Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Authenticity Sets Your Work Apart 1 — Paying the price

I’ve been researching Gracie Allen for a sliver of a story I’m working on. She was part of the hugely popular Burns & Allen comedy team. They conquered vaudeville, radio, television, and film.

George Burns later won an Oscar for his work in The Sunshine Boys, but Gracie was the star. She was famous for her illogical logic. She saw herself as an actress, not a comedienne. She never told a joke (even privately), but she delivered her lines with perfect timing. And authenticity. She believed every word. She has been described as a method actor before there were method actors.

If a line seemed wrong to her, she wouldn’t say it. When a director asked her to “cheat” the camera as she was eating in a scene, she couldn’t do it. In fact, direction for her was superfluous. Wherever Gracie the character came from was never revealed, but the truth of Gracie (character and actress) was indisputable.

This is not to say that there isn’t room for classical acting or self-aware, break the third wall characters (for which Burns was famous). Style can triumph gloriously, but truth gets under people’s skin. It is undeniable. Sometimes, even painful.

Facts are not enough. Data, dates, and historical details? Good, but insufficient. Emotion needs to be included, but not the zeal of a preacher or the personality of a salesman or the promises of a politician. Authenticity comes from a deeper place. As a writer, you need to believe in what you’re saying and care about it. The truth you are communicating must be vital.

Risk is everything. While you can fool some of the people some the time, especially those who An essential proof for a truth that really connects is how unsettling it is. Bromides can be wise, can remind us of how things should work, and can sustain us as we work to maintain the benefits of our society. But they don’t often ring the bell of authenticity. When truth challenges, when it requires discomfort and sacrifice (for writers and readers), a price is paid that may point to its authenticity. Truth that matters enough to be authentic makes us take a chance.

Too easy. Passion usually goes hand in hand with authenticity. But it is possible to be very passionate about lies we tell ourselves. For me, the symptom of this is when all of the story (not just pieces) comes rushing out. Is it the muse speaking truth? Or someone else’s charming folly? Or something sweetly aligned with society’s norms? Or a deception protecting part of me from a devastating truth? When the piece as a whole does not raise doubts or require any struggle, alarms go off.

So, you’ve done your due diligence. You’ve gotten past glib and glamorous. You’ve made yourself vulnerable, exposing a piece of your soul. It’s authentic, and, if you’re lucky, readers (including editors) recognize and appreciate that.

And your fears come true, too. The haters descend on you. It’s not fun. It makes people uncomfortable. It breaks taboos. The ending is bittersweet or tragic. Go away.

Or, the truth is felt, but people don’t want the full truth. There’s some good stuff here. No question, it’s well done. But cut that scene that’s bleak. Make the hero a little nicer. Could you, maybe, give it a really happy ending?

You have a decision to make. Make the one that’s right for you. That’s true to who you are.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

How to Get Readers to Turn the Page

I’ve known three priests who have had nervous breakdowns. One showed me the men in cassocks were fallible. One was a living lesson in dignity balanced by empathy. One turned me into a writer.

The last is relevant here. He showed me I was good enough. He measured out crucial tips at a rate that allowed me to master them. And he taught me that the one thing a writer could not do was bore the reader.

Keeping readers engaged is harder than ever. Between on-click-away distraction and shrinking attention spans, it feels impossible at times. This is especially true if your storytelling is stripped down to text, unsupported by CGI monsters or immersive technologies like virtual reality. The toolbox has expanded in terms of whose stories can be told and how explicit these stories can be, but approaches to hook, surprise, worry, provoke, and build anticipation haven’t changed much in hundreds of years.

Tool What can go wrong One way to master

When I was a kid, The Wizard of Oz played on TV one a year. Without fail, when Dorothy opened the door of her black and white world to reveal Munchkin Land, the network would cut to commercial. They got away with it for a lot of reasons:

We knew and cared about Dorothy. She had spunk, standing up to Miss Gulch (whom her Aunt and Uncle bowed down to). She had been wronged. (There was no good reason to take her dog away.) Oh, and she could sing. Her well-being (harm or her heart’s desire) mattered to us.

The palette included real danger. Ferocious pigs, a tornado, and a witch who cackled at he as she flew by the uprooted homestead let us knew this could be life or death. The stakes were high.

Special places had been foreshadowed. Professor Marvel talked about his fantastic travels. Dorothy sang about a place over the rainbow. And we had a glimpse (in full color!). This created positive anticipation, attracting us to visit Oz.

The glimpse of Oz promised novelty, too. It made us curious. Certainly, we’d see a place and experience situations we never would meet in our mundane world (already established and exaggerated in the story’s version of Kansas).

Character, danger, stakes, anticipation, and curiosity will keep you watching dancing cigarette packs and teens singing about cola for five minutes. These are all emotional, not just intellectual. There can be visceral reasons to stay put (depending on the audience) and this can include images that promise horror or sex. Questions can be highly intellectual. Clarke’s science fiction novel Rendezvous with Rama is left-brain dominant aimed at understanding the what and the who of an alien artifact. Many mysteries lean heavily on gathering evidence to assemble a puzzle, often relying on questions and reveals power the story engine.

You can probably come up with a few more reasons for readers to keep turning the pages. Mastering these in particular (like planting clues or raising questions) and globally (like managing pacing, alternating viewpoint) is a lifetime job. I think, now more than ever, dedicating time and effort to observing, understanding, and practicing techniques of engagement makes the difference between creating stories people stay with and are moved by and creating stories that are good ideas, but are neglected by their audiences.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Ideas on Ideas—Catalyzing stories that catch attention

When you think of stories, the line between an idea and the premise is smudged. Shark. Shark attack. A shark terrorizing a beach. A sheriff who must stop a killer shark to save his beach community.

If you write by the seat-of-the-pants, shark may be enough. If you are someone who tends to sketch out your stories, and perhaps even outline them in detail, you need that last sentence to propel you forward. So, when a writer gets the classic question, "where do you get your ideas?" it isn’t always clear what a helpful answer will be. This is especially true if the person asking the question is someone who is a writer or aspires to be a writer.

I've written in detail on both capturing ideas and formulating your story's premise in previous posts. In this one, I'll focus on the smudged area to explore what might get you started on a story that's good enough to catch readers' attention.

I sure bet is taking a classic story and developing it for your audience from your point of view. It's popular lately to grab fairytales and folktales and reinvent them for today. Sweeney Todd, which has succeeded both as a play and as a movie, is derived from a well-worn tale that used to be best known as a Penny dreadful. And a large percentage of Shakespeare's plays have antecedents

So, while respecting intellectual property law, you may find that you can use a story you love to create something new. It's a Wonderful Life is based on A Christmas Carol, but turned inside out, with a generous man instead of a miser as the protagonists. One of my favorite stories is Poe's Cask of Amontillado. It got under my skin so thoroughly that I had to write an inverted version of it. I found as I wrote it, I never got lost, the passion did not diminish, and readers (including an editor) enjoyed it.

That's a "something went right" approach. "Something went wrong" (or didn't go far enough) is another way to attack the idea/premise space and get something that begins with vitality. How many times have you gone to a film or read a book and been disappointed by the ending? In such cases, you might actually begin to imagine something better. (In the case of the movie, Se7en, I anticipated and ending I like better than the one I got.) If you have a great ending in mind, that's a wonderful starting point for developing a story. Great endings are hard, so a big chunk of your work is already done.

Even though I loved We Can Remember It for You Wholesale – Philip K. Dick's short story that became the basis for Total Recall— it felt to me as if he had missed the most promising opportunity for implanted/erased memories. I wrote and sold a short story about a man to habitually erased memories of bad love affairs, which made it almost impossible for him to learn the lessons. (This was years before Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.) The story practically wrote itself.

Those experiences that touch us emotionally and maybe even transform us often become good starting points for deep, personal, and emotionally engaging works. Sharing these stories is both courageous and generous. However, many people attempt to tell these stories too early. For most writers and other artists, the big things that happen in their lives need to be processed for a time before they can be presented artistically. They must be put into context not just in the story, but in our responses to life. Lessons must be learned. Powerful questions need to be asked (and maybe answered). Distance is helpful. A full heart is best served cold.

There are other ways that ideas can be discovered and developed to the point where they are story ideas. Some of them are very simple like lists (I like lists that disturb me) and prompts (for me, the weirder the better). Sometimes that notion that is teasing you comes to life if you think about presenting it to different audiences or within different genres. And, of course, I recommend collecting and sifting through questions that occur to you. There are few things more powerful for a storyteller than a list of powerful questions.

Your ultimate standard for whatever lands in your idea/premise space is the response it evokes — for you and for an imagined audience.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Getting Past Your Character’s Defenses — One way to find your deep story

I’m a big advocate of interviewing characters. I find it gets me closer to who they really are than answering descriptive questions or creating biographies. Some characters like to talk. They’ll tell you who they are and what they care about freely. Others are reluctant, but their resistance is telling. It often gives me a lot to work with as I read between the lines. And the bonus is that I can use their style of evasion in the stories. No one skirts the truth in exactly the same way.

Then there are the problem characters who often end up being the most interesting. These are the ones who appear to answer every question easily, without ever revealing the ground truth. They may have an alternate or nicely spun counter story. Or they may be expert and providing answers that are at only a few layers deep.

In every case, their actual stories are worth pursuing. Whatever is guarded and secret turns out to be the reason the story was written. The sprites, hidden in the back of my mind, set everything in motion. It is up to me to figure that out.

I don’t always succeed. I’ve gone back to look at completed works and discovered, too late in many cases, that I missed actions and statements that should have raised questions. Sometimes the faintest of hints point to possibilities that just never occurred to me.

Most of my successes have come from taking closer looks at actions that don’t quite add up. Or more reasonable choices that characters avoided. Or a connection I hopped past in the first reading of a draft.

I have discovered that my surest way to uncover hidden dimensions of my stories is to trust my gut. How that happens in practice is I listen (text-to-speech) to every draft of my stories, follow along in the text, and I mark every time something feels weird or raises questions or sparks my curiosity. This is a great way to find and consider what is hidden and improve the next draft.

It often necessitates a lot of rewriting, and it sometimes means only the kernel of a draft fits the higher level version. The results are good, but I’m experimenting with returning to the interviews so I can get to the essence of the secret designs and themes before so much time and effort is invested in the draft.

Note: Finding only 50 pages or deep value in a 350-page manuscript can be agonizing, but taking a step toward the story that was always meant to be and is better than you imagined is worthwhile. I’d prefer to avoid that sacrifice, but I’m willing to make it for quality.


The problem — Clever characters with excellent (genius?) defenses.

The possible efficient solution — Probing interviews.

  • Always suspect the character won’t tell you the whole story, but accept what’s said as true. A good model is the improv approach of using whatever you’re given. Saying “yes.”
  • Be the good cop. Don’t try to browbeat anything out of your character.
  • Convince yourself that you have only the character’s best interests in mind. You want to tell his or her story as fully and authentically as possible.
  • Be curious. That will help you to really listen.
  • Create open questions. Many of these are in past posts, but 1) have your top ten listed and organized to get the best responses you can imagine, and 2) don’t get committed to how questions are expressed or ordered. Chances are you’ll have the adjust as the interview proceeds.
  • Consider including an icebreaker that will put your character at ease.
  • Imagine a good setting for the interview.
  • If it helps, write a letter to your character to request the interview and let him or her know the purpose.
For me, the character I’m interviewing is as real as a real-life person. Try to get close to that. If the character feels made-up, ask for an anecdote before questioning. I like to hear about birthday parties for some reason.

  • Ask open ended questions. I usually develop no more than ten. I try to ask those that will (eventually) reveal relationships, motivations, and feelings.
  • Follow up on what piques your interest or prompts your intuition.
  • Be aware of shifts away from topic. These are great in a regular conversation, but they are likely to be designed in an interview to end a path of inquiry. The more intriguing the shift, the more probable it is that you got close to the truth you’re seeking.
  • Don’t challenge deceptions directly. Instead, ask for more if you can.
  • Never express your own interpretation of an answer. Discover the character’s interpretation.
  • Keep the character you’re interviewing interested. If answers seem stock and rehearsed, your questions aren’t good enough.
  • Read over the answers and mark anything that feels different or exciting.
  • Put a mark in a different color on anything that especially pleases you. Some of those answers will be valuable as written. Others will be appealing distractions, created by the character to hide the truth. The hidden truth probably will come to you as you explore what an honest answer might be.
There is a workaround that is an easier than an interview to get past defense. Use real people. When I wrote a historical novel, I got to know the characters from what they had written and what had been written about them. The “ahas” about secrets they’d never have shared came across during research.

I haven’t tried it, but I suspect direct observations can lead to a similar experience of character satori. Currently, I’m reading Neil Simon’s Memoirs, and it looks like basing characters he knew extremely well provided true north in his stories. (I think he based six characters, including Felix Unger, on his brother Danny.)

By all means, take the reality route if it doesn’t get in the way of storytelling. But, even if you use historical figures and the people around you for characters (more people claim to be Holly Golightly than claim to be the Fifth Beatle), you may find that probing questions provide better information for your stories.