Friday, September 29, 2017

An Inventory of Bad Decisions in Your Book--And Why Bad Decisions Make the Best Stories

A student in my classes complained about her writer's block.   She'd started her book with a bang, writing four chapters that just flowed out.   Then, she hit chapter 5.  Stuck. Nothing happened--either on the page or with the pen.

Remembering a friend's motto, "bad decision make the best stories," I suggested this writer inventory the bad decisions in her chapters.

I asked her to make a list of any moment that a choice went awry, that cause led to challenges instead of smoothness.  Search for anything that created unease or more trouble.

I firmly believe the momentum of a story comes from its qualities of risk.  If the writer can edge closer to the edge of her story, she'll naturally create tension in the writing.  It won't feel good, perhaps, especially if she's someone who likes life on an even keel.  But it will raise the stakes, and that's what makes good story. 

This writer was working on her storyboard so she went back to it.  As she reviewed the plot points, she realized nothing big had happened after the great beginning of chapter 1.  She had rationalized that she was saving the big stuff for later. 

But with zero bad decisions, there was also zero momentum.   Very little energy to propel the plot.

As she explained her dilemma and her choices, I realized that this writer is a very nice person.  She believes in a world where most people are good at heart.   She knew she had to get her characters in trouble, but she resisted it in every way.  They were like her, good people too. 
I like her, who wouldn't? And I also believe in that kind of world. But not on paper. Not in fiction or memoir, especially if you want to publish today.
I'm not suggesting you have to make murder and mayhem.  Bad decisions can just be telling a white lie, and watching the consequences unfold.   I asked this writer if she'd ever told a white lie, and she said, "Of course, who hasn't?"
"Find your bad decisions," I suggested. "List them, then transport one into your story."
Finding Bad Decisions--This Week's Writing Exercise
We've all made bad decisions. We've been on the receiving end of other people's, too.  They are hard to forget, no matter how hard we try.

Think of one.  Then remember your "story" after the bad decision.   It probably had drama, movement, energy, and consequences.

That's what you're after in your writing.

This week, write about one really bad decision you made in your life.   Write about it in all its glory.  I like to set a kitchen timer for 15 minutes, to limit the agony.   Maybe you're far enough away to not feel the pain of it again, but if you do feel some embarrassment or unease as you write, good thing--because it'll make the writing that much more emotionally grabbing for a reader.
Now look at your book draft.  List the bad decisions, small and large.  Where are they placed in the plot?  Remember, they are the propellant for your story.  If they are clumped together, they'll create a bang, yes, but the long period of nothing happening that follows the bang will read like a whimper.  Or worse, a flat line. 

If you don't have many bad decisions on your list, make another list.  Write down 10 things your character would never do. (Use this equally for memoir or fiction.)   Now write one scene, one moment, using one item on the list--imagining it happening.  Imagine the bad decision and the shame, embarrassment, bad news that follows.  Cause and effect, right?  That's what story is made of.

See if this provides momentum.   Gets you unstuck.   Out of that "still life."

Friday, September 22, 2017

How Do You Know When to Stop Expanding and Start Revising?

The relationship of writer to book-in-progress reminds me of a marriage.  As opposed to a date. 

Poems, articles, columns, and short stories are all creative commitments, sure.  But  even if they linger unfinished for a while, they are short relationships compared to 350 pages of manuscript. 

With a book, you regularly re-evaluate your progress, your purpose, and your plans.  You recommit again and again.  Not unlike the work it takes to make a marriage work.

Many of my students weary of this.  Is it ever done? they ask.  When is enough, enough? 

Some writers ask this when stuck or bored.  Revising seems like more fun than continuing to draft chapters.   But there is a real moment when the book has expanded as much as it needs to, and only in the more microscopic work of revision can the writer discover the next levels of truth in the story.
A writer from New York, working on his nonfiction book for several years, once sent me a very good question about this:   "At what point does one realize what they are trying to write is the final 'version'?  My subject/point of view has changed several times.  When do I stop?"

As You Evolve, So Does the Book
For me, a book evolves in stages.  There's the initial concept for the story or the method or the idea you want to write about.  You know a limited amount about the characters or the dilemma or the subject, or maybe you know a lot--from research or notes or pieces you've written.  But there's much more to understand, which will only be revealed to you as you build your book.  Unfortunately, there's no predicting exactly how long this will take. 
One of the factors is time.  The more time, the sooner your book will reveal itself.  Back to that analogy about marriage:  If you spend time with your spouse, you get to know each other better.  It's a no brainer in relationships, but writers are often impatient.  Ask yourself truthfully:  How much time have you really put in?  Two hours a week? Less? 

After two years at two faithful hours a week, it would be possible to have a good rough draft.  But unless you have a lot of writing experience already, you may only have that--a rough draft. Why?  A writing colleague put it this way:  "After three days of not writing, it takes a while to get back into my story."  The book disappears from your consciousness after three days, so you may not be able to spend the next writing session actually moving forward.  Rather, you may be spending half or more of it reacquainting yourself with the book.  That's OK--as long as you're aware of it and don't expect miracles.
When I began writing books in the 1980s, I expected miracles.  But I was lucky back then--I worked with editors at the publisher's office.  They helped me evaluate where I was in the journey.  I learned from them, wise souls that they were, about the re-acquainting time that's required after not writing.  I learned that more time goes in to building the first draft than new writers prepare for.  They told me not to be surprised if my books took two to three years before a solid first draft was formed, one that could stand up to revision. 

I learned with each book I published that most need at least a year or two of attentive planning and writing, discovery and exploration of both voice and topic, before I had enough of a manuscript to begin revision.
Which presents the dilemma from my student, above:  Obviously, if two years goes by, you won't stay the same.  Why expect your book to?  If you're prepared for that too--and I wasn't, for my first books, but editors wised me up--you won't be frustrated with the changes that naturally occur. 

Because during this planning and writing stage, books are supposed to change.  They evolve as we get to know them better, as our skills grow, as we get clearer about what is the book and what is not.
Each time I felt my book was ready, each time I got to that point when I thought to myself, Enough! Get the thing out the door, I had an editor to check in with.  Most of the time, he or she pointed out the blind spots that I'd overlooked in my inexperience.  Agents sometimes fill this role.  Coaches and paid editors definitely do. 
So how do you find out, without a publisher's editor, whether your planning and writing stage is indeed over and you're ready to move on to revision?
Revision Is Not Just Editing
This is another lesson I learned the hard way, working with a publisher's editor:  Revision is not simply substantive or copy editing:  cleaning up sentences, fixing typos, and massaging the passages a little.  My editors taught me that copy editing is like the final touch.  It comes just before publishing, only after a manuscript is strong and complete in its content, structure, and language.
Before the editing, comes the revision.  Although it's very important to create clean copy, if a writer tackles  technical work before the book is solid, it's like embroidering curtains on a barely framed house.  Not at all a useful exercise. 
I learned that revision literally means "re-seeing," and this all-important stage is about taking what you've created and seeing it anew, from a new viewpoint.  Whose viewpoint?  The reader's.  Revision is where writer invites reader into the room where the book lives. Then, once the book and the reader get acquainted, the writer leaves.
Robert Olen Butler, who wrote the well-loved writing book From Where You Dream, talks about how hard it is for most writers to actually leave the reader alone with their stories.  Most writers feel the strong need to interpret and tour guide their work to the reader.  You can just feel the presence of a hovering person, wanting to make sure you really understand what this or that passage means.  In revision, this has to go.  You as the writer must let your work live and breathe on its own.   
It's very hard for most writers to tell when they are hovering, interpreting, and otherwise annoying their potential readers.  For this, most of us need feedback.  When I am questioning if my manuscript is ready for revision, I will find three kind readers and formulate three questions for each reader to answer.  I don't need to know if the writing is good or bad--that's irrelevant at this point.  I need to know where the reader stumbles, senses too much of a hovering presence of the writer, loses interest.  These passages exist in all early drafts and readers, if asked, will help you find them.
Then you look at these passages and try to "re-see" them.  What were you intending just there, in the manuscript?  Why didn't your intention reach the reader?  Did you get scared, omit something important, bluster your way through to try to hide it?  This is very common.  Finding these unconscious places is the first step to revision. 
These places are where you lost heart.  You need to go back and put it in, before you go any further. 
Early Drafts Come from the Heart, Revision Comes from the Head
One of my favorite scenes of writing instruction comes from the movie, Finding Forrester.  Forrester, the famous recluse writer, played by Sean Connery, puts a typewriter in front of the young writer Jamal.  Forrester begins to type.  The young writer doesn't.  So Forrester asks, "What are you waiting for?"
"I'm thinking," says the young writer.
Forrester shakes his head.  "No, no.  No thinking.  That comes later."
As they start to type in unison, Forrester slips in these simple instructions.  They explain so clearly the difference between drafting and revision:
"You write your first draft with your heart," Forrester says.  "You revise with your head."
So many of us get this backwards.  We think so much about our early drafts that the pages don't actually contain any heart.  We get down plenty of words, often good words, but unless the writing has meaning, unless it reveals the heart of the writer, we're not going to reach our readers. 
Feedback prior to revision lets me know if there is more heart needed, more revealing that can be done.   It's only after I have given everything I have to the manuscript, that it's ready for the head part, the thinking.
This Week's Writing Exercise
1.  Rent the movie, Finding Forrester.  It's an old one, but it's still around on Netflix and other places (our library has it).  Watch it again, from a writer's point of view.  What can you learn from this fictional character about the process of writing?

2.  If you have a completed draft and you wonder if you're ready for revision, take a deep breath and find three readers to help you.  Avoid choosing immediate family and close friends, especially those who know your book pretty well.  Look for people who can give you an overview. You're going to ask them to read the manuscript and mark in the margins any place where they (1) stumble or (2) want more.  Tell them you aren't looking for fixes, you just want to see where you've lost heart, lost the reader's perspective.  You're asking them just to respond as readers. 

3.  From this review, you'll learn a lot about your book and where it is in the continuum. 

Friday, September 15, 2017

Strictly Accurate Memoir? True-Life Novel? How Close to the Line Do You Ride?

Camilla, a writer in my New York classes many years ago, completed a memoir about her family in Italy during World War II.  I remember it as a rich and interesting tale, full of great descriptions and intriguing characters.  I also remember the dilemma she faced when she began sending it out into the world.

She wrote me, "I have been struggling with pinning down the genre, as memoirs are rarely taken if the person isn't famous.  Although calling it a novel seems untruthful.  In truth it is a bit of a hybrid, with scenes and dialogue created around facts, and my part of the story is 99 percent factual. I spoke with a published author who was very lovely and suggested I call it historical fiction.  Yet is it remote enough in time, being about World War II? 
"And I have all these photographs that kick off some of the chapters.  I think these old photos really add to the story.  Do you think I can get away with calling it family history, and still attract an agent?"
 
The First Big Question:  What's Really True?
Camilla's question is common to many memoirists.  First, we must ask ourselves:  What is a memoir? 

It's a true story, written by the author, about their own life (not an autobiography--not covering an entire life, just a snapshot of it).  Most memoirs revolve around a theme or event.  Because of this, twenty years ago, many booksellers didn't know what to do with the memoir genre.  They shelved memoir with biography and autobiography--because back then only famous people published stories about their own lives. 

Now it's different.  Memoir is hot genre.  It has produced unprecedented scandals and changes in publishing.  Memoirs easily climb to the top of bestseller lists these days, and ordinary (read:  not famous) people with extraordinary events or different perspectives are now welcome by publishers. 
Because it's a hot genre, many writers have tried to climb aboard, with stories that are not really true.  And this has led to the big question:  How much of memoir needs to be true?  How can we really remember accurately?  And how does an honest writer tell an accurate story of her life? 
Reliability of Memory--An Oxymoron?
Patricia Hampl, in her marvelous book I Could Tell You Stories, writes about this dilemma:   "No memoirist writes for long without experiencing an unsettling disbelief about the reliability of memory, a hunch that memory is not, after all, just memory." 
Add to that brain science's recent discoveries that memory changes as we remember something.  What's a memoirist to do?
How it is possible to accurately tell what happened when we were very young, or very traumatized, or very ignorant?
This has provoked wonderful discussions among writers.  Hampl suggests that there are two kinds of truth in writing about real life:
the emotional truth
the factual truth
Learning the difference--and finding out where you stand on the line between the two--is the first step. 
What's in a Name?  Fake Memoirs
Some writers haven't bothered.  They just had a great story to tell, and they really didn't care if it was accurate.  Thus was born the "fake memoir." 
A well-known fake memoirist was James Frey.   His 2003 book, A Million Little Pieces, made it to Oprah's book club, the highest rung on the promotional ladder, until his story was revealed as false and  Oprah denounced him on air. 
Margaret Seltzer followed close behind with her 2008 memoir about growing up in Los Angeles amid gang wars and drug lords, Love and Consequences.  When her sister outed her, saying they had no such background, the published book was pulled from the shelves.   
But this is not new.  Even before these recent scandals were quieter ones:  Two  favorites, The Education of Little Tree (1976) and Mutant Message Down Under (1991), were published as memoirs of life with native populations but turned out to be fictionalized. 
I loved both of these books.  I remember how they held me up during some tough periods in my life, and how it made little difference to me that they were not true life.  The Education of Little Tree was about a boy living with the Cherokees, but actually written by "a former white supremacist," according to Wikipedia.   Shocking, and a betrayal of a reader's faith.  But to be honest, I still loved the book, and I still own a copy.
Who likes to be lied to?   I don't.  I depend on truth, or as close to truth as possible, in what I read. 
But I do love a great story.  I also depend on being moved, emotionally and intellectually and spiritually, by the books I love.
So here's the rub.  The Education of Little Tree, Mutant Message Down Under,  drew me in as a reader.  Good stories, well told.  It pained me to hear what the writer had done, in each case.  But the books still engaged me.  Am I a flawed person to think this?  Hampl might say that I was drawn in by an emotional truth in each book, even as I was later repelled by its falsity in facts.
So there's the line:  Emotional truth and factual truth--where do you comfortably stand, as a writer? 
Back to Camilla's question.
True-Life Novels and Faction Books
Writers, who are delving into the unreliable area of memory, are beginning to wise up, and a new genre is emerging in publishing today:  the true-life novel or faction book. 
Jeannette Walls authored a very popular memoir, The Glass Castle, then went on to write its prequel, Half-Broke Horses.  Although The Glass Castle is labeled as "memoir," and we still assume all those events are true, Half-Broke Horses is called "a true-life novel." 
Walls comments in the introduction that she remembered this story of her grandmother's life, but since she wasn't actually there to hear the dialogue and see the details of facial expression and other facts, she made them up based on what she knew.  And because of this imagining process, it was best to call the book a true-life novel. 
Goodreads, a popular online book-sharing forum, has a "shelf" called True-Life Books, which features Walls's novel, as well as The Diary of Anne Frank, A Child Called It, and Elie Weisel's Night.  Where's the line here, as far as genre?  These last three are classified as memoir, as Walls's latest book is not.  Where's the line? 
Some consider Truman Capote's In Cold Blood a work of journalism and fiction both--"the originator of the nonfiction novel and the forerunner of the New Journalism movement," says one reviewer.
Those who love factual journalism may feel slightly nauseous as we end this discussion.  As a newspaper writer for many years, I can relate. 
"How can you tell what is real anymore, and what is just storytelling?" one student complained.  For factual-truth writers, storytelling is nothing in relation to what is real.  But for other writers, the thing that matters is whether the reader is engaged. 
This comes back to my original question:  where do you stand on the line?

Friday, September 8, 2017

Ten Things I've Learned by Finishing My Novel

In August, I took a month away from work, phones, and other people's writing to focus on the final edits for my novel.  It's been a long, hard, exciting road. 

Looking back, I slightly astonished by how naive I was when I began.  It's been five years in the making, and I couldn't have done it in any less time.  Enthusiasm and determination carried me through the first two years.  I hit bottom then, and I was pulled out by taking writing classes and getting together a feedback group.  They lasted a year or so.  Then I hit bottom again, almost ditched the project.  An agent, who did not end up taking the book, gave me excellent revision ideas.  That flattened me (she wanted another project from me, not this one, but my heart was in this book and I had to finish it).  But eventually I picked myself up and started the revisions.  I realized I needed more skill in certain areas, so I found yet another group of writing partners and a for-hire editor to learn from.  Two more years of revision and I feel confident enough to send it to my beta readers and begin the search for an agent now that mine has retired. 

But I wanted to pause, celebrate the milestone.  I remembered a cool writing exercise shared by a friend long ago, and it filled the bill. 

I'll post my own responses, then you can consider what you'd say about your book--no matter where you are in its conception or manifestation or publication process.
Acknowledging Your Progress:  A Writing Exercise 
1.  Look back on the time you've been working on this book.  It may be months or many years.  Consider who you were, as a writer, when you began, and what you know now.  
2.  Write a list of ten things you've learned. 
3.  Spend time reflecting on these, how valuable they are, how hard won, how easy. 

Note:  It may feel too self-congratulatory to attempt this.  Don't bother about that.  It's supposed to be a moment of congratulations and acknowledgement.  All writers need this kind of shine occasionally.  It doesn't mean you're getting a big head--we all know writing is hard. 
My list:
1.  One of the reasons I read is for meaning, or how the river of a theme runs under a good story.  In the beginning, I had a certain vision for my book's theme.  I learned how much bigger it was, as I revised.  I learned how to let it grow organically, which isn't easy!   
2.  This project was the most complicated I've ever tried, in terms of plot and multiple narrative voices.  It demanded much more drafting, structuring, and revising time.  I anticipated two years; it took five.  I learned patience with my own process.

3.  The characters surprised me.  Like getting to know people in real life, it took time to get to know their motivations, longings, and secrets.  I learned the most about my characters from my readers.  I learned to listen to my readers.   

4.  The original story line is vastly different from what the book became.  I had to start somewhere, but then let it grow into its own uniqueness.  I learned how hard it is for writers to give up their original vision--a painful process that took time and lots of help.  What we don't know we don't know, eh? 

5.  I had to be willing to be vulnerable on the page.  A lot of my truths, my life values, got woven into the story.  Not facts but truths.  I felt very exposed at times and I had to sit with that, decide if it was OK, dial it back if needed. 

6.  It took a LOT of editing.  I spent months just reading the pages out loud and wordsmithing.  My standards are much higher than they ever were.  I wanted it to be the best it could.  I learned how much time this takes.

7.  It also took a lot of fact checking and research.  Thanks to the keen eyes of my writing partners and experts I consulted, I think I got crash landings, explosions, and other oddities accurate on the page. 

8.  I needed a lot of rest breaks.  And new readers when my writing groups, sadly, disbanded.  I started taking classes to meet new feedback partners and fresh readers.  I learned to risk seeking them out.

9.  I learned how to pace myself for the long haul--not a skill I've excelled at much of my life (I tend to write for hours, forgetting to eat, sleep, fill in the blank).   I learned to set a timer for 45 minutes (a great amount of time to stay focused) and take a water or stretch break, or just look around and remember where I was.

10.  I needed community more than I realized.  I took steps to find others at my experience level and talk about the writing life, to get ideas and encouragement.  Writers can't go it alone and stay whole; we need other writers more than we know.

What are your 10?