Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Why Books Aren't Just about Shooting in the Dark--And a Writing Exercise to Prove It

Five weekends each year, I travel from my home in Connecticut to Minnesota, to teach book-writing structure at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis (http://www.loft.org/). I gather thirty-five would-be book writers who want some light in the darkness. We spend two days together in a classroom and come out with our personal book-writing plans, a workable structure and step-by-step method to creating and crafting a novel, memoir, or nonfiction book.

I love teaching at the Loft. The Loft is unique. I've taught at university and college, art center and private school, but nothing is like the Loft. It's the largest nonprofit writing school in the U.S., offering hundreds of classes and writerly events each year. I've been proud to be part of the Loft's teaching artists staff for nine years.

Two of my own books have gotten healthy beginnings from Loft classes. My novel, Qualities of Light, which will be published this August, was launched via a class with Loft instructor Alison McGhee (author of Shadow Baby and other novels).

I'm packing today for my workshops at the Loft this coming weekend, April 24-26. Friday and Saturday, I'm teaching the most popular of my Loft workshops, a two-day intensive on "How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book." I wish I'd had this workshop when I began writing and publishing books in the 1980s. I didn't have much back then, just hopes, fears, and book ideas. Somehow I published, but it wasn't easy. It's still not easy but at least now I have a method, a strategy. It's not just shooting in the dark.

I want to make book writing simpler for any writer. In my Loft workshop, this group of 35 book writers will be mixed, in skill and achievement. Some have manuscripts drafted, some only have an idea. During the two days, we create the structure of our books via tested writing exercises. We start with tag lines, move to writing segments that develop the inner and outer story, then craft linear and nonlinear storyboards.

By day 2 of the workshop, writers are jazzed. That's when their books become real. They are really going to happen.

Maybe you'll be joining me this coming weekend. If you'd like to, call the Loft at 612-379-8999 and get your name on the list. There are 9 places left, as of this writing. You'll be among the greatest book writers in one of the greatest writing schools. It's fun, inspiring, and creative.

Mostly, it's a wake-up call about how books are really written. Writing a book is not just about hoping for the best--although hope does factor in. There's a real formula, a real strategy. I've seen very beginning writers follow this strategy and come out with a good, solid book. One just published last month. She is not alone. My favorite experience is when a writer appears at my workshop, someone who took the class a year or two ago, and hands me a copy of their published book. I love the look of pride on their face.

Books take hard work, of course, and dedication. But having a strategy makes it possible. Otherwise, you're just shooting in the dark.

Writing a Focus Statement

Here's the opening exercise from the workshop. It's easiest if I am there to coach you through it, but try it on your own if you can't join us this weekend at the Loft. Set a kitchen timer for 20 minutes and write three paragraphs about your book--everything you think it's about. Then read it outloud to yourself. Find the sentence that is most interesting to you, that speaks to you, that maybe surprises you. Underline it.

Using this sentence, craft a statement about your book. This is your focus statement, elevator speech, tag line. Your answer to Oprah's question, "What's your book really about?" Make sure you create a statement that contains the book's outer story (event or method) as well as its inner story (answer to a quest or question).

Post it where you can see it. Let it be your light during the book-writing journey. It will be simpler to navigate the trip.