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Using Kenny Rogers to Illustrate Donald Maass

kennyKenny 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.

And misses.

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?

SPOILER ALERT!

“Even I didn’t know I could pitch that good.”

 

 

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Studying Under Maass (Part 4)

maass-bookI tell ya, I’m getting my mileage out of the notes I took at the ACFW Conference in Nashville last month. Under Donald Maass’s direction in the class (which he based on his December 2016 release), I wrote all the necessary ingredients to my novella-in-progress, Kayla’s Challenge, and I’ve been sharing here what I learned and did there. In Part 1, I took you through the “write the truest sentence you know” experience, and followed with “mood/environment” development in Part 2. In Part 3, we went hunting for the warts on Kayla’s nose, because every character has them–the flaws, weaknesses, and bad habits that make them interesting and worth pursuing.

I chose a “flaw” for Kayla, who has controlling parents and allows herself to be controlled basically because it’s just easier than fighting with them. The way she compensates for being so easily controlled is by being spontaneous, impulsive. The best way to work this flaw is to show it in action.

  • How does it work for her?
  • How does it work against her?—worst possible.
  • Who is the least likely person to point it out to her?
  • How does she react to the revelation?
  • Repeat 1 & 2
  • How does she realize for herself she has this flaw?
  • How does she overcome it?

As a humor writer, I can have a blast with that set of questions/actions. But let’s change it. What if the reason for Kayla’s behavior is a symptom of a more nefarious cause? What if she had been controlled through violence? What if that violence was delivered by her father? What if she now has to forgive him?

So now, instead of fixing a flaw, we’re healing a hurt. How do you do that? Here are a few choices:

  • Face it
  • Reexperience it
  • Reframe it (see it in a different way or through more mature eyes)

I have to admit, since this didn’t really fit what I was doing with Kayla, I was able to take better notes. Whenever he talked about fixing her flaw, I’d go off on a tangent and write page after page of scene ideas. Once he got here, once we arrived at “healing a hurt,” the brainstorming stopped. But just because I don’t need it now, doesn’t mean I won’t need it later.

So, here are my notes on how to set up a “healing” story:

  • Illustrate the problem and the depth of it
  • Introduce the person who caused the problem (knowingly or not)
  • Decide early in your writing process how you’re going to force an encounter, because that encounter—and the subsequent result from it—is the point of your book
  • Now develop an antagonist who will exploit the character’s weakness—pick at/push/ use whatever makes her weak or vulnerable. That exploitation will ultimately force the character to get to the root of her problem
  • Develop a character who understands the problem
  • Decide how the MC says “leave me alone”—what is her defense mechanism? How does she push away help? What does she do to cope?
  • What is it the protagonist doesn’t know about the person who hurt her? Who provides this information? What does she do with it?

Ultimately, someone will need to be forgiven. How? Whether the protagonist gets an opportunity to confront that person or if she just “lets it go,” the reader will need proof of forgiveness.

And the forgiveness—whether we’re watching Kayla confront her controlling parents in a humorous context or another character dealing with an abuser in something more dramatic—is the character’s inner journey, the arc of change. This arc keeps the reader involved—emotions keep the reader involved. As Maass said, “Plot intrigues. Character involves.”

So, at the end of the story, the character has to do “one big thing” to illustrate that she has forgiven and has overcome the hurt in her life. What will it be?

What if it’s something she must do, but vowed she’d never do? Why did she vow she’d never do it? Why must she do it now? What lengths will she go not to do it? Who admires her courage or disdains her weakness? Who feels the opposite?

All this makes up the fabric of the plot. Then we have the great scene of confrontation between her and the one who hurt her, followed by our “proof of forgiveness” scene, the one we’ve been building up to—her doing whatever it was she vowed never to do.

What does she change/learn after she does whatever it is she swore not to do? Good? Bad? Consequences? Rewards?

Frankly, I can’t wait until December, when Maass’s book finally releases and I can stop relying on my notes. He said he has hundreds of exercises in it developed to help us deepen our characters, and I can’t wait to dive in.

He’s right, you know. Action for action’s sake is fine, but shallow, pointless, unmemorable. Even disaster films start by quickly getting us involved in the characters’ personal lives before the nuke hits or the dam bursts or the boat starts to sink. The best way to engage your readers with your characters is through emotion. Everyone has flaws, everyone has pain. We all have private burdens and shameful secrets.

Every single reader out there is a voyeur, wanting to see how someone else handles their own flaw/pain/burden/secret. We’re writers. It’s our job to give the voyeurs something to see.

 

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Studying Under Maass (Part 3)

maass-bookBy now, I think I’m the best prerelease salesman literary agent Donald Maass can have. And, in return, he’s given me tons of material to put in my blog along with great ideas for my novella-in-progress, Kayla’s Challenge. 

In Part 1 of this series, I took some of the deep, penetrating questions he asked us about our WIPS and characters and applied them to Kayla to illustrate what her true underlying conflict is. In Part 2, I shared some of his discussion about the mood of the environment Kayla finds herself in.

Today, I’m going to explore Kayla’s weakness a little more. Weakness feeds conflict; conflict creates great characters. And, as Mr. Maass said: “Plot and story are different. Plot is event; story is character transition.”

So I’m ready to play with my character {cue ominous grin and wicked hand rub}.

Here’s the recap:

  • I write about relationships and the need to forgive and be forgiven, because all relationships can hurt you at one time or another.
  • In Kayla’s Challenge, twenty-four-year-old Kayla’s painful relationship is between her and her controlling parents.
  • Kayla is going to leave her home in Savannah, Georgia and make her way west. Along the way, she’ll learn several lessons about herself and her relationship with her folks, one of which will occur when she stops to eat at either a breakfast diner, an ice cream shop, or a restaurant–whatever environment will best contrast with her mood.

Now, I’m going to play with her weakness/flaw/bad habit (Maass’s labels, not mine).

So, what is the character flaw of someone who always gives in to controlling parents? Is she basically a weak person? Weak personality? Needs a spine? We can work with that to begin with, but—going deeper—why is she weak? Is she afraid, or is she just too busy having fun to care? Maybe she’s simply accustomed to taking orders from others and never thought to take responsibility for herself.

Whatever it is, Maass shows us how to play with that flaw.

You, the author, need to know where the flaw came from—the why of it—how it presents itself, and who will point it out to her.  As you are writing, you present the flaw in action, in Kayla’s case, I’ll show her being controlled to the point that she says enough!

Kayla will have an internal mechanism that will counter her pliability toward her controlling parents: spontaneity. She’ll be impetuous, impulsive. That mechanism will kick in big time when she finally decides she’s had enough (and it will be the source for the humor in my story). It’ll be the external symptom of her internal flaw/conflict.

After I illustrate that, according to Maass, it’ll be time to show:

  • the worst thing that can happen because of her flaw,
  • who tells her about it
  • how she’ll react to the revelation—Epiphany? Denial?
  • what she’ll do differently to overcome it
  • how all her attempts to overcome it fail.

Confronting and overcoming her flaw is just one way for the author to manipulate her character arc. The other is healing—which I’ll show next week.

 

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Studying Under Maass (Part 2)

maass-bookIn 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:

Diners - mood setting

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.

More Wednesday.

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Studying Under Maass (Part 1)

Nashville 3 Maass b

I took this blurry picture in Nashville. See why I don’t do it often?

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 AltarSouthern 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.

Painful relationships.

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?”

moms_-night-out-movieI 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.

maass-bookDonald Maass taught the course using techniques introduced in his upcoming The Emotional Craft of FictionMaass 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.

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