Friday, December 16, 2011

Guest Post with Writer Shelley Souza



Today's guest post is by a writing friend of mine, who I met online. Shelley  Souza and I met on Face Book’s closed Group for writers called Warrior Chat. Shelley is ever ready to help other writers hone their craft and write the best story they can write, with her insightful advice and tips. 

BIO- Shelley Souza received a Master of Fine Arts in directing from U.C. Irvine and spent over two decades developing and staging new plays by established and emerging playwrights. She authored hundreds of articles on new technology (which she loves) and ghostwrote four non-fiction books for clients of an independent publisher. She is a member of the Authors Guild and SCBWI

Shelley’s Guest Post

I have been writing for as long as I can remember. I decided to be a writer when I was around seven and for a while believed I wanted to write plays. As it turned out, I did go into theatre but as a director. One thing I learned in theatre is that act breaks are artificial. They allow for scenery changes and for the audience to go to the bathroom. The present trend of applying this artificial construct to novel writing seriously messed with my head as a writer! For a long time I could not visualize constructing a plot to fit the three-act structure, no matter how many books on the method I read. Eventually, I managed to get something to click but it didn’t help me to figure out the story. Because the three-act structure is concerned with more artificial constructs that also belong to plays: an inciting incident, a first plot twist, a second plot twist, a climax, a reversal, and so on. I was about to throw in the towel on novel writing when I became unwell.

During my illness I didn’t have the energy to read or to write. What little strength I had was spent on watching clips of J.K. Rowling. Two things stood out: her belief in her ability to tell a story and her belief in the story she was telling (Harry Potter). I began to question my reason for writing the story I was working on and discovered I didn’t really believe in it, the way J.K. Rowling was speaking of belief. I started asking myself why, when I was a child, I never tired of opening a new book. What I discovered was surprising beyond belief.

I put aside the story I had been working on—even though many writer friends and my writing coach at the time loved the main character—and began working on a story I would have loved when I was young and that I would love to read today. It meant abandoning everything I had been told a story should contain (and not contain). It meant trusting myself in a way I never had. Trusting what I already knew about myself: I was a reader and a writer. Therefore, everything I needed to know about story was already inside me. I didn’t need anyone else’s rules to tell me how to write my story.

For the first time in my life as a writer, every day, I wake up and I am excited to write. Not my story, I’m not yet close to writing the narrative, but the internal logical of the characters and their reason for being in this story and not another.

The best distinction I read recently (by an amazon reviewer of a Harry Potter film) was this: “plot is what happens to the characters; story is what happens AS A RESULT OF the characters.” I’m a story, not a plot, writer. What kind of writer are you?

Shelley's Tumblr Blog- http://shelleysouza.tumblr.com/ 


Thank you, Shelley, for generously sharing with us what you have learned in your writing journey.


22 comments:

Rahul Bhatia said...

A lovely advice! I remember having read ' The Godfather' by Mario Puzo in one sitting span of 18 hours in college! I would like to write something similar which does not let the attention divert even for one minute!!

Carole Anne Carr said...

Very interesting, must look her up on the net.

Meera Gupta said...

Great advice from Shelley. Thanks for this amazing post.

Tina Mehra said...

I like what Shelley has said about writing the stories we would have loved as kids and as a teenager. Its such a lovely advice :)

Robyn Campbell said...

Write the stories we have always loved. Excellent advice. Believe in the story you are writing. That has always been my motto. If we can't believe in our stories then how will our readers?

*waving Rachna*

Misha Gericke said...

I'm definitely a story writer. And then I'm character-based. :-)

Ann Best said...

Shelley's writing journey touched me deeply. I feel exactly the same way about writing, that is, write what you like/liked to read. (I also have been interested in, and have tried to write, screenplays. I love this form!)

I agree that story is all about the characters. The story wouldn't exist without them: who they are, what they do, their conflicts, their dreams, their failures. I really don't know what else story is. What is it I remember most about the Harry Potter stories? Of course the characters. I suspect this is true for all of us.

I enjoyed this interview, Rachna.
Ann Best, Author of In the Mirror & Other Memoirs

Victoria Dixon said...

What a neat way of looking at it. I suspect I'm a story writer as well as I really had to struggle after having written my book to see some of the stages people said should be there. Some are obvious, others less so and I don't know that it's detrimental to miss some "should haves." After all, sometimes the human mind WANTS to be surprised. Thanks for sharing!

Dave King said...

I agree: that's the best distinction I have ever come across. Great post.

Shelley Souza said...

Rahul, I know what you mean. That's the kind of book I think we’d all like to write, because it's the kind of book most of us love to read. (Even literary fiction has to have something that makes the reader want to turn the page, though that something may be different from what commercial fiction readers are looking for.) Listening to what J.K. Rowling has said about her process as a writer has been illuminating.

Essentially, she began with Harry, a character. The whole plot, she says, sprang from him—from his past, present and future. (Can you relate this to the character of the Godfather? It sounds familiar, doesn't it?) Reading what Rowling had to say about the plot of Harry Potter made me realize that this is true of all characters. We don't need character sheets to manufacture a character's details. We need only spend time with each one, listening to what each one has to tell us about why his or her presence is necessary in this story (and not another). Characters already know who they are (even though they don't yet know who they will become by the end of the story. That's our job—to show them how their lives turned out, based on their choices until the very end). If we put aside our preconceived ideas of who we think our characters are, they will tell us everything we need to know. And we will discover how their present circumstances and the choices they make in that moment will create their future by the end of the book.

Shelley Souza said...

Carole and Meera, thank you so much.

Shelley Souza said...

Tina, when I was ill, and reflecting on why I didn't believe in my story the way Rowling spoke of believing in Harry Potter, I realized it was because I had come up with my idea for a class I'd enrolled in but had dropped. I continued working on the story because it was a "clever" idea (and the main character is intriguing). But listening to Rowling, I knew that clever ideas and clever writing weren’t enough for me. Could I have pulled it off? I think so. I have enough experience (and faith in myself as a writer) to have made it work. But was it what I wanted to spend my time on--time that, once spent, can never be replaced? The answer was "no." That's when I started to ask myself why I had loved reading so much as a child. The answer is in my blog on Tumblr, so I won't repeat it here. But it's also directly related to what Rowling said when asked how she could write about Harry so well. She said she remembers vividly her own childhood, the sense of confusion and feelings of loss. I could so relate to everything she said. I read this only recently, and several months after realizing I'd been in a kind of denial of what my childhood was really like, and why books gave me hope when, at times, I felt there was none.

Shelley Souza said...

Robyn, I think it's hard for writers today to have faith in the story itself to the degree J.K. Rowling did in Harry Potter. There's so much pressure to follow the advice of the experts (and she didn't). While we might believe in the initial idea, and hopefully in ourselves (though from the degree of self-doubt expressed by so many writers on blogs and elsewhere, I wonder whether we do); what I realized from my summer with J.K. Rowling—so to speak—was that I didn't really believe my story already contained everything necessary to write it. I'm confident now that I could return to earlier stories and be true to them in the way I never was before. But by starting afresh (and this is just me) what I learned was that no one—and I do mean no one—will ever know the story as well I do. Because no one will have spent as much time with the characters as I have, by the time the story is complete.

This insight came from approaching my current work in a completely different way from how I'd been taught to construct story and plot (where, in many methods, plot and story appear to be synonymous, but I’ve since come to realize they are not). In starting afresh, I discovered that inherent within the characters’ history is the structure the story needs to make the plot move forward. I’m no longer trying to squeeze my story into the artificial construct of the three-act structure. If I stay true to the characters, the entire plot that already exists within each of them, because of each one's history, will unfold perfectly. A character’s history and the effect of its consequences is what makes a character necessary to the story at hand.

Shelley Souza said...

Misha, when you say you're definitely a story writer and then character based, can you say more? To me, a story writer is a writer who works out the story primarily through the characters, not the plot.

Shelley Souza said...

Ann, exactly. When I think about favourite books, it's always the characters I remember. Rowling has said that although children are amused by the magic in Harry Potter, what they care about most are the characters; in particular, Harrry, Ron and Hermoine.

Shelley Souza said...

Victoria, thank you so much. What you’re highlighting is the internal conflict of interest I believe so many writers feel today between the story’s inherent structure and outside constructs (derived mainly from Gustav Freytag's pyramid, a theory he constructed to analyse the structure of Greek tragedies and the five-act Shakespearean play). Constructs experts tell us a story has to conform to in order to be successful in today's market; when, in fact, they may not serve our story at all. And may, in fact, be detrimental to the story's inherent potential to be original.

What I've learned over the last few months is to listen deeply to my characters. I'm not writing the narrative yet, and at some point not everything my characters tell me will apply. But by simply paying attention to what is true (and I do know what's false when I'm free writing the information, by the way I feel as I’m writing); I'm confident the twists and turns of the plot will reveal themselves in a way that—although contrived, obviously, because it's fiction—will appear to be natural. Because the twists and turns will have come from the characters’ history and the choices they made as a consequence of it.

Shelley Souza said...

David, thank you so much. I agree, it's the best distinction I've come across and it clarified so much for me.

Stephen Tremp said...

Its great to meet you Shelley! I'm definitely a story writer. I think its important to have a good balance of character driven elements as well as action driven elements to move the story forward. The characters often force the action rather than let the action come to them.

Shelley Souza said...

It's great to meet you, too, Stephen. I'm so glad to meet more character-driven writers.

J.K. Rowling says Voldemort wants to have supreme power and that the only fly in the ointment is a prophecy about a boy who can stop him. Killing Harry, in Voldemort's mind, will eliminate the only real threat to his plan. But, for some reason, the plan backfires. The rest is the whole story. Who's to say that Voldemort wouldn't have become the most powerful wizard, regardless, if he hadn't tried to kill Harry? The Potters were already in hiding, they weren't about to come out of hiding anytime soon and expose their son to danger. Voldemort would have had years to perfect his strategy for world domination before Harry came of age. But a character like Voldemort thinks like King Laius, the father of Oedipus. Laius hears a prophecy that he will be murdered by his son. I won't tell the whole story here, but do look it up if you don't know it. It's a classic example of the self-fulfilling prophecy (which is exactly what happens to Voldemort).

Voldemort would never think there was a choice other than to kill the boy in the prophecy, just as Laius believes there's no other way to prevent being murdered by his son than to get rid of him. Voldemort's choice becomes his destiny. Harry's choice not to let Lupin and Sirius kill Peter Pettigrew determines who Harry becomes.

Just as our choices in real life create our destiny even though there is always an external event forcing our hand to make those choices; it is the choices, not the events, that determine our destiny. I think this is where finding the action from a character's choices, rather than inventing an external action to which the character then reacts, becomes the defining difference between a story driven by character and a story driven by plot.

Life Unordinary said...

Nice to meet you Shelly. Great insight. Any friend of Rachna's is a friend of ours!

Madeleine said...

So true. Story is thr most important element, without it the action becomes pedestrian and predicatble.

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