The Art of Taking a Break

I was going to post again about college life today, but the past week has brought me new insights into my other passion — writing.

For the past five years, I’ve been working on a novel. At first, it was a stand-alone novel, quite simple. Then . . . it grew. And kept growing. And soon I realized that this was the first novel of a series. So as I wrote the first book (over and over and over and over) the series arc began to plant itself in my brain, rather Borg-like, and soon I had five books planned out, and in various stages of drafting.

But that damn first novel was not taking shape.

In a series, everything rests on that first novel. We all know that. JK Rowling did it splendidly with Harry Potter. Clues that were planted in the very first Harry Dresden book are still echoing through Book 14. But my problems went deeper than that. I knew I had a good grasp on the series and therefore I had laid my bedrock well with the first book, laying down all the little clues, the tantalizing hints, the small widgets that would be important later. What was lacking was . . . coherence. A real plot. My characters didn’t do anything.

I wrote. I rewrote. I gave it to betas, who proclaimed it fantastic and why aren’t you sending this to agents and aren’t you afraid someone else will come up with this idea?

I wrote. I rewrote some more. I gave it up; I came back to it. It was like a seriously bad relationship. The kind you know isn’t good for you but damn it, you just know that if you can figure out the key to making it work, it will be the best relationship since Samson and Delilah, or Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine (in their early years, anyway). It’ll be magical. It’ll transcend the ages. The problem was, I believed in these characters and I knew the rest of the series, and damn, it was going to be good. I knew it. But that first novel . .  .

Last year, I pitched an idea to my best beta reader:  what if this isn’t one book, but two? What if that’s my problem? I’m trying to juggle two different threads and neither gets to go anywhere because if they did, it’d be more like 300,000 words rather than the 150,000 it already is, which is already 60,000 words too many. What if each plot, each thread, needs to be its own stand-alone novel? My beta argued with me; that’s not the solution. It’s good. Send it to agents.

I knew better — but I pitched it to an agent last year. She liked it. She requested the full and read it through in a week. She called me to talk to me about it. But I realized as we talked that there was more wrong with the book than she was really telling me. So I stuck the manuscript away and refused to think about it.

Instead, I took an online class and got an idea for a Young Adult novel and started writing that. Which is a LOT of fun! But eventually, I got stuck on it as well. I tend to do that. I’ve learned over the years that for me, the best thing is to walk away from it. If I push it, it’ll just get worse. If I leave it alone, it will eventually sort itself out.

And that’s exactly what happened . . . with my five-year-old problem child.

Let’s forget for a second that I’m in the first weeks of a new semester with 300 students and 11 classes. Not important, apparently! I’ve been editing and that break, which probably lasted at least six months, made me realize that my first instinct — to turn it into two books — was right. I separated out the scenes from the two different plots and have 45,000 words for one, and 75,000 words for the other. They really ARE their own separate novels. And now I feel energized and refocused. I can do this. This will happen! It’s two books!!!

So the moral of the story is:  do what works for you. Breaks work for me. I’ve learned to trust the process. I’ve learned to trust that my mind is still working on it, subconsciously, working out details and pulling at threads and weaving new thing together out of existing scenes and seeing the holes where I can’t see them on a black-and-white page. Delving into my characters and getting their feedback on why things aren’t going well and what they think should be done to fix the problems. Now, I’m happily writing away and I’m hoping that for the first time ever, these novels really will work out.

What do I want to be when I grow up?

You may have this idea that you want to go back to school — you may want to finish a degree you started years ago, or maybe life got in the way and you’ve never attended college. Maybe you know it’s necessary if you want to get a promotion at work, or a higher-paying job, or maybe you just want to set a good example for your children. I’ve seen all of these reasons amongst my students — in fact, I’ve seen parents and children taking classes at the same time so they can encourage each other!

For some of you, the way ahead is clear:  I need a business degree, or I need a degree in engineering, or I want to become an RN or an EMT. Fantastic! Your course is already set. Now it’s a matter of choosing the right program and going for it.

But you might be reading this thinking:  “I know I want to go back to school — but I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up! What degree do I choose? What if I change my mind? What if I pick a degree and then I hate it?”

Yup. All very valid concerns. (A note here: any concerns you have are valid! If it worries you, it’s valid.) But if you have no idea what you want to do, don’t worry — for at least the first year, it won’t matter. You don’t have to declare a major right away. You can be “undecided.” That doesn’t mean you don’t have a clue; it simply means you are exploring your options. Don’t let that stop you from getting started. As the Sunscreen Song says:

Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your
life…the most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they
wanted to do with their lives, some of the most interesting 40 year
olds I know still don’t.

(http://www.anysonglyrics.com/lyrics/b/bazluhrmann/everybodys.htm)

If you’ve never taken any college courses, this is really important to remember:  your first year will be taken up by what we call “core curriculum” or “general education” courses. These include your math classes (College Algebra, Composition I and II, Literature, Biology, Sociology, US History, etc.). If you don’t know what you want to be yet, don’t worry. Take this time to explore your options. Pay attention in class to what piques your interest. Read. Talk to other students. When it comes to your electives (classes that are required but that you get to choose), then take things that look the most interesting to you. I’ve had several students enroll in my history and anthropology courses who come to me later and say “I was doing a major in X until I took your course, and now I’ve changed majors so I can major in Y!” (Talk about an ego boost for your instructors there!)

My point is, at this stage in the game, it’s not necessary to know exactly where you’re going. It’s just necessary that you start that journey. So don’t be afraid to pick “undecided” as your major! Then, don’t be afraid to explore. This is your life. Make it what you want it to be.

I’m scared — but I’m jumping in anyway!

Maybe you’ve been thinking about going back to school, but you’re scared. Guess what? Everyone who goes back to school is scared. Heck, even the instructors are nervous those first few days. 🙂

It is hard to think about disrupting your entire life to do something crazy, something you have no guarantees will ever pay off. Trust me, I know. Been there. Done that. And I’m not saying it isn’t scary, or that it shouldn’t be scary. Everything worth doing is scary, and hard. As Tom Hanks said in “A League of Their Own,” “The hard is what makes it great.” Not everyone is cut out for college, but if you think you are, don’t you owe it to yourself to find out for sure?

If you need another reason to do it, though, something a little more tangible, check out this article from The Business Journals:  http://www.bizjournals.com/bizjournals/on-numbers/scott-thomas/2012/12/grads-earn-85-more-than-those-without.html?page=all  College graduates, on average, earn far more than workers with just a high school diploma.

There’s a quote from C. JoyBell — “Don’t be afraid of your fears. They’re not there to scare you. They’re there to let you know that something is worth it.” So being afraid of something new is normal!

Before you think “what does she know?” let me tell you my story:  I’m the first person in my entire extended family (which numbers now about 120 people, with cousins and their kids and whatnot) to go to college. It was not expected that I would go. In fact, it was expected that I’d graduate high school and probably go get a job at Wal-Mart or something. But I had a journalism scholarship (which is going to be its own post one day) and I went to the local community college.

That wasn’t easy. That was scary. I was pretty antisocial — nix that, I was antisocial — and I had no clue what was going on. You guys have it so much easier today! Everything is given to you upfront. When I was 18, we had to learn it all on the fly. It was awful. I failed classes. I didn’t know why I was there. I didn’t want to do journalism (like I said, own post soon!), and I didn’t know what else I wanted to do. There was no expectation that I would graduate — except from myself.

And so I graduated, four years and many, many classes later.

From there, I went to Wichita State University. I was older, wiser, and less antisocial. I knew what I was doing. I’d learned my hard lessons already. The only scary thing there was keeping up with the work load, which, since I’d chosen to do a double major, was a problem of my own making. 🙂

So that’s part of the reason for this blog also — to see if I can help anyone else not make the mistakes I made, and see if anyone out there can benefit from my experience.

The point is, it’s January. If you’ve been thinking about going to college, NOW is the time to go talk to someone and get enrolled! And that will be the subject of my next post. For now — go see which colleges are in your area. Look at tuition. Look at programs. Maybe you already know what you want to major in, and maybe you don’t. It doesn’t matter. Those first two years aren’t about your major, they’re about getting your core curriculum classes out of the way (unless you want to go into something like an EMT program, in which case, you already know your major!). But — take that first scary step.

Why did I start this blog, anyway?

I don’t expect too much traffic at this stage of the game, but . . . I’ve felt for the last couple of years that there needs to be a blog written for college students, by someone “in the know.” Someone who’s been there, done that, and continues to be there and do that.

I’m an adjunct instructor — I teach part-time for three different colleges on a regular basis — and I teach both online and face to face classes. I’ve been teaching for almost eight years. And I’ve seen so many students come through all of my colleges who frankly just aren’t prepared to be there. Whether its taking on too much debt or not choosing the right classes, or having issues with projects or basic writing skills, or simply not understanding the ins and outs of college life, they struggle.  So in part, that’s why I wanted to start this blog — to see if I could help fill in the gaps there.

I don’t want to do this alone!!! 🙂 My hope is to have a lot of interaction — so if you’re reading this and you want to suggest a topic or you have a question, ping me or post a comment, and we’ll see what we can do. If you’re a teacher and there’s a topic you’re dying to talk about, let me know — I’d love to have a guest blogger! I’m hoping to convince some of my colleagues to be guests as well.

But there’s another side to this blog. My handle is KSWriterTeacher. I’m also a writer and photographer, and I’m very, very interested in current events and history (I teach history, after all, as well as Geography and Anthropology), and so all those will be themes in this blog as well. No, I don’t see any problems combining all my loves into one blog — at least, not yet, I don’t! 🙂 I’m hoping to be able to sort them out so if you’re only interested in the college-themed blogs, you can go to those, and if you’re following me on a regular basis, you won’t get bored by the same topic every week.

So thanks for reading! My goal is to post on Sunday mornings, so come back every week! 🙂