RWAustralia 2010 conference wrap-up

sunrise on Coogee Beach

So,  I’m back from our most awesome conference, held at beautiful Coogee Beach in Sydney.  The weather was nice and cool but sunny, the food was plentiful and the people wonderful.  Over two hundred of us networked, shared information, caught up with friends and had a grand old time.  Actually, I got more out of it than I expected from previous years, so I was particularly thrilled about that.  And as usual, I took copious notes and am now sharing them all with you (interspersed with a few candid shots of the weekend!).

Deb Dixon’s Friday workshop on GMC and the Hero’s Journey
Deb is a particular writing Goddess of mine and I was tickled to my cotton socks to finally meet her in person and gush unbecomingly over her mind-blowing GMC book for writers (yes, she was very gracious about it and didn’t run away screaming at my excited squealing.)

I have discussed GMC at length in prior posts, so if you want to read that first in case you’re a little vague on the concept, I’ll wait here until you come back.

Done?  Okay, here’s the new information I gleaned below.  I make no apologies for the dot points, or if anything doesn’t make sense 🙂

  • Tension increases every time your character’s goal changes
  • Supplement a large goal with smaller scene or chapter goals, to ultimately achieve your larger goal
  • Emotional goal is revealed as the story goes along.  Your character has to deal with this by the end of the book.
  • Look for synchronicity between your external and internal goals.  An external event can trigger your emotional goals.  Deb gave a great example of this where through the course of escaping the bad guys, the heroine encounters a woman who’s berating her child in public, then later on, they see the same mother and child where the mother is still going on.  So the heroine decks her.
  • Everyone wants something
  • Internal peace is important to changing their character
  • If a character doesn’t meet their primary goal, you need to give their minor goals more importance (and mention them!  Foreshadow!) and make your primary goal less importance.  Deb’s example was You’ve Got Mail where Meg Ryan doesn’t achieve her goal of saving her bookstore, but decides to write a book instead… which hadn’t even been mentioned, set up or foreshadowed AT ALL throughout the course of the movie!
  • Make it so there are only two choices for your character – sucky or suckier.
  • You need to give your characters some grey areas to play.  What are they willing to do to get their goal, and what won’t they do?
  • Give your characters what they want and take away what they say they don’t want.  Bring them face-to-face with what their choices look like.
  • Characters can have goals and motivation from lies that they’ve been told.
  • Motivation is a gut check.
  • A starter goal can flip flop into motivation.  Goal = is it something immediate?  Is it something your character will put themselves in danger for?
  • Conflict tests your characters.  They are moments that matter.
  • Characters often fail at conflict at the beginning of the book.  Ask “how is this conflict contributing to my character’s story arc/character growth?” Do make them face conflict when obtaining or achieving their goals.  If your characters can go merrily along without clashing, you need to rethink.
  • Conflicts need no obvious outcomes OR they need multiple outcomes that keep the reader guessing.
  • One of your characters will be carrying the emotional thread of the story.
  • When starting your story, if you write your external GMC first, you are more plot driven,  If you write your internal first, you are more character driven.  If both, you have an emotional or issue-driven story.
  • Break your characters.  The joy for the reader is seeing them become whole again.

a bevy of beauties at our 'fantasy island' cocktail party

Now, the next bit was a great eye opener for me.  I hadn’t heard this in a workshop before and I was thrilled to learn something new.  Deb talked about dominant impressions.

Dominant Impressions
What are dominant impressions?  They are two words, the first an adjective, the second a descriptive noun, which together, create a dominant impression for the reader.  For example, Han Solo in Star Wars is a cocky smuggler.  Princess Leia is a royal rebel.

Deb then gave us an exercise to write down the first ten of each that came to mind when thinking about your character.  She also stressed that the first word is not always the correct one – many can describe your character but one will fit to a T.  This was totally true when I went back over the adjectives for my hero… bitter, angry, determined, wounded, fierce, jaded?  And was he a rebel, fighter, survivor, idealist, fugitive?  When I finally settled on tortured warrior, I just knew it was right.  And my heroine – sure she was passionate, royal, loyal, idealistic, headstrong, desperate.  And yes, she was a control freak, an optimist, an obsessive.  But ultimately, deep down, she is a determined royal.

Now, throughout the course of your story, the adjective has to change and you must show this to the reader.  So, for e.g. my hero is a tortured warrior and I must show how he comes to be at peace with that side of him.  If they don’t change, then they have to accept who they are and how they come to terms with it.  This will create a greater understanding and acceptance of self.

Reasons for a scene
Every scene should have at least three reasons to be there.  At least one of those should be either goal, motivation or conflict.

  • Goal – illustrates your character’s progress to your goal.
  • Motivation – provides the character with an experience that strengthens his motivation or changes it
  • Conflict – brings the character into conflict with opposing forces.

Darth Vader and Princess Leia (aka me and Shannon)

The Hero’s Journey
Deb talked about this wonderful story structure that first came from mythologist Joseph Campbell (the Hero with a Thousand Faces) and made popular by story analyst Christopher Vogler (The Writer’s Journey).

I’ve talked about this in a prior post in my Novel in Three Months, so I’ll be making an assumption you’re familiar with the structure.  Here’s the notes I made about each:
1. Ordinary world – this is your starting point of your story.  It helps the reader understand who the character/s are.  Gives contrast for the story.  It’s about details.  It should have context and meaning.  You may only need a like or two to set up this ordinary world, e.g. “I’ve got to get a job.”
2 and 3 call to adventure, refusal of the call (I missed this bit – had to run to the loo!)
4. encouraged by mentor – mentors don’t always make the journey with the characters.  They don’t have to be on the page: they can be someone in their past or in their memory.  Other characters can step into the mentor role then step back.
5. crossing the first threshold – it’s about a choice to go forward or go back.  It can be emotional (Lovemaking) or physical (the hero crosses the room to go to the heroine).  It can be visual (e.g. in The Fugitive when Harrison Ford jumps out into the waterfall).  The character can’t go back to the beginning, they are being pushed forward, and this doesn’t happen easily – the character will struggle with this.
6.  Tests, Allies and enemies – where your character has experiences, takes challenges, sees how badly they want their goal.  They gather info to defeat enemies, they pass tests to show they are worthy.
7. approach the innermost cave – this is a turning point, it means danger and uncertainty.  Characters can try and prepare for it, but they know things aren’t going to go well.  Where your character doesn’t want to go, put them there. Bad things happen, people can die.  It can be the brink of battle, secrets are on the brink of coming out.  Goals are not going to be met.  Things are lost (ideals, innocence, etc).  For a romance, this can also mean accepting and enjoying love making.
8. The ordeal – the characters face the lies they’ve told themselves.  It’s the beginning of self-realization.  Their conflict is “you can’t change the past.”
9.  The reward – small moment of victory.  Maybe people have died in your hero’s past and he’s living with survivor’s guilt, but it also means here’s there now to help the heroine overcome the villain.
10.  The road back – where they decide to return to their Ordinary World (but obviously can’t because things have changed too much.)  It can be a mental pursuit.  e.g. the hero breaking down all the heroine’s barriers to claim her as his.
11. resurrection – this is a phoenix rising from the ashes, and about letting the old self die. Could also mean a character sacrificing themselves for the other character’s survival.
12.  Return with the elixir – this places your character back in their Ordinary World to see how their world has changed.

cool shot of Leah and Linley at our awards dinner

Characterisation workshop with Deb Dixon
Okay, so I overdosed a little on our guest speaker.  But she had so much stuff to say, and I was a riveted listener!

  • Character is revealed by:
    Actions/reactions
    – anything your characters do, readers will pass judgment on.  It is an opportunity to convey character
    Speech
    Thought – this alone will never be enough for good characterisation
    Appearance – echo and contrast with their world view
    Other characters – they give us info about our characters
    GMC
  • Use details of the moment to characterize
  • Pick the right details for the right moment
  • Emotion directs your character – active characters make decisions and move the plot
  • Character directs plot

Distinguishing tags

  • Appearance
  • Mannerisms
  • Ability
  • Speech
  • Attitude (comes from somewhere!)

Devise a scene to serve both your character and your story, not just one.

Shaping the character

  • Experience
  • Strengths
  • Culture (including home)
  • Education
  • Relationships
  • Circumstances
  • Weaknesses
  • Fears, hopes and dreams – are critical for characterization

If you know the hopes, fears and dreams, the rest will build from that.  Now, do these gel will your dominant impression?  DO they match?

Deploying the character

  • Identify – universal situation (e.g. breakup, divorce, sickness, cheating spouse, death)
  • Empathise/sympathise
  • Characterize
  • Worry – what’s at stake?

I also found her discussion on character contrast very interesting.  Basically, she got us to list down a bunch of descriptive words for our hero/heroine to see if they were in opposition.  Here’s mine:

Heroine——————– Hero
Independent————– > bound
Privileged life————- > hard life
Royal ———————- >  lower caste
Driven ——————— >  tormented
Direct ———————- > conditioned to hide truth
Free ————————>  bound & dependent on the Kings’ whims
Higher purpose ———– > no purpose/at odds with purpose

me at the ARRA book signing

Apart from the great people, the new conference goers, and the workshops (I also attended one on fight scenes and combat by the very cute Ray Floro!) ARRA hosted a book signing, there was a cool dress-up cocktail party (Friday Night) and our awards dinner (Saturday night) where my wonderful writing friends walked away with some well-deserved awards, including Sharon Archer, Amy Andrews, Leah and Tracey O’hara.  You can see all the winners on the RWA blog.

Next year we’ll be in Melbourne for our very special 20th anniversary conference.  Can’t wait!!!

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8 comments on “RWAustralia 2010 conference wrap-up

  1. Hey Paula, Thanks for sharing these wonderful notes, that’s very generous of you! Great pics, am especially impressed that you were up at dawn!!! (perhaps you were looking to stalk the guest speaker?)
    CCxx

  2. me, stalk?? Never 😀

    I think the last time I took that many notes in a workshop, it was Donald Maass in Melbourne (2005?) Always happy to share!

  3. Hi Paula, wow… you took much better notes than me! Thank you for posting them here. I’m knee deep in prepping for the MH new voices comp and was madly deciphering my scribbles from Deb Dixon’s GMC session – then up popped your blog update and all my problems were solved. Well, not all of them, but you definitely made my day 🙂

  4. Paula, what fantastic notes – bringing all those gems back to me, and fantastic photos. As usual it’s always wonderful catching up with you, and I that photo of you at the AARA signing is so you 😉 LOL!

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