Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Weaving Emotional Truth Through Your Story

by Lorna Kerin Beall

Happy Thanksgiving! What are you thankful for? I’m thankful to God for His abundant love and blessings, especially that He sent His Son to be our Savior.

Regarding writing and weaving stories, I wanted to share a little more from what I learned from Suzanne Morgan Williams, the author of, "Bull Rider," at The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’ Conference I attended recently.

There's an old writing adage, “Write what you know.” But do we really have to stick to what we know or have personally experienced?” The answer is a resounding “No!” I’m sure Ms. Williams has never ridden a bull! (Though I did ride my steer, Cocoa, but he was as gentle as a newborn calf.)                                

Suzanne explained how we can transfer some of the emotions or knowledge that we gain from different life experiences to the characters in our story. She shared how being around her uncle with Parkinson’s disease enabled her with the characterization of Ben, the brain-injured, partially paralyzed war vet, in her book. Her dear uncle sat there crying when Parkinson’s finally took his voice. Like her uncle, Ben had to struggle to get out a few sometimes-incoherent words. Suzanne also used something that happened to her daughter when describing Ben. When her daughter was in the midst of a divorce she’d blurted out, “Nobody will want me,” and the author was inspired to have Ben cry out, “Nobody will want me.”  What makes this so powerful is that it rings true.

Have you experienced something that evoked strong feelings or emotions in you? Draw on those feelings to enrich your story. Your experience provides the emotional content of the story – and more importantly emotional truth. Even if you're writing a genre piece like horror or fantasy, weaving in the emotional truth of a character will elevate that story to a higher level.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Older than Dirt

by Lorna Kerin Beall 

I'm used to going to writers' conferences where many of the attendees are retired. It makes me feel young! But you know you are older-than-dirt when a youthful and vibrant lady editor tells you that you should put romance in your middle-grade novel with a 12-year-old protagonist and you stare at her blankly.

Apparently, I'm not the only one who has experienced this revelation. Author/speaker, Suzanne Morgan Williams told about a time she was interviewing a teen bull rider while doing research for her now published Y.A. novel, Bull Rider. She’d formerly interviewed several older bull riders, one whom answered every question with a one word answer, often yes or no. So she was thrilled to find a bull rider who was the perfect age to share the teen perspective. He even admitted to blacking out in his first ride. (That was evidently quite common.) He told her about his many youthful experiences including his emotions of fear, courage and pride. Just as Ms. Williams was starting the interview the teen’s phone rang. It was his mom and she was concerned that he was in the hotel bar with other older bull riders. He wasn’t drinking and told his mom that he’d be right up and not to worry, he was with a really old lady!

But Suzanne had a totally different experience where she interviewed an 80+-year-old elder of a tribal village. When he found out from the translator that she was only 55, he wouldn't talk to her because she was too young! When she explained to the translator that she was writing to help children, the revered elder totally reversed himself, and told her all kinds of things, even demonstrating a spear throw to the wall and showing her some kind of animal skull.

So perhaps age is relative. The good thing about being older is that you have the time to explore the child in you. In my opinion you are never too old or too young to write a story. Just let that child or elderly person come out to play!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Rehearsing and Performing my Reading of Mary Ringo's Pioneer Journal

When preparing for my reading of Mary Ringo's pioneer journal, I had to decide which journal entries to include. There was A LOT of tragedy on this journey, so I wanted to break that up by including entries with interesting details on camping – so the audience could get a glimmer of life on the wagon train and so there would be peaks and valleys in the performance. This would give me a chance to express other emotions aside from the fear and rising anxiety over the impending Indian attacks. For instance, I express her delight at seeing the beautiful scenery and the joy of watching the children discover a steamboat. I like to have as much variety as possible so it won't become one note.

Rehearsing for a reading can be tricky. Different than rehearsing for a play. With play acting you need to memorize the lines precisely without memorizing the inflections. Some directors have you do improvisation so you stay as spontaneous as possible. When rehearsing for a reading, you need to practice reading it out loud enough so you are comfortable articulating the exact wording and don't garble the words. It helps to know the subtext (internal dialogue). When I type the manuscript I double space so I can write cues for the emotions above the dialogue. But you have to know it well enough so you're aware of the transitions from one emotion to another. It won't do to figure out the emotion half way through the sentence. This is where pauses can come in handy. I put a slash where I need a pause to shift from one emotion to the next. Pauses are also great to add drama. Sometimes Mary would write about some very dramatic event in a very matter of fact or dry manner. A few well placed pauses can really build the dramatic tension. A guy came up to me after the reading and said that he was afraid I was going to pass out from all the anxiety. The anxiety that he (and I) felt came from the pauses.

So how much do you rehearse? It's all about balance. You don't want to practice so much that it becomes dull and you are forcing the emotions. I was lucky to have a manuscript with a very dramatic ending. The writing wasn't stilted at all. The words and rhythm expressed real heartache. The first time I read it aloud, I cried. This is good and bad. It is good because you know that the feelings are there. It is bad because you don't know if you'll ever be able to access them again – especially if you over work it. I opted on the side of less work.

After going through and marking the script with the subtext and emotional cues, it is time to read it out loud. First, I just need to get used to hearing my own voice. I don't worry too much about inflection. If I stumble on a word that is hard to pronounce, I repeat it until I can say it with ease. As I re-read it, new subtext starts to emerge so I tweek my notes and pauses. I work on a section at a time until I get rid of enough kinks to get all the way through it. When I finally got to the climax – I actually cried! I set it aside so I wouldn't overwork it. The next day, I read it all the way through without stopping at each mistake. Finally, I time it. Good. It's in the alotted time frame. I stop for the day.

Friday, November 4, 2011

When I get to Tombstone, I wander the streets. There is a lonely wind blowing – as I miss absent friends. I go back to my room and read through the whole manuscript – except for the emotional climax. I don't want to overwork it. I hope the tears will be there when I need them.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The next day - the day of performance, I have about two hours to get ready. I read the beginning and start to feel a little anxiety. I take a long shower – belting out a song or two. I take my time putting on my modest makeup and put my hair up in a bun. I casually read the manuscript out loud one last time. It's not perfect. I don't even get choked up at the end. I leave the performance in God's hands. It is really an act of faith at this point. I put on my school marm dress, lace up my period shoes and head for the performance venue hoping for the best.

When I get there, they seem to be behind schedule. One speaker finishes his speech and another goes up. I try to stay relaxed. I wonder if I should go run through it one last time, but decide that that would only make me more nervous. The second speaker finishes his presentation and takes questions. I go to the ladies room to adjust my shawl and put on my bonnet. Jenn, the organizer, finally announces me. I walk to the front and set up a shaky metal stand, place my manuscript on it, and adjust my mic. I ask the audience, “How many of you have heard of Johnny Ringo?” They all raise their hands. I give a short intro on how this is Johnny's mom's journal of their trip cross country in a covered wagon . This intro gives me time to acclimate to my surroundings and the audience.

This is it. My hand shakes as I adjust the mic, but I know I can use the nerves to my advantage. The reading is going pretty well. I wish I had practiced a bit more so I could look up at the audience more often. I mess up a couple of lines, but I stay in character and keep going. Then I start to get into it. I surprise myself with some new expressions in the heat of the moment. The pauses that I planned are starting to build tension. And there it is. The climactic paragraph. I pause to reflect for a moment. When I resume, the emotion is all there. I tear up as I tell of my husband accidentally killing himself. I bow my head in reverence to God. And it is over. The audience applauds. Several people come up to me and tell me how good I did. Mark D says that the audience was so mesmerized that you could hear a pin drop. Thank God!