Monday, July 5, 2010

Cowgirl Up! The Courage to Lose Control

“Cowgirl up” is an expression that means to rise to the occasion, not to give up, and to do it all without making excuses.

This phrase resonates with me since the inspiration for my first novel was my cowgirl grandmother. To me, it means having the courage to do the hard thing, to follow your dream. You don’t have to have a horse, live on a ranch or in the West to “cowgirl up.”

When I started writing this series, I thought there would be a finite number of columns I could come up with and that I would be done after Number Three. But recently I heard another definition of courage that inspired at least one more post on the subject.

“Courage is the opposite of the instinct to keep everything under control. It is against inertia and death, toward intensity and life. The little courages of life add up to big courage over time. Resist the offers of  small safe quarters in your mind." ~ Karen Lee, ARNP,OB/GYN Nurse Practitioner

When we are writing, we start out with the illusion that we are in control of the outcome (sometimes the characters have their say in that matter, however!) Then we find the courage to share it with others for feedback and perhaps subsequently submit it for publication. That’s when we really feel like it is out of our control. It’s a scary feeling.

We can look at giving up control from two additional points of view. One is as an author. As a seat-of-the-pants writer, I’m often surprised where my scene or character takes me. For example, in my WIP, my character Nettie has befriended two young girls who have rodeo dreams, one of which reminds Nettie of herself when she was that age. This girl coerces her into coming home and asking her mother if she can go with her friend and father to the big Madison Square Garden rodeo in New York.

I knew Nettie was going to the house to ask the mother. I also knew that the mother was harried and hassled, with a baby and this wild, self-willed teenage daughter. But when we arrived at the house, we found clothes piled high, dirty dishes all around, a toddler and a four-year-old, as well as the baby. The mother’s resentment of her daughter’s love of rodeo riding comes out and Nettie is now faced with a dilemma. Will she be adding to the woman’s problems by asking if the daughter can go to New York?

When I started the scene, I had the thought that the mother would be happy to get her daughter out from underfoot and would gladly say yes. But now, things have changed and this had added another obstacle or conflict to the story, which I think will make it stronger.
The second way to look at control is to use this for your character. Is your character an “in-control” person who has to have all her “ducks in a row” before embarking on any journey? Or is he an “out-of-control” character who needs a little self-discipline? Either of these traits can help lend depth to your character.

My challenge to you “outliners” is to relinquish your control over your story and see where it leads you, even if it’s just as a one-time writing exercise. It may free you to see your story from a different perspective, or it may lead you down the wrong path. But maybe you’ve had some fun along the way. Didn’t Robert Frost write something about the joys of taking the path less traveled?

Cowgirl Up! Have the courage to loosen the reins on control.
A native Montanan, Heidi Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. She has had her first novel published, Cowgirl Dreams, based on her grandmother. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series. The sequel, Follow the Dream will be released this year.

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  1. I was born in Medicine Hat, Alberta, so I suppose I am a cowgirl. I don't outline and my characters do surprising things every day when I'm in the heat of the first draft. Sometimes I curse where they take me but I like what happens when I don't know what happens! My protagonist in my current wip is a bit of a control freak so I'm playing that dynamic. This morning as I looked over my beat sheets before beginning, I realized I need to strengthen the bits that show she likes to tough things out alone and make it more and more impossible for her to do so.

  2. Coming from the erotic romance side of publishing, "cowgirl up" has very different connotations for me ;-) but I completely agree with the sentiment.

    Every body has "a great idea" for a book, but few of them ever write it. Sticking with it turns out the be the hardest part.

    You make a good point about giving the story its head and letting it run. I do believe in strong outlines, but I've found the same thing: sometimes the story knows where it needs to go and if you let it, the journey can be much wilder and much more fun.

  3. I agree. You have to let go a bit. If you hold the reins too tightly, you stifle your characters, make them go in directions they don't want to go or wouldn't have gone on their own. And it shows in the storyline and character development.

  4. 100% agree. I tried using a scene outline and a narrative outline but I couldn't stick to the plan. Stories and characters take on lives of their own, and we need to be flexible enough to pay attention.

  5. Thanks for sharing your "losing control" experiences in writing.

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