A Practical Handbook for … writers?

A Practical Handbook for … writers?

One of the books I have in San Miguel is A Practical Handbook for the Actor, by Bruder, Cohn, Olnek and Pollack. It was a useful book to consult when writing about actors in The Shadow Queen, but it’s now and again also mentioned as a useful book for writers. This morning, I scanned through it, before returning it to the shelf.

It’s true that many of the passages are relevant to writing. I especially like this one, for example:

The only talent you need to act is a talent for working—in other words, the ability to apply yourself in learning the skills that make up the craft of acting.

With writing in mind, it becomes: The only talent you need to write is a talent for working—in other words, the ability to apply yourself in learning the skills that make up the craft of writing.

So true!

Here are some others:

You must understand that acting, like carpentry, is a craft with a definite set of skills and tools. By assiduously applying your will to the acquiring of those skills and tools, you will eventually make them habitual.

It’s as if I …

I found Chapter 2, on Analyzing a Scene, particularly useful. As writers, we “experience” the scene we’re creating. These craft tools for actors are useful for writers as well:

  1. What is the character literally doing? (i.e. Tackling a man.)
  2. What is the essential action of what the character is doing in the scene? (The “essential” action is the purpose behind the literal actions, i. e. Physically stopping a horrendous thing from happening.)
  3. What is that action like to me? It’s as if … (For example, “It’s as if I were trying to stop my baby from being killed.” This third one is key to being able to put yourself emotionally into the character.)

The second step of defining the essential action can have a number of possible answers, and each one will require a different response to the third.

For example, it could go like this:

  1. What is the character literally doing? (i.e. Tackling a man.)
  2. What is the essential action of what the character is doing in the scene? (Hoping to get a promotion by proving herself the hero of the hour.)
  3. What is that action like to me? It’s as if … (“It’s as if I would be fired if I didn’t prove I could do a man’s job.)

Just tell the story!

Here’s another sweet spot:

The crucial thing to remember is that the actor is not on-stage to have an experience or to expose himself to the audience, but to help tell a story.

Converting this to writing: The crucial thing to remember is that the writer is not writing in order to have an experience or to expose himself to the readers, but to help tell a story.

Another bit of advice I like is:

Choose something that makes you really want to act the action you have chosen for the scene. … The better your as-if, the stronger your action, and thus the full strength of your humanity will be brought to the work.

The through-line

The through-line is the one action that all the individual actions serve.

You must decide what your ultimate goal is and then construct each individual action to bring you a step closer to achieving that goal.

That through-line is often difficult to discern when it comes to writing a novel. Margaret Atwood once described it as the skewer running through the meat and veggies that make up a shish kebab. That’s a very useful image to keep top of mind.

Where have I been?

Where have I been?

Where have I been?

When we arrived in San Miguel de Allende (Mexico) over five months ago, I went on a blogging spree. I was inspired, in part, by the refreshing wonder of fast internet. A month later, I stopped writing blog posts, getting down to the business of writing the keynote speech I was to give at the San Miguel Writers’ Conference mid-February.

As well, The Shadow Queen had been chosen as the Conference’s “Big Read” and an event was organized presenting it to book clubs. The event ended up including a video interview of me on writing The Shadow Queen, two lively short lectures by experts on the historical period, and a dramatic performance from the novel—plus champagne and authentic French beignets.

Being an all-or-nothing sort of person, I got very involved in scripting the film, which you can see here. Denis Lanson, the film-maker, did a wonderful job.

The short dramatic performance was my suggestion (in lieu of a reading). I discovered that it was quite a challenge to write. Wonderful actor friends Marilyn Bullivant and Rick Davey performed it. We went through several rehearsals (necessitating rewrites) together with Karen Kinney, head of the committee (a creative committee from heaven, IMO).

In short, a good part of December, January and early February was entirely taken up with writing the keynote, preparing readings for several Conference panels, and scripting the film interview and dramatic presentation of The Shadow Queen. All very exciting!

On stage before my keynote.

The Conference went wonderfully well. I still glow thinking of the reception to my keynote—a standing ovation from an audience of about five hundred—this in addition to the thrill of so many people reading The Shadow QueenIt was a highlight of my life as a writer.

In the weeks that followed, I struggled to get back to work on the WIP, an increasingly curious little novel about a young falconer in Elizabethan England. I went through all the stages of the writing process, including the requisite, “This is garbage, I should just retire” phase. (“What! You’re on Chapter Four already?” one writer’s husband would say whenever she voiced that thought.)

I made a self-appointed deadline mid-April to deliver an outline and character “bible” to Allison McCabe, the wonderful editor of historical fiction who worked with me on The Game of Hope. I delivered it Saturday morning, then celebrated with a lunch margarita at Casa Blanca, one of our favourite restaurants in San Miguel this year.

The working title of the WIP is now Raptor Wild, which I rather like. The “outline” is a mix of bare-bone scenes (mostly dialogue) and narrative plot points, weighing in at a hefty 14,392 words. The character “bible” is simply a page or two on each of the thirteen main characters, including a gyrfalcon and an elderly English Water Spaniel. A significant number of the characters die or are killed off rather early on in the story—somewhat too grim for a YA, I suspect.

falcon

“Beauty,” one of the WIP characters.

Although this was only an outline, I developed all the usual symptoms of being in final draft mode. Invariably, at that stage, I become obsessed. I get little sleep, cancel all activities that are not work-related, and become convinced I have a fatal illness. That’s when I think: Ah, almost there. How wonderful to send files off and experience a miraculous cure!

Now that Raptor Wild has been wrapped up (for now), it’s time to prepare to leave San Miguel—never easy. I love getting back home to Canada, but I hate leaving Mexico, too. We’ve had a wonderful winter here this year.

Next up, the paperback release of The Game of Hope, all gussied up in a beautiful new cover!

 

 

Champagne and beignets: launching The Shadow Queen into San Miguel de Allende’s next Big Read

Champagne and beignets: launching The Shadow Queen into San Miguel de Allende’s next Big Read

I’ve been quite busy this last month preparing for an event launching The Shadow Queen as San Miguel de Allende’s Big Read. (See my recent blog post about it here.) I wasn’t going to be able to be at the event myself,* but I worked closely with Karen Kinney, head of the committee organizing this event. They did a fantastic job! The event was held last Monday and judging from a number of emails I’ve received, it was a smashing success.

Part of the presentation was this video by film-maker Dennis Lanson, an interview of me on researching and writing The Shadow Queen.

This was followed by two short lectures on 17th century France and a dramatic reading from the novel by wonderful actors Marilyn Bullivant and Rick Davey. Live, period-authentic music, champagne (which was accidentally invented at that time) and beignets (a sweet French treat featured throughout the novel), rounded out the evening.

I wish I could have been there, but we had made holiday plans a year before on the Pacific coast of Mexico, which is where we are now. :-)

Last night’s sunset: spectacular!

My next event will be giving a keynote at the San Miguel Writers’ Conference on February 14, Valentine’s Day. I’ve been reading my talk out loud — honing it, timing it — while walking the beach. It’s a lovely way to rehearse.

How to write a story logline without going crazy

How to write a story logline without going crazy

I decided to try to write a logline for my next novel because I had wandered into mucky territory in working on my plot. I’ve attempted this for several of my earlier novels, but never successfully. I can write a 500-page novel, but a one-sentence summary? This turns my brain into a pretzel.

What is a logline?

Logline Examples

The term logline originated in Hollywood. According to some, film producers would get so many scripts to consider that they took to summarizing the story in one sentence and putting it on the spine of the manuscript so that they could easily find what they were looking for.

A more likely explanation, IMO, is this one, thanks to Ms. Google:

The term “logline” was first used in old Hollywood. The big studios would own hundreds of scripts, and the studio head would keep a log book that recorded concise summaries (or “loglines“) that described each script in the studio’s possession.

A logline (sometimes called the “elevator pitch”) summarizes the essence of a story in one sentence (sometimes two) between 20 – 30 words long.

How hard can that be?

Hard!

Why write a logline?

  • Writing a logline is a good way of discovering the core of your story.
  • A logline will help you keep focussed on that core while writing the novel.
  • A logline will be useful if pitching your book to an agent or publisher, should you need to do so.
  • A logline will be useful in marketing the novel once it’s published.

How to begin

I love anything that makes writing something seem easy, like this video on writing a logline:

According to this, a logline formula is, simply:

Character + want + obstacle

Easy, right?

Not exactly!

First step: Describe the main character

I’ve read that it’s best to use an (interesting) adjective + noun structure for any character mentioned in your logline, and to not use their names. (An exception to this last is to name characters of historical significance.)

Here’s Molly, the main character of The Next Novel (working title Raptor Girl):

A feral teen falconer with mysterious powers

Yes, I know: it doesn’t quite fit the two-word rule, but I’m going with it.

Her antagonist, young Master Pete, might be described as:

  • a predator
  • (or, simply) the Master

And the interesting adjective? Here are some I’m considering:

  • vindictive
  • vengeful
  • desperate

Although “desperate predator” is interesting, “vindictive Master” is clearer.

Next step: What does my protagonist want?

That’s the million-dollar-question, because my Molly (or any character, for that matter) wants many things:

  • She wants her father’s respect.
  • She wants him to come out of his depression, get over his grief.
  • She wants to save his life.
  • She wants to solve the mystery of her brothers’ death.
  • She wants to help her father fulfill her dead brothers’ last wish to compete in Queen Elizabeth’s White Falcon Gala.
  • She wants to escape Pete’s murderous vengeance.
  • She wants to save the lives of her raptors.
  • She wants not to be sent to the gallows for having saved them.
  • She wants to be a falconer, to live a life with raptors.
  • She wants to kiss the funny horse whisperer.
  • She wants to prove to the world that her white falcon is exceptional.

So: how to choose just one?

I began by looking for the one thing that might tie into several others.

This one might be key:

She wants to help her father fulfill her dead brothers’ last wish to compete in Queen Elizabeth’s White Falcon Gala.

Let’s give it the “why” test: Why does she want to do this?

Because:

  • It would help restore her father’s spirits.
  • It would honour her dead brothers.
  • It would prove how amazing her falcon is. (And what an amazing falconer she is, in turn, earning her father’s respect.)

So it’s a fairly central goal, except for one thing. Competing in Queen Elizabeth’s Gala could mean discovery by the Master, from whom she is fleeing.

Last step: the obstacle

So maybe this is the obstacle:

A feral teen falconer with unusual powers is intent on helping her father honour her dead brothers’ last wish by competing in Queen Elizabeth’s White Falcon Gala, although doing so could mean being sent to the gallows by the vindictive Master.

OK. Not bad, although at 41 words it’s far too long. Trimming it back will have to come. Loglines will change over time; they do not have to be written in stone.

Refining the logline

But now, how to refine it, make it better?

In Finding the Core of Your Story  Jordan Smith suggests two things:

  • some loglines need a phrase to set the scene;
  • using the word must or forced can add urgency.

So, giving this a try:

After the suspicious deaths of her two brothers, a feral teen falconer with unusual powers must help her broken-hearted father honour her dead brothers’ last wish by competing in Queen Elizabeth’s White Falcon Gala, although doing so could mean being sent to the gallows by their vindictive Master.

Now to test it, to see if it follows the formula

Main character:

After the suspicious deaths of her two brothers, a feral teen falconer with unusual powers must help her broken-hearted father honour her dead brothers’ last wish by competing in Queen Elisabeth’s White Falcon Gala, although doing will likely mean being sent to the gallows by their vindictive Master.

Goal:

After the suspicious deaths of her two brothers, a feral teen falconer with unusual powers must help her broken-hearted father honour her dead brothers’ last wish by competing in Queen Elizabeth’s White Falcon Gala, although doing so will likely mean being sent to the gallows by their vindictive Master.

Obstacle:

After the suspicious deaths of her two brothers, a feral teen falconer with unusual powers must help her broken-hearted father honour her dead brothers’ last wish by competing in Queen Elizabeth’s White Falcon Gala, although doing so will likely mean being sent to the gallows by their vindictive Master.

The interesting thing about this exercise is that it solved a few plot problems. Before, competing in the Gala was something that happened almost by chance, which didn’t feel logical, much less dramatic. Also, the danger of discovery by Master Pete was never even considered. Now that possibility adds tension.

Plot problems outstanding

There are many outstanding plot problems to be solved, including solving the mystery of her brothers’ death and how to dispense with the vengeful Master.

Also, perhaps the one hook that’s most of interest to potential readers is that Molly will become Queen Elizabeth’s Master Falconer.

You can see how challenging it is to write a logline!


Useful references on writing loglines

Finding the Core of Your Story: How to Strengthen and Sell ...

Finding the Core of your Story by Jordan Smith

Learn How to Write a Logline for Your Screenplay Once & for All

10 Tips for Writing Loglines

Save the Cat! Strikes Back: More Trouble for Screenwriters ...

I’m a big fan of Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, and I’m looking forward to reading Save the Cat Strikes Back, which I understand has a chapter on loglines.

Speaking of Save the Cat, this post on logline templates for specific genres as defined by Snyder looks interesting. I’ll be exploring it soon.

In other words, more to come.

The ins and outs & ups and downs of public speaking

The ins and outs & ups and downs of public speaking

I’ve been combing through old blog posts, preparing for The Big Read in San Miguel de Allende of The Shadow Queen this coming January. For one, I need to have my website in order, especially the posts that relate to that novel. I also need to refresh myself on the process I went through in writing it. It has been a moving exercise.

Annual San Miguel Big Read – San Miguel Literary Sala

As soon as this is done, I will need to begin crafting my keynote speech. February will be upon me in no time. It seemed appropriate that in combing through my website I happened upon an interview I gave on Jane Friedman’s blog some time ago. In response to Kristen Tsetsi‘s question on public speaking, I outlined my process. I share it here — with some additional stories of things I’ve learned since.

Archive of Author Events | Sandra Gulland

Q: A reading, you’ve said, is more like a talk, an opportunity for the author to engage with the audience. What five pieces of advice would you give authors about to deliver their first reading/talk?

Most writers are introverts and find public speaking daunting. Take heart! Introverts are, as a rule, excellent public speakers, but only because they prepare like crazy.

Here is my process …

Write the talk: every word of it

Put a lot of time into writing a good talk. Write out every word of your presentation. Aim for only about five to ten minutes of reading, and the rest of it talk, leaving time for about fifteen minutes of Q&A at the end. Type the sections of your book you plan to read into your speech.

In general, people love to laugh, and self-deprecating humor goes over well. Remember that you are there to entertain. Readers enjoy personal accounts about the process of creation.

People like to be participants, so ask questions: engage the audience.

Prepare a few funny questions to suggest at the end, should your audience be shy to speak up during the Q&A.

Your entire talk/reading should be about thirty to forty minutes.

Read the talk out loud: every word of it

Read your talk out loud slowly. Edit the passages you are going to read from your book to make them easy for you to read, as well as easy for listeners to understand. Change words you find difficult to pronounce or stumble over. Think of this as theater. A passage read out loud comes across differently from a passage one reads to oneself silently, so adjustments must be made.

Print the talk out in big bold type

Convert your talk to large bold print, and break each paragraph into sentences. Print out your talk and assemble it in a binder. Dog-ear each page so that the pages are easy to turn.

(I wrote about my speaking process in a blog post here, “Finding focus.”)

Rehearse the talk, over and over

A natural, relaxed presentation is achieved with lots of preparation. A few days before your talk, read in front of a mirror, sweeping up from the page with each sentence to meet your own eyes. The day of the talk, do this two or three times. (A caution about going hoarse, however!)

Slow down as you read—don’t race through it.

Try on what you’re planning to wear—is it comfortable? Do you feel good in it? Do you feel like yourself?

Prepare to present the talk … and to expect glitches

Getting comfortable with public speaking comes with practice.

Never Be Nervous Again Audiobook by Dorothy Sarnoff ...

When I was first published, I read and was greatly helped by Never be Nervous Again by Dorothy Sarnoff, who advises speakers to think of the following mantra before a talk: “I’m glad I’m here, I’m glad you’re here, and I know what I know.” Try it! Don’t dread a crowd; embrace it. (I highly recommend this book.)

The most important rule-of-thumb: enjoy yourself — but most of all enjoy the people who have made an effort to come see you …

… including the snoring fan slumped in the front row.

This happens! For amusing stories from actors, read this. (Confession: I’ve once or twice been that snoozing person in the audience myself. When the eyelids start to droop, it can’t be helped!)

I’ve learned that giving out door prizes throughout a talk is not only fun — Who doesn’t love a door prize? — but keeps everyone on their toes.

Find out what the venue is going to be like. Ask for a mike if the group is going to be large. This will allow you to have a more emotional range in your reading. I like to be able to dramatically whisper, for example.

If you plan to give a visual presentation (such as Powerpoint), expect that there will be glitches with the equipment. In my experience, this never fails to happen, and sometimes too with mikes. I’ve learned to bring my own computer, portable projector and cables just in case. If only there was a portable mike one could have on hand, as well.

Plan what you will do in case only one or two people show up. Offer to go to a cafe for a one-on-one chat, for example. Consider this your rite of passage: every author goes through it.

Some of my most memorable talks have been to very small and intimate groups.

author readings Archives | Sandra Gulland

There will be disasters: these will make good stories. Eventually. One of mine was a live TV interview, called an “open-ender” because I was in one city and the interviewer was in another. I could hear his questions through the ear bud in my right ear. And then it fell out and I couldn’t hear a thing. I was filmed scrambling on the floor trying to find it.

I laugh about it now. One wonderful thing about being a writer is that everything is potential material, nothing is wasted.

What public speaking adventures/misadventures have you experienced, either as a speaker or someone in the audience?

My fav podcasts of the year

My fav podcasts of the year

I’m an avid Podcast listener. I listen to them while exercising, doing household chores, or driving. These are the ones I check out most often.

Daily news podcast:

The Daily by The New York Times on Apple Podcasts

The Daily by the New York Times is a short (about 20 minutes) in-depth look at a specific issue in the current news. It covers the history of the subject in an entertaining way. It’s my go-to daily podcast. I miss it on the weekends.

(Note: Since publishing this post, I’ve also started daily listening to The Rachel Maddow Show podcast.)

Whenever there is a new episode:

These are the ones I think, “Oh great! A new episode.”

MSNBC And Rachel Maddow Launching New Podcast 'Bag Man ...

Bag Man, by Rachel Maddow. This is a special series on the blatant and shocking criminality of the Nixon-Agnew White House and how it was brought down. Fascinating. And perhaps all-too relevant.

Serial | Listen via Stitcher Radio On Demand

I love Serial because I love Sarah Koenig’s journalism. The current series explores the justice system in various cities. Always enlightening.

Every now and then, depending on the subject:

The Axe Files with David Axelrod by CNN on Apple Podcasts

David Axelrod has been in the thick of the political world for ages. On The Axe Files, his interviews with politicians from across the spectrum are in-depth.

Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher by Recode on Apple ...

Kara Swisher is sharp as a tack and tackles interesting techie subjects on Recode Decode. Most recently, her guest was Elon Musk. For example.

Great literary podcasts (when I need a break from the news):

All About Podcasts | Perfect Nostalgia

I love the gossipy banter about books, authors and publishing on the Book Riot podcast.

List-ish: Five writer’s tools to get you motivated this ...

The Story Grid is a wonderful podcast with Shawn Coyne, a top editor for 25+ years, coaching Tim Grahl, who week-by-week is going through the process of writing his first novel. Start at the beginning.

Writers and Company from CBC Radio by CBC on Apple Podcasts

We all love Eleanor Wachtel. She’s smart, humane, incredibly well-read, and has a delightful sense of humour as well. Her interviews on Writers & Company with top authors from around the world are amazing.

Ann Y. K. Choi, Murray Sinclair – The Next Chapter from ...

Shelagh Rogers is another Canadian institution. On The Next Chapter, she interviews Canadian authors, her style cosy and warm.

Just for fun:

WTF Podcast with Marc Maron

WTF! Comedian Marc Maron is a wonderful interviewer — funny (but of course), irreverent and candid. He most often gets fellow comedians on his show, but also big-name musicians and (gasp) even politicians. Don’t miss the interview with then-President Obama, for example.

Dear Sugars - Podcasts - The New York Times

Hosts Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond tackle letters from troubled fans in a sensitive and enlightening way. Dear Sugars is a “Dear Abby” live for our times.

What are your favourite podcasts? I’d love to know.