Characters are people!

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Go ahead. Say it like he would. You know you want to.

I’d always heard how your script should somehow reflect “the human condition”, but never really had a firm grasp of eactly what it meant or how you would accomplish that.

I mentioned the phrase in a discussion with another writer, to which they responded “I don’t care about that. I just want to tell good stories.”

But isn’t the story about the characters to begin with? And a story with under-developed characters won’t be as good as one where the characters feel like actual people.

Accomplishing that has always been one of my biggest challenges.

A comment I’ve received more than a few times in the past is that the reader finds my characters good, but somewhat incomplete. They’re established and believable, but only to a point. This isn’t saying they’re flat, one-dimensional caricatures (something I’ve unfortunately seen in many other spec scripts), but they don’t feel completely real.

Readers/audiences want to be able to relate to the characters in your script. They might feel they’re only getting a glimpse into what kind of person the protagonist is, or know there’s more to them, but that “more” isn’t there, and they want to see that. And this doesn’t just apply to the main characters; it’s everybody.

Digging a little deeper and offering up a few more details would help flesh them out, which in turn would make for a stronger story.

When I recently sent a script out for notes, the reader asked if there was anything specific I wanted them to focus on. Without a doubt, it was the protagonist and the antagonist. I felt while they were good, there was definitely a need to make them better.

The reader agreed and made some good suggestions about how that could be achieved. “We don’t know as much about these two characters as you might think,” they wrote. Since I was the writer, I had a little more insight into their respective backstories and what made them the people we see, but some of those details had stayed in my head, rather than been transferred onto the page.

So I went about adding in some small details here and there; a line of dialogue or a seemingly insignificant action. A few touches to give a little more insight into what makes them tick; why they are the way they are.

All of this, combined with a few alterations with the plot, makes this latest draft feel really different, and hopefully stronger, than its predecessors. I’m giving it a few more days to simmer, and will then give it another look to see if that vibe still holds.

What I’m also hoping is that from here on in, I’ll be able to apply this kind of approach to all future drafts, which would in theory, help achieve the same results but in a shorter amount of time.

Hope and ambition. Just two parts of the human condition, right?

A rather introspective Q&A with Lauren Sapala

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Lauren Sapala is the author of Between the Shadow and Lo, an autobiographical novel based on her experiences as an alcoholic. She is also the author of The INFJ Writer, a writing guide made specifically for sensitive intuitive writers. She currently lives in San Francisco.

What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?

The best book I’ve read this year is Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. I was absolutely mesmerized and couldn’t put it down. The blend of fantasy with serious fiction was just enthralling.

Tell us a little about your writing background.

I’ve been writing seriously for over a decade and started my blog for writers in 2013. Shortly after I started the blog I went into business as a writing coach and I quickly noticed a pattern with my new clients. Nearly all of them were intuitive, introverted personality types. Using the insights I gained from working with my clients I wrote a book called The INFJ Writer, which came out in 2016. This year I released my addiction memoir, Between the Shadow and Lo. So, I currently juggle a few different writing responsibilities—I still write regularly for my blog, I work on my own books, and then I help my clients with their manuscripts.

Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

Wow, this is a tricky question and I have heavily biased opinions on it. I have a degree in English Literature, and I would say that it’s actually been one of the biggest obstacles in my own writing journey. Studying literature at the university level put me in an environment with a lot of “experts” who felt they definitely knew how to “recognize good writing.” But from my observations, this basically came down to the writers who have won awards, been canonized in some way, or who everyone has agreed is a “master.”

When I was a kid growing up in the 80s, for example, Stephen King was dismissed by a lot of people who liked good literature. Even when I was working in a bookstore in the early 2000s, a lot of the booksellers looked down on his books. Today, he’s been recognized as a “master” and so now it’s a different story. So, no, I don’t think “recognizing good writing” is something that can be taught. I think you have to learn how to read everything with an open mind and trust your own judgement. If you like something, you like something and that’s that,

Your book is called THE INFJ Writer. What does INFJ mean, and how does it apply to writers?

INFJ is one of the 16 different personality types in the Myers-Briggs Typology personality system. The letters stand for Introverted (I) Intuitive (N) Feeling (F) Judging (J). Another way of putting it is that INFJs are introverts who interpret the world through their intuition and use emotion to make the majority of their value judgements. INFJs are about 1% of the population, but from my observations they make up a much larger percentage of the writers out there.

What inspired you to write it?

It was a combination of different factors. I struggled for many years to write anything. I wanted to write more than anything else, but I did horribly in the creative writing classes I took in college. The whole “critique circle” thing didn’t work for me at all. I also couldn’t write in a linear fashion or use any sort of an outline. I had a lot of shame around these issues for years. It wasn’t until I painstakingly stitched together my first novel that I realized I wrote in a radically different way from the norm. When I started talking about these issues on my blog I got a huge response, and then, as I mentioned, I started taking on clients as a writing coach. Almost all of these people had found me through one article or another that I wrote on being an INFJ writer. I saw immediately that we all had the same problems. I knew then that I needed to write a book about this.

Some writers feel their talent and/or creativity might not be strong enough. How would you approach that?

A lot of people say creativity is a muscle, and I do agree with that to a certain extent, but for me, personally, it’s more like a portal. The more you open yourself up, open your heart and let things just show up in your mind without judgment, the more the portal widens and lets more cool things come through. If an idea pops in your head and you instantly go into rational mode and start judging it, or try to analyze how it will work as a plot or how readers will respond to it, you’ve pretty much set yourself up to kill the idea right there. If you’re habitually in judgement mode (toward yourself or others) you’re just not going to get very far with strengthening your creativity.

Is there a “proper mindset” to being a writer?

I don’t know if there’s a “proper mindset” but I would say there is a “helpful mindset” and that would be: Just Chill Out. Almost every single blockage or obstacle I work with my clients on can be traced back to the root of anxiety. Almost every writer is anxious that they’re not talented, they’re not doing it right, everyone else is doing it better, they’re not published yet, their novel doesn’t look like it’s supposed to, etc. If you’re serious about being a writer, you have to chill out on all this stuff. You’ll have good days and bad days and nothing is the end of the world. You’ll write stuff and be convinced it’s the work of a genius and look back a few years later and hate it. You’ll write stuff that you don’t think is very good and then other people will love it. You just have to hang in there and lighten up most of the time.

Are there some basic guidelines you suggest for writers, for both what they write and how (scheduling, timing, etc)?

Honestly, I think our culture is way too obsessed with rules. This also comes back to being in judgment mode. We live in a culture where people judge themselves and others relentlessly. We are so used to our media constantly bombarding us with what other people are doing wrong or how they’re being stupid, and we’re endlessly encouraged to make judgments about those people and their actions. Most people devote probably about 60-70% of their mind power to self-judgment—so when we see the blog post that reads “5 essential rules for successful writers” we eat it up. However, it’s not nourishing. It might feel familiar, because it’s got that judgment energy attached to it, but it’s actually not helpful.

I think most creative people flourish with NO guidelines in place. Write what you want to write. If you haven’t written anything in two weeks, whatever. Try writing something right now. If you’re not feeling it, then you’re not feeling it. I know this runs counter to the standard writing advice out there that “writing is work” and you have to “sit your butt in the chair and get it done,” and yes, I do understand that sometimes you just have to make it happen for yourself, but it shouldn’t be a constant swimming upstream battle either.

You recently released your autobiographical novel Between the Shadow and Lo. Can you talk a little bit about that and how it came about?

Between the Shadow and Lo is an addiction memoir (in the guise of a fictional novel) all about my alcoholic years in Seattle. I’ve been sober for 12 years now, but when I was drinking I was pretty much a lunatic. Between the Shadow and Lo is the story of how I felt like I had a split personality during that time. “Lo” was my other, sociopathic half and she only came out when I was too drunk to fight her off.

The book is very dark, and very gritty. It’s also one of the few transgressive fiction novels you’ll find out there written by a woman. Jean Genet and Charles Bukowski are two of my favorite writers and they were huge influences in terms of the style of that book.

How can people can get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?

They can email me at writecitysf@gmail.com. I get a lot of emails so sometimes it takes me a day or two to respond, but I do respond to every email I receive.

Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

Does vegetarian Shepherd’s Pie count? I don’t eat a lot of sweet things, but I love vegetables.