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SaraStaggs

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    I'm a lawyer, writer, and epilepsy advocate. I live in Portland, Oregon, with my husband and two children. Follow me on Twitter @SaraStaggs.

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  1. FIRST ASSIGNMENT: write your story statement After a doctor tells her that her seizure disorder might kill her, civil rights litigator Casey Berk must fight to keep her epilepsy under control, herself alive, her marriage together, and to avoid the total destruction of the world she once knew. SECOND ASSIGNMENT: in 200 words or less, sketch the antagonist or antagonistic force in your story. Keep in mind their goals, their background, and the ways they react to the world about them. Harold, Casey’s nightmare boss is an antagonistic force in my novel, forcing Casey to choose between her health and her career. He is an egotistical, sociopathic litigator who makes his career his life and expects Casey to do the same. He has been divorced twice, has no children, and sees his full self as a litigator, compared to Casey who has a husband and two children, so is torn between wanting to please her demanding boss and fulfilling her families’ expectations. His role is similar to the “antagonistic force” or temporary antagonist, as she quits her job in the last 3rd of the novel because of the stress that he forces on her. He stays in the story long enough to provide verve and is a moving force in the protagonist’s growth arc. THIRD ASSIGNMENT: create a breakout title (list several options, not more than three, and revisit to edit as needed). Uncontrollable - still a working title. Fits the theme of the novel. Spikes – this was the original one, but “Uncontrollable” suits the final manuscript better. FOURTH ASSIGNMENT: - Develop two smart comparables for your novel. This is a good opportunity to immerse yourself in your chosen genre. Who compares to you? And why? My genre is upmarket women’s fiction/book club fiction. Comps: Oxygen, by Carol Cassella, is similar in tone and in that it humanizes the medical experiences. The Book of Two Ways by Jodi Picolut, is similar in tone and that both books have complicated marital dynamics. Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens, is similar in that both my book and her book have legal drama and complicated romantic relationships. Other authors that my audience may enjoy are Ann Patchett, Andrew Bobotis, Liane Moriarty, and Gail Honeyman. FIFTH ASSIGNMENT: write your own hook line (logline) with conflict and core wound following the format above. At 36, career-focused civil rights’ attorney Casey appears to have the life of her dreams until she learns that her epilepsy could kill her before she is fifty, and she must find a way to control her seizures before they break her marriage, destroy her career, shatter the world she toiled so hard to build, or end her life. SIXTH ASSIGNMENT: sketch out the conditions for the inner conflict your protagonist will have. Why will they feel in turmoil? Conflicted? Anxious? Sketch out one hypothetical scenario in the story wherein this would be the case--consider the trigger and the reaction. Next, likewise sketch a hypothetical scenario for the "secondary conflict" involving the social environment. Will this involve family? Friends? Associates? What is the nature of it? INNER CONFLICT: Casey knows that the stress from being a civil rights litigator causes her seizures. She knows that her boss inflicts this stress upon her, but she loves the type of law that she does and does not want to leave her job. She knows that she cannot be a part-time litigator – there is not really a place for that and her boss would never keep her on working part-time – but she is conflicted between her love for her job and her desire to control her epilepsy. Internally, she wrestles with the concept of who she would ‘be’ if she was not an attorney. She has connected so much of her self-worth to her profession, she cannot see her life without it, but deep inside, she knows that she might have to. SECONDARY CONFLICT: Casey’s refusal to leave her job and her boss’s unreasonable expectations puts a stress on her marriage, as her husband has to carry the weight of the days she has seizures. As the story progresses, she finally quits her job and falls into a deep depression that her husband is not equipped to deal with. He has been raised to avoid therapy, and will not commit when Casey suggests that they go see someone together. Their marriage is on the brink of ruin, as they grow farther and farther apart throughout Casey’s journey to conquer her seizures while retaining her self-worth. When an important civil right's client leaves Harold's office and begs Casey to represent her, Casey and Jonah fall even further apart when she agrees. FINAL ASSIGNMENT: sketch out your setting in detail. What makes it interesting enough, scene by scene, to allow for uniqueness and cinema in your narrative and story? PORTLAND Home: Casey and Jonah live in a gray craftsman that was built in 1942. Originally, a two-bedroom and one bath, the first floor curves in a circle from the front door with the dining room on the left, through the kitchen, passing the kids’ bedrooms and their bathroom into the living room and back to the entrance. Subsequent owners built out a second floor with two more bedrooms, and finished the basement with a laundry room, office, and large TV room. Jonah and Casey bought the house when they were twenty-seven and childless, and wondered what they would do with all the space. Now, throughout the years, they have found ways to fill it – books, couches, children – and make it a home. Office: Harold’s office is a a large room with floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the Eastern part of downtown Portland, with a view of the Willamette River and Mt. Hood. His immense wooden desk is littered with papers, some in piles, some alone, and the leather chair is placed so that his back is to this glorious view. There are two plush leather chairs in front of his desk, and bookshelves around the room that hold volumes of case law books (unused since the advent of legal search engines), and diplomas in opulent frames, an admission to the 9th circuit, and various awards gathered throughout Harold’s career. There are no pictures of family or friends, no signals of hobbies, as he has none. His life is to work. Casey’s office is a smaller version of Harold’s, but she has positioned her desk to enjoy the view of downtown Portland and the river. She has a small photo of her family on her desk. Court: The Portland Federal Courthouse is a behemoth of a building, shining white and standing over twenty stories tall. The lobby has marble floors with a trickling, elegant waterfall and a yawning staircase that leads to various conference rooms. In the courtroom where Casey will argue, wooden benches sit against the back wall with five rows of seats in front for those who want to be closer to the action. A divider separates the spectators from the attorneys and their clients. There are two gigantic wooden tables on each side after walking through the divider, large enough for three chairs and to spread out documents for several feet. A judge’s bench with attached witness stand looms in the front of the room with an American flag and an Oregon flag hanging limp on either side. The jury’s bench is to the left of the judge. CLEVELAND: Hotel: The hotel – the Holiday Inn by St. Lutheran’s Hospital – has a large, plush chair next to the double-paned floor-to- ceiling window with a view of the street in front of the hotel. With a desk and chair against the wall in the middle of the room, and two queen-sized beds, it is a space for recovery, rest, and some deep discussion between Casey and various characters. Hospital: St. Lutheran’s hospital is one of the top ten hospitals in the United States – top five for epilepsy centers. The dramatic enterance includes a circular driveway that curves around a low fountain. Sliding glass doors open into a bustling atrium where men and women in red jackets and lanyards announcing “ASK ME” stand sentry by every door. There is piano music playing somewhere, but the sterile smell reminds visitors that this is still a hospital. Patients wander around with maps, trying to find their way on this campus that spans several city blocks, doctors and nurses in white coats or scrubs bustle about. Wheelchairs pushed by uniformed attendants shuttle patients through the building. It is all very overwhelming at first, and when she enters, Casey wishes she had brought Jonah with her to hold her hand. Epilepsy Monitoring Unit (EMU): The EMU is the ward of the hospital where epilepsy patients are monitored on video 24-hours a day and by electrodes that are hooked onto their heads in various manners. It is basically a long hallway with rooms on either side where the patient sits in his or her bed talking to a visitor, looking at their phone, watching TV, trying to keep themselves occupied while waiting to have a seizure. Casey’s room has dark wood-paneled walls behind her bed that look like they have not been replaced since the 1970s; the rest of the walls are a whitist-tan. She stays in a twin-size bed with padded sides. There is a visitor’s chair, a window that overlooks a snow-covered lawn and snow-plowed sidewalks, and a video camera directed at her bed. She has a small gray rolling table, and the florescent overhead light conflicts with the more yellow lights that come from a ledge on the wooden wall behind her. It is a miserable place, where she is miserable herself.
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