Friday, August 15, 2008

Friday Forays in Fiction: Teachers

Screenshot of my story spreadsheet


Anyone encountering any of my posts from the last week will know that I spent the last two weeks reading the entire archives of
Joely Sue Burkhart's blog. When she announced around the first of the month that she was going to have to change hosts and that her current host would not allow her to export her archives and thus they would be lost, I felt a huge sense of loss (not nearly as huge as hers I'm sure) because I'd been meaning to delve into them to satisfy my writer's curiosity about how she managed to go from a semi-idle dream of being a writer to being published in under five years.

As if that itself isn't impressive enough she did it with these obstacles in her path: full time day job; three small children; pets; technological snafus; household to run; weather disasters and health issues. Her sense of humor in relating some of the events that tried to waylay her was one of the draws to reading her blog (especially the antics of her kids ) but the biggest draw was the way she shared unstintingly every lesson she learned along the way--from techniques to tools; from method to attitude.

Besides wanting to follow the story of her path, I also wanted to revisit several posts that I'd bookmarked in one manner or another whether in browser, notes or mental file. Posts that had presented a technique or method in action or contained a link to a resource that I intended to follow up on. All of this was going to be lost. I was more than saddened. I was panicked.

I guess you could say that Joely, through her blog, had taken on the roll of teacher for me. That is one of the biggest blessings of the blogosphere--the way communities can spring up around mutual interests and seasoned members can mentor those on earlier stages of the learning path; the way members can be there for each other as support, guide, or kick in the buts. (No, that is not a typo. Yes, pun intended.)

There were several burning questions I could only have answered by locating them in her archives: What were the most important things she did or used that I haven't done or tried? How did she end up with Drollerie Press and how did she feel about working with a new publishing company specializing in e-publishing?

My interest in the first question relates mostly to issues of process rather than the rhetoric of fiction. I feel fairly confident in my grasp of the storytelling techniques of plot, character, dialog, scene, metaphor, theme and so forth. My difficulties lie in the realm of project management, including time management, self-discipline and the breaking down of huge projects into manageable tasks. I have no problems generating ideas for stories but my stories always take off running and then stall out around the halfway point, their threads so tangled and broken I can't see a way to finish them even though I saw the ending aka resolution before I started writing the
first scene. This is how I've garnered between ten and eighteen unfinished novels and uncounted unfinished short stories and only half a dozen finished short stories with nearly all of them set in the same story world.

Well now, after reading the equivalent of probably 2000 pages (April 2004-February 2008 including comments so far) I think I know some of what I set out to learn. I know that it wasn't a steady upwards climb. She had as many mood swings and variations in flow as I do but she stayed on the path. I'm still working out which one thing she did that I haven't done consistently was the most important. It has to be among this list:
  • commitment that could not be deterred by setbacks and failures--unlike me she didn't punish herself overlong for not meeting an expectation or goal
  • support of other writers which includes accountability as well as cheering
  • flexibility--I tend to get stopped in my tracks when a plan for a day or a plot doesn't work out
  • organization skills applied with moderation--I can be organized but I can also let the minutia of organizing become the end instead of the means by constantly redoing todo lists and reorganizing files and filing systems and I tend to treat the already laid down text of my stories the same way, endlessly reworking it;
  • which brings me to: she finishes stories.

I was reading Volger's The Writer's Journey the week I started reading her archives and was just finishing up with it when I read about her experience in reading it and then watched her apply the principles. What an invaluable education!

I am feeling so inspired now and raring to go. And now that I know that it is common to hit a slow slog around the 1/3 to 1/2 way point of a story maybe I won't panic so easily or give up so easily.

But there was one tool Joely introduced that I think speaks specifically to my issue with the tangled, snagged and broken threads of a story that has usually been the cause of them being dropped indefinitely around the midpoint. And that was a spreadsheet she used to lay out certain elements of the story scene by scene so she could see at a glance what certain patterns were.

I immediately saw how this might help me and I've created a template of a spreadsheet that speaks to the issues of most of my stalled out FOS story world stories. See image heading this post. Since many of the stories are actual chapters in the novels and there are several novels spanning several generations, I suspect
the story world itself as well as each novel will need their own spreadsheets.

My next task is to apply this spreadsheet technique to Crystal's story. It seems the best choice since I have been immersed in it since Easter and of all the FOS stories it is the least entangled in multiple other story lines. But this means abandoning my intent to write this story all the way to the end without stopping to edit and fix and fuss. I'm hoping this is an exercise in flexibility and not just an excuse for yet another failure of discipline.

[Apologies to Joely for cribbing some of this out of the email I sent her after I reached the end of 2007. This includes the bulleted list above. In her reply Joely puts the emphasis on finishing stories as being the most important so that is where I'm going to focus my intent.]

1 tell me a story:

Ann 8/16/2008 7:13 PM  

Good luck with finishing, that is the important thing: finishing. As my fellow CRW members are always saying you can fix just about anything, but you can't fix nothing. :)

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