Friday, October 31, 2014

Self-Promotion versus Creating Community--Where Is the Line for You?


Fame has always been a hot topic of discussion among writers.  An unsavory one.  A necessary one.  If we long to be published, we ask those who are published:  How did you get there?  We read the bestseller lists and wonder about the process of climbing to such recognition.  Once we have that contract, that great agent, we still must struggle to get our work received, recognized, reviewed.  It gets wearying.


Because, for many of us, all we really want to do is make art.  We want to write.  We want to sink into the worlds on our page. 

I signed on for this book-writing gig because I believed in my topic.  I wanted to share ideas with others, be part of the creative community.  I loved talking about writing and I loved (most of the time) to write.  I didn't dream of bestseller lists; in fact, when my first book won a national award, I didn't even go to the awards ceremony in New York City.  I'd gotten a second contract and was desperate to get more pages written. 

Time passed, I published more nonfiction books.  They sold well; one was the publisher's bestseller for that year.  Then I switched genres, went into memoir and self-help.  They sold well too, and I was proud to talk about them on radio and TV, even though I didn't know much about how to do either.  My publisher suggested I hire a consultant to teach me how to look good on camera, and it helped.  Sold more books, publisher was happy. 

Then my first novel was accepted.  It was nominated for a PEN/Faulkner, mentioned in a New York Times interview, and discussed on WNPR.  But it sold terribly.  Readers sent me lovely letters and emails about how much they adored the story.  But a roaring commercial success it wasn't.

I blamed the publisher.  I blamed myself.  I blamed that serendipity of the industry which limelights some and not others.  My book was, is, good.  But it languished.  I wondered what I could've done better.  I told myself I just didn't enjoy the pushy promotion that success requires of writers today.

A recent encounter with one of those well-published, successful novelists led to an interesting discussion.  I wrote her asking what went wrong, what I could've done differently or better with my beloved book.   "This is Every Author's Lament unless you've written Gone Girl or Wild or are Malcolm Gladwell," she wrote back.
 
She says she just writes books, she doesn't look at the numbers.  "I feel it is my job to write books as long as someone wants to publish them." 

And that's why I got into writing.  Because I wanted to write books.  It was good to hear it from someone else.  An important reminder.

This week I also came across a wonderful article about making commerce versus making art, written by a first-time author who is encountering these big questions as she promotes her book.  It's very thought-provoking, for anyone who is in this crazy work of creative expression.  Check it out here and as your weekly writing exercise, spend some time freewriting about where you are on the continuum.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Self-Publishing: No Longer Just the "Vanity" Option for Today's First-Time Authors


Can you really self-publish?  Or is it career suicide for a writer? 

My indie-released songwriter friends never understood why writers are so hung up about self-publishing.  Musicians have long separated from the labels and ventured out on their own, releasing their own CDs and working with indie distributors like cdbaby.

But we writers have been told for decades that unless we get an agent and go the traditional route, we'll never be taken seriously in our writing careers.

I believed this.  I went the traditional route for my first eight published books:  two agents, traditional publishers and small presses, advances and royalties, book tours, the works.  Each experience had its ups and downs.  I worked with some wonderful editors and publishers and some not so.  I loved my first agent and fired my second.  I went solo (no agent) with several small presses and enjoyed the personal attention. 

But for most of my career, I stayed away from the stigma of "vanity press," or self-publishing, because I still bought the myth:  it was a fast route to career suicide.

Besides, I wanted the marketing and distribution help a publisher could give.

Those first-time authors who have braved the submission routes and maybe gotten published are laughing by now:  "marketing and distribution help" is rare these days.  Times have changed.  Advances are also few and small now, as most publishers don't have the upfront funds to back a new author.  There are exceptions, of course:  two of my students recently scored good advances.  But most are being told, You're lucky to get published by us, in kinder words.

Great editors still exist, but many publishers don't quite follow the same careful editorial procedures I benefited from as a writer starting out in the 1980s.  Manuscripts today must arrive in pristine condition--the writer's responsibility, not the editor's. 

Even more challenging for writers:  Agents and publishers demand a platform, which is an industry term for a solid marketing plan and media presence.  Most new writers must start a blog and plan just how they will promote their book. 

We writers are more than just wordsmiths with a good story now.  We have to learn how to sell our books as well as write them.

For this, writers get 7-1/2 percent of sales, which for a $14.00 trade size paperback amounts to about $1.13 per copy.  We do the marketing work, we hire editors before submitting it.  The publisher prints the book as orders come in (print on demand) in most cases, not wanting to carry inventory, or does a short run of less than 500 copies to see whether the book will sell.  Agents take 15-20 percent of everything.   

It's not all gloom and doom--please, remember the exceptions!  There are still fairytales being made.  But many writers writers are thinking seriously about their options now.  Many are looking again self-publishing, figuring out the system themselves, crafting their lower-cost e-books and selling them for 99 cents a copy to drive up sales.  Some are making money.  Even if they self-publish a printed book, through Create Space or Lightning Source, they can make up to $10.00 a copy after expenses are paid back (for typesetter, proofer, cover designer, and editor).   

Self-publishing requires money up front, for a printed book.  Less or none for an electronic book.  But if you're going to have to market it yourself anyway, why not make $10.00 a copy instead of $1.13?

But . . . and here's the catch, as there always is:  Neither traditional publishing nor self-publishing will sell your book for you today.  If you self-publish, you will still need to market.  Here's the link to a fascinating article from Publishers Weekly, about three self-published writers and their post-publishing experiences. 

But it is also worthwhile to find out the potential, explore your options.  Don't be swayed by the traditional route when there are more opportunities for writers than ever.

And don't forget the many success stories about first-time authors who've self-published.  Writer Darcie Chan was rejected by over 100 literary agents and dozens of publishers, then went on to self-publish her debut novel and sell over 400,000 copies on Kindle.  Think this kind of story is a fairytale?  It's happening more and more.

Self-publishing is still a controversial topic.  But as the industry takes one hit after another, it's an option many writers are considering--and succeeding with.

For more success stories about self-publishing also check out chapter 25 of my book, Your Book Starts Here.  

Friday, October 17, 2014

Learning versus Performing Mode: How Each Influences Your Writing Right Now

As a writing teacher, I deal with discouragement every day.  Not about my teaching, although that can certainly arise.  I face the discouragement of my students, as they learn new skills.

Most challenging of the skill-building classes I teach is the advanced-level online book class.  Twenty writers from all over the world gather to learn the art of revision.  

Revision is truly the long-distance drive of writing a book.  You've got the draft, you're enthused (astonished!) to have actually completed it, and now you want to make it sing.  But revision skills are totally different than drafting skills.  Even if the person is a good writer, they might not be able to revise.  And it can lead to deep discouragement.

As usual the third week of class (typically when rubber meets road),  I got three separate emails from discouraged students who wanted to give up.  They are all good writers.  They have good books-in-the-making.  But they don't have revision skills yet.  So, not really knowing what they didn't know about revision, these writers entered this advanced class keenly desiring to hear what's good about their writing.  Consciously or unconsciously, they craved encouragement and validation.  (Most of us secretly hope our book manuscript is already a beautiful symphony, even at draft stage.  From God's mouth to our pen, and all that.  And I go there often, so I am not making fun!) 

But usually, it's not music yet.  Not quite even a catchy tune.  There are clunky sections and whole chapters that are not really needed (but the writer loved too much to assess well).  There's work to be done, next steps to travel.  


It takes excellent readers to show you where you might go next. 

And the readers in this class are good!   Since they are also working on their manuscripts, they develop a keen eye to what's working and what's not.  Within a small work group of 4-5 writers in similar genre/skill level, they read and give feedback each week on chapters and ideas.  I add my feedback, I moderate the groups, and I get the private emails of discouragement and respond.

Keep going, I say.  You have a ways to go.  It may not be easy but it'll be worth it.

So say the writers who have gone on to publish, after taking this class.  I remind them they can do this too.

But why do writers get discouraged in the first place?  Ira Glass talks about this in his wonderful video on the creative process.  He says there's often a gap between our taste and our skill level.  We love good writing, and when we read ours, we see how far we have to go.  In our instant-results culture, the idea of 10,000 hours put into your craft is still foreign.  It takes time to refine.

This week, I got another clue to why writers get discouraged. 

I've been enjoying the newest book by science writer, Daniel Pink.  It's called Drive, and it's about the surprising new research on what motivates us.   Pink talks about the two modes of work:  I'll rephrase them to learning mode and performance mode.  These exist in every arena of life.  But this new research shows that people who approach creative work from a "got to do it right, right now" mode (perform well) may do great for a short run but fail in the long.

Those who approach their project (say, writing a book) from a learning mode will stick it out, get better, and succeed way beyond the performers.

I ask my discouraged students:  which mode are you in, right now?  Are you competing with yourself, with others, with the dream of publishing?  Is your  own refined taste blocking you from being a humble beginner and allowing yourself time to really develop your skills?

The mode you choose determines whether you'll find enjoyment and actually succeed. 


Friday, October 3, 2014

Detail That Matters and Detail That Doesn't: Why the First Makes Your Writing Come Alive and the Second Dulls the Shine


Some people love lots of sensory detail in writing.  I'm one of them.  If a writer shows me the place, what the people wear, the smells and sounds, I'm right there with the story.

But I've learned over the years that detail only works if it's relevant to what's happening.  One of my teachers called it "salient detail."  In other words, if the character or narrator isn't experiencing shifts because of the detail, it's irrelevant to the reader.  It can even derail the story's pace and purpose, dulling its shine.

Example:  In my current novel I'm writing about a small plane pilot who deliberately crashes her plane to stage her own death.  With the help of a writing colleague who is a flight instructor, I researched the details inside the cockpit of a small plane.  I got a lot of details!  Maybe twenty.  I knew I didn't want to list all of them.  Too many details definitely drop the tension of the crash scene. 

What Details Do Inside Your Reader's Brain
Each time you add a detail, the reader has to imagine it.  (Or skip it--which many readers do!)  They literally have to go to a different place in their brain, away from the processing of words and into the processing of visual or sensual memories, for an instant, to do this imagining. 

This only takes an instant, but it's an instant for each detail!  If I used twenty different descriptive details about the interior of the Piper Cub cockpit, it would be a long, long imagining.  The reader would probably put the book down, having forgotten why we were in the cockpit in the first place.  (To crash the plane.)

So I put myself inside the character's head.  I thought about what she would see or experience that would have relevance for someone in this panicked state, about to stage her own death.  I chose three of the twenty that echoed this panic:
1.   Her breath fogging the windshield because it is very cold outside. 
2.  The yoke (steering wheel) of the plane, stained from years of flying, which she has been gripping for hours.
3.   The cramped space that causes her to have to twist a certain way to get her jacket.

It was hard to jettison all the great details I'd researched, but they really didn't pertain directly to this moment in my story.  Details must be relevant.  Otherwise, they are just detours from the purpose of your scene.

This Week's Writing Exercise
Take a scene or a chapter or even a paragraph of your writing and consider the use of sensory details:  what can be seen, touched, smelled, heard, tasted, or felt texturally (like temperature or roughness/smoothness of a surface). 

If you aren't using any details, add a few.

Look at what you've chosen and ask yourself if the details are relevant.  Here are the questions I like to use:

1.  Is the detail being directly experienced by the narrator in that moment?
2.  Does the detail have an important meaning for the narrator, opening up more of the inner story just because it's present?
3.  Is the detail tactile, sensory strong?

Try to eliminate any generic details and replace them with relevant ones.   

Friday, September 26, 2014

Getting Started Again: Writers' Tips for When You Get Stuck


I'm rerunning this post from last winter while I launch my fall semester of online classes this week.  Enjoy!

Over the years, despite thinking I was the only one, I've learned that almost everyone who writes, professional or not, faces a time-out occasionally. 

Time-outs are just the creative self needing a break.  Most are useful--they give us time for processing next steps in our writing.  We can consider whether it's going where we want it to go, we can muse over a dilemma that needs heightening or a character that needs fleshing out.  Every creative activity needs these kinds of time-outs, what some call "filling the well." 

But getting started again--that's another story.

I've learned that time-outs can be OK, but it took a lot of practice to know when to get back to work.  Otherwise, my time-out (stall-out) becomes procrastination.  And we all know all about that.

Here are some easy-peasy tips from writer friends that saved me from turning time-outs into book abandonment.

Tip #1:  Make Writing a Good Habit
Most pros say, "Just start."  It's true, that's the solution.  Sit down, open the document, type something.  Or pick up the pen and begin describing what you see.

But most of us don't believe it's that simple.  We have a thousand reasons we're not ready to start again.  Truthfully, we dread opening that document because of what horrors (bad writing) it could reveal.

A routine helps this.  Just like going to the gym.  Or yoga class.  How many bound eagerly toward those, day after day?  I thought so.  Me neither.  But once I'm there, I love it.  So, having a yoga class to get to by a certain time helps me bypass the excuses.  Writing routines do the same thing. 

In my online classes, students post every Monday morning.  If they buy into the beauty of this simple requirement, the routine aids them.  Even if they don't remember until Sunday night, they still do some writing.  Peer pressure from their small group--and me.  It becomes a positive habit and the brain and body cooperate.  It's almost as if we fall into a happy groove.

When there's no outside reason to write, nobody to be accountable to, it's harder.  I've set up artificial deadlines for myself.  An email agreement with another writer or group.  That works.  As long as someone cares, I am more likely to overcome my own resistance and get my own writing engine cranking again.

I write more, and more often, when I have a routine.

Tip #2:  Leave with Something Unfinished (Linkage)
There's a cool technique to get started fast.  It's called linkage.  Many pro writers use it.  It's astonishingly simple but it works.

It goes like this:  stop in the middle of a sentence.  When you are finished writing for that day, be sure to stop in the middle of a sentence.

This causes great discomfort for the linear mind.  It loves to finish things (at least mine does) and will do everything to get you to complete that sentence.  Because you are trying linkage, you won't.  So the next morning, the linear mind will be very itchy and beg you to get back to the writing, just to finish that link.  So you do, and of course you write more.

Good trick.  Works every time.

Tip #3:  Start and Keep an Ongoing Brainstorming List
In my online book-writing classes, we use an ongoing brainstorming list.  We create this list early in the twelve-week course.  It's simply a list of possible prompts, possible "islands" or scenes, possible ideas for the book.  Anything goes.  Whenever a cool idea comes up, it goes on the list. 

Each writing session, you pick one.  You tell yourself you'll write for 10 minutes, that's all, about anything to do with that item on the list.

Tip #4:  Start and Keep an Ongoing Questions List
This works in a similar way to the Brainstorming List but it's especially great when you're deep in deconstruction mode and feel stumped about new ideas.  Use your creative imagination by making a list of 10-15 questions about your book.  Any question is fair game.  Silly or serious.

I usually have big ones--"How can I solve the unbelievable ending?"--as well as small ones--"What's the real significance of Molly's necklace?"  Make your list without censoring anything.

Like with the Brainstorming List, pick a question.  But instead of writing, let it roll around inside for a few hours.  Especially overnight.  Seems like we can dream the answer, the new ideas.  You may wake up with great ones.  I often do!

Important:  form the questions as actual questions.  Not "I need to know how to end this $%#& book."  But "What's a way I can end this book?" or "Book, how do you want to end?"

The form of an actual question makes this tip work.

An additional tip:  Some pros end their daily writing session by jotting down 3-4 questions about the day's writing or the next day's concerns.  They use the overnight to let the questions percolate. 

Tip #5:  Talk Yourself into One VERY Small Step
For years I used Anne Lamott's idea of the small empty photo frame on my desk.  The opening was only 2 inches wide.  I told myself I only had to write as many words as would fit inside.  About 25 words.  Lamott gives this idea in her wonderful book on writing, Bird by Bird.

It really worked.  What's 25 words?  About 5 minutes of scribbling.  And just enough to trick myself into writing more.  I'd look up, an hour had gone by.  Woo-hoo.   I was back in the saddle.  Unstuck and into my book again!  One small step to fool the Inner Critic, one giant step back into my writing life. 

Tip #6:  Take a Class
This fall, I'm taking an online class myself (even though I teach four, I love to be a student).  It's helping me keep going.  I find the accountability of a class, the need to show up and post a new chapter each week, is amazingly effective for keeping me in touch with my writing.  The feedback is fuel too--I seriously consider each comment and try it out, see if it solves any problems.

Classes abound!  Check around and sign up for one, if you are intrigued.  It'll provide the best kick-start you can get.  Or at least it did for me.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Getting Time in Your Every Day for Eminent Creativity: How It's Different from Everyday Creativity (and Understanding the Demands of Each)

Do you know the difference between eminent creativity and everyday creativity?   Do you care?  You should.  Each makes a huge impact on your life as a writer.

In Mark Runco and Ruth Richards' book, Eminent Creativity, Everyday Creativity, and Health, the authors discuss these two kinds of creative impulse in humans ( a topic also beautifully addressed in The Creativity Cure, written by one of my former students, Carrie Barron, M.D., and her husband, Alton.)  Eminent creativity is what we do as writers when we work on our manuscripts; everyday creativity is our daily efforts to bring the original creative impulse into our lives at home, at work, and in relationships.  

I'm simplifying a profound psychological idea here, but it gave me pause.  Does one type of creativity preclude the other?  Is there room for both?

When I had trouble generating energy for my manuscript one particular week, I wondered even more.  Was there a certain limited bank account of creativity inside me, and was I using it up with everyday tasks rather than my writing? 

Don't get me wrong:  Life was full, good.  But it seemed like my creativity was being channeled into things not about writing, not about eminent creativity--like making a new rock garden, working on a backroom that needed clutter clearing, even cooking. 

When I did these tasks, I was very fulfilled by them.  I felt creative and blissed out--but it left me with little creative energy when I sat down to write.

My assumption:  one area of creativity in my life, even domestic, would automatically make me more creative in other areas.  I also assumed that the creative demands of writing a book and making a garden were similar. 

I was slightly off base on both counts. 

I decided to test an idea:  When I "spent out," using lots of creative energy in domestic creativity or solving a friend's problem or working with a challenging piece of feedback for a student, did it draw from my total?   These kinds of expression satisfied me, but did they keep me from having enough to give my book?

Writing teachers, I think, or people who write for others in any capacity (business writers, pr writers, editors) talk about this a lot!  Maybe we suffer from this more than the person who has a job that has nothing to do with words.  I've heard many complaints from teaching colleagues over the years--"When will I find time (read:  energy) for my own writing?  I'm too immersed in other people's!"

It's actually not that, it's the priority we give them.

For me, if I give my all to my other projects first, I feel "permission" to take time (read: use my creative energy) for my own work.  We're taught to serve others, and that is great, but not at the expense of our own creativity, right?

It comes down to being a responder or a creator, I learned. 

I wanted to see how much being a responder shaped my day.  My test included ideas learned from Sarah Susanka's The Not-So-Big Life.  Susanka learned that if she does not answer phone or check emails in the early hours of each day, but instead focuses on her own work, she gains creative energy for the rest of the day.  Gretchen Rubin's book, The Happiness Project, offers a similar perspective:  Rubin checks her email for a limited time each morning then disciplines herself not to respond until she has put in time (eminent creativity) on what matters most to her. 

I decided to try the new plan for a few weeks--could I really refrain from turning on my cell phone, checking messages, returning calls, and checking email right away each morning?  Usually, I've allowed incoming demands to shape my day, so I end up becoming a responder, not a creator.

Responding requires a LOT of creative energy, and I suspected my challenge with my writing came because I used up mine way too soon each day.

I tested the idea for one month.  Some days it was almost impossible to keep from responding.  But I noticed quite a change in how much attention (read: energy) was available for my writing.  I didn't need to go on retreat (read: set aside sacred time) for my writing; I just needed to go offline from demands on my creative energy for a certain period each day. 

For some, this won't work.  But for me, it was a beautiful change.  My creative bank account got filled up, surprisingly, by my own writing each morning.  I had plenty to get through the rest of the day and fill my responsibilities to others.

Best of all, I woke up every morning with excitement.  The writing ideas were flowing fast!  No more dread--how would I ever fit in my writing time?  But certainty that I could, and would, as long as I chose to respond to myself first.  
 

Friday, September 12, 2014

When You're Making Radical Manuscript Changes: A Helpful Technique for Writers

This week I'm both teaching and taking a retreat.  I'm teaching a wonderful group of fifteen book writers on Madeline Island, one of the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior.  Island life is naturally isolated and perfect for focusing on creative work without too many distractions.  Since my online courses are on break between summer and fall semesters, I decided to use my after-class time on the island to focus on my own stalled novel.

Spring and summer derailed me creatively.  Two beloved elders in our family took seriously ill, requiring much attention, travel, and help.  I kept one toe in the water of my novel-in-progress, writing when I could. I put aside all radical changes; no time or head space to consider them--and their implications for the rest of the manuscript.

Here on Madeline, I have both time and quiet.  I packed my laptop, notes, and printed-out emails from my last round of serious critique, intending to dive back in.

I'd read this feedback when it came in early spring.  It sounded good, all good.  But nothing in me jumped into making those changes.  Instead, I sat with my book, and reworked some low-risk areas I knew needed attention.

Nothing too strenuous.  Small edits, character tweaks.  The bigger problems in plot, kindly addressed by my colleagues, remained untouched. 

Once my Madeline Island group settled for their week, once my suitcases were unpacked and my first evening went by, I felt ready.  Scared too.  I knew these radical changes would create literary earthquakes in my story.  Much would have to be changed, if I followed them. 

But they would also solve big problems I hadn't taken care of otherwise.  It was worth a try.

It took many days of concentrated effort.  Lists of questions that arose as I worked.  Nights of sleeping in the peaceful island air and dreaming up solutions--that gorgeous feeling when you wake refreshed AND with an idea to fix a hole in the story. 

The steps were so successful for me this week, I thought I'd share them, in case they help you when grappling with radical critique--changes you know have worth but will twist your book into a new shape.

Six Steps to Implement Radical Changes in a Manuscript
1.  First, I went through the feedback again.  Most came in emails, easy to print out.  I needed printed copies to do this step.  I underlined the main suggestions.  When two readers repeated the same suggestion, I starred these (more than one person mentioning the same problem means it's a big problem, usually).

2.  From the highlighted suggestions, I made a Changes to Consider list.  I hand wrote this, because it's all too easy to space out (for me at least) on the keyboard. I ended up with a list of four major changes ( the rest were small or already dealt with).

3.  I wrote each suggestion on the top of its own blank 4 x 6 inch index card.  For each idea, I brainstormed questions:  If I make this change, what will I do with . . .  (fill in the blank) and what about . . . . (fill in the blank)?  This took two days of concentrated effort, spacey thinking, revisiting chapters, and some desperation.  After two days, each card had a list of small and large questions that I needed to solve for the changes to work.

4.  Because of the desperation and heightened Inner Critic activity at this point, I sent a long, stream-of-consciousness email to a writing friend who knew my novel intimately.  Complaints, wailing, and questioning the ideas allowed new solutions to come in.  I also slept on it.  Before I went to sleep I listed the major questions.  It took a few nights, but I did wake up with several good solutions.

5.  By the end of the week, I was ready to read through the manuscript by chapter.  It's in Scrivener, so easily viewed by chapter.  I began to list changes each chapter would require.  I discovered many chapters, to my great relief, would not need anything more.  Later chapters needed more:  A scene no longer made sense, with the larger manuscript change, so needed rewriting or different placement.  I noted where the character wouldn't know this by this point in the story--another required change.  Etc. 

6.  This became a to-do list by chapter, very valuable because it felt manageable now.  I didn't have to revamp the entire manuscript, just certain chapters.  Now I began reworking the chapters, in order of appearance.  So far, I've made it through the first fifteen chapters, and I love the changes.  I sent the chapters to myself as one document via email, uploaded it on my e-reader, and read for problems.  Very few. 

The process worked well, because it took a huge task and broke it into manageable steps.  Each step could be achieved in several hours to several days.  I gained confidence in the new plan, and now that the changes are in place, I can see that my readers were right (darn!).

I'm very glad I listened, because the new version is incredibly stronger.  In plot, in character motive, in every way.

A task that I'd put off for eight months, finally tackled.  And only because I had enough time, quiet in my brain, and good lists that offered small steps. 

Perhaps you'll use this technique sometime, when a rewriting task looms large.  It sure worked for me.  

Friday, September 5, 2014

Placing Backstory: When It Helps and When It Hinders

This week's post is in response to Shirley, who viewed my storyboarding video on You Tube and sent me a photo of her storyboard.  The entire second act is backstory, she said.  How do I work with that?  How do you place backstory?

When we begin writing our books, we feel an urgency to catch the reader up, bring them over the hurdles of history in our story. We have a lot of past to pass along. We think this past is essential:  If the reader doesn’t know Jane was traumatized as a child, how will she understand why Jane is so careful with her adult relationships?  If the reader doesn’t know the entire history of the Scout troop, will he get why the boys are intensely loyal to each other?

But what’s more important-to make sure your reader understands why you are telling this story?  Or to get that reader engaged so they'll keep reading? 

To really understand when backstory is great and when it puts your book in danger, you first have to understand why you’re writing it.  You have to make the shift from the writer’s chair to the reader’s.

Shirley has read my book, Your Book Starts Here, and knows that the cardinal rule of placing backstory is to use it after the first four chapters, ideally after act 1.  Why?  Readers need that much time to get engaged in the present-time story.  They are doubtful at first about your characters and their conflicts, and want to get to know them.  Just like meeting someone at a party, you spend initial time watching them, listening to their voice, noting whether their actions and speech feel congruent, seeing how they treat others, how often they laugh or smile.  In short, you need to experience the person in the here and now.  If they launched into their gory past, right off, you'd not be totally sure if the backstory was reliable.  You don't have enough context for it yet.

Context is everything in backstory placement. 

What if your book, like Shirley's, has an enormous amount of backstory--almost equal to the present-time story?   If backstory is at least 40 percent of your total book, then you have two stories.  You need to create two storyboards to track them.  A good example of this is Cheryl Strayed's memoir Wild.  She runs two separate stories in that book:  her thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, the present-time story, and her family's story, the backstory.  Both are equally important.  When I diagrammed Wild in two storyboards, I saw how neatly the two stories are woven.  Strayed uses small amounts of backstory early in the book, but the PCT hike is primary until we get to act 2.  By that point, we are hooked and ready to read about her past.  But even in act 2, the present-time story continues to dominate, which keeps the momentum strong.

Defining Backstory
Backstory is literally the background of the story.  It’s everything that happens before the book begins. It’s last year, ten years ago, a past war, and yesterday. 

In both fiction and memoir, it's anything that happened before the first present-time chapter.  Backstory is all memory, all flashing back to another time (flashbacks are backstory).  Taken in small bits, backstory can be extremely useful to reveal motive, just enough history, to flavor a particular moment in the present.   Knowing the backstory of Strayed's decision to hike is essential.  But first we need to get on the hike.

Wild works because backstory is woven in very carefully.  We are never away from the main present-time story for long.  Backstory, used in large chunks--several consecutive chapters, five or six pages lumped together during a tense scene--can pull a reader right off your tale.  Why?  Because backstory happened then.  We’re really most interested in now, because now is where the story’s highest energy is.

This, of course, is your reader talking.  It’s rarely your opinion, as the writer.  And that's why writers get in trouble with backstory placement.

Here's an example of how poorly placed backstory feels to a reader:  Imagine sitting in a theater, something exciting happening onscreen, when the usher takes a small break to stop the film and tell us what happened last year when the movie was made.  Not as exciting, is it?  Even irritating, yes?  Even if told in a very engaging way, the past is not what most of us came for.  We came for what’s occurring most vividly in front of us.

Mystic River author Dennis Lehane emphasized this.  Lehane is noted for his intense psychological dramas.  He said he has an alarm bell inside that goes off whenever he begins to write backstory, that forces him to ask its purpose.  Books can be beautiful without any backstory (he cited The Verdict, made into a movie with Paul Newman as one example).   Question your need for backstory, he advised writers, and don’t use it if you don’t have to.

But like knowing when and where to use the device of “telling” in place of “showing,” I also find there’s a positive place for incorporating backstory.   In fact, it’s all about placement.

When Backstory Helps, and Why
While I was working on my novel Qualities of Light, I decided to ditch all my backstory.  I wanted my book to have plenty of momentum, be a real page-turner. In the process my manuscript shrank from 120,000 words to 80,000.  I created a huge file of jettisoned background scenes.

Back then, I had a wise writing instructor whose theories about backstory weren’t as black-and-white as mine.  A skilled memoirist and fiction writer, she knew how to weave just enough backstory in without burdening the reader.  I hired her to read my manuscript and give me her honest opinion about whether it was better sans backstory.

She thought the book had much more momentum, yes.  It was now “alive and engaging,” but it almost moved too fast, she said.  There were places where the emotional potential was not quite realized.

So she asked me to try a writing exercise (the one below).  I was to list the most emotional moments of my main character’s story, the important turning points.

I found fifteen moments in the book where I felt Molly, my heroine, made a turn inside.  These were times where she realized or faced something important, not an everyday moment but a major one in the story.

My writing instructor knew of my huge backstory file--I’d bragged to her about how much I’d deleted from the manuscript.   She suggested I go on a treasure hunt, scanning the pages for any small memory scenes that might connect to Molly’s turning points.

I would probably need to substantially reduce the amount of space these backstory scenes took, she warned me.  In other words, I’d have to edit them down from the original version because effective backstory was short, sweet--very fleeting.  We agreed that it took three chapters for readers to engage in the present story. Luckily, Molly didn’t have many turning points in those early chapters, so I wouldn’t bring in any backstory until chapter 4.

I read my backstory aloud, carefully selecting any small bits--one-liners to two paragraphs--that sang especially loud.  I found ten good sections, I wrote three more anew.  I considered two whole chapters of backstory, short and tight, and decided they were useful too:  one explained the major accident of the book, one the major relationship, and I used the first as chapter 4, the second as chapter 12.

It’s hard to describe the difference these moments made.  I know it’s one of the reasons my book got accepted by a publisher--because there was a subtle emotional wave that began rising via the tiny spots of backstory, a wave that wasn’t there before.

I learned two things from this book-changing exercise.  One, backstory is not a villain. It is just another tool in the writer’s toolbox, a useful device to up the drama if employed carefully.  And two, it’s terribly important to keep it short, and keep it connected with something in present time.

As long as I used backstory only a tiny bit each time--and linked my flashbacks to what was happening in the main story here and now--they didn't detract from the present story.  They made sense in the sequence of action, too--they weren’t a different movie, in other words.  Molly is facing something big, and she naturally slides back to another time when this happened and it didn’t go well.  If this connective tissue is not present, readers wonder why a narrator flashes back just then, and why to that particular moment from the past.

The backstory will feel as awkward as text pasted in the wrong place.

This Week's Writing Exercise
1.   Read through several chapters or sections of your manuscript.
2.   Highlight any important turning points.
3.  Look over any backstory you've saved.
4.  Using very small amounts,add backstory to these sections.
5.   Read them again. Does the backstory improve the emotional impact of the turning point or weaken it?

Friday, August 29, 2014

Teaching Yourself to Write Better Dialogue: Three Steps That Will Make All the Difference

When one of my advanced students wanted to sharpen his dialogue, I gave him the task of modeling from a favorite book.  His dialogue improved dramatically in just weeks.  

Tuning the ear, and the creative brain, to the rhythms of written dialogue makes all the difference.

Here's a variation on that exercise, perfect for travel, vacations, and car listening.  You'll need a favorite book on CD or downloadable audio.  Two exceptional titles for listening and learning:  The Roundhouse by Louise Erdrich and Nora Ephron's memoir I Remember Nothing. 

1.  Spend 30 minutes listening to a chapter or two.  Pay attention to the pauses, called "beats," between sentences and when the writer interrupts the dialogue to add gesture, movement, a setting cue, a sensory detail. 

2.  In the next section, listen beyond the dialogue rhythm for the undercurrent. of meaning, also called subtext.  Subtext is what's not being said, what reveals the character and conflict. 

3.  As you listen further, find moments of dialogue where there is a "reveal":  something real or factual or truthful is presented, without subtext.  This doesn't happen very often in the beginning, so you may have to wait until further into the book.  Not where it occurs within a scene, a chapter, or the book as a whole.  How does it change things?
 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Importance of Action: Do You Have Enough Happening?

All week, struggling to revise an early chapter in my novel-in-progress, I realized what was wrong:  nothing happens.  It's what I call a "traveling chapter."  After a plane crash, the character tries to get to a main road.  She walks through a forest at night.  She discovers she's lost an important item from her pack.  She can't go back, she panics, she keeps on. 

No matter how I massage the words, the result is the same.  Not enough is going on.  It's way too early in the book for a pause.  I decided to ditch the chapter--and everything worked so much better!

Of course I miss those stellar sentences I worked over for weeks.  But writers have to be ruthless, right?  Kill their darlings?

As I moved the blah chapter to my "extras" file (a holding tank for writing that hasn't found its home and may never), I remembered one of my early fiction teachers.  Her critique was far from easy!  She often X'ed out huge sections of purple prose and rambling pages.  Mostly she gave me critical feedback on action.  

I recall one lesson:  She took me through three of my rougher chapters.  Broke them apart by scene.  
 
Then wrote in the margin two excellent questions: 

1.  Purpose?
2.  What's actually happening? 
 
When taken apart this way, nonevent scenes and chapters reveal their lack.  
 
The lesson was truly embarrassing.  As a new fiction writer, I believed readers loved characters who sat around with great thoughts, great coffee, and pithy dialogue.  Scene after scene of this--caffeinated and verbose, they never did a thing.

Not one bit of action in ten pages!  (Well, the character moved to the refrigerator and back, but that didn't count, my teacher told me.)

Not long after, I read an interview with writer Dennis Lehane, most famous for his novel Mystic River.  In the interview, he spoke of a key lesson he learned from one of his writing teachers:  If characters are in the same room for more than a page, get them out.

Although my plane-crash survivor was moving--walking for pages in the dark forest--to a reader it was just time passing in the same room.  Not enough action.  
 
Readers learn the most about characters (real or imagined--so memoir writers, this is for you too!) from what they do, rather than what they think or even say.  Isn't that true about people you know?  Your friends may talk a fine story, but the real deal is when they try to live it.  
 
Same with people on the page. 

This Week's Writing Exercise
If you want to try the exercise that changed my writing life, here are the steps:

1.  Pick a chapter, series of scenes, or another section of your writing that just isn't getting off the ground.

2.  In the margin of each section, write the answers to the two questions:  What the purpose of this section? and What's actually happening here?

3.  See what can be trimmed, enlivened, or moved.

Bonus:  A cool link from a writer in my advanced (part 3) online book class is this blog post from The Algonquin Redux on writing action.  (Thanks, Anne!)  If you are at all confused about how to add action to your scenes, you'll enjoy it!