Friday, November 17, 2017

How to Get Enough Distance from Your Story to Actually Write It

In January 2001, physician and writer, Therese Zink, lived through a traumatic experience:  While on an international aid mission in Chechnya, her boss was kidnapped.  "That experience got me writing," Therese says.  "I'd kept a journal since a creative-writing class in high school twenty-some years earlier and dabbled at times with more creative efforts. But after the kidnapping, I had to write."

Little did she know how long it would take her to learn to write and to tell that story.

Even if you know an event in your life will make a great story, to craft a strong story arc (events) as well as narrative arc (growth of narrator), distance from the real-life event is essential.  Writers can't get the reader's perspective when they're too caught up in "This really happened!" defenses.  It takes time and distance to objectively see what will work and what won't--as well as figure out a way to tell the story so there's universal appeal.  Which Therese has done in her new novel, Mission Chechnya.  

I met Therese in a book-structuring class I taught at the Loft and had the pleasure of helping her with her manuscript in its early drafts.   I've always admired Therese's persistence--how she managed to keep writing despite her demanding full-time job, how she kept the story alive in her mind while she gained enough perspective and distance from it to write it well.  Now that Mission Chechnya is published, I wanted to interview her about her particular brand of persistence--since so many writers struggle to find both time and perspective to complete a book that's based on true events.    

How did you get this book done?   What did it take, specifically?

You've likely heard about Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule--"10,000 hours of deliberate practice are needed to become world-class in any field."  That's a full-time job for nearly five years, or part-time for ten. And if you work full-time, like me, the routine of early-morning, twenty- to thirty-minute sessions, and longer weekend or vacation-day efforts too, are important. 

There have been disputes about the 10,000 hour rule, but the point I want to make is the importance of showing up, fingers to keyboard, on a regular basis. Some days it was easier to do this, but every effort counted and often my twenty minutes left me with a plot question or a character detail that I would carry with me. The way my subconscious mind works, and probably yours, is that I often stumbled over solutions later that day.

Did you realize you needed support--and training--to write this book?

Writing classes and a community of writers is so important. I had a story to tell, but in order to make it interesting to others, I needed to find the inner story that linked with the greater human dilemmas in life. I took in-person and virtual classes, a number from you, and teachers and classmates helped me understand how to "show, not tell" and how to create interesting characters and the arc of the story. Fellow writers made suggestions about characters, how to phrase something, or a plot twist that were invaluable.  

As I became a better writer, I was more able to hear and accept critical feedback. At times, I put the Chechnya story aside and worked on shorter creative nonfiction pieces. I had some success with publications in journals and contests which built my confidence.  

Many writers who are working from real life have trouble getting enough distance from their story.  How did you gain the necessary distance to write this book?

Initially, my book was a memoir, but I came to understand that it didn't work in that genre. It was too hard to protect my colleagues and myself and create a story arc that kept the reader engaged.  

About halfway through my writing efforts, I switched to fiction. At first, it
was tough:  I had to continually divorce myself from real-life characters and what really happened, to create a fictional story.  It was a process of "killing my darlings" and jettisoning scenes that happened but didn't serve the story.  Your class helped boatloads, and feedback from fellow writers and you helped me craft good characters and a page-turning story--I think and hope!  I used storyboarding and kept at it.  And at it, and at it.  Persistence is what mattered in the end. 

But even after working hard for quite a while, I realized I still didn't have the characters to tell the story.  So I ended up putting the kidnapping story aside to write a different novel.  It became the first novel of my international-aid adventure series:  The Dr. Ann McLannly Global Health books.   Each novel places Ann in a different humanitarian crisis around the world.  

As I wrote the first, Mission Rwanda, I worked out Ann's character.  Then I could bring her to Mission Chechnya, and with persistence, and feedback from teachers and other students, finally crafted the kidnapping story.   As I said, it was much harder to write than I imagined, mostly because I had to let go of scenes and events I was attached to, events that really happened, but did not serve the story. 

This book took me seventeen years to write.   Even as I write that, I can't believe it.  But I persisted, and now it's published. 

How does it feel to have it published?

It was a relief to finish the book and incorporate the feedback of my beta-readers, copy editors, etc. As with the first novel, I decided to self-publish given the current dynamics of the publishing world and I was ready to move onto novel three.  

Distance helped me craft a better tale and gave me the time I needed to get to know my main character well enough to write a convincing story about what really happened--and how it became fiction. 

"Chechnya and Russia are more important on the world stage in 2017 than they were ten years ago," she added.  And I agree:  It's a timely novel.  

If you'd like to read a copy of Therese's novel, click here for more details.

The blog will be on pause next week for the Thanksgiving holiday.  Enjoy!

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Magic of Showing Up--How to Design and Commit to a Writing Practice

What's the difference between a writer who gets a book finished and a writer who never does?  A writing practice.  Believe it--there's nothing more important.  Not talent, not a great idea.  It's down to basics:  putting self in chair, putting hands on keyboard or taking up the pen, and staying there past all the internal whining and doubt and misery to actually put words on the page.

But we all whine.  We all get up and sharpen every pencil in the house sometimes, instead of writing.   
My two-favorite motivational books to keep me writing are Ron Carlson Writes a Story and Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.  So this week, as a cold hovered and temps dropped outside, I got them out.  Each has so much compassion for the distractions a writer must overcome to have a good writing practice and actually finish a book.  But they also have enough practical techniques to really use.
Ron Carlson is a prolific short-story writer.  If you haven't read "Big Foot Stole My Wife" or other stories by him, do a google search and find them.  In his tiny book, Ron Carlson Writes a Story, he takes us through a day in the life, including all the distractions a person could imagine.  It's funny, it's charming, and it's oh-so-true, but each time I read it, I get back in the chair.  I'm inspired to write.  So it works.
Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic is much less whimsical.  Gilbert has produced well in her writing career.  She has had huge successes (Eat, Pray, Love) and lesser ones.  Gilbert's no stranger to the magic of the Muse, but she defines it differently.  She is all about listening.  Developing a listening practice, so you hear what to write about.  And using what you hear within a rock-solid writing routine.  Gilbert's theory:  there are great ideas out there, waiting for writers to receive them.  Those who listen, get the idea.  But that's only the first step.  Once you hear the call, you actually have to write. Regularly.  The idea will grow as you do your writing routine.  The book will happen.
If you get bored, tired, distracted, the idea will wait around for a while, Gilbert says.  But eventually it'll go find someone else to listen.  She saw this happen with a great book idea that came to her many years ago. 

She was excited, started writing, then dropped it for two years.  Not long after, she heard from her friend, the writer Ann Patchett.  Patchett was writing a new novel, about the exact same idea.  How was that possible?  Gilbert had told no one of her book-in-progress.  Neither had Patchett.  Years had gone by. But there it was.

It convinced Gilbert that ideas wait, latch on, then leave if we are not writing regularly.   

Carlson's approach is much more about showing up and doing the work.  Less about waiting and more about acting.  This appeals to me on days when I'm generally irritated by my writing, by elusive ideas that I can't quite grasp, and by my critical inner voice which questions the worth of any of it.  His theory is that if you show up and just begin to write, you'll get there.  He encourages me to not make too much of this.  It's not a mystery.

I like and use both approaches.  But mostly I try to keep a writing practice going.

Here are some tips I've shared with my classes about finding and sustaining a writing practice.  It's gotten me to finish many books:

1.  Decide how you're best motivated.  Do you work well with deadlines?  Do you write better if you know you'll be getting feedback?  Do you write because you have something to get out?  Do you love crossing "good writing days" off a calendar?  What's driving this book?  If you can figure that out, use it to keep yourself honest.  As a journalist for many decades, I work best with deadlines, so I set up artificial ones with writing partners or by taking classes where I have to produce.  Nothing spurs me on faster.  But that might not work work you.  What keeps you going, despite your doubts or distractions?  if you're a time or page writer. 

2.  Some writers feel successful with their practice if they put in a certain amount of time each day or each writing session.  Others don't care about time but require a certain number of words or pages (NaNoWriMo is all about this).  Find out what feels satisfying to you.  Make a goal that's reasonable, given your life--not wishful thinking.  For many years, I wrote five pages a day as my goal.  I didn't care about the quality but I felt happy each time I achieved that.  Eventually, I had manuscripts.

3.  Recognize the value of non-writing or musing time.  Something you can do solo and let ideas bubble up.  For me, it's a daily walk.  I like to walk and think about my story.  Often, problems work out.  But just getting outside, breathing the air, and moving my body settles me into a rhythm that always helps my writing practice.

4.  Life interferes with a writing practice.  You get sick, your friend needs help, your kids mess up, work gets crazy.  Train yourself not to need absolute quiet or solitude or long uninterrupted periods to do your writing practice.  Grab what you can--a commute with a voice memo to record ideas, an hour at a coffee shop on the way home from an appointment, even the middle of the night if you can't sleep.  Touch in with the book every day. 
Your Weekly Writing Exercise
If you haven't read Big Magic or Ron Carlson Writes a Story, grab a copy and immerse yourself.  Then think about the four tips, above.  Which one could you test out this week, to refine or start a writing practice that might carry you through winter?

Friday, November 3, 2017

Pros and Cons of Using Past or Present Tense

A blog reader sent me a great question this week:  "My writing group discussed present versus past tense when writing memoir.  A group member's editor had her switch her present tense chapters to past tense.  She had some of each.  Are there virtues of each or should memoir always be past tense?"
I get this question a lot in classes, so it's always good to know the pros and cons of using past or present tense.   
Just to recap, we're talking about verb tense here.  Past tense sentence:  John went to the game and arrived late.  Present tense of the same sentence:  John goes to the game and arrives late.
Although it's risky to make such a blanket statement, I'd say that novels and memoirs have been written almost exclusively in past tense for as long as literature has been published.   It was the way to write.  Then writers, who love to experiment, began writing a little in present tense, here and there.  It was different, startling at first to readers.  Present tense is TENSE!  It's more in your face, more breathless.  But so is our world now, so modern literature, both memoir and novels, are written in both past and present tense now. 
Are there rules?  Not really.  Are there effects on both reader and writer?  Definitely.  It pays to know them, so you can choose consciously.
Past tense disappears; it's so usual, we don't even notice it. 
And while present tense is immediate, fast, a little more energetic, in your face, breathless, as said above, it calls attention to itself.  Sometimes, it comes across like a "device" the writer is using rather than an integrated part of the story.  It's a style, like using no quote marks for dialogue.  All styles call attention to themselves and have to serve the story to be justified.

If an editor says, Go back to past tense, it might be for this reason.  I'm just guessing because I don't know the manuscript, but that would be one of the concerns I'd have, as an editor.  Is present tense serving the story or is it louder than the story?


1.  Some writers use present tense as a tool to get immediacy in the story.  Like, rewriting a chapter in present tense can give a whole new perspective and more energy if you're stuck.  I love using present tense for this reason, but I usually switch back. 

2.  A friend just got her book accepted--it's very edgy fiction and it's written in present tense.  The tense emphasizes the already edgy plot.  So it works.
3.  Some writers who use flashbacks choose one tense for the main story and the other for the flashback.  This is tricky but it's great if you can pull it off.

Mostly, find what works for you.  Read writers who write in either tense and see what effect you feel from the writing.