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 #3 – The Return

I’ve reached the last stage of the hero cycle in this series.  It is known as “The Return.” This is where all the people who watched the potential hero answer his call and embark on his journey welcome him home with open arms and shower him with gifts.  Really. That’s what this stage is all about.

I wrote about the initial stages here and here. The whole idea of the hero cycle is a helpful pattern to know if you are writing any kind of story with a journey or transformation of the main character in that it can help you figure out what comes next.

The final stage, the Return, is made up of three steps: the atonement, the return, and gifts.  The atonement is the most difficult to understand, but it helps if you break the word up into its parts, as in at-one-ment.  Often, the hero goes through the tranformation and becomes a hero, but they are a reluctant hero. They don’t really like this new role and are not comfortable in it. The atonement is where they literally become “at one” with the idea of being a hero. They accept their new role and are finally ready to return to their known world. It completes their transformation into a hero.

Throughout the entire quest, the hero has accepted the call, overcome all obstacles, and now, they are finally ready to live the life that awaits them as a hero.  This doesn’t have to be a life of fame or as a world leader. It could be that the hero has just overcome a significant challenge which changes their status in some way within their family or community, and they’re finally accepting of that change.

Harry Potter provides a great example of this.  He goes through the initial stages of the hero cycle repeatedly, but he doesn’t really reach the atonement stage until the later books of the series when he accepts who and what he is.  This actually allows him to accept the ultimate call to overcome Voldemort for the last time. His final return is after the giant battle and Voldemort’s defeat.  It is at this point that he receives his gift which is, of course, the girl!

While many writers employ all the stages of the cycle in their longer works, it is possible to focus on just one stage of the cycle.  Examples of this would be stories like Kate Chopin’s classic “The Story of an Hour” which focuses on “The Call” or Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” which focuses on the obstacles and challenges.  Both of these are well known examples, but you can probably think of many works which employ either the entire cycle or focus on specific stages of it.

This series has been a very simplified version of the hero cycle, but it hopefully serves as an introduction.  Joseph Campbell wrote extensively about it, and any internet search will turn up numerous resources.   I’d love to hear how this applies to your own works in progress or if it helps you at all in your writing journey.

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.

If I can write, I can write . . . right?

This past weekend, I had a two by four hit me in the head again, as life hammered another lesson home.  It’s a lesson that I’ve learned before, but one that I clearly needed to learn again, hence the two by four.

On Friday morning, my alarm went off at 4 am, so I could catch the bus with my Forensics/Speech and Debate team to head six hours across the state of Nevada for our state tournament.  Twenty plus schools headed north from Vegas and the rest came in from the northern half of the state.  There’s not a whole lot in the middle of the state of Nevada, so it really was a “Civil War” type tournament, a true North vs. South contest.

There are seven speech events and three debate events to compete in.  We could enter two kids/teams per event.  Because many of my top competitors had a conflict this weekend and couldn’t go, I took some novice competitors and put them in events in which they hadn’t competed previously in order to fill as many slots as possible.  We practiced, and I felt that since they were solid speakers, they would be fine. They were.  In fact, one novice speaker made it into final rounds in Domestic Extemporaneous Speaking which means out of approximately 50 competitors, he was in the top six . . . statewide.  He ended up placing sixth in finals, but a sixth place ranking at a state tournament is pretty impressive.  In fact, I’d even say its college application worthy.

So how is this a lesson for me?  The lesson is that (drumroll here) . . . skills transfer.  If my student is an excellent debater, then it makes sense that he’s also a good, I mean excellent, extemporaneous speaker.

I have always wanted to write and when I was in high school, my mom encouraged me to write my stories down.  Like many teenage girls, I ignored her and told myself that I couldn’t because what could she possibly know?  I wasn’t good at it, and I knew everything –  sorry Mom.  When I was in college, I finally acquiesed and took a creative writing class.  It was a disaster.  I hated the class, the teacher, and the stories I wrote.  It solidified to me that I wasn’t a good fiction writer.  I could write essays and non-fiction with ease, but fiction threw me.

Last year, when I decided to start writing a novel as well as a blog I had to overcome this hurdle.  I had thought for twenty years that fiction was out of my reach, so it was a BIG hurdle.  To overcome it,  I wrote a short story and a few scenes, and I learned that my writing skills transfer.  If I can write, I can write . . . right? Though fiction requires a different skill set, the basics are the same.  Writing is writing.  This blog has taught me that lesson because I’ve asked myself numerous times over the last year, what is a blog exactly? What is the genre?  It requires skills in essay writing, personal narrative, analysis, how-to writing, fiction and reflective writing.  It requires solid writing skills in terms of structure, organization, grammar, and punctuation.  In writing one to three blog posts a week over the past year, I have worked on these skills.

Though I’ve worked on these skills, I still question myself, wonder if what I’m doing is any good at all or if I’m writing an entire “practice” novel. Many people do, and then I begin doubting myself again which I have been doing over the past few weeks.  My student’s success this weekend reminded me that I CAN do this.   I’ve learned, yet again, that skills transfer.  If he can successfully speak in a debate round and transfer those skills to an extemp round, then maybe I am not doomed to write essays my entire life because at the ripe old age of nineteen I decided that’s what I was good at.

Nobody else (besides my Dad who loved it – of course) has read my fiction, but I have learned over the past year to believe in myself and my writing.  If I can write a blog for a year, then maybe I can write a novel too. I’ve only got about 8000 words to go . . . I can do this.

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.

Where do scenes come from?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I’ve spent the last two weeks taking notes and writing down ideas anticipating the day I’d have time to sit down and write something.  After working probably 75+ hours over each of the last two weeks (sometimes being a high school teacher and coach can suck every second of every day and every ounce of energy from me, and I write nothing, including my blog), I finally spent much of the day on Sunday actually writing and putting those notes into action, fitting all the little pieces of the puzzle into scenes that hopefully tell a good story.

Where did the scene ideas come from? Let me share:

  •  Historical research – a good half of my novel takes place in 1847 on the Oregon Trail. I love research and history, so writing this part has been fun.  Some of the interesting facts I have discovered that I couldn’t leave out of the story include the existence of a library at Fort Hall, Idaho.  A “mountain man” refers to it in his journal and his visits to get books.  Another is that Indians used porcupine quills tied together with rawhide to brush their hair.  There are numerous little details like this that I find fascinating.  I don’t know if they’ll all find their way into the final draft, but I’ve enjoyed finding them and figuring out how to include them without slamming the reader with history.  I don’t want a reader to read a passage and think, “wow, that scene was written merely for that random piece of trivia.” I want it to flow but also to reflect some of those details that make history so interesting to me.
  • Planning – some scenes I’ve just had to plan from beginning to end following classic scene structure.  What are the characters’ goals? What is the action? What is the major conflict? Who’s going to talk to whom? And finally, what is the disaster that will finish the scene and raise the stakes for everyone?
  • The muses come to play – this is my favorite.  When I sit down, I almost always have a general idea of what I want to write or where I want to go, but then as I start to write, great things start to happen.  Events that I haven’t planned occur.  Characters have great conversations or arguments.  Wise and witty words pop from their mouths. These are days when I feel like a writer.
  • Stories or conversations I hear – yep, if I know you and you tell me something funny or crazy or I’m with you during a noteworthy event, I figure its fair game.  I wonder, “how could I tie that in”? These are not stories that completely change the plot, just little things.  For example, last week I was shopping with one of my students for supplies to run a concession stand, and the store didn’t have any more of that disgusting nacho cheese sauce.  (If you don’t think it’s disgusting, put it in your crockpot for six hours with HS kids ladling it all over the sides, and then try to wash the crockpot.  You won’t ever eat it again.)  Anyway, as I was panicking over the lack of nacho supplies, he looked at me, grabbed his phone and said, “Don’t worry Mrs. Isaman, I’ll just call my Sysco lady.  She’ll take care of us.” You’re Sysco lady? For those of you who don’t know, Sysco is a restaurant supply company.  The entire conversation sounded like some sort of nacho drug deal.  The Sysco lady pulled the products for him (nacho cheese and hot dogs) and dropped it in the shed for him to pick up later. I’m not kidding. To explain, his mom is a caterer and he has worked for her for years, hence, the Sysco lady, but it was really funny, something that will probably appear, somewhere, someday in some piece of writing.
  • My own crazy life – Have you ever said or written something and as soon as it came out of your mouth or appeared on the screen, you felt sort of surprised that you knew that, shocked by your own wisdom, but then you thought about it, and realized why you knew it?  You knew it because you lived it, not the exact situation but the feel of it.  That might sound strange, but I think reaching middle age has given me something to say.  I’ve lived half of a life, and I’m comfortable sharing and reflecting on it.  I wasn’t even five years ago.  This is the part of the scene that isn’t just the conflict or the action, but the explanation of it, the why.  The part when the character reflects on what has happened or what will happen.  It’s the character part of the scene.

Where do your scenes or ideas come from? I’d love to hear.