An Idea Becomes Reality

It was the last class. The last day of school. Spring 2011. The kids were done with their final and sat in small groups, chatting, glancing at the clock, waiting for the empty, long, lovely days of summer to begin.

One group sat clustered around my desk discussing their writing. One student had written a screenplay but didn’t feel it was quite done yet. One had completed NaNoWriMo and had several more pieces in progress.  Another was looking for a publisher for his newly finished fantasy novel, and the fourth had been inspired by Ayn Rand this year and had a novel outlined with one or two chapters completed.

I listened to them, stunned. They were 14 and 15 years old and had novels completed!! I had just begun mine . . . at age 40.

I suggested that they trade phone numbers and emails, so they could workshop their pieces over the summer, and I offered to help. They liked the idea, but the bell rang, summer vacation began.

I thought about this group over the summer and wondered how I could help them with their writing. I had a few ideas but the seed for a website for them, for teen writers who LOVE to write, had been planted.

The next fall, I had a new incoming group of Freshmen and within weeks, a few asked if I would be willing to supervise a Creative Writing Club. Really?!? As soon as I started writing myself, teen writers began to appear in my life, but I had no time between working, coaching Speech & Debate, and being a mom to help them get a club started. Finally, in mid-winter, I proposed my website idea – what if we had a space online where they could post their writing, comment on it, maybe even take Creative Writing Classes? They loved the idea and the seed began to take root. Silly me, I thought it would take less time than a weekly club!

I still worked on getting these kids’ needs met at school and got my administration to approve a Creative Writing class. I wrote a course description and submitted it. Unfortunately, the powers that be “forgot” to put our newly approved course in the course catalog for registration, so no Creative Writing class. Back to my website idea.

Last spring, I resigned my coaching position which freed up my time, but the school year ended with no website and no upcoming Creative Writing Class. I spent my summer and early fall fixing that state of affairs.  The process has been a three steps forward, one-step back process. I tried to design a site myself: fail. Hired a web designer: some good but overall fail. Took a web design class online: WIN! (The Girls Guide to Web Design Rocks!!) but definite learning curve there! Took an online course on running on online business/website: WIN!! (Marie Forleo’s B-School also ROCKS!!).

I started this fall with a website in the works and a PLAN. This past fall, the Creative Writing Club finally launched. We had our first meeting in November and its been going strong. We meet every Thursday to write, learn, and workshop pieces. I completed building and designing my website and shared it with them in December – they loved it and this amazing group of young, talented creative writers helped to found . . . www.whereteenswrite.com.

They have been the most excellent group of “Beta” users, finding all kinds of elements of the site that needed tweaking, posting their stories, sharing, and being overall an amazing group of kids. Last week, I decided its ready to go “live” to the world. I “un-hid” the site from google’s search engines and so far, we’ve had a few more kids find us and log on. The seed that was planted the last day of school in 2011 is finally beginning to grow.

The site is designed for teens, ages 13-18, who love to write, who spend their free time writing and dreaming up their stories. If you know any teens who fit this description, I’d love it if you shared the link with them, so they can check the site out and possibly join our little community.

My ultimate goal is to offer online Creative Writing courses through the site. Few schools offer Creative Writing, and there is definitely a need there.

If you’ve wondered why I haven’t been posting here much, it’s because I’ve been posting there! If you’d like to join the email list without joining the community, you can do that on our Facebook page. You can also get updates in your FB news feed if you “like” our page.

What can you do?

  • Share the site with teens who love to write,
  • Check it out yourself and comment below with any suggestions you have for improvement/changes,
  • Go to Facebook and sign up for “email updates” and “like” our page if you want to stay connected to http://www.whereteenswrite.com.

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.

Forgetting Fear

I forgot my fear and went right on out there - a much happier feeling than sitting and watching my sister have all the adventurous fun!

I got back from Sedona yesterday, and my husband commented on the picture of me on Devil’s Bridge that my sister had sent him.  “How in the hell did she get you to go out there?” he asked. He is used to me refusing to even ride a ferris wheel because it will, at some point, stop at the top and sway which strikes sheer terror into my heart. I can ride roller coasters because even though they go up high, I’m not up there long enough to think about it.

Generally, I avoid any rides or situations that put me up high where I can see down below me and think about awful “what ifs,” but in Sedona I forgot to be afraid! It didn’t even occur to me not to go out onto the bridge.

When we began to climb back down from the bridge, a family arrived. The mother was terrified. My sister and I listened to her continually yell “stop” to her husband and son as they ventured across the rocks. You could hear the fear in her voice. It was then that I realized I hadn’t felt even a little afraid.

They say that the opposite of love is fear, and I’m beginning to think that I agree. Fear stops us in our tracks.  If I think of all the things I am afraid of: heights, something happening to my children, not finishing my novel(s), not ever getting published, teaching high school for an indefinite number of years my heart starts to race. In fact, just writing that list made it race a little bit, but if I approach all of those endeavors with love and a positive attitude or if I just forget to be fearful, life instantly becomes much easier. It is no longer a struggle. I can do things like walk out onto a rock bridge and enjoy the view. I can finish and submit my novel without worrying “what if.” I can love and enjoy my life.

If that is the only “souvenir” I take away from this Spring Break, it is a great souvenir. Now I just have to remember to forget.

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.

Keep Your Day Job AND Write . . . How?

This summer I attended the Willamette Writers’ Conference.  Many of the writers and presenters there kept saying, “keep your day job.”  There’s even a pretty good blog that I occasionally read called www.writerwithadayjob.com that offers tips and motivation to keep going in the face of a busy life.  She also has a companion book that I haven’t read but it’s on my list.

Some of the reasons successful (read published) day job writers give for keeping the job are:

  • It keeps you out in the world with real people, not locked away in solitude.
  • It gives you something to write about
  • It helps structure your day
  • It keeps you focused.
  • Health  Insurance
  • A steady paycheck so you can relax and not feel pressured to write

While I actually agree with many of those reasons, in practice it’s tough.  Now that I am almost a semester and a half into the school year, I’ve been thinking about my progress on my writing thus far.

It’s been a struggle to meet my teaching, coaching, wife, and mom obligations and still find time to write.  Last week, I did alright, but during the two weeks prior, I failed miserably at the writing part.  It seems to work like this.  I have a great week and churn out two blog posts and two thousand novel words and other weeks, it’s a struggle to get one blog post done.

My new writing goal is to write something every day.  I started the school year with the goal to write 4000 words per week.  That soon got reduced to 2000 words until I finally decided that writing something every day was better than nothing and demanding a word count from myself only made me feel like I was failing, which I am not, at all.  It’s just that writing in the large chunks of time which I prefer has been difficult to achieve.

So my question is this:  How do published writers do it?  They give reasons to keep the day job but then how do they achieve their writing goals?

What are the specific strategies?  On the one hand, I like the structure and focus my job teaching gives me, but on the other hand, my job is a time suck.  Right now, I have a stack of research papers to grade; I had to be at school at 6:00 am this morning to take four students to town to speak to the local Rotary club; I am sending 18 more students to Reno for a tournament at 6:00 am Friday morning with hotel arrangements etc., and then I’m driving a school vehicle down with four more students after school gets out.  I’ll return home midday Sunday.

Oh ya, and then I have a novel to finish.  I am not complaining. I am happy . . . just busy.

My life is full.  Each minute is precious. What are strategies that any of you found that work?  I’ve tried a bunch, and I’m open to suggestions.

Fear of Finishing

Last week I pulled out a bunch of fabric to start a new quilt.  It’s not that I don’t have enough current projects to work on, (there are at least eight).  It’s that I like starting projects.  There’s so much potential at the beginning of a project, whether it’s a new quilt or a new story.  In my mind, it will turn out amazingly well.  I can picture the beauty of the quilt, feel the flow of the words.

The fabric I pulled sat on my ironing board for about five days, right in front of a quilt that is stuck to my mini-design wall and has been either on the wall or shoved in a basket on the shelf for, well, about five years now.  Obviously, that project has not had my undivided attention.  It did at first, when I started and tackled it merely for the challenge.  This project entailed drawing a picture (I don’t draw), enlarging it at the print shop, tracing it all onto butcher paper, labeling each little piece, ironing it to the back of the fabric, and stitching it all back together again.  It was a long tedious process, one of those that you get halfway through, start drinking and then think “what the hell was I thinking?!?” We’ve all had them.

The first part looked like this:

The stars have TINY pieces!

This took FOREVER, so I bagged that plan, and went with this:

The pieces are slightly larger and easier to work with here.

The entire quilt is now done except for the hands.  I appliqued them on, decided they looked like lobster claws, and shoved the thing back into the basket for another year.

                                

Last summer, I got it out again and added some thread to try to add some shadows and fingernails to the hands.  It helped, but they still don’t look like I want them to look.  So I shoved it back in the basket.  It came out a few weeks ago.  Now, it’s on my wall, sitting right next to where I write.  Or, more accurately, where I haven’t been writing, but where I’ve been sitting, staring at the screen or the paper, trying to finish the last stretch of my novel.

I’ve spent a lot of time the past few weeks thinking about “finishing.”  I have two projects that are two of the most difficult I’ve ever done: my hand quilt and my novel, and I’m struggling to finish them.  I’m learning that I have a hard time finishing hard projects. I start to doubt myself, decide it’s going to stink anyway, and start on something new and easier.  I realized that’s what I’d done this past week when  I pulled fabric for a new and easy quilt, one that I know will turn out, and also one that I know won’t challenge me at all.

I have never thought of myself as someone who avoids a challenge; I take them on all the time.  My hand quilt, my novel, even this blog are all challenges I’ve taken on.  However, somewhere along the way, I must have decided that it’s the finished project that is the most important element.  Intellectually, I know that is a fallacy.  The finished project is not the most important thing.  Really.  I learn something every time I work on the damn hand quilt as I do every time I sit down to write. It’s all about the journey . . . right?

Emotionally, I’ve decided my problem with finishing a difficult project is that it just might suck.  My hand quilt might look like lobsters trying to sew and my novel might serve better as kindling for the wood stove, but if I don’t finish, they’ll always have the potential to be perfect!  I’d love to say I’m mature enough to finish a hard project, accept the lessons of the journey, and move on, but I’m finding that the reality is, I’m not.  I’d clearly rather keep working on these projects indefinitely rather than face the fact that they might not live up to my expectations.  I might let myself and everyone else down.  That’s scary, and in a nutshell, I don’t like it.

However, to try to overcome this new little core belief I have discovered about myself, I’ve decided that I’m not starting any new projects until the hard ones are done.  I put all the fabric I pulled for the new easy quilt away.  I’ll try to make the lobster claws on my quilt magically transform into hands, and I’ll also create a fabulous resolution for my novel . . . hopefully.  In any case, they’ll be done, perfect or not, and I can start fresh.

Being a Beta

During the past two weeks, I have re-entered the world of being labeled with a Greek letter and become a Beta.  No, I have not rediscovered my inner sorority girl (though I can still proudly sing the Greek alphabet).  I have become a Beta reader.  This is the official name of someone who has the honor of reading an unpublished novel and providing feedback for the author.

In my day job as a high school English teacher, I spend countless hours reading students’ rough drafts, essays, paragraphs, stories, and personal narratives.  It can get grueling. In fact, the one part of my job that I struggle through (well, I actually hate) is all the grading.  I love the kids, enjoy the curriculum, like the lesson planning and teaching, but the grading? It sucks.

With that said, I wasn’t sure how I would be able to respond to an entire novel.  Would it be like reading 150 pages of student work?  If so, I feared my new venture as a Beta reader would send me down a path I’d rather avoid:  annoyed that I’d agreed to the job and downing far too much wine to get through it.

Happily, I discovered I like being a Beta.  I tried to read and respond to each chapter at a time, to record questions that I had about plot or characters, impressions that I got, directions I thought the story was heading at that point.  Since there was a bit of a mystery involved in the story, when I finished it, it was also interesting to go back and see what I thought would happen.  I was wrong and didn’t figure out the culprit until it was revealed at the end, just like I was supposed to.

While there were elements of the story that were fabulous, I also had questions about some of the characters, their relationships, and even some plot elements.  I had read a draft, not a completed work, and while it’s a solid draft with tons of potential, it was just that, a draft.

I’ve been somewhat stuck in my own novel project over the last two months, and participating in the Beta process took a bit of the pressure off that I’ve been putting on myself to make the first draft reach a standard that it won’t ever meet.  The lesson? Just finish.  Get the first draft done.  I can revise to my heart’s content . . . later.  I needed that reminder.  Writing is a process.

I’d like to congratulate my writing friend, Susan, for her amazing first draft, and thank her for sharing her work with me and encouraging me to get my project own project done so she can read it.