3/17/2014

An Insanely Useful Way to Develop Character Actions ... and a Weekly Writing Update

I was happily chugging along, revising in the last quarter of my book when I discovered brief notes for 24 pages (6000 words) that I had forgotten to write in the first draft. It required two full writing days' worth of thought to decide how to write those scenes. I now have 5735 words' worth of notes/ideas that I will use when I write the scenes, and writing them should be a snap. Does it seem odd that my notes are almost as long as the final scenes will be? It happened because of this statement (which writers need to be asking themselves constantly):

IN THIS SCENE, WHAT CAN HAPPEN NEXT?

I've read over the years that the first two or three ideas that pop into our heads are almost always not very good. They're stale. Writers have suggested that the remedy is to list up to ten additional ideas, and to select from the best.

I do that, but in a different way, I suspect, than anyone on the planet.

For example, in one of the unwritten scenes, the hero's mother (antagonistic character) must convince the hero to take her to visit her friend (who is the same age as the hero) who Mother had tried to set up with her son earlier in the book. He's in love with someone else at this point, although they've (temporarily!) broken up, thus he has no interest in his mother's friend. It will take some doing on her part to convince him. Her scene goal is to convince him. His scene goal is to resist ... all in one page. (This is really only a small movement in a larger scene.)

Prior to the scene's opening, he'd gone down a rung or two of emotional health, due to the breakup. Briefly and crudely put, he is unhappy when the scene begins.

Prior to the scene's opening, his mother's gone up a rung or two of emotional health because of the breakup. She'd been trying to keep John and Rose apart from the beginning. Briefly and crudely put, she is happy when the scene begins.

I could have each character exhibit the attitudes and behaviors of "happiness" or "unhappiness" according to their Enneagram personality styles. John is Style 1. Mother is Style 2. Each style experiences the attitudes and behaviors of "happiness" and "unhappiness" in very different ways. They also behave in highly different ways while trying to get what they want.

So, they could react according to their Enneagram style, at a default level of emotional health. The default level for all Enneagram types is Level 4. Levels of emotional health range from Level 1 being so emotionally healthy, you're godlike, all the way down to Level 9, when you are so emotionally unhealthy, you are psychotic and possibly criminal or suicidal.

Usually, people move only a notch or two above or below the default level in their lifetimes, depending on their circumstances. My people, except for the arch-villain, aren't that emotionally unhealthy. John, who is unhappy, has dropped to Level 5. Mother, who is happy, has risen to Level 3 within their types.

But behaving according to their Enneagram style is not what is needed at this stage of the book. This final quarter is where character transformation, which has been happening in dribs and drabs all along, now picks up speed. Behaving according to their types and even employing Levels of Emotional Health is not going to cut it. When a character always behaves according to type, they may've gotten a little healthier or unhealthier emotionally, but their personality still hasn't changed AT ALL.

Almost all of us act like robots 99% of the time, as we fall back on familiar attitudes and ways of behaving. Think of the movie Groundhog's Day, and you'll understand what I mean.

So, if I want to come up with fresh ideas for what can happen in the scene, I need to explore other more interesting but still believable behavioral options for my characters. Some options will work better and be more likely than others, but all are possible. 

I can have John's attitudes and behaviors be that of either of his Enneagram wing styles. In his case, he could behave like a Style 9 or a Style 2. Or, he could behave according to his "integrating" style, which would happen if he were feeling really great, which is Style 7. Or, he could behave according to his "disintegrating" style, which he would default to if he were feeling really bad. In John's case, it's Style 4. Because he's feeling unhappy, I'll bump him down to Level 5 of emotional health in each style.

His mother's choices are to employ the attitudes and behaviors of Enneagram styles 1,2,3,4 or 8. Because she's feeling good, I'll bump her up to Level 3 of emotional health in each style.

Then I get out my Riso-Hudson Levels of Development charts and see what the attitudes and behaviors would be for all of the listed possibilities. The charts show the attitudes and behaviors of each enneagram style at each of the nine levels of emotional health/development from emotionally healthy to emotionally unhealthy.

After comparing the varieties of how they could behave, I select the attitude and behavior possibilities that would work best, and be most interesting, for the particular scene I'm working on.

It's almost as if I'm using a slide rule, isn't it? It sounds ridiculously left-brained and like way too much work, doesn't it? It sounds like I've reduced my characters to concepts, rather than living, breathing people, doesn't it?

But wait a minute. They are only concepts. Can a book, even a long one, ever capture ever facet of a human being? Heck no. We capture only a limited spectrum of possible attitudes and behaviors.

And right-brained thinking does indeed come to play, when I translate the descriptions of these attitudes and behaviors into actual behaviors. What does someone who is feeling melancholy, misunderstood DO? He withdraws, he broods, he acts touchy and temperamental.




The easiest way to write a scene is to "wing it" and have my characters reacting according to how I would feel, and what I would do in that situation. That takes no work at all.

But if I were to do that, I would come up with a seriously bland, unimaginative book. If sent to an editor or to a contest judge, the terminology they might jot next to a bland passage is, "dig deeper."

It's another way of saying, "think up ten ideas about what the character could do now, and throw out the first three or four ... or eight or nine."

That's what I'm doing when I go to all the trouble with the Enneagram Levels of Development Charts. This tool enables my imagination to "dig deeper."

It's time-consuming, but I always come up with ideas that surprise and delight me, that I would not imagine, had I not painstakingly used this information. It's my genie in a bottle, my magic dust.

Anyway, that's how I come up with my list of better ideas for writing a scene than if I were to use the first idea that popped into my head, and an insanely useful way to develop character actions.



So I'm working at completing those 6000 words, and then I'm pretty much done with my first-round revision. I'll let the manuscript cool for a couple of weeks, and then I'll do what I hope will be a final pass before taking the next step. It it's a "go," that means looking for an agent.

Here's what I'll be doing at the end of the week:




3/11/2014

Using the Three-Act Structure for Scenes ... and a weekly writing update

Although I’ve always used the classic three-act structure in plotting my novels, I began using it recently for scene revision. I’d read (on occasion over the years) that scenes should have that structure, but I’d never paid much attention to it. After all, a scene is usually only 4-8 pages long, so why go to all the trouble?

I’ve discovered it’s not that much trouble. It's terribly interesting. And it often improves the scene dramatically. (If it doesn't improve it, it's only because the scene was sound to begin with.) Worth the time? Heck yes. It makes for excellent scene structure, which needs to be achieved in the revision stage. 

You’re probably all familiar with the classic, three-act structure, which applies to your overarching plot:

OH, so I said in the chart that I wasn't going to explain the pinch points, but I probably should. They are actually the 1/8 segments between quarter and half, and again between half and black. In book length, important things happen there, but in scene length, unless I'm writing a 2000 word scene, I ignore the pinch points.

I'm talking about scene revision, so that's all I'll say about the pinch points in this post. 

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When I do a first draft of a scene, prior to writing it, I always sketch out the character’s goal and the antagonist’s goal, and the various moves the character will make to achieve it, and the moves the antagonist will make to block it. I generally know the “disaster” at the end, but who can ever say how a scene will actually play out, until the actors start playing it? My characters always surprise me, which is what keeps writing so engaging and fun. I use the three-act structure for my scene, but lightly at this point.

Once the book is written, and I am revising my first draft, I have discovered that if I drop each scene into the structure table (above, with the explanations stripped out ;) ), I can spot weaknesses immediately

For example, I tend to dump too much introspection into my scene beginnings, between the first word and the inciting incident (where the scene really gets rolling). If I’m writing a 1000 word scene, that means the beginning part should weigh in at around 125 words, or my scene will automatically be paced too slow.
There are two solutions:
  1. Break up the introspection and move it down in the scene as appropriate.
  2. Or if it’s a major scene (2000 words long, with higher stakes), it could mean that I should’ve written what’s known as a scene sequel between the last major scene and this one, to transition into this, so it can begin without lengthy explanations.
Another problem I have is that I tend to rush things in general. I tend not to flesh out my scenes enough. Scenes should rarely be less than 1000 words, or you run the risk of having the book feel choppy, and especially if you’re writing in dual or multiple viewpoints. In cases where I’ve written only 650-750 words, I put what I’ve written into appropriate slots in the table. Immediately, I see the areas that need to be fleshed out, to bring the total to 1000-1200 words.

Each 1/8 segment is important, with important functions that need to happen within it. It’s very important for the reader to feel the emotion building throughout the scene, but perhaps most important in the segment leading to the black moment. If I’ve found I’ve written only 50 words in that segment, that’s a huge red flag. In a 1000 word scene, I should devote around 125 words to it. If it’s a 2000 word scene, I need to devote a full page.

The segment after the black moment is also important, but for different reasons. It’s where the character decides what to do, finally, in this particular scene, to achieve her goal. Introspection fits nicely in this segment. If I’ve written 10 words, the reader won't fully understand why she made this particular decision. It's where the Stimulus-Response unit needs to be presented in full. Throughout the scene, we've had countless S-R units. Often, a response doesn't need a full package showing. (Response = feelings, thoughts, actions, speech--in that order.) Frequently, if the feeling or thought is well-understood by the reader without showing it, it can be skipped and only the action or speech response shown. But not in this segment. In a well-shaped, 1000 word scene, it should weigh in around 125 words. Or if it's a 2000 word scene, a full page. 

Anyway, since I’ve begun using the three-act structure to revise my scenes, they have greatly improved. They're both tighter and fuller, more understandable, and more complete.

Do you use the three-act structure to plot or revise your scenes? If not, what method works best for you?

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OH, and I said I would have a weekly writing update. I am in the midst of the black moment, and will begin revision on the final quarter by tomorrow. 




3/03/2014

Writing Moods and a Weekly Update

I’ve been more aware of my moods lately than usual. Maybe it’s because winter is dragging on. It’s nice that writing takes my mind off the snow, grayness and fog, but the moods still manage to attach themselves to the writing.

Unless the moods have nothing to do with the weather, and everything to do with writing. Might that be?

Here’s a typical range of moods:
  • When it’s time to start writing in the morning: I read at the day’s planned revising/editing and feel at sea (i.e. sick) about how rough the draft is, and how many hours it will take today to sculpt the scenes into something better.  
  • Then as I’m in the flow, being the characters, I want to cry for my heroine. I’m just past the halfway mark, approaching the black moment where all will appear lost for her. It’s a rough patch for her and for me to get through, and it will get worse before it gets better. It will probably be another two weeks before I can give her a happy ending. And before my own sadness for her ends, darn.  
  • Later in the afternoon, as my brain tires, my mood takes another dip. At 2:00 pm, I look at the clock and wonder how many more hours it will be before I’ve completed the day’s scenes to my satisfaction. If I’m not done by 4:00 pm, I throw in the towel, regardless. Writing is supposed to bring us joy, right? We shouldn’t work until we are abusing ourselves instead. I understand it when people say they don't like to write, but they like having written.   
  • Fortunately, whether I declare I’m finished at 4:00 pm, or whether I finish before that—like today, when I finished at 1:30 pm—the forces tamping down on my mood lift immediately. My brain is tired, but I reward myself with of a cup of tea and a snack. And then I to go to my scrapbooking room for some further mood lifting. The moment I walk into the room, I feel a tangible lift, thank goodness. 

So that’s my writing day via moods. Does writing make you moody? What do your moods look like?


Updates:
  • Scrapbooking: Only three more double-page layouts, and I am done with all four scrapbooks for 2013. Woohoo!  If I can keep up with 2014 as it happens, I should be able to do at least one other year of the many, many years left to scrapbook.
  • Social
  • On Friday, with me desperately needing to get out of the house, hubby and I went to a home and garden show in Spokane with some friends and then ate dinner at a wonderful German restaurant. My chicken cordon bleu was tender and delicious. Hubby’s black forest cake, of which I stole three bites, was out of this world. Even the decaf coffee was wonderful, imagine that.   
  • On Saturday, my daughter brought her kids over for dinner and a movie while her hubby was busy being an exhibitor at the home show. 
  • On Sunday, hubby and I enjoyed our tradition of watching the Academy Awards . We watched them together for the first time the year our oldest daughter was born. That was in 1975, and we watched it while sitting together on my hospital bed, after having given birth to her. That’s how long this tradition’s been going on! Really enjoyed how funny Ellen DeGeneres is. 
  • WRITING: I entered ACFW’s Genesis contest this morning. As each contest asks for different things, the notable differences about this one was in asking for a media contact as well as a high-resolution picture of me. I had hoped a selfie I took a few weeks ago would work, but no.

    So I had hubby take another one, and here is the goofy farmer’s wife (er, writer)  at the required 300 ppi resolution. I was rather frustrated about having to have my picture taken, but hubby's usually able to lift my mood. At least a little. For a while. Too bad I chopped off my bangs a couple of days ago.
     
  • After spending all morning preparing my submission and getting my picture taken (well, that part took only a click of a camera), part of me is saying that I should clean my messy office.
  • Another part of me is saying, “Pfft. You deserve a reward. For goodness sake, take one.”
  • So I’m going now to scrapbook.


How was your week, reading, writing or otherwise?