Friday, November 17, 2017

How to Get Enough Distance from Your Story to Actually Write It

In January 2001, physician and writer, Therese Zink, lived through a traumatic experience:  While on an international aid mission in Chechnya, her boss was kidnapped.  "That experience got me writing," Therese says.  "I'd kept a journal since a creative-writing class in high school twenty-some years earlier and dabbled at times with more creative efforts. But after the kidnapping, I had to write."

Little did she know how long it would take her to learn to write and to tell that story.

Even if you know an event in your life will make a great story, to craft a strong story arc (events) as well as narrative arc (growth of narrator), distance from the real-life event is essential.  Writers can't get the reader's perspective when they're too caught up in "This really happened!" defenses.  It takes time and distance to objectively see what will work and what won't--as well as figure out a way to tell the story so there's universal appeal.  Which Therese has done in her new novel, Mission Chechnya.  


I met Therese in a book-structuring class I taught at the Loft and had the pleasure of helping her with her manuscript in its early drafts.   I've always admired Therese's persistence--how she managed to keep writing despite her demanding full-time job, how she kept the story alive in her mind while she gained enough perspective and distance from it to write it well.  Now that Mission Chechnya is published, I wanted to interview her about her particular brand of persistence--since so many writers struggle to find both time and perspective to complete a book that's based on true events.    


How did you get this book done?   What did it take, specifically?

You've likely heard about Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule--"10,000 hours of deliberate practice are needed to become world-class in any field."  That's a full-time job for nearly five years, or part-time for ten. And if you work full-time, like me, the routine of early-morning, twenty- to thirty-minute sessions, and longer weekend or vacation-day efforts too, are important. 


There have been disputes about the 10,000 hour rule, but the point I want to make is the importance of showing up, fingers to keyboard, on a regular basis. Some days it was easier to do this, but every effort counted and often my twenty minutes left me with a plot question or a character detail that I would carry with me. The way my subconscious mind works, and probably yours, is that I often stumbled over solutions later that day.


Did you realize you needed support--and training--to write this book?

Writing classes and a community of writers is so important. I had a story to tell, but in order to make it interesting to others, I needed to find the inner story that linked with the greater human dilemmas in life. I took in-person and virtual classes, a number from you, and teachers and classmates helped me understand how to "show, not tell" and how to create interesting characters and the arc of the story. Fellow writers made suggestions about characters, how to phrase something, or a plot twist that were invaluable.  


As I became a better writer, I was more able to hear and accept critical feedback. At times, I put the Chechnya story aside and worked on shorter creative nonfiction pieces. I had some success with publications in journals and contests which built my confidence.  


Many writers who are working from real life have trouble getting enough distance from their story.  How did you gain the necessary distance to write this book?

Initially, my book was a memoir, but I came to understand that it didn't work in that genre. It was too hard to protect my colleagues and myself and create a story arc that kept the reader engaged.  


About halfway through my writing efforts, I switched to fiction. At first, it
was tough:  I had to continually divorce myself from real-life characters and what really happened, to create a fictional story.  It was a process of "killing my darlings" and jettisoning scenes that happened but didn't serve the story.  Your class helped boatloads, and feedback from fellow writers and you helped me craft good characters and a page-turning story--I think and hope!  I used storyboarding and kept at it.  And at it, and at it.  Persistence is what mattered in the end. 


But even after working hard for quite a while, I realized I still didn't have the characters to tell the story.  So I ended up putting the kidnapping story aside to write a different novel.  It became the first novel of my international-aid adventure series:  The Dr. Ann McLannly Global Health books.   Each novel places Ann in a different humanitarian crisis around the world.  


As I wrote the first, Mission Rwanda, I worked out Ann's character.  Then I could bring her to Mission Chechnya, and with persistence, and feedback from teachers and other students, finally crafted the kidnapping story.   As I said, it was much harder to write than I imagined, mostly because I had to let go of scenes and events I was attached to, events that really happened, but did not serve the story. 


This book took me seventeen years to write.   Even as I write that, I can't believe it.  But I persisted, and now it's published. 


How does it feel to have it published?

It was a relief to finish the book and incorporate the feedback of my beta-readers, copy editors, etc. As with the first novel, I decided to self-publish given the current dynamics of the publishing world and I was ready to move onto novel three.  


Distance helped me craft a better tale and gave me the time I needed to get to know my main character well enough to write a convincing story about what really happened--and how it became fiction. 

"Chechnya and Russia are more important on the world stage in 2017 than they were ten years ago," she added.  And I agree:  It's a timely novel.  

If you'd like to read a copy of Therese's novel, click here for more details.

The blog will be on pause next week for the Thanksgiving holiday.  Enjoy!

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Magic of Showing Up--How to Design and Commit to a Writing Practice

What's the difference between a writer who gets a book finished and a writer who never does?  A writing practice.  Believe it--there's nothing more important.  Not talent, not a great idea.  It's down to basics:  putting self in chair, putting hands on keyboard or taking up the pen, and staying there past all the internal whining and doubt and misery to actually put words on the page.

But we all whine.  We all get up and sharpen every pencil in the house sometimes, instead of writing.   
 
My two-favorite motivational books to keep me writing are Ron Carlson Writes a Story and Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.  So this week, as a cold hovered and temps dropped outside, I got them out.  Each has so much compassion for the distractions a writer must overcome to have a good writing practice and actually finish a book.  But they also have enough practical techniques to really use.
 
Ron Carlson is a prolific short-story writer.  If you haven't read "Big Foot Stole My Wife" or other stories by him, do a google search and find them.  In his tiny book, Ron Carlson Writes a Story, he takes us through a day in the life, including all the distractions a person could imagine.  It's funny, it's charming, and it's oh-so-true, but each time I read it, I get back in the chair.  I'm inspired to write.  So it works.
 
Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic is much less whimsical.  Gilbert has produced well in her writing career.  She has had huge successes (Eat, Pray, Love) and lesser ones.  Gilbert's no stranger to the magic of the Muse, but she defines it differently.  She is all about listening.  Developing a listening practice, so you hear what to write about.  And using what you hear within a rock-solid writing routine.  Gilbert's theory:  there are great ideas out there, waiting for writers to receive them.  Those who listen, get the idea.  But that's only the first step.  Once you hear the call, you actually have to write. Regularly.  The idea will grow as you do your writing routine.  The book will happen.
 
If you get bored, tired, distracted, the idea will wait around for a while, Gilbert says.  But eventually it'll go find someone else to listen.  She saw this happen with a great book idea that came to her many years ago. 

She was excited, started writing, then dropped it for two years.  Not long after, she heard from her friend, the writer Ann Patchett.  Patchett was writing a new novel, about the exact same idea.  How was that possible?  Gilbert had told no one of her book-in-progress.  Neither had Patchett.  Years had gone by. But there it was.

It convinced Gilbert that ideas wait, latch on, then leave if we are not writing regularly.   

Carlson's approach is much more about showing up and doing the work.  Less about waiting and more about acting.  This appeals to me on days when I'm generally irritated by my writing, by elusive ideas that I can't quite grasp, and by my critical inner voice which questions the worth of any of it.  His theory is that if you show up and just begin to write, you'll get there.  He encourages me to not make too much of this.  It's not a mystery.

I like and use both approaches.  But mostly I try to keep a writing practice going.

Here are some tips I've shared with my classes about finding and sustaining a writing practice.  It's gotten me to finish many books:

1.  Decide how you're best motivated.  Do you work well with deadlines?  Do you write better if you know you'll be getting feedback?  Do you write because you have something to get out?  Do you love crossing "good writing days" off a calendar?  What's driving this book?  If you can figure that out, use it to keep yourself honest.  As a journalist for many decades, I work best with deadlines, so I set up artificial ones with writing partners or by taking classes where I have to produce.  Nothing spurs me on faster.  But that might not work work you.  What keeps you going, despite your doubts or distractions?  if you're a time or page writer. 

2.  Some writers feel successful with their practice if they put in a certain amount of time each day or each writing session.  Others don't care about time but require a certain number of words or pages (NaNoWriMo is all about this).  Find out what feels satisfying to you.  Make a goal that's reasonable, given your life--not wishful thinking.  For many years, I wrote five pages a day as my goal.  I didn't care about the quality but I felt happy each time I achieved that.  Eventually, I had manuscripts.

3.  Recognize the value of non-writing or musing time.  Something you can do solo and let ideas bubble up.  For me, it's a daily walk.  I like to walk and think about my story.  Often, problems work out.  But just getting outside, breathing the air, and moving my body settles me into a rhythm that always helps my writing practice.

4.  Life interferes with a writing practice.  You get sick, your friend needs help, your kids mess up, work gets crazy.  Train yourself not to need absolute quiet or solitude or long uninterrupted periods to do your writing practice.  Grab what you can--a commute with a voice memo to record ideas, an hour at a coffee shop on the way home from an appointment, even the middle of the night if you can't sleep.  Touch in with the book every day. 
  
Your Weekly Writing Exercise
If you haven't read Big Magic or Ron Carlson Writes a Story, grab a copy and immerse yourself.  Then think about the four tips, above.  Which one could you test out this week, to refine or start a writing practice that might carry you through winter?

Friday, November 3, 2017

Pros and Cons of Using Past or Present Tense

A blog reader sent me a great question this week:  "My writing group discussed present versus past tense when writing memoir.  A group member's editor had her switch her present tense chapters to past tense.  She had some of each.  Are there virtues of each or should memoir always be past tense?"
 
I get this question a lot in classes, so it's always good to know the pros and cons of using past or present tense.   
 
Just to recap, we're talking about verb tense here.  Past tense sentence:  John went to the game and arrived late.  Present tense of the same sentence:  John goes to the game and arrives late.
 
Although it's risky to make such a blanket statement, I'd say that novels and memoirs have been written almost exclusively in past tense for as long as literature has been published.   It was the way to write.  Then writers, who love to experiment, began writing a little in present tense, here and there.  It was different, startling at first to readers.  Present tense is TENSE!  It's more in your face, more breathless.  But so is our world now, so modern literature, both memoir and novels, are written in both past and present tense now. 
 
Are there rules?  Not really.  Are there effects on both reader and writer?  Definitely.  It pays to know them, so you can choose consciously.
 
Past tense disappears; it's so usual, we don't even notice it. 
 
And while present tense is immediate, fast, a little more energetic, in your face, breathless, as said above, it calls attention to itself.  Sometimes, it comes across like a "device" the writer is using rather than an integrated part of the story.  It's a style, like using no quote marks for dialogue.  All styles call attention to themselves and have to serve the story to be justified.

If an editor says, Go back to past tense, it might be for this reason.  I'm just guessing because I don't know the manuscript, but that would be one of the concerns I'd have, as an editor.  Is present tense serving the story or is it louder than the story?

Caveats:

1.  Some writers use present tense as a tool to get immediacy in the story.  Like, rewriting a chapter in present tense can give a whole new perspective and more energy if you're stuck.  I love using present tense for this reason, but I usually switch back. 

2.  A friend just got her book accepted--it's very edgy fiction and it's written in present tense.  The tense emphasizes the already edgy plot.  So it works.
 
3.  Some writers who use flashbacks choose one tense for the main story and the other for the flashback.  This is tricky but it's great if you can pull it off.

Mostly, find what works for you.  Read writers who write in either tense and see what effect you feel from the writing.  

Friday, October 27, 2017

Which Point of View Should I Use? A Tour of First, Second, Third, and More

I often get this question in my classes:  what point of view is best for my book?  Who is best to tell this story?  What are the differences between first, second, third, and omniscient points of view?
 
There's an underlying confusion about "voice" and point of view in story, which I want to address first.   
 
Point of view in writing is not your belief about the topic, as it would be in conversation--your "point of view" in an argument, for example.  In writing, it refers to the position of the narrator in your story.  It's the narrative filter, in other words, the way readers will see your story, based on who is telling it.
 
Voice is different.  Narrative voice is more the tone of the person talking; while writer's voice is the overall style you are using.  Check out my blog post on voice for more information.
 
Point of view is actually easier to figure out, because you only have a few choices.  Here they are: 
 
First person:  When you write in first person, you use the pronoun "I" because I am telling the story.  Memoir is usually written in first person because you are the narrator--it's your story.  Fiction is often written in first person--especially first novels, because it's easier to get into the character's head.  First person only stays in that one person's head; it doesn't switch around unless you are using multiple first-person narrators.  Then, each chapter would have an "I" narrator but different ones.  That's complex, so unless you're really good at it, stick with one person for your first-person narrator.
 
First-person point of view is automatically prejudiced, or biased.  We only can see what this person can see.  It's not going to be the whole story, so it's up to the writer to reveal the unreliability of this narrator via setting, action, gestures, and sensory details that contradict the narrator's view of something.   
 
Unreliable narrators are legion in fiction.  A great example is Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, where the narrator is an alcoholic and possibly implicit in a crime.   
Examples of first-person narration:
 
I crossed the street when the light turned green, not caring about the angry drivers who swerved to avoid me.
 
It was years before my father acknowledged how much he missed me; I thought he never would.
 
I'm climbing the stairs, aware of noises in the attic, not sure what I'll find there. 
 
Second person:  Second person narration uses the pronoun "you"--and it's a tough point of view to sustain throughout a 250- to 300-page book.  Why?  Because it comes across as confrontational, in-your-face, and many readers get tired of it fast.  In short pieces, it works well.     
 
Examples of second-person narration:
 
You crossed the street when the light turned green, not caring about the angry drivers who swerved to avoid you.   
 
It was years before your father acknowledged how much he missed you; you thought he never would.
 
You're climbing the stairs, aware of noises in the attic, not sure what you'll find there.
 
Third person:  There are two kinds of third-person narration; one is used a lot, the other hardly ever today, except in academic writing.  The first is called "third person limited" and the "limited" means that it stays in one person's head.  It's a very common point of view in fiction, biography, and nonfiction.  It's not used in memoir.  The second is "third person omniscient" and the "omniscient" means we see all the characters' points of view.  Third omniscient is an old-fashioned style of narration.  It was common in novels thirty or forty years ago, but it's tricky to write successfully today because it gives such a distant feel to the narration--meaning, it's harder to get to know the individual characters when you're writing all of them at once.  It's used in academic writing just because of this distant feel.
 
Third limited can move around to different characters' heads, but it stays in that person's point of view exclusively while they are narrating.   
 
Examples of third-person-limited narration:
 
Jason crossed the street when the light turned green, not caring about the angry drivers who swerved to avoid him.   
 
It was years before Jason's father acknowledged how much he missed him; Jason thought he never would.
 
Jason's climbing the stairs, aware of noises in the attic, not sure what he'll find there.
 
Examples of third-person-omniscient narration:    
 
Jason and Maria crossed the street when the light turned green, not caring about the angry drivers who swerved to avoid them.   
 
It was years before their father acknowledged how much he missed them; they thought he never would.
 
Jason and Maria are climbing the stairs, aware of noises in the attic, not sure what they'll find there.
 
Some basic rules to keep your narrative point of view clean:
 
1.  Stick with one.  If you have multiple narrators, keep them all in first or third limited.  Switch at chapter breaks to be easiest on the reader.      
 
2.  Some writers love to break this rule, playing with one narrator in first-person and the other in third limited.  It's kind of in vogue right now, so if you're tempted, be sure your transitions are impeccable.  Otherwise, you'll lose the reader's trust early on.  Study books that do this well.   
 
3.  Avoid third omniscient unless you want an academic feel to your writing.  It's a lazy way to write, in my view.  It's often what we do when we are beginning, and after some feedback, we learn better and begin to rewrite in third limited.   If you really like the broader perspective and want to try it, experiment with third limited with multiple narrators first.  See if that gives you the broad reach you're after.  Or study writers who do this well.  
 
Here's a great article from The Write Place blog that gives more examples and details.  Your writing exercise this week is to read it then look at your own writing.  What point of view do you favor?  Why?  What might it be like to experiment with a different point of view?

Friday, October 20, 2017

How to Build a Chapter--A Cool New Template to Try for Any Genre

This week I'm teaching on Madeline Island, a beautiful spot on Lake Superior off the shore of northern Wisconsin.  Yesterday my class of ten writers explored a new template I've been working with for building chapters.  As a review for them and a gift for you, I thought I'd share it.
 
Many of my book-writing students, as well as private clients, even those already published, struggle with how to build strong chapters.  Over the past year, I've been studying different templates for chapter building.  Asking myself some hard questions:
 
1.  Do chapters require the same components in fiction, memoir, and nonfiction? 2.  What makes a chapter work?  
3.  What's missing, when it doesn't quite?
 
Last year, a writing friend introduced me to Shawn Coyne's book, The Story Grid. Coyne offers a template for suspense novels that helps fill gaps for many writers of that genre (thrillers, domestic suspense, true crime).  I worked with it, got a lot of help, then ran into walls.  My new novel, Outlaws, is not just a mystery; it also explores the relationship of two estranged sisters brought together by a daughter.   My more "literary fiction" bent felt cramped within the model. 
 
When I tested the Story Grid on the more reflective or information-based genres of memoir or nonfiction, it didn't work as well either.   So I began searching for a more universal model that writers in any genre could use.
 
Benefits of Chapter Templates
Free-flow writing and intuitive decisions about chapter size and where to break them--great when you're drafting or just beginning to revise.  Using the intuitive side keeps the left brain from smothering the subtler levels of story as they emerge.  
 
Early on, you may have some idea of how the accumulating pages could break into chapters.  But, unfortunately, most writers never move out of the go by how it feels mode when revising, and their chapters stay stuck in early structure decisions.  Either they've broken the manuscript into uniform segments, about 10 pages on average, which they decide are good chapters.  Or they choose arbitrary breaks to give the reader a pause.  Neither makes for good chapter structure.
 
As I studied successful chapters, I saw there was a clear pattern.  I crafted this template and tested it with private coaching clients and my classes.  So far, it's held up.  It's solved chapter-structure dilemmas in fiction, memoir, and nonfiction. 
 
Your writing exercise this week is to test it out with one of your not-quite-there chapters and see what you think.
 
Five Components of Successful Chapters  
I found five components exist in most successful chapters.  Here they are and how they're used.
 
Opening setup.  A question or quest opens most strong chapters in any genre.  A dilemma starts the momentum and carries the reader forward into the chapter's main action or development.  It might be as complex as someone wakes up that morning and discovers her mate is not in bed or in the house.  Or an invitation comes.  Or the doctor calls with news.  Or a meeting begins, someone leaves, someone arrives.   
 
The opening setup usually reflects the false agreement of the whole book in some small way.  It gives a hint of what's to come.  In class we looked at a chapter from Sunnybrook:  A True Story with Lies by Persimmon Blackwell, where the opening setup up is preparing for an interview, and Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller, where the opening setup is the girl waking up and needing to pee but she can't wake her parents because they sleep with guns by their bedside.
 
In a nonfiction book such as Complications by Atul Gawande, the opening setup is the start of a surgical procedure.
 
In all three examples, a quest is begun, however large or small.  Because the chapter presents a successful opening setup, a hint of conflict is also presented:  Will the quest succeed?  What else might happen (or go wrong)?
 
Acceleration.  After the opening setup, usually within a page or less, there's some acceleration of the problem.  Things do get more complicated.  This is important:  it gives the chapter momentum.  The reader keeps reading to find out more.
 
Many writers pause to deliver lengthy backstory or information here.  Some is OK, but be cautious about more than a few lines or paragraphs.  It'll drop the tension you've created with the opening setup.  As an editor, when I review manuscripts that offer pages of backstory, I know the chapter is not successfully structured.  As a reader, I often skip or put the book down just there.  
 
In Sunnybrook, the acceleration is the interviewee dressing in a way that covers the scars on her arms.  In Dogs, the acceleration is the girl waking her sister instead of her parents, even though she knows her sister is a risky bet too.  In Complications, it's revealed that the surgery is going to be tricky.
 
Dramatized action.  This section of a chapter covers the most real estate.  Pages, often.  Ideally, it's one scene in a specific moment of time and a specific place, not summarized but dramatized fully onstage in front of the reader.  If there is a sequence of moments, they link or build in tension, one to the next.  They are not unrelated or similar in tension level--that also drops the tension of the chapter and the reader feels we're hearing the same thing again and again.  In Sunnybrook, this is the actual interview.  In Dogs, this is the scene in the bathroom (a dark outhouse with scorpions and snakes).  In Complications, this is the procedure in all its gory detail.
 
Window of truth.  I found this present in so many books I explored.  It's almost a requirement, now, for chapters I love in published books, but I've never seen it discussed in writing classes or craft articles.  I call it a "window of truth" because it connects back to the dismantling of the false agreement that starts the chapter.
 
Say the false agreement is the mental health care system is intact, as in Sunnybrook.  The window of truth is a one line sidebar where the narrator reveals that she knows that's not true--in a big way--and she's going to bust it open.  Say the false agreement is every woman (or kid) for herself in war-torn Rhodesia, as in Dogs.  The window of truth is two lines, where the four-year-old girl reveals that she wants help; she can't do it alone.  Say the false agreement in Complications is that surgeons are gods.  The window of truth busts this open when the surgery is complicated (hence the title) and surgeons are helpless if they hold to this superior belief.
 
It's not much.  It's potent.  It is placed towards the end of the chapter, usually, after we've experienced full dramatization of the question or quest.   
 
The closing setup.  In books, you don't end there, with a neat wrap up.  If you do, your readers won't turn to the next chapter, right?  They'll pause to reflect, set your book down, and maybe not pick it up again.  It took me many thousands of dollars in an MFA program to learn this:  book chapters, except the final chapter, must have a transition that leads to the next chapter.  They must leave something unresolved from the opening setup OR hint at a new dilemma, quest, or question. 
  
I often craft the closing setup at revision.  This kind of transition is often hard to see when you're just drafting.  After the whole-book structure is intact, and your chapters built successfully, it's easy to go back in and tweak the end of each chapter to include a closing setup line or paragraph.  
 
Hint:  the closing setup often loops back to the false agreement.  Not always, but often.  It can fully re-embrace the false agreement, solidifying it even more. 
 
In Sunnybrook, we learn the interviewee is given the job at the mental hospital, but the head psychiatrist doesn't know she is a former patient.  The closing setup is the question:  What?!!?  And we read on to find out how she manages.  In Dogs, the young girl lies when her father asks how she slept;  "like a log," she says, again pretending she can handle wartime life without complaining.  

This week:  See if one of your troublesome chapters can be reworked using this model.

Friday, October 13, 2017

How Powerful Is the "Container" of Your Story?

Book writers must create writing that pulls a reader in, that engages us so well, we can't stop reading. A favorite nonfiction writer, Malcolm Gladwell, spoke about this task--and its challenge to most writers--in the preface to his book What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures.
 
Gladwell's topics are potentially dry. I love his ability to present his material in an amazingly engaging way.
 
"Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade," he said. "It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else's head--even if in the end you conclude that someone else's head is not a place you'd really like to be."
 
Each book writer has their topic, the thing they must write about. Some write about a fantasy world, some write flowers, some write about growing up with addictions. No matter your topic, the trick is to make it engaging. It's harder than it sounds.  
The key is something called "container."
 
This week I'm gathering some new material for my fall online class, Strange Alchemy, which begins October 25 and focuses writers on container in their story.  What is present, now, and how can it be enhanced?  How does container intersect with character--so that you understand a character better by the setting that echoes their motivations or emotions?  How does an event come alive in a perfectly depicted container?
If you have any doubt about the importance of container, think of films.  Imagine The Matrix being shot on a farm in rural New Zealand.  Or that classic, West Side Story, taking place on a ranch in Kansas.  Container may be something you completely overlook as you draft your story, or it might be your favorite aspect.  Not enough container means your reader won't engage emotionally with the characters or events--because (and here's the kicker) container is the main vehicle for delivering emotion and meaning in story.
This is the first step to producing the engaging writing that Gladwell is talking about.
 
Tough Material, Great Container
In my Strange Alchemy class, we read an essay by Susan J. Miller, excerpted from her book Never Let Me Down. Miller's father was a well-respected jazz musician who hung out with the likes of George Handy and Stan Getz. But he was also a heroin addict, and her life was terribly affected by this. Her memoir is heart-breaking. 
 
Some writers are repulsed by such a topic, others feel it's terribly pertinent to today's world.  We always have a lively debate, trying to understand why the essay affects us so much, and in the end, we usually realize it is because of Miller's extraordinary "container," the living environment of her story.
This is the key to engaging writing. Container, the larger environment of your book's story, delivers more emotion than plot, characters, topic, structure, or all of these combined. "It's counter-intuitive," is the comment I get most often--"you would think that good plot, exciting action, would create emotional response." 
 
Good plot creates momentum, yes. It drives the story forward.  But it's container that brings forth that emotional response. It's what makes us feel hit in the gut by a story's tender moment or feel our hearts racing with anticipation by a twist. Without container, plot is just a series of events, like a newspaper report. 
 
Why else would I, as a reader, become so engaged in the healing of a crime-ridden neighborhood, the comeback of Hush Puppy Shoes, and other examples from Gladwell's classic book, The Tipping Point? I don't care about Hush Puppies. Really. But I did when he talked about them. Same with Susan Miller's work. Heroin addiction is not on my list of fun things to read about. But I was totally engrossed by her tale.
 
Because both Gladwell and Miller are masters of writing container.
 
How Is Container Presented?
Container is presented in writing in several ways. Here are a few from just one paragraph of Miller's essay:
 
1. physical setting (being on a speeding subway train, watching the night flash by outside the grimy windows)
2. use of the five senses (screech of train wheels, whisper of her father's voice against her ear)
3. physical sensations (the rocking of a train causing nausea, felt in the body)
4. word choice ("screech" and "whisper" echo the sounds of jazz being played--Miller's overall container for the essay)
5. paragraph length and flow (a series of clauses, separated by commas, giving the impression of movement and jerkiness while on the subway train)
 
The effect of this paragraph--one where her father takes her on a train ride then gleefully whispers that he just dropped acid--is one of terror. A young girl is aware that her father might at any moment decide the train car is a tomb and try to jump off. What can she do? Not much. She just has to ride out the ride.
 
It's an astonishing container.
 
This Week's Exercise
Choose a dead spot in your writing--a paragraph or a page. Insert one of the above tools to increase container. See if you can let go of your preferences as a writer and be willing to see your work from the reader's view. Does more emotion come through?
And if you'd like to join a stellar and warm community online for my Strange Alchemy class which begins in a few weeks, here's the link to check it out.  You need to be working on fiction or memoir to benefit most from the class, but all levels of writers are welcome. 

Friday, October 6, 2017

Publishing Alternatives to the Big Five--What Is Best for Your Book?

Quite a few of my clients have released their books this past year, always a happy moment for me.  My bookshelves are crammed with gift copies, which they often send as thank-you's, and I love seeing the finished product.  And how far the book has come since we began working together, in class or privately.
 
Some have decided to go with agents, some on their own.  But many, agented or not, have explored beyond the Big Five NYC publishers and found alternative homes for their books.  One author I spoke with recently said she's so happy with how her book came out, via a partner press, and she's grateful she was open to other options besides the Big Five.  Her agent even counseled her against them, and I've heard this from other authors this past year.   
 
I get emails each week asking about these alternatives, so I thought it might be good to give an overview in this blog post.  Even if you are far from ready to publish, it's good to know your options.
 
Big Five:  The parent companies are Penguin-Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan, but there are so many imprints (or specialized publishing arms) within these.  They rule the publishing world, in a way, and it's harder than ever to get in the door.  Agents are required.  An agent I spoke with said that these publishers, if they accept your book, give you about two to six weeks to make a splash.  After that, the book goes to backlist, which means it's hard to get and gets no attention.  The author is still responsible for all publicity, unless you score a really great deal.  Advances are minimal.   Authors do not front money, and most (so I've been told) do not earn back their advances through sales.  Standard royalty after advance is paid back.   
 
To me, it's a bit like the lottery.  You may win, you may not, and it'll take a lot of luck and hard work (and your own money to hire a publicist--around $5000 on average--to help you get the reviews, blurbs, and promotion you'll need for that splash).  Some of my clients have scored, and I cheer them on.  But it's a long shot for most first-time authors.  Luckily, there are many other options.
 
Mid-size, academic, and small presses:  Included are J.P. Tarcher, Harbinger, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Scholastic, Workman, John Wiley & Sons, W.W. Norton, Chronicle, Tyndale, and quite a few others; most university presses; and small, specialty presses.  Some require agents, some do not.  I sold most of my books to small or mid-size presses.  I had an agent for five books, then he retired, and I used my contacts to sell directly.  Both avenues worked well although I got a better deal with the agented books, which may have been the times.   Advances are small, if at all.  Some of my clients have gotten excellent publicity help from their press; others have not.  These presses also expect the author to promote heavily, possibly hire a publicist too.  My books are (mostly) still available and I found the presses (mostly) wonderful to deal with, often offering high-quality editing.  Authors do not front money for production; standard royalty package. 
 
Partner publishers:  These are sometimes called hybrid publishers.  The author and publisher pool resources to produce the book--meaning, the author fronts money and earns it back through sales, unlike the advance/royalty system with the publishers mentioned above.  Usually these books are sold via amazon and other online stores, rather than in bookstores, although there are exceptions.  Ideal for the writer who has more money than time, because partner publishers walk you through the publication process and service you with professionals (design, editing, promotion).  Some of these presses require submission and have certain criteria for which books they accept (examples are Greenleaf and She Writes Press).  Author makes better royalty fees than traditional publishing, usually, but less than indie (self-) publishing.
 
Assisted self-publishing:  So many writers want to control their own books, but they don't know where  to begin to get them out there.  To service that need, a flock of companies have started up that allow you to buy a complete publishing package:  editing, design, etc.  Unlike partner publishers, you keep all the sales from your book, but you're also completely responsible for getting it to readers once it's produced.  Some examples of this kind of publisher:  Dog Ear Press, Book in a Box, Girl Friday.  But research these presses carefully.  Many companies are not as trustworthy as they should be.  Both Jane Friedman and Mick Rooney (Independent Publishing Magazine) are great resources.
 
Self- or indie publishing:  This is purely DIY, so writers who opt for self-publishing without assistance need to get their own team of production help unless they are whizzes at desktop publishing and copyediting.  Two very reliable companies headline the indie front:  CreateSpace (amazon.com) and Ingram (Spark).  Clients have also used iUniverse and others, with mixed results.  You pay everything, you do everything, you get everything, including complete control.   I self-published one book; my team costs were about $2000. and it was a very satisfying experience, despite all the work.
    
For more details on this, check out Jane Friedman's free e-newsletter--very valuable information on all things about publishing in our times. 

Friday, September 29, 2017

An Inventory of Bad Decisions in Your Book--And Why Bad Decisions Make the Best Stories

A student in my classes complained about her writer's block.   She'd started her book with a bang, writing four chapters that just flowed out.   Then, she hit chapter 5.  Stuck. Nothing happened--either on the page or with the pen.

Remembering a friend's motto, "bad decision make the best stories," I suggested this writer inventory the bad decisions in her chapters.

I asked her to make a list of any moment that a choice went awry, that cause led to challenges instead of smoothness.  Search for anything that created unease or more trouble.

I firmly believe the momentum of a story comes from its qualities of risk.  If the writer can edge closer to the edge of her story, she'll naturally create tension in the writing.  It won't feel good, perhaps, especially if she's someone who likes life on an even keel.  But it will raise the stakes, and that's what makes good story. 

This writer was working on her storyboard so she went back to it.  As she reviewed the plot points, she realized nothing big had happened after the great beginning of chapter 1.  She had rationalized that she was saving the big stuff for later. 

But with zero bad decisions, there was also zero momentum.   Very little energy to propel the plot.

As she explained her dilemma and her choices, I realized that this writer is a very nice person.  She believes in a world where most people are good at heart.   She knew she had to get her characters in trouble, but she resisted it in every way.  They were like her, good people too. 
I like her, who wouldn't? And I also believe in that kind of world. But not on paper. Not in fiction or memoir, especially if you want to publish today.
I'm not suggesting you have to make murder and mayhem.  Bad decisions can just be telling a white lie, and watching the consequences unfold.   I asked this writer if she'd ever told a white lie, and she said, "Of course, who hasn't?"
"Find your bad decisions," I suggested. "List them, then transport one into your story."
Finding Bad Decisions--This Week's Writing Exercise
We've all made bad decisions. We've been on the receiving end of other people's, too.  They are hard to forget, no matter how hard we try.

Think of one.  Then remember your "story" after the bad decision.   It probably had drama, movement, energy, and consequences.

That's what you're after in your writing.

This week, write about one really bad decision you made in your life.   Write about it in all its glory.  I like to set a kitchen timer for 15 minutes, to limit the agony.   Maybe you're far enough away to not feel the pain of it again, but if you do feel some embarrassment or unease as you write, good thing--because it'll make the writing that much more emotionally grabbing for a reader.
Now look at your book draft.  List the bad decisions, small and large.  Where are they placed in the plot?  Remember, they are the propellant for your story.  If they are clumped together, they'll create a bang, yes, but the long period of nothing happening that follows the bang will read like a whimper.  Or worse, a flat line. 

If you don't have many bad decisions on your list, make another list.  Write down 10 things your character would never do. (Use this equally for memoir or fiction.)   Now write one scene, one moment, using one item on the list--imagining it happening.  Imagine the bad decision and the shame, embarrassment, bad news that follows.  Cause and effect, right?  That's what story is made of.

See if this provides momentum.   Gets you unstuck.   Out of that "still life."