Friday, December 28, 2012

Writing a Series Mystery--Tips from Just-Published Author Steve George

Steve showed up at one of my workshops a few years ago.  I was impressed with his writing; he was working on a mystery that featured an "average guy" main character with great handyman skills.  I got an email from Steve several months ago, letting me know he'd completed the manuscript and needed an editor to look it over. 

I had the pleasure of reading his manuscript on a plane trip to the West Coast, and it kept me enthralled the entire way.  I remember laughing out loud at some of the scenes, and my seatmates looking at me curiously.

"Good book?" one of them asked.

"Yes," I said.  "Very good.  I hope it will be published soon."

Friday, December 21, 2012

Why Creativity Matters--Storytelling Is Good for Your Brain and Your Whole Self

Writing isn't rocket science.  But maybe it does as much for the brain.  New studies are finding this true.  We get healthier the more we write.

Not many writers realize this. 

In my online classes, I ask a basic question:  Why do you write?  What's your writing doing for you, for your life, for your service to the world?   

Book writers spend hours, days, years on their books.  Why?  It must be more than the fun of roaming around in our own heads.  Right?  Because it's hard work to write a book.

But do you consider that writing every day might give you good health--and stories, the basic ingredient of writing, are the reason?  It's like the old saying, An apple a day . . .

How about, A page a day . . . ?

Friday, December 14, 2012

A Writer's Revision Checklist--How to Make Sure You've Covered All the Bases before You Send Out Your Manuscript

This month, my novel-in-progress reached a new level:  final revision. 

Woo-hoo, this is cause for celebration.  When a book hits final revision, it has moved beyond an ongoing one-way conversation in the writer's head.  By now, the book is talking back--big time.

Only a few steps remain before it's ready to send off to agent/editor/publisher.  And these final steps are key:  If they go well, the "whole" becomes much bigger than the sum of its islands, or parts.

Most writers feel a sense of urgency at final revision.  As the book comes into its own, you can see the good objectively.  You've been asking yourself, Is it publishable? for a while.  Now you can answer with a hopeful YES!

Friday, December 7, 2012

What Dialogue Can Do for Your Stories--And What It Should Never Try to Do

Do you write dialogue?  Did you know that many acquistions editors at publishing companies use dialogue as the "test" for whether a manuscript gets read?

In their book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King tell the story of interviewing different editors in the publishing industry.  What do you look at first, when reviewing a manuscript? they wondered.  More than one revealed this:  Editors scan through the pages for a section of dialogue and read it.  If it's good, they read more.  If it's not good, the manuscript is automatically rejected.

Big pressure for writers!  Why do you think dialogue is such an indicator of a writer's skill?

Friday, November 30, 2012

Endings and Beginnings--Finding the Reader-Satisfying "Loops" in Your Story

Recently I finished a pretty good story.  It is making the rounds of my friends who love literary fiction, and I'd gotten at least three recommendations, which made me reserve it at our library.

It's a debut novel by M.L.Stedman, called The Light between Oceans.

Gorgeous title and very interesting premise--a lighthouse keeper and his wife who live on a remote island off the coast of Australia find a baby in a boat that washes up on shore. The wife, desperately childless after three miscarriages, argues to keep the baby.  The husband wants to contact the mainland and let them know, thinking that some mother there will be equally desperate.  But the wife wins, they keep the child, and their world cracks in unexpected ways.

Although I love reading just for reading's sake, I have a writer's high expectations.  I found the writing lovely, with generous use of images and tense character interaction.  The setting of the rocky island and its isolation, the keen details about the lighthouse, were amazingly crafted. 

The thing that really bothered me was Act 3--the way the writer wrapped up the ending of this marvelous story. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Making a Soundtrack for Your Book: How Music and Images Help Free the Nonverbal Creative Brain

Over Thanksgiving week I decided to take a creative retreat.  The plan was to make a soundtrack for my novel-in-revision, which could use more sound and image.

Most writers know about freewriting.  It can literally "free" the random word associations inside your linear brain.

In the same way, exploration of sound and images can free the right brain--an important player in creation of theme, voice, and pacing during revision.

My daily writing brought completion of Acts 1 and 2 revision in early November.  Woo-hoo!  Then I hit Act 3.  And it's acting tough.  Thousands of threads to tie up.  Themes to recognize and build. 

It's making me tense.

I tried my usual writing exercises, but even the best freewriting and word play wasn't cutting it.

I needed to make a soundtrack for my book.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

From Fake Memoirs to True-Life Novels--The New Trends in Publishing Genres

Camilla is a writer in New York who has attended many of my classes.  She's celebrating the completion of her manuscript, a memoir about her family in Italy during World War II--a rich and interesting tale, full of great descriptions and intriguing characters. 

I always enjoyed reading Camilla's story, and I loved watching it evolve.  Now that she is officially done, she's beginning the search for agents and possible publishers, and she's running into a dilemma. 

Quite a common dilemma these days, as the publishing world is changing by the minute and new forms of books are emerging.

Camilla wrote me about it:

Friday, November 9, 2012

How to Write Every Day--The Benefits of Even Fifteen Minutes a Day on Your Writing and Why Nanowrimo Is So Popular

A writing colleague once said:  "If I'm away from my book more than three days, it's like starting over again." 

Have you experienced this?  I have.  It's no fun.

Nanowrimo, or National Novel Writers Month, is happening throughout November.  I've published one novel written during Nanowrimo and am currently working on its sequel.  
Writers who sign up for Nanowrimo enjoy the community but even more the discipline and accountability of hundreds of thousands of people writing every day. 

We get to experience the unique lift of this discipline, the creativity it brings. 

One of my biggest challenges as a writing teacher is to get writers to try this.  To write a little on their books every single day, even if it's fifteen minutes.  Every day writing creates momentum, turns on the inner faucet to more ideas.  You can use Nanowrimo or an accountability calendar like Jerry Seinfeld used to--he liked to put a big red X on every day he wrote.  After a while, the accumulation of big red X's makes it hard to skip a day,

What keeps you going on your writing?  We all know it's much more work not to write. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Boost Your Writing Energy with Cool Resources for Writing Inspiration--Presentations, Prompts, and Paris

What if a trip to Paris, say for three months, would bring back your writing enthusiasm?   

What if you kept a daily writing journal, scribbling ideas and images that come to you as you turn on the creative faucet inside?  Would it make a difference in how often you put pen to page?

What if you had a new writing prompt every day for a year--ones that really work?  Would that boost your writing energy?

Friday, October 19, 2012

Location, Location, Location--Expanding Setting for Your Story into a Larger "Container

Realtors know that location is everything in buying or selling property.  Try to sell a house that's near a busy highway or high tension wires, and you'll learn this.  In story, location is also really important--I wouldn't say it's everything to a story, but it's as vital as good characters and strong plot.

Unfortunately, it's the aspect of writing that many writers tack on or ignore altogether.  

This week's post looks at the larger aspects of setting--beyond just the physical elements--something I like to call the container of your book.

It starts with a story about Margaret, one of my students. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

Time and Location--Working with Flashbacks, Backstory, Chronology, and Transitions in Novels, Memoirs, and Nonfiction Books

A small book came my way this month.  It's called The Art of Time in Fiction:  As Long as It Takes, by Joan Silbers.  Very short, it explores how time appears in different ways in story.  It's useful for writers in any genre who are working with scenes and situations in time and space.

I read The Art of Time in Fiction while briefly stalled out with my novel-in-progress.  It's at revision, which means that I have about 120,000 words written, looking for a better shape and smoother flow.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Staying in the Room with the Writing--How to Keep Yourself from Getting Blocked, Distracted, or Stopping Altogether

So many writers come to writing with a deep love for books.  They feel that love for books will make them able to write--almost magically.  But then they learn how much work it takes to become a writer, to develop the skills and hone the actual process of writing.

Occasionally, this love for reading grows into a natural love for the writing process.  On good days, I am swept away by putting words on the page, dreaming up cool ideas, and figuring out ways to touch a reader's heart and mind.  It's the best job in the world.

Other days, I sweat it.  I am distracted too easily.  I feel stupid as I write, the words are not what I am seeing inside.  I give up at the first phone call, email ping, or view of the overflowing laundry basket. 

So, we all, eventually, have to discover what keeps us "in the room" with our writing, as short-story writer Ron Carlson calls it.  Why do we stop, when we stop--and what can we do about it?  

Friday, September 28, 2012

Self-Publishing:--Is It for You? Four Writers Share Their Experiences with Releasing Their Own Books

Several years ago, I was browsing through a recent issue of The Writer's Chronicle, a wonderful publication from AWP.  AWP has been around for four decades, and its purpose is to help writers become better writers, usually through writing programs in schools and colleges.  It's a good place to stay current on publishing news, see what's new in writing classes, and cheer on colleagues who have just released their new books.

The Writer's Chronicle always has ads for these new books, and I turned to a full-page ad for a recent release by a multiple-award winning writer I admired.  I scanned the page to see who his publisher was, and there in bold type was Lulu Press--a self-publishing company.
  
Wow, I thought, self-publishing has come up in the world!  Not long after that, I began reading articles in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times about writers who were making their millions from self-published books, often landing a six-figure advance and contract from mainstream houses as a result.

It used to be called "vanity press," but now it's looking like a good deal for many writers.  Why?  What are the pitfalls and the benefits of publishing yourself?  Why are so many writers considering it a great option these days? 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Reading Your Work Aloud--Whether You're Sharing with a Group, a Big Audience, or Just Yourself, Some Tips on Why Reading Aloud Helps You

Many years ago, when my books were first being published, I took a class on reading my writing aloud. 

It was taught by a television actor from California.  He was a wonderful teacher, funny and engaging, and he got us introverted writers right up out of our chairs. 

He spoke about basic "reading aloud" tips like good breath control and how to pause, but the most important take-away was passion.

"You have to love what you're reading," he said.  "Without passion for your work, your listeners will never really get why they are listening.  Read it as if it's fresh, exciting, and enjoyable to you."

A very basic guideline yet one that writers often miss.  We know our work so very well, and we see all the hiccups and stumbles.  It's hard to read it as if we are fresh to it, excited, and enjoying the story ourselves.  We're mostly worrying about whether anyone else is liking it!

I've given lots of readings over the years, during book tours and on television and radio interviews.  This bit of advice has been very helpful when I choose my excerpt to read aloud and when I practice.  In my practice time if I don't feel any passion for the story, it's not the right piece to read. 

This week's blog is all about the basics of choosing, as well as how to find that passion again, so your reading will be inspired and inspiring. 

We'll also explore the benefits of reading aloud to yourself--what you can learn from this technique used by so many pros.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Plotting--How to Go from Predictable to Perfection in Your Storyline

Plot is the most basic outer-story structure your book can have.  Fiction and memoir plots are all about action--what happens, where it happens, who is involved.  It's always external, never inside someone's head.  We see plotted events onstage, in front of us.   

Nonfiction writers also use plot.  Their outer story is about the method or ideas they are delivering.   

Obviously, in both cases, plot that's predictable is boring.  How many books have you picked up where you can foresee the ending so easily it's not even worth reading?  Plots must surprise the reader, and therefore also surprise the writer.  Again, nonfiction writers attend to this too--they have to present their material (their "plot" or outer story) in a way that shows its uniqueness.

Like agents will ask you:  How is your book unique, different, a twist or a surprise?  Plots give you this opportunity.

But most of us stay safe with our plots.  We keep to the knowns rather than venture into material that will surprise.  How do you get out of this rut, as a writer?  How do you stop repeating yourself with predictable plotting?

Friday, September 7, 2012

Dialogue Decisions--How to Choose When to Use Dialogue (and What Kind) in Your Fiction and Nonfiction Writing


Dialogue isn't easy to write well.  In fact, it is one of the red flags that editors use to spot an amateur writer.  Maybe it's because beginning writers use dialogue more as a vehicle to deliver information than for its primary purpose:  to increase tension and emotion in a scene.

Both fiction and nonfiction writers need to know dialogue skills.  Nonfiction writers, memoir to how-to, now incorporate at least 50 percent scenes in their books.  Scenes include action and dialogue.  If you can't write a good scene, your book won't sing. 

So how do you learn to write great dialogue?   

I was taught a two-step  method that serves me well.  Step 1:  Learn to listen to how human beings talk--and how they don't listen to each other.  Step 2:  Learn to pare down the real-life dialogue into dialogue that works on the page.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Protecting Your Work--What You Need to Know about Making Sure Your Writing Stays Yours

Patricia has taken my online class and read my book, You Book Starts Here. She wrote me last week with a good question about how to protect her work.

"While I have had my ups and downs over the years, since I took your class and started using your framework, I am finally creating some work I am willing to share" she said.  "In that vein I have been investigating some of the social network sites that allow for feedback and submissions.  The sites have been clear about the work submitted not falling into the 'published' category, so that has been addressed. 

"I am wondering, however, if I need to be doing something specific to protect my intellectual property.   

"How do I share my work, get feedback, and give feedback in return through social networks, and protect my words?  I have no idea what to do to make sure my intellectual property isn't stolen." 

The three sites Patricia is considering are authonomy by Harper Collins, Scribophile by Turkey Sandwich, and Critique Circle by Dorrance Publishing. 

Friday, August 24, 2012

Vertical and Horizontal Writing--What They Are, How to Write Them, and Why Each Brings Interest to Your Story


The short-story writer, AndrĂ© Dubus, described writing as having vertical and horizontal moments. In an interview for the anthology, Novel Voices, he spoke of the challenges in his first novel, The Lieutenant: “I’m not sure I knew how to bear down then. . . . I was writing what I call hori­zontally, making scenes go. In my forties, I switched to writing vertically, trying to get inside a world and inside a character.”  

Have you ever driven long distance through the Mid­west of the United States? The horizon stretches forever, across a landscape that is flat and predictable. I loved driving the endless prairie roads when I lived in Minnesota and took summer trips through North and South Dakota.
   
But I longed for a little variation in the unending peace of the grasslands, which sometimes had me struggling to stay awake.

When I reached the western edge of these states, and the mesas and mountains began to rise, my heart thrilled. I always looked forward--after three days of flatness--to the Badlands. The newly vertical landscape provided more ten­sion and interest, a happy contrast to the sleepy time spent knowing exactly what was around each turn in the road.    

Just as the variation of landscape excites a long-distance traveler, unexpected moments charge your book with energy, suspense, and tension.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Finding the Inner Story of Your Book--Behind the Outer Drama, What's the Real Meaning?

I worked with a writer a few years ago, who was writing a fascinating story.  He'd been through serious medical trauma, and he wanted to write a book about it partly to allow himself to gain insight, partly to help others experiencing this.

We first worked on his storyboard, tracking the outer dramatic events, and he listed them without flinching.  I felt some writerly envy as I read them--not because I wanted to experience what he went through, but because who wouldn't love a list of such strong outer events to frame a reader's journey.  Some were so intense, they felt like a page from a tabloid. 

Outer story intact, we next began to work on the inner story.    Inner story is the other half of all books.  It answers the questions Why?   And sometimes the questions What? and How? 

As in . . . Why should I care?  What did you learn?  How are you different?
Inner story contributes discovery to your book because it takes the reader along on a journey of meaning. 

I asked this writer to begin listing his inner turning points.  He sat for a long time in front of the computer.  Not much came out.  "I'm different," he said.  "But I don't really know how."

His answer told me a lot:  First, his book journey would be different than he expected.  He would have some research to do, to find his inner story.

Friday, August 10, 2012

What's the Mission of Your Book? Getting to the Core of Your Story--through Your Own Uniqueness as a Creative Person

Marcia Ballinger, new author of a nonfiction book called The 20-Minute Networking Meeting, had the goal to assist executives who were in job transition.  Marcia worked with me on her manuscript and told me she'd been in the recruiting industry for many years.

Marcia's reason to write this book?  She said, "I felt that I had something new and helpful to offer this audience.  I wanted to get my message out on a larger scale than I could on a person-by-person basis.  Also, it was a personal ambition to write a book."

Strong reasons--similar to how most of us begin the book journey.   
    
And it's good practice to think about these reasons in the early stages of book writing, because we will need them later, when the going gets a bit tougher and we try to remember why we're writing in the first place!

So what's your purpose for writing?  Do you have a longing to share a story, to make the voices in your head go away (fiction writers!), to help others smooth out their lives or manifest their dreams?  What's the passion behind your efforts?

In my classes, and in my book, I ask these questions early on.  I encourage writers to spend time with them to gather fuel now, while there's plenty of it.  Find that feeling that can't be ignored:  the one that tells you that you have to write this story.  

Then the book takes over--and all bets are off!

Friday, August 3, 2012

Organizing Your Writing Life--Cool Systems, Structures, and Navigation Tools That Professional Writers Use When Writing a Book

One of the most common questions in my book-writing workshops is this:  How do you keep your book-in-progress organized during the year(s) of putting it together, revising it, and getting ready to submit it?  What systems, tools, and organization techniques do professional writers use?

  I've always been fascinated with systems.  A good system will make everything smoother.  But many writers--maybe the same writers who dislike structure tasks (see last week's post, below)--balk at even the idea of systems.  It takes away from the free flow of creativity.   

Fine, I usually think when hearing this.  But in my own writing life, I know better.   

Keeping loose and free of systems or organization methods works great for a while.  When the book first starts to cook, you only need to listen and be the scribe.  But after a while, those scribed pages mount up into a pile that can terrify most writers.  It becomes impossible to keep track of what you've said where.  Or what you need to do next.   

Each published writer will have her own system.  Here are a few that work for me.  

Tool #1:  A Writer's Notebook
I start every new book project with two things in place:  my computer files and my writer's notebook.   

My writer's notebook is not fancy--although if you are really into journals and cool paper, it can be.  It becomes the place where you begin making a map for your book.  This map is something you create as you go.  

It starts easily enough with a written conversation between you and your book project, and this conversation takes place in your writer's notebook.  

In it, you will begin "talking" with your book on paper, and from the answers that come, you will create your book's map.  During the book-writing journey, your writer's note­book will become a valuable aide.  Think of it as kind of a writerly Pinterest all your own.   

My favorite writer's notebooks are made by Claire Fontaine.  They come in all kinds but the best are grid lined inside.  Although made in France, they aren't very expensive (so you can scribble and not be neat!), yet they feel classy and interesting.    

Whatever kind of writer's notebook you go for, use it to collect these kinds of things:

inspiring quotes on writing
ideas for scenes
character sketches
research notes
photos and images that resonate with your book idea
snippets photocopied from other books
descriptions of settings you like (with photos!)
interviews with characters 
lists of questions
lists of "islands" (scenes) you want to write
continuity checklist for revision
query letter ideas
places to submit your manuscript
feedback notes from readers
freewrites 

The list goes on.  It varies by individual writer.   

My writer's notebooks become like an artist's sketchbook over the time I work on my book--full of images and ideas for things I want to include in the book at some point.  It's my place to keep them safe, like a creative to-do list.  I love browsing through my writer's notebook whenever I get stalled out or need perspective on my book project.     

This is a repository for whatever might deliver both inspiration and signposts when I get lost.  I use it until the book is published.  

Tool #2:  A Storyboard (Preferably Using Scrivener or Another Desktop Storyboarding Software)
At my workshops and online classes, I guide writers through creating a storyboard for their books-in-progress.  Storyboards are a gift from the film industry and many publishers use them to check a book's structure and flow.  Writers use them to (1) brainstorm a plot or sequence for their book when first starting out and (2) keep an overview along the way.

I make a storyboard and revise it several times for each book I write.  It replaces the publisher's editor, who did this for my early books (when publishers had editors in house).   

I published 12 books with hand-crafted storyboards; they worked great.  Then, a writer at my annual Madeline Island retreat showed me a software program that did it better--and was completely intuitive.  It transformed my storyboard life. 

Called Scrivener, it was only available for Mac.  I had a PC.  But I'd been thinking about converting to Mac for several years.  Then I learned about a program called Paralells that let me run both Windows and Mac platforms on a Mac Air.  Sold.  Bought the Air, downloaded Scrivener, and have been a happy camper since.

Although I've explored other storyboarding software, Scrivener remains my all-time favorite for organizing my book via storyboard.  At $45, it's a great deal too.  Check it out at www.literatureandlatte.com.  

Here's a great video that talks about setting Scrivener up for character research--including making an inspiration board with images.   Using Scrivener to Brainstorm Characters   

 Scrivener takes a bit of time to set up.  I copied and pasted my chapters into it (50 chapters took me about 2 hours) from Microsoft Word.  Then it took another couple of hours to synopsize each chapter onto Scrivener's bulletin board and its index cards that can be shuffled around.  But each of these cards is connected to an "island" or a chapter, and you can move them as you need, so nothing is set in stone.  Each can be expanded too, so you can write more than would fit on a regular storyboard's Post-It note. 
 
The coolest thing about Scrivener is the binder, a column to the left of the page which lets you see your book's organization at a glance.  My friend at Madeline Island had hers set up by the three acts, with individual chapters listed under each act.  I did the same, adding the name of the point of view character for each chapter.       

Tool #3:  An Inventory List 
Nicki, a memoir writer from the Boston area, emailed me last week about her need for some way to "navigate between islands of writing that are now each in separate word documents.

"Often I am writing a new island," she said, "that covers a topic I know I have written about before.  But there is no easy way to search for it within separate Word documents unless I go through each on individually.  This would be time consuming as I have a lot of them.

"Maybe I need to start keeping my writing in some other format?  This has become a crucial issue/problem."

Nicki may benefit from an inventory list.  Scrivener's bulletin board is an easy way to create one.   

Before Scrivener, I did an inventory list manually.  It was routine maintenance for my book at the end of each week of writing:  I added to and updated this list of islands and chapters religiously--it was too easy to get lost and repeat scenes, otherwise.  

To make this maintenance easier, I learned to set up my book in an "island" directory when I began writing.  Here is an example of an island directory from my latest book, Your Book Starts Here.

Nonfiction Books (main directory) 
--Your Book Starts Here (specific book in progress--working title) 
--Chapter One islands (what I think might go into chapter one) 
--three questions (names of islands) 
--Greece trip
--top reasons we write books
--Margo's story
--David's story
--Linda's story
--exercise for three questions

 Sometimes I date the islands as I create them, with a version number, such as "Greece trip 12.2.10 v. 3."  When you get into the hundreds of islands, as it sounds like Nicki has, this can help you sort and search easily.

I also create a master file for all the islands, which makes it easy to do a global search for scenes or snippets by key word. 

Tool #4:  Character Timelines
This is a good tool for all genres, even nonfiction writers who are including research about real people, interviews, or anecdotes and want to be sure they aren't repeating information.  Character timelines are another kind of inventory.  They record what kind of major and minor events you've included so far--or what you need to include in future.

Start by drawing a line on a large sheet of paper, like a river.  I draw one character timeline for each of my main players--anyone I want to keep track of as the book grows.   

Then, using Post-It notes (one color for "written" and another for "to write"), place events and important information about this character along the timeline.   

Essentially a character storyboard, you can use this timeline to check character growth.  Does the person actually grow and change, and are the stages of growth linked to outer events?   

Character timelines also show you immediately if you have dropped someone out of your story.  (As I did, with one of my heroine's love interests in a novel . . . ooops!)  Or if  you've repeated anything.   

Perhaps Nicki could use this kind of timeline to keep track of what she has included and what's still to come.  Character timelines a big hit at my Madeline Island workshop--many ah-ha's come from working on them.

Tool#5:  Printed Drafts in a Binder
 I may be old-fashioned in this:  I like to have hard copy (printed copy) of everything.  I back up my files religiously but still . . . 

I may not print out each island when they are not yet "continents," or chapters, but I will always print chapters-in-progress, even the early drafts.

I collect these in a big binder.  Each chapter has its own archives--the earlier versions--filed behind the most recent version which is on top.  The chapters can be separated with tabbed pages so you can flip through the book easily.

In this purely electronic age, what's the point of wasting all this paper?

If you've ever lost your book-in-progress, you won't need an answer to that.  

If you haven't, consider this:  It's an amazing boost to the flagging spirit to see the printed book (even a rough draft).  All those pages make you feel good.  You've done some awesome work here, and this is the result.  

I also find it easier to find things in printed drafts than electronically--despite Scrivener's amazing abilities.  I can page through and locate the scenes I need.  Or I can use the tabbed separator pages to cluster ideas for the chapter or document what I've included so far.

Maybe one or more of these ideas will help you get your acts together, in terms of organization.  Feel free to post your tips, techniques, and methods below!

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1.  Choose one of these methods to try.  Set aside a few hours to put it into place.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Structure--Why It Might Be the Missing Element to Make Your Writing Sing (and How to Balance It with Passion)

Writers come to my classes to learn structure.  There aren't many classes that teach it, I've found, and it's my specialty.  But the desire for structure is often accompanied by certain looks--teachers get to know them!--when I hand out the charts, list-exercises, and storyboard instructions.  Do we really have to exit the creative flow to do this?  

Yes.  It's half of the process of writing--whether your goal is a poem or an essay or a full-length book.   

But so many writers dislike structure.  I did too, when I began writing books.  I thought, Just write!  And that worked for quite a while.  But when faced with the accumulating scenes, chapters, islands, and continents my daily freewrites became, I was overwhelmed.  And I often stopped, purely because I didn't know what to do next.

Keep writing?  Maybe.  But when would this mass of material manifest a book?

Wise editors on my first books taught me how structure creates a framework. Without the framing of a house, there's nothing to hang the walls on.  Without the framework of a book, chapters just ride along and eventually flop.

I've found structure is a framework for both your book and your writing life--no matter your genre or style.  You may enter your writing conceptually, from action and event, or from the poetry of image.  All will hang better with structure.

How Structure Works in Your Writing 
These past two weeks, I've been teaching at a glorious arts retreat center on Madeline Island, off the coast of Wisconsin in the middle of Lake Superior.  Writers come to these retreats to learn structure for their books-in-progress.   

After the writers get adjusted to the idea that structure is actually beneficial to the creative flow, they really begin to enjoy it.  Each day I introduce a new structuring tool.  Storyboards, image charts, character growth arcs, and other techniques let writers get an overview of all their bits and pieces, chapters and ideas.   

Over the week, they begin to see how structure supports the book's message.  It makes it more accessible to the reader.

We all love the ease of daydreaming about our books; we enjoy exploring and re­searching and letting ideas flow onto the page.  But if this is all we do, it can get in the way of finishing.  Structure tasks take this raw material and give it shape 

Structure Tasks--What Are They? 
I find structure most helpful when I feel overwhelmed with too many "islands" (scenes or snippets of writing), when I can't see how to proceed, when I've lost the thread of my book--or even its original purpose.  I go to my favorite structure tasks to get oriented again.

I also like to use structure tasks when I need more objectivity about my book--if I've gotten too lost in the leaves and need to see the forest again.

Some favorites . . .  

1. Getting a storyboard started or updated.  Many writers in my online classes or Madeline Island retreat get intense relief when their storyboard finally works--and becomes an accurate a map for their book.   

The storyboard helps shape or create a form for your book.  You suddenly see where all the ideas can fit, and flow together in harmony.  (Watch this short video on storyboarding if you're not familiar with the term.)   

Storyboarding is a structure task because it condenses and focuses your writing process.  It helps with overwhelm.   

2. Re-energizing my daily writing schedule:  When you have a routine of writing even 20 minutes each day, the momentum you build will become a finished book.  Not only that but the routine itself is calming.  You stop wondering if you'll ever get back to your writing--because you know you've committed to a short session the next day.  Just like daily exercises, daily writing practice helps us feel relaxed about the book journey.  It becomes a structure we can lean against and try riskier things.
   
3.  Going into the details via line editing:   If you need a structure task that takes you deeper into the details, versus toward an overview, line editing is a perfect match.  It's the smallest, most focused form of revising, because it goes line by line through the manuscript.  To really get benefit from line editing, approach it at revision after the content and flow of your story is intact.  Line editing makes adjustments in pacing and language, word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph.  It checks the ending and beginning of each chapter to make sure transitions are strong.   

I polled my classes about other structure tasks and these suggestions are their favorites.  They helped these writers feel good about their books again.   

Set up a great desk for myself (stop writing on the couch).
Clean the clutter on the desk.
Talk with my family about getting time to myself for writing each morning.
Finally get that new laptop that my teenagers can't use.
Storyboard my chapters into a more logical sequence--get rid of the mess.
Transfer my chapter files into organized folders on computer.
Break my huge manuscript into individual chapter files.
Learn Scrivener (a software program that storyboards on the screen). 

And When You Need to Balance the Structure Tasks . . . 
Some writers love structure too much.  They spend hours and hours with their storyboards and never get to the actual writing.   

Remember that structure alone can't make a book--and neither can free-flowing creativity.  So, both are needed to keep oriented.

Also, structure tasks can activate the Inner Critic, who loves to get you down when you're trying something new.  Criticism from others and self-doubt from the Inner Critic wipe out passion very quickly.  I recommend a support system of other book writers when you're first trying structure tasks.  Support is essential to keep your vision for your book alive and well.  Feedback that positively mirrors your cre­ative efforts keeps you confident and believing.  

So if you (1) are addicted to structure and not writing or (2) try a structure task and begin to wonder Why am I writing this book? you may need to balance with something more fun that helps you recall your passion for your project.

I call these passion tasks, because they let us explore the ever-changing reasons we are doing this creative project--and show us whether we are expressing ourselves in the most au­thentic way.
 
Write a dialogue (on paper) with your book.
Write a letter to Inner Critic to get it to settle down.
Make a mock-up of your book cover.
Make a collage of any book chapters that aren't work­ing.
Make a collage of your goals about your book.
Write about why you don't want to write this book-even why you hate and fear it.
Cluster or freewrite about what you have read in Your Book Starts Here and how it could help your writing.
Find a different writers' group--one you can flourish in.
List thirty things you love in your life to remind your­self of your passion.
Wear brighter colors--not black.

Do you relate to any of these tasks? They come from a diverse group of writers of all backgrounds, cultures, educa­tion, and skill levels.  

Maybe one of these tasks will interest you and you will try it for yourself. It is hard work to change your writing habits--to learn to add structure if you're a free-flowing writer, or add passion if you're a linear writer.  

The goal is to develop both the flow of creativity and the solidity of good structure in your writing life--and let your book become all it's meant to be.