Friday, July 21, 2017

Writing a Satisfying Ending: Hints about How to Wrap Up Your Story

This week I'm traveling to one of my favorite places:  Madeline Island and the Madeline Island School of the Arts, where I teach each summer and fall.  I'm about to welcome a group of twenty-three writers who will be attending my workshop/retreat and my independent study week.  We'll be diving deep into our book projects for five days, free of interruptions.  Looking for breakthroughs.

One of the assignments I offer the group is to draft their final chapter.  Because the group is varied in writing experience and progress with their projects, this suggestion often gets astonished reactions.  "How can I possibly write my final chapter when I don't know what the rest of the book is about!?" 

I'm used to these reactions.  I have a good reason.  Almost all of the writers go for the idea and many of them are delighted by the result.

Writing the final chapter isn't as hard as it seems.   Here are two articles that tell writers what to look for--and what to avoid.

From The Atlantic.
From The New Yorker.

Enjoy!

Friday, July 14, 2017

Instant Gratification: Dangers of Seeking It When Writing a Book

When we start writing a book, we have no clue how long it will take.  Most first-time book writers think maybe a year, two at the most?  A colleague was both relieved and dismayed to learn from a graduate-school panel of published writers that memoirs typically take seven years to write.  Rebecca Skloot, author of the best-seller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, said her book took ten years and it couldn't have gone any faster--she needed all that time. 

But we're seduced by workshops and craft books that promise a completed manuscript, ready for agents, in nine months.  I recently saw a workshop that was called "Novel in a Month."  I participate in Nanowrimo regularly (National Novel Writers Month) and have even published a novel from that marathon, but it didn't come out finished--it needed a couple of years of revision before it was ready for other eyes. 

Instant gratification.  We're trained towards it in our culture.  It's exciting to think that you can produce a publishable book from idea to finished draft in one month, isn't it?  That's not much of your life to give.  But it's an illusion, truly.  If you believe it, if you can actually do it, more power to you.  Let me know, and I'll be at your book-signing launch.

Most writers don't want to spend their whole life writing their books, but they also feel constantly behind if they believe this myth of producing a quality manuscript that fast.  It might be relief to hear than most writers take between three to six years to write and revise their first book.  The second one, maybe less.  Or maybe, like me, you get interested in a much more complex structure and you take a little longer.  I'm on year five with my current novel and it's close to being really done this time.  I needed all those years, all that learning, all the help and mentoring I got, all those mistakes I made (sending it out too early, suffering through rejections) to produce a story that astonishes me now--especially when I recognize what I didn't know about it when I began.

A friend who struggles with how long a book takes shared an excellent writing exercise that I'll pass along this week.  It helps calm the urgency, the feeling of being behind, and the seducing whine of instant gratification, to let the writer get back to work.

Your weekly writing exercise:  Where I've come and what I've learned so far

1.  Take 20-30 minutes and remember where you were when you began this book project.  If you can actually recall your location, the life you lived then, any other details, bring them forward.

2.  Begin making a list of what you've learned since then.  On my list was ten or more items about my characters alone.  Plus dialogue.  Plus plotting!  Plus, plus, plus.  Write for as much of the 20-30 minutes as you can, including even small learnings you know you've made.

This exercise is a mood booster, at minimum.  It also helps the writer become more satisfied with where they are and honor what they've learned, so it's easier to keep going.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Why a Memoir Is Not an Autobiography


My elderly aunt finished her memoirs.  She mailed me a photocopy.  It was great fun to read--she's always been entertaining storyteller with interesting experiences and a great understanding of people.  She's 97 now and lives in an assisted living community where a fellow resident helped her write up her life stories.  She calls them her "memoirs," and indeed they are--an an act of remembering and a legacy for the family.
Memoir comes from the Anglo-French word memoirie (from the fifteenth century),meaning "memory" or "note,"  an "account of someone's life."  A wonderful gift to pass on to those who know you and who want to hear your past.

But if you're gearing towards publishing outside of family and friends, you need to know how memoir now differs from autobiography.  Modern memoir focuses on a salient part of a life, not the entire trajectory, as an autobiography might.  Rarely does modern memoir start with birth and end with death, or wherever the writer happens to be. 

I like to think of modern memoir as a snapshot of a certain period of time that was pivotal.  It offers a perspective to the writer.  It may have changed the writer's life in a big way.  That's where we begin.  We need to find that pivotal moment, first, then explore it for its universality so readers other than family members will get something out of it.  
 

You have your life behind you, and it may sound hard to pick just one pivotal moment.  So in book structuring, we expand that to five moments.  Maybe the start of a change, the next step, the next, a setback, then a step forward.  I think of This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff which begins with a drive across country with his mother.  That drive triggers a whole series of events that change him completely.  What might be your memoir's triggering event and what does that moment lead to? 

In a few weeks, I'll be teaching my once-a-year workshop on memoir, Writing Your Life, at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.  One exercise I love, which we use in the workshop, is to look at a ten-year period that seems likely to offer a pivot for the story, then explore it for meaning and change. 

Once the writer lands on the pivot of their memoir, it's easier to reach out from it to find the intersecting storylines--what might have happened years before that led to this moment, what happened years later that came as a result. 

You can also choose where to place the weight of your memoir, once you know this pivotal moment.  Some memoirists write about the time leading to this moment; some write about the aftereffects--the living with, surviving from, reconciling or not.  A memoir can often be built on any of these, or sometimes all of them, with the event in the middle.

The event is the first step.  Then, brainstorming on the lines that radiate out from it to find the story's threads. 

Deciding the pivotal moment, then choosing the direction forward or backward, leads to the third step:  how to weave in the different threads of past, present, and sometimes future.  Most writers feels they have to include all their childhood, maybe twenty, thirty, forty years of smaller but significant (to the author) events.  Otherwise, how will the reader understand the big change?  This is where the storyboard comes in so handy.  Memoirists create two or more storyboards, or maps of their storylines, then learn to weave them together like a braided rug. 

I have two favorite examples of this.  Wild by Cheryl Strayed is the simplest.  H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald is more complex, because not only does the writer thread together the current story of training the hawk, Mabel, but also her backstory and that of writer T.H. White who was also a falconer.  Reading these books, we wonder how it's possible.  But dissecting them via a storyboard shows the route.

This week's writing exercise is a freewrite that offers a taste of what we explore in the workshop I'll be teaching on July 22 at the Loft.  Set a timer or your phone alarm for 20 minutes and begin a list of the most important events in your life, so far.  No censoring, no editing, no explanations needed, just let it get on the page.  Then begin to ask yourself if any are related or linked.  Can you create a chain of events from several or many?  Do they have a common result or theme, teaching you some important lesson about life? 

And if you're interesting in joining me on July 22, click here to go to the Loft's website for more information.