my travels to Canberra

My son and I just got back from a weekend at our nation’s capital, Canberra. I love Canberra, from its cool temperatures, to its large, sprawling laid-out-ness, to its barely-there traffic problem.

When we’re there, our regular scheduled program includes Questacon, a science and technology centre designed for kids, National Zoo and Aquarium,  (where I ran into fellow writer Valerie Parv – completely by chance!) Cockington Green (miniature buildings and settings amidst gorgeous English gardens) and the walk-in aviary, where you can hand-feed the local bird life.

And on this trip, I met up with an old school friend I hadn’t seen in 16 years. It was great to spend a few hours catching up, meeting her gorgeous toddlers and lovely hubby and to lament “when we were at school <insert perceived problem that really wasn’t here>”.

On the drive back home, we stopped off at a tiny country town called Collector (check out the photos below- my first go at inserting a Photo Gallery :grin:).

I’d always driven past the turnoff, intrigued by a town with only 150 people. So this time, I detoured. Man, talk about blink-and-you’d- miss-it! It consisted of one information centre and coffee shop, a few houses set back off the road, a school (that I didn’t see), and further round the bend, a pub and a weirdly creepy art-tree-carving-thing that freaked my son out.   Apparently, Collector’s claim to fame is that Constable Samuel Nelson was shot by Johnny Dunn, one of Ben Hall’s henchmen. (Ben Hall was an outlaw, in case you were wondering).

All in all, a nice visit to while away the last few days of school holidays.  And now, back to work!

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in memory of Michael Jackson

MichaelJacksonFor me, like any kid of the 80s – and indeed, for the many millions around the world – I grew up on Michael Jackson.  Just slightly too young for Off The Wall, I was smack-bang in the middle of the tsunami ride that was Thriller.   Many say the 70s was a time of great freedom and excitement, but I have to say to 80s were way better… and without the sex and drugs 🙂

It was a time of fun, of discovering great and new tastes in music, fashion and culture.  And Thriller topped the lot.  I wore the single glove.  I owned the black fedora.  I had the posters and cut out articles in magazines and newspapers – many of which I still have!  I longed for the red jacket and the cool dance moves but money (and talent) only stretched so far.  I remember the Countdown debut of the Thriller clip, a 15 minute mind-blowing extravaganza that was nothing like we’d seen before.  It was amazing, it was stunning, it was huge.  It was Michael Jackson.

Whatever you think of the man (and I’ve wavered between ‘crazy’ and ‘genius’ a thousand times), his achievements in music, fashion and culture are unrivaled.  His self-taught dance moves, his God-like command over the industry.  And the music… the music!  Bestselling album in the history of the world.  Ever.  Most singles from one album.  And now, in his death, the ONLY artist to have three albums in the charts at one time.

He was a brilliant performer.  Here’s just of my favorite clips from YouTube – the Jacksons performing at Motown’s 25th anniversary bash:

He was an enigma, a musical talent who was thrust too early into the spotlight – and stayed there when I’m sure there were times he’d much rather be just one of the crowd.  But he was also a troubled soul, who’s fame was on such a global scale that there was no way ‘one of the crowd’ would ever apply.

MJHe was part of my youth and for that, he will forever remain a joyful part.

to see Robert McKee…

storyLast weekend I had the fortunate experience to attend Robert McKee’s three-day Story seminar in Paddington, Sydney.   For those of you in the know, Robert McKee is a minor god in Hollywood and screenwriting circles.  His bestselling book, Story, is a must-read for directors, novelists, screenwriters and actors.   I’ve had it for years but neglected to read it (those hardbacks look so daunting!)   But after three days, 9am until 8.30pm (yes, it was that long!) I’ve been devouring it.

Yes, the seminar is an auditory version of the book, but it also put heaps of things into perspective.  And yes, the man is crotchety, verbal, opinionated (well, who isn’t?) and doesn’t suffer fools.  If he’s spent 10 minutes telling you to turn off your phone otherwise he’ll fine you, why the devil would you leave it on??  He also had a few rants (Michael Jackson,  the direction of Hollywood, appalling scripts, corporate fatcats etc) and lost patience a few times, but 30+ hours of performance is extremely tiring for anyone, let alone a 70 year old.    For me, the experience was amazing – he was entertaining, full of stories and chock full of knowledge.  And he’s one of the most passionate advocates of storytelling I’ve ever heard.

So Friday started.  Kerri (my Story buddy for the weekend) and I decided to stay in the city the night before, which was a good thing, because there’s no way I could’ve dragged myself onto a train at 7am and made it on time at Paddington’s uber-hip Chauvel Cinema.

We registered, met a few friends and settled in for what would be an amazing weekend.  With breaks every two hours, copious amounts of long black and pages of notes, my head was spinning… but I still managed to decipher what I’d written.  So here goes:

  • readers want to share some kind of shared humanity – ‘he’s just like me’, which will then make them empathetic to your characters
  • the difference between amateur writers and professional writers is amateurs love everything they write.  Professionals hate everything they write
  • writers have to learn how to smell their own shit
  • the most important truths are the bitter ones.
  • A scene or event = change (and have this change be of value to the character)
  • values are the lifeblood of story
  • in every scene, ask yourself  ‘what values are played out for the character in this scene?  Negative or positive?’
  • if the value of the scene at the end is the same as at the beginning, then remove it.  If a scene doesn’t have a turning point, then it’s useless.  Each scene must have change.
  • a turning point is a choice a character makes in the pursuit of his goal
  • the effect a turning point has on the audience:  surprise, curiosity, insight, new direction
  • Setting impacts on how a story is told – a divorcing couple will act differently in the Idaho potato fields than the multi-million dollar battles of Park Avenue.
  • “formula” = conventions.  It is not cliche.  For e.g. a crime story must include a body, clues and an investigation.  In a romance there must be two people who overcome obstacles and fall in love.
  • Good characterisation must be unique, credible (a person we can believe in), intriguing (who is this person really?), and show choice under pressure,  How they decide to react under pressure expresses who they really are.
  • True character: characters DON’T change throughout the story, their characters are merely revealed to the reader.  The reader’s understanding of the character changes and the writer reveals the nature of the character to them.
  • The events of the story move when the character makes choices e.g. Star Wars.
  • emotion leads you to think, then the thinking shapes your actions and moves you to do something.

Whew!  So, Friday was over.   The next day we got to the venue early to save our awesome seats – and a good thing too, because people wanted those seats!  I finally met the two nice guys sitting next to us, Tim (a finance dude who wanted to write a novel) and Avi, a screenwriter/director who was a finalist in this year’s TropFest.  (I loved it – check it out but DO NOT read the comments first – it spoils the twist!).

Notes from Saturday:

  • creating your story – what is the arrangement of power?  There is always an uneven distribution of power when people gather and live in groups.  What are the politics of power in a family?
  • every action people take in life are to achieve one of two basic things – the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain.
  • what are the rituals?  Everything in life is ritualistic – designed to get through the day without conflict.  How does your character act to get them through without conflict?
  • What are the laws and ethics?  What’s the difference between ‘legal’ and ‘right’?
  • What are your characters’ backstories?  What are the previous significant events in their biographies that you can use to tell the story?
  • What is your cast like?  What are their designs?  Create a bunch of characters with polar reactions – no two characters should react or act the same way.
  • To create and sustain reader involvement, create empathy and authenticity (the reader must believe that the world is believable).
  • Start your story with an inciting incident.  It must radically upset the balance of your character’s life.  They must react… and refusing to react is still a reaction!
  • The effect of the inciting incident throws a character’s balance and they will strive to restore that balance.  They will pursue a conscious desire to fix it.  It’s their “Object of Desire”.  And with a conscious desire, comes a subconscious desire, which will always contradict each other.
  • Their subconscious desire drives the spine of action, therefore, the story.   If there is no subconscious desire, then the conscious desire drives it.  e.g. while James Bond doesn’t have a subconscious desire, Mrs Soffel is driven by her subconscious desire (unconditional love).
  • ask yourself – what does your character want?
  • how much does the reader need to know before you introduce the inciting incident?  Have maximum impact.  You need to have your reader emotionally invested by this time while they’re waiting e.g. Life Is Beautiful’s inciting incident is when the family is taken to the death camps, which occurs around 30mins into the story.
  • ask ‘what’s the worst that can happen to my character?’  How does this turn out to be his salvation and damnation?
  • nothing moves forward in a story without conflict.  It holds a reader’s interest/  Even stages of life have conflict: to be living is to be in conflict.
  • Ever decision a character makes, every action they take, must include a point of no return – a moment where the character cannot go back to their previous life/beliefs.
  • people are only capable of acting towards the positive – as they see it e.g. Killers believe what they’re doing is right.  They will rationalize it’s God’s work, therefore it’s the right thing to do to kill another race or opposing group/person.
  • Real choice is dilemma – when your character has to chose between two positives or two evils.
  • the strength of the story lies in how strong the opposition is.  Your character rises to the occasion when the odds are stacked against them.

empireMcKee talked a lot about co-incidence and revealing secrets, and if/when’s the best time to do this.  Generally, if a co-0incidence has to happen, make it occur early (e.g. as the inciting incident), then you have the whole story to build meaning.   Never use co-oincidence to end your story (and he went on a mini-rant about War of the Worlds and Jurassic Park).   When do you reveal a secret?  When it’s the lesser of two evils – e.g. Darth Vader revealing ‘I’m your father’ instead of Luke killing him (although, having seen Empire Strikes Back a billion times, I seem to recall Luke was in no position to kill him at that point 😕 )

He also touched on the Act Structure, which I kinda sorta knew but needed more info on.  Generally speaking, a story or movie can be broken down into ‘acts’, the most common being three.  This article (complete with helpful diagram) summarises it into Act I – the set up of the story, Act II – confrontation, and Act III – resolution.  McKee said that Act II can include subplots because it’s so long, and subplots enrich and improve the main plot.  Use them to contradict the main plot e.g. if the main plot is romance, the subplot can be love on the rocks or unrequited love.

Saturday over, we dragged our asses back to our hotel, ate a yummy pizza and dragged our asses back for the last and final day…

Sunday:

  • Subtext – if you write a scene about what a scene’s actually about, they you’re in deep shit (don’t you love this ? 😀 )
  • characters are metaphors for human beings
  • what does my character want that, if they get it, would stop the story?
  • when you over-explain motivation, you push the audience away.  Leave a little mystery to your characters.
  • what other characters say about your character reveals character.
  • don’t dimensionalise a character you don’t intend to use again e.g. giving a cabdriver a name and a speaking part.

At this point, McKee devoted a lot of time to helping a stalled story.  I really can’t improve on his book, so I suggest you grab a copy and read it.

He also talked about the writing process.  Kerri and I both got the feeling that he was implying that plotting is far superior to writing by the seat of your pants (fellow writers will have read oodles of discussion about this topic!).  But McKee’s process makes absolute sense to me, for someone who has to write a synopsis and know the bones of my story so I can pitch it to my editor.  So here goes:

Writing Process (which puts the emphasis on the creation of story)

  • have 1 sheet of paper ( or 3 x 5 cards) per act
  • work on a step outline (a story told with one sentence per event).  Include inciting incident setup, inciting incident, resolution.
  • Remember that 90% of writing is not your best work
  • create character bios and research sheets for your world.

Next:

  • write the treatment (expand each sentence into 2-3 sentences, moment-by-moment (minus dialogue), subtext, real and full, what’s going on internally with the character.  This is a way of getting you into the story and making it vivid.

Then:

  • you write your story by adding dialogue.  Inevitably your characters will be individual and will sing.  Here, you make changes and polish – add or cut.
  • if you’re writing a story to fit dialogue, then your story won’t flow naturally or be true to your characters

McKee also gave an excellent explanation about hero and anti-hero.  A hero embraces and embodies the rules of society, whereas  an anti-hero won’t obey the rules and will break them if he has to to further his agenda or cause (e.g. Rick in Casablanca).  He benefits for his own personal reaons and actively defies society’s conventions.    Who was drawn more to Han Solo (anti-hero) than Luke Skywalker? (hero) 😀

casablancaAt this point, we watched a full screening of Casablanca.  I hadn’t  seen it before so it was a real eye-opener, especially accompanied with  McKee’s explanations into character, subtext and scene.

So, with my book of notes and a brand-new paperback of Robert McKee’s story, I came home full of ideas and exciting new insights into my stories.  What a weekend!  I’d love to see him again, but apparently it was his last visit to Australia.  :sob: