Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Do We Wear Masks?

“People are NOT what they seem to be before we really get to know them,” an acquaintance of mine said with great authority. She went on to say that the true, hidden natures of most people are concealed behind masks of polite behavior and what they think is expected of them. However, once the pressure is on, the masks come off. True natures are revealed.

"The more stress people are under," my friend said, "the less guarded they are. And then their actions reveal them.”

For better or for worse, this conversation brought me back to a certain tragedy I had been a part of, once upon a time. In this incredibly stressful situation, people were under immense pressure. Anxiety times one thousand. Despite all the fear and the horror, people acted with amazing kindness and heroism. However, I've also witnessed some pretty hideous shenanigans from people under crazy amounts of stress. Were all of these folks, in both situations, showing their truest selves? Do we reveal who we really are by the spontaneous choices that we make under duress?

Of course, this applies to the characters in stories, too. After all, they should be having rough times. They should be up to their foreheads in trouble and tension and stress. So, if my friend is right, there should be lots of opportunities for writers to show the truths behind their characters.

What do you think? Do the choices people or characters make under pressure reveal their true natures or simply other facets of their personalities?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Go Team!

I’ve been thinking a lot about teamwork, especially the camaraderie in the world of writing and publishing. Maybe because a part of my heart is breaking for a talented writer friend who is having a tough time, as another part of me rejoices for a different writer pal who, after a rough go of it, is spinning with exciting publishing news. Where would we be if we couldn’t share our lows and our highs with each other?

I’ve also been feeling the love of teamwork in regard to promotion, which is not my favorite word. When my novels came out, promoting could be lonely and painful. However, I was lucky enough to be adopted into a fabulous group of authors that work together to promote. The KidLit Authors Club (http://kidlitauthorsclub.com/HomePage.html) was started by authors who realized that promoting solo can be miserable, but promoting as a group can be a blast.

A couple weeks ago, for example, I attended an all-day book festival. Had I been alone with my books, I would have felt awkward and uncomfortable. Think stray dog in need of a home. Sitting at tables with other authors, though, chatting and laughing and sharing books (our own and each others) with people made the day fun. I think we actually attracted readers to our tables because we were enjoying ourselves so much. Teamwork and camaraderie in action.

If you’re a blogger, or a fan of Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, or other similar sites, you know all about the rewards of connecting with others. Going through trials and triumphs with kindred spirits—people who understand the good, the bad, and the sometimes ugly of life—makes such a difference.

How has teamwork and camaraderie made a difference in your life? I’m guessing it has.

Footnote: Speaking of teamwork, I am now overseeing the Twitter account for the KidLit Authors Club. If you follow us ( @kidlitauthors ), I promise to follow you back! : )

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Save the What? When?

I have been reading a book on screenwriting called Save the Cat! I love cats, but I wondered what a book about screenwriting had to do with felines. Blake Snyder, the author of this book with the orange tiger kitty swinging across the front, explains that the “save the cat” scene in a movie is when the audience observes the hero doing something that makes him likable--such as saving a cat. This action defines the character as a good guy. Score.

I got the impression that this saving business should happen sooner rather than later, as in when the audience first meets the main character, at least in a movie. But is this necessary in a novel?

I can’t help thinking about one of my favorite classics—A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. In this fabulous tale of redemption, Ebenezer Scrooge is far from saving any cats when the reader meets him. Yet, at least for me, Scrooge is still a compelling character. Yes, he’s cynical (you know: “bah humbug”), but he is also lonely and empty.

It seems to me that Charles Dickens sets Scrooge up to be such a crusty dude that the reader senses that change must come. The story becomes more interesting because the reader wants to understand why Ebenezer has developed into such a callous of a human being.

So, by the time ol’ Ebenezer finally has an epiphany, at the end of the story, and saves a cat, the reader practically cheers (or, at least, this reader did). The reader has been hoping that the wicked can turn kind-hearted, and Scrooge has. By the close of the story, he has saved multiple cats and this works.

What do you think? In a novel, does a character need to save a cat right away? Is Charles Dickens the only guy who can pull of making a main character pretty unlikeable and yet compelling until the very end of a story?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Got Tension?

Tension. We wade through it every day. It’s in the smallest moment of conflict and (of course) the rip-the-hair-out-the-head melt down. If someone asked me on any given day if I would like another helping of tension, I’d back away screaming “Noooo!” But give me a novel that lacks tension, big or small, and I’ll scream the same.

Without tension, the novel becomes a kind of sleeping pill, right? That’s why these statements from The Fire In Fiction, by the amazing Donald Maass fascinated me:

“What many do not grasp, though, including many published novelists, is that what keeps us turning hundreds of pages is not a central conflict, main problem, or primary goal.”

“Keeping readers constantly in your grip comes from the steady application of something else altogether. Micro-tension.

“Micro-tension is the moment-by-moment tension that keeps the reader in a constant state of suspense over what will happen, not in the story, but in the next few seconds.”

Wow, these statements resonated with me. When I start reading a book and emotional conflict happens on the first page, I’m in. Maybe there is a rivalry between characters or a misunderstanding that can’t be ignored. Suddenly the dialogue between these characters has snap and crackle and pop. There is friction as a result of animosity, jealousy, passion, or other churning emotions. What is going on inside them is intriguing. This, it seems to me, could be an example of micro-tension--a moment of tension that keeps me reading and anxious for what is going to happen next, as in immediately next. It isn’t necessarily about the overall plot or even the stakes of the scene. It’s more focused on the conflicting emotions of the characters.

Of course a writer needs to pay attention to how to build the loud tension of the main character’s struggle for the ultimate goal, and all the opportunities for big tension in the story’s plot, characters, and setting. In between these building blocks of story, though, it makes sense that there can and should be the smaller conflicts called micro-tension. The mortar between the building blocks that holds them together.

What do you think?

For all your writers out there: Have you considered the concept of micro-tension? Do you incorporate it into your writing?

For you readers: When has micro-tension had you flipping pages while reading?

Last but miles away from least: A huge thank you to Ashley at http://ashley-nixon.blogspot.com/2011/09/blog-award-whoo.html?showComment=1317679295538#c7788470722401726733 and to Nutschell at http://www.thewritingnut.com/ramblings/blog-awards/#comment-4597 for gifting me lovely blog awards (and nice words about this blog). Big smile. : )