Tuesday, December 09, 2008


The Copycat Experiment

by LuAnn Schindler

In the movie Finding Forrester, Sean Connery's character William Forrester encourages protege Jamal Wallace to develop his own writing voice. When Jamal appears stuck, Forrester hands him a book and instructs the young writer to copy some of those lines until his own ideas take over and he creates a new story.

When I taught high school English ( in a heavily writing-based classroom), I encouraged students to do the same thing. If we were discovering the art of the personal essay, I distributed copies of Bob Green's Be True To Your School or Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Sometimes it was the work of Anne Sexton, Mark Twain, Judy Blume or Shakespeare that I placed before them, hoping they would connect with the work.

We would read sections from the works and discuss the strengths of the writing. Then I would give students a snippet from a work, have them copy it, and build a story based on those opening lines.

Students created new characters or established new settings for these works, but the important lesson they learned was that if you removed the original snippet, there was a new, unique story which they had developed.

You can do the same thing. Ever notice that you like a certain author's books? Jodi Picoult is one of my favorite authors. Sure, I aspire to write heart-touching stories like hers. But do my words resemble hers exactly? No, and even though I can learn a lot about technique from reading her novels, or any book for that matter, I am the master of my own voice.

But you can use your favorite author's works to develop your writing skills. Have an idea for a character but not sure how or where this character fits? Insert her into one of your favorite reads and see how she develops. You'll be surprised by how many ideas for character development will take root from this type of exercise.

In Open Your Heart with Writing, Neil Rosen discusses the pros of the copycat experiment. Rosen suggests taking a well-known TV series and move it to a new location. "When you combine research and your own original ideas to create a new location, it is interesting to see the influence it has on changing the dynamics of a story," writes Rosen.

I think about the number of Shakespearean spoofs available from play script companies. These authors take the Bard's words and characters and give the storyline a fresh twist. Kids enjoy the modern tales and relate to the updated content. Plus, whether they admit it or not, they've just been exposed to classic stories.

Using the works of great authors to build or sharpen your writing skills can improve your technique. By living Forrester's example and words, you will create a piece that others might someday use as an example:
"You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head.
The first key to writing is . . . to write, not to think!"
Open Your Heart with Writing by Neil Rosen. Copyright 2007. DreamTime Publishing

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Friday, November 07, 2008


Visualizing the Drama

by LuAnn Schindler

A local high school asked me to direct their one-act competition play this year. I haven't directed a play in over two years, and since I have so much spare time (I do?) I said yes. Actually, I knew what play I wanted to direct; I thought the characters would be challenging for the students and I knew how I wanted to stage the production.

As a director, your job is to interpret the playwright's words and place that visualization on the stage. You see each character in a unique light and as you share your vision with an actor, you hope that they crawl into that character's skin and become that person on stage. You plot the lighting changes, sound effects and blocking choices to match the picture you've created in your mind.

It is the same when you write. You visualize the characters, see them in a unique light and bring them to life on the page. You establish a sense of place through staging. And, you plot the lighting changes, the sound effects, and blocking choices when you determine who is in a certain scene, where it takes place, and what dialogue is spoken.

Readers do the same thing, too. When I read Michael Crichton's Timeline, I could see certain actors cast in the movie. I could visualize the castle and the clothing from the Renaissance. I knew Nicolas Cage should be in the movie (obviously I wasn't in charge of casting)! Visualizing the drama, whether a novel or a play, creates a bond with the readers.

And it's an important bond that begins in your mind, travels along the page through the plot twists and turns, and ends with the reader.

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Monday, February 04, 2008


Don't Cheat the Reader

I recently read a couple of books and one stuck with me, while the other annoyed me. Both used a disease-of-the-week plot device, but in the book I liked, it didn't feel like a device; it simply felt like something that could logically happen. Plus, what was more important is how the affected character reacted to having the disease.

Imagine a man who's spent his entire life not quite doing the right thing because he's incapable of it. He's not a bad person, just not the most caring, compassionate guy around. He gets cancer and instead of some miraculous change overcoming him, he deals with the disease the same way he's dealt with life. No pages-long soliloquies follow and I have to admit, it was refreshing to read this realistic portrayal of a dying man.

In the other book, the reader is given hints that one character is ill, but when it comes down to who gets sick, it's another character. This book was like a romantic comedy in book form, so when the main character becomes ill, you just know she's going to recover, right? Wrong. She dies and I felt incredibly cheated by the book as a whole. It was like watching While You Were Sleeping and in the last scene, having Michael Myers from the Halloween movies come in and butcher everyone. It was like death was added to the plot to make the book heavier than it was supposed to be.

One thing that's vital to creating believable fiction is having your characters behave in believable ways. I know, it's fiction, it's all made up, so what's to believe? But readers deserve better than writers acting like literary gods who create whole worlds full of characters who do only what the writers want. You have to listen to your characters and find out what they would do.

If you've created a woman who finds out her husband is cheating, how is she going to react to this news? If you've done a skillful job of outlining her character and adding relevant details, you won't have to wonder about this for long. If she's a fiery, action-oriented woman, readers won't be surprised if she tosses all of his belongings outside a bedroom window before driving to the other woman's house to confront her. But what if she's a quiet, introverted type? Would this behavior be as believable? It can be, but only if you've provided subtle clues beforehand that make the reader think, wow, I didn't see that coming, but I can see how that could happen. For instance, she may be quiet, but what if events shown in flashback reveal a lot of pent-up anger? What if this is only the latest in a string of affairs for the husband and she's finally had enough? However you create her, you're not creating her in a bubble. If you want her to be believable, she has to have prior life experiences that make her behave the way she does right now.

If you want your readers to think and ultimately be satisfied by what you've written, don't cheat them or yourself by making your characters do what they know they would never do.

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Thursday, January 31, 2008


Interviewing Your Characters

by AnnMarie Kolakowski

When planning a novel, how much planning is appropriate to go into it before you sit down and start spitting out dialogue and narration and description and rough draft? This is a question I’ve been struggling with lately. I once took a creative writing class where the professor absolutely firmly insisted that we not plan at all, that we let it be “organic.” However I’m sure many of you can attest from experience that it’s a lot easier to get where you want to go when you have a road map.

I’ve stumbled upon a couple of good ideas for effective brainstorming that I’m sure aren’t at all new—“there is nothing new under the sun”—but which I hope might help you in negotiating the need to plan and the need to keep your novel a natural, organic growing process.

Earlier this month, I began developing a character for a novel by “interviewing” him daily on paper. I called him Simon. I asked him questions about his life: things like who his favorite comic book hero was as a kid, and what he wanted to be when he grew up. I asked him about his hopes for this story, what truth he wanted to convey with it, and what he thought of some of the other characters in my developing hypothetical cast. Sometimes I couldn’t think of anything “important” to talk about with him, so I just shared whatever was going on with me. The hard day at work I had, the fears that lingered about my ability to write. Sometimes he comforted me, sometimes he laughed at me, but always he pushed me back into the writing seat and challenged me to do proper justice to his story. I became committed to him and to his story, by the simple act of keeping in daily contact with him on paper.

Now, I can’t yet verify all of the benefit of this approach. My focus actually shifted at some point to another character in the story and to his plight, and I think Simon may have to step back into a more minor role so that this character can be more central. But at least Simon is someone I feel like I know, not just a wallflower whose face I have to consult my high school yearbook for! And I’m confident Simon will continue to help me by pushing me to get this story out.

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Friday, August 10, 2007


On Knowing Your Characters by Marilyn Meredith

Because I've been the judge for many writing contests and was a writing instructor for Writers Digest School for many years, I've read many self-published books and manuscripts by new writers. One of the problems I've seen over and over is lifeless characters, or characters who are no more than a name.

Often it's not because the author doesn't know his or her characters, but rather the problem is not knowing how to develop the character on the page so the reader will know the character too.
First, each character should have an appropriate name: a name that fits his or her personality, a name that fits the type of book, the time period, a name that doesn't sound like, rhyme with, or start with the same letter as another character. The author needs to do everything possible to keep from confusing the reader.

To make sure not to give wrong information about someone, the author should have the facts about each character written down so that the hero doesn't suddenly change eye or hair color half way through the book.

The author should know enough about the history of the characters so that the motivation for doing things, or reacting in a certain way rings true.

With dialogue, does each character have a unique manner of speaking?

Instead of always using dialogue tags like he said, she said, using an action by the character who is speaking or a description as a dialogue tag, can be another opportunity for telling more about a character.

Some authors keep lengthy notes about each character which can be very helpful.

I've been writing about my heroine Deputy Tempe Crabtree for quite a few years. I know her better than I know any of my relatives or friends. That may sound strange, but I am totally aware of how she thinks, why she thinks it, and how she'll act in any given situation.

When writing about any point-of-view character, I try to "climb inside" him or her and see the world and what is going on through that person's eyes, hear what they hear, smell what they smell, feel what they feel, both emotionally and by touch. This works for me, perhaps it will work for you.

Thanks for such an informative post Marilyn. Her next Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery is Judgment Fire from Mundania Press .

To learn more about Marilyn and here books, visit her website.

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