Our Fall Retreat for Oklahoma SCBWI last month had something for everyone, with specific tracks for novel, illustration, and picture book that allowed you to focus on your area of interest. The theme “Fan the Spark” encouraged all to turn those beginning creative sparks into fully developed stories.
I attended the Novel Track.
(I heard rave reviews from everyone I spoke with who attended both the Picture Book Track taught by Janee Trasler, and the Illustrator Track taught by Tim Jessell.)
The first speaker had a background in theatre arts and showed us how writers could learn from actors when developing their characters. She also stopped by this blog prior to the retreat to introduce herself. Click on this link to get a more detailed view into her background..
Ginny Sain – with more than 20 years experience as a working director, choreographer, playwright, theatrical designer, performer , and theatre arts teacher, she has worked as an artist in residence teaching theatre arts workshops in Arkansas and Oklahoma schools as well as teaching and directing all classes, workshops, and productions for over 18 years with the very successful Stages Theatre for Youth program.
“Generality is the enemy of all art.” – Stanislavski
When creating your characters, you want to move from the general to the specific.
By paying attention to the inner lives and motivations of your characters in every scene. And this should be done FOR EVERY CHARACTER.
When an actor prepares for a new role, they get to know their character intimately – what motivates them, how they move about in space, what they like and don’t like – they slip into their character’s skin to portray them in a believable manner. The actor inhabits every inch of that character’s psyche. And they do this before they even step foot onto the stage.
This can feel like a daunting task. Impossible even.
So how do they do it?
They break down the play into moments – or beats – and figure out what’s driving their character’s behavior from moment to moment. Beats are manageable chunks even smaller than scenes. Some obvious beats include when a character enters or exits a scene or when there’s a shift in conversation, or when new information has been revealed. Once the beats are identified, the actors then decide what the character’s objective, obstacle, and action is for each beat.
Objective – What your character wants. Each character has one main “superobjective” that spans the entire work and many smaller objectives that lead toward the “superobjective”. The path a character takes as they move through these smaller objectives is called the “through line”. Each character should have an objective for every beat they are on stage. The objective should be active and directed toward the other characters. Objectives seek to change things.
Example: “I want to get away from him and leave this room.”
Obstacle – What is keeping your character from getting what they want. Obstacles can be internal or external. Or both. This struggle is what makes the story interesting.
Example: “I can’t leave because he locked the door.”
Action – What your character does to overcome his or her obstacle. There are usually three possible outcomes: the character will give up, overcome the obstacle, or plow through and ignore it. How they react to obstacles shows what characters are made of – reactions reveal a lot about character.
Example: “I jump out the window.”
Focusing on what each character wants as you write each moment – which may be completely opposite/opposing things – can make for much more interesting writing.
Learn more about Ginny by visiting her website: HeARTsong Creative Center.
The next speaker was no stranger to our OK SCBWI group or to the previous speaker (being her mother). She gave a talk about how to write emotion into your story without crossing the line into sentimentality.
Anna Myers – This award-winning Oklahoma author has published 20 books to much critical acclaim. She has won the Oklahoma Book Award four times for SPY!, ASSASSIN, GRAVEYARD GIRL, and RED DIRT JESSIE. She was also awarded their lifetime achievement, the Arrell Gibson Award, in 2012. She writes historical and contemporary fiction for young readers. She also had her first picture book, TUMBLEWEED BABY, published in 2014. Most importantly, she was our Oklahoma SCBWI Regional Advisor and fearless leader for 14 years.
Anna’s talk focused on helping us see the difference between emotion and schmaltz, the Yiddish word for sentimentality or literally, chicken fat.
“Novels aren’t real life. They need to be sharper.”
Emotion needs to be stronger.
Yet, this doesn’t mean readers want to see characters spill their guts out when grieving. Crying is too easy.
SCHMALTZ! Cut it!
It’s the struggle that’s most interesting. Readers want to see how characters deal with problems – this is where the emotional connection lies.
So, what can you do to show this?
Think of an action to show the emotion.
Anna gave the example of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. This was a devastating time for the entire country. And yet, the most moving image wasn’t of a widow grieving, it was of his young son saluting his casket.
This would not have been as touching if he’d been crying. This is utterly heart-breaking. We feel the loss so much stronger. (While researching, I also learned that this picture was taken on John Jr.’s birthday. Seriously. Where’s the kleenex?)
Of course, tears do have their place, but don’t rely on them, or any other bodily expression, as a crutch for showing your character’s emotion. Focus more on that action that expresses their sorrow.
Learn more about Anna by visiting her website: www.annamyers.info
The next speaker lead us through a visualization exercise to help us overcome blocks in our creative process.
Pati Hailey – Over her career, Pati has written state legislation, online training for large corporations, lesson plans for teachers, and literature for children and adults. She is a frequent speaker at conferences and schools. Pati’s articles have appeared in newspapers and magazines, including Cricket and Hopscotch. Her contribution to this series, TE ATA: Oklahoma Cultural Treasure, is her first published children’s book.
I always find these visualization exercises helpful and I always learn something surprising about my manuscript or my character. Pati walks us through a simple relaxation before taking us through the visualization exercise. During the visualization, we are to focus on a part of our manuscript that is giving us trouble and look at it from a different perspective, paying attention to surroundings in more detail, and thinking about our characters in different ways, even asking them specific questions.
These visualizations allow your brain to relax enough to use your subconscious and solve story problems. You can try these on your own, too. While writing, think about getting up every 30 minutes or so to give your subconscious time to work on any story problems you might have.
Follow Pati on Twitter @PatiHailey
Follow Pati on Facebook here.
After lunch, we had a First Pages Critique Panel
a Speaker Autograph Party
and then dinner…
…before the final event of the day.
The Inspirational Keynote from LINDA URBAN! YAY!!!
Linda Urban – Linda writes picture books and middle grade novels from subjects as varied as an angry mouse expressing emotion (MOUSE WAS MAD), a red-headed boy searching for independence (LITTLE RED HENRY), a girl who dreams of playing pianos only to end up with a wheezy organ (A CROOKED KIND OF PERFECT), and a girl who tries to fix a horrible mistake with a birthday wish (THE CENTER OF EVERYTHING). Urban’s characters are written with so much heart, yours will burst while reading about them.
Linda encouraged us to be open to inspiration and new ideas throughout the weekend.
She told us the story about when she first felt that spark, that joy from writing. She put her heart on the page and loved that feeling. Then one day the good feeling stopped. A boy called her writing weird, and said she was weird. She felt horrible and stopped writing for a long time.
When she came back to writing, it was a slow, painful process. Once she let herself find that spark again, that feeling of joy, she needed to define the “spine” of her work. “Why do I do it?”
For her, she wants to write about small things that matter to kids in a big way.
“All I need to be successful is to be true to my spine.”
What is YOUR spine?
Inspiration in spades!
Learn more about Linda by visiting her website: lindaurbanbooks.com
Stay tuned for The Recap PART II to read all about what Linda Urban had to teach us during the revision intensive on Day Two!