Laughter Lifts the Heart
Several years into it, and this blog still refuses to be categorized. It's eclectic and includes everything from writing posts to snippets from my ordinary life.
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Kenny Rogers is a few years younger in this picture, but this one is my favorite of him. He’s a cross-over artist who, in his prime, sang both ballads and love songs. One song, “The Gambler,” even became a movie starring him, Reba McEntire, and others.
When I wrote my post for Monday, I couldn’t help but to think of a couple of his songs that illustrated the points literary agent Donald Maass made in his lecture in Nashville last month. If you want to see Maass’s concepts in action—the fastest action possible—listen to some Kenny Rogers songs.
Monday, I shared my notes on the healing-a-hurt story/character arc (might help to give that post a once-over before finishing this one). One of the songs Rogers put out in 1979, “Coward of the County,” written by Roger Bowling and Billy Ed Wheeler, is a quick study of someone’s pain, the root cause of it, and how he deals with it.
In this song, we learn about our protagonist, Tommy. Everyone calls him “yellow” because he wouldn’t stand up for himself. They figured he was a coward, that they could do anything to him and he’d just slink away.
The lyrics quickly reveal why Tommy never stood up for himself—his father, who died in prison, had asked him to promise not to follow in his footsteps. “Walk away from trouble if you can,” his father tells him. “You don’t have to fight to be a man.”
Tommy evidently honored his promise at a tremendous personal cost.
He’s in love with Becky, a young woman he treasures because he doesn’t have to prove himself to her. But “the Gatlin boys came calling,” the song says, and the results were horrible for Becky. Maass says to find the worst thing that could happen—and this is it. This is what it takes to get Tommy to do the one thing he vowed he’d never do: break his promise to his father. Still, he struggles when he hears in his mind his father asking him to turn the other cheek.
When he confronts the Gatlin boys at a bar, they laugh at him, call him “yeller.” But “you could’ve heard a pin drop when Tommy stopped and locked the door.”
The click of the lock signals the change in Tommy’s character and reputation. He beats the ever-lovin’ tar outta those guys, raining upon them every ounce of pain he’d suffered his entire life because of his promise.
“I hope you understand,” he says to his deceased father. “Sometimes you gotta fight when you’re a man.”
In five stanzas and two refrains, we’ve covered everything I mentioned Monday: the problem and the depth of it, the reason behind it, who exploits it, who understands it, what he does about it, what triggers his change, how he faces it, and how he reconciles himself to it. Quickest lesson possible.
Let’s take it a different direction with Rogers’ 1999 release “The Greatest,” written by Don Schlitz. If you’ve never seen this video, you need to—it’s the cutest thing on the planet.
The protagonist in this story is simply “Little Boy.” He announces to an empty field that he’s “the greatest player of them all.” He tosses the ball up in the air, then swings at it.
Does he give up? Of course not. He’s unaware of his lack of talent. He’s the greatest!
So, we have strike two, not that it fazes him. He’s the greatest!
Then we witness strike three.
Well, he is a little boy, after all, so when he’s called home to supper, we kind of expect him to be dejected. Three pitches, three strikes. He’s out.
But we get taken by surprise as he “reframes” his conflict. He may be an awful batter, but he’s still the greatest. Why?
“Even I didn’t know I could pitch that good.”
In Part 1 last week, I gave a quick recap of a few early points literary agent Donald Maass gave in a lecture at the ACFW Conference in Nashville, and how I used those points in my novella-in-progress, Kayla’s Challenge.
Basically, Maass started his lecture (which was based on his new how-to, The Emotional Craft of Fiction, coming out in December) with the series of questions: “What are you afraid to write because it is too intense and personal?” and “Who in your story will reveal the truth to your character?” One of the questions he asked that I didn’t address in the last post was, “What makes you blissfully happy?” Both questions require us to dig deeply into our psyches to help us create realism in our characters and plots.
What he covered next touched on something dear to my heart: “Create an emotional environment.” He talked about mood, not just of the character, but of the environment, surroundings, event, world. Whatever your setting is, capture the mood. What I like about this is that it fits with what I’ve been trying to teach (most recently in “Outline Effectively“). We authors are creating a world, creating life. Our stories shouldn’t seem like they occur in a vacuum. They shouldn’t seem unpopulated.
Maass said to “capture something human in as many scenes as possible.” Human connections resonate with readers.
So, switching back to Kayla’s Challenge, Kayla is going to learn a series of lessons as she leaves the nest of her controlling parents and strikes out on her own. One of the lessons takes place when she stops to eat.
Just for fun, here are my choices:
Each one of these places sets a different mood—the diner, the ice cream parlor, the restaurant. It wouldn’t be enough to describe them. I have to put Kayla in one of them and have it affect her. At this point in my story, Kayla is going through one of the biggest changes in her life. It’s exciting and terrifying. It leaves her feeling alone, uncertain, exhilarated. When I put her in one of these settings, will I compare her mood to that of her surroundings, or will I contrast them? Will she leave feeling better, or worse? I know for certain she can’t leave unchanged.
What emotions will Kayla have when she walks into one of these places? How will the environment’s mood affect her? How will she feel when she walks out? And, most importantly, how will the entire scene make the readers feel? What response am I hoping for from them?
If I’m successful at bringing something “human” to this scene, the reader will recognize her own point of growth, her own time when she accepted responsibility for herself—and she’ll understand how liberating and exciting and empowering and terrifying that was.
The mood of Kayla’s environment will serve as the backdrop to the change in her mood. It all ties in together. One enhances the other.
This is one of the literary techniques that Maass is recommending that we genre writers use. He wants us to “blend the ideas of plot and beautiful (literary) writing.” As he says, when people think “literary” they think of flowery prose, something frowned upon in genre writing. But there is far more to the literary arsenal than just fancy writing. And making the most of the environment is one of the weapons.
If you ever have an opportunity to go to a session with New York literary agent Donald Maass, let me suggest you tote at least one manuscript idea and something with which to take copious notes.
I don’t take notes on the computer. I tend to pay more attention to the mistakes I make while typing than I do the lecture, so I had a fat, three-subject, spiral notebook. My notes took up the first third of it.
I made notes of ways I could improve Skydiving to Love–which I’d thought was finished and ready to publish. But how could I pass up all these great ideas?
I made notes on things I should’ve done in my published novels and didn’t. Sigh.
I made notes for my works-in-progress, Ride to the Altar, Southern Challenge, and my current novella-in-progress, Kayla’s Challenge. I virtually wrote Kayla’s Challenge right there in class.
Maass walked us through some questions intended to make us reach deeper into the character’s psyche, basically by making us dig deeper into our own. What are we afraid to write because it’s too intense and personal? Write that. Write it because it’s most relatable, because it’ll help you overcome the baggage, because your readers will realize they’re not alone.
Because, if you don’t write about it (providing the pragmatic response here), your story is shallow.
Let me share a truth about myself: I hate introspection. I never come out the good guy. I tend to skip the “what about you?” parts in devotionals, because too much introspection makes me focus on my sins rather than my redemption, and in general wrecks my day.
But, just as I did in Tosca Lee’s course last year, I dug deep and answered the “what about you?” question.
Like other authors, I write about relationships and the need for and the giving of forgiveness. Actually, that’s a sweet way of putting it. To write the truest statement I know, as ordered by Maass and Hemingway, I had to scratch the veneer off the simple “forgiveness” statement to reveal what I really write about.
Sounds strange for a light-hearted romance/women’s fiction writer to say, doesn’t it? But my books tend to be comedy/drama, because they reveal the simple truth—my truth—that relationships hurt.
All of them hurt. Mother/daughter, Daddy/daughter, friend/friend, man/woman, husband/wife. If there is someone in your life, that someone—at one time or another—will hurt you. And every time they do, you have to forgive them or let the wound fester. How easy it is to forgive depends on how often they hurt you and how deeply, how they react once they discover they’ve hurt you, and how they rate in importance to you. But the fact that you will get hurt is a universal truth.
And as long as it’s true, I’ll have a gazillion story lines.
For Kayla in Kayla’s Challenge, the painful relationship is between her and her controlling parents.
Following Maass’s direction again: “Who in the story would be the least likely to reveal the truth?”
I call this the “Trace Adkins” moment. In Moms’ Night Out, Trace played a rough-looking biker. His appearances were few and far between, but he was the one who delivered the spiritual truth to the main character.
The “Trace Adkins” character in Kayla’s Challenge will hit Kayla with the truth when she least expects it. As a matter of fact, Kayla will have several truths to deal with, each delivered in different ways. But mainly, she’ll have to examine the commandment to honor her parents in the light of the new revelation that she allows herself to be controlled. And she’ll have to find the balance between the two.
Donald Maass taught the course using techniques introduced in his upcoming The Emotional Craft of Fiction. Maass has always been exceptional when it comes to making us dig deep, to testing us and our stories, so I’m anxious to get this book (releases December 30).
The ideas I got from just taking his course are invaluable. I’ll talk about them more next week, but if you ever get a chance to study under him, grab it.
I’ve been a fan of his for years, so naturally, my biggest daydream is writing something he would be willing to represent as my agent. I’m not there yet, but I keep trying.