Saturday Check-in: critiques, writing schedules, and The Hobbit

photo credit Tanya Trofymchuk on Unsplash

Why hello there my lovely fellow story seekers!

It has now been just over two weeks since my last day working as a children’s bookseller at my local indie bookstore. I worked there over a year and adored it. I gave this job up in order to focus on moving onto a job that will allow me to move 1,000 miles away and have complete control over my schedule. But I was absolutely terrified. Why? Because change is scary and because this change involved testing the integrity of my newly developed self-discipline skills.

I know this about myself: I’m inclined towards laziness. And yet lack of productivity drives me crazy. Having a job outside my home was a perfect compromise and now that safety net was being removed. Could I create my own schedule and stick to it?

Two weeks into it and the answer is, surprisingly, yes.

But I can’t stop to congratulate myself now. I’ve got to keep my head down and power on.

I got my critiques back this week

Quick background info: I took every workshop available to me in undergrad and before that, I had a critique partner. The critique element of this MFA program is not unfamiliar to me. Personally, I’ve got a decently thick skin.

But critiques still kinda suck.

These in particular sucked because it reinforced everything I already knew was wrong with the chapter: which was, in fact, everything. (Okay, I’m being melodramatic.) After a year in this program, I’ve drafted the first two acts of my thesis novel, putting me at a pretty 75,000 words so far. My latest submission is the first chapter in act 3. An act 3 that I’m drawing a blank on.

My biggest storytelling fault right now? Creating meaningful tension that rolls from scene to scene to build to the climax.

The worst part about getting critiques is when you agree there’s something wrong, but you have no idea how to fix it.

How do I figure out act 3?

I’m seriously asking. I’ve got a stack of how-to writing books on my desk right now about plotting and I’m not convinced I’ll find an answer to my question in any of them.

My current plan of attack: phoning a friend. I’ve set up a Skype call with my old critique partner and we’re going to put our heads together over this issue I have with plotting out act 3.

I am a plotter. I enjoy plotting, but the ending of this novel has eluded me for years. This little issue of plot isn’t new; it’s been with me since inception of this idea five years ago.

How do you tackle tricky plot endings?

So many pages, time enough?

I’m contracted to only turn in 15 pages every month, but “with the expectation of 45.” Being a people-pleaser, it tore me up to only turn in 15 pages last month and I’m determined to hit that 45 for August.

What helps me with big deadlines like this is knowing what that looks like on a daily basis. So let’s bust out our calculators, shall we? Math actually CAN be useful, quelle surprise.

The deadline: 45 pages by August 30

45 pages = ~13,500 words

I only want to work Monday thru Friday. So that leaves 15 full days to work.

13,500 words/15 days = 900 words

900 words = ~3 pages

3 pages is a very manageable amount for me–so long as I know what I’m going to write. Perhaps this is being dramatic (plot twist: I am being dramatic), but I fear that the success of my 45-page goal hinges on this chat with my old critique partner because otherwise… (dun dun dunnnn)

Cross your fingers for me, fellow story seekers!

Blog recap

This week, I published six posts:

Currently Reading

If you follow me on Instagram, you know I had no business going to the library when my current tbr pile is literally too high to stack on my shelf. You hear that? I’m double-parking books now.

But I went to the library anyway.

Aaaaaand I may have gone to Half Price Books and picked up Three to Get Deadly, Four to Score, and The Heist by Janet Evanovich ūüĎÄ

But I’m only actively reading a portion of my tbr stack. Here’s what I’m actively reading, the titles you’ll find on my currently reading shelf on Goodreads:

  • Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor (as astonishingly beautiful as Strange the Dreamer)
  • The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon (oof burglars are safe from this only because it’s too heavy to lift to smack them with)
  • Seven Tears into the Sea by Terri Farley (a reread from ages ago, a perfect end of summer read, especially if you like selkie stories)

What I finished this week

On a whim, I read Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt and I will most definitely write a post about it soon because it is incredibly well written and plotted and I can’t believe I didn’t like it much as a kid.

I also watched The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies and loved them. I’ve recently found myself a pretty decent Tolkien fan after reading The Hobbit for my Fantasy Classics class last semester and then Fellowship of the Ring on my own this summer.

^ my Tolkien fan friends when they found out I was reading The Hobbit and watching all the LotR movies

Tell me about your week!

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Less is Way Too Much: A Lesson on Specificity in Plotting

When my American Literature professor assigned us our final paper, her advice was to make our argument as specific as possible. For an 8-page paper.  I thought this woman was completely out of touch of the undergraduate reality because there was no way a narrow argument would fill up that many pages.

Not that what I thought mattered because this paper had to be written come hell or high water, and as the deadline loomed, the water was rising up around my shoulders.  So, okay. Let’s try the out of touch professor’s advice. For grins and giggles.  Picture me then, a college student delirious with panic because this 8-page paper had to magically appear by the next morning. 

In a fit of indignant pique, I made the following argument (in the spirit of being as specific as it was possible for me to be in my panic-fueled state):

Despite the criticisms that this novel is disorganized and meaningless, the analysis of the episode of the mutiny onboard the Grampus leads to an interpretation that suggests that the seeming madness of the story can actually be understood as a repressed fear of slave rebellions in the American South, and this interpretation leads to a unification of the piece as a whole.

(I was writing about The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe, if you were wondering.  It’s an extremely weird and chaotic book that I had to argue was actually a work of genius.)

Okay, now what? The 8-page quota loomed ever larger, like a demon growing stronger the more it feeds on my panic.

What happened still amazes me to this day.

The thesis is essentially three claims, each of which I had to set up and defend: 1) criticisms of disorganization and lack of meaning, 2) the interpretation of the mutiny, 3) how the interpretation fits the novel as a whole.

Having actually read the book (God help me), I started to realize how long it would take to set up and defend these points. Suddenly 8 pages had shrunk to maybe not being enough?

Who’d have thought specificity would strengthen my argument? Not I, that’s for damn sure.  After five hours in the library, my 7-page long paper was concise and well-structured. And I got that paper back with a beautiful red “A” on it.

part ii.

Okay, confession: I sprawl. I’m a sprawler. I lounge languorously from page 1 until I run out of steam and collapse, exhausted, around halfway through the manuscript because my arms just can’t juggle that many subplots and extraneous “character building” scenes anymore.

I wasn’t pleased with my external plot of my current manuscript because of this reason. It lacked cohesiveness. I was throwing spaghetti at the wall to see if it was done and it all ended up at my feet in a soupy, gloopy mess.

Enter specificity in the form of a mentor from my MFA program.

Explaining my problem to him, he nodded, his mouth scrunched, disappearing into his beard as he thought a moment. Then, “Why don’t you do [insert very simplistic but brilliant idea for external plot here]?” he says, very nonchalantly, as if he hadn’t just possibly fixed a problem I’ve been having with this book for years.

WHY DON’T I JUST, SIR? WHY DON’T I JUST.

In the space of, oh, two seconds, I had a single cohesive line of thought that I could hook into my internal plot and instead of my characters wandering around like lost little lambs whose shepherd was directionally challenged, they were charging like Braveheart warriors in a straight line right towards an end goal that actually made sense.

Specificity, my friends. Specificity is where it’s at.

The Growing Roar of Approaching Deadlines: Weekly Update

Okay so maybe I haven’t been the most productive I could be.¬† I don’t have reasons to offer; just excuses.¬† Well, not even those.¬† Between you and me, when too much stress piles on, I just shut down.

But when I’m staring that deadline in the face, it’s a defibrillator to the face.

My deadline isn’t so close that I can count the freckles across its pert little nose, but I can hear it coming a mile away like an approaching freight train carrying the weight of my career.*

I have exactly two weeks left.

My existence right now comprises mostly of me alternating between internally screaming and taking yoga breaths.

Since last checking in, I’ve written exactly two more pages.¬† (IN A WEEK.¬† TWO PAGES IN SEVEN DAYS WHAT EVEN?–okay, yoga breaths.¬† Deep breaths.)

Last night, however, I did write the first four (pretty damn decent) pages of the 10-page story I have to submit by November 2 for my next residency (in January, where we’ll sit around in groups and critique these stories.)¬† It’s about a girl who was drowned in the ocean and became a mermaid and the girl who helps her try to find her murderer.

Tomorrow, the goal is at least three more pages.  Also tomorrow, a dear friend from work is going to help me tackle my plot so I can write the greatest labor ever put on the shoulders of a writer my synopsis.

So here’s my plan for the next week.

Say it with me: manageable tasks.

I’m going to tackle the two 700-word assignments so they are out of the way, not gunking up the works.¬† With those two out of the way,¬†the¬†only things I have to worry about are the next twenty-five pages of my story and the two to five pages that say what’s going to happen in my story.¬† That’s¬†it.

And make the conscious decision to write every day, at least a page.

This isn’t about doing battle.¬† This is about¬†choosing to put another stepping stone in the path to the career I want to have.¬† No one is forcing me to do anything.

This next week, I’m going to change my vocabulary to replace “I have to” with “I¬†choose to.”¬† Because I made the choice to get an MFA.¬† It was an informed choice; it has a clear end goal.¬† These assignments are a part of that, and I should take advantage of this opportunity to grow while I have it.

In reading news

I finished¬†The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch.¬† SCARED. THE. CRAP. OUTTA. ME.¬† I physically¬†cringed¬†several times throughout the book.¬† If you’re a sci-fi fan who loves time travel and doesn’t mind graphic violence and gore, definitely check this book out.¬† To me, it was the book version of that long flat note they play in the background of ghost shows.

In other news

I’m trying to learn this Disney medley on the piano.¬† Just goes to show how long it’s been since I’ve challenged myself on the piano and fallen into the comfortable groove of the styles of just a few (*cough*one*cough*) artists.¬† It’s taking me¬†forever to get this down.¬† Which is fine.¬† There’s no deadline here.¬† So far, I’m semi-comfortable playing the first section (Go the Distance from Hercules) and today I worked on the next one (Part of Your World from The Little Mermaid).¬† The part I’m really looking forward to is Zero to Hero from Hercules, about halfway through the song.

How’s your week going?

* alright so it isn’t THAT big a deal, but that doesn’t seem to matter to my stress levels, which are determined to churn out anxiety at the highest rate of production as possible


Currently playing: Beautiful by Bazzi

Currently reading: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders