Three Dimensional Characters and The Perfect Inciting Event
by Sandy Shaller, Chair of the Walnut Creek Writers Guild
How It All Started: When I was asked to teach a guest writing class to adults at the Civic Center in Pleasant Hills, my immediate answer was, “Yes. I’d love to.” Although I had spent the last 43 years teaching elementary school age children, I love the classroom almost as much as I love my family, so I leaped at the chance to return to teaching.
I visited the class two weeks in advance to meet the students who ranged in age from 30–70 +. Their energy and eagerness was adrenaline for me.
Arriving at the Objective for My Class: After meeting with their regular teacher, East Bay Times Reporter and MFA scholar, Janice DeJesus, I decided on the topic for my guest lesson, which would build off work that she has been doing with the class. My lesson would be a two-headed giant. One head would be named “Creating Three Dimensional Characters,” and the other head, “The Perfect Inciting Event.”
Materials: Having taught elementary school students, who often do really well with graphic organizers, I used a program called “SimpleMind” to create a Character Map.
I also brought in three character descriptions, each only a paragraph long, as an example of how a writer can begin to create a fully developed character in a single paragraph The three characters were Mr. Bounderby from Hard Times by Charles Dickens, Elrond from Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, and Henry Chenaski from Women by Charles Bukowski.
The First Hour of My Class: Developing 3-Dimensional Characters
Since you can’t write a character that you don’t know, we talked about where you find fodder for character development. Some of the sources that the students came up with were: themselves, family and friends, people they observe, and characters made up of mixed characteristics of people they know.
I had the class brainstorm a list of people who they thought they knew well enough to turn into 3-dimensional characters and who they felt were interesting enough to be unforgettable for a reader. This was followed by mapping the character according to the chart descriptors.
The Second Hour of My Class: Creating the Perfect Inciting Event for Your Protagonist
The second hour began with a discussion of two books that I had brought as examples of novels in which the authors had created a perfect inciting event for what they wanted to do with their protagonists.
1. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles takes place in 1922 and is about a young Russian aristocrat who is deemed unrepentant by the socialist party and is sentenced to spend the rest of his life in a grand hotel in an attic room. The protagonist, Count Alexander Rostov, is a man of gentle sensibilities. He possesses great strength of character, is literate, and draws sustenance from art and culture and the company of other such souls. Imprisoning him in a hotel is seen by the new government as the perfect punishment. However, through Towles’ brilliantly developed plot, the inciting event leads to a revelation that has to be read to be fully appreciated.
2. The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum was published in 1899, shortly after Baum visited the Chicago Exposition. Baum would write prolifically during his life, but The Wizard of Oz is his standout classic and for good reason. Not only was the book the first American fairy tale, but its heroine, Dorothy Gale, embodied the spirit of legendary and mythopoeic America perfectly. It is not coincidental that her last name is also the inciting event in the book – the cyclone. The cyclone carries Dorothy from gray Kansas to the colorful land of the Munchkins. Like Joseph Campbell’s hero with a thousand faces, Dorothy will redeem Oz and then return to her own world where her aunt will be planting flowers; a symbol of Kansas’ redemption.
After discussing how the inciting event in both books was perfectly matched to the main character and the quest they would be set upon, the students were asked to write an inciting event for the character they had created in the first hour.
We had just enough time to share everyone’s writing. I was left eager to do more, and I hope that my students felt the same.
How I Found My Literary Agent
If you’ve been querying a while, this probably isn’t your first time reading how someone connected with their literary agent. I think these stories remain popular for two reasons: no two publishing journeys are the same, and you can tell yourself that reading them counts as research.
I spend most of my days writing. I work full-time as a content/copywriter for corporate brands and usually have a few freelance articles going. I’ve also written novels (usually one novel per year or two) since my senior year of high school. I often go to work (where I write), use my lunch break for freelance writing, then head home to work on my novel. I feel best when I keep myself very busy. But until a few years ago, I hadn’t written a manuscript I felt was strong enough to try and get published.
I finished *that* manuscript in 2018. After editing a few drafts on my own (I would never make anyone suffer through my first draft – your mileage and plot holes may vary), I reached out to a handful of beta readers and a reader versed in developmental editing. If you’re thinking you can polish your novel completely on your own, please consider asking a few friends to give it a read. The book got better every time I edited.
Query & Pitch
Once I felt the manuscript was ready, I crafted my first query letter and synopsis. I did my research to find a list of agents with whom I wanted to work. I used Manuscript Wish List (MSWL), QueryTracker, and the #mswl tag on Twitter. I also participated in Twitter pitch events (#PitMad, #SFFpit, #Dvpit – try researching “Twitter pitch contests” to find one that fits your book) where you tweet a short pitch and agents “like” your tweet if they want you to submit.
I compiled an ongoing list of agents I liked, then queried five at a time. Each time I received a rejection, I tried to send a query to the next agent on my list within a day or two.
As I queried, I watched webinars and read the QueryShark blog to learn how to make my query letter and synopsis stronger. The most important thing I learned: your query and synopsis should make the reader feel the same way they’d feel reading your novel. If your manuscript is funny, your query should be a little funny, too. My query and synopsis were vastly different by the time I queried my agent.
I queried the first agent on my list on Feb 17, 2019. I kept a spreadsheet with the date of query submission, name of agent, estimated wait time for responses, notes about why I chose the agent (and later, any notes they offered on why my query was rejected) and a spot to mark when I received a response.
Improving the Manuscript
Sometimes, a kind literary agent will give you clues on how to make your manuscript better along with their rejection. I had a rule that if I received feedback once, I could note it but ignore it. If I heard it again, I had to address it. I received a few very kind rejections, saying they loved the concept or voice, but the opening just didn’t hook them. Once I heard that feedback a few times, I reworked my opening to start on what was originally page 6, then filled in missing information as the chapter unfolded.
During the querying process, I sent out a total of 37 queries. I never heard back from seven. 10 seemed like form rejections. Two agents asked for the full manuscript but ultimately passed. 15 were personalized/positive rejections. If you find yourself frustrated by the querying process, spend some time googling “authors with many rejections.” Stephen King’s On Writing also offers a great outlook on being rejected.
Choosing an agent
When I queried my now-agent, Emmy requested a full manuscript. Emmy reached out and told me they were interested in talking more about the project because they were interested in representing me – first via email, then over the phone. We discussed the book, what we saw for its future, and the next novel I plan to write. I asked questions about Emmy’s style as an agent and what Emmy would be interested in representing in the future.
I emailed the other agents who’d received recent queries and spent some time thinking it over. I did some additional research and decided it was a good fit for me. I signed my contract about a week later.
The work continues
While I’d love to say that as soon as you have an agent all your work is done, that’s of course not the case. There will be plenty of edits to make, and you still have to cross your fingers that people like your story enough to publish it—but it’s wonderful to work with someone who believes in your story (and believes in you as a writer).
If you’re currently querying, my best advice is to stay positive and keep working on the next story as you query. Also, querying is hard. You probably deserve extra dessert tonight.
Making Time To Write
by Vesta Clare
The guild has now held two one-day writing retreats and plans to hold another this October. After the most recent one, we talked about ideas for future retreats and I discovered how varied our requirements for a writing environment are.
A few members find that two hours is the optimal length for a writing session. At that point they need to get up, get out, and get moving. After doing something else, they can go back to writing.
Some have to be near a reliable source of caffeine (that’s me raising my hand on this one), sandwiches and pastries, or a place to walk. Most of us like quiet. A few prefer the ambient sounds of a coffeehouse. I think one person said they need to be in a place without WiFi to avoid the distraction options provided by the Internet.
Internet distraction can be a big issue for a lot of us. The appeal of spelunking online rabbit holes gets pretty intense when you’ve hit a rough patch in your writing. I’ve disabled the WiFi on my writing computer, a notebook, so it can only go online when I’m at home with cabled access. When I’m out specifically for a day or afternoon of writing, I can’t distract myself by pretending it’s time to do some research (that trick works every time).
If you aren’t part of a group that plans writing retreats you can put your own together, solo or with friends. Some libraries and schools have rooms you can reserve. Anything from a hotel room to a campsite can be used for a writing retreat.
There are also organizations that supply space and time for writers to get their work done. Some charge fees and some don’t. Some have an application process, particularly if the time and space they offer is very low or no cost. Here are two good sources of information on writing retreats:
Poets & Writers conferences & residencies database. And please subscribe to P&W if you can, it’s a great resource!
If you like to hike and live in or plan to travel to the U.S., there are a few Federal forest cabins available, depending on the time of year. The U.S. states of California and Idaho also have cabins on state-owned land you can rent, and the time of year is a factor here as well. Other U.S. states and other countries may have similar options.
Whatever kind of environment works best for you, give yourself the gift of dedicated writing time!
Writing A Query Letter
by Sandy Shaller
A good friend recently contacted me to let me know that there was a literary agent actively inviting submissions from new writers of KidLit. My KidLit novel was a middle grade fantasy, so I went to the agent’s website to read about her and what to do to send her my book.
Honesty requires that I tell you that I had been dreading the moment of actually submitting my “baby.” Somewhere in my head was the specter of the 700 rejections Jack London received before publishing. However, since my friend would be sure to ask me if I had “done the deed,” I forged ahead.
Dutifully, I read everything I could about the agent to make sure that my book fell into the category of material she was looking for. Then I checked to see how much of the book she wanted. All of that felt like the work of a moment. The part that felt a little more daunting was the task of actually writing the query letter.
I have written query letters before, and they are always nerve-wracking. Most agents want roughly the same information:
– A very brief, 1-sentence, summary of the book and your purpose in writing it.
– A somewhat longer, 1-2 paragraph, introduction to the book. (Not a full-scale plot summary, that’s for the synopsis).
– A brief self-introduction.
One source, of which I think a great deal, also threw in:
– Make sure that your letter is error free. (Shiver!)
– Try to inject a little humor. Agents get bored reading these things.
– Be formal, but manage to give the agent a sense of your creative voice.
The last two bullet points were perhaps the most intimidating. I was determined that the humor flow naturally within the context of the letter and that my creative voice not sound like the age 10- to 12-year-old voice of my intended audience. I also didn’t want to sound like any of my idolized favorite writers.
Finally, I threw caution to the winds and wrote the letter the way I try to write the first draft of my stories. I just wrote. Surprisingly, there was some humor in that first draft, and it actually sounded like me. Then I tinkered the mechanics to insure that there were no technical errors, attached part of my story, and sent it.
I have heard back from the agent…but that’s another story.
BRINGING OBSERVATIONS INTO FOCUS
by Rhoda Olkin
As a psychologist and a fiction writer, I’m often asked if my background in psychology helps me with my writing. In fact, it’s the other way around – writing fiction informs me as a therapist. One aspect of writing is to have clearly delineated characters. We do this by showing how they look, talk, dress, eat, move, what they think about, their anxieties and preoccupations. Without character there is no story. The way this applies to clinical work is that each client must become a unique character. It is so easy as a psychologist to reduce people to categories (another depressed young female undergraduate) or a diagnosis (a depressive). If we do this, we become less compassionate clinicians.
Although there are standardized treatments for depression, individualization is necessary to know how to talk to the client, the pace of treatment, the metaphors one uses, what to say when the client is late or angry or demoralized, how hard to push or how gently to scaffold. To do this, we have to derive a case formulation that covers why this client has this problem and is seeking treatment at this time. These are the same questions we ask ourselves as writers – who is this character? Why does the character behave this way? What is driving that behavior, and what is at stake? The more I do this as a writer, the better I am at telling the ‘stories’ of real clients.
photo credit: unsplash.com
On Our First Writing Retreat
by Michele Magar
About two weeks ago, the guild held its first ever retreat, which was a one-day dive into nothing but writing. Two members located a perfect spot. It was quiet and had comfortable chairs as well as tables with chairs.We all pitched in on food, coffee (essential writing supply) and extension cords. It went so well, we’re already planning another retreat for the spring.
Here is one member’s takeaway from the day:
Write . . . you can always rewrite later.
If you’re stuck, skip ahead to something that’s vital and inspires good writing—no need to be linear.
It’s OK to critique as you go, but don’t let that stop the writing.
I find it’s good to have an outline or list next to me. Think in terms of segments you can link later, like actualities (sound bites from sources you plan to air in an audio piece that your narrative will bridge together).
Don’t give in to the first temptation to walk away/distract/give up: force yourself to stick with it for an allotted time—even if you toss it later, you’re training yourself to write when you want, not just when you’re inspired.
Work where you can see something pretty (nature).
Think of writing as doing musical scales: it can feel like drudgery, but it’s a foundation that builds dexterity and fluency.
When writing flows, throw everything else aside and write until you’re dry.
Write with other writers, it helps somehow, and demystifies the craft.
A Fiction Writer Studies Screenplay Structure
by Vesta Clare
A gifted writer I know once told me the best way to master plot and story structure is to study screenwriting. They’re action and dialogue segmented into the building blocks of scenes, and each scene is there for a reason. Studying them had forced him to look at, and cut out, the slack and excess in his fiction.
This past summer I followed his advice. I’ve only written short stories, until one of them morphed into something with novel-length possibilities. Realizing that felt like standing by a very wide river looking at the other side. I could see it—sort of—but wasn’t sure how to get there. So I created my own screenwriting study plan focused on plot and structure.
The first step was reading beat sheets (film) and plot worksheets (fiction). Beat sheet templates feel queasily like a paint-by-numbers approach to story telling (on page 10 do this, on page 28 do that). On the other hand, reading one for a film you’re familiar with reveals the steps in that story’s propulsion. Also, the templates provide a sense of scaffolding for creating your own plot. 29 beat sheets & worksheet links (bottom of page) Plot worksheet links
What drove it all home was creating my own beat sheet for a film. I watched Michael Clayton with a blank template and a copy of the film script open on my computer (lots of hitting ‘pause’ involved here), and wrote the beats out in the template. It was like seeing a 3D X-ray of the film’s architecture. It was also a learning experience that really sank in and left me with a sense of how to structure a layered story with complex characters.
Finally, a way to build a canoe and get across that imposing river!
Next I researched books on screenwriting that fiction writers considered useful. This left out all the paint-by-number equivalents. The two I’ve found most useful are:
Dan O’Bannon’s Guide To Screenplay Structure . O’Bannon addresses the logic and rhythm of story structure in a way that translates smoothly to writing fiction. He also examines theories of storytelling and structure from Aristotle’s Poetics through Robert McKee. That section alone saves you reading about six other books, which is no small gift. There are exercise sheets to prompt your own scrutiny of films (that could also be used for fiction) and a 6-8 page analysis for each of 12 films that includes an exercise at the end. You can create a blank template based on his analyses and use that to study other films or fiction. Highly recommended!
The second book is by Karl Iglesias and is made up primarily of verbatim advice, broken down by topic, from about 20 career screenwriters. Its focus is firmly on writing and story structure. A little time is given to dealing with studios and the film business. The advice is realistic and helpful, including references to books and teachers that had most inspired the screenwriters who were interviewed. The book’s title, The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters is catchy but doesn’t really signal how thorough the contents are.
Most helpful plot tip: decide on the theme and make sure every scene is related to it.
My takeaway here is that, at the heart of the story you want to write and the spark that ignited it, there is an essential point you want to make or explore. That’s your theme. Don’t include an event or character that doesn’t relate, reveal, or lead to this core concept.
And that brings us back to the taut economy of screenplays, which is a good reason to study them!
READING AT BARNES & NOBLE, SATURDAY, MARCH 18
THE NEW BOOK IS OUT!
You can access the Amazon page here
and on the Barnes & Noble site here
Our first scheduled reading will be at the Dublin Barnes & Noble on Saturday, March 18, beginning at 2:00 p.m. To access the Dublin B&N site you can click here. Their address and phone are:
4972 Dublin Boulevard
Dublin, CA 94568
There will also be a reading from our new collection of stories at the Walnut Creek Library. We’ll announce the date soon, and we hope you’ll join us and enjoy our stories.
The library is located at 1644 N. Broadway in Walnut Creek. You can visit the library’s homepage here, see an interior picture of the library here, and find more pictures here. It’s a beautiful building with easy parking, and it’s located alongside Civic Park, which is a nice place for a stroll.
Previous Guild Events
Sunday, July 17, 2016 at 2:00 p.m.
A reading of stories from The View From Here will take place at the Dublin Barnes & Noble.
Barnes & Noble, Dublin:
4972 Dublin Boulevard
Dublin, CA 94568
Excerpts from The View From Here: https://walnutcreekwritersguild.com/2016/02/17/excerpts-the-view-from-here/
To Kill A Mockingbird
Monday, June 13, 2015 the Walnut Creek Writers Guild participated in a nation-wide event celebrating To Kill a Mockingbird, in which Barnes & Noble stores across the country hosted day-long readings of the entire book.
Performers: Norma Armon, Deanne Dale, Alida Field, Joseph Herbst, Webb Johnson, Michelle Netzloff-Luna, Kathy Oldham, Sandy Shaller, and Carol Stefan.
Saturday, February 21, 2015 Bay Books in San Ramon hosted a reading of selections from The View From Here. http://www.baybooks.us/
October 2014, Editorial meeting about getting The View From Here ready for publication
Kathy Oldham, Webb Johnson
Sunday, February 9, 2014 the Walnut Creek Barnes & Noble hosted The Walnut Creek Writers Guild for a reading of excerpts from their anthology The View From Here.
Authors: Norma Armon, M.J. Riley, Deanne Dale, Michelle Netzloff-Luna, Kathy Oldham, Sandy Shaller and Webb Johnson.
Thursday, October 25, 2012 The Walnut Creek Public Library hosted an Evening with the Walnut Creek Writers Guild.