Saturday, June 25, 2016

Things I've Learned From Teaching A Fiction Writing Class

I taught a beginning fiction writing class at the state university in the adult continuing education non-credit department.  It was two hours a night, one night a week, for eight weeks.  I taught this class twice a year for sixteen years.

The eight weeks were broken up into the basics of fiction writing.  The first week was about plot, second week developing characters, and so on.  I covered things like point of view, pacing, dialogue, active vs. passive, show don't tell, and other basics of fiction writing.  I used examples from various genres without concentrating on a specific one.  The class culminated with information about publishing which included synopsis, query letter, contests, critique groups, submitting to publishers, editing, and related areas.

I give you that information as a prologue to what's on my mind about my fiction writing class.

It always amazed me each time I taught the class…I learned things, too.  Well, more accurately, I RE-learned them.  There are things I'd forgotten that came to mind again when I was going over the lesson for that week's class.  And then there was information I haven't thought about until someone asked me a question that required me to pull the answer up from the back of my mind and convey it in a manner that made sense to someone taking a beginning writing class…fiction writing technique information I hadn't consciously considered for a while.

A technique I talked about as part of the first week covering plot was the Action-Reaction-Decision combination.  This was one of those things I used when writing without really thinking about it as a technique.  Each time I taught this class and defined the Action-Reaction-Decision combination, it seemed to hit me as a surprise as if I had never heard of it before. :)   One character's action elicited a reaction from the other character, then one of those characters made a decision concerning the situation.  It was that decision that propelled the story forward and led to the next situation.

As we know, each scene needed to do something to move the over all story forward whether it was an action scene, dialogue, or narrative internalization dealing with character development.  And this was one of those techniques that did just that.

An example:  Dressed in a scrap of slinky black, Mary strutted into the club (action).  Mark took one look and his blood pressure skyrocketed (reaction).  He had to get her out of there before she got arrested (decision).  It was that decision that moved the story forward and lead to the next action.  Example: Mark grabbed her arm (action).  But Mary refused to budge (reaction).  She was going to have a drink and dance until dawn (decision).

This fed directly into and helped support the basic structure of story movement which was cause and effect.  Something happened and that caused something else to happen which resulted in moving the story forward toward its conclusion—cause and effect.

Each week I had something (at least one thing, usually more) that teaching the class brought to mind, techniques that I had forgotten, things that I did without thinking about them.

The second week of the class was developing characters.  One exercise I gave the class had them use secondary characters to maneuver the main characters in the direction the story needed. (see last week's blog, June 18, about using secondary characters) Your hero/heroine still did the work and resolved the story's conflict, but those secondary characters made a valuable contribution to moving the story forward.

And secondary characters were fun to work with.  They didn't have the restrictions that apply to your hero/heroine.  A secondary character didn't need to be in any way honorable or heroic.  He could have had lots of bad habits, been a compulsive liar, or any number of things the hero and heroine couldn't.

I enjoyed teaching a class about the basics of beginning fiction writing.  And, of course, I enjoyed getting paid for it. :)  But in addition to that, I liked being reminded a couple of times a year about some of the specifics that tended to slip my mind…things I did, but hadn't consciously thought about.

Do you have any special writing techniques you'd like to share?

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Secondary Characters And How To Use Them

 While trying to decide on a topic for today's blog, I was torn between a writing type topic or a more general area of discussion.  Since last week's blog was a writing topic, I decided to continue along those lines.

A couple of days ago I was watching on old movie, the 1974 production of Agatha Christie's Murder On The Orient Express with its all star cast where almost everyone in the movie was a major character.  It occurred to me that there were very few characters other than the many primary ones.  So I started thinking about secondary characters and how they can be used to prod, shove and push the main characters into and along the necessary path for the story line.

So, let's talk a bit about secondary characters.

When I say secondary characters, I'm not referring to the minor characters that decorate a scene and maybe have a couple of lines of dialogue or only appear in one scene.  I'm talking about the characters who have a prominent place in your story but are not your main characters.  These are the characters you can use to maneuver your main characters into and along the path toward achieving the story goal.  They are a key factor in moving your story along and determining what direction it takes.

In developing these characters you need to decide what you want them to accomplish and how you want them to relate to and interact with your main characters in addition to each other in order to move your story line along to its conclusion.  Let's take a look at how a set of secondary characters can be used to move a story line in a specific direction.  Remember, it's not who they are, it's what they do and how they relate to the main characters and how the main characters respond to them.

Example:  You have a story about a teenager who is the leader of a gang that has been stealing cars for some mobsters.  You have two ways you can go with your main character, in other words, two directions your story line can take and you must choose one of them.  #1: he wants to leave the gang and make something of his life OR #2: he runs his gang with a iron hand and threatens anyone who wants out.

With scenario #1 your secondary characters who will influence the story line can be his girl friend, his little brother, and one of his teachers.  That tells you who they are (what their relationship is to your main character), but doesn't tell you how they move the story.  His girl friend fears for his safety and finally gives him the ultimatum to leave the gang or she's leaving him.  His little brother idolizes him and wants to be just like him, but he doesn't want his little brother to make the same mistakes he did.  His teacher is mentoring him by helping him with his studies and finding him an after school job.

With scenario #2 your secondary characters can be his girl friend, a rival gang leader, and his contact with the mobster who pays him for the stolen cars.  Again, that tells you who they are and what their relationship is to your main charabut not what they do to move the story in a specific direction.  His girl friend demands more and more in the way of material things so he needs the money from stealing cars to keep her happy.  The rival gang leader is trying to take over his stolen car business so he has to watch his back at all time to protect himself and his own interests.  The mobster gives him access to the easy money he needs to keep his girl friend happy and the promise of being able to move into their organization and advance in the criminal world.

Each scenario has a girl friend, but her function is different in the two scenarios so that her character helps move the two story lines in two different directions.

One of the great things about secondary characters is that you can make them as outrageous, unconventional and over-the-top as you want.  You don't have the same parameters and cautions with secondary characters as you do with your main characters.  The main thing you need to be careful with in creating your secondary character is to not make them more interesting than your main characters so that they don't steal the show and shove your main characters into the background.

A good example of secondary characters being over the top was the television stiuation comedy Will and Grace.  The secondary characters of Karen and Jack were totally outrageous while the main characters of Will and Grace were more grounded.

Any comments about developing and using secondary characters in your writing?  Or any television shows, movies, or books where the secondary characters stood out in your mind with the way they were able to guide and manipulate the story line?

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Fighting A Writer's Self-doubts

Motivation…and the kinds of doubts unique to writers.  I know exactly what you're up against to make it as a writer.  Writers work alone.  There's no one to give us attagirls or attaboys on the days when the words won't come.  There's no rule book to tell us if we have enough talent, if our writing is good enough, if we have what it takes to make it.  Worse than that, no matter how good we are we face repeated rejections of our efforts.  Rejection is a part of life, but it's still different for a writer.  When we submit a manuscript, we're sending in part of our heart and soul…our blood, sweat and tears.  When a story is rejected, it's like a kick in our heart, a direct and personal blow—and everyone is vulnerable to that kind of hurt.

That's intrinsic to the job of writing, but it's also easy to get sidetracked by the wrong things.  When we're working on our first book, we're afraid we'll never finish it.  Then we're afraid it's not good enough to be published.  Once we get it published, we're afraid that first sale is a fluke and we'll never publish a second one.  Along the way, maybe John Doe got a better review than we did.  Maybe Jane Doe got a higher advance than we did.  Then there's Suzy Smith who used to be such a close friend, and she just sold a hardback mainstream novel to a major New York print publisher.  We can't even talk to her—we feel left in the shade because we write ebook short stories.  And then there's Mary Jones who we feel is a much better writer than we are.  We'll never be that good and we know it.  And Polly Perfect…she just sold the first manuscript she wrote and we're on our fourth one after having the first three rejected by every publisher we submitted to.

Possibly if we didn't work alone we wouldn't be so susceptible to letting those kinds of doubts affect our confidence.  But we DO work alone. And that makes it extraordinarily easy to lose sight of what motivated us to start with.  There is a reason we started writing, and for most of us it's because we love doing it.  That's the strongest tool we have to beat the nasty dragon of doubt.  All those other things that can sabotage our confidence—some of them are real and some are doubts we lay on ourselves—are not strong enough to beat us if we keep what matters on the front line.

No flower has the chance to grow if it's getting choked out at the root level by weeds.  When we sit down to write, we have to get the irrelevant stuff out of the way.  We need to give ourselves the right—the freedom—to concentrate on one thing only.  Write the type of book we love.  The first magic we found…when we first discovered the wonder of characters coming alive for us, the joy of watching a story take life on a page…that magic is not something we use up.  It's not something we can lose, like a pair of socks.  It's not something we can forget like a memory we can't get back.  It's still there, the same place it's always been, inside us.  There is no cure for the doubts we go through.  There's no magic elixir that will make us feel better after a rejection, or guarantee that we'll never suffer writer's block, or help us not worry during a rough stretch.

All I can tell you is that I've been there, as has every writer I know.  Doubts detract from what matters and they trick us into focusing on things that don't matter.  The next time we sit down at the keyboard we just need to remember to keep what counts in front of us and not allow those doubts to sway us from the task at hand.