Friday, August 21, 2015

It May Be Real, But Is It a Good Story? Traveling the Crucial Distance between Reality and Narrative

Years ago, in a fiction class, a writer was defending his work.  "It really happened," he kept insisting to the feedback group who wanted to suggest a few changes.  "Yes, it probably did," our instructor finally said.  "It's real.  But is it a good story?"

Fast forward to a memoir group I taught this past spring.  A woman writing her first memoir was concerned about leaving anything out.  "It all really happened," she kept telling me.  "It's my life!"  And it was quite a life, full of challenges and crises.  I remembered that fiction class long ago.  "Yes, it is your life," I told her, borrowing from my long ago teacher.  "But can you find the narrative within it?  What parts of your life would make a good story?"

Abigail Thomas, author of two wonderful writing books and the memoir Three Dog Life, talked about what we leave out being as vital to our narrative as what we include.  Both writers above were caught in that terrible place of deciding what to say no to.  A life is huge, too big for a book.  Selecting the narrative out of the life is the biggest work of a writer.

Selecting the Narrative
For me, sleuthing a good narrative often starts with a freewrite.  Freewriting, or stream-of-consciousness writing, allows me to get beyond the linear, critical mind.  I choose a prompt, begin to scribe the details, then set it aside to let it "cook" into a possible narrative. 

Recently, following a class assignment, I wrote from the prompt "glasses."  The freewrite was about my terrible years of taking ballroom dancing when I was a preteen.  My mother firmly believed in dancing class as part of a young girl's education, so I attended each weekend.  But I had also gotten my first glasses in fifth grade, and my mother thought I looked better without them.  Before I exited the car to climb the church steps to my dancing class, she'd relieve me of my glasses.  She folded them carefully and promised to return them when I came out of class.

I was blind as a bat, as the saying goes.  I struggled to the rec room and  danced in a daze, each face blurry.  A miracle I made it back to the parking lot, where my mother waited in our station wagon.  "How was the class?" she'd ask me.  "I don't know," I always said.

A somewhat painful memory.  I scribbled it down and set it aside, mildly intrigued.  I knew there wasn't a story there yet.  I knew I'd do more with it. 

Weeks later, I wrote another freewrite from the same prompt, "glasses."  This one came from a memory about ten years ago.  One winter night when I lived in Minnesota, my dog had knocked my glasses off the nightstand.  I panicked when I had to get up in the dark and couldn't find them.

Two pieces, very different.  Still not a story, but now there was a parallel.  To me, parallels hint at narrative.  I thought about them and realized they both described an experience of blindness. 

My third freewrite came soon after.  Instead of "glasses" as my prompt, I used the image of "blindness."  I wrote about scratching my cornea and being patched for twenty-four hours.  Led around by my husband, I felt very fragile without my precious eyesight.

Soon, with thought, and ruthless editing, I birthed first a short memoir piece, then a short fiction story.  Some other pieces got added on, the narrative rounded out, and I was very pleased with the result.

I built the story from three disparate pieces, and I looked beyond the actual real-life details for the narrative. 

A former student from New England happened to send me this link to an excellent article about the difference between life and narrative, published recently in the Atlantic Monthly.  Although it focuses on memoir, it's also applicable to anyone writing autobiographical fiction--fiction that stems from a real-life experience.     

It forms the basis for this week's writing exercise.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1.  Read the Atlantic Monthly article.  Link is above.
2.  Comb your half-written pieces, especially memory (real-life) freewrites or journal entries.  Select two that have disparate details but some cross over:  maybe a common theme, as blindness was in my pieces above.  Or maybe a common location, era, or person.
  3.  See if you can take these two pieces forward into one, by finding the narrative thread in both real-life stories. 

Friday, August 14, 2015

Ten Things Not to Say to a Writer--You Gotta Read This!

A Twitter post from well-known novelist Joanne Harris, became a funny-wise commentary on what people think about writers, published recently in The New Republic.  It's worth a read--and you'll laugh, curse, and learn.  Thanks to Nancy, a memoir writer in my intermediate online class, for this priceless essay.

Your weekly writing exercise is to eavesdrop on a party with Phillip Roth, and hear what people say about the "real" work of writing.

Click here for the article.

Friday, August 7, 2015

When You Tell Your Truth and No One Wants to Hear It: How Honest Can You Be in Your Writing?

A writer from New York emailed me:  "I'm learning how to create from who I am, show up and connect to readers," she said.  "I get stuck because I'm not good at the connection part. The mistake that I often make is that people say be honest and authentic - tell me what you are thinking and feeling and I do and they don't connect with my reality. I show up and people don't understand and I get stuck."

Honesty in writing is much-heard advice.  You need to be authentic on the page, because readers can spot a fake a mile away.  But then, what's the balance with knowing your reader, and knowing how to talk with that reader?  This writer asks a good question.
She says more:  "I've discovered that showing up in one's own authenticity works fine as long as you fit into society. When your story is outside of ordinary experience and/or challenges prevailing views of reality, then one has to figure out adaptations that are consistent with authenticity while also extending into readers' way of seeing the world so that a connection can be found."

I used to teach a class called "Writing through Healing."  It was based on James Pennebaker's research on how the simple act of writing can heal.  Writing that's authentic has three components:

1.  It reveals the facts of the situation, using details that evoke the senses.
2.  It shows how the writer felt then.
3.  It shows how the writer feels now about what happened.

Each of us can do one or more of these, but it's rare to find a writer who does them all.  But I've learned that until all three are present, the alchemy cannot happen--either for writer or reader.

In my classes, a writer might draft an intimate scene about something traumatic.  Anything from lying to stealing to death to abuse, and everything in between.  Each of us has suffered trauma.  Our stories are important.

At first, most drafts include one end of the spectrum.  Either the writer enters from what I call the "inner story," and writes about the feelings and memories in an abstract, conceptual way.   Or the writer will lay out all the details, unafraid of the facts.  My job is to coach the other aspect into being.  Interestingly enough, the tears begin (in both writer and reader) when all three elements are finally on the page.  And it truly becomes healing.

Say you've practiced this.  Your writing is beginning to include all three elements.  You've worked on bringing in the scene details (time of day or year or season, smells and sounds) and the movements of players on the stage (what actually happened) to satisfy point #1.  You've thought about how you felt then--terrorized, enraged, incredibly sad--and you've begun to show this on the page, perhaps by gesture, body sensation, how you moved or stayed very still.  That satisfies point #2.  You've also allowed yourself to compare how you are now, with how you were then.  Even one line slipped in, brings that #3 point to play.

You're ready to workshop this, see how it reads to others.  The litmus test.

Choose your readers wisely.  Very wisely.  At this stage, you don't need people to get hung up on what happened to you, begin to pity or avoid you, or--worse--suggest you tone down the drama.  For this first exposure reading after you've incorporated the three points, above, you need feedback on their ratios.  How much drama is present, and is there enough of the other two points to balance it?  Have you made your own reactions invisible, so the reader can't understand why you let yourself go through this?  (Some of us don't have a choice, granted.  But on the page, readers need to see your reasoning, your presence, not your numbness.)

You need someone who will (1) not make light of your trauma, (2) but not overly react to just the trauma facts.  See it as writing, not as your life--in other words.  To you, it is your life.  To the reader, it has to be a good story.

Because we are after good writing here, right?  I think of some of the most admired trauma stories--All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, about two victims of World War II;  White Oleander, by Janet Fitch, about a girl whose mother murders her boyfriend; The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls, about a child growing up with insane parents; The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien, about the horrors of the Vietnam War; and so many others.   

What took these stories beyond the personal, into the universal?  First, the elegant balancing of the three points above.  Good crafting with a kind readership that could get beyond the trauma into the writing.  And finally, the release of the story to the reader when it was ready.    

We write what we're given to write.  It's your story.  It's yours to tell. 

You may get to the place of 0ne of my students, writing about her horrific abuse, who initially told her readers to go f*ck themselves when they objected to her descriptions.  Her fierceness has carried her through to a final--and very strong--draft, but only when she found a group of equally fierce readers who could handle her rage on the page.  Her advice:  If you get messages to tone it down, find yourself a different group.  They are out there.  Stay true to your voice, your story. 

I agree.  But I'll add:  Make sure you are writing through to healing, using the technique above, improving your craft skills, and releasing the writing itself to a larger purpose, not just your own.     

Friday, July 24, 2015

Three "Lures" to Attract Stronger Theme in Your Fiction and Memoir

Tomorrow I will be at one of my favorite writing havens--the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis--teaching a room full of writers about theme.  How it emerges from your work, almost without you knowing.  How it connects to authentic voice. 

Especially:  How theme revealed by certain elements in your story.

I thought it would be fun to give a tiny taste of those elements, in case you live far from the Twin Cities (or even the U.S.) and won't be joining us.

Most writers know something about theme.  It's that silvery thread that holds a story together, that transmits meaning by the end.  Some newer writers say they want to write a book on a certain theme:  "I want to write about _______ (fill in the blank)," not realizing that that type of intention circumvents theme.   Intended theme is not the same as the magic that emerges organically. 

Trying to write about esoteric sadness, for instance, most likely will come to readers not as theme.  To readers, it may feel like you are telling your opinion, or sharing great thinkers' opinions.  There's no surprising undercurrent of meaning. 

Theme works best when the writer is surprised--as well as the reader.  Theme sneaks up on both writer and reader, in its best appearances.  It's like an underground river, like the subconscious movement beneath your story's subject.  And it's delivered to our subconscious as readers, not as the opinion or thoughts of the writer, necessarily.  But how we "grok" it.

I also consider theme that lingering sensation we have when we finish a good book.  Maybe a friend asks, "What was it about?" and we try to answer:  "It's about a woman who travels to India, but . . . it's much more than that.  You have to read to understand."

That's theme.

Some writing teachers say theme can't be taught.  It has to be caught.  But there are some good lures for theme, if you're fishing.  I'll share a few of the ways we'll explore in the workshop tomorrow at the Loft.  Your weekly writing exercise is to pick one and see what you catch.

1.  Mirroring image.   Make a list of images that occur repeatedly in your writing.  Where are they, in the chapters of your book?  Where can they be placed more?  Ask yourself what meaning they communicate to you.  Does this evoke any themes?

2.  Subtext.  Subtext is dialogue's "theme," the meaning behind what's being said.  Most emotion and meaning comes via subtext.  It's rare we communicate truth on the page, when our characters speak, but that truth comes through in what they don't say.
Find a section of your dialogue and see if there's any subtext.  Can you add it, via gestures, what's noticed in the surrounding setting that might mirror meaning?

3.  Senses.  Theme comes through very strongly when a writer uses sensory detail.  Most of us only lean on one sense, usually sight, when we write.  We can describe a setting via visual senses.  But what about the more primal ones, like sound and smell?  Read through one of your rough draft chapters and see if you can add three sounds and three smells.  Do they start to evoke a surprising meaning, once they're in place?    

If you'd like to join me tomorrow at the Loft and learn more--and get some feedback on your use of theme--you can find out more here.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Satisfaction versus Hunger: Two Pivots in Our Stories and How to Toggle Between Them to Keep the Writing Fresh

Good discussion this week in one of my online writing classes:  Bored with her story, a writer asked:  "How do I keep my own interest in my book?  Without reinventing the plot every five minutes?  How can I keep my writing fresh for me, first?"

Smart woman.  She knew that her own boredom with her chapters would soon translate into boring writing.  Right now, it might just be an overactive Inner Critic.  Soon, her blahs would indeed translate to the page.

We toggle between two pivots as we write a book.  When things are clicking along, the writing going well, it's easy to fall into complacency.  A kind of satisfaction or contentment.  Like in life, too much of that becomes boredom.

The other pivot is hunger.  Hunger drives a story initially--the opening chapter or scenes usually demonstrate a longing.  A desire to change.  Push away from the status quo, whether it's a move, a marriage, a divorce, a job change, a discovery, an outer event that causes mayhem.  It might also be within a reader, as in nonfiction readers picking up your book to solve a problem or find information to change their lives.

Too much hunger and there is no integration of learning.  Too much movement in a story and the reader grows weary of change, gets exhausted.

It's a fine balance between the two.  We have to find out where we are on the continuum, when boredom comes to call.

Here are three techniques to try this week, as your weekly writing exercise.  Each will reveal where you are on the line between satisfaction and hunger.  Wherever you find yourself, add more of the opposite to get freshness into your writing again.

1.  Look for repeating patterns.  Study your storyboard (or book map).  Where are thing moving too much?  Where not at all?  Too much movement comes as action after action with no time to absorb or find balance.  Settle it down, space the action scenes, add reflection.  Too much status quo for too long shows up as reflection or interior monologue (thoughts and feelings) versus outer events that force change.  How can you to push your narrator, your characters, closer to the edge?

2.  Study the middle.  Most book slump there.   Make a list of 10 things you are afraid to add to the middle of the book.  Choose one and freewrite on it, telling yourself you don't have to use what you get.  Often, fear keeps writers within a carefully fenced space in their story.  Just the taste of "edgy" reignites interest.

3.  Look at your own life.  Is it off-the-charts crazy?  You may be spending all your "hunger" energy off the page.  See what you can settle down outwardly, surrender, let go off.  Do less.  The pages might come alive.

Friday, July 10, 2015

It's All about Showing Up with Your Real Self: What Keeps Us Away from Our Authentic Creativity?

One of my favorite books to shake myself out of creative slumps is a thin little volume called Creative Authenticity.  Author Ian Roberts covers a vast landscape in just 175 pages:  essays on the search for beauty, craft and voice, the dance of avoidance, methods for working.  I especially like his tips on when to recognize that moment when you're ready to "show"--to put your work out into the world. 

Roberts's passion:  the nature of authenticity in art.  How do we find and develop our real voice?  What happens when we shy away from our emerging authenticity?  Why are we so afraid of this authenticity?

I recently took a voice lesson from a master teacher.  I wanted to give my spouse a birthday gift of a lesson but I decided to take one too.  I speak for a living, I sing for pleasure, and I'm curious about my voice and what it reveals about me.

The voice studio is in midtown Manhattan, a tiny room dominated by a Steinway grand piano.  In the hallway when we arrived, we could hear an operatic tenor practicing.  On the walls were signed posters from Broadway stars.  My growing nervousness was immediately calmed by the warm ease of the teacher.  I sat back and watched my spouse being led through vocalization exercises, glad I was going second.

What an amazing technician this teacher was!  When it was my turn, she pinpointed several areas where I was holding back.  I felt teary as I remembered when in my past I'd silenced myself, until it had become a habit and began to manifest in my voice.  "My only goal,"  she told us, "is to take away anything that's not your true voice."  

Most of us learn to express ourselves, whether on the page or vocally, in an environment of restriction.  We back away from our own voices until we have trouble even showing up on the page.  As we left the voice studio that morning, stunned with everything we'd learned, I thought about my most underlined chapter in Creative Authenticity.  It's called "Showing Up." 

So many writers believe that talent determines success.  Actually, it doesn't.  It's secondary to showing up.  Showing up means you bring your real self, your authentic voice, to your work--even if it scares you.

Roberts is not alone in saying this.  Twyla Tharp, in her equally helpful book, The Creative Habit, and Louise DeSalvo in The Art of Slow Writing, discuss how very FEW writers and artists make it on talent alone.  Those who are able to show up to their desk or easel or studio every day and put themselves on the line, create from the place they really live inside--these are the ones who finish that book, who get published.

Your writing exercise this week is to consider this idea:  what if showing up is 90 percent of what it takes to plan, write, and develop--and publish--a book?  And if it is, what keeps you from showing up?   It can benefit you and your authentic creativity greatly if you spend a few minutes writing about this.      

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.