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A Day in the Life of a Writer: Wisdom from McKee

I’m reading McKee’s Story along with one of my writing partners, and we’re both finding gems. Sure, screenwriters are the intended audience, but story structure is story structure. My favorite lines so far:

“But fact, no matter how minutely observed, is truth with a small “t.” Big “T” Truth is located behind, beyond, inside, below the surface of things, holding reality together or tearing it apart, and cannot be directly observed” (24).

Reminds me of quantum physics. Y’know how an electron seems to know when it’s watched? And it won’t move if you’re looking at it? At least, that used to be the case, but now they’ve found a way to trap an atom in a vacuum so they can watch it jump. Kind of sad, really. No more mystery. But Truth–now that is not something you can trap in a vacuum.

Sometimes little “t’ truth can magnify big “T” Truth, but the writer must lay those words down lightly, respectfully. For example, please don’t write an overwrought scene between a victim and her abuser and expect the reader to take away anything but a grimace. Seriously. Knock that shit off.

If you want to portray abuse, and you want to use “accurate reportage,” as McKee puts it, show everything but the victim, and refrain from telling your reader what those facts mean.

For example, a living room snapshot:

A clear glass ashtray sits neatly upside down on the rug, empty, but Shelly smells cigarette smoke. No, it smells more like a barbecue, she thinks.  It’s a distant scent, like it’s coming from the patio down the street, wafting through the window. The front door slams and she ducks in reflex, and suddenly the scent is up close. She hears a car peel away from the house at the same time she realizes she is sitting, naked, on a small pile of burning cigarettes.

That needs tweaking, but it should give you an idea of how you can give small details without hitting your reader over the head with angst. I think the angst is inevitable in a rough draft. Just eradicate it in your rewrites so your reader doesn’t want to stab his eyes out.

 

Edited: February 27th, 2014

A Day in the Life of a Writer: Back to GMC

I’ll be writing about how I’m using GMC, which I got from GMC: Goal, Motivation and Conflict: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction by Debra Dixon  (Clean link)

I’ve begun working on my novel again, and recently had a breakthrough because of an app I found online that utilizes Dixon’s GMC. I dumped what I knew about my heroine into it, and came out with something I can work with. (I am waiting for this writer to get back to me with feedback. *ahem* ps: You did ask what character issues I’m having, Ms. Tammy.)

The GMC wizard was created by author Shawntelle Madison, and it’s on her site:
GMC Wizard
(http://www.shawntellemadison.com/writer-tools/gmc-wizard/)

Plug your info in and go. Here’s what I got for my heroine. This is a work-in-progress, particularly the internal goal part. For some reason I wrestle with understanding that.
GOAL, MOTIVATION, AND CONFLICT GRID
Name: Diana
Age: 35
Occupation: homeless. Previous occupation: ?
Basic Information: Sober b/c of dog Bart. Son died a few years ago & she is beset by guilt.
Eventually she will save Pax, hero’s nephew, which will release her from her self-imposed guilt-shackles.

INTERNAL EXTERNAL
GOAL forgive herself for the death of her son. own her own house where Bart will have a yard to play in.
MOTIVATION she will die on the streets if she doesn’t. He’s been beaten before and shot after she claimed him. She wants him to be safe so she doesn’t have HIS death on her conscience, too.
CONFLICT she keeps falling back on alcohol to drown out the pain. She has no job. She’s been out of work for years. She struggles with sobriety. She has no place to shower, even, and has no idea if she even HAS any skill sets. No confidence.

Another link I found useful has a blank GMC chart found here: http://www.midmichiganrwa.org/gmc-charts.pdf — 6 pages of character-building here.  RWA stands for Romance Writers of America, and it is one of the best investments I’ve ever made in my writing.

The key is to know your characters, which means you have to sit down with each one and listen to them. If you don’t, you risk writing your character into an unbelievable situation, or you risk pushing your character into unbelievable action.  For example, I know that my heroine, Diana, loves books, so while it is believable that she would be found digging in a dumpster to rescue a book, there is no way she would burn one to keep herself warm on the streets. She would burn a building first.

What would your character do/not do?

 

Edited: February 25th, 2014

Naming characters

I just discovered this on Facebook, and I think that may be the only place you can use this technique.  If you’re stumped about what to name your characters, try this meme-y thing:

Did you know your CELL PHONE has a name? Try this:

1st step: From your mobile number, take the last 3 numbers. Example- 780-496-9684 , take “684″only

2nd step: Write this @*[684:0] in the comment box below, replacing the 3 numbers with your own. … …

3rd step: Remove the * sign and press enter in the comment box!

For the naming of characters, just make up numbers. NOTE: I’ve been informed that if the 1st of your last 3 digits is a ’0′ it won’t work.

Examples:
927= Travis M. LaVoi
647=Azzura Cox
123=Morgan Grice
456=Becky Wald
789=Matt Kozlov
233=Michael Blickstead
999=Peter Saldarriaga

 

Edited: January 15th, 2012

A Day in the Life of a Writer: Metaphors and Character Development

I don’t see much online on the subject of using metaphors in character development, so I’m sharing my process.

I’ve got this homeless character  in the opening scene of my novel and she did something that surprised me.  I thought she was just a crazy old lady, but she pulled a .357 on a Beemer guy who was going to dump oil in a dumpster she’d climbed into to retrieve a book.   When I started the scene, I didn’t know anything but the fact that she was in a dumpster. By the time I was through writing the scene, I discovered that she can take care of herself, that she’s got a soft spot for strays, and she’ll dig through trash to get to good reading material.

I know why she’s on the streets–she’s trying to find a teenaged girl who ran away, but –that’s all I know.  So I’m studying metaphors. Once I figure out what her life metaphor is, I’ll have a better handle on her character.

One way to look at it is to call it her paradigm.  It’s a deeply held, unconscious belief  which dictates how a person responds to life’s events.  We all have this internal set of beliefs which guide us in our choices every day.  Is the world a good or a bad place? Is life an uphill struggle, or a joyride? Is it a classroom, a confessional, a sacrificial altar, or a den of thieves? People growing up in the same household can emerge with different paradigms because each experiences things differently.

I know that Maggie (the homeless woman) has a positive paradigm; I also know that for her to be a compelling character she needs to grow, so there’s room for her metaphor to be altered by her experiences in the story.  The metaphor that life is a classroom fits what I know of her character so far so I’m adopting that for now, although I’m pretty sure there’s more to it.

The girl she wants to find (Emily) is a different matter. The world’s been a dangerous place for her, so many of her decisions will be driven by a need for certainty.  I’m basing this on what I’ve read by Tony Robbins, who asserts that we have six basic needs. The two core needs are certainty and significance, and according to my life coach, most people live their whole lives making sure these two needs are met, many times to the detriment of the other four needs: variety, connection, growth, and contribution.  Maggie, I’ve just realized, is driven by her need to live a life that makes a difference.  I want her character arc to move toward the other needs, so I’ll be planning my plot with that in mind since she’s my central character.

Emily has no thought for anything but survival.  Right now she views life as a cross between a battlefield and a war game, like chess, in which she is a dispensable pawn. My goal for her character is for her to grow toward connection and significance, which she will find as she develops her art.

 

Edited: December 18th, 2011

Excavation

I just finished reading The Help, by Kathryn Stockett—and it occurred to me that part of why I’ve been stuck on my story is that I haven’t gone inside myself and excavated.  I have been writing a story I don’t passionately care about.  I love my characters, I just don’t care about what they’re doing in their lives.  I’d bored myself.

So I noodled, and I remembered a romance I read many years ago which had a [briefly] homeless woman as its heroine, and I remembered that that story had a huge impact on my life because it gave ‘homeless’ a face.

I’ve been playing with that, and now my heroine is a book-loving woman whose grief over the suicide of her son and the bankrupting medical bills, and is living on the streets and making money as a street artist (and avoiding the cops because she’s become a prolific graffiti artist, as well.)  She’s maintained her anonymity so far, but that’s about to change….

I care about what this woman is doing, and I can’t wait to see how she finds her way out of the dark.

Edited: July 10th, 2011

Hero material

If you need inspiration for your hero, take a look at this guy: when everyone else was mocking Charlie Sheen, he took a stand. Add to that that he’s down-to-earth, he thinks strong women are sexy, he looks past physical beauty to the person within, and he’s freaking hilarious–oh, yeah, baby. My hero’s got a bit o’ Craig in him, all right.

Edited: July 10th, 2011

A Day in the Life of a Romance Writer: Research

My heroine, Diana, is a painter.  She got in trouble as a teen for painting on abandoned buildings (and once she did a county building in protest against them closing the county library)–and that is the extent of my knowledge of graffiti.  I know that it’s usually illegal, that there are fines and or jail time, and I know they use spray paint.  So I’ve been doing some research, and I’m posting it here for several reasons:

  • others may be doing research along the same lines
  • the information is interesting
  • perhaps this will spark someone else’s muse
  • maybe someone in the know will share his/her knowledge

How to Choose Spray Paint Tips for Graffiti

How to Write Graffiti-Art Basics with artist Leon Rainbow

Basic Graffiti info

An article about a graffiti artist who recently died when running from the police

Street Art–Dalston Bus Depot 2005

Open Air, Street Art–Graffiti Documentary

Blog article on Hera

Edited: March 11th, 2010

Using GMC: Diana

Here’s what happened when I released my stubborn hold on who I thought my characters were.

I asked my heroine why she didn’t want to run the family gun shop. (Yes, I talked to her.  I was a little cautious about it because the notion’s kinda kooky, and I really didn’t want my kids to hear me talking to myself, so I whispered. LOL )

It works!
I asked, and she told me, “Look. I’m spending every day with my mom and she’s driving me nuts. I have to find the missing paperwork pronto or the ATF’s gonna shut her down and guess where she’ll be living?  No way, sister.  I love my mom, but I need my privacy.”

So, in the interest of showing you how I used Debra Dixon’s book, I’ll share Diana’s character info.  It still needs work, but wow! After doing her GMC chart and those of three other characters, not only was I able to write my first chapter, I knew where I was going!

NAME : Diana (gun shop co-owner/teacher) Paints every spare minute she has. Mockingbird is totem

WHO SHE IS: a self-deluding paper tiger (tough on the outside, scared within)

WHAT SHE WANTS: Starter goal:   has to find missing logbook. Get thru ATF audit. Bigger: Own her own art studio. Express herself via painting.  Keep shop from being closed.

BECAUSE: 1. Logbook has info for ATF search phone call.  2. ATF doing audit. 3. She doesn’t want her mother living with her. 4. she wants to get back to her private life

BUT: Can’t find logbook. Her mother lost additional ppw.  Her mother needs her in the gun shop. (obviously!)

INTERNAL WANTS: needs to please. Then :  to know herself;  to be regarded as ‘real’ artist; autonomy

BECAUSE: It’ll make her feel important; like she’s contributing something to the world; she’ll be expressing herself

BUT: She’s afraid:  of failure, of creating garbage, of the unknown. She doesn’t believe she has the talent; won’t put her art on display. And she’s worried her mother won’t be able to run the shop effectively by herself.

My hero’s character info is still missing the internal want/need, but I was still able to write the first chapter because I had his external want pretty clear in my head.  I’ll be tweaking both as I go.

You see how nowhere in Diana’s goals is there a wish to fall in love?  Falling in love is what happens as she’s pursuing her goals.  If falling in love were her goal, I think she’d be a weak and boring character.  I want her to have an interesting life that she ultimately invites the hero –and the reader–into.

Same goes for the hero, Mark.  His immediate desire is to plop down in his easy chair and read a book he’s been itching to read for several days but hasn’t had time for.  Problem is, his 5-year-old nephew is having trouble getting to sleep because his mother’s recently been killed in an accident.  It’s a simple conflict, and it will grow into something bigger as the story progresses.

Edited: June 2nd, 2009

Links for Writers

I’ve been poking around the web, looking to connect with other writers.  Here are some of the sites I’ve visited and liked: (the links will be organized; right now you don’t know what you’ll be taken to, but trust me (please)–this is like tiramisu.  Every bite is delicious.)

HighSpot Inc.’s Directory of book trade people on Twitter

HighSpot Inc.’s Directory of authors on Twitter

LeftBrainWrite

Practicing Writing

Twitter Tips for Writers + 25 Good Follows

Archetype and CritPartnerMatch found these via Kait  Nolan (she created CritPartnerMatch, btw)

WritetoDone

WordSwimmer

Kim’s Craft Blog

The Rejecter

Off the Shelf: Writers on Writing

StoryTellers Unplugged

Romancing the Blog

Romance Divas

Best American Poetry

Poets Who Blog

Fiction Writers Review

INDUSTRY BLOGS

Nathan Bransford–Literary Agent

Chip MacGregor-Literary Agent {features Q&A for writers, among other things}

Rachelle Gardner-Literary Agent {features advice for writers, etc.}

HOW TO

Thematic Premise Sheet {plotting help}

Character test #1

Character test #2

Character test #3

If you know of a writer’s blog, please comment here with a brief blurb about the site.  When I have time I’ll put all the links on their own page.

Edited: May 22nd, 2009

A day in the life of a romance writer: character development

“A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.”
— Martin Luther King Jr. (The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.)

I’ve been struggling with my heroine’s over-arching goal. I keep tangling external goals with internal ones. My critique partner pointed out that the one I had was too “do-able,” adding, “I think Diana needs something that she wants desperately – something that is urgent – life or death or loss that if she loses it, her life will never be the same (or someone she cherishes will never be the same) something that she will walk on water to obtain if that’s what she needs to do.”

So. A character who won’t die for something isn’t fit to live, either, and that rings true for me. Characters with something huge at stake engage the reader immediately.

While I was looking for inspiration I came across some quotes that resonate, and I’m pinning them up while I write so they’ll remind me of key character traits.

Diana, my heroine, is a frustrated artist (painter) who runs a gun shop with her mother. A quote for her is from Bernard Shaw:

“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”
And these: “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”— Maya Angelou

“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”— Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

“One must pay dearly for immortality; one has to die several times while still alive.”— Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

My bad guy, as yet un-named, has this one:

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
— Abraham Lincoln

Mark, my hero, has these:

“In the years afterward, I fled whenever somebody began to understand me. That has subsided. But one thing remained: I don’t want anybody to understand me completely. I want to go through life unknown. The blindness of others is my safety and my freedom.” — Pascal Mercier

“Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”— Confucius

Ultimately, this one will apply: “I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.” — Maya Angelou

One that will apply throughout the story:


“The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong, it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair.”— Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)

And this one reminds me of different ways to illustrate character:

“Your handwriting. The way you walk. Which china pattern you choose. It’s all giving you away. Everything you do shows your hand. Everything is a self-portrait. Everything is a diary.”— Chuck Palahniuk

Edited: May 18th, 2009

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