Sunday, June 16, 2019

Behind the Scenes: How One Well-Published Writer Structured Her Memoir

This week, I'm sharing another great article--very different from the words of Ira Glass, last post, but equally inspiring for anyone writing a memoir and confused about structure. 

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich has written a memoir not for the faint-hearted, about capitol punishment and her own difficult past, called The Fact of a Body:  A Murder and a Memoir.  This article from The Rumpus interviews her about the structure of her book and how she wove the two threads of frontstory and backstory.  Check it out here.  (If the link doesn't work, go to www.therumpus.com and search for the book title or the author's name.)  Thanks to Cherste for passing this on!

Friday, June 14, 2019

Bridging the Gap between Taste and Skill--Ira Glass Wisdom Revisited


Something must be in the water this week.  Maybe the air.  I'm hearing from discouraged writers, at every stage.  And by serendipity, I also came across the brilliant short film by Daniel Sax with Ira Glass speaking to this very problem.  So this week's writing exercise is short and sweet.  Watch, listen, take to heart these words.  (If the link doesn't work, go to www.ThisAmericanLife/extras and search for The Gap).

And for those who want to read/see more, check out this wonderful article from Brainpickings based on Glass's wisdom. (If the link doesn't work, go to www.brainpickings.org and search for Ira Glass). 

Friday, June 7, 2019

Getting Great Blurbs for Your Book--Three Published Authors and an Agent Weigh In on How, When, and Why

Blurbs are those snappy testimonials that line the front and back of published books, enticing readers to buy and read. Blurbs mean a lot to me as a reader--often I'll go for a new book because an author I respect has endorsed it.


Agents love when a writer approaches them with a few good blurbs in hand.  It's normal for blurbs to wait until your book gets closer to publishing, but it's also good to begin your list of blurb-worthy authors even as you approach final revision. 

Friday, May 31, 2019

The Importance of Comps (Competitive Titles) for Your Book and How to Find Them

Many years ago, when I was starting the search for my current agent (after my former one retired), I took an online course on publishing.  It was taught by an agent and her author.  One of our coolest classes they led was a Q & A session.  We got to ask them anything about publishing, about the process of querying, about what made agents say yea or nay to a manuscript.  The agent was somewhat familiar with our work by that point in the class, so her answers were relevant and specific.

I was curious about comps: are they needed?  Do agents require them?  Do they help your book in any way when you are querying?

Friday, May 24, 2019

What Is Narrative Voice and Why Does It Matter?

My last post was about agents wanting more than good writing.  This week, I'm going to give the other side of the story:  why a special something called narrative voice matters a lot if you want to attract an agent's attention.

One of my students emailed me about a discouraging response she got from an agent she queried.  The agent wrote back "the subject is so intriguing, but I just didn’t fall for the narrative voice as I’d hoped I would." Ouch.  

So what does this mean? What is narrative voice and why would an agent need to fall for it?

Friday, May 10, 2019

Beyond Good Writing--Two Agents Talk about What Else Matters If You Want to Get Published

Many of my students and private clients are good writers.  They've taken classes to hone their writing, learned to revise, are adept at choosing that perfect word or phrase to make the reader melt.  

But there's a lot more to writing--and publishing--a book than just expert wordsmithing.  In my classes, I teach the other side of books, the structure, because I've found it harder to learn and practice.  It's not taught that much in schools or even MFA programs.  Good writing is, but structure is not. But you know my concerns about (obsession with?) structure if you've followed this blog for any amount of time or taken one of my workshops.  It just matters so much, if you want to publish in today's market.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Setting as Character--How to Create Emotion from the Setting in Your Book

Rita is working on a MG (middle grade) novel. She wrote me this week with a good question about how much to use setting in her book.  What's not enough, what's too much? And most important of all, does a story's setting need to be as developed as its characters?
Her story is set on Mars, a hostile environment ("Think adventure movie," she says, "with avalanches and earthquakes." ).  The setting produces challenging events which cause her characters to react.    
She wondered if placing these events (the big earthquake, for instance) at the height of story's dramatic moments might also represent the character's strength or inner conflict.  "The stuff of myth?" she asked.

Friday, April 26, 2019

How Your Character's False Belief Weaves through a Storyboard--Creating the Narrative Arc

Character in fiction and memoir is built on the convoluted pathways of false belief. As readers, we witness the journey along these pathways: the unconsciousness of a character at the start of the book, the changes as they grow more aware, shedding their limited views of self and life.  It makes for a great structural model for story, both memoir and fiction, and this week I want to share how that false belief pathway is built, using the W storyboard.  

I began working with the concept of false belief, or false agreement, about eight years ago when I wanted to understand how my characters could show this growth.  If they started out unconscious, maybe victim to their limits, you could almost say they have a certain agreement with the status quo.  They follow certain ideas, beliefs, creeds, to get along. A story starts when that status quo begins to break up. That's the triggering event or inciting incident. (This video explains more.)

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Task of Writers to Awaken the Fresh View of Life--Like Traveling to a New Place

I remember pitching one of my novels to agents at a writing conference.  They'd read a few chapters ahead of time, a nice perk at that particular conference, and one of the best compliments I got as I listened to the feedback was:  "This is very fresh."

I asked more about what that meant.  From the response, I gathered that agents look for writers who present a fresh view of life.  Akin to the wonder we might have, traveling to a new place, readers also want to view life differently because of your memoir, novel, or nonfiction book.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Building Your Book Structure around Key Questions

Your writing exercise this week is a simple but powerful one that I teach in my storyboarding classes.  Ask yourself this:  What's the primary question of each chapter in your book? 

Then ask:  How do those questions transition, one to the next, creating a flow that easily carries your reader through the story?

Friday, April 5, 2019

Why We Procrastinate as Writers--A New Perspective

One reason I take classes or go to writing conferences or join a writing group is to set artificial deadlines for myself. I know, after years and many books, that although I'm fairly disciplined with my writing, I need external accountability to get a big project done.  No matter that I set goals, and often meet them, writing a book is a long commitment that is easily sidetracked. 

Like most of you, I can procrastinate like nobody's business when I want to.  With me, it shows up as either cleaning or food. I don't usually go in for internet or Netflix comas, but let me loose with a bag of chips, and watch out. 

Friday, March 29, 2019

Root-Cause Analysis--the "Why" Question for Your Characters

Maggie, one of my past students, sent me a fun email this week.  She has been using a great technique for getting deeper into her characters.  I wanted to share it this week, while I'm teaching on retreat, so you could try it.  

Friday, March 22, 2019

Reading as a Writer--Why Reading Other Authors' Books Helps You Learn Your Craft

This weekend, I'm traveling to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to join fifteen emerging (and already published) book writers for my week-long retreat. I've asked each to bring along two books in the same genre as the book they're working on. 

Sometimes this raises questions--"I want to work on my writing, not read other people's."

Friday, March 15, 2019

Creating Believable Characters on the Page--Tips for Fiction and Memoir Book Writers

I've been struggling with my antagonist. That might sound like a normal situation--antagonists create conflict--but my challenge is less about what he does than how believable he is on the page.

One editor told me:  "He's too much like the other nasty guy."  Another said, "It's just Bad and Badder."  My agent said, "The antagonists need to be as believable as the protagonist."

Friday, March 8, 2019

How Does Your Book End? Here Are Some Great Ideas

Thanks to Rita who sent the link for this week's writing exercise.  Scan these best endings and pick your favorite.  Why do you love those and what might it tell you about how you want your own book to end?


Do you prefer a lyrical ending, rich with image?  A factual wrap up?  An ending that hovers or one that really concludes?


If you assume an ending answers a question or quest posed at the start of the book, what might that question or quest be for these ending lines?

Friday, March 1, 2019

Finding Your Writing Community-Soothing the Solitude of the Writing Life

Writing a book--writing anything--is by necessity a solitary practice.  We are by ourselves with our words at first, generating them in a conversation between laptop and hands on keyboard, or pen and notepad.  It's not a bad thing.  I actually love the process of being in the worlds of my books, and I crave the solitude to immerse myself.  

But every now and then, it helps to have community.  Community is essential for feedback, when you get to the point of needing it, but it's also very helpful for support.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Interior Monologue Pros and Cons--How Do You Integrate Thoughts, Feelings, and Talking to Yourself?

Here's a great definition of interior monologue:  "a conversation a character is having with themselves, internally."  Read more here.  Some writers call it internal dialogue.  Or thought tags.  But whatever you call it, it's happening inside.  

As an editor, I have strong opinions about interior monologue. 

Friday, February 15, 2019

Warning: Writer's Message Ahead! The Dangers of Platforms in Fiction and Memoir

One of my students is writing his first novel, a work of historical fiction that he has researched carefully.  He became interested in the real subject of this story many years ago and has been on a fast track ever since, learning how to create a strong and engaging tale while staying as true as possible to the facts behind it. 

When he attended my writing retreat last February in Tucson, we discussed ways to integrate the facts of the era and politics into his story.  So much good material, so many great bits to bring in, but how much is right for the story--and what's just for him, in his own fascination with it? 

Monday, February 4, 2019

How to End Your Book--What Not to Wrap Up

As a journalist for several decades, I was taught well by my editors how to wrap up an article, interview, or column.  Leave the reader with resolution but come to a definite conclusion. 

When I began writing books, I learned a different approach, which is especially common in memoir and fiction these days:  create an ending that hovers.  

In other words, the basic plot is wrapped up satisfactorily, but the inner story, or character's trajectory, is left with unanswered questions.  You may feel this is bad for your reader, but here's an article that might change your mind.  It's our writing exercise this week:  to read, consider, and examine your own endings to see if they reflect this idea.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Avoiding the Midbook Slump: Three Techniques to Keep Readers Reading

Marie, a blog reader, has been working on her storyboard and organizing her chapters, using the three act system that is so helpful for sorting out what belongs and what doesn't in early drafts and revisions.   She's concerned about the middle of her book, though.  
"Act I is comprised of chapters with progressive complications for my protagonist," she writes.  But in the beginning of Act II, Marie's protagonist begins recovering from her problems.  "These chapters are turning out to be much more tied up in a bow but I want to keep the reader interested until my protagonist gets smacked with a big problem at the climax of Act II.  How do I let my protagonist recover from problems at the beginning of Act II yet keep the reader wondering/questioning/guessing?"

Friday, January 25, 2019

Establishing Yourself before Your Book Is Published: Submitting, Platform, and More

Book journeys are divided into very distinct experiences:  the creation of the book and the selling of the manuscript.  Many writers struggle more with one than the other.  I worked with a private client who was aces in marketing; she already had a website for her book before she'd finished editing it.  Another had a background in graphic design and was all about the book's beautiful appearance--we mostly worked together on the writing, which came harder to him.  You may cringe at the thought of promoting yourself (selling your manuscript involves selling yourself too!) or you may be all over it.  

Friday, January 18, 2019

Location in Your Story: The Importance of the Inner and Outer "Container"

Realtors know that location is everything in buying or selling property.  Try to sell a house that's near a busy highway or high tension wires, and you'll learn this.  In story, location is also really important--I wouldn't say it's everything to a story, but it's as vital as good characters and strong plot.

Unfortunately, it's the aspect of writing that many writers tack on or ignore altogether.  

One of my students, Margaret, was working on her memoir about growing up in post-World-War-II Mississippi. The storyboard worked well: plot points were good and you could track the dilemma of her story. So Margaret confidently took a few pages to her writing group for review.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Revision Checklist: When You're Ready to Revise, What to Focus on First

If you have any love for the refining and shaping process of making a book, revision can be much anticipated.  I'm not talking about the early tweaking of individual chapters, which can result in rewriting your opening chapter 1 so many times, you get sick of the book and never write chapter 2.  (I've seen this so many times, and it's a sad thing.) Real revision, in my mind, is not that level of line editing but a whole-book reshaping, a re-visioning of the book's purpose, and an attempt to get out of the writer's chair and into the reader's.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Fantasies of the Writing Lifestyle: How to Get Real about What to Expect

A colleague sent me two fascinating articles recently about the reasonable and unreasonable expectations we writers have of the writing life.

The first is a funny-sad yet informative article by writers Rosalie Knecht from Lit Hub (link here) about the colorful fantasy some have of the writing life.