Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Method Acting Helped Me Become a Better Writer

This week the Rockville 8 is pleased to welcome Karen Cantwell, author of the popular Barbara Marr mystery series. Karen has just released her first romantic suspense novel, Keep Me Ghosted, to rave reviews. Welcome, Karen!

Like many authors I know, I took my first jab at novel writing in elementary school. I was very proud of my original manuscript titled, The Adventures of Frog and Mr.Toad. Ahem. Well, imagine my distress when I discovered a little book called The Wind in the Willows. Shattered, I gave up the goal of becoming an award-winning novelist, and set my sights on a more realistic ambition: acting.

During my first year at the University of California, San Diego, I declared myself a drama major and began taking classes to learn the craft. Unfortunately, the fact of the matter was, that I was a terrible actress. Really. I was awful. I probably turned more than one acting coach to drink. Sadly, my performances lacked that important element: talent.

Aha, but my college tuition wasn't entirely wasted. I learned something useful. Lack of acting talent aside, my theatre training those years at UCSD has eventually proved helpful as I have resurrected the dream to write fiction. The drama department taught "The Method," also known as "Method Acting," originated by Konstantin Stanislavski, and then further developed by Lee Strasberg and employed by students of the famous Actors Studio. Per www.MethodActingStrasberg.com: "The Method trains actors to use their imagination, senses and emotions to conceive of characters with uniqueand original behavior, creating performances grounded in the human truth of the moment." Now, we're writers – we already use our imaginations! So, no big epiphany there. But this process of accessing senses and emotions to create unique and original character performances can definitely be translated to the writing experience.

As I began writing in earnest, I found myself naturally applying this training. Who knows the character better than me? No one. But I've found a writer can write from afar or from within – and writing from within is much like Method Acting. To write from within, I get into each character's skin, and write directly from their viewpoints. In polishing drafts, I can always tell when I've failed to write from this approach. A character will say or do something that isn't typical – not believable for that character. Readers will pick up on such anomalies, pulling them from the story, and that's the last thing an author wants.

A great exercise to help access your characters is to spend some time (it doesn't have to be extreme, but the more specific, the better) not only creating back story for each of your characters, but to write lists that flesh them out – their favorite colors, books, songs, musical artists; their dreams, considered failures or successes. Are they homebodies or travelers? How do they react to stressful situations? Are they talkative or quietly reserved? Do they consider themselves lucky or unlucky? How do they view themselves vs. how others view them? You may never actually use any of this information in your novels, but the more you create the character with this information, the more "real" they will become for you, and the easier it will be to access your character when writing.

When I sit down each day, it can take me a good half-hour to hour to actually settle into the minds and souls of my characters, and during this time, the writing is slower and more arduous. But as I utilize Method Writing – a term that actually has been coined – the characters begin to write themselves, as does the story.

Writers and actors do share a common goal – they both seek to entertain. And if you approach your writing from that perspective, and utilize some of the same tools, you may find your creative works will benefit greatly.

I have been writing plays and short stories for many years, some of which were published in various college literary magazines. In 2010, my short story “The Recollections of Rosabelle Raines,” was published in the mystery anthology Chesapeake Crimes: They Had it Comin’ available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or directly from the publisher, Wildside Press.

But I had always wanted to write a novel. I found that more difficult. Finally, a few years ago I finished my first novel, Take the Monkeys and Run, a comedy-mystery which was inspired, to some degree by a true monkey sighting. I followed that up with a Barbara Marr short story collection, The Chronicles of Marr-nia, and two more mystery novels, Citizen Insane and Silenced by the Yams.

Because I love to laugh as well as make other people laugh, I have the most fun imagineable writing the character Barbara Marr as well as her friends and adversaries. When I set out to write these books, I knew I wanted to write something that readers would say, “Now that was FUN.” I HOPE I have achieved that goal. And if I did, please feel free to drop me a line at and let me know! I love to hear from readers.

Like her most popular character, Barbara Marr, Karen is a mother living in the suburbs. Unlike Barb, Karen has never found monkeys in her trees or a severed head in her neighbor’s basement, and for this, Karen is extremely thankful.

You can read more about Karen and her books at her website: KarenCantwell.com, or check out her Amazon Author Page.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Creatures of Story: Hardwired for Story - Part II

This week we’re revisiting the idea that as humans, we’re hardwired for story and that when encountering story, we have certain expectations.
Lisa Cron, in her book Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, says that readers look for patterns. Since the beginning of time, humans have searched for pattern in everything from the stars in the nighttime sky, to weather, to crops, to animal behavior and predatory habits. We each have a built-in “passion for patterns.” It’s recognizing these patterns and disruptions of patterns that has allowed us to survive as a species. “From the moment we leave the womb, [our brain] begins charting the patterns around us, always with the same agenda: What’s safe, and what had I better keep my eye on.” She argues that story is something we keep an eye on because stories often begin at a moment in a protagonist’s life when the pattern stops working or has been disrupted. It’s the day everything changed.

For readers, information gathered in a story is evidence a pattern exists, and the excitement they draw from reading comes from recognizing patterns and piecing the meaning of the pattern together. They engage and they feel smart when they’re proven right. “When a story meets our brain’s criteria, we relax and slip into the protagonist’s skin, eager to experience what his or her struggle feels like, without having to leave the comfort of home.” Readers believe that everything authors include in a story is there for a reason. A story is an interlocked pattern that will lead them somewhere meaningful.

In The Beginning
In a story, a reader expects three things: a setup, a payoff, and the road between the two situations. A reader wants a pattern to begin to emerge that tells them the elements of the story. They want to see the plot--what happens, the protagonist--the someone it happens to and how she changes because of what happens to her, and the story question--the goal.

But why is it necessary for us as humans to engage with story and put the pieces of the pattern together? Why do we even care? This story we’re experiencing hasn’t happened to us, it’s happened to some fictional protagonist. So what’s the draw?

Cron says we care because “[s]tories are about how we, rather than the world around us, change. They grab us only when they allow us to experience how it would feel to navigate the plot. Thus, story … is the internal journey, not an external one. … All elements of story … work in unison to create what appears to the reader as reality, only sharper, clearer, and far more entertaining, because stories do what our cognitive unconscious does; filter out everything that would distract us from the situation at hand.”

And it’s on this search for pattern that the reader will identify with your protagonist to navigate the rough waters of your story to find truth, meaning, and/or an entertaining experience.

Cron asserts that the three things readers look for on the first page are:

1. Whose story is this?
Who is the protagonist? “[W]hat the reader feels is driven by what the protagonist feels. We climb inside the protagonist’s skin” and we feel what she feels. Give readers a visceral experience.

2. What’s happening here?
Big picture clues in the first few pages tell us what’s happening and what issue the protagonist will struggle with for the full story. We want to immediately understand the pattern of her life and what has disrupted that pattern as the story opens.

3. What’s at stake?
Something important hangs in the balance for the protagonist, something specific to this protagonist’s quest. What is it? The reader needs to know the stakes to invest in the story.

In the End
In the end, it’s on this internal journey “along the road from setup to payoff, the reader always has the sense that it might go either way. What keeps us reading is the building desire to find out.” The internal journey creates an anticipation that readers love and keep them following the story and the character arc and it gives them an emotional payoff by the end.

Therefore, to meet these reader expectations that readers often don’t even know they possess, as writers, we need to follow three rules:

1. Provide a clear path between the setup and the payoff.
2. Create a road or journey that unfolds for a reader on the page.
3. Give the reader (and the protagonist) a payoff that is not logically impossible.

Readers are smart. Once they spot a pattern, readers will test it against their own knowledge of the world. If you, as a writer, don’t think about the road between setup and payoff, take them on a meaningful journey between the two, and give them a logical payoff in the end, they’ll walk away unsatisfied. And there’s nothing worse for a Creature of Story than to walk away dissatisfied from something they were hardwired to crave and use to find meaning in their own lives. Give them a worthy setup, a good payoff, and the emotional journey between the two.

It’s what readers deserve. It’s what they expect. It’s what they need.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Mother's Day Revisited

Some mothers are kissing mothers and some are scolding mothers, but it is love just the same, and most mothers kiss and scold together. -Pearl S. Buck

            Mother.  The word is rife with diverse meanings and deep emotion.  The mother archetype spans many types, from the attentive and loving parent to one who abandons or hurts her child.  In certain contexts, the word can even be an obscene oath. 
Carl Jung stated that the mother archetype exists in the child.  The baby projects the motherly ideals on the person who it sees as the nurturer.  That can be its biological mother or the nanny who loves the infant as her own.
Mother archetypes abound.  Mrs. Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is seen as both scheming and ridiculous in her pursuit of husbands for her flock of dowry deficient daughters.  Abigail “Marmee” March, a rock to the family during their father’s absence, wise and imperfect, instructing Jo in holding her temper by using her attempts to keep her own as an example.  And who can forget that shudder-worthy moment when Norman Bates spun that chair around and Mother Bates was mummified?   Aaaaaah!
Currently, I’m reading Abigail Jones by Grace Calloway.  The book raises the specter of Lilith, who is the mother of the demon world.  Lilith, in Jewish tradition, was Adam’s first wife, cast out of Eden when she refused to submit to Adam’s authority as her husband.  She sends her evil daughters into the world with the express purpose of proliferating evil and debauchery.   The offspring share a consciousness with their mother and a single-minded desire to carry out her wishes—a Jungian notion to be sure.     
In fictional stories, it seems that Mother often has an agenda—whether it is selfish or dedicated to the welfare of the child.  Real life is often more complicated.  The relationship between mother and child is deep and it resonates through the child’s lifetime, whether it is positive or negative.   Mother’s example can either be an inspiration or a cautionary tale.  Or, it is a little of both.   
The mothers that ring true for me are the ones who are complex.  The ones who try to do the best they can with the cards they’ve been dealt.  Love their imperfect children as they struggle to come to terms with their own imperfections. 
Who are your favorites mothers from books or movies?  What do you like about them?   

Happy Mother’s Day to beautifully flawed mothers everywhere.     

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Group Dynamics

As some of you may know, I love watching television shows in one big gulp. The entire season. In as few sittings as possible. It's probably similar to my reading one author's books all at once, like when I went on a Janet Evanovich run and read all 18 Stephanie Plum/Morelli/Ranger novels. Scrummy. Even when they were repetitive. Or all of Amanda Quick's novels, starting with Seduction and moving forward to the Arcane novels.  What can I say. I'm a completist.

So, series. What is it about a series that I love so much? It isn't the soap opera, though I'm sure some of the shows I watch have it. (Hello Damon/Stefan/Elena!) But when I look at the shows I watch, it is the characters and the ensemble cast.  Big Bang Theory works so well not because the characters are growing and changing and arcing. It works because of the cast - and also didn't work when Raj's sister was added in as a love interest for Leonard. Her character detracted from the show, though it was fun to watch Amy and Bernadette stand by Penny throughout the season.

Sometimes, the soap takes over and change has to happen in order to save the show. Like Vampire Diaries. We ALL wanted Elena to dump Stefan and choose Damon.  But giving in to the sexual tension can be the death of a show (hello Moonlighting) (and also goodbye Remington Steele). This year, finally, Elena GETS TO HAVE SEX WITH DAMON, and I stopped watching it mid-season because without the antici- of maybe sexy times with Damon- pation, the show got incredibly complicated. So complicated, in fact, that the cast had to all sit down in one episode and explain who was killing whom, which werewolf was under which Original's spell, and who was controlling the witches and on and on and I just didn't care, because Stefan looked like a big pouty boy and Damon was finally getting his payoff for being hawt and brooding and misunderstood.

My current marathon is Jethro Gibbs and his team and NCIS. There is no soap here. It is episodic, a little slapstick, and the sexual tension is kept incredibly mild. Instead, I am drawn in to watching Gibbs father his band of merry agents. Of course, it helps that he is hot, though maybe not Damon hot. He's an alpha who leads his pack and is always always there for them. As I watched season 1, I was struck by the fact that nobody has really changed. Even edgy, funky Abby with her tats and her pigtails, still, 9 seaons later, has the same tats and pigtails. Where did her edge go? Wouldn't someone that out there have changed her style by now? When will McGee stop being a Probie? And seriously, would the show not work if Tony, finally, grew up and got a wife and family? But I'm still watching it. Because of Gibbs. If they take him out of the equation (and if I remember correctly, they will one of these seasons), then the show will fall apart.

Look at Buffy. Those writers never gave that woman a break in the romance department. But as I was saying, they were able to remove Angel from the equation, and the show still flourished. Until that horrific was it 5th season? The Willow the Bad Witch season, all crackly faced and revengeful? If only they had given her the Oz for reals, and not just for a season or so. He made a great addition to the cast. Crackle face did not.  I'm still astounded by the choice to shift time and space and give Buffy a sister. Just give her a fully formed, teenaged sister. In what, season five. And because the show is paranormal, it could be explained away and that was that.

But how does this relate to writing. Jayne Ann Krentz/Amanda Quick/Jayne Castle has been writing series over the last few years. Some that connect laterally through a single sub genre, and some that connect unilaterally through all three. But one thing I've noticed is she has very little connection from one book to the next. You may get a brief scene or two, but not much more. In her Amarylis/Zinnia/Orchid series, there was a tiny bit more overlap, but generally she holds each book to its own cast of characters. Maybe there will be an object that will appear in each, and a few times a character may be introduced, but don't  expect to get a lovely glimpse of them again the way that Susan Elizabeth Philips does in her Chicago Stars series.          I get the feeling with Jayne Ann Krentz that when her hero and heroine have solved the crime and admitted their love, the story is over for her, and the characters can be put to bed. 

But when I reach the end of the book, I still want to be in that world. I still want to know what's going on. Are they happy? Do they still have friends, even though the world is no longer about to end or neither character is having to fend off a deranged killer. I care if they marry or have children or remain friends with characters in other books. Nora Roberts, for me, is the master when it comes to groups and group scenes. Her ability to create such authentic composites is incredible. Whether as part of a series when the Scooby gang is finally altogether, or in one of her stand alones, her development of separate characters, giving them all there own voice, their own mannerisms, is quite remarkable.  

Tell me which ensemble cast shows or books work for you? Do you have a favorite? Are you in it for the soap or for Scooby gang?  How easily do you grow bored with a series, book or tv show? Why?