Thursday, May 8, 2008

My story--thirteen books in thirty years

I’ve written and published thirteen books in thirty years--novels, how-to books, memoirs, self-help books, and technical books. Each was a journey. There are so many benefits to being a published author:

* seeing your name on books at your local bookstore
* sharing your expertise with the world
* having a reader say, "This book changed my life!"
* telling your story
* creative self-expression

Everyone always asks me, How did your first books get published?
I'm a bit of an unusual case. Publishers came to me for my first three book contracts because I was an expert. I owned a natural foods gourmet cooking school. It was reviewed in USA Today.

There weren't many such schools in the early eighties. The first publisher called me up. She was interested in a book about my healthy cooking methods. I wrote it with a lot of help. The book, Healthy Cooking, had all my favorite tips and ideas and great recipes. People loved it. And so did the cooking professionals. To my great delight, it won second place, best cookbook of the year, in the health and diet category of the IACP/Julia Child Awards, the largest awards for food publications. It was also the publisher's best seller that year out of 30 books.

This success led to another book contract. . . and another
At the time, I didn’t ask myself why I wanted to write books. I was busy teaching and the books were a side project I was thrilled to do. Because the benefits were obvious: money and credentials. The books enhanced my career and helped pay my way for several years.

Then I got hooked on writing books!

I began writing other kinds of books (I co-authored Cholesterol Cures, published by Rodale Press, for example). Technical books were similar in format to food books—both were nonfiction, both expert-based. I became a good researcher and interviewer. I wrote about topics I learned about, from my unique research and perspective.

A big life change--and change in my book-writing
Then I had cancer, a business bankruptcy, and a divorce within a short period of time. Life changed!

I used my writing as therapy but I also realized I wanted to share my outlook on life (how to handle such changes and trauma) with a reading audience.

So I pitched a memoir/self-help book to a small publisher and got another book contract.
Switching genres--and a much harder book to write
This book was called How to Master Change in Your Life and it was about my many experiences with changes in my life--plus interviews and stories from people about fear of change, how we can befriend change, and how inner guidance helps the entire process.
Click here to see more about this book: How to Master Change in Your Life by Mary Carroll Moore

It was much harder to put together. I had no experience writing in this new genre. When I asked myself why I was writing this book, it was because the experiences I’d lived through were life-changing. I knew others were going through such experiences. I wanted to help.

I had all these stories, all these ideas. A writing friend suggested I try just writing these out, without worrying how to organize them. Even after ten years of book writing, with many published books behind me, I was still stymied by the book-writing process, but her suggestion freed me up from the more rigid outlines I’d used with the food and medical books. A memoir was less rigid, in essence, and I loved the flexibility.

Memoirs also demand much more of you, personally. I had survived many hardships and learned much about the miracle of spiritual community. I wanted to write about this in a book about my life. This genre requires a writer to show up on the page and reveal beliefs, thoughts, weaknesses, failures, victories. I liked all my previously published books, but I hadn’t been as involved in them. I was the expert, I had good information to share, but I didn’t need to be vulnerable on the page.

Doing my homework about the craft of book-writing
I began to speak with other writers who’d published memoirs. What did it take? Most didn’t know. Almost all of them told me the same thing: you sit down in front of the computer, you wait, and you hope for the best.

It sounded too hard. But the memoir idea persisted. Besides, I was hooked now. I liked seeing books on a bookstore shelf with my name on them. I wanted to write more books.

So I wrote. I wrote small snippets. I didn’t worry too much about how they would go together. I photocopied sections of my journal where I’d recorded something that seemed to relate to my book idea.

Two helpful books I discovered along the way
My method was improved when I came across a writing book called A Writer’s Time, by former UCLA creative writing teacher Kenneth Atchity (W.W. Norton and Co., 1995). Atchity called my snippets “islands.” He validated my idea of keeping these islands separate during the exploration of a book idea. Then, after a certain number of words (or islands) was written, structuring could begin.

My snippets were coming from both outer events I’d lived through and also the meaning of these events. I would come to call these the “outer story” of a book and the “inner story.” Soon I came across another writing book that confirmed my grass-roots idea: Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001). Gornick analyzed essays and talked about the important two sides to any good story, whether fiction or nonfiction—the situation or events (what I was calling the “outer story”) and the story underneath those events, their impact or effect or meaning (what I called the “inner story”).

If a writer doesn’t make room for both the outer and the inner world of their book, the book will not touch a reader in a satisfying way.

The story will not linger.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

What are the inner and outer story of your book?

I'm a painter, too (one of my still life paintings is to your left), and I remember my favorite painting teacher once saying this:

What's around the object in a painting is as important as the object itself.

Artists call this area around the object "negative space." Whenever I got stuck painting the object itself, I trained myself to look at the negative space and see if putting attention on that would bring the object into focus. It often did.

And this painting technique taught me a lot about how the inner story and the outer story work together as you're writing a book.

Snippets ("islands") let the inner story evolve organically
In the post above, I talked about Kenneth Atchity's book, A Writer's Time, and Vivian Gornick's The Situation and the Story. They gave me excellent ideas to improve my book-writing method. I became skilled at pacing myself, writing in snippets ("islands"), and--most of all--restraining my need to organize until I had exhausted the random side of my writing self.

This random side produces the inner story, the emotional juice, the creative leaps in literature. Just like the negative space in a painting, it usually isn't the thing a writer focuses on. Luckily, it comes out organically if you write in snippets.

You'll probably be most familiar with your book's outer story. It's the structure of your story (the framework, the building).

The inner story is the life lived inside the events. It's what we remember long after we finish a great book. So, you can see how necessary it is!

Learn to let the inner and outer story grow naturally
The outer story grows from obvious outer specifics--like plot, setting, characters, your prime theories and techniques, the conflict your book presents. Many writers are naturally strong in outer story. If you tell a good story (orally) or you find plot easy, you're an "outer story" writer.

People who mull over meaning, think about motive, consider psychological reasons for actions are often "inner story" writers.

Both are good, both are necessary. We all start from one of them as our strength. It depends on our temperament, our introversion or extroversion to the world. It depends on our way of approaching our writing.

So neither is more or less important. But they are essential to the reader--both of them.

Each has a specific question
I decided the outer story could best be answered by the question, What happened?

The inner story was best answered by the question, What’s the point?

The inner story is demonstrated (remember "show, don't tell"?) from the book's outer events or main topic. To be believable, it must emerge naturally, organically. Not be tacked on. I found it was a process. As I wrote, the inner story began to peak through--almost unconsciously. My best stories and books had this organic feel.

I found that a writer must discover the inner meaning of her own book as she writes it, to produce a compelling inner story. In a reader's mind, that makes a book worth lingering over.

Inner story isn't always easy, but it is very rewarding
As I worked on learning about the inner and outer story, I began to see patterns. Themes were emerging within the sequence of outer events. Patterns and echoes are delightful in literature. They bring out emotion. The inner story was showing itself in an organic way—and I realized it had emerged because I let myself create my book in snippets, accessing not just the linear writing self but the random one as well.

Both Atchity and Gornick had taught me something very valuable and now I had discovered another level of each concept: Atchity’s idea of writing in snippets, letting myself be random, had allowed many new possibilities to emerge. It also had organically developed the subtler aspects of my book (Gornick’s "story" of The Situation and the Story).

Without one, the other was much more difficult.

I saw how the inner story—the meaning, transformation, or discovery—is born of the process of risk, of showing up on the page.

What it meant for my writing
My last two published books, a novel and a self-help inspirational book, contain very developed inner and outer stories. Because I paid particular attention to developing both of these, the two books are my favorites of anything I've published.

Not to be immodest, but I think it's wonderful that they still bring me delight when I read them—and that odd (but not uncommon) experience of wondering: Did I write this?

And being delighted when I realize the answer is yes.

Writing a book--and the stamina it takes

You may already know this--but writing a book takes a lot of stamina.

Because unlike writing a story, poem, essay, or article, completing a book-length manuscript is like a long-term relationship. You and your book will share head and heart space for months, even years.

What books demand
Ever hear of "platform"? It's what today’s competitive publishing arena demands from book writers in any genre, especially new authors. Books are needing more upfront time--getting to know the book concept, planning and exploring that concept long before the first draft.

Too bad! But it's the reality of publishing now.

Few good books are written by someone just sitting down at the computer and letting it rip. (Unless they have already written ten books and know how to do it.)

What I love most--and why I have taught book-writing for so many years

My favorite experience, often a year or two after they took the class, is when one of my former students appears with a copy of their published book in hand. “Here,” the writer says, handing the book to me with an intensely satisfied look on their face. “Because of your class, I finally finished this. And it was just published.”

This can be your dream come true, too. But I've learned not everyone can do it. It takes work, belief, stamina to realize any dream, and especially it's true if you're trying to manifest a book.

Here's what to ask yourself, a kind of self-test to see if you have the stamina to write (and publish) a book:

1. Are you willing to spend actual time--regular time--on your
2. Do you feel passionate about your topic?
3. Are you willing to explore, not know, "dwell in the unformed"
as a writing friend calls it?
4. How are you about receiving feedback? After the initial
ohmygod, do you rally and renew your vision?
5. How are you at negotiating with friends, family, job--and
yourself--for the privacy and dream time you need to write a
6. Do you have support for your journey?

I hope this blog will provide a good map on your journey through the foreign territory of planning, writing, and developing your book. I hope the tips, tools, encouragement, and practical advice will give you the momentum and confidence you must have to finish your journey.

In the meantime, check out the exercise on the side of this page. Let me know how you like it.