Tag Archives: Crossroads Writers Conference

The Secrets of ‘Story’ by Writing Coach Margaret South

 

 
Twenty-four years ago this month, actresses Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey starred in “Beaches.” Based on a novel by Iris Rainer Dart, “Beaches” traces the 30-year friendship between a free-spirited, struggling Bronx singer and a privileged San Franciscan who later becomes a human rights attorney.
 
During this fall’s Crossroads Writers Conference, I had the honor to hear a screenwriting talk by Margaret South, one of the producers of “Beaches.” (South founded All Girl Productions with Midler and Bonnie Bruckheimer and also collaborated with Midler on the film, “For the Boys.”)
 
Margaret South
“My involvement in screenplay writing comes from a passion for working with writers. I like helping writers tell their stories,” says South, noting that her upbringing in Catholic school helped make her an excellent reader and writer – skills that she was able to translate into a successful career in Hollywood at a time when there were ample opportunities for women.
 
Now, a writing coach and entrepreneur focused on helping writers understand the secrets of Story, South also has shared her talents with the next generation through her Kids Talk Story program. The program, which provides free curriculum to creative writing K-12 teachers and parents nationwide, began in 2007 to enable students to discover and write their own stories.
 
 
 
According to South, one of the scariest aspects of writing a screenplay or novel is how easy it is to become disoriented and lose your way, as you ask yourself repeatedly, “What am I trying to say?” There are some guideposts that can help you along the way.
 
  • First, learn the basic archetypes in all stories.
  • Second, understand the basic story structure.
  • Third, realize that all stories fundamentally are about one thing:  love.
It’s All About Love 
 
“What all human beings want is love,” Margaret notes. “Every screenplay, every story is about love. Every story is a love story between two human beings who are experiencing a profound connection. That’s what we’re here for – to make those connections.  So, when you write a love story in your film, your readers are going to engage with that — they have a vested interest to see that work out.”
 
So, where do writers go wrong with their screenplays, the majority of which don’t get beyond a cursory review before being rejected?
 
“Most of the people go wrong for a lot of different reasons – they try to write what you think you want to read.  You can say your character cares about other people, but I want you to prove it – show me what your characters do. Don’t tell me a character is angry; show me they are angry. I can decide based on what they do. Movies aren’t about dialogue – it’s what the characters do on the screen.”
 
She adds,  “Tell me something really interesting; something I haven’t seen before. Tell me something I care about. I want to be loved; I want to love. Show conflict.”
 
South offers 12 basic lessons for writing screenplays free on her website, www.theartofstory.com. From her web page, you can download her story checklist, her structure worksheet or read her blog. I captured a snapshot of some of South’s tried-and-true pointers below.
 
Characters
 
1. Have only one protagonist.
 
“Do yourself a favor and don’t write an ensemble piece because when you write a screenplay, you want it to get your screenplay made into a movie and the people who get movies made are movie stars, and they want to be in every scene. They don’t want to share the stage with everybody else.”
 
 2. Make your character care about other people (it’s not about being likable).
 
“If your main character can demonstrate that they care about somebody else, then your reader is going to care about your character.”
 
3.  Make your protagonist flawed.
 
“Your character is going to make mistakes because your character is a human being. We like that about people. We like watching them go wrong. I they make a mistake, they keep trying. They never give up.”  
 
4. Make your character capable of change.
 
“You need a character who is capable of change – capable of learning, changing and growing because that is the human condition….Characters move forward in time and they learn things. When you write a screenplay you are really studying the human condition: what makes us do the things we do?”
 
5. Write an equally powerful antagonist.
 
“That’s where you get your balance, so that your viewers never going to know who is going to win.  You hope the protagonist is going to win. That’s what we’re always looking for in a screenplay – the dynamic – the balance is very even.
 
6.  Put your protagonist through hell.
 
“You’ve got to throw rocks at your protagonist; you’ve got to make it really, really difficult. Why? Life is really difficult. By facing obstacles, overcoming obstacles, facing more obstacles, and overcoming more obstacles, your character will grow, live and change.”
 
 
Story Structure — Boiling Everything Down to its Essence
 
South notes that as screenplay writers, we have 110 pages to set a character in motion and have them go on this journey that profoundly changes their life.  She then broke down the classic three-act structure (South has the second act divided into A and B):  
 
 
  • Act 1 – You establish your main character in their ordinary world and then have an inciting incident – something happens out of the blue that changes the protagonist’s life forever.  You only get one inciting incident.
 
  • Act 2A –Your main character decides to pursue a course of action and encounters obstacles.
 
  • Act 2B – Your character crosses the threshold from the ordinary world into another world at the beginning of Act 2B and goes into the “dark night of the soul.” “There is more danger; there is no hope; death is all around. But then your character has an epiphany and realizes where she went wrong,” explains South.
 
  • Act 3 – Your character takes what she has learned and returns home to the “ordinary world” with new knowledge and an enlightened view.  
Concluding her session, South urged us not to get discouraged or lose heart during the creative storytelling process.
 
“For me, that’s what writing is: it’s a process of discovery,” observes South, who admits she’s seen it played out time and again in the classroom and in her career working with professional writers, directors and actors. “It’s just part of what we do — we share who we are through the art of telling the story.”

The Inspirational Force of Chris Baty

 

 
 
Adam Mansbach and Chris Baty (right) at the Crossroads Writers Conference Saturday.
 
Coming off this weekend’s Crossroads Writers Conference in Macon, Georgia, I feel a renewed commitment to finish my historical novel.
 
That’s what a weekend like this does – mingling with established and aspiring writers alike, and connecting with a community of people who share my same passion for storytelling.
 
 
Crossroads organizers asked headliner Chris Baty, founder of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), to inspire and motivate. By all accounts he delivered. I can see how his energy and enthusiasm have ignited people around the world every November to tackle the impossible – writing a 50,000-word novel from scratch.
 
Baty recalls how the idea started small in 1999 when he invited a group of friends to write a novel in a month.
 
Seeing NaNoWriMo Grow from 20 to 250,000
 
Twenty people joined his challenge. Some of them came together each night after work to write. By week three “something interesting started happening” — these books “started to come alive.” That moment when energy really starts to flow into a writing project for the first time, “is really electrifying,” Baty says.
 
At the end of the month six of them had crossed the 50,000-word threshold.
 
“It changed the way I saw my potential and it changed the way I saw the potential of everyone around me because I knew if we could do it, anybody could do it,” Baty says. “I saw in fact that novels aren’t written by novelists; they’re written by every day people who give themselves permission to write novels. Nothing was the same.”
 
The following year 21 people grew to 140, then 5,000 and then 40,000. In 2011, 250,000 adults in one month wrote three billion words of fiction. Baty says I50 NaNoWriMo writers have sold their manuscripts to traditional publishers, and four became New York Times’ bestsellers, including Canadian Sara Gruen, whose debut novel, Water for Elephants, was made into a film in 2011 (Read my film review).
 
Baty turned NaNoWriMo into a non-profit six years ago. The organization employs a staff of seven and offers summer programs and a Young Writers Program that offers classrooms free creative writing curriculum workbooks, stickers, and buttons.
 
“Last year we had 2,000 classrooms take these free resources,” he says.
 
In January, Baty, decided to leave the organization he has nurtured for the last 15 years to set off to be a full-time writer.
 
“It feels great to feel unchained. No more getting up at 5 a.m. to sneak in that writing time – no more of those steady paychecks to hold us back,” he said, inspiring laughter from the audience. “It has been a really adventure-filled, educational, fantastic nine months.”
 
Baty admits he’s had moments where he’s felt on top of the world and moments when he’s wondered, “What the hell have I done?”
 
Embarking for the Open Sea
 
 
He takes comfort from an old quote by John Shedd (Salt from My Attic, 1928):  “A ship in the harbor is safe. That is not what ships are built for.”
 
“I spend the last 15 years of National Novel Writing month watching thousands of people get inspired by their books and decide to make writing a more central part of their life, which means they are guiding their ships out of the harbor – into the open ocean, and I’ve been monitoring their progress from shore. One thing they all shared – they heard this clear, mysterious, sometimes maddening call to sail out and meet that adventure on the horizon. The fact that we are all here today means we also have heard that call.”
  
Packing Four Indispensable Items
 
From watching all these ships set sail over the years, Baty says the most successful have remembered to pack four important things: 
 
  1. A deadline.  “To me, having a great deadline for your book project is more important than having a good idea for your book.  It’s true because the human imagination is one of the most formidable imaginations on earth. Given the right amount of prodding it will take this half-assed concept and turn it into something dazzling. But sadly, the human imagination, left to its devices, will happily spend its entire life eating Cheetos® and watching TV…Ultimately, we have to be as creative with our deadlines as we are with our books.”
  2. Momentum.  “In 1687 Isaac Newton wrote this amazing book for writers. The book was called, The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. This book contains these two natural laws you remember from middle school – the first one, objects in motion tend to stay in motion. So, from watching so many of my novel revisions remain so peacefully at rest the last decade, I can attest that Isaac Newton was really onto something. Sometimes projects stall out. Once your book does achieve a state of rest, it’s hard to get it moving again. The great thing about writing is that small steps, taken several days in a row, have a way of turning into very big strides. It’s really not speed; it’s about momentum.”
  3.  An appreciation of messes.  “I think our job as writers – especially at this point in our careers – is to make as many messes as possible. Messes we make on first drafts – unholy nightmares, grammatical car crashes, flat dialogue, one-dimensional characters, clichéd plots. Then there are messes on the business level where we are experimenting sometimes successfully and sometimes less successfully on doing things like building our platforms, leveraging social media, trying to stay on top of all these changing technologies in the publishing industry.  In the pursuit of making writing a more central part of our lives, we will make mistakes and we have to forgive ourselves. Because, if we are making mistakes, we are learning. And by trying and failing we are growing by leaps and bounds as writers.”   
  4. Faith. “We need a big truck full of faith. We need faith that our books don’t suck on some monstrous level. We need faith that we are getting better over time and we need faith that our projects will eventually matter to someone. As writers, we are observers. And we’ve observed that it’s hard to make a living writing. We realize that this dream of being a writer is impractical — maybe an impossible one. But I will tell you as someone who has watched hundreds and thousands of kids, teens and adults write a book they never dreamed they could write… that success is often a lot closer than you know. The biggest lesson I’ve learned from my time running National Novel Writing Month is that everyone has so much more in them than they realize and that when we make the time and when we give ourselves permission to follow our inspirations and our impractical dreams, we have power to do unimaginably great things.”
Baty concluded his remarks by saying that when times get tough, he relies on the faith of his friends and family to pull him through. “I hope for today you will let me carry your faith for you and you will believe what I tell you that your story is important; that your voice matters. And that there is someone out there who has waited their entire life to read the book you are writing right now…Those readers are ready. Let’s go give them something amazing.”

Destination: Macon & the Crossroads Writers Conference

A week from Friday I will join other writers in Macon, Georgia, for the 2012 Crossroads Writers Conference. I went last year and was wowed by the quality of the program. (Read my blog post highlighting my experience, including meeting conference headliner Jay Parini, New York Times‘ bestselling novelist and biographer).

This year, Crossroads has new and bigger digs — at the Marriott City Center Hotel. The fun kicks off Friday, Oct. 5 with a Freelancers Summit followed by the writers conference on Saturday and a book fair Sunday. This year’s keynote speaker is Chris Baty, founder of National Novel Writing Month, and author of “No Plot? No Problem!”

Back in 1999 Baty first christened November as National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, and the world’s largest writing challenge and nonprofit literary crusade was born. Last year, 250,000 people worldwide pledged to write 50,000 words in a month, starting from scratch and reaching “The End” by November 30.

The foursome who founded Crossroads.

“We have charged Mr. Chris Baty with the task of inspiring and motivating our crowd, which is to say we’ve asked him to be himself,” says Chris Horne, conference director, who I caught up with yesterday to learn what attendees can expect this year.

In addition to Baty’s talk, attendees will see many more featured authors than in the past thanks to a new format.

“In the past, we’ve had several concurrent sessions and attendees had to choose which of the headliners to see and which they had to miss,” says Chris. “This year, we’re introducing the Talk Block, a block of short and focused plenary talks by our presenters on what moves them the most. So everyone gets to see most of our guests.”

The format also will feature morning and afternoon “Speak Easy Sessions” covering creative nonfiction, poetry, scripts, publishing and fiction, and two breakout sessions.

Among the featured presenters are:

  • Chuck Wendig, author of “Blackbirds,” “Mockingbird,” and “500 Ways to Be a Better Writer,” who speaks during Saturday morning’s Talk Block, and
  • Susannah Breslin, a freelance journalist and Forbes.com blogger, who will speak Friday during the Freelancers Summit.

“Chuck and Susannah have a sort of refreshing ruthlessness about them — neither will sugarcoat anything for the audience, in print or in person. Plus, they’re incredibly smart and really talented,” Chris says.

Who should attend Crossroads? Anyone who takes their writing seriously. Chris hopes that the conference will help new writers build up their confidence, and serve as an inspiration to everyone to more fully devote themselves to their craft so they can be “a better writer tomorrow than they are at the moment.”
“The thing about writing–about anything really–is that you have to do more than just wish for success,” says Chris, explaining that Crossroads is really about finding a community of writers, regardless of whether you are just starting out and or are a published professional.
To make this event even more successful, the organizers have established a fundraiser to offer scholarships to help writers-in-need attend.
“The world needs good storytellers –we want to enable as many writers as possible to join us,” says Chris.
Pre-order Crossroads Guide to the Writing Life, featuring insights from headliners such as Baty, and proceeds will help cover conference expenses for individuals facing financial hardship. View this nifty video to learn more.