31 January 2015

That's Not How Writing Works

So, I've been brainstorming another novel. With the aid of social media and search engines, I stumbled across useful tools that I didn't know about when I wrote my first novel (Micah's 45). Story worksheets. Character trait lists. Plot outlines. Setting charts. All sorts of wonderful things in paper or PDF format meant to help you organize your thoughts. Of course, when I started to think about this book, I had nothing more than a premise (killer stalks family) and a clincher sentence. That's similar to how I started Micah's 45, so it didn't really bother me. I sat down and just started typing. and it worked. Now, I did shortly have to come up with an outline (for the class that started Part 1 of Micah's 45) but it was far off base and even generalized so much as to be vague. I had no idea where the story was going until it got me much closer to the destination.

Yes, you read that correctly. Until it got me much closer to the destination. I was halfway between the land of sleep and normal life when an imagined scenario became the final chapter. So, I wrote the final chapter down. I still had no idea how I was going to get there. In fact, the ending seemed unexpected, bold. It was not what I had planned; I didn't have any idea how it fit with the rest of the story.

Then, why did it frustrate me when I couldn't immediately answer so many of the worksheet questions? I guess, somewhere along the way, I forgot how writing really works for me. I see something: a premise, a clincher, maybe just a character or a particular scene. And then I imagine all the ways that could have come to be. You start investigating the character(s) and you weed your way into their lives. I should clarify at this point that you investigate your characters, NOT stalk the real people who may have inspired a character. Don't be creepy; that's not cool.

It's possible that what I'm saying sounds awfully mystical to normal people. But I just don't seem to know a better way to describe it. As you write, you become better acquainted with your characters. As they grow and develop, your story grows and develops. Sometimes, your characters do something you didn't expect or want and sometimes you gets stuck because you're trying to force a character to do something that they just wouldn't do. That makes the writing hard because you have to keep an eye out for inconsistencies.

For example, in the first drafts of Micah's 45, I made Micah's speech too eloquent and cultured for a teenage girl with her personality and background. This problem is a good reason to encourage multiple revisions. But not just editing revisions. I mean full-blown self criticism bordering on the depressing. Everything from "Does this overall outline/plot/character/scene make sense?" to "Will other people think this story is implausible and stupid?"

But, for me, this flamboyant approach to writing works. And, for the most part, stringent adherence to worksheets, outlines, charts, and lists is just not how writing works.

P.S. Thats my opinion and my experience; you're free to politely (please and thank you: inappropriate comments will be deleted) disagree and teach me your ways, if you're so inclined.

02 January 2015

The Difference Between Graduate School and Undergrad

Lately, I've been reminiscing about the good old days. For me, that would be my years in undergrad. (I never understood people who wished they were back in high school. Horrible acne, bad nicknames, raging hormones. Trying to find a group you fit in with. No thanks...glad God me through all that in one piece.) After my first year of undergrad, I moved back in with my parents. They lived within walking distance of campus, allowed me to do my laundry without making sure nobody stole my underwear or dumped my clothes on the floor, and in general didn't seem to mind having their adult (an entire 19 years old) child around. After all, I was still living with them over summer/winter breaks. With a little assistance, I got my driver's license, bought my own car, and got my first job. Now, this is important.

If you remember the title of this blog post, that is. You see, during undergrad, I not only had time to go to class and do homework, I also had enough time on my hands to work a retail job. Not only that, but I also participated in the Physics Club and kept up enough of a social life to meet and date the man who eventually became my husband. The point is: I had time. And plenty of it.

Graduate school is different, though. Not only did I officially move out, but I also realized how little time there is in a day. For the first two years, I took the classes I would need for my Master's degree. My daily schedule went as follows: get up, get dressed, take the train to school, do homework in the library until class, go to class, back to the library for more homework, eat lunch if you remember/have time (which rarely happened), more homework, more classes, go home, eat dinner, more homework, shower and bedtime. That doesn't include the two semesters of teaching introductory labs. I know the only reason I even survived those is because God somehow carried me through it. Though I've mentioned in previous blog posts that much sweat and tears went into my getting off academic probation, in reality it was the grace of God that got me out of that mess.

Which brings out another point. In undergrad, I barely had to focus on my homework to get good grades. I could watch TV and write essays, skim through papers I was supposed to read, and quickly finish most assignments without even working with other students. Not graduate school. I quickly learned that I had to work from deadline to deadline, practically stalk the smartest kid in my program, and go to enough office hours that my professors probably got sick of me. GRAD SCHOOL IS HARD. Ridiculously hard. I'm sure some people breeze through it or maybe are in programs that come easier to them but grad school is more work and harder work than undergrad.

Now that I'm no longer in classes (thank God again), I do have more time and energy. Instead of classes, I "work" as a researcher in a laboratory. I put quotations on work because at this point in the degree program it becomes almost like a normal job with a boss and coworkers and meetings. Except it' really not. My "boss" is actually my adviser (though if I want my degree I probably should treat him like a boss because he does have the power to say, "Kid, I don't think this is going to work out, you should start looking for another group to work with." Though I don't expect that to happen (my adviser is almost as awesome as my undergrad thesis adviser), I still have to work hard and do my best. After all, being fired from a retail or fast food job might not hurt my career options but being kicked out of a research group really would. My "coworkers" are other students like me and my "meetings" can be anything from group update meetings to seminars I attend.

Finally, I'd like to make a distinction that I find myself explaining a lot to people who don't know much about grad school. You can't just transfer programs after starting one. You can't score low grades and get away with it. You can't really "switch majors." If you're working in a research group, you can't just "transfer to another school" because your friends want you to move back home. In some ways, there's much less freedom for mistakes or mind-changing in graduate school. But in other ways, you have more freedom than ever to learn exactly what you want to learn. In summary, grad school is good. But grad school is hard. Don't assume that just because you were a straight A student in undergrad means you will be in graduate school. Don't assume you're going to have extra time for a ton of different activities (at least not right away). But, like me, you'll eventually figure it out and find your groove.