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Beliefs, Choices, and Emotions (Part 1)

Posted by Dwayne on March 29, 2012

As an author, I want to understand the deep connections within us regarding belief, choices, and emotions. Getting this right will enable more realistic characters and offer the reader an opportunity to “connect” with the story and characters in authentic and meaningful ways.

If emotions are the product of reacting to one’s environment, then the key to establishing good emotional content is making sure those environmental conditions fit naturally with the desired character reaction.

On the other hand, if emotions are the product of what someone believes, then the key to establishing good emotional content is understanding what your character believes and how beliefs drive choices and emotions.

The truth is emotions are a bit of both. We usually experience emotions in a reactionary fashion. That is, they are instigated by something happening to us whether that’s a physical event or an internal epiphany. I have a model for the connection between beliefs and choices and emotions that I think represents reality. Consider the following and see if it seems like a good model. If so, then it might be of help in your own writing or any other endeavor where emotional considerations are important.

BELIEFS and CORE:

We have ideas (thoughts, notions, memories, etc.) stored via some biological mechanism in our brains. However, we are not merely the sum of our ideas. After all, some our ideas are anathema to us. For example, I can have the idea of robbing a bank, but I’d never do that in real life.

This means in some fashion we process those ideas and decide what we accept as true and/or valuable. I’ll call this subset of ideas our CORE. Our CORE may not be consistent, since we may well accept contradictory ideas, and the ideas that we do accept may be “believed” only marginally. In other words, the acceptance of beliefs is not a binary yes/no, rather it’s a continuum from 0 to 1, or 1 to 10, or 1 to 100, or whatever scale makes sense to you. Maybe I believe robbing a bank is wrong, but that belief is only 51% and it could be swayed by the right set of circumstances.

VALUES and CHOICES:

As we go through our day, we are faced with thousands of choices. Most of our answers are habitual, not engaging any active thought. However, there are a few that require us to consider options. The truth is all choices require us to consider options, it’s just that habitual responses perpetuate previous decisions.

When faced with a decision, we do some form of mental arithmetic and decide which option seems most valuable to us. And the determiner of value within us flows directly from our CORE set of beliefs. You believe honor is more valuable than riches, so you return the winning lottery ticket to the rightful owner, rather than claim it for yourself.  Or, you believe all that money can offer is more valuable than silly antiquated notions of honor, so you steal the winning lottery ticket from the rightful owner. Belief drives action … always! There might be a feedback loop that evaluates outcome and modifies internal CORE belief, but the choice is always a product of what is believed inside.

So, if we’re writing characters, make sure the choices a character makes is consistent with his/her CORE beliefs. Good writers know this and make a character’s internal motivations realistic and consistent. A character’s beliefs can change over the course of a story, but there had better be a good reason for it. And that reason had better center on the character’s CORE beliefs being challenged.

EMOTIONS:

So, what about emotions? I contend that emotions are also the product of what we believe. Emotions stem from the same CORE that drives action. Everything about us flows from what we believe.

However <continued …>

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29Mar

GMC: Goal, Motivation, Conflict

Posted by Dwayne on March 28, 2012

One of my glaring weaknesses as an author involves poorly developed characters. A good friend, Alex White, challenged me on this issue and suggested I consider the notion of analyzing each character’s GMC (Goal, Motivation, and Conflict).

Debra Dixon has a great book on the subject (available through Gryphon books) entitled “GMC: Goal, Motivation & Conflict”. I won’t go into much detail because you should buy her book, but the gist involves investing your characters with authentic goals based on believable motivations … and then putting something significant in the way. One might summarize the idea in a single sentence this way, “Character wants GOAL because of MOTIVATION but CONFLICT gets in the way.”

You can make your characters even richer by having internal (or emotional) goals, as well as external (or physical) ones. Debra has much more to say on the subject, but the idea is one that guarantees characters will feel authentic and likeable (or unlikeable if that’s the desire).

Coming from a background of being much more concerned with plot and story than characters (which is terribly wrong-headed, but also indicative of my SF background), the notion of spending so much development time on characters is a hard one to dig into.

However, I think I’ve found a way to tie the two together.

A character’s GMC will remain relatively consistent until some key event (KE) forces a change.  If the GMC is external, then the event will force the character to focus on something else. This could be as simple as the original goal no longer being available or it could potentially be driven by some deeper change bubbling up from within. If the GMC is internal, then the even forces the character to reevaluate an inner, core belief.

So, rather than having a single set of GMC’s (inner and external) for a character, I’m going to use a sequence of KE’s through the story to define the character arc. I’ll then define the GMC between each subsequent pair of KE’s. This gives me a way to plot a character arc, rather than just let things happen. Now I can do a mental transform and developing a character is exactly the same as developing a plot.

It’s a bit of work, but as long as the changes from one GMC to the next flow naturally out of the KE, then it should produce a genuine flow to character development and revelation.

My suspicion is a character’s external GMC will change several times throughout the story, but the internal GMC will remain mostly constant.  After all, our physical goals do change rapidly, but what we genuinely believe on the inside doesn’t change very often … if ever … and when it does it takes something major.

I’m sure I’ll have to play with this more, but at least I’m beginning to get excited about developing a character and not just a plot.

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28Mar

Lessons Learned (Part 2)

Posted by Dwayne on March 28, 2012

Continuing with my thoughts about the Big Sur Writing Workshop, the second general category of critique I noticed had to do with over/under writing.

Most of us, myself included, had a tendency to repeat ourselves or over describe a scene. This tendency was displayed in both description and dialogue. Some degree of repetition is necessary, but that seems to be mostly when dealing with character tics. The point then being to emphasize the specific affectation. However, when dealing with setting or characters repeating words, then the effect on a scene is damaging. It slows things down and creates the feeling of drudgery. We should strive for fewer words, but more precise, words.

Of course, the flip side of the coin also presents problems. Under describing or under communicating can leave a reader feeling lost. There’s simply not enough information to convey the image necessary to carry the scene.

In short:

  • The sure sign of over-writing is that the scene drags and feels bogged down … slogging through the mud.
  • The sure sign of under-writing is that the reader feels rushed and confused … something is missing.

The third and final general category of critique involved clarity. I realize this sounds suspiciously like “under-writing” mentioned above, but there is a distinction. With under-writing, the problem was not enough information to fill out the scene.  The category of “clarity”, however, deals with how the words are put together to convey information.

When following a discussion between two characters, the reader should never have any doubt as to who’s speaking (unless the author intends to be confusing, and then he/she had better have a good reason for doing so). There were several instances of wondering who was talking. We can’t add dialogue tags to every line … hold it … we SHOULD NOT add any more dialogue tags than absolutely necessary!  Yet, sometimes they are necessary to eliminate ambiguity and confusion.

In a similar fashion, when describing a setting, the reader should be able to visualize the vital elements effortlessly. This doesn’t mean every reader will walk away with an identical mental image, but it does mean every reader will easily see their own internal version of the setting.

Both of these general ideas–over/under writing, clarity–fall into an even more general notion of “flow”. How easily does the writing carry the reader from one sentence to the next? Are there mental speed bumps that force the reader to pause to figure things out? If the “flow” is good, then the reader is swept along through the story like a boat drifting down a stream.

Mental speed bumps and jarring writing can be effective at times, but they should be exceptions, not the rule.

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28Mar

Lessons Learned (Part 1)

Posted by Dwayne on March 19, 2012

In my previous post, I mentioned attending Big Sur Writing Workshop.  It was great meeting agents, authors, editors, and a host of dreamers like me, but the most valuable aspect had to be the critique groups.  The reviews given were invaluable even though they were very specific to each writer.  The Sunday afternoon following the final session, I sat down with my notebook and tried to distill the essence of our critique sessions into concrete “lessons learned.”  I think different members of each group would come up with wildly different lessons since we’re at different points in our writing.  However, as I thought about the underlying principles of everyone’s comments, three general ideas seemed to repeat over and over again.

  • Logical consistency
  • Over/under writing
  • Clarity

I’ll touch on the first one (Logical consistency) in this post since I think it’s the most important.  It seemed to me that the overwhelming majority of comments dealt with this notion of logical consistency.  This is the idea that your character, or an event, or an item, must exist within your fictional world in a manner consistent with the parameters of the world.

Let’s consider each of these general categories: Character, Event, Item

Character

In this case, the concerns dealt with motivation, choices, and reactions.  In my mind (since I categorize almost everything), I saw these three as before (motivation), during (choices), and after (reactions).  The kinds of questions and observations that emerged were: Would “character” really do that?  That seems inconsistent with what we know about “character”.

Event

In this case, the concerns dealt with world-reality.  In many cases, events are taking place in fictional worlds where anything might be possible.  While that is true, events in any fictional world still have to be consistent with the “rules” for that universe.  This necessities a clear understanding of the world one is creating, but it also necessitates knowing how events will fit in that world.  The kinds of questions and observations that emerged were: Could/would this really happen this way?  If event A takes place, then event B doesn’t seem to fit.  N.B. This is NOT “should an event happen this way?”  That is another problem.

Item

In this case, the concerns were similar to “Event”.  I make the distinction though because “Item”, in my mind, deals more with setting and physical objects, while “Event” deals with stuff that happens.  So, this concern dealt with world-reality and possibility.  Again, anything could be possible, but it must be possible within the framework being constructed for the story.  The kinds of questions and observations that emerged were:  Could/would this object exist in this universe?  … in this specific setting?  Does that object make sense in the culture you’ve described?

The Key:

The takeaway principle for me as an aspiring author is that I must learn to ask the right questions.  When I can look at my characters and events and items and objectively ask … Does this fit?  Does this make sense?  Is this consistent? … then I’ll have learned this lesson.

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19Mar

Big Sur Writing Workshop

Posted by Dwayne on March 17, 2012

My writing has been slowly improving for some time now, but there’s been a growing realization that something has been missing. Countless rewrites of favorite passages never seemed to solve the problem. Talking with other very capable friends and reviewers offered some insight, but still … something wasn’t connecting about the next level.

So, I finally decided to take the plunge and go to a writer’s workshop. After a modicum of research, I found the Big Sur Writing Workshop.  This workshop is conducted twice a year and focuses on Children to Young Adult literature. It was a bit of an adventure traveling from Alabama to Monterey, CA for a long weekend of writing, but it was worth it in ways I’m still discovering.

The basic premise of the workshop is that you have four sessions (1 Friday, 2 Saturday, 1 Sunday) in which you, along with 4 other authors, spend a couple of hours with a professional going over your work.  You benefit directly when your material is being discussed, but you also benefit by observing (and participating) in the review for the other authors.

The professional for my first and third sessions was Eric Elfman ( personal site, coaching site).  It would have been worth the cost of the trip and the workshop just for those two sessions alone.  Eric demonstrated an amazing ability to zero in on a problem.  But he went beyond just pointing out difficult areas, he also offered extremely helpful suggestions about how to address the specific problem and the underlying weakness in the future.

The professional for my second and fourth sessions was Laura Rennert, a senior agent with Andrew Brown Literary Agency.  Her insight matched Eric’s in every way.  She had a nurturing way of easing you through the recognition of a problem and suggesting answers.  I found myself listening carefully to every observation she made, trying to understand so I could apply that same insight to my own writing in the future.

I’ll write more in the days ahead about what I learned, who I met, and where to go next.

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17Mar

Dreams of Steam II (Brass and Bolts)

Posted by Dwayne on August 30, 2011

My latest published short story, Protege, is available in Dreams of Steam II: Brass and Bolts.

This story is probably my darkest yet. It involves a study in how we view good and evil, and has quite a few references to a rather famous character from the late 1800′s.

While I haven’t had a chance to read the other stories yet, word is this anthology is even better than the original Dreams of Steam. I’m definitely looking forward to hours of great reading!

Categories: Short Story
30Aug

Dragon*Con

Posted by Dwayne on September 9, 2010
Me & Ash

Me & Ash

Enjoyed going to D*C this last weekend.  Lots of interesting panels, a few promising contacts, and attending the Masquerade Ball (Costume Contest) for the first time this year.  It was fantastic!

Ashley and her friend attending as well and they thoroughly enjoyed the attention they got from their “costumes” on Saturday.  I think they had their picture taken over a thousand times before the day ended.

Ashley & Holly

Ashley & Holly

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9Sep

Dreams of Steam

Posted by Dwayne on July 21, 2010

Take a look at Kerlak Publishing’s latest anthology, Dreams of Steam.  It contains my latest short story, Artificial Love.

This story was written over the Christmas break (2009) and probably represents my best writing yet.

I can’t speak to the other stories in the anthology yet, but my understanding is they are all highly entertaining and well written.

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21Jul

Accepted!

Posted by Dwayne on May 31, 2010

One of the greatest messages an author ever receives is that his/her work has been accepted for publication.  In my brief writing career, I’ve now heard that for the third time.  My short story Artificial Love has been chosen by Kerlak Publishing to appear in their upcoming Steampunk anthology.  As of now, the working title is “Dreams of Steam”.

Categories: Short Story
31May

Crossroad’s Writer’s Conference

Posted by Dwayne on March 1, 2010

I attended, and participated in, the Crossroad’s Writer’s Conference at Mercer University in Macon, GA this last weekend (Feb. 26-27).

Emilie P. Bush put together an entertaining session entitled, Dr. Amazing’s Traveling Steampunk Literature Show, where I, and several other authors, had the opportunity to read a bit of our work.  I read from my steampunk short story, Artificial Love.

Here are some great links if you’re interested in more steampunk:

Emilie read from her novel Chenda and the Airship Brofman.

Kathryn Hinds read from her YA novel Machinery Hall.  She also has a blog that you may find interesting!

Austin Sirkin read from “The Strange and Horrifying Mystery of Luna Colony”.

Steven Southard read from “Within Victorian Mists”.  You can find more in issue #5 of of SteamPunkTales.

Lainey E. Welsch read from her play “The True History of Henry Rayne and the Airship Pirates”.

And … Alex White read from his pulp serial The Gearheart.  You can download the entire series of podcasts - guaranteed to enjoy it!! 

——————

In addition to the Steampunk exposition, there were several sessions that provided incredibly valuable information.  My two favorite panelists were Jack McDevitt and Ad Hudler.

1Mar