Thursday, January 26, 2017

When the World Goes to Chaos, Writing Becomes Even More Important--So What's Your Purpose with Your Writing?


I don't know anyone who thinks our world is perfect right now.   My Facebook feed is so disturbing some days, I can't read or post.  I'm not a born activist, but I do have concerns and strong opinions about what's happening nationally and globally, so that's when I turn to my writing.

I know from many published books that writing has an effect on the world.  Just last week I got a letter from a reader of my first novel, Qualities of Light.  She lives in Switzerland and took months to read and study the book (in English, not her native language), and she says she was transformed by the story.  Since the novel was released in 2009, that's a fairly long half-life in publishing.  Still touching a few people here and there, and I'm grateful my words can make a difference.

This week, I'm in Tucson, Arizona, in the middle of the beautiful and peaceful desert, with a group of 13 other writers.  I'm teaching a retreat on book-writing, and the writers come from all different backgrounds and writing genres.  Some are just beginning, some are nearing publication. 

Over dinner, we often discuss the state of the world.  Yesterday, we expanded that into the effect our writing might have on that world.  Writer Toni Morrison is recently famous for saying, "This is precisely the time when artists go to work.  There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear.  We speak, we write, we do language.  That's how civilizations heal." 

So what is your intent, with your writing, in this world we're in? 

Your weekly writing exercise is a break from craft, into the purpose of why you write, why we write.  What's it all about, for you?    

Friday, January 20, 2017

Weaving Storyboards--Which Is Your Dominant Story?

Natalya was in one of my storyboarding classes at Grub Street writing school in Boston a year and a half ago.  She also describes herself as "an avid reader" this blog.  She sent me a very good question about weaving together three storyboards for her current novel.


Storyboards are basic structuring tools that help a writer plot a storyline.  Many books have more than one storyline.  Consider The Time Traveler's Wife, which has three (the current story, the time travel story, the backstory).  How did this author so successful weave these three storylines together, making a cohesive whole?

It's not easy.  It's also impossible for most writers to manage just by writing through the story and never stepping back to examine the structure.

I recommend first creating separate storyboards for each storyline.  You need to be clear that each storyline is strong enough on its own.  Many times I've begun a book and not noticed when one of my storylines dropped out midway through.  Readers will always notice and disengage.  So do the structure work first thing, if you can.

Natalya also has three storyboards for her novel-in-progress.  The first is the storyline of her main character in the present time.  The second storyboard shows the same character during World War II.  She says this backstory is "an integral part of the narrative and requires its own story line vs. being presented as flashbacks."  She also has a third storyboard that shows the "secondary main character or, more precisely, the main character's main helper in the present time."

Her three storyboards seem to work individually, which is great news.  But she is struggling with how to integrate them.
Research comes first.  I always look at other authors when approaching this task.  For instance, how does Anthony Doerr do this in All the Light We Cannot See?  Does he alternate chapters by different narrator, or does he offer a chunk of chapters from one of the storylines?  The Time Traveler's Wife is another good resource.  Two narrators, three different storylines.  How does this author handle it?

There are only a certain number of combinations, so look first at published examples.  Then, try modeling one.  Take your own material and test it out using one of the structures.  If you love Time Traveler's Wife, do exactly the same with your first few chapters as Audrey Niffeneger does with hers.  Test it out.  When does she bring in the backstory storyline, when does she offer a chapter from the female character's point of view, when from the male's?  Mimic the structure and see how you like it.

If that structure doesn't appeal to you, or doesn't really fit your material, try modeling from another book you love.  Usually, within a few tries, I land on a structure that suits my book.  Then I go back to my own material and make that structure my own.  I tweak and change until it's uniquely mine.  It's a tried-and-true technique in many art forms.  Remember, you're only modeling the structure, not the writing itself.

Some writers also like to choose a dominant storyline and place those chapters at pivotal moments in the book (if you're familiar with the W storyboard from my classes, this would be points 1-5).  That cues the reader that this is the most important story.  Usually, that story is the present time one, narrated by the main character. 

Your weekly writing exercise is to try this! 

If you'd like to really practice this and get weekly coaching from me, check out my upcoming online class, Storyboard Your Book! starting on January 25 for eight weeks.  Hopefully, this technique can help other writers struggling with the same question.

Friday, January 13, 2017

When Your Fiction Is Really about You (Even a Little), Do You Need to Protect Yourself?

One of my private coaching clients successfully finished her revision last year.  Her next step was to find close ("beta") readers for the manuscript so she could get feedback on anything else that needed tweaking.


The novel, her first, is loosely based on her own true story.  She chose her sister, two close friends (one of whom was a writer) and her daughter (also a writer).  They read, they commented, but they mostly had concerns about the autobiographical nature of the story. 

My client wrote me:  "A couple of them have asked me whether I want to put this story out there.  The themes are so universal I have never been too worried about [it being autobiographical].  But it has caused me to think about whether I should try to change the location, place names etc.  Or even use a pseudonym.  I know you caution about having family/friends read too soon, perhaps for this type of issue, but I couldn't go much further without this step."

First, readers who know you will ALWAYS wonder if your fiction is autobiographical, even if it's not.  They want to know how you came up with the ideas, how you were able to present them so authentically in the story.  They immediately suspect that if you're writing about divorce with such poignancy, you've been through it too.  It's always been my experience, as a writer. 

It's also a kind of "duh"--authenticity in story comes from two places:  either we lived the experiences or we have compassion and good research skills and can capture the experiences vicariously.  I work with hundreds of writers and easily 75 percent start first novels from a true-life experience. 

Such feedback--do you really want to put this out there?--is valuable because it may be telling you that more revision is needed.  You may still be processing the story.

Early drafts are often processing drafts--the writer is getting the experience on paper for the first time, perhaps, and using the character to understand it.  (This is why many first novels never see the light of day.  We've done our work with them and they don't need to be out there.)  When the processing is over, though, and you are still fascinated with the story, you move to the next step:  How can you make this truly fictional?  Or do you want to publish this as a true-life novel, which is also a respected genre?

Once I've processed the true story behind my fiction, I begin to see what I can change.  I usually change the location, the era (year), the backstory, the gender, and the appearance of characters as much as I can.  An old man becomes a young boy, a small town becomes a village in another country.  As I do this, the story takes wings in a way it couldn't when I was sticking to what really happened.

So, the answer isn't a simple one.  If you are concerned from these kinds of reader questions, ask yourself if you've got anything else you can change.  What are you still wedded to, in the true story?  What can you let go of?  Or are you fine about the autobiographical part being exposed?  Your choice entirely.

An exercise to find the answer:  If you're a fiction writer, choose one of your pieces of writing and go through it as a curious reader might.  Make a list of anything that mimics your own life, in any way.  Then pick three of these items to change.   

Friday, January 6, 2017

How to Succeed at Your New Year's Writing Resolutions--Two Ideas That Actually Work

I like playing with resolutions but I don't have much faith that I'll stick with them.  I usually get a "glory ride" on the new year's enthusiasm for about 30 days.  Then life takes over and crashes my makeover plans.  So I've adopted a different approach, and it seems to work pretty well. 

This week, to welcome in the new year, I wanted to share two ideas I borrowed from other writers.  
They are working quite well to keep my goals moving forward.  Maybe one or both will work for you! 

Borrowed idea #1

Gretchen Rubin, author of many happiness and habit books, has made a study of why we stick to habits and why we break them, so I thought she'd be a good person to consult first.  
She has a cool idea a recent newsletter. Choose a one-word theme to describe your year ahead instead of a long list of things you're going to do better and never do.  For example, her one word is re-purpose, because she wants to focus this year on using what she already has. 

I liked this idea of theme.  Theme can have layers of meaning (subtext).  
I'm toying with discover as my one-word theme. With a focus on discover, I can be a beginner and let myself learn stuff, not have to be the expert.  I can allow myself to explore which new skills could best upgrade my writing.  I can acknowledge that I am having problems with one character's story and rather than feeling stuck, like I should know it, I can begin to ask questions and let myself not know.  I can admit to myself that there's always new tricks to learn in the ever-changing world of publishing and look for experts to help with that.
In other words, I get to let myself off the hook.  Enjoy the discovery process.  Maybe even more than the result!   

Borrowed idea #2

A writing colleague invited me to join a private group for thirty days.  Each day she posted a question for the group to respond to.  We looked at our lives, our goals.  
It didn't take much time.  I got ideas from others' posts.  I liked looking at my own goals in a new way.  I knew it was only for thirty days, so I could engage freely without feeling like I was saying yes to a long-term commitment.  

What I took away:  by limiting my engagement to just one month, it helped me stay connected.  
We're all so busy, and this seemed doable.  
Besides, I know something about myself:  If I see an end ahead, a time of closure, I really try to enjoy a particular experience.  If we're only going to be at the beach for a weekend, I pay attention to the moments even more.  
I began to think about using this idea for short-commitment goals.  Could I choose a three-week challenge for January and pick something I wanted to accomplish with my writing?  Yes!  I chose completing my storyboard for a new novel.  
If this bombs, I'll start a new short-commitment goal in three weeks.  Or try the same one again.  It feels free and fun.  But I think I'll also get something accomplished!   

Resolutions that drag on (a whole year!) are losing propositions to many writers.  But maybe try the theme and the short-commitment goal, see if you can stick with either.  The theme can give you a way to sift your choices this year.  The short-commitment goals can give you a way to apply what you choose.
Either way, you win!  Try one or both this week, for your weekly writing exercise.