What’s a Nice Actress Like Ann Hinnenkamp Doing In a Crazy Business Like Fiction Writing?

HinnenkampA_BI_8118 - Copy

It’s my great pleasure to bring a former student along on today’s ride.  When Ann Hinnenkamp read a scene from her DYAD DREAMS in my class at the Loft Literary Center a few years back, I was hooked.  Her paranormal concept was original, intriguing, unbelievably believable.  Now that The Dyad Chronicles have been published—an RT Book Reviews Top Pick, no less—I feel like a godmother or a midwife or, better yet, a real teacher–my first calling.  Ann’s first calling was theater.  How does her theatrical training influence her as a writer?

Let’s ask her…

When I started writing, I finally proved my Dad wrong and found a medium where my degree in theatre could be put to use. I’ve been a stage actress since I was fourteen, a director since my early twenties and I published my first book when I’d just entered an age decade that starts with an F—the higher one.

I found out early on in my writing journey that there were a great many things I’d learned in theatre that I could apply to writing. Here are a few of them.

Aldonza

Aldonza

             Our Town
  Our Town
        Moon Over Buffalo

Moon Over Buffalo

First, being an actress all these years has left me with little or no fear of rejection. While it’s true that as a new writer rejection letters still stung, they didn’t bother me in the same manner I watched them affect other new authors.

I’ve had decades of walking into an audition, getting the once-over from a casting director, and knowing from the look on his or her face that even if I had the acting chops of Judi Dench and Meryl Streep combined, based on my appearance, there was no way I was getting the part. The worst auditions are where you stand in front of a group of people sitting behind a table, American Idol style, and they point out your “problem areas.” After that, an impersonal rejection letter in the mail couldn’t penetrate my thick hide.

I grew to think of literary agents and editors the same way I do casting directors. Unless they’re willing to give me a job, I don’t listen too closely to their criticism. Because once you do, fear takes over and you start changing things. Over the years I’ve been told I’m too short, too tall, too thin, too fat, too blond, not blond enough and lately with frightening frequency, too old. If I’d changed my appearance to suit my latest critic, I’d have ended up looking like one of those “overdone” women on reality television. You know who I’m talking about. The ladies who’ve crossed the plastic surgery safety line and look like a Barbie Doll after a long weekend in Vegas. My point is when I was trying to publish I didn’t listen to the no’s. I just kept looking for a yes.

Character development is another area I was able to adapt from theatre to writing. An actor has the words written for them. For most of us the script or screenplay is the starting point. We spend endless hours before the first rehearsal with those words developing the character. How do they sound, look, move? Where do they come from? What do they like to eat? Who have they loved? How exactly have they gotten from birth to where the play starts? Backstory, backstory, backstory.

For a writer, the words are your endpoint. When you hand in the book, you’re done. They sound opposite but in both mediums, character development and motivation are the same stubborn nuts to crack. An actor takes the written character and brings them to life. Each line, each action has to be properly motivated to be believable.

A typical audience member may not be able to tell you exactly why he or she liked one actor more than another but the actor knows. You either convince the audience or you don’t.

A typical reader may not be able to put into words that the reason they didn’t like the heroine is she wasn’t properly motivated, or none of her goals held true, or she was just too stupid to live. They just know they didn’t like her.

Why does Lady Macbeth urge her husband to assassinate the King? What possibly could motivate Medea to kill her children? What does Aldonza see in Don Quixote that melts her hard prostitute’s heart? The actor not only has to know the answers to all these questions, but using just their body and voice, they have to show the audience what they are. There is no inner dialogue in theatre. It’s the ultimate show don’t tell.

Another tool I use from theatre is once I have the book completed, I go through it a few times in “performance mode.” By that I mean just as I do when I direct a play, I take each scene and every character in it and check their movement, motivation, costumes and setting. I put them on my imaginary stage and see if anything on the page jars me out of the moment. Because the last thing you want to do as an actor or writer is lose your audience.

During a live performance, the actors can feel when they’ve captured the audience’s imagination and are holding their interest. It grows very quiet in the house. There’s no whispering, coughing or rustling clothes. An energy flows from the audience to the cast, fueling their performances, taking the experience to a higher level.

When people talk about the magic of the theatre, these are the moments I think of. When a cast of actors and their audience are connected by this flow of energy back and forth, there’s no other word for it but magic. It’s the same feeling you get as a reader when you simply can’t put the book down. The author has so captured your attention that you have to know what happens next. In both cases, it’s magic time.

On the other hand, the actor can also feel when they’ve lost their audience. It gets noisy. People fidget, cough and check their watches. You can hear and see the rustle of programs as everyone tries to figure out how long it is until intermission. The magic flow of energy becomes an impatient longing to just have this all over with. This is the point where as a reader you close the book.

In my opinion there’s only one way to lose an audience. Something happens on stage or on the page that doesn’t ring true and reminds everyone that none of what they are experiencing is real. It could be anything. The one bad actor in the cast—the director’s girlfriend or producer’s nephew—makes their entrance and is so unbelievably terrible that they bring everyone down to their level. The pace could be too slow, allowing the audience time for their minds to wonder. Something technical like a phone continuing to ring after it’s been answered could break the mood. Or in my case, an actor can simply forget her lines, flounder around looking stupid and remind the audience that she’s really not Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine but only a middle-aged woman from Minnesota who really should get that space between her front teeth fixed.

This is one area where an actor has the advantage over a writer. We’re right there with our audience. We can hear the laughter, revel in the applause. We know when it’s going well and when we’ve crashed and burned.

A writer doesn’t have this interaction. We send our books out into the world and hold our breath until the reviews come in. And good or bad, there’s nothing we can do about it. The book stands as it is.

During the run of a show, the actor is able to refine and improve their character right up until closing night. No two performances are exactly the same because the audience is constantly changing. The play as a whole tightens up. Timing is honed. The technical aspects are smoothed out. All the actors learn how to wear their costumes instead of the costumes wearing them. The entire production becomes a well-oiled machine.

The challenge for me as an author is to get the book to this point. In other words, when I finally hit the send key, it better be in closing night shape.

My thanks to Kathleen and all the Ladies at Riding with the Top Down for having me here today. I’ve been a fan for years and it’s been a hoot to get in the car and ride along for a day.

The Dyad Chronicles:

Dyad1 Dyad2 Dyad3

Available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Ellora’s Cave, Blush
Visit Ann’s website to learn just what these Dyads are and read the excerpts!

All of us play many roles.  How do your roles influence each other?  Or what about those moments when everything clicks and you know you’ve made a connection, hit your mark, done exactly what you had in mind—can you share that with us?

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About Kathleen Eagle

Kathleen Eagle is the award-winning, New York Times best-selling author of over forty novels.
This entry was posted in Paranormal romance, paranornal, theater, theatre and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

35 Responses to What’s a Nice Actress Like Ann Hinnenkamp Doing In a Crazy Business Like Fiction Writing?

  1. Great post, Ann. I love the theater but never had the courage to act. After reading your post, and knowing I have the courage to write, maybe I should have tried it!

  2. Greta says:

    What a great post! For a non-actor like me, this is really looking at writing with new eyes. Plus I love movies so it’s fun to get some insight on how actors work.

    Question: there must be a range between actors who are strongly analytical and actors who are more instinctive in their approach to the craft. I’ve definitely seen that with writing. Do you have a sense of where you fall on the scale?

  3. kylie brant says:

    A very intriguing post, Ann! I never would have thought of the connection between the two careers in that way.

    I also find it interesting that for you, your two careers so closely assimilate. I teach in my ‘other life’ and find that my teaching persona is a direct opposite to my writer one 🙂 In teaching, I’m very analytical, very sequential and focus on tasks part-to-whole. In writing I’m not an outliner or plotter and am very whole-to-part 🙂 It’s a bit schizophrenic, but I guess it works!

    • I hear you, Kylie. I find that with teaching, I have to outline. I have to plan everything out. Otherwise, I digress. Okay, I digress anyway, but if I don’t do the plan, the “scope and sequence” first, I’ll be flying off into the mist. Not very pretty in a classroom. Team teaching at the Loft is a joy with my sister-in-mind, Mary Bracho. She keeps us on task.

  4. Ann Hinnenkamp says:

    Good Morning Everybody,
    First once again, let me say what a pleasure it is to be here today. It’s a bleak morning in Central Minnesota, no sun, low clouds so the bright colors when I opened the site perked me right up.

  5. Kate M. says:

    Neat connection, and I’d never have thought of it in terms of backstory! Does your acting background lean you toward quirks/physical habits for your characters–the way they move, as well as helping you grow into the inner life of the character?

  6. Ann Hinnenkamp says:

    About those moments where everything clicks—it’s the best feeling. For me, it usually comes after the show is up and running. After the initial stage fright is over. When I’ve finally hit my grove with the character and think I’ve found all her secrets. When the lines are second nature and the connection with the other actor’s performances are working. I can’t wait to get out on stage and show the audience what we’ve come up with for them.

    • Yes! That happens for me with finding the story. There’s initial page fright. Some story grooves and character’s secrets are harder to discover than others. Maybe connecting with other performers is like connecting with the characters I’ve brought to the stage in my head. I keep writing words words words until the characters go from walk-through to coming alive. It feels great when that happens. And what a relief!

  7. Liz Selvig says:

    Ann, what a great post. It makes me think of two things: one, I wish I could see you onstage–you’d be awesome. Do you still act, ever? Two, I can see where your beautiful writing comes from. What smart insights you’ve gained! Certainly my “roles” as daughter, mother, wife, etc. shape my views of my characters–but being an actress and having to study so many different characters and traits sounds like it beats “plain life” hands down! Congrats on your wonderful books. Thanks for sharing your expertise!

  8. Ann Hinnenkamp says:

    Hi Brenda. Thanks for stopping by.
    The great thing about theatre today is it’s available almost everywhere. So, if you want to try it, it’s all around you. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never done it before. There is a community theatre in almost every town and they are always looking for new people. One of the wonderful things about theatre is you are always meeting new people of all ages. You come together with strangers for an intense period of time, have a common goal and create a bond. Sometimes the friendships you develop are long-lasting and sometimes you never see them again. Either way, it’s an experience you won’t ever forget.

  9. Joel Skelton says:

    Having had the opportunity to share so many theatrical experiences with you over the years, it’s almost unbelievable to think that now you and I are writing fiction together. Who would have thunk? This is a wonderful analogy and a great motivator. You highlight similarities I’ve yet to explore and now realize how beneficial they could be. Can’t wait to dig deeper into the cookie jar. Continued success with your writing. As always, I find your work inspiring and entertaining but your friendship is priceless!!

    • Ann Hinnenkamp says:

      Thanks for stopping Skelly,
      As you can all probably tell, Joel and I have been friends for years. We met when we were fourteen and both cast in a production of Oliver. I was Bet, Nancy’s sidekick and Joel was Charlie, one of Fagin’s boys. Over the years, we’ve been in many shows together. He’s been my brother, my lover, my servant, my neighbor and even my enemy.

  10. Ann Hinnenkamp says:

    Good Morning Greta,

    Where do I fall on the scale between strongly analytical and instinctive actors?

    I am not a method actor. As you can tell from the post, I start with the script. Most of what I need to develop the character is in there. I have no patience with method actors who hold up a rehearsal trying to find their zone. Theatre is a business like anything else and this is a waste of everyone’s time. Above all, I think it’s rude to make everyone wait while you struggle to remember a pain from your past so you can make that pain work for the scene your doing.

    There’s a great story about Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier when they were filming Marathon Man. You might have heard it. The story goes that Hoffman stayed up a couple nights and didn’t eat to get ready for the dentist scene. When he showed up and Olivier asked him why he looked so bad, Hoffman told him. Olivier smiled and said, “My dear boy, why don’t you just try acting.”

    That’s how I feel about the porcess. Part of it is instinct and part of it is hard work.

    • Ah, but Hoffman is such a fine actor! In looking at the process, I’m kind of a whatever-it-takes guy. I know writers whose process is the polar opposite of mine, but somehow–makes no sense to me–they get great results. It’s all about coming up with an experience that suspends disbelief and brings the reader/audience into the story.

      • Greta says:

        Hi, Kathy.

        I saw Marathon Man on tv when I was a kid. The ONLY thing I remember is that dentist scene … ooh. Clove oil. I’ve often wondered if that really works.

        So I have to say DH’s performance convinced me!

  11. michelehauf says:

    Welcome, Ann! Congrats on this newest release!

  12. Ann Hinnenkamp says:

    Hi Kate,

    Your question-Does your acting background lean you toward quirks/physical habits for your characters–the way they move, as well as helping you grow into the inner life of the character?

    Yes, my background helps a great deal. I try to make sure all the quirks and phyical habits come from the character. I mean, there has to be a reason a man winks all the time or a woman constantly pushes her glasses up her nose. Things like this develop from who we are.

    For me, a great deal of how a character moves is defined by what they wear and that comes directly from acting. Usually I can’t wait for the first full costume rehersal. Sometimes I ask to get my costume early so I can reherse in it. Expecially if it’s a period piece. That’s when the character really stars clicking for me, when I put the costume on. It’s impossible to move like a modern day American woman in a bone corset. A hoop skirt is almost a force of nature. It affects everyone around you. I had a thirty pound cape once that I thought would be the end of me.

    In each costume I learn to move differently. I try to apply that concept to my characters. In the third Dyad book we finally go to the Dyad home city. What the race wears at home was very important to me. At the same time I didn’t want to spend too much time on it. The first draft had pages and pages on material and stitching and corsets and colors not found in nature. Thankfully, I came to my senses.

  13. Ann Hinnenkamp says:

    Hi Liz,

    I do still act but not as much as I used to. I’m at the age where I get offered many, many mothers and a few grandmothers. And although I agree, there are no small parts, only small actors, I like the roles I take to have a little meat to them.

    I took a part a few years ago way out of town. The company offered me the lead in Neil Simon’s, Chapter Two. It meant a great deal of driving but I went for it because I figured this was the last time I’d be offered a romantic lead. I was so glad I did because I had the best time. The costumer worked so hard to make me look right for the part. I swear, she used a complicated system of counter weights and pulleys to get me into the foundation garments required for the costumes she came up with. When I went on stage I could hardly breathe, but I looked better than I have in years.

    On a side note, if you’re ever struggling with dialogue, pick up a Simon play. He’s a master.

  14. Debra Dixon says:

    Ann– I love the concept of having a book “closing night” ready!

  15. loisgreiman says:

    Wow. I agree with everything. Wonderful post, Ann. I didn’t even know you were an actress. Thanks for sharing with us.

  16. Jude Ward says:

    Hi,
    Is it true your older sister was your greatest inspriation in your life?

    • Ann Hinnenkamp says:

      So, I’ve got this crazy woman who follows me from blog to blog asking me this question. Someday soon, the men in white coats are going to show up and cart her away.

      Not really everyone, this is really my big sister. I’m sure all or you with much, much, much older sisters know how frustrating they can be.

      I named the heroine in the second Dyad book after her and the first thing I did was shoot her twice in the chest. I’ve been chuckling about that ever since.

  17. Mary Bracho says:

    Ann! That was wonderful. Your comparison of preparing a character for theater vs. in your writing is excellent–Kathy and I will have to steal this for our classes! 🙂 We already often find ourselves mentioning your Dyads as an example of successful storytelling. I’m SO happy your books are now out for everyone to read.
    And Ms. Eagle, thanks for the nice words about our Kathy & Mary show at the Loft (now in its record-breaking 15th year?). I love teaching with you, and we’ve met so many great people in our classes, including the talented Liz Selvig, whose name I just saw in these comments, and today’s lovely guest Ann Hinnenkamp!

    • Ann Hinnenkamp says:

      Hi Mary,
      Your classes at the loft were a big turning point for me. The atmosphere is perfect, very non-threatening. Everything you and Kathleen said made perfect sense to me. The light bulb finally went on. I told my acting friends it was like when Helen Keller puts everything together at the end of The Miracle Worker. My “Whaa, whaa” moment. Thanks again.

      • My “Whaa, whaa” moment. I love it! Better do a Stephen Colbert and declare a copyright or I might steal that one.

        The love fest continues. Ann, you were such an asset to our class, and obviously the Dyads are unforgettable when Mary and I remember them so well.

  18. Leanne Banks says:

    Ann, best blog evah! You’re so right. We need to know the motivation, why the characters acts this way, thinks this way. A eureka moment for me was realizing that what a character believes about himself is critical. What do you see when you look in the mirror? What do you think of yourself? I would love to take an acting class. I think it would really enrich my writing. Thank you so much for visiting the convertible today! xo, Leanne

  19. christieridgway says:

    Hi, Ann! Such an intriguing blog post. Thanks for riding with us here today. When I think I’m done with a book, I always read it aloud. I don’t think I “stage” it in my mind, but I listen for clunky lines or places where the characters sound too much alike–or do things too much alike. The last book the hero & heroine both rolled their eyes a time or two and I decided only one of them could do that. As you’re “performing” your ms. and/or writing it, does something from your theater training help differentiate the characters’ voices?

    • Ann Hinnenkamp says:

      Hi Cristie,
      I read the book out loud as well. And you’re right, sometimes when you hear what you’ve written, things stick out.
      I do this fun kind of exercise when I direct, especially when a cast is having a hard time finding their characters. At this point we’ve been rehearsing for a while so everyone knows each others characters pretty well.
      Each actor gets a turn and either speaks four lines or does four movements. In the actors mind one of the four doesn’t fit the character. The rest of us have to guess which one of the four items doesn’t fit. Then we all discuss why it wasn’t in character and what about the other three were.

  20. Hi, Ann. Always late to these parties — day job, you know. Just finished the first Dyad book and can hardly wait to read the second one over the holiday break. So different, yet so well done. Great post, too.

  21. Hellion says:

    BEST. BLOG. EVER. And also my greatest nightmare ever–having to stand on stage with other people and have my flaws picked out. Kudos to you for making that roll off your back!

    I think the only thing my job has taught me is prioritizing (there is only so long you can procrastinate before you have to put your nose to the stone and get it done), organization, and diplomacy despite the people you are working with. Not to say I’m overly diplomatic, but generally I can rein in what I really think of you (if it’s not favorable) and give the right answer and be helpful–(I.e. don’t burn possible necessary bridges. Ever.) Am I still a little tart? You bet–but I’m usually an amusing little tart.

    Generally if I look to the people I work with as ways to determine character motivation, it would be: “People are lazy. They will do the laziest thing possible to impart the smallest amount of effort. If they can get out of it, they so will.” It’s impossible to get these folks to follow the Call of Adventure without a poke in the backside. Oh, and the only things that motivate these twerps is money and prestige. These are NOT people who rally to a cause for the cause’s sake.

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