Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Superhero Test (from a workshop by Lisa Schroeder)

In May, I attended an SCBWI conference and came back with some great strategies for looking at characters. One that has recently returned to my mind is form a workshop by Lisa Schroeder. I don't know if she got it from somebody else or not. It's called the Superhero test. And it goes like this: Every character, like a superhero, should have the following:
* a power
* an arch enemy or nemesis
* a special place
* a love (though it doesn't have to be a person)

Like any writing tool, it is not an iron-clad rule, but a helpful litmus test when thinking about what might be missing from a character.

At the Willamette Writers Conference this weekend, Elizabeth Lyon spoke of giving your character some deep past wound, the "hole in the soul" that results in a yearning, need or drive they must try to fill. I think this, too, belongs in the superhero test. After all, what would Spiderman be if his gentle Uncle Ben had not been murdered? What would Superman be if he had not lost his home planet? What would Batman be if his parents had not been killed? You get the idea.

Try applying the Superhero test to a character you are developing or wrestling with. See what you discover.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Getting to Know You - Character Wheel exercise

I've spent the past few days working on a character wheel for the protagonist of a young adult novel I'm writing called SCHISM, which deals with religion and homophobia. The character wheel is a great exercise I got from a workshop by Shannon Riggs at the SCBWI Oregon Conference this spring. Basically, each spoke of your wheel represents an aspect of your character - things like family, friends, school or job, religion, hobbies or interests, romance or pets, strengths, weaknesses, quirks, wants/needs, home, etc. You can add spokes, change the spokes depending.

If I were writing for audio theater, I'd want to be sure I included spokes for socioeconomic class, geographic location and era, as these can really inform the way a character speaks. I went ahead and included those pieces on my wheel anyway, just to generate as much discovery as possible.

It's a terrific brainstorming tool and can sometimes lead you right into your story. As you go along, conflicts begin to emerge, personality takes shape, storylines evolve. You catch yourself making discoveries about other characters, branching off from the wheel. I actually used a 14" x 17" sketch pad for my wheel because I wanted lots of visual space. The wheel shape helps me kick out of my linear, editor brain and into the artistic brainstorming creative side. It also gives me a sense of what may be missing from my vision of a character. I look at which spokes seem sparse or blank, and why.

My wheel took a few days because I would detour periodically to do a little research, work on and tweak my plot outline, make some extra notes about other key characters. I had originally thought to do a character wheel on each of the main characters, but I don't want to get overwhelmed. I finally decided to let my exploration of the other key characters happen in a more linear fashion, thus keeping the visual of a wheel that revolves around my central protagonist. I imagine if I were writing a piece that would have multiple viewpoint characters, I'd want to do a full wheel for each of them. but I'm sticking with a pretty traditional Point of View and plot structure on this.

How much do you find you need to know about your main character or characters before you dive in and start your draft? Does it vary depending on genre? What decisions, if any, do you make before you get to know your characters? Are there any graphic organizers or other visuals you've found useful in building a vision of your characters?

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Powered by Communal Energy

I just got back from teaching writing workshops at the National Audio Theatre Festivals audio theater week. I was reminded again of the communal energy generated when a group of writers gets together. No matter how introverted or solitary we writers can be, there is a pow of electricity that can happen, under the right circumstances, when you get a group of us in a room and you ask the right questions. It was exciting to be instrumental in generating some of that energy this past week.

Whenever you plug in to that communal energy, however, you have to find a way to ride it and channel it. How do you carry that energy into the solitary part of writing and focus it onto your work?

I feel fortunate to have a teacher's schedule, because I can go to a workshop or writing group in the summer and then have lots of opportunities to capitalize on that energy during the time available to me in summer vacation. As long as I don't let the time slip through my fingers in a glorious haze of napping and gardening!

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Claiming the Name of "Writer"

The other day, I was talking with a friend who has lived the life of a writer for many years, has published and been produced, had an agent and attends a critique group. However, because life and schedule has kept him from writing during the recent past, he now seems reluctant to call himself a writer. It got me thinking about the whole process of whether we call ourselves writers to the outside world or not and the significance of that decision.

For me, "taking the plunge" to call myself a writer didn't happen overnight. You could say it's been pending since I was 8 years old, but the true shift has only happened during the past 5-10 years. There were many steps that led me to give myself permission to say, "I'm a writer:" Writing for an audience besides myself. Getting paid to do it once in a while. Being asked to do it for work, to help others with their writing. Shifting from assignments by and for others to writing my own stuff again. Letting people read and hear my work besides my husband and parents. Connecting with other writers. Setting myself writing goals and working towards them. Seeking to learn and improve upon my work. Asking for criticism and learning to accept it. Attending conferences. Submitting lots of pieces and getting lots of rejection letters. Hearing other people call me a writer. All of these led me to feel I had earned the name of writer and continued to merit that name.

On the other hand, many of those steps would never have happened if I HADN'T started calling myself a writer first. Perhaps by claiming the name, I set myself a level of expectations to be worthy of that name. And I still find it odd to say, "I'm a writer," as if someone will ask me for my writer's license or the secret code word to the club and then they'll discover I'm a fraud. But I get more comfortable with it as time goes on.

By the way, I basically told my friend that once a writer, always a writer, or, as the saying goes, you can't unring that bell.

Have you claimed the name of writer? What did it mean for you to do that? If you haven't, why not?

Saturday, May 31, 2008

How Long, How Fast - Writing in Time

Tonight over dinner a friend of mine commented that I "write faster" than he does. We went on to discuss how long it takes us to write something short. Then, I came home, looked over my old emails and found this excerpt, forwarded to me from Angela Keene. How long DOES it take to get to the center of a tootsie pop, or a short story? The world may never know.

From an interview in Children's Literature Review, 2003, about writing the children's story, Wolves in the Walls:

"The concept for Wolves came from the author's young daughter, who had a bad dream one night. "She was convinced there were wolves in the walls," says Gaiman, "and as she described them to me, I immediately knew that I would steal the idea for a book." Not long after, he sat down and wrote the first draft of the story. "I didn't like it at all," says Gaiman. Instead of rewriting it, however, he decided to abandon it. After about eight months, he tried once more, but again, he didn't like it, and again, he abandoned the story. Another eight months passed. Then one night, Gaiman suddenly woke up in bed and thought, "When the wolves come out of the walls, it's all over!" This, apparently, was just the idea he needed to bring the book to life. That afternoon, he wrote the entire story, to perfection. "It took me one afternoon to write it," says Gaiman, "but also two-and-a-half years.""

I have recently revisited little bits of ideas from long ago that are now emerging in completely different ways. Think, write, think, revise, simmer, write, revise, write.

What does time look & feel like for you as a writer? How long do you work on something? How many times do you come back to it?

Monday, April 14, 2008

Purple Prose

Hi, anyone who's out there. I've been away a long time, but thought I'd try to get back on track here. I'm reading a book called "Spunk and Bite." It spins off from, and in places challenges, the old "bible" of writing style, "Elements of Style" by Strunk and White. Having been schooled on Strunk and White, I tend towards the sparse and streamlined approach, but I fear I have essentially stripped my writing of life and originality. So, I'm trying to shake it up, and have now begun overcompensating, falling prey to an overabundance of "Purple Prose." So, I am dancing the line. I guess I need to give myself permission to experiment and fail many times in order to find my voice and grow as a writer.

What kind of experiments have you tried? Successes? Failures? How did you determine which they were? What did you learn from them?

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