Friday, October 23, 2020

Editing-Writing-Storyboard Dance--When to Do Each One to Create the Best Book

One of my past clients has been working hard on her memoir.  She emailed me a few weeks ago with a good question about the best rhythm for book writers who are in revision.  How do you know what's needed next--more editing, more writing, or the long view of a storyboard or charts?  What are the signs that it's time for each of these all-important tasks?

I call it a dance.  Ideally, there's a predictable flow between each activity, with markers along the way to tell you when to change partners.

Writing has the quality of exploration, of filling in gaps, of finding out new depths to your book.  Those who like to move fast, who feel impatient with lingering (think descriptions that you skip when reading), may not write enough.  Or their writing may be action based, always needing something happening.  When it comes time to grasp this dance partner's hand, it forces the writer to slow down and go deep.  The feeling or image brain gets involved, rather than the linear one.

Editing is almost 100 percent linear.  It uses the part of us that analyzes and judges.  To edit well, we need distance from the story--many writers give themselves breaks between writing those early drafts and going back in to edit them to a shine.  Why?  Because if you're too tired up in the story, what you intend, what really happened, you'll have trouble getting the distance needed to judge cleanly.  You'll be prejudiced towards what you like, rather than what the story (or reader) needs.  

Storyboarding falls somewhere between the two.  It's both an exploration tool and a refinement tool, used differently at different times of the book's progress.   I usually storyboard three times in the life of a book:  once to brainstorm the story, once after I've drafted about 30,000 words (one third of the normal book length) to see what I still need to fill in and if the book's gone in a different direction I like better, and a final time during revision.  The early storyboarding efforts (first and second time) are about exploring, similar to writing.  They help you get ideas and find where you're selling your story short or lingering too long.  The final storyboard is about judging what you have:  is it traveling in a clear, clean direction?

So, depending on what you most need, you pick the task that fits.  

It's good to say a few words about transitions in the writing process, at this point.  Not a topic much discussed in writing classes, but so important to staying in the dance.

When I get stalled out, confused about my next step, I take a break.  I'm entering a transition or new part of the journey--that's what the confusion is often about--and I don't know the dance steps yet.  I like to go back to my original purpose for writing the book, to clarify them.

I'll set a timer and give myself a 20 minute freewrite assignment:  Why am I writing this book?  What do I hope to impart to the reader?  Who is my reader, exactly?  What's the larger meaning behind this story?  

Lots of times this clarifies for me the particular task I need to tackle next.  If I've strayed too far from my original intent (Why am I writing this book?), I know that writing might be needed.  I need to write more to relocate that intent in the story itself.  Maybe it's a theme that's been left behind by the action.  Maybe it's a meaning I've become too shy to bring out fully.  If I'm clueless about my reader and what I'm trying to communicate, that usually signals a need for editing.  The story has become for me alone, not for the reader, and I have to examine the scenes and possibly the storyboard to find out how to bring the reader back into the conversation.  If I can't find the larger meaning, that points to all three tasks.  

Perhaps this will be helpful to my client with the good question, or to you.  

Friday, October 16, 2020

When Your Characters Fade from the Page--Tips to Find Out Where and How to Revive Them

Combing for new ideas, insights, and writing exercises to offer in my upcoming characters class on November 7, I found a scratchy list I'd made while working on a client's manuscript some months ago.  It had everything to do with fading characters, why they disappear inadvertently and how to bring them back.

This writer was finishing her first memoir.  A good writer, a careful one, and her real-life characters were amazingly depicted--people you'd definitely remember, both for good and not.  

A recurring challenge she had (one I've seen in my own writing):  certain characters kept getting lost.  They'd vanish from the story for pages, even chapters.  Not because they weren't important or present.  But because the writer herself lost track of them.  

For instance, her mother.  A wicked woman, very vivid in the early chapters, went offstage for about 35 pages in the middle.  From her outline, I knew the mother was still around, still making trouble,  Why wasn't she more present?  As a reader, it bothered me, like a hole or gap in the storyline.  When I asked the writer, she figuratively smacked her forehead.  "I forgot," she said.  "There are so many people to keep track of."

Problem is, the reader does keep track.  And when a character vanishes, the reader notices.  This noticing and wondering begins to occupy more and more of the reader's attention, until they are distracted from the story.  

Good editors or agents are trained to catch these gaps.  I remember when my first novel, Qualities of Light, got accepted for publication.  My editor noticed I'd done the same thing--a young man named Chad, important in the story, disappeared for a good chunk.  It wasn't on purpose.  I'd just been so occupied with other aspects of the story, I'd forgotten to write him in.

First, know this is normal.  Impossible to keep track of everyone without charts and lists, I've found.  I will talk about my cheat sheet in the class on November 7, but here are some pointers you might consider to keep your characters present and real for your readers.

1.  Characters vanish for readers if they are too internal.  We learn about people by seeing them in action, not just by hearing their thoughts and feelings.  Long passages or chapters where a character only thinks, remembers, feels can distance the reader.  Make them do something, onstage, in front of us, and they grow in vividness and presence.

2.   How do you describe your character's physical appearance, hair color, gestures, movement/gait, height and weight, clothes, how they stand or sit, what their hands do when they're nervous?  Write a paragraph or two about this.  Then comb your chapters to see where (and if) these details appear.  Not usually effective to clump them--that feels like an authorial aside.  Better to scatter and repeat.  A colleague calls it "plant and return."  Readers forget!  Remind them often, through a variety of details, what the person looks like onstage so they can visualize and not forget.

3.  Let your characters describe other characters.  "Leah noticed that John's eyes looked smaller today, his forehead more pinched."  "Sherm had changed his hair color.  Janice wasn't sure she liked the almost metallic silver-brown but she resolved not to say anything mean."  We see characters not only through their own movements and awareness of themselves, but through the other people onstage.  It's an effective way of getting details across that might be too self-conscious if a character studied themselves in a mirror ("I notice my brown eyes, too wide set to be pretty, and my limp hair.").

And to put this into practice, along with many more character-writing techniques for memoir and fiction, join me at my class on November 7.  Click on the date for more information.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Poets and Writers New List of "Best Writing Books"--and My Personal Favs

 Around this time of year, maybe because the back-to-school energy has tempted me, I begin to look at buying another writing book or two. I mark them up, use them in classes, and study them all winter during prime writing time (hibernation). This week, I came across the latest list from Poets and Writers, a wonderful resource for all of us. (If the link doesn't work, go to their website and search for "best writing books.")

It's a very comprehensive list, but I thought I'd add a few favorites of my own, books that have been well-thumbed and underlined over the years. You'll have your own favorites too.

It pays every now and then to get what I call a "smart boost" by refreshing your craft skills. Hard to do when you're neck deep in a manuscript, or trying to meet a deadline, but if you can give yourself a couple of hours this week to go back to a favorite craft book or check out a new one.

A few of my favorite writing books:

Friday, October 2, 2020

Submitting to Contests: Worth It or Waste of Money and Time?

A great way to get your writing out there, seen by readers and possibly your future agent (agents browse literary journals and magazines and website), is contests. Writing contests, if you have the happy experience of winning or even placing as a finalist, can also boost your query letter/resume considerably.

Quite a few of my clients and students submit to contests regularly. "It's great practice to have a deadline," one of them told me. She tries to submit something every month, even has the next submission ready to send as soon as she gets a rejection back. "Rejections are no fun but they're part of the writing life if you want to get published. It helps me not get discouraged if I can keep sending out my work no matter what."

Why contests? They cost. (A past student emailed that she was getting ready to send an essay and some poetry to a Writer's Digest contest. Then she found out about the fee. "They CHARGE you to enter," she told me. "Is this legit?" Short answer: Yup. Many contests charge. There are also a lot of free ones.) But they also give you an entry into journals and lit magazines.

Friday, September 25, 2020

When Your Book Has a Mission--How Do You Keep the Story Personal and Engaging?


Mindy Greiling was a Minnesota state legislator when her son Jim threatened to kill her. It was his first psychotic episode. Mindy's new book, Fix What You Can,is an account of twenty years with her son's schizophrenia and her lawmaking efforts to change policy for people with mental illness.

It launches next week (October 8) from the University of Minnesota Press. (Click on the title for more information or to preorder.)

Mindy came to me for coaching a few years ago, challenged by the teaching points she wanted to bring into her memoir as a member of her state's legislature and the mother of a son. She wanted to make sure the story itself wasn't overwhelmed by the book's mission. She also wanted help on writing about the very tough subject of living with mental illness in her family while working a high-profile job.

After years of hard work, her book will soon be in the hands of readers. It's a book to be proud of. I wanted to interview her for this week's blog post, so readers who are also bringing agendas, or strong teaching points, into their memoir (or even fiction) can learn from her success.

I wanted to interview her for this week's blog post, so readers who are also bringing agendas, or strong teaching points, into their memoir (or even fiction) can learn from her success.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Character Names: How to Find the Ones That Feel Just Right

A blog reader recently wrote me: "As I write a middle-grade mystery book on pet detectives, I have changed some character names three or four times. I can't see to get that 'feels right' fit for a particular name."

Names are tough for me. Some I just know, even before I start writing. I knew Kate and Mel from a short-story written before my novel, Qualities of Light, that expanded their story, was published. Kate was always a Kate, just because I felt that name was no nonsense, like a pilot has to be. Mel is a dreamy artist and I didn't care for Melvin, which it's short for, but try as I might, I couldn't change him to Jim or Joe or George.

Like my blog reader, though, some characters feel elusive in early drafts. I give them a "draft" name and try to keep it until they tell me otherwise. That might sound woo-woo to some, but fiction writers all know how the characters live inside our heads, often more real than the living folk around us at times.

Friday, September 4, 2020

How Long Can You Go? Word Count Limit for First Books

First-time authors who love epics, such as Tolkien or the Outlander or Game of Thrones series, often ask me about word count for their manuscripts. "I'm at 150,000 words," one writer told me recently, and "I just can't seem to cut anything." Another wrote me this week about her ending--not sure where to stop, she keeps writing. Such dilemmas are common in the drafting stages, and I've encountered them too. Writing can be so satisfying, and trimming not so much.

If you're planning to self-publish, this is not an issue. You don't have to follow any rules but your own and your story can be as long as you want it to be, if you can afford the cost. But if you're hoping to find an agent and publisher, it's good to know the ballpark numbers--what's acceptable in the industry today.

Agents are particularly straightforward about their ability to sell first-time manuscripts that are less than 60,000 or that exceed 90,000 words. One of my early novels was around 45,000 words; an agent I approached loved the story but declined to represent me. "It's just too hard to sell that size book," she told me.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Using the Storyboard for Short Pieces as Well as Long

Lila came to my remote "learn to storyboard your book" class to work on her novel. Recently, she emailed me, wondering if storyboards also were useful when planning shorter pieces, such as short stories or essays. "I often know how I want to start and end a short story," she wrote me, "but the part in the middle gets a little foggy. I like the idea of using a W structure but I also don't have much time to have 3 turning points. So maybe it's just a V?"
In my short stories, I also (usually) know where I want to begin and end. And Lila's right, that there's a lot less time to develop a full storyboard. But if I look carefully at my most successful short stories and essays, I can see at least the five main points of the storyboard in action.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Dealing with the Emotions of Writing Tough Memories

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

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

Two things were happening: I was processing what I hadn't finished. And, at the same time, I was trying to get enough of a perspective to tell the story for others.

This double duty affected me on so many levels, I sought help. Talking about the events with others, especially a therapist, helped the processing part. I moved through shame and sadness, anger and fear, to gradual acceptance.

I also got great help from resources like The Tapping Solution, my daily spiritual practice, and chanting. These helped dispel some of the intensity and lift me above the constant mental chewing over what had happened (here's a short video on a chant that helped me the most--and I still use every day, especially now).

Friday, August 14, 2020

Distant Dialogue: Pros and Cons of Including Emails, Letters, Social Media Posts, Texts, Phone Calls, and Journal Excerpts in a Book

Voices are only a small part of human communication. We read emotions via gestures, eye movement, and facial expressions, as well. In books, you can add setting to the mix--whatever the character notices in her environment emphasizes the emotion she's feeling. It's a rich mix.

I often hear from students who want to include letters, diary entries, texts, or social media posts in their stories. Can you do this, they ask, without losing the reader? And how much is too much?