Thursday, March 28, 2013

Spring Break

Yesterday my Spring Break officially began. At 2:15PM I shooed my eighth graders out the door with a cheerful, “See you in 10 days,” scored the pile of late work several students shoved in my hand as they exited, graded 88 units tests, and then zipped up my school bag with no intention of opening it until April 8th.

As I locked up my classroom, a colleague asked what my plans were for Spring Break.

“Writing,” I replied, “…well, actually revising.”

As we exited the building, my colleague reminded me that I had the same plans for Winter Break. I explained that writing is an on-going process; to which she commented, “It must feel sometimes like you never reach your goal.” 

I thought about that on my drive home. And yes, the process can feel a bit like taking two steps forward, one step back…or sometimes three steps back, but thanks to a recent writing workshop I attended, I was entering my Spring Break with a new goal.

On March 9th, I had the pleasure of enjoying a lovely day of learning, sharing and eating frosted brownies with friends and fellow writers. One of the speakers at the workshop was Editorial Assistant Alex Arnold from Katherine Tegen Books. She discussed ways to dust off the Winter writing blues and spring into Spring with your writing.

My favorite piece of advice Alex shared was pinpointing a one-word writing goal for Spring.

As writers, we tend to be wordy. The more, the merrier, right? Wrong. And as I’ve learned from more than one rejection letter, “less is more.” The same goes for setting goals. Too many words can make for weighty goals.

So think Spring. Think Light. Think word…as in the singular.
One little seed, which if you nurture, over time will grow and blossom.

My word for Spring is TRUST.

Trust my instincts.

Trust others’ advice.

Trust the process.

And trust my voice.

One word. One goal. And just like Spring, bursting with new possibilities.

And the beauty of my one-word goal, is that unlike some writing goals, which may take weeks, or months, or years to fulfill, I can enjoy the sense of accomplishment of fulfilling my TRUST goal every time I sit down to write…whether it’s a thousand words, or ONE.

So what’s your one-word goal for Spring? 

PS. In case you were wondering if I have a backup one-word goal for Spring, I do.  It is CHOCOLATE. It's more of a year-round goal, and may have been influenced by the workshop's frosted brownies, but I am proud to announce that I have been enjoying the sense of accomplishment of fulfilling this goal every time I sit down to write, as well. Alex didn't say we couldn't have two one-word goals.

Friday, March 22, 2013

External Quest vs. Internal Quest

In 2010 I had the opportunity to attend a writing workshop led by the amazing Linda Sue Park. The focus of her talk was a character’s quests. She explained that a character has two quests: external and internal.

The external quest is what the character wants.

The internal quest is what the character needs.

The two quests are never the same, and the character is often unaware of the internal quest, creating conflict. She then explained that the quest(s) the character achieves dictates the story ending.

If a character gets both what he wants and needs, it is a HAPPY ending.

If a character does not get what he wants, but gets what he needs, it is a HOPEFUL ending.

If a character gets what he wants, but not what he needs, it is a MORAL LESSON.

And finally, if a character does not get what he wants or needs, it is a DEPRESSING ending.

When teaching this concept to my eighth grade ELA students, I begin with familiar texts and video before moving on to more complex stories. This year my classes started with the climactic scene from Wreck It Ralph.

My students determined the following during their analysis of the story.

Ralph’s external quest is he wants a gold medal, so that others will finally accept him and see him as a good guy.
Ralph decides he needs to win a medal
Ralph decides he needs to win a medal - click picture to watch scene
His internal quest is that he needs to accept himself for who he is and realize he already is a good guy. 
Ralph realizes his internal quest
Ralph realizes his internal quest - click picture to watch scene
The climactic scene illustrates what Linda Sue shared at her writing workshop three years ago. It shows Ralph recognizing his internal quest. It is also a Disney film, so it provides me with both what I want (to view a Disney clip in school) and what I need (my students to grasp an abstract concept), which as my students can now tell you, gives us a HAPPY ending!

Determining a character's external and internal quests is a great exercise in the classroom and in your writing. Next time you sit down to work on your story, see if you can pinpoint your characters' quests.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Just Keep Swimming

A writer’s journey is not for the faint of heart. You must be willing to accept critiques (some gentle, some harsh) of work you’ve labored over for months and years. You must have the fortitude to slice and dice your beloved work, casting aside characters and threads your creative mind has nurtured. You must have the patience to wait and wait and wait some more. And you must trust the process and your own voice enough to pick yourself up after every rejection and try again.

So why do I keep writing? That’s easy. I have to. If I go a week without writing, I get very cranky. It’s not pleasant. But ask any writer, and they will tell you the same. We write because we love writing. We love the process, the creativity, and the sense of accomplishment of finding the perfect words to give our imaginations a voice. 

A better question is how do you keep writing? That answer is as unique as the writer you ask. I have an arsenal of coping techniques I utilize after a harsh critique, tough day of revising or painful rejection.

Here are my top 10:

1. Consume my weight in chocolate.

2. Exercise, which is necessary after completing #1. I prefer karate (what better way to de-stress than being encouraged to punch, kick and scream)

3. Reread the positive critiques I’ve received on writing projects 

4. Lose myself in a favorite book

5. Plan a vacation, even if it is not in my present budget or immediate future

6. Did I mention consume my weight in chocolate? Yes? Well it bears repeating.

7. Call Mom & Dad for a pep talk only my parents can deliver

8. Dive headfirst into a different writing project for a spell

9. Spontaneous dance party with my sons

10. Read inspirational quotes and stories. 

One such story, which I keep in my writing folder and read often, is the story of Florence Chadwick.

Focused on the Goal
Her goal was the California coastline --a 34 km swim from Catalina Island. It was no more distant than the width of the English Channel, a goal she had already conquered as the first woman to swim it from both directions. Although she was a seasoned long-distance swimmer with incredible stamina, she trained arduously to prepare herself to achieve her goal.

July 4th, 1952
Millions watched on national television, as 34 year old Florence Chadwick began her swim. The water was icy cold; the fog -- so thick she could hardly see the support boats alongside her. As the hours passed, she was repeatedly stung by jellyfish. Sharks had to be driven away with rifles. Yet she pressed on, determined to achieve her goal.

15 hours later
Numbed with the cold, she was ready to give up. Her mother and her trainer were in a boat at her side. "Florence. You are almost there. Don't give up now." Encouraged by her mother's admonition, she continued to swim.

Fifteen hours and fifty minutes after she began her swim, the support team reluctantly agreed to pull Florence from the water. Several hours later, after she warmed up, she realized she had given up only a few hundred meters from her goal! If she had continued just a little while longer, the waves would have carried her to the beach. "If I could have just seen the land for myself, I would have made it!". She told reporters it was not the sharks, the fatigue, or even the cold water that defeated her. She had been defeated by the fog alone. It had obscured her goal and blinded her reason, her eyes and her heart.

                                                 Never give in to defeat.
1952 was the only time Florence Chadwick ever quit. Two months later she swam that same channel. The water was still ice cold and still inhabited with sharks. Once again fog obscured her view. But this time she pressed on, BELIEVING that somewhere beyond that fog, her goal would be reached. Not only was she the first woman to swim the Catalina Channel, but she beat the men's record by two hours!

 I love this story. It sums up the writing/publishing process. There are supporters, who follow and encourage the writer, but ultimately she swims alone.  The journey is long and exhausting.  As she pushes forward, rejections sting, and nay-sayers circle. Doubt, cold and heavy, stalks her every stroke, until at last, she believes the shore unreachable.

But she must keep swimming.

And you must keep swimming.

The shore may be closer than you think.

I warned you of my Disney obsession. I made the above Nemo banner this summer.
It hangs in my 8th grade classroom as a constant reminder for my students and me to
Just Keep Swimming!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Joining the Conversation

Five years ago, I embarked on two journeys. The first began one Saturday morning as I sat on a hard plastic chair watching my sons’ karate classes. The second began in the meeting room of our local Barnes & Noble as I watched writers share first paragraphs they’d written from a prompt on Editor Cheryl Klein’s blog.   

Two very different situations. Two very different worlds. Yet both journeys began with the same first step: a decision.

On both days I decided to stop being a spectator and step on the field, or as was the case with karate, the mat.

That Saturday morning in 2008 I enrolled as a student of Isshin-ryu karate.  A week later I wrote six lines of what would evolve into my first young adult novel.

It has been five years since I began my journeys in writing and karate.  During that time, I have written two and a half young adult novels and have yet to return to the hard plastic observer chairs of my dojo.

At times both journeys have been daunting, frustrating, and painful (especially the time I hit myself in the face with my own bo staff). But more often than not, karate and writing have brought me rewards I never anticipated: friendships, confidence, balance, perspective, and patience. (Ok, to be honest, that last one I’m still working on, but my husband swears he’s seen growth, so it’s staying on the list.)

Today I begin a new journey: blogging. I’m a long time lurker of many amazing writing blogs. I’ve considered creating a blog in the past, but always managed to talk myself out of it. However following an inspiring writing workshop last weekend in Baldwinsville NY, I’ve decided to stop being a spectator and join the conversation.

Most weeks I will post about the ups and downs of my writing journey.  However, as my karate and writing paths have intersected on more than one occasion over the last five years, don’t be surprised to see the random karate rambling. And in the spirit of full disclosure, I am a Disneyholic, so there may be a sprinkling of pixie dust throughout my postings.

So, welcome to my Writer’s Dojo blog! Please feel free to pull up a hard plastic chair, or if you feel comfortable, join in the conversation.