12-Week Challenge: Week One

This week’s focus was “Normal Life: As the protagonists know it.”

Ironically, real normal life went out the window. Storms knocked out electricity and the Internet from Wednesday evening to Thursday evening, followed by a power loss Saturday morning and brief black-outs Sunday.

To be blunt, I couldn’t access my novel, so I didn’t reach my goal.

The first two chapters are nearly perfect, including their titles: The Boy Who Wanted to Leave and The Girl Who Wanted to Stay. They set the pattern of switching points when the protagonists are separated.

The third chapter, which throws Favius into peril, is short and fast.

However, the fourth chapter is too long. I can distill Argenta’s actions into later dialogue, but it’s crucial to keep her interactions with key supporting characters. The reader needs to know them before Favius meets them – which is coming up.

Week Two: September 27

Inciting event for boy-protagonist. Meeting of protagonists. Inciting event for girl-character.

12-Week Challenge: 2021 Fall Final Draft

I won’t lie: I based this challenge on a real course. While looking for professional advice for polishing the Book One draft, I received a friend-of-a-friend recommendation. Unfortunately, the course is for a FIRST draft (not Draft 3.2) and conflicts with my work schedule.

The syllabus emphasized plot-structure pacing. According to the instructor, plot points and/or conflicts occur about 4,000 words apart. Therefore, Week One has a lecture about The Hook (the reader’s emotional engagement) and requires students to write a lead-in to the first plot-point.

I got a silly vision of handing my boy-protagonist a weekly schedule and saying, “This is what I need you to do.” (The girl-protagonist would promptly flip the paper over to draw pictures.)

Yet that’s what I’m doing. Here’s my 12-week challenge schedule, and theme of the particular plot point or conflict.

Week One: September 20

Normal Life. As the protagonists know it.

Week Two: September 27

Inciting event for boy-protagonist. Meeting of protagonists. Inciting event for girl-character.

Week Three: October 4

Temporary Shelter. Protagonists think antagonist is thwarted and her problem will resolve itself.

Week Four: October 11

Rude awakening. Protagonists look to each other for help as situation is worse than thought.

Week Five: October 18

Separation 1. This is the “ditching the adults” part of children’s novels.

Week Six: October 25

The Crossroads.

Week Seven: November 1

The Breather. Aftermath of previous decision/loss.

Week Eight: November 8

Picking Up the Pace. Two chapters in which protagonists can’t address the ramifications of one conflict before another begins. Their goals clash. characters can’t properly address the ramifications of one conflict before another begins)

Week Nine: November 15

Hard Decisions. Separation of the protagonists.

Week Ten: November 22

Darkest Night. Separate chapters for each protagonist, each with an unexpected twist.

Week Eleven: November 29

The Climactic Sequence.  

Week Twelve: December 6

What happened afterwards; lead-in to next book.

Review: THE FACE IN THE FROST by John Bellairs

“P.S. Unexplained noises are best left unexplained.” – Prospero’s note to his cleaning lady, Mrs. Dufrey

John Bellairs, The Face in the Frost, Olmstead Press, 1969.

What I Read

 The Face in the Frost is humorous, low fantasy novel with Poe-esque foreboding. The protagonist Prospero (not that wizard) is threatened and stalked by an unknown enemy. His old friend Roger Bacon (implicitly not that fellow) brings him crucial information. Together they begin a road trip/fact-finding mission.

Bellairs is a master of setting. He combines humor and horror in his description of towns and landscapes. Throughout the novel, the author surprised me with flourishes of figurative language, such as the following:

“…(B)ehind him floated large silent owls. They drifted and hung like paper lanterns…” (70)

I can’t pinpoint when my initial impression (“Too many details!”) changed to full immersion in the wizard’s journey. Suffice to say, the setting reflects the transition from his everyday life to increasing peril. A good example is the lead-in to his encounter with a ghost. There was typical foreshadowing: the locals spoke of a spooky forest and a rusty barrier showed an attempt to keep its denizens at bay. Yet the sense of danger was elevated by Bellairs’ earlier depictions of normal sights and sounds of August (albeit unusually cool). Prospero’s harrowing foray into the cursed forest was nothing like his previous travel through woodlands.

Besides his awesome powers of description, Bellairs uses dialogue and snippets of backstory to great effect. Despite this being a stand-alone novel, Prospero and Roger’s friendship seemed to have a long history. When Roger disappeared less than a third into the book – just as Prospero discovered the identity of his tormentor – his reaction of fear and hope felt real. (And I did miss Roger!)

What didn’t I like?

Authorial asides* using second-person which bumped me out of the character’s point of view. For example, “It was as if you were half asleep” (75) could have substituted the character’s name.

The last third of the novel has an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink vibe. A key supporting player, Millhorn, is introduced suddenly – after Prospero is dropped into our contemporary world.

The climax felt abrupt. Rereading it, I liked that the protagonist used both recently-acquired and previously-mentioned items to conquer the villain. That was clever. However, I wanted to know more about a certain Lovecraftian object.

What I Learned

While enjoying the interplay between Prospero and Roger, I had a brick-in-the-head moment: “Maybe I can grow my protagonists’ friendship BEFORE they’re forced to rely on each other!”

I tossed three chapters out of my work-in-progress and wrote 3214 words of new dialogue and description. (I’m not sure how many words I deleted, what author Mary Catelli calls “antiwords.”) I restored a confrontation between Argenta and bullies, which I initially worried would be too intense for readers 8-12.


*FOOTNOTE: I have discovered several authors have quirks related to their “authorial voice,” for lack of a better term. Some address the reader directly, in the style of old novels. It’s meant in fun, but it can be annoying. Other authors insert asides, discretely or intrusively.  

Love and other things

“We ourselves shall be loved and then forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

I haven’t been blogging for a very, very long time. I have quite a few drafts, but never post them because they aren’t complete. I HAVE been writing the work-in-progress. And doing basic housekeeping.

But I can barely discuss life with my closest friends. I’m in a sort of waiting-hoping-fearing-waiting cycle. You see, my parents were both diagnosed with cancer at the beginning of the summer.

I’ve been back and forth to see my parents. It’s all very normal, like a regular visit. We’ve talked over treatments and such, but it’s all a bit unreal to me. At odd moments, it strikes.

My mother commented that she’d given the “good” gold-rimmed dishes to my brother who hosts the holidays. It occurred to me that when I was a child, everyone gathered at my grandparents’ house. Then the holidays shifted to an uncle, my parents, an aunt… Now they shift again.

I very much want to tell them “I love you.” However, that would be maudlin, at best, and admitting defeat, at worst.

My parents are not demonstrative. I can count on one hand the times they’ve told me, “I love you.” (And a memorable time, when I thought I’d failed a final exam at college, when I called them in tears because they were paying my very-expensive tuition. My mother said, “You know that we love you; that won’t change. Just do your best.”)

Yet they’ve always demonstrated their love. When I had to rise early for a 90-minute drive to my job in the city, my father got up at an ungodly hour to scrape the frost (or snow) off my car and brew coffee. My mother works – paints baseboards, helps me move garden stones, and digs up their flowers to transplant to my garden.

And they give me things. Rhubarb. Zucchini. A hambone they set aside because it’s the starter for my favorite: split pea soup. This summer, my father put together a fishing tackle box and dug out my favorite fishing rod as a gift. Then, last week, my mother gave me a set of old dishes they had sitting in the outer hallway. I’d admired them. My younger brother told me later that they’d planned to have them as a “good” set to replace the old. It brought me to tears.

The weekend after their diagnosis, my best friend’s mother died suddenly. She was rather young – a teenaged bride – and beautiful. It was a shock. I couldn’t attend the funeral, but last week I visited my friend. We talked, walked, and laughed. A few times we cried. It seemed unreal. She catches herself ready to text or call the familiar number. Even I thought, early one morning, that it was a good day to pop over to her mother’s apartment.

The Old Man aka my father, joked, “My doctor told me that I won’t live another twenty years. What a relief!” I laughed because it’s not funny. It’s not funny because it’s true. He’s an octogenarian.

See? Here’s another post that has no proper ending. I’ll post it all the same.

Nap Days

The “cold” from two weeks ago didn’t go away. I spent one sleepless night propped up on the sofa because reclining brought on rib-wracking coughs. My doctor gave antibiotics for an infection.

I took naps. Lots of naps.

I don’t know about you, but in my culture, naps are for babies. And octogenarians, because they earned it. No self-respecting adult naps, except The Old Man aka my father. Ironically, it’s because he’s an insomniac. After he checking on us sleepers, he’d go across the road to the garage and work until the rest of the household woke up.

So I’ve been feeling like a loser for napping.

Now my sleep habits are in ruins. I was typing up away at two in the morning. (3,484 words so far this week!) Then I would sleep past brunch. Or take a two-hour nap before dinner.

I have been trying my best to get back into the groove. The weather has not cooperated. Yesterday, for instance, a series of thunderstorms dropped twilight over the world for three hours straight. Today, humidity made all activity cease except for sitting in shade and partaking in a series of cool drinks (seltzer water with blueberries is the clear winner, although raspberries blended with mint tea is a close runner).

I will try again tonight to catch Mister Sandman on his usual rounds!

Year-end Review

Academic year, that is. Last week was final exams. Then came the end of masking in my region, which means that Covid-19’s Reign of Error is finally over.

Here are some closing thoughts:

  • The Middle School Mafia arrived below grade-level and – thanks to the Department of Education’s denial of a state-requested waiver – spent precious class days taking standardized tests to determine they were below grade-level.
  • Schoolteachers who disliked returning to in-person classes should change professions.
  • Our students got a detailed lesson in hypocrisy when journalists exposed how the Michigan governor and members of her staff found her restrictions too onerous to follow. (The “test” part of the lesson will occur at the next gubernatorial election, when many of them will be eligible to vote!)
  • It’s terrible when parents expect public employees to parent their children.
  • It’s tragic when students feel safer at school than at home.
  • The best part of teaching is interaction; the worst is typing information into various electronic databases and forms.

Back to The Factory… again.

Reader B4thugthagod asked if working from home wasn’t easier than being at The Young Human Factory. The truth is, I never stopped going to work. Because it was a “pause” and not a state-mandated shutdown, my colleagues and I were required to work regular hours.

And because it was a shutdown, I worked 9-12 hour days, SEVEN DAYS A WEEK. Recording instructional videos, converting in-class work to Google-friendly documents, and answering dozens of questions (mostly by cutting-and-pasting the directions the students didn’t read) took extra hours.

Last week I stopped offering a daily 8-12:30 Google Meet-ups because of proctoring tests. The only students who used the virtual meetings were done with their work and lonely. (One student showed me his entire rock collection and motherboard repairs for over an hour.)

There have been recurring problems; e.g. the students mark work as “done” so their parents are happy, but they submitted nothing – or nonsense. For example, a student wrote ” “I like cheese” instead of an introductory paragraph. I tried to nip this behavior in the bud by contacting all parents of “missing work” students the first week. I printed off each nonsensical document, scanned it, and emailed it to the child’s parents.

Some – not all – students corrected that document, which I re-ran and graded. But most played the same trick later. After I entered zeroes in the gradebook, the parents cracked the whip. Last week, my inbox was flooded with hundreds of notifications about work submitted 15 to 20 days late!

There’s a misconception that The Factory is a utility company. When the electricity is shut off, students finally pay the bill and the power comes back. In truth, students are like jobbers who shirk work and then, on payday, are outraged that their neighbors are flush with cash.

It’s Sunday afternoon. I’m writing this while waiting for lunch to finish cooking, after which I must go to The Factory to finalize the Marking Period. (After which, everyone will decide to Pay the Utility Bill.) Then I’ll set up the weekly lessons (and a test over a novel!)

Things are going to be ugly for a while longer.

April Update: Writing

The Factory is swallowing my free will time, so I wrote this Sunday night. I hope everyone is having a good week in my stead!
***

I decided to finish my series in its entirety before looking for a publisher. It wasn’t a snap decision. In fact, I resisted the idea.

While working on Book One’s second draft, I found myself writing vignettes for later use: scenes and dialogue growing naturally from the denouement. I suspected this scribbling was creative procrastination – or worse – a form of Doing It All Wrong. As everyone knows, a Real WriterTM finishes a book, sells it, and then figures out whether it’s worthwhile to write a sequel or a series.

Two things made me reconsider whether it might be a better option than write-stop-repeat.

The first happened when I studied popular children’s books. I read stand-along books but revisited the first books of two series.

All the books featured young protagonists making consequential decisions. The authors kept the tension high with fast-paced events but reminded the reader of the character’s goals. It didn’t take much, either: an omniscient sentence or a bit of dialogue.

Yet there was a marked difference in emotional continuity (for lack of a better term).

Some authors maintain it well. For example, I enjoyed re-reading a novel because I knew how budding friendships would grow and bloom in subsequent books. Despite adding and substracting characters later in the series, the author kept the protagonist’s original friends. Without those relationships, the series would have been a fantastic string of episodic adventures in the protagonist’s life. But not such a pleasure to re-read.

The other series-starter was fantastic, but it underscored why the series disappointed me. In the second book, the interesting protagonist suddenly (and maddeningly) became shallow. The author kept the character’s exterior, but pushed a reset button on character growth. The heart-rending climax of the first book, foreshadowed from the beginning and presented with dramatic irony, raised an expectation of emotional repercussions in the next story. No such luck. The author introduced a new leading character with trauma of his own. The girl-hero became little more than a follower until a tidying-up-one’s-past scene in the final book.1

I decided that a re-readable series, regardless of plot intricacies and grand themes, is one in which plots and character dynamics make sense across various books.

How could I do the same?

I began writing timelines for three adults whose backstories and relationships with the child-protagonists are of particular importance. There was an immediate Book One reward: A supporting character has a better motive – foreshadowed in the first chapter – to help a stranger he meets in Chapter 8. But one conflict in particular won’t be resolved until perhaps the last book.

I realized, too, that one of my favorite characters doesn’t seem to exert any influence on the protagonists in a later section of the timeline. I wonder why. I don’t want to kill him off; he’s fun to write and makes a great foil for other characters.

Writer David Farland gave me the second reason to write a series instead of stand-alone: to make it a selling point for publication. He explains better than I can at The Story Doctor.


  1. I refer to the original series. The author has written sequels and prequels. I’ve heard that retcon (literally: retroactive continuity) shored up some plot holes. However, the author still uses emotional crises as character motivation in a way that is out-of-balance with on-the-page relationships from the prior stories. No, thanks!