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Monday, February 25, 2013

The Heroic Journey of Every Writer: Part One

By Martina Boone @4YALit
“If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it's not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That's why it's your path.” ~ Joseph Campbell

When I decided to write a novel, I didn't stop to think where I was going or how long the journey was going to be. I simply wrote. And then I discovered that the novel needed—deserved—more than that. It needed me to have a clue about what I was doing, inconsequential things, you know, like structure and story elements.
As writers, we can try to reinvent the wheel, sure, but we will get farther faster if we start with a working wheel and then concentrate on making a different or, hopefully, better one. Maybe a few of us are lucky enough to have taken English or Literature or Creative Writing. For the rest of us, learning the basics of crafting fiction is a do-it-yourself MFA program. These days, many of us are doing that program together, making the same journey and blogging about it en route. Of course, some of us are on foot and some are in race cars. But that's okay. I honestly believe we are all going to get there at the pace we need to set.
My pace? Think turtle crawl.
One of the first books of wisdom I encountered on the road was The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the Collected Works of Joseph Campbell. From there, I devoured Chris Vogler's The Writer's Journey. And as I was searching for a way to tighten up the framework of my manuscript, I began to correlate all the brilliant insight from these teachers and various other sources into something I called the Complications Worksheet. I go back to that worksheet each time I start a new project, and the other day while I was on the phone with the brilliant Angela Ackerman (co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus and The Bookshelf Muse blog, I had a revelation. The journey the hero takes in our manuscripts is essentially the same journey many of us take as writers.

Here we are, bumbling through our careers and family lives, vaguely uneasy and unfulfilled but maybe not even aware that there's a void inside us, a gaping wound. Why haven't we written yet? It could be that we tried and failed, or that we had to get on with the business of making a living, or raising kids, or maybe we have a family who has always dismissed writing as a pointless pursuit—something everyone wants to try but only a chosen few achieve. Implying, of course, that we're not good enough. So we shelve our illicit hopes, paint on a smile, and get on with our lives not realizing that something inside is tugging us in a different direction than the path we are still trudging down.


But then . . . Then we have a dream, or read a book, or see a movie, or witness an event that shakes us. Something stirs inside us, an elusive wisp of an idea scented with adventure. It begins to rise and pull us with it, beckoning us to come along, to put our own spin on the wheel of inspiration.


Of course we refuse. We're human. We're afraid. We don't have time, we don't have money, we don’t have the knowledge to pursue something as overwhelming as writing an actual book.

Or maybe we don't refuse. Maybe we take those first tentative stops, only to hear someone else, someone who means well, who doesn't want to see us hurt or disillusioned, make the refusal for us. For our own good. Because really, the idea of writing for publication is absurd, and we shouldn't have any expectations.


Still, someone, somewhere, gives us a few words of encouragement. Maybe it's something as small as a sentence in the Author's Note of a book that resonates, or something we read in an interview or on a blog, or maybe we're lucky enough to know a writer. It could even be that someone reads our first hesitant scribblings and has the kindness not to laugh. These encounters give us our first supplies for the long trek, the first guideposts to set our feet on the long and rocky road. We reach deep and dig out some hidden spring of courage and take that initial, hesitant step.


At the end of Act One, we've committed to venturing beyond the Ordinary World of 8 to 5, diapers, homework, cooking dinner, cleaning house. We step into a mist-shrouded swamp, someplace new and different filled with rules we don't know and emotions we're not prepared to feel. 


We don't exist in isolation. Suddenly, we encounter all sorts of other people with feelings and opinions about us and the journey we're undertaking. Some of them help us and some make us wish we'd never even thought of writing. Some aren't actual people at all; our manuscripts themselves serve every one of the roles a hero encounters in his travels: heralds, allies, mentors, threshold guardians, villains and enemies, shapeshifters, and tricksters. They all serve a role, testing us in some way while we sort out who they are to us and how we have to deal with them. Some we're happy to leave behind; they criticize us to make themselves feel better; they hold us back. Some we have to reluctantly leave behind; they present so much drama we're worn down trying to help them instead of helping ourselves. Some we follow and some we lead. All of them teach us about ourselves, all of them help us settle into the voice that will shape our themes and writing.


We approach the biggest obstacle. At the time, we probably don't even know it's going to be that hard. We've got the manuscript written. Rewritten. Edited. Refined. Polished. We think the story is solid, plenty of conflict, no plot holes, no sagging middle, no weak Peggy-Sue characters. The writing shines. We've gathered our critique partners, our beta readers, and they have trained with us, cheered for us, pushed us until we know that we are ready to battle through to submission. And make no mistake, querying the marketplace is the biggest battle we will face.


We prepare the list agents or publishers to query, and we think that puts us almost at the end of our journey. In truth, we have barely reached the midpoint. But it is the most crucial point, the initial test. Did we do more than write a book? Did we write a saleable book, a book that's unique, a book that's the right marriage of story and writing craft? One that readers will eventually hold in their hands and make greater by bringing their own experiences and ideas into the reading? We face our greatest fear, the question of worthiness. Have we spent months, years, writing something no one will ever read? We die a little each time we obsessively check the inbox and read another rejection letter.

Not to leave you hanging about what happens after a rejection (other than drowning our sorrows with chocolate), but part two of your writing journey continues on Wednesday.

Do you relate to any of the steps on the journey so far?


Martina loves reading and writing books about beautiful, vicious, magical worlds that intersect our own, and about the monsters of myth and folklore that sometimes show more humanity than we do. She's the founding member of the Adventures in YA Publishing blog and runs the monthly First Five Pages Workshop. Follow her on twitter as @4YALit or visit her website.


Dorette said...


Thanks for sharing this -- I think it's incredibly spot on. When I attended a StoryMasters workshop and met Chris (Vogler) he relayed that really all events (our trips, and our day to day life too) often mirror this very same structure. The hero's journey is hard-wired into us and that's why some stories ring so true. And what makes them so compelling no matter how many times you see them. Merci!

Jai said...

Very thought provoking post. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Terrific post Martina. Can't wait to read part two!

- Cathy

Martina Boone said...

Thanks, lovelies! :)

Dorette, that's wonderful that you got to meet Chris Vogler. (And it's lovely to meet a writer who digs in like you clearly do!) Vogler's book is wonderful, and I'd love to take a workshop like that. The more I study story structure, myth, and folklore (a hobby, I confess!), the more I truly believe that we are hardwired to certain story patterns at this point. The universal quest. I loved Lisa Cron's book, WIRED FOR STORY, too. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it.

Jai and Cathy, I hope you found something in here that you've experienced. The good part is coming up, I promise :)

Stina said...

Thanks, Martina, for the great post. And part two is great, too. I could relate to everything you said. :D

Martina Boone said...

Thanks so much for having me, Stina! I'm excited to see if others relate to Part 2--that seems to be where most of us get stuck, but it's worth it to keep going, right? :)

Carolyn Abiad said...

I recognize many of these steps!
And you're third person to recommend Lisa Cron's book. I'm off to order my copy.

Dorette said...

Martina, I sure am still on course, but have to say I was in the ORDEAL phase. Enjoying the journey for the sake of the journey is always there. Bringing the worlds within, up to the surface and into the world with(out)are challenging in their own landscape. I (maybe) have come to accept that the literary world has changed so much since I began the long journey of writing the novel that was my watershed work. I have made some recent decisions and modified my expectations. Sounds as though Lisa Cron's book is a must! I have to also recommend Donald Maas's 21st Century Fiction. And to all, take heart and continue, because without you writing your story, it would not exist! Merci, Martina.

Anonymous said...

This is so where I'm at - and what I talk about on my blog this week too. I take on the query porcess and interview an editor about hot to do it all better the first time. http://wp.me/pMefj-n9

Julie Musil said...

Martina, this is BRILLIANT!

Linda Phillips said...

Thanks for these insights, Martina! And I'm blessed to have shared a piece of the journey with you at YBB!