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.

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

Getting the Work Done

“When I feel difficulty coming on, I switch to another book I’m writing. When I get back to the problem, my unconscious has solved it.”

IMG_6375 (2)If you asked Caroline, she’d tell you that’s the sort of harebrained approach she’d expect me to take. And when you look at my projects spread across a table, it’s hard to deny.

But it just so happens that those words belong to Isaac Asimov, not me.

It’s one of many quotes you’ll find in the book The Write Type. I can’t remember what inspired me to request it from the library.

The premise is this: There’s no one correct way to get your writing done, despite what people tell you. The best thing you can do, this book says, is figure out your natural inclinations and make the most of them.

Perhaps the Universe does send you gifts when you’re ready to receive them–or possibly when you don’t need them quite so much as you used to–or maybe those two are the same thing. Caroline and I spent the first six months of this year looking for better ways to get our work done. Now, it feels like we’re finding our way.

Still, this books has plenty of positive reinforcement and some ideas for taking what I’m doing and making even more of it. The author, Karen Peterson, is perhaps the perfect combo–a psychologist and a writing instructor.

Three things that stuck with me:

  1. Most of us have a conflict going between our adult side and our child side. When we try to strong arm our child side into doing something, the child rebels. That makes it  even harder to find the will to get work done. Better to appease your child and trick/coax/bribe it into doing the adult thing.
  2. There are plenty of ways to work on your writing that don’t require sitting down to a blank page and inventing scenes. Peterson provides a list of six categories of work that you can keep on your desk to remind yourself of ways to keep going.
  3. It can help to challenge some of your beliefs. Of course, if you’re going to challenge them you also have to realize you have them.  Peterson gives you a structure for doing all of that.

Now true, a lot of this I already know and practice. But as I’ve said before, even when I know how to solve problems, it helps to be reminded that I do.

Some of the things this book might help you figure out include what is your best time of day for writing, whether you’re a schedule or deadline writer,  whether you prefer one project at a time or thrive on the chaos of multiple projects, and how much solitude you need to get your work done.

When it was time to return this book to the library, I realized I’d like to keep it around. So it received my ultimate endorsement: I bought it.

Distractions

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I told Jenny I needed help focusing.

She sagely suggested I write a blog post about it since other people probably struggle with focusing too.

“You can’t start concentrating until you’ve stopped being distracted.”  From a quote I found on the internet, but I was too distracted to write down the author’s name for attribution!

When I try to focus on writing my novel, my main distractions tend to be:

  • Getting up and doing something else, like searching for food. Hence, the carbs photo.
  • Scrolling through Instagram.
  • Hitting Google Chrome. I start highbrow and eventually go lowbrow. The New York Times leads to the New York Post, and before I know it, thirty minutes are gone.

I needed some helpful ideas. The following are a few I might try.

Turn off my phone. Not just vibrate. Or lower the volume. Turn it completely off. Move it far away from me.

Turn off the internet on my computer. Or even certain websites. This one for Mac users looks like a good one.

Use a typewriter instead of the computer. No internet distractions on that old school device.

This blog post got my attention. The idea that we are addicted to wasting time.  I think there’s some truth to it.

I could try Write or Die.  That program would for sure scare me into focusing.

Or maybe RescueTime.  An app that breaks down how I spend my time online. That would probably be a reality jolt.

Set a timer for 10 minutes. This one I’ve tried, and it works. I tell myself, ok Caroline, for ten minutes, you can focus. Once ten minutes are up, I’m usually into the writing, and I set the timer for another ten minutes and so on.

Pump myself up with some self-talk.  Act like my muse works for me, and not the other way around. Think of my muse as a defiant employee and give it deadlines. Even tell the muse to show up at a fixed time every day and make that sucker get to work and into the flow.

Speaking of flow. That’s what we’re all after. To enter another world and lose track of time so that we can then create for the reader what John Gardner called in The Art of Fiction “a vivid and continuous dream.”

Why the mind struggles with sitting down and doing the work, I wish I knew! That might call for another post titled “Resistance.” This is a great book about that.

Getting started to get finished

That feels like an appropriately Southern headline, with a dash of Yogi Berra thrown in. All we need is a “fixin.”  At any rate, Caroline and I got together today at my house to see what it would take to move things along.

We put all our projects on my dining room table. I’m sure the main reason we chose my house is because I have so many more piles of stuff.

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Jenny’s stuff: Two laptops, stacks of files, printed manuscripts and a bit of a comic on index cards to the left

What we assembled is a fair depiction of how we approach work. I bubble over with ideas, starting one, then starting the next, and always have four or seventy things going at once.  Caroline is disciplined and deliberate, working to make one or two things absolutely right before beginning something new.

Three lessons for me:

  1. I tend to be hard on myself for not working enough.  Putting all my work on one table showed me just how much work I’ve done–a lot. I can stop calling myself lazy. I’ve even finished quite a few things.
  2. It helps to step through my projects with another person to get fresh perspectives, especially someone like Caroline who is calm and reasonable. I was able to make some decisions about what I could do to move things along.
  3. By putting all the work out there and examining it, I see how I can use the same process to submit it that I use for my “professional” work. I now have a list of actions I can put on this week’s calendar. That seems so obvious, but it wasn’t. I always push aside my “creative” work to make room for paying work, saving the things I really want to write for spare time I struggle to find. No wonder I don’t finish these things and get them out the door!

Here’s what Caroline had to say about her goals for the Year of Submission:

And here you can see why I’m Oscar Madison to Caroline’s Felix Unger: