for them. We know they’re perfect for each other. And when all hope is lost, we worry for them.

In the recent Harry Potter movie, the final setback where all hope is lost is where Harry realizes he’s the eighth horcrux and he must sacrifice himself--he must die--at Voldemort’s hand. J. K. Rowling is masterful. She makes us truly believe that all hope is lost--that Harry dies and all is lost. When I read the book for the first time, I sobbed uncontrollably at this point. The author builds a credible setback that rips our hearts out and makes us believe that this teenaged boy will not triumph.

And it’s this mastery of sustainable conflict and believable setbacks that prove the hallmark of a great writer--a writer who provides a satisfying emotional journey for her readers/viewers.

So what stories have worked for you on that emotional level? And tell us the genre.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Identity vs. Essence

I spent this past weekend with Michael Hauge, the screenwriter, in his Story Mastery class. One topic seemed to catch the attention of many attendees. It was the discussion of a character living in their identity versus living in their essence.

Identity is the false self we present to the world to protect us from the fear that grows from a belief created by an emotional wound. In order for the character to achieve their goal, they must face this fear. The way for the character to do this is to live in their truth. Michael Hauge calls this truth the character’s essence.

Michael describes this character journey as moving from what is safe (identity) to destiny (essence). He said “A character can be safe and unfulfilled or can attempt to fulfill their destiny and be scared shitless." The character arc is the journey between living fully in their identity and living fully in their essence.

In his book, Writing Screenplays That Sell, he states, “The character’s transformation from someone stuck in his inner conflict to someone who has found the courage to overcome it is his arc. It’s an arc from fear to courage, from inner conflict to true self-worth."

At the end of his Saturday lecture, he told us that the notion of identity vs. essence applies to real life as well. He said that given the choice, most people choose to live in their identity rather than live in their essence because they choose safety over potential happiness. He challenged us to apply this to our own writing life. In other words, he told us to complete the following sentence:

I’ll do whatever it takes to achieve my goal, just don’t ask me to __________________ because that’s just not me.

At lunch today, many of us said fear held us back. But Yvonne said that fear is too easy an answer. I agree. Fear may be the result but if fear is keeping you from your writing goals, then there must be an underlying cause. In other words, fear is the result of something else and that is really what’s keeping you from achieving your writing goals.

I’ve been thinking all day about what my answer would be. And I still don’t know.

What are your thoughts on the subject, either for yourself or for development of character arc? What are some good examples of this in movies or books?