Friday, September 14, 2018

What's the Primary Environment of Your Book--Physically, Emotionally, Intellectually, Spiritually?

A new author wrote me this week.  She'd read my writing-craft book, Your Book Starts Here, and it helped her realize which book project she needed to focus on first:  a self-help/memoir hybrid.  But she was confused by my chapter on finding the primary environment of your story.  How did this apply to her book?

Every book has an environment that it lives in.  I think of it like a lab where the experiment lives in a beaker or container.  Everything happens within that container.  

It's easy to imagine the container of a novel:  it's the physical setting, the culture a family or community, the era when it takes place.  A story that takes place in the sixties in the U.S. has a different container than a sci-fi novel.  In memoir, same thing.  Our memoirs are particular to our personal stories--wherever they take place.  I think of a memoir written about civil war in Rhodesia (Alexandra Fuller's Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight) compared to a memoir about being a scientist (Hope Jahren's Lab Girl).  Really different containers.  

So, hopefully, we're on the same page thus far.  Let's look at nonfiction next--the self-help twist of this author's book and what it brings to the container question.

Her book chronicles a weight-loss journey, the memoir part, but it also delivers information and encouragement to others on such a journey, which is the nonfiction part.  This writer says there are a lot of "environments" in the book:  thoughts, emotions, and the physical environment of her experience of weight loss.  That's all good--the memoir side of her equation would include stories about her journey.  She says, "My project seems to lean more toward inner story, but I don't want to ignore the outer story," and that's important.  Readers will need to have illustrations of her experiences, which are anecdotes or actual examples of times she struggled or was victorious or learned something new.  

Rather than just telling us a realization, self-help/memoir hybrids show us these turning points through actual stories.  How is this done?

Recently I reread Brene Brown's self-help book, Braving the Wilderness.  It seems informational at first glance but if you study her chapters, you'll see story occupies at least 50 percent of the page space.  Which is a great ratio to shoot for with any nonfiction hybrid.  Brown's own stories are there, plus anecdotes from other people she knows or has read about.  These stories humanize the information, so readers don't feel they're being lectured to.  She's an expert but the expertise comes to us in a very digestible form.  That's the ideal 50-50 balance of outer story and inner story for this genre.

So, then, what's the environment of such a book?  You only have to look at the title to see it:  the wilderness.  It's all about the wilderness of the world right now, the metaphor of things being wild and out of the norms of control that we've grown used to.  Her stories all take place in the "container" of wilderness.  Not all literal wilderness in nature, but psychological, spiritual, and emotional wilderness.  

How might this take-away transfer to my reader's weight-loss book?  I'll put my own spin on this, and she can see if it works for her or gives her an idea of where to go to find her own.

In a weight-loss journey, you let go of what you no longer need to carry.  You also possibly embrace a new image of yourself.  It might feel uncomfortable, unprotected, or at least unfamiliar to live without the weight you're used to carrying.   You have to get used to new movements, new look, new clothes, maybe taking up less space physically and otherwise.  These are all my thoughts, and she will have her own, since every journey and every book is different.  But whatever she comes to, she can jump right in to imagining the "environment" of her weight-loss book and choose stories and examples that connect around it.  

Examine any published hybrid (memoir/self-help or some similar combination) and you'll see a container.  It might look like the book's message, or theme.  But if it's well structured, the stories and examples will all connect to this container, as Brown's wilderness container holds all of her stories.   

Good question, slightly complicated answer.  If this is the genre of your book, take time this week to browse online or in a bookstore for published titles in that same genre.  See if you can discern the container, the primary environment, of these books.  Chances are, they got published because the agent/editor/publisher could.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Beta Readers--Who Are They, How Do They Help Your Book, How to Find Them

Linda is closing in on the finish line with her memoir and sent a great question this week:  "I'd like to hear what you have to say about beta readers, particularly if it's a good idea to find complete strangers or folks I've already worked with (such as from online classes).  Who makes good beta readers?"

I first heard the term "beta readers" at a writing conference many years ago.  Just like beta testers for software, beta readers are an important part of the book writing process before you "release" your product into the world, either through indie or traditional (agented or small press) publishing.  

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Four Stages of Writing Practice--Where We Are Strong and Where We Can Fall Down

I was asked to teach a workshop on the stages of creative practice.  I spent weeks thinking about my own writing practice, and what I've witnessed in students, clients, and colleagues over twenty some years of teaching.  Are there stages of anyone's practice, and what did this mean?  Scouring the internet didn't help.  Many writers discussed their practice--how they approach their writing each day--but few had distinct steps.  Some had rituals.  Some knew how to begin or end.  But what about the murky middle, when you're in the midst of writing and things aren't going well?  

I took it as a laboratory experiment.  I began making notes about what happened when I sat down to write.  Where did I move from one kind of activity, internal or external, into another?  

Friday, August 24, 2018

Readers Don't Care Who Publishes Your Book--Really!

One of my private amusements is the serendipity surrounding how well my different books sell, or not.  And how that really doesn't align with who published it.  A writing friend was bemoaning this with me, feeling bad about her small press status versus a Big Five publisher.  But her book has sold well, very well.  While other writers I know, published by a top echelon press, sell fewer copies. 

Friday, August 17, 2018

How Much Research Is Really Enough? Building Worlds, Bringing Back Worlds

A writer from Minneapolis recently sent me a good question about research.  He wondered how much and what kind of research a writer should do when writing historical novels.  I've gotten the same question from writers working on fantasy or sci-fi novels.  When is enough, enough?  When do you stop researching and start writing?  Or vice versa?

Friday, August 10, 2018

Wounding Event--The Backstory That Drives Your Narrator

A short post this week:  I'm just returning from teaching at a writing retreat and wanted to share this article in Fiction Writers Review by Michelle Hoover, on the wounding event, a pivotal moment of backstory that drives much of the internal quest of your narrator.  If you have trouble accessing the link, go to and search for "wounding event."

Friday, July 27, 2018

Unlearning How to Write Your Book--What You Need to Forget You Knew

In May, at Grub Street's annual writing conference, The Muse and the Marketplace, I sat in on a lively workshop taught by writer Steve Almond.  If you've heard of The Rumpus's "Dear Sugar," you'll know Steve (and his co-writer, Cheryl Strayed).  His workshop was about stuff we know that we need to unlearn.  Forget.  Let go of.  Set aside.  He focused specifically on a rule that's dear to many writers, "show, don't tell."  Steve feels this is a crock and he's not mincing words to tell you why.  We ran through examples from published authors who used telling skillfully--and some examples of showing that didn't make the mark at all.

Friday, July 13, 2018

How Close Are You to Your 10,000 Hours? Viewing Writing as Practice

On our fridge we have a New Yorker cartoon.  A dog is sitting on a mountain ledge at the feet of his guru.  The caption reads:  "The bone is not the reward--digging for the bone is the reward."  I keep it there to keep me humble.  About my writing, and my 10,000 hours.

A past MISA student sent me a great article about this (thanks, Tom!).  As a beginner so many times during my life--in writing, in playing a musical instrument, in kayaking, in painting--I know well the impatience we can have to have it all now.  To be good enough immediately, to show unexpected genius, to land that incredible deal, because we have such innate skills.  We want to not practice writing, we want to just be a great writer.  Right?

Moving from Writer to Reader View: Revision Steps to Make Your Book Stand Out

Books enter our lives in distinct stages.  First comes the wild idea.  It grows gradually in the inner room of your creative self, until you can't ignore it.  You have to get it down.  This burst of energy propels you through an important starting gate--past ideas ruminating inside to ideas on the page.  Maybe they're externalized for the first time, and they generate other ideas.  You write for months, years, whatever it takes to shape your vision.  This initial timeline is very individual:  if it's your first book, you may need a lot of time to dream.  Or, if it's been generating inside for years, it may come forth in a mad rush.  

It's exciting, this idea to vision stage.  And eventually, you have a draft.  It's way rough (I love writer Anne Lamott's name for it:  shitty first draft), but without it, you ain't got nothing, as they say.  So you start here. 

Friday, July 6, 2018

Fueled from Within or Without--How Does Your Narrator Move the Story Along?

As I often do when I need a jump start into a new book I'm writing, I signed up for an online class this summer.  My class is good, with writers of varied skills and experiences, all exploring new narrators, characters, plots, and other ideas for their next manuscript.  

Our instructor assigned us a well-reviewed contemporary novel to read and analyze during the course:  Chemistry by Weike Wang.  It's generated a lively discussion, because, well, the narrator isn't lively at all.