Writing

Writing Advice From MG Women Authors

To celebrate Women’s History Month, I put out a call for writing advice from women middle-grade authors. Here are their wonderful tips:

“Write your truth! There’s a reader out there who needs it.” —Mae Respicio, ANY DAY WITH YOU

“All the talent in the world will not get you over the finish line in publishing. Persistence is the true measure of a professional.” —Janet Fox, THE ARTIFACT HUNTERS

“A mistake is never a mistake unless you don’t learn from it.” —S.A. Larsen, MOTLEY EDUCATION

“Half of writing is daydreaming. It’s not putting words on a page, it’s staring out a window waiting for the story to float by.” —Lija Fisher, THE CRYPTID CATCHER

“Writing is an act of empowerment: You’re creating your own world. It’s a place for your individual voice to ring out. So tell the story you need to, and enjoy the process!” —Diane Magras, THE MAD WOLF’S DAUGHTER and THE HUNT FOR THE MAD WOLF’S DAUGHTER

“Nobody writes well in a first draft. I think the reason many writers fail to finish projects is because they are putting too much pressure on themselves to be a ‘good’ writer – whatever that means. I am a firm believer in Anne Lamott’s advice to write crummy rough drafts. The important thing is to get the story on paper so you have the raw material to work with. Then, in revision, that’s when the real work starts, sculpting, shaping, and finding the best way to tell your story.” —Tara Gilboy, UNWRITTEN and REWRITTEN

“Connect with other writers. They are a wonderful source of motivation and support, and will help you to hone your craft.” —Anne O’Brien Carelli, SKYLARK AND WALLCREEPER and ONE LIGHT

“Every piece of writing you create contains a piece of yourself. It can feel scary to send that piece out into the world, into the hands of other people. But when you realize (and you will) that you’re brave enough to do it—and strong enough to survive the possibility that others may not be careful or even kind with that piece of yourself—you will join in the miracle and magic of a writer’s gift: You will have healed a corner of the world, someone’s world, with that small gift of you. So be brave.” —R.L. Toalson, THE COLORS OF THE RAIN and THE WOODS

“Your first draft is not supposed to be perfect! It is easy to get intimidated when you read a great book or interesting news story, but it’s not only possible, but probable, that the writer’s first draft wasn’t good — at all. That’s okay, first drafts aren’t supposed to be good. They exist to get the information down, then you go back and fix it all up and make it sound better the next time through it, and the time after that. Give yourself a break if your first draft (or first time you play a new song or try to draw a photo or learn a new dance move) needs love and attention to get better. That’s all part of the process!” —Andrea Pyros, MY YEAR OF EPIC ROCK and PINK HAIR AND OTHER TERRIBLE IDEAS

“As a former advice columnist and life coach, I’ve doled out a fair number of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ over the years. My favorite piece of advice is this: ‘Don’t get too comfortable.’ That’s not to say you should sleep on a bed of nails or run a marathon in heels. I’m talking about stepping outside your comfort zone. Of doing the thing that scares you; that makes you say, ‘I can’t.’ Sure, it will be scary at first, and you may want to throw in the towel. You might even decide that trying is too hard—and you won’t even bother. But complacency comes at a cost. It will chip away at your confidence, until the ‘I can’ts’ feel more natural than the “I cans.” But that’s fear talking. You can do more than you realize. So, do the thing that scares you, whether it’s taking up a new hobby or starting a journal. If you don’t succeed, that’s okay. You can always try again.” —Melissa Roske, KAT GREENE COMES CLEAN

“What you need to succeed as an author: lots of hope, hard work, and chocolate.” Cynthia Reeg, FROM THE GRAVE and INTO THE SHADOWLANDS

“You guide your career, not an agent or publisher. Be deliberate in your career choices and keep the long-term in mind. Make a five or ten-year plan, even if many aspects of success feel out of your control. And don’t be afraid to experiment and fail along the way.” Kim Ventrella, HELLO FUTURE ME and THE SECRET LIFE OF SAM

I love all this advice! And here’s one from me:

“Have fun! Publishing can be a difficult industry and writing can be hard work, but the best part of that is the creating. Play with your characters. Explore your new world. And I’ll say it againhave fun.” —Samantha M Clark, THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST and ARROW

The Myth of the Monomyth

Is there any hope for rehabilitating the Hero's Journey for our 21st Century world?

The Myth of the Monomyth by Greg R. Fishbone asks, "Is there any hope for rehabilitating the Hero's Journey for our 21st Century world?"

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Mythoversal Newsletter.

The Status Quo

I grew up on Joseph Campbell’s monomyth and imprinted on the Hero’s Journey as the definitive storytelling template, but my enthusiasm has been tempered lately by mythologists and folklorists who absolutely loathe this theory.

The monomyth has been called sexist, racist, colonialist, and harmful to the expression and appreciation of world cultures. But why? And is there any hope for rehabilitating the monomyth as a tool for creating and understanding stories in the context of our 21st Century world?

The Catalyst

I was six when I saw the original Star Wars movie, and I was hooked. From then on, I measured all other stories using Star Wars as my personal yardstick.

Acceptance and Action

I began to notice that a wide variety of stories would often start with a Luke Skywalker character called to an adventure by a Ben Kenobi character. The Luke Skywalker character would often undertake a quest to save a Princess Leia Organa character from a Darth Vader character, often with help from a Han Solo character and one or two C3P0 and R2D2 characters. I filled notebooks with every example I could find and engaged friends with my evolving theory that Star Wars could explain the story structure underlying a huge portion of the movies and books we all enjoyed.

Encounter with the Guru

What I’d independently reconstructed was the monomyth theory of Joseph Campbell, building upon the archetypal figures of Carl Jung, as adapted and applied by George Lucas and other filmmakers who sought to emulate his success.

Star Wars beats mapped onto Hero's Journey beats

Trials and Tribulations

Campbell summarized the monomyth as:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Campbell’s theory was that this story template resonated with the human psyche, and had been present in the storytelling of diverse world cultures from humanity’s earliest days.

Friends and Foes

The monomyth theory was presented in The Hero with A Thousand Faces, Campbell’s 1949 book on comparative mythology. In the 1980s, with the success of the monomyth-fueled Star Wars original trilogy, PBS aired a discussion between Campbell and Bill Moyers in a program called The Power of Myth, which brought the monomyth to an even greater level of notoriety. Since then, Christopher Vogler, Blake Snyder, and others have refined the monomyth and extended it to the novel-writing and screenwriting process.

The Edge of the Abyss

At a workshop during the 2021 Arisia conference in January, I joined fellow panelists in a discussion of the more troubling aspects of Campbell’s work. These fell into four main categories:

First, while there are many myths that generally fit into the model proposed by Campbell, there are as many or more that do not, including such foundational stories as the myths of Gilgamesh and Beowulf. Therefore, the monomyth should always be presented with a caveat that it is not as universal as Campbell claimed it to be.

Second, the Heroine’s Journey is not accounted for. The Hero’s Journey has been called a masculine myth, based on traditional stories of male protagonists, generating new stories that best fit male protagonists, and appealing more strongly to male audiences. Other templates are required for more feminine storytelling. These include 45 Master Characters, a writing guide by Victoria Lynn Schmidt based on the theories of Campbellian psychotherapist Maureen Murdoch.

Third, the monomyth has been described as a hammer in search of a nail. Some stories and characters can be mangled into the stations and archetypes of a Hero’s Journey only at the cost of better understanding the essential distinctions that make them unique and special. An overreliance on monomyth-inspired movies has made it harder for audiences and critics to appreciate the stories that don’t fit into that mold, increasing and perpetuating the dominance of the monomyth to the detriment of other forms of storytelling.

And fourth, the adaptation of non-European mythologies to a Eurocentric lens has been seen as a form of cultural appropriation or cultural colonization. The Hero’s Journey is based on those Jungian archetypes closest to the surface in the collective consciousness of Western cultures, while other world cultures may emphasize different archetypes. When we remove a story from the culture that created it and view that story through a Eurocentric lens, or even through a lens that falsely purports to be “universal,” we shortchange the story’s culture of origin.

The Way Through

So is there any hope for rehabilitating the monomyth as a tool for writers in our 21st Century world?

I’d like to think so, but only by first recognizing that the monomyth is just one tool of many in a storyteller’s toolbox. The monomyth can be used to build and analyze story structures, but how much better could it be if we were using the entire toolbox, and looking at our stories through all available lenses?

Return to the Normal World

I still use the Hero’s Journey in my writing, but with an awareness of its problems and limitations. But perhaps the real Hero’s Journey requires throwing away all of our preconceived maps entirely and following each story wherever it leads.

EPIC GARDENING FAILS (And what they’ve taught me about making art)

Growing Food and Writing Fiction

This spring my wife and I decided to stop talking about growing vegetables and actually grow some vegetables. We made this decision without doing much research about the actual business of growing vegetables, and that was mostly thanks to me. Any time my wife opened up a blog or website about growing techniques or climate zones, I’d launch into a lengthy monologue about how vegetables don’t need coddling and if it were really that hard there wouldn’t be gazillions of weeds in our yard. 

It turns out growing an eggplant is not the same thing as growing a weed. I suppose this explains why our front yard is not overrun with perfectly formed eggplants. 

So I’ve learned a few things about vegetable gardening. And as is often the case, the things I learn in one pursuit inevitably influence the way I think about others. In this case, I’ve noticed a few parallels between my questionable attempts at growing food and my questionable attempts at writing fiction for children. I’m sharing them here because whether you’re writing, teaching, parenting, or growing eggplants, it never hurts to glean a little extra information as you go (which I now humbly acknowledge).

Not everything develops as planned.

Radishes are deceptive little devils. They sprout fast and grow bright, promising leaves. You fawn over them and marvel at how they’ve been so easy to grow and why don’t more people grow radishes? Then you pull them out of the ground after the prescribed 28-day period and realize you’ve been duped. At least that was my experience. We harvested those little liars and I couldn’t believe that after 4 weeks I had nothing to show for all my efforts (and yes, all my bragging), but a few marble-sized nuggets of crunchy vermillion failure. 

The radish project looked promising. It all had the signs of a successful enterprise, but under the surface things weren’t developing the way they were supposed to. I have no idea why. Maybe it was the soil. Maybe I watered them too much. Or too little. I may never know. Just like I may never know why the first hundred thousand words I put into middle grade books didn’t develop into huge publishing contracts. But in both cases – my radishes and my writing – I have an opportunity to examine the finished project, no matter how disappointing, and try to figure out what went wrong. I think with the radishes it was the soil. I’m not sure what the writerly equivalent to that would be (stronger coffee during my drafting sessions?). But I’m going to keep exploring, keep dissecting those underdeveloped projects and trade the frustration of an unrealized goal for the promise of a new, and hopefully better crop next season.

 

Things get bitter when they drag on for too long.

A few people warned us that we’d eventually lose control of our zucchini plants. I shrugged at this, because how could you lose track of a zucchini? They’re bright green and quite large, and those people who lose track of them are probably not as committed to the art of home gardening as I am. But then summer happened – days of busy children and travel and sometimes way too much rain. One day I went out to make sure there wasn’t anything to harvest and found a zucchini the size of my arm snugged up against the wall of the garden. Without giving it much thought (I was still shunning research at this point) I paraded it around the house and then chopped it up for the grill. As I’m sure you’ve already guessed, it was terrible. The skin was tough, the flesh was mealy and bitter, and the seeds were gigantic and totally inedible. That zucchini had been growing for way too long.

I don’t know about you, but I have a few ongoing personal projects that have also reached “zucchini monstrosity” status. They’re the sort of things that never seem finished, and rather than harvesting what I have or simply moving on, I’ve let these projects remain connected to the vine of my creative brain and sap resources from other, more promising ideas.

After chewing my way through that thoroughly unappetizing zucchini, I resolved to never let anything grow that long again, and so far I’m doing better. I hope I can say the same for my creative pursuits – nothing is meant in to go on forever, and as many creatives have noted throughout history, art is never finished, but only abandoned.

 

Sometimes the most useful part of a project is the seed of something new.

Before I tossed that colossal zucchini in the compost pile, I finally broke down and looked up an online article about harvesting seeds. It turns out that in most cases you can only harvest the seeds of overripe, inedible fruit. So I left some uncooked seeds out to dry, then bagged them in an envelope and now have what I hope will be the beginnings of my zucchini crop next year. 

Something similar happened with the second book I ever wrote. It was quite a dud – full of tropes and predictable plot twists. It was long, too.  Much too wordy for the middle grade market. And that of course means I spent way too much time writing, editing, and rewriting what would ultimately be a book not even my mom would read (although she did ask several times). 

But out of that project came a system of developing characters that I still use now, three books and many short stories later. It was a seed born out of an overripe project that itself would never see the light of day. Most failed endeavors have something like that if you look for it – a seed of something new, pure potential packed into a tiny morsel of nearly overlooked insight. 

I think next year our garden will run a little more smoothly. Maybe the corn won’t fall over and the squash won’t vine its way to the top of our evergreen tree. Or maybe next season will be just as chaotic and I’ll have more lessons to learn. Either way, I’ll do my best to be thankful for the parallels and cultivate the garden of my writing with a bit more efficiency and skill. 

And I suppose reading a few extra articles wouldn’t hurt, either.