Friday, October 9, 2015

Alchemy of the Writer Magician

The Author’s Alchemical Process—Do you have it?

Some additional highlights from the Central Coast Writer’s Conference not mentioned in my post last week:

Keynote Presenter - Karl IglesiasThe Keynote speaker, Karl Iglesias addressed The Emotional Core of a story. He was certainly clear on what a successful storyteller must have. He used Pixar, winner of 27 Oscars for animated pictures, as a model of great story telling.

Certainly, we have to be concerned about our protagonist’s reactions when we draft our stories, but what struck me most was that we need to be cognizant of the emotional reaction in the reader/listener/viewer (movies). If the reader doesn’t feel anything, why finish reading? 

Caring and conflict are what make a good story. We know that. But, there must be empathy and a chemical connection established with the reader. (When women read fiction they release more oxytocin than men—probably why more women read romance. Who doesn’t want to feel good?)

I’m reading The Martian presently. While everyone is raving about it, I was half way through and had no emotional connection—exactly what Iglesias is talking about. The empathy and chemical connection that makes a successful story was not there. The author failed to make me care about the protagonist’s plight of being stranded on mars—and that’s something to care about. 

It was fascinating to read all the scientific information, but after a while, I became bored. If it were not for a friend that told me it gets better, I would probably have put the book down and just gone to see the movie. 

So, writers, what makes the reader feel that empathy? There needs to be caring and conflict—hope , worry and tension. Iglesias suggested a few ways to make the reader feel that connection by using:

  •   An undeserved mistreatment, injustice of a defenseless character
  •  Undeserved misfortune
  •  Physical and/or mental handicap
  •  Frustration or humiliation/ embarrassment
  •  Abandonment
  • Betrayal
  • Loneliness and neglect
  • Sharing your humanity in private moments (if privacy is invaded and humiliation is endured 
    (For more—get his book: Writing for Emotional Impact)

Many of those suggestions fit The Martian, so why didn’t it work for me? 

It has as the major stake an astronaut being stranded on Mars with possible death. Although he’s engaging because of his sense of humor, the author has not made me care. There’s definitely conflict. I watch him struggle, use his unique set of engineering and other scientific skill sets. I watch with fascination. But am I connected to him as another human being? No. The writer has not made him come alive for me. He remains a character on a page in a book—not a real life person I might want to spend time with. Now the movie might be very different, depending on the skills of the actor (and we all know who that actor is so I’m sure I’ll care).

I know there are readers who have more logical minds that will love the book for its technical information.   

Would you keep reading?

Peter NicholsAnother session I went to was on writing Memoir with Peter Nichols (What you remember is up to you) and I found insight into writing fiction beyond just memoir. 

And here's  why The Martian didn’t work for me:

The technically accurate ‘truth’ is not where the story is. 

That’s why fiction has such value.

When writing memoir, keep in mind:

  • It is not a biography that needs to be fact checked. It may not be the “truth.” Memory is elastic/plastic and changes over time as our synapses change. A memoir is a reconstruction of memory—not the actual moment, and everyone that occupied that moment will remember it differently.
  • It is how a memory affects the writer (and memory is a funny thing—we will all remember the same incident differently). Ask yourself, ‘how does that memory make me feel?’

There is a commonality in human experience. That concept ties in with what Iglesias said. It is not the factual truth we care about but the emotional truth. Our opinions are formed from our memories. But the memories evoked from looking at old photos are never the factual truth. 

If you don’t remember all the details of the time period you're writing about, it’s probably not important. What happened inside you is where the real story is. Where did you come from psychologically and how did it color how you view life? 

When writing a memoir, write it in any way that will help you get it out, in whatever voice you need to tell your story. Realizing it does not need to be published, gives you the freedom to get at the emotional “truth.”

Find the center point on which to hang your story:

  • Where are you writing from—what incident or time?
  • Identify the emotions you feel when remembering.
  • There needs to be commonality and surprise.

The dysfunctional family is a familiar model for a memoir—it gives the reader a point to relate to and find their own humanity.  Harper Lee’s style was to write To Kill a Mockingbird from the viewpoint of a child with all the knowledge and wisdom of an adult.

We all tell ourselves stories about our lives. Make what you remember very real, whether it's true or not. Focus the details toward a goal of your story. What is it you want your readers to glean?

Nichols advice: When you've gotten it all out, you then fit it into a shape you can sell, if that's your goal.
     "A story is a problem or a stressful situation." 
     "Forgetting is the compost of the imagination." 
     "What you remember is up to you."

Both these authors are saying the same thing whether writing fiction, a movie, or a memoir—the emotional reaction in the reader is key--brought about by the magician author’s alchemical process.  

Keynote Presenter - Karl Iglesias
Karl Iglesias is a screenwriter and sought-after script doctor and consultant, specializing in the reader’s emotional response to the page.  He is the author of the best-selling Writing For Emotional Impact and The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters, and a contributor to Now Write! Screenwriting and Cut to the Chase. He’s an Adjunct Professor at California State University – Fullerton and an instructor at UCLA Extension’s Writer’s Program, where he received the Outstanding Screenwriting Instructor award in 2010.  
Follow him on Twitter @KarlIglesias

Peter NicholsPeter Nichols is the author of the novel The Rocks (Riverhead Books, 2015), and the international bestsellers A Voyage for Madmen, Evolution's Captain, and three other books of fiction, memoir, and non-fiction. His novel Voyage to the North Star was nominated for the Dublin IMPAC literary award. He has taught creative writing at a number of universities, including Georgetown University, Bowdoin College, New York University in Paris. He has also worked in advertising in London, as a screenwriter in Los Angeles, been a shepherd in Wales, and sailed alone in a small boat across the Atlantic.

What are your reading limits? Do you need that emotional connection when you read?

Have you read The Martian?--I would love to know how you saw it in this context.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Road Less Traveled

Do you have a curious mind? Want to find out what’s underneath rocks? In dark caves? In forbidden rooms? Me, too. Oh, wait, did you say, No? Well think about this. If we don’t test ourselves, challenge ourselves, go into unfamiliar places, try hard things, uncomfortable things, then we atrophy. And we miss wonderful opportunities for love, life, happiness—even wealth.

As soon as you begin putting up walls in your thinking, nothing new can get in, and that may well be to your detriment. As goes the mind, so goes the body. That’s a coraism. (I decided I needed to start coining my sayings. Ha! Even though that’s been said in different words--nothing new under the sun and all that)

So, with this as my philosophy, I challenged myself this year by taking on a couple of different studies and a pinch of adventure—I love adventures. Don’t you? As a result, I have a new perspectives and new ideas feeding my writing brain and my life.

The first part of 2015, I took on shamanic journeying. The whole drumming, traveling with spirit guides to learn a different kind of wisdom than this world has to offer, thing. If you’re already thinking I’ve got a screw loose, or maybe you think I’m consorting with evil spirits—that’s the kinds of walls I’m talking about. See paragraph #1 & 2. Open your mind! (And read on to learn what else I’ve been up to)

So what did I glean from that? New, fresh ways to view the world around me—and how to look and deal with situations (in life and in writing) in new ways. I saw the walls I had put up around parts of myself, learned new techniques to tear those down and bring into focus the strengths and powers I had hidden in dark rooms (hey, I’m a poet and metaphor is my go-to whenever I get into areas where there are few words . . ..
This was probably why I didn’t blog much this year (I really love Anne Allen’s term, ‘slow blogging.’  (Don’t run yourself ragged trying to blog every week if you have nothing to say that’s useful—another coraism) Sometimes, I feel like I don’t know much. And when I feel like that, I don’t blog. You don’t need to hear my ramblings when I ramble.

Next, I began classes with Tai Lopez on getting what you want out of your life and career—even get rich if that’s what you want. And you know what? It wasn’t a scam. (Go back to paragraph #2.)  I’m learning to view the world differently—relate to it differently. I actually see progress in the way I’m thinking . . . and, it has strengthened my creativity, my writing, and my health.

And, I had two mini adventures this year as well. The RWA (Romance Writers of America) had a conference in San Diego which I attended. It was okay—I learned stuff. 

Doug Richardson, Gene Perret, Jonathan Maberry on panel of 6
But the Central Coast Fiction Writer’s Conference at Cuesta College this past month was totally amazing. The talent was over-the-top! My head is spinning with all the new information. I can’t go into all the speakers that gave me more than my money’s worth, so--
I’ll pick one, Jonathan Maberry (NYT best-selling author who writes horror).

What did I learn from him? I learned I have a bit of the horror genre in me! It’s been there all along and I didn’t recognize it as that. My short stories reflect it (in the anthology, Valley Fever, Where Murder is Contagious, free on Kindle Unlimited right now). I even use the tagline on this blog that I write stories of romance and, “suspense that straddles the edge-whether that edge is the paranormal, a deadly decision or the place where science ends and magic resides.”

How can I be a horror writer if I’m writing Romance and Romantic Suspense? (see that last word—yup, it’s in there—genre crossover. When ‘suspense’ comes to mind, so does Hitchcock). And I even had one short story on line in the erotic horror genre. I surprised myself with that one.

“The more pervasive the paranormal is, the more you fall into horror,” Maberry states. . . and ghost stories aren’t necessarily horror.

Define horror? Maberry points out that when he gets together with other horror writers, even the experts can’t agree on a definition. For him it’s, “whatever makes us afraid and gets a reaction.” 

The horror genre diminished in the 1980s when it began to get into extreme horror; movies concentrating on blood and pain (focused on women and children). Many people were turned off and stopped buying into it and the horror genre tanked. Publishers stopped buying it.

But serious writers then began writing under supernatural thriller, suspense, and crossover fiction (Urban fantasy, dark fantasy, sci-fi—think Stephen King; he writes to the mainstream audience but with elements of sci-fi, fantasy and horror). 

And don’t belittle the horror genre. The Road by Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer for literary fiction and was horror.

Lest I get too far astray, I won’t go on about the horror markets and Maberry’s advice for writers (unless enough people want to know more and tell me in the comments below).

Needless to say, all these experiences this year have affected me and my writing—deeply. And it’s only September. Can’t wait to see what Oct., Nov., and Dec. will bring!

Keep tearing down those walls that keep you from your good.

Were there any walls you tore down this year that you can share?  I’d love to hear about them.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Inspiration? Hmmm

I'm posting over at Women's Fiction Writers today. The talk is on inspiration and where it comes from--the jungles of Mexico's Yucatan being one of mine.

Inspiration can be a funny thing. You might have to dig for it, but after researching (that research being from books, the internet or by experience) it will come forth, sometimes in an unexpected moment of reverie. Or maybe while washing the dishes. You have to be ready to grasp that sucker and get it down.

I like to give my fellow writers notebooks to write down when that moment of inspiration hits. Or any details that strike their imagination. We lose so much as our minds hurry along their speeding tracks of everyday life. 

Inspiration is right there in our every day experience-everywhere. It's a matter of picking up a moment, a feeling, an image, an idea and rolling it around until you find the opening in. 

Traveling - and it doesn't have to be far -  is an excellent way to pick up the trail to another story. Earlier this year I went to the coast and visited Carmel at night. A walk down one of the streets yielded a moment when I captured a short video on my phone of a lone artist, sitting in a gallery, playing a guitar.  
           (I'm not sure if you will be able to see this video, but here it is. Let me know.)

The whole sense of his loneliness, the walls of paintings behind him as he sat on that single chair in the middle of the gallery playing for himself yielded a story which I later sent off to an anthology. 

So grab a notebook, your phone or camera and grasp those moments of life that impress you. You may not know why at the moment, but it will stew and maybe become the inspiration for a story. If nothing else, a treasured memory to store in your box of memories.


Monday, July 13, 2015

Childhood Reflections of the 4th

Today I welcome author, poet and friend, Eva Santiago. I had asked her to post here after I read something she wrote on Facebook for July 4th. Hope you enjoy her story, her poem and her work.  

I am Eva Santiago, an author/poet from Colombia. I immigrated to the US after the death of my parents when I was a small child. I am proud to call myself an American and am happy to share part of my life story here with you. 

I came to the US in 1976, that summer I learned about July 4th when something I had never seen before happened right before my eyes. After the family went to church, we were driving down palm tree covered McGregor Ave, Fort Meyer's main street back then.I was seated next to my uncle who was driving his '75 avocado green Chevy station wagon. The whole family came along; my grandma, Isabel, next to her my aunt Blanca, my sister, Mireya, cousins Frank and Mike and my uncle's wife, Graciela. Suddenly, in the middle of that humid, balmy, South Florida summer day, all the church bells were ringing, all the cars had their lights on and everyone was honking their car horns. I asked my uncle what that was all about. He paused and tossed me a smile saying," Today is the Bicentennial birthday of this great country and people are celebrating! This is her 200th birthday!!" 
The rest of the family nodded their heads in agreement as they smiled back at me. They had come here  as immigrants a few years before so they knew the answer to my curious inquiry.

At just 6 years old, I was fascinated with the mere fact that a country had a birthday. From then on the 4th of July became one of my favorite holidays and it still is. I even shed a tear or 2 every time we go see fire works. Yes, this country has huge struggles, but nonetheless, I received a way better life than if  I had stayed in my birth country of Colombia. Because of the U.S., I have had more opportunities to make my dreams come true and I always explain this to my 4 children who had the privilege of being born in the US. When I became a US citizen in 1991, it was one of the proudest moments in my life and I will be forever grateful!!

Recently, our country has been facing some tremendous hurdles. You conquer a people by dividing them up and pitting them one against the other. The racial war is escalating and today as we celebrate the country's birthday please let us never forget that we are ALL Americans. 
At the end of the day we all go to sleep under the same sky where the same red, white and blue banner flies. I want to share this poem to remind us all that in God's eyes, we are all the SAME and that the last bastion of freedom is our minds. 
Let us unite in one mind, one purpose and one accord from this day onward and bury any hatchet of hate by promoting UNITY through LOVE!  

The race card, the race card,
everyone likes to play the race card.
You are white,
and that’s all right by me.
You think you alone have the light,
and no one else compares,
‘cause you’re the one who’s always right
so you go on putting on airs.
The race card, the race card,
everybody likes to play the race card, the race card.
You are black;
you come in all hues and shades.
In the past, you’ve been held back;
in the past, you were the slaves.
In the past, you were the maids,
sabotaged in midnight raids.
And nothing’s changed for you…
So you think.
The race card, the race card,
everybody likes to play the race card, the race card.
Your skin is red; you discovered America.
Didn’t come over on a ship;
you walked over the great land bridge.
Never beaten with a whip,
you owned and farmed your land
with you own hands
and not labor from Africa.
Then Europe came and said, “Move over!”
“We want what you have, so move on!”
From the Rockies to the Great Lakes all the way to Dover,
north, south, east and west, you were tread upon.
The race card, the race card,
everybody likes to play the race card, the race card.
Everyone’s a slave
in one form or another.
After Pearl Harbor’s worst attack,
they called out all the Asians.
History repeats itself, never holds anything back,
Rounded them up; today it’s called profiling.
Your yellow skin and slanted eyes
would be the cause of your confinement.
The masses believed all the lies
Uncle Sam told as he dealt you the race card.
The race card, the race card,
everybody tries to play the race card, the race card.
Then there was Hitler and his great hate,
for of all the worst of evils,
his bone chilling hatred of his own people.
The darkness in his soul so sinister;
I’ve stood inside one of his incinerators.
One by one, the Jews faced slaughter;
no songs were sung under the church steeple,
no sermon preached by the minister…
Mother, father, husband, wife, son, and daughter;
they all went up in smoke.
The race card, the race card,
Everybody tries to play the race card, the race card.
Please don’t tell me I’m too young,
please don’t tell me I don’t know;
I’ve been on the bottom of the ladder,
hanging on to the last rung.
The race card, they dealt me with it too,
been too many places where nasty words flew.
My parents crossed racial lines and broke with taboo;
their love so strong, it grew and grew,
and one by one they had us,
oh we are quite the crew!
Then we get the biggest slap,
yeah, it still stings my face—
the family said to us, “You aren’t wanted, get away!”
They too played the race card,
with their own flesh and blood.
Racism sucks no matter its source.
When it flows from within,
a torrent a flood,
it comes with a terrible, destructive force.
You can get away from mean-spirited strangers;
you go home and shout, “Shut the front door!”
When racism bit
from the family who bore me ,
when they told me “You’re lower than a dirt worm,”
implying I haven’t many rights,
that’s when I packed up my bags;
I threw out the board game
and burned all of their cards.
I learned to travel light,
and I love all people, and treat ‘em the same.
I learned to pray, and that’s how I fight.
When I hear of racism,
One group smearing another
In endless battles of bitter words,
I appeal to the Captain of the Host
to bring out His angelic forces with all of their swords…
And that, my friend,
is how the battle is won.

I have published 2 books: 
As Clear as Claire Gets: A Conversation with the Past--my life story and how my faith brought me through terrible obstacles, and made me who I am today. 
Salsa! The Taste of Life--a collection of short stories and some poetry from the 3 continents I grew up on.