Saturday, April 24, 2010

Three Steps to Crafting a Book: Content, Structure, Language

It's a rainy Saturday and I'm teaching at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Outside, trees are in full leaf, lilacs are blooming, signs of spring are everywhere, unheard of in Minnesota in late April. But because of the rain, my class of 25 writers is content to be indoors.

They've been working on their books all morning. Now I've sent them off to write. They are each going to travel the river that is their book.

Viewing a book as a river let me imagine it as a journey. I wonder which part of the river will make the most engaging focus for my story? Memoirists, unlike autobiographical writers, choose one or more sections. These must be filled with deep meaning. They must have good content.

So first we look at this question: What's the most interesting landscape the river passes? What content is the most relevant to the story I want to tell?

Step One: Content
Choosing content is a basic first step in crafting a manuscript, no matter what the genre. Memoirists look at the content of their lives, the events that happened, and try to select those with the most impact. While memoirists work from true events, novelists create story from fictional ones, but in the same manner--what engages the reader most easily? Nonfiction writers also do this. I may be writing a book on learning to play the piano, but the first essential question is What do I include and what do I omit?

Content is the outer story, the facts or events your book revolves around. You must have content, dramatic and engaging moments, to create any momentum. To keep us reading. A river always moves.

How do you begin gathering content?
You may have scenes written, you may have journal entries, you may have ideas jotted down. Writers who attend my book-writing workshops learn about crafting these scenes, freewrites, or "islands" as unlinked sections of writing, free from any overall structure or organization.

I learned this method when I was writing my fifth book. It's used by many writers because it allows a great amount of creative flow, unimpeded by writer's block. We write content and don't worry yet about the structure, a very freeing experience for the creative self.

But there comes a time when the writing accumulates, the scenes grow, the islands get impossible to keep track of, because there are so many. A next step is needed.

If the writer doesn't begin to structure the content, this is where the writing stalls out.

Step Two: Structure
Why not structure first? Why do I recommend accumulating content before starting to organize it? Why not use an outline?

As a writer, I've written books from outline and books from the content/structure method I'm a big fan of now. But as an editor, I've worked with way too many book outlines that needed serious rearranging to be publication worthy.

It really depends on the writer's skill at seeing "inner story." Most of us can't--or we only see a shallow version of it when we're writing our book's initial content. If this is true for you, an outline may limit you from taking necessary detours--and this is sad, because such sidetracks surface unexpected meaning that you don't plan for. But working without an outline requires you to give up control of the direction of your story. It becomes more organic--and actually more fun to write.

I've seen too many writers get stuck because what's next to write from the outline isn't what's burning to be written. So I advise waiting to structure until there is content written.

Study other writers you admire, to learn how to structure your own story. Select two pages from a book you love. Read it as a writer, looking at the arrangement of elements on these pages--what choices did the writer make? What effect did it bring to you, the reader? You can learn a lot about how the "inner story" conveys the emotion.

So when you work with structuring your own story, look at the pieces you've written and first imagine the effect you want to create from them. Then arrange them toward that effect.

Step Three: Language
Language is the intangible, the thing you can't go after directly. It's all about voice and tone, the rhythm of the writing. It's where the book's deeper message emerges almost organically.

Good content combines with good structuring, an interesting story with an arrangement that provides a strong reaction in a reader. The last step is adjusting the language to enhance that reaction. As you do this more and more, your unique voice will emerge.

Editing with These Three Steps
When we've drafted the manuscript, working through these three steps of content, structure, and language, there comes the crafting time. We need to edit the manuscript and make sure that each of these three is working in harmony with the others. The story has integrity and reads as a whole experience.

You review the content--does the story you're telling have enough happening, enough dramatic action, enough important information?

You review the structure or organization of this content, asking yourself where you want the greatest emotional impact on the reader. Does your arrangement of islands achieve this?

You review the language--how is the pacing, the sentence length, the word choice that you're using? Does the language of tense dramatic moments reflect this tension?

To Learn More
This summer I'm teaching a five-day writing retreat that focuses on these three aspects of writing and editing a book. Writers of all levels and at all stages of progress on their manuscript will be attending. We'll work together in the classroom for 4 hours a day, then you'll be able to write for 4 hours. It's a chance to make tangible progress on your book, if you'd like to join us.

The setting is amazing--Madeline Island, in Lake Superior off the northern shore of Wisconsin, about 90 minutes from Duluth, Minnesota. One of the Apostle Islands, Madeline Island is simply beautiful, a wild, peaceful, and inspiring place to write. We'll be gathering at an arts school there, Madeline School of the Arts, with free run of the campus for the week. There's lodging available at the school and nearby. The dates are Monday July 26 to Friday July 30. The cost of the 5 day workshop is $410 and it's limited to 15 writers, so I can work closely with each of you on your particular project. There's still room. The website for more information and registration is Search for "Mary Carroll Moore" or "How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book."

If this idea of simplifying your writing and editing process appeals to you, give yourself the gift this summer and join me for this retreat.

This Week: Three Possible Writing Exercises
Ask yourself which step you're on. Are you working with content, gathering pieces of writing for your book? Are you beginning to structure that writing, arrange it for the impact you're after? Do you have your manuscript completely drafted, ready for language development?

Choose one of the exercises below, whichever one matches your particular step in the river journey, and try it this week.

1. Content: Make a list of topics for your book. Brainstorm anything that might be interesting to include--even if you can't imagine how it would fit. If you're drawn to write about it, follow that nudge. Try to gather 25 topics on your list. Most of these should be outer events, to provide dramatic action, but they can also be descriptions of a place, person, thing.

2. Structure: Take 5 scenes or islands you've written, that seem to fit together and might become a chapter. Letting go of chronology for a moment, play with different arrangements of these 5. What if you started with the most dramatic one? What would still need to be written to make good transitions between them?

3. Language: Print out one of your finished chapters, double-spaced. Lay the pages on a table so you can see all of them. Squint and look for the balance of white space and dense text. Where is there too much of either? Now read that section. How can you bring in the missing element to balance the pacing?


  1. Thank you for this. I had never considered crafting scenes in this way before developing the structure. This is definitely appealing. I really enjoy your blog - it's been incredibly helpful as I work on my novel. I'll definitely be looking into the writing retreat. Thanks!

  2. Thanks, Heather! It's really a great method--I hope you try it. Best wishes as you continue your novel. And hope to see you in Madeline Island if it works out for your schedule. It's going to be fantastic.

  3. you give great writing advice. Thank you for sharing :)

  4. Thanks, Gwendolyn! So glad you're enjoying the blog. Best wishes with your writing!

  5. I stumbled across your blog -- I've always wanted to write a memoir and this is giving me just the help I needed to get started! Thanks so much.

  6. Thanks, Barb, for visiting and for the positive feedback!

  7. Dear Mary,

    An excellent blog indeed. You know I have been figuring out how to just start on my dream project and your blog just gave me that push !!!!
    Looking forward to read more stuff from you.