Saturday, January 30, 2010

Why You Shouldn’t Write Your Autobiography

The first question I ask when I’m teaching classes about writing is, “How many of your want to write your autobiography?” Probably 75% of the people in the room raise their hands. “Don’t even think about it!” is my response.

I know all about people wanting to write their autobiographies because it’s a topic of conversation at many cocktail parties. “You should write a book about my life, it’s been so interesting,” people say to me as soon as they learn I’m a writer.

“What have you done to change the world?” I reply, which usually results in a blank stare.

Think about the people who have biographies written about them. Presidents, movie stars, world leaders, top the list. People are the subjects of biographies because of what they’ve done – who they are is incidental. People in America don’t read very much as it is, they might be interested in listening to something interesting that you did, but generally they wouldn’t buy a book about you unless you are a big name.

Suzy Prudden and I have written four books together. We have included some biographical information about Suzy in the introductions but the books were not about Suzy. One of them was a straight fitness book. Two of them were crossover books (more on that in another blog) that included metaphysics and fitness. One was a straight diet book. We put the biographical material in the introduction to tell those who had never heard of Suzy who she is and why she is qualified to write the book.

Autobiographies should be about what you did that people want to know about. That being the case, you have to figure out what you did? Our mother, Bonnie Prudden, changed the world’s view of fitness in America and was an original “first” in areas like rock climbing and the National Ski Patrol. Katherine Hepburn was a movie actress who had a scandalous affair with Spencer Tracy. There are hundreds of working actresses, some of them box office celebrities, but not many of them are on the level of being interesting enough to rate a biography. In my personal opinion it’s that scandalous affair that makes Katherine Hepburn so marketable – just as it is Richard Burton that made Elizabeth Taylor more marketable. Oprah – who has changed the world – is marketable simply because of the difference she made personally, but Ricki Lake – another talk show host – is not.

As you think about what you have done that deserves to be written about, think about who will buy what you’re writing about. If you have founded an organization that helps people with a rare disease access help function within their community, be aware that the people, who suffer from that disease, or members of their family, are your market. So what do you talk about? Do you talk about your troubled childhood? Not unless it applies to the founding of the organization. Do you talk about how the disease impacted you and your family, what you did about it and what you have learned and experienced that would be of benefit to others with the same problem? Yes. Is it your autobiography – yes a portion of it.

Selling to a niche is the most profitable and interesting approach to marketing and writing. All writing is about sales, so when I talk about marketing I’m talking about reaching the people who are interested in what you have to say. If you aren’t interested in reaching that market you might as well not do the writing.

I can’t tell you how many people tell me that their book is for everyone. No book, including the Bible, is for everyone. For example, your book will be of no value to someone who doesn’t read. Unless it’s a children’s picture book, it will not be valuable for infants and children. So right away, it’s not for everyone. It’s important to figure out who it’s for and what it’s meant to accomplish because that informs the tone and direction of the book. If you’re writing for high school students you don’t write in the vocabulary of graduate students.

In my Home Study Course, “How to Write a Book That Positions You as An Expert in Your Field,” I write for professionals who are primarily interested in back of the room sales. They are looking for a book that addresses an audience they can talk to, an audience that will in turn buy their book. If you are booking speakers for cancer survivors, would you hire a speaker who has formed a successful organization for cancer survivors after surviving for ten years herself and has written a book about her experience? Once you have identified what your audience is interested in learning about you can write the book easily. More to the point, you know how to market it, who to reach and how to reach them. They’re your community.

So the answer to the question should you write your autobiography is generally not as a straight story of your life. You should turn it into a problem solving book about something you did that would interest a niche. You should include the parts of your biography that prove that you are qualified to write the book and that show the impact of what you did on your own life.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Clubs, Groups, Organizations and Memberships in Character Development

This area defines and reflects character choices. When a person joins a club, group or organization, they are making a statement about their beliefs and what they hold important in their lives. A member of the ACLU is a person who is interested in causes that concern the legal rights of American citizens. They are willing to take some very unpopular stands and they defend the rights of people to live within their constitutional rights, even if those people are extremely unpopular. Members of the KKK and other white supremacy groups have power issues. Members of the KKK believe they are protecting the threatened rights of a superior white race, fundamentalist Christian beliefs and family values. They don’t think of themselves as racists. They think they are right.

Members of Sororities and Fraternities are fundamentally similar, they feel comfortable together, they have shared values and go on to have shared experiences. Rushing is all about finding freshmen similar in every possible way to the fraternity and sorority members already living together.

Dan Brown built his book “The Lost Symbol” around The Masons, a fraternal order that is steeped in secret rites and metaphysical beliefs. The story is particularly interesting because the prime character Robert Langdon is not himself a Mason nor does he subscribe to many rumors about the organization. Peter Solomon – Langdon’s friend is a very important Mason and has a Masonic Ring that figures strategically in the story. It’s an excellent use of a group and its trappings.

Organizations flit in and out of the Harry Potter series. In Book 5 when Harry and friends form a club to circumvent Dolores Umbridge’s deficient teaching of Defense Against the Dark Arts Class, by forming a group called the DA (which the call Dumbledore’s Army), Umbridge counters by banning gatherings of three or more people. The DA worries about not being able to meet, while other students worry about not being able to meet for the Gobstones Club, and everyone realizes that Quidditch Teams fall under the same ruling. The handling of this issue is interesting because she mentions only concern about the Gobstones Club, but by mentioning them implies that there are other clubs that remain unidentified. Were I writing a term paper about the Harry Potter series, I might ask what clubs do you think were active at Hogwarts and what did each of them do?

How does the author use clubs or groups in the story? What kinds of organizations does this character like? What does the membership, or refusal to be a member, say about the character? How does the character’s group-attitude conflict or agree with the attitudes of others in the play or story? What does group attitude say about the character? Is this character an active or inactive member? An office holder? A rebel? Does he always wear a club ring, pin, or key chain? If yes, does he play with it or use it in some way to underscore his character? Is he late with dues? Only go for the parties? Try to be the life of the party? Try to be the club hero? Is he the club funnyman? What two or three mannerisms convey club membership? Have these mannerisms changed or not changed over time? What about club memberships as an employee or employer? What is this person’s relationship to colleagues and significant others as a result of club memberships?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Villains and Enemies

“A man is known by his enemies.” The growth of a hero is defined by the power of the villain. Enemies can be a great deal more interesting than heroes and can actually make the hero more compelling. How many books and movies have fallen flat because the enemy wasn’t very interesting? Or conversely, made the reader so uncomfortable that they didn’t finish the book? Villains are every bit as important as heroes, maybe more so.

One great pitfall for writing enemies is overplaying their evil and making them two dimensional.

I am currently reading The Lost Symbol and I don’t like the villain. The energy of the book keeps dropping every time he appears. He’s evil, strong and difficult to overcome, but there’s nothing truly interesting about him – he’s just a very sick, OCD, psychopath. I keep putting down the book and find myself reluctant to pick it up again. Dan Brown seems to like psychopaths, but in The Da Vinci Code the albino, Simon, at least has a background that justifies his murderous behavior and a great love and loyalty to his protector the Bishop Aringarosa. Indeed there is a question that Simon would have been as murderous had Aringarosa not misused that love. Those elements make him sympathetic, understandable, as much a victim as his victims and infinitely more interesting than a simply evil character. As a reader I have my limits in terms of how much sociopathic behavior I enjoy. For me as a reader and a writer the logic of the villain has to make some real world sense and to be other than simply sick.

Enemies must want the same thing as the hero from the opposite direction.

The villain wants to get something. The hero stands in the way of the enemy achieving his goals. The enemy by definition has to be bigger, stronger and more powerful than the hero. There has to be on-going doubt in the mind of the hero that he can overcome the enemy – but he always has to try. If the hero is powerful himself, then the enemy must be come in a pack, or at least one or two steps ahead of the hero. If the main hero is exceedingly strong, then there must be someone in the mix that is less strong who becomes the symbol of the hero’s growth line. Stories are about growth and change in the face of adversity. Transformers is about equally matched giants who do battle for good and evil, and to the extent that their transformations and interactions are fascinating the story would be one dimensionally interesting. It is the young Sam Witwicky who represents the growth curve of the hero. He doubts himself, considers himself to be something of a loser and persists in the face of overwhelming odds to emerge the human hero. The Alamo, Custer’s Last Stand and similar stories to the contrary, satisfactory stories do not generally end with the villain winning. The doubt in the mind of the reader should be how the hero can win, not if the hero can win.

Enemies can also be archetypes.

If you watch an American war movie, the enemy is always the guy on the other side – Germans, Russians, Japanese, Vietnamese, Arabs, Native Americans, the Confederate Soldier – the list is long and predictable. The other side is easy to identify and they generally have stereotypical attributes that make them more difficult to battle and sometimes provide the exploitable Achilles Heel by which they can be defeated. For example, in movies Germans are always super soldiers and punctual, the resistance always can tell when they will make their rounds – which works against them in the end.

Giving the enemy some sympathetic qualities can make for interesting story telling.

If a sympathetic enemy doesn’t get in the way of the story, it makes the story much richer. It’s well known that heroes pay heavy prices for their activities. Sometimes it’s interesting to make the villains pay as well. In life behavior is seldom black and white and by adding a heavy psychological price to the villain’s role, the story becomes much deeper and often more compelling. I tend to like to give my villains reasons to be bad. It doesn’t make them less bad. It doesn’t make them easier to defeat – in fact in some cases it motivates them to continue even after they logically should have been dead. The trick in making the villains sympathetic or at least comprehensible is to make their goal more horrific than they are – drop and A-bomb on Chicago for example – so that no matter how much you understand their behavior, you don’t see them as good and you still have to stop them.

Approaches to enemy development

Write a biography of the enemy as full as the biography of the hero. Who are the enemy’s allies or henchmen and how do they inform you about the enemy? What are the enemy’s goals and objectives? (Hint: they are very close to the goals and objectives of the hero.) How does the enemy contribute to our understanding of the hero? How does the enemy contrast to the hero? How do the goals and objectives of the enemy advance the plot? The better your understanding of the enemy, the better use you can make of him.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Cyrano de Bergerac and the Metaphysics of the Nose

Louise L. Hay pioneered the meaning of body parts. What became exciting was the discovery of how those meanings played out in literature long before Ms. Hay began her work. Suzy Prudden and I wrote a book called "The Wisdom of the Body" and we accompanied the book with "Body Wisdom" cards. On one side of the card was the body part. On the other the significance and an affirmation written to deal with the problem the body part represented. When we would attend Carolyn Myss conferences, where Suzy would do energy breaks, we would have our product table in the back of the room. We put a basket with the cards on it so people could draw cards with an eye to buying them. It never ceased to amaze me how every person who drew a card told us that either they were having physical problems with the body part – or they were dealing with a life issue connected to the body part. When I started working on character development, and wrote "The Character Book," it became obvious that body parts ought to be included.

The Nose

The nose represents self-recognition, how characters see themselves in the world. How comfortable the character is with that vision of himself. Among other things, it indicates whether or not the character wants to be noticed or if he prefers to be invisible. The nose symbolizes a character’s ability to know what he wants and how to get what he needs. Remember the power of the Roman nose? The nose is tightly bound to its function – smelling.

In addition, the nose is very idiomatic. It can represent how willing a character is to listen to his intuition and his ability to “sniff out” information. Some characters have a “nose for news.” “Nosy” is a nose word that indicates “sticking your nose into other people’s business.” There is a certain degree of honesty in the nose. People come to understand things because they are, “as plain as the nose on your face.” By the same token you can, “cut off your nose to spite your face.” You can “count noses, “win by a nose,” “follow your nose,” “hold your nose and do something you don’t like doing,” “keep your nose clean,” “brown nose,” “keep your nose to the grindstone,” “be led by the nose,” “look down your nose,” be precisely "on the nose,” “pay through the nose,” “rub your nose in it,” find something you’re looking for "right under your nose,” you can be “snooty” (for snobbish), and people can “walk with their nose in the air.”

Stories have been written with nose or smell themes.

Cyrano de Bergerac is the classic story of a man and his nose. True to nose-issues, this is not a story about who the man is as much as it is a story of how the man thinks someone else will find him; a story of self-limitation or self-selection because of the perception that another will find him ugly, with tragic results for everyone. Cyrano is a man who is in every way superior except for his perception of himself as physically attractive. Because of his gigantic nose, and his belief that the love of his life will reject him, he refuses to declare his true feelings to his cousin, the gorgeous and intellectual Roxane. Christiane, has no problems with his nose, his concerns are with his brains – or the relative absence thereof. But Christiane is beautiful and Roxane is attracted to him. Learning that he is about to become part of Cyrano’s company of guards, she asks her cousin to protect him. Cyrano does more than that. He uses Christiane as a surrogate through whom to woo and win Roxane’s heart – even if that means handing her over to Christiane. Like a true man with nose issues, Cyrano chooses to stay invisible in the shadows. Christiane dies. Yet even after his death, Cyrano never dares to proclaim his feelings to Roxane until, on his death bed, he reveals himself to have been Christiane’s voice all along. At that moment Roxane learns that she has lost the love of her life twice. This is a story that deals with – how a man reveals himself to the world, how he remains unseen to the person who matters, how he reviles himself when looking at himself through her eyes. The issues of the nose both obvious and subtle are the centerpiece of this story.

Other Cyrano-like, Nose or Smell stories include:

Roxanne staring Daryl Hannah and Steve Martin
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind
Perfume the movie starring Dustin Hoffman, Alan Rickman
Penelope the movie starring Richard E. Grand and Catherine O’Hara

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Avatar Review

Would it surprise you to learn that Avatar is a formula movie? In my last blog about structure I said that structure is a three act play with two short acts at either end of a long, constantly turning act. Avatar follows he formula exactly, but it’s so well done it’s actually hard to see.

Avatar is about a marine who thinks he will never walk again because, although it is possible to repair damaged spinal cords, he doesn’t have the money or a prayer of getting the money. His inciting incident is his decision to fill his dead twin brother’s shoes in the Avatar program on the planet Pandora. His decision is colored by the offer to repair his spine – and return his legs – that is made by his superior officer. His decision looks like it’s going to solve all his problems.

Now comes the first interesting problem solution. This man is a marine with a mission, a warrior by his own definition. Yet in the world of set up and pay off that is movies, he has to be perceived as having the ability to change into a compassionate leader – to move from the Knight to the King – which is not always a logical move. Strangely, there’s no direct dialogue to support that perception, rather there is a shot on his face of loving compassion when he first sees the Avatar body he’s about to inherit from his dead brother. A look and a statement of how much he looks like his identical twin that opens the door to possibility. It’s remarkably out of character, but it establishes that there’s more than meets the eye to this professional soldier. There is depth and warmth that lurks under the warrior that can translate into something unexpected.

The track that is the rest of the movie twists every 10-15 minutes, sometimes less, back and forth between the world of the Avatar among the Aborigines – the natives of Pandora battling to save their planet from the ravishment of greedy business men – men only concerned with their bottom line, back to the world of the businessmen in which the marine serves as a spy. It moves the marine toward being in support of the Aborigines. It moves the Avatar ever – closer to a leadership position within the Aboriginal community and an appreciation of the magnificence of what they are. Parallel change and growth occur in both the marine and the Avatar.

Another interesting problem solution is how to change the Avatar from a Knight to a Prince. In this movie you are dealing with major archetypes. In the world of archetypes Knights fight for Kings, they rarely become Kings – Robin Hood fought for King Richard the Lion Hearted, he did not become King. Knights may get the girl, they rarely get to marry them – Lancelot won the heart of the fair Guinevere, he didn’t get to marry her. In Avatar the marine is chosen by the Princess to become her Prince Consort thereby elevating him from Knight to Prince. Princes can become Kings.

Finally there is the Visit to the Valley of Death when the scientific unit, in which the marine is resting his human body, while conjoined with his Avatar, is breached and he begins to die of lack of oxygen. He is in total jeopardy and his Avatar body cannot function without him.

He is restored of course, the Avatar triumphs and there is resolution which I won’t spoil for you. It’s a perfect execution of a formula movie. And the special effects are stunning. It seems that special effects can now convey whatever a movie visionary can envision.

I’ve heard that it was a weak script and it is a little long in parts because of the Director’s well justified infatuation with the special effects, but it’s not all that weak. It’s not Star Wars, it didn’t leave me breathless, but it’s a really nice ride and well worth seeing in theaters and owning on DVD. It’s relevant to today and the problems faced by our country and particularly our professional soldiers. It’s a perfect statement of the ruthless greed of big corporations. It has lots going for it and lots in it and James Cameron deserves kudos for creating yet another brilliant classic.