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Workshop takeaways from the 2012 RWA conference

Laura Griffin and me out for a run in Anaheim

 

My annual trek to the RWA National Conference is about more than reconnecting with friends–like my running buddy Laura Griffin–networking with other authors, and a chance to dress up. It's also about learning.

Sometimes one sentence can cause a major shift in your understanding of a topic. Which is why I try to attend as many of the RWA National Conference workshops as possible. Even if I feel pretty well versed in a topic, I usually learn something new, forge a deeper understanding of the subject, or have an epiphany about my story while listening to the speaker.

This year I attended a fair number of workshops and speeches, all of them excellent. With my trusty new iPad and Evernote, I took a lot of notes. Below are some of my favorite takeaways.

Keynote at the Kiss of Death annual general meeting (Brenda Novak)

  • Innovation requires no special thought process. Creative people simply put their mind to the task of being creative.
  • Our creativity suffers when we worry too much about what others will think.

Conflict (Debra Dixon)

  • Push your characters to the breaking point, farther than they're willing to go. They must act against their best interests to achieve the goal. Leave them no other choice but to do the one thing they don't want to do.
  • Every scene needs three reasons to be there or it's not working hard enough. One of those reasons should be to establish the character’s goal, motivation, or conflict.

Emotion: the Heart of the Novel (Brenda Novak)

  • Active writing invokes emotion. To keep the reader in the action, start in the present and move forward in real time, using specific details and “showing” language.
  • Types of writing ranked from least to most active: internal thought, then dialogue, then deep POV, subtext, action, metaphor.
  • The reader needs conflict to really enjoy the happy ending, just like a close game in sports is more exciting than one team trouncing the other, even if the outcome is the same.
  • The conflict has to grow and change if it’s not strong enough to carry the whole book.

How to Put the Thrill in Your Thrillers (James Rollins)

  • High concept: the fewer words needed to describe book, the better (e.g. Jurassic Shark)
  • The character’s goal should be something he has a personal stake in, even if it's a world threat.
  • The hero has to take active steps toward that goal, not just avoiding the villain. Making choices, etc.
  • Incorporate research so it doesn't feel like info dump. For example, have people argue about it, which feeds info and creates conflict.

Make 'em Cry, Make 'em Scream, Make 'em Laugh (Charlotte Carter, Debra Mullins, & Lori Wilde)

  • For greater impact, put the character in a place where the emotion is unexpected (e.g. crying at an office party instead of a funeral).

Plotting via Motivation (Laurie Schnebly Campbell)

  • A goal is term limited and concrete, tangible.
  • Motivation is not term limited; it's a way of being. Motivation doesn't go away even when the goal is achieved.

Treasures, Artifacts, and Curses: Archaeology 101 for Writers (Rachel Grant and Mary Sullivan)

  • Indiana Jones was not an archeologist; he was a looter. 😉
  • 90% of archeologists work in the private sector (as opposed to academia).

Photo Credit: Copyright Laura Griffin. Used with permission.

Conflicted

Credit: Free images from acobox.com

Do you have enough conflict? Not in your life, in your book. My latest rejection from an agent mentioned some issues with the conflict. Not that it wasn’t there, but I clearly hadn’t handled it as well as I thought I had.

I didn’t understand some of her feedback until I attended my WRW chapter meeting on Saturday.

Author Sherry Lewis presented several workshops, including one on conflict that really struck a chord for me. I’ve studied conflict before. My first blog post was about Debra Dixon’s awesome book Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, and I've read several other craft books that handled the topic. I thought I had a decent understanding of it.

But with the recent rejection fresh in my mind, maybe I was more receptive than usual, because some of the things Sherry said lit up my brain as if I'd never heard them before. One of the reasons I read so many craft books, take online classes, and attend chapter meetings is because you never know when something will click.

Either way, here were my big takeaways from Sherry’s workshop.

  • The strongest internal conflict involves a character forced by circumstances (e.g. like saving a life, providing for a loved one, or personal survival) to do something that goes against his or her ingrained beliefs, or who wants two opposing things. A pacifist forced to fight, for example, or a devout priest who longs for children of his own.
  • Characters must hold on to their beliefs as strongly as we do in real life. They shouldn’t be swayed over coffee with a friend.
  • Don’t introduce all of the conflicts at once. Introduce them in stages to keep the middle from sagging. Maybe the priest finally comes to realize that he can serve God in other ways, but then finds out that he’s sterile after he’s already quit the church.
  • In addition to the overarching conflicts, don’t forget the scene conflicts (refer to Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer, which I’m reading right now and highly recommend). Make sure the scene conflict is related to the story. The other character refusing to answer questions is conflict, an attack of swarming gnats is just annoying.

Do you have any gems of conflict wisdom to add?

Solid foundation

On my continuing quest to master (ha, ha, as if) story structure, characterization, POV, setting, and all the many important facets of writing a damn good book, I read a lot of craft books and take the occasional online course. I attend chapter meetings and the annual RWA conference. I read blog posts and agent tweets and writing magazines.

It never ends.

But the amazing thing is, neither does the learning. I can’t believe how many times I’ve wondered why I waited so long to read a certain book, because that one finally crystallized a concept.

What I’m starting to think, though, is that maybe if I had read that book a year ago, it wouldn’t have had the same effect. I think that I have to be exposed to a concept multiple times before it really clicks. Before the nuances and images become clear.

There are some books that I think would have helped me had I seen them earlier. For example, the much-lauded (by me, at least) Story Structure Demystified by Larry Brooks. Another is Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon. Both of these fundamentally changed how I approached my writing and provided a sound footing for future learning.

They indoctrinated me to the basic nomenclature and concepts that most lectures, books, and articles build on.

After going through these two works—and many, many others—James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure made so much more sense to me. Tips and notions that once seemed merely handy were turned profound when laid atop the foundational works.

And now I’m listening to The Hero’s 2 Journeys, a seminar by Michael Hauge and Christopher Vogler. Had I not been exposed to story structure on a fundamental level, I’m not sure this recording would be the magnificent lightning bolt that it has been for me this week.

What do you think are the foundational books that every new writer should start with to prepare them for their lifetime of learning?

 

Did I dazzle you?

“Did I dazzle you? Did I jump off the page?”

Those two lines are from the movie 21, which my husband and I watched over the weekend. I actually liked it, but what really stuck with me were those two lines.

In the movie, those words are thrown back in the face of a professor looking for scholarship recipients with more than just academic achievements. He wants students with “life experience”. After making hundreds of thousands of dollars by counting cards at blackjack tables in Vegas, the main character definitely has it.

The whole scene reminded me of trying to get into Berkeley (which I didn't even want to attend, but my dad hoped I'd get in so I could live at home). Not only did I not have a 4.5 GPA, but my parents were alive, I'm white, I wasn't an Olympian, I hadn't started my own company, and I didn't want to be an astronaut. Let's just say my dad coughed up some dorm fees elsewhere.

Anyway, here's my point. (I know, finally, right?) Those lines made me think about writing good characters. If we do our job well, shouldn't the characters dazzle our readers? Shouldn't they jump off the page as if they were real?

The challenge for us as writers is imbuing our characters with the qualities that make them unforgettable. The life experience that they would have if they were real people. If I were an expert on this, I think I'd be writing on deadline and too busy to blog almost daily, so I won't claim to have the answer.

I do have a couple of good resources, though. The book I just finished–and I highly recommend–is The Plot Thickens by Noah Lukeman. He got me thinking about my characters and their circumstances in a way I hadn't before. There are plenty of thought-provoking exercises at the end of each chapter to start you on your journey.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Debra Dixon's Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. Her book was the subject of my very first blog post, and understanding her concepts represented a real turning point in my writing career. More than any one idea, GMC has had the most profound effect on how I write.

Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress is another good primer for character development. Kress also includes end-of-chapter exercises.

I just started reading The Three Dimensions of a Character by Larry Brooks, so I can't speak to it yet, but it looks good so far. Just like with his book Story Structure Demystified, he excels at the “how to” of writing, and I'm looking forward to his forthcoming book from Writer's Digest.

What are some of your tricks for bringing characters to life, and do you have any other must-have books on the subject to recommend?

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Goal, Motivation & Conflict

I thought I'd start my blog by talking about one of the best books I've read on the craft of writing. “Goal, Motivation & Conflict” by Debra Dixon. I had seen this book mentioned so many times in articles and other books that I finally bit the bullet and bought it–a decision I will not regret.

Understanding GMC will help me with my query letters, the dreaded synopsis, and, of course, crafting a story that can stand up to 300 pages of prose. Making sure each major character (and even the minor ones, if you want) have a clear goal, a reason for wanting that goal, and something keeping them from getting it, is key. The concept seems so simple, and yet it's incredibly powerful.

I've decided to figure out the GMC for the hero and heroine of some of my favorite books by other authors in hopes of gaining insight into what successful authors do. After applying the method to my own work, some issues that I'd been struggling with became clear.

I'd like to know if GMC has helped you solve a problem or find a new direction with your own story.

Happy Writing!