Tuesday, July 27, 2010


I had planned to write on the topic of world building this week, but then two things happened: 1) I read a great piece on Procrastination that resonated with me 2) I realized that many of you were off to the Romance Writer's of America Conference in Disney World this week and would not have time to read the blog. Therefore I decided to be a bit selfish and talk about what I want to talk about which is this great piece on procrastination.

I am reading, "The Feeling Good Handbook," by David D. Burns, M.D. I must admit my sad little secret, I love self help books. I read them to learn how others view the world. I look for character flaws to give my characters. I look for ways to improve my characters lives with a self-help growth arc. I find that self-help books, from the fabulous and well documented, to the mystical, are a great insight into the way humans-and therefore characters- think and act. Conflicts that are unique and feel true to life come out of the human experience. Self help books allow me to understand a multitude of points of view- and a million ways to grow and change those pov's.
But that's another subject. I'm procrastinating again and off topic, so lets come back to procrastination--a very common problem for writers of all ages. Chapter 9 in this book is dedicated to procrastination-it's causes and effects, and how to handle it.
On page 169, the author asks- "which comes first motivation or productive action?" We all think, motivation, right? Wrong. The most productive writers know not to wait for their muse. If they set a time, sit down at their computer, open a word file and begin, they know that sooner or later their muse will show up. The muse can't resist. They have to know what you are doing. They want to butt in with their fabulous thoughts. Sometimes I will write contrary things about my characters- I get about a half a page in and they show up complaining that they would never act that way. Then I have them and before I know it five or ten pages are written. Productive action is the best way to kill procrastination. The key is to start- start small, allow yourself to do it imperfectly- or do it imperfectly on purpose. Five pages edited out is still five pages more than not starting. Five pages more of practice. Five pages of working out a problem. In effect, Doctor Burns writes, "Action leads to motivation which leads to more action." Nike was right. Just do it.
On page 170 the Burns writes: "People who procrastinate often have an unrealistic view of how a productive person really functions." In other words, they think that, unlike them, things come easy for productive people and that "productive people don't have to endure frustration, self-doubt and failure." I hear this all the time. When I'm published things will be better. I will sell everything I write. I will sell my backlist. (People used to say that to me when I would say, I've written 15 manuscripts and am not published. Well, they would answer, once you are published you will sell you entire backlist. um, no.) Writers assume that if you are published-no, really published (whatever that means to them)-then being productive is easy. HA! Warning truth alert: if you are writing full manuscripts, revising, polishing, sending them out, and getting rejections you are living the published authors life. Minus the book on the shelf. :) But even then only one in four of the books I write make it to the shelf. I don't say this to discourage you. I say it to emphasize what the doctor says next: "Highly productive people are more likely to have a 'coping model.' They assume that life will be frustrating and that there will be numerous rejections and setbacks and even failures on the road to success. When they encounter these obstacles, they simply assume that things are as they should be and persist."
He goes on to name the other reasons to procrastinate: the fear of failure, the fear of success, lack of rewards (this is hard for writers who hit the, "I'm not publishing why keep going?" and "My numbers are small, I'm doing all this work and the guys at Mikey D's get paid more than I do," walls.) There is also the "shoulds"- I should write this because that's what's selling, I should write because my partner wants me to, etc. Here's a revelation:the more you tell yourself you should do something, the harder it is to do it. The only way to do something is because you want to- not because you should. Ex: I want to pay my bills because I don't want to pay late fees. I want to write a thriller because I like to write action.
Then there is procrastination as a passive aggressive act, you don't write because you are mad at your cp, your editor, your agent or your spouse. Unassertiveness-you can't say no and although you said yes to writing a blog or a short story for an anthology you really wanted to say no so you procrastinate. Also, coercion sensitivity where you procrastinate because you feel people are acting bossy and forcing you to do something you don't want. Which happens more than you know in writing-especially with the pressure from writing groups or partners. Finally procrastination can be caused by a simple lack of desire. You simply aren't interested. The answer there is to decide not to do it. If you decided not to do something then it's no longer procrastination but a decision. Writers need to give themselves permission to choose to write or not. Permission to take time off, to do something else, to explore other options. Many really good, really well known authors only write one or two books. If you are done, you are done. Life is too short to live in procrastination hell.
As the famous Yoda says, "Do or do not. There is no try." If a someone thinks less of you for making your life decisions then they are not really your friend, are they?
I hope these tips, which helped me, will help you. Next week Ill talk about world building... or not. :) Cheers~

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Hero's Emotional Journey

Some of you said that you didn't think the Hero's Journey helped with writing romance. The reason is that the romance genre is about emotion. The internal conflicts and changes are more important than what happens to the hero externally. I think that you can use the Hero's journey as a plot device for the emotional story. (If you are unfamiliar with the Hero's Journey please read last week's blog and check out the link's provided. I am not going to rehash them here.)
Let's look at the five stages in act one from an emotional point of view. We start in the ordinary world where we place clues that something needs to change to start the heroine on her journey. (I use heroine here but you can replace it with hero, protagonist or antagonist as everyone has a character arc and goes on a journey to change. Unless you create an completely unredeemable character-but that doesn't happen very often in the romance genre. We like happy endings.) Let's say the heroine realizes she is lonely or that something is missing but accepts it as ordinary to her world. As Harry Potter accepted the fact that he belonged in the cupboard under the stairs. The call to emotional adventure comes in the form of the hero's blue eyes or wicked half grin. It creates an awareness of a deep emotional need the heroine hadn't realized was there. She denies the call listing all the internal reasons love is not for her-creating sexual and emotional tension. A magical helper appears-in the form of friend, son/daughter or parent who points out the obvious. You, dear heroine, are lonely. What can it hurt to go get a coffee? Heroine concedes and is whisked off into an alien world of emotion where she finds herself attracted and having fun with the hero. (Racier books may even have them sexual at this point. Heroine is lost in the alien world of emotional realities of sexual touch, petting, flirting, etc.) The act ends in an emotional tragedy that holds the potential for what comes next. Example: Heroine wakes up and realizes that she is not the same as she was in the beginning and becomes frightened at the change. She runs from the emotional world back to the safety of her ordinary world...but things have changed.
Act two has six stages. There are tests and trials the heroine must go through-again plan them in sets of three. The new emotional reality should slam up against her internal "line in the sand." My example is that she is on a diet to win a contest, but the hero is a box of the world's best chocolates sitting on the back shelf of her closet. Can she walk passed the closet and ignore the call of the chocolates? Will she give in? If the heroine fails one or two of these trials it creates more emotional tension. She is torn between the call of the new world and the safety of her ordinary world. In act two, the heroine experiences unconditional love from the hero-this shakes up her convictions. She wonders, how can I trust this alien world? But the hero's love gives her a real reason to change emotionally and open her heart and her world. Next come temptations to lure her off her emotional path with the hero. It's hard and scary to change. Maybe she should date another guy who doesn't threaten her old life as much as the hero does. Finally, the black moment. Our heroine must confront the one thing that holds the emotional power in her life. Is it trust? Is it fear? Is it her own inability to make a decision and stick with it? At the black moment, the reader and heroine feel as if all is lost. The lovely new emotional world and all it's promises are gone. Follow this by a brief period of rest. Then the heroine achieves the ultimate goal of her emotional quest- she changes and opens herself to love.
Act three goes very quickly in romance. Perhaps some of the steps can be skipped depending on your line. But remember there are still steps left to create a proper emotional happy ever after. The heroine must refuse to return to her ordinary world. But return she must with the love in her heart and the emotional strength she has found on her journey. The writer must show that the heroine can return to her ordinary world and retain the emotional wisdom to create a HEA. The final step is sometimes an epilogue where the heroine shows that she is comfortable with her new emotional state and can live her happy ending.
I hope that this simplified explanation can help you see how the Hero's Journey can also work for genre's that stress the internal change more than the external change. How emotions can go on this same journey to create a happy ever after. Questions? Thoughts? Have a great week. Cheers~

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Hero's Journey

Last week some of you asked me to write a blog on the hero's journey-what it is and why and how to use it.
From wikipedia: Joseph Campbell's...the hero's journey, refers to a basic pattern found in many narratives from around the world. Campbell held that numerous myths from disparate times and regions share fundamental structures and stages, which he summarized in the introduction to The Hero with a Thousand Faces:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
Basically Campbell and other scholars detected a pattern in story telling that crossed cultures, times and regions. Writer's can make use of this pattern when plotting their novels no matter what the genre. It is, in fact, a great plot device and a way of looking at the overall character arc for your book. Campbell lists 17 steps. My goal is to show you those steps and to break them down into writing plot points and ways of looking at your overall story arc. (Next week we'll use the steps to look at your overall emotional arc-something that works well for romance authors.)
All 17 steps can be found at maricopa.edu.
I am not going to list them here because it would make the blog to long. So click on the link and take a look.
In the hero's journey, a story is broken down into three acts. The first act has five stages, the second act has six stages and the third act has six stages. Think of each stage as turning points in your book. If you like to outline, you'll love the hero's journey. If you don't like to outline, you can use this information to revise your book and write your synopsis or help you through a sagging point. I am going to paraphrase from here on out.
Act one is the first third of your book. As I said last week every good story begins with the ordinary world, but at a point where hints of the need for changes to come appear. Think of Harry Potter and how it opens with the morning of his cousin's birthday. Harry is roused from his tiny closet under the steps to cook breakfast and then it's off to the zoo where Harry reacts to his cousin's teasing a snake by making the glass disappear and reappear. (Hints of magic to come.) We see not only Harry's ordinary world, but why change has to happen in the way he is treated and hints of things to come in his uncontrolled magic and being able to understand the snake. The next step is the call to adventure. This is clear in the letters that appear for Harry from Hogwarts. The refusal of the call brings tension to the story and the letters remain unopened. So a magical helper appears and Harry chooses his adventure and is whisked off to school. The next step is Diagon Alley where Harry clearly leaves his ordinary world and discovers a whole new world. The first act ends in a low point or a point of terrible transformation which holds the potential for what will come next. Remember you want the reader to keep turning pages.
Act two has more stages and should be the next third or perhaps a full half of the book depending on your personal structure. This is where the main action happens. If you are plotting an outline these stages will keep you from the dreaded sagging middle. In this portion of the book are tests and trials (Plan them in sets of three) for your hero/heroine-often the hero fails these tests creating tension. The next step is when your hero experiences or encounters an unconditional love-it could be love of self or love of friend or true love depending on your story. It gives the hero a reason to continue and a reason to change themselves. (Think about Harry's new friends.) Next are temptations that may lead your hero off his chosen path. These can come right after the failure of a test creating tension and making the reader wonder if the path will change or be given up all together. Next your hero must confront whatever holds the ultimate power in their life. George Lucas did this quite literally in the scene in Star Wars where Luke Skywalker faces Darth Vader and discovers the villain is his father. This is a necessary step and the lowest point in your book. It is the heart of the character's transformation. Follow this monumental moment with a period of rest of the character and a time for the reader to catch their breath. The second act ends with our hero achieving the ultimate goal of his quest. The hard work pays off but the story is not over yet.
Act three can be the last third of the book but should move very quickly. It begins with the refusal to return to the ordinary world. Why go back? Sometimes there is a compelling reason to return- our hero must bring his new achievement back to save his baby brother from death. Sometimes our hero is compelled to return by guides because the hero himself doesn't understand the need to return to ordinary world. But the return must be made to complete the circle. The trick in returning is to retain the wisdom you have learned on the journey. Remember when Harry returns to his aunt's house he is no longer living in the cupboard under the stairs. He is too powerful now and things have changed. The final steps show our hero now comfortable with his new self and living his happy ever after...until the next call to action. The end.
Many speakers will give examples from classic movies, i.e., The Wizard of Oz and the original Star Wars. I used bits from Harry Potter. If you really want to understand the hero's journey, print out the steps and watch these movies and try to identify the steps in the acts. Then return to your work in progress and see where your plot and character development fit the pattern or fall short.
Remember: this is only a useful tool for plotting NOT a rule that must be followed. Steps can be skipped and/or rearranged to suit your individual story. Cheers~

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Where to begin...

I have a confession to make. I can listen to workshop after workshop and read up on a subject and, even though I can spout all the proper words, and help others with revisions, sometimes I simply don't "get it" in my own work.
Here's my example: I wrote a book years ago that made me tingle. It was a pure paranormal roller coaster ride-before paranormals were hot. I wrote it on a whim and in 30 days, since I was published in sweet historical romance and had a deadline on another book. Still this story pulled and tugged and I had to get-it-out. Once I finished my deadline book, I went back and revised the paranormal and queried it. I found a NY editor who loved it as well. She kept it with promises of copy edits and taking it to her editorial board. But after two years she ultimately failed to sell it to her board. So, the book sat until I decided that there was something there and queried it out to agents. I found a NY agent who loved it and convinced me it was going to be huge. Unfortunately the paranormal tide had yet to turn and after 7 rejections said agent lost interest in both the book and me. BUT-(here's my point.) This time I had the advantage of reading publisher rejection letters. They seem to be more helpful when telling agents why they are rejecting a book. The one comment that stuck with me was "There is not enough world building." Of course, my thought was this: "Its set in Kansas, what's to world build?" I puzzled over this for years as the book sat and I wrote other stuff.
Then a year or so ago the word went out that YA Paranormal was huge. So, I returned to this book and re-read it and discovered that book 2--yes, NY agent had me write book 2--was more YA than single title adult. I spent the time to re-write book 1 with a YA bent-it was already snarky and a coming of age story so that changing it to YA was not a big problem. I then tested the waters by sending it out to various agents- most of them agreed that the YA paranormal market was saturated and this story was now nothing new. But one beloved agent said this to me: "There isn't enough world building in this story." Gah!
She hit that sore spot. What do they mean? I've researched the topic. I've gone to seminars. Its Kansas, what's to world build? (Sometimes my brain can be stubborn.)
This last residency week at Seton Hill University's MFA program, I signed up for a course in World Building YA given by Shelley Bates. (No, not paranormal but any kind of YA.) I was determined to try to figure out what was missing from the novel.
When Shelley launched into the subject of her latest Amish YA and how she built the world around her heroine. I carefully compared how she constructed her world to how I constructed mine and it hit me like a fast pitch softball. duh.
I started my story at the first turning point in a moment of trauma and breathless action-where the heroine's stepmother is murdered by a nightmarish demon hound and how she uses her "imagination" to escape only to discover that her reality has changed and her choices become terrible-save herself or save the world; believe the men who try to guide her in the outrageous new reality or believe the smooth talking devil who tells her she is merely having hallucinations and needs a doctor's help.
I was certain this was the perfect place to start with serious action and the call to adventure.
If you've ever read the Hero's Journey you probably already see what I did wrong. And in fact I had listened to yet another workshop on the Hero's Journey just the day before and had not put it together... What did I do wrong?
I did not start with the ordinary world.
It's that simple. I felt like a dunderhead. I know and have given talks on the Hero's Journey. (If you haven't heard of this, let me know I'll write a blog.) I have given talks on how the first two minutes of a movie always give the viewer the ordinary world before the first turning point so that they can relate to the protagonist and understand how important the call to adventure is and why the protagonist is forced to choose it.
In this case I skipped the ordinary world thinking that starting at this powerful point of action would suck the reader in like a vacuum. It was a vacuum alright, an empty space where the reader had nothing to compare with the problem.
Even crazier is that in book 2 I start with the ordinary world, but, of course, no one ever read that story since book 1 failed to sell.
So there it is--my example of how sometimes it can take years, a few subtle clues and tons of rehashing of writing craft before you can see why a book failed to sell. And yes, I'm going to go back and rewrite the opening of this book if for no other reason than to practice world building. Maybe someday this book will sell and someone will get to read book 2. Meanwhile, I am happy knowing that I finally figured out what I could do to make the story better. And that, after all, is what being a writer is all about. Cheers~