Tag Archives: stories

On Icebergs, Novel Writing and Journaling

Standard
Tip of the Iceberg

Tip of the Iceberg — Image by © Ralph A. Clevenger/CORBIS

It’s a metaphor that gets used a lot, but I’m going to make an embarrassing confession about its application to novel writing: for the longest time, I didn’t get it.

See, I had approached writing a novel like so:

  1. Think of an idea
  2. Start writing chapter 1
  3. Keep writing until you hit “the end”
  4. Go back and revise a million times until it works

Was the underside of the iceberg just all the stuff I cut from each draft? I honestly didn’t
give it too much thought. I know every writer crafts differently, so I figured this was one of those things that other writers did and maybe it didn’t apply to my process.

Or maybe, in hindsight, I didn’t have enough process yet.

book-journalBack in February, a friend gave me a journal as a birthday gift. It took me until April to decide what to do with it, because I refuse to start a journal until I’m sure what I’m going to fill it with. I have a personal journal that’s so thick it’ll take me another two years to finish, so I wanted this one to be for something else.

After reviewers read my novel draft in March, I realized that the story needed to go in some darker directions. I needed the story to be more bleak. And I realized that I wanted to understand my own magic system and characters and setting better than I did.

Suddenly I knew exactly what I needed that extra journal for.

heart-science

I began with magic-system stuff and progressed to everything. The more I wrote, the more I realized there was to write. I sketched and mapped settings, I jotted down research notes about relevant phenomena, I analyzed the numerology and astrology of every character.

gina-and-chrisAnd most importantly, I wrote lots and lots of backstory—pages and pages of situations that happened to my characters in the years preceding the story, down to why they were riding the elementary school bus in third grade and what family circumstances were like for each of them back then (nine years before the story starts). I even ended up writing about things that happened to my character’s parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. I spent the summer fleshing out their lives and having a marvelous time.

The result is over 200 pages of handwritten notes that cover just a small portion of the thinking and processing that went into them.

Now I’m at the point of placing those insights into the story—and the iceberg analogy suddenly makes sense. Because from all that backstory, I’ve been inserting maybe two sentences at a time into the novel itself—details that give it the depth of those extra pages, even though readers won’t see what’s underneath.

With the next novel I work on, you can bet I’ll have a journal from the start.

Advertisements

Three Steps to Complex Characters (Part II)

Standard

Okay. Your character has a face and an energy type! This is exciting stuff! You’re well on your way.

Next up, not surprisingly, your character needs a NAME.

Now, sure, you could just give him or her your favorite name, that one that was a little too wild to use on any actual children or say out loud all the time but you know would be just too cool in print. You could. Maybe. But I’d like to convince you that the best choice is a name that perfectly fits the character.

We do this with real children. In fact, if you’re currently trying to decide on a name for your upcoming bundle of joy, this info I’m about to share might be even more invaluable. I certainly wish I’d known, for example, that the letter Z signifies “aggression/conflict” before I gave a certain child of mine a name that starts with it—except that, of course, it is exactly the right name for that aggressive little kid. And luckily the other letters in his name have to do with thinking and wisdom. Fingers crossed he grows into those soon haha.

Believe it or not, characters can embody their names just as much—whether or not you understand the name in advance. For example, with my Peter Pan retelling, I chose to stick with the names Wendy and Peter, and it was amazing how much personality came with those names that I didn’t realize ahead of time. I “crafted” their characters years before learning anything about nomenology, and yet the names are dead on.

Read the rest of this entry

Three Steps to Complex Characters (Part I)

Standard

face 5Last week I shared Pixar’s 22 Rules of Phenomenal Storytelling, and I’m going to be honest and say that when you’re at the very beginning of writing a story, it can be overwhelming looking at that list and knowing where to start. But as promised, I’m going to walk you through the process as I go through it myself, and these past two weeks I’ve started firmly with character, loving every discovery and where it’s leading.

Check out some of Pixar’s rules that have to do with character:

#6 What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
#13 Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable characters might seem likeable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
#15 If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

When I wrote my first novels, I had no idea how to figure those things out. I muddled through it in the dark, as if blindly trying to distinguish characters’ features by mauling them with my hands. It wasn’t until several (okay, six) drafts into my second novel that I hit on three secrets that have turned character development into a straight-forward science.

You can utilize these three secrets at any writing stage, whether you have no idea what your story will be or you’ve already completed six drafts. I’ve done it in both cases (as mentioned) and found these three steps invaluable either way. Read the rest of this entry

Why We Ditched School Altogether, Part I

Standard
Why We Ditched School Altogether, Part I

It doesn’t look like school anymore . . . because it’s not.

038

I still tell people we “homeschool” since most inquirers just want an explanation for why my kids are home every day. When they ask follow-up questions, like what time we “do school,” I have to take a deep breath and hope I’m not judged as a weirdo—especially in a brand-new neighborhood where those next door are just getting to know us.

“Oh, we used to have a set schedule, but we don’t anymore. Now I’m letting my kids follow their own interests instead of me teaching lessons.”

The word I haven’t tossed around much—not yet, not until I get a little braver—is unschooling. Read the rest of this entry

Hiatus

Standard

IMG_3792 Back in September, we got an awfully big surprise.

Around the third week in August, I had started having undeniable pregnancy symptoms. We did some math on our fingers and excitedly planned for a due date of May 6th, which seemed perfect: I’d be on break between teaching semesters (May is my biggest chunk of time off every year), Hubby would be through with an always-grueling tax season. We’d have plenty of time to rearrange our three boys into bunk beds and all that. And we had plenty of time to wait a month before spreading the news to family and friends, so we didn’t tell anyone yet.

IMG_3455Still, we both admitted that something felt off. There was something different about this pregnancy, but we couldn’t figure out what it was.

Three weeks later, in the middle of catching ourselves up on Downton Abbey, the baby kicked me.

I put my hands on my stomach and suddenly couldn’t pay attention to the captivating drama of Mary and Matthew anymore. I froze, waiting for it to happen again, my head spinning to catch up with what this meant.

It meant I wasn’t seven weeks along, that was for sure. It definitely meant we weren’t due in May.

When the episode ended, I timidly revealed the news to Hubby, and we spent the next hour laughing at the possibility. Could it really be true? Could we have been pregnant since last May and not known it?

Two days later, an ultrasound confirmed it: we were over eighteen weeks along! Due February 8th.

IMG_3905With a girl!

Everyone’s response to the news? “I didn’t even know you were pregnant!” Well, we said, neither did we!

Since that ultrasound September 14th my priorities have swung in a wildly different direction. I abandoned the blog and put all my spare energy into prepping our house and lives for a new baby in less than four months.

Today is the first day in those months that I feel suddenly open to blogging, ready to see if I can still write anything after so long out of practice. The older boys’ room is finally outfitted with a bunk bed (including a new handmade quilt for my five-year-old who was previously in a toddler bed), a mural to fill the wall space, and painted closet shelves. The other room now holds a toddler bed, a crib, a changing table, a rocking chair and a train table, with just a few things left to arrange on the walls before it will feel complete. I’ve crocheted a flower blanket, sewed a floral chair pad and girly owl pillow for the rocker, and continued nesting like that to my heart’s content. IMG_3929This past weekend her grandma bought us a bright pink car seat and a neighbor loaned us a bassinet. Her closet now has just enough size 0–3 months clothes for us to get by for a little while. I can finally feel ready.

Last night, sporting a basketball under my shirt, I walked into a room full of strangers facing me in their desks, probably wary as the first thing they learned about their new college English teacher is that she is nine months pregnant. But once we got going, and they opened right into discussion so easily, I felt the usual thrill of discovering I’ve got a good group of students — knowing we’ll be able to analyze and dig into complexities and have the room hum with enthusiasm because I can tell they’re interested and they care. It reminded me how much I love all that, including discussion here on my blog.

At the same time, this is my fourth time around having a newborn, and I know my limits. I cut down to just one class this semester so that those 75 minutes twice a week are my only commitment in these next few months besides my baby and three boys.

This post isn’t an announcement that I’m back to blogging, just an update to confirm that I’m not.

Since my last baby, I’ve learned a lot about shaking off stress and living a peaceful life. That’s the life I want to welcome my daughter into — in just three short weeks! Writing will resume when it feels right.

A Story Jar

Standard

“Tell her about the polar bear!” I prompted my seven-year-old when my sister asked how our latest zoo trip had gone.

It had been probably our best visit yet, full of up-close encounters, including the polar bear swimming right up to the glass where the seven-year-old had been standing, face full of wonder.

He looked at me funny. “What do you mean?”

“Tell her how cool the polar bear was.”

“But I don’t know what to say.”

The same thing happened during writing time with school. I’d ask him to write a story — just a one-page, second-grade-level story — and he’d be stumped for ages, even if he already had a prompt and knew what he wanted the story to be about.

I hated seeing him so tense about it. I wanted him to gush with excitement over both the real story of the polar bear and his own made-up stories.

And I realized that the skill we needed to foster was storytelling.

As usual, Pinterest came to my rescue with the idea of a story jar. I sliced up neon note papers and told the kids to write down anything.

The usual protest of not knowing what to write didn’t persist long. Before I knew it, they were begging me to cut more slips. They’d filled out every single one and still had more ideas!

Once I finally said “enough,” the storytelling itself was just as fun. They took turns drawing slips from the jar and adding to an epic-level story with a cast as big as their imaginations.

When their contribution felt weak, I pressed for more details:

Me: “What did the monster look like?”

7yo: “Ugly.”

Me: “How come?”

7yo: “He had brown spots all over him, like dirt and mud.”

Gradually their descriptions became more generous, like when the four-year-old’s monster turned “brown with blue spots and huge horns and three green — no, I mean red — eyes.” They also improved at connections that gave the story a better arc. When a random object showed up, I’d ask how it got there and they’d say things like, “The clever princess gave it to him.” Characters had believable motivations, such as the mouse putting on a life jacket and jumping into the sea to get away from the monster who couldn’t swim. Most impressive of all, the ending circled back to the beginning: the monster had squashed the mouse’s house, and in the end the mouse found a treasure chest that he used to make a new house.

We’ve done it twice now, changing slips to create a completely new story, and it’s such a hit that I’m sure it’ll continue to be one of our favorite school activities.

It gets me thinking, too. Maybe I need more creative exercises for my own writing. Maybe I need to work on my storytelling. Maybe I need to find ways to have fun instead of feeling stumped as I stare at the screen. Maybe I need to stretch my imagination just a little more.

Funny how even elementary school can be for grown-ups too.

Maybe I need to put all my story elements in a jar and mix things up a bit. 😉