Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Tag: lessons

Writing the Formulaic Novel: Yes, Please

In a previous post, I wrote that I had a great concept for a new novel while I was writing my last book, Becoming Mother. Of course, I didn’t have the time to pursue it while I was finishing my last book, but I scribbled out some pages in hopes of not letting the idea get too far from me.

Three weeks ago, I went on summer vacation from teaching. This is my time to write. Pretty much my only, luxurious, uninterrupted time to dive into a creative project.

I wanted to make the most of it.

Even with all uninterrupted time, writing did not come easy this time. Every time I would sit to put my characters in a scene, I would get blocked. What would he say? How would she act? What happens next?

And then the dreaded, What’s this story really about again?

Argh. So frustrating.

How could I write this story if I couldn’t even get my mind around it?

I ignored it and plowed ahead, letting the scenes take me where they wanted.

Boy, did I get lost.

I kind of started developing an understanding of the characters that I was writing about, but I still felt like I didn’t really know where the story was going. But worse, I didn’t feel like I could see into the soul of these people.

***

Last Thursday, totally in a funk, I closed the “Working_Draft_3” document that I was hammering away at. Then, I pulled this book off my shelf.

Marshall Plan

I bought this book several years ago when I was looking for ways to improve my already-written first novel.

I’ll be honest about my first impression: I scoffed at it.

This guy was presenting a “formula” for writing a great novel. It gave you guidelines for how many sections to have in the beginning, middle, and end, depending on the final word count. It pretty much laid out a lock-step guide for crafting a novel.

Great art is not formulaic, I’m sure I thought. And I’m an artist.

Yeah, but I was also a novice. I didn’t really know the first thing about crafting engaging and well-paced scenes inside narrative arcs.

I wanted to break the rules before I even knew them.

And that’s how I ended up with 400 single-spaced pages of plot-gone-wrong.

And a beast of a novel that was far to wily for me to tame after the fact.

***

When I revisited this book last Thursday, I thought, Yes! This is exactly what I need.

I need structure–badly.

My idea is great. But this book helped me work through some of the biggest challenges in creating an engaging and believable plot and characters.

I used to think (secretly) that I was too good to write a formulaic novel.

Nope. I’m not.

I’m not above it at all.

I’ve got a lot to learn, and I’m ready to learn it.

And in that spirit, I’ve plotted out all 48 sections of this new novel, complete with three formulaic surprises and worsening failures for the lead character from start to finish. I also spent time creating characters notes so that I could understand my character’s inner struggles and conflicts.

Now, when I sit down to work on a scene, all I have to do is look at my notes on the current section that I’m writing, review my character notes, and jump into it. I realize that I don’t have to have this all finished before I return to teaching–because I can just look back at my notes and remember where I’m going.

I’m on my way to my SFD–my shitty, first draft.

Pride, swallowed.

Bullying

So my daughter is in love with the Berenstain Bears right now. And I happen to love that. Each story tackles a challenge that kids face and usually offers sound advice and moral lessons. Don’t eat too much junk food! Do chores around the house! Learn to compromise with friends! Don’t brag about yourself all the time! Take turns! Clean up after yourself!

I mean, really, who doesn’t love these books?

And then I read how the Berenstain Bears tackled the bully issue.

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So in this episode, Sister Bear is the one that gets beaten up by a bully. (Nice twist, huh?) Brother is so pissed off about it that he marches down to the playground to knock this kid’s lights out–only to find out that the bully is a girl. Then, he decides that he can’t punch a girl. Why?

“Because then he’d be a bully, too.”

So, the first lesson is that if boys hit girls, they’re bullies.

… Which begs the question: What are boys if they hit other boys? Just boys? The old “boys will be boys” line?

So Brother stalks away, his masculinity deflated, disappointed and frustrated that he can’t hit a girl.

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I’ll summarize the rest of the story: Brother Bear then goes to the school’s gym teacher, who then gives him boxing gloves (not kidding). Then, Brother Bear goes back home and teaches Sister Bear self-defense in the basement of the Bear Tree House. All of this happens unbeknownst to Mama and Papa Bear, whose advice isn’t much better.

“Just avoid the bully as much as possible,” they say.

However, when Sister Bear is inevitably confronted by the bully on the school playground, she indeed punches the bully right in the face (not kidding).

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Both Bears are sent to the principal’s office. The bully cries as they wait to be disciplined, and Sister has a revelation that this kid is probably hit by her parents.

Resolution: Sister gets off with a warning. The bully gets a week of no recess–and they don’t tell her parents.

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***

Two weeks ago, I heard my husband tell our daughter, “If he pushes you, I want you to say ‘Don’t push me!”

It seemed weird to be having this talk with a 2 1/2 year-old child. But I guess this is when these conversations need to start?

I’m the first to admit that I don’t have clear advice or strategies to share with my daughter about how to deal with bullying. Is it good advice to tell her to push back?

One thing I do know: I cringe at the thought of telling her to just avoid a bully.

So what options remain? Should I tell her to tell the teacher? But then, I also want her to know that she has agency to solve her own problems.

But then, she’s two.

Bargh…

What do/did you tell your two-year-old?

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