I'm currently taking an online creative writing class at the community college I work for. It's called "Structuring the Novel." Along with lots of workshopping, we've completed a few writing exercises. This last week, we watch the short video below.
Anyway, I'm not quite half way through my first draft yet, and I've been struggling with my story structure for a while now. I'm hoping to complete it this month with NaNoWriMo, but as a part-time panster, I've been having a hard time getting words on the page.
I admit right now that I spent far too much time on this assignment. After I plotted the ups and downs that I've already written, and then the ups and downs for what I want to happen, I wrote bullet points, explaining the progression of the story. As I did this, it solidified what I had in my head (and in my messy notebooks). It also helped me come up with some other ideas, too. And then I got more ideas as I shared my chart with my husband. I think the more ways we think about or explain our stories, the more real they become.
I discovered this phenomenon just a couple months ago. Actually, it was during July's CampNaNoWriMo. See, for camp, you get to set your own word count or (new this last year) page count. I had a hard time deciding how many words I wanted to set. They probably shouldn't let you, but during camp, you can change your goal as many times as you want, up to a specific date, which I think is just a couple weeks before the month ends.
If the book is really good, I'll say, "just one more chapter!" and then another until my eyes won't stay open. How many of us do that?! (Look around and see the raised hands around the world.)
So why wouldn't my writing be the same?
Now I sit up at night, writing/ revising my book with this kind of attitude--- just one more chapter, just one more chapter... It's often said differently than when I'm reading because reading is always so much easier than writing. When I'm reading, I'm looking at the clock, justifying that reading one more chapter will be okay before bed, before work, before doing chores. ha ha!
With my writing, I'm pushing myself. One more chapter, one more chapter... I think I can... I think I can..
Today I simply want everyone (anyone) who reads my blog posts to watch Liz Gilbert talk about the elusive creative genius. The video is provided below. Then, if you like it or don't like it, you can read my thoughts about it below. And if you agree or disagree with my thoughts or what Liz Gilbert says, than we can start a conversation, either in this blog thread or on twitter, which is where I do the majority of my social media interactions.
I am a writer
All my life, I've wanted to be a writer. But I couldn't just say, even as a kid, I want to be a writer. I had to come up with other things that I wanted to be: a teacher, an astronaut, a farmer. Like Liz, I had people asking me if I was afraid to be a writer. Could I support myself? What if I don't get published? What if your books aren't successful? Why would you choose to be a starving artist?
As a kid, I wasn't so much, but as I got older and actually started writing and/or learning about the adult world, I got scared. Those questions made more and more sense to me, and I fell into the "what-if" syndrome.
Now that I'm much older and (maybe) a bit more wiser and have an established career as an ESL teacher, as a source of income to sustain me in my writing and pick me up should I fail, am I still afraid? Yes. Of course I am.
Protective Psychological Construct
Liz talks about how her success is probably behind her, and she has had to find a way to help her psychologically trick herself into not giving up--- because she wants to keep doing what she loves doing. For me, my future is ahead of me. I'm still young, but I almost feel like I've waited too long to start in on this life-long dream of becoming a published author. Why wasn't I writing more "shitty" drafts (to use Anne Lemott's words) or why wasn't I taking creative writing classes while I was studying for my MTESOL? The same can be said about my drumming, which I finally got serious about doing a few years ago, and not in high school.
It could be natural for me to stop while I'm ahead. Writing is hard. Being a creative genius (to use Liz's words) is intimidating and daunting. So why do I write?
I love language. I love words. I love stories. I was talking to a friend today, and she said, "Kassie, your love for reading is contagious. It makes me want to read more." She also said she can see my passion for stories, for writing. It's in my blood. It's in my soul. I want to be a writer, as scary as that may be.
My motivations for writing come from my reading, from my past (small) successes in writing. I believe with practice, with grit (another great video), I will get there. Eventually.
Catching the Poem
Can I just say how much I love that part in Liz's talk about catching the poem, like a "barreling train of air." I don't know if I've experienced that in as much degree as she describes, and I haven't ever caught a poem backwards before, but I've had ah-ha moments. I live for those.
More often than not, my process is more like the artist she talks about, who is driving. He needs to tell the inspiration to come back when it's a more opportune moment. I've had those. Most the time when that happens, I beg it to stay until I am able to write it down, and sometimes I can.
Continue to Show-Up: Do your Job!
Liz's passion for showing up to do the job is something I try to do every day. Recently, I've set aside at least two hours of writing a day. With school starting up, it's been tricky to keep to that schedule (like my drum phone calls). And sometimes, even during that one or two hours I'm sitting there, I don't always get the best out of me. And that's okay. At least I'm showing up. At least I'm doing my "job."
This video is somewhat old, but the content, I think is very poignant, so I hope you enjoyed it, too, and we can remember why we write, why we dream, why we do creative things.
This summer has been great for reading! Like I wrote last year, I believe reading is an essential part of becoming a successful writer. And of course summer, isn't the only time I read. Heavens no! But I find that I get the most reading in during the summer when I'm not teaching and going to school, etc., so I feel that it's a good idea to report and/or share my reading successes in the summer.
It's been especially rewarding this year as I've participated (for the first time!) in our library's summer challenge. If you read 1,000 minutes, you earn a free book. I used to think it was just for the kiddos, but then I asked, and the librarian told me adults can participate it in, too. So I did. And I got a free burrito from Cafe Rio when I hit my 500 minutes and, of course, that free book at 1,000 minutes.
I believe it's good to read a variety of things, as Stephen King taught me, but I also believe it's important to read what you want. I mean, yes--- I earned a degree in English Literature. I actually like Crime and Punishment, A Farewell to Arms and Animal Farm, which are the kinds of books you probably expect someone like me to read all the time.
But at the same time, it's better to read something than nothing at all because you're embarrassed about showing others what you're reading. It's like I've been trying to keep face, to make everyone believe or see that I only choose books that are intellectual, adult, and/or portrayed as classic literature. About a year or so ago, I finally decided that's rubbish. Who cares? I'm going to read what I want, and who cares who sees me doing it!
So I've been reading a lot of young adult, which, actually, a lot of adults pick up these days anyway.
I've tried have a variety this summer, but not as much as I should, but hey! I was reading. And I totally went over the 1,000 minutes of reading. Easy!
Here's the list:
Within those two types, there are categories. For example, in traditional publishing, there's the Big Five, Mid-size and Large, and Small Presses. In Self-Publishing, there's Hybrid, Assisted, and DIY. Marylee gave us an awesome grid that shows the pros and cons for each type of "delivery" or publishing. (If I get a PDF of it, I'll put it at the bottom of this blog.)
This was a lot of help to me as I try to decide what my goals are as a writer.
Don't be surprised by the request to build an author's platform
This means you need to have ready to go:
Marylee admits that this can be discouraging to many writers, especially those not computer savvy. However, it's easier than you may think. There are lots of resources to help you get started. Personally, as an extrovert, this sounds like a lot of fun. Nevertheless, it is a hard truth, and it's even harder if you're self-publishing because you're basically managing everything.
Just get started, Marylee says, and take baby-steps.
Timing is everything
Marylee gave us a list of keys to success. She said that you need to:
She gave us a list of things to do prior to book launch. It's defiantly a list I'll keep and use when I'm ready.
Write and memorize your pitch
Even if you self-publish, you'll be asked to talk about your book. You need to be ready to tell people what your book is about. The pitch, the synopsis and query are just as important as the manuscript.
TRUTH FROM YOURS TRUELY
Like I said in part 1 of this blog post, I learned a lot from Marylee MacDonald. It isn't over, yet. I'm actually meeting with her one-on-one on Friday and, hopefully, in August as well. I'm sure she'll have more workshops in August as well.
I remember her inviting me to go to her first publishing-themed workshops. I told her "I'm not there, yet," but she told me I should come anyway. I'm glad I did. I've learned a lot.
Of course, it's probably one of those things that you learn best on-the-job, like riding a bike. People can tell you all about riding a bike, but until you do it yourself, you won't know what it's like to to do it.
I've taken notes. I've mused about them in a two-part blog. I'll learn more after I "finish" my manuscript and start working towards publication.
But it's exciting! I hope you've enjoyed skimming through what I've learned (so far!) this summer from Marylee MacDonald.
My library invites published authors to hold office hours in the library and help aspiring authors.
They give workshops (to all the branches) and appointment-based one-on-one feedback for writers. For the past year, since I learned about the program, I've made a point to meet with each and/or participate in one or more of their workshops. I've met Bill Konigsberg, Tom Leveen, Shonna Slayton, and Melissa Marr. From June-August, the writer in residence has been Marylee MacDonald.
I feel like in all of her workshops, she ends up talking a bit about publishing. (She gave two workshops, actually, specifically about publishing.) I'm grateful because it's such a fickle and mysterious world to many writers, including me.
She provides resources for aspiring authors on her website and answers questions about publishing because, as she says, "I just wants to share what I've learned." It's hard to sum-up everything she's taught me over the past couple months, but I'm going to try anyway. Enjoy the musings!
The hard truth about publishing
She has a funny list about why-you-won't-be-published, which she's shown in at least two of her workshops. I don't have her full list, but it has stuff like:
Right now, she says the thing that sells are romance novels and YA literature. There are lots of genres out there within these categories, like vampire romance novels (yes, that is such a thing), and it's important to know what you wrote and if it will sell. Because sometimes it doesn't.
Marylee is an advocate for senior-citizen writers (and is one herself), but another "hard truth" she taught about the publishing world is that agents don't like signing on writers who are in their 60s or older. Why? Maryless says it's because they don't know how many books they can get out of you. It's a business. They don't want one book from their authors. They want a lot.
It's not fair, but that's the hard truth. Another hard truth, which does affect me (I'm in my 30's) is that it takes a LONG time to publish. Sometimes 10 or more years. The sooner you start, the better, I guess.
The publishing industry is like a fish market
This analogy is a good one. It fits with what I learned in the book 78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Published and 14 Reasons Why it Might by Pat Walsh, a book a highly recommend, by the way.
Basically, everyone goes for the freshest fish. You need to not only be young, but also have a fresh idea. Your book needs to be original and good. Really good.
You're book's not done until you feel like throwing up
Marylee said, "If you think you're done, you're not." After you write all those words--- beginning, middle and end--- you need to proof read it. And then proof read it again. She says that if you have 20 avid readers (not friends or family) read your book and they say, "I couldn't put it down," then you're getting closer to finishing, but you're not, yet. She says you'll be so sick of the book that you'll feel like throwing up.
That's when it's "done."
Read Part 2 of this blog
Recently, I wrote about my commitment to studying and learning about plot structure. In addition, I've been thinking a lot about character motivation.
In this blog, I learned some simple ways to begin studying plot and characters. One of the suggestions is to watch movies and read books, looking for something in the story, whether it be the inciting event, the climax, or something else. You're supposed to look for one or two things. Along with using post-its for the books I read, marking the important bench marks in the story, I've been asking questions about motivation.
I think it's been driving hubby crazy. For example, the other day we went to his parents house and watched It Takes Two. You know, the Mary Kay and Ashley Olsen flick, back when they were young and innocent. I hadn't seen it in years! I kept asking questions like: Why does the evil fiancé want to have the wedding in one day? She's waited this long to court the billionaire, why is a month so long for her now?
Together, he and decided that the evil fiancé saw Roger with Dianne and knew that it was true love, too! She was scared that she'd get dumped for true love.
Then, when she told one of the Olsen twins, "I know exactly what you're trying to do! My father remarried three times, and each time I tried to get rid of my stepmother. I wanted my Dad's attention, too..." I wondered--- then why are you so mean to her? If you were in the same situation, why are you doing this?
Questions like these, I think, are good. Sometimes I can figure out answers, but sometimes I can't, and that's okay.
The best thing about doing this is that I've started questioning motivation in my own characters.
I'm no expert, but I always thought all you need in a story is a beginning, a middle and an end. My creative writing teacher, Josh, would draw a mountain on the board, like the one above, and talk about things like rising action, climax, falling action and denouement. He'd tell us to avoid exposition as much as possible. He'd talk about best practices for dialogue, character building, setting the stage, and using "specific concrete details."
After reading the blog posts above, though, I've decided that there's still a lot for me to learn. I've signed up for a couple creative writing classes. (One is actually called "Planning and Structuring the Novel.") In the meantime, though, I'm giving myself some homework.
I've decided to take the challenges in the 2nd blog post, "How to Study Plot and Character," and measure out the important plot points in books and movies I enjoy. I'll write about my experiences in the blog posts to follow.
I always tell my students: In order to do good writing, you need to see good writing. I help them break apart essays: find the thesis, each topic sentence.... the hook, etc. Why not do the same for my writing?
I've been teaching my students about the writing process quite a bit lately. I tell them that the first time they write their essay, it won't be perfect. In fact, it will be messy, and that's okay.
I tell them that the second draft won't be perfect, either, and that's okay, too. Neither will the third or sometimes even the fourth and fifth, but--- with each draft, they are coming closer and closer to a better essay.
I introduce the idea of "seeking advice" from classmates, trusted friends and tutors. I tell them that they can (and should) seek advice on their writing throughout the process. Writing takes time. It's a process. My students are ESL (English as a Second Language), so I encourage and tell them that what they are doing is amazing, and it is! To write a fluent multi paragraph essay in a second language is no small feat.
It's time to take my own advice.
I'm on my second round of NaNoWriMo, and my book isn't finished. I wrote 30,000 words in November 2016, and now I'm attempting the Camp NaNoWriMo this April, with 20,000 words on top of the 30. That makes a total of 50,000 words! Impressive? Maybe.
I'm not done with the book. The 20,000 words are me rewriting the first 30,000 words from 3rd person to 1st person, adding in scenes that I didn't think about adding in when I wrote in November. In some ways, I feel like I'm moving backwards. But as I rewrite and continue to build up my characters (through interviews and pen pal letters, etc.) I remember what I teach.
I hope it doesn't take that long for my characters and story to take shape, but it might. And that's okay. I think about the many people who probably influenced the creation of the beloved m&m characters. It took a lot of work, draft after draft... revision after revision...
If I were to pin my current story to an m&m year, it would probably be 1957. I started it when I was in high school. Not in 1954 (I wasn't born yet). Probably closer to 1999 or 2000. But that was my earliest version of the story. As I picked it back up this last November, I changed a number of details. It's still "black and white," though. I still have a lot of work to do.
And that's okay. With every draft, I get closer and closer to something better, something worthy of possible publication.
I once asked a good author friend of mine about his process for writing books. He told me, "First, I make a list of ALL the characters that will play a role in my story. Then, I sketch them..."
He's a graphic novelist, so I think he literally sketches them out, but you don't have to be a good drawer, which is good news for me because I'm a terrible artist, to sketch a character. When we talk about "sketching" characters, we're talking about creating characters--- the physical traits as well as the internal traits.
Oftentimes, I don't know who's in the story until I start writing. With one NanoWriMo experience (November 2016) under my belt (30,000 words!) and currently in the midst of the beginnings of my first CampNaNoWriMo, I've learned a couple tricks for building better characters. I used to think writing out what I already know about my character is a waste of time, but I've learned that it really isn't.
Googling pictures help! Say I need a teacher, and I'm not sure what the teacher will be like, I'll google "teacher" images and see what pops up. Then, I'll describe the picture, and from the picture I can come up with personality traits as well. Even if I know my character, having a picture makes it more "real" for me, so I've been trying to add pictures for all my characters, even the minor ones.
In a previous blog, I talked about writing pen pal letters to and from my characters. I find that's a great way to get to know a character. But for my major key players, I like to sit down and interview them. And, it's more than just asking, "what's your favorite color?" or "who's your best friend?" Really dig into their character.
I picked up this template sometime last year... somewhere. I really like it! You are welcome to use it, and always feel free to ask follow up questions, etc. Enjoy, and happy character sketching! Remember--- the more you know your character, the more they can tell you their stories!
In what situation is your self esteem most at risk?
What are you keeping a secret?
What are you lying to yourself about? To others?
Is there anyone in your life that you are attracted to?
How do you decide if you can trust someone?
How do you know you love someone and/or when someone loves you?
When you walk into a room what do you notice first? Second?
How would you change the world? The things around you? The people around you?
How do you learn best?
What are your goals in life?
What unusual hobbies or interests do you have?
What are you most afraid of?
If you had one wish, what would it be?
What do you like best about yourself?
What do you like least about yourself?
What do you think other people think of you?
What’s your greatest source of frustration?
What’s your greatest source of joy?
What are you especially proud of in your life?
If you could change anything about your life what would it be?
"There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down... and bleed."
"Mongkonk Street, Hong Kong"