Thursday, May 21, 2015

Why Accountability Is Essential for Book Writers--If You Ever Want to Finish Your Book!

A friend once said:  "Books are marriages.  Sometimes I miss the one-night stands."  Ever feel that way?  Writing a book delivers a huge payoff, but it's a lot more work to keep the relationship going.

Books take an emotional and psychological toll.  I love this quote from writer Red Smith:   "All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein."  

Sometimes, showing up at the page requires intense vulnerability, even courage.
  But first-time book writers think it's just about the writing.  If you learn how to craft good sentences, you're home free.  That's only half of the process.  Like any long-term relationship, it's also about your accountability. 

What keeps you in the desk chair?  What makes you eager to get back to your book every day? 

Craft is essential.  I've written and published thirteen books, and I'm working on my fourteenth.  My craft skills improve with each book, but each project also demands two kinds of accountability from me--internal accountability and external accountability--to finish well.  To keep me in the race.

Why do so many books stay in the desk drawer, never get to draft stage or even revision stage?  Accountability.

Let's look at that skill this week--a detour from craft, but just as essential.   

Internal Accountability

Enthusiasm for your book is often high in the beginning.  You have lots of internal accountability when it's easy to show up at the page.  The writing is going well.  You're finally doing what you've wanted to do for years! 

These honeymoon periods can last a while--months, sometimes into the first draft.  Nanowrimo (National Novel Writers Month) is built on this kind of enthusiasm.  Just keep writing, no worries about the quality.  It's golden to be flooded with ideas, to think about your book all the time.

Internal accountability starts off being propelled by this kind of success.  Truthfully, we don't know better--we don't know what it takes to actually finish a book.  Thank goodness for this kind of start.  Otherwise, who would write a book?

Internal accountability doesn't require support or feedback.  It builds on itself, as long as the momentum is there.   Sometimes, this creates a solid writing habit, all by itself.  The more pages you write, the more successful you feel about your book.

Eventually, you wind down.  Maybe you get your first feedback.  Maybe a crisis happens in your regular life and you stop for a while.  When you reread your draft, the words sound weird.  The flow feels shaky.  What were you thinking?   The Inner Critic, always hanging around, waiting for an opening, snatches your heart.  Are you really a writer?  Probably not.  Might as well stop now, before anyone else reads this. 

The internal accountability dries up overnight.  Many writers, especially if this is a first book, will walk away at that point. 

Goodbye marriage.

Unless you know about the other kind of accountability:  external.  AKA, good support.

External Accountability
Writers who know that internal accountability has limits, know that they will need support.  Ever read the acknowledgements pages of your favorite books?  Most published writers thank legions of supporters.  

External support comes in lots of forms.  Online classes are big in my book--I teach them and I take them.  In my classes, I foster the sense of community, boost the external accountability with weekly deadlines, and teach writers how to ask for the kind of feedback that keeps them going, rather than deflates them.

This gives them time to gather their own internal accountability again, recommit to the marriage with their books.

Writers groups are another form of external accountability.  I love my weekly online exchange with peers.  They make me work hard on my chapters, they give me new ideas, they keep me going when my internal accountability is low.  Writers groups can be dangerous too--it's important to cultivate one that boosts your internal accountability.  If there's too much critique too soon, if one person dominates, if you only get positive comments when you're ready for more depth, they can make you falter.

Putting Them Together
I've learned that the two types of accountability toggle back and forth.  Internal accountability--what keeps my enthusiasm strong and new ideas coming--depends on how much external accountability I have in place.  I set up both, when I start a new book project.  I plan my writing time each day, I make lists of what I want to work on (to avoid the horror of the blank page on a bad morning), I read voraciously and study the craft. 

But I also set up deadlines for feedback, and I sign up for online classes.

One of my online students signed up for another semester this week, and emailed me to say why.  "Summer is a tricky time for my writing," she said.  "Kids are home, we travel, there's always distractions.  But I really, really want to write.  Last summer, I tried to just handle it all and the writing--of course!--totally disappeared.  So I need this class, the accountability of showing up every week, people who care about me and my book.   I want a creative life for me this summer, and this is how I'll get it."

What is going to keep you accountable to your writing this summer?  What internal accountability do you have, and what have you set up externally as support?

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
This week's exercise lets you assess your accountability to your book, figure out what you can do to bolster it, where needed.

1.  Browse this cool link:  Gretchen Rubin's blog post on how we form and keep good habits, based on our natural tendencies.  Her new book is called Better Than Before.

2.  Freewrite for 15 minutes on your summer:  What's realistic to expect?  How will you keep your book marriage going, with all that happens in summer? 

A Short PS about My Online Classes This Summer External accountability via an online class really works!  If weekly feedback and support sounds like just the ticket for you too, my next round of online writing classes begin soon.  There are still a few places left. 

Fun, lively communities of writers from all over, book writers like you--plus weekly feedback and skill building.  Please join us.

Your Book Starts Here, online class, Part 1--
for intermediate writers just starting or who want help structuring the flow of their novel, memoir, or nonfiction book.   Starts June 1.  
  for writers with chapters or a partial manuscript written, who want to strengthen characters, plot, setting, theme, and voice via weekly feedback.  Starts June 1.

for advanced writers with a complete manuscript draft who want help with in-depth revision, including structure, content, and language revising.   Starts June 8.

for intermediate and advanced fiction or memoir writers wanting fine-tuning of language for more imagery, emotional punch, and tension.  Starts June 8.

All four classes are perfect for summer schedules--easy access 24/7 to the classroom, so you can log in anytime and post when it's convenient.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Can You Boost Your Brain Power--and Your Health--by Writing Every Day? (Yes!)

Last fall, the Harvard Business Review ran an article about the new use of story in business presentations.  Rather than Death by PowerPoint, the writer showed solid proof that stories work a LOT better to "capture people’s hearts--by first attracting their brains." 

When we engage with narrative, the studies showed, various physical functions, such as oxytoxin synthesis, improve. 

But not with just any story.  It worked best with character-driven stories. 
When we hear overused phrases, our brains absorb them only as words, rather than images.  Cliches, for instance, do not cause the brain to light up nearly as much (check out the studies cited in this second article on science and storytelling). Only when the brain gets involved in a narrative--especially one with imaginative language that uses sensory detail--does it fully engage.

Science is proving that our brains love all the qualities of engaging writing:  "detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters," to cite a third article, which appeared in the New York Times. 

Stories "stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life."  That's the power of good writing!

Writing as a Way to Heal 
So, readers have it good.  Their brains get charged by story.  How about the writer who is writing the story?  Are our brains also affected as we sit in front of our laptops or notebooks and dream up great ideas?

Even older research says yes.  The act of writing, the work we do every day with our novels, memoirs, nonfiction books, has the potential to heal our brains, and our bodies. 

Many years ago, James Pennebaker, a social psychologist from University of Texas, wrote a ground-breaking book, Writing to Heal.  He shared his decades of research on the keen connection between writing and healing from trauma.  (Since then, he's received grants from NSF and NIH to study this connection.) 
Daily writing of a certain kind and quality actually reduced serious medical symptoms and promoted healing.  Physical and emotional health, not just brain power, improved.   But key to the change was the same quality of narrative, and detail, that brain researchers are finding today.

Plenty of proof to get involved in our stories every day, to sit down at the writing desk and open up our laptops or take out the pen. 

Your Weekly Writing Exercise 
Scan one or all of the three articles listed above.  Consider your own reasons for writing your book.  Freewrite answers to the following questions.  They may increase your motivation to take out your story after a long day.

How might your book-writing practice be benefiting your whole self? 

Are there areas of your life where your writing is healing you? 

Are there ways your writing allows you to be creative--perhaps for the first time?

Friday, May 8, 2015

You've Gotta Choose! Five Tips to Prevent Distractions from Becoming Derailments in Your Writing Life

A friend told me a great story about a long-distance swimmer.  In one of his swims, this athlete ran into a school of jellyfish.  He'd bat them away, then another would smack him in the face.  It slowed him down, and for a while he considered stopping the swim.  But other than a few small stings, the jellyfish were just a distraction.  He switched his attention back to his swim and finished it. 


We all have jellyfish in our lives.  Things that distract us, that could become derailments and often do.

One favorite is mental junk food.  A writer friend recently posted a cool video on his Facebook page.  The video was interesting, educational, even useful for my teaching someday.  I watched it, browsed additional links, had a blast. 

An hour later, I looked up.  This "righteous" distraction had taken an hour out of my writing time.   By foregoing my choice, I'd let it become a derailment.

Anyone with a serious goal, like writing a book, needs to make good choices.  So I surveyed colleagues, all professional writers, to learn their favorite way to keep such distractions in check.  

I gathered five tips to try.  They worked.  They're offered as your writing exercise for this week.   

But before I share them, I wanted to pass along a wonderful article  from the New York Times Opinionator blog.  The write of this article is undergoing chemo for breast cancer.  Her kind and persistent friend comes by, tries engage this writer in a knitting project.  "Knitting is fun," the friend says.  "It calms the brain, it's creative, it'll take your mind off your chemo."  She's right.  Knitting is a cool antidote to any frenzy or distress.  This writer says no, then she thinks about why.  Her mother comes to mind.  A brilliant and accomplished woman, this mother died before she completed a biography she was writing.  Why didn't her mother finish her book?  The writer realized the mother didn't finish anything.  She always got distracted.  But worse, she allowed each distraction to become a derailment. 

The writer says that she chooses to write, and by making that choice, she has to say no to other things.  Like knitting.  Even though it would be fun, and it would make her friend happy.  Writing feeds her.  So she stays the course.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
Here's the list I gathered from colleagues and pros who stay the course.  Each of these five tips have kept a writer going long enough to finish and publish a book (or many books).  Check them out.  Choose one to practice this week, as your weekly writing exercise.  See if it helps you! 

1.  Write first. 
Before you get involved with your day, touch in with your writing.  Get out your notebook, your notes.  Look over your project, even for five minutes.  Jot down an idea about what you might write next.  Open your computer and bring up your current chapter or file.   If you have time, take one sentence to another stage.  Just one.  It'll get your creative brain engaged.   

Why it works:  Writers who put in writing time before paid work, email, or other obligations are telling themselves that their writing takes priority.  It may require skipping the news or the walk, the latte or the email a few mornings a week.  When I tried it, it meant getting up early and getting permission from my family to hide out in my writing room without saying good morning.  Nobody died, and my writing took on a new shine all day.

2.  Leave before you finish.  
I think Stephen King popularized this technique, called "linkage" in his book On Writing.  He leaves each writing session with a sentence unfinished.  Literally, stops in the middle of a sentence. 

Why it works:  The mind abhors a vacuum.  An unfinished sentence in your writing will drive you crazy until you get back to it.  When I tried it, I couldn't wait to get back to my writing the next morning.

3.  Limit your writing time--use a timer. 
A very prolific writer shared this tip.  She sets a kitchen timer for 30 minutes at the start of her writing session, tells herself she must stay in the chair, with no mental junk food or other distractions, until it rings.  She says it usually takes her 15 of those minutes to get into her writing.  By telling herself she has to stay in the chair, but by knowing she can flee after 30 minutes, she finds her crazy critical brain eventually settling down. 

Why it works:  Limits often allow bursts of creative energy.  Remember that saying, "If you want to get something done, give it to a busy person?"  Same theory here.  Tell yourself you only have 30 minutes and you'll use every minute.  When I tried it, I found I didn't even crave distractions after a while, and often (usually) I wrote past the timer.

4.  Set a satisfaction point for each writing session. 
Before you begin, decide what would make you feel satisfied with that day's writing session:  Maybe it's a number of words, maybe it's a number of pages edited, maybe it's tackling a character interview or a certain kind of research or transcribing notes or freewrites.  Make it reasonable. 

Why it works:  Writer Brene Brown tells us that we build confidence in ourselves by keeping our promises.  That involves setting the bar low enough to actually leap it.  When I tried it, I found that meeting my satisfaction point each day gave me renewed trust in my creative stamina.  Each point I reached, where I was satisfied with the result, built that confidence.

5.  Plan what you'll write about the next day. 
Many pro writers I interviewed used this tip:  Before they end a writing session, they write down notes, ideas, or questions to jumpstart the next session. 

Why it works:  When you sit down tomorrow, it's much easier to have someplace to start--not just face another blank page.  When I tried it, I found I kept my writing in my awareness the rest of the day, and I kept coming up with new ideas, as if a creative faucet had been turned on.     

Friday, May 1, 2015

How to Keep Your Memoir from Being Just a Selfie

A writing colleague sent me this recent article from the Washington Post--a humorous look at how memoir has evolved.  One new direction is the selfie.  Look at me, in other words. 

Selfies can be quite entertaining.  If the selfie shows a unique angle on someone's life, and we want to learn more about that someone, it's worth the time.  The Post writer, Mark Athitakis,  breaks down his short list into categories of selfie-memoirs, such as "I'm Famous," "I'm Running for President," and "I Used to Be Dead but for Some Reason I'm Not Anymore."  You can imagine others:  "I Had a Screwed-Up Family but I Turned Out OK" or "I Survived Something Very Intense."

Nothing wrong with these, in my opinion, but it depends what else the book offers.  My colleague pointed out this key quote from Mark's article, which says it all:

"[The] nobler purpose of autobiography:  To tell a story not about the person doing the writing but about the subject they’ve lived through.  When I think of the recent memoirs I’ve admired - Edwidge Danticat’s “Brother, I’m Dying,” Howard Norman’s “I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place,” Roz Chast’s “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?”--what sticks in my mind are the places they evoke and the challenges they explore, not the people who wrote them."Although some transforming event is an essential foundations for most memoir, we read for the surrounds as well.  What is the universal aspect of that transforming event?  How does it reveal more than just you? 

I think of event as the building your story resides in.  It's also called the "outer story" and it keeps a memoir from being solely self-focused.  Make that event interesting, with a well-shown environment, an era or a location or a community that brings your personal story to a larger place. 

I once worked with a student who was writing a medical memoir--she had been through horrific events and somehow survived.  Her early drafts were all about her relief at being alive and her pain at going through this illness.  A well-taken selfie.  Eventually, as she matured as a writer, the book grew into a larger and more universal story.  It became a statement about survival, not just her own but all human survival in dire circumstances.

Hard to reach this, which is one reason memoirs are one of the toughest genres to pull off.  But worth working toward. 

How do you get there?  Realize that it takes time.  One of my students presented her memoir idea before a panel of published memoirists.  They told her most memoirs take an average of seven years to write.  This writer was shocked.  But then, as she worked more on her story, she realized the truth of this.  It takes time for the maturing of your perspective, and thus the maturing of your story, into a more universal level.

So, if you're writing a memoir, and you're not famous or running for president, you might want to consider this:  What else is in your story, beyond a selfie?  What is the bigger subject?

Friday, April 24, 2015

Book Titles--How Important Are They? How Do You Get a Great One?

Imagine finishing your book manuscript and sending it out to agents and then publishers--and getting a big YES!  You've sold your book.  Time to celebrate.  Then the reality of production begins. 

All those changes suggested by editors.  Gearing up your promotion.  The marketing department wanting to change your book title.

What?!

Yep.  Pretty common.  I've had three book titles get changed by marketing departments or editors after the contract was signed.  It's always done with good reasons and in the end, I've been glad (my early titles were awful).  But it's a bit disconcerting.  Especially after I'd published five books--my trusty agent had sold my sixth manuscript to a mid-sized publisher . . .  whose first request was to change the title. 

Some of my homegrown titles have been excellent.  The books sold well, the publisher didn't want to change anything.  The title still pleased me years later.  
But as an editor and writing teacher, I read lots of good manuscript with terrible titles.  How much more compelling it would be if that good manuscript had a terrific title.

Terrific titles help sell manuscripts.  Because they catch the eye of the agent who has already scanned hundreds of queries that day.  


Tips for Coming Up with Your Own Terrific Book Title
1.  Make a list of the key images or keywords in your manuscript.  Read through your chapters and highlight key words or images that repeat.  On paper, begin doodling or playing with them.  See if you can write a poem around the image or keyword.  Does part of one line of your rough poem stand out?  Could it become a book title with some additional tweaking? 

2.  Study your book's meaning or theme--not what it's about, but what it means to the reader.  Any images or words come from that?  Look at your characters' dilemmas--could their name or occupation be part of the title?  If these fail, go to your plot.  How could a big turning point in the plot become part of the book title?

3.  Once you have some ideas, see how far you can trim them down.  Get rid of any extra words (especially ones that don't convey image--the, and, an, a, etc.).  Go for short.  Longer titles are hard on library cataloging systems.  Short titles fit more compactly on a book's spine, in larger type too. 

4.  If you're writing a nonfiction book, go for the reader benefit.  What's a reader going to take away--what new skills or understanding?  Use benefit-oriented phrases:  How to, 25 Ways to, Secrets, or Master.  For more about this, check out business-book blogger Ginny Carter and her article on choosing strong book titles for nonfiction.

5.  Clever with words?  Try for a twist or double meaning:   The End of Your Life Book Club.  New Ways to Kill Your Mother.  Flip your image or its normal meaning:  Running with Scissors.  Swamplandia.  Present a problem in your title:  Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?  The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

6.  Study good titles of published books and see why they sold.  Here are two fune websites to look over.  You'll laugh, you'll disagree, but you may also learn!

101 Best Book Titles
Best 2012 Book Titles from Book Page

Friday, April 17, 2015

Rest Breaks for Book Writers--When Are They Procrastination and When Are They Required?

This week I'm taking a rest break from my book.  I'm still thinking about it, still mulling over its many problems, but I have recognized some important signs of burn-out that I need to attend to.  I've begun pushing rather than listening.  I have a more-than-usually-overactive Inner Critic.  And occasionally, a feeling of the blues about my work will creep in. 

It's been one intense winter here in New England.  April rolled in with deep depletion and a longing for green grass and sunshine.  I felt drained in every part of me.  First step was finding a place to recuperate--so I lucked out with an airbnb house on an island in Florida for a week with my family. 

Of course, I brought my book with me.  I thought I'd spend each day on it.  Ha!  What actually happened was this:  beach walks, painting, sleeping, eating, and more beach walks.  Not a whole lot of writing.   

We push ourselves so hard.  We work, we parent, we partner, and we try to write our books.  It's all good.  But there can be a break, can't there?  When it your feeling of "nothing left to give" just procrastination and avoiding hard work that will take you from breakdown to breakthrough--and when it is a sign your writing actually wants you to take a break?

Crying jags often accompany this, for me.  I start wondering where I've lost myself.  This isn't the sign of depression, at least for me, it's a creative emptiness. 

Julia Cameron in the much-loved guidebook, The Artist's Way, suggests a weekly artist's date to keep in touch with ourselves, to not get to this lost place.  And I can usually honor that.  But sometimes life shoots us too much too fast--maybe a death in the family, a change of homes, loss of job, even good things like marriage and buying a house.  Everything takes energy and time.  What gives?

In the realm of manifestation and creativity, I had been stretched to the max these past months of winter.  I didn't know any other gear to drive than Intense.  I didn't know how to get back to the "necessary boredom" that Dorothy Allison talks about, the place where my own creativity bubbles up.

Jennifer Louden writes in The Woman's Retreat Book "If there is one cosmic law I know the consequences of ignoring, it is this one:  you cannot create from an empty well."

Tomorrow we fly home from our island vacation.  I'm sunburned and sleepy inside, but new ideas are bubbling up.  My manuscript which has been ignored all week is starting to interest me again. 

It always happens:  As I began to fill up again, with long hours staring at the ocean or painting the sky, new ideas have started coming in.  An idea of how to solve that sticky plot problem, a place to get information I need.  An enthusiasm for my writing that I thought I'd lost forever.

This Week's Writing Exercise 
1.  Take stock.  Do you need to feed the artist?  Is she or he starving from too much output and not enough input these past busy months?
2.  If the answer is yes, can you carve out time for a rest break?  Even five hours in a day when nothing is needed of you is amazing and precious.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Go On! Make a Bad Decision! Your Story Will Thank You

Still life.  A painting term for something captured in time.  Frozen, unmoving, maybe even perfect.  Looks pretty.  Gets a little boring after a while.  Is far from real life, isn't it?


Still life never makes a good story.

Bad decisions? They do.

Bad decisions is how your plot is furthered.  Whether you're writing memoir, fiction, or nonfiction, it's likely a bad decision brought the narrator or the reader to where they are right now.  Trouble is, most writers like to keep their characters out of trouble.  They like to stay safe.  

Staying Safe
Recently, a student in my classes was agonizing through a bout of writer's block. She had started the semester with chapters that just flowed onto the page.  Then, in the fifth week of our twelve-week class, she got really stuck.   Nothing worked:  freewrites, encouragement, feedback.  When I read her five weeks' worth of writing, I could see why.  The world she was writing about had gotten safer and safer, until she didn't know how to escape.

Still life.  So . . . I suggested she look at the bad decisions in her chapters.   Try to find something that made everyone uneasy or got them into trouble.

Qualities of Risk
What you're after here are the qualities of risk.  Where is the edge in your chapter?  What might happen if you sharpened it, raising the stakes?

In my online classes we build a book from ideas laid out on a storyboard.   It's like an easy, visual map of where the story rises and falls.  I asked my student to go back to hers and review the major plot points.  When she did, she realized nothing big had happened yet.  She said she was saving the big stuff for later.

That's fine.  But then, why would a reader want to read on?  They may never get to the big stuff.  And neither was she.  All the bad decisions happening later means that there was little momentum to propel the plot now.

So we talked about it.  She explained that she is a very nice person.  She believes in a world where most people are good at heart. She just couldn't see getting her characters in trouble, painting them as anything but good people too.  Yes, eventually, everything would fall apart in their lives, but for now, she wanted things to be OK for them.  Easy, fun, with everyone getting along.  No risk.

Telling a White Lie
I like this writer.  Who wouldn't?   I also believe in that kind of pleasant world.  When I have a day like that, it's golden!

But it's not golden on paper.

Although I'm not suggesting nonstop murder and mayhem.  Just a few bad decisions.  Like telling a white lie, watching the consequences unfold.  Or withholding something.  Or avoiding someone.  Or . . . you know!  You've made them, haven't you?

Even this nice writer has.  I asked her if she'd ever told a white lie.  She didn't even flinch.  "Of course," she said, "who hasn't?"

"Remember how it felt?"  Yes, she did.  She got a little uneasy.  "Go back to it.  Find out why you told that little lie.  Find other bad decisions you've made.  Then list them, and transport one into your story."

We've all made bad decisions. We've been on the receiving end of other people's, too. They are hard to forget, no matter how hard we try. Think of what your "story" was after the decision. It probably had drama, movement, energy, and consequences. That's what you're after in your writing.

This Week's Writing Exercise
This week write about one really bad decision you made in your life. Write about it in all its glory.  I like to set a kitchen timer for 15 minutes, to limit the agony.

Maybe you're far enough away to not feel the pain of it again, but if you do feel some embarrassment or unease as you write, good thing--because it'll make the writing that much more emotionally grabbing for a reader.

Now look at your book draft.  Where are the bad decisions?  If you don't have many, make a list of 10 things your character would never do. (Use this equally for memoir or fiction.)  Now write one scene, one moment, using one item on the list--imagining it happening.

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

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Big "W" and Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey Story Arc

Writing a book is hard work.  So it helps to get help--anything that has worked before.  What makes a story satisfying?  What keeps us reading?  One writer who has solved this question for many of us:  Joseph Campbell, his Hero's Journey, and the W structure that evolved from his work.

Campbell offered a classic definition of mythic structure in storytelling.  The narrator, the hero, starts a quest and faces challenges that change him or her by the end.  It's the structure you see in so many films, books, and classic fairytales.  Most movies out of Hollywood follow this structure. 

In the big W, there are three defined sections, or three acts.  Each gives the story a certain kind of movement, up or down.  The sequence creates a W, falling action and rising action, back and forth. 

Since a book is a big project, this template can make order out of your pages of chaos.  First question to ask yourself:  can you divide your story into a rough beginning, middle, and end?  Good. 

Next questions:  Does the beginning provide a challenge, an initial crisis (also called a "triggering" event because it's similar to pulling the trigger on a gun--it must propel change).

In the middle, do events get more complex?  Maybe the initial crisis becomes bigger.  Maybe more a problem isn't solved as easily as we expected.  Do positive events change someone's life in some way, causing their own problems? 

Finally, is there change by the end?  Do things resolve at all?  What is different about your hero by the final page?

These are the basic elements of the big W.  Use its template to check your book's structure.  You may find some pieces missing!  If so, read on.


Act One:  Set Up a Strong Beginning
Dilemma must be present in the beginning of your story.  In my writing workshops, we read recently published books to locate the opening dilemma, the triggering event.  Often it is on page 1 or 2.  That's normal in today's publishing world--readers want to know what's at stake, right out the gate.
 
Some writers question this.  They prefer what I call the Tolstoy approach.  Tolstoy used the first seven chapters of War and Peace to set up his characters, setting, and background information.  You may love this slow entry into books, but would Tolstoy be published today?  I'm not certain.  If you're interested in being published, you may have to set aside this slow entry idea.  You may have to move your backstory out of the way.

Backstory is the background of the story--and so many writers place it first.  I once read a student's mystery manuscript, where backstory comprised the first four chapters.  As a reader, I lost interest fast.  I skimmed ahead to where something happened.  Backstory is history.  It's not electric for your reader now.  Readers are smart--they want to get into the problem first, then hear about how it happened.   

Ask yourself, Is the dilemma presented immediately and clearly? Is it big enough to propel the entire book? Remember that a triggering event should be an externalized action without which the story would not happen.
 
Act Two:  Accelerating the Tension in the Middle  
Act two is the next two legs of the W, the upside down V.  It offers a rising action first.  Hope, new ideas, a friend, a possible solution!  The rollercoaster cranks up a steeper slope, we get a new view, and the tension builds.  After  a tiny pause at the top of the grade, act two drops like a stone.  Another falling action plummets us to a new low.

Act two, or a book's middle, is a tricky part.  It's easy to get sleepy here.  How many books have you abandoned as a reader, after a great start, because of the slow down?  The big W helps you avoid that.   

I like to call act two the arena of "new complications."  It should make your hero's journey a lot more complex.  Does it?   

By the end of act two, things are at the lowest point.  We encounter a crisis of greater magnitude than any other moment in the story.   Things really fall apart now.   The tension is intense, with a sense that there's no way out.
Ask yourself:  Do my act two make everything more complicated?  Does the bottom of act two contain the worst moment in the book?   If not, then think about ways you can show the dilemma worsening.   What complications can you add to heighten the tension?   Make sure what you are revealing feels much more complicated than at the first turning point.

Act Three:  Finishing with a Surprise
Act three is the final leg of the big W.  It offers a rising action, an upward movement--new solutions, the mystery solved, a new identity for your hero, a new perspective.  

Whether something unexpected is revealed or a new level of understanding brought to light, make sure the dilemma of your book is resolved.  Or if not resolved, at least talked about why it's not resolved.   I'm not talking Hallmark card saccharine stuff here.  Just some tying up of the mystery.

Act three is like a big exhale of tension.  It delivers a new level of clarity about the story or subject. Your characters might  realize how much they have grown, and how overcoming all those dilemmas earned them their insights.
 
Ask yourself:  Does my book have a new revelation or realization or discovery at the end of the story?     

Not all writers like this big W theory of story structure, but it has been a lifesaver for me.  It's helped me produce and publish so many books, that I can't imagine not having it in my back pocket.  It helps me check my creative flow against something solid and structural. 

Friday, March 27, 2015

Finding Time for Yourself: The Value of Writing Retreats

Writers who take on a book learn that it is always connected to their lives, some way, somehow.  Even if the story is about another planet.  Even if the writer is making it all up.   

We can't write completely outside of who we are, especially when we're spending 300 pages doing so.  This means we must face ourselves squarely, look at our motivation for our project, as well as any oh-so-personal obstacles to getting there.

It requires being alone with our creativity.  Writing retreats are great places for this to happen.

Necessary Boredom
Each summer I teach two week-long writing retreats on an island in Lake Superior.  They are sponsored by Madeline Island School of the Arts, and we live on campus in cottages and gather each day in a sunny classroom to orient, plan, and learn--then go off to write alone.  I find the coming together, the daily check-ins, balanced with the solo writing time, is the key to making a retreat work.   

Also, the location is ideal.  Remote and beautiful, Madeline Island is lined with lagoons, inlets, and beaches.  A cute lakeside village sits on one end of the island, full of arty shops.  A writer's senses get filled with summertime blue skies, lake breezes, sailboats, and grassy meadows of wildflowers.  The pressures of normal life slip away and "necessary boredom" filters in.

What is necessary boredom, and why is it so important for writing?   

Writer Dorothy Allison coined this phrase.  It's the inner stillness that promotes creativity, that lets us wander inside and come up with original thoughts.  I find that writing retreats offer a chance to perceive whatever has been swimming underwater.  It begins to surface, to be looked at.  Inner lives finally inform the writing. 

But inner lives can be scary to face alone!  The balance, again, of community and coaching are what makes it possible.

The Dangers of Writing Retreats
I've been on many writing retreats.  Sometimes my take-away is less than stellar.  At several, it became all about impressing the teacher and fellow writers, more than finding out about our own work.  (I left that one early.)   

The big questions:
1.  Does the retreat offer enough stillness and writing time?
2.  If you get stuck, is there a way to learn some new skills or get coaching to keep you going?   
3.  Is there just enough comraderie but not too much to interfere with writing time?   

I remember one retreat that featured so much partying I was too tired and toxic to see beyond a bottle of aspirin.  The fun I supposedly had doesn't come to memory; I can only recall the regret I felt when my writing didn't budge.

Looking at Your Own Motivation--The First Question
Good retreats provide (1) necessary boredom, (2) coaching and new skills when you get stuck, and (3) just enough community to feel support but not social overwhelm.

Retreats also force you to ask those big questions about your writing, hopefully bringing you to a new perspective:   

What's driving you to write this book, really?    
If you didn't have to write it, would you?   
What will keep you facing the blank page?
What are the personal benefits to me?  If no one else were to read this book, would I still write it?
 
Your Primary Obstacle--The Second Question
When the book doesn't get written, the reasons are as individual as the writer.  Maybe you don't have enough time.  Maybe you have too much fear, and it keeps biting you when you sit down to write.  

During the retreats on Madeline Island, writers inevitably get stuck.  My job is to coach them through the stuck place and reacquaint them with their reasons for writing--as well as the courage I know they have.

Creativity and Courage
I urge them to remember what it was like to waste time in sheer exploration. It may sound counter-intuitive, but each day on Madeline Island we practice time management from a perspective of creativity.  With some structure and plenty of writing time, writers begin to see that elusive thing called time and what it really meant for them as creative writers.

As each writer got more relaxed and felt more at ease with the group and our daily schedule, as we got to know each other as a creative group, we began share more intimately, be foolish in front of each other.  We gradually read more of our raw writing, scenes just created that day, and this let everyone practice being fearless.  As voices were heard and respected, these voices got stronger.   

I am always amazed at how the week grows organically, how it becomes custom-made for each person.   

Some writers choose to spend the whole week exploring ideas, branching out of their known worlds into the unknown.  They write short pieces that may eventually become chapters.   

Others craved a good map, a serious direction for all the material they'd accumulated.  I coached them through storyboards and image boards.  We made collages of our books, of our characters.   

One afternoon, I sent everyone to the beach to write the "container" of their books.

It is always hard to say goodbye on Friday.  We become quite a family by the end of the week--which is how a good retreat should be.  Knowing each others' true stories is often the best door to really knowing a person. 

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
If you're curious about retreats, check out my Madeline Island summer writing retreat, for book writers at all stages.  Click here. 

And get a taste of the big questions by setting aside some time to dialogue on paper with your book idea.  Ask yourself the two questions below, letting yourself write whatever comes and responding as honestly as you can. 

What do the answers tell you about your own book-writing process?

1.  Why am I really writing this book?
2.  What's the primary obstacle I face, in writing this book?

Friday, March 20, 2015

Studying Stephen King: Subtext and Dialogue Use by a Master

My April 2 dialogue workshop is almost sold out, so I wanted to give those of you who are coming (and anyone who can't come) a jump start on understanding subtext in dialogue.  Subtext is the undercurrent in written dialogue. 


It makes dialogue expand from information-giving to emotion- and tension-fostering.  It's what makes dialogue really work.  And what gets your manuscript past that round (rejection) file.