Monday, August 15, 2016

Gems from Jan: Summer Camp at Highlights Part III

I first met Jan Cheripko, author of Rat; Sun, Moon, Stars, Rainand Imitate The Tiger, when we both presented at a South Carolina Reading Association conference several years ago. I admire his tight prose in which young men face peer pressure and/or tough choices. His workshop at camp was on secondary characters and transitions. Since I'd never studied either of those in particular, I thought I’d learn some tips for Half-Truths and some advice to pass on to all of you. Below is a synopsis of his two presentations. 

Photo by Gayle Krause

On Secondary Characters

Pay attention to your secondary character’s motivations and make sure you develop a distinct identity for them. If you are only using a secondary character to advance the plot, you might be short-changing the plot. Secondary character must be there for his/her own growth.  

Focus on an individual in a crowd and realize how that person may personify the crowd. For example, in the opening scene of Casablanca moviegoers see a pickpocket. The thief represents how people are stuck in Casablanca and bad things are about to happen. Each minor character should reinforce the theme of the story.  

Shakespeare gave some of his best lines to his secondary characters. Can you be so confidant in you writing that you give some of your best lines to someone who only shows up on the page briefly?  In King Lear the Gentleman says: “Her tears were like diamonds dropped from pearls.”

Your assignment: Create a list of all your characters and assign a value to them.  

1- Most important
2- Supporting
3- Less so
4- Brief encounter
5- Part of the crowd

Then ask:
  • Who are they?
  • What’s their purpose?
  • Where do they come from?
  • When did they exist?
  • What’s their history?
  • What do we know about them?
  • Why does she or he speak that way?
  • Should she be eliminated or developed?
  • Is this character consistent with purpose and theme of the book?
Play with a secondary’s character language. Allow him to be extravagant in ways the main character isn’t. Experiment! Be poetic, use humor, innuendo, puns, and slapstick. Take chances! Be philosophical, offer insights, use recurring symbols and leitmotif. Then, if necessary, be prepared to cut it all.

An example from Half-Truths

Maggie, Kate's younger sister comes into the library after exploring her grandmother's attic. She and her brother are excited to find their great-grandfather's civil war uniform. While she is chattering about what they found, Kate looks at their great-grandfather's portrait which hangs over the fireplace.
Maggie follows my gaze. "That's it! That's what we found. Wait 'til I tell Frankie. He's going to be flabberdoozled!" 
"Flabberdoozled?" Grandaddy repeats. He bites his bottom lip to keep from laughing.  
Maggie looks at him with impatience. "You know, Grandaddy! Flabbergasted plus bamboozled. Flabberdoozled!"

Transitional Scenes: Half the Fun is Getting There

First, Jan gave a short primer on plot:

Beginnings. Will it get us to turn the page?

“Call me Ishmael.” Moby Dick.  This is a command to the reader. 
“And the clock struck 13.” 1984.

Middle. Is there a clear inciting moment? It must happen in the first third of the story. Tension builds with the inclusion of backstory, new characters, danger, actions, dialogue, and interior monologue. Then relations become more complicated. Motives are introduced and action intensifies. Conflicts build to inciting moment until you get to a point of no return.

Rocky When the guy pulls Rocky’s name out of the hat and there is no choice: Rocky must fight.

Titanic Jack looks up and sees Rose in the balcony. Once they meet, it’s the point of no return.

End. Is the reader left thinking, feeling, wondering, sad, happy, perplexed, or satisfied? 

When crafting a scene ask:
  • Why is this scene in here?
  • How is it constructed?
  • Is it consistent with the story, plot and pacing?
  • Can it, or should it be eliminated?
  • Where is the story line going? Does this scene take my story forward?
  • Is the scene consistent with my purpose and theme?
Transitional scenes move readers from scene A to scene C by way of scene B. The transition can be physical, emotional, psychological, relational, necessary to flow of the story line, or some combination of all these.  Shakespeare used letters and messages for this purpose. In Casablanca a departing plane symbolizes hope to the people who watch it leave. You can see them thinking, “Perhaps tomorrow we’ll be on it.”

Scene A: The Barn

Scene B: Summer Campers Tracey Meltzer Kyle and Jilanne Hoffman
strolling from Scene A to Scene C.
Scene C: The Creek

When you look at a transitional scene you have four options:

  • Leave it the way it is.
  • Eliminate it entirely and cut to the chase.
  • Expand it, develop it, and integrate it even more.
  • Judiciously trim it; let the left out parts speak volumes.

Your assignment: Write a transitional scene. Slow down, pay attention to details, and make the scene worthwhile. 

An example from Half-Truths

Kate is walking home from just having been in Lillie's neighborhood without her family knowing. (For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story,  Kate has just moved to a wealthy area of Charlotte, NC after spending her growing-up years on a farm in Titusville, SC.) 

It's getting dark and I hurry along the street. I've got to get back before my grandparents come home from the club. Even Grandaddy wouldn't be too happy with me walking around a colored neighborhood by myself at night. 
I walk past a white brick mansion high on a hill. Small lights line the long driveway casting a warm glow on the spacious lawn. This isn't at all like Titusville, but I feel like I belong here more than I do in Lillian's neighborhood. It's strange. I never thought I'd feel like I belonged in Myers Park.
Jan is a gifted teacher and mentor. It was a pleasure to chat with him and hear from other campers how much he encouraged them.

Photo by Jolene Ballard Gutierrez

In case you missed my previous posts about Summer Camp at Highlights, here is Part I ("The Power of Social Media") and Part II (Conversations with Kathy).

Word Garden, Highlights Foundation
Words by Rose Colson


Theresa Milstein said...

Jan was my mentor, and I feel lucky to receive his critiques.

Thanks for this through post. I'd missed Jan's first workshop, but I did attend the second one. Then when I was taking notes, I think I missed a few things. You filled in the blanks for me! Between taking his workshop and reading this post, it's making me more deliberate with my secondary characters.

Carol Baldwin said...

Glad it helped fill in the blanks, Theresa! I'm paying a lot more attention to secondary characters now too!

Vijaya said...

Thank you so much for this, Carol. I am deep into revisions (as in cutting, rewriting) and this is soooo helpful. I have a major character who is falling flat because we can't know her interior life. So I need more action. I wish writing were easier.

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks, Vijaya. Have you tried interviewing this character? Either yourself, or let another character talk to her off page? That usually helps me get unstuck.

Jean said...

Sounds interesting, Carol. Thanks for the summaries.

Clara Gillow Clark said...

What's so wonderful about Jan's workshop is that he covers parts of the craft that are seldom touched on but can make all the difference between a good book and a great one! Thanks for sharing, Carol!

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks, Jean, for stopping by. And yes Clara, that's what I appreciated too!

sheri levy said...

Thanks for sharing all of this information, Carol. It gave me places to double check in my manuscript. Love doing workshops!

Carol Baldwin said...

Glad the post was helpful, Sheri!

Constance L said...

Thanks for this post, Carol! Very helpful info to think about as I start Mr. Puffball 3!

Linda A. said...

Another great post. Thanks! I especially liked your photos that demonstrated transition from Scene A to C. The campers in Scene B were definitely moving the story forward. I'm so glad you enjoyed your workshop.

Carol Baldwin said...

Glad it was helpful, Constance. And the photos were an afterthought, LInda. But I thought they illustrated it well!

Anonymous said...

Carol, so much knowledge shared by talented people in a matter of days! How wonderful you were able to soak it all in! And thank you so much for sharing it with your readers! Your examples with HALF TRUTHS were great. I love the word garden picture--definitely we all need a bit of shenanigans from time to time! :)

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks, Kathleen. It was a priceless week for me. If you knew Rose, you'd see how her shenanigans sentence fit her smily personality to the "T"!

Anonymous said...

Returned last night from the Great American Road trip! Have hiked in the Grand Tetons, looked for bears/bison/elk in Yellowstone, driven the BearTooth Highway (white knuckle-inducing and glorious), seen Crazyhorse and Mt. Rushmore (at 10:30 at night), driven past mountain goats in the Badlands, watched enormous ships move the great lake connecting Locks at Sault Saint Marie, driven through Canada without passports or birth certificate for our son (bad planning on our part), were allowed to re-enter through Niagara Falls, revisited the American Revolution at Fort Ticonderoga, and meandered on to Maine where we swam, picked blackberries, enjoyed glorious sunsets over Muscungus Bay, and read "The Westing Game" aloud to my son and his cousins - all of whom had their own theories of "who-done-it." Am digging out from under emails this morning.

Great notes, Carol! Thanks for sharing all these insights! And who knew I'd ever be considered a transitional element! :D Cheers!

Carol Baldwin said...

In all of those travels, Jilanne, I bet there are quite a few transitional scenes. Sounds like a fantastic trip! My husband and I did something similar a year ago but you went through places we didn't. I guess we'll need a repeat performance!

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