Tuesday, June 18, 2013

34 The Heroic Journey Every Writer Has to Make

from Christopher Vogler 
from Christopher Vogler
“If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it's not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That's why it's your path.” ~ Joseph Campbell

I've been hearing a lot of people saying they want to give up, or that they're frustrated, or that they're discouraged. Believe it or not, that's NOT a bad thing.

Why is wanting to give up not a bad thing?

Because that means you have an opportunity.

Heroes Don't Quit. 

The reason heroes succeed, often the only reason they succeed, where other people fail, is because THEY. DO. NOT. QUIT.

An Impetuous Decision

When I first decided to write a novel, I didn't stop to think where I was going or how long the journey was going to be. I simply wrote, because writing was something I had always wanted to do. And then I discovered that my novel needed—deserved—more than that.

My novel needed me to have a clue about what I was doing. Inconsequential things, you know, like um, structure and story elements and stuff. So yeah.

Knowing Where to Put Our Energy

As writers, we can try to reinvent the wheel, sure, but we will get farther faster if we start with a working wheel and then concentrate on making a different or, hopefully, better wheel.

Maybe a few of us are lucky enough to have taken English or Literature or Creative Writing in college. For the rest of us, learning the basics of crafting fiction is a do-it-yourself MFA program. These days, many of us are doing that program together. We make the same journey and blog about it en route, or share it with a handful of fellow travelers. Of course, some of us are trudging along on foot while others are in race cars.

But that's okay!

Everyone's pace is different. We can't compare our pace to anyone else's, or we'll break ourselves.

My pace? Think turtle crawl.

But I want to share something with you, and I hope it makes your own journey's easier.

Starting to Make Sense of It All

One of the first books of wisdom I encountered on the road was The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the Collected Works of Joseph Campbell. From there, I devoured Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey. As I was searching for a way to tighten up the framework of my manuscript, I began to correlate all the brilliant insight from these teachers and various other sources into something I called the Complications Worksheet. I go back to that worksheet each time I start a new project, and the other day while I was on the phone with the brilliant Angela Ackerman (co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus and The Bookshelf Muse blog, I had a revelation. The journey the hero takes in our manuscripts is essentially the same journey many of us take as writers.


Here we are, bumbling through our careers and family lives, vaguely uneasy and unfulfilled but maybe not even aware that there's a void inside us, a gaping wound. Why haven't we written yet? It could be that we tried and failed, or that we had to get on with the business of making a living, or raising kids, or maybe we have a family who has always dismissed writing as a pointless pursuit—something everyone wants to try but only a chosen few achieve. Implying, of course, that we are not good enough. So we shelve our illicit hopes, paint on a smile, and get on with our lives not realizing that something inside is tugging us in a different direction than the path we are still trudging down.


But then . . .

Then we have a dream. Or we read a book, or see a movie, or witness an event that shakes us. Something stirs inside us, an elusive wisp of an idea scented with adventure. It begins to rise and pull us with it, beckoning us to come along, to put our own spin on the wheel of inspiration.


Of course we refuse. We're human. We're afraid.

We don't have time, we don't have money, we don’t have the knowledge to pursue something as overwhelming as writing an actual book.

Or maybe we don't refuse. Maybe we take those first tentative stops, only to hear someone else, someone who means well, who doesn't want to see us hurt or disillusioned, make the refusal for us. For our own good. Because really, the idea of writing for publication is absurd, laughable, and we shouldn't have any um, expectations.


And yet. Someone, somewhere, gives us a few words of encouragement. Maybe it's something as small as a sentence in the Author's Note of a book that resonates, or something we read in an interview or on a blog, or maybe we're lucky enough to know a writer. It could even be that someone reads our first hesitant scribblings and has the kindness not to laugh. These encounters give us our first supplies for the long trek, the first guideposts to set our feet on the long and rocky road. We reach deep and dig out some hidden spring of courage and take that initial, hesitant step.


At the end of Act One, we've committed to venturing beyond the Ordinary World of 8 to 5, diapers, homework, cooking dinner, cleaning house. We step into a mist-shrouded swamp, someplace new and different filled with rules we don't know and emotions we're not prepared to feel.


We don't exist in isolation. Suddenly, we encounter all sorts of other people with feelings and opinions about us and about the journey we are taking.

Some of those people help us, and some make us wish we'd never even thought of writing. Some aren't actual people at all; our manuscripts themselves serve in the role of every character a hero encounters in his travels: herald, ally, mentor, threshold guardian, villain and enemy, shapeshifter, and trickster. Every role and character tests us in some new way while we sort out its meaning and figure out how to navigate around it or bring it with us. Some of the things we encounter deserve, and need, to be left behind. The people who criticize us to make themselves feel better, the manuscripts that weigh us down and keep us rewriting for seven years. We are better off without them. After a while, that's easy to see. Other quagmires are harder to recognize. Some people present so much drama we're worn down trying to help them instead of helping ourselves. Some manuscripts have so much promise that it's nearly impossible to recognize that they really don't say anything new that hasn't been said by a hundred published books already.

We have to fight free of all these things, or drag them with us. Whatever we end up doing, every step of the journey teaches us something about ourselves. Every person, every manuscript, every misstep, every small success helps us settle into the voice that will shape our themes and writing.


Finally, we approach the biggest obstacle. At the time, we probably don't even know it's going to be that hard. We've got the manuscript written. Rewritten. Edited. Refined. Polished.

We think the story is solid: plenty of conflict, no plot holes, no sagging middle, no weak Peggy-Sue characters. The writing shines.

We've gathered our critique partners, our beta readers, and they have trained with us, cheered for us, pushed us until we know that we are ready to battle through to submission. And make no mistake, querying the marketplace is the biggest battle we will face.


We prepare the list of agents or publishers to query, and we think that puts us almost at the end of our journey. In truth, we have barely reached the midpoint.

But it is the most crucial point, the initial test.

Did we do more than write a book? Did we write a saleable book, a book that's unique, a book that's the right marriage of story and writing craft? One that readers will eventually hold in their hands and make greater by bringing their own experiences and ideas into the reading?

Addressing this question, we face our greatest fear, the question of worthiness. Have we spent months, years, writing something no one will ever read? We die a little each time we obsessively check the inbox and read another rejection letter.

Rejection sucks. 

It does. No doubt.

But there's a hidden treasure in every rejection, a measure of achievement. Whatever happens, we have tried. We have succeeded at putting ourselves out there. And we are learning that being creative requires us to face rejection. We are preparing ourselves for years of rejection yet to come. Rejection by agents. Rejection by editors. Rejection by acquisitions boards. Rejection by readers. By reviewers. .

Art is subjective. 

Not every agent is going to love our work, and when we submit our first book, or our second, or third, or sixth, we may discover that it's still meeting with rejection. 

But maybe, maybe, instead of a form rejection, if we keep battling, we glean a piece of knowledge that points us in the right direction. We learn what we are good at writing. Do we have a great voice? A way with description? A facility with rhythm? Plot? Characterization? We're not going to have all those things, but maybe we have one of them, and that's something to build on. 

We learn what work we have yet to do, all the elements of writing where we need improvement. 

We discover that rejection can be energizing, and we realize that we stand on the brink of a landscape that is only just opening up before us.


Having come through the initial battle, we regroup. 

We pull out the craft books. We dig deeper. We seek more experienced mentors. We attend different kinds of writing conferences—conferences focused on craft instead of sales. We read more fiction than we have ever read before, and we begin to read it in a different way. Critically. Not to find fault, but to peer beyond the curtain of story to examine the motions and machinations of the wizard. 

We are determined now to complete the journey and come home with an agent and a book deal. We can smell success… Our mentors can smell it on us. (And yes, this is often the point whenre we do find ourselves wearing the same pajamas the entire weekend and feeding our families leftover pizza for breakfast on Sunday morning.)


The faster we race toward that finish line, the more painful it is to trip and fall. But we will go splat at some point. Guaranteed. Painfully so. 

Getting a Revise and Resubmit on a manuscript may make us believe we are almost ready for publication. Or at least, we convince ourselves that the next manuscript will surely be an easy sell. 

After all, this time, we've done everything right. Or so we tell ourselves. 

We've plotted. We've schemed and themed. 

We know (and like) our characters better than our siblings and in-laws. (At least some of them.) We would love to move out of our current homes and take up residence in our storybook settings. Because they are awesome.

And yet. 

And yet. Even though we are close, when it comes down to it, we may still not be close enough.

At the climax of the writer's journey, we are going to be tested again. Usually when we think we can see a champagne bottle set out on the table for us. 

That's the splat moment. The moment we stumble and go down. Think Jennifer Lawrence at the Oscars. 

We fail. 


At that moment, while we're lying curled in a fetal position on the steps leading to the podium and whimpering silently for chocolate, the thought of picking ourselves up and facing the humiliatiom or rejection seems like more heartbreak than we can bear. 

Another round of revisions? Another unagented manuscript? Another unsold book? Or one that's published but undersells or underperforms our hopes? It's all useless anyway. What's the point

We can't DO this anymore. We can't keep spending a year or more writing a manuscript, pouring ourselves into the pages, only to fail again.

But wait! 

This—yes, THIS—this exact moment, is the defining moment! 

The darkest moment. Our long night of the soul.

W can pick ourselves up and keep climbing the stairs and laugh in the face of the fall, at least outwardly, or we can lay there in a puddle of tears and wait for Hugh Jackman to come along and pick us up. And while that is REALLY tempting, how much more empowering is it to just get up and laugh?

Everything we create comes from within us. By sharing it with the world, we lay ourselves naked for judgment and ridicule. That's painful. It's hard. It's the writer's battle. Sometimes it can feel as if death would be easier. Of course it's easier to give up at this point.

As Walter Smith once put it, "Writing is easy. You just sit down at the typewriter, open a vein, and bleed it out drop by drop."

Yep. Writing fiction is hard. But it is both a selfish and selfless endeavor. 

We write to communicate. The human spirit aches to share experiences. There are readers out there hungry to escape or enhance their own lives. They may be struggling with a problem they will solve through or during the reading of a book. They may be searching for just the thought, the sentence, or idea, or emotion that we have labored over within the pages of a book. A book we have written.

How amazing would that be?

The moment of communion when a reader feels a book was written just for them—we've all felt like this when reading, right?—is what lets a book live on and grow beyond us. It's the elixir we are all hoping to find and bring back. The writer's holy grail. 

The lucky few writers who achieve a communion like that leave behind a legacy. And doesn’t that deserve a battle? 

Aren't we willing to fight for it? Aren't you willing to keep learning to achieve it, fighting to achieve it—because, yes, you will have to keep fighting, fighting harder, with every new manuscript you begin.

If we want, need, that elixir, we will pick ourselves up after that long night of the soul.

We will be reborn into a world that's very much bigger even than the one that we believed we had found. We finally know how very little we actually know, and we see the breadth of what we have yet to learn. That in itself is staggering! But if we are committed to a lifetime of learning, experimenting, reaching, we will get through it. 

We will. 

You will.

You will be strengthened by your successes and your failures. And in the act of pushing past your dark moment, you will finally break through that dark veil of doubt that held you back from writing in the first place. The turmoil in which you began will finally be resolved, and whatever wound or need prompted you to write will finally be satisfied.



The result you get may not be publication or reaching the New York Times bestseller list. Of course I'm not promising that. But let's face it--not even that would necessarily satisfy the need of every writer. That's an external goal, and truly that's only half the journey. The external part. The internal part is the most important. 

Once you identify what drives you to write, whether it's the connection to your characters, to other writers, to readers, to a truer understanding of self or the universe, or your place in the universe, the rest all becomes easier. When you understand that, you write from the heart and not "for publication." And oddly, that's when it happens. When you write the story that is real and true and meaningful to you

When we write our "true" story, I am convinced we know it. 

Oddly, maybe that's when publication doesn't matter as much as it did anymore. For me, I remember the exact moment I felt that way when I was starting a new book. I realized that if a book deal happened, it would be wonderful. 


But even if it never happened, if I told that story the best way I could, when I had served the characters instead of having the characters serving me, I knew there would be a part of me that would always know what I had done. What I had accomplished. And suddenly, I was at peace. I was prepared to continue the journey of the writer, however long it took.

We Carry Success Within Us

Whether you have achieved the first stage of publication or finally broken through with a novel that takes you to the next step, or anything in between, you carry success within you. 

We all carry success within us.

And when we no longer feel like we're in a hurry to get "there," wherever "there" is, we can finally let ourselves fall in love with the process. We can love the writing, the current book, the next book, knowing that there is an endless well of creativity inside us. 

Not every book will sell. That's the truth.

Not every book will sell well. That's another truth.

But every book will teach us something. About ourselves. About our world.

Every book is a brand new journey.

Follow Your Bliss

"If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Follow your bliss and don't be afraid, and doors will open where you didn't know they were going to be." ~ Joseph Campbell

Write for yourself. 

Learn everything you can about how to write, and read everything you can read in every possible genre. Live an examined writing life. ;But when you sit down to write, don't write for a trend or some notion of what you think you should be writing.

Write what moves you. What speaks to you. What you want to read and can't because it hasn't been written yet. Chances are, someone else will want to read that, too.

Win a Workshop with Christopher Vogler

Incidentally, if you're interested in learning more about The Hero's Journey, Lorin Oberweger of Free Expressions, has generously offered up a registration to the STORY MASTERS four-day workshop with Christopher Vogler, James Scott Bell, and Donald Mass as the Grand Prize for our Million Visitors Giveaway. Enter by 6/21 for a chance to win!

Where Are You on the Journey?

Can you relate to any of this, or am I crazy for seeing the parallels between the writer's journey and the hero's journey? Where are you on your own journey? I would love to hear!


  1. This is an awesome parallel, Martina! I'm right around The Approach, The Ordeal, and The Reward (or really, The Rejection, LoL). I've been stuck there for awhile now!

    Sometime important to remember about heroes: "One of the worst mistakes a storyteller can do is to put the hero in deep jeopardy and then have someone else rescue him. Heroes don't get rescued. They do the rescuing." ~Larry Brooks

    Writers must be the heroes of their own lives, too!

    Happy reading and writing! from Laura Marcella @ Wavy Lines

    1. Thanks, Laura! And that is it exactly (I love Larry!) you have to understand the skill sets for yourself, and be ready to apply them. No one can pick you up and save you. Which is another reason Jennifer Lawrence is AWESOME! She got up, put on a smile, laughed at herself, and took her award. The Approach and the Ordeal. Sigh. That cycle and the aftermath can go on for a while. It certainly did for me. others seem to sail right through it. I will hope you are one of those. Fingers crossed for you, Laura!

  2. You make so, so many fantastic points in this post. I love your take on not quitting and on writing to serve your characters, not the other way around. Really great examples all around!

    1. Thanks, Nicole. The funny thing is, we writers may fool ourselves thinking that our characters are being true to themselves, but until we let go and trust them, readers always know with their hearts if not their heads. I can admire a beautifully crafted story. But I don't love it unless the characters feel real.

  3. I am so glad I just read this post, thank you. I had a massive splat moment this week and it knocked my confidence. Reading this has given me strength to keep going.

    1. Oh, I am so sorry you had a splatcident, but I'm glad this helped a little. I don't know that anything really helps me, except time and a new hurdle to face. Somehow, rolling up my sleeves and getting excited about something is the best medicine for me, although it doesn't keep the suckage from intruding at 3 am for a while. My CP Clara keeps corks in a jug with reminders of good things, My handwriting is too bad and I don't drink enough to do that well, but I am going to figure out something like that. I'm in a good spot now, but need to squirrel away the good nuts for winter. Hang in there!

  4. So glad you re-posted this. It is extremely inspiring. And comes at a point where I'm wondering why am I doing this. I guess I'm in one of those low points before the big query battle. But you're inspiring me on. Thanks so much. I have a feeling I'll be reading this awesome post again in the future when I'm going through a down point where I need a pep talk.

    1. No doubting allowed. Just go. No net. There is no net on this business. I remember how mortified I was when I had just finished my first novel and stuck the first page up on a site for agent comment. The agent said I was too wordy. I died. But the same agent ended up requesting the reworked ms. Which is now safely in a drawer where it belongs. But still. We get tougher. And you have plenty of support including mine. I will send chocolate if need be, but I seriously doubt you will need it!

  5. That is a wealth of great information, delivered with a message of hope. Every book does change us, no matter what becomes of it.

    1. Beautifully put, Diane! It's definitely true about every book!

  6. "Do it yourself MFA program" Bwa-ha-ha! Awesome.

    This is a seriously excellent post--and I'm glad you shared it again. I missed it the first time around. There so much to know, learn and do in this industry, I feel like my head might explode some days--but I love what you bring it down to: writing for you.

    To thine own self be true, eh? ;)

    1. LOL! The DIYMFA is not mine--that's the brainchild of the lovely Gabriela Pereira, who with the help of my friend Bess Cozby runs an amazing site: http://diymfa.com. If you haven't been there yet, I'm thrilled to be able to introduce you. Wealth of resources! (in case your head hasn't exploded yet for the day! :D)

      And you nailed it. Writing for yourself, your characters. Your truth.

  7. I love this, Martina, and have shared it far and wide! Fantastic post!

    1. Thank you, Emma! For sharing and for not telling me I'm nuts :)

  8. Love this! Our journeys do echo those of our characters. I think I'm looking for that elixir right about now :)

    1. YAY! That's awesome, Jemi. And I figured. :) Won't be long!

  9. Awesome post, Martina!

    We're all most certainly heroes for stepping onto the path, regardless of whether or not we bring back the elixer in its traditional form.

    Coincidentally, I'm actually teaching a class on the Hero's Journey in YA fiction at Your Best Book in October. It's been really interesting to think about how the journey differs for contemporary adolescent characters compared to adult characters or more classical adolescents--which are, of course, the first heroes and heroines!

    1. OOOH, I wish I could be there for YBB! It doesn't look like it is happening though. Obviously, I would also love to do STORY MASTERS. Depends on what else is going on, and I haven't a clue right now.

      Would you consider doing a post on the contempt ya characters vs adults, etc. once you're done? Because otherwise, I'm going to have to crib the notes from someone. :)

  10. Wow, this is great stuff. I'm so glad you reposted this! And thanks for stopping by :)

  11. Yvette Carol said:
    Huzzah!!! I'm saving this so that I can read it again and again and savour every mouthful.:-)

  12. Hi Martina. Is it too late to register to win the Story Masters 4-day workshop?
    Loved this. While I have read and studies Campbell's The Hero's Journey, I haven't read Vogler. Went out tonight and bought his book. Thanks. Cheryl

    1. Hi Cheryl,

      It absolutely isn't! There's a balloon graphic in the top left sidebar. Click on that, and you'll find links to all four giveaways. The workshop is in #2--and all close on 6/21.

      Good luck -- and many thanks for the kind words! :)

  13. Awesome! thanks for sharing this - it inspires me to just keep slogging along. I haven't found the ring/elixer/potion/wand/gimcrack yet... so I still words to type to earn my keep and miles to go before I sleep.

    1. Sue, not so far that you don't see how far you have to go. Only don't forget to look behind you to see how far you've come! We forget to do that, and forget to give ourselves credit where it is due. Hang in there!

  14. Martina, this is GOLD. I'm making a paper copy so I can refer to it whenever I need to. :-) I'd love to win the free conference, but circumstances wouldn't allow me to attend if I did, so please don't put my name in the pot. I'll just keep this blog post handy.

  15. This is a great post! And I needed it so very much today!! I've been in that thinking of giving up stage lately. I haven't yet given into the quitting, but it gets harder and harder to keep going in the face of so much rejection (especially when I've had so many full requests and offers to submit future work).

    It seems every time I contemplate quitting, I read something like this. And today, THIS has given me the inspiration to push through the heartache and struggle and keep going. ;-)

    I know I can't stop writing because I love creating characters and worlds--and living vicariously through them.

    So thank you for this encouragement!

  16. I used to teach the Hero Cycle when we studied literature in my high school English classes, but I never thought of it in terms of ME! I'm glad you posted it here. Very useful.

  17. Martina, I bow to you for this post! I savored every word and I honestly tell you it tastes better than chocolate. I applaud you for mastering such eloquent solidity of the writer's journey in its very essence.

    I will share this post and reread it many times.

    Thank you.

  18. Thanks everyone! I am so glad that you connected with this post! I really wanted to be able to let people know that the journey can be very long, but there is a payoff at the end. I wasn't able to announce my new book deal yet, but I want you to know it does happen! And when it does, it's magic. Kind of like childbirth. You immediately start to remember only the good moments, not the thousands of hours and millions of words of preparation and grown that went into the final push toward the elixir.

    My deal details are here, if you're curious:


  19. I am here. The darkest moment. Our long night of the soul. So here. And Hugh Jackman is nowhere in sight. Nice Post Martina!

  20. I just came over from Julie's blog, and I'm glad I did! Congrats on your amazing book deal, and thanks for encouraging me to "follow my bliss!"


  21. Beautifully said, Martina. This is exactly how the journey goes. And with my latest ms (the 6th) I can honestly say we really do know when we've written from the heart, and written for ourselves. it's a natural high like nothing else.


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