Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Thoughs on a Meme

Last week I was tagged to participate in a meme: 6 Random Facts About Me. I have to admit that when I was first tagged, my initial reaction was to sigh and wonder if I could skip it. But being a good sport, I thought about it for a few days and finally compiled my list.

Of course, part of this game was to then tag 6 of my friends to play too. A few friends did play along. Other's declined gracefully. I get that. After my first few months on Facebook, I stopped loading every application someone sent my way. These things just have a way of growing until they could absorb every waking moment if you let them!

Saturday, I was sweeping pollen off my front porch for the second time in a week - each swoosh of the broom sending up big clouds of heavy green, VISABLE, pollen! Ick. My watery eyes and sheer determination to reclaim my porch gave me time to think about this meme, my friends' responses, comments on my meme, and something Donald Maass said at the Surrey International Writer's Conference last year.

Actually, I don't remember Donald Maass's exact words, but basically the message was - go beyond the obvious. When you seek to describe your characters, don't use the first thing that comes to your mind, or the fifth, or even the tenth. Really dig deep for that thing that makes them unique. Make a list, pushing yourself to write 10, or even 20 descriptive characteristics. Same goes for character motivations, or descriptions of scenery, or probably just about anything you want to describe in your book. Dig down until you get to that thing that really makes that character stand out.

Being a planner, I really thought about the 6 items I would describe for my "random" facts. I pretty much listed them in the order they came to me, but I thought about them for two days before posting my reply. And you know, in the few comments I received, it wasn't the first item that caused comment, nor the third, but the fifth (signs of creativity) that caught people's attention.

Interesting, huh!


Friday, April 25, 2008

Six Random Facts about Me

I've been tagged. (Beware, you may be next!)

Rose tagged me to write six random things about myself.

The rules:
a. Link to the person who tagged you.
b. Post the rules on your blog.
c. Write six random things about yourself.
d. Tag six random people at the end of your post by linking to their blogs.
e. Let each person know they have been tagged by leaving a comment at their blog.
f. Let your tagger know when your entry is up.

Okay, here goes...

(1) I did not grow up wanting to be a writer. In actuality, until my senior year of college, I wanted to be a psychologist. The writing bug hit me about 5 years ago and I've been trying to figure out how to do it well ever since.

(2) My all-time favorite vacation was to Hawaii. I got engaged to my husband there, but that doesn't explain my fondness for the islands. Up until that point, my travels had been limited (we went to Florida to see my grandparents every year). So Hawaii was just this wonderful tropical oasis. The engagement? My husband being who he is waited until the second to last night of a two week vacation, one month before his "drop dead" date to propose. When not snorkling or otherwise enjoying the scenery, I spent most of the time trying to figure out where my next apartment was going to be!

(3) I love learning. Given unlimited funds, my chosen career would be professional student. In addition to still working on learning this writing thing, my most recent endeavor is learning web design. It's facinating, and I love it.

(4) One of my childhood dreams was to live in an old house. My grandparents had a farm when I was growing up, and most of my happiest childhood memories are associated with that farm. I currently live in a big house built in 1906 (it's definately no farm house, but it is old.) . My adult dream is to live in a brand new house that never needs anything beyond minor repairs - and all the rooms have fresh paint and new carpet at the same time! {g}

(5) I love crafting. As a child, I learned to crochet and embroider. I've pretty much left the embroidery behind (although I do have this dream of making a crazy quilt), but I generally crochet something at least once a year. And as an adult, I learned to quilt - which I love but can be quite expensive. I also make stamped cards, and will try just about any craft once. In recent years I paper-mache'd a chip bowl for myself, made a rag rug for my front porch, created a locker-hook rug (also for the porch), scrapbooked, and, well, anything I can find an excuse for!

(6) I volunteer a lot of my time. Currently, I have a Girl Scout troop of 12 high school girls who are all working on their Gold Award - the top award in Girl Scouts. In the fall/winter I co-lead a group of boys (it was 10 last year, but this year it will be 6) middle-school boys in a LEGO Robotics competition team. I also volunteer some at the schools (less than I used to) and am generally willing to step up for other little tasks that need to be done (although I'm getting better at saying "no"). The one volunteer activity I won't help out with if I can avoid it? Fundraising. I hate fundraising. I'd rather do something hands-on - direct delivery of services.

Who do I tag?
Good luck ladies!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Crossing the First Threshold (Outlining)

So what does the "desk" of a compulsive outliner look like?

As part of my new resolve not to be distracted by e-mail, forums, blogs(!) and the like when I'm "working" on writing, I've taken over the guest bedroom. This is where I spend the first hour or so of most weekdays, meeting with my "mentors" and learning how to outline. If you dropped by today, here's what you'd see (left).
I like this picture because you can see the bright, sunny room I get to work in. (I hope my mom doesn't come to spend the night soon or she'll be on the couch!) But you don't really get the full impact of my outlining so far.

This pictures gives you a much better view of the appearance of my "desk". I curl up there in the upper left, pillow for a lap desk, reviewing all my notecards and scribbling down my ideas.
I'm using notecards. Lots and lots of notecards. I'm using green notecards for notes on The Writer's Journey, by Christopher Vogler (the book I just finished). Pink notecards for notes and ideas on character development. White notecards to write mini-synopses on different parts of the story as they occur to me, and yellow notecards to actually write line-for-scene cards. The notes I've taken from the book (see green notecards) I use to brainstorm ideas. If it's just story flow - what needs to happen, I write these on white index cards. If I actually get down to a real scene, with conflict and scene arc, I write this on a yellow card.

While it may seem my attempts to organize are getting in the way of progress, I'm proud to report that I have a fairly decent outline for about the first 6 of the 12 stages of The Hero's Journey. I've decided my heroine (a young gypsy woman, for anyone not familiar with my work in progress) has three approaches to reaching her goal, and conveniently, there is a male character/potential love interest who represents each of these approaches. Having these three different approaches gives me a lot of options when trying to fill in that "saggy middle" of the story.

But it also makes for a lot of ideas floating around, and I've found the notecards aren't always as visual as I need. So, I've stolen an idea from my friend Linda Gerber. I took three file folders, divided each in half, and then in four sections. On the left, I've written each stage of the journey, and scribble in the highlights or broad overall structure of the story (like the three approaches noted above). On the right, I stick tons of post-it notes with my ideas. This is very visual, as I can see everything at once, and I can move the post-its around as my ideas about the story develop. I'm still using the notecards too (there's not much room on those tiny post-its). It may seem complicated, but it's all working for me!

Somehow, at the end of all this, I may have a comprehensive strategy to recommend to anyone who, like me, can't seem to move forward in writing without an outline. For now, it's working for me, and it evolves as I go along. The real proof of concept will be a finished book!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Meeting With the Mentor

Have you ever had one of those moments when you suddenly know yourself for who you are?

I remember being in my Sophmore year of high school, and being the annoying kid who wanted to know what came next in the outlining format. You know:


I guess I just feel better getting all the details down, not just the high level stuff.

Of course, this desire to organize didn't flow through to all my school work. I also have a vivid memory of my Senior year research paper. It was a compare/contrast paper on The Once and Future King, by TH White and, I believe, Idylls of the King by Alfred Tennyson. I still have my original copy of The Once and Future King. But I digress.

So I spent weeks taking notes from all the reference books I checked out of the library. I had a stack of notecards, basically cataloguing every fact I'd read, but I had no idea of the structure of my paper. So there I sat, in the middle of my mother's living room, surrounded by notecards and piles of books, sobbing.

Until recently, I've been able to laugh over this image. But I now have a 15-year-old daughter of my own and I'm having more and more trouble seeing the humor in the situation.

But the point is, this is who I am. The person who loves structure, and also wants to know everything I can about whatever I research, but am not always good at putting the two things together. My husband, who never reads fiction unless I force him, is actually a good advisor. One night fairly recently, we were discussing my frustration over this whole outlining thing. How I'm able to write non-fiction documents without any trouble at all, but I just stumble all over myself trying to write a complete novel without an outline. I want to be an organic writer. One of those people who can just sit down and write, fully formed plots appearing on the page. He pointed out that this just isn't who I am. It's not how my brain works. If I'm going to do this, I'm going to have to write an outline.

I need some mentors.

There are, of course, many methods to plot a book (at least I think there must be), but after some thought last summer, before I "Refused the Call" of plotting and went back to my old, unsuccessful ways (reached my self-imposed time limit of summer's end for plotting), I determined that my story fit well with a Hero's Journey structure.

The purpose of a mentor is to prepare the hero to face the unknown. They may provide knowledge (something I definately need), guidance, or magical equipment (oh, if only it was this easy!).

Where to find my mentors? Where I always go to find new information, of course. Books! I already had a stack of books on writing. But what I needed was books focused on plotting, and story structure. And then I needed to decide where to begin. For recommendations on these books, I turned to the Compuserve Books and Writer's forum (see right sidebar). My mentors:

  • Christopher Vogler - The Writer's Journey
  • Joseph Cambell/Bill Moyers - The Power of Myth, Hero with a Thousand Faces
  • Christopher Vogler/Michael Hauge - The Hero's 2 Journeys
  • Blake Snyder - Save the Cat
  • Holly Lisle - Create a Plot Clinic
  • Robert McKee - Story

Other mentors may appear to help me out as I move along my journey. I don't plan to learn from all these mentors before I begin to write again. In fact, I've already Crossed the First Threshold. I've finished reading The Writer's Journey, and I have plans. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Refusal of the Call

I've been dancing with this plotting thing for awhile now. Longer, really, than I'd care to admit. It's a two steps forward, one giant step back thing. There is something so alluring about "organic writing" and the creativity it implies. Plus, actually writing seems so much more productive than planning what to write.

My first attempts at outlining involved stating "I'm going to outline my book", and then randomly writing down any scenes ideas that occurred to me. The problem with this approach was that (1) there was no structure; and (2) there was no clues as to what needed to go into the "blanks" to create an interesting story; and (3) my story still seemed to wander down all sorts of interesting but unfocused side paths. I needed a tool to help me brainstorm scene ideas, and some structure to help keep myself on a reasonable path, but I had no idea where to start, so I just kept writing whatever came into my head.

I thought if I kept researching, I'd be able to fill in all the holes. So I've researched. A lot.

I kept coming back to the need to outline. But still had no clue exactly what to do.

My first attempt at finding a structure, about 15 months ago, was to listen to the Christopher Vogler and Michael Hauge Audio Seminar - The Hero's 2 Journeys. Great audio "book". I wrote down lots of story ideas. But I found there were still a lot of vectors my story could go in and I guess I just wasn't ready yet to get down to the hard work. I learned a lot, but didn't really internalize it. I wasn't ready for the journey.

So I messed around a few more months and didn't make much progress. Every time I tried to write an "out of order" scene, I kept getting stuck because I didn't know what I would have already written when I got to that point in the story. I kept trying to introduce characters from scratch every time they appeared, or fill in backstory. Very annoying. Perhaps I needed to find the beginning. So I worked on that. I have several beginnings now. {g} All of them different, and probably none I'll use.

At one point last Spring, I decided I was not cut out to write a novel. It was time to quit. I mentioned this to my mother and stepfather on one of my visits. My stepfather, who is also working on a novel, implored me not to stop. He said I had inspired him to write his own novel, and I should stay with it. He offered me some software he'd purchased called The Writer's Dreamkit. I'm not recommending this. It's very prescriptive and, in the end, spits out your plot for you, including prompts for each scene. Definitely a recipe generator. But it did cause me to think a lot about my story - the archetype of the characters, the goals of my characters, the dramatic theme of my story. Maybe one day I'll create an entire post on this software. As a brainstorming tool, though, it did provide some ideas.

I was fortunate right at the beginning of summer '07 to get a Writer's Sabbatical Weekend away from my family. In that one weekend, I wrote a significant number of scenes. I made a great deal of progress. It felt good. I had some really great dramatic scenes by this time, but still no structure. In one scene, I wrote about the death of my MC's sister. But was this a climax or a Call to Adventure? Where did it fit into my story?

On a roll, I followed this with Holly Lisle's Create a Plot Clinic. A great brainstorming tool, but it didn't provide the structure I was hoping for. I fiddled with writing a few more scenes. I wrote down ideas for many more. I resolved some more character issues. But after spending the summer months brainstorming and trying to create a structure, my time ran out. I'd given myself the summer to plot, and summer was over. Back to writing.

The problem was, I still didn't have a structure, just more scene ideas. I'd given up too soon.

In the hero's journey, heroes often give up because they are not fully committed to the journey. I guess this was me. Like those heroes, I needed some other influence, some external motivator or crisis, or the help of a mentor, to move me along.

I think a lot of authors have these fits and starts. What have you done to overcome resistance and just move forward writing your story?

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Call to Adventure

I am jealous of organic writers. You know, those people who can sit down and write a story from beginning to end, seamlessly creating compelling story arcs and developing intriguing characters without breaking a sweat? Or those who can write disconnected scenes and chunks, and then connect these like some sort of invisible road map only they can see. I know the reality is different, even for these people, but it seems that there are a fair number of writers who are able to plot in their head, intuitively or otherwise, without once mapping out their story on paper. I suspect they drank less in college than I did.

When I first started working on my novel, I didn’t realize there was any other way to write a story except to just sit down and start writing it. Of course, there were a lot of things I didn’t realize about writing a novel back then, but we’re focusing on plotting here.

I’ve written quite a few scenes the organic way – just letting inspiration take me where it will. In my current novel, I probably have over 50,000 words written in scenes varying from ones I’m very proud of, to ones I wouldn’t read to my cat. The problem with this method, for me, is that without guidance my imagination tends to go off in many different directions, as if ten writers were all given a high level concept and sent out to write my novel. No matter how hard I try, the scenes I’ve written will never go together in the same book.

I need a better plan.

It’s not that I’ve wasted my time writing those 50,000 words. I’ve learned a lot about my characters and their culture and environment. The characters have evolved over time, maturing and becoming more like real people. Their lives have become more complicated. I can’t wait to tell their story.

So, uhm…how does one outline a novel?

Novelists on the whole seem to have grasped this concept intuitively. Books on novel writing tend to focus on craft, with maybe a chapter overview on the three and four act structure. There are very few novel writing books that deal with plot, structure, and how to create them. Even the writer’s conferences seem to avoid this topic. I’ve heard advice like "dissect a novel" or "use Excel" or "buy software like Scrivner or Liquid Story Binder." But none of this advice really addresses how one moves a plot from point A, where the story begins, to point Z, where the story ends.

(And for those of you who are organic writers, and are now saying "give it up!", bear with me. It’s not that I have no idea what my story is about. It’s just the scene to scene building, deciding between competing ideas part that gets me in a bind.)

But the screenwriters? They seem to have a passion for structure. Maybe it’s just because pulling apart the structure of a movie takes 2 hours, over and over a few times, until you’ve got each scene mapped out. Pulling apart the structure of a novel takes 10-15 hours, a few times, if you’re lucky and didn’t decide to analyze Outlander (Diana Gabaldon) or Pillars of the Earth (Ken Folliet) or Gone with the Wind (Margaret Mitchell).

To start my own journey of learning to plot and outline my novel, I asked around at the Compuserve Books and Writer’s forum, where most of my writing friends hang out. I received a number of recommendations: Create a Plot Clinic (Holly Lisle), The Hero’s Journey (Christopher Vogler), The Hero’s 2 Journeys (an audio seminar by Michael Hauge and Christopher Vogler), Story (Robert McKee), and Save the Cat! (Blake Snyder).

Note that all but Holly Lisle’s book have a primary audience of screenwriters. But the screenwriter seem to have a lot to say that makes sense.

So, I've set myself a task - to outline my novel. Like all good heroes, I've had a few false starts. I spent last summer looking at some software my stepfather (also an aspiring author) loaned me called The Writer's Dreamkit (more later, maybe). I also worked my way through Holly Lisle's Create a Plot Clinic. Then I reached my self-appointed end-date -- the end of summer, and discovered I had a lot of new scene ideas, and a new depth of understanding about my characters and story, but still no real structure.

Several months later and I'm at it again. And this time I'm sticking to it. I'd love to discuss my process and learnings with you - so stick around!