N. Renee Brown

Part-time Author, Full-time Book Junkie

Serving Improv: Emotional bodies

Improv is great for writers.  I love it, as I have said many times in the recent past, and I often add games I’ve learned from my improv classes to my writing sphere.  Funnily enough, I’ve found that these games help tremendously, so I thought I would share them with you.  That said, here is the first installment of Serving Improv!

EMOTIONAL BODIES

This is a CHARACTER game.  You will need 2 containers, some paper cut into strips, and a writing utensil.

Take half the strips of paper and write down parts of the body.  Everything from knees to legs to nostrils…you could even get crazy and use things like gallbladder and spleen (but it would help to know what those parts do for a body).

Take the other half of the strips and write down emotions.  Jealous, embarrassed, elated, nervous, etc.

Make sure to keep the strips separate, and put one pile in one container and one pile in the other.

Now draw one from each.  NO PEEKING!

Now you have a body part with an emotion.  Put that body part on your character and write them keeping this body part in mind.

WARNING: Don’t let this body part take over, it is just one part of the whole…but think about the subtle ways it might influence a persons speech, how they carry themselves, and what that emotion might give you about their past.

When I played this with my writing group someone got embarrassed ankles.

He is writing about soldiers in the Revolutionary War, and was reticent about using it, but then we all brainstormed it with him.

1) This man shuffles a lot, even limping, because the ankles are trying to hide behind one another.  This might be the result of an injury…and perhaps one resulting from a dubious action (cowardice, for example).

2) This man constantly fidgets with his pants.  He is unconsciously trying to hide his ankles.  It makes him come across as fastidious.

3) This man may hold himself erect and tall (the posture of a soldier), but his gait causes him to seem unstable and unsure.  People often underestimate him.

4) This man never crosses his legs.  He keeps his feet flat on the ground, which means he’s ready to go at a moments notice.

Now we have an ex-soldier with a limp, who takes very good care to look proper, and thinks of himself as steady and alert while others tend to underestimate him.  His frustration at being coddled (as well as the memory of the unfortunate circumstances surrounding his injury) make him reckless in an attempt to prove himself still capable.

ALL FROM EMBARRASSED ANKLES!

Fascinating, eh?

Now you try it!

Pounding the pavement…

You know, writing is a lot like being out of work.
No, seriously, bear with me on this…

In talking to a friend the other day about her husband’s lack of job, I asked if he had considered volunteer work. When she said no, it hit me…(no she didn’t hit me, she’s a very good friend and knows I am looking out for them when I ask these sort of forward questions).

When you Write (with a capital W) you spend your time churning out the word count, making dramatic forays into plots heretofore unexplored, developing characters that will impact not only your story but the world that reads about them…and when you write you are struggling for every word and doubting everything you put down.

BUT I’m here to tell you, there isn’t a lot of difference between the two.

Ok, so back to the job analogy. You’ve lost your job or your drive to write…now you get right back out there because you are a brave little toaster and you work to find a new job (aka the next great idea or plot twist). BUT all you are doing is looking, you aren’t putting anything on that resume, you aren’t keeping your hand in, you aren’t keeping up with the latest developments…AND you feel justified, because you don’t think you CAN take time out to do those things.

You spend your time trying to come up with the next paragraph when a sentence will do. You spend your time struggling for character development when a bit of dialogue will get you on the road.
You spend your time angsting over the plot, when you just need to get your butt in the chair and write anything.

Anything is better than nothing.

Now, I’m not saying you need to keep this “part-time” job when you get offered a “full-time” job. Then again, it’s some extra scratch you didn’t have before, now isn’t it? And who knows, perhaps having this thing on the side might blossom into something amazing later…

So today, instead of looking for that career making plot or character, just write one sentence, just one paragraph, answer just one question, come up with just one scene…just do something to keep your hand in.

Good luck, and peace out,

-Renee

P.S. Got a new phone!!!! I love new gadgets!

Location, location, location!

Much like real estate, location in a novel can be as important as character or plot. Location not only gives us a framework in which to ground ourselves, it allows us to think outside the words written and fills in the gaps the author does not have pagespace to dedicate to.

Telling you my latest novel is set in the bayous of southern Louisiana is going to give you a very concrete vision of where we are. You can almost see the Cypress trees, with their knees poking up through the muddy water…the Herons looking impassively on as you pole by in a flat bottomed boat…the thick skinned Gators splashing past with a powerful thrust of their tail…and the rich southern Creole accent. Ok, perhaps not in that detail but we all know what the swamp is supposed to look like, we know it has water and greenery and animals. We know that getting in the water might not be the best idea and we know that it’s going to be hot and muggy.

We’ve got a starting point to work from and a place we can build on. Having told you this I can now tell you some other things, this is set in the future after a devastating disease has killed off a large portion of the population. I can tell you this swamp is mostly deserted and those that are left have moved from the stilted houses in current use to tree houses connected via long swinging bridges. I can tell you that the swamp, while mostly unchanged the fear of it and the people that live in it has grown over the years, leaving it and everything in it mostly untouched.

Now what do you think we are going to find in there? Something terrible or wonderful? You don’t know, but you’d like to now wouldn’t you?

All of this and all I’ve done is describe the location and how it has changed (or stayed the same) in response to my plot.

Location can also be a dangerous place to tread. Before going to Louisiana I’d written a scene where my heroine visits the Gray City, which just happens to be the ruins of New Orleans. I’d never been to that city before, but thought it would be much like any other city but with the addition of the French Quarter.

NOT SO!

There is a unique flavor to that city…history runs through its heart like the great muddy Mississippi, pride hangs as thick as the moss from the bayou trees and the love of fun is as mixed and overwhelming as the taste of gumbo. Without seeing it, without experiencing it I would never have captured the regal ruin that it could become. Without my experiences I would have been left watching the city from the outside, doomed to recreate the one-dimensional façade captured on every Hurricane Katrina and Mardi Gras documentary.

My favorite story about location comes not from a book, but from the popular TV show “Bones”. In the very first episode Bones gets off an international flight at Dulles Airport (it even says it is Dulles at the bottom of the screen). They show her talking with someone in front of a huge window and famed in that window is the Washington Monument.

Now if you’ve ever flown into Dulles (on purpose or accident) you know that if you saw the Washington Monument from there you’re either a) looking at an advertisement, b) hallucinating or, c) are Superman using crazy long distance see through anything eyes. Dulles is nowhere near the Mall or that monument; as a matter of fact it’s 40 minutes away (without traffic). I know that many people here in the area groaned at this, it would not have been hard to use one line of dialogue to explain that she was catching a connecting flight from somewhere to D.C. to put her in at Reagan (right downtown), but they didn’t. Instead they screwed with the landscape of an area that many people know…it wasn’t a great idea although I’m sure many people didn’t catch it, but for those who did it stretched the suspension of disbelief. Suddenly we are snapped back into a world where we know that there is no “Jeffersonian” or super cute Forensic Anthropologist that is allowed to carry a gun and accompany an FBI agent on interrogations (although I know a few super cute Forensic Anthropologists -bones are cool- none of them have their own personal FBI agent!).

Moral of this story, take us there and drown us in the details but let us paint the background for you, we’ll be a lot happier that way. Also don’t move the major landmarks too much or you might lose us. Ok, now that we’re cool…

Find your peace and live it, even if it’s in a land far, far away…once upon a time…or just next door.

-Renee

Playing Catch Up.

I’ve fallen off the face of the earth, but don’t think I’ve stopped writing.

Actually, I’ve fallen off the face of the earth because I have been writing! I’ve got a deadline, I’ve got to finish 100,000 words on my novel, “In Harm’s Way” by Memorial Day (which is currently 7 days away)…thus all my energy and all my spare time have been poured into my novel.

Good, yes?

I do have pictures for all intervening Photo Sundays…so I haven’t really fallen off that bike, and I’ve written quite a bit on Hawaii. Thus my journaling has not really gone away, it has just been unsuitable for this forum.

So, here is the first of my new posts and if I can keep up my pace on the novel, perhaps you will see a few more before Balticon (currently 5 days away) and absolutely a few after. With Balticon having such a diverse and lively writers track I am sure to have quite a few things to say and people to report on. Well, without further ado:

The World’s Nicest Authors!

Sometimes it’s not the quality or the quantity that you write but who you are that will influence people to not only publish your work, but buy it as well. I know quite a few self-proclaimed “mid-list” writers that I am sure got their foot in the door by virtue of being who they are.

These people are charming, amusing, sweet, and seem to take an honest interest in the people around them. They look at fans, fellow writers, editors, agents, etc and while they may instantly think “what can they do for me” you will NEVER see it in their eyes and if they decide you are not going to be able to help them you will never suffer the brunt of that.

People like Carol Berg, Maria V. Synder, James Daniel Ross and Tee Morris will always earn my money the hard way and I will always gladly give it. Not because everything they turn out is a bestseller, they have misses just like everyone else. Not because I know everything they write will turn into the next Harry Potter, yeah right I could only wish that for them. Not because every book they churn out is a gem that will change my life and I will treasure it forever, come on people I’m being honest here very few books will ‘CHANGE’ my life no matter how much I wish they would.

BUT BECAUSE they are people worth supporting, they are the meat and potatoes that keep me sustained between this instant classic and that horrible dredge. They are people I can speak to, and compliment without believing that the words I speak go in one ear and out another without even creasing the overindulged mind in between…trust me I’ve met a few like that. They are just good people that not only deserve to make a living doing something they love, but they aren’t half bad at it as well.

So, next time you are walking around a conference or meeting an author (mid-list or not) just remember that what people see out of you may well influence how they feel about you when it is your turn in the spotlight. Don’t write people off because you haven’t heard of them…give them a chance and when they blow that chance just walk away. It’s not worth the hassle of fighting and it’ll make you look like the bigger person to everyone involved.

Back from the peace,

Renee

I’ve got a plan!

During my writing group meeting last night, we discussed a problem one of our members is having.  Her writing, while good, is never POP/ZAP/POW.  Every time she sends stuff out to editors they tell her no thank you, and that her stories never seem to go anywhere or are lacking something.

That helps a lot…if my story doesn’t go anywhere then why are my characters moving around and making decisions?  Lacking something…that’s even better…my story is lacking SOMETHING.  What?  A comma?  A main character?  The kitchen sink?!?!

So we were talking about her writing, trying to ferret out what these editors meant, because we had the SAME responses to her work.  It was always missing that spark, that special something that really made the work stand up and say, ‘look at me!’

Well, huzzah!  We think we figured it out. (Thank goodness!)

Jen, the fearless leader, said that this member wasn’t spontaneous enough…that every plot she writes is a forgone conclusion, every story she crafts had a definite ending and she is taking us there come hell or high water.  This member, while a good writer, is so bent on giving us the ending she has in mind she telegraphs it through the whole story, we never have a moment of doubt as to what is going to happen because her characters never have a moment of doubt as to what they are there to accomplish!  It is amazing what that sort of invulnerability on the part of the characters will do to a plot, even in situations that have a certain amount of tension inherent the audience feels little or none when they should be on the edge of their seats.  (I’m put in mind of the Aeon Flux movie.)

So, having figured out the problem…we needed to figure out a solution.  We came up with some great exercises which I wanted to share for those of you out there that are having trouble with spontaneity:

1)      Take random ideas put them in a bag and at predetermined times pull out an idea and write on it for 15 minutes.

2)      Take random words, put them in a bag, at predetermined times pull out a predetermined number of words and make them into an idea to write on for 15 minutes. (This could be a REAL challenge, and I am tempted to try it myself…oh and NO MULLUGIANS!)

3)      Put all your characters from all your stories into a bag, pull out two slips and make them talk to one another.  The Victorian superhero talks to the space junkie…the futuristic vampire talks to the cult leader.

4)      And finally, re-write your stories with the exact opposite ending.  (The demon keeps his job in hell and hates it.  The social worker decides the exploitation of special needs kids is a necessary evil.  The unicorn decides the dark side is where all the fun is.)

These weren’t the only ideas we had, but some of the more exotic.  We had the full compliment of standards as well:

1)      Free write for 15 minutes.  Do not plan before you sit down, just sit down and write.

2)      Take two characters out of your story and write dialogue for them, only dialogue no descriptions nothing.  Just make them talk to one another.

3)      Write every scene into a box.  Put your characters into a situation you think they cannot get out of, only once they are stuck are you allowed to try to get them out.

4)      Above all, avoid the outline!!!!  If you have spontaneity problems, outlines will only compound your issues.

Ok kids, enough writing tips from me…get out there and write something totally unexpected and make us love it.  That is your friendly challenge for the day.

Peacably Yours,

Renee