Non Standard Plots: A Dog’s Purpose

At Agile Writers we adhere to The Hero’s Journey as laid out by Joseph Campbell in his seminal work The Hero With a Thousand Faces. We also take lessons from movie plots and combine them into the Agile Writer Method.

The Hero’s Journey has a standard pattern. The hero starts out in a familiar world where things are pretty static. Then something happens that upsets the hero’s world and he is thrust into unfamiliar territory. He must learn the rules of this “Special World” and overcome some great obstacle and return to the “Ordinary World” with the lessons learned.

The vast majority of story plots follow this pattern. But it’s not necessarily the only pattern. Sometimes writers break the mold of the hero’s journey to tell a compelling story using a different device to good effect.

One example I like to use is 2011’s War Horse – a Stephen Spielberg film. In it we’re introduced to a horse who is bought by a farmer at auction at the start of World War I. The horse is a thoroughbred – built for racing. But the farmer uses the horse to plow the fields. The horse demonstrates great heart in her work. Ultimately, the farmer is forced to sell the horse to the English cavalry. The horse is then owned by a captain who runs into a German infantry troupe and is killed. The horse then changes hands again and is used to pull cannons for the German artillery. The horse escapes and befriends a young French girl whose father works for the resistance. Finally, after the war is over, the horse returns to the farm only to find that it is overrun by cars, jeeps, and buses.

This pattern is the “anthology” story. The horse is not really the hero of the story. The horse is merely a.token that is passed from mini-story to mini-story to give the movie continuity. The horse doesn’t learn any lessons. But we’re witness to the loss of innocence of Europe and the transition from an agrarian society to a technological one. The world is changed, not our hero.

A similar device is used to good storytelling effect again in A Dog’s Purpose. In it, a dog, Bailey, is born, dies, and is reborn over and over. In each life the dog learns something new. And all through the multiple lives, Bailey has experiences that teach him how to be the best dog he can be.

It’s hard to watch a good dog die. Especially over and over again. While the story is cloying and tugs at the heart strings, the anthology pattern is used to good effect here. The message this movie wants to push home is “be present and happy in the moment – like good dogs do.” It does it by following one dog’s spirit through multiple reincarnations.

Not every story is a hero’s journey. At Agile Writers, we adhere to this pattern because most stories can be told to great effect using it. There are times, however, when other patterns, like the anthology pattern, may suit your needs better. Choose the pattern that serves your story best.

FIRST DRAFT FINISHERS!!!

Agile Writers has become the go-to place for writers in the Richmond area. Offering seminars in screenwriting, publishing, marketing, rewriting and much more. Nevertheless, majority of writers still join with one main goal in mind: to complete their first drafts. With that being said, Agile Writers would like to congratulate three of its own for crossing that first draft finish line.  A big round of applause to Cat Brennan, Jim Bono, and Christine Gauthier. They have spent countless hours immersed in their own heads trying to get the right words onto a blank page, chose to spend time with their fictional characters instead of with family and friends, and have outlined, plotted, and critiqued their way to the end.

These three are great examples of how the Agile Writers Critique Groups have transformed the usually solitary process of crafting a novel into a process that includes support from peers and brings the motivation, encouragement, and discipline that is needed to complete the first draft. All three give credit to Agile Writers and each other for their success.

cat                                                    CAT BRENNAN, Chaos in Old Town

Writer, Seamstress, and Recipient of the Grace of God.

Cat Brennan is one of those people that you cannot help but to like. With her bright and contagious personality it is no surprise that she once had her very own radio show entitled “Cathy D & Love Songs in the Night.” Currently Cat is working in Horticulture, described by her as getting to work with one of her favorite colors-green. Even better to Cat than working with a favorite color is being a Grammie and a GG. That for her, is the good life.

Chaos in Old Town tells the tale of lonely widow Abigail Jackson who decides to take a chance and open a fabric shop in Albuquerque, New Mexico. However, this decision comes with more than just the new life Abigail was hoping to find after the death of her cop husband. The opening of her shop brings about threats from the evil Vincente Quintana causing Abigail constant fear and wavering in her faith. But on the other hand, FBI agent, John Garrison also finds his way into her life. Although she has sworn to never be involved with an officer of the law again Abigail cannot help but be attracted to his blue eyed charm. Chaos in Old Town is a Christian Fiction Romance, with a heroine that is strong and full and faith. Which is why Abigail is Cat’s favorite character in the novel.

Cat joined Agile Writer’s a year and half ago so that she could gain discipline in her writing and in the end gained much more. She doesn’t hesitate to credit Agile Writer’s and her critique partners with having a huge part to do with her completion of her goal. Yes, she put in the work but without the inspiration and support from her “cheering section” as she calls her critique partners, or the coaching from Agile Writer leader Greg Smith she may not have finished.

 

jim

“Villans make fabulous subjects, since they have fewer and wider boundaries than heroes.”

Jim Bono, Guilt Trip

Guilt Trip, is Jim Bono’s second novel with Agile Writers. The 238 page science fiction follows protagonist Kristen Butler, whose life is changed when the high school senior finds an amulet with the power to inflict overwhelming feelings of guilt on whomever she chooses.  The concept for the story came from Jim asking himself the question, “how would an ordinary person deal with acquiring a super power?” Our heroine, Kristen, finds out the hard way that sometimes power comes with an awful price. For most writers, their protagonist is the favorite character. Jim is not most writers. Jim’s favorite character in his story is the parents of the main villain. It really is no surprise that these malignant pair of scoundrels are Jim’s favorite characters since he enjoys the unpredictability that are villains.

Like many a writer, the hardest part for Jim while writing his novel was putting the words on the first page each week. A blank screen can sometimes be a scary thing, but with a little motivation and a deadline to meet every week, Jim pushed through until he had finally reached The End. Jim credits Agile Writers with guiding him through his story with help developing his characters, building a plot structure, and ensuring critical points were positioned properly throughout the story.

The next step for Jim is to begin working on his second draft for Guilt Trip, with the help of his critique partners, Cat and Christine, whom he describes as indispensable. According to Jim, his partners provide him with motivation, creativity, logic, and the reassurance needed to complete what he started.

christine

 

“I ultimately finished, ten pages at a time, to stand in the light at the end of the First Draft Tunnel…”

Christine Gauthier, Hair Story

Hair Story chronicles a young woman, Christine, who at the prime of her life is diagnosed with Alopecia, a rare autoimmune disease. The tale follows Christine on a journey that would eventually lead her to India where she finds self-acceptance and learns that she is more than her disease. What is interesting about Christine’s novel is that it is based on true events from her own life. Christine not only has the courage to face alopecia but also has the courage to tell her story to the world.

Christine admits that the hardest parts of the novel to write came when writing about the bad that actually occurred in her life. Nevertheless, with the support and motivation from her critique partners she kept going and refused to give up because she knew that she had a story worth telling.

 

Three writers. Three great stories. Three more reasons why the Agile Writers Method works.

Agile Writers Spotlight

spotlightOne of the great things about Agile Writers is the members. Agile Writers brings together a diverse group of people that range from college student to retiree, from editor to healthcare worker, and everyone in between. Each month the Agile Writers Spotlight will shine the light on one of these great people to hear their thoughts on writing and what it means to them.  Of course, the Spotlight will also be a great chance to brag! And who better to put into the Spotlight first than the man with the plan,

                                                                       Greg Smith

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Greg’s love of writing began in middle school when he wrote a short-story on time travel. Which he then had to read to the class because the teacher liked it so much. Although Greg’s love of writing began in his youth, it would not be until 2001 that he would begin his quest to find the answer to the question, “What makes a good story?”

If you have read Greg’s book Agile Writer Method: Your Novel in 6 Months, you already know the following story. If you haven’t read the book, do so. ASAP.  2001 was the year that Greg’s parents celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary. He decided to gift them with a video-tape of their story, told through a series of interviews of his parents and a ton of other family members. The video was a hit with his family members. Not so much for people on the outside. This is when the quest began.

Greg spent five years running the Chesterfield Writer’s Club before deciding to start his own group. He wanted to create a group that was more than just a social meeting amongst writers. A group with structure and organization. He created Agile Writers and along with eighteen others created the Agile Writer’s Method. The Agile Writers Method is based on mythology, screenwriting, psychology, and project management.

Today Agile Writers has grown. Greg has moved into a new office and the increase in space allows Agile Writers to offer more classes and seminars on a multitude of writing subjects. The first Agile Writers Conference will also be held this coming January.  But….back to Greg.  So why would a software engineer and computer scientist spend so much time helping strangers complete their first drafts?

Greg have been working with computers for over 40 years and being the software engineer that he is, everything looks like a computer program. Even novel writing. When the Agile Writers Method was created, it became a step-by-step program that just about anyone can execute. Greg also runs Agile Writers because for him there is a thrill and sense of accomplishment every time someone completes their first draft. Without Agile Writers, some novels may not have made it across that first draft finish line.

One of the questions asked to Greg for the Agile Writer Spotlight was, if he was stranded on a deserted island what one book would he take and why? He had an interesting answer. He would take the dictionary, because, “it has all the words I’d need to create stories of my own.” And that is Greg Smith. Software engineer, author, and teacher. A man that looks at writing as a chance to examine all the questions he has about the world.

 

 

Announcing the Launch of Agile Rewriters

“The only kind of writing is rewriting.” – Ernest Hemingway

 

AW Logo BWThere’s an exciting new development underway at Agile Writers. Last week our fearless leader, Greg Smith, assembled a group of seven novelists in the process of writing a second, third, fourth or even fifth draft. He dubbed us the Agile Rewriters and bequeathed us Thursday nights, and we were off–swapping visions, ideas, struggles and solutions.

The task of the Agile Rewriters is to develop a repeatable method for the complex work of rewriting. Similar to the tried-and-true Agile Writer Method for creating a first draft novel in six months, the rewriters are ready to unpack and strategize the elements of successful rewriting.

How do we develop characters, organize timelines and backstory, decide on point of view, and test the mettle of each and every scene? How can we assess the cohesion and readability of our work? How do we empower our own style and voice to emerge?

How do we get our triumphantly produced 250 page rough drafts from the wobbly amateur stacks they are to the polished, marketable books we envision? And, as with all things in Agile Writers, how can we do that together, supporting one another through the process?

These are the questions we hope to successfully tackle.

Please stay tuned to find out what we uncover.

Time to Write

TimeToWrite1Today’s writers contend with distractions inconceivable to writers of the past. It has almost become pat to discuss the diversions inherent in living in our modern, digitally connected world. But these problems of instant gratification and endless attention shifting are even more lethal to the creative than they are to the average citizen.

The writing process requires a lot of space and silence, though that isn’t always immediately apparent. Writers are urged to read–read often and read the greats–and this is good advice. An hour with The Plague will certainly serve your craft better than an hour of watching cat videos. (No offense–I’m a total cat person!) But even carefully curating our information diets is not enough to protect our writing life.

Writers must also push back against over-scheduling and the pervasive, toxic level of busyness lauded by our society. If not, our minds and hearts will not have the resources to amalgamate whole worlds, or drink in new images, or index precise vocabulary for later use.

And not only is our culture generally hostile to the kind of deep reflection necessary for writing, it literally devalues creative endeavors–after all, writing is a gainful career for only a fraction of pursuants. So you can see the kind of conviction necessary to create a regular writing practice.

So how does a novelist stay focused on such an enduring project?

Like anything else, the desire to write must be a powerful one if the writer is to stay on task. I joke often that I only write because I can’t not-write. Not writing makes me cranky, to use a very scientific term. There is a kind of creative constipation that sets in any time I step away from the page for more than a couple of days. The mental hurdle to starting again grows in proportion to the time spent away. Eventually, I find myself sitting in front of my computer screen, hopeless that I will ever regain the ease of my own voice. (It does come back, if only after painful hours of working through the stock sentences and lame ideas that have built up inside my mental pipes. There is no shortcut for this, unfortunately.)

Even with this knowledge, I still go through periods of falling away from my daily writing practice. Sometimes I self-sabotage a project that is nearly completed. Sometimes I just allow the overgrowth of my life to cover and consume the time I’ve allotted for writing. Sometimes, through no fault of my own, my writing time gets eclipsed by other, more immediate needs.

In these times, when I feel the need to reset the boundaries of my writing life and reinstate the inner guard who takes my writing seriously, it is helpful for me to remember the advice to “do your own work first.” For me that means that I will answer emails in the afternoon, but I will write in the morning. I will read articles and books at night, but I will write in the morning. I will critique for my writing partners on schedule, but I will write my daily allotment of my own manuscript first.

The writing simply has to matter more than the other stuff. No one can give you that determination or discipline. You must earn it through careful observation of yourself when you are not writing, and truthful examination of all the pieces of your life and what purpose they serve. Use a felt sense of your own mortality for a scale. After all, the ultimate deadline will befall each of us eventually.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes about writing, from the late Zen Buddhist teacher and author, Alan Watts:

“Advice? I don’t have advice. Stop aspiring and start writing. If you’re writing, you’re a writer. Write like you’re a goddamn death row inmate and the governor is out of the country and there’s no chance for a pardon. Write like you’re clinging to the edge of a cliff, white knuckles, on your last breath, and you’ve got just one last thing to say, like you’re a bird flying over us and you can see everything, and please, for God’s sake, tell us something that will save us from ourselves. Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone. Write like you have a message from the king. Or don’t. Who knows, maybe you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t have to.”

Your writing matters. How do you make time for it?

Leaving Space for the Reader

06-the-white-room-6We entered into a productive discussion last week at Agile Writers. It centered on the problems inherent in writing (or acting, performing, producing) for an audience of peers rather than an audience of. . . people.

The topic arose because we are making our way through Lawrence Block’s classic on writerly craft, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. Block’s chapter, which served as the launchpad for our discussion last week, was entitled “Never Apologize, Never Explain.” In it, he states bluntly that the sort of temperament that draws a writer to writing–the amount of “ego” and “self-confidence” (Block’s words) needed to write– often brings with it a desire for control. This includes a desire to control the reader’s experience.

Obviously, this is fraught. Any time we attempt to control or manipulate another’s experience, I would argue, we have overstepped our bounds–we have done both too much and too little in the creation of our art. Too much in the sense of condescending to the reader, telling him or her how to feel and think about what we have made. And too little, in that it takes far more skill to master the art of leaving space for the reader’s own experience.

I am egregiously guilty of this. I find myself over-writing, particularly in a first draft, as I am explaining the work to myself as well as eventual readers. I think this is a necessary phase of mastering any craft. I’ve never written a novel before. This process is a long exercise in on-the-job-training. So I have to begin with both an absence of skill and a distrust of what abilities I do possess.

The real delight and craft comes in the subsequent cullings–the adventures in trimming the fat from my work, leaving only what is essential, true and beautiful (not merely aesthetically pleasing). This is a sort of tuning process. We strike each scene, sentence, each word with a kind of internal tuning fork. We ask it “are you essential?” and wait for the answer. If not, we break it off and let it go. The more we listen, the better we get at divining the difference between the essential and the discardable. I am reminded of the famous Faulkner quote:

“I’m a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.”

The second place I have encountered this idea in recent weeks was while listening to an interview with the author Junot Diaz on the New York Public Library Podcast. Diaz’s assessment of the essential mistake of contemporary novice writers is that they don’t leave adequate room for the reader.

Diaz himself takes this “leaving room” principle all the way to the level of genre. In the interview, he discussed his work The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which could be categorized as a loose collection of interrelated short stories, or a novel. It mixes languages, moves nimbly through time and space, switches from first to third person points of view, employs ample footnotes, all in an inevitable attempt to disorient the reader in precisely the way one might be disoriented as a part of the immigrant experience.

The result is lots of room for a reader to interpret and glean from the book different understandings. It isn’t anarchy though; Diaz is clear that Oscar Wao is about how it feels to be an immigrant, to live under a dictator and in a democracy, to grapple with masculinity as it is represented in two different cultures. These themes are undeniable and so vital that they could not be left to chance, even while elements as basic as genre and narrative voice are fluid and loosely defined.

What is most interesting to me about Diaz’s statements in the interview, is his diagnosis of the origin of this lack of ability to leave space for the reader. According to Diaz, who is a creative writing professor himself at MIT, the root of the problem is that writers are emerging more and more in a context of other writers. They go to conferences to talk to writers, they enter MFA programs to spend years in the company of other writers–both their peers and their mentors. Inevitably, the echo chamber this produces runs the risk of promoting the mastery of craft over originality, vitality and popular appeal. The writers of today, Diaz notes, are simply out of touch with readers.

Block outlined the crux of this more than twenty years ago: “A short story or novel constitutes a subtly different experience for every person who reads it, simply because each reader brings a different perspective and background to bear upon what he reads[. . .]The best we can do is write as carefully and as honestly as we can and let the reader make of our work what he will. If we write well, enough people will get enough of the message.”

So, who are readers, and how do we write for them? This issue strikes me as an elitist, ivory tower problem. Looking around the room at my fellow writers collected on a Wednesday evening, I see less danger of squeezing out the reader. We are not locked in higher education environments. We are chemists, teachers, parents, partners, and writers. One foot in the ordinary world, and one foot in the writing world.

Perhaps we are just putting our finger on the widening fault line between literary and genre novels. Those of us who seek to straddle the two (I would include myself here) face an increasingly difficult task. And those of us who unabashedly aim for salability and readability in our works need feel less ashamed. By shirking the masses, maybe the highest literary MFA-driven, conference-attending, adjunct-teaching, upper echelon of writers who write for other writers will go the way of the dinosaurs?

Lest I come off as too harshly critical of MFA programs, writing absolutely is a set of skills that can be taught. At their best, MFA programs are designed to do just this. To foster confidence in the execution of craft that can lead to wildness and vulnerability in the subject matter. But the ability to see and convey truth, to speak to a reader and move him or her without over-explaining and condescending, is an art. And art is stifled by closed environments and over-valued rule books. A writer, through trial and error, could perhaps land on the best crafting of stories. But given only the lessons of craft, and sealed off from the larger world, a writer risks going deaf to the murmurations of truth, the concerns and motivations of her readers.

The writer, if she is going to be a lightening rod for truth, and not merely a wordsmith, must trace the inevitable cycle of seers and sages of every stripe. Time alone on the mountaintop for the act of creation must be balanced by trips to the proverbial village, where the work is gifted to the world and the writer can drink in the cultural garb necessary to make her work relevant in contemporary society.

The acquisition of technical prowess is a slow and steady climb balanced by the grounding of our shared human experience. When you spend time in the world, and come to know your reader intimately, you will no longer underestimate their abilities or your own. You will leave space for their experience, and they will reward you with their readership.