Friday, September 14, 2018

What's the Primary Environment of Your Book--Physically, Emotionally, Intellectually, Spiritually?

A new author wrote me this week.  She'd read my writing-craft book, Your Book Starts Here, and it helped her realize which book project she needed to focus on first:  a self-help/memoir hybrid.  But she was confused by my chapter on finding the primary environment of your story.  How did this apply to her book?

Every book has an environment that it lives in.  I think of it like a lab where the experiment lives in a beaker or container.  Everything happens within that container.  

It's easy to imagine the container of a novel:  it's the physical setting, the culture a family or community, the era when it takes place.  A story that takes place in the sixties in the U.S. has a different container than a sci-fi novel.  In memoir, same thing.  Our memoirs are particular to our personal stories--wherever they take place.  I think of a memoir written about civil war in Rhodesia (Alexandra Fuller's Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight) compared to a memoir about being a scientist (Hope Jahren's Lab Girl).  Really different containers.  

So, hopefully, we're on the same page thus far.  Let's look at nonfiction next--the self-help twist of this author's book and what it brings to the container question.

Her book chronicles a weight-loss journey, the memoir part, but it also delivers information and encouragement to others on such a journey, which is the nonfiction part.  This writer says there are a lot of "environments" in the book:  thoughts, emotions, and the physical environment of her experience of weight loss.  That's all good--the memoir side of her equation would include stories about her journey.  She says, "My project seems to lean more toward inner story, but I don't want to ignore the outer story," and that's important.  Readers will need to have illustrations of her experiences, which are anecdotes or actual examples of times she struggled or was victorious or learned something new.  

Rather than just telling us a realization, self-help/memoir hybrids show us these turning points through actual stories.  How is this done?

Recently I reread Brene Brown's self-help book, Braving the Wilderness.  It seems informational at first glance but if you study her chapters, you'll see story occupies at least 50 percent of the page space.  Which is a great ratio to shoot for with any nonfiction hybrid.  Brown's own stories are there, plus anecdotes from other people she knows or has read about.  These stories humanize the information, so readers don't feel they're being lectured to.  She's an expert but the expertise comes to us in a very digestible form.  That's the ideal 50-50 balance of outer story and inner story for this genre.

So, then, what's the environment of such a book?  You only have to look at the title to see it:  the wilderness.  It's all about the wilderness of the world right now, the metaphor of things being wild and out of the norms of control that we've grown used to.  Her stories all take place in the "container" of wilderness.  Not all literal wilderness in nature, but psychological, spiritual, and emotional wilderness.  

How might this take-away transfer to my reader's weight-loss book?  I'll put my own spin on this, and she can see if it works for her or gives her an idea of where to go to find her own.

In a weight-loss journey, you let go of what you no longer need to carry.  You also possibly embrace a new image of yourself.  It might feel uncomfortable, unprotected, or at least unfamiliar to live without the weight you're used to carrying.   You have to get used to new movements, new look, new clothes, maybe taking up less space physically and otherwise.  These are all my thoughts, and she will have her own, since every journey and every book is different.  But whatever she comes to, she can jump right in to imagining the "environment" of her weight-loss book and choose stories and examples that connect around it.  

Examine any published hybrid (memoir/self-help or some similar combination) and you'll see a container.  It might look like the book's message, or theme.  But if it's well structured, the stories and examples will all connect to this container, as Brown's wilderness container holds all of her stories.   

Good question, slightly complicated answer.  If this is the genre of your book, take time this week to browse online or in a bookstore for published titles in that same genre.  See if you can discern the container, the primary environment, of these books.  Chances are, they got published because the agent/editor/publisher could.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Beta Readers--Who Are They, How Do They Help Your Book, How to Find Them

Linda is closing in on the finish line with her memoir and sent a great question this week:  "I'd like to hear what you have to say about beta readers, particularly if it's a good idea to find complete strangers or folks I've already worked with (such as from online classes).  Who makes good beta readers?"

I first heard the term "beta readers" at a writing conference many years ago.  Just like beta testers for software, beta readers are an important part of the book writing process before you "release" your product into the world, either through indie or traditional (agented or small press) publishing.  

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Four Stages of Writing Practice--Where We Are Strong and Where We Can Fall Down


I was asked to teach a workshop on the stages of creative practice.  I spent weeks thinking about my own writing practice, and what I've witnessed in students, clients, and colleagues over twenty some years of teaching.  Are there stages of anyone's practice, and what did this mean?  Scouring the internet didn't help.  Many writers discussed their practice--how they approach their writing each day--but few had distinct steps.  Some had rituals.  Some knew how to begin or end.  But what about the murky middle, when you're in the midst of writing and things aren't going well?  

I took it as a laboratory experiment.  I began making notes about what happened when I sat down to write.  Where did I move from one kind of activity, internal or external, into another?  

Friday, August 24, 2018

Readers Don't Care Who Publishes Your Book--Really!

One of my private amusements is the serendipity surrounding how well my different books sell, or not.  And how that really doesn't align with who published it.  A writing friend was bemoaning this with me, feeling bad about her small press status versus a Big Five publisher.  But her book has sold well, very well.  While other writers I know, published by a top echelon press, sell fewer copies. 

Friday, August 17, 2018

How Much Research Is Really Enough? Building Worlds, Bringing Back Worlds

A writer from Minneapolis recently sent me a good question about research.  He wondered how much and what kind of research a writer should do when writing historical novels.  I've gotten the same question from writers working on fantasy or sci-fi novels.  When is enough, enough?  When do you stop researching and start writing?  Or vice versa?

Friday, August 10, 2018

Wounding Event--The Backstory That Drives Your Narrator

A short post this week:  I'm just returning from teaching at a writing retreat and wanted to share this article in Fiction Writers Review by Michelle Hoover, on the wounding event, a pivotal moment of backstory that drives much of the internal quest of your narrator.  If you have trouble accessing the link, go to www.fictionwritersreview.com and search for "wounding event."

Friday, July 27, 2018

Unlearning How to Write Your Book--What You Need to Forget You Knew

In May, at Grub Street's annual writing conference, The Muse and the Marketplace, I sat in on a lively workshop taught by writer Steve Almond.  If you've heard of The Rumpus's "Dear Sugar," you'll know Steve (and his co-writer, Cheryl Strayed).  His workshop was about stuff we know that we need to unlearn.  Forget.  Let go of.  Set aside.  He focused specifically on a rule that's dear to many writers, "show, don't tell."  Steve feels this is a crock and he's not mincing words to tell you why.  We ran through examples from published authors who used telling skillfully--and some examples of showing that didn't make the mark at all.

Friday, July 13, 2018

How Close Are You to Your 10,000 Hours? Viewing Writing as Practice

On our fridge we have a New Yorker cartoon.  A dog is sitting on a mountain ledge at the feet of his guru.  The caption reads:  "The bone is not the reward--digging for the bone is the reward."  I keep it there to keep me humble.  About my writing, and my 10,000 hours.

A past MISA student sent me a great article about this (thanks, Tom!).  As a beginner so many times during my life--in writing, in playing a musical instrument, in kayaking, in painting--I know well the impatience we can have to have it all now.  To be good enough immediately, to show unexpected genius, to land that incredible deal, because we have such innate skills.  We want to not practice writing, we want to just be a great writer.  Right?

Moving from Writer to Reader View: Revision Steps to Make Your Book Stand Out

Books enter our lives in distinct stages.  First comes the wild idea.  It grows gradually in the inner room of your creative self, until you can't ignore it.  You have to get it down.  This burst of energy propels you through an important starting gate--past ideas ruminating inside to ideas on the page.  Maybe they're externalized for the first time, and they generate other ideas.  You write for months, years, whatever it takes to shape your vision.  This initial timeline is very individual:  if it's your first book, you may need a lot of time to dream.  Or, if it's been generating inside for years, it may come forth in a mad rush.  

It's exciting, this idea to vision stage.  And eventually, you have a draft.  It's way rough (I love writer Anne Lamott's name for it:  shitty first draft), but without it, you ain't got nothing, as they say.  So you start here. 

Friday, July 6, 2018

Fueled from Within or Without--How Does Your Narrator Move the Story Along?

As I often do when I need a jump start into a new book I'm writing, I signed up for an online class this summer.  My class is good, with writers of varied skills and experiences, all exploring new narrators, characters, plots, and other ideas for their next manuscript.  

Our instructor assigned us a well-reviewed contemporary novel to read and analyze during the course:  Chemistry by Weike Wang.  It's generated a lively discussion, because, well, the narrator isn't lively at all.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Backstory--A New Take on Its Usefulness in Memoir and Fiction

I "grew up" as a writer in the era of NO BACKSTORY ALLOWED.  I was given examples of stories and books that had zero backstory and engaged readers completely.  So I worked hard to eliminate any pesky references to the past--whether summarized as backstory (background of the story) or presented as flashbacks in scene.

I got published, and all was well in my writing life sans backstory for many years.  Flash forward to my MFA experience and advisers who began to cure me of my antagonistic attitude towards stalling out scene with flashback or inserting large swaths of the past as summary.  These writers hinted that backstory was important, even as an explanation of character motive.  Why people do what they do was becoming more interesting to readers than what they did.

Friday, June 22, 2018

100 Things about Writing a Novel--Wisdom from Alexander Chee

I've long admired the novelist Alexander Chee, not just for his writing, but for his approach to writing.  It's sensible, it works, and he shares his tips and ideas generously.

I'm taking an online course with Grub Street to kick start my next book, and the instructor, Alison Murphy, shared a wonderful article from the Yale Reviewwhere Chee offers 100 things he's found about writing a novel.  The insights are so useful, and not just to novelists but anyone writing a book-length work, that I thought I'd share as this week's writing exercise.  

Click here to read the article.  (If for any reason the link doesn't work, go to yalereview.yale.edu and search for Alexander Chee. Enjoy!

Friday, June 15, 2018

Querying Too Soon: We've All Done It, Here's How to Avoid the Temptation

You've been working hard on your manuscript and it feels in reasonable shape.  Plus, you're reading articles and books about writing the perfect query letter.  A sort of urgency, maybe even FOMO (fear of missing out), is growing inside.  Is it too soon to begin the query process?

An all-important question.  I can almost predict when a writer will ask it.  What stage of manuscript, what stage of experience.  I've asked it myself many times--because it's almost impossible to know when is too soon, when is too late.  I'll share some of what I've learned in my own publishing journey and advice from those who have an inside view.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Battling Your Inner Critic or Making Friends with It--What Keeps You Writing the Most?

Everyone faces the Inner Critic, no matter how experienced they are.  Professional writers, even those who have published widely and won awards, might give it names.  Sue Grafton calls hers "the ego," the part that's always concerned with "how are we doing?"  I think of mine as an elderly, worried aunt, trying to keep me safe. Some Inner Critics are funny, joking with you inside your head as they mess with your mind--maybe teasing you about taking writing so seriously.  Most are discouraging, even menacing.  

But rarely is this inner voice truthful--its job is to sabotage all efforts to create art, to do anything with our writing that takes us out of the known and acceptable.  

So why is such an obstacle there, in the first place?  Is there a chance we, ourselves, create that critical voice? And is there any way to make friends with it, silence it enough so we can keep on writing?

Friday, June 1, 2018

How Do You Procrastinate? Tips to Recognize How You Avoid Your Writing and What to Do about It

Many writers I talk with are masters at procrastination, yet they manage to complete and publish books regularly.  What's that about?  

Here's what I've learned:

* they've also mastered a particular kind of self-talk
* they use routines or disciplines
* they work with self-imposed or other-imposed deadlines
* they promise themselves rewards when they meet a writing goal  

I know about these. 

Friday, May 25, 2018

Interview with Chris Jones--Behind the Book: Eleven Authors on Their Path to Publication

I'm always fascinated with how debut authors make it into print.  And I know and respect Chris Mackenzie Jones from my years of teaching for the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, where he works.  So when his new book came out last month, I was keen to find out how he did it.  Below is an interview with Chris which explains his idea for the book, how he found an agent and publisher, and what happened during the editing process.

Tell us how you came to write this book.  Did you see a need for it? Was it a subject that fascinated you?  
In my almost nine years at the Loft Literary Center, I've run into hundreds-maybe thousands-of aspiring writers. I've listened to their ideas, questions, confusions, and doubts. And one of the things that became apparent to me over these years is that there are blind spots for most writers as they try to publish a first book.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Charts and Lists: The Fun of Organizing Your Story Structure

This week, I've been studying a page from the book-structure chart used by mega-successful author, J.K. Rowling, for her Harry Potter stories.  You can access it here.  The chart is handwritten and hard to read, but it's fascinating to see what she uses to keep an overview of her story.  (Thanks to Rita, one of my private clients, for sharing the link.)

So many published writers, when interviewed, talk about the need to organize their story structure.  Storyboards are useful to a point.  But charts and lists come in very handy when the first draft is complete and you're on to revision.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Writing about Your Life--The Good, the Hard, and the Beautiful


Two of my students/clients have just published memoirs this month.  Both have compelling--and difficult--stories to tell. The process of writing about your life for publication is not for the faint-hearted, as Chris Bauer and Mary Knutson can attest.

I also know their books have taken a lot of time, years, in fact. They have each experienced discouragement and exhilaration. I interviewed them for my blog this week, knowing they'd have good insights to share.

Friday, May 4, 2018

How to Deal with Memory and Emotions When Writing a Memoir

Several clients have emailed me lately, asking how to deal with the flood of emotions that comes with writing memoir.  "Memories bring back the feelings, especially traumatic ones, and I get stalled out with my writing," said one client recently. "Do you have any tips for handling these overwhelming emotions so I can keep writing?"

I'm very familiar with that internal flood.  When I was writing my second memoir (a spirituality memoir with self-help components called How to Master Change in Your Life), I remember working on a chapter about business failure and bankruptcy.  Reliving that terrible time was so difficult, I actually had to run to the bathroom and throw up.  Other times I'd get so stuck, I couldn't write one word.

Friday, April 27, 2018

False Agreements, Misbeliefs, Core Misunderstandings--How They Drive the People and the Plot in Your Book

For my birthday this month, I got an anniversary copy of A Wrinkle in Time. It has been a LONG time since I read that book, but I loved it. Basic reason: the characters are unforgettable. Especially the narrator, Meg. I enjoyed revisiting her story and considering the false agreement that makes her so memorable.

False agreements are where characters start out in a story. It's the belief they have about the world, which is usually limited or not entirely true. The false agreement drives the character's journey to a larger consciousness. That's why many of us read--to find out what they'll do, as they face the limits of their false agreement. 

Friday, April 20, 2018

How I Got My Agent--An Interview with Debut Author Kathleen West

Kathleen West came to several of my online classes in the early days of writing her first novel.  She got structuring help and good feedback, and later we worked together privately to help her develop the character arcs for the multiple points of view in her woven narrative. After four months, she felt ready to finish revising on her own and start querying agents.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Imagine Finishing Your Book! A Three-Part Exercise for Encouragement

When the book journey feels way too long and the end is nowhere in sight, I use this short but encouraging exercise to help me vision my way to finishing my book.  You may not need it now, if you're rocking along.  But there may be a time when it's useful.  It has been for many of my clients who get stuck in the doldrums of are-we-there-yet?

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Chapterettes, Prologues, Introductions, and Other Spare Parts--What Purpose Can They Serve in a Book?

I happen to love small pieces of books:  prologues, introductions, forewords, even epilogues, and epigraphs (those quotes or small things planted before each chapter).  Such add-ons often get derided in writing classes, but they still serve a unique purpose. 

I fought one of my MFA advisers who hated the idea of a prologue in my young-adult novel, and won--it got published to good reviews.  
No one complained about the prologue, which ran two pages at most. 

So why so many warnings and controversies?  What do these small elements contribute to a book and why would a writer be wary of them? 

Friday, March 30, 2018

Too Much Reflection? How to Make Sure Your Story Doesn't Stall Out


One of my blog readers sent me a wonderful question last week.  It's a question that many writers struggle to answer.  It had come to mind when she read my post a few weeks ago about creating enough pauses for meaning within the flurry of events in your story.

But what about the opposite? she wondered.  If you're not an event writer, and maybe you write in too many pauses, how do you work with that tendency? 

Friday, March 23, 2018

Building the "Why" of Your Story--Inner and Outer Purpose for Characters Is the Key

Characters are it, in both fiction and memoir, if you want to publish.  Of course you have to have a good plot, something happening.  And your characters have to be externalized enough that we readers feel they're believable, interesting, intriguing.  But characters drive a story, and no more than in today's publishing market.

Several of my clients have had happy news these past weeks--agents or book contracts--and almost all of them have emailed me about their agent or editor loving the characters.  Those who get rejections know that this is also the most common complaint:  I just didn't fall in love with your characters.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Finding the Best "Triggering Event" for Your Book--How to Launch Your Story

In two weeks, on Friday, March 30, I'll be teaching an all-day workshop at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.  We'll examine book structure:  what makes a book successful, in terms of its structure, and how can you choose the pivotal moments in your story wisely?  Many books are beautifully written but poorly structured, and many writers haven't a clue as to how to fix that. 

Friday, March 9, 2018

Can First Chapters Ever Be TOO Dramatic?

Writing teachers and writing classes-- if you've worked with either, if you've shared your writing for feedback, you've probably heard the golden rule of first chapters.  They need to have something happen.  Preferably something outwardly dramatic.


It's called a triggering event, and it literally triggers your story.  Here are some classic examples:

Friday, March 2, 2018

Creating Pause in Your Action--When and How to Let the Reader Linger without Losing Momentum

A blog reader sent in this fascinating question:
How can "event writers" develop stationary moments in their narrative and sections in their books where the main characters reflect on the meaning of what happens?  What's the purpose of this, and what's is benefit to the story?

This is a question about pacing, but it also hints at our natural preferences as writers, to write certain kinds of scenes. 

Friday, February 23, 2018

Winding Up for the Pitch--How to Craft a Winning Query Letter

Several of my private clients are completing their manuscripts this month, getting ready to pitch to agents at one of the large writing conferences happening in April:  The Loft Literary Center's Pitch Conference, April 20-21, in Minneapolis, and Grub Street's The Muse and the Marketplace, April 6-8, in Boston.

Writers can meet with agents and "pitch" their book--or give a short description designed to spark an agent's interest.  Some pitch sessions permit a written query letter and sample of your writing, others just allow you to pitch verbally. 
 
Most writers agree that crafting a winning query letter is all important.  Even if your pitch is verbal, the query can help you figure out how best to describe your book in a unique, interesting way.  Agents often receive hundreds of these a week.  How do you make sure that yours stands out?

Friday, February 16, 2018

How to Choose Good Writing Partners--Making the Process Less Trial-and-Error

They say it takes a lot of support to write a book--the process is long, hard, and personal for most writers.  We need encouraging words and people who believe in what we're doing, so we can keep doing it when the journey feels useless.  I know most writers who complete books gather a team of supporters by the end.  Supporters like writing groups, writing partners, or hired editors/coaches. I don't know many who get published without this kind of backup.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Writing Amazing, Authentic Dialogue--Hard to Learn, Vital to Know

Writing dialogue should be easy, right?  Most of us talk.  We text, we email, we use words in conversation all the time.  We listen (sometimes) to other people talking.  Dialogue runs through our thoughts all day, every day.  So why isn't dialogue on the page just a matter of listening well and copying down what we hear?
 
Literature has different rules than real life--obviously.  So dialogue on the page also has different rules than spoken dialogue. 

Friday, February 2, 2018

How Do I Know When I'm Done? Five Stages of Writing a Book

A past student from my Madeline Island retreats emailed me recently with a great question.  It's one most writers struggle with:  How do I know when my book is actually finished?   "An overarching question I find more difficult," she says, "is whether it could ever be ready. Some things may not be worth the effort or the money. Is it better to pay someone willing to say yea or nay first or does that have to go together with sending it out for paid editing?"

Friday, January 26, 2018

Walking--Why It Helps Me Write My Books

Not everyone will agree with this post, so skip it if you already know it's not your thing.  Walking has saved my writing life this week.  Even though I live in snow country, northern New England, and we've been hit with a series of snowstorms these past weeks, I have to walk.  It keeps me sane when I'm working out a gnarly problem with a story.
Julia Cameron made a big deal of walking in her sequels to The Artist's Way, which many of you read, as I did, to recover our blocked inner artist.  I thought, yeah, OK, when I first saw "daily walk" up there with "morning pages" and "artist's date."  I liked to walk, but not every day and certainly not as part of my writing routine.   
These past months have changed my mind.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Refueling Your Creativity--How to Plan in Recovery Time as You Write (and Finish) Your Book

Two of my private clients just completed their books.  A time for celebration, since they both worked extremely hard for the past year or more.  One of them, a first-time novelist, wrote me this week about how stunned she feels and how little creativity she can muster in other areas of her life.  She's a parent, great cook, and gardener, but nothing is feeling charged with energy at the moment.
She's happy her book is done--at last!--but worries about her lack of umph.  Is this normal?  Shouldn't she be gung-ho on the next project, so as not to lose momentum?

Friday, January 12, 2018

If It Doesn't Further the Conflict, Should You Leave It Out?

A writer who attended my retreat/workshop in Tucson recently emailed me with a great question.  It addresses an important choice that writers face every time they work on their books:  what to include and what to omit.
She asked:  "What happens when there is an event or narrative that reflects my theme but doesn't have enough conflict to carry the story forward.  Should I exclude it?"  For example, if a character supported the narrator in her journey, but there was no conflict involved, should this character be part of the book?

Friday, January 5, 2018

Three Ways to Help Your New Year's Writing Resolutions Actually Happen

I'm not a huge fan of New Year's resolutions, especially when it comes to my writing goals.  But I do appreciate making time for a pause to review what I've accomplished in the past year and imagine what I'd like to bring into the new one.  It's more of a visioning moment than setting firm goals, because I know (oh so well!) how my goals can morph as the year goes forward.  And I only know what I can see from this moment.  But I've used three methods to help myself create realistic goals for my new writing year, based on what I learned from the previous twelve months.   
Here' s a short writing exercise to try this week, if you want to reflect and plan intelligently, in a way that acknowledges your particular creativity.