“You wanna dance with me?” (Getting Past the Fear of Starting)

There’s something about starting something new—be it a novel, a job, living in a new city and state—that can be terrifying. We have high hopes (goals and resolutions) but we also have doubts (how long will it take to achieve it? Will I succeed? Is it any good? Am I any good?) because we don’t have the crystal ball telling us whether we’re going to be OK.

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Tell me if this is familiar:

“I love writing but hate starting. The page is awfully white, and it says, ‘You may have fooled some of the people some of the time, but those days are over, giftless. I’m not your agent, and I’m not your mommy; I’m a white piece of paper. You wanna dance with me?’ and I really, really don’t. I’ll go peaceable-like.”

Aaron Sorkin, Oscar and Emmy-winning screenwriter

The longer I’m in this writing thing, the more I’m agreeing with Mr. Sorkin.

Since New Year’s Day, I’ve written start novel in my super-cool new planner as one of the “top three” tasks of the day as well as the week. Took seven days before I actually did it, and even then I barely got about 800 words done. And that includes the cover page.

I didn’t write again until five days later. Completed another thousand.

In my defense, I have been pretty busy. I’m teaching a course at the university this semester (classes began today)—my first in five years—so I’ve had a lot of prep work to do. This on top of preparing to launch a new novel, taking two online courses to help boost my business, and helping my husband get our house ready to sell.

It wasn’t hard to keep deferring it to the next day, however. And that’s what bugged me. Because two voices in my head competed for my attention: the first gung-ho to write, and the second hell-bent on dissuading me. Voice 2 is particularly loud and obnoxious.

There’s something about starting something new—be it a novel, a job, living in a new city and state—that can be terrifying. We have high hopes (goals and resolutions) but we also have doubts (how long will it take to achieve it? Will I succeed? Is it any good? Am I any good?) because we don’t have the crystal ball telling us whether we’re going to be OK. We’re about to take the leap, but we’re wondering if the chute is going to open. And sometimes, because we can’t see what’s at the bottom, we just stand there.

I talked about making my number one goal for 2018 to be all about leaving my comfort zone. Or, if you want to stick with the metaphor, taking the leap. The fear of doing so paralyzed me in many ways last year, even despite my successes. Seventeen days into the new year, and I’m swimming in discomfort. Some days I feel as if I can barely keep afloat. But there’s also something exhilarating about it. Because although every day is composed of baby steps, you start to realize all those baby steps are actually taking you somewhere. You’re moving forward, which is way more progress than staying where you are, frozen in fear.

Writing a novel—starting, in particular—is very much about leaving your comfort zone. Even if you’re writing what you know. In fact, starting a novel has always about adventure. It’s fun. Promising. Exciting. Full of potential and possibility. And all you need to do is get past that initial fear.

In addition to leaving my comfort zone, I’ve made a point to look at my goals on a regular basis. Complete new novel is on that list, and as long as I keep looking at that goal, I’ll make myself accountable. I’ll get it done. Hard part is over, after all. I started it.

 

Discussion/Reflection: How do you feel about starting a new writing (or other) project? Is it frightening? Exciting? A little of both, perhaps? How do you get past that fear of starting?

 

snoopy copy
I have a copy of this comic in my possession. I don’t like to use photos from online without permission, but I couldn’t find my copy, and I wanted to share it.

Are You There, Judy? It’s Me, Elisa

I read these books over and over and over again. They were stories that validated me, made me curious, and made me want to grow up. They were the stories that shaped my own stories, secret stories, like the ones Sally Freeman made up in her head and told no one about.

When I talk about the writers who have most influenced me as a writer and a storyteller, Aaron Sorkin and Nora Ephron—two screenwriters, predominantly (although Ephron began her career as a journalist and wrote everything from plays to essays to blog posts, and Sorkin is also a playwright)—come to my lips first. In Sorkin I see a kindred spirit of one who hears dialogue like music, and I worship at his altar of “intention and obstacle” when it comes to my novels. In Ephron I find less a kindred spirit and more someone I want to like me, even from beyond. Consequently, after reading Richard Cohen’s book about her, it seems I was far from alone in that regard.

Aaron writes dialogue that sounds smart. Nora wrote smart stuff.

But the writer I talk little about, who perhaps has had an even greater influence on me, for a longer period of time, is Judy Blume.

I was introduced to Judy Blume books in the second grade, when my teacher, Ms. Millman (she was the first woman I knew who insisted on being called “Ms.” instead of “Mrs.,” and she was my favorite grade-school teacher), read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing to the class.

I was hooked from there. As I’ve often said, when it comes to reading, I am a creature of habit—when I find an author I like, I read just about everything s/he’s ever written, often more than once. That was Judy Blume. I took Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing out of the library and read it again. And again. Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great came next, followed by Starring Sally J. Freeman as Herself. I remember when Superfudge came out, and my female classmates all clamored to be next on the waiting list at the school’s library to read it.

And then, of course, there was Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.

It was the book to read if you were a twelve-year-old girl. And it made an impression on every one of them. Three of my friends and I started our own PTS’s club, complete with boy books and discussion about bras (neither the club nor the books lasted very long; besides, I only had one boy and Paul McCartney on my list—this was post-Shaun Cassidy and pre-Duran Duran).

I ordered a Starter Kit after reading that book. Two girls in my sixth grade class threw a co-ed party and announced they were going to play “Spin the Bottle” (I was relieved not to be invited). Like Margaret, I wanted breasts (I got my wish, albeit not during my teens). I wanted my period. I wanted knitted sweaters with special labels (my grandmother made me dresses for my brothers’ weddings, wraparound skirts, funky vests, and knitted booties, so I’m not complaining).

It’s Not the End of the World turned out to be a refuge after my parents split up, although their demise looked nothing like Karen’s parents. Deenie, Blubber, Then Again, Maybe I Won’t—these were all the books of my childhood and adolescence. I read these books over and over and over again. They were stories that validated me, made me curious, and made me want to grow up. They were the stories that shaped my own stories, secret stories, like the ones Sally Freeman made up in her head and told no one about. I wrote lots of stories in my head. I wrote stories in my notebook and hid the notebooks. I wrote in my diary every day and made up stories in which I inserted myself into a soap opera plot or a Duran Duran video.

Last week I began Judy Blume’s Master Class, and was validated all over again from the very first lesson, this time as a grown up. A writer. An author. A storyteller. And a woman.

I found out that Judy and I share the same phobia of thunderstorms.

I found out that Judy gets ideas in the shower and/or on walks, just like I do.

I found out that, like me, Judy re-purposes the things and truths she both witnesses and experiences and feels in and from her own life into her stories. Not consciously or deliberately, but because they’re there and, to step back into Nora Ephron’s shoes for just a moment, “everything is copy.”

She tells stories about herself as a writer as simply as she writes.

I also found out that there are still a bunch of Judy Blume books I have yet to read. I’ll be visiting the public library in the near future. And heck, I’ll re-read all the other ones yet again, because it’s been so long.

I never got the chance to tell Nora Ephron what her writing meant to me. I got to tell Aaron Sorkin online, and even shook his hand in person. I hope I get those opportunities with Judy Blume. I hope I get to tell her that she’s one of my favorites. I hope I get to show her my novels, and tell her that Andi from Faking It voraciously read Judy Blume’s books. Even mentioned that she did. Sage from The Second First Time probably read all her books too. And Sunny from Adulation. And Eva from Why I Love Singlehood. How could they not? I hope I get to thank Judy Blume for knowing me and writing for me, even though she’s never known I exist. I hope I get to hug her.

I am truly a student of her craft as much as I am a reader of her stories. And I am honored and privileged to be both for the last forty years.

 

judy blume books copy
image from http://ashrocketship.com/tag/back-to-school-with-judy-blume/

6 Screenwriter Storytelling Tactics that Made Me a Better Novelist

People are often surprised when I tell them that some of the best lessons I’ve ever applied to my novel writing craft came from television writers and screenwriters. That’s because television and screenwriters’ chief aim is to tell a good story.

I assure you that if you apply each of these tactics to your novels, regardless of genre, you will see a marked improvement. Or perhaps you’ve been applying these instinctively. If so, good for you!

Here they are, in no particular order of importance, but as I list them here, they do follow a somewhat logical sequence:

 

  1. Intention and obstacle

Emmy and Oscar winner Aaron Sorkin, writer of A Few Good Men, The West Wing, and The Social Network, preaches intention and obstacle as the backbone of everything he writes. “Someone wants something, and someone or something is in the way of them getting it.”

Without intention and obstacle, your story lacks conflict, and your characters lack an opportunity for development. More detrimental, the reader doesn’t have a purpose for being there. It’s one thing for a protagonist to want her dream job that’s just come on the market. It’s something completely different when her ex-husband is on the hiring committee, and her arch nemesis is going after the same job. (And it just so happens her ex-husband is her ex-husband because he slept with her arch nemesis.)

Intention and obstacle is the stimulus for your characters to make choices and take action. It’s even better when this next tip happens…

  1. Always put your characters somewhere they don’t want to be.

Larry Gelbart, co-creator of the television series M*A*S*H and writer of movies such as Oh, God! and Barbarians at the Gate, dispensed this advice. It especially applies to comedies, but I find it works in every good story. Either take your characters out of their comfort zone, or put them where they’ll need to react rather than respond. For example, our protagonist (I’ve decided to name her Ruthie) sits in front of the hiring committee and the air conditioning has gone out, so they move the interview to a room without windows, and Ruthie is claustrophobic. Plus she’s allergic to a committee member’s perfume. And Mr. Ex is looking especially handsome, the rat-bastard.

 Notice that a little story is unfolding here? This leads me to…

 

  1. “But/Therefore”

As I had mentioned in my previous blog post, South Park creators and writers Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s advice is so crucial to storytelling that I devoted the previous blog post to it. Connecting scenes with “and” or “and then” will make your story drag and offer few consequences for your characters’ actions and behaviors. Connect them with “but” and “therefore,” and your story lights up with conflict and consequences.

Ruthie’s dream job is hiring, but her ex-husband is on the hiring committee, and her arch nemesis is also after it. Therefore, Ruthie needs to ally herself with someone else on the committee. But the arch nemesis has already beat her to it, therefore Ruthie needs to discredit the arch nemesis. But during the interview, the A/C goes on the fritz, therefore they need to move to a room with no windows. But Ruthie is claustrophobic and allergic to someone’s perfume, therefore she needs to get through the interview without having a panic attack or wheezing…

Connect the same scenes with “and,” and watch the story turn into an insomnia remedy rather than a page turner.

 

  1. “The antagonist always thinks s/he is the protagonist.”

This advice came to me courtesy of instructor Will Chandler at the Stony Brook Southampton Summer Screenwriting Conference on Eastern Long Island, and I still remember how hearing it was like an epiphany.

Think about some of your favorite antagonists: Annie Wilkes from Misery. Nathan Jessup from A Few Good Men. Heck, even Voldemort. Each one of them is a compelling antagonist because they believe themselves to be the good guy. Wronged. Misunderstood. Antagonists don’t necessarily need to be villains. But they do need to be… well, antagonizing.

How might Ruthie’s arch nemesis make her case for protagonist status? Maybe she thinks she’s worked twice as hard as Ruthie and thus deserves that job. Maybe deep down she’s twice as insecure as Ruthie, or felt threatened by Ruthie, and that’s why she went after Ruthie’s husband and now her job. Maybe, when they were kids, Ruthie somehow wronged her. Whatever it may be, we don’t just have a mean girl anymore. We have someone who is formidable and challenges us as much as she does Ruthie.

 

  1. Story Structure

During that same screenwriting conference, I learned two different story structures. One was the traditional Three-Act structure (which I’d discovered I’d been instinctively applying to my novels). The other was a character arc based on Nine Key Scenes (also taught by Will Chandler). I detail both of them The Writer’s Habit. I also know of many novelists who use Blake Synder’s beat sheet from Save the Cat.

And finally…

 

  1. Words with a k in it are funny.

Walter Matthau as Willie Clark tells his nephew Ben this in Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys. But I suspect it’s Mr. Simon’s assertion. And dammit if it isn’t true. Cookie. Chicken. Ketchup. (I’m not sure what my using all food words says about me, other than I’m writing this before dinner.) Think about it.

 

Activity/Discussion: Of these six storytelling tactics, which is your favorite? Why? How do/would you apply any/all of them in your novel?

 

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