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An Experiment

One of the craft books I read recently (I know, bad me for not remembering /which/ one) recommended taking a favorite book and retyping the whole thing to get a feel for how the story was paced. I really don’t have the time (or inclination) to do that, so I thought I’d try a little experiment. With the help of the cool word count tool on Renaissance Learning, I’m going to try and figure out the pacing/plot arc of a book I’ve read recently:

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

Word Count: 90k (375 pages)
Chapters: 22
Average words per chapter: 4000

Chapter 1: I Accidentally Vaporize My Pre-algebra Teacher – Magical world introduced; sense of life/death struggle hinted, major players introduced (Percy, mother, Grover, Mr. Brunner)

Chaps 2-4: Stakes raised as Percy flees from monsters.

Chaps 5-8: Percy faces struggles with peers and comes to grips with his true identity.

Chaps 9-21: Percy searches for object of his quest, encounters blocks in every chapter, escapes several life-threatening encounters with monsters, gets deeper into Greek myth, and achieves quest goal.

Chap 22: Percy learns that although his quest is over, a greater challenge awaits him, and he starts to make his own choices and lets others make their own choices also.

Interesting…This is a fairly straightforward book with a classic plot arc shape. Each chapter builds on the previous one, heightening tension while revealing character strengths and weaknesses. It’s sort of a ‘team’ book, with Percy aided by two other characters.

For comparison, Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt shows the following:

Word Count: 50k appx.
Chapters: 14
Average word count per chapter: 3500

Prologue-Chap 1: Main character and antagonist introduced, as well as social structure and environment. Main problem is introduced.

Chap 2-13: Series of events where main character looks for ways to keep antagonist at bay, instead finding herself more and more involved with the antagonist in positive ways. Main character supported by two friends, pursues several leads to end conflict, interacts with many members of her village.

Chap 14-Coda: Main character resolves conflict and narrative reveals fate of other characters.

The plot of Keturah is less complicated but the characters are more complex. Also a simple rising action plot with reflecting and descending emotional arc.

This gives me good food for thought on sketching out the novel. I’ve found recently that I need milestones to move forward. In my essay writing, I find that I can’t even begin an essay until I have all/most of the quotations I want to cover written and referenced. Once I have those arranged, the essay writing is fairly easy.

So I’m going to try and do the same for the novel, plotting out scenes beforehand, even though I also plan to let the plot take me where it wants to go – having a roadmap is a good thing and a proven method from my storytelling apprenticeship.

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This day was the day I have most looked forward to and the one I was most nervous about – the first real day of lectures and workshop. I’ve described the residency to others as a two-week conference and it has a lot of those markers with the exception that we’re all focused in the same direction and the ones already in the program have this sense of community that one does not usually see at conferences. My cohort is getting there, thankfully not falling into cliques (a natural possiblity given the size of our group). We watch out for each other, try to get to know each other and I think the cohesion is coming together. I do feel a bit on the fringe simply for being off-campus and for being in the dual-program. It’s a subtle thing, a choice on my part, parcel of the way I tend to be in large groups. At night, whenever there’s a social, I manage to mingle for about 10 minutes before bolting home. I’m becoming comfortable with being alone as well as with small knots of people at lecture. I had a dread going into this day that I have my crash soon and I wasn’t looking forward to it – in fact, I hoped that I would skip it altogether. Skipping this, though, would likely mean I wasn’t fully engaged emotionally and that was something I knew would hamper the experience too. Balancing it all was challenging.

One bonus of the day was getting my Amazon package finally containing a copy of Alexie’s new YA book and a Voyager deck. It’s such a cute deck, smaller than the previous version which makes it easier to shuffle. I found myself in conversations about Tarot in general with a couple of folks which was a bit of a mindbender. The deck really does lend itself well to writing with it’s vibrant collages perfect for the Jungian mind looking for associations.

Over the course of the day, I attended four lectures (three faculty and one graduate) all really excellent. I’ll blog about these in a separate post, I think (::Addendum – in thinking about possible copyright issues, I’ve made these posts private and I’ll be giving general topics/lecturers available only in the future::). The workshop was pretty standard format, with the exception that the participants are all really good with their comments, both positive and challenging. I did find myself on opposite ends at times, and perhaps too reticent, but I think that eventually as we get to know each other, we’ll be able to have better conversations. My pieces are up for critique tomorrow and if it hadn’t been for the kind words of a couple of faculty about my application pieces, I likely would be more hesitant about the critiques to come.

After so many years of doing my best to make writing classes bend to what I need to learn and ending up doing genres I was only tangentially interested in (oh, say like poetry when I wanted to do memoir, flash fiction when I wanted to do Fantasy, short story/novels when I wanted to children’s picture books), it was a  bit of a culture shock to be in a room where I was trying to learn what I actually wanted to learn…and realizing that I had little in my pocket to offer in the way of new work. That’s what made Kathi Appelt’s and Julie Larios’ words so meaningful – I’d set out to write for children, they write for children, they teach children’s writing, and they /like/ my work. Amazing. A place where I don’t have to overly explain or apologize or hear “oh that’s interesting, but I won’t be able to help you with that.”

After years of disappointment and making do, to finally have what I want is really quite novel and disorienting.

My anticipated breakdown came after the last lecture – Louise Hawes offered an excercise in emotional depth that sent me over the edge. I knew the work was good for me, but I also know that my crying was upsetting to others and that’s always embarrassing. Thankfully, MaryAnn from the picture book cohort came over and comforted me, even giving me a few tips and excercises to work through the painful thoughts. Quite a few of my cohort checked in on me the rest of the evening, allowing me to be normal again, which was really sweet and supportive too. I went to bed exhausted after the faculty readings and after trying to reach my family at the company picnic they were enjoying. I have a bad feeling that I’ve fried my cel phone. (I put my water bottle in my purse with my cel. I don’t think the bottle leaked, but I think the moisture on the surface may have gotten on the cel phone and fried it. I can dial out, but can’t get the person on the other end to hear me). Unfortunately, I think my neoprene allergy and the heat has caught up with me and I have welts on my neck from my CPAP straps. Not quite sure what to do about that yet.

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Got up moderately late – 11 local time, but 7 Pacific. Not bad for having not gone to be until 3am local. I was glad I’d packed for the night, but was sorry I didn’t have fresh clothes to change into. It’s such a small thing for me usually, but with the heat the way it was, I felt sticky and gross changing into my traveling clothes even after taking a shower.

I was due to meet my cohort at 1pm and I felt the need for new clothes and the few things I couldn’t pack in my carry-on. I made the classic stress mistakes over and over that morning – bought clothes at the first boutique I could find (some on sale, though) and they were really /bright/ tourist colors. Colors I love to wear, but then I felt /really/ conspicuous walking around with the ‘natives’ in their muted colors. The flip flops I bought hurt my feet and kept slipping off, but at $15, I know I can’t just toss them (that and they’re darned cute with the pink and the beads).

I wandered in search of distilled water for the CPAP and suncreen (maybe a hat too and hairpins and oh, while I’m at it, some body soap – only Dial soap at the guesthouse). I passed a few indy bookstores (three in a one block radius which I think totally rocks) plus cute boutiques and kids shops. The town reminds me a bit of a cross between Moscow, ID and Crawford, NE. Small, yet cultural, yet rural, yet quirky.

I found the Ben and Jerry’s (still haven’t visited) and it looks like in lieu of Starbucks, the New England Culinary Institute is in full gear with a restaurant, a bakery and I think a deli. There’s also a really cool bead shop on the corner (drool) and a nifty little metaphysical shop around and down the corner. I felt really good walking into that shop. Reminded me of our old shop, back in the day, except a little smaller and a little better selection of books.

Lunch with the cohort was fab – being able to finally put faces to names on the ‘net. It was mostly ‘net forum folks (which makes sense, since we really didn’t have a way to get to the others) but that was 12 of the 27 souls in our class. We made the first of a series of introductions over the last few days (goodness, I wasn’t warned I needed an elevator speech!) and overall, a really nice group of people. We talked mostly about travel adventures and the heat and how nervous and anxious we all were.

After lunch, I opted out of window shopping and went home for a nap. A couple of hours later I walked up the hill, which isn’t bad – a 20 min walk is all. It’s a bit like walking from our old ‘A’ street house in Moscow to the top of the hill where the classrooms start in earnest at UI. Dinner was an adventure into the past – dorm food! Although the food was quite a bit better than when I was at WSU…but still definitely food service type food.

After dinner some of us hung out in the lounge (the only AC room on the first floor) and played a game called Snatch. It was fun just hanging out trying to find cool words among the letters thrown and gathered on the table. I’m finding myself painfully shy and I’m learning to accept that’s who I am. But I did play, which was fun, even if I wasn’t very gregarious.

Then came a meeting with the grad assistants and more introductions. What struck me the most about the meeting was how often they talked about going past comfort zones and crashing at some point in the middle. I’m definitely not looking forward to that and will be doing all I can to avoid or ease through it without a big crying jag. I’m too far away from home to manage that by myself even with the supportive staff. Perhaps I’m being too cautious, but I know how bad it can get for me and that’s just not a space I want to visit over this residency.

So, who did I meet? Dawn, Sarah, Matt, Lee, Simon, Linda, Mikki, Blessy (who I’d met in Bellevue last Spring at conference), Kari, Robin, Katie, Maha, and Lindsay. Lindsay was the one I introduced to the others at the icebreaker that night and my deep dark secret I told her is that I’d been married 19 years and had distrusted my future husband on first sight. This amused her greatly.

The upside to the evening was definitely the arrival of my luggage and the helpful Katie and Robin who drove me back to my guesthouse with it. We missed B&J’s which closed moment before we arrived. I did manage to get Skype to work and it was really sweet to see my family before completely crashing.

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I count the first day of school as 7/7/08, a Monday, a travel day for getting me from home to Montpelier, VT. I write this two days later because I spent all Monday getting from home to VT…and a little bit more.

Thankfully, my family took me to the airport shuttle first thing in the morning. It was so good to ‘launch’ from their arms, filled with their love and good wishes – not to mention the chocolate and other treats sent along by my friends. I dozed on the way down to Seattle, missing the usual sights – the casino, the slough, the Everett Mall, the Shipcanal Bridge. All beautiful in their own way, but honestly, after been so stressed for so long getting ready, I needed the rest.

Rest has definitely been the watch word on this trip. Rest when I can, where I can.

We arrived at Seattle International right on time and I had little trouble with getting my bag checked, and only a little more trouble getting through TSA. I’ve gotten used to having my CPAP checked everytime. 🙂

At the gate, I met RebeccaV, a graduating classmate who I met last Spring. It was great to know someone on the flight, even if we didn’t get to sit together. We were an hour delayed in leaving and that cascaded throughout. We ended up circling over Newark due to a backup of in-coming planes and then our connecting flight to VT was delayed an additional two hours. It’s no wonder then that our luggage didn’t make it!

I got a bit of work done, though, finishing notes on a poetry chapbook review (that I have yet to complete, and finally seeing Harry Potter IV. Otherwise, I dozed or chatted with Rebecca when we were in Newark. I finally arrived at my guesthouse at 3am, exhausted, but happy to finally be in Vermont. I was surprised about the heat and humidity though. It reminded me of landing in Manila at midnight. I had just enough energy to call DH and put my CPAP together.

After weeks of preparations and many nights and days thinking that this was all a crazy idea, too torturous to contemplate, I had arrived. I still wonder about the decision to come…which should be an awful thing to admit, but I’m also learning to be honest with my emotions when they come up. It’s a little about feeling unworthy of taking all of this time for writing and a lot about wondering if I have enough ideas and hutspah to actually get something useful accomplished…

Useful. Huh.

That’s what’s been hanging me up, I think, that there’s still a part of my that thinks writing isn’t “useful” ie. “practical” and that coming here is the ultimate indication of my own selfishness.

They’ve told us in our orientation – which I’ll write about soon – that we’ll all be asked to stretch and move past our boundaries. And in this case, I’m more than willing to get past this continuous feeling of “unusefulness” that plagues me. I just hope the process doesn’t include the huge crying jag that they also warn us will inevitably happen.

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I sometimes wonder if trying to keep up my blogs is counter-productive to keeping up with the whole full-time mom/full-time editor/full-time MFA student thing. Already I’m seeing things drop away as I hone in on the perfect schedule – an illusion, really, since I’m not actually doing all three things, just the usual two and sort of the third since school doesn’t start for another two weeks.

Two weeks.

Last week I panicked and wrote a post on my other blog called Two Dozen Days which today seems like an enormous amount of time in comparison to the two weeks I have now.

But with the help of my DH, I’m learning to give credit for what I /have/ accomplished toward school:

1) Read 28 books ranging from PBs to YAs, including multi-POV and faculty books;
2) Troubleshot my financial aid (which I didn’t know was broken until last week);
3) Got a few lists done of what I need to bring and what I yet need to get;
4) Learned more about my avoidance and coping techniques (which are not necessarily the same, although some are more detrimental while others are more helpful/necessary);
5) Positioned my department to be able to stay on deadline while I’m gone;
6) Not given up.

I still haven’t read a book by each of the faculty, but I’ve ordered the last few I need to feel like I’ve at least read for the lectures I’ll want to attend for sure.

I also haven’t finished reading/critiquing all the workshop manuscripts, but thanks to a vet of the program, I have a nifty three-ring notebook to hold all the stories and notes.

I’d like to also write down more coherent notes on this Consensus Time idea I have and on the types of stories I’d like to work on this first semester. I know a couple of my cohort have already started looking into their critical reviews for the first packet, but honestly, I’ve hit that point where I need to just go with what the program offers and hope that I’m as prepared as reasonably possible as a first year.

My student mentor Clete contacted me this weekend and I’m looking forward to meeting him and his family next week. He has graciously invited my family to also come so hopefully DL will be able to talk with Clete’s wife about how to cope with an absent writing spouse while still tending two children.

Finally, ZenHabits recently published a guest post by chessmaster Josh Waitzkin who offers the following as a cure for the multitasking virus (which I seem to have an acute case):

1) Do what you love;
2) Do it in a way you love and connect to;
3) Give people a Choice and they become engaged;
4) Release a fear of failure;
5) Build positive routines;
6) Do one thing at a time;
7) Take breaks.

These are the principles I’ll be applying as I continue to learn how to approach and succeed in grad school this time around.

My apologies in advance if this blog gets stale – it falls low on the priority list, unfortunately, despite all my hopes that it would become this incredible journal everyone will want to read while preserving the memory of my experiences in a (hopefully) publishable form in the future. **chuckle**

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Still busily reading for school this summer, but recently received some cool news.

Sheila Bender is one of those writers I’ve read off and on for years, mostly for her sound advice on the process of writing. I discovered A Year in the Life soon after the birth of my second child and it influenced the final edit of my MA thesis. Through her passion for poetry and essay, Sheila transmits a sense of capability and honor to the young writer – she believes that if a person wishes to write, then they have what it takes to not only begin but to succeed.

I was excited to read earlier this year about her essay contest and sent three pieces off in short measure. I was overjoyed to hear from her a few weeks later – Becoming a Woman of Color had won first prize!

“Becoming” is a piece that my close readers have enjoyed, but one that never seemed to quite fit the journals to which I submitted it. The form is a non-traditional essay written second person, and the piece was often criticized in workshop because of this. Male readers didn’t feel comfortable being asked to read from a woman’s point of view, folk-not-of-color didn’t want to inhabit the ambivalent space between privilege and prejudice. I tried changing it several times to make it more ‘accessible’ only to return to the voice of it’s original.

Sheila writes:

“Becoming a Woman of Color” by Rebecca Mabanglo-Mayor offers a satisfying and moving read. A lyric essay in structure, it is built in sections that each begin with a command: Imagine, Remember, Picture. The symmetry between beginning and ending the essay with the word imagine and the repeated commands of remember and picture sandwiched between the opening and closing of the essay carry both writer and reader through a rewarding emotional journey.

I am /so/ grateful that she responded so positively to the piece and grateful that she chose it as the winning entry for her contest. She and her co-publisher Kurt VanderSluis have published Becoming a Woman of Color in her online journal http://writingitreal.com/.

As part of my prize, Sheila looked over one of the other two essays I submitted. She gave me a very frank assessment which showed I still have far to go with my work. There were technical difficulties to the piece but what was most helpful to me was that she contrasted that piece with “Becoming.” I learned that when I trust my voice, instead of trying to make a piece into what I think others will respond to, I do /much/ better. It’s something I’ve read time and again in books on writing and something I’ve heard time and again from veteran writers.

The difference with Sheila, though, is that she /showed/ me what that meant for my own writing and as any writer will tell you Show Don’t Tell is the first and last rule of good writing and good critique.

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After much hacking and slaying mixed with misery and despair, three picture book drafts are off for the VC workshop.

It makes for happy.

First I thought I’d write something completely new in the YA realm. Then as time slipped away I thought I could at least turn in the same stories that I had submitted for my application. But that felt a bit like cheating. So I went back to the YA idea but it was slow and then I got some comments back on one of the PBs I thought was ‘done’ – it’s not done.

So I slashed that one in half, stitched it back together with leaner lines, started and finished a new PB, added those two to another one. They’re as follows:

Danny and the Christmas Star
Marcella’s Three Tests: Filipino Tale Retold
Alitaptap and the Sky King: Filipino Tale Retold

I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to workshop with one of the faculty at VC who’s done PBs based on folktales, such as Janet Stevens (Jackalope).

The best thing about getting manuscripts off my desk and out to ‘editors’ is that I now have room to think of new projects. So I’m eyeing that YA book again as well as a short story I never quite got off the ground last Winter.

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