Story Masters: May 11-14, 2017

This lovely workshop came to my attention last year through Jenny Madore, a writer friend. It was put together by Lorin Oberweger and Free Expressions. Jenny sent me a notice last spring, yes, that was waaaay back in March of 2016, with the notification and a special early-bird discount.

The notification? Christopher Vogler, James Scott Bell, and Donald Maass would be coming to Toronto to present their Story Masters workshop. Needless to say, I registered on the spot.

Fast forward to May 10, 2017, and I was on my way to the Crowne Plaza Airport and excited to learn from these three masters of story.

Day one: Christopher Vogler

ChristopherVoglerI’ve read The Writer’s Journey (and Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, Murdock’s The Heroine’s Journey and The Hero’s Daughter, as well as watching Campbell’s series with Bill Moyer, The Power of Myth), and I was looking forward to meeting Christopher Vogler in person.

One thing I’d forgotten, having read his book years ago, was that Vogler is a screenwriter. He’s been working with the hero’s journey for forty years, since his film school days.

Highlights of the presentation:

  • A knowledge of structure will help you see the bones of a story.
  • The map is not the journey.
  • Get all five senses on the page – Ray Bradbury.
  • They won’t remember your words but they’ll remember how you made them feel – Maya Angelou.
  • Economy of language.
  • Make invisible things visible.
  • Use dissonance.
  • Theme – boil it down to one word.
  • The chakra system can be used to orient where your story comes from. There’s a parallel between the chakras and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
  • Vogler’s rule – the story’s good if two or more organs are leaking fluids. Visceral, but accurate (blood, sweat, tears, vomit, pee—from fear or laughter, and, erm, sexual fluids—it’s true; a well-written sex scene gets the juices flowing, doesn’t it?).
  • A story should be focused, “in alignment with the grid,” a term from dance.
  • How your protagonist/main character enters the story is critical. Classically, protagonist means the first person to struggle. Now, that’s your hero or main character.
  • A story should evoke catharsis. The classical definition of catharsis was vomiting. Now it’s an emotional cleansing.
  • How stories work: want vs. need. Want is generally external or physical. Need is internal or emotional. There are two story questions, one inner and one outer. It creates suspense. There’s always a price.
  • Every world/milieu is polarized. The hero brings synthesis.

Vogler also showed us a number of movie clips to illustrate the 12 stages of the hero’s journey, discussed the two founders of screenwriting, Aristotle and Syd Field, three-act structure and how the hero’s journey works with it, storytelling aesthetics, and his own meeting with Campbell.

Day two: James Scott Bell

I’ve read some of Bell’s writing craft books and followed his collective/blog – Kill Zone. Again, I was looking forward to meeting JamesScottBellsomeone I’d only ever known as a virtual presence.

  • A writer needs to have an edge. What is it? Unforgettable writing. Seductive believability.
  • Write from the middle. The mirror moment. What’s happening to the character at that moment is what the story’s about.
  • The mirror moment can focus on one of two things: 1) Who am I? What have I become? What will I become? [emotional/spiritual struggle] Or, 2) I’m going to die. [Physical] The death can be metaphorical. Both result in the transformation of your character.
  • Once you know what your story’s about, you have your focus, your theme.
  • Pre-story psychology. Does your character have a moral flaw to overcome? Do they change or get their comeuppance? Is your character ordinary? What circumstances force the character to change?
  • Short fiction is about a shattering moment rather than a mirror moment.
  • Bell’s golden triangle: pre-story psychology leads to the mirror moment, which leads to the transformation. It can be applied in an individual novel, or over the course of the series, or both.
  • The shadow story – what’s happening elsewhere?
  • Keep a story journal to keep track.
  • Great characters jump off the page. They’re unpredictable, burning, wounded, complex, resourceful, courageous, noble.
  • Bell’s corollary to Vogler’s rule: you must have a fluid fight inside your character.
  • Ways to develop character: 1) The closet search – what’s the skeleton? 2) Throwing the chair (out the window) – why do they do it? 3) Best day/worst day. 4) What tattoo do they have, where, and why? Or, why would they never get a tattoo? 5) what would they do or think about in jail?
  • Opposition character: you must know what they yearn for, why they deserve it, and then make your closing argument (convince the reader).
  • Cut the boring parts, or, make them interesting.
  • Fear is a continuum. It raises the stakes. Fear of the known. Fear of the unknown.
  • Scene structure: every scene must have an objective, obstacles, and an outcome [yes, but/no, and].
  • SUES = something unexpected in every scene.
  • Every scene has a reaction: time for thought, perception, emotion, backflash (short remembrance), or flashback (full scene – use sparingly).
  • Dialogue: every character has an agenda. If those agendas are conflicting, even better. Dialogue creates conflict/tension, subtext, sets the tone for the scene, and sets the tone for the characters. Specific concerns: vocabulary, expressions, syntax. They should vary between characters. Dialogue should be unpredictable and compressed. Dialogue should reveal character webs, backstory, and theme.
  • Tools: Orchestration, transactional analysis (Google it), curve the language.

Bell, also from a screenwriting background, showed us clips from Casablanca and Now, Voyager and cited a number of novels (ranging from Gone with the Wind to The Hunger Games) to illustrate his points, linked to Vogler’s hero’s journey, and set us up for Donald Maass’s presentation on the next day.

Day three: Donald Maass

DonaldMaassI think Donald Maass was the story master I was most excited to meet. I’ve bought and read all of his books (except The Emotional Craft of Fiction, which I bought at the event), and I’ve read and shared all of his Writer Unboxed contributions.

I’m such a fan that when I met him in the elevator, I blurted out, “I’m here to see you!” like a total fangirl.

He paused. “Do I know you? You look familiar …”

“We’ve never met in person, but you may have seen me online—the white hair’s distinctive. I share all of your posts. I’m a big fan.” And then, mercifully, we reached the lobby and debarked. I was completely mortified, certain Maass thought I was a stalker.

It reminded me of a recent post by my friend, Kim, who said she becomes so distracted in the presence of a writer that she says the most inappropriate things. Happens to me all the time.

For those of you who haven’t been to a Donald Maass presentation, it’s a bit different from what you might expect. He presents a topic, speaks briefly, and then, he begins to ask questions. The questions are intended to guide you into the heart of your characters, your scenes, your story.

It’s very meditative, very zen. And totally effective.

Unfortunately, after a few hours, the brain stops working and you just write down the questions for future review and examination. At least, that’s what happened to my brain.

I just wanted to give you a flavour of Maass’s style.

Openings

  • Too many novel openings are written objectively despite the prevalence of first and close third person narration.
  • Where does the story truly begin?
  • Story does not equal plot.
  • What’s different and how does your protagonist know things will never be the same? What symbolizes this? What do they do differently? What needs to be explained? What expertise does your protagonist have? What do they know that the reader needs to know? How does the trouble come? Why?

Voice

  • Writers adopt a voice that suits the genre, but not the story.
  • What happens? What’s unique to the setting? What anchors you? What wakes you up to your reality? What’s unique to the character? Name, role/occupation, what task/goal/purpose do they think they have? What’s on the “to do” list of your character?
  • [We then did an exercise in which we rewrote the beginning of our works in progress with three different voices: ironic, academic, and spiritual.]
  • The inner life of the character is the true story.
  • Plot does not equal story.

Emotion

  • You have to write with emotion about emotion in a way that deeply engages readers.
  • What makes you angry?
  • Your protagonist feels a new emotion. Pause. Slow things down. Go deeper. How does that change your protagonist? What will they never do again? What will they never feel again? What will they never feel the same way about again?
  • How do you create the sense of an evolving human being rather than someone to whom stuff happens?
  • Does your character have flaws?
  • My Writer Unboxed colleague Lisa Cron wrote a book called Story Genius that I highly recommend. She states every character has a misbelief that shapes their story. What is your character’s misbelief? Who will be hurt because of their misbelief? What does the character get wrong? What do they believe that will cost them dearly? Who will walk away from them because of the misbelief? What will they lose? What can they do that shows they’ve changed? Is it big? Symbolic? What’s the secret they’ve never told anyone? Is your protagonist concealing something from someone else?
  • What’s the character’s origin story?

Other facets of novel construction

  • Summary. Lorin Oberweger posted on Writer Unboxed about this. When should you use it?
  • Scene structure. Things have changed by the end of the scene. Subvert expectations. Show the inner shift in the novel. Scenes must change either the plot or the character.
  • Enhancing the story world. What’s the environment? What does your protagonist see that no one else sees? What does your antagonist see? Is there a class structure? How does that play out with your characters? What historical events have shaped the world? What are the political structures? What is just not done? Is there a code of honour? How do you make a deal? How do you pay respect?
  • Telling and showing. Both have value.

What do readers want?

  • They want an emotional experience. They want to engage with your protagonist. They want a satisfying payoff. They want aesthetic value. They want a challenge. They want to figure it out. They want a feeling of success.
  • Readers have their own journey.

Third level emotion

  • Pick a pivotal scene in your novel. What is the character feeling? What else are they feeling (cancel out any similar emotions)? And again, what else (that is like neither of the first two)?
  • Use the third emotion you identify to frame the character in the scene. It seems counterintuitive, but it’s very effective. Readers use cognitive evaluation.

Mythic roles (archetypes)

  • What fairy tale character is your protagonist most like? Shakespearean? Biblical? Greek or Roman mythos? Indigenous or other cultural figure? Urban legend?
  • What symbology have you built around your character?

The four things your story must do

  • The macro level: structure/plot/character arc.
  • Scene level: structure and goals.
  • Microtension: every page, every line. Court cognitive dissonance.
  • Subvert reader expectations.

The big event

  • Think of the event that changes everything for your protagonist and the story world. What causes people to think it’s never going to happen? Think of three reasons why. How do we know it will happen? Think of three reasons.
  • Take out foreshadowing. Include misdirection. Manipulate expectations.
  • Choose a secondary character who is good. Invent a way to create doubt. Cast suspicion.
  • Make the reader wait for the payoff. What are three reasons it might be the wrong thing for your protagonist to do? Build a case for doing something different.
  • Every story has a moral map. Point the reader down the path. What makes a reader care even when nothing is happening? Hope. What is good? What can be saved?

StoryMasters

Day four was an analysis of To Kill a Mockingbird in which all three story masters brought their individual strengths to bear.

My brain was mush by the end, but I brought a lot of awesome back with me and twice as many pages of notes as what I’ve shared with you here.

RobertJSawyerOther writerly goodness: I met Jenny Madore in person, saw writer friends Jeanette Winsor and Sue Reynolds, and hung out with Robert J. Sawyer for a bit. It was comforting to know that someone I consider a story master in his own right is still learning 🙂

I had a fabulous time and suggest you check out the Free Expressions web site if you’re interested in attending one of their workshops.

As always, my friends, be well, be kind, and stay strong. The world needs your stories.

Muse-inks

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The next chapter: April 2017 update

Greetings, writerly friends 🙂

Yes, it’s that time of the month again—no, not that time—it’s time for my next chapter update. Yay (flailing Kermit arms)!

Ok, maybe that’s a little too enthusiastic.

That’s what spring does to me, though.

Even though we haven’t had a particularly warm spring up here, the fact that there are more hours of sunlight each day really helps me find my energy.

And what do I do with that energy? I overcommit. That’s what I do.

What does that look like in 2017? Let’s see …

  • work full time;
  • write as much as I can, evenings and weekends;
  • produce the monthly Sudbury Writers’ Guild newsletter;
  • serve on the Canadian Authors Association Program Committee (and various sub-committees); and
  • sign up for Writing the Other with Nisi Shawl and K. Tempest Bradford (yay—it’s awesome, but I can’t keep up with the assignments and so feel crap about it).

Truly, though Writing the Other is one of the bit of writerly awesome to happen this past month. It continues through to the middle of May, so I’ll save the deets for a future weekend wrap-up post. Suffice it to say for now, though, that I would recommend the course to anyone.

A second is my continued semi-regular SF&F column with DIY MFA, Speculations. As I mentioned last week, I’ll be posting to share those columns on the blog. The next one should be coming up Tuesday, and it’s a dreamy one, so stay tuned 🙂

A third bit of awesome was that I participated in was the Sudbury Poetry Project. April was National Poetry Month, after all. When Kim Fahner, Sudbury’s Poet Laureate put out the call, I wrote a new poem and submitted it.

thiswintersky

“this winter sky” was inspired by what has been a particularly gloomy winter here in Northern Ontario. I believe that almost everyone who lives in the northern hemisphere experiences some degree of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and those of us predisposed to depression tend to feel the effects of SAD more than others.

More than, that, though, the poem is about the hope that blossoms when one recovers, or learns to live with, mental illness. This is why I was honoured to have the poem posted outside the Northern Initiative for Social Action (NISA) which is a safe place where survivors of mental illness and consumers of mental health services can gather, learn, and heal.

And now, onto the writing progress report 🙂

April was a decent month. I finished my latest revision of Initiate of Stone. Unfortunately, it only reduced the overall word count of the novel by a few thousand words 😦 I was, however, after a short respite, move on to Apprentice of Wind.

I also revised two short stories for submission to a contest and an open anthology call. We’ll let you know how that goes in the future.

All the new writing in April was once again on this blog.

AprilProgress

Here’s how the numbers break down:

  • 79,078 words revised on the Ascension series, or 113% of my 70k goal.
  • 4,105 words of short fiction revised, or 164% of my 2,500 goal (makes up for not revising any short fiction in the last two months).
  • 6,098 words written on the blog, or 92% of my 6,600 goal.

That’s a total of 83,183 words revised and 6,098 words written. That’s not counting my column for DIY MFA, which I really don’t have a place for on the tracking sheet.

What’s up next: I’m going to continue work on revising AoW, which I don’t anticipate will be finished until next month. Revision will yield (I hope) to writing with respect to short fiction. We’ll see how everyone likes the new plan for the blog.

Next week, I’m heading down to Story Masters in Toronto, with Donald Maass, James Scott Bell, and Christopher Vogler, but that, of course, means that there will be no post next weekend. I’ll have another wrap-up post to share on this lovely event later in the month.

And then we’ll see. This writer’s life is never boring, that’s for sure.

Until next I blog, be well, be kind, and stay stong, because this winter sky will always yield to the light.

The Next Chapter

The next chapter: December 2016 update and year in review

My goodness, here we are in 2017 (!) and now it’s time for me to take stock of my year. Did I accomplish what I hoped to at the beginning of the year?

We’ll get back to that in a few.

First, I have to sum up (‘cause there is too much—I live by PB references) December 2016.

I knew when I decided to tackle Wavedancer, the third book in my epic fantasy series, for NaNoWriMo 2016 that I wouldn’t even come close to finishing the draft (it is EPIC fantasy, after all) in November. I was, however, foolish enough to think, initially, at least, that I’d write another 50k words in December and finish the draft by the end of the year.

I should have known better.

This is the fourth year I’ve done NaNo, and my third win. Each year, I enter December in a fog, still half-living in the world of my novel. I work a day job. There’s no way I could keep up the NaNo pace for another whole month.

Accordingly, I adjusted my expectations to 500 words a day and, though there were two days I didn’t write at all and a few assorted low-count days in the mix, there were also five days in which I wrote over a thousand words, so it all came out in the wash.

decemberprogress

To be more specific, of the 15,500 word goal for the month, I wrote 18,859 words, exceeding my goal by 3,359 words 🙂

Blogging 5,610 words brought my writing total for the month to 21,600 words.

Not 50k, but not bad at all 🙂

Back to my year-end review.

2016 was the first year that Jamie Raintree incorporated separate columns and totals for revision in her Writing Tracker, now called the Writing & Revision Tracker.

Though I’ve looked back at 2015’s and 2014’s trackers, the totals were skewed because in 2014, I didn’t track my revisions, and in 2015, I was tracking my revisions at one counted word for every two words revised. So there’s no real point in trying to compare.

What I set out to do at the beginning of 2016 was to go through all of my written novels to date and start to revise.

I’m happy to say that I accomplished this goal, but things didn’t go quite as I’d hoped. They never do. Quite.

For most of the novels, it was more of a getting reacquainted with the stories and the characters. I didn’t do a lot of revising, but now that I have the lay of the land, so to speak, the next passes will all be more in-depth.

I already mentioned that, having revised my goals post-NaNo, I did write two thirds of Wavedancer. To be specific, I wrote 71,157 words between November and December, and I will continue in that vein until the draft is done in my estimation.

I continued to query Initiate of Stone, but finally got it through my thick skull that it’s not the best project to use when trying to get a deal. So I’m changing gears and going to prepare another project for querying this year. We’ll see how it goes.

How did all this shape up as far as numbers went?

yearend

Of my 138,100 word writing goal, between all projects, I wrote 169,288 words, or 123%. Considering all the revision I was doing, that’s a lovely total.

With respect to revision, I managed 359,114 words of my 375,000 goal, or about 96%.

Some things happened in the year that I didn’t plan on, however.

Though it didn’t happen until July, I wrote a new piece of short fiction. I hadn’t expected that with my focus on the novels. It was a good surprise 🙂

January through March, I participated in the first offering of the Story Genius course created by Jennie Nash and the story genius herself, Lisa Cron. It was something unexpected, but I couldn’t let the opportunity pass. I had to try to make space for the course in my overall plan for the year and ended up making some poor decisions that didn’t serve me well.

While my experience in the course wasn’t, overall, a positive one, I still love the Story Genius method (and book—go get it!) and I would recommend it highly to anyone who can devote 100% of their time to the work. You will reap the benefits.

I just learned, in the most ego-wrenching way possible, that I cannot learn on someone else’s schedule. Especially while I’m working full time. I also made the decision to use Apprentice of Wind, the second in my epic fantasy series, as the project for my work in the course. Story Genius, in the form I took it, was not intended for novels that are already drafted, or for books other than the first in a series. I understand that strategies and approaches for projects of this type have been developed since.

These issues were entirely of my own creation and should not cast any doubt on the excellence of the course, of Lisa or Jennie, or of their dedicated team of editors.

I signed up for K.M. Weiland’s Character Arcs course through the Digital Freedom Academy. It’s entirely self-paced and Kate has loaded her usual extras into the course materials. Her Creating Character Arcs book also came out in the fall, and I definitely recommend both. I am a fangirl, though.

In August, I signed up for another Nelson Literary Agency course on the first five pages. NLA courses are excellence sources of feedback from professional agents who know what makes a successful submission.

At the end of September, I enrolled in a Mary Robinette Kowal Short Fiction Intensive. Blew my mind.

Finally, as far as courses go, I signed up for a course by Kristen Lamb on writing query letters and synopses.

I also tried my hand at #PitchWars for the first time with Reality Bomb, and while I didn’t make the extremely competitive cut, I did have a positive experience thanks to the team who considered my proposal, Michael Mammay and Dan Koboldt. It’s quite an eye-opener, and I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to test the waters with one of their novels.

It was a lot of fun and another pleasant surprise.

As far as conferences and conventions, I attended Ad Astra, The Canadian Writers’ Summit, and my very first WorldCon last year.

I was also pleased to participate as a panellist at Wordstock Sudbury 2016.

And I had two stories published in the Sudbury Writers’ Guild anthology, Sudbury Ink, which launched in November.

Complicating all that, Phil had some significant health issues to deal with at the beginning of the year (now resolved), and, from August through to November, he renovated our living room after work and on the weekends.

We’re still waiting for the last pieces of furniture to be delivered, and he’ll be working on building wall-to-wall bookshelves, as the weather allows (he’s working in the unheated garage) throughout the winter. Pictures will be forthcoming in a future post.

Looking at all of that written out, I accomplished a helluva lot last year.

I think I’m going to have to ease back a bit in 2017, work smarter instead of harder.

Yeah, that’s the ticket.

What are my plans for 2017?

Well, you know I’m not one for resolutions. I have goals that I work steadily toward and amend as required.

First, I’ve nabbed my copy of Jamie Raintree’s 2017 Writing & Revision tracker. I’m setting up the projects in series this year, and will identify different novels in my Ascension series with different colours so I’ll be able to distinguish them and extract the numbers I need to feed my production geek.

I’ll continue to finish drafting Wavedancer, as I mentioned (way) above. At my current rate, I should be finished by the end of February.

Once drafting is done, I’m going to return to revising. I should be able to get through all of the novels in the course of the year. Again, as I mentioned above, I intend these revisions to be more in depth and to address some of the structural issues, as I see them, in the stories.

I’m going to be working with a coach to get Reality Bomb reworked. It’s something else I’m trying in my quest to improve my craft. My hope is that I’ll be able to query RB later this year.

With the short fiction surprise last year, I’ve actually had another idea I want to work on, and some other ideas for revising a couple of my other stories to improve them. Accordingly, I’ve made some room for these projects in my plan.

For NaNoWriMo, I’m going to tackle the fourth novel in the epic fantasy series, tentatively titled Playing with Fire.

I may also have a new, semi-regular writing gig to tell you about. I don’t want to let the cat out of the proverbial bag yet, but if it materializes, you can be sure I’ll let you know all the tasty deets I can 🙂

I’ve already signed up for the Story Masters Workshop in May. Donald Maass, James Scott Bell, and Christopher Vogler are coming to Toronto. This is a squee-worthy score, in my books. It was another opportunity I couldn’t let pass.

When I heard that the No Excuses cruise was going to be in Europe this year and timed to immediately precede WorldCon in Helsinki, I was seriously considering signing up. Unfortunately some non-writerly priorities make both the cruise and WorldCon impractical. Mellie haz a sad.

In fact, I may not attend any conferences or conventions at all this year. We’ll see how things shape up.

The reason for this dialling back is that Phil, who’s in his 50’s now, wants to proceed with renovations to the kitchen and bathroom this year. Though he will continue to do as much of the work himself as he can, these two projects will require a significant financial investment. And we haven’t paid off the living room renovation yet.

We also want to get another puppy. This will depend on whether my employer sorts out their payroll issues and I can apply for another self-funded leave. I will need the time to train our new dependent, furry quadruped. Again, deets will be forthcoming as I can share them.

On that front, if the payroll issues at work are sorted, I’ll finally see my acting pay from mid-February to the end of September last year, less about a thousand dollars outstanding from my last self-funded leave.

We’ve heard that union negotiations have resulted in an offer, the terms of which look reasonable. If we vote to ratify the new contract, it will mean about two and a half years of retro pay and a signing bonus, again, dependent on when the payroll issues can be sorted.

Our car loan should be paid off in late spring, as well, and so, between it all, we’ll have a little extra money to use to pay down our debts.

Phil got a promotion and raise last year from his employer, so we figure this will be the year to finish the renovations.

As you can see, this is going to be a different kind of year, but I’m hopeful that everything will work out.

Besides, come the end of February, it will be the Chinese Year of the Rooster (I’m a rooster!) and I think the powers that be might finally be aligning in my favour 😉

Here’s to a fabulous and productive 2017 for everyone.

Love and light and loads of good words to you all!

The Next Chapter

The next chapter: April 2016 update

April was a steady month of revision. I made it to the two thirds mark in Marushka by the time I left for Ad Astra.

Drafting with Scrivener, as I mentioned before, has resulted in more, but shorter, chapters. It’s meant a more casual pace.

Though I missed a few days of revision for the convention, I made up for it by doubling up for a few days upon my return. I should be on track to finish up with this first run through of Marushka by the Victoria Day long weekend (May 21-23).

Then, I’m moving on to the first run though on Reality Bomb 🙂

I’ll probably need a couple more passes for each work in progress before I’m ready to send them out for editing . . . And I have my eye on a couple of people for that. We’ll see how that progresses, but probably not until next year.

AprilProgress1

Total words revised for April: 37,478, just a hair under 100% of my goal

Total words written (for this blog): 10,498, 187% of my goal (!)

I sent out more queries, and received more thank you but no thank you rejections.

Work on the Sudbury Writers’ Guild anthology, which the guild wants to release in time for the next Wordstock Sudbury in the fall, progresses. We want to have the content and cover ready for June. I have two speculative short stories in the anthology (yay, me!).

There are some more opportunities coming up for short fiction, so I’ll try to get something together for those deadlines.

In June, I’ll be heading to the Canadian Writers’ Summit (June 17-19) and . . . my leave for WorldCon has been approved. W00t! So I’ll be heading down to Kansas City in August (17-21). That’s one of the things I have to do now: book my flight. And check with my buddy. She’s moved recently, so I want to make sure she’s still available for visitations. It will be my first WorldCon, so I’m very excited.

I got an early start on next year’s writing events by registering for Story Masters, May 11-14, 2017. Christopher Vogler (The Writer’s Journey), James Scott Bell (author of LOTS of writing craft books, member of The Kill Zone), and Donald Maass (agent to the literary stars, Writer Unboxed member, and author of numerous publishing and writing craft books). Four days of workshops. Yum!

And that’s all that’s new in this writer’s life.

See you Tipsday!

The Next Chapter

This is what we do: On gatekeepers, rejection, and resilience

Once again, a writer friend has inspired this week’s post. So indebted. Many thanks.

Gatekeepers

I’m using gatekeeper in the Campbellian/Hero’s Journey sense, here: the Threshold Guardian archetype. At the point where the hero/ine stands at the threshold, ready to cross and gain the object of her or his quest, someone or something pops up and prevents the hero/ine from passing.

These gatekeepers must be defeated or circumvented, removed or converted to allies.

Mel’s note: To find out more, please read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, Maureen Murdock’s The Heroine’s Journey, or all of them.

Every writer I know has at least one.

It might be a teacher who tried to shape either the young writer or her work in an inappropriate way. It might be the friend or friends who ridiculed the young writer out of jealousy. It might be the mentor who is not equipped to truly help the writer and rather than admitting his gap in knowledge or ability discourages the writer from pursuing his calling.

More insidious is the above mentioned variety of mentor who continues to encourage the writer, praises the writer’s work, but sympathetically explains that the writer’s work will never find a market. They do this as a kindness, to spare the hapless writer the agony of further rejection.

It could be an editor who likes nothing the writer submits for review. It could even be someone who sets herself up as an expert but only misguides the writer to justify the fee the writer has been charged.

This is not an exhaustive list. Explore your past and you will discover your gatekeepers.

If you’ve had to face them before you were truly prepared, you may have failed to pass the challenge and reach the threshold.

Don’t despair. You haven’t lost your chance. The door remains. The gatekeeper leaves. Another may take her place, but on the next attempt, armed with your experience, you have a better chance of succeeding.

I was turned away repeatedly as a young writer and because of my introverted nature, it took me a long time to understand the ultimate lesson of the gatekeeper.

Mel’s note: If you want to find out more about my struggles, you can read my posts under the category, My history as a so-called writer. If you go back to the earliest post, Three Blind Mice, and read forward, it will all make much more sense 😉

What is the ultimate lesson of the gatekeeper? I’m so glad you asked.

The gatekeeper only has the power we give to them. If you do as I did and internalize the lessons of the gatekeepers in your life, you become your own worst enemy, your own biggest, baddest gatekeeper.

Don’t let that happen.

Even if you retreat from the gatekeeper at the time of your confrontation, keep your eyes on your goal and the reasons it is important for you to achieve it. Yes, you’re allowed to hurt, to grieve, to lick your wounds if you need to, but don’t lose sight of your dream.

Find a true friend, you know, the kind of person who would tell you if you have spinach stuck between your teeth, or if the outfit you chose to wear was absolutely hideous? Find your person (and yes, that’s a Grey’s Anatomy reference). Tell them about your struggle and the reasons it hurts so much to have backed down.

Then, tell your person about your dream and the reasons why it’s so important to you.

Even if they just listen, you will feel so much better afterward, but you will have reminded yourself, in telling your true friend, exactly why you write in the first place and exactly why you can’t give up.

Then you pick up the pieces and try again. Because that’s what we do.

Rejection sucks

There’s no way around it. Rejection sucks.

Rejection, particularly when it arrives as a form letter, is just a specific example of a non-human form of gatekeeper. Yes, there’s a human on the other end of that letter, but you don’t know them, and they don’t know you (most of the time).

That rejection has kept you from being published or winning a contest.

And it hurts.

Another writer friend, Nina Munteanu, has just completed a two-part post on the subject of rejection. In part one, she discusses how to accept rejection, and in part two, she discusses how we can learn from rejection.

In fact, a lot of writers have posted about it. Just Google it. You’ll see. A number of them counsel the writer to develop thick skin.

I’d like to call shenanigans on that.

No offence.

Resilience, not rhino-hide

Suck it up, buttercup, they say. Really?

If it was that simple, we’d all just grow ourselves a fine second skin of rhino-hide and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune would mean nothing. Less.

Telling someone, anyone, to toughen up after suffering a loss (no matter how insignificant it might seem to others) is telling that person to shut down their feelings. That’s not a good thing. As writers, we kind of need those. Hell, as human beings we need our emotions.

We have to learn to acknowledge our feelings, to accept them, and process them. We can’t deny them. That way lies madness. Literally. It’s called depression. I know what I’m talking about here.

We have to figure out why it hurts, what’s at the root of the problem. Once we understand that, we can work, through reason and by respecting our emotional well-being, to heal the wound.

Rejection, as many writers have pointed out, isn’t personal. It’s a matter of subjectivity and timing.

Usually a rejection means not right for the publisher, for the project, for the theme of the anthology or issue, for the other stories that have already been accepted. And it means not right now. It doesn’t mean never.

Timing and subjectivity.

It’s not personal.

Why does it hurt then?

Because of how we react to it. Because of the insecurities and doubts we harbour about our ability, our craft.

The good news is this: we can control the way we react to rejection. Not right away, but with time and practice, by understanding and honouring our emotional response to rejection, it gets easier to process.

More good news: if the reason we get rejected is because our craft and skills are not at the level they need to be, we can control that too. We keep practicing, we keep learning, we keep moving forward.

That’s the real danger of rejection: that you let it stop you.

You have to continually connect with who you are as a writer and the reasons you write. You have to, at the core, be completely okay with not getting published. It’s kind of Zen. Let go of your desire.

Write because you’re a writer. Commit to being the best writer you can be. And yes, the work is hard, but you can do it if you’re a writer. You can’t not do it.

So the key is to develop, not rhino-hide, but resilience, the ability to bounce back. It’s something you can learn to do.

This might help. Or not.

This is going to sound like cheese. Like some really old, smelly cheese, like Limburger, or Roquefort.

Writing is like falling in love.

See, the biggest risk of falling in love is that you open yourself up and you become vulnerable. You risk getting hurt. But that’s the only way to love is with your whole heart plastered on your sleeve. It’s the only way love becomes anything lasting or good or true.

Writing’s like that.

Writing is that.

So just like you know that any relationship requires work, and sacrifice, and time, know that the thing you love to do requires the same.

You’ll get your heart broken, sure, but breaks heal.

The other great thing is that every great protagonist is wounded. Pour your learned experience into your writing. It will be amazing.

“The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” ~~Hemingway.

Weirdmaste (the weirdo in me recognizes the weirdo in you), writing geeks.

Now go hug your words. Get romantic with your words. Create beautiful bouncing baby words.

Because this is what we do.

Muse-inks

CanWrite! The Canadian Authors Association 2011 Conference

May 2-6, 2011.

Yes, I finally did it.  I managed to do something entirely nourishing to my writer’s soul.

I’d determined that I wanted to go to at least one conference week-long workshop last year and when the announcement went out in November 2010, I signed up right away.  Barbara Kyle, one of the workshop presenters, was also offering 20-page critiques for a nominal fee.  Again, I was in.

My next challenge was how to pay for the venture.  I applied for a Northern Arts Grant for professional development from the Ontario Arts Council, but was not accepted.  So, credit it was.  As far as conferences go, the CAA conference wasn’t expensive.  Even with my day job, I don’t make enough money to drop a thou and not feel it.  Still, it was time and long past that I made a substantial investment in my creative self.

Throughout February, March, and April the CAA conference organizers held little writing contests to get participants in the creative frame of mind.  I submitted to two of the three and though I didn’t even manage an honourable mention, they were interesting exercises and did serve to build a lovely feeling of anticipation.

I made my leave request at work as soon as I could, but operational requirements made it seems unlikely that it would be approved.  As the date of the conference approached, I began to worry that I’d have to withdraw.

Then my father passed away, April 9, 2011 and thoughts of the conference vanished.  For the week previous, Mom, a family friend, and I took turns watching vigil.  Dad had originally gone into the hospital March 18, 2010, and though he never recovered sufficiently to come home, his final illness and his ensuing struggle were completely unexpected.  Needless to say, Mom and I were devastated.

To paraphrase Forrest Gump: that’s all I have to say about that.

In the dizzying days following, my leave was miraculously approved.  Now the conference had a second purpose: I needed to get away and do something that did not involve Dad, his funeral arrangements, or my mom’s uncertain financial situation, all of which were consuming my life in large, ragged mouthfuls.

The drive to Grand Bend from Sudbury, though long, was relaxing.  There’s some beautiful country in Bruce and Gray counties, and now, there are lovely windmills and solar panels dotting the landscape.  I don’t understand the public resistance to wind and solar.  They’re some of the cleanest, greenest sources of energy around, and I didn’t find them ugly at all.  I rather thought them graceful, alien guardians, standing sentinel over the people and the land.  In any case, I arrived at the Pinedale Motor Inn in time for the evening meet and greet, and welcome barbeque.

I discovered that that year’s conference was a departure from previous years.  It was set up as a writers’ retreat with workshops and events, but with the afternoons off to enjoy the town and to write.  No maddened dash to attend competing workshops, this.  Never having attended any conference before, I didn’t have anything to compare it to, but it seemed like exactly what I needed.

I won a bottle of wine in a raffle.  We were off to a good start

The first workshop presenter was Sandy Plewis.  Her session was highly interactive with lots of writing exercises, but she depended heavily on secondary sources in her lectures.  She seemed pleasantly surprised at the willingness of the conference attendees to dig deep and write.  There was not a still pen in the house when it came time to complete an exercise.

Then came time for my critique with Barbara Kyle.

Globally, she was complementary.  My characters were interesting, their conflicts dynamic and immediate, but then, as the critique commenced, the shortcomings emerged: the pacing was too fast, my scenes lacked a sense of place, and I didn’t go deep enough into my characters’ hearts and minds.  And I was too subtle.  While I got a lot of good advice from Barbara, by the end of it, I was dizzy, hardly able to breathe.  I think it was a panic attack.  I wasn’t able to think about things clearly until much later in the day.

Barbara’s workshops, one based on The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, and the other on her own experiences as a first draft survivor, were illuminating.  Though not heavy on the writing, they were professional, and informative.  I had a revelation.

I’d read Vogler’s book, and its inspiration, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey.  The guardian at the gates has been a repeated part of my development as a writer, and my past experiences with those guardians informed my inner critic, the biggest, baddest guardian of them all.  That’s what happened in the critique session.  Though intellectually, I knew that Barbara was giving me exactly what I needed to head into the next revision of my novel, to make it stronger, and better, emotionally, every negative that emerged seemed a confirmation of my worthlessness.

So … I confessed.  Spastically and awkwardly–which is the only way I can confess the deeply embarrassing–I told everyone about my struggle.

That afternoon, Lightning Strikes, a series of mini-workshops, took place, and in the evening, at the Mock Awards Ceremony, I received the “Best Attempt to Make Us Cry” award.

Even the annual general meeting was interesting.  As a professional member, I had a vote.

Overall, the CAA conference was a very rewarding experience, and one I hope to repeat.

Conferences can be fertile experiences.  Have you made a breakthrough at one?  New friends?  Networked connections?

Babes in Toyland

As a kid in grade school, I filled Hilroy exercise books with stories.  I had a fascination with new notebooks.  My parents couldn’t keep up with my penchant for paper, so eventually I started pilfering them from school.

The contents of these stolen treasures consisted mostly of horror stories: “The Spooky Hallowe’en Scream Party.”  Yeah, I wasn’t much for the titles back then.

I had one story I called “The Phantom Menace.”  Still have the exercise book and I swear the title was original Mellie.  The story was about a creepy thing that followed a young girl to school, but she escaped before it could catch her.  Wasn’t much for the plotting then either 🙂

When my fourth grade class was looking for something to do for the annual Christmas pageant, I decided that I wanted to write a play.  Based on Disney’s “Babes in Toyland,” it wasn’t original, but it was mine.

The whole situation was a bit fraught.  First, I didn’t take well to my first experience of being edited.  It was never explained to me that anything would have to be changed, or why.  The altered product was simply presented to the class and that was my first look at what my teacher had done to my play.  Understandably, I was upset.  It didn’t matter if the play was improved, I was nine years old.

I’d still like to know why I wasn’t consulted.  A courteous “heads up” might have been nice.  Perhaps the idea of dealing with a nine-year-old writing diva-in-development wasn’t my teacher’s idea of a good time.

It was also decided that I would not be allowed to participate in the play, being the author and all.  It wouldn’t be fair to everyone else.  Still, I was proud of what I’d created, and I believe the play was a success.  After introducing the play, I stood around in the darkened gymnasium with nothing to do.  That kinda sucked.

Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell

Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell

I’m a fan of Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, and its antecedent, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s with a Thousand Faces.  As creative people, we experience the hero’s journey in our lives.  Interpreting it through Campbell’s lens has allowed me to come to terms with some of my negative experiences.

That grade four play was my first experience with the guardian at the gate.  I learned that editors are not to be trusted, and that if given the chance, they will take your work away from you in all the ways that matter.

I know that this is not true, but to this day I cringe at the thought of giving my work into the hands of others, and when I do, I resist seeing the sense in the recommendations of well-meaning colleagues and mentors.  But I deal, and I return to my work fuelled by the need to improve.

Have you had any formative writing experiences where a “guardian” figure put obstacles in your way?  Have you read Campbell or Vogler, or both?  Is there value in their work for you?