Friday, May 18, 2018

Charts and Lists: The Fun of Organizing Your Story Structure

This week, I've been studying a page from the book-structure chart used by mega-successful author, J.K. Rowling, for her Harry Potter stories.  You can access it here.  The chart is handwritten and hard to read, but it's fascinating to see what she uses to keep an overview of her story.  (Thanks to Rita, one of my private clients, for sharing the link.)

So many published writers, when interviewed, talk about the need to organize their story structure.  Storyboards are useful to a point.  But charts and lists come in very handy when the first draft is complete and you're on to revision.

In Rowling's chart, you'll see a column for the date of that plot point, the plot point itself, a column called "prophecy" which alludes to the greater meaning of that event in Harry's story and the prophecy that haunts him, as well as several other interesting things she keeps track of.  Even if you're not an HP fan, it's educational to see how much charting goes behind the scenes with books by savvy writers.  

In my private coaching, I use three to four different charts, depending on where my client is in the process of developing her or his book.  Basic charts in fiction or memoir help track what's happening, the outer story, and how it relates to the narrator or main character's growth.  In nonfiction we look at "talking points," the nonfiction version of plot points, and how they sequence like stepping-stones to get the point across.  In all genres, we look at the difference between writer's intention and reader's take away, which can be vast, illuminating, and essential in revision.  More advanced charts examine the inner and outer obstacles for the character or narrator and how the reader perceives those within the narrative arc.

For this week's writing exercise, I encourage you to start a chart.  First, make a list of things you track in your story.  Here are a few to consider:

Outer event--what is happening onstage (visible, audible, movement perceived)
Date of this event/day and time
Season/weather
Who is narrating this event (point of view)
Who else is present
Location (as specific as possible)
Primary sense in the scene (used by writer Celeste Ng--a very cool thing to consider)
Your intent as writer for this scene--what does it deliver?

Once you have your list, use Excel, Word, or an app, or create a handwritten version like Rowling's, and begin charting the first 25 pages of your story so far.  It can be rough, even just ideas.  Work forward as much as you can.

I recently redid my own chart for my second novel and discovered some missing elements, which, when fixed, made the chapters sing.  I hadn't even realized what wasn't yet in place.  That's the beauty of charts.  They don't feel creative to most of us, but they organize the writing so more creativity can shine through. 

Friday, May 11, 2018

Writing about Your Life--The Good, the Hard, and the Beautiful


Two of my students/clients have just published memoirs this month.  Both have compelling--and difficult--stories to tell. The process of writing about your life for publication is not for the faint-hearted, as Chris Bauer and Mary Knutson can attest.

I also know their books have taken a lot of time, years, in fact. They have each experienced discouragement and exhilaration. I interviewed them for my blog this week, knowing they'd have good insights to share.

Friday, May 4, 2018

How to Deal with Memory and Emotions When Writing a Memoir

Several clients have emailed me lately, asking how to deal with the flood of emotions that comes with writing memoir.  "Memories bring back the feelings, especially traumatic ones, and I get stalled out with my writing," said one client recently. "Do you have any tips for handling these overwhelming emotions so I can keep writing?"

I'm very familiar with that internal flood.  When I was writing my second memoir (a spirituality memoir with self-help components called How to Master Change in Your Life), I remember working on a chapter about business failure and bankruptcy.  Reliving that terrible time was so difficult, I actually had to run to the bathroom and throw up.  Other times I'd get so stuck, I couldn't write one word.

Friday, April 27, 2018

False Agreements, Misbeliefs, Core Misunderstandings--How They Drive the People and the Plot in Your Book

For my birthday this month, I got an anniversary copy of A Wrinkle in Time. It has been a LONG time since I read that book, but I loved it. Basic reason: the characters are unforgettable. Especially the narrator, Meg. I enjoyed revisiting her story and considering the false agreement that makes her so memorable.

False agreements are where characters start out in a story. It's the belief they have about the world, which is usually limited or not entirely true. The false agreement drives the character's journey to a larger consciousness. That's why many of us read--to find out what they'll do, as they face the limits of their false agreement. 

Friday, April 20, 2018

How I Got My Agent--An Interview with Debut Author Kathleen West

Kathleen West came to several of my online classes in the early days of writing her first novel.  She got structuring help and good feedback, and later we worked together privately to help her develop the character arcs for the multiple points of view in her woven narrative. After four months, she felt ready to finish revising on her own and start querying agents.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Imagine Finishing Your Book! A Three-Part Exercise for Encouragement

When the book journey feels way too long and the end is nowhere in sight, I use this short but encouraging exercise to help me vision my way to finishing my book.  You may not need it now, if you're rocking along.  But there may be a time when it's useful.  It has been for many of my clients who get stuck in the doldrums of are-we-there-yet?

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Chapterettes, Prologues, Introductions, and Other Spare Parts--What Purpose Can They Serve in a Book?

I happen to love small pieces of books:  prologues, introductions, forewords, even epilogues, and epigraphs (those quotes or small things planted before each chapter).  Such add-ons often get derided in writing classes, but they still serve a unique purpose. 

I fought one of my MFA advisers who hated the idea of a prologue in my young-adult novel, and won--it got published to good reviews.  
No one complained about the prologue, which ran two pages at most. 

So why so many warnings and controversies?  What do these small elements contribute to a book and why would a writer be wary of them? 

Friday, March 30, 2018

Too Much Reflection? How to Make Sure Your Story Doesn't Stall Out


One of my blog readers sent me a wonderful question last week.  It's a question that many writers struggle to answer.  It had come to mind when she read my post a few weeks ago about creating enough pauses for meaning within the flurry of events in your story.

But what about the opposite? she wondered.  If you're not an event writer, and maybe you write in too many pauses, how do you work with that tendency? 

Friday, March 23, 2018

Building the "Why" of Your Story--Inner and Outer Purpose for Characters Is the Key

Characters are it, in both fiction and memoir, if you want to publish.  Of course you have to have a good plot, something happening.  And your characters have to be externalized enough that we readers feel they're believable, interesting, intriguing.  But characters drive a story, and no more than in today's publishing market.

Several of my clients have had happy news these past weeks--agents or book contracts--and almost all of them have emailed me about their agent or editor loving the characters.  Those who get rejections know that this is also the most common complaint:  I just didn't fall in love with your characters.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Finding the Best "Triggering Event" for Your Book--How to Launch Your Story

In two weeks, on Friday, March 30, I'll be teaching an all-day workshop at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.  We'll examine book structure:  what makes a book successful, in terms of its structure, and how can you choose the pivotal moments in your story wisely?  Many books are beautifully written but poorly structured, and many writers haven't a clue as to how to fix that.