Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Dangers of Sticking Your Neck Out: Reluctant Heroes

The DIYMFA book club question #8 asks about what kinds of stories you're drawn to. What kind of conflict or power play is at work in your current work-in-progress? Do you see certain types of narratives come up again and again in your writing?

Earlier in my writing life, I might have denied that I tended to dwell on any particular types of stories or themes, but I've come to realize that coming back to a certain kind of narrative doesn't mean that I'm a poor or unimaginative writer, but rather that I am not done processing that yet.

Christopher Booker, author of The Seven Basic Plots, lists them thusly:
  • “overcoming the monster” plot (Beowulf, War of the Worlds)
  • “rags to riches” (Cinderella, Jane Eyre)
  • “the quest” (Illiad, The Lord of the Rings
  • “voyage and return” (Odyssey, Alice in Wonderland)
  • “rebirth” (Sleeping Beauty, A Christmas Carol)
  • “comedy” (ends in marriage)
  • “tragedy” (ends in death)
Those aren't a bad place to start, though I might name some of them differently and love stories that combine two or three of these. But choosing a favorite, hmmmm… 

One of my favorite types of characters, both to read and to write, is the reluctant hero, especially if they are a battle-weary sort, determined not to care this time because it's just a recipe for pain. Characters like Logan aka Wolverine or Rick of Casablanca

She's harder to find in female characters. We've got some badass women out there, but they are usually either angry and vengeful or long-suffering and stubborn. 

Of the seven plots above, I think my reluctant hero stories tend to fall into rebirth in that our hero is made to care again (which might involve a quest, or a rags-to-riches change of circumstances, or a a voyage, or overcoming a monster--internal or external).  

My own reluctant hero is Patricia O'Neill of the Menopausal Superhero series. When she first got her powers, she said, "I’m not Peter Parker. I don’t buy the whole ‘great power comes with great responsibility’ racket. I didn’t ask for this, and I don’t owe anyone anything.”

But who was the first of my heroes to actually save someone? You guessed it.

So, what does it mean that I'm drawn to these reluctant hero types? Maybe I am one myself, or maybe I'm the BFF who inspires others to greatness (not a bad thing, given that my day job is teaching). Maybe sometimes, when the going gets rough, I also want to just withdraw and let the world blow itself up without me, but I still care too much to actually walk away. Obviously, my subconscious hasn't worked this one out yet, so I guess I'll be writing a few more reluctant heroes before I'm done. 

Luckily, that's a lot of fun!

Monday, January 22, 2018

Why I Love the BFF

The DIYMFA book club question #7 asks about favorite supporting character archetypes: villain, love interest, BFF, mentor, and fool.

I can think of supporting characters that have won me in every one of these categories, but my favorite?

I think it's the BFF, although I'm not sure I'd name them that. She enters the story as support for the Main Character: a friend, a colleague, something like that. She doesn't seem like she'll be all that important, but it turns out that she has hidden skills and depths, that she understands what the Main Character needs even better than the lead understands herself. She might be dismissed as merely the sidekick, but, often, she is more a hero than the hero.

Where would Frodo Baggins have ended up without Samwise Gamgee? Buffy Summers without Willow Rosenberg? Mary Tyler Moore without Rhoda?

When it's done well, these characters surprise you, without coming out of left field. The writer has laid the groundwork, given the relationship time to build, dropped hints about the skill and insight of the sidekick. And then: POW! Right in the feels!

My own character of this sort is Suzie Grayson. She enters my Menopausal Superhero series as an intern to Patricia O'Neill. You know? The Lizard Woman of Springfield?

Patricia O'Neill as drawn by Charles C. Dowd
Patricia doesn't need anyone. At least that's what she likes to think. So, it's a real surprise to her when this young woman she described as a "twerp" and "little twit" becomes her greatest ally. Hopefully, my readers will get #allthefeels when the big moment comes, just as I did writing it.

(BTW: Suzie has a *great* side-story (if I do say so myself) in this anthology: "Underestimated")

Sunday, January 21, 2018

When Resistance Isn't All Good

I'm a stubborn gal. Ask anyone who knows me. So, I resist a lot of things; especially anything that comes with a hard sell. Sometimes that's good. Skepticism and further research has saved me from some very stupid mistakes. Sometimes that's bad, and I take a long time to admit a piece of advice or criticism was spot on and should be followed.

The DIYMFA book club question #6 asks about the role of resistance in our writing lives.

In my writing life, this has perhaps been a snobbery problem. That whole "literary" writing thing.

My first medium for writing was poetry (starting at about age 6), but I also loved to read comic books. I loved to read trashy fun as a teenager (VC Andrews, anyone?), but also read a lot of classic literature (Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, To Kill a Mockingbird). I imagined supporting my family from my stories someday like Jo March of Little Women, but ignored the fact that she did so writing low-brow, fun adventures stories.

So, I had this divide in my soul when it came to reading and writing. Part of me thought that I had to be "literary" to be respectable, that the stuff I did for fun couldn't also be art. I don't remember anyone telling me that, but it was there in my mind all the same making the walls of the box I tried to write within.

This was maybe made worse by taking creative writing classes as part of my bachelor's degree. At my state college in Kentucky, I studied poetry and short story writing with some fantastic teachers, and I really believe that their advice improved my craft…but the assumption was that I would be writing *serious* *deep* *thought-provoking* stuff that feels at home in the Ivory Tower instead of *fun* *dramatic* *exploratory* stuff you might more likely find in the Dark Tower.

So, I spent a lot of years resisting some of the call of my own heart because I thought that wasn't what a "real writer" would do.

Luckily, I fell in with a broad minded crowd in my late thirties. Some of the people in my critique group were NOT writing literary fiction, and they were having SO MUCH FUN! And, when we discussed their work, we were still serious about it. There was still a lot of discussion of craft and the beauty of a line, and building to an important moment: all those things I considered "literary."

I suffered through the crafting of my first novel (it's a women's issues kind of novel, that I may or may not ever revisit to make it publishable) and I learned a lot by writing it, but it wasn't fun. I promised myself, as a reward for finishing it, that I would be allowed to write something fun.

I took this little thought I had about what might happen is the people who got superpowers weren't unattached children with no responsibilities but women around my own age with families, careers, and responsibilities. And it became Going Through the Change, the first in the Menopausal Superhero series, which now includes 3 novels, a set of short stories, and several short stories included in other anthologies.

And you know what? I still feel literary. I still get a rush from creating a beautiful, moving experience for a reader. Even though my women are flying and wielding fire and other unrealistic things, they are also going through experiences that are universal like aging, managing careers, dealing with conflicts in families and marriages, and making friends. It's all there. It's still art.

And I wonder why I resisted so long.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

YMMV: Writing Advice

Creative process is as individual as fingerprints. Even people who use the same tool or structure don't do it the same way, not exactly. The DIYMFA book club question #5 is about best practices that didn't work for you. 

As I've learned how my own process worked, I've tried a lot of different things. Some worked for me, some didn't. 

Discipline: Most of the writing pundits out there seem to agree that you have to have discipline to be a successful writer. To some extent, I agree. For the first 30 or so years that I wrote, I was a hobbyist who wrote when inspiration struck only. So, I finished very little in all that time. Some poems, some essays, but none of my larger projects ever came to fruition. I'd lose interest before I got to the end. 

So, I tried on a variety of advice:
  • Write first thing while your brain is fresh
  • Write at the same time every day
  • Write in the same setting every day
  • Keep your butt in the chair until you've written X number of words
Mostly, I found that this advice didn't fit in with the rest of my life. I suck in the morning, especially the very early morning which is when I would have to get up if I were the write "first" before getting ready for school (teaching, my day job, starts hella-stupid early). If I wanted to have friends and family, I had to be well rested. 

Trying to write at the same time in the same setting every day is supposed to have a kind of Pavlovian effect, making words come to you because you've trained yourself to expect them at that time and in that setting. Didn't work for me at all. I've actually found that, if I'm stuck, a change (of setting or time or tools used) can get me unstuck faster than anything). Plus, if I wanted friends or family, I couldn't keep refusing every invitation that conflicted with my scheduled writing time. 

And that "butt in chair" one. Dang it. I hate that as much as the "just stay in bed when you can't sleep" one. It works much better for me to get up and be active, letting my subconscious puzzle things over without me for a bit. A load of laundry or a walk with the dog and the blood would flow to my brain and let me get some words down, without the frustration of torturing myself for hours first. 

Now, that's not to say that I didn't develop any discipline. Something that DID work for me was committing to writing every day a minimum of 250 words. I've written about that more extensively here. 250 words isn't a lot, but it does add up to a novel's worth of words over about a year if you do it every day. And even when I'm sick, exhausted, or not in the mood, I can struggle out that much. 

Process: Everyone has ideas about how you should get your words down on the page and what you should do with them afterwards. They have recommendations about when to let other people see it, when to let yourself go back and make changes, etc. Mostly, the advice is good hearted, hoping to help you get to "the end" and not get hung up on perfecting the first three chapters (or first six lines, or first sketch) for the rest of your life. But, people do get awfully dogmatic about this part. 

Stuff I've been told and tried:
  • It doesn't matter how crappy your first draft is. Write a vomit draft and trust to the revision process to fix it. 
  • You have to learn to outline. You wouldn't leave on a trip without writing a map first, would you?
  • Never go backwards until you've gotten all the way to the end. 
  • Don't let anyone read your work until it's done, it'll poison your vision.
None of that works for me at all. I write chapter by chapter, and I begin each day's writing session by reviewing what I wrote the day before and revising it. Sometimes that's MAJOR, like scrap it and begin again. Sometimes, it's line by line tweaking. Sometimes, writing means that I get an inspiration that changes something in an earlier chapter. I go back right then and add notes and sometimes even fully make the revisions. 

I'm not an outliner, at least not usually. I am becoming a bit of a plantser (half pantser, half plotter) in that I sit down with a little spark of an idea and follow it as far as it will go, then sort of work out notes for what can happen in the next part. I guess, it's a piecemeal sort of outlining that has me stopping to sketch out the book a few chapters at a time. I usually don't know how my book will end until I've gotten more than halfway there. 

I have a critique group that sees my work every six weeks in a variety of stages of completion. I've been with them for nine years. I've taken them "finished" drafts to help polish, but I've also taken them messy first drafts so we could hash out together how the story might move forward. Their feedback is invaluable to me, and save me a lot of floundering around as they are often better at pinpointing what kind of problem is holding back my story than I am because they are a step less invested and more objective, and they have a lot of experience trying to do this, too. 

So, I've got a process and it works for me. Will it work for you? Hell if I know. But, if you don't have a process that works for you, you can do worse than trying on structures and tools that work for other people. Even now that I've written six novels and seen three of them through to publication, I'm leaving room for growth, for figuring something out that will streamline or improve my process and product. It's a lifelong learning process and that's part of what makes it awesome. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Rocket Fuel for a Writing Life

I'm still enjoying the prompts from the DIYMFA book club. They've got a very active group over on Facebook, too. If you're interested in exploring these themes about your own writing, I highly recommend giving them a look!

Today's question is: What feeds YOUR creativity?

Knowing what fuels your creativity is SO IMPORTANT if you're going to make a go of your creative endeavor of choice. All of us have certain supports that have to be in place or it's a no-go.

I considered just saying "caffeine" because tea and coffee definitely have a starring role in my writing life, but I decide to explore the topic a little more deeply than that.

For me, it comes down to two basic things:

Taking care of myself AND seeking interesting input.

Taking care of myself may seem pretty basic, but it's something I have to consciously remind myself to do at times. I can't think well if I am exhausted, hungry, or headachy and thinking is kind of necessary to the writing process.

I do my writing at night most of the time, after a full teaching day and seeing my family through meals, homework, and whatever else life throws at us. It's easy to accidentally stay up very late that way. But nobody likes underslept Samantha! She's a Crankasaurus Rex.

Taking care of myself sometimes means keeping myself on a time leash and protecting me from me. Even if I'm in the groove, I have hard stop times each night.

Since I also write everyday, come hell or high water, it evens out. And it can be a great feeling to sit back down the next day raring to go because I had to stop before I really wanted to the night before.  (YMMV: After years of teaching and mom-ing, I'm used to working while being constantly interrupted; I'm good at putting a pin in it and leaving good notes that help me find my place again quickly).

It also means saying no to things, which I am not good at, but see the necessity of. I have to protect my writing time by NOT attending every reading, books club, and workshop in the Triangle. And there are *a lot* of great writing related events in my corner of North Carolina, so that can be hard to balance.

The other side of that balance is the "interesting input" part of things. I need exposure to new things. Novelty keeps me interested.  Learning excites me.

So, sometimes, I say YES, too.  I go to the piano recital or middle school production. I watch the movie everyone is talking about. I read the book. I take the class; I try the new hobby.

I go out and talk to people (good conversation with interesting people is rocket fuel for my writing).

It's not just that it's a break (though it is that, too). But having disparate ideas bounce around in my noggin causes connections and inspirations that wouldn't happen otherwise. Some of my favorite ideas starting with a simple daydreaming, "What if?"

So, there's my secret formula for writing fuel: self care and interesting input.

The nice thing is that it doesn't have to be expensive. Just people watching at the park can be enough to get my storytelling brain spinning (I LOVE writing backstories for strangers). The key is keeping tabs on myself and noticing burnout or loss of interest and actively seeking the spark that keeps imagination ignited and curiosity's head on a swivel.

How about you? What fuels your creativity?

Sunday, January 14, 2018

I'm not Gloria Gaynor, but I will survive

Today, in the DIYMFA book club, we're talking about our storytelling superpowers. There's a fun little quiz to get you started. I'm a sucker for these online quizzes that claim to analyze something about me based on what pictures I select and that sort of thing. They're fun for me, in the same that horoscopes are fun. I take them with a giant grain of salt, but love it when the results seem accurate, and sometimes even when they don't.

This one is designed to tell me what kind of characters I tend to write, and there's a bit of truth in the results.

My critique group friends phrase it differently, saying that I've got "a thing for stubborn women," but really it's the same thing, isn't it? We call it determination if we like what you're being stubborn about, don't we? 

My published works definitely feature a lot of survivors. The Menopausal Superhero series has been described as half women's fiction and half bam-pow action, and that seems accurate to me. The genesis of the series lies in considering what might happen if the people who gain super-heroic powers were not unattached teenagers, but women with careers, families, and established lives. All of those heroines are survivors of something (cancer, bad marriage, the corporate ladder, parenting, etc.), and show their persistence and strength in fighting through the new obstacles life has thrown at them in dealing with the disruption to their lives caused by these changes. 

I see the same characteristic pluck in some of the characters in my not-yet-ready for publication works, too. Lena and Freda, the sisters in my unfinished historical fiction trilogy, starting with Cold Spring; Rat Jones, the angry young woman in my middle grades novel awaiting a final pass (Rat Jones and the Lacrosse Zombies); and Sherry, the protagonist of my first-ever novel, fighting a battle against her own mind (His Other Mother).  

My current WIP, Thursday's Children, is dystopian-young adult-romance, and Kye'luh Wade is another survivor, determined to keep her cousins out of the hands of the Ethical Behavior Committee by force of sheer will. 

It's interesting that such a diverse cast of imaginary friends as populate my works have a commonality. Perhaps my grandmother was right when she said that I "another stubborn woman in a long line of them." 

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Being Reasonable with Myself

It's not too late to join the fun at the DIYMFA book club. I'm enjoying the community so far, and the prompts are fun to explore. Today's prompt asks about a time when I had to honor my reality. 

Generally, I'm more of an Adam Savage frame of mind when it comes to reality: 

I want everything: to be a great mother and wife, teach brilliant lessons, cook magnificent meals, exercise enough, write all the words, travel to all the places, see all the shows, volunteer all the places, and still find time to read, eat, and maybe watch some movies.

You should see it when I'm sick. It's terrible. I'm the worst patient. I get so angry about being slowed down for recovery!

But sometimes, I have to admit that it's not actually possible to do it all. I do, after all, still require sleep, despite the amount of caffeine I consume.

My husband is my best reality-checker in this regard. He spots it when I've really overbooked myself and am going to drive myself crazy, and expresses his concern somewhere between "gently" and a "come to Jesus talk" depending on the severity of the situation. We have some very direct talks about choosing priorities and letting some things go, but not the ones that will really give me regrets.

When I committed to writing every day and really giving this whole "writing thing" my best effort, he helped me plot out the parameters for what that could mean in our family, without bankrupting us or alienating all my loved ones. He's really got my back in the best possible way in all this. It's hard for me to say no to an opportunity that appeals to me, even when it's not practical to participate.

An example of this is the Son of a Pitch contest. It's a pitch contest organized by a writing friend. I've been a hosting blogger and second round feedback provider and judge for a couple of years. It's a great contest, with a really positive and supportive vibe and I LOVE being a part of it. But it's held in September and February.

Did I mention that I'm a middle school teacher by day?

So, yeah. September and February are the starts of semesters. Not the best timing to take on something so all-absorbing for an entire week. Especially since I also insist on working on my own WIP daily at the same time--that one is a deal-breaker for me, the one promise I've made to myself that I DO NOT break.

In September, when I last did Son of a Pitch, I really struggled to find the hours needed to do it right. So, to honor my reality this year, when I was invited to judge again, I said that February is really not good for me.

When you're still building a writing career, it's hard to give up an opportunity, hard to trust that there will be others. But it's all about balance and a girl can't live on literary fumes alone.

I'm still learning to be reasonable with what I expect from myself, setting the bar high enough to push me without breaking me. I suspect it'll be a lesson I learn and relearn all the days of my life.

Monday, January 8, 2018

How Did You Become a Writer?

As I continue to find and refine my writer's path, I've decided to try out the DIY MFA Book Club, seeking out new inspiration and new friends and colleagues. The first prompt asks: How did you become a writer?

Or, as I prefer to think of it, whose fault is this? 

It might be my mother's fault. After all, she was the one who introduced me to books and stories, who took me to the library once a week and read me my favorite books over and over again, until I knew them by heart. Her love of reading was contagious. 

Then again it might be Mrs. Alsdorf's fault. She was my first grade teacher. As a handwriting exercise, she had all us six year olds copy out classic poems by Wordsworth, Frost, Dickinson, Shakespeare, etc. I loved the words, fell dreamily into the sounds and images and illustrated the margins with elaborate drawings. Kneeling down to admire my work (it wasn't far for her: she was only five foot tall), she whispered into my ear, "You know, if you want to, you could write your own poems." 

Then again, it might be Emily Dickinson's fault. She wrote such wonderful quirky poems that seemed to speak my very heart back to me, and made me write to write my own to answer her. 

Or it could have been Jo March, or her creator Louisa May Alcott, portraying writing as something a smart bookish girl could do for adventure.

But really? 

Writing was something in the heart of me from the very beginning. I was lucky in that I figured out what scratched that itch early on. When I need to write, it's very much like an itch. It's a discomfort, a restlessness, a twitch that leaves my brain aflame until I can quench the fire with the balm of story. 

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

IWSG: Scheduling Creativity

It's the first Wednesday! Which means IWSG Day. Today's question: What steps have you taken to put a schedule in place for your writing and publishing?

After you see what I have to say, be sure to check out other posts and our lovely and generous co-hosts:  Tyrean Martinson, The Cynical Sailor, Megan Morgan,Rachna Chhabria, and Jennifer Lane.

I used to write whenever inspiration struck. That meant I'd write a lot…sometimes. 

But then it might be months before I'd write again. I'd fall in love with a project, but lose interest before I ever finished anything. I'd lose the flow because I didn't get back to a project soon enough. 

It was that way most of my life. Until (trumpet flourish please): 

Four years ago, I committed to a daily writing habit.

I decided I would write 250 words every day come hell or high water. And at first it was ridiculously difficult. Despite great support from my family giving me time and space of an evening, it would sometimes take me two or three hours to hit that minimum. But I made myself. Even when it wasn't easy, even when I had a headache or really just wanted to go to bed. I wasn't going to let it go this time. 

And it got better over time. I got faster. It got easier. 

Now I've written daily for more than four years in a row. Some days it's only 250 words, but that's not because I struggle to *write* the words, more that some of my days demand so much of me that I can only get a half hour or so and I accept a minimal writing day to save my sanity. My school night goal these days is 800 words. On a day off, I shoot for 2000 words. But it still counts as a writing day so long as I hit at least 250. 

I want to be faster yet. I have so many stories in my brain that want telling. 

Once I got my flow going, I've been trying to get one book out a year. That pace might be a little too relentless for this phase of life, which my mother calls The Busy Years, so I slowed down a bit in 2017. Here at year end, I don't have a book ready yet for 2018, but I still might before the new year is out :-)

In 2018, I'm planning to up the ante. I have to write 250 words of fiction for it to count. I'll still keep up my blog posts and articles and such, but the day doesn't count as a writing day unless it includes at least 250 words of fiction.

I know how my brain works and I have to keep a bit of pressure on to get results. Comfort is complacency all too easily.

This isn't the right strategy for everyone, but it really works for me. Looking forward to hearing what works for you. I *love* stealing good ideas to hack my writing life. 

If you're not already following #IWSG (Insecure Writer's Support Group), you should really check it out. The monthly blog hop is a panoply of insight into the writing life at all stages of hobby and career. Search the hashtag in your favorite social media venue and you'll find something interesting on the first Wednesday of every month.