Friday, July 1, 2016

Writing More Than One Book? How to Storyboard with a Sequel in Mind

Annette from the UK recently sent me this question:  "I'm currently reading Your Book Starts Here, plus I've been watching your storyboard videos on YouTube. You've helped me come unstuck after years of block with my half-written 'epic', which feels amazing!  I'm writing to you because I'm struggling with how to apply the W structure to a two-book story."

Annette's first book ends with the heroine being killed.  In the second, she's reincarnated.  As Annette says, "the problems and quests left unfinished in book one are finally resolved."

She wondered if it was best to storyboard each book separately, or fit the whole story into a larger W that spanned both books.

Sequels are great fun.  When you have characters and situations that don't leave you alone, even after the first book is completed, you know you probably have a sequel on your hands.  Sequels are also fun to sell--it's an instant certainty for publishers that you'll keep producing books.  But there are specific structural challenges too:  when do you end, how do you transition enough to the next book but not make readers crazy if they have to wait for it, how do you carry through the backstory of the first book yet make the second a stand-alone story so that readers won't be tied to reading the first book first.  Whew!

I've only written one sequel but I've worked with many sequel writers.  I find it easiest to first do separate W's for each book and make sure they are solid.  Nothing worse than having a poor structure because you're depending on the sequel.  You've probably read books out of order in a series--think of the Star Wars movies, the Matrix, the Golden Compass series, or the Harry Potter books.   

Readers won't follow the rules with your series either.  Make each book work, on its own.  Create a satisfying conclusion that wraps up the main quest of each book, if you can, as you lay the groundwork for the next.

For instance, if Annette's heroine dies at the end of the first book, there needs to be a hint that she's not really gone.  Maybe a scene where she's reviewing her life and choosing how to come back to resolve her quest?  Something to let the reader know there's more to come.

To plan this out and make good decisions, craft a giant W, as Annette says, for all the books in your series--you'll find it invaluable as you decide what to foreshadow and how to hint at characters or situations to come. 

Your all-books W acts as a checklist of sorts, a chart to keep you honest as you plan your events, characters, and problems--and where you place them.

You may be having enough trouble figuring out one book; if so, ignore this week's post.  But if a series intrigues you, try a giant W this week.  Watch my video to get a sense of how the W storyboard works.  Feel free to email me questions that I can answer in future blog posts.  (Email is at the top of this post.) 

Friday, June 24, 2016

Time Markers: How to Keep a Reader on Track with Your Story


A few months ago, I began exchanging chapters with a writer who has an incredible skill with something called "time markers."  I feel very lucky to have her reading my chapters with time in mind.  She has caught my natural sloppiness the way a good editor might, saving me and my reader from going off track and losing the story thread.
 
Are you aware of time markers in your story?  They're vital in fiction and memoir, even in nonfiction.  They're the little mentions of where we are in place, time of day, day of the week, even season, so that readers slide effortlessly through the sequence of events.

Many professional writers use timeline charts as part of their storyboarding or outlining process.  They take each person in the story, for instance, and write a timeline of their events in sequence.  What time of year it happens (season), then what day, then what time of day.  It seems nit-picky when you're in early drafts, and I don't usually pay much attention at that stage, but in later revision it's essential. 

A timeline chart might be as simple as the character's name, the scene, and three columns for (1) season, (2) day of the week, and (3) time of day.  If events are hourly in your book, if they are even day after day, your total timeline might span a week or a month or a year.  But if you are covering huge swatches of time, you'll really need this kind of time marking for yourself, so you know if three years have passed or a decade.

Once you have your timeline chart in place, there's a great sense of relief.  At least for me.  But then, as we write, we often lose track of the chart and move time all over the place.  A scene starts out in daylight then suddenly there's a point where something is discovered by flashlight.  Unless there's a time marker, showing that we've moved into nighttime, the reader will stop, possibly go back and reread (never a good thing), or put down the book altogether.

I know this happens to me a lot.  I have my timeline chart but as I move into later drafts, I ignore it.  Hence, the need for readers to catch this--if I can't do it myself.

Time markers can be obvious or subtle.  Obvious time markers might be "Three days had passed with no word from Ella" or "Had it only been yesterday?"  Clunky when you're writing them, but an instant relief for your reader.  Now we know if the previous chapter happened two days or a week ago.

Subtler time markers include a sense of changing light in a room or space, the beginning of darkness outside and need for man-made light, how a person is dressed (which can show time of day or season),  sleep and waking moments, and much more.

Stuff like this is tedious to keep track of.  Most writers dislike it and ignore it.  But nothing stumbles a reader faster. 

Your writing exercise this week is to either try the timeline chart for one of your characters or scan 3-4 chapters or scenes to get acquainted with how you are using time in your story. 

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Push to Do Risky Things with Your Writing

Risk is a place where many creative writers live.  We may not enjoy it but we have to take risks to grow as writers.  It's a risk every time we send our work to someone for feedback, take a class, approach an agent, or even when we finally get our books published.  

Each risk
takes us outside our comfort zone.  But I find risk an essential element in my writing life.  Without it, I repeat and repeat.  I never get better.

I'd like my risks to be well planned, ideally pain-free.  Not always possible, of course.  Life surprises us.  I remember when I got an interview on NPR about my book.  Huge risk.  But it was something I'd worked towards for months.  I learned a lot and my book got some good exposure.

But I do structure big risks--when I want to take the next step with my writing and know I need a community and mentor to do this, for example.  If I know what kind of help I need, I can look for a certain kind of writing community (a class, a retreat) and check the credentials of the instructor or mentor.  Do they have what I'm looking for? 

A lot of writers approach me about structure.  They need help with it, and it's hard to find.  I refer them to others who have worked with me, I share my book and my videos--my particular approach.  I find out where they are on the journey to produce a book and what kind of structure help they might need right now. 

One of my favorite ways to teach structure is on retreat.  This July, I'm leading a book-structuring retreat for a week at Madeline Island School of the Arts, on an island in Lake Superior off the coast of northern Wisconsin.  I like teaching there not just because it's a gorgeous place to relax and find missing bandwidth for creativity.  But because I get to gently take writers through the process of structure analysis for their project, over five days of working one-to-one. 
A wide variety of writers come each year.  This is the seventh year I've taught there and some writers come back each summer, working on one book until it's published then going for the next one.  I teach a different agenda each summer, based on new stuff I've learned in my own writing and teaching during the year.  To gentle the risk, I build in three classroom sessions of three hours each, where we explore the top three elements of book-structuring:  the three arcs of a book (event arc, narrative or character arc, image arc for theme); how chapters are built; and crafting strong transitions between and within chapters and scenes.  I bring my favorite writing tools and exercises, excerpts from books I've discovered. 

I can see the risk in the faces of the writers who gather on Sunday night for our welcome session.  We sit in the classroom around the big worktable and introduce ourselves and our books.  Some faces look eager, some downright petrified.  I hear about their struggles and their hopes, and I make notes and begin to plan how to work with each person that week.  I want to push them but at a pace they can handle.

There's still risk, though.  One writer of young adult fiction emailed me after the retreat:  "The push to do risky things brought me to a place I would not have gone, especially writing the last chapter."  She called it magic--the way the push was gentle enough to let her take a risk but not feel like she'd be destroyed by it.

Some writing retreats I've attended have too much free time.  Others have too much structured time.  Too much free time usually brings me to a panic level--I jump into a risk but no one is there to catch me.  Too much structure leaves me itching for my own head space and my own words.   I think the Madeline Island retreats have grown to a beautiful balance of the two, with lots of options.  If the writing is going along well, there's no need to stop.  If you get stuck, join the community at a meal and share the stuck places you've discovered.  If you need more ideas, I'm there to suggest some and coach you through them.

Risk is a good thing if well managed.  The goal is to keep writing.  Your weekly writing exercise is to consider one risk you'd like to take this week or this month, and how you might manage it to give yourself a gentle ride.    

More about my retreat July 18-22 (still room) and July 25-29 (a few spots left) is here.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Seven Days to Getting Unstuck with Your Writing

One of my students recently emailed me about being stuck.  He's worked on his novel for several years now, relying on workshopping feedback to keep him accountable.  Recently he got some feedback from a hired editor and, although he totally agreed with the comments and knew the editor had nailed one of his manuscript's major weaknesses, he got stuck.

Suddenly, he couldn't write.  No matter what he did.  He was even finishing up an online class and had three more weeks of feedback available from other writers he really liked and trusted.  He just stopped.

He emailed me because, in the past, we'd worked together and he knew I understood the intensity of his inner critic.  He got through its negativity with small, steady steps, like weekly postings to this online class.  Hiring the editor was a huge leap that his IC didn't like.  Not one bit.  It stepped up its campaign to discredit his writing and stop him from taking any more risks.

Once a writer gets in this kind of internal quagmire, it can take some work to get out.  But it can be done. 

We brainstormed a list of activities that might both (1) calm the inner critic and (2) get him interested in writing again.  Some of them are my suggestions, culled from years of getting out of my own quagmires and helping others do the same. 

I asked him to try a week of these tasks, spending time on one every day.  Some would work, some were just designed to relax him and distract him from worrying about not writing.  But some would begin to let that creativity bubble up again.

Here's the program we agreed on:

Day 1:  Read aloud for 20 minutes from somebody else's writing (published) that you love.  The reading aloud triggers a certain image-based part of the brain that bypasses the inner critic. 

Day 2:  Make
a list of ideas you'd like to try in your own writing.
Day 3:  Take a walk with your phone or a recording device and record ideas as you walk.   
Day 4:  Do "morning pages" first thing when you wake up (three pages of journaling without editing---based on Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way) to dump the worry onto the page.

Day 5:  Take one page of your own writing and read it aloud.  Using a highlighter, mark anything you love (he surprised himself by finding quite a bit).

Day 6:  Check in with a supportive community--his writing class--and make a commitment to post two new pages in two days.  If he wasn't in a class, I'd ask him to find a writing buddy to send work to.

Day 7:  Write one paragraph about what he might cover in these two pages.  Expand it to one page, then two pages.  SFD (shitty first draft) is fine.

I told him to email me after day 7 and report in.  He'd been moderately successful, able to follow the program except for day 3 (he hates to walk).  I asked him what he noticed by day 7.

"I was surprised at how totally OK my writing looked to me--it was a lot better than I thought on day 1," he said.  "I guess I'd put a spin on it, because of being ashamed that the editor found that weakness." 

I told him most writers can have this reaction.  It helps if the editor (or coach) is available for some revision work, so the process doesn't just end with "what's wrong."  Many are.  His wasn't, but he learned from that too.

I checked in with him last week and he was finishing up his class.  "I got some great feedback on my final posts," he said, "and I can't wait to work on the book again."

It's not unusual to get stuck when writing a book, or to have a raging inner critic appear when you take a big risk.  Knowing what to do about it makes all the difference. 

Your weekly writing exercise is to try this seven-day program, if you wish.  Even if you're not stuck, you might find some great benefits.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Thematic Threads: How to Build Them in Your Fiction or Memoir


When we finish a good book, something lingers with us.  A friend notices how we're still wrapped up in the story we just read.  She asks, "What was it about?" and we try to answer.  "It's about a woman who travels to India," we say, "but it's much more than that.  You have to read to understand."

That's theme.

Thematic threads hold a story together.  Beyond the events or characters, theme transmits meaning. 

Theme is different than subject.  You may want to write a book about _______ (fill in the blank), but that's your topic, your exploration.  From it, if you're lucky and paying attention, theme will emerge organically.  Creating that tug at the reader's mind and heart that doesn't go away when the book is over.

Trying to write about a certain concept--esoteric sadness, for instance--won't necessarily result in the reader taking that theme away from your book.  Poorly done, it will feel like you are telling us your opinion, or sharing great thinkers' opinions. 

Theme works best when there's a surprising undercurrent of meaning that threads through important moments in the story. 
 
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.
   
Some writing teachers say theme can't be taught.  It has to be caught.  I agree--and I don't agree.

Next week, I'm teaching a new eight-week online class on theme and voice.  I'm combing through my own studies on theme.  I've collected some great exercises and what I call "lures" for theme, that help you catch your writing's theme (as if you're fishing and waiting for the bite).  Although the class goes into a lot more depth than I can give in this post, here are three "lures" that are fun to work with--and very helpful for catching your theme.   
 
1.  Image is the language of theme in most fiction and memoir.  You can start by combing your writing for repeating images and begin an image dictionary.  Very much like a dream symbol dictionary that serious dream students use, these images will be clues to where theme is already present.  Then you can begin to place them more deliberately.

2.  Subtext is dialogue's attempt at "theme."  It reveals the meaning behind what's being said and usually delivers a punch of emotion that can't be spelled out in words.  In the online class, we'll spend a week on subtext because it's challenging, but it is also essential to theme.  To practice this in your own writing, you can locate a section of dialogue and see if what's not being said communicates theme.  See if gestures or what's noticed in the surrounding setting that might also show theme to the reader.
 
3.  Theme also comes through 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?   

Still room in my online class on voice and theme.

Friday, May 27, 2016

When Does Your Inner Critic Appear? Three Scenarios of Self-Sabotage and How to Renegotiate Your Contract

Scenario #1:  The new chapter draft is going pretty well.  You're writing steadily, enjoying a renewed commitment to your book.  Suddenly, from some dark place in your mind, a switch goes on.  An unrelated thought or feeling slips in.  Maybe something you forgot to do or say.  A small mistake or failure.  The thought distracts you and you slowly leave the story flow.  You begin to hate the writing--or at least, it feels less delightful. Even a little boring, unoriginal?  You're derailed.

Scenario #2:  You give a chapter draft to a friend, spouse, relative to read.   You're pleased with it.  You imagine they will be too.  Maybe even impressed.  They bring back comments.  Even if they say, "I loved it," a flood of (1) fear, (2) anger, or (3) shame hits you.  You can't bear to look at the writing, to use their suggestions.  It's all sucky anyway, and you really shouldn't waste your time.

Scenario #3:  Pick one:  You get sick, your cat gets sick, your kid gets into a fight at school, your boss goes on a rant with you as the target.  Outer life overwhelm strikes, big time.  Worry and agitation sucks up all your energy.  Less and less of that energy goes to your book.  After a week or two, you can't even remember it.  When you force yourself to sit down and open the file, you're dismayed at how flaccid it is. 

All these scenarios have something in common:  they're fostered by the IC, our personal inner critic.

The inner critic is our internal gatekeeper.  Its job is to protect us.  It has a very loooong memory, way back to our first creative efforts in childhood.  Unless we had an exceptionally supportive environment for our creativity, both at home and at school, we probably logged some embarrassing moments about "showing off" or "being unoriginal" or "did you really make that or did you copy it" or any number of other creativity slams.  When we edge up to this again, as adults trying to write a book, the IC goes on amber alert. 

It hovers and watches.  As long as we're not really making progress, it's OK--we won't get hurt.  But if we begin to do well or we expose our writing to others, however well-meaning, the IC raises the alert to red. 

It'll begin to sabotage.  However it can. 

I have experienced this so many times--I get sick or my life explodes just as my book gets going good--that I no longer believe it's coincidental.  I think we create these situations to protect ourselves, to have a damn good excuse not to write. 

Don't believe me?  Try logging it.  When do you stop writing your book?  Is it one of the scenarios above where you've (1) done well or taken a leap, (2) showed your writing to someone, or (3) let your outer life drama take over your creative energy?

You're not really victim to the IC.  You created the contract with it, you can rewrite that contract.

Writers who keep writing, despite all the scenarios above, still have an inner critic.  They've just learned to work with it.  They aren't swept away by the fear, anger, or shame that can come when they raise their skills or share their writing or get pummeled by outer life events.   

They write anyway.  And they finish their books. 

Your weekly writing exercise is to write a letter to your inner critic.  Renegotiate your contract.  Thank it for its lifelong service and ask for a little more leeway to do what you need to do. 

PS  In my week-long book-writing retreats each July on Madeline Island, I coach each writer about the IC and when it may hit.  It's predictable for many.  About midweek, sometimes sooner, a wall appears.  The wall of past limits, those memories the IC uses to keep us limited now. 

I recognize them as they begin to percolate in a writer and I coach that writer through.  It can be hard to do without support and someone who's been there. 

Best results can happen in the retreat environment:  a breakdown leads to a breakthrough.  Many writers emerge from these battles changed, the contract with their IC completely renegotiated. 

Friday, May 20, 2016

Character Loops--Reader-Pleasing Techniques for Using Characters in Your Story

I'm getting ready to teach a new online class this summer (starting June 8) about characters, so I'm having fun going through all my techniques, tips, and exercises learned and taught these past twenty years, trying to find
the best offerings.

I'm also reading up:  devouring, actually, a few just-released novels and memoirs, to see how characters are being used today. 

How many, how often do they appear, and how much weight do they have to carry in a story, to please a reader?  To keep her (me, in this case) engaged?

Last night I stayed up late to finish Lisa Lutz's new novel, The Passenger.  I think it's going to rival Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, and I also think it's much more sophisticated than either of those in how it uses characters.  

Readers Track Characters
Whenever a character is introduced, the reader subconsciously makes note and begins to pay attention to that character's purpose in the story.  When they appear, what they do, how much they're developed.  We readers don't track nameless characters or walk-on's (the waiter, the store clerk) unless they're given interesting characteristics.  Even minor characters are logged in the reader's brain and must carry a consistent thread through the story.

I remember when my first novel was at the publisher's.  I got an email from my editor asking about one of the minor characters, Chad.  Chad, evidently, had dropped out of the story around chapter 14.  My editor was tracking Chad (she liked him) and wanted me to create a "loop," where he appeared again.  A "loop," she explained, was like a road that circled back by the end of the story to where it had started.  Chad would walk along this road, appearing in various chapters as needed, and by the end the reader would feel satisfaction in knowing he was accounted for.

I reworked several chapters under her guidance and it did create a much stronger presence for Chad in the novel.   I was hooked on "loops."

Lutz's novel, mentioned above, has excellent loops.  Without spoiling the mystery, I'll say that one of the important characters, named Blue, disappears for most of the middle of the book.  I was happy to see her go, truthfully--she's a tragic influence on the narrator--but I did wonder why she was introduced and what she'd do by the end.  I was tracking her.

Lutz began bringing in hints of Blue, very skillfully, setting up her reappearance at the end--a surprise that is anticipated because of the loop she creates.  We are given just enough about Blue when she's offstage to feel satisfied when she walks back on.

Your writing exercise this week is to check out one of your minor characters and see how this characters loops back into your story by the end.  How present are they through the book?  Do they disappear?  Can you resurrect them (as I did Chad) to create that reader-pleasing loop?

I'd also highly recommend The Passenger if you're looking for a good novel to read (maybe not before bed, since it's a thriller, though).

Friday, May 13, 2016

My Favorite Tool for Checking Story Sequence

Two of my private clients are working on nonfiction books.  They have a ton of expertise to share, but they normally teach in person, so putting their techniques and theories into a logical sequence on the page has proven challenging for both.  They found my website and decided to work with me to check the structure of their books-in-progress.

I start them with basic structure analysis techniques, which I learned as an editor at different publishing houses.  Most writers just write--they don't necessarily know anything about structure.  Editors used to take care of that, but they don't anymore, so we writers must learn to analyze the structure of our own books and get them in shape before we submit the manuscript.

Once a client has put together a basic structure analysis chart (see last week's post, below), I work with them on the sequencing of chapter purpose, using one of my favorite tools.

What Question Does Your Chapter Ask?
Each chapter (or scene, eventually) must have a clear purpose.  It must contribute something to the story--not just be there because it's well written and you like it. 

An easy way to figure out a chapter's purpose is to find out what question it asks. 

Chapters can ask simple questions that have to do with what's happening onstage (Will I get caught as I'm searching my parents' bedroom?  Will we win the fight?  Will I get away before he sees how embarrassed I am?).  They can also be more complex, or conceptual (Why do we see the world this way?  What's wrong with our approach to money?  Where does our belief in might versus right stem from?). 

It takes a bit of work to figure out a chapter's question.  Some chapter questions will be obvious.  Their purpose is very clear.  Others, not so much.

Once you have the questions sketched out, copy and paste them into a new document so you're not distracted by the chapter text.  Look at the sequence of just questions.  Do they create a clear path for the reader?  Are the questions, or chapter purposes, logically arranged?

Once you get the chapter purpose described, you can use this tool for character arcs--the progress of a character or narrator or reader through the story.  For each chapter, write the stage of the character's consciousness.  Describe their awareness of themselves, the problem, its solution.  Then copy and paste these descriptions into a new document and study the sequence.  Is there a clear series of changes, that make sense, from beginning to end of story?

When I've tried this for a manuscript-in-progress, I usually find big holes.  It's become my favorite technique for story sequence--and the quickest way to catch the places I've raced ahead and left my reader behind.   

Friday, May 6, 2016

Writing versus Structuring--Why Both Are Important and How to Toggle Between Them in Your Writing Sessions

John, from Texas, is writing a memoir--his first book.  He's a good writer and he's accumulated about 30,000 words so far, writing in what he calls "flow writing," where he just sits down each day and lets the memories pour onto the page.

John's story is good--riveting, in fact.  But a few months ago he reached a point of being confused about where he was going with the book.  He'd written as much as he could remember, but now he felt stuck.  He found me through my website and contacted me for private coaching. 

Friday, April 29, 2016

How to Use Different Points of View in Your Story

Teri, a blog reader, sent in a great question about points of view.  I've gotten variations of this question often in my online classes.  Teri's two narrators switch back and forth, alternating chapters. 


She wondered if she needed to make their amount of chapters equal.  Does she need as many chapters from her male character's point of view as from her female's?

Variations of this question crop up often in my online classes.