As promised, I’m going to talk about the epiphany I had during the Donald Maass lecture at RWA a few weeks ago. And with apologies in advance to Mr. Maass, if I get some of what he said wrong, it’s not because of his teaching – he’s a fantastic teacher, and I’d attend anything he wanted to talk about. Some teachers are like that, they can make you look at a grocery list a new way. No, if I get it wrong it’s because I had my wild epiphany during his lecture, one that affected both the real me and the JT me, and I had to stop and really give it some thought.
Maass’s workshop focused on the turning point of a scene. Now, I hate writing exercises. Really, truly, I rolled my eyes when he said we were going to do one. But I was already so rocked by my first day at RWA that I decided to quit being a snot about it and at least try to play along. So here are my notes.
Donald Maass RWA July 30
The topic is how to make a flat scene come to life. The block quotes are direction from Maass.
What makes a scene transitory and profound? Something changes from the beginning of the scene to the end – what’s the moment of actual change?
Action, words, emotions that identifies the shift.
Think about the Scene’s turning point ten minutes prior:
Ask the character:
How, Who, What are you right now?
Stop and find out who the character is.
Then go to a moment 10 minutes ahead – ask the same questions:
What is up with you?
How are things?
How has what happened 10 minutes ago changed how you feel?
Do you know you’ve changed?
Do you feel any different?
Is there something you can identify that feels different?
What was the exact moment you knew something had altered in your landscape.
This creates an inner turning point for the scene
Unfolding journey of the character. Reader’s emotional journey – what does it mean for the character?
What is voice?
Sudden epiphany, a shout from inside my head that actually made me tremble. Our Alex was sitting next to me, she probably felt the earth shift.
VOICE IS YOUR SOUL COMING THROUGH ON THE PAGE
What is voice? he asks again.
Elusive, we all know that. Sought after, as prized as diamonds. Somewhat like pornography, a little different for everyone, but you know it when you see it. When a story is told is a unique way, when the words sing, the pages turn themselves, and you’re taken to a completely new world, that’s when voice is working.
It’s what we all dream of creating, and how we can look back at our own work a few weeks, months, ever years later and recognize that yes, it’s us, but we don’t remember the exact moment we wrote this. We transcend. We go to another place, into a piece of our brains that not everyone can find, and bleed out onto the page. We tune out the naysayers, the resistance, the blackbirds, and bleed onto the page.
Bleed. Lifesblood. Heartsblood. Soulsblood.
Because what is voice, really? Why is it so elusive? Why do publishing houses pay millions of dollars when they find it?
Voice is simple. It’s your soul. It’s that innermost place, your most private thoughts, fears, joys and loves. It’s the place no one wants to go, consciously at least. But to make a good story great, to make a mediocre character come alive, you have to tap into your soul. You must be honest, and good and true. You must allow your sacrosanct thoughts to leave their writhing nests and spill onto the page.
It’s dangerous, I know. The idea that a stranger could sit down with your book and find a link directly into your greatest shame, or your deepest fear, or your most expectant hope. Your soul is what makes you unique, different from every other creature. Soul is why you can give ten writers the same picture and they’ll all weave you a different tale. Soul is what separates great writers from brilliant ones.
Then I drifted off for a bit, staring at what I wrote, thinking that perhaps, I’ve just cured cancer. Or at least finally, finally figured out how to explain to people why some artists are artists and some people try to be an artist and can’t be.
So I finally tuned back in, and Maass had moved to another exercise. I’m a bit of a convert at this point, so I decide to participate. He asks us to think about a scene we’re working on. I don’t know if y’all recall that I mentioned I’d started my new book a few weeks ago and came to a screeching halt because my opening line came out in first person? Anyway, I’ve finally figured out why that is, and in the construct of Maass’s class, used that opening as my example. Forgive me if this is a bit murky, I’m trying to explain without giving anything away.
The book opens with an email between my main character, Taylor Jackson, and her best friend, Dr. Sam Loughley. For the moment, email is the only way Taylor can truly communicate with the outside world. It’s her lifeline, and she hates that. The email is a reflection of her true self. The words that she and Sam write are much deeper, more meaningful, than she can truly express herself. She’s so good at hiding her emotions, so this incident has forced her to take a trip through her emotions: sorrow, fear, loss, love and remembrance. She can only write about what she’s experiencing at the time, can only write her feelings – obsession, the madness of her words as the emails go out. At the beginning, I can use this to show she’s having doubts about the decision she’s made…
Maass’s voice interrupts my thought process.
When should she throw gasoline on those feelings and light a match?
Voice is more than soul – it’s also intention, and vision. Taylor is afraid, and the readers will see that openly for the first time.
Maass again, his voice a hypnotic lull – and now I’m annoyed with him because he’s interrupting my really cool train of thought, but I stop and listen.
In the world of the story, ask yourself:
What makes me angry?
What are the rest of us not seeing?
What must they understand or see?
What is the question no one is asking?
What’s the puzzle/issue with no solution?
What’s the most dangerous thing?
Powerless, she’s powerless, and that creates a great conflict.
What pisses you off? What is not right?
Indignation! But does that work for Taylor?
Where is the unexpected grace?
That’s easy, the grounds she’s inhabiting, the setting. The colors, the weather, the animals, the walks, the farm, the garden, the deer – but the comfort is the antagonist as well.
What needs saving? Appreciated? Loved?
Daisies on the grass…Taylor’s peace is an escape from her prison
When can this be expressed the most dramatically?
At this I stop and giggle, pulled from my lull. Why, on page 150, of course, because we’ve hit the mid-point. I rub Alex’s elbow to share my cleverness and we share a knowing laugh. Every Murderati knows what the midpoint is by now…
Who can feel the opposite and challenge?
That’s Sam. Hurt by Taylor.
What about a bad day at the keyboard?
Fear. Self-loathing. Fear. But what exactly is the fear?
Can you experience what they’re experiencing?
And that’s when I’m yanked from my story and into my own head. Fear is what I face every day when I sit down to write. Fear, and I’m not good at allowing myself to experience it. And for this book to work I’m going to have to drop some of MY walls to allow Taylor to experience what she needs to in order for the story to unfold properly.
Cue a moment of sheer, unadulterated REAL fear – will I be able to do that? I don’t like experiencing extreme emotions. I must, must, must not let that stop me.
I have a feeling this book might be cathartic. It better be, or I’ll end up drooling in a corner because I’ve let in all the worry and scary stuff.
We’re done now, and I’m sorry to see the class end. I imagine a week at Donald Maass’s hands would be enlightening. Frightening. And so, so helpful.
Go through the block quotes above. Imagine a scene you’re having trouble with. Hear a soft, gentle voice asking you these questions, and see if you can have an epiphany of your own.
This may be second nature to many of you already, and I know I already do many of the pieces of this exercise unconsciously, but having the ideas presented in this way did result in a new way of thinking for me. I’m going to have to put Donald Maass in my acknowledgments, because he allowed me to see what I had to do to make my story work.
What about you? Am I even close? Or does this all sound nutso? And have you had any good epiphanies, internal or external, lately?
Wine of the Week: Cantina Calpantena Corvina Torre del Falasco 2008 (Super yummy, thick and meaty)
On a very happy side note, ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS releases in the UK today! Click here for more info.