Guiding Questions

Mrs. Powell,  my seventh and eighth-grade English teacher, taught her students to ask the questions “Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How?” when we wanted to write something. Her guidance helped me write many pages of reports, manuals, grammar books, articles, and research plans. This superficially simple system is now helping me focus the development of my novel.

Whom Should I Write a Novel About?

I have asked myself the following types of questions:

  • Whom I have known?
  • What do I know about them?
  • Should I write about individuals I have known?

Ultimately, I rejected the idea of writing about a real person because I want to write fiction. But a writer has to decide whether to create entirely new types or build composites of personalities they have encountered.

Created characters can be loved or despised. Reading novels, I learned how to build friendships, though some of my best friends when I was a child were heroines in my favorite novels. The boys I dreamed of were much more like the knights in shining armor in my beloved fairy tales than they were like the guys in my class at school.  Reading novels, I learned how to deal with aggressive people; this helped me in real life.

I read a quote once by an author (I cannot, unfortunately, be precise about its origin or accuracy) that matched my personal experience, “I come from inside the books I have read.” So, my big question is whom do I create? Heroes, villains, winners, losers, or simply conventional men and women?

What Do I Need to Know to Write a Novel?

What we know is definitely related to when we have lived. Each decade has its style, jargon, slang, music, and problems. To echo Mikhail Bakhtin’s work, what we know is also dialogical: it crosses generations from those who came before us to those who have followed or will follow us. We learn about those who preceded us in our schooling, in our religious training, in our communities, and from our elders. Stop and think about a story you know from each of those settings. Whenever I think of my mother, I remember her reciting poems to us, poems that she had memorized as a child. Her experience of the poems became my experience of the poems. She loved “The Sugar Plum Tree” by Eugene Field so much she had it printed and framed for each of her grandchildren. My daughter’s copy hung in her room when she was a child. We also know stories about our parents’ mothers and fathers and sometimes about our grandparents’ families. Some are told over dinner and others are printed out in published books. What do I need to know about my characters to create them to fit their era?

Where Should My Novel Take Place?

“Where?” can refer to where we live, where we have traveled, where we want to go. But where also comes from the books we have read or books that have been read to us. Books have taken me places I have never been—to other continents, to the jungle, to outer space, to other planets. As I have worked on what type of fiction and in what setting I want to write, I seem to always return in my mind’s eye to Colorado. I have lived on the Western Slope and on the Eastern Slope which have very distinct geography, weather, and types of people. It is an environment I love and understand, so I think I have a firm grounding to write about my “Where?”

Why Do Individuals/Characters Do what They Do?

Of particular interest to me is the “Why?” “Why?” of course moves into premises, values, justifications, plans, excuses, disappointments, loss, emotions of every timber. Exploring what I know about the “Why?” helps me address what I have learned about human beings. I have taken courses in normal and abnormal psychology, as well as courses in sociology and literature. The “Whys?” that I want to explore do not fall on the pathological side. The deranged is too dark for me, too frightening. I am not interested in writing a “Clockwork Orange” or a “Frankenstein.” What I am interested in is more ordinary personalities. I am interested in growth and development. I wonder why individuals become who they are capable of becoming or, on the other hand, fail to do so.

How Do I Approach Writing a Novel with Meaning?

To be capable of becoming a novelist, I need to question how I think. This is new territory for me. Reading a novel allows readers to get a glimpse of how the author thinks, what the author is thinking about, and why the author is thinking it. Now I have to apply my skills to an analysis of my own writing mind. No one else knows for sure how we think, though they may wonder. A friend of mine recently told me that I always look as though I am chuckling over some hilarious secret. When my daughter was little she was sure that I could read her mind. I reassured her that her mind was her own. She could think anything she wanted to think about and I would never know what it was. She proceeded to give me a thinking test, scrunching up her brow, and looking as though she were in deep thought. Of course, I failed her test.

Reading allows us to explore questions that absorb writers. I will keep Mrs. Powell in mind as I venture into exploring my own questions through my writing. As an author, I definitely want my readers to be intrigued by the questions my characters pose.

Update on my goal setting:

  1. For four months now, I have been able to carve out time for my creative writing and the necessary research to support it.
  2. Since April 7, 2018, I have continued to make progress on my writing. I have added new chapters and gone back to original chapters and expanded them. It was a struggle this month to reach my page goal. Today my page counter should stand at 120 and it reads 107. It is amazing how many existential events occur to interfere with one’s daily plans.
  3. I have successfully posted four blogs on the seventh of the month which is my goal for 2018. This one is my fifth.
  4. Additionally, my network of kindred spirits is growing because I have attended about one workshop per month. I have also dipped my toes a little deeper into the social media pool by attending a workshop on branding yourself as an author. Luke Humbrecht, who is a marketing consultant as well as a StoryBrand Certified Guide, discussed how to describe oneself and one’s work in a short statement. I am still working on mine since my work is definitely still “in-progress.”


How to Begin a Novel?

Choosing a Novelistic Form

Different readers like different types of novels. A novel format that has always held my attention as a reader is the Bildungsroman. The German term tends to be used in literature books because the definition is complex in English. In German, Roman means novel and Bildung means education. Bildungsromans are stories about the struggles and lessons the young hero or heroine experience as they move into young adulthood. Thus, they are novels that focus on personal development.

Reading Rousseau’s Emile, Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, Flaubert’s L’Education sentimentale, or George Sand’s (Aurore Dupin Dudevant’s) Consuelo, I could always identify with the main character. As a reader, I yearned and learned along with the hero or heroine in my parallel shadow existence.

What intrigues me in a novel is the emotions that accompany the creative, social, interpersonal, and psychological growth of the character. It is probably the reason I became a teacher, counselor, and educational trainer in my career. If I wasn’t writing fiction, at least I was always involved in a dramatic moment. This fascination with human growth and development makes me want to try my hand at creating such a story.

Selecting a Time Period to Intensify the Form

Novels can be historical, contemporary, or set in the future. Selecting a period that I lived through would allow me to write about what I experienced, read, and learned about at the time. I would be more knowledgeable about the news, photos, and period resources necessary, and better recognize what was lasting and what has been shown to be ephemeral. It would allow me to create the verisimilitude essential to a story whose truth resonates with the reader, allowing me to concentrate on the storyline. Because one time in my life that I loved was the 1970’s, perhaps I could write a Bildungsroman focused on those years.

Examining My Personal Shtick

I have always loved words. My favorite one is a French word, “l’épanouissement” which means blossoming, developing, spreading, flourishing, ripening, or flowering. One reason I like it is that it means all of the above English meanings in one word. The word itself seems to “s’épanouir”!

Nevertheless, the translation into French of Bildungsroman is not a “roman d’épanouissement,” which one could expect, but rather a roman de formation or roman d’apprentissage. Interestingly, “formation” in French is used in the way we use training in English, as in teacher training, while “apprentissage” means learning. In the hero version of this novelistic form, the hero achieves what is necessary to move forward. Emile’s education works for him. Wilhelm Meister persists. In the feminine version, the heroine often dies. Flaubert’s Madame Bovary commits suicide. Rousseau dispatches Julie in La Nouvelle Héloïse. George Sand, on the other hand, breaks with the tradition of the dead heroine and allows her Consuelo to triumph musically and spiritually.

This fascination with the Bildungsroman and with blossoming leads me to my novel format of choice and to the general theme of the novel I want to write. I want to write a roman d’épanouissement. I want to write about a heroine who blossoms and flourishes. Yet, I also want to juxtapose my heroine with characters who fail to bloom because of some character flaw or because they get caught up in other people’s expectations.

Life is about blossoming or wilting or dying, as is the novel form.

Update on my goal setting:

  1. Since March 7th, 2018, I have continued to make progress on my writing despite having to do taxes and despite having house guests for two weeks. What I have learned this month is how the expression “Life happens” encapsulates our personal vulnerability in the face of daily existence.
  2. For the first three weeks of March, I did not manage to keep to a schedule nor did I write at least one page per day. Consequently, at the end of the month, I had to practically kill myself to catch up. I did manage to get my page count up to my goal of 90 pages. I also learned that I am capable of writing 10 pages a day!
  3. Additionally, I was able to turn in a proposal for the RMFW Gold Conference 2018 by the due date of March 31, despite having to spend an afternoon at Apple having a bug removed from my computer. March is aptly named for Mars the god of war—or in my case, the god of personal battles.

I am finding it to be challenging and rewarding to set my goals and challenge myself to reach them each month. The flow of my writing is smoother. My creativity is ripening. It is much more fun to feel satisfaction rather than regret.

Journaling to Probe Your Imagination

Personal Journaling

I have journaled for most of my life. Not in the sense of a diary, which would have created a chronological history, rather I have simply recorded my thoughts with no specific goal in mind. My journals are handwritten. Some are written on blank sheets; others on pages of “empty books.” The handwriting might be indecipherable to anyone who has not been a public-school teacher, especially on the pages written in the middle of a sleepless night. Despite the visual deficiency, the act of journaling has served me well. I have journaled to help myself figure out what I am doing, thinking about, or struggling with in my life. I have journaled to work through decisions, solve relational issues, or manage my emotions. I have detailed my thoughts to sustain myself through multiple life transitions. I journaled to calm myself the night my daughter was giving birth. While she and her husband were at the hospital, I was in bed with a terrible flu and bronchitis. I recorded my frustration with not being there, not being able to help or hold the new baby. I felt quarantined. My grandson was born at 5:55 AM. I wasn’t well enough to visit him until he was three weeks old.

Dream Journals

Since my teenage years, I have recorded significant dreams. Some are incredibly kinesthetic, for example, a recurring dream that I am flying low (like Wonder Woman) over the French countryside. Others pulse with technicolor realism, such as my dream of a brown baby elephant running toward me in the opposite lane of a boulevard bordered with plane trees. One nightmare in my 30’s, about someone committing a murder, scared me out of my wits. Other dreams, which resemble the theatre of the absurd, could morph into publishable Becket-style literary works.

On my nightstand, I keep several dream dictionaries. When I have a dream that makes my hair stand on end or one that makes me laugh, I awake asking myself the question, “What on earth was that about?” I look up the main images of the dream in my reference books to see if I can figure out their meaning. This practice has taught me much about symbols’ origin in powerful emotions. This dream-related personal research has furthered my understanding of human consciousness writ large. It has also refined my ability to analyze connections between my own reality and potential topics for fiction.

Journaling for Self-Knowledge

In an earlier blog, I stated that I want to make my known known. In my efforts to understand life, the logs have served as probes to reach into the depths of myself. They have unveiled my deepest desires. Writing to figure out what I am struggling with has made me more honest with myself. Recording the extremes of my emotions has forced me to face my own limits. Articulating my transitions on paper has helped me to see how my experiences relate to the lives of characters in stories I have read. Now as I work on my fictional works, I attempt to apply my insights to the creation of my imaginary worlds. Journaling has given me problem-solving skills for both life and writing.

 Update on my goal setting:

  1. Since February 7th, I have continued to make progress on a novel. I have persisted in my research. The most personally satisfying research article I read this month said that accomplishing one’s goals increases one’s endorphins. This explains why checking accomplishments off my list delights me.
  2. Since my last blog, I have written at least one page per day. This daily practice is helping me to develop my characters’ personality traits through their dialog. My knowledge of symbols and history is proving to be valuable as I set the stage for a particular scene. My total page count currently stands at 63, while my goal for today was 59 pages.
  3. Talking to my writing colleagues at our monthly meetings has given me the courage to list this blog with the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. It has also encouraged me to invite my group to join the RMFW and to turn in a proposal for the RMFW Gold Conference 2018.

To Write or Not to Write What You Know?

Write What You Know?

Authorities advise, “Write what you know.” I have struggled with this concept. To me, it means, “Write what you have lived” which seems to limit my possibilities. A human being’s experiences certainly build her memories, but do memories have the most direct impact on her writing?

Write What Interests You?

Writing teachers have said, “Write about what interests you.” In fact, as I wrote this statement down, I recalled my first experience with “research.” A junior high teacher asked us to write a research paper on a topic of personal interest. I chose to write on cats because I liked cats—my own was a sleek Siamese named Shan. The only other cats I knew belonged to my Aunt Blanche. Her barn cats who were essentially wild cats, quite different from my talkative, blue-eyed beauty. My first foray into research did teach me new information— geography, biology, and cat psychology. Importantly, I learned to use the Encyclopedia Britannica for “research,” instead of just reading it for fun. However, when I heard the other students’ presentations, I thought my own could have addressed a more exciting topic.

Does Writing What You Know Mean Writing About You?

Diverse genres approach “writing what you know” in different ways. Autobiographies represent “writing what you know,” at least writing what the authors remember, though they may embellish the truth. Biographies address writing what others might have known, thus, pundits tend to critique what the biographer adds. Although my book clubs’ lists contain many memoirs, I find them rather tedious with the exception of one that captured my full attention. In H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald writes what she knows. Her personal story is unique. Her style is intriguing. Her scientific knowledge is thorough. She successfully melds emotion with action based on knowledge. Despite the fact that it is a memoir, it reads like fiction. Nonetheless, writing an autobiography, biography, or memoir does not appeal to me. I want to write fiction.  Fiction’s creative potential is limitless.

Writing About a Setting You Know

As I have worked on my fiction over the years, I have played with topics with which I am quite familiar, with very personal subjects, yet also with topics of which I know little. As I have inched toward my goal of attempting to write a novel, I have realized that selecting a storyline that takes place in a familiar setting would be wise. Despite my interests in the arcane, focusing on surroundings that I know well would allow me to enhance my depiction of natural phenomena. Integrating history that reflects the decades I have lived through might help me embed verisimilitude. Regarding potential characters, I love the mix of personality types that I observe in Colorado. The quirky choices about existence evident around me could fill the pages of multiple novels. Perhaps, writing about the types of experiences and individuals I encounter would allow me to build more genuine characters as well.

Writing About the Kinds of People You Know

As a lifetime reader, I have learned how to live from fictional characters as well as from individuals around me. When I was a child, Nancy Drew, Anne of Green Gables, and Josephine March taught me to persevere. As an adult reader of French literature, I ached at the choices Phaedra and Iphigeneia had to make. As a member of a 35-year old feminist book club, I have read books by more than 400 women authors from around the world. While I share similarities with some of these heroines, the realities of our life situations have noteworthy differences.

Even so, certain types stand out in my mind and in my memory. Universal types such as women who achieve despite the challenges they face fascinate me. Men who are willing to enact nonviolent maleness attract my attention. Individuals who challenge themselves to pursue difficult, if sometimes foolish, activities fascinate me. Hence, the question I am mulling over at the moment is: “Do I write fiction about universal types or about specific individuals? Or are specific types in point of fact universal? Because reality provides much to choose from, writing about my environment will allow me to select and focus. However, with every day of writing, I continue to learn that even writing about what I know requires meticulous research. It is astounding how little I “know” about the life I have inhabited. The tiniest details require research to make sure that what I think I know is accurate.

Update on my goal setting:

  1. For the last 31 days, I have focused on my writing and delved into many areas that I never dreamed I would need to research in depth.
  2. I completed 36 pages, exceeding my goal. I even gave myself a little gift—two days to work on another project that attracts me. It was reinvigorating to place my focus on another topic momentarily.
  3. I have begun to develop a network of kindred spirits. Several creative friends have asked me to share my goal setting handout with them. Others have given me excellent feedback. I also shared my goals with a local writers group. Their questions and comments were motivating.

Resolutions for Writing

Why Am I Here?

As a retired academic who spends inordinate amounts of time with words, I am here because I am interested in the potential of sharing my experience and my work in progress via social media. During a 30-year career as director of a university program for graduate students preparing to be future faculty, I facilitated workshops on goal setting for academic success. To assist graduate students, I expanded a goal-setting method I had used to complete my doctorate. Over the years, I tinkered with my method, reworking it each year to better help the graduate students who took my workshops complete their degrees. It was a thrill when one came galloping into my office after six months or a year, blurting out with unbridled enthusiasm, “I followed your model! I just defended my dissertation! Thank you!”

My Goal Setting Model

Most goal setting models focus on setting measurable goals—such as completing a chapter in a certain amount of time. Producing a work of fiction fits into this framework. To complete either an academic document or a work of fiction, one is required to work with others, produce original research and text, and meet deadlines. The method I developed required them to 1) verbalize their desired end objective (their dream career goal) to another person, 2) write down their goals and what was required to complete them, 3) be honest and write down the current state of their progress and work, 4) acknowledge their fears, the obstacles they might encounter, and the individuals who might support them in these areas, 5) examine and up-date their progress on a weekly and monthly basis, and 6) report back to their confidant or thesis advisor on how they were doing.

Applying My Goal Setting Model to Writing Fiction

When I found time at home to write for myself, I journaled or experimented with fiction. I even wrote some poetry, but I neglected to set my own writing objectives down on paper. Never did I discuss my interest in writing fiction with others. Nor did I consider moving toward publication, so I never dealt with my fears or the possible complications I might encounter. I never asked anyone for feedback on my work, completely missing out on the evaluative component. In other words, I did not apply my own goal setting method to my personal aspiration to be a published novelist. Thus, my file is filled with under-developed, unfinished work. I wrote but my efforts did not lead to a completed product.

During the course of my career, access to the internet became common. Social media soon appeared. Blogging became an opportunity for individuals to share their work. However, when I initially learned about blogs from a journalism graduate student, I never considered a blog as something I would like to pursue. In my workshops, it never occurred to me to suggest that graduate students might benefit from blogging about their work. Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps a blog could have helped them connect with others who are interested in similar subject areas, providing them with an extended research network. Perhaps blogging could have helped them learn to write and to budget their time well. Perhaps blogging could have awakened ideas floating below the surface. As I mulled this over, I realized that perhaps combining goal setting with blogging could develop the structural support writers of original work need to accomplish their own creative goals. I decided to experiment for a year and determine if setting goals and blogging about my progress might help me produce a publishable work. I resolved to discuss my progress with my readers. I resolved to face my fears and potential obstacles. I realized that I want to open my work up to comment and suggestions, having a conversation with others who share similar goals.

Thus, I set four goals for 2018:

1) Focus on my creative writing and do the research to support it;
2) Complete a draft novel by the seventh of December 2018, writing 30 pages per month;
3) Document my progress through a blog to be posted the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2018; and
4) Develop a network of kindred spirits who are willing to share their own goals, progress, and observations with me.

This concept might be completely unexciting to some readers, but intriguing to others. It might seem humdrum to some writers, but inspirational to others. Whether you are a reader or a writer or a dissertator, I look forward to your comments. If you are drawn to join me, feel free to set your own goals, following the six steps outlined above. Then, follow along with my blog once a month from January 7, 2018, through December 7, 2018. Make comments or ask questions in the dialog box below, if you are so inclined. Perhaps my blogging and your comments and questions will stimulate my creative productivity and your own.

Happy New Year! And, as my thesis advisor emphasized long ago, “Don’t get it right. Get it written.”

Making My Known Known

Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant…! Making your own known known is the important thing. —Georgia O’Keeffe

Artists and Writers

Artists often admire writers and writers sometimes venerate artists. One artist that I appreciate is Georgia O’Keeffe. If I am not sending cards from my husband’s art collection, I choose postcards or greeting cards of her paintings to send to friends and family. My trips to New Mexico introduced me to the wide-open skies, colors, and solitude that she loved and that I first experienced through her work. When I visited Ghost Ranch the vista before my eyes revealed the reality of her choices for tone and drama. Even so, it was reading her biographies, particularly Roxana Robinson’s Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life, that led to my fascination with her artistic mind—which the French call one’s “imaginaire.”

Quotes and Ideas

Throughout my life, I have collected quotes from publications I enjoy. My note file includes several of O’Keeffe’s statements on self and creativity, such as the one quoted in my tagline above. Despite the fact that “success” was not her goal, she succeeded admirably. Her self-exploration and her desire to express her artistic vision inspired her to get up in the morning and go into her studio to paint. She disdained art critics. When she stated, “I don’t mind it being pretty,” it seemed to be a retort to them specifically. I agreed when she said, “Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.”

From the Real to the Created

Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings are evidence that she did succeed in selecting subjects, did reduce her images to focus on the necessary, and did expose the stark beauty of genuine phenomena. This process allowed her to make her “known” known. Through this blog and through my creative work, I hope to select, eliminate, emphasize, and write as beautifully as she paints. My aspiration is to come to know my own known—my own “imaginaire” and communicate the significance of the individuals whose stories I write.