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.

Shakespeare and Freshmen – Good Times

Think back to your freshman year in high school.  You lived through moments that defined your life . . . at the time at least.  Now, you probably can’t recall what they were.  Think back also to your English class.  Do you remember what you read? Do you remember your first introduction to Shakespeare? As a 9th grader in the USA, you probably read Romeo and Juliet.  It overwhelmed you. You had no idea what the characters were saying. Your teacher probably spent lots of time expounding upon Shakespeare’s mastery of language and all you were trying do was figure out what the hell was going on and why the nurse was so annoying.

I have vague memories of reading the play when I was 14, but now, as a Freshman English teacher, I’ve read it probably 30 or more times.  I just started my third reading so far this year.  I have to stagger them in my sections to avoid reading it with all my sections at one time.  That would be just too painful.  Not that I don’t like William, I do.  It’s just that his writing includes much more than plot and for many 9th graders, understanding the plot is difficult enough without even mentioning Will’s masterful use of language.

Some of them do get it, and that makes it worth it.  Others struggle through and ask, “Why do I need to know this?  My life dream is to be a diesel mechanic.  Will I use this?”

My answer? “Um . . . ya . . . Open to Act II.”  I wish I could say that I have some profound answer that changes my students’ lives and their attitudes toward Shakespeare, but I don’t.  The ones that get it, get it.  They borrow my complete works of Shakespeare and read several plays on their own.  I have some of these every year.  The ones that don’t get it, muddle through.  I am sure that they will live perfectly successful lives as mechanics or engineers, and they will not feel a gaping Shakespearian hole in their lives.

In any case, I shared the following video with my students this year.  They loved it, totally got the story and began to understand the differences in language between the Elizabethan era and their Texting world.  It ended up being a pretty good introduction to the play.  It made me laugh and reminded me what it might feel like to read the play for the first time, rather than the fortieth. Even “The Three Little Pigs” in Elizabethan verbage would be tough to understand without knowing the story first. Enjoy.

Books at Night

As a lover of books, bookstores, color and design, I fell in love with the following video.  I have no idea how the creators did it, but it made me smile.  It also reminded me of two of my favorite films Toy Story and Night at the Museum.  While those focus on what happens with unsupervised toys and historical icons, this little film envisions what all our beloved books might be doing when the lights go out.  Enjoy.

Reading for Fun

“You seriously bought a book called Hot Rocks?” my husband asked.

“Yep.  It looks good too!”

Most every published author will tell you that you need to read, and read a lot, in order to write.  I have always read a lot, but this past year it seems I’ve been reading lots of what would be considered literary fiction, some classics, and lots of non-fiction research and craft books.  I keep thinking that I need to read stuff that will improve my writing.

In On Writing, Stephen King advises writers to just read and read a lot.  He doesn’t read to improve his craft and even argues that the “bad” books sometimes teach writers more than the “good” ones.  I completely agree with that, but  I’ve been focusing so much on learning that I’ve forsaken one of my favorite hobbies, just reading for the pure escape and joy of it.  That is . . . until this weekend.

My son played in a hockey tournament, and on Saturday, we had several hours between games.  I live thirty minutes from the rink, so it wasn’t really enough time to go home.  We went to lunch, ran some errands, and then I asked my husband to stop by our little local bookstore.

A groan followed by, “Noooooooo, it’ll take fooorrreevvveerrrr,” came wailing from my fourteen year old daughter in the backseat.  How I gave birth to a child who I would consider a non-reader will always be one of my life’s great mysteries, but I did.  My husband, bless his heart, ignored her and pulled into the bookstore parking lot.

“Really, this will just take a minute,” I said before dashing into the store.  My daughter, having spent hours with me in bookstores, didn’t believe it at all.  She just stared at me with that look that fourteen year old girls have perfected especially for their mothers, sort of a mix of resignation and annoyance all covered over with “why me?”.

I was out of the store in under six minutes which, for me, is something of a record, and I had exactly what I wanted, a couple of romantic suspense novels: a little mystery, a little sex, a fun story.  Perfect.

I spent the rest of the weekend watching three more hockey games, a little football, and snuggling in my chair with tea, a quilt, and my new book.  I remembered why I like these quick, light reads.  The characters are fun, the dialogue is always witty, and they always have a happy ending.

They’re entertaining!  I guess it’s like watching a romantic comedy as opposed to an academy award winning movie.  As an English teacher and lover of good literature, I sometimes get in the mindset that one is “better” than the other, but that’s ridiculous.  I get sucked into romantic suspense novels just as much as I get sucked into what would be considered “literature,” sometimes even more so.

I read for a good story, for the entertainment, for the escape.  This weekend, I got that.  Thanks Nora Roberts.  It was just what I needed.

Dragging my Feet into eBooks

EBooks are here, and apparently they are here to stay.  I have embraced the internet, digital music, my ipod, smartphones, email, blogging, texting, and all kinds of other technological advances, but I haven’t yet embraced the digitized book.  If the “e” stood for excellent, I might be sold, but it doesn’t.  It stands for electronic, and since anyone can publish an eBook in minutes, how can I know if they’re any good?  I like the idea that a traditional book has had more than a few people read it, work on it, and edit it before I spend my money on it.

Apparently this makes me old-fashioned, but as of now, I’m okay with that.

I am also a book store junkie. I love digging through giant book stores, small used book stores and even the local thrift shop to find literary treasures, and I can spend hours there. I adore the stale smell of stacks of old books as well as books with old gift inscriptions inside the front cover.  I lose this experience with digitized novels.

When I pick up a book, I know how to decide if its one I want to read. I look at the cover, read the back, read the front page, and read a page or two in the middle. I check the font and the amount of white space on each page.  I have no idea how to do that electronically.

I am overwhelmed by the whole idea of Kindles, Nooks, the Motorola Xoom (is that zoom?) and the Sony Reader. There’s even a Kindle DX. I thought that might play games like the Nintendo DS, but apparently it’s only a larger version of the regular Kindle which makes me wonder why they didn’t just call it the Kindle XL?

The world is transitioning to eBooks. Two years ago, none of my students had e-book readers. Now, there is one or two in each class. Students bring their eReaders, and I check their progress in percentages. On Monday, they might be 17% done. On Wednesday, 24%. That’s weird.

If I ask how long their book actually is, what do they say? 100%? Um, ya.

Perhaps there is a page count feature on an eBook reader, but I don’t know since I still haven’t succumbed despite some friends’ valiant efforts.

Everyone who has one loves it, and they tell me all about how great they are. The world is heading that direction. Borders’ demise is a sure sign of it. I’m sure eventually I’ll succumb, but I’m dragging my feet and hanging on to my piles of paperbacks for as long as I can.

Reading About (and not doing any) Writing

I hit the 20,000 word mark on my novel this past week.  This seems like a big milestone to me.  I’m not sure why, but it does.  To celebrate both this milestone and our country’s birthday, I took the last three days off from writing.  Actually, I didn’t have much of a choice.  We were camping on this holiday weekend with no cell service, no electricity, no computer . . . you get the picture.

I did actually bring a clipboard with some paper, but all I managed to write on it was the beginning of a character sketch and a list of stuff I needed to get to restock the camper.

Instead of focusing on writing, I played with my family.  And I read.

I finished Jeannette Walls’ lovely memoir The Glass Castle.  I also spent time in my lounge chair with some of my writing craft books.  As I began writing fiction in earnest at the beginning of this year, I read and read and read craft books, but I finally got to the point that I needed to actually practice what I was reading.  I needed to write my stories.

Now that I’ve made a bit of progress, I’m finding that as I read the craft books I’m thinking about and approaching the information in a more practical way.  I have characters and plots to think about which has given me a different perspective on the information.

The first time I read the writing books, they gave me the confidence and knowledge to start writing fiction.  Now, I feel like they’re giving me the information and confidence to keep going.  In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says “the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts” (22).  Mine is now well under way, and I’ve decided that its okay if its crap.   Writing is hard, I’ve figured out that much.  But I’ve also figured out that I love it, and I’ll stick with it.

I just need to keep going, keep plugging away, even when life is busy and crazy and I decide every single one of my ideas is lame and the whole story sucks.  The only way to get this book done and this story out is one (possibly shitty) word at a time.  The great part is, as the writer, I have the freedom to go back and change it all if I need to.  Perhaps that’s the best part of writing.

Next stop . . .  completed character sketches and 50,000 words.

Literary Black Holes – Part 2

I am an avid reader, and have been my entire life.  I read for the escape, the story, the characters.  I am normally something of a speed reader; if a book grabs me, say “goodbye” to Amy.

My children could be hungry and late for practice while I just finish “one more page.” I stay up far too late on work nights, completely engulfed by a great book.  When I do have to put the book aside and function as a responsible member of society,  I find myself thinking about the story.  I can’t seem to escape the vortex of a good story.  I’m literally sucked in.  I power through it, anxious to find out what happens.

Then, I’m sad. The book is over.  I’ve lost a dear friend.

Not all books affect me like this.  Some I can actually read at a normal pace – well, normal for me.  My family still thinks I read books freakishly fast even if it seems to me that I’m taking my time and really trying to savor each word.  The writer in me has been pondering this lately.

What is it about some books that completely take me over so that I ignore everyone and everything in my life, keep the book on a shelf and read it again while others I enjoy but don’t completely lose myself and all sense of responsibility as I read?  I can take them to the used book store without any feelings of loss, and sometimes I don’t even finish them.

Maybe its just genetics.  My sister does the same thing, but as a single mom with younger kids, it’s a little bit more dangerous for her.  She avoids good books until the perfect time; I used to do this too, but my kids are now teenagers who can at least feed themselves, get dressed, and out the door with their shoes on the right feet.

If its not genetics, and authors actually have something to do with this phenomenon, what is it that pulls me in?  Is it the plot?  The characters? The action? The realistic dialogue? I hadn’t ever really thought about these questions until I started writing  (actually doing it and not just thinking about it), and my life as a reader has changed.  I keep stopping and thinking about all the elements, the structure, of the stories.  I’ve slowed down . . . a little, but I still ask, what sucks me in?
The first, not-so-profound answer I came up with is that they’re just great stories.  It’s all of the elements put together in a compelling way that somehow pulls me in.  But that’s not really an answer; it feels like a cop out.  The books are good because they’re, well, good.  As a debate coach, I would hammer a student who used that circular reasoning in a case, so I need a better answer.

I guess, after much thought, it comes down to what I would call writing style, that elusive, indefinable way with words that every writer has.  However they approach their work, whatever it is they do to draw us in is their style.  Sometimes it works for me, sometimes not so much.

It’s much easier, and not quite so intimidating to think that I can pick and choose what I like and what I want to focus on in terms of my own writing style.  I now read, paying attention to why the authors made the choices they did in their story, and then if I want to, I can try that strategy myself or I can chuck it.  Any book I read, whether I get sucked in or not, has become something of a textbook.  What works?  What doesn’t?

This has even brought me back to some old favorites that I have re-read as a writer. When I’m writing dialogue, for example, I find myself randomly pulling old favorites off the shelf and opening up to sections of dialogue to see how that author wrote it.  It’s hugely helpful to have these masters sitting in front of me as I write, helping me develop.  And even if they aren’t “masters,” they’re at least published which, in my book, makes them a master.

The end result of all this reading and writing, my own writing style.  Maybe someday it too will suck some poor, unaware reader into a literary black hole they can’t escape until the last page.   (Wow – writing fantasy is fun too!)

 

Literary Black Holes – Part 1

This past year, I was blessed with a student who has an IQ many, many points above mine, probably higher than most anyone reading this blog.  He decided to read Atlas Shrugged.  My Dad had re-read it a few years ago and kindly gave it to me for my birthday last year.  It’s a hard back, weighing at least five pounds, and printed in, maybe, an 8 point font.  It’s well over 1000 pages.  I enjoyed The Fountainhead, so I thought I’d tackle Atlas with my student.  I think we started reading this past January.  He’s done.  I’m not.  I tried.  I really, really did.  Despite my student’s encouragement, it’s still sitting on my bedside table, buried at the bottom of my “to read” pile.  I just checked and I made it all the way to page 126.  I enjoyed some of the characters, but the story never grabbed me.  And there it sits, unread.

Great Expectations is another one.  I should be teaching that.  It’s on The List to teach.  I’ve started it four times in the last twenty years, the last time on audio this spring.  In fact the paperback is buried next to Atlas on my table.  Pip’s a funny kid, but the story does nothing for me.  If I can’t read it, there’s no way I can teach it and expect thirty, fourteen year olds to stay with me.  It’s a classic so clearly many, many people have enjoyed it.  I find it, well, boring.

Perhaps it’s the sense of obligation with these tomes that turns me off.   I read The Hunger Games series solely because so many of my students loved it and recommended it.  I  got sucked right into each of those books, reading each of them in a few hours and staying up until 1:00 am one night.  I even drove all the way to town with a student’s gift card to the bookstore to pick up the last one in the series.  She wanted it but could never get into town to use her card (yes, I live in rural Nevada and a trip to town is a minimum hour and a half event).  We made a deal.  I’d pick it up for her if she’d let me borrow it.  It’s a great series if you haven’t read it –  Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” meets 1984.  I loved it as does every student I’ve had whose read it.  That makes me think it’s the action that pulls me in, but in the past few months I’ve also read: The Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, Sarah’s Quilt by Nancy Turner, The Goodbye Quilt by Susan Wigg, The girl who . . . series by Steig Larssen, The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff, and a few romance novels.  All of these are certainly not action packed thrillers.

These authors have all, somehow, created stories that pull me in, grab me.  How do they do it?  I can come up with pieces to that answer but it’s different for each story. In some, I fall immediately in love with the characters.  I care about them and need to find out what happens.  For others, it’s the social commentary and internal conflict.  The whole idea of wondering what I would do if I found myself in that same situation.  For others its, I’ll be honest, the romance.  I like a good love story.  Sometimes it’s the history I find fascinating and how the author really captures a time period.  All these draw me in.

When I read the last page and close the book, I’ve discovered that it’s not one single thing that I enjoyed.  It’s all of it working together.  Some authors do every part very well, but I’m learning that most of them do a few well.  That’s good to know.  In my own writing, I can do one or two things really well to draw reader in.  I don’t have to master everything.  That’s kind of a relief, actually.  When it comes to my writing, I don’t want to be a “Jack of all trades master of none,” nor do I want the pressure to be a master of all.

Happily, I don’t have to be.

Quilt Stories (or Quilters’ Obsessions with Anything Related to Quilts)

After I started quilting, I discovered quilt fiction.  I had no idea until I started reading a few books with a quilt focus, but this is almost a genre unto itself and it actually has been since the mid-1800’s.  Apparently quilters’ obsessions with anything at all having to do with “quilting” has existed for centuries.  The first two quilt stories were published in periodicals in 1844 and 1845.  They were both called “The Patchwork Quilt,” and they both idealize the quilt as a symbol of domesticity.  The second story is by an author who is unidentified other than “Annette.”  It’s a sad little story about a woman who spends her teen years making her masterpiece of a quilt for her wedding.  Sadly, she ends up as a spinster and finishes the quilt for her younger sister who does find a beau to wed.   The quilt in this story represents love, marriage, and security, and the sister who achieves these goals gets the quilt.  These were highly valued for women in the 19th century who existed in the world of the “domestic sphere.”

It is interesting that contemporary quilt fiction also often uses the quilt as a symbol of domesticity, safety, and comfort though in these more modern stories, quilts perhaps don’t represent love and marriage so much anymore as they represent female solidarity and relationships.  In any case, the quilt is still a prevalent symbol in fiction.

We quilters are an interesting group.  We are not only obsessed with building fabric stashes and stitching, but when we take a break from sewing, many of us pick up books novels about our favorite pastime.  There are an amazing number of novels and stories all about quilts which I find fascinating.  There is even an index of quilt fiction on the web though it looks like it hasn’t been updated since 2002.  You can find it here.   In a general search of “quilt fiction” on Amazon, I hit 572 books.  That’s a lot for a pretty specific topic like quilts!  In a quick preview of these novels, it appears they can be broken into several sub-genres of quilt fiction (though this is based on a quick review, not any study):  contemporary fiction, historical, Christian, and murder mysteries.  The last two crack me up – they are so very different but both of them frequently use a quilt as a relevant symbol in the story.

My novel will definitely land in the first two categories; though I realize that contemporary and historical might not mesh, in my case they do.  We’ll see how it actually turns out.  In any case, they are the categories I am the most familiar with and the ones I enjoy reading, so it seems that’s what I’m drawn to write.  It’s also fun to combine two of my favorite pastimes: quilting and words (reading or writing) in this story.

I have no idea if publishers consider quilt fiction as a genre unto itself, but I do, and judging from the searches on Amazon and the shelves of fiction books available for sale in my favorite quilt shops, quilters do too.  If anyone who happens to read this blog is interested in reviews on quilt fiction, let me know, and I can add that as a monthly or weekly feature.

Target Audience for a Book on Writing: Me

When I started this whole writing journey, I knew there were books on how to write.  I’m a book junkie, so I’d seen them.  I’d even occasionally picked up a copy of “Writer’s Digest” or “Poets and Writers Magazine” to peruse.  I was obviously aware there is a publishing industry since that’s where my beloved books come from; I had no idea, however, that an entire world exists that pertains to every possible aspect of writing and publishing.

To a newbie like me, this has been a little overwhelming.  I can find not just one helpful piece but numerous articles and even entire books devoted to:  why write, how to write, what not to write, why blog, what to blog, the ins and outs of publishing, pitching, querying (what the hell’s a query anyway? I obviously haven’t gotten that far), self-publishing, writer’s effective use of social networks, plot, sub-plots, plot layers, characters, internal conflict, external conflict, scene, structure, setting, story world, theme, dialogue, point of view, action, pacing, the beginning of a story, the middle, the end, how to write short stories, how to write novels, editing, revision, punctuation, the sentence, the paragraph, grammar, and even, the proper use of active/passive voice.  And this is just a sampling of topics writers can read about.

This has become a big problem for me.  After much midlife self reflection over the past few years, I now know that I like to have all my ducks in a row and know as much as I can before starting any project, and as a writer, I definitely fall into the “outliner” category, not to be confused with the amazing “just write” folks who can sit down, start writing, and see where it takes them.  I would not have known that those two disparate categories even existed had I not gotten sucked into reading all about how to write!  (Thank God, I found out that there’s a whole group out there like me.  I am not alone in my writing OCD-ishness.)

With all this information, all these well meaning authors really want to help others learn to write, and they are sincere in their efforts.  The problem is that I am their ideal target market because I feel like I need to learn all this stuff, so I buy it and read it because they convince me that without it, I will fail.  Just read some Amazon reviews on them.  Any successful writer must have some of these books.  Then, I spend all my time learning how to write by reading, researching, and studying about it rather than actually doing it.

But all the master-published-writing teachers out there also say I must write to improve.  I just need to read their book first.  It’s a vicious cycle.  I use my precious writing time reading about how to learn to write when all the teachers say I should really be writing as that’s the best way to improve.  So why am I reading all this stuff?  And why am I compelled to write about my writing here?  What is it about writing that makes one want to write about it?  Ah, I think those questions are for another day (and blog).

Generally in these blogs, I reach some sort of conclusion.  Not so much in this one.  Unless the idea that one must actually write to improve at writing, instead of reading about writing, is a conclusion.  But I don’t think so.  Even though it keeps me from writing, I still really like to read about how to write.

The only profound conclusion I can reach?  I am a sucker.  So, if you are thinking of writing a book on any aspect of writing whatsoever, and you are struggling to identify your target market or audience, email me.  I can fill you in.