Are We There Yet?

Writer's Digest Hero's Journey chart

Chart from Writer’s Digest diagramming the Hero’s Journey as it unfolds in Star Wars.

This post using Star Wars to illustrate the Hero’s Journey took me back to last December. I was at the Big Sur writing workshop, watching a similar explanation, and feeling sure that I’d wrap up my work on the novel I had and send it out within 60 days or so.

I’m not saying the last year hasn’t seen progress toward this goal–but that 60 day deadline came and went. I was still working. I then took the same middle grade novel to the Rutger’s One-on-One conference in…wait for it….October. Now, 60 days after that, I’ve made a few more revisions and am, I swear, ready to start submitting it.

So, referencing the handy chart provided by Writer’s Digest, does this mean I am about to take “the plunge?”  I hope so, because I see payoff is next.

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Think Before You Write. Or. Write Before You Think?

In reference to my title, when writing fiction, I’ve learned the hard way that I need both methods.

I used to “write before I thought” exclusively. This approach is similar to how I cook. I never have the ingredients prepared in little bowls ahead of time. I’m reading the recipe while crazily chopping and grabbing ingredients. I get the meal done, but if I’d slow down and take some time beforehand, the process would run more smoothly.

The same goes for my writing. Instead of throwing words on the page, a bit of mental preparation and forethought is key.

My next project is a short story involving Flannery O’Connor’s mother Regina. I’m not sure where I’m going with it yet. But I do want to use both approaches.

Short stories are more contained than a novel. It doesn’t take as long to write one, but in some ways, it’s more difficult to do well. The boundaries of the form ramp up the process. The conflict happens faster, the rising arc and denouement arrive sooner, and throughout, every sentence has to be exact.

First—think before I write, and for a short story, this part doesn’t have to be overdone.

Some simple questions could be:

What do Regina and Flannery both want or need?

What’s the location? That one’s easy. Their farm Andalusia in Milledgeville, Georgia.

What happens in the story?

Is there a theme?

What might be the climax, the breaking point, or in other words, the point of no return?

Will the ending be open and amorphous? All tied up?

What would be a good logline? A neat screenwriting technique in order to create a one sentence summary.  For instance, Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” might be  A lonely, Southern woman is found dead and decaying in her home after being abandoned by her lover.

The above thought-out structure provides a container for creative freedom. Now I’m ready to “write before I think.” I can be free flowing with my thoughts. I can ease into not knowing and letting the subconscious come to the forefront. I can write what I want. It doesn’t matter. No reason to judge it.

The conscious mind can rein it in later when I reshape and mold the messy and chaotic parts of the story. And I might create a few jewels worth keeping.

One fun tool is “what if?” What if Flannery woke up one day and she could run? What if Regina fell in love with a New York intellectual? What if someone snuck on to the farm and stole the peacocks?

I better get thinking then writing, and for some inspiration, I’m going to pull out Chekhov, the master of short stories.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dialogue

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For a few days, I eavesdropped on and typed up these conversations at a local coffee shop, and honestly, they were better than anything I could think up.

“We have our farmhouse in Ohio. Was built in 1898. They’ll hear their name called. Slamming doors. Up the stairs. But very much alive. I can psych myself out.”

“The sun broke through. Hit the back of my neck. A big old ray. She died like ten years ago. I knew it was her. By the time I got over the bridge. Blue skies.”

I mean. You can’t beat that for some good dialogue!

This next conversation had a bit of enlivening disagreement between these two young men. A good thing in dialogue.

“Eating with my parents. I don’t want to. Nobody else does this. People are going to be watching the game.”

“Are your parents into the game?”

“They might be but I don’t want to watch with my parents.”

“Kind of cool to have dinner with them.”

“Don’t point out the positives.”

Elmore Leonard is the master of using dialogue to move a story forward or into a sudden pitch toward confrontation such as the following in Be Cool.

“You wear your shades at night,” Chili said, “so I’ll think you’re cool, but I can’t tell if you’re looking at me.”

Raji put his glasses down on his nose, down and up. “See? I’m looking the fuck right at you, man. You have something to say to me fuckin say it so we be done here.”

A few more things to think about with dialogue.

Set up two characters with conflicting goals. Such as one wants Waffle House. The other a Vegan restaurant. Then have them talk about it.

Keep dialogue tags unobtrusive. Just stick with “he said” and “she said.” It makes it easier for the reader.

Read all your dialogue aloud, with a friend if possible. It will quickly become evident which lines don’t ring true.

Make sure characters are really talking to each other and not just saying something for the reader’s benefit or that you’re not forcing them to reveal a bit of plot through dialogue.

Use silence as well as speech to convey meaning.

Or if you want to break all these rules, you can do your own thing like Cormac McCarthy and use no speech marks or apostrophes.

Here’s some dialogue from No Country For Old Men.

Could have been checkin the quality. Getting ready to trade.
They didnt trade. They shot each other.
Bell nodded.
There might not of even been no money.
That’s possible.
But you dont believe it.
Bell thought about it. No, he said. Probably I dont.

Lastly, lots of good advice on dialogue in 9 Rules for Writing Dialogue

 

 

 

A little closer every day

When we started a year of submission back in January 2016, I had many projects at many stages of near-completion. My goal, back then, was to stop sitting on things and start sending them out.

I did send a few things out. And while I was waiting for responses, I started a novel that had been kicking around in my head for more than a year. I wrote 90 percent of that novel in just one month and read a couple of chapters from my first draft at the Big Sur writing workshop back in December. I got the same response from every person: Finish the last 10 percent of that sucker, don’t overthink it, and start sending it out.

Wow. That’s how I felt about all of it.

One, the whole story had come out of me quickly, hung together from start to finish, and it read like a finished manuscript. Yes, it needed a little editing. But it just came out that way. Maybe all the years of struggle and toil were finally translating into ability.

Two, who doesn’t dream of going to a workshop with agents and editors and getting that kind of encouragement? I was a little bit in shock.

Three, I have gone from the person working on many projects at once to the person who is obsessed with this one project. I never saw myself doing that. (I’m not even sure that I like this person, btw.)

Four, I had no idea it would take me until now….NOW….to get that last 10 percent written and make the revisions I wanted to make before I could get to what?

That’s right, submitting. The whole point of this almost-two-year experiment Caroline and I have embraced.

I have some people reading my latest draft and am waiting for their feedback. I still have a few minor changes I want to make. My goal is to begin submitting after Labor Day. I was so sure I’d have started sending it out back in February. But here we are.

After Labor Day, I promise to embrace “Don’t overthink it. Just send it out.” And also to get back to my old so-many-projects-it-makes-Caroline’s-head-spin ways.

Thoughts on Creative Writing

I was invited to speak to a group of high school students about fiction writing.

Here’s what I plan to say.

At my first ever writing retreat in Ashland, Virginia, two voices shot out of my head and I could barely keep up with the back and forth dialogue they were having.

The two people were a mentally slow young woman and her domineering Southern mother. The young woman had taken a baby girl from someone and brought the child home on a local bus. Horrified, the mother was yelling at her to take the baby back to the parents.

I had no idea where these two people had come from. Much less the weird premise. But as they snapped at each other, I realized I had a knack for dialogue.

However, once I got home from the retreat, I soon found out, that’s all I had. I knew nothing about the craft of writing fiction.

Over the past years, I’ve become a better writer, and after several tries at short stories and another novel, I’ve almost finished a young adult novel. I also want to add that at a certain point, I kept running off into tangents and not sticking to a storyline so I hired an editor to help me with this current novel.  After working with him, I now understand how to structure a novel, and I think next time around, I’ll be able to do it myself.

Here are some tidbits that have helped me along the way.

Writing is hard for everyone. Except maybe Joyce Carol Oates.

Main characters are everything. Think Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye or Harry Potter or Jane Eyre or Jo March in Little Women. A reader wants to feel something about the characters. We root for certain characters. We despise a character. We fall in love with a character.

But creating that memorable character takes lots of trial and error.

I often struggle with my characters starting off as caricatures. I tend to exaggerate their quirks and mannerisms. In order to get to know my characters better, I write a backstory about them. Even if I don’t use most of it, I’ll feel more confident about what they say and do.

Here are just a few of many ideas for character development. What is in your character’s refrigerator right now? On her bedroom floor? On her nightstand? In her garbage can?

What is one strong memory that has stuck with your character from childhood? Why is it so powerful and lasting?

Setting is important. It helps the reader feel grounded in the story.  It can also establish the atmosphere or mood of the novel or story.

An example of setting. “A sea-green sky: lamps blossoming white. This is marginal land: fields of strung wire, of treadless tyres in ditches, fridges dead on their backs, and starving ponies cropping the mud.” From Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel

Vivid imagery brings a story to life.  Here’s a great example. “Up out of the lampshade, startled by the overhead light, flew a large nocturnal butterfly that began circling the room. The strains of the piano and violin rose up weakly from below.”  From The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

I once interviewed Michael Curtis the fiction editor of The Atlantic magazine, and I remember he said he liked stories with forward motion. That he liked things to happen. And I agree with that.

I try to keep sentences varied. Short. Long. Medium. Short. It helps with the reading flow.

And the same goes for dialogue, description and action. Write a bit of one, then a bit of the other.

I try not to use adverbs. They weaken rather than strengthen one’s writing.

A lot of writing boils down to making decisions. Do I put this sentence here or there?

With dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. You’ll be able to tell if it rings true or not. Also, sit in a coffee shop and listen to people talking. It’s usually not a straightforward conversation. People don’t always mean what they say. And even sneak a peek at their body language for some additional information.

It’s super intimidating to think the whole world is going to read what you write. So scale it down. I like to pretend I’m telling my story to a good friend.

Cover up the computer screen. That way you can’t self-edit as you go along, and it will help with the self-critic we all have inside of us.

I’m not good about this one. But it’s important to put your work away. Then come back to it a few days or a week later and observe it after some time apart from it.

I’ll close with the words of Eudora Welty. “A writer needs to sit down and write. Then inspiration will follow. No art ever came out of not risking your neck. And risk — experiment — is a considerable part of the joy of doing, which is the lone, simple reason all [writers] are willing to work as hard as they do.

The open mind and the receptive heart — which are at last and with fortune’s smile the informed mind and the experienced heart — are to be gained anywhere, any time, without necessarily moving an inch from any present address.”

A few great resources for fiction writers:

War of Art by Steven Pressfield

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

On Writing by Stephen King

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner

www.JaneFriedman.com

 

 

Missteps

 

I spent three days on a chapter that didn’t work out.

I had three characters in a dining room wrapping blue pottery bowls in newspaper to take to a craft fair at Centennial Park in Nashville.

I didn’t want to be in the dining room with pottery bowls stacked every which way, and the characters didn’t want to be in the dining room with the pottery bowls stacked liked leaning towers of Pisa. I felt claustrophobic. They felt claustrophobic. But for three days, I couldn’t see a way out of the dining room.

I finally printed out the chapter. Once I read it on paper, I knew the setting was not working out.

So I changed it.

Instead of the three characters wrapping the bowls, I jumped ahead, and I had them unwrap the bowls at the Craft Fair. They had a purpose in setting up the craft fair booth. They could breathe better in the fresh air. I could breathe better. We all felt better!

I was also able to transfer the dialogue from the dining room chapter, so all was not lost.

It reminded me of some self-help talk I read once. You have to go through it not around it. I’m not going to beat myself up about spending three days on material that didn’t work out. I learned something and I found a solution.

Terrible Minds is always a trip with his advice on how to unstick a story and this article gives good advice on fixing plot problems as well.

Progress not seen by the naked eye?

A photo Jenny took while walking around downtown Dallas, where she was attending the NCAA women’s basketball Final Four instead of writing. (Research!)

Well, you won’t see my original blog post because that just evaporated into thin air. Do other writers feel this way? Nothing annoys me more than losing something I’ve written and having to write it again. Which makes you wonder why I’m not more careful about hitting the save button, wherever they’ve managed to hide that on this updated version of WordPress.

Caroline and I have neglected this blog, though we’ve been successful at getting work on our books done. Still, that progress seems to come in surges, and we both worry that we’re not as far along as we should be. (I’m not sure who determines “should.”)

So we met last week for a check-in. Caroline points out that we’re more focused on our projects and getting close to the finish. It’s true, and a clear benefit of our Year of Submission. Now, to get to that submitting part. It’s only weeks away. I swear.

Meanwhile, WordPress–why’d you have to go changing? I guess this is what happens when you don’t post for a few weeks. Okay, months. Dang. Cross your fingers that this one sticks!

The Hero’s Journey

img_0095Jenny and I get together every few weeks to encourage each other and set writing goals.

This past time when we met, I told her that I sometimes become so involved in the nitty gritty details of writing each chapter that I often forget to step back and think about the overarching theme of the novel.

She then mentioned the idea of the Hero’s Journey, which in turn, made me think about the theory that there are only two plots in the world—a stranger comes to town and someone goes on a journey.

My novel’s plot definitely falls into the latter journey category. So I decided to find out a little more about the Hero’s Journey.

I was familiar with Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces concerning the journey of the archetypal hero in world mythologies and that Campbell made famous the term  “monomyth.”

Interestingly enough, I learned that Campbell borrowed the term “monomyth” from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.

I then found out that Christopher Vogler had distilled Campbell’s ideas into a book titled The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.

Vogler took Campbell’s  Hero’s Journey and broke  it down into the following twelve stages.

The Ordinary World – The hero is in his or her ordinary surroundings

The Call to Adventure – The inciting incident

Refusal of the Call – Maybe from fear or some other reason

Meeting with the Mentor

Crossing the Threshold – Hero leaves the Ordinary World

Test, Allies and Enemies – Lots of trials and struggles

Approach to Inmost Cave – Preparing for a significant challenge

The Ordeal – Hero confronts his greatest fear – Midpoint of the novel

The Reward – Seizing the Sword

The Road Back – Maybe a few more trials along the way

The Resurrection or Atonement – The climax – The hero is transformed

Return with Elixir – The hero returns home

During the writing of my first draft, I’m glad I didn’t know about these twelve stages. I think I would’ve felt too hemmed in by this formula, and I would have chafed at feeling the need to hit each mark along the way.

But it’s interesting to note that without even realizing it, I used about half of them. In fact, I think it’s pretty much impossible to avoid the Hero’s Journey entirely. It’s probably ingrained in our psyche from Odysseus onward.

The Hero’s Journey can even be applied to movies. Here’s a fun illustration to show how.

And lastly, a few books that follow the Hero’s Journey:

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Conniption over Description

 

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When I write dialogue for my YA novel, I love thinking up what characters will say.

And as for action, I could create scenes all day. (Well, maybe not all day.)

But description? I seem to avoid it like the plague. Because for me, it’s the hardest thing to get right. How much should I add? How little? Too much is boring. Not enough and the reader can’t be there with the characters in the scene.

It also feels as though the pressure is on to create the best descriptive sentence I can.

Or to try and make up the best simile. Such as….“Elderly American ladies leaning on their canes listed toward me like towers of Pisa.” — Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov

When I see lots of descriptive prose in a novel, (also called “narrative lumps” – I thought that phrase was funny), I tend to skim or skip onward to the dialogue and action, because I like forward movement, and I want things to happen.

For this particular novel, the description needs to come from the mind of a thirteen–year-old boy. What would he notice? How would he describe his surroundings?

Off to the internet for help.

Some tactics I picked up:

I need to fit the description to the type of story. Luckily, my novel is action-oriented and too much description would get in the way of the pacing.

I should use bits of description in combination with the action. That way, I’ll blend it into the story.

Here’s some good advice on how to describe people from Carve Magazine.

I should keep in mind the five senses. Most writers rely on sight and sound. I should also describe smell and touch and taste

I like to study how the masters do it. A few examples…

“Off in the west a humpbacked moon lay stranded, colorless as a jellyfish. The air, utterly still, carried a fragrance of wood smoke mixed with the sweetness of mown grass that rose from the lawn.” Wallace Stegner, The Spectator Bird

“Behind a scarred littered table a man with a fierce roach of iron gray hair peered at us over steel spectacles.” William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

“In our bedroom there are about twenty small glass prisms hung with fishing line from one of the exposed beams; they catch the morning light and we stare at them like a cat eyeing catnip help above its head.” Ann Beattie, “The Burning House”

And lastly, I loved every single thing about Elmore Leonard’s writing tips. Especially, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

The above is photo from a recent trip to Argentina. I should try and describe it here, but I don’t want to!