The Combustible Plot

As a writer of fantasy novels, I’ve been reading a lot of them. Well, I always read a lot of them; now I can pretend that I have a reason for that. And not just the ones that hit the New York Times Book Review, such as Erin Morganstern’s glorious The Night Circus.

My first two books have young women as protagonists, putting them in the ever-fluid category of Young Adult, or YA. My problem in writing for that group is that I do not like frantic. Not in books, not in movies, not on television. If crazy things happen—abductions, sudden bursts of strange powers, car chases with explosions—I want the story to earn them; to lead up to them. I want the story to focus on character rather than endless plot.

Wolverine Walks Away
Wolverine Walks Away

I know, I know, movies crammed with car chases and explosions are essential entertainment for a fried Friday night. But I don’t read books for over-the-top explosive plots. In fact, I started writing novels because you don’t have to start in the middle of things, the way you do as a playwright. You have time to set things up.

That’s why I adore Ursula Le Guin and Robin McKinley. They create their worlds and characters before starting in on the adventures. It helps, of course, that I always want to memorize and quote their words—because they take time with the words, their worlds, their characters.

Here’s an example of frantic. I liked Holly Black’s YA fantasy The Darkest Part of the Forest. Great situation, interesting main character. Although Hazel, manifests lots of teenage lunacy, she also has some sense—and a dark past. You can read it in an hour, but it’s satisfying.

So I picked up Black’s novel Tithe. Which is frantic. The heroine, Kaye, is supposed to be fierce, but she mostly rushes into things just to serve the plot, just so awful stuff can happen to her. By the middle, I didn’t much care if she even lived through her misadventures.

aspie-girl-freaksYeah, I know, Holly Black is published and loved. To me, that means that lot of YA readers must like frenzied tales—maybe because their lives feel frenzied. But don’t their lives get more frantic when fed on jittery stories?

I picked Holly Black because I just finished reading two of her books, but plenty of other successful, well-regarded fantasy writers have the same effect on me. I want to tell them to stop rushing about and tell me about some PEOPLE.

However, my irritation with the combustible plot has led me to write stories where nothing happens. That, of course, is not the answer. Recently, when I was fighting a no-plot tale, the husband suggested that I re-read Stephen King. But King doesn’t land his characters in the middle of horror: first, he shows us the comfortably dull surface of their lives. See The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. He also gives us the added bonus sneaking his great analysis of popular culture into his novels. I’m all for added bonuses—unusual point of view, energetic language, stuff like that.

Now don’t tell me to go read Today’s Important Novel just to get all those bonuses. I still love fantasy, and I know it can be just as good as the New York Times Best Sellers. Even YA Fantasy novels can make their Best Seller list, like Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs.

And if you haven’t read Neil Gaiman, put down Ulysses and Moby Dick, and enjoy yourself.

For the Actor: Butch or Femme?

men.take.spaceA young actor recently asked me for advice about a role he was playing. And I was reminded of a long-ago college student, to whom I gave the same advice, and who ended up playing lead roles. I told him to remember the male/female exercise we did in his freshman year–and to butch it up.

I prefaced my advice by saying that none of this has anything to do with how we move in real life. What actors need to do is have many character choices available to them. (Many women end up playing male roles—especially in Shakespeare. They need this stuff!)

The exercise:

Enter, sit down, wait, give up waiting, exit.

Do this as if you were your twin sister (or, in my case, twin brother.) What you get at first is a lot of stereotyped behavior–sashaying, crotch scratching–until the audience is giggling.

Then I say–is this really how people move? And don’t we all move on a sort of continuum? Me, I’m a little butch for a female. I take up space. But I can get all sweet and fluffy if needed for a role (and if no one laughs too hard!)

So here’s what I tell the actors once they’ve realized the error of their ways.

Skinny-Runway-Model-01Stereotyped female: take up less space. Feet together, arms close to body, narrow shoulders. Flexible–soft neck, delicate arms, soft upper body. Low center–baby-making hips.

(Not Toshiro Mifune big hara/power in navel, that’s different–a Japanese approach to butch.)

Femme attitudes: Smilling, no matter what. Flirtation, sweetness, or–oh, gosh, thinking of secretary-style-women I’ve known, a kind of head-ducking powerless thing. Ew. But I can do this if the role demands it!

Stereotyped male: Take up space–legs apart, wide shoulders. Everything stiff and muscled–strong shoulders, neck too thick to move much. Ditto arms—and they may stand out from the sides a little, to make space for muscles (and be read to sock someone!). Not flexible. High center–more weight in upper body than lower body. Narrow, inflexible hips. (This is tricky for me, but I can do it—it’s just a matter of imagining them strongly enough.)

Attitudes: can be sneering, can be I’ll-take-care-of-you-little-lady, can be don’t-mess-with-me. I use this physicalization when I’m in a big city; I call it my meanest-s.o.b. in-the-valley walk.

For butching it up, I love watching the guys in the gym who are pumping iron. Or Grace Jones, telling the sweet young girl how to get a man. This little video chunk, from Conan the Destroyer, is a great contrast in butch and femme.

Most people are a little of both. I know straight men who are a little femme, and gay men who are a little butch. Same with women. Practice the stereotypes; then use them carefully.

As Tom Stoppard writes in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead: “We’re actors. We’re the opposite of people.”


It’s All In The Stories

I love stories.

I read them.  I watch them.  I even write them.

You know the Breast Cancer website, where you click on half-a-dozen good causes to help them out?  Hunger and Literacy are the two I always click.  Then there’s Child Health and RainForest.  After viewing those big problems, Animal Rescue might seem less essential to the welfare of the planet.

But Animal Rescue has stories.  Stories about how a rescued animal becomes a cherished companion.  Guess where I want to click first?

Some research even indicates that we’re hard wired to love and respond to stories.

Storytelling, therefore, has become important to marketing and business writers.

Annette Simmons explains it like this:
“The business interest in storytelling is riding this crave wave, as well as a parallel realization that designing messages that create emotions like desire, craving, and/or trust towards a product requires that the message tells a story. Nothing is important or unimportant to someone except for the story they tell themselves about it. You want your product to be important to a consumer? Inspire them to tell themselves a story about it that makes it personally relevant.”

Key word here:  personally.  Too often, my clients think of telling their stories in lists of accomplishments and impressive statistics.  So I ask for the individual stories of their customers and staff members.  Those draw the reader in, motivating them to go on to learn about the company’s accomplishments, products, or non-profit needs.

How to do this?

  1. Listen for the good stories.  Ask for them.
  2. Include images and emotional content.
  3. Connect them to your organization’s mission.

One screenwriting guru, Michael Hauge,  boils all stories down to three elements.. They are
1. character;
2. desire;
3. conflict

Here’s how that might work.

A local nonprofit that serves uninsured people in health crises got union workers to donate labor to fix up the nonprofit’s building.  But where’s the story?

Imagine a large, beefy guy ripping down crumbling walls with a crowbar, covered in dust and sweat. (Character)
He volunteered to help out (Desire), but he feels weird about the breast cancer literature that’s lying around.  (Conflict.)  He makes boob jokes for awhile. Then, in a break, swilling water and slurping coffee, he says:  “My mom died of breast cancer.  I didn’t know what to say to her.  It was hard.”

Next day, his buddies show up to volunteer their labor.

Okay, I embellished this a little bit in order to make a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end that connect to the wonderful work this nonprofit is doing.  But I didn’t embellish it much.

And it’s a great story.

Why the Note Taker?

Why am I The Note Taker?

I write plays and novels. I direct plays. And wherever I am, I take notes. Rehearsal notes. Blocking notes. Production meeting notes. Notes about ideas for novels or plays.

If I don’t take notes, I don’t remember anything. Not because I ever look at the notes, but because it’s how I learn. You know, we are aural, visual, or kinesthetic learners. I am not an aural learner.

What did you say?sb10067155j-002

So I’ll be writing about the business of writing, the art of writing, the selling of writing, and the horrible fun of writing.

When I get sick of writing plays and stories, I’ll write about the plays I work on as director, producer, and—in fits of total insanity—as an actor.

A rude toast to all my hats.

Rude Mechanicals
Rude Mechanicals