Thursday, October 25, 2007

Make every scene great!

I recently attended a workshop featuring New York agent and author, Donald Maass, who presented material that will be included in his book slated for release in 2009 called, The Fire in Fiction.

His premise is that not only can every book you write be powerful, but so can every chapter and every scene. He said the key is passion -- not just what happens between the hero and heroine of romance novels, but what a writer feels about their work.

He led workshop participants through a number of exercises to go beyond the usual and find the unexpected to engage the reader deeply in a story. One of those exercises was to develop the world of the story. He had us pick a scene of our WIP where something significant happens and write down the five most obvious things we would observe about this scene. Then cross out all those things and write down five more things we would notice if we had the time.

Next he asked us to feel the emotions of the point-of-view character about the place where this scene was happening. Is she happy? Sad? Does the setting of this scene evoke painful memories or joyful ones? Does the character want to stay in this place or get out? What does the POV character like most about this place? What does she like least? Will she cry or curse about being in this place? Will she want to run or never leave? Try to find the strongest emotion of the POV character, then take all these responses and weave the emotions of the POV character into the scene. This won't just describe a setting, but will set a memorable scene.

Another suggestion Maass made was to pull the emotion out of yourself to make characters more real. For instance, what do you feel when you are afraid? Does your mouth get dry? Your palms get sweaty? Do you feel like a six-year-old child knowing there are monsters under your bed? Give the protagonist as many of your own emotions as you can. This will give your characters a realism that pulls a reader deeply into your story.

Now do this for every scene of your story. :)

Like Alice's exercise of getting into the skin of a character, Maass' exercises made me itch to get rolling on another story again. What about you? Are there exercises you use to dig deeper into your characters or bring your settings to life? Or is this something you do without thinking about it?


Alice Sharpe said...

Sorry about the delete. I wasn't happy with my answer.

I think this workshop sounds great. I've heard Maas talk and he is inspirational. And for what it's worth, I agree-- writing with passion will always enrich a scene and hence a book.

I can't imagine how an author could write a scary or thrilling or heart-breaking or joyful scene without tapping their own emotional responses to similar stimuli.

I love the idea of thinking of five things, letting them go and thinking of five different things. This sounds like a great way to weed through the obvious and get to the particulars. If I think of the authors I enjoy and their last books, I can recall moments when they mentioned obscure things that brought a situation home in a way something more mundane might not have.

In writing the scene with my heroine where her cars goes over an embankment, I felt her horror. Her passenger is unconscious, she has to get him into the back seat where someone can rescue him through the broken window. She pushes and pulls him, loses him for a second, finds him again, pushes him into the hands of the rescuer. And then as she starts her own escape, she realizes her foot is caught. As I wrote this scene, in my mind's eye, I turned around and saw the sandal strap had slipped over the gearshift knob. I can still see that strap and feel her panic. Don't tell anyone (except another writer) cause they'll think I'm nuts, but I was as good as there.

Thanks for a great blog, Genene. Can't wait to try it all out as I write today.

Danita Cahill said...

I've read one of Donald Maas's books and got a lot out of it. But just like I'm not a spreadsheet girl, I'm not one to really follow exercises either. Oh, I'm reading at least one book on craft at any given time, and I look over the suggested exercises and think about them. Maybe I do do them when I go back to my own writing, stop to think about it, just not consciously, if that makes sense.

Glad you were able to go to that workshop, Genene, I've heard he puts on a good one. And I do jump into my character's skin when I'm writing. I feel her joy and fear, pain and triumph. Hopefully readers can feel it too.

Since our computers aren't talking to each other, I'll tell you here -- I had my SIL look up my website and the photos looked like regular photos to her, so it must be something peculiar with my browser? Weird.

Karen Duvall said...

This is a great subject, Genene. I also think Maas is quite the teacher, and he makes some excellent points.

I try to tap into my own emotions in my scenes, but this is a hit and miss thing for me. I'm always conscious of whether or not I'm feeling "connected" and if it's not working for me, I know I'll have to go back and do a better job. But I don't want to linger at that point of the story when I have so much more yet to write. I'll go back to it later, maybe in a day or two, and get more involved emotionally.

Like yesterday I was sitting in a restaurant waiting for a client to join me for lunch, and spent that time writing. I couldn't block out all the distractions of bad jazz music, people talking, the clinking of glass and silverware, but I persevered. I got about five hand written pages done (she was late), but they by no means reflect much emotion, at least not the kind I'm aiming for. I'll have to go back when I'm in the right frame of mind to get those feelings down.

Alice, that's so cool that you were *there*! I love that feeling, and I have to say it doesn't happen for me as often as I'd like for it to.

Elisabeth Naughton said...

I do that, too. When I write a scene I *am* that character. I see what they see, feel what they feel. I can't imagine writing any other way.

I like the 5-things idea, too. I'll have to give that a try. ;)

Glad it was a great workshop, Genene.

Paty Jager said...

Hi All! I'm back!

I read through all the great stuff you talked about all week while I was gone! Boy there was good mojo going on!

I get into my characters as I write the story. I do some of what Alice talked about yesterday in my head when I am thinking about scenes. I get into the different character's heads and see the scene and decided who's POV the scene will be in.

I think a Donald Maas book was the only how to write book I ever really got anything out of. Sounds like it was an awesome workshop.

If anyone's interested, I blogged a little about my trip on my blog and put up a pic I took of Mt. McKinley. Tallest mountain on this

Paty Jager said...

just saw this spot where follow comments can be e-mailed, so I checked it. Cool!

Alice Sharpe said...

Paty -- Welcome home! I'm going to go look at your mountain.

What does your last comment on this blog comment page mean? I've been puzzling over it.

Danita Cahill said...

I was puzzling over that, myself, Alice. So do tell, Paty. What the heck were you talking about -- emails and comments....


Paty Jager said...

Hi Alice!

When I went to put in my comment under the comment box was a little box and next to it said, "Would like to be e-mailed with follow up comments."

By clicking that box your comment came to my e-mail. Much easier than popping in here several times a day and checking comments.

Paty Jager said...


Ditto what I said to Alice. Not sure why it popped up today, unless they updated the blogger or something.

Paty Jager said...

Ladies, they had it at Piper's blog too. It says: little square E-mail follow up comments and then had my e-mail address. This was under my blogger identity

Danita Cahill said...

Again, my appologies for using this as an email account today, but Genene's Mac and my PC will not communicate lately...

Anyway, I purchased a hosting site from GoDaddy today, so we are all set. And instead of Cahill Photography (of which there I just found out there is one all ready) how about Cahill Photojournalism?

Thanks, Genene.

*As she backs out of room with head bowed in improper blog useage shame* HA!

Genene said...

Hi, all! You are wonderful! This may sound silly, but I'm already looking forward to the retreat in February to soak up all the positive writing energy and creativity. Paty's right -- great writing mojo! (And it's good to have you back, Paty.)

I understand what Karen said about not always being deep in a character's skin because of all the distractions. The first run-through of a story where I'm still collecting ideas is many times that way. However, when I AM that character (as Alice was with the sandal strap), details that make the story deeper and the characters more real always come up in ways I hadn't thought about before. So there's a real advantage to immersing myself in a story for big chunks of time.

Maybe Eli or Becky did something different with the blog so the box with follow-up comments popped up? That was one of the topics in an earlier blog, wasn't it? Barbara's blog about feeds and Piper's comment? But I could be way off base on this. (But I clicked the box just to see!)

(And Danita, thanks for the info about the photos. I'll still try to save them a different way and see what comes up for you.)

Anonymous said...

Cool! I see the little box over there under choose and identity. I clicked it! hehehehe!

I've never seen that before and no, I had nothing to do with it. ;)

Genene, great blog topic and I saved the email you sent out on the loop too. Very good information!

Danita, reading your personal comments to Genene is fun; it's like eaves-dropping, but no guilt. ;)

Genene said...

OK, I think I'm hooked! The check box for follow-up comments works really slick. Comes right to my e-mail and all I have to do is click where it says to on that e-mail and I'm back to the blog.

Wherever that came from, I like it!

Genene said...

WARNING: IMPROPER BLOG USAGE FOLLOWS (but go ahead and read it anyway, Piper!) Danita, got your message. Let's rendezvous on Friday by phone. I'll call when changes are made. We can conference call if anyone wants to listen in. :) And hopefully our computers will start talking to each other again soon! Echoing Danita's apologies...


Danita Cahill said...

Okay, Genene. Sounds good. And Piper, glad to provide some entertainment for you, sweetie. ha!

Elisabeth Naughton said...

Danita, for what it's worth, Genene's computer doesn't like to talk to mine either. I think her computer is snotty. (You know how those macs can be.)

Anonymous said...

Hey, wait a minute Genene! You forgot to leave the TIME of your conference call; so, how am I supposed to listen in?

And yeah, that little button that sends the comments to email is "slick"! :)

Genene said...

Aw, Eli, I prefer the term "snooty" to "snotty" -- just one little letter difference! LOL! But the pumpkin drawing exercise came through just fine, though my dogs ran outside to see where the noise was coming from when the jack-o-lantern laughed.

By the way, Piper, we didn't set a time for "the conference call" (not to be confused with "The Call" from a publisher) just to keep the tension high. Tune into Eli's blog comments for the rest of the story ... :)