Friday, November 23, 2012

Three Big Takeaways from the My Book Therapy Storycrafters Retreat: Guest Post by Lindsay Harrel

I love Lindsay Harrel! So when I had the brainstorm to ask her to guest post, I knew exactly what to have her chat to us about...what else, but the My Book Therapy retreat she just attended! Now, before you join me and turn bright green with envy, this post is LIKE attending one of Susie's retreats it is so thorough. So kick back, avoid those black Friday shoppers and get to know Lindsay bit better... :-))
A few months ago, I received my first agent rejection letter. The agent said that while she liked my writing, my story and plot were not unique enough.

After a trip to Dairy Queen and about two days spent doing anything but writing (ha!), I sat down to examine what the agent had said. And you know what? She was right.

So I set out to correct my deficiency in plot and structure. I’ve been a member of My Book Therapy—an organization founded by award-winning author Susan May Warren that focuses on teaching the craft of writing—for nearly a year, but had yet to attend any of the group’s writing retreats.

I decided to change that. Last month, I attended the MBT Storycrafters Retreat in Minnesota.

Changed. My. Life. (And writing!)

The retreat was small, only about 10–15 people, and that meant I received individual attention from Susie. That woman is amazing and just so called to be a teacher. She truly cares about each person there and brainstorms like you wouldn’t believe.

At the retreat, Susie goes through the very basics of building a plot from the ground up. There is so much information crammed into your head over 48 hours, but it is all so valuable. You actually come away with a fleshed out story idea and your first scene written.

I thought I’d share with you some key points I took away from the weekend:

Character sheets aren’t enough.
Before I joined MBT, I used character sheets to get to know my characters. You know, the ones with details about what kind of car your character (we’ll call her Tina) drives, her dog’s name, and her favorite color. While those details can be important and very telling of Tina’s character and who she is, they by no means are enough.

Instead, think about what event in your character’s past (called the Dark Moment) shaped her. Make it one specific event. That event then leads to the Lie She Believes. For example, in my current work in progress, my main character Stacy’s mom broke a promise, one that leads to the death of Stacy’s dream. The lie she believes is that no one can be trusted—that you have to do everything yourself.

The lie leads to the Greatest Fear, which comes true in the Black Moment, or the big event toward the end of the novel when all heck breaks loose and the lie seems true.

See how all of these things tell us much more about a character than the car she drives? In order to figure some of these out, Susie suggested delving deeper by interviewing your character.

Storyworld can make or break a scene.

Storyworld is that all-encompassing something about a scene that puts us there and practically makes the setting like another character. I have always included little details into my scene to accomplish this, but I don’t think I was doing enough of it. Susie suggested brainstorming the following basics just before writing a scene. Spend about 10–20 minutes doing this and it will make you much more in tune with your setting and what’s going on in your scene (even pantsers can do this!):

Ask the five W's.
·         Who: What's the POV character's emotional state in 1-2 words?
·         What: What is going on around the character? What is the character actually doing in the scene? (This last question really helped me because my scenes were previously filled with lots of smiling, nodding, fists clenching, etc. Susie said to give your characters something to actually do, like peel potatoes, get ready for a party, etc.)
·         Where: Physical location, but also what is significant about this place to the character?
·         When: Time of day, time of year, etc.
·         Why: Why is the character here?

Add in the five senses.
·         Close your eyes and pretend like you're there. What do you hear?
·         What do you smell? Be as specific as you can, even giving analogies here.
·         What do you see? Pull out little significant details.
·         Taste can be a feeling (like tasting guilt or regret) or an actual taste.
·         You should only use significant touches.

I wrote a new scene at Storycrafters and sent it to my critique partner. She told me it was the best scene of mine she’s ever read because the storyworld was so vibrant and alive.

So yeah, guess it makes a difference.

First lines should put us in the character’s head.
The first line—and I’m talking about the first line of each scene, not just of the entire book—is responsible for drawing our readers in. Because of that, we want them to be powerful. Strong.

We also want them to get us in the POV character’s head.

A great trick Susie taught at the retreat was this: When you’re brainstorming your scene, close your eyes and embody your character. You’ve already thought about where she is, what she’s doing, and what else is going on around her. Now, what is she thinking? What thought is running through her mind?

That is your first line.

An example from the scene I developed at Storycrafters (technically two lines, but you get the picture):

“How had it come to this, singing in a backwoods joint that felt more like a prison courtyard than the concert hall of Kacie’s dreams? Yeah, the Lizard Lounge was definitely a far cry from the Grand Ol’ Opry.”

Your Turn: Have you ever been to a writing retreat? What takeaways did you bring home? If not, what writing tidbits have you been learning lately? Please share!

Since the age of six, when she wrote the riveting tale “How to Eat Mud Pie,” Lindsay Harrel has passionately engaged the written word as a reader, writer, and editor. She holds a B.A. in Journalism and Mass Communication and an M.A. in English. In her current day job as a curriculum editor for a local university, Lindsay helps others improve their work and hones her skills for her night job—writing inspirational contemporary fiction. Lindsay lives in Phoenix, Arizona, with her husband of six years and two golden retriever puppies in serious need of training.

Twitter: @Lindsay Harrel:


Debra E. Marvin said...

So, for a MBT retreat like this, did you take a germ of an idea or something you've been working on? Is it best to do just before you start a new story, LIndsay?

I appreciate the post so much! I am a big fan of Susie May Warren's teaching. All the studying I tried to do on character building really sunk in when I started using her "the lie they believe" trigger.

Thanks, ladies!

Joanne Sher said...

oh MAN does this sound good! I may have to jump on the MBT train (you guys have been slowly convincing me for a while.) when I can afford it. Hopefully soon!

Beth K. Vogt said...

Oh, this post took me back to the first Storycrafters Retreat, which I attended. Like you, Lindsay, this totally changed my writing--and my life.
MBT -- it's where I really started learning c-r-a-f-t.

And one of the highlights of the MBT retreats? They are small, so you get to connect with the Susie (and Rachel Hauck at the Deep Thinkers Retreat), as well as with other writers.

Heather Day Gilbert said...

Helpful post! Tweeting it around!

Gabrielle Meyer said...

Great pointers from the MBT Retreat, Lindsay! It was such an awesome experience being there and having that one on one time with Susie, but also with the other retreaters - getting their feedback and hearing about their own stories. I would HIGHLY recommend the retreat to anyone who can go.

Right now I'm going through Kiss & Tell, From the Inside Out and Deep & Wide (all MBT craft workbooks) as I'm creating my next story. Susie's questions and suggestions are so amazing and I feel like I am answering all those big story questions before I even type my first word. Susie is one talented writer and teacher!

Nancy Kimball said...

An MBT retreat is now on my wishlist for sure. I purchase My Book Buddy at conference and attended Susan's workshop with Chip there and I can agree her teaching style is incredible.

Lindsay Harrel said...

Debra, at this particular retreat, you come with an idea and leave with large chunks brainstormed. You can use some of the time to apply what you're learning as you learn it. You also use Saturday night to write your first scene. But I would say to attend no matter where you are in the process. It is soooo worth it!

Joanne, you should! There is a free level of membership, so you should check that out first if you're curious about MBT. I think it's a great community, and Susie and the other coaches love helping writers learn.

Beth, I loved the size! I can't wait for Deep Thinkers in February. I know I'm gonna learn a lot. :)

Lindsay Harrel said...

Thanks so much for spreading the word, Heather!

Gabe, I know what you mean. I need to find time to review those books too. So helpful!!

Nancy, you definitely should try to make an MBT retreat. Totally worth the time and money, in my humble opinion.

Pepper said...

YAY! It's Lindsay Harrell!!!
So glad to have you at The Alley.
And it was one of my highlights of ACFW this year to get to meet you and Gabe! Wonderful!

The Lie is a wonderful tool for deepening plot and character. I LOVE that.

And I absolutely LOVE listening to Susie teach. Oh what fun! I had the opportunity to sit through her class at Blue Ridge this spring and it was great teaching and fun!

What have I learned lately?
Besides how to make my very first homemade red velvet cake? (good thing to learn, btw)
That I work really well using core tips from MBT, plus Hero's Journey, and a few other tips sprinkled in. I LOVE the 'outline' of the hero's journey for my less-than-structured brain :-)

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

I'm soooo late! Sorry...been at my momma's house all day. :)

I would love to attend a MBT Retreat one day. I'm thinking that it would be the thing that would really teach me something about writing. I only hear great things about it!

Susan Anne Mason said...

Thanks for sharing, Lindsay! These are great tips about getting the feel of the scene. Just what I needed!


Lindsay Harrel said...

Pepper, it's great to use different tips from different sources, especially if they make sense to you and make your writing better.

Sherrinda, that's okay. I hope you had a great time at your mom's. And yes, I think an MBT retreat is a must for every writer. But I'm biased. :P

Sue, you're welcome!

Anonymous said...

I confess, I actually did brave the Black Friday crowds yesterday, on my traditional Black Friday, day-long date with my honey. We completed almost all our Christmas shopping. The downside is I missed reading your excellent post yesterday, Lindsay!

I love reading all you learned at Story Crafters. It's such an amazing retreat. You encapsulated everything so well. It was the very first writing anything I attended, and I believe it helped get my writing off to a solid start. I went with 6 chapters of clueless writing and left with a clear understanding of how to craft a good story.

Thanks for sharing this Lindsay! It brings back great memories and the exhoration to get back into Susie's books. :)

Loree Huebner said...

Great tips, Lindsay! Thanks for sharing them.

Keli Gwyn said...

What a wonderful experience you had, Lindsay, and what a wealth of information you learned. So glad you were able to attend. Thanks for sharing.

Cindy R. Wilson said...

I'm just finally getting around to reading this post, and I'm glad I did! You had some great takeaways from this conference, Lindsay! Thank you so much for sharing them!

dandelionfleur said...

It's so easy to forget some of the basics--thanks for the timely reminders!8