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!