On Recognizing the Actor vs. Expecting the Character

A voice actor recently shared an experience she had on Twitter where a fan attacked her for behavior actually committed by a character she played. While most of the commenters sympathized with her, it is sadly not an uncommon to find fans who cannot separate the actor from the character.

Who knows what leads to this inability to separate reality from fiction, but it does make you wonder how these fans reconcile actors who play a variety of characters who may not have a whole lot in common. For example, I had a recording session recently where I was (over the course of an hour or so):

  • two different little girls
  • two different adult men (Wow, does that sound creepy after the previous line!)
  • an older woman and her elderly husband
  • a sawhorse
  • a couple of creatures made of rock
  • a village of paper dolls
  • a brigade of spoons (and various kitchen utensils)

And let me tell you – Trying to type up this blog post with no fingers (or any appendages to speak of) while the light glints off my silver surface to reflect on the computer screen is quite trying. But honestly, there just weren’t any qualified spoons lining up to fill these parts.

Even more impressively, throughout a childhood (into college) engaged in ballet, I was a rat, a bat, a flower, a variety of candy, dolls of various nationalities, and a wraith. In fact, in the same show I was a wraith, I was also a page and a soulless churchgoer, so… The worst part of that was quickly having to shift between having no body and having no soul. Or was it giving up my body to begin with…? I wonder if I remembered to get my soul back after that show…

You may be rolling your eyes right now, but I hope I’m making my point.

Often, part of why people become actors or dancers to begin with is to get the opportunity to be people we would never be in our daily life. Yes, sometimes we get to play characters similar to us, but more often than not, we don’t and we look forward to the chance to explore. I’m no more a rock creature than I am a society woman who would carry on with a married man. But I’ve played both, just days apart.

And you can’t even say, “Well, actors and dancers have some choice in what they audition for, so they can stack their deck.” Because while that’s sometimes true, we can’t control what happens after the audition. Many actors and dancers, myself included, can tell you about auditioning for one character, and then being cast as a completely different character that we would never in a million years have tried. We’re really just doing our job and having as much fun as we can in the process. And then we go home. We’re not our characters.

But someday…if I continue to work hard, I might just figure out how to become a convincing potato masher. (That’s the transformation I’m really looking forward to!)

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Finding Yourself By Exploring Different Characters

Recently, I’ve found myself playing characters with the exact same descriptor – sinister. Sometimes, it’s the key description of a character. Sometimes, it’s down the list, behind such fun adjectives as stern and aloof. In one case, it ran in direct opposition to the other descriptors in the list.

I’ve played a sinister character before. I have an award for that character. The problem is…she wasn’t openly sinister. She didn’t even see herself as evil. She thought she was doing what she had to in order to keep her world from completely dying, even if it meant engaging in some…less than moral activities. So, she was sinister…but she never really presented herself that way.

The most recent sinister character to cross my desk was not that subtle, just based on the script and notes I had. But it was clearly important to the director I figure it out, so I tried.

But I am not a sinister person by nature. Sarcastic? Yes. Sinister? Not so much. I used to teach middle school and high school students, and while I could be regarded as firm or even strict at times, I failed to come across as mean, let alone any shade of evil. (It’s amazing what you learn about nuance of language from teaching teenagers.) I struggle to come across as unfriendly in my interactions with people I don’t really care to be around. So, trying to figure out how to play sinister has been…challenging. Something I’m going to be working on for a while. (Probably why it keeps coming up.)

You might argue that an actor should be able to just drop into any description…but when the description is far from your own personality, that isn’t as easy as it sounds. An actor isn’t an empty vessel. They walk in with their own definition of self, and then layer or build a character off of what they walked in with. (Or…I do… Maybe I do it wrong…) For characters who aren’t a strong fit, it’s a chance for the actor to take some aspect of themself and play with what would happen if that aspect developed in a certain direction. The closer the shift, the easier the exploration.

I think this is actually what’s meant by increasing your range, because each time you engage in these explorations, you expand what you bring with you, and can then expand off that. It can be a lot of fun, but it’s a definite challenge.

Learning to Write MRUs

I’ve mentioned in a past post that my efforts to learn to write Scenes and Sequels were derailed briefly by…well…let’s just call it a side quest. You see, many of the articles that explained the Scene-Sequel technique referred to another technique that many use as part of their writing process: the MRU (motivation-reaction unit). Honestly, this is a fancy way of saying, “Hey, dummy, write cause and effect!” (Seems obvious. Isn’t always. I’ve now seen some scary examples of this.)

For many writers, Scenes and Sequels are made up of these MRUs, and if you put enough of these together, you eventually end up with a story that makes some form of sense. People might even read and enjoy your story. (No promises.)

All right, so…what is an MRU? It’s a basic action sequence made up of two parts: the motivation and the reaction.

  • Motivation – an external, objective stimulus that can be experienced by at least one sense
  • Reaction – the character’s subjective response to the Motivation in order: emotion; reflex action; rational thought/action

The MRU is pretty straightforward, because it’s how we actually respond to things. I know some of the articles pointed this out, but I didn’t actually get my mind around it until I realized trying to overthink my way into writing MRUs was just leading to writing how I normally write. I’ve always tried to write out how I would move through something, right down to the stage blocking. (And hearing professional writers use stage terminology to describe how they write has helped me understand and accept that I’m not a total weirdo for doing it. It helps me to see what’s going on in the scene I’m writing.)

When I was first reading about MRUs, I thought you were supposed to use them to build the entire story. And found out the hard way that’s not exactly true. I struggled for days trying to make MRUs work for my action-light stories, unable to figure out why they weren’t working, before I finally learned they’re for action sequences. I don’t write a lot of action to begin with, so practicing MRUs has been a frustrating process for me. I finally came up with the following and incorporated it into my daily writing habits so I have something to practice on.

My MRU Practice Routine

  • Respond to oneword’s daily prompt. (I do it in my journal instead of on the site.)
  • Rewrite the response into an MRU format. (Also in my journal.)

Feel free to steal that, or use it to create something that suits your own writing habits. And then let me know how exploring MRUs goes for you. Maybe you’ll find yourself frustrated like I was. Maybe it will be just the thing to help with a problem you’ve been experiencing in your writing. But I’m willing to bet you’ll find something useful in it.

 

Learning to Write Scene-Sequel

Like so many others, I spent the beginning of the year looking over what I had done last year and thinking about what I wanted to get done this year. I know I have a tumultuous relationship with my writing, and thought I was starting to turn things around. Really, I was deluding myself. While I got more written last year than I had in the previous five years combined, I wasn’t getting any productive writing done.

So I started my writing plans for this year by tabling every writing project I failed at working on last year. Then, I planned out a new daily writing practice schedule, focusing first on reconnecting with and strengthening my writing skills and letting my projects grow out of that recentering. Because somehow, things are easier for me if I feel like I’m learning and practicing something concrete. (I know you’re surprised.)

My first writing lesson: Writing Scenes (not to be confused with scenes) and Sequels.

I’ve heard people talk about Scenes and Sequels on writing blogs and in writing podcasts for some time now, but never actually looked into it. Now seemed as good a time as any, so I pulled together some favorite podcast episodes, added in some blog posts and articles, and jumped right in. It did require a small side trip (which I’ll get to later), but I think I’m starting to get the hang of things.

Scenes and Sequels are narrative units that work in pairs to create rhythms that encourage readers to keep moving through the story. The Scene consists of three parts: the Goal, the Conflict, and the Disaster. The Sequel also consists of three parts: the Reaction, the Dilemma, and the Decision. Breaking those down…

The Scene contains the action (or rising action) in the pair. It is composed of three parts that help keep that action building.

  • Goal – what the character wants when they first come into this moment
  • Conflict – the infamous try-fail cycle (It can be as simple or as complex as the situation requires.)
  • Disaster – an obstacle appears that severely hinders the character’s ability to reach their goal (This does not have to be a literal disaster. I had a hard time wrapping my mind around that.)

The Sequel contains the reflection (or falling action) in the pair. It is composed of three parts that help the character process what has happened and figure out how to move forward.

  • Reaction – what it says on the label; the character’s immediate response to the Disaster
  • Dilemma – the character figures out what options they have moving forward, with no good options present
  • Decision – again, what it says on the label; the character picks an option and runs with it, moving us into the next Scene

The nice thing about these two units, when used well, is that they really follow a logical flow while building in good opportunities for tension in a scene. And they build a cycle, which can help minimize writer’s block to an extent. If you’ve crafted a good Scene, it should lead into a logical Sequel, which if well-crafted leads into another Scene, and so forth and so on.

As I said, I’ve been playing with is for about a month now, and I think I’m starting to craft them without having to look up each step. I’m even starting to find some success with them. Try them out in your own writing and let me know how your own explorations go.

Why Tagging Matters For Online Writers

I was recently reading some Yu-Gi-Oh fan fiction (as I do periodically) when I came across an unfamiliar situation. Someone new to writing for the fandom, rather than look up established names for various ships, tagged their story with their own names for the ship they were writing. Three different names for the ship, plus a tag admitting they didn’t know how to identify the well-established ship in question.

I tend to surf this repository by tag because the fandom is usually flooded and I have narrow reading interests within the fandom. Because I know the proper name for the ship, I would have completely missed this story. I just happened to surf the general catalog that day and stumble across it. Anyone who surfs by tags would miss this story because it doesn’t use the long-agreed upon name for the ship.

The Perc’ahlia ship in the Critical Role fandom has a similar problem. When people first started writing fan fiction and creating fan art for this ship, there were at least half a dozen stabs at giving the ship a meaningful name that didn’t necessarily rely on a portmanteau. Again, those searching for fan work in this ship have to know not only Perc’ahlia, but also those other early contenders, or miss out on some potential gems.

In this day of social repositories and search engines, tags matter. To some degree, we all know this. We work with them enough on blogs and in these catalogs. We tag to identify fandom, genre, characters, topics, any potential triggers. The list goes on. We understand that it’s useful to label our work with these tags to help potential readers understand at a glance what’s in the story.

But we don’t always think about what it really means to tag. We forget that tagging in archive situations like these repositories is really setting up a way to help people interested in that tag find our contribution to the tag. This becomes evident when you see a tag that reads, “ireallyjustlovethishipandnobodyiswritingitsoidid” (yes, I have actually seen this tag), or something equally ludicrous. (I once saw a tag that was literally the writer rambling to see how long she could make the tag before she was cut off. It failed because it split between lines and caused anything after the break to form its own link.)

I think this practice comes from the sarcastic hashtag trend favored on Twitter, but it does nothing but clutter your tags list (and therefore your findability) on search engines and repositories. And the point of the game is to be found, or else you wouldn’t be tagging at all…or posting publicly online, if you want to be completely honest about it.

So, the next time you’re posting a story, be it original or fan fiction, by all means, think about the fandom, characters, genre, and potential triggers. But also take a moment to think about how readers might search for your story, and make sure your tags reflect how you want to be found.

Habitica and the Nonproductivity of Gamification

I’ve spent the last month slowly tweaking my Habits and Dailies on Habitica. They needed it. There were things on both lists that came from old challenges or were not relevant to how I currently work. There were things I added to both lists that were no longer relevant to the work I’m doing. So with an eye toward my current projects and future plans, I’ve been working my way through both lists, removing expired tasks, modifying tasks that could be more beneficial (I use the checklists on the Dailies and Tasks, so those got an overhaul), and adding new tasks as needed.

It’s brought to light a few problems in my current workflow, things I’ll need to address in coming weeks.

Earlier this year, I started experimenting with Tiny Habits. While I really like the idea and understand the benefit, I’ve struggled to identify good Tiny Habits for my own life and work. Or I’ve struggled to implement those Tiny Habits. Having the accountability of Habitica and my party helps to a certain degree, but it hasn’t turned out to be a strong motivator. So, things that really need to be a part of my daily life for multiple reasons have not only not become routine, they’ve become ignored.

This overhaul has also revealed just how little effort I’m currently putting into my writing. I’ve written for so long that people who barely know me quickly come to understand that I write…and yet it’s fallen by the wayside in pretty much every way imaginable. Just look at the last year on this blog. Look at the last few months on deviantArt. Writing is considered by many, myself included, to be one of my core activities. It’s a core part of activities I’m pursuing. And yet even with Habitica tasks, I’m not only unmotivated, I’m demotivated to get anything done. (When I challenge myself on this, I remind myself that my voiceover workload has been sufficiently busy since April to leave me little time for much else. But I can’t get my personal voiceover projects done if I’m not writing.)

This is the danger of living through gamification. Being rewarded for completing tasks with little or uncertain nutritional value, as it were. As I say this, I know that’s not Habitica’s actual goal. They’re hoping users will build goals and associated tasks that will help them grow in the directions they want to go. But it’s too easy to not understand or review what you’re doing within that aspiration, and so it’s easy to do the absolute minimum to check something off or to find other ways around the incoming damage for not getting things done.

So, my goal as we come into the last weeks of 2016 is to review my Tiny Habits, my Dailies, my tasks. My project log, actually. (I’ve already started this.) To set a direction for my voiceover work, and rebuild or tweak existing habits, dailies, and project tasks to move toward that direction. To set a direction for my writing work, and rebuild or tweak Habitica to help me get closer to staying on the path.

Who’s with me? What area of your life could use a bit of an overhaul and a push in the right direction?

The Daring Girls Project

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So…a couple of years ago, I started narrating for a publishing group that specializes in narrating public domain books. The company’s focus has changed as it’s grown, but I’m still working on the public domain narration.

Primarily, I’m working on what I’m for now calling the Daring Girls Collection, a collection of classic children’s audiobooks that focus on girl protagonists being brave, imaginative, compassionate, assertive, and curious.

All those soft skills children need to develop to be productive adults.

I’m in the middle of an audiobook at the moment from this collection. And when so many of us last week were trying to figure out how to react and adult productively, I made the decision to continue working on that audiobook. Largely in part because I felt the best thing I could do in those moments was to continue producing books that would hopefully inspire children to choose to grow up brave, imaginative, compassionate, assertive, and curious.

All those traits they’re going to need to face whatever’s coming next without resorting to actions that help no one.

If you’re at all interested in checking them out or maybe sharing them with children in your life (or you just want to encourage the collection’s continued development), they’re all available on Audible. And I keep an updated list of them here on the website.

Pictured above, In the Wild 😉

Project Log – Trails & Paths

Last fall, I jumped back into NaNoWriMo for the first time in several years. Really, I’d wanted to focus on a story I’d been dragging my feet on for a couple of months. But I’d ended up getting through that by the halfway mark, and so I thumbed through my Percolator for another story to play with to finish out the month.

The prompt I latched onto was one I often played with while driving between home and school on breaks during grad school – a pair of siblings, one a cleric, the other a ranger. I didn’t have many of my old notes, so it was pretty much an open playing field. I assumed I’d play with the religious differences that came with their respective lines of work, but as I started to really work with the idea, it became a different story all together, drawing in influences from other prompts I had lying around.

They became half-siblings (only a couple of months apart in age), their paladin father the common parent between them. While that alone opened the door to so many possibilities, I chose to keep it focused on just the two of them and the relationship that had developed between the siblings growing up. More than that, it became an exploration of each sibling on his or her own. I gave them a twist that the stories got a half-hearted chance to play with because I’m not accustomed to writing truly dark characters. And as I worked, it became clear I could work this into another storyworld I’ve been working on, and so that changed the setting, and in turn the story.

One of the biggest challenges I faced working on these stories is that I wanted to write a pair of parallel stories, something I’ve wanted to try for years, and I figured this was my chance. But I didn’t have the first clue where to start. Somehow, though, I fumbled my way into a process that seems to have produced a mostly coherent pair of stories. The characters and their outlines were developed together, and then their drafts were written and edited separately. Then, I went back, created the timeline for both stories to run in, and edited both stories to fit within that timeline. (It sounds backwards, but I don’t know that it was possible for me at that time to have done it differently.) and to sync them. Editing them together was also a bit of a trip. I eventually set them to different fonts so I could flip back and forth between them without losing track of whose story I was working on.

Another major challenge was handling the earthquakes that roll (pardon the pun) through both stories. Despite knowing they would be a part of the storyworld, I didn’t actually plan for them in the outlines. Or the first drafts. But it gave me time to really research and figure out how to incorporate earthquakes into the story. While it was a pain to layer them back into the story, it made syncing the stories easier, and it showed places where I hadn’t fully thought through the storyworld itself or the overarching timeline.

I’m hoping to eventually come back to these stories and pull them into a larger story, perhaps one that incorporates more action, maybe a little combat (which I don’t really write, either). But for now, the stories are out there for consideration and comment. And I’m looking  for my next project.

Marketing Audiobooks Through Product Photography

A while back, I admitted that I’ve starting playing around with Instagram. It started off as a collection of random photos of my life, that then incorporated a handwriting challenge (I think mine’s gotten worse. Oops.), and has stretched to incorporate favorite quotes and shots of the outdoors to help break up all of the handwriting posts.

In between, however, I’ve started creating pictures featuring my voiceover work that I like to call “Audio Fiction in the Wild“. (Pinterest board. Also available on deviantArt.)

Among the Instagram accounts I like to spy on, there are a fair number of publishers, book nerds, and tea houses. I followed them in part because their pictures are cool, but I also followed them to see how they use Instagram to promote their own (or favorite) products. What I noticed was that they promote their wares with a photo that features the product in an attractive setting.

And I became curious. Could I do the same thing for my audio fiction projects?

I’ve been working on the Audio Fiction in the Wild project for a couple of months now, and the short answer is, “Yes.” Not enough to fill up an Instagram account frequently enough to be interesting. (See my other account for proof of this.) But people who see the photos do seem to like them, and I have seen the smallest shift in how well my audiobooks are doing. (It is a very tiny shift, and it mostly centers around books that don’t have their own In the Wild shot.)

So, let’s get into how I’m doing things for the moment (because this is a work in progress). While I’m working on a project, I make notes on aspects of my character or the story that might make for an interesting shot. Once I have the cover art (which is fairly early on for my own projects, but has to wait until release day for projects I work on for other people), I download it to my phone and plug in my headphones. Then, I take my notes and build a scene around my phone (displaying the cover art on the screen), and shoot several pictures (because I’m compulsive like that).

When the project is released (-ish, depending on how long it took me to get everything together), I upload the picture and caption it, complete with hashtags, to Instagram, Pinterest, goodreads, and deviantArt.

As I said, I don’t know that these pictures are having a direct influence on my sales. I don’t have access to those numbers. But I do know I’ve seen the tiniest increase in audiobook sales, and more importantly, I know that none of the publishers I work for have given me the boot over these photos. So, I’d like to think they’re serving some purpose beyond really fun photography practice.

One of the best benefits of working on this project is that I’m gaining practical experience in product photography – thinking about staging and context. And I think that’s a pretty big benefit.

Anyway, that’s how Audio Fiction in the Wild got started, and why I will probably continue working on it as long as my schedule allows.

Sabotaging Impostor Syndrome

Lately, I’ve been hearing people saying Impostor Syndrome is a sign of leveling up. And I’ve been thinking about what that means. And it led to an interesting train of thought surrounding my productivity systems.

For those unfamiliar, Impostor Syndrome is the name for that feeling you get when you feel like a really small fish in a really big pond. Like you aren’t qualified to be standing where you’re currently standing. It’s fairly common among creative professionals, but really it affects all professions. It can be completely crippling and counterproductive. But if you can hold your own against and work through it, it can help you develop your skills.

That’s a pretty fun dichotomy, one I’ve been wrestling with for a while now. Recently, while working on a #rockyourhandwriting prompt, I realized what I’m really wrestling with is how to make my productivity systems short-circuit my Impostor Syndrome rather than allow my Impostor Syndrome to sabotage my productivity systems.

People who know me will tell you that I have one of the longest to-do lists they’ve ever seen. And it is. It’s organized into projects, activities, and habits, and it’s spread out across two different task list managers. I use GQueues to manage the master lists and any task that has attached notes and links, and I use Habitica (which has been surprisingly helpful over the last several months) to manage habit building and my immediate tasks and projects. I won’t lie – sometimes I wonder if I’ve just filled my lists with busy work, things that will let me appear to be doing something without any thought to how each task will impact me, my life, and my work.

Usually, this system works, both for keeping me on task and for keeping the Impostor Syndrome at bay. If the little voices in my head start telling me I’m a fake, I start working through a section of my task list, making sure it’s up to date, that it’s actually active (or actionable, if it’s a future list) and that’s often enough to get me back on task. The bigger problem comes when I see all those tasks I want to work my way up to, and then anxiety sets in and invites the Impostor Syndrome along for the ride. It affects both my voiceover and my writing work, and can shut me down for weeks. The overwhelm is real.

Part of what has made Habitica useful in fending off Impostor Syndrome is that it allows me to think about my projects in game terms, seeing them more as quests than these big terrifying things I’m not qualified or experienced enough to do yet. Long-time readers know I champion the idea of breaking projects down into smaller projects (or quests) that build on each other to help develop your skills in a practical manner, so you can see how this keeps coming up…even if no one (including me) understands why I haven’t just sat down and done it yet.

If going through GQueues and seeing all those future plans triggers my anxiety and the Impostor Syndrome, then Habitica is a useful tool because I only bring over the things I’m currently working on. It forces me to focus on those projects, and helps keep me from being distracted by those scary future plans.