Friday, June 30, 2023

The Angst of Finding a Great Book Title: If You, Like Me, Don't Score High at This All-Important Task, Some Tips to Try

OK, I admit. I am not the best when it comes to book titles. Occasionally, I score. But most times, in my publishing history, editors or agents have changed my proposed title. Radically.

Case in point: When my second novel was ready to be shopped to publishers, my agent emailed me with a big problem—the title. I had written the novel under the title of OUTLAWS. I loved that title because it represented all the bad-ass glory I love in women who are heroes at heart. I embedded the theme of outlaws into the story, placed it (very occasionally) in dialogue as a marker for the reader to go “Ah-ha! That’s why the title.”

But she didn’t like it. Editors would be confused, she said, thinking it was a Western. Which it most certainly is not. It’s about an indie musician on the run from a murder-frameup and her estranged sister who has to hide her, against her better nature. Both women are pilots. My mom was a pilot, and she had a little of that free spirit I imagined for these two characters. So OUTLAWS was a tongue=in-cheek, rather brilliant way, of alluding to that heroic nature.

Thelma and Louise. Butch Cassidy. Society’s outcasts who win our hearts. Right?

My agent wasn’t having it.

Friday, June 16, 2023

Organizing the Mess of a Book: Four Methods for Staying Sane and Focused

The two most common questions I get: (1) how do you find your ideas and (2) how do you keep it all organized?

I used to write a weekly food column for the Los Angeles Times syndicate. My job was simple: come up with 600-1000 words about something related to food, design and test one or more recipes to go along with it, and send it off to my editor. Other than the natural mess recipe-testing makes in a home kitchen, I didn’t have much to organize. I liked the ease of the weekly deadline, I loved eating the leftovers from testing or inviting a bunch of friends to come over and share.

My column got noticed. I got asked to contribute to books. That was my first foray into the world of 300-pages of writing. My first moment of understanding how big and unwieldy a book-sized writing project can get.

Early days, I just put parts together and sent them off to my editor to organize. I wasn’t able to—or interested in—seeing the big picture. Then I got approached by a larger publisher and asked to not just contribute but write a whole book myself. I’d be assigned an editor, but I was responsible for delivering the manuscript by deadline, all 90,000 words of it.

That was back in the Stone Age of file folders. I brainstormed my chapters and wrote each on the outside of a paper file folder, in a circle. Then using a method some call clustering or mind mapping, I designed the parts of the chapter as spokes radiating from the title in its circle. Then I began my research.

Each piece of information—since these were food topics, I might research the history of the kiwi fruit, for instance—went physically into the file folder for the chapter where it would live. My interview notes got distributed the same way. I didn’t begin actually writing until the folders were fat and I had plenty to work from. I knew if I had to look at a blank page on my computer screen, I’d lose confidence fast. The contents of each file folder was spread on a table, and I created a possible order for all the pieces. Sometimes I wrote bullet points for each piece on an index card so I could just shuffle those instead (an early storyboard).

After I had most of my material and a rough order planned out, I’d sit down and begin entering everything into the computer. Again, each chapter got its own computer file. I didn’t arrange the chapters in any final order yet—I wanted to see how they’d line up with their contents in place.

The first draft was pretty awful, usually. But I made sure I got it written then printed out. I edited on the hard (printed) copy and input corrections into a new Word document on my computer. There was a master file for the manuscript, individual files for each chapter, then all the chapter (and manuscript) revisions.

By the time the book was ready to send to my editor, I had a file drawer of drafts and revisions and many, many electronic iterations.

Incredibly cumbersome. But it wasn’t a bad system. I wrote five books this way, all published, selling well for years. I remember moving from the house where I did most of those books and struggling to throw out all the paper copies with their edits. It felt like destroying history.

Organizing my writing this way continued for a few more books, until I got to my first contract for a book that wasn’t about food. The publisher I approached said yes to my proposal for a self-help/spirituality hybrid. I was thrilled—until I realized I had no idea how to structure it.

Some of you who’ve been in my classes have heard this next step: A writing friend gave me a book called A Writer’s Time by Ken Atchity. The genius of A Writer’s Time is the concept of writing in islands or snippets of ideas, scenes, information. It makes good use of the random brain, the flow (unorganized) part of our creativity. I brainstormed islands and created enough to fill the book. Again, my file folders came out and I created my chapters, the circled title and the spokes of topics within. Then index cards to start a sequence of chapters.

There I stalled. Organizing the flow of this new book was not like arranging the courses of a meal.

Again, someone in my lovely writing community told me, just in time, about storyboarding. I learned my first storyboard in the shape of a giant W, with rising and falling action. It’s said that Joseph Campbell first tried this method. If you google storyboard W you’ll see how the idea has taken off.

Using my index cards at first, then Post-it notes for more ease, I arranged the rising and falling action of my book on the storyboard chart. Here’s a video about it, if you’re new to the whole idea. It was new to me but it’s not uncommon now—a method used in screenwriting, filmmaking, editing. I remember seeing my first storyboard at an ideation session for one of my food books. We gathered in a conference room at the publisher’s and on the wall were large white sheets of poster board, arranged like an empty cartoon. We literally sat there for eight hours and filled them in.

Voila, a book.

These were good techniques for organizing massive amounts of writing, yet I was ecstatic when I discovered yet another, better way to keep sanity around a book project: Scrivener.

I’ve devoted many posts to the glory of Scrivener as a writer’s organization tool, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. I’ve written five books using it. It hasn’t failed me yet. Gwen Hernandez was one of my first online teachers and she’s excellent if you want a tutorial or class to get going with it.

I love writing books and will keep doing it for a while. Sometimes, though, I think longingly of the past, those 600-word columns. Or the short stories I write now, just for a break. Short pieces of writing are easily gathered in file folders. Even multiple revisions or printed pages from feedback become simple revision lists. While a book used to take up at least one file drawer, forty-five of my short story drafts fit into one woven shelf basket in my writing room.

I also sometimes long for the tangible, the feel of printed paper and not a keyboard. I never would go back to a typewriter but I do miss the satisfaction of a pile of completed pages stacked on my desk.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise: browse the recap of methods, plus a few new ideas, below and use them as fuel to explore your current organization and what it might be missing. Pick an idea that interests you and try it out, even a little.

Method 1: Project Box
Twyla Tharp is famous for this method--each choreography project gets its own new box. Into that box she puts all her notes, objects, fabric samples, videos, anything that has to do with the project.

If the container is big enough and inspiring to your creative self, a project box works for a book. One stalled-out day, when I couldn't write, I collaged the outside of a large wooden box and tried it for a year. Images on the collage led me back into juicy writing time after time.

Method 2: One or More Bulletin Boards
I read about a writer who starts her book with seven bulletin boards in her kitchen (big kitchen, I thought). She pins everything to them that has to do with the book. Images, lists, sketches, photographs, diagrams. As she writes the book, she condenses the number of boards to one, discarding all the material that doesn't actually fit the book now.

Anything easily visible--a board on a wall--helps the writer keep the book at close attention.

Method 3: Old-School File Folders
Using the method described above, try file folders as organizing tools later in the book process. Once your have chapters organized in your computer, create a folder for each. On the outside of each folder, brainstorm ideas—let yourself fly with this, no holding back.

Or try my method of a circle with spokes coming off. In the center of the circle is the chapter's purpose (or title if the purpose is still evolving). On the spokes are the scenes or points the chapter now includes. Add and subtract as you revise. Inside the folder are the research notes, photos, images, lists of ideas, anything you want to keep in mind as you continue to write.

Method 4: Scrivener or Other Software

Some writers combine Scrivener with other software, such as Aeon Timeline (great for figuring out different thru lines in a story) or Devonthink Pro, which comes highly recommended by one of my online students, although I haven't used it yet. But new software comes out constantly so do your research.

Software includes learning time, It helps if a writing buddy can show you the ropes. I was fortunate to get great help for Scrivener setup during one of my workshops.

When Private Becomes Public: Facing Criticism and Exposure As Your Book Gets Published

We all have a great deal of personal freedom with what we choose to write--or do we? I've spoken with many writers, of all genres, who are conscious of the reader looking over their shoulder, judging their words. Or family, people they want to include (fictionalized or real), who may get hurt or shun them for the way they tell their story.

Some writers don't care. "It's my story, I lived it, and I can tell it however I like," one student told me. More power to you, I thought. I knew her as a forthright activist, never shying from truth telling and confrontation. I'm not that way, and maybe some of you aren't either. You may, like me, worry a bit (or a lot) about judgment.

Friday, June 9, 2023

It's All Too Much! (Risk, That Is): Recognizing and Balancing the Risk Quotient in Your Writing (and Your Life)

Long ago, I wrote a book called How to Master Change in Your Life, which is, as you probably guessed, about how different people view and react to change of all kinds. One of the more fascinating parts of my research for that book was what I began to call the risk quotient of each person. Including myself.

Evidently, there can be a vast difference between how we deal with external risk (driving across Europe alone) and internal risk (telling a friend that we can’t be friends anymore).

Since the book was published, I’ve kept that fascination with risk. I use it to weigh my characters’ effectiveness in a story. I evaluate how much external risk I’ve put in the plot—how many dramatic moments, how intense or low-key they are. I’ve studied my own tendencies towards different kinds of risk. Is it a male-female thing? Is it influenced by location? Or class or education or race?

When I taught writing, I sometimes asked students about their tendencies to allow risk into their stories. I noticed a real difference in the answers when I taught, say, in Minnesota versus New York.

I began wondering if the place we live reflect or instructs our tendency to bring risk into our creative work. Does a mountainous, storm-ridden region make a writer more able to write terrifically intense scenes with a lot of external tension? Does the flatland do the opposite, perhaps bringing out more internal risk in characters or narrator?

Friday, June 2, 2023

What Works When Sharing Your Work? Unexpected and Traditional Publicity Tips from Five Published Writers

Be sure to scroll down to the Shout Out! at the end of this post for some exciting news.

I've been learning--somewhat to my private self's dismay--that reaching out to readers requires not only persistence but exposure.

It's risky to share the author behind the book.

Yet this week I interviewed five published writers--and former students of mine--who have gone on to reinvent their outreach and succeed beautifully in touching readers and building a worthwhile, supportive community in the process.

What if you don't want to build community? Or have readers know you behind your book?

I've heard this a lot from writers: "You mean, after all the years of putting together a publishable book, I also have to welcome readers into my private life and be glad about it?" It's certainly up to you. And in past times, that worked--the writer stayed in her cozy room and her book got whisked into the hands of readers without much effort. Or so it was true with my early books.

Promotion when I began publishing in the eighties was also more about how you appeared than anyone getting to know you as a person. When one of my nonfiction books was published, the publisher hired a wonderful publicist who got me interviews on over 100 radio and television programs, and my goal was just to look and talk like an expert--or at least someone who knew what they were writing. Of course imposter syndrome flared--I ran the gamut, grateful when my book sold well, but all the time wary of being outed for my real life. I didn't want readers coming too close--I'm able to admit that now, looking back.

Today's author needs to be more focused on building community with readers. Podcasts, "in conversation with" events, how we share on social media, all this is about getting to know the story behind the story. Readers want to relate to the person who wrote the book we so admire--or are curious to read.

It means the writer becomes known, not just for her words but for herself.

Thursday, June 1, 2023

Subscribe to this blog on Substack!

Dear wonderful subscribers,

This is just to let you know that I'm moving my blog to Substack this week, which allows you to receive my weekly posts in your inbox each Friday morning.  If you prefer that option to reading it here, please go to Substack and enter Mary Carroll Moore in the search box then click on People.  My name will come up with my tiny photo. Click on that and subscribe.  It's free!

Substack has the advantage of a cleaner format, easier reading, and cool links to browse.  Check it out.

Thanks for being a subscriber!


Friday, May 26, 2023

Bringing Authenticity into Your Writing: The Challenges and the Benefits of One Writer's Journey with His Memoir

Many of us say we want to write with authenticity.  Of course, that's a worthy goal, as is living an authentic life. But it can also be a challenging one. In our lives, we can decide what to reveal or not reveal, and still live authentically within those perimeters, I believe. On the page of a book, it's different. You share a story from your life, from your heart and core values, and readers can take it anywhere they want.    

I've been drafting short essays about my mom, who was a pilot in World War II.  Her story of being in the Women's Airforce Service Pilots program was recorded in a Library of Congress interview. She died several years ago at age 98. Reading about her flying years, now that she's gone, made me realize how little I knew of her life, as her daughter. We get to know our loved ones even more after they're gone, a bereaved friend once told me, and I'm seeing that now.  I have so many questions:  how did she get to be so strong, such a survivor? At twenty-two, she was ferrying B-24's across the US to Canada. Once, her plane engine caught on fire and she had to do a dead stick landing at LaGuardia.    

One of my past students, Jody Lulich, was another example to me of surviving. I had the privilege of working with him both in classes and as a private client after he won the prestigious Loft Mentor Series in 2015 for his memoir-in-progress. Jody struggled to structure the story of growing up in a biracial family with a mother who committed suicide when he was a boy. 

Friday, May 19, 2023

Good News for Older Women Writers: Your Age Is a Bonus!

Imagine my surprise when I came across this article in The Guardian: older women writers (in their fifties, sixties, even seventies) are now a hot item with publishers.

The trend is slow but steady, according to the editors and agents interviewed. My surprise came because of decades of reading the "30 Under 30" lists and being dismayed at the publishing industry's romance with youth, youthful appearance, and many years ahead to write.

I was even told--before I signed with my agent--that trying to get another agent after sixty was iffy. You may have a good track record, you may write publishable books, but do you look like an author with a long future? How do you look, actually?

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Personal Narrative--What You (and Your Book) Are Trying to Say

Now that review copies (ARCs) are being readied and I'm entering the window of pre-publication excitement with my new novel, A Woman's Guide to Search & Rescue, I'm studying up on something I never took time for while I was busy writing: the book's narrative and how it intersects with my personal narrative.

Turns out, this element of your story--its message, its meaning--is the way readers most engage with your work.

Sure, an exciting plot is important. Great people to populate your book's stage. But the take-away, the story's impact, is what makes a book truly loved.

This isn't just a question for pre-publishing time, by the way. You may be in the throes of creating your first draft, an exciting and wonderful stage. Or you may be struggling with your structure, via a storyboard or chapter grids.

Friday, May 5, 2023

Rituals for Writing--The Relief of No Choice

A Woman's Guide to Search & Rescue, my second novel, is getting its cover designed this week. A huge step in making any book real and soon to be released. It takes all my patience to stay patient! Good distractions are needed--and there's only so much pie in the house--so gardening is my answer. Getting deep in the dirt, getting way out of my head. Allowing time to pass and trusting the process.

All those good things.

Spring in New England is an iffy time, too--kind of like my own temperament these days. The week begins with temps soaring into the lovely 70s then plummeting to thirties at night. Birds are loud--they don't care--and spring peepers in our vernal pond are too. My masses of perennials are up, daffodils and hyacinths are a riotous mess. It happens every year, the beautiful routine.