Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Key West Collage Exercise--Nonlinear Book Structuring Fun

Island life is great. I'm at the Coffee Plantation in Key West, Florida, relaxing in 80-degree island breezes, enjoying a day off after my three-day workshop at The Studios at Key West. Our workshop group was wonderful--energetic, intelligent, insightful about their very varied book projects. We had writers of all skill levels, professional to beginner, and a variety of books--novels, memoirs, art books, how-to books, and true crime.

Our writing exercises and discussion revolved around book structuring, trying to figure out the outer and inner stories, and surviving through the long committment of bringing a book into the world.

After we covered the basics of book-structuring, I asked them to try a pair of activities to engage both the right and left creative brain: toggle between creating a book storyboard and creating a book collage.

They dove in. Many began with the collage, a relaxing and free-form, right-brain activity. Some went for the more linear storyboard first. After an hour, we all switched to the other task.

I loved walking around the beautiful studio space, visiting the writers as they worked at their tables. By Saturday afternoon, storyboards were forming but the collages were really coming together. Each was as colorful and unique as its creator. I'd cut out hundreds of magazine photos before the workshop, spread them on a large counter, and encouraged the writers to browse the images, letting their intution guide them. I was watching to see how they arranged their images on the large posterboards--what order they would choose.

Before we ended the session that afternoon, we studied the group's collages. I taught them the squint test: hold the collage away from you, squint, see if any images create obvious pathways. Having taught this exercise for years in workshops, I knew that often a clear path emerges on a very randomly created collage. Pathways can start at the bottom right or left, lead to the opposite corner. Sometimes the path is circular. Often there's a strong angle or series of connecting colors. Sheila Asato (http://www.monkeybridgearts.com/) told me how she uses collage pathways for dreamwork. The collage often reveals good information about the unconscious part of our art. And when quizzed by the workshop group, many writers agreed that the pathways made sense. The beginning and ending images indeed reflected a beginning and ending moment of their books.

Do you know how to make a collage? This week's exercise is to try one. Collages are powerful tools to get at clues about where your book should start and end. Even if you know this "secret" about how your right-brain creates pathways in this exercise, play with a collage for your book-in-progress or your writing in general.

You'll need a posterboard, a few magazines, scissors, and a glue stick. Spend 30 minutes leafing through the magazines, cutting out any photos that grab you. Don't analyze why--no need. Just collect. Then spread them out and begin pasting on your posterboard. This takes 30-45 minutes, usually.

Let yourself be nonlinear. Swim like the island sea turtles through clear blue-green water and let random images approach you, like the bright yellow fish in the photo above. Let your intuition create the collage.
When your collage feels complete, take a break. Then come back to it, try the squint test, and see if you notice any pathways. What do the images at the start and end tell you about your book's opening, your book's conclusion?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Writing a Great Query Letter and Book Proposal

A good book proposal is like handing an agent a perfect rosebud. It smells wonderful, it hints of much more. It's meant to entice, stimulate, and promise. Your goal with your book proposal is the same. You only want one thing: Get the agent asking for the whole manuscript.

Book proposals have two elements: (1) a great query letter and (2) the proposal packet.

Great Query Letters
A query letter is sent first, by itself, before you send the proposal. Queries are one-page, single-spaced documents that sell the concept of your book in exciting language. Many agents now accept emailed query letters, but check their web site guidelines.

Query letters are not easy to write. Plan to take some time with yours. One agent I know receives two hundred query letters each week. Often there are only a few minutes to spare to read yours.

A query letter has three parts: (1) sales pitch for your book, (2) a short bio, and (3) why you are approaching this agent. For the sales pitch, I start by crafting a short sentence that describes my book--what is it about. Expand that sentence to two or three dynamite paragraphs. Then add what gives you the credentials to write this book, your writing experience or life experience. This makes up the body of your query letter.

It's essential to add one sentence from your research of the agent’s work: tell her why you want to work with her, specifically. Mention a book she represented that you liked.

Some writers wonder: Why not work into it gradually, maybe beginning with a sentence like “I love your agency and would love it if you represented my book”? If you’re the agent who gets two hundred query letters a day, imagine reading the “I love” sentence two hundred times a day. The letter would go straight into the round file. It’s essential to make that first sentence engaging, even electrifying—and about your book. You worked long and hard on that premise statement; now use it.

The goal is obvious. You want the agent (or agent’s assistant who screens query letters) to read on. In Making the Perfect Pitch (edited by Katherine Sands), you can read some dynamite query letter openers, such as:

“I am a Vietnamese American man, a witness to the fall of Saigon, a prisoner of war, an escapee, a first-generation immigrant, and an eternal refugee.”
--from Catfish & Mandala by Andrew X. Pham (memoir)
“When all the kids around him were coming of age, Robin MacKenzie was coming undone.”
--from The World of Normal Boys by K.M. Soehnlein (novel)

The Proposal Packet
Out of twenty agents queried, you may get a few who want to see your proposal packet. This packet contains a synopsis that gives the substance of your book, a chapter outline, platform (marketing niche) information if your book is nonfiction, and sample chapters, or the “partial.”
Proposal packets must contain your very best work. One publisher I spoke with said their editors read the first two pages only—and if the editor isn't grabbed immediately, the proposal is rejected. So polish carefully.

Read these two bibles to proposal crafting: How to Write a Book Proposal, by Michael Larson, and Write the Perfect Book Proposal, by Jeff Hermann. Although geared toward nonfiction writers, there’s great information in these. Larson’s book is a classic, reprinted often. Hermann’s book is unique because it gives ten proposals that actually sold. You can read the packets and see what’s in them—and how fine-tuned the language must be to capture an agent’s attention.

Fiction and Memoir Proposal Packets contain:
cover letter (your query letter can be reshaped)
bio (one page)
chapter outline (one to two pages, with two brief sentences about each chapter)
synopsis (one-page overview of the plot and meaning of your story)
sample chapters (usually two, or between fifty and one hundred pages)

Nonfiction Proposal Packets contain: All the above plus:
platform plan and marketing analysis (how you’ll help sell your book)
competitive titles (six to eight books in your field, published recently, and why yours is unique)

Writing the Synopsis
There's much differing opinion on this part of the proposal. Some agents like to read three or four pages, with detailed information. Most, in my experience, prefer a well-crafted and focused one pager. Start with your expanded premise statement from your query letter. Use that to design your synopsis. Then go through the book's outline, chapter by chapter, and pick the major points--either plot points for fiction or memoir or theory and application for nonfiction. I choose five or six, write a paragraph on each, then edit it like crazy. You want really, really captivating language here.

Synopses should give an agent confidence that you can tell your story in a way that keeps a reader engaged through the last page. Don't give away the entire story--you want to be sure this proposal packet leads the agent to ask for more. You want to deliver the complete manuscript next.

More questions? Post them here and I'll try to answer next week.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Book-Writing Intensive with Mary Carroll Moore--Next Weekend in Key West, Florida

Join me in beautiful, sunny Key West, Florida, for a fun and productive weekend building your book, and take it the next step toward successful publication!

"How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book" will be offered at The Studios at Key West for the first time and a small group of book writers will come away with amazing insights on their books.

Here's what other writers have said about this workshop: "Best writing instruction I've ever had." "Gave me a whole new perspective on my book and how to finish it." "Because of this workshop, I finished my novel!" "I just published my nonfiction book--thank you for your workshop and all the great insights I gained."

There's still room for you and your book-in-progress in Key West, February 20-22. I welcome book writers at any level and books in any genre.

Cost is a real bargain--only $225 for the entire weekend, from Friday evening through Sunday afternoon. Here's a sample of the workshop agenda (a taste of the great community you'll be part of):

FRIDAY EVENING—7:00-9:30 p.m. -----Welcome, introductions -----Overview of the stages of book writing -----Writing: Dialogue exercise

SATURDAY MORNING--9:00 a.m.-12:30 p.m. -----First stage of book writing: What makes a book work? -----Planning vs organic growth in nonfiction and fiction books -----Exercise: Focus statements/tag lines/premise -----Exploring the book’s concept -----Exercise: Getting to know your reader

SATURDAY AFTERNOON--1:30-4:30 p.m. -----Finding a form for your book -----Exercise: Dialogue with your book -----Exercise: Book collages -----Crisis and plot points in nonfiction and fiction books -----Exercise: Starting your storyboard--a book’s quest and question

SATURDAY EVENING—7:00-9:00 p.m. -----Readings

SUNDAY 11:00 a.m.-4:30 p.m. (Brunch, 10:30 am) -----Storyboards -----Second stage writing: How to keep going through first draft and revisions -----Exercise: Revisiting our focus statements -----Exercise: Linkage ------Support for the revision process (feedback) -----Agents and publishers—the book proposal package -----Exercise: Reverse goal setting
Price: TSKW Members $185, Non-Members $225

For more information, email Mary at mary@marycarrollmoore.com or visit the www.tskw.org. (Click on this link to read more about this workshop http://tskw.org/workshops_item.php?ws_id=66)

Hope you can join me!

Perspective in Your Writing--How Far Can You See?

On Monday, my weekly book-writing class talked about the desperation that writers get: the need for perspective about their books. Where are all these chapters going? What's the book really about? What's the point?

Toggling between seeing the trees to seeing the forest is an important skill that book writers develop.

A book writer uses the right brain to create scenes and snippets. This keeps most writers happy for a while. The task is to hold off needing to organize these bits and pieces, because during the nonlienar process, the right brain gets to inform the writing about the "inner story," or the underlying meaning. Meaning develops theme in most books.

You've probably done this random writing. Kenneth Atchity calls it "islands" and Natalie Goldberg calls it"freewriting." It's a wonderful part of most books. I wrote my first five books without this method, and I suffered.

But there's a point of critical mass: the sheer volume of writing accumulated in these freewrites becomes overwhelming. We grow desperate to move away from the trees and see the forest.

Enter storyboarding. Storyboards are used in filmmaking to diagram the plot or arc of a movie. Publishers also use them. I was hired by publishing companies in 1990s to design books by storyboarding a topic the publisher decided they wanted to produce. Once the book was storyboarded, a writer-for-hire put it together. It was a common practice.

I learned a lot from storyboarding. Below are the steps I use. See if they might help with your book-writing process--and give you a good glimpse of forest instead of trees. If you get confused, feel free to write me an SOS email at mary@marycarrollmoore.com. And if you want hands-on practice, join me in Key West next weekend!

Storyboarding Steps
1. Print out all the sections you’ve written for your book.
2. Cut the sections apart so each covers only one scene, idea, anecdote, point of view, or location. Write a cue card for each. Put the manuscript pages aside.
3. Go through the cue cards until you find your triggering event*. Place this card in the upper left-hand corner of your poster board.
4. Scan the remaining cue cards until you find your integration moment**.
5. Place this card in the lower right-hand corner of your poster board.
6. Arrange the remaining cue cards on the storyboard, creating a flow that fits your book at this moment.
7. Place blank cue cards for any missing sections.
* Triggering event: the moment without which the story wouldn't exist.
**Integration moment: what you want to leave the reader with.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Ken Atchity's Brilliant Book-Structuring Method

I was thrilled to have a visit on my blog from a writing mentor, Ken Atchity, who authored A Writer's Time, one of the textbooks used in my book-structuring classes.

Ken introduced me to the concept of writing in "islands," which makes use of random as well as linear structuring.

If you haven't come across A Writer's Time, be sure to get a copy and read the first five chapters. It'll open your eyes to a brilliant method to organize a new book idea.

Visit Ken's blog for a great post by Garrison Keillor. http://kenatchity.blogspot.com

How to Create Writing Voice? Natalie Goldberg Says to Ask, What Brings You to Your Knees? What Do You Love with Your Whole Heart?

In her book, Thunder and Lightning, free-writing expert Natalie Goldberg describes a writing exercise she created after reading Borrowed Time by Paul Monette. Borrowed Time is a memoir of Monette's experience with AIDS.

When one of her students commented that AIDS gave Monette his voice as a writer, Goldberg realized that voice is created when "something crosses our lives, brings us to our knees."

His partner's diagnosis of AIDS brought Monette to his knees, and Goldberg writes, "All this cut across his throat and released his voice."

So Goldberg asked her class two questions: What has brought you to your knees? What do you love with your whole heart?

How do we mature as writers, develop our voice? Goldberg proposes that some combination of deep love and aching loss brings us to this place where we deliver story in some unique way. We become different, not only in what we say but how we choose to say it. What we omit, what we focus on.

What loss has come into your life? Make a list. See how it has shaped you.

Now list any gifts that came from these losses. What do you love with your whole heart, without reservation?

If you haven't read Goldberg's Thunder and Lightning, get a copy. If you want to explore the origins of your own creative voice, try these two questions this week. Watch how your writing changes.