Publisher/Full-Time Editor/Freelance Writer

Weldon Writes ... Almost a Blog

Mythic Structure & Storytelling

April 20, 2010

Tags: freelance writing, fiction writing, novels, mythic structure, storytelling

During the Writers at the Beach conference last month (and particularly during Khris Baxter's workshop, Screenwriting Techniques for Fiction Writers), I was forced into the realization that the novel I began way back in 1987 was (1) worthy of resurrection, (2) poorly structured, and (3) in need of major rewriting. (See my earlier blog entry, Writers at the Beach, 3/28/10.) In the intervening weeks since the conference, the novel has been flopping around in my brain like a fish on deck. But, the more I contemplate the story, the more frustrated I become. And the problem is clearly structure.

So, I've decided to once again read The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler. I've read Joseph Campbell's work on mythology, most notably the Bill Moyer interview, The Power of Myth, and The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It's dense reading and highly academic, to be sure, but the truths concerning the importance of mythology in our lives (and our writing) are clear and illuminating.

Vogler's book, borrowing heavily not only from Campbell but also from Carl Jung's archetypes, nails down mythic structure for the writer in the most succinct and user-friendly form I've seen. Some may say it takes an approach to writing that is too formulaic. Well, only if you're looking for a lazy, cookie-cutter approach. For the true writer, Vogler's book is a "bible" of sorts, providing a foundation for story structure that does not necessarily stifle the writer's imagination and style. As with any tool, it's all in how you use it. Read the book. Learn it. Absorb it. Most important of all, USE it in your storytelling. And that, my friends, is the lesson that I must now learn—knowing is not the same as DOING.

I'm aware of character archetypes, and I think the characters in my tale are fairly well defined in that regard. But the story structure of my novel does not follow the three-act "hero's journey" in Vogler's book. And I now think it should. I managed to write about 150 pages of the novel, years ago. Most of that will now be scrapped. So, back to the blackboard, so to speak.

The novel, a suspense/thriller tentatively titled Harvester of Sorrow (yes, it's coincidentally a Metallica song), will fit beautifully into the stages of the "journey"—the Ordinary World; Call to Adventure; Refusal of the Call; Meeting with the Mentor; Crossing the First Threshold; Test, Allies, Enemies; Approach to the Inmost Cave; Ordeal; Reward; Road Back; Resurrection; and the Return with the Elixir. Yes, my story will indeed work with these stages—I just haven't structured the novel that way yet.

I have work to do.

And, once the novel structure is determined, I'll be free to let the story grow from that solid foundation. Perhaps the final novel will be far different from the way I currently envision the story. And that would be superb! I'm all for story evolution, particularly if the characters usurp the storytelling.

A few years back, Ed Dee, excellent writer of police procedurals, told me that writing a novel is much like driving a car at night on unfamiliar roads. You may know your destination, may even have a roadmap on the seat next to you or the GPS glowing on the dash, but you can only see as far as the headlights extend on the road in front of you. You have no idea what may be on the road ahead, or what detour you may have to take en route. No matter how detailed you've structured and outlined your novel, be prepared for—indeed, welcome—side trips and detours as your characters and plot mature in the storytelling process.

But, I'm not even in the car yet.

Back to work!

I'll keep you posted ...

Writers at the Beach, 3/28/10

March 28, 2010

Tags: fiction writing, freelance writing, screenwriting

Well, today ended the Writers at the Beach conference for 2010. I'm crossing my fingers there will be a conference in 2011. I'd like to make this an annual event!

Only one workshop today:

Screenwriting Techniques for Fictions Writers (10:30-12:30)
Khris Baxter was the leader of this workshop, and it fit nicely with the earlier workshop of his, Building Dramatic Scenes That Work, that I took Friday morning. The session today focused on structure and how techniques used by screenwriters can be adapted when writing a novel. I was familiar with much of the material (the three-act structure, story arc, the hero's quest), but I still picked up on some key thoughts.

The main thing I took to heart was Khris's statement, "Structure is form, not formula." He's absolutely correct, and even though it may seem simplistic on the surface, I suspect this is something with which many writers (including myself) battle.

The workshop today forced me to rethink the novel I started back in 1987 (yes, I am THAT old!) but never finished. I realize now, the reason I never finished it, despite my laundry list of excuses, is because the novel was never adequately structured. For our writing exercise this morning, Khris had us apply the three-act structure (including an inciting incident and plot point in Act I, the Setup; a midpoint and second plot point in Act II, the Confrontation; and the ultimate climax in Act III, the Resolution) to our current writing project. I couldn't complete the assignment! Even though I KNOW this stuff, I've never actually applied it to the novel!

I would like to resurrect the book I started over 20 years ago, but it will clearly take far more attention to structure than I'd previously planned. Perhaps, back in 1987, I wasn't a mature enough writer (and maybe that's just another excuse).

Regardless, Khris inspired me to reconsider my approach and develop a stronger, better thought-out story structure for the novel.

I guess I learned something today!

Writers at the Beach, 3/27/10

March 27, 2010

Tags: writing, characterization, fiction writing, websites, branding

The second full day of workshops was just as packed as yesterday! Here are the events I attended, again with some thoughts. (I skipped the readings scheduled 10:00-10:45.)

Want: Character and Motivation (11:00-1:15)
The workshop leader was Jami Attenberg, author of the recently released novel The Melting Season and The Kept Man. I was impressed with Jami, not only because of her advice about characterization techniques, but because she was open about the writing business, how she came into it and how she lives the life. Her insights about writing were illuminating.

Jami had us do two writing exercises. I never write well in those situations (“Take 15 minutes to write about this scenario about this character”); I need time to think about the angles on an idea before it gels enough for me to write anything worthwhile. But I was amazed at the quality of work the other participants were able to create in short time!

A couple of things she said rings true to me. When talking about characterization, she said that “thought” (getting into a character’s head) “is where fiction shines, more than any other art form.” I’d never really considered this, but she’s right. Even film can’t go that deep into a character’s psyche. The writer wields great power in this regard.

Another piece of advice I found worth remembering concerned how to get “unstuck” when you’re not sure how a character should handle a plot situation. Jami suggested writing the scene in as many ways as you can think of, every alternative available, and see what works best. Another option is to simply ask people what they would do in a similar situation. Why not?

Lunch on Your Own (1:15-3:00)

The Story of You: Developing a Brand and Web Presence (3:00-5:15)
This was a great workshop, the one I participated in the most during this conference. Franklin Parrish, Creative Director of M19 Media, was the workshop leader. His focus was on defining branding for the freelance writer, and how to translate this branding to a strong Web site. I agreed with Franklin on virtually everything he said today. He’s a sharp guy.

My problem, when it comes to branding my Web site, is that my writing is all over the place (gardening, travel, educational management, suspense and horror fiction, a children’s book) and it’s tough for me to develop a singular brand. Franklin suggested branding myself as “multi-talented” on the umbrella site, and then focusing on branding the other elements separately, all under the umbrella of “me.” I’m still not sure how to pull this off. I think if the main site reveals my personality and style, the rest will fall into place. But, I still need to determine marketing strategies.

Keynote Dinner (6:30-8:15)
A wonderful dinner in the Swan Ballroom tonight. The keynote speaker was Steve Luxenberg, author of Annie’s Ghost.

Just one more day! One more workshop! Then back home, looking forward to next year’s conference!

What You (probably don't) Know

August 11, 2009

Tags: fiction writing, freelance writing, publications, writers

I attempted to catch up on my magazine reading this past weekend. I came across an interview with Brad Thor, author of The Last Patriot and other thrillers, in the December 2008 issue of Writer's Digest. (Yes, I'm very behind on my reading!) Near the end of the interview, Thor said, "'Write what you know' is the worst piece of advice you'll ever hear as a writer. If people only wrote what they knew, we never would've had a Ray Bradbury; we never would've had a J.K. Rowling."

I see Thor's point. I'm sure Jules Verne never journeyed to the center of the Earth, traveled around the planet in 80 days, dove 20,000 leagues under the sea, or hopped a rocket to the moon. Yet Verne certainly wrote classic novels on each of those topics.

But I also think Thor's statement is too simplistic.


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