Rebooting the Group

Joe’s Post #171

So, can you reboot a writing group? Refocus it? Get its writers writing, again?

It turns out, *spoiler alert*, you can.

On June 13th, we all met and made our declaration of writing intentions. While not as impressive as the declaration of independence or a declaration of love, it did allow us to find a way back to writing, albeit via a winding, and somewhat meandering path.

I don’t think a single one of us went home and wrote 50 pages. But, we did get writing done. Myself, I managed to get 32 pages done, mostly (due to my horrific tendency to procrastinate), in the last week.

But before that, I spent time going back to the basics. Working on my characters, helped by my writing friend and published author, Sean Slater.

Here’s what I learned in this part of the journey

  1. More beautiful because of her flaws. Like me.

    More beautiful because of her flaws. Like me.

    I found that if I had a picture of my character, a whole ton of things fell into place for that character. When I looked at my protagonist’s sister, the one he rushes off to Europe to save, I saw a beautiful woman who didn’t like to smile because of her teeth. And from that, I built not a plot device, but a real person.

2) A book is defined as much by the villain as the hero. It’s something I’ve worked on a lot in the past, but it’s something I REALLY worked on this time around. Again, it started with an idea, I added a picture and then spent two days writing his life story, his fears and hopes, and his hidden secrets.

3) I stopped stressing about drafting the PERFECT opening line. I know it matters, I do. I get that. But I can spend weeks, I kid you not, trying to find that perfect line and still fail. So,  I let got of that and just wrote.

4) I signed up to attend the Surrey Writer’s Conference, and while that alone didn’t inspire me to write more, there is an editor there who may just be looking for the exact type of book that I’m writing. So that inspired me. (So, if you’re thinking of going, know that we’ll be there. At least 3/5 of the 5/5/5).

5) Like playing tennis after not playing tennis for 25 years, it’s hard to do. You get rusty. Nothing flows. There’s lots of sweating and swearing. But if you keep at it, you’ll get better. Faster. Stronger. Like the million dollar man. Personally, I’m not there, yet, but if I keep at it, I have to believe I can get there.

So that’s a quick update.

siwcWho’s going to Surrey this year? Who wants to buy me a drink so I can pitch my novel without it sounding like this, “it’s a story, ah, about, um, a guy, who does this, err, thing and stuff gets in his way, so he has to, you know, do more stuff?”

Hugs!

 

Why do we torture our heroes?

Happy Canada Day! Now that the 5 writers have reported on our big critique adventure on Whistler Mountain, we thought we’d use the summer to blog about some of the things we learned, observed or discussed in a collaborative way. The idea is to open each week with a topic of interest (a provocative one is always fun), and then each of the 5 writers will in turn add their thoughts about it … or maybe take it in some new direction. We’ll see! We also welcome readers’ thoughts in the comments section, so jump in anytime. Since it is vacation season, after all, we hope readers will forgive us if some of us play hooky occasionally over the summer. And now, on to our first topic …

perils-of-pauline

Silk’s Post #42 — We all got the memo. You get your hero up a tree. You throw rocks at him. And then you get him down.

This writing adage about the three-act structure did have an origin, but tracking it down is not so easy. According to Barry Popik on his very cool blog, The Big Apple:

“It has been cited in print since at least 1897 and has been credited to French writers of farce. George Abbott (1887-1995), who wrote the books for the Broadway musicals Damn Yankees and Fiorello!, often used the saying, crediting it to the American playwright Augustus Thomas (1857-1934). Thomas credits French playwrights in his 1916 book.”

All I know for sure is that when I googled this well-worn novel/script/screenplay bromide, I decided to stop trying to find its genesis when I got to the 25th page of citations.

No matter. It’s received wisdom that has stood the test of time. Why?

If you’ve ever read a book on writing or sat through a workshop at a writers conference, you will be familiar with the constant exhortation to create conflict and tension on every page by giving your protagonist troubles. And then more troubles. In other words, getting him up a tree then throwing rocks at him.

Good advice, as far as it goes. But I think it’s smart to remember that this adage is shorthand for a much more nuanced principle of drama. Blind adherence to the dictum can result in “Perils of Pauline” melodrama, or produce a protagonist so hopelessly beleaguered that the hero comes across as a hapless victim.

There are three big problems with a hapless victim as protagonist.

Problem #1: Repetitive Agonizing
Over-tortured, victimized characters tend to express their constant frustration. After all, the author has to give these poor sods something to say, and when a character with a life-threatening disease, whose true love recently dumped him just after his dog was run over by a car, falls off a cliff and into a gigantic waterfall after being chased by evil aliens … well, let’s just assume the first words out of his mouth after he hits the water will not be, “Wow! What a beautiful waterfall.” How many readers want to spend a whole book with a constantly anguished or angry protagonist? We all want someone to root for, not just feel sorry for.

Problem #2: Boredom
Being in a pickle is not inherently exciting. Giving a protagonist a ton of problems to worry about and suffer from does not automatically create conflict and tension. A guy sitting in solitary confinement in a prison cell has big trouble, but watching him pace the floor and mark the days off on the wall is not interesting. Or even tense (for the reader, at least). Why? He can’t solve his problem. All he can do is be miserable. And misery without conflict, action or interaction is kinda boring. (In case Papillon comes to mind as an exception, that was Henri Charriere’s memoir and, arguably, the exciting parts were the escapes, not the scenes where he spit out his rotting teeth in a filthy cell.)

Problem #3: Miraculous Victory
“The Perils of Pauline” told classic damsel-in-distress stories. Sending in some outside force to rescue the protagonist is one way to get him, or her, down from the tree. But if you’re not (intentionally) writing melodrama, you have to figure out a way to have your hero find his own way down from the tree. If you’ve beset your protagonist with continuously mounting (and unsolved) troubles through the whole book – your character is going to have to morph from hapless victim to unstoppable Superman in the last act to get out of the mess by himself. (Okay, Papillon is certainly a breathtaking example of this … but if it hadn’t been an autobiography, who would have believed it?)

So, what does the “up a tree” dictum really tell us to do? This is something we discussed at length in Whistler, and my own personal epiphany was about the purpose of giving your protagonist troubles. It’s not to make him a miserable, complaining victim. It’s to give him something heroic to do. To put him in action. Only by the protagonist’s reaction to his troubles can we get to know what he’s made of.

Ding … the lightbulb went on for me. Give your hero problems he actually can do something about. Then let him show his stuff. Do we really care about a hero who sits up in that tree kvetching and waiting for miracle? No, we want him to be visibly overcoming his fear of heights, planning his escape, throwing apples at the baying dogs below, weaving a rope out of twigs or something … anything! The tougher the problem, the bigger the hero. But if the protagonist is not well matched with the problems to be solved, the writer may have to cheat and resort to miracles or magic, and that could actually diminish the hero.

That’s my take. What’s yours?