Find Your Passion, Energize Your Story

Challenges for the Writer…

  • How do you make your characters real?
  • What happens when a writer decides that they need to write about something exotic…their own experience is too mundane to merit writing about?

APPLICATION

  • What did you enjoy doing as a child? (This tells what you enjoyed doing when nobody told you what you should do,)
  • If you had three days with no other obligations, and the TV didn’t work, how would you spend that time? What do you wish you had more time to do?
  • Where have you been/what have you done that you will always remember?
WHY PASSION?     Beginning writers are often told, “Write about what you know.     I will add to that, “Write about what you care about.” This is your passion…it’s not only what you know, it’s what you want to find out more about…and through the process of writing it, you will learn.When I refer to passion in writing, it is not the heavy-breathing, x-rated stuff. It is finding what really matters to you and communicating it. You will either find it very easy to define what you are all about, or you will find it very hard. Writing is actually a very good way to “get into” your head—writing forces you to clarify your thoughts and the act of putting words to thoughts gives you power over feelings.

Why is passion so hard to tap into?

  1. If you fear vulnerability, writing your true thoughts will be very difficult. Your psyche will do the best it can to protect you, and avoid the risk of exposure. Some of the arguments that keep the wall up include:
    • I can’t write that. What would people think of me?
    • I can’t write that. Nobody would be interested anyway.
    • I can’t write that. Someone might be hurt.

What is in common with these statements?

I can’t write that.

If you tell yourself that you can’t write, you won’t. Your mind delivers what you tell it to expect.

EXAMPLE

     Three and a half years ago, I started a motivational newsletter that now goes out to over 3,900 people weekly. More than once, I have had people write me and tell me how “brave” I was to disclose what my newsletter talked about, whether it was the ridicule I went through in junior high for being flat-chested, the fact that my M.S. makes me fall down a lot, or dealing with depression. The thank-yous come in weekly from people who tell me that my message came at just the right time.

     My goal from day 1 was 5,000 people in five years. I had no idea if I could do it, but instead of telling myself it couldn’t be done, I left the problem with my brain to figure out “how.” It is said,

“No matter whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.”
     Today, I know it that 5,000 recipients in five years is attainable. In truth, I probably already have it…since many people have written to tell me they forward my messages. I do know my audience today is international…and I have recipients in England, Germany, Australia, and Canada, as well as the U.S.     If you care too much about what other people think, you will never be a writer for the public. Write for yourself, to gain understanding through writing things down. At one point, a psychiatrist told me to write my way through my post traumatic stress. I did. Putting words to experience, writing down your thoughts and feelings, gives you power.If you worry that what you have to say is not “interesting,” you probably aren’t going deep enough, or you are dealing with self-esteem issues.

EXAMPLE

     Many years ago, my M.S. made it very difficult to stand and speak at the same time. I wrote, “Find Your Passion, Live Your Dream,” visited the local adult education center, and told them I wanted to teach the course. The first time I taught the class, I had comments that it sounded like I had been teaching the course for a long time. I hadn’t.

     I could have been self-conscious about the fact that I had to lean on a desk or sit on a stool to speak—I focused instead on my message. What I had to say was more important than who I was—the words were merely coming through me.

     When you come upon fire in your path, you can either turn away, walk around it, wait until it burns out, or go through it.

  • If you turn away, you won’t get burned, but you will never get to the other side.
  • If you walk around it, you may be walking for a long time before you reach the end of the fire line.
  • If you try to wait until it burns out, you may either wait a long time, or you will find yourself making one of the other choices.
  • If you decide to go through it, you will get burned. Guaranteed. But, if you are willing to risk vulnerability, exposure, butt-in-chair numbness, studying and learning to master the language, you will go through the fire…and get to the other side. You will be a writer.

It is hard to ignore the people I refer to as “balloon busters.” These are the people who tell you that whatever you do has already been done…and you can’t do it anyway. My suggestion is to get too busy doing it to listen to them…that, and find new friends.

  1. Another reason it may be hard to tap into your passion is lack of practice. People ask us, “How are you?” and our first response, as long as we are still breathing, is “Fine.” We operate on automatic, just because it’s easier—which is how we get caught in the “Trite Trap.”We say things the same as they’ve already been said—“black as night,” “sly as a fox”—not even noticing these phrases that slip so easily into our writing, kill it. It’s like labeling someone in life, instead of recognizing what makes him or her a unique individual.Avoid the “Trite Trap” and get to know your characters (and yourself!).
  2. When we argue that someone might be hurt, we argue for the status quo. My first novel dealt with marital abuse and rape, not nice topics. When it gets published, my ex can either get mad and own up to what he did, or he can stay quiet and hope nobody recognizes that some of what is in there is drawn from experience. Will he get hurt? Maybe. But he deserves it! Abuse happens because no one is willing to admit that it happened to them, as if shame was tied to being the recipient. The person who should be ashamed is the person who misbehaved. This goes back to walking through the fire. Yes, it hurts. It ties in with being vulnerable. Passion is about riding both the highs and lows. If nothing bad ever happens, if your characters do not have flaws and idiosyncrasies, they will be flat.
  3. None of us is perfect. We have a hard time identifying with characters that are perfect. Few of us see ourselves as “bad’ people. So we need characters that have redeeming, loveable qualities, characters we can care about and identify with.

APPLICATIONS

  • Identify your fears about why you can’t write about something that really matters to you. Write down the arguments for and against disclosing the truth. “Awfulize” as much as possible, telling the worst consequences you can come up with that will result from your being so audacious. The more “extreme” you can get in listing the consequences, the more aware you will be of how irrational many of your fears are.
  • Write the story you are afraid to tell. This is for your eyes only. You may keep it or destroy it afterwards. Most people keep it, because they recognize their courage in writing the story down. It can also be helpful to pull it out at a later date to recognize how perceptions may or may not have changed. This is the biggest challenge you will ever face…and once you have done it, you may find it easier to write and share your other stories.
The things we are afraid to talk about are the things that own us.TRUTHTruth is present in non-fiction, memoir, poetry and fiction. If there is not an element of truth, even in your fiction, readers will not experience the “Aha!” of finding the truth they recognize.

Mark Twain said the difference between truth and fiction is that “fiction has to make sense.” Stephen King said, “Fiction is the truth inside the lie.”

Writers often question the line between fiction and nonfiction. I know I have written pieces that were actually nonfiction because they really happened, and entered them as fiction in contests because I was aware that readers would argue, “That wouldn’t really happen that way.” I feel comfortable doing that, where I don’t feel comfortable going the other direction, labeling fiction as nonfiction.

CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

What do you really love to do? Many times, what you are interested in can be transferred to your character to add dimension. If your story demands that your character is interested in something you are not, remember your passion for what you do love and transfer the idea of that interest to your character. Every character has a mission, values, and one or more goals. This includes your antagonists. From their perspective, they are often not doing things just to be contrary—they do things they perceive to be in their best interests. Don’t neglect recognizing their motivations.

What characters want can be institutionalized goals—certain careers, bigger houses, or belonging to certain groups. How does your character define success? Perhaps a reframing of that definition is the change the character goes through. Who are your character’s heroes?

Much of what you know about your character will not be included in your story, but can provide you with the insight that makes your character authentic to the reader. It may be helpful to profile your protagonist and antagonist. Here are some things to consider:

Age Greatest regret Spiritual situation
Appearance History Strengths
Culture Job or career Things missing in the person’s life
Education Life philosophy Tragic flaws
Family background Mental and physical health Strengths
Fears/wounds Quirks Values
Finances Relationships Weaknesses
Goals Saving graces Other notable characteristics

A coward…will run. A glutton…will eat. What is your character’s priority? Is the story about a change in priorities, or how the character recognizes what already exists? Where is your character at the beginning of the story? Where is he or she at the end? Your job, as writer, is to transition the character through the changes from beginning to end.

Avoid jumping heads.

This is a very common problem. Often a story is told from one person’s viewpoint—you know how that person feels because you are in their head, looking out at the world through their eyes. If there is no way that person will see a critical event happen, you may have to use another character to communicate what happened.

A primary characters will not know what someone else feels, unless that second character states how he or she feels, or exhibits actions that show the feeling. Show, don’t tell. What sort of behaviors would indicate a person is anxious? Excited? Ashamed?

Trust that your reader will be smart enough to read the clues you leave. But don’t assume readers will pick up the clues in your head that you haven’t written down…In real life, people don’t jump heads.

If people change physical location, the reader probably needs to know how they got there, or at least that they intended to move.

“Oh, well, he’s down at the docks,” an author told me.
“So, how did he get there? Last paragraph, he was still at home.”
“He drove there.”
“I need to know that.” (Make sure you maintain continuity.)

If you are writing fiction, everything you are and everything you love won’t be enough to define all of your characters. Especially if you are writing more than one story, you will find you need to expand your repertoire….

What you need to transfer to your characters is the same passion you feel about what you do love.

EXAMPLE: THE BELLAGIO – THE POWER OF GOOGLE

     One of my novels has a male protagonist. It getting to know him, I found that he really liked sports cars, which I know nothing about. I don’t like cars…but I knew Ron did. I asked male friends what kind of car someone who really liked cars would drive—they told me a Shelby Cobra was “sex on wheels.”

     What colors did the car come in? I Googled it and found a Shelby Crobra dealership in Las Vegas, the actual setting for my novel, and emailed a question to the dealership regarding some other questions I had about the car, since I don’t recall every having seen one. The dealership, knowing I was a writer, e-mailed back the information I needed.

     The Bellagio in Las Vegas was less cooperative. Although I was able to download a full floor plan of the hotel and lovely pictures of their conservatory exhibits, my requests for information about hotel operations were met with a request to see my full manuscript, with the opportunity to approve it. I changed the name of the hotel, which also gave me the chance to change things to better fit the novel.

     I also found out Las Vegas had a NASCAR track, which gave me another local site to work into my story. Again Googling let me find out a lot of information about how the track was set up. That, combined with the experience of attending the Indianapolis 500 many years ago, gave me enough to build credibility into that chapter.

MISSIONS, VALUES, THEME, GOALS, and CONFLICT     Effective ways to develop a MISSION for your character (or yourself)

  • Write the character’s (your own) obituary.
  • What does the character want (would you like) to be remembered for?
  • What is the character’s (your) “mission” in life?

Purpose (mission) is ongoing, an underlying theme, which can change. How that mission changes can be your story.     VALUES include not only what matters to your character, but also the priorities of those values. When one value is honored at the expense of another, the character’s resolution of that conflict is story.

THEME is not a plot outline—it is the underlying message or motivation of the story.

GOALS change over time and have a discrete time frame. They are often responses to challenges—getting older, losing a job, losing a loved one, divorce, ‘giving-up’ something (fatty food, alcohol, cigarettes)—a list of losses, with a goal of regaining what has been lost, or at least restoring balance. Goals can also be reaching out to become more than what the character is, and establishing a new equilibrium. Story is the space between.

S-M-A-R-T is an acronym that can be used for individual goal-setting, but it can also be used to define your character’s goals. Goals should be:

  • Specific—how clearly you define what the character wants helps the reader understand when the goal has been achieved and why (or not).
  • Motivational—Getting across the street is usually not motivational, unless you are a frog and your lady-friend is on the other side. The character’s goal needs to be consistent with who they are.
  • Attainable—No leaps of faith here. However the character achieves the goal has to be believable with no never-seen-before rescuer stepping into the story at the last minute. The sudden appearance of a previously unmentioned rescuer irritates readers.
  • Relevant—The goal has to make sense.
  • Trackable—How do we know the character has (or has not) achieved his or her goal? How do we define success? I also use T to remind me of Time…when the story takes place and over what period of time.

CONFLICT

An urgent and undeniable I/WE MUST prevented from materializing by an equally formidable YOU CAN’T. (Author, Jacqueline Lichtenberg)

A struggle where the outcome is in doubt; bad things happening to good (or bad) people; friction, tension opposition; two dogs and one bone (Author, Debra Dixon)

Conflict can be internal (where a person’s values, thoughts, or belief systems prevent them from reaching their goals) or external (where an external force opposes the main character—these may involve physical, vocal, emotional, psychological, or power struggles). Problems are essential to story, but maintain clarity—don’t try to communicate too many ideas and conflicts in too little space.

The Chinese symbol for crisis pairs the symbols for danger and opportunity. Look for both in your writing.

REFERENCING

How do the influences/social focus of a particular decade impact your character? Map you character’s history against public history, list pivotal incidents, and determine themes.

EXAMPLE

     In a Tony Grier’s memoir, A Raging Bull: Chasing the Big Time, which I both edited and ghost wrote, he talked about how he grew up in the New York projects, and his excitement when they built a basketball court behind his apartment where he first learned the game. Years later, when he came to USF, the university started to build the Sun Dome athletic facility, where he again played basketball.
“It’s a fence story,” I told him. “You’re looking through the fence just like you did as a child.”
Later in the book, he talked about working on the board of a facility building a new children’s gym in Tampa.
“It’s a fence story,” I said again. “This time, you’re building a place for other children to play.”

     In identifying this and making it a part of the book’s theme, I utilized the “Embroidery thread”’ technique—selecting relevant incidents related to a theme and following them as a “thread” through the story.

APPLICATIONS

  • What do you really love (or love to do)? Is this something that will enrich your character? In fiction, it may be helpful to prepare biographies for your characters, touching back into their histories as well as their current interests. This will be useful when you get further into your story. If hair color changes, you probably want a sentence about how that happened.
  • What do you not know? Interview yourself to find out what you don’t already know and find new ways of saying what needs to be said. When you get ‘stuck’ with your characters, or they seem flat, interview them to find out what motivates them, how they feel, and why. Your character doesn’t actually exist? All the more reason to “interview” him or her. If you can’t do this, if you don’t understand what your character is about, your reader won’t either.
  • What external events have influenced your characters? If you are doing memoir or fiction, timeline your story and determine what historical (or fictional) events may have influenced your characters to be the kind of people they are.
  • Should it be done? Maybe your character decides robbing banks (action) is a good way to get rich (goal). There is a marvelous opportunity for conflict here.
  • Are you (or your character) where you want to be? How your character gets there, how he or she “moves” to a new place/understanding is your story. I have heard that the definition of the difference between popular fiction and literary fiction is that in popular fiction, the character is changed, and in literary fiction, the reader is changed.
PLOT DEVELOPMENT     Every character wants something. This “wanting” is the basis of plot. As opposed to life, plot has an ordered structure, continuity, and careful selection of relevant and discarding of non-relevant information.In short stories, we seldom have the luxury of fully developing ALL of our characters. Remember, unless you are dealing with a sociopath, people have reasons for what they do.

Characters may want:

  1. To escape
  2. To retrieve something
  3. To stop something
  4. To win something

Beginning writers often follow what I refer to as video game plotting. They write: “This happened, and then this happened, and then this….” It is like a video game where the hero has a quest, to reach a goal, and along the way meets with obstacles. We never know why the bad guys are after the hero…and we never know anything about the hero other than he keeps fighting off the bad buys. Most video games maintain a certain static level of tension. Although it is effective for players since they hardly dare to turn away, this is not a good way to write a story.     One writer read what he had written using video game plotting to a critique group I attended. By the time he got to the second page, I was squirming in my seat. I didn’t care about the protagonist, and there was not clue about why he was being attacked by different antagonists…he was just walking along a road and every once in awhile, something would jump out of the bushes to attack. After a creative description of how the nasty creature was dispatched, the protagonist started walking again. Guess what happened a couple of sentences later?

Uh, huh.

Although, there are mini story arcs as the protagonist confronts and resolves each new challenge, the result of not having an overarching arc is choppiness.

What the video game plot pattern sacrifices is a major story arc. In a story arc, the character moves from one position, meets challenges, hits a seemingly unsolvable crisis, and resolves to a changed position through the storyline. This may be a fall from grace (which is often a tragedy), a hero’s journey, or simply how a character confronts and overcomes challenges, often finding new strengths.

A short story usually has one arc. A novel may have multiple arcs. Even non-fiction often relies on the story arc—the desire for “story” seems to be written into our genomes.

PLOTTING TECHNIQUES

Overall, the story is the same:

Birth—Incident—Recovery—Courtship—Marriage—Children—Divorce—Single Struggles—Re-Marriage—Launching of Children—Grandchildren—Death. If you are writing a saga, this may happen multiple times within the same book, but all the “stuff” between birth and death is optional. Plot is very dependent on character since the character is shaped by the world he or she grew up in, the political and social impacts. Many times a character’s response is a reaction to something in the past, not the current problem.

In the fairy tale formula:

  1. Something happens so that a person has a problem or a need
  2. As the person pursues his or her desires, a struggle ensues
  3. In the end, the person is changed with a realization

By having your character write a letter to a grandchild telling what he or she has learned from living through the plot, you can clarify your direction, finding the “theme” of your story.     Your readers need some of this backstory—but not

all of it. Your challenge is to integrate important past incidents into the flow of your story, and avoid the flashbacks than rip the reader from the present into the past. How you “slice it” determines your story. Are you working over a seven-year cycle, or a decade? Are you capturing a year in the life of …, or are you writing about a pivotal 24 hours?

 

EXAMPLE

     I attended a plot workshop years ago. The initial instructions we had were to name our character, and write down what he or she wanted. Then, we were to add a complication, an obstacle to challenge our character….followed by another complication…followed by the resolution, showing how the character changed through what happened.

     I misnamed my character, Ed Canaday. Later, I determined his name was really Clem, and he was looking for a job where he didn’t have to sweat. Watching TV in a bar, he heard how the traffic was tied up on the Sunshine Skyway because someone stopped their car and jumped over the side of the bridge. His brilliant idea was a one-way valet service to the top of the span, so his clients could commit suicide without tying up traffic. How to get clients was the first challenge. How to get his first client to get out of the car and jump was his second complication. And his resolution? To find work as a private investigator, perhaps employed by his ex-client’s wife.

     Clem’s Valet Service won second place in the 2006 Tampa Writers Alliance Ed Hirschberg Excellence in Florida Writing and was published in the 2007 Wordsmith.

EXAMPLE

     If you are writing about your personal life, look for “story” in a slice of your life instead of the whole thing. In one of my motivational newsletters, I talked about a hike I took with my family in the Poconos, and the challenge I faced when it appeared that the only way to get across a stream was on tippy stepping stones. With M.S., I battle balance, coordination, and spasticity problems—this was not a do-able. My resolution—I took off my shoes and socks and waded across, holding hands with my children, my brother and wife, and their children, passing one to the next to get to the other side. My theme—Whose hand do you hold?—has touched more than a few lives.

Be aware that relationships continue to develop, even with people who have died.

OTHER STORY ARRANGEMENTS

The Quest sets a goal with the story arc resolving when the goal is achieved. In the Quilt, a collection of thematically-related but independent stories tell a larger story. A Transparency relies on a complicated, planned structure superimposing two or three complimentary, slice-of-time stories–use sparingly since it can confuse readers.

YOUR CRITICAL FIRST PARAGRAPH

Your challenge in the first paragraph is to immediately create empathy for your main character and drop your reader into the middle of the action. As much as possible, establish character, setting, and theme.

Your first sentence needs a hook. So does the your first paragraph, your first page, and the end of every chapter. Your character should be likeable, or extremely fascinating because he or she is so unique.

If you are working on your first draft, don’t worry about those tasks. A lot of your writing may be warm-up, as you get to know your character, find your voice, establish pace, and determine your plot. Don’t be surprised as you continue writing, if the plot veers off into an unplanned direction—follow it—you may find out it’s a better story than your initial thought.

One of my characters in my second novel is mentally slow. I thought he was going to collude with a couple of other shady characters, but it turned out Charles Bartholomew Cather, “Chigger,” was just a painstakingly nice guy who desired to please however he could. I wrote my indecisiveness into the story, thinking I was heading in one direction. As I understood the character better, he pivoted the plot in another direction when he innocently disclosed some critical information. Following where his character led was a fortuitous twist. Some of my critique members told me that he was one of their favorite characters. Unfortunately, I had to kill him off when the antagonists decided he was a threat.

Although not the protagonist, Chigger, as a character, succeeded, because readers identified with him and cared about him.

I need to make that happen for all my characters.

STORY WORD COUNTS

Flash Fiction 500 words or less
Short Short 500 to 1,000 words
Short Story 1,000 to 7,500 words
Novelette 7,500 to 20,000 words
Novella 20,000 to 50,000 words

REFERENCES:

Your Life as Story: Writing the New Autobiography, Tristine Rainer. New York, NY: Putnam, 1977.

Writing Life Stories: How to make memories into memoirs, ideas into essays, and life into literature, Bill Roorgach.Cincinnati, OH: Story Press (F&W Publications, Inc.), 1998.

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