Willamette Writers – April 4 Recap: Why Your Characters Do What They Do by Jessica Morrell

On Tuesday evening, Willamette Writers hosted author and editor Jessica Morrell. Having seen Jessica present at the 2016 Willamette Writers Conference: Willamette Writers’ Conference – Day 1, I can tell you she is an amazing presenter who provides an absolute wealth of information in a speck of time. She is truly a gift to the writing community and an exemplar of what I believe it means to be a good literary citizen. To decide for yourself, just check out her blog here and see how much information she shares with writers about craft, the writing life, publishing and more: Jessica Morrell

Now, if you have taken a workshop with Jessica, then you know that her presentations are bursting with information, so much so that were I to attempt to note it all down in the scant hour we had with her, I would be dealing with a hand cramp of epic proportions! So.

What I will present are the highlights from her presentation, along with a slide of some of the questions we should all be asking about our characters to ensure that each character in our novel (yup, I said “each”) has a believable and intrinsic set of motivations and goals.

First, all characters must have a reason for being in your story. They must perform some duty to the narrative arc. Jessica shared that she so often comes across characters in her clients’ novels that seem to be running around rather aimlessly, where they either don’t have goals at all, their goals are “goofy,” or the stakes of the story don’t match the goals.

Jessica made a key point that nearly all the answers of why characters do what they do links back to structure. For more on structure, take a look at Willamette Writers’ Conference – Day 2 and Willamette Writers’ Conference – Day 3 to read what Larry Brooks and Eric Witchey both have to say about structure and its importance in our novels – also amazing literary citizens.

Here are Jessica’s Motivation Basics. Motivations must:

  • be easy to understand; not easy to achieve
  • be shown in actions and move the story forward
  • become more complex and personal as story progresses
  • showcase the protagonist’s core traits
  • reveal the protagonist’s fears
  • exact a cost as the story progresses – your protagonist must always sacrifice something
  • create a catharsis at the climax

We also have Levels of Motivation:

  • Primary
  • Secondary
  • External – tangible, visible, fuels story, creates action
  • Internal
  • Personal
  • Public

As we see with the above, each motivation must have two sides, the side that is shown to the world of the story – i.e. the other characters – and the side that is available to the protagonist and reader alone. Clearly, quite a bit of tension can exist in the space between a protagonist’s apparent external motivators and his/her internal motivators actually are. Imagine this like a tight wire stretching between the two, your main character balancing as he/she walks back and forth. Whole novels have been built on the tension between what a character says they want, and what they actually want.

Now, here’s the slide with the questions you should be asking yourself about your characters’ motivations:

slideshow

This covers some of the key points from Jessica’s very full presentation. And while there was quite a bit of information covered, it all boils down to this one thing: motivations – they are a must for your story to have any lift. Without a clear motivation and goal, readers don’t know what or who to root for, and if we don’t know what’s at stake, then there’s nothing at stake for us in reading it.

Again, please visit Jessica’s website through the link above. It is well worth a visit on a regular basis and she also intends to post more of the material from her Willamette Writers lecture on her site in the coming weeks.

Onwards, Writers!

Willamette Writers’ Meeting – Feb.7th: Leading a Literary Life with Kevin Sampsell and Monica Drake

This month’s meeting touches on a subject close to my own heart – leading a literary life. And it’s very important cousin – being a good literary citizen. Being a good literary citizen is all about supporting other writers, buying their books, going to their readings, and cheering on the successes of each of our counterparts while working toward our own literary goals.

The evening began with readings from both authors. Monica Drake read from a non-fiction work-in-progress, and Kevin Sampsell read his short short “Gloves” from his short story collection.

Next, Kevin led a discussion with Monica regarding the literary life. Both authors agreed that good writers must do these four things: Read – A LOT; Be around other writers; Go to Readings; and Participate in a literary community. Interestingly, another key aspect of being a writer is having plenty of things in your life that have nothing at all to do with writing. See Lorrie Moore’s story “How to be a Writer”for more. As Monica explained, her life was full of all kinds of random jobs – animal behavior intern at the zoo, art gallery employee, office worker, clown (which directly influenced her novel Clown Girl) and more. Because of this rich range of job experiences, she can pull various details that lend her characters believability and authenticity. This mirrors advice I once received from Portland author Vanessa Veselka, who said every writer must give him or herself permission to not write – i.e. to do other things that build the experiences that inform our writing. For instance, Vanessa once took off some number of months to work on a fishing boat in Alaska. She’s also a Kung Fu badass. She gives herself permission to take weeks and months away from the page to do the things that interest and intrigue her. And of course, that time ends up generating rich work.

As regards education, each author had very different experiences, with Monica completing a more traditional graduate program through University of Arizona, while Kevin said he taught himself to write through reading. Monica also got her start with Tom Spanbauer’s class, now titled Dangerous Writing. In general, writing workshops can be key to keeping a writer motivated, staying connected to a literary community, and finding support in that community. To that end, here are some additional links to workshops here in Portland that I have been part of and can highly recommend:

Willamette Writers’ Workshops

Literary Arts Writing Classes

The Attic

Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop

In addition, community colleges around Portland offer a range of writing classes that are economical and a great opportunity for developing work. My current writing group came out of a Literary Arts class and I have been in other writing groups formed after Attic workshops and PCC community ed workshops.

Now, let’s cover the Q & A portion:

Q: Monica, how did you complete and assemble your story collection The Folly of Loving Life?

A: The stories were written over 20 years, created intermittently while Monica wrote Clown Girl and The Stud Book. The publishers of her two novels as well as her agent dismissed the idea of a collection out of hand, but Kevin once said, “hey, do you have a short story collection?” At that point, Monica explained that she took all her short stories and laid them out on the dining room table. She looked for cohesive elements and themes, and once identified, pulled out the stories that didn’t seem to connect with that linking element. She felt drawn toward connecting and linking her story collection with a narrative arc, something she said isn’t always necessary for story collections to be successful, but which she felt was important for this particular collection. Once she had her core set of stories, she then developed a few additional stories that further enhanced and linked the stories, making revisions to previous work to also improve the linking between them. She explained that it took somewhere around 1-2 years from when Kevin first suggested a collection to when it came out in print.

Q: What are the advantages of publishing with the Big 5?

A: Money. Monica explained that in her experience with Hawthorne Books and Kevin’s press Future Tense Books, small presses do as good of a job with editing, cover art, etc. – i.e. all the smaller steps of publishing a book – as the large publishers. She said, “ultimately, you’re going to make your money in different ways,” but that each writer has to decide what “success” means to him or her. Thus, you should determine where to submit based on what your desired outcomes are. For more help finding local, small presses, take a look at Literary Arts’ Guide to Small Presses and Magazines. You can find some helpful information about the 10 biggest small presses here: Lit Reactor’s 10 Portland Press Powerhouses.

Q: How much of what you write is what you’ve lived versus researched?

A: Both authors expressed that the majority of what they write comes from personal experience. Kevin said he will do plenty of research into topics that he’s passionate about, such as collage art, and when it’s a topic you love, it’s not as hard to do the research. As mentioned before, Monica’s research has largely been her own life and experiences. As we’ve all experienced, a fair amount of fiction writing is speculation, but those speculations are still drawn from what we believe we might think or feel in a given situation, even if we haven’t directly experienced it. Here, I’ll insert my own two cents based on the novel I’m currently trying to find an agent for, which is mainly set in Bath, UK in 1804 and heavily involves the life of Jane Austen. Because I was already a rabid Jane Austen fan, I didn’t need to do much research, and the research I did have to do was just more of the kind of reading I do for fun. This goes back to that adage: write what you know. (Yes, yes, there’s plenty in that other camp that say write what you don’t know, but you can find their blogs and read them later ) And I would suggest that writers choose topics that they are already drawn to. That is, don’t write a novel set during the Napoleonic Wars because you think it’s a cool idea. Write a novel set during the Napoleonic Wars because you also happen to be a nerd for the Napoleonic Era outside of your life as a writer. Otherwise, you’re just slogging through research that you otherwise couldn’t give two figs about.

Q: What are your thoughts on publishing online while attempting to find other publishers?

(Here, I think the questioner was asking if we should self-publish our books, such as through kindle or Nook, while also looking for a traditional publisher. If this is the case, then what I’ve discovered in my own research is: DON’T DO IT! At least not if you ever want to see your book in print. Many book publishers won’t come near a book that has already been published online. And yes, there’s those outliers who were discovered through self-published books and then given a huge book deal, but we’re talking lottery chances here. For more on this, read my post below as Dong Won Song addressed this very question. As regards short fiction, poetry, and essays –  the same applies. My experience is that when a journal asked for previously unpublished work, this includes your blog or website; they want work that has never appeared anywhere before.)

A: Publishing online is the way to go these days. Ten to fifteen years ago, there was a stigma around online publishing, as if it weren’t as legitimate as print publications. Both Monica and Kevin expressed that this stigma is largely done away with since online publications get much more traffic and can be much more easily shared than their print counterparts. Online publications are especially key for poets, short story writers, and essayists/creative non-fiction writers to get their name established. They tend to be more open to new voices than print publishers, as well. Monica suggested Long Reads as a journal that accepts longer form works, which often have a hard time finding a home online. For more on both online and print publishers, see my posts: Resources for Writers: Print and Online Literary Journal Databases

Q: What is your process for getting in the creative mood?

A: Monica shared that because she’s balancing so many responsibilities between parenting, teaching, and writing, she often stores quite a bit of material in her head and when she has a moment to write it down, she’ll do that. She also expressed that having a deadline, such as the Willamette Writers’ meeting that very night, can be key to getting the writing going. In fact, the piece she read for us was written that day for this particular meeting. Most writers agree that deadlines can be key to productivity, and this is another reason why being part of a critique group or signing up for a workshop can generate work.

Kevin also expressed that he has no set schedule. He balances two full-time jobs between his work at Powell’s and his press, and is also a collage artist, so he doesn’t always have a lot of time for writing. However, on his days off, he’ll set aside 2-8 hours to dedicate to his writing. Kevin also shared that he’s a very careful writer and will spend a long time thinking about the words before putting them on the page. The benefits are that the words tend to come out just as he wants them, with little revision necessary. He also expressed that his novel came out very quickly – written in about 2 years. He said that snippets and pieces would come to him and he’d bang out 1-2 pages in the 10 minutes before bed, accumulating a novel through that process.

Q: What advice would you give to those who want to seek work in the world of publishing?

A: Kevin fielded this question as a publisher, saying that there are many tracks to entering publishing. One could do the traditional thing and move to New York and work one’s way up from reading slush, but that success could be found in other avenues. For instance, in his work at Powell’s, he’s seen people start as cashiers, get promoted over a section, become the buyer for that section, and then move into the role of buyer for a large publisher. Great experience can be had working in bookstores, small presses, and magazines. Finally, he said, you could always start your own press. Future Tense Books began as Kevin’s endeavor to see his own work in print, and then writers would come to him and say, “can you help me get my book out?” This then led to being a publisher now listed on Lit Reactor’s site as the first small press publisher of note in Portland.

This concludes our evening with Monica and Kevin. Many thanks to these writers for sharing their experiences and wisdom. If anyone feels I’ve captured something incorrectly or missed a key detail, please add it to the comments section.

 

 

Take the Plunge! Publishing Short Fiction in Online Literary Journals – class begins Jan. 21

Saturdays, January 21 – February 25

10 am – 11:50 am

Interested in publishing but nervous to take the next step? This class will explore a range of literary online journals. We will review submission guidelines, investigate the aesthetics of particular journals, format digital submissions, and write cover letters. Students will exit this course with the knowledge, resources, and confidence to submit for online publication.

PCC Sylvania

12000 SW 49th Ave, Portland, OR 97219

TCB 208

REGISTER AT: http://www.pcc.edu/community/

TUITION: $79               REGISTRATION CODE: 16993

Willamette Writers- January 3rd Recap

  Willamette Writers launched their 2017 year with an excellent presentation and Q&A session with local agent DongWon Song, who agents for Howard Morhaim Literary Agency. DongWon also participates in the publishing graduate program at PSU and is a frequent speaker/agent at the Willamette Writers’ Conference in August. More about him can be found at http://www.dongwonsong.com/, including his literary interests and submission guidelines.

(Photo provided by Willamette Writers)

Now for the good stuff. I’m going to recap the key ideas from DongWon’s discussion, as well as a few key take-aways and strategies for going forward. This session was specifically geared toward the process of getting an agent, and as DongWon explained, this all starts with the pitch. To give us some perspective, he explained that the pitch you make to an agent becomes the pitch an agent takes to an editor and which an editor takes to the publishing team and on to the sales team and ultimately – most importantly – the pitch you give to the reader on the jacket copy, the hook that gets them to buy and commit to your book. DongWon shared that some of his best pitches have indeed become the jacket copy for the books he’s sold.

In my recent experience (as I am actively sending my book out to publishers), I can tell you that the majority of Submissions Guidelines even say things like, “Give us a 1 paragraph synopsis of your book. Imagine this is the jacket copy for your novel.” I also recommend starting a project by writing the potential jacket copy because if we can capture the core characters, key conflicts, and critical plot moments, we also have a compass during the drafting phase of our novel. I started my last project by writing the jacket copy first (as an exercise in a workshop through Literary Arts, to give fair credit), and I found myself returning to that jacket copy when I felt I was getting off track.

Many writers feel awkward or self-conscious when delivering pitches. Too often, writers approach DongWon with, “Oh, I hate talking about my writing” or “I just can’t talk about my book.” As you can imagine, this is a bit of a turn-off. Why? Because if the writer him or herself can’t talk about the book, why should an agent? At this point in the process, the only one who cares about your book is you, and you have to be able to talk about it succinctly and positively. The remedy? Practice, practice, practice. DongWon suggested writers should be constantly pitching their projects to friends, family members, children, dogs and cats. He also recommended pitching other projects – try to convince a friend to read a book you’ve just read or watch a movie you’ve seen. By pitching other things, we practice the art of distilling the core ideas down to a 10 second persuasive pitch. It reminds me of one of the reasons I love being in a writer’s group: critiquing my colleagues’ work is the practice I need to see the flaws and potential in my own. Same goes for pitching others’ work.

What makes for a great pitch? The key thing we need to know is that agents and publishers want to understand the context and have a frame of reference. If we launch into our pitch with something like, “well, see there’s this kid who lives on a farm, and then he….” the agents and publishers are spending all their mental energy trying to place information that feels random. Without context, agents have no idea what you’re talking about, and it becomes very easy to say no. For more about this, do a little research into pattern recognition. A book recommendation was Pattern Recognition by William Gibson, a novel which, though fiction, nonetheless captures the sense of this concept.

DongWon provided an excellent formula for giving our listeners the context they need so they can hear what our story is actually about:

A + B = Awesome.

The A and B in this calculation are comp titles (comparative titles). When we pitch our books, we should have a sense of what other books out there resemble our own. The benefits to doing this are that agents and publishers have a frame of reference and their brains don’t have to parse out every bit of information, but can focus on what makes our book unique to those titles.

An example of this is The Hunger Games. DongWon suggested that someone pitching this book might say it’s Battle Royale (a Japanese book about kids killing kids) meets The Giver (a book about a dystopian futuristic world). The overlap between these ideas is that you have kids killing kids in a dystopian futuristic world. Think Venn Diagram – you’re presenting two ideas, with your novel residing in the overlap. Once the agent has the frame of reference, the writer can then hone in on what specifically makes his or her project unique and compelling.

Now, the other benefit to providing comp titles, is you also give publishers a sense of the market viability of your project. If you can show that two or three similar books sold 50,000 copies, then you have a pretty solid argument for why your book is going to sell 50,000 copies.

The A + B = Awesome portion of your pitch needs to come right up front, along with some context for the genre – “I’ve written a YA novel [genre] in which Battle Royale meets The Giver” [comp titles]. Once you’ve set the context, you then build out how your particular book is unique, and you can do so in one of four ways (or a combination of them):

  1. Plot hook – what about this plot is particularly interesting
  2. Idea – what is the high concept (most common to memoir) – “What if….”
  3. Setting – what about this setting is unique or intriguing – “In a world where….”
  4. Character – who is this character and why will readers engage with him/her (this is the most common type of pitch)

This portion of your pitch should be about 2-3 sentences, with the whole pitch taking around 10 seconds. On a query letter, you have more room to do this, with many agents often asking for 1 page that includes the pitch, synopsis, marketing, and author bio – i.e. what about you makes you the right person to write this novel. If you’re delivering this pitch in person, say at the Willamette Writers’ Conference next August, then you deliver your 10 second pitch and wait to see if you hear the oh-so-longed-for “Interesting, tell me more.” If you get a pass, DongWon suggested using that time to chat and just generally be a friendly person – relationship building that may result in a yes on a future project. After all, agents and publishers are more than vending machines; they are people too. 🙂

Now I want to transition to some of the questions which were asked. A question was raised about self-publishing and how an author goes about getting an agent for a book he/she has already self-published. DongWon expressed it is very difficult to sell a self-published book to a publisher and he generally passes on those projects. The main reason is that even if you can show you’ve sold 500 copies, the publisher will say, “well, that’s 500 books we can’t sell” and it also becomes an indication that perhaps the market for your book is only 500 readers – thus, your successes also become your limitors. DongWon put it this way: self-publishers have to have an entrepreneurial spirit. They have to be the CEO of their books, hiring a team of proofreaders and editors, cover art designers and formatters, and a publisher. They then have to go to conventions and set up a table to handsell their books. If you’ve ever wanted to be a small business owner, he said, then sure, self-publish. If those aren’t your skill sets and you’re not willing to build those skills, then traditional publishing is the best route.

Another question was raised about the author – agent relationship, and the extent to which an author should interview the agent rather than just scream “yes, yes, yes!” into the phone. DongWon shared that when an author asks questions about the process and questions him as an agent, this shows the author is informed and invested, and it reflects well on the author. However, he also warned some agents may be turned off by this, but of utmost importance is making sure that the fit is a good one. Too many careers have been ruined or stagnated, he said, by a poor agent-author relationship, a situation that can be very painful to both parties for a long time.

Another question of note was how a pitch for non-fiction is different from a pitch for fiction. The information above mostly pertains to fiction, however, there is quite a bit of overlap. Of most notable difference is that a non-fiction project (i.e. research heavy) will often be represented and sold based on the proposal and thus the writer doesn’t actually begin to write the book until it has been bought. Memoir operates more like fiction, though, in which you should have the manuscript ready before seeking representation.

Next, a question was raised about an author’s platform and presence. DongWon suggested the best way to show you have a readership and following is to create an email newsletter and get others to subscribe to it. Blogs are out (ahem, except this one, of course). Facebook and Twitter are great, but even if you have thousands of followers, you can’t know which of them you’re actually reaching – and thus, those numbers aren’t that important either. Apparently, publishers look at how many email addresses you have attached to your newsletter, so if you have a New Year’s resolution to build your online presence, do it through a newsletter. (Now, personally, I still think we should develop our online presence in whatever way feels right for us, but to be honest, I don’t write this blog because I think it’s going to do something for my career. I write this blog because I feel it’s my way of being a good literary citizen. I want to share information I’ve obtained and which may help you. Whether that leads to readers or not is kind of beside the point. Oh, hello, soapbox.)

The final question was about when to start querying agents. Don’t start looking for an agent until you have a finished, polished manuscript in hand. As DongWon said, “I don’t care if this book is going to be finished in 3 months. If I want it, I want it now.” It can be difficult to embark on a process without knowing if it’s even viable, but this is the risk we all take as writers. Ultimately, even if a book isn’t picked up by an agent, the practice of writing it becomes the building blocks for the next thing we create and the next and the next.

This wraps up the core ideas expressed in DongWon’s presentation. If anyone else was present and feels I’ve missed something, please add them to the comments section.

Below are some additional resources suggested by DongWon in terms of finding agents, as well as a few links from my own researches.

Poets & Writers Agent Database

Agent Query

Publishers’ Marketplace

Writer Beware – for Science Fiction and Fantasy

Query Shark

Noteworthy Newsletters

Cindy Brown’s Newsletter

Max Gladstone’s Newsletter

 

Resources for Writers: Print and Online Literary Journal Databases

Hello Readers!

As promised, here is an updated list for print and online journals. I managed to transfer my online database into Excel, but I’m still Wording it for the Print journals. I know Excel would be easier, so that’s on the list for the future. For now, though, here are some journals – get out there and Submit!

Online Literary Journals

The Short Story Writer’s Literary Journal Database

Willamette Writers’ Conference – Day 3

Willamette Writers

Controlling Story Layers with ED ACE – Eric Witchey

Eric Witchey’s seminar on story layers was another of those “aha!” seminars, just like Larry Brooks’ the day before. In addition, Eric was incredibly generous with the resources he provided to attendees in the shape of an entire craft booklet to assist with understanding story layers. Again, your best resource is to visit Eric Witchey’s website and try to find a seminar you can attend.

To break it down a bit, story layers is the concept that a story is driven by emotion – wow, big surprise, right? While we can all acknowledge that story is drive by emotion, what we may not understand – or be doing yet in our writing – is moving through the story layers completely. Here it is: Emotion drives Decision. Decision drives Action. Action leads to Conflict. And Conflict results in Emotion. The cycle starts all over again with the new Emotion. Characters in our stories are constantly moving through this process, and may even be engaging in more than one ED ACE cycle.

For more on this, and so find one of Eric’s seminars, go to his website: Eric Witchey

Rx for Middle Maladies – Jessica Morrell

Unfortunately, the demons that live in our computers corrupted Jessica’s file for this presentation, but we nonetheless had an engaging discussion and were able to still learn much about the vital role performed by the middle of our novels, what we often think of as Act II.

Act II should start with the First Plot Point – a moment of major fall-out for the character in which everything changes and the protagonist must make a change or decision. We then begin climbing the mountain of rising action as more and more trials come into play and threaten the protagonist’s ability to achieve his or her goals. Act II is also where the subplots should play out. Allies will appear in Act II. Act II continues until the crisis – the moment when all hope seems lost and the protagonist hits bottom.

Besides the above beats that we want to hit in Act II, the over arching theme of Act II should be the continual denial of the goal, the rising of the stakes, and pushing the protagonist into deeper, darker places, often resulting in the narrator making mistakes and crossing a moral line. Overall, Act II is about playing keep-away with your protagonist and creating situations that further heighten just how badly the protagonist wants something while simultaneously making it feel as if he or she will never achieve it.

To learn more about Jessica, visit her website through the link I provided on Day 1.

 

Punching Up Your Prose: Part I and II – Tex Thompson

Listening to Tex Thomspon for 2 hours and being continually captivated by her genius and entertained by her constant wit and humor was worth the conference fee alone. Tex was absolutely riveting in her discussion of punching up our prose. Using her knowledge of rhetorical devices, Tex explained how we can use various techniques to make our prose more vivid, eye-catching, and ear-popping. As Tex herself said, these are the techniques that keep readers seeking out the “eargasms” in our writing.

One of Tex’s points about sentence structure and length was that “excellent writing should look like interval training.” We should use the length and structure of our sentences to underscore what’s happening in the story. Short choppy sentences = action. Long winding sentences = description/exposition. We can use positions of emphasis to help readers follow our meaning: the last thing in the sentence is the most important; the first thing is the second most; and the middle of a sentence is for the least important. Alternately, we can flip that expectation on its head and hide important information in the middle of a sentence (such as a clue in a mystery or thriller), or we can flip the expectation on its head to catch the reader’s attention.

Tex is another of this year’s presenters that I cannot speak of highly enough. I strongly recommend reading her work and keeping an eye out for any workshops or seminars where she is teaching. You can learn more about Tex at: Tex Thompson

Willamette Writers’ Conference – Day 2

Willamette Writers

Excellence 102: The Essential Nature of Dramatic Arc – Larry Brooks

I cannot recommend Larry Brooks highly enough. Larry is personable, funny, and warm. And his ability to analyze story structure and present it to writers is truly a gift to any who can attend his lectures or read his books. Reading Larry’s craft book Story Engineering helped me to create the novel that I finished and pitched at this year’s festival (and received 4 out of 5 Yes’s to). Larry is also incredibly generous with his resources, making much of his work available online. Attempting to condense Larry’s brilliance down to a paragraph or two would not do justice to the depth of his knowledge, nor could I possibly explain it as clearly and approachably as he does, so I’m going to provide a link to his website and let you all experience the magic of story structure for yourself.

As someone who trained writing short stories, I never thought I had a novel in me. I’m a “pantser” when it comes to short stories, but through his book and website, I found a path to my novel and am starting the outline for my next one. Truly folks, stop reading my blog (thanks for doing that, by the way) and go to his website: Larry Brooks – Story Fix

 

The Web of Character – Hallie Ephron

This seminar on character presented the idea that characters are all at work for or against your protagonist. Most often, the characters in our novels are working both for and against the protagonist, and from the juxtaposition of various character needs and wants, we arrive at conflict, tension, and an engaging narrative arc. In this lecture, we explored the characters in The Wizard of Oz. At the center of the web is Dorothy who wants to get home. Around Dorothy are the others characters in the story, such as Glinda and the Wicked Witch, as well as the Wizard, the Tin Man, the Lion, etc. Take the Wizard, for instance, his greatest desire is for the witch’s broom and in order to get the broom, he must send Dorothy into the witch’s castle to kill the witch (something he doesn’t tell her she’ll have to do). The bargain he strikes with Dorothy – broom for help getting home – puts Dorothy in danger, thus the Wizard is both working for and against Dorothy. Characters such as the Tin Man or the Lion are Dorothy’s allies, but they also have their own agenda: to get a brain, to get a heart, etc and because of their characters, they also work against Dorothy, such as the Lion’s repeated fear of going into the unknown, which is exactly where they need to go in order to succeed. Each character in our novels should have multiple goals – i.e. either to work with or against the protagonist, but also to achieve some agenda of their own.

To learn more about Hallie and her publications, visit: Hallie Ephron

 

Corporeal Writing Part I – Lidia Yuknavitch

Stop what you’re doing right now (and thanks for coming back here after visiting Larry’s site, by the way) and go to Lidia Yuknavitch’s website: Corporeal Writing with Lidia Yuknavitch.

Lidia’s seminar on Corporeal Writing: writing on the body – was another of the life-changing seminars I attended. Ok, so that sounds pretty dramatic, right? Life-changing? Seriously? YES.

This seminar alone has generated some surprising writing and will continue to generate writing that I can use in my fiction or memoir writing for years to come. Lidia’s approach is all about putting it on the body, looking for that place in or on the body where the emotional truth of a story has landed. Here’s what Lidia had to say: “My body had a story that my mind was hiding from me.” To try this out, do this exercise from our class: Close your eyes and take some deep breaths. Where does your mind go or center on? It could be a place that’s uncomfortable or tingly or just hyper-aware. Now, take that spot of your body and write a story about it from childhood, preferably a true one, but you can make it up if you need to. Then, write about that place on your body right here and now. What does it feel like, what is it telling you? Now, go through both pieces of writing and circle the descriptive words: adjectives, adverbs, or particularly active verbs. Transfer this to a list. Study the list. What is this list trying to tell you?

Briefly, here’s how this exercise worked for me: I centered on my lower left back, a place that frequently hurts or aches. I wrote about rolling down the hill at my grandmother’s house and how we would bump along the hard-packed Indiana dirt. For whatever reason, this memory sprang to mind, probably because I bruised my back (and my body as a whole) doing this. Then, I wrote about how that pain felt as I sat in that seminar room and compared it to a sunflower, the long stalk rising for weeks, the slow blossoming of the yellow petals, and the seeds ready to be plucked and roasted. My list contained a lot of color words, nature descriptors, and cooking metaphors. What did this tell me? That I am drawn to writing about nature and that who I am now is highly informed by my youth in Indiana. I can look to these places to generate more work – work that will be true and evocative.

I gave you her website right up front because I simply can’t explain it with the same level of humor and clarity that Lidia provides. She leads workshops in the Portland area and you need to get on this asap since all her workshops are currently sold out.

 

Writing for Television: A panel – Moderated by Waka Brown with Sandra Leviton and Kaila York

In this panel discussion, Sandra Leviton and Kaila York discussed the pathway to becoming a television writer. The truth is, unless you’re willing to move to L.A. and move through the traditional route, writing for television can be very difficult, but not impossible. For those of us who are rooted in Portland, our path would involve finding an agent or manager who can get our original pilot to a network producer. Then would come meetings (in L.A.) and should our pilot get picked up or should our agent find us a spot writing for a current television program, we would still need to move to L.A. for the season. They suggested that the best path for non-L.A. residents is to submit our work to contests and fellowships. There are many websites where you can search for these kinds of contests, but one I’ve found helpful is: MovieBytes Screenwriting Competitions.

Willamette Writers’ Conference – Day 1

Willamette Writers  This was my first year attending the Willamette Writers’ Conference, and I was inspired by the love of craft and dedication to practice displayed by the attendees and presenters alike. Here is my brief re-cap of the sessions I attended, as well as links to the presenters’ websites so you can connect with them. Most of these presenters lead additional workshops and seminars or have wonderful craft books.

The Art of the Unlikeable Character – Miriam Gershow

In this seminar, we focused on how to make unlikeable characters, particularly narrators, successful in fiction. The major take-away from this seminar is that the unlikeable narrator/character is developed through a strong, unique voice, clear desires and goals (often ones that readers might find reprehensible – but that’s what makes them interesting, right?), and perhaps most importantly, relatability – some characteristic or quality that readers can relate to. Let’s face it – every one of us could possibly be an unlikeable narrator in our own stories, right? Everyone is a blend of likeable and unlikeable characteristics. The unlikeable narrator just wears their ickiness a little closer to the surface than the rest of us.

To learn more about Miriam and her publications, visit: Miriam Gershow

 

Location, Location, Location: Settings that Breathe, Create Mood, and Influence Story Events – Jessica Morrell

This was the first of two seminars led by Jessica Morrell which I attended this weekend. In this seminar, we focused on setting. Because Jessica provides such a wealth of information, I could write pages on this seminar (because I took pages of notes!), but I’m going to focus on the key takeaways:

  • Settings have to be believable – make use of resources such as Google Earth and Google maps to ensure accuracy
  • Settings should enhance and underscore the emotional landscape the characters are moving through
  • Settings should be specific and authentic – the setting is where you root your reader in the world – don’t skimp on the details!

Resources for helping with setting are, as mentioned, Google Earth and Google maps, as well as a website suggested by another attendee: Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness, which he explained was a website where you could write to someone in, say, Winnamucca, NV and ask him or her to give you information on some aspect of the setting. I have not used this yet, but it sounds like a great resource!

For more on Jessica Morrell, her publications, and her craft books, visit: Jessica Morrell

 

Poetry as Prose – Robert Vivian

In this seminar, I was expecting a little more talk on craft – i.e. how to make our prose sound more poetic. This seminar was ultimately more of a discussion on how the publication system and we as writers create false boundaries around the idea of genre – that fiction can only be fiction and not poetry; that narrative non-fiction can only be essays; and so on. Robert Vivian is a brilliant writer, and I greatly enjoyed listening to his lecture on breaking free of form and pushing through the limitations of genre. For experimental writers, this is probably already an integrated part of your writing life, but for myself and I sense others in the room, this was a wonderful “aha” moment. I would still have liked a little more craft to this seminar, such as suggestions and exercises for helping us to write into the poetic places of our brains, which for me does not always come second nature. All craft aside, Robert was warm, personable, and heartfelt. I strongly recommend reading his works, which are now on my list for my next trip to Powell’s.

To learn more about Robert Vivian and his publications, visit: Robert Vivian.

 

The Life Changing Magic of Revision – Natalie Serber

Revision has slowly evolved in my life from a thing to be despised and avoided to one of my closest allies. Whenever I write about revision, I bring out that old hat: “writing is rewriting.” Why? Because It’s True! In my younger writing days, I would write story after story after story, determined to become the kind of writer who could just write the perfect story right out of the gate. Then I pulled my head out of my you-know-where, and I started revising. Good strategies for revision are a must.

And part of revision is also realizing there is more than one way to tell a story. In Natalie’s class, we took a scene and rewrote it four ways to see how these changes evoke different aspects of the story. As Natalie said in her lecture, “compressed experience evokes emotional truth.” To try this out, write a heated scene between two people; it must contain dialogue. For your second pass, write this same exact scene from the perspective of a fly on the wall, a dog, a cat, or an inanimate object. For your third pass, write the scene with only action, no dialogue at all. And finally, for your fourth pass, write the scene in which both characters say everything they are thinking. Explore your four scenes – what evolved? What emotional truths come out? Are these truths best displayed through dialogue, the perspective of an objective narrator, or action?

Natalie also shared a revision strategy in which she takes a sheet of paper and draws a diagonal line from each corner, creating a giant x. Then, she puts a circle in the middle and writes the character’s name. Then, in each quartile, she describes what the character would see in front, behind, to the left, and to the right. Doing this has helped her discover new props and items within the scene that lead to unexpected actions, dialogue, and so on. She suggested this method for when you hit a wall and are unsure what the character would do or say next. Imagining the character’s world in this way can uncover unexpected props that lead to the next moment of action.

To learn more about Natalie and her publications, visit: Natalie Serber

Take the Plunge! Online Publishing for Literary Short Fiction

Take a PCC Community Education Class to learn more about publishing your short fiction in online literary journals!

Interested in publishing but nervous to take the next step? This class will explore a range of literary online journals. We will review submission guidelines, understand the aesthetic of each journal, format submissions, write a cover letter, and submit your work. Students will exit this course with the knowledge, resources, and confidence to submit for online publication.

When: Saturdays, April 9 – May 14, 10 AM – 11:50 am

Where: PCC Sylvania, Building Scb 20

REGISTER AT: http://www.pcc.edu/community/

TUITION: $79               REGISTRATION CODE: 27128

The Whirling Dervish of the London Screenwriters’ Festival

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If you felt anything like I did over the London Screenwriter’s Festival weekend (Oct. 23-25), then whirling dervish sounds about right. I have just started to get back to “normal” life (though seriously, is anyone really normal after such an inspiring and motivating weekend?!), and so I want to share some gems of what I learned at the festival.

Thursday – Oct. 22

The festival proper begins on Friday, but the week leading up to the festival is full of writer-oriented events. The only one I could attend since I was flying in from the US was Pitching Thursday with Pilar Alessandra. Pilar is a US film executive who leads conferences and seminars for screenwriters across the world. She is also incredibly personable, warm, funny, and energetic.

Nuts and Bolts: Pitching Thursday is designed for festival attendees who have either never pitched before or want to gather Pilar’s wisdom. The pitch begins with a log-line, which is basically a one-sentence plot summary. As Pilar says, “you sell the sizzle, not the steak.” Thus, the log-line needs to identify:

  1. the main character
  2. the focal point of tension

The pitch starts with the log-line and then based on the producer/executive’s response, you might continue the conversation with a more detailed explanation of the feature or TV series.  Now, the truth is that Pilar can explain things much better than I, so I recommend visiting Pilar’s website here: On the Page.

Friday:

9:00 am: My Friday began with attending the festival opening ceremonies. Chris Jones, the festival director, is wonderfully warm, vibrant, and motivating. He began the festival with many words of encouragement and some activities to set our minds and hearts in the right direction. Want to get a little taste of Chris’s mentality? Stand up, put your feet shoulder width apart, place your hands on your hips, stick out your chest – and assume the Wonder Woman pose.  Stand like this for a moment and envision the success of whatever project you’re working on now. For novelists, memoirists, and poets, imagine yourself at the podium in a crowded bookstore or at a desk signing copies of your book.  For screenwriters, imagine yourself on set, headphones round your neck, watching a brilliant set of actors bringing your script to life.  Stand that way and just breathe.  I truly believe in this kind of self-actualizing imagining.  And it worked for me because the next thing on my slate was to go pitch my idea, and what had been a terrifying prospect just a few hours before was suddenly completely manageable.

10:30 am: Pitching. The idea of pitching had me terrified for weeks leading up to the festival. After Chris’s motivating opening program, I was ready to go!  After the first session ended, I went straight to the pitching location. This year, the festival used a number ticket system so pitchees could go to the desk to check in and get a number. Then, at 10:15, we all lined up in accordance with our number. When the doors opened, I went straight for an executive on the top of my list. I managed to meet nearly all the executives I had wanted to, and the only ones I missed were because they had not been at the session after all.

What I learned from this pitching session was to enter into each conversation with an open spirit. Just start a conversation. I asked each person I met with how their day was going. I found that it was easy to deliver my log-line and then let the conversation unfold organically from there.  In the preceding weeks, I had spent hours and hours in preparation – delivering my log-line to my wall, the dog, and my wife; and also thinking over the questions an exec might ask and practicing the most concise and precise answers I could develop. My advice (beginner’s advice, mind you) is to come prepared. Know your log-line and your pitch forwards and backwards. Anticipate the questions they may ask and develop succinct answers. Remember, you only have 5 minutes – no time for rambling!  The more prepared you are (for anything, actually), the easier it will be.

I hesitate to list any names or production companies here, simply because everyone’s experience will be so varied.

2:00pm: Meet the Super Agent Duncan Heath

This seminar was an interview and Q&A session with Duncan Heath, moderated by Julian Friedmann. I have to be honest here, folks, the jet lag of my trans-continental flight hit me really hard in this panel and I was struggling to maintain my attention. This is in no way reflective of the discussion. Duncan Heath was engaging and funny, as was Julian Friedmann. What I took away from this seminar was that the industry does have room for some rogue agents, but probably not that many.

Also, the main note I took on this was Heath’s words: “it’s more difficult to get a film made than a book published.” Being in fiction, I already know how difficult it is to get creative writing published, so this was disheartening – though, frankly, not surprising. We all know that the numbers are approaching lottery range when it comes to submitting our work. Just today I was reviewing information about the Script Pipeline’s upcoming contest and the numbers are daunting – 1 winner out of over 5,000 entries. But this is the business, so there’s no point trying to evade it or worry about it.  Keep at your work and don’t fret about the rest. (Because worrying and wringing hands never got anyone anywhere.)

3:30 pm: Getting Under the Skin and Into the Minds of Your Characters by Kira-Anne Pelican

In this seminar, we explored how to develop rounded characters that reflect the true complexity of the human experience. How you engage with character development may come in many forms, but Pelican’s approach is a psychological one. She suggested that we build characters based on The Big Five personality traits:

  1. Extroversion
  2. Agreeableness
  3. Neuroticism
  4. Conscientiousness
  5. Openness to Experience
  6. Activity (this is a recent addition to The Big Five, so we can assume that at some point it will be renamed The Big Six)

Pelican reminds us that memorable characters have at least one or two extreme traits.  A good exercise here is to go through your own favorite television series and movies. Identify where your favorite, or most memorable, character stands in relation to each of these.

An important thing to consider is how you will use these character traits to motivate the activity of your characters. As Pelican noted, characters who are high in Neuroticism are active and reactive. They are excitable and perceive ordinary situations as threatening. Thus, a broken antique tea cup may be enough to send your neurotic character on an adventure to replace it.  On the flip side, a character low in neuroticism, a laid-back personality, is less driven by conscious goals. Something very big must happen to energize these characters into action. Think about The Pineapple Express. This film needed something major to motivate these dead-beats off their couches.  In the end, a series of high-stakes events keeps the action unfolding and forces these sedentary, low neuroticism characters to take action.

Another key point from this seminar was to make good use of your secondary characters. Secondary characters act as mirrors to our protagonists, so give them differing traits that hold up well under contrast.  For instance, in love matches, people are often drawn together by one shared trait, but then differ in many others. Where we differ is where the tension and conflict arises, and where we are similar is where we are pulled back together.

Pelican also identified six universal emotions, those that transcend culture or time:

  1. sadness
  2. joy
  3. anger
  4. fear
  5. disgust
  6. surprise

A few others include:

  1. shame
  2. pride
  3. love
  4. compassion

In addition, here are the universal motivations Pelican shared in her seminar:

  1. sex or dating
  2. physical skills
  3. mental skills
  4. wealth
  5. attractiveness
  6. caring for loved ones
  7. forming a coalition
  8. building a legacy for the future; finding meaning

Lastly, what human would be human without some connection to a belief system? Whether we agree, disagree, or are indifferent to religion and spirituality, it is nonetheless something that each of us has had to grapple with at some point in our lives. Thus, belief systems are critical to developing your characters. And here, it can also be helpful to think of belief system as synonymous with value system.  We’re not talking solely about religion, though that is part of it.  More importantly, we’re talking about the values, principles, and beliefs that guide your characters’ actions.  Therefore, consider your character’s code of conduct – is it a moral or amoral code? Does his/her code coincide with society’s law and values? (Point of tension!!) How do the events of the film change or transform his/her belief systems? As always, the #1 question we should be asking is: what does the character believe at the beginning? –> What does the character believe at the end? –> How do the events instigate the change?

All of the above – personality traits, emotions, motivations, and belief systems- come out of psychological research, but we don’t have to look far to see how these are all part of successful television series and films.  In the end, we are attempting to recreate “real” life on film, even if we’re in the middle of a fantastical universe or two thousand years in the future. In the end, human beings, whether in life or on screen, are motivated and driven by the same things. By understanding the fundamentals of human nature and psychology, we can bring a deeper resonance of meaning to our own characters.

5:00 pm: In Treatment: Document Therapy – Ludo Smolski

In this seminar, Ludo Smolski guides us through creating development documents. Smolski identified that the main difference between a development document and a selling document is the end goal.  How we write these documents depends upon where we are in the process and what the goal for that document is. A development document is designed to give the work-in-progress shape, guidance, direction, etc. A selling document is, rather obviously, designed to highlight the points of the film or series that make it sellable; the goal is to sell the work and thus the language and design will be geared toward that purpose.

What I found most interesting – and a little exasperating – about this seminar was that there is no set definition for what a treatment is or how it should look. For someone like myself who thrives within boundaries, guidelines, and specific rules, I find this difficult. However, for people who prefer a little more freedom and struggle to follow rules exactly, I’m sure this was quite a relief! Smolski shared many examples of treatments to help us envision what these may include and how to format them. Many of these are available via a simple google search for “screenplay treatments.”

Overall, it appears that most treatments are in the 7-10 page range. Another key point is to write the treatment in the same tone as the script itself. Thus, a treatment for a comedy film should be…funny!  A treatment for a drama should be serious.  Etc. Above all, anything you write should be written well.

6:30 pm: Manifesting Success: Chris Jones and Jonathan Newman

This seminar was a lovely wrap-up to my first day. As with the opening ceremonies, this seminar focused on our minds and imaginations, but where we switched lanes was to explore how we often allow the voice in our heads to prevent us from doing or pursuing the things we want to do. Rather than restate points from this seminar, I’m going to point here to the blog post up on the LSF website, which I wrote as a response to this seminar:How I found success by recognizing my own fear of rejection

What I also recommend is that whenever the voice in your head says, “yeah, but….” that is the moment to explore what the voice is “really” saying and what the motivations are behind it.  Chances are, the voice of dissent arises because of fear.  It can be a fearful thing to dedicate hours and hours, years and years to a project that you know may never go anywhere beyond your computer. So many authors write about how the books or screenplays which end up in the bottom drawer, never to see the light.  This is just part of the process. The sooner we stop saying “yeah, but…”, the sooner we can get down to the business of making things happen and manifesting success.

Saturday:

9:30 am: This morning, I began with an appointment to the Legal Clinic with Julian Wilkinson of Blue Pencil Set – Laws of Creativity. During this time, I wanted to talk about the nuances of adapting a screenplay, purchasing rights and options, and so on. This was a helpful and informative seminar.  Please forgive me for not sharing more details since there are a number of pieces still in the air regarding this project.

10:30 am: Into the Mind of Characters through the Eyes of Actors – Mel Churcher

This seminar was perhaps one of the most informative and interesting that I attended.  In this seminar, Mel Churcher brought in a group of actors to show how a script is read, interpreted, and performed by actors.

Here are a few main points of Churcher’s lecture-portion of the seminar:

  1. Life, Logic, and Depth – these three aspects should rule the writing of a screenplay. To me, this relates to the saying about fiction and how readers enter into fiction by “suspending disbelief.” We are asking the same of audiences, and thus, we must carefully review our scripts for those places where audiences will be unable to suspend disbelief, what I also call being “thrown out of the story.” Scripts that adhere to life, logic, and depth will keep audiences invested and avoid the chance they will be distracted by an inaccurate or implausible detail.
  2. Thoughts – dialogue are thoughts made available to audiences; actions and needs drive thoughts.
  3. Believable dialogue – we rarely speak in full sentences. People who know each other well speak in short-hand. They also rarely hold eye contact. Established relationships will have a deep well of mutual understanding and experiences. We need to avoid the pitfalls of expository dialogue by recognizing the shared information and omitting it.

After the lecture section of this seminar,Churcher shared an exercise she often does with her actors. Each actor pulled out a random line from a bag. Then, the two actors met briefly to figure out what the story is, who the characters are, why they are saying their respective lines, etc. etc. Watching the actors develop a pair of lines into a fully realized scene with deep backstories for each character – and all in the course of about 5 minutes! – was very interesting. I would imagine that most don’t need reminding of this, but it helped me to re-orient myself that the actors who perform our scripts are every bit as creative and artistic as the we are, and they can be critical to helping us fully realize the emotions or underlying stories at the heart of the scenes.

Churcher then invited festival attendees to write a brief scene with two characters and just a few lines of dialogue. Six of these were then performed. First, the actors were given their lines by the writer. Then, they performed it. Churcher then invited the writer to respond if the performance matched his or her vision, then clarify what needed refined, and the actors performed it again. Most often, the clarifications were around the way emotion was delivered – tone, cadence, body language, etc. In some cases, what seemed like an angry exchange during the first performance was refined to be a drunken, silly escapade.  This was interesting because the dialogue indicated an angry or aggressive situation, but in reality, the emotions were quite different.

Then, Churcher opened the floor for questions, and particularly for questions to the actors. What I found most interesting about this was how varied the actors were in their approach – some focused on background, history, and understanding all the ins and outs of a character, whereas others preferred to get a feel for the character from the script and did little preparation before a first table read. Most interesting, one of the actors said that the first thing he does when he gets a script is to mark out all the stage directions because he wants to enter the character himself and do what feels right to him as the actor/character. In response, another actor indicated that she does not mark out stage directions; instead, she reads them to get a sense of the emotion of the scene, but ultimately, she agreed that she prefers to choose how to move, respond, etc., herself.  One point of consensus was that all actors preferred to have very limited emotional language in the script because, and this I found so interesting, they may try out a range of emotions and a variety of approaches to that scene and do not want to be pigeon-holed by the writer’s specific idea about what everyone is feeling. (And this was brought to life on Sunday morning when I attended the Live Actors Table Read)

2:00 pm: Script Surgery

The other submission-based workshop I was accepted for was the Script Surgery. For this workshop, I submitted a 2 page outline of the script and the first 10 pages. I then met with Anne Woods of EuroScript to discuss my script. Again, since there are still so many things in the works, I do not with to go into too much detail, but I found this to be an excellent experience, and I strongly recommend writers to submit their scripts to a professional script editor.

3:30 pm: Story Analysis for Readers and Writers – Pilar Alessandra

In this seminar, Pilar described the process by which a reader engages with a script in order to determine if that script will receive a Pass, Consider, or Recommend. This seminar appeared to be designed for those who read scripts for production companies; however, this information can be helpful to writers so that we understand how readers respond to our works and the process for reading. Essentially, a reader will often write a report on the script that resembles a book report – overview, description of plot, comments, and a final judgement.  Once again, I will refer readers to Pilar’s website: On the Page. 

5:00 pm: Writing to Win the Hearts and Minds of the Preschool Audience – Panel Discussion moderated by Mellie Buse

For this seminar, I actually attended this because as the mother of a three-year old, I was interested in how shows are designed for children, and have entertained my own thoughts about potentially writing a children’s show.  The panel was comprised of Michael Towner, James Mason, and Catherine Williams, each of whom have developed award-winning programming for children.  Most have worked or been affiliated with CBeeBie’s, the BBC station for children.

Of note is that children’s television writers must be aware and knowledgeable about the three developmental ranges for the preschool audience – 0-2; 2-4; 4-6. There is some slight overlap, but in general, these age groups also break down according to psychosocial stages of children. Thus, writing for children means understanding the stage of the children, what’s important to them, what they already understand, and where they are building skills. For instance, one example was that of a doorbell. In the 0-2 age group, children don’t really comprehend what it means when the doorbell rings. However, the 2-4 or 4-6 age group will understand that the doorbell means someone is at the door. The 2-4 group may recognize the sound and understand its meaning, but may not know that they should not answer the door. The 4-6 group will recognize the sound and understand that they should not answer the door (hopefully).  Thus, what the writer includes in the show needs to be relevant to the target audience – i.e. doorbells in a 0-2 show are fairly pointless, but doorbells in the 2-4 or 4-6 age group are opportunities for learning.

What I also found interesting was the discussion on compliance. I hadn’t realized how important this was on the writing side of things. As a parent, of course, I’m very vigilant about making sure that content is appropriate, but there are whole committees and governmental organizations who also have a say. For instance, a particular concern is “imitable behavior.” That is, a human or human-like character cannot engage in behavior that is unsafe and which children may imitate.  A funny story was about a show where a scene portrayed a character jumping in a puddle.  That had to go because, the compliance team argued, children can drown in two inches of water.  Thus, no puddles.  If you decide to write for children, make sure that your characters do not engage in unsafe behaviors which a preschool audience may imitate. (Obviously, this doesn’t count for older age groups since I grew up watching Mutant Ninja Turtles beat the crap out of everyone with nunchucks and an array of Ninja battle devices, so…)

Next, the panelists discussed story lines and related this to the new Bob the Builder series being created for CBeeBie’s. In children’s programming, particularly for the 4-6 age group, a show should be driven by an A and B story line. The A story is the main story.  In Bob the Builder, the A story is the thing that needs to be built. The B story line is the character story. This is where the characters create a mess to the A story line that must then be resolved.  The A and B story lines come to a joint conclusion when the project is built and the characters have resolved their interpersonal conflicts.

Lastly, successful series need to be shows in which children can watch the show out of order and still manage to understand. Thus, a story may be driven by a soft arc, but can still be understood without having seen previous episodes. For instance, the show Topsy and Tim has an over-arching theme of children moving to a new house. However, the individual episodes are written so that the characters face a contained problem.

6:30 pm: Paula Milne in Conversation with Barbara Machin

This interview was interesting in that I had not known much about Paula Milne before this interview. I know, someone start building a stake and gather some tinder. However, I was very familiar with the shows she’s worked on, developed, and written. Milne has an amazing story of leaving school at 15, reentering art school, and becoming a script reader for ATV and BBC. Her career is simply one of those stories that leaves one in awe of her productivity and success. The range of her interests is also staggering – from The Virgin Queen to Die Kinder to White Heat – politics, family, culture, history- she covers it all. In addition, Milne speaks with a no-nonsense, call-it-like-I-see-it approach that is quite refreshing in an industry that can sometimes feel like everyone’s walking around with swollen lips from kissing ass. Not Milne. She is a writer who deserves your viewership. For more information on Milne and her credits, please visit her IMDB page here.

Sunday:

9:00 am: Actors Table Read LIVE

For this seminar, a pair of brave souls submitted a scene from their film script. This is a joint project so both writers were present. I will not share details of the script or scene, but provide an overview of what I took away by watching a director and a group of actors navigate this scene.

First, the actors ran through it and then the director checked in with the writers to ask if the scene, as performed, reflected their vision of it.  The writers offered a little clarification in terms of what has just happened before this scene and where the characters are heading through the film.  Then, the actors ran through the scene over and over. What I found most interesting was when the director suggested that a few lines might come through better if they were performed by another actor than the one indicated in the script. In this scene, three women are discussing a situation. One of the women is commenting on the behavior/thoughts of the other two. In between two of her lines was a line by the third character. The director gave all three lines to the first one and this changed the tone of that scene immensely. Initially, the scene could have either been one of supporting the two characters or making fun of them. When all three lines went to the one character, the tone was significantly altered and refocused so that the way she goads the other two women came across much more clearly, as well as amping up the tension.

This was a real education to watch the actors interpret the dialogue, then to see how the director re-envisioned a section. The ways that emotion were evoked was simply amazing!

10:30 am: What will actually happen to your finished script? Live Script Edit – Lucy V Hay

This seminar was perhaps the second most informative for me of the festival weekend. Hay was a real pleasure to listen to – she’s brash, funny, clever, and no-nonsense. This is another seminar that was so rich with information that I feel my best approach will be to share Hay’s website so you can read it for yourself: Bang2Write

But let me share the basics of this seminar and some of the gems I learned (you’ll need an empty treasure chest before reading further). First, this seminar was also a submissions-based process whereby a number of brave individuals shared a page or two of their scripts-in-progress to then be put on the overhead projector and picked apart by Hay and the audience. Kudos to those who did this! While it may have been hard to hear some of the feedback, please know that your contribution was incredibly helpful to the audience.

The main focal point during this seminar was all on formatting. And with good reason – Hay shared that most readers (who are work-experience readers – i.e. 20 year olds who are getting a foot in the door by reading spec scripts) will open the first page, look at the formatting, and the decide whether to read the first 10 pages or not. Reasons for not reading the script?

  1. Any font other than Courier, 12 pt.
  2. Excess use of ALL CAPS, bold type, or italics – anything that draws attention to itself rather than the content
  3. Scenes that go right into dialogue without first describing the scene
  4. A page full of dialogue and no descriptions of scene- i.e. scene action – remember, films are visual things, not auditory. Dialogue bridges the gaps of what the visual elements can’t convey.

After the open-close test, we also need to be aware of and avoid the following:

  1. Don’t give camera directions. The only appropriate one is “Fade In” at the beginning. The director decides where the camera will be in the scene.
  2. Don’t put “Copyright” or “All Rights Reserved” on the title page – As Hay says, this will set off the “loon alert” for readers. Copyright is implied because you wrote it. Copyright in the UK and US is immediate upon writing the script. For writers who want additional protection, you can register your script with the UK or US Writer’s Guild for a fee or you can mail yourself a copy of the script and keep it unopened – the date on the postmark serves as the copyright. (Note, the mail idea is one I’ve read about in other forums but was not mentioned by Hay, so I don’t know how she feels about that particular approach.)
  3. Don’t use ALL CAPS for character names except for the first time they appear in the script.
  4. Don’t use ALL CAPS for sounds. This is not a hard and fast rule, but it’s not necessary and can result in a reader rejecting your script if he/she sees too many ALL CAPS.
  5. Don’t number scenes – that’s done on shooting scripts.
  6. Avoid excessive stage directions – i.e. “walks toward window” or “turns head” or “smiles,” etc. Your script will stand out if you don’t have these, plus the actor and director will ultimately decide how characters will move about the scene.

In terms of scene description, here’s what Hay had to say about good scene description:

  1. reveals character
  2. reveals tone/genre
  3. builds story world
  4. reveals writer’s voice
  5. pushes story forward
  6. is original and no cliched

Hay also discussed that most spec scripts have entirely too much dialogue. As she said repeatedly in her seminar, films are visual. Thus, a good script is built upon solid visuals and descriptions. Where you can show something via setting or action, do it. Interestingly, she said that American writers tend to be more solid on the visual aspect of things, so as a member of the American contingent, I found that heartening.

Lastly, we must remember that the screenplays you purchase at the bookstore or read online are almost always the shooting script, thus, this is why so many writers number scenes or include camera directions – because this is what we’ve seen in the screenplays we’ve read. But just remember that a spec script is under a different set of expectations and scrutiny. For more help and guidance, visit Hay’s website and check out her books. If you get a chance to attend her seminars, I highly recommend it. She’s personable, knowledgeable, and very funny.

2:00 pm: Breaking into Channel 4

This panel was comprised of Lisa Walters and Phillip Shelley who both produce for Channel 4, and then Anna Symon and Jane Eden, who obtained writing jobs with Channel 4 and other venues after completing the 4Screenwriting Course. This course is a 5 month program that begins in January and runs to the end of May. Applicants supply a CV, writing sample, or 25 pages or more of a script. Successful applicants then meet in small workshops to develop a pilot for a television series. They also attend networking events that can connect them to agents and producers. More information about the opportunities at Channel 4 can be found here: Channel 4 Screenwriting Opportunities.

5:00 pm: Beyond the Chick Flick: Writing the Female-Driven Screenplay – Pilar Alessandra

Ok, so I’m going to be a broken record at this point and say that this seminar was one of the most informative for me at the festival.  Well, if you ask my my favorite movie, I’ll give you a list of five, so it only follows…

In this seminar, Pilar once again brings her energetic, witty, and personable approach to talking about writing female-led movies. As Pilar has said at a number of her seminars, we’re finally at a place in the industry where production execs are saying, “yeah, but could this be a female?”

First, Pilar had us shout out a few stereotypes of women: stressed, negative, emotional, ditsy, hormonal, bossy – these were a few that jumped out. Pilar suggests taking that stereotype and looking for its positive correlative: gossipy = well-informed; catty=competitive. As with anything else, a stereotype is based on some grain (however tiny) of truth and is then expanded beyond the bounds of reason. What we need to do as writers is to take those stereotypes and turn them on their head rather than play into them.

Next, we need to address the cliched backstories of female-led movies: a recent breakup, a dead child, parental abuse. While these are valid backstories, Pilar reminded us that these are the backstories we see for almost every female character. When writing a female protagonist, we need to look for a more nuanced backstory, something that reveals all the facets of being a woman, and most importantly, doesn’t play into the cliches we’ve seen so often. If, however, we do want to use a break-up or dead child, use it in a surprising way. For instance, in Kill Bill, the female protagonist experiences both things – a breakup and a dead child. She uses that backstory to resume her bad-ass assassin mode and bring hell down on her former clan.

Now let’s look at what our characters do in private. Female characters most often: eat, cry, box, or dance. It is what it is. Give your protagonist something a little more interesting to occupy her alone time. How can you nuance her behavior in a way that reveals her depth? How can you break out of the stereotypes and portray women in a more realistic light?

One approach to action and plotting is to give your female character what we consider typically “masculine” approaches to problems. For instance, in the old model, a female character would use her womanly wiles to manipulate a male character into giving her information. In the new model, she breaks into the office and steals the computer herself. We can also take the male-driven templates and give them to female characters – The Godfather – with a female boss; Star Wars – with a female Luke Skywalker (or Darth Vader). We can also re-spin female-driven templates: Cinderella – saves the world; Anna Karenina takes over Wall Street.

So this sums up Pilar’s seminar on the female-driven film. Once again, I recommend visiting her website for additional information and resources.

6:00 pm: Festival Close

Once again, we attendees packed into the auditorium to listen to words of inspiration from Chris Jones. One again, we assumed the Wonder Woman pose and once again, we imagined ourselves and the successes that can come out of this weekend.  It was a tearful goodbye. Tearful, but inspired and activated. Time to take action, folks! Get out there and do it.