I’m in the kitchen icing a cake.
This happens, like, never. I’m a notoriously bad cook. When my kids see me making dinner they cry and run away. Baking is better, but I do it so infrequently no one ever really remembers I can, including myself.
So I’m icing this cake. It’s a zucchini blueberry cake with lemon buttercream frosting. (Kinda weird, right? But also maybe yum.) My hair is a mess. So is my face. Not to mention the kitchen. In fifteen minutes a group of friends will show up at my door for book club (aka, wine club). The knife slides along the surface of the cake, forming tiny wakes of buttercream, when suddenly a voice says, “Most of the time I feel miserable and alone.”
The knife stops mid-swipe and I listen. Not with my ears, though, because the voice is in my head.
The call is coming from inside the house.
I don’t know who this character is talking to me (yet), but in my mind I can see her walking through a crowded high school hallway and in my chest I can feel what she’s feeling. It’s like I’m some kind of medium for fictional people.
I put down the knife, pick up a pen and start writing her down. The cake can wait. So can my hair and my face and the clock and my friends showing up at my door with wine. There’s a voice in my head with a story to tell.
And that’s how this writing thing works.
For me, at least.
I took a break from revisions to catch a recent episode of Inside the Actors Studio with Hugh Jackman. Much to my delight (other than it being Hugh Jackman, hello!) was how the advice he gave pertained not just to acting, but also to writing (and creativity in general).
The part that struck me most (probably because I’m striving toward “perfection” right now) was when he said:
“I’m sure you all relate to this. You do a great show, you can’t help wanting the next night to be better. It’s what drives us. It’s this long kind of road to some weird idea of perfection, which we know does not exist… Actually we’re constantly wanting to better ourselves. I truly believe the job of an actor and the drive of an actor is simulating the internal journey in life, which is to get deeper and deeper into our understanding of who we are. And that actually through acting and through actually releasing and through breathing and through connecting with other actors and allowing yourself and the story to connect with the audience, something greater can happen. So there is this constant thing going on which is not just ambition, not just ‘I want to be better’… It’s actually a reflection of what we want in life, which is for our experience to open up…. How do you get better? You go deeper.”
Replace “writer” for “actor” in that quote, and you see how it’s the same.
Good stuff, that. Important to keep in mind, wherever you are in your journey.
Here’s a full video of the episode. The above quote starts at the 7:11 mark, but I encourage you to watch the whole thing. It’s full of great advice. (And also, it’s Hugh Jackman!)
Even though the SCBWI Summer Conference was, like, ages ago, I still have pages and pages of notes to share with you. And today, I’m sharing what I learned about character from Gary Schmidt.
But first I have to tell you something about Gary Schmidt. He has border collies. And that makes him awesome.
Gary led a breakout session on character, during which he handed out old-time photos of people and asked us to create characters based on the photos. It was an interesting exercise. (My character turned out to be Annie, an exhausted housewife whose favorite room is her closet. Poor Annie.)
Before going into depth about how to discover details about character, Gary shared four assumptions:
1. Character is plot
All plot emerges out of character. Plot happens to and out of character.
2. The first task is to get the reader to turn the page
There are round and flat characters. Round characters are interesting and cause the reader to keep reading. Flat characters aren’t helpful to anyone.
3. Nothing is a one-off
Everything connects, ever detail, on some level.
4. We come to our characters little by little and not all at once.
As we write we accumulate details that build a character. It takes time to build the details that build a book.
Underlined and surrounded by asterisks in my notes is perhaps the best bit of wisdom Gary gave during his session:
Speed is not the friend of the writer.
I enjoyed Gary’s session on character, but enjoyed his closing keynote speech even more. I’ll share those notes in a few days. In the meantime, I highly recommend you visit Gary’s site, where you not only can learn about his award-winning books, but also see some video clips of his beautiful border collies.
While my blogging has been hit-and-miss lately, my writing has not. (Yay!) Nor has my venturing out into the world, attending writing-related events. One recent event was a workshop led by the ever-entertaining and inspiring James A. Owen.
(If you’re familiar with James’ story, you understand the Superman reference. If you’re not familiar with his story, I encourage you to read it. It’s compelling.)
The workshop was titled “Writing for Young Adults”, but a more fitting title might have been “How to Become the Creative You Always Knew You Were”. The evening was full of funny and poignant anecdotes that I’m certain left every attendee raring to get back to writing. My hand cramped up from taking so many notes. And beside many of them, I drew little asterisks. Those were the lightbulb/goosebumps moments.
Because this was a paid workshop, I’m not going to post all of the notes here. That just doesn’t seem right. But I do want to share a couple of gems with you in hopes of propagating those lightbulbs and goosebumps.
There are 7 billion people on the planet. If you have a modicum of talent and the ambition, there will be an audience for your work.
The power of the story compels a reader to read, regardless of the beauty of the writing (or the lack thereof). Write for the story moments that keep readers coming back for more.
Your publishing career is based on relationships, not sales.
Be sure you really love writing. You need to enjoy it during the good times and the bad. If you don’t love it, it’s not worth it.
Be willing to listen to counsel, but also be willing to stick to your guns.
Don’t compare yourself to others. You’ll drive yourself mad. If you compare yourself to your own goals, as long as you’re moving forward, you’ll always win.
Have a healthy attitude of pride about the work you do.
If you like what you read here and you’d like more, check out James’ book, Drawing Out the Dragons. Like the workshop, this book is full of bits of wisdom and inspiration. Keeping this book at hand is like having James sitting there with you while you work, telling you that you can do this, that you are good enough and to keep going when you run into difficulties. Like the workshop, definitely money well spent.