Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Casting Your Stories 5: Questions characters ask

In the past, I’ve advocated interviewing characters. And a lot can be revealed if the questions you ask are rude. But paying attention to what characters ask about and whom they ask can reveal a lot.

For some characters, asking questions is their business. Policemen need to find out what happened. Doctors, including psychiatrists, need to find out where it hurts. Reporters have to get the story. And detectives need to find out who done it. When each of these are doing their jobs, their goals are more or less obvious to readers and the value is collecting clues that can be assembled to form a more complete picture (story for readers).

But things get interesting when these inquisitors ask questions of their own friends, families, and peers. Presumably, in most of these cases, the information is less important than the relationships. However, it's revealing when the style of questioning is a bit too close to how they work professionally. Those are moments to pay attention to. Equally a value is when there is a sharp contrast between professional personas and personal personas – often revealed when questions are asked. Surprising gentleness, emotion, deference, impatience, or concern may say a great deal about how the other people (non-interviewees) fit into their lives and what deep needs they fulfill.

Now there are some characters who rarely ask questions. They may be besieged by life and constantly in reaction mode. Or, they might be narcissists who lack curiosity or think they already know everything. They might also be full of questions, but reluctant to ask them because the people asked might not react kindly or the answers might be things they prefer not to know. If such characters do ask questions, pay close attention. What are they hoping for? What do they need? Why did they take the risk? How much courage was required? Whom did they ask, and what does that say about their relationships?

Of course, these questions might be applied to any characters soliciting answers, but those who rarely show this side of themselves usually expose secrets when they do.

Many characters have questions tied to their goals. By definition, these are important to their stories. They usually expect answers from helpers and difficulty with those who oppose them or have costly answers (often, explicitly requesting a gift or a favor in return). Answers in these cases lead to (or destroy) trust and cooperation. The answers also set up expectations for characters and for readers. The higher the stakes are for the question, the more important the person giving answers must be. The more that’s put at risk, the more a response should be delayed, incomplete, ambiguous, or difficult (except, in most cases, when the answer resolves the story).

Of course, all questions are not vital. Many of the smaller questions may still help define characters and how they fit in with everyone else in the story.

For instance, what if the character is a knight who needs to find the path to the cursed castle?

Who to ask? A peer (say, another knight). An underling. A princess (his superior, and also a female). A wizard. The village idiot. A warrior.

How to ask? Politely. As the demand. Through an intermediary. From a kneeling position. Grasping a protective charm. After getting the other character drunk. With open hands or a raised sword. After making an appointment. With an army at his back.

Sometimes characters ask questions of enormous importance, both in personal and in story terms. Do you love me? Who shot the gun? Who is my real father? Which side are you on? How long have you been cheating on me?

That kind of question always gets attention, and it's worth exploring works you admire to see the contexts (who is asked, when, where, how) of such questions, especially how they might be set up, delayed, or blurted out. It makes a difference if someone is pointing a gun when they ask a question.

But even asking directions can be revealing of character and of relationships. These moments in stories are worth closer looks, too. Seeing how other authors manage questions to do more than get information — to reveal needs, styles, emotions, connections, and power — can provide hints on when, where, and how to use questions and your own work, especially as a means to exposing hierarchies, values, and dependencies in characters. Mastering the use of questions in stories opens up important ways to expose characters and build deeper connections with readers.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Casting Your Stories 4: Making characters vivid

Characters are peculiar. Algis Budrys, my one-time teacher, stated it less generously. “All important fictional characters are insane.”

I remember being shocked by this, and I asked him to explain. He said, if nothing else, stories put such an emphasis on character goals that these would, in real life, be considered pathological obsessions. Characters need to be motivated. In fiction, the major characters need to have story goals. They also enter each scene with specific goals that matter profoundly to them and drive their conversations, actions, choices, thoughts, and feelings. They are all obsessed.

Does this have to be true for every story? Isn’t there a value to subtlety and restraint? Isn’t exaggeration reserved for cheap melodramas and comedy? You could easily conclude that if you were to search (as I did) for articles on exaggeration.

The suggestions I found are valuable, but I think the subject deserves a broader treatment. Even the most sober, realistic, dramatic work can benefit from including characters that are bigger than life. Shakespeare’s tragedies are as likely to include oversized characters as his comedies are, and they are not overwrought. In fact, there are subtleties to most of his major characters (in both comedies and dramas). He makes them vivid and memorable without their becoming caricatures. But with their becoming bigger than life. If you think of the characters you remember from works you respect and return to again and again, you’re likely to find (unless you mostly lean toward anti-story literature) the characters are both real and, in some way, exaggerated.

Why is this? Why don’t more direct, faithful, and clinical treatments of characters work? I got the answer not many years after than my chat with Budrys while reading Jack M. Bickham’s Writing Novels That Sell. (My copy of this book is dogeared and has a permanent place on my bookshelf.) He says that the medium of writing itself clouds perceptions, creating a need to increase intensity, just to approach real-world experiences. In fiction, we see through a glass darkly. To prove it to his students, Bickham created a ridiculous, clownish version of a cowboy. It was (and is) vivid, and he actually used that character successfully in a series of novels.

That’s comedy, but take a moment to consider how extreme Hannibal Lector is. Or Walter White. More than obsessed, their actions and words push to extremes that invite parody. And it’s not just villains. The kind of fearlessness that Tom Joad and Atticus Finch had might create circumstances where, in real life, you wouldn’t want to stand too close to them. Frankly, if Hamlet came walking down the street, I’d cross to the other side.

As implied above, exaggeration can be situational. Cases of murder in fiction far outnumber those of petty theft (even though this is not reflected in real world statistics). And, as the imaginative power of homicide has waned, we have been subjected to serial killers in more stories. But let’s move to a more general view of vivid characters and get to the how.

How can you use exaggeration to enhance characters and make them memorable?

On the latter, traits and descriptions are effective tags to let readers recognize and recall different characters (major as well as secondary). Repeated phrases, references to limps, and reminders of the hero’s startling pale blue eyes can be slipped in at regular intervals. These usually are lightweight, “Hello, may name is…” prompts for readers, but, with care, they can be tuned to suggest more about the characters.

Under reactions and over reactions have a lot of power and are easy to slip into stories. There are many examples of heroes who seen oblivious to danger and even joke when they face death. I think of the jump off the cliff into water in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Sundance refuses to jump, and finally confesses that he can’t swim. Butch: Are you crazy? The fall will probably kill ya.

Attitudes can set some characters off in ways that mark them. Obviously, phobias (e.g. fear of heights in Vertigo, fear of snakes in the Indiana Jones movies) can set expectations and both tell us who the character is and contribute to the plot. But characters might also be compelled to respond to disorder (straightening framed pictures) or need to wipe off a chair before sitting on it. Or smell their food before eating it. Sensitivity and perception can be valuable, too. An artist who can’t abide clashing colors. A detective who notices calluses or ink on the fingers of a suspect.

Reflexive action and hesitations can also say a lot. A quick reaction could indicate lack of control or specialized training.  A delayed response might show prudence or dullness. And, once the normal timing of responses is established, changing it can underline growth (e.g., not striking back immediately to counter minor insults), decline (accepting abuse because of cowardice), or a strategic choice. When timing surprises a reader or the audience, the moment stands out.

One device I love is the over-sized reputation. Characters who are worth talking about are worth knowing. Hearing about a character before he or she is introduced sets up expectations. It creates questions. When characters talk about someone, it creates a need for confirmation, so readers are looking for that when the character comes on the scene. The whole concept of making an entrance in the theater relies upon this. My favorite example in film is Hitchcock’s Rebecca, where who the title character is (and what the protagonist assumes and comes to learn about her) supports much of the plot.

Relationships matter. An out-of-control character (such as a ranting boss) who is put up with by other characters can push the limits of real life and stand out without becoming a caricature, just because we fall in line with those around him or her. This can reach the point, as in The Sopranos or The Wire, where murders are shrugged off. While we don’t accept them in the stories as exaggerated, deep down they are so outlandish they stick with us. This (using reactions of others) is a powerful tool to get away with making characters using absurd behavior to make more vivid.

Of course, major story decisions, with regard to conversations, actions, choices, thoughts, and feelings, can and should be exaggerated, but I hope the above expands your toolbox. These also may feel less risky, less obviously consequential, so they provide good starting points for those who are reluctant to paint with too broad a brush.

Remember, you can always dial things back in revisions, so it’s invaluable to get comfortable with exaggeration and master it. Avoid being reasonable. Normal actions and reactions don’t make an impact. Polite comments are not quotable. Characters who dress appropriately and have not defining physical features fade into the background. Predictable is boring.

Hitchcock said, “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out." So, while there’s a place for subtlety and naturalism, that has to be rationed in storytelling. Push to the limits. Master art’s shouts and whispers, and avoid life’s droning.
 

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Casting Your Stories 3: Glimpsing a character's other side

I did a series here on pivotal scenes, based on my study of Paddy Chayefsky work and ideas. Those posts focus on story, but they could easily be read as how to reveal the essence of characters, usually their dominant aspects, through choices and actions. Logically, that should be this post, but I’ve decided point to that earlier work and not reinterpret it in this post. Instead, I’ll share some of what I’ve discovered about how small but significant moments reveal the less dominant aspects of characters, often leading to deeper connections with readers and audiences. 

I've never forgotten Damon Knight's advice on creating important characters – make them 70% (good or bad) and 30% (bad or good). This came back to me while I was binge watching The Wire. A young drug dealer (D'Angelo) is established early on as a ruthless character who has committed murder at a young age. He's also intelligent, sporadically out-of-control, and completely committed to the drug dealing business. But, after all this plays out through several episodes, he takes the time to advise a younger dealer on getting out of "the game" and returning to high school.

Suddenly, a bad and scary character is showing he cares for others. In fact, he even takes risks to protect the younger man.

Not bad as far as illustrating the 70/30 rule of thumb. To me, it was a good illustration of how important it is to give the audience a clear idea of the dominant character traits before introducing something different. It also did something else. It opened up new story possibilities. I had to wonder whether D'Angelo would keep to his dedication to the game himself. It also created a degree of empathy, not just because it revealed this positive dimension of the character, but because the advice D'Angelo sacrificed to provide was rejected and his protégé ended up dead.

David Simon provided the same sort of surprises elsewhere in The Wire. For instance, the most active and thoughtful and, in some ways, horrifying drug dealer, Stringer, is tailed at one tense point. Instead of ending up revealing more criminal activity, the detective discovers Stringer studying business at the community college. He's an able student who immediately applies what he's learning to one of the organizations front businesses, but also to make the drug dealing more effective.

Note that the 70/30 is accomplished by talk (advice) and action (study). It can also be achieved is less deliver on the part of the character. In comedy, Freudian slips, where a character uses the wrong word can often be surprising and revelatory. An accidental disclosure in the Mary Tyler Moore Show is one of my favorite 70/30 moments. Mary is admiring a picture Ted Baxter has hanging on his office wall. It shows Ted shaking hands with a celebrity (as I recall from seeing the show years ago). Mary touches the photo as she points only to reveal that the face of Ted has been pasted over someone else's image. It's funny and surprising, but it's also a humanizing moment for a character who has often been an insufferable blowhard. Mary's reaction, trying to smooth it over, is well within her character, but the vulnerability of Ted is memorable and a special moment for the audience to connect with and care about him.

In the cases of D'Angelo and Stringer and Ted Baxter, the characters have a lot of time to show their 70% sides before revealing something new and unexpected. Usually, and a series (as opposed to a feature film), many episodes pass before the character is established to the point where revealing the 30% doesn't undercut the 70%. An exception to this was a brilliant pilot for Hill Street Blues. The police captain Frank is a powerful advocate for his people and their work, which puts him in conflict with Joyce, who is an equally talented and determine public defender. Within that first show they clash, only to have the two of them revealed as a couple in the last moments of the show. It's an effective, even tour de force, instance of going from the 70 to the 30 rapidly. If you have a Steven Bochco level of talent, give it a try.

To summarize, dialogue, action, and accidental surprises can be used to bring something new to a character. This can make characters more authentic, put doubts in the heads of readers and audiences so that the story is less predictable, open up new story possibilities, foreshadowed later story developments, make character choices more difficult (and thus more interesting), and create empathy. I've also noticed that in some cases these acts set up new relationships and make subsequent teamwork between very different characters more realistic.

I'm still exploring this, but I strongly suspect that in drama most of what the character is trying to achieve fails when they are acting in 30 mode. Often this explains why their usual approaches (70) are diametrically different. Their skills can't take them where their hearts want to go. Or disappointments have led them to hide or overcompensate for gentler tendencies.

On the other hand, in comedy, the softer moments often lead to something positive for the character. They may have success in those smaller goals or enhance connections with other characters.

Is this surprising? Usually, we expect the heroes of dramas, acting in their dominant modes, to achieve their goals. But is completely acceptable, and often expected, that the protagonist in a comedy will fail to achieve the primary goal.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Casting Your Stories 2: The ensemble of characters

Characters who live in isolation are difficult's to connect with. A key recommendation for people writing monologues is to imagine who the character is speaking to. Tom Hanks’s Cast Away character (Chuck) needed Wilson in his movie. Without that soccerball, important dimensions of the character could not be explored. In fact, storytelling has long been dependent upon community.

Many legends and myths depend upon familiar human traits that are embodied by characters and illuminated through contrasts. Think in terms of polytheistic religions. The pantheons allow(ed) for people to see the individual gods through their interactions with communities of gods. In "real" life, we continue this very human tradition in other ways. For example, Hollywood always has a strong man (The Rock, e.g., Hercules) and a sex goddess (Charlize Theron, e.g., Venus). In addition, I’d argue that it's possible to connect current actors with actors claim similar roles in the past. How different is Harrison Ford from Humphrey Bogart? Or Tom Hanks from Jimmy Stewart? (These contemporary actors have literally played the same roles in movies that amount to be remakes, Sabrina and The Shop Around the Corner/You've Got Mail.)

So, while my last post in this series emphasized finding specific and original characters, it's valuable to explore archetypes, as well. My recommendation would be to do this after a fast draft, during revision, but many accomplished writers I know design their characters with reference to making sure a collection of "types" are included. It makes me uneasy to think about doing this with the main characters, but it's probably safe to build secondary characters from the beginning with the right kind of pantheon in mind.

For instance, comedy, especially in the case of sitcoms, draws again and again from a familiar set of character types. As a great article on Sitcom Character Archetypes elucidates these, drawing from the Commedia dell'Arte, a form of theater that dates back to the Renaissance. The article translates these to characters like The Wisecracker, The Square, and The Bully and provides examples (from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Murray, Lou Grant, and Mary, respectively).

While it's all too easy to have this become formulaic (something that spoofed in one of my favorite movies, Network), there is a wonderful benefit to ensuring characters have distinct and recognizable differences built in early on, especially for a series. Different perspectives and the conflicts that arise from these allow for varied and deep explorations of premises. For story, there is nothing more deadly than characters who see the world the same way and agree.

There are great benefits for those writing series to look at the characters in their favorites and see how they might be similar across shows. This can reveal both the kinds of characters that are personally the most engaging and intriguing, as well as how the characters connect to create conflicts in scenes, sequences, and stories. Chances are, what resonates with you in the series you appreciate most will point to what your are best prepared to explore in your own works.

This does not mean direct copying or finding an escape from the serious work of infusing characters with their authenticity, but it may help to provide a check on leaving out elements that truly belong in your stories that aren't appearing spontaneously.

The same kind of research can be done for work that is not serial, but it tends to work more on the level of genre. Looking at character types and the communities of characters for, say, a romantic comedy may be less of a task that creates a story engine and more a way to recognize reader or audience expectations.

The ensemble of characters in your story will become invaluable once you have identified a pivot scene that can be used to bring somatic unity and story logic to your work. Each character who needs to be in your story will have a relationship with that scene, even if he or she is not present for that scene. In my work, I found that such reflection on characters — including how they need to contribute to turning points and how those scenes create consequences for them — suggests new dimensions to stories that are difficult to recognize otherwise.

I've also found that a deeper understanding of the work (whether it's a standalone feature or novel or it's for a series) can connect me with small and significant moments that can create empathy for the characters. That will be the subject of my next post in this series.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Casting Your Stories 1: Three questions to qualify your heroes (and other characters)

Did you ever notice how often the characters you remember are the villains? I don't think this implies anything sinister about humanity. The popularity of Hannibal Lecter is not evidence that many of us long to be cannibals.

Instead, I think it plays on our curiosity, fascination with limits (freak shows and disasters), and a rejection of the safe and the mundane in fiction. The last of these is intimately related to how many writers approach their stories. They create main characters who are comfortably close to who they are. These characters often hide or minimize their flaws, do unsurprising things, and provide justifications for anything that edges toward being antisocial.

Authors protect themselves when they protect their protagonists. They let their guard down when they're dealing with villains and often can be more authentic with these characters. One trick a writer shared with me was grabbing some of the best lines from villains and seeing if they might be easily adapted to (or stolen for) the heroes. It's surprising how often and exercise like that can open up a story in later drafts. I've seen this both with my students and with my own work.

We often look to ourselves when we create viewpoint characters, but it can be more powerful to take on a bigger challenge. For important characters, especially the protagonists, I look to answer three things:

Does the character make me feel uncomfortable? One thing my sister used to do to me what I was very small was provide tours of the terrifying. It might be an abandoned house where ghosts were supposed to be or a place in the words where a murder (according to her) had taken place, or a ditch where a ravenous animal was known to slice off the limbs of little boys. While ghosts, murderers, and predators all create visceral responses, they never has the power over my imagination my sister did. Or created indelible memories. It was difficult for me then (and now) to understand who this creepy tour guide was. Those experiences created a puzzle about my sister’s identity that could not be solved. So characters that create questions that are difficult to answer but important tend to be memorable. And these characters can be the heroes of our stories if we dare to make that choice.

Does the character surprise me? In an earlier post, 50 Rude Questions, I provided examples on how to challenge and interrogate characters. Even though the questions are probing, the answers are not always revealing. Often this means that the character will never do something unexpected. Unless I have some means to take more deeply, the right tool for character vivisection, these characters do not belong my stories. At least not in major roles. But some characters give answers that suggest new questions, intrigued me, or even shock me. The more my interviews of characters make me curious or takes me in fresh directions, the more likely it is that these characters will find their ways into my stories. And, more more, it's the protagonists who speak and act in unexpected ways.

Does the character know things or experience life in ways I don't? I get excited when I learn new things. As much as "write what you know" is good and tested advice, it's valuable to create characters that require research. By definition, a story can't be predictable if there are a lot of open questions. So I tried to include characters whose histories and professions are different from my own. This is scary when those characters are protagonists or antagonists or viewpoint characters. Sometimes I have a premise that falls apart because new information proves my initial assumptions were wrong. (And the real danger is not having to put a story aside, but twisting the facts to allow the story to proceed.)

A safer route is to make these characters who are strange to me secondary within the story. That way they can liven things up without tearing things down.

Of course, these three questions assume you've found characters that could fit your premise and that are defined enough to take a closer look at. It takes a lot of preparation to build characters that lead to clear answers to these three questions. Unless… You lean on your own experiences in terms of people who interest and intrigue you… Or you are a history buff who digs into quirky people who existed in the past… Or you've heard gossip about someone you never met, where the stories hook you, but there are blanks that need to be filled in. Each of these may provide just enough to supply starting points for characters without "from scratch" work required.

Ultimately, I want to be thrilled by all my characters, including those who are the heroes. If I start out contented with a character as opposed to uneasy and excited, I'm suspicious. I want to be challenged, confused, and uncertain at times. If I'm happy with all the choices my characters make, I can’t learn anything new or experience the joy of discovery as I write. And neither can my readers.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Share, Show Off, Outdo, Strike Back, and Connect — Finding the right audience leads to the best writing

Who are you writing for?

One early piece of advice I got came from Vonnegut's disclosure that all his writing was aimed at his sister – even after she had passed away. Through my career, I found choosing an individual to write to has provided focus that directed my tone, choices, vocabulary, structure, and humor for the work. Specificity is one of the strengths of good writing, and writing to one person enforces specificity.

By luck, three things have pushed me toward a new insight about choosing a reader. Instead of selecting someone to write to based on my notions of what's best for the material, there are cases where I can create material for specific people. The chief benefits of doing that are new approaches to ideas and increased enthusiasm for rewriting (my least favorite and most problematic part of the writing).

I'll begin by saying a little bit about how I got here and then I'll provide a process you might use to take advantage of what I discovered.

Three things converged in my writing life:

First, I found myself writing for specific actors because I'm now part of a local theater group. Most recently, I deliberately thought about two older women who take on material and twist it in marvelous, quirky ways. They don't get enough opportunities to show what they can do because there is a bias toward writing characters who are "in their prime." So before I began a recent work, I let myself remember some of the moments I'd seen them shine. In no time at all, a scene between the two of them popped into my head, and I was on my way.

Second, I was asked to develop a sitcom idea by a friend. He is a delight to work with, and I don't sit down to bring the stories to life without imagining how I can surprise, entertain, delight, and get a chuckle from him. The ideas I select for the episodes emerge from what I imagine might amuse him, and I deliberately twist each scene to get him to lean forward, looking for what's next.

Third, I decided to dedicate 2020 to shorter works. I've always gravitated toward short stories and one-act plays and articles and speeches. Yet, most of my time in recent years has been committed to novels and feature film scripts. It's time for a break and a refocus, so I'm going to attempt to write 50 short pieces in a year. That will take a lot of ideas, and I'll need to have the enthusiasm to complete these stories. My usual process is unlikely to allow me to hit this goal.

An idea on how to get those 50 stories done came from the first and second parts above, my experiences with the actors and my friend. Here's what I've decided to do. (I've already begun, and it seems to be working.)

1. Create a long list of people. Obviously, relatives, friends, coworkers, bosses, subordinates, and colleagues come to mind easily. But I also found myself reaching into the past to include people I knew well in school, neighbors, mentors, and people who have connected with me through others I know. Some valuable folks showed up on my list late — rivals, cheats, and bullies. Finally, I listed a few famous people I've never met and people who are no longer among the living, both those I knew who impacted me and some historical figures (especially favorite writers).

2. Edit the list. Since I intend to write 50 short pieces, I decided to cut my list down to 50 people. I did this first by eliminating those who did not elicit a strong emotional reaction from me. That still left a long list, so I imagined each person speaking, doing something, or, in the case of people like the writers, their creations (characters, film clips, quotes, images, etc.).

This process was amazing. It wasn't difficult for me to think of moments of kindness, instances of inspiration, and times I suffered trauma – all of which helped shape me as a person and a writer.

Ultimately, I ended up shifting the balance of the list by budgeting myself to a small number of famous contemporary famous people (3), dead people (13), and people with whom I basically have positive connections and memories (24). I forced myself to retain 10 people who evoke negative emotions. I don't think I could write a long work keeping one of these folks in front of me, but I feel like I can immerse myself in bad feelings for something short. I've done it for scenes and sequences in larger works, and it always makes stories stronger.

3. Relive moments. So now that I had this list of individuals, I have discovered the best way to go from audience to story is to do what I did with the actors. I re-experience something meaningful connected to them. With little trouble, ideas begin to emerge from such moments. I let those flow, getting down fragments at first, but forcing myself to create full sentences about the ideas before I let them go.

4. Note specific scenes that emerge from reader-inspired ideas and create specific scenes. In my process, I don’t write these scenes out right away. I  allow myself to sleep on them before composition begins. But do what works for you.

5. Determine why you wrote the story to that person. Once a story is drafted, I usually define the theme before revision begins. Here's where this approach provides a major advantage, a real impetus to get the rewriting done. I found that because of the way these stories are coming to be, it's easy for me to connect the draft to the reader in terms of why I wrote the story. Often, it's a matter of simply wanting to share something with someone I care about. Sometimes, especially with those who have mentor me, my purpose seems to be showing them the gifts they gave me are valued... and here's the proof. For rivals, it's about demonstrating that I can outdo them. In cases where the reader is someone who caused the harm, it's about striking back.

I'm still exploring this process. I'm a long way from my 50 stories. But I'm encouraged that something new and valuable is happening with my writing. I also hope that what I'm learning along the way will add an extra level of power to my other works — mostly longer works — that still need to be revised. I'd be delighted to find that rewriting can become less of a task for me. (Fingers crossed.)

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Seven Ways to Stretch as a Writer

What will your 2020 look like? Since I prefer to create my own future (as much as possible), as opposed to stumbling forward, I take October to plan. What do I want to accomplish next year?

I have works in progress to finish (including rewriting), submission goals, work I owe others, and obligations to people I teach and mentor. These are all obvious and easy to put onto my calendar and set time aside for. I also do some analysis for myself on creative aspirations and the choices those imply. That's a big topic. Worth more than one post.

But the last area I consider is how I'll stretch as a writer. In the past, this part has been optional in my plans. Something that makes it onto the calendar, but may need to be dropped when life gets in the way. However, this year I'll carve out obligatory time. When I get stretch work done, it always pays big dividends. So come to respect the time it is allocated.

For instance, I took an improv course to get out of my comfort zone, and it opened doors, eventually, to my being head writer on a web series. A foray into horror writing (a genre that creeps me out) provided me with new approaches to building tension in a scene. And a course I just took on creating look books gave me a lot of insights, especially in how to present the images in my head, clearly communicating with a limited number of words, and establishing and committing to tone in storytelling.

Stretching may be the best way to raise the bar by exploring writing in new ways. Looking back, I found that my stretching exercises fit into seven different categories. I'll share those here:

1 Courses. When you have a good teacher, a curriculum that promises fresh material, and fellow students who share their talents and skills, getting methodical and academic can help uncover possibilities, deficits that need to be addressed, and new approaches to finding answers to the problems stories present. In addition, discipline, repetition, and practice can provide techniques and confidence that flow easily into your creative activities.

2 Favorites. I found that an important key to understanding what I meant to write, what I am passionate about, and my philosophy or perspective on creative work is most accessible by simply reviewing works I love and return to over and over again. Just listing out my favorite movies or TV shows or songs or authors — especially when I make the lists long and then do some forced ranking – reveals my values, priorities, and aesthetics in ways that might otherwise be hidden. And once this work is done, choosing a few works to "sit with" pays dividends in my appreciation of the impact of these works and how that impact was achieved. When possible, I try to follow up my new understanding with action, even if that means writing a scene or short story that has nothing to do with my current efforts.

3 Getting out of my comfort zone. This is a big one, and one of the most difficult for me to achieve. Usually, I have to make a commitment that means spending money. Not wasting cash is a great way to motivate myself to do something that is unpleasant. Your choice on what is out of your comfort zone is not likely to be mine. For instance, I mentioned an improv class above. When I tell people I took this class, the general reaction is, “What fun!" My reaction is (and was) “How awful!" The course was actually taught well and included charming and talented students. But improv is not designed for shy and awkward people like me. Enough said. I'm still glad I took the course.

4 Mastery. There are a lot of dimensions to storytelling. Great storytelling does not require excellence in all these dimensions. For instance, I love the quirky perspectives of Philip K. Dick's work. His prose, not so much. But, while it's not necessary to be perfect in every way, it is valuable to assess strengths and weaknesses (I give myself letter grades) and actively seek out one or two areas where it might be the right time to dig in and work at a higher level. I just finished a series on brilliant scenes. It involved a lot of review, study, and analysis on my part. I hope it was useful for readers, but my primary motivation was to extend my understanding of how my own scenes might be substantially improved.

5 Problem-solving. One of my early mentors, back when I was focused primarily on nonfiction (speeches and articles) said that every answer I needed could be discovered by reading the New Yorker magazine. He was mostly right. By seeing how stories were built, readers were engaged, explanations were made, and, mostly, arguments were made persuasive, I was able to see how I could improve my choices and have better answers to the writing problems presented by my day-to-day assignments. As a result, even if I find an acceptable answer to a story conundrum, I make notes about my struggle, my concerns, and what I ended up doing. These brief reviews help to articulate concerns I'm sure it hit again and help to focus my attention on the work of others.

For instance, while big motivations for action by a protagonist tends to be apparent, actions, opportunities, and comments that nudge characters toward more important choices (often precluding the best actions) are harder for me to come up with. I'm too eager to jump to something larger. But, as I've been re-watching the series, Homicide: Life on the Streets, I've seen a myriad of ways the characters are redirected or lured toward actions that make doing what's right harder. Those examples I discover are golden.

6 Sample something new. If it's not enough, it might take me out of my comfort zone. But, often sampling something novel, especially when recommended by a friend, can open up new vistas for me. This need not be creative works like novels or paintings or sculptures or films. For me, nature, travel, or something like a TED talk can provide fresh facts, perspectives, and areas of interest. I should add that making time for pure curiosity fits neatly into this category.

7 Connection in collaboration. This is one of the great ones, especially when the people are right in terms of teaching you something new about the world, experience, and yourself. For me, one of the greatest parts of this category is working on something that really matters (often with high-stakes) with someone who is committed, talented, capable, and different from myself. The opportunities for learning and growth, both as a writer and as a person, are great. Lots of things might be shoved up my calendar if I get the chance to stretch with the right person.

It's not necessary to have a stretch project in each of these categories every year. The impact of seriously engaging with one or two over the course of a year (or longer) can be enough to provide tremendous value. Choosing quality over quantity is best. In addition, these things can go wrong. Or life can get in the way. Or an experience can be horrible without delivering what you might be looking for.

It's good to remember that these are about stretching. That means they need to be put into perspective and not consider essential obligations. (Presumably, your essential obligations are already on your to-do list for the next year before you even explore stretching.) So… Forgive yourself. Forgive others. And sometimes, quit while you're ahead.