Friday, July 3, 2015

Weeding through the Mass and the Mess: Making Sense of Your First Draft

A reader from New York has been working hard on her first draft of a novel for over a year.  First drafts aren't easy.  Initially they require sitting down and writing a lot.  Not necessarily from chapter 1 to The End, but a lot of scenes need to accumulate.  This is the benefit of writing classes, writing marathons, and writing practice.  This is why Nanowrimo (National Novel Writer's Month) is so popular.  You can accumulate pages toward this first draft.
 
But what happens next?  After all the pages are written, you don't really have a book yet. 

To take the mass of mess to first draft, you have to find a pathway through it.  Something a reader can make sense of. This is where the writer from New York was stuck.  

"I'm on the edge," she told me.  "There is almost a ream of paper with different chapters.  There are different beginnings.  There are different endings.  How do I weed through all this?"
 
How to Create a Map of Your Book
In my online classes, we're learning to create maps of our books.  We divide our weekly time between writing (accumulating those pages) and assessing where the pages might fit within a first draft.  To help this map-making process, I created a video of a map-making tool called storyboarding. 

Storyboarding is the easiest way I know chart a map through the mess.

But!  I have also learned from my classes, some writers don't like maps.  When I was younger and newer to book writing, I didn't either.  I didn't use maps for my travel--too rigid, too predictable!  Why would I need them for my writing? 

Wasn't it better just to let it flow? 
 
Pause for backstory:  Exploring Europe one summer, nineteen years old, just me and companions met along the way.  Plus a train schedule and my Eurail pass, a little bit of money, and my love of adventure.  (Lucky I didn't know I was ignorantly hitchhiking in Greece during the anti-American protests.  Lucky that a German woman helped me out when I was trying to pass through East Germany without having the right stamp on my passport.)  Way too innocent to see the danger I was narrowly avoiding, because my ideal was travel from a casual, unplanned perspective.  
 
More recent backstory:  A trip France a few summers ago, older now, finding equally amazing adventure in planning where to visit.  Using good maps on my phone to find the best routes.  Result:  I had just as much--probably more--fun.
 
My early books were mapless too.  But when I began publishing back in the 1980s, my publisher assigned me an in-house editor.  He had a map, a good one.  Without it, my book would never have been published. 
 
No maps are fine when it's just you reading.

Storyboard Retreats
In two weeks, I'll be teaching a Storyboard Retreat on Madeline Island in the wilds of Lake Superior.  A location to dive into your book.  We will explore different uses of the W storyboard as an initial map to brainstorm or make sense of that messy draft.  We'll study the five pivot points of any story, one each at the beginning and end, three placed at optimal points to keep the book's energy alive.

Once you discover these five points, you can build your book's map.  This week's exercise takes you through the steps.
 
Weeding your way to a good first draft takes time.  Set aside a storyboard retreat weekend, if you can.  You may come away with a map that will serve you well the rest of your book journey.    
 
Your Weekly Writing Exercise:  Map-Making
1.  Watch my video on storyboarding. 

2.  Get a posterboard or large sheet of paper.  Draw a big W on it. 

3.  Brainstorm 5-10 key dramatic points in your story so far.  What has a real dramatic effect, with something happening outwardly?  What have you written about?
What might you include? 

4.  Read through these and see if you can choose the 5 most dramatic moments.  Place them on the 5 points of the W in logical order.  Review the video for the triggering event and ending event's requirements. 

5.  To see if you've chosen well, ask yourself if they follow the rising and falling action of their position on the W.  (See the video for more information on this.)  Begin to flow the other scenes you've written.  

6.  Place them between the 5 points on the W, using Post-It notes.

PS  Excited about a Storyboard Retreat?  Join me July 27-31 on Madeline Island for coaching, classes, and plenty of writing time.  See more details here.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Organizing: How to Handle, Sort, File, and Save All the Bits and Pieces of a Book

Once you begin a book, you begin to live in overwhelm.  I'm talking about the sheer volume of documents--whether printed pages or virtual files--that a book generates as it grows and gets revised.

I think longingly of the past.  My short stories, essays, columns, poems were easily gathered in file folders.  Even multiple revisions or printed pages from feedback could be compiled into easy revision lists.  I spent a year working on new stories and all 45 of them (still in process) are in one woven shelf basket in my writing room.

A book is another animal altogether.

How do you handle, sort, file, and save all the necessary bits and pieces of a book, including your ideas, your research, your images, and your drafts?

Project Box
Some writers use a file box.  Twyla Tharp is famous for this--each project she begins (a dance, usually), gets its own new box.  Into that box she puts all her notes, objects, fabric samples, videos, anything that has to do with the project.

I did this for a new book.  It's a great system, if the box is big enough and if the book is small.  One stalled-out day, when I couldn't actually write on the book, I collaged the outside of the book box.  It was a wonderful break for my non-linear brain and the images I collected from magazines to make the collage showed me how to get back into the juicy writing.

Bulletin Board (or Seven)
I read about a writer who starts her book with seven bulletin boards in her kitchen (big kitchen, I thought).  She pins everything to them that has to do with the book.  Images, lists, sketches, photographs, diagrams.  As she writes the book, she condenses the number of boards to one, discarding all the material that doesn't actually fit the book now.

I use one bulletin board--or a piece of foamcore (art store) or poster board.  I make a cluster or mind map at the center with notes for my book's islands (scenes) and  images for the characters. 

Anything easily visible--a board on a wall--helps me keep the book in my attention. 

File Cabinet or File Folders
I am not successful using file cabinets for active storage.  They don't call out to me as I pass them.  But other writers love the organization of hanging folders neatly labeled with chapter ideas or research finds.

I do use file folders as organizing tools later in the book process.  Once I have my chapters organized in my computer, I create a folder for each chapter.  On the outside of each folder, I draw a circle with spokes coming off.  In the center of the circle is the chapter's purpose (or title if the purpose is still evolving).  On the spokes are the scenes or points the chapter now includes.  I add and subtract as I revise. 

Inside the folder are the research notes, photos, images, lists of ideas, anything I need to refer to.

On the Computer
My last two books were created with a cool software program called Scrivener as my organizing system.   I've written about Scrivener before in these posts.  I'm in love with it, frankly.  Although all the other organizing systems work well for me, Scrivener is the only one that is easy to maintain, transportable, and intuitive as well as logical.

Some writers combine Scrivener with other software, such as Aeon Timeline (great for figuring out different thru lines in a story) or Devonthink Pro, which comes highly recommended by one of my online students, although I haven't used it yet.

New software includes learning time, but it helps if a writing buddy can show you the ropes.  I was fortunate to get great help for Scrivener setup during one of my Madeline Island workshop weeks--many of the writers who attend and have been working on their books for a while love to share their favorite organizing systems.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
Pick one of these organizing options--one that fits where you are in your book project.  Set aside an hour this week to get it started.  Maybe you'll visit an office supply store and get yourself a package of colored file folders or a beautiful box.  Or you'll download Scrivener and bribe a friend to get you going with it.

Consider how you've organized your book in all its bits and pieces and what you might do to take it one step. 

Friday, June 12, 2015

Long Time and Short Time in Fiction and Memoir


A big challenge for most new book writers is figuring out time.  Not the time to write, but the time as it's portrayed in their book.  How much time passes in your story?  Do you move back and forth in time?  Do you start far into the story then flash back to the beginning?
Working with a storyboard (see the article below) helps you immediately see your time choices.  If you are moving in linear time, or straight chronology, through your story, each event will happen in sequence.  Today will be followed by tonight which will precede tomorrow.  This is the easiest timeline to work with. 

Choosing Your Timeline
Some writers want a more complex timeline than straight chronology.  They might like to move in and out of time.  Maybe their story is heavily dependent on something that happened ten years ago--a backstory.  How do you slide in and out of that far past, and keep the reader's attention firmly on the present story as well?  What if the backstory is more compelling than the present-time story, like a suicide or a huge financial loss that changed the family's lives?

Two ways to handle this.

If you are clear about one story being the most important, you allow that story at least 3/4ths of the page space in your book.  The secondary story becomes brief flashbacks, not longer than a few pages at a time, ideally.

If your past and present stories have equal weight, then you create two (or more) storyboards and go back and forth between them.  You've probably seen this in books like The Time Traveler's Wife, which has alternating chapters and three storyboards.

Long Time and Short Time
Once you have the basic structure decided, via the storyboard(s), you can then play with the next element of time:  long time and short time.

Long and short time can also be translated into summary and scene.  Each has a different purpose, and it's fun to know that and begin playing with your choices more consciously.

Long time covers the passing of hours, days, weeks, when not much happens.  Writers summarize long time--"The next few weeks were a blur to Jason, as he studied the log book and tried to make sense of Eric's notations."  Putting this in short time, or scene, would be boring.  The actions Jason takes are repetitive and don't add tension to the story.  So viewing them in long time makes sense.  Long time has an element of telling about it, since the events are summarized.

Long time can be dry for the reader, though.  To make it more vivid, to make it count, pro writers add in specific details.   "Each evening, alone under the harsh glare of the halogen light, Jason would find one or two possibilities among the marks the old man added to the margins."  Not the greatest example, but maybe you can see that the addition of "harsh glare of the halogen light" and "old man" and "margins" puts us more clearly in a tangible moment, within the long time.

Short time, or scene, is a choice you make when you have something dramatic to show.  Scene contains two things, always:  action and dialogue.  If you don't have these, you don't have a real scene.  Because of the dialogue, we are immediately there.  Because of the characters moving in real time, we are also there.  It's a much more intense experience.

Varying the Two
Both short and long time are essential in fiction and memoir.  Imagine a book that is all scene--one intense moment after another.  It becomes more of a screenplay or a play script than a book.  Equally, a book that's all summary has a distant feel, where we never really get into the emotion or the immediacy.

Understanding long time or short time, then making conscious choices about each, is a good skill to develop.   

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1.  Find a chapter of your book-in-progress.  Go through with two colors of highlighter, marking the long time (summary) and the short time (scene).

2.  Did you use each consciously?  Many times in early drafts we just do the best we can, making placeholders of the time choices.  Now, see if you can become more conscious of the effect of these time choices.  What might you change?

PS  A great little book on the topic, which I highly recommend is The Art of Time in Fiction by Joan Silber. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Micro-Revision--Working from Small Issues to Bigger Issues to Solve Your Book's Problems

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to study with a well-known novelist online.  She offered a workshopping class that focused on micro-revision. 


As an editor, I knew about micro-revision, but it had always come last in my editing process.  Solve the big issues first, I was trained.  Deal with the structure problems, then the language fine-tuning will come naturally.

This writer used a different method, and since I'm always interested in learning new methods, I was intrigued.  I gave her eight weeks of my writing life and awakened my creative brain to micro-revision.
Each week, we chose a different section of our story to revise.  Small sections, like one paragraph or one or two pages.  Three pages at most.  Sometimes our focus was a section of not-quite-successful dialogue.  Another time it was a minor character who didn't quite come alive on the page.  Or the ending or beginning--always so challenging to sculpt.

About the same time, I was reading a great writing book, The Half-Known World, by writing teacher Robert Boswell.  Boswell had a similar theory.  Once you had basic writing skills in hand, once you had your story partially formed, it helped to begin small in your revision.  Boswell is interviewed in a wonderful article about this method of revision.  

Again, I saw changes in my writing from micro-revision. 
There are some dangers.  If your story is still in the very beginning stages, you can easily get hung up on nit-picking the details and never actually craft any structure.  But micro-revision can truly bring a welcome freshness to a stalled-out work.

Of course . . . once I learn a new method, once it works for me, I end up having to pass it on.  Since that class, and several others I taste-tested over the years, I've developed my own approach to micro-revision. 

This Monday, June 8, I will open the online classroom to Story-in-Progress, my new micro-revision workshopping class for fiction and memoir writers with a story-in-progress.  ("In-progress" assumes a certain level of commitment and time invested in the writing--it's not just beginning, it's been around a while.  But it's stuck.  Not all of it, but enough that there's some temptation to put it in a drawer and start something new.  Is that your writing?)   




It pays to learn about the theory of micro-revision, as long as you're at an intermediate or advanced stage of your writing.   It's a wonderful break from the big picture, to take that magnifying glass out and zero in on small sections of your work-in-progress.


Changes in a pivotal paragraph or a first page can inform the entire revision process.  It sometimes works to go from small to large.   


This Week's Writing Exercise

1.  Read the interview with Robert Boswell.   
2.  Boswell uses a revision list for his works-in-progress.  Start one of your own this week.  Go back through any feedback you've gotten for this piece of writing, and make a list of comments and suggestions, in any order, whether or not they make sense to you right now.
3.  Over the week, arrange your list small to large, micro- to macro-revision.   
4.  Pick one small change to make this week; see how it affects your understanding of the larger story.

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. 

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. 

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."

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. 

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.