Monday, January 25, 2010

How to Survive Writing a Book--The Blessing of Short Assignments

Finding a pathway through your book project can seem impossible at times. You haven't a clue where you're going, and what seemed like a solid outline or storyboard can shift completely, right in the middle of writing.

Despair sets in. Sometimes writer's block. Often overwhelm. How does a book writer survive?

First, we accept that books are organic in nature. They must change as they evolve. The best books always surprise their writers. A teacher once said to me, If the writer isn't surprised, the reader won't be either.

But there's still the factor of overwhelm and how to deal with it. My answer comes from years as a syndicated columnist: short assignments.

The Beauty of Short Assignments
When I was a columnist for the Los Angeles Times syndicate, I produced 600 words each week. Writing became a job in those years, not a romance. I had a firm deadline, I got a paycheck for it, and no excuses were accepted by my boss. I couldn't blow my deadline off even once, or I'd lose my precious slot in the Times lineup. So I did it.

Back then, I wasn't used to short assignments. Six hundred words was really hard to work with. So much to say, so little space on the page.

Over the years, I learned to love the beauty of short assignments. Most times, they reduced any overwhelm. They cancelled out writer's block.

I use short assignments to survive writing books. I break my books into small sections, most often three acts. Since it's impossible to keep THE BOOK as a whole in my head, working on each act individually keeps overwhelm at bay.

Short Assignments Show the Pathway Through
My current novel-in-progress is called Breathing Room. It's the sequel to Qualities of Light, which was published in October. Breathing Room is a much more difficult story. It's much easier to get overwhelmed.

Three point-of-view main characters rotate by chapter. It's very easy for me to lose track of the individual stories, much less weave them together into a coherent whole.

So I broke the story into three acts.

Working with three acts is the perfect short assignment. You focus only on one third of the book, making that act like a complete book in itself, with a beginning, middle, and end, but you create a sudden new beginning again in the final chapter. In other words, act one seems to take us to a nice settled plateau, but it really ends up raising the stakes. That propels the reader into act two. Get it?

It works beautifully in playwriting. I'm finding it works equally well in novels, memoirs, and other genres of books. I'm also using it on a nonfiction book I'm writing about how to write a book. I use a series of key questions, to keep me within my short assignment of each act:

1. Is the storyline for each character tracking well just within this part of the book?
2. Is the triggering event, what starts each person on their individual journey, exciting and dramatic?
3. Does each person go to some new place during act one?
4. What dramatic event ups the stakes at the end of act one, for each person and the group as a whole?
5. What main threads hold the three stories together? How do they intersect via theme, objects that repeat, places that echo in all three stories?

But it's important to give it all you can. Not hoard the best for later.

To Make a Short Assignment Work, Give It All You Got
I was sitting in the library Sunday afternoon, stuck in the final chapter, when I noticed I was holding back. No wonder my character, Mel, was feeling moody and blah on the page. He wouldn't risk anything, and I didn't want to use my "really great" scenes to propel his story into act two.

Then I asked myself, why was I saving these for later in the book? Within this short assignment of act one, or chapter 18 in particular, I needed to give it all I had.

So I took an idea from later in the book, inserted it in the chapter, and let it up the stakes for Mel. From that, three other ideas came forward. They grew into surprising new scenes, right on the spot. The "saved" idea actually fit much more successfully into act one.

When you work in short assignments, don't hoard the best stuff for later. The present is much more important than the future.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise--Two Options
1. Practice short assignments this week. How can you break THE BOOK into manageable bites?

2. Divide your book project into three acts. Use the questions above to analyze whether each act has enough energy. Then, using your storyboard or outline, see what you can rearrange to up the stakes.


  1. I like the idea of 3 acts very much; my writing group has spent some time analyzing plays and what they can teach us about structure. I'd like to mention a book we like very much - "The Scene Book" by Sandra Scofield. She uses theater terminology such as beat and pulse in pacing scenes. You reminded me as I work on a piece for submission to think of it in terms of 3 acts. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. Thanks, Gail, I'm glad it's helpful. And thanks also for the book recommendation. I'm always looking for good books on writing.