Friday, January 20, 2017

Weaving Storyboards--Which Is Your Dominant Story?

Natalya was in one of my storyboarding classes at Grub Street writing school in Boston a year and a half ago.  She also describes herself as "an avid reader" this blog.  She sent me a very good question about weaving together three storyboards for her current novel.


Storyboards are basic structuring tools that help a writer plot a storyline.  Many books have more than one storyline.  Consider The Time Traveler's Wife, which has three (the current story, the time travel story, the backstory).  How did this author so successful weave these three storylines together, making a cohesive whole?

It's not easy.  It's also impossible for most writers to manage just by writing through the story and never stepping back to examine the structure.

I recommend first creating separate storyboards for each storyline.  You need to be clear that each storyline is strong enough on its own.  Many times I've begun a book and not noticed when one of my storylines dropped out midway through.  Readers will always notice and disengage.  So do the structure work first thing, if you can.

Natalya also has three storyboards for her novel-in-progress.  The first is the storyline of her main character in the present time.  The second storyboard shows the same character during World War II.  She says this backstory is "an integral part of the narrative and requires its own story line vs. being presented as flashbacks."  She also has a third storyboard that shows the "secondary main character or, more precisely, the main character's main helper in the present time."

Her three storyboards seem to work individually, which is great news.  But she is struggling with how to integrate them.
Research comes first.  I always look at other authors when approaching this task.  For instance, how does Anthony Doerr do this in All the Light We Cannot See?  Does he alternate chapters by different narrator, or does he offer a chunk of chapters from one of the storylines?  The Time Traveler's Wife is another good resource.  Two narrators, three different storylines.  How does this author handle it?

There are only a certain number of combinations, so look first at published examples.  Then, try modeling one.  Take your own material and test it out using one of the structures.  If you love Time Traveler's Wife, do exactly the same with your first few chapters as Audrey Niffeneger does with hers.  Test it out.  When does she bring in the backstory storyline, when does she offer a chapter from the female character's point of view, when from the male's?  Mimic the structure and see how you like it.

If that structure doesn't appeal to you, or doesn't really fit your material, try modeling from another book you love.  Usually, within a few tries, I land on a structure that suits my book.  Then I go back to my own material and make that structure my own.  I tweak and change until it's uniquely mine.  It's a tried-and-true technique in many art forms.  Remember, you're only modeling the structure, not the writing itself.

Some writers also like to choose a dominant storyline and place those chapters at pivotal moments in the book (if you're familiar with the W storyboard from my classes, this would be points 1-5).  That cues the reader that this is the most important story.  Usually, that story is the present time one, narrated by the main character. 

Your weekly writing exercise is to try this! 

If you'd like to really practice this and get weekly coaching from me, check out my upcoming online class, Storyboard Your Book! starting on January 25 for eight weeks.  Hopefully, this technique can help other writers struggling with the same question.

Friday, January 13, 2017

When Your Fiction Is Really about You (Even a Little), Do You Need to Protect Yourself?

One of my private coaching clients successfully finished her revision last year.  Her next step was to find close ("beta") readers for the manuscript so she could get feedback on anything else that needed tweaking.


The novel, her first, is loosely based on her own true story.  She chose her sister, two close friends (one of whom was a writer) and her daughter (also a writer).  They read, they commented, but they mostly had concerns about the autobiographical nature of the story. 

My client wrote me:  "A couple of them have asked me whether I want to put this story out there.  The themes are so universal I have never been too worried about [it being autobiographical].  But it has caused me to think about whether I should try to change the location, place names etc.  Or even use a pseudonym.  I know you caution about having family/friends read too soon, perhaps for this type of issue, but I couldn't go much further without this step."

First, readers who know you will ALWAYS wonder if your fiction is autobiographical, even if it's not.  They want to know how you came up with the ideas, how you were able to present them so authentically in the story.  They immediately suspect that if you're writing about divorce with such poignancy, you've been through it too.  It's always been my experience, as a writer. 

It's also a kind of "duh"--authenticity in story comes from two places:  either we lived the experiences or we have compassion and good research skills and can capture the experiences vicariously.  I work with hundreds of writers and easily 75 percent start first novels from a true-life experience. 

Such feedback--do you really want to put this out there?--is valuable because it may be telling you that more revision is needed.  You may still be processing the story.

Early drafts are often processing drafts--the writer is getting the experience on paper for the first time, perhaps, and using the character to understand it.  (This is why many first novels never see the light of day.  We've done our work with them and they don't need to be out there.)  When the processing is over, though, and you are still fascinated with the story, you move to the next step:  How can you make this truly fictional?  Or do you want to publish this as a true-life novel, which is also a respected genre?

Once I've processed the true story behind my fiction, I begin to see what I can change.  I usually change the location, the era (year), the backstory, the gender, and the appearance of characters as much as I can.  An old man becomes a young boy, a small town becomes a village in another country.  As I do this, the story takes wings in a way it couldn't when I was sticking to what really happened.

So, the answer isn't a simple one.  If you are concerned from these kinds of reader questions, ask yourself if you've got anything else you can change.  What are you still wedded to, in the true story?  What can you let go of?  Or are you fine about the autobiographical part being exposed?  Your choice entirely.

An exercise to find the answer:  If you're a fiction writer, choose one of your pieces of writing and go through it as a curious reader might.  Make a list of anything that mimics your own life, in any way.  Then pick three of these items to change.   

Friday, January 6, 2017

How to Succeed at Your New Year's Writing Resolutions--Two Ideas That Actually Work

I like playing with resolutions but I don't have much faith that I'll stick with them.  I usually get a "glory ride" on the new year's enthusiasm for about 30 days.  Then life takes over and crashes my makeover plans.  So I've adopted a different approach, and it seems to work pretty well. 

This week, to welcome in the new year, I wanted to share two ideas I borrowed from other writers.  
They are working quite well to keep my goals moving forward.  Maybe one or both will work for you! 

Borrowed idea #1

Gretchen Rubin, author of many happiness and habit books, has made a study of why we stick to habits and why we break them, so I thought she'd be a good person to consult first.  
She has a cool idea a recent newsletter. Choose a one-word theme to describe your year ahead instead of a long list of things you're going to do better and never do.  For example, her one word is re-purpose, because she wants to focus this year on using what she already has. 

I liked this idea of theme.  Theme can have layers of meaning (subtext).  
I'm toying with discover as my one-word theme. With a focus on discover, I can be a beginner and let myself learn stuff, not have to be the expert.  I can allow myself to explore which new skills could best upgrade my writing.  I can acknowledge that I am having problems with one character's story and rather than feeling stuck, like I should know it, I can begin to ask questions and let myself not know.  I can admit to myself that there's always new tricks to learn in the ever-changing world of publishing and look for experts to help with that.
In other words, I get to let myself off the hook.  Enjoy the discovery process.  Maybe even more than the result!   

Borrowed idea #2

A writing colleague invited me to join a private group for thirty days.  Each day she posted a question for the group to respond to.  We looked at our lives, our goals.  
It didn't take much time.  I got ideas from others' posts.  I liked looking at my own goals in a new way.  I knew it was only for thirty days, so I could engage freely without feeling like I was saying yes to a long-term commitment.  

What I took away:  by limiting my engagement to just one month, it helped me stay connected.  
We're all so busy, and this seemed doable.  
Besides, I know something about myself:  If I see an end ahead, a time of closure, I really try to enjoy a particular experience.  If we're only going to be at the beach for a weekend, I pay attention to the moments even more.  
I began to think about using this idea for short-commitment goals.  Could I choose a three-week challenge for January and pick something I wanted to accomplish with my writing?  Yes!  I chose completing my storyboard for a new novel.  
If this bombs, I'll start a new short-commitment goal in three weeks.  Or try the same one again.  It feels free and fun.  But I think I'll also get something accomplished!   

Resolutions that drag on (a whole year!) are losing propositions to many writers.  But maybe try the theme and the short-commitment goal, see if you can stick with either.  The theme can give you a way to sift your choices this year.  The short-commitment goals can give you a way to apply what you choose.
Either way, you win!  Try one or both this week, for your weekly writing exercise.
    


Friday, December 16, 2016

The Myth of Going It Alone--Why Book Writers Need Community

My fall online classes are ending this week, and the groups are loathe to leave each other.  They've bonded terrifically this semester, which often happens in these classes.  Somehow, online learning can foster a kind of intimacy among writers that I don't always find in in-person classes. 


They are exchanging email addresses and committing to exchange work too, after we end.  I am glad--it's a strange myth among writers that we need to go it alone.

I believe writers need community to thrive.

A blog reader from New York wrote me last week about this.  She has joined two writing groups and loves the feedback, but she says she has a challenge.  It's hard to discipline herself to write.  "It appears to me that I might be a one-on-one person that needs a writing companion to be accountable to for my writing," she says. 
 
Many writers feel this way.  I've been in monthly writing groups and weekly writing groups, and I love the feedback, but I also need other structures to keep myself going as a writer.  One is online classes--I teach them, but I also take them.  I've just signed up for one starting in February.  The accountability of submitting work each week is precious. 

I also work with several writing partners who I met in online classes.  They don't live close to me, so we can't meet in person, but we like each other's feedback and we're determined to keep writing, so we send each other chapters or scenes each week. 

Why do we believe the myth that we need to go it alone?  As the blog reader said, "Things come up that detour me from writing."  For me, having that writing partner waiting helps me figure out what my next sentence will be.

For some of us, this is a season of giving
.  Give to yourself too.  Your weekly writing exercise is to make a list of 5-10 writers you could partner with.   Even just to check in every Sunday night by email or phone to say, "I wrote this week."  Or "I'm having trouble getting started.  Can you give me a prompt?"  You'll find this kind of simple sharing is a wonderful gift that busts the myth of artistic isolation.

We're all in a community.  Maybe you just need to find yours.      

The blog will be on holiday break for two weeks.  Have a happy new year!

Friday, December 9, 2016

Scrivener--My Favorite Software for Organizing a Book

Before I wrote books, I wrote stories, essays, poems, columns, and articles.  Short stuff.  Short stuff doesn't require that much organization.  I had a good word -processing software.  I kept files of the multiple versions of my short stories, for example.  I used a spreadsheet to track where I sent writing and what happened to it.


Then I began writing books.  Within months, pages accumulated.  Way beyond anything my short stuff generated.  I was swamped in paper, with no great way to organize it.
I began struggling with my trusty word-processing software.  How hard it became to keep track of each version, the corrections I made, and what I'd missed.  I literally had to print each draft to double-check it.  Sure, I could do a whole-document search for word repetition, for example, but it was beyond clumsy.  I began looking around for something more streamlined.
 
Twelve books got written and published before Scrivener came along.  It has saved my writing life.  And many of my students' and clients' as well.

There have been a lot of programs that try to help writers both organize and write.  Some of them include WriteWay Pro, Z-Write, WriteItNow! and Rough Draft.  Some writers swear by a program called Ulysses.  They offer a list of contents or topics on one side of the screen and an editing or writing desktop in the center.  But many are plain text, no formatting ability. 

Scrivener was developed by a writer in Cornwall, UK, who was unsatisfied with the mechanics of what was out there.  He wanted to be able to import images, different fonts and text, and other options into his documents--easily--and still have the ability to keep track of the overview via a sidebar list.

To me, Scrivener is light years beyond anything I've used--and you may agree if you've tried it.  It does take setup time, to import your current document, but for the way I write books, it's perfect.  I can craft "islands" or scenes and log them as individual documents on my sidebar list, then begin to group them into folders as my chapters build.  If I am missing a scene, I can easily create a placeholder for it on the sidebar list.  Best of all, if I decide scene 2.4 really belongs in chapter 10, not chapter 2, I can move it on the sidebar list and it automatically moves in the document itself. 

Scrivener also takes care of the multiple versions of any scene, chapter, or act.  The feature called "snapshot" allows you to take a picture of each version.  They are stored with the current version and can be accessed in a click.  You can decide part of an earlier draft was way better and paste it in with no trouble.  Try doing that in Word--yikes. 

Another thing I love about Scrivener is the ability to bring in visual or written research and view it either in the notes or in a split screen as you work. 

There are so many features of Scrivener that I haven't even tapped, even though I've taken four classes on it.  I use what I need, and when I'm ready to learn more, I go for another class. 

Scrivener for ipad recently came out.  I'm still learning it, but there are tutorials if you're interested.  All versions are available at www.literatureandlatte.com both for PC and Mac.  They offer a 30-day free trial, so you can test drive before buying. 

It's good to set aside 2-3 hours to set up your draft in Scrivener.  You are given different templates to start with (I use the fiction template).  Then you basically copy and paste in your islands, scenes, or chapters from Word or Pages.  It helps to sit with someone who knows Scrivener, as I did, while you get set up.  There are also some good tutorials here. 

I also recommend taking a class from Gwen Hernandez, who wrote Scrivener for Dummies.  Gwen is an excellent instructor and her online courses take you through basic setup and use of Scrivener tools, through advanced levels.  Check out her Scrivener Classes when you're ready to get started.     

I wish I'd found Scrivener many books ago--I've only been a fan for four years.  But it's changed my writing life.  I can't recommend highly enough (and I don't get paid to say that). 

Your weekly writing exercise is to download the free trial, if you haven't tested it out.  If you already use Scrivener, check out the tutorial link, above, and try working with snapshot or one of the other extras.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Pitch Conferences: How to Meet and Greet with Agents

Many of my students and clients are signing up for spring pitch conferences, where they hope to pitch their book to a few agents.  These "meet and greet" events are currently one of the best ways to get face-to-face with agents, hear them talk about their lists (the books they represent) and preferences, and learn about the publishing industry today.


When you're ready to market your book, and if you've decided you want to get an agent, there are a couple of ways to start.  You first need to research the agents.  There are so many right now.  Each specializes in a certain kind of book.  Just like a realtor shows houses in a certain price range or neighborhood, and knows their clientele in that area, most agents have a "stable" of editors they like to work with.  It takes time to build this stable, so more experienced agents are in more demand.

If you're sending out queries (requests that agents look at your work), you can do it cold, just by picking agents online or from the acknowledgements in books you love.  Agents receive hundreds of queries a week, sometimes.  Cold solicitation is a hard game--your chances of getting a positive response are about 1 for every 75 queries you send, according to a colleague in the business.  That's depressing.

At pitch conferences, you get much closer.  You're in the same room with agents you want to approach.  You get to hear them talk, maybe talk with them, even pitch your idea one-to-one in a pitch session.

You also get exposed to both experienced agents and newer agents.  New agents are trying to build their list, so they are often more willing to consider new writers. 

How Pitch Conferences Work
Most pitch conferences offer a program:  workshops or breakout meetings on different aspects of marketing your writing, plus pitch sessions. 

Pitch sessions are why most writers come.  They are brief but potent.  Each session lasts five to eight minutes, usually (varies by conference).  Some conferences offer each attendee three pitch sessions, some only one session--registration price goes up with more pitch sessions, of course.  You request the agents you want to pitch.  You prepare your pitch and any questions.

How do you decide which agents to request?  Before you register, browse the conference's list of attending agents.  Then go do your homework:  Look up each agent's website, see what they're looking for.  Some agents have great blogs and you can read about what they're seeking.  If their website is more generic (all memoir, all commercial fiction), it helps to read through their list of clients, then go to amazon or another online bookstore and search out these clients' books.  Don't just choose agents because they fit your genre--that's too much of a wild card.  Look for the style of writing they love.  Are any of the books they represented remotely like yours?

Study the first pages for voice or subject matter (you can do this free on amazon.com).  Compare your voice and subject matter. 

The goal is to first eliminate agents who are not a good match for your book.  Be ruthless about this.  You don't want just any agent--you want someone who will fall in love with your story.  The closer you get to matching your book to an agent who loves the same kind of writing as you write, the more successful you'll be.

Once you've chosen your agents, take some notes.  When you pitch them, it's helpful to refer to one or two books they've represented, so they know you've done your homework and have selected them carefully. 

What to Bring to the Pitch Session
Write out a premise (a short, three-minute pitch) for your story.  Work on it!  Read the back-cover copy on published books to get a sense of what a premise should be.  Usually, it's about four to five lines long, or three minutes if read aloud.  Polish it until it's friendly, interesting, tense, upbeat--whatever your story's tone might be.

Practice your pitch a loud.  Do this a lot, until you can say it without notes.   You'll be seated across from the agent, looking at each other.  Eye contact is good; reading from a page isn't as good.  This may well be your next business partner in publishing, so you want to see how the chemistry is, also.  

The agent will often ask questions.  How much have you written, how many words?  Is this your first book (nothing wrong with that--your "debut" novel or memoir or nonfiction)?  Do you have a platform (social media followers, a blog that is connected to your book)?  Again, if you don't, don't sweat it. 

Don't bring your manuscript or even a sample.  Agents usually don't want to lug anything home with them.  All you want from the session is an interest in seeing your query or sample pages after the conference.  They'll give you their business card, if they're interested.  When you get home, you email them with the subject line of "per your request at ________ Pitch Conference" or something like that.  Include what they ask for.         

If they say it's not a good match, thank them for their time.  They know what they can sell, what they can't.  You might ask them what they'd suggest, if anything, revising.  Maybe they'll give you a couple of pointers.  This is valuable! 

Even if you get a no, it's not wasted time; you've learned something.  You've gotten a chance to pitch your book and see how it feels. 

Your weekly writing exercise this week is to write a pitch.  Try it, even if you're not conference bound.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Gratitude Game--Celebrate What's Working in Your Writing Life

These past few weeks, I've experienced an unusual stall-out in my writing.  I couldn't locate any still point inside, or that "necessary boredom" that writer Dorothy Allison says is a prerequisite to writing well.  It was as if my creative heart was too sore to create. 

I knew that writing could actually be the way to come back to myself, get away from the incessant barrage of crises.  But I was hard pressed to find the way in.

Then I remembered a friend's game, something she likes to play when she's down and out.  She calls it the gratitude game.  It's pretty simple:  make a list of what you're grateful for.  Or find a partner and go back and forth, saying one gratitude item each, then another.

I thought, why not try it?  I wanted to get back to my writing!

So I began listing what was working, what was still alive and well in my writing life.  Here's the short list:

1.  I have three fabulous writing partners who exchange work with me.
2.  I've mastered Scrivener enough to not struggle with it--and it makes my writing easier.
3.  My second novel is done--although new feedback will cause some reworking, that's minor.
4.  I have a great space to write in.  Lots of sunshine coming in the windows, now that the sun travels lower in the sky.
5.  Winter is traditionally a great time for me to get a lot of writing done.
6.  I'm reading three great books at the moment, full of juicy images, and plenty of inspiration.
7.  My family supports my writing whole-heartedly. 
8.  I posted a notice on FB that my second novel was almost finished and I got tons of likes and responses, including a few people who pre-reserved it on my amazon page (wow!).
9.  I made a cool collage for one of my elusive characters.
10.  I have two really great ideas for my next books and have begun to pitch them.
11.  I pretty much adore writing.  Even when it sucks.
12.  I think I'm getting steadily better as a writer, which is heartening.

Your weekly writing exercise, in honor of the American holiday of Thanksgiving this week and the good spirit that resides in all of us, is to play the gratitude game with your writing--or your life. 

I hope it'll give you new courage, as it did me. 

Here's a quote by writer Ben Okri, to help you along:  "Stories can conquer fear, you know.  They can make the heart bigger."

Friday, November 18, 2016

Tips for Making Your Characters Vivid Individuals on the Page

A MG (middle-grade fiction) writer in one of my online classes posted a great question this week:  How do I make my characters more distinctly individual?  Different from each other, enough to be vivid individuals on the page?

Developed characters, fictional or real, should be distinct from others in the story.  If they all blur together, it's hard to make them come alive for the reader.  Developed characters have backstory, a history that informs their story decisions.  They have certain quirks, a way of moving, a way of standing or using their hands. 


In early drafts, characters can read eerily similar to us.  We give them our values, our music, our favorite foods or clothing.  Or we make them our ideals, what we'd be if we weren't so flawed. 

That's totally normal.  We look in the mirror as we begin to write.  It's how we get started.

Gradually, we begin to see our characters apart from ourselves.  We're curious about who they might be if they aren't like us.  That's when the characters begin to come alive on the page.  In my online class coming in January, we'll use questionnaires, writing exercises, discussion, and modeling to explore how different they can be, how we can push them further away from what we know and into who they are, uniquely as themselves.

That's when the fun begins!

Once you've begun to see them move, live, and breathe apart from what you can imagine, there's a next stage--and this is what my student was asking about.  How do you make your characters different from each other, not just different from you?

This week's writing exercise offers four steps to find out:

1.  Choose a published book you love.  Make sure it has at least three characters.  Find a scene where at least two of these characters are present, early in the book, preferably, when we are first meeting them. 

2.  Make notes on how the writer describes what each character looks like, how they walk across a room, what they do with their hands, what their voice sounds like.  What has this writer chosen to offer you, the reader, so the character comes across fast and effectively?  Skilled writers can capture a character's uniqueness in one or two lines.   

3.  Now go back to your own book.  Make a chart with three columns.  Write one character's name at the top of each column, so you have a separate column for each of them.  On the left side of the chart write these categories:  Hair, Skin, Clothing, Gestures, Movement, Objects, Voice.     

4.  Fill in the answers for each character for each category.  For instance, your character Joe might have black hair, olive skin, wear jean jackets and boots, talk with his hands, walk slow, carry a penknife, and have a raspy cigarette-smoker's voice.  Compare what you get for each of the characters.  Ask yourself:  are they different enough?  How can you make them more so? 

Friday, November 11, 2016

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back--Getting Your Work Out in the World

It's been an up and down week.  I got news on Monday of a student whose short story was accepted by a very prestigious journal and who'd been nominated for an equally prestigious award.  I also heard from three clients whose books were accepted for publication this month.  Very sweet. 

I also got an email from a student, raw from having pages of his manuscript critiqued by two colleagues at the university where he works.  He was soldiering on but underneath his good questions--how seriously do I take these comments?--I could hear the discouragement.  "It's like that old Bruce Springsteen song," he said.  "One step forward, two steps back."

Another colleague who just sold her manuscript to a very good publisher said she'd gotten feedback from her agent over the summer that depressed her so much, it took weeks to get over it.  Basically, a major rewrite, and she'd already spent years on this novel.  Was it really necessary?  She ate a lot of ice cream and eventually got back to her desk, made a revision list, and dove in.  "Lucky I did," she said, "because I didn't see the problems staring me in the face.  Now that it's going to be published, in this new version, I'm embarrassed I thought it was finished before."

We don't just get to learn the craft of writing a good book, which takes a long time (trust me!).  We also have to learn how to get it out into the world.  And the world isn't automatically a friendly place for many artists. 

This week, I joined a private Facebook group for rejection support.  No kidding.  These exist, and they're actually quite wonderful.  They are made up of mostly published writers who are needing help getting their new writing out into the world.  We post our rejection letters, one after the other.  I'm new to the group so still learning the ropes, but it has a feeling of hope, enthusiasm, and encouragement, despite the downer of a topic.

If you're planning to submit your work, there are skills to gain.  One is to become friendly with rejection. 

I don't think it requires a thick skin, though.  My best writing comes from a place of vulnerability and honesty about what I see and want to write about.  If I cover that over too much, I don't write as well.  So the goal, for me at least, is to view the process as a kind of game instead of a desperate search for acceptance and acknowledgment.  Because publishing can be that, for many writers. And the danger is, when publishing or not is tied to your self-worth as a creative person, you begin to die a little every time someone says no.

Why do that to yourself?

Easy for you to say, you might think.  Yes, I've published a lot.  But each time I send something out, I still have the butterflies.  I still feel the desperation.  The need for someone out there to love it, unconditionally.  I think a lot of published writers do.

I recently came across a method that I'm trying out, along with the Facebook rejection support group:  set a goal for a number of rejections, not a number of acceptances.  If you're shopping for agents, make a long list (maybe 100 to start) of ones you've researched and like, and be willing to (1) not hear back from at least 25 of them, (2) get no from another 50, (3) get comments and some small encouragements from 10, and (4) possibly have 15 who like your query enough to ask for more.  That's about the going average, right now. 

The theory is simple:  it's a numbers game, and the more you submit, the higher your chances on getting that "please send more" response.

You may not be close to sending out query letters, but if you are, here's a great article from the Kenyon Review on this method of accumulating rejections.  It's your weekly writing exercise this week. 

One step forward. 

Friday, November 4, 2016

Nonfiction Book Success--The Challenge of Telling Someone Else's True Story

One of my favorite kinds of emails come from past students in my book-structuring classes whose books are being published.  Three such emails came to my inbox this week, and I wanted to share the story behind one of them in this week's blog.


When I first met journalist Ed Orzechowski in one of my classes, his book project fascinated me.  It wasn't an easy task to write a true story about a patient at the infamous Belchertown institution.  But Ed persevered.  You'll Like It Here, the true story of Donald Vitkus, patient #3394, is being released this month from Levellers Press.  I asked Ed to share some of the process of building a book on someone else's true--and horrific--story. 


Abandoned by his unwed mother during World War II, Donald Vitkus became a ward of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was 27 days old.  Six years later as "Patient #3394," he was committed to Belchertown State School, where he was labeled a "moron" with an I.Q. of 41. Like hundreds of other institutions across the country, Belchertown was a de-humanizing environment of barred windows, locked doors, and brutal regimentation.
 
Resistant to authority, Donald refuses mind-numbing medication, smokes contraband cigarettes, joins an escape committee, and learns of the outside world on a black-and-white TV. He later serves in Vietnam, searches for his family, marries, and earns a college degree-all in a lifelong battle to convince others, and himself, that Donald Vitkus is not a moron.  You'll Like It Here is a story of the resiliency of the human spirit.

Interview with author Ed Orzechowski     

What's your background as a writer?
I'm a retired high school English teacher, and moonlighted for several years as a radio news reporter. As a freelancer, I've written many newspaper and magazine pieces, including columns, op-eds, and features.
How did you get interested in this story?
My wife and I are board members of an organization that advocates for individuals with developmental disabilities. My sister-in-law is severely autistic. In 2005 I arranged a book signing at a local community college for the founder of our organization. He had self-published a book about a federal class-action lawsuit he initiated over horrifying conditions at Belchertown State School in western Massachusetts and other institutions. At that signing, a 62-year-old student named Donald Vitkus told me he himself had grown up at Belchertown, and was looking for someone to write his story. That conversation evolved into this book.
How did you begin writing it?  What research did you take on?
Even though this wasn't the story of my own life, I took a couple of memoir writing courses. Our first assignment was to write just one scene, and that's what I did.
Most of the research occurred at my dining room table, interviewing Donald. I recorded our talks (nearly 24 hours in total), transcribed them, and worked from those notes. A major plus was that Donald had acquired detailed records from his years in the institution, many of which are reproduced in the book. I talked to his family, other former residents of the state school, a historian with the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services, visited libraries and museums, read related books, and, of course, searched the web.
Describe your working relationship with Donald.  How often did you correspond?  What did you talk about?  How much artistic license did you take in creating a readable story?
We met intermittently over a few years. In our initial talks, Donald related incidents that occurred while he was living at Belchertown, many of them painful and disturbing memories, some of them humorous. He told me about his Vietnam service, his work, his education, and his family. He shared everything. It was difficult to establish a time line because his memories were scattered. I pursued whatever piqued my interest, and sometimes he cried. Over the course of these conversations, we became close friends.
The challenge was to reconstruct scenes and dialogue without compromising fact. This is a true story, told in first person from Donald's point of view. For lack of a better term, I call it narrative nonfiction. I made every effort to use Donald's voice, to remain accurate and faithful to his account. In the interest of privacy, I changed a few names. But there are no fabricated incidents because we both wanted to convey what actually happened in this community within a community, and how those eleven years locked away from society affected his entire life.
How long did it take? 
I laugh because the title of those initial courses was "Writing the Nine-Month Memoir." It took me eight years.
What were the steps to complete the book?
The interviewing was fascinating, and the transcribing tedious. At the same time, I needed to learn how to write a book. I had never written anything longer than a few thousand words, and knew nothing about structure, flow, dialogue, story arc, etc. I joined writers' groups, attended dozens of workshops and conferences, and took all three parts of your online class, Your Book Starts Here, through The Loft Literary Center. Your guidance and the feedback from other students were invaluable.
Anything else you'd like to share with readers here?
Two things. First of all, what a privilege it has been to be allowed intimate access inside the life of another human being. Second-now that our book is about to launch-the discovery that there's a lot more work involved in marketing a book after you finally hold a finished copy in your hand.

You're invited to meet Ed and Donald at the book launch on Sunday, November 13, at 4:00 p.m. at the Florence Civic Center, 90 Park Street, Florence MA 01062.  You can purchase the book here.