Jeanne: Enneagrams

On Sunday, Jilly talked about the class we’re taking, Inside Out: Crafting Your Character’s Emotional Conflict, with award-winning author Linnea Sinclair.*

LinneaSinclair13

Linnea Sinclair

One of the things that makes me such a slow writer is because it generally takes me 100 or more painfully typed pages to know my characters well enough to understand what they’ll do in any given situation. Up to that point (and sometimes, as with my current WIP, even longer) I head off in wrong directions and follow blind alleys and generally wander in the wilderness while I get to know them.

It’s not an efficient process.

Now Ms. Sinclair has given me a tool to (I really hope) shortcut that painful process–the Enneagram (pronounced any-a-gram). According to the Integrative 9 website, the Enneagram is an archetypal framework that offers in-depth insight to individuals, groups and collectives.  Put more simply, it’s a psychological test that categorizes people into 9 different groups based on personality/character factors. Continue reading

Kay: Melissa McCarthy as the Unlikeable Protagonist

Let’s talk about unlikeable protagonists. A few weeks ago, Jeanne did. I thought about what she said, and I wasn’t sure I agreed with her. Since then, I’ve seen Can You Ever Forgive Me?

For those of you who don’t go to the movies or haven’t seen this one yet, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based on the life of biographer Lee Israel, who reaches a dead end in her writing career after her agent rejects her latest project. Out of money and desperate to meet her rent and take her cat to the vet, the movie shows Israel first forging letters from famous, dead actors and writers and then stealing such letters from public libraries and research institutions and selling those, as well.

Movie-wise, I thought Melissa McCarthy did a terrific job playing Israel.

Character-wise, I didn’t like her. Continue reading

Jilly: The Mistress Problem

I’d really, really like to find a different form of address for the gentlewomen in my WIP, especially my heroine.

Lately I’ve been working on a sequence of set piece scenes toward the end of the book. The setting is a fantasy world, historical, before the invention of guns. Horses ‘n swords. Vaguely Tudor-ish, with a few creative liberties taken. The action takes place at the most important event in the city’s calendar. Everyone who’s anyone is present: royalty, aristocracy, military, and a lucky few gentlefolk. All the guests are addressed formally, even (especially!) when they’re hurling deadly insults at one another.

The problem is my heroine, Alexis Doe. She’s 25. Unmarried, but old enough to be a wife and mother. Of no acknowledged family (her name indicates she’s illegitimate), but invited as a guest of the Princess Dowager, scary and powerful grandmother of the Crown Prince. Alexis has no title, but her connections would carry a certain level of cachet and she would be addressed with respect. As far as I can see, she would be called Mistress Doe.

I did a fair amount of reading around, looking for possibilities, and I found a fascinating article describing research done by Dr Amy Erickson at the University of Cambridge (click here to read more about Mistress, Miss, Mrs or Ms: untangling the shifting history of titles).

Apparently both Mrs and Miss are abbreviations of Mistress. Continue reading

Nancy: WU UnConference Lesson 2 Con’t: Backstory as the Backbone of Your Story

This scene from Moonstruck packs a punch because we know these characters' backstories.

This scene from Moonstruck packs a punch because we know these characters’ backstories.

In last week’s post, I nattered on about Lisa Cron’s message that backstory is the decoder ring for any story we write. This week, let’s take the discussion one step further. Let’s talk about putting some of that glorious backstory you’re creating into your current WIP.

Gasp! Egads! Not the Dreaded Backstory!

Before you go running for the exits, hear me (channeling Lisa) out. As the author of Wired for Story and Story Genius as well as a long-time writing coach and teacher, Lisa has researched lots of brain science to back up her theory that not only do we need to create our characters’ backstories for our own authorial edification, but also for reader enlightenment and, ultimately, bonding with our characters. Our brains use story to explore different aspects and possibilities of the wider world so we can learn lessons from those experiences without putting ourselves in harm’s way. (Lisa puts it much more elegantly in her books, and really, you should be reading her books!) And because our brains are incredibly efficient machines, they will use the same techniques to decipher fictional stories as they do real-life events.

Let’s think about that in the context of character for a minute. Think back to meeting someone important in your life, for example, your significant other or your best friend. Continue reading

Nancy: WU UnConference Lesson 2: The Decoder Ring

Portals of the Past, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco CA

Portals of the Past, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco CA

Last week, when sharing some of the great wisdom imparted to me during the early November Writers Unboxed UnConference, I discussed the importance of theme as the heart of your book. This week, I’m going to discuss another essential element of your story: the decoder ring. Heart and a decoder ring. Makes sense, right? Er, perhaps I need to elaborate.

As Lisa Cron said many times during her workshops at the UnConference, when it comes to the story you are writing – the story your main character is telling – the character’s past is the decoder ring to the story. Quoting William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” OK, he wasn’t talking about your story or mine, in that case, but the famous line has been applied to the craft of writing by many writing teachers.

So how does this idea of the character’s past being part of the present-day story jibe with the admonition to stay in the now and not bog down your book with the dreaded backstory? Paraphrasing Lisa Cron, it’s not backstory that’s the problem; it’s poor usage of backstory. In fact, she argues, we not only want the pertinent parts of your characters’ backstories, we need them to understand who the characters are and why they react and behave the way they do. But how do you include backstory without throwing the reader (or the contest judge, in Jilly’s case) out of the story? Continue reading

Nancy: WU UnConference Lesson 1: Theme

There's an important theme in Law and Order SVU season 12, episode 3. Can you spot it?

There’s an important theme in Law and Order SVU season 12, episode 3. Can you spot it?

Okay, admit it. Your eyes rolled back in your head when you saw the word ‘theme’ in this post’s title, didn’t they? If so, it’s not surprising. Many writers, genre writers in particular – of which many of us here are – are often taught to disregard theme, at least in the early drafts. We’re told a story’s theme will emerge as we revise and dig deeper on later drafts, if indeed it need ever emerge. Who really needs theme anyway, other than your boring high school English teacher? After all, who wants a heavy-handed moral lesson or the author’s worldview shoved down her throat when she’s just trying to immerse herself in good fiction?

According to Lisa Cron, probably everyone.

As Cron discusses in Wired for Story, Story Genius, and workshops (for those of us lucky enough to attend one!), our brains are hardwired for story because story helps us decipher the world around us, and to discover ‘what would happen if’ without physically putting ourselves in harm’s way. In that way, stories are tied to our very survival as a species (sounds pretty cool to be a writer nerd now, doesn’t it?). Other cool things that happen to our brains on fiction are an increased capacity for empathy (through bonding with a protagonist and walking several miles in her shoes) and a willingness to challenge our own world views. And all that cool stuff happens because somewhere under all the scenes and character arcs and plot points and cause and effect trajectory, a story has a specific way of looking at the world, a message, a theme.

Instead of thinking about theme as some sort of moral imperative or high-brow statement to be made at the expense of good story, what if we think about theme as the beating heart of our story? Sound more appealing now? Continue reading

Jilly: Craft Book Squee – Story Genius

story-geniusHave you had enough politics yet? If the answer is no, please check out yesterday’s excellent post by Michaeline, The Election and the Future of the US Writing Market. Plenty of insightful, positive, actionable food for thought there.

If you’re ready for a break from world affairs, let’s discuss creating quality stories to sustain us through the challenging times ahead 😉 .

Last Sunday in Storyteller v Smooth Writer I talked about judging contest entries and understanding the difference between polished writing and addictive storytelling. I said I’d decided not to take any more classes or buy any more writing books until I’d figured out how to make the storyline of my WIP as powerful as it can be.

Yeah, but no. A couple of days after I put up that post I bought a writing book and I’ve been glued to it ever since. I have not been this excited about a craft book, ever.

Continue reading