Blog Break

Ah . . . summer vacation, a time of lazy days sipping lemonade in a hammock with a good book . . . or not.  Maybe that’s what summer looks like for some people, but not this girl!

I just got back from Forensics Nationals, a super fun but not so relaxing week traveling with another coach and nine teenagers. Needless to say, sleep was somewhat elusive, and despite the best of intentions, I didn’t touch my blog.

Instead, I thought about my blog, a lot, and I’ve come to the conclusion, that I am going to be taking a break from my regular two posts a week. I started this blog and enforced a Monday, Thursday posting schedule with myself so that I would write. No matter what, I would sit my ass down in a chair and try to write something that maybe someone, somewhere would read. It didn’t always happen, but it did more often than not.

Over the past year, I have learned a few things:

  1. I found that I liked it – it was really fun to write, to push myself to think of something to write about. I feel like I found my voice in some ways.
  2. People actually read what I have to say – that, to me, is amazing!
  3. Sharing my writing at first was incredibly scary, but I got over that.
  4. Holding myself to a schedule that forced me to write was important to building my skills and confidence, but even if I don’t write every single day, I discovered I can pick up where I left off. Almost every single “writer” book, says to write everyday at the same time. Perhaps in some sort of dream world that doesn’t include kids, a husband, work, coaching, etc. that might happen, but my writing life is much more fluid than that and that’s okay! I managed to blog and finish a novel using my own process.

With those lessons in mind, I’ve decided to take a blog break. I’ll be posting, well, when I feel like it! I have not decided if I will pick my regular schedule back up this fall or not. I think I’ll decide when school starts.

In the meantime, I will be: revising my novel so that maybe someday people will be able to read that, taking a class to keep my teaching credential up to date, hopefully launching a website for teen writers, and maybe fitting in a quilt or two this summer. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Draft #1 – Done!!

A few weeks ago, Nathon Bransford, a writer and blogger I follow, wrote a post asking the question “How long does it take you to finish a draft?”

My first gut reaction answer to that question was “F-O-R-E-V-E-R,” but sadly, I couldn’t figure out how to embed this little video clip into the comments on his blog. It’s from one of my all-time favorite movies ever, The Sandlot.

Then I read some of the comments people wrote in response to his question. Not one single person answered with “forever” – just me, slow writer extraordinaire! In fact, I could only read the first 30 comments or so as they were just a wee bit intimidating.

Some people actually counted how long it took them to write an entire novel in days. Days!! I count down the days until vacation starts, or the age of a newborn baby, NOT how long it takes me to write a novel. Most people were in the 3-6 month range which to me is still mind boggling.

I suppose if I wasn’t teaching full time, coaching, participating in my own children’s lives, and I don’t know, eating and sleeping occasionally, I might be able to do that, but at the current level of “busy” in my life, I cannot see ever writing a novel worth reading in days or weeks time, a blog post or two maybe, but not a novel.  I’m more of a months/years novel writing girl.

With that said, I am happy to announce that I finally finished a very rough first draft of my very first novel, and I did it . . . are you ready? . . . in  460-something days (or just over 15 months). I can check that little to-do off my bucket list!! I wrote a novel – even though right now its in the “shitty first draft” stage, I’m still checking it off! Happy dance!

It’s around 105,000 words.  I’m thinking quite a bit of it needs to be cut, but I think I’d rather cut and tighten the writing up than have to add something.

I have no idea how long revising, getting it to readers, revising again . . . and again will take, but I’m guessing I’ll be true to form and go for months . . . not days. And then someday . . . maybe people will actually read it!

Cool Tool to Organize your Writing

I’m the girl who would rather go into an Office Max or The Container Store than the shoe department at Nordstroms. I love any little doo-dads that might make my life a little easier. I like to be organized; I’m not a neat freak, just organized.

This past week, I discovered the mother of all organizational tools on the net. It works with ANY project I can possibly come up with. It’s called Trello and happily, it’s totally free. I don’t get anything for writing this rave review. I just thought I’d share its coolness. It’s designed for working on projects with teams in a business setting. I, however, have decided it is also suited to writing a novel!

Basically, you can set up giant organizational bulletin boards. Each board has any number of lists. Then, each list is made up of cards. I created a board on my novel in progress. One of my lists was be “Characters.” Then, I have a card for each character in the story. The cool thing is that I can drag the cards and lists all over the place and easily re-arrange and visually see it. If you are a visual, big-picture person like me, this is helpful.

Check this out! It is not complete, but enough for me to see that this will work well!

 The cool part is that when you click on a card if “flips” over and you can add ALL KINDS of information to the back of it which means you can store all the information all in one place.  For my current WIP, I have character files in word documents, plot charts in some novel writing software I got, research tid-bits in an excel spreadsheet, research links online, and actual paper notes and sticky notes stuck all over the place. There is information everywhere, online and off.

I’m not sure if I’ll do it all for this novel since I’m about four scenes from being totally done with draft one, but my next ones will definitely be organized with Trello boards. Check it out. I’d like to hear if any writers out there figure out any other cool ways to use it.

The Hero Cycle #1 – The Departure

I still haven’t finished my novel’s first draft, but last week I dug myself out of a bit of a plot hole by relying on . . . my education. Shocking, I know, but it’s nice when those English degrees actually come in handy.

I was having a hard time transitioning from the all the rising action to the climax when I started to look at my main character’s entire journey. I realized that she had, in many ways, followed the traditional “hero cycle” or “hero’s journey” as discussed by Joseph Campbell in his seminal work A Hero with a Thousand Faces. I’m not sure how this escaped me to this point, but it had.

The literary theory behind the hero’s journey involves the basic premise that all literature contains “archetypes” or recurring patterns in myths and stories worldwide. The hero’s journey is one of these patterns, and by understanding the journey, we can then understand the story, the hero, and possibly ourselves or our world a little bit better.

So how does all this apply to writing? It applies because it works. As readers we instinctively understand the steps that a hero must take in order to, well, become a hero. If one of those steps is missing, somehow we know it, and as writers including all of the steps of the journey can not only deepen our work, but just make a well-developed story. It can fill in those missing holes.

Though it might sound complicated, the archetype of the hero cycle is not. Simba in The Lion’s King and Luke Skywalker in Star Wars are two heroes who follow it almost to the letter.  If you like the movie The Sandlot, Bennie follows a hero cycle when he dreams of Babe Ruth and faces “the Beast.”

The first stage of the Hero Cycle is called The Departure. It is made up of three stages: The Call, The Threshold, and The Helper.  If you research this, you will find a large variety of stages in the cycle and fancy names.  I’m writing about the eight major stages that make the most sense to me and that I teach to my high school students.

In the Call, the hero is somehow “called” to action. This might be through a dream, somebody literally crying out for help, or as in Luke Skywalker’s situation, his family is killed and he finds a robot with a weird princess message on it. Harry Potter gets called by a letter and then a giant on a flying motor cycle. It can be anything as long as it starts the hero on his journey and in some way changes the status quo that is his life.

The next step is the Threshold. This is where the hero decides he’s either going to accept the call and “go for it,” or if he likes life as it is, he stays put and is not a hero after all. A hero chooses to step through the door, or “threshold,” into his new role. He may not be comfortable with this; he may refuse it outright several times, but ultimately, a true hero will accept the call.  Again, think of Luke, Simba, or Harry Potter. They all embark on journeys to help save themselves or their world, but they aren’t necessarily sold on the whole idea at first.

The third piece of “The Departure” is “The Helper.” This stage provides the hero with some sort of aid which might be supernatural in nature or it might just be an object that the hero believes will help him to survive. For example, Simba has his friends and the monkey also gives him advice. Bennie in The Sandlot has his shoes that help him run faster and jump higher. Athena repeatedly helps Odysseus in The Odyssey. Luke has Obi Wan Kenobi and the force. Harry gets a wand and two true friends.  In essence, every traditional hero has some sort of object or people that help them along the way.

I’ll write more about the next two stages of the hero cycle over the next two weeks. Even if you don’t think you’re writing or even reading about a traditional hero, you might be surprised to find how prevalent this archetypal pattern appears in both contemporary and historical fiction. It really does speak to us, it just makes for a good story, and now I know it can rescue us when we’re stuck.

The hero’s journey image is from the Wikimedia Commons, a freely licensed media file repository.

I’m still a WIP

1) My blog – I finally updated the “about me” page and changed the name of my blog. This is the third name, but that’s okay. It needs to grow with me. It’s now titled, “Speaking of Words, Quilts, and Life.” In reviewing the collection of posts I’ve made,  most of my posts somehow address creativity in my life through writing, quilting, or even parenting, so I decided to expand the title. My goal for this blog is to write, consistently, twice and week for an audience, whoever they may be. So far, I feel good about what I’ve done here, and I’m also okay with not having a laser focus on my “content.” If I was trying to monetize this, that might be a problem, but I’m not, so I feel perfectly comfortable writing about my writing, my creative process, my quilting, or even my kids if I feel like it.

2) My novel – My goal for the year was to finish my first draft by April 15. I figured that is a national deadline of sorts, so I’d just join the party. Alas, I didn’t make it. My word count goal was 90,000 words, and I’m happy to say I have met and surpassed that goal by several thousand words, but I’m still not done telling the dang story!  I think I have about six scenes left to write which could be anywhere from 6000-10,000 more words.  At this point, I have the end written and 90% of the middle, I just have to get the two tied together. I’m almost there, and I hope to have a first, really rough draft done in two or three weeks. I’ve decided not to beat myself up over this as I’d rather start my revisions knowing that I have to cut rather than feeling like I have a lot I need to add.  For me, cutting and tightening up language during revision is much easier than writing more.

3) My quilts – this part of my life has become a big zero. I haven’t touched a needle or thread in several months, other than to sew a button on a pair of pants last week, but that doesn’t really count. I wanted to sew this past weekend but ended up cranking out several thousand words on my novel, so my fabric continued its lonely existence. Summer vacation is coming, however. I just need to keep that in mind!

4) WhereTeensWrite – Another of my goals this year is to start a website for teen writers.  I am happy to say that this is in the works.  It will be a community for teen writers to share their writing, get feedback, and take online creative writing classes. I’ve had several students “consulting” with me on it, and we’re all pretty excited though it probably won’t be live for a couple of months.  When it is, you will be able to find it at whereteenswrite.com.  That whole summer vacation thing really needs to happen, so I have some time to dedicate to this project too!

5) This is not a goal, just proof that I’m still a “work in progress.” I’ve been blogging for a year and I just discovered that WordPress has a Handy Blog Scheduling Feature! I’m sure this tool has been available since I started blogging, but somehow it escaped my notice, so I’ll share for those of you who haven’t found it yet either. If, like me, you are busy and sometimes aren’t on the computer to post on your regular schedule, there is a solution.  The next time you finish a post, click the “edit” button next to “Publish Immediately” above the big blue “publish” button.  You can then schedule it to go out whenever you want it to and WordPress does the rest. How nice are they? This has made my life as a woman who works full time, has two teens, and tries to post regularly much easier, and I wish I had discovered it a year ago. Oh well, live and learn.

Image is Royalty Free clipart from Microsoft Office.

If my characters keep dying, does that make me a serial killer?

A week ago it happened.  It was happily writing along.  One character was telling a story about a situation to another character.  I thought I knew what happened.  I was writing it after all, but then, when the character finished telling the story, he let it slip that not just one, but TWO other characters had died. I had absolutely no idea this was coming; he just spit it out.

I actually teared up as I was writing it, but I couldn’t change it.  It had to happen that way even though I didn’t realize it until it actually happened.  It worked with every part of the story and added a whole new level of emotional trauma for the main character who had been listening to this depressing saga.  While I hate drama and guilt in my life, they’re good for characters to deal with; it just makes everything a little bit, or even a lot, worse which ultimately makes a story more interesting.

When I started this whole process, I thought that maybe one character would die and only if they absolutely had to.  I don’t like death . . . at all, but apparently, murder is becoming my forte.  Several more of my characters have managed to, well . . . pass on, and I’m not even writing a thriller.  Nope. It’s historical fiction, and I’ve learned through research that staying alive in the 1840’s was hard work. In fact, I seriously question if I could have suvived the Oregon Trail and lived to the ripe old age of 42 which I am now. My great-great-great-grandmother survived it with seven children, the smallest of whom was just one, and I have the utmost respect for her and every other woman who managed the trip.

People, especially kids, died frequently on the trail.  Wagons ran over small children who fell or jumped from them as they bumped across the land, guns accidently went off, men drowned trying to get their cattle across rivers, cholera and other diseases took people by the thousands, and criminals were hung.  I think the worse part of all of this death would be getting back into the wagon and leaving the grave site of a loved one, especially a child, out there in the middle of nowhere.

In almost every diary I’ve read, there is mention of the number of graves sites passed. Many people would count the graves and keep a tally as to how many they saw in a day which I find a little odd.  I guess its a testament to not only the way of life, but also how boring the trip would be.  I whine if I can’t get a good radio station after twenty minutes of a road trip or if one of my electronic devices runs out of battery, so I can imagine that if I had to walk 2000+ miles over a six month period with no radio, tv, or (God forbid) iphone, I’d probably find whatever thing I could to entertain myself as well.

Apparently all this tragedy I have read about in my research sunk into my brain which decided (without consulting me) that a few more characters had to die to make this story real. Thankfully (or maybe not), my brain is a compost pile which takes all the random facts I discover, heats them up, turns them over, and then refurbishes them as parts of my story.  It would just be nice if my brain could prepare me for the tragedy it cooks up when I’m not paying attention. I’d like to have a little time to prepare.

Writing in a Coffee Shop

pic from microsoft word clip art

One of my goals for this spring break was to take my laptop to a coffee shop and write.  Just about every time I enter into a coffee shop, I see people with laptops.  Clearly, there is a portion of the population who find them productive places to work, and I wanted to see if it worked for me, if pushing myself out of my quiet writing comfort zone worked or if I found it horribly distracting.

When I told my husband my plan, he responded by telling me about his good friend who works in coffee shops just so he can check out all the good looking moms who go in during the work day to meet with their friends though my devoted hubby swears he’s never carted his laptop into Starbucks to work.  Hmmmm.

My concerns with writing in a public place were that I’d see people that I know since I live and teach in a small town.  I worried that I’d spend my entire allotted writing time catching up with someone.  I was also concerned that it might be too noisy or that I’d spend my entire time watching everyone else since I am an avid people watcher.  My last concern was that I’d feel self-conscious and silly trying to write in public and that would squash my creativity.

I hoped that the change in venue would jumpstart the writing goals I had set for this week off of work, so Saturday afternoon, I packed up my clipboard filled with paper, my favorite writing pen, my favorite writing book for when I’m stuck, and my laptop.  I wanted all bases covered.  I chose a smaller shop for my experiment, and I went all the way to town, forgoing the small shop in my community, in which I was sure to see friends or students.

When I first walked in, I knew the first person I saw, the cashier.  Uh oh. She greeted me by name and began to chat, so I decided to sit on a couch out of sight of the front counter though knowing her did come in handy when she called out, “Amy, these your keys on the counter?” They were.

I ensconced myself in the rear corner of the shop on a comfy couch, and I didn’t feel self-conscious at all.  I began by writing by hand which I often do, but quickly switched to my laptop.  The words flowed. A few people came in and out of the shop, but it was relatively quiet other than the employees chatting.  I ended up writing over 1800 words and liking what I wrote. For me, this is a successful writing session.

I’m not sure that writing in a public place is something I would want to do every day or even every month, but to jumpstart my writing, it worked.

Apparently, my muses like the occasional latte too.  They definitely came to visit.

Every Story HAS NOT Been Told

The idea that every story has already been told is a potentially depressing one for a writer embarking on a writing journey.  The problem with this saying is that it’s patently false.  Every story has not been told.  When people say this, they mean that every story archetype or pattern has been discovered.  Examples of such archetypes are the hero’s journey, the rags to riches tale, or rebirth and transformation.  There are also a slew of archetypal characters such as the gambler, the hero, the villain etc.  Thousands of pages of academic study have been devoted to defining these archetypes in both literature and the human psyche.

As a writer, these are a gift.  They provide us with a pattern, a starting place.  However, archetypal plot patterns and characters allow for an infinite number of combinations which can be imagined and reimagined.  That is where writing gets fun and why I can safely say that every story has not been told.

I like having a starting place, knowing that if I have a character who is going on a journey, she will learn some sort of lesson through the journey or else what is the point?  Knowing this allows me to imagine and create her journey with an infinite number of variables.  I get to inhabit the world of “what if?”

This is one of my favorite places to live in my quilting world too.  I always start with a pattern, but rarely, if ever does my finished product look like the given quilt.  I always tweak it in some way, or I use a completely original pattern that I design myself.  The fun part about quilting is that even when two quilters use the same pattern, the quilt never turns out the same.  This is no different than two writers using the same archetype.  Their stories will always differ.

A few friends of mine completed the same kaleidoscope pattern, and their finished products illustrate my point.  These quilts were all based on the same pattern, but through variation in color, value, borders, and fabric choices, the quilts appear to be entirely different patterns.  They’re not, but they’re all beautiful and successful creations.  They each tell a different story though the pattern remains the same.

This is how creativity and archetypes (or patterns) work.  We can start with a foundation and then vary it to our hearts content, and that’s what makes writing or creating of any type so much fun.

‘Tis the Season

Following the Christmas holiday, I was talking to a friend expressing my frustration with my lack of progress on my novel.  I told her I had been thinking a lot about it, but for whatever reason, I hadn’t been able to sit down and write much on it, or at least as much as I felt I should be writing.  “’Tis the season,” she said.

“I know.  It’s so busy with . . . stuff!” I replied.

She laughed and said, “That’s not what I mean at all.”

“What are you talking about then?” I asked.

“It’s winter,” she replied.  We were talking on the phone, and she obviously noted my silence which prompted her to continue with an explanation.  “Winter,” she said, “is the season for dormancy, for the plants and trees to rest before all their growth in the spring.  Why would you be any different? Can you be creative and productive 365 days a year? Is it reasonable to expect that of yourself?”

Hmmmm.  These are great questions, and their answers made me pause because I think she’s right.  I have noted throughout this past year that my creativity comes in spurts.  Sometimes I am highly productive and other times . . . I’m just not, but are my “unproductive” times necessarily “unproductive”?    Or am I just like anything else in the natural world which follows the cycles and rhythms of forces far greater than us?  Why do I expect myself to produce all of the time? Why have we created a society that demands that of us?  I’m not sure that makes any sense whatsoever.

I don’t mean to say that I’m just like an ant or a tree at the mercy of mother nature, but I do think that she made a valid point, one that allowed me to back up and back off of beating myself up for my perceived lack of progress because since my “creative dormancy” began.

Perhaps the most heartening idea behind all of this is the idea of spring which is the season for growth.  Spring has never failed me; it always will come.  I will welcome it, both the green leaves and new growth in my own life, with open arms.  I’ve always looked forward to spring, or to any new season for that matter, for the change in the weather, but this year, I have a little different view of it, and I think I like it.

Lessons Learned from 2011 to Help Build 2012

In listing my accomplishments from 2011, I also discovered some important lessons I’ve learned.   While my list of accomplishments made me feel pretty good, it is the lessons those things taught me that I need to remember to carry forward as I live 2012 with intention.

Lesson #1 – Creativity feeds creativity.  Whenever I got stuck in my writing, I would sew or go for a run and listen to music.  Giving my mind a creative outlet of another for somehow seemed to “unstick” the stuck part.  All of my creative endeavors go hand in hand, but I never realized how intertwined they truly are until this past year.

Lesson #2 – Doing my daily Soul Writing centers me.  Some call it journaling; Julia Cameron with The Artist’s Way calls it writing your “Daily Pages,” but Janet Conner’s method of deep Soul Writing, resonated with me.  It’s a daily meditation with a pen in my hand.  I’ve tried journaling for years and never stuck with it until now.  Perhaps I was finally ready for it, who knows, but in any case, I love how it centers and grounds me.

Lesson #3 – I can write! People actually read my writing and like it, or at least they tell me they do.  That was shocking for me to discover.  I’m usually pretty confident, but when it came to sharing my writing, I felt like I did when I was six and had to go to swimming lessons with the high school wrestling coach who taught swimming in the summer.  The man was huge and terrifying.  The idea of sharing my writing gave me the same huge pit of fear in my gut, but I got over it and survived just like I did with the scary swim teacher.  I enjoy swimming, and I now actually like to share my writing.

Lesson #4 – The more I write . . . the more I write.  In mid-November, I decided to cut down my blog posts to once a week in order to be able to devote more time to my novel. I found that overall I actually wrote less.  Writing my twice weekly blog posts forces me to sit down and write . . . something . . . anything!  I realize that I made that commitment to focus on my novel as we headed into the holiday season which is already extra busy, and then both of my teenagers decided to seriously challenge my parenting skills.  I’d like to blame my lack of progress on the holidays and “momflict,” but really, I just didn’t put my ass in my chair like I should have.  Posting twice a week makes me do that, despite all my other commitments, and if I’m writing one thing, I learned that I will write more on other projects as well.

I hope to carry these lessons through 2012 (and beyond) as I build my life around who I truly am and how I want to live. With that said . . . (drumroll please) . . . my intentions for 2012 are . . .

  • Run a 5k AND a 10K – this is a holdover from last year.
  • Write something every single day, whether it’s a blog post, a paragraph, a small stone, or 3000 words on my WIP.
  • Focus on doing work that I love and incorporating those components into my regular day job.
  • Finish the first draft of The Overlander’s Daughter by April 15.
  • Finish a first revision by July 1 and get it to some readers for feedback.
  • Learn how to write a query, write one, and submit it.
  • Continue to clarify my intentions, my message, my life with regular deep soul writing.
  • Post on my blog twice a week.
  • Regularly feed my creativity through quilting and playing with fabric.
  • Start a website/community for Teen Writers that includes options for sharing writing as well as an instructional component.  This is an offshoot of a Creative Writing Club that is a goal of mine and a group of students.  There’s NO time for a club with meetings at school, so I’ve decided to take this route and build it in an entirely different way. I’m excited to see where this can go.

I’ve never put such strict deadlines, so we’ll see how this goes.  Just reading over those dates my tummy did a little flip-flop, so that means it’s either a good thing (or not). I guess we’ll see!