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?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Final Act--Are You Ready to Finish Your Story?

Sunset always happens. The day ends. So does your book, essay, poem, story. Eventually you have to tie all the loose bits into reasonable conclusion. Great books leave us in love with the story we've just read, excited about the ideas we've just heard. There's an effect of satisfaction and engagement. How does a writer achieve that?

I learned about it one summer long ago, when I took a writing course at the University of Iowa. My instructor taught me a concept that was new to me: earned outcomes. He referred to good endings, how they make sense because the hints are built in as we go along. Yet they are not overly predictable. I was attempting my first novel back then (one which will forever remain in the file cabinet) and I'd never before heard the question: Have you earned this outcome?

He advised going back through the chapters, seeing if each thread brought into the ending actually wove, unbroken, back through the book.

In that novel, there were so many broken threads, I couldn't finish it. Conclusions I planted in my ending chapters were not foreshadowed earlier, so readers would certainly feel unpleasantly surprised, not pleasantly satisfied. A good ending, or Act 3, of any piece of writing must be anticipated but not expected. In other words, you plant the hints and you deliver the result in a way that makes us think, Wow, that's great, and I suspected it might be so.

I learned a lot from that U of Iowa instructor. Ten years later, when I was writing Act 3 of my second novel, Qualities of Light, I asked myself this "earned outcome" question. I made a list of how I wanted the reader to feel about each character and major event by the last chapter. Then I brainstormed that outcome, working backwards.