Friday, December 28, 2018

What’s Love S’cot to Do with Character Sheets?

If you handed any socially awkward person a list of “character development” sheets as they headed out for a romantic evening, they’d laugh their asses off at the first question. Even we know how uninteresting and uninformative questions like, “What’s your favorite color?” can be. Quite frankly, anyone who showed up with that asking about your mother’s maiden name and where you were born would probably be accused of identity theft.

I’ll admit, however, that my abrasion to character sheets came from the same pace as my abrasion to formulas, rules, and just generally being told what to do. Truth is, I'm gullible. Some advice is pretty terrible, and the vast majority of it is only good when evaluated with a grain of salt. Now, in my wise old age of 29, I think that beginners should be encouraged to explore and it is the intermediates who should be introduced to the formulas.

Joking aside, I have been writing prolifically for over fifteen years, and I've found that people who get hung up with these creative tools struggle excessively when it comes time to break free and show who they are, while those who played around and rejected outside advice have an easier time embracing (gradually) what these rules have to offer.

Because of the intense depression I experienced this year, I struggled to become inspired. My imagination was lost, gone like the wind, and I cared little about writing at all. I didn't like people, including my characters. One thought did not lead to the next, most brainstorming sessions painful and slow. I was struggling, deeply.

Part of me was trapped. I had not only spent the year getting 20 rejections letters over a lengthy period of time, I lost a small, local play contest with a total of ten participants. It didn't comfort me that I came in fourth place, nor that I respected the plays which one. I was sick of no one wanted to invest in me. I hate to admit it, but I do believe in love at first sight - or, at least, the power of the first impression - and whatever it was I did, it wasn't good enough.

So when my friend showed me the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet, I was elated. Finally, I learned something I could do differently than I had been before. Finally, I knew what was missing and where to put it.

In the last two months, I've had a surge of writing requests, needing to take the inspiration I did not feel and shove it. I became more and more engrossed in following formulas and other writing tips, and I've learned a lot.

While you will never hear me claim that writing from the heart is a bad thing, everything belongs in moderation. Those who stick solely to the rules will sound like it, but those who refuse to hear the advice of those before them will learn slowly. Having the ability to critically evaluate tools will enable you to pick out the dumb parts and find something useful. 

After my sudden immersion into character sheets - a prior tool I found completely pointless - my ideas started flowing. It wasn't just the characters I understood (in fact, probably not so much more), but the questions asked required me to better develop the world. How do they measure years? What are the proverbs in their culture? Who are the famous artists and authors and singers?

Character sheets may not ask the right questions, but they make you realize areas you're not exploring.

It made it evident what parts of their culture I hadn't developed. Simple questions for a modern day character became huge storylines. Some questions made me consider new plot ideas. Others forced me to really analyze the growth of their world. Popular culture comes across as an oddity in a fantasy land, but they too have their greats, their household names.

Mostly though, I noticed what my stock assumptions and choices were. After doing several character sheets, I had to change some things I defaulted to, having already written it into one or more other backgrounds.

And even though your mother's maiden name says nothing about who you are as a person, it does force the speculative fiction writer to understand where the name, and thus, the character, came from.

If you are interested in using character sheets, it's my recommendation to grab several. Utilize a different one for every person in your story, and at the end, take the questions most useful to you to make your own document.

Sometimes, formulas and rules about nothing more than getting you out of your box and the brain juices flowing.

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Monday, December 10, 2018

Why I Miss “Because I Said So”

After receiving four messages of, “Are you coming?” and two phone calls, I agreed to meet with a man who had taken a serious interest in me. I gave him the benefit of the doubt, even though he knew that I was in a workshop and I had told him I would let him know if I would meet with him and a group of mutual friends after, deciding that he was so anxious he just wasn’t thinking clearly.

During this lovely dinner in which no one else showed up, he proceeded to criticize me constantly, mesmerizing me with his opinions on writing, love, and the world as a whole, I finally had enough of him when he asked me to explain the plot of the book I was workshopping.

“It’s a science-fiction novel about a biomechanic who falls in love with a brainwashed member of the cult who wants him for heresy.”

“Why would he fall in love with her?” he scoffed.

“Well, you’d have to read the book.”

I understood the accusation as, of course, that I hadn’t developed a chemistry or rapport between them. But, looking back on it, I recognize some of the assumptions people have about those who “are capable” of being brainwashed, and it raised a good question about a fight that was occurring within me. What did Libra have that Raiden didn't?

There was safety in her world. She got along with everyone. She knew her goals and she could ask—and listen—to most authority figures about the best way to follow them. He was alone, constantly having to make life or death decisions with no one to trust.

There is, in fact, a lot of appeal about trusting someone enough to obey them.

Of course, there’s a reason that mentality is so criticized. Many of us have been burned by bad advice, or not being able to fit into a formula. An older friend of mine spent her entire youth doing what she was supposed to by marrying a Jewish man, being a good wife, not wiling her way on education, so on and so forth, only to be left for another woman, blamed by her children, and struggling for money to survive for the next forty years. Personally, I’ve been checking every box for depression—eating right, sleeping right, meditating, counseling, medication, socializing, following hobbies—and it feels like it’s just getting worse as I progress.

Writers know best that there is no “right” way to getting into the publishing world. Even back before the popularity of ebooks there were successful authors—Gertrude Stein, Edgar Allan Poe, Virginia Woolf—who made their start via self-publishing. J.K. Rowling got picked very quickly by an agent, but rejected by many publishing houses. Andy Weir, Cassandra Clare, and E.L. James got a following from posting free content online. Some people met their agent in person and made friends first. Others submitted blindly to the slush pile. There are celebrities whose fame got their novels picked up, and those who sold the story on the merits of their pitch alone. Blake Snyder never got famous for writing screenplays, but did manage to make his name popular after writing a book on how to write for screenplays.

The path is twisting and ever changing and that in itself makes it overwhelming.

In recent months, I’ve been seeking out an app that would tell me what to do. It would ask me all the right questions and give me instructions on how to live my life so I didn’t have to keep thinking. After all, diligence wasn’t working. I spent years writing every day, polishing a pitch, and putting myself out there to just constantly be staring into a void. Nothing seemed to progress in my life, regardless of my efforts towards it, and one day… I just quit.

Knowing what to do can be far more inspiring that being uncertain about the right path to take. What happened to the good ol’ days where we had teachers and parents telling us the right way to live life. Not that I trusted them, of course, but it would be nice.

I often feel like my biomechanic, unintentionally having stepped outside the system and no longer protected by it, wanting nothing more than reassurance that, “If you do this, this will happen.” I feel like I’m lost in a bleak world where one misstep—faith in the wrong person—can lead to terrible, lasting pain, but standing still is not an option either.

For those of us who struggle to understand why anyone would be eager to turn to a cult, how we can condemn those “foolish” enough to be brainwashed, I would like us to think back on time when we faced nothing but uncertainty and pain, and how much we would have liked to have someone we trust, someone we have great faith in, tell us what to do. I don’t think that feeling is unique.

But, it’s clear to me that any time I want someone to trust, it’s because I’m spending too much time doubting myself. I know better than anyone what I want, what I’ve tried, and what’s important to me. I can make good decisions, give myself good advice, and just because I can’t trust myself blindly doesn’t mean I should give that power to anyone else.

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