Fruit of the Family Tree

Photo by Johnny Cohen on Unsplash

As we authors fill out a Character it’s always good to investigate the family. We are all shaped both positively and negatively by our familial connections, experiences, and memories. As we grow up with impressionable open minds, the right thing said by a relative can lead us down a righteous and successful path, or to prison. The beauty of enhancing Character profiles with family-borne aspects is that you can thank or get even with the people in your family.  Just joking, but I have used a Character’s family member many times to explain, rationalize or put a finer point on a Character’s predilection without needless expository verbiage. Often, it’s not a whole in-depth bio but sometimes it’s just a line, “My Uncle Joe was like that.” Or a longer description of a brother who died in Iraq as a prime motivator to enlist. These baked-in memories and trajectories are indelible and can be stated in the story or kept to yourself as a personality subtext that is never revealed to the reader but guides you where to place the character on their arc.

In my own life, I have a formula that describes my emotional, practical, and psychological makeup. I find it’s true in everything I do; from being a director on a set, a senior Vice President, an entrepreneur, or an uncle. When I am at my best, all cylinders running at 100%, and I am in touch with the universe and tapping into a white-light energy source that almost guarantees that I can handle anything and usually make it better for all concerned. When I am in that state, I feel that I am 60% my mom, 30% my dad, and 10% ESP.  When I am producing, my mom can charm a Teamster out of charging me meal penalties. When I am running a business, my dad can stand up to competition and people who wish you no good. When I am authoring, directing, or helping someone through a rough patch in their lives, then ESP (or it could be my great grandparents, or some guardian angel,) sends me a notion, a spark, or sometimes a smack on the head to ask about, or bring into the situation something random, out of the box, that opens a new door to a character, or it may point me to a course of action for a person to ponder, or for me whether to cut the blue or the red wire.

Now, I can’t prove that to anyone, but I know when I am in that ‘zone.’ When I am operating at just that right balance from the positive results I get. The whole point of this is that we are the cake our families put in the oven, what happens later is either the icing on top or the grit from falling on the kitchen floor. This should also be true of your Characters; they didn’t just pop out of the turnip patch. They can be shaped by their family for better or worse. For further proof simply look at the wholesale employment of therapists and psychiatrists who, in most cases, deal with replanting, pruning, or dealing with the fruit of a person’s family tree.

Obviously, we all have our own family stories, joys, and tragedies from our lives. This little treatise is by no means exhaustive but just a little nudge to suggest that sometimes the fruit of the family tree, whether it is juicy or rotted, could be just the thing you need to motivate your story, plot, character, conflict, or resolution.

If you liked this tip, check out my course From Writer to Author for a deeper look into character building: https://courses.academyofcreativeskills.com/p/from-writer-to-author

Lord of the Page…

Today we celebrate a giant in the world of literature. J.R. Tolkien was a super achiever. He was a very
accomplished fellow. An academic and expert on language analysis. But it helps all aspiring writers to
remember that as brilliant as he was, he too had to face a blank page at some point. And although he did it with a full mind, that blank page was the first challenge that every author faces. His expertise in fantasy world-building eventually came down to word choice and story structure. Same as every other author, from the beginning of civilization, has had to contend. So, the next Tolkien could be out there right now, with their facial features filled in by the light of a blank screen or the light reflecting off a blank page.


I am sitting in the reflection of a screen in the aftermath of sending off my next novel, Aquasapien, to my
publisher. An 87,000-word dive into a genre that J.R. Tolkien pioneered; world-building. In my case, not
middle earth, but contemporary earth. Not Hobbits, but an evolutionary offshoot of homo sapiens,
evolved and adapted to earth’s other environment through genetic anomalies. Resulting in attributes and capacities enable them to achieve and perform incredible feats. It also makes them a target. And hence my tail… oops, er, tale.

Happy Belated and Joyous Birthday James!

Yesterday was James Patterson’s birthday. He is a monster author. And why not? I know where he came from. Same place I did. Advertising. We both were creatives in the New York ad biz. I understand the approach to story that comes from the discipline to get a message out in only 75 words or less. Thirty seconds of broadcast time that educates, motivates, and ends with a call to action, while wrapped around a USP device.

We shook hands once, at a Borders conference when my first book and his 14,345th title was coming out. I exaggerate, but like I said he’s a monster. But in point of fact, he’s a brand! Good for him!

I spend a lot of time helping good writers to become authors. Ultimately the next stop after author is BRAND. And if your brand gets big enough, your style can take a back seat. You may continue it or freely move around the literary Ouija board, without fear of rejection because your brand sells the book. He has been successful in many genres: romance novels, historical fiction, nonfiction, children’s books, and science fiction. 

But for the rest of us mere mortals, hammering out 85,000 words or so, into a compelling, satisfying manuscript is the immediate task before us, on the way to potentially becoming a brand. To that end it helps to find the common ground with those whose names are above the title, we all face the blank page. We all have no idea if what we are composing will be a great symphony or a one hit wonder. Branding aside, every book stands alone, even those in a series. So how to succeed in authoring a novel? I believe the answer is…

“I guess I write four or five hours a day, but I do it seven days a week. It’s very disciplined, yes, but it’s joy for me.” – James Patterson

That’s one more thing that I share with Mr. Patterson, and I am sure with nearly every successful author, we both consider writing a joy. Finding joy, is the key to facing that page, working out the plot, defining and building character and tying out the resolution of a brilliant conflict. Sheer Joy!

I can’t teach Joy. But when I see it in a student, I know we are more than halfway along to a better, manuscript. In a word, the whole process becomes a… joy!

Oh, one more thing, the New York Ad shop where I was a creative director/senior VP for 40 years, was Sid Paterson Advertising. No relation, and only one ‘T.’

Love is the essential empathetic connector…

It is good to remember that all Characters should possess some level of love. An easy way to identify this is to ask; who or what would they sacrifice it all for?  The landmark movie Citizen Kane had strong Character-love connections. I believe this empathetic connection to the audience is one of the reasons that keeps the film on most critics’ top ten list.  The love connection that impressed me most in the story, was an older man who recollects a girl he saw on the ferry once in his youth. He then admits there isn’t a month that goes by that he doesn’t think of her, he doesn’t even know her name,  but he has carried her with him through the years, every month!

Kane’s love, his clumsy attempts at buying love, forcing it to be a part of his life, are the tragic aspects of his love/empathy connection. These serve as setups to his ultimate love mystery, the last word he uttered on this mortal coil, “Rosebud.”

All these years later, since my first view of “Citizen Kane” on the Million Dollar Movie on Channel 9 in the ’60s, the scene in that movie that hardly a month goes by that I don’t think of is that old man, carrying that girl into old age. Here is that little sequence, brilliantly written by H.J. Mankowitz and Orson Welles: Bernstein is the seasoned citizen, Kane’s chairman of the board being interviewed by Thompson, the young reporter who is trying to unravel the Rosebud mystery.

I have been in the company of some of the most famous and Highest Net Worth Individuals on the planet. In unguarded moments of candor, they eventually get down to what they really want, (when they seem to have everything a human could ever want) namely, to be in love with someone. Sometimes it’s generic; just the need to feel that way about someone, sometimes it was specific, a person.

At moments like that, you just know that somewhere in the world, a million times over, some hard-working couple, struggling to make ends meet, facing the vicissitudes of life are holding hands and each other in their hearts. Each feeling like they are the lucky one in the relationship to have found the other. 

In my new book, I pay homage to this notion in a subplot where the sexiest actress in Hollywood, the one with the sex tape released on the internet, and two academy award nominations, tries but fails to seduce the husband of my pregnant protagonist. In that unusual, for her, outcome, (she always gets any man she chooses to act stupidly;) she has a life-changing event. One that she admits, “we only play at in movies” but she never believed actually existed; a love and commitment to one another which survives above all else.

That’s worth all the money in the world, and is invaluable when building your Character’s empathetic attraction. In my online novel writing course, From Writer to Author, I teach a lesson on building empathetic characters. I’m proud to announce that my course is now open for enrollment! Find out more at academyofcreativeskills.com or by clicking on the image below!

Editor’s Note: The actor Everett Stone, who played Bernstein, didn’t let the typo in the script pastrol stop him from saying, parasol. Proving that empathy is often more important than grammar. This is a good “first draft” lesson to would-be authors everywhere.

The way Hitchcock thinks – beat by beat.

Intertitle from silent film that reads: There isn't a decent thought in your nasty little mind!

In a previous blog, I credit Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest as the reason I write thrillers. It wasn’t until I had years of writing and learning under my belt that I discovered what his secret was.

Alfred started in film as a graphic artist making dialog cards for silent movies. Before sound came to movies, the film would show an actor “speaking at, or to, or with another character on the screen. Immediately after that, the film cut to a card that had the printed dialogue the audience just saw the actor mouthed. In the silent world of movies back then, the dialogue was very sparse. Actors had to show emotion, often with bigger-than-life gestures and posturing. A certain amount of lip-reading gave the audience satisfaction when the card that followed proved that they had guessed right about what the actor silently said. Every once in a while, a non-dialogue card would appear. This card was the narration explaining some essential notion, change of heart, or change of scene the audience needed to know to avoid confusion. A famous one was ‘meanwhile, back at the ranch…’ Usually cut in between the hero making googly eyes at the pretty girl in town while the cattle rustlers had their pickings of his herd back on his spread.

The sparsity of words in a silent film forced filmmakers to be extra judicious in the words they sparingly shared with the viewer. This beyond anything else, taught Hitchcock the power of the beat. The point of inflection, reversal, or expansion of the story or plot. It’s what separated a narrative film from the other choices moviegoers of that day had the choice of seeing*. And when you do break the story down to the most essential words, you realize very quickly what is driving the story forward and what is causing it to stall. The beats were the cards he created. The frequency and duration of the cards, both dialogue and narration set the tempo of the film – the beat. Delay the beat, and you create suspense! He was the master of suspense because he knew which beat and how long to delay it!

When we author a book it’s important to honor beats and make sure we are building our story on and around them. How do you know what a beat isn’t? Hitchcock explained it to François Truffaut once with the observation; What is drama after all but life with all the dull bits cut out? When you cut the dull bits out of life, or in your manuscript, the beats are pretty much what you are left with.

I go into the beat a little deeper in my really affordable eBook on Kindle, Intentional Thoughts from The Accidental Author, and take a deeper dive into these essential building blocks of good stories-well told in my online course, From Writer to Author, available HERE!

* Amazingly these were just motion pictures featuring 20 minutes of a train chugging along or boats on a river or a San Francisco streetcar. No plot, no story, just the fascination with the motion of the “flickers.” Thomas Edison who invented modern motion pictures was amazed that in his showing of the train movies, new-to-film audiences actually ducked or ran aside as the train came towards the camera!

ICYMI Forgive Us Our Trespasses is OUT NOW!

My 7th novel, Forgive Us Our Trespasses, is now available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble! Click on your favorite book seller below to grab your copy, and don’t forget to enter the official giveaway for your chance to win a physical copy of it’s prequel, Give Us This Day!

ENTER TO WIN:
https://kingsumo.com/g/gvtmjy/forgive-us-our-trespasses-by-tom-avitabile

President’s Day

How many presidents can you name? The diner I go to, and for years, sit and write in, has place-mats with all the presidents on them, and the lobby wall has all pictures of all the former commanders in chiefs in frames that go up to the ceiling. The owner is a man who immigrated from Greece way back when. As a naturalized citizen, he became enamored with the notion and the idea of a president. A citizen, not royalty or a theocrat being elected by the governed. Tom liked me because I pointed to two presidents on the mat and said, “I talked to him and him.”

Those brushes with history started a trend in all but one of my books to have my heroes directly working for the President. As thrillers and action-adventure go, it’s a pretty decent point of ignition to get the heat of a story going.

The origin of my fascination with the presidency goes back to when I was 12 years old and Lyndon Banes Johnson’s air force one flew right over my head as it was landing at Stewart AFB in upstate New York. Three years later, as an intern, I would talk to LBJ, albeit briefly, when I answered the phone at NBC News Headquarters one night, near midnight. It went like this:

            “NBC News.”

            “Who’s this?”

            “Desk assistant Tom Avitabile. How…”

            “Is your boss there, son?”

            “No, but I can get him, who’s calling?”

            “You tell your boss the president of the United States is on the phone.”  

I thought it was a prank, but I called my boss. He asked, “Tom this is very important, what line is he on?”

We had one of those like hundred glass button phones on the news manager’s desk back then in 1967. I read out the letters that were next to the blinking light on hold. “P-O-T..” I never got to U-S. As he hung up, ran upstairs, and took the call. I later found out it was a line to the White House labeled, POTUS, for President of the United States. He was using his power to persuade NBC to not run a story critical of the Vietnam War at that time.  I was impressed with that notion of POWER.

Also, before the release of my 2nd book, the Hammer of God, I had a ten-minute conversation with President Bill Clinton on Global Thermal Nuclear War. I was afraid some of the nasty things in the book, which only a sitting President would know, could be catastrophic if revealed in a novel. He assured me that they weren’t, so I published the book, and since we are all still here, I guess he was right.

Here’s the after leaf from that novel:

Here’s the unit patch of the group that reports only to the Commander and Chief in my novels:

By the way, Tom makes a fabulous Moussaka and always has a table for me to sit at for hours on end.