Monday, February 27, 2012

A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future

Did you grow up thinking you were an alien on a very strange planet, because you liked to daydream and doodle and muse over words and invent weird plots for stories?  Even as an adult, until I became a writing teacher and started publishing those plots in books and stories, I worried a little that my brain was not working like everyone else's.

I got good training in how to think linearly, but I really preferred thinking from a global view, seeing patterns and systems and how the disparate pieces intertwined, rather than looking at their separate and orderly parts.

Daniel H. Pink's well-loved book, A Whole New Mind:  Why Right Brainers Will Rule the World, gave me hope.  I wasn't crazy.  I was just a right-brainer.  Many writers are.  Especially book writers, who need to have a holistic view to make their books work for readers.

Pink is the also author of Drive, which is about human motivation.  He understands the brain and how it works--especially for creative thinkers like book writers--and I find his theories helpful in my classes.  For 12 years I've been trying to help book writers learn the right-brain skills that will make their books read as a whole rather than a series of parts.

Cultivating a Holistic Viewpoint--Your Book Needs It
Holistic viewpoints are the work of the right brain.  While the left brain, as I understand it, sees things in sequence and in part, the right brain sees the whole.  Many book writers find themselves at a loss when trying to create this holistic feel to their book.  Chapters come across as individual units rather than part of a larger whole. 

Two skills that Pink describes--narrative and design--are born in the right hemisphere and are useful when you want to make your manuscript feel like one instead of many.

The first, narrative, might seem obvious.  After all, we're book writers, we have a narrator, we write narrative.  But do we really?

Narrative is actually the aspect of story that I call "flow" or pacing.  Strong narrative keeps a reader reading. The flow is like a strong river.  It's often simply a matter of good transitions, how fast you deliver your information, and excellent design. 

Design is about making a story logical yet also appealing to the aesthetic senses.  We consider design when we think about knowing how much to add, and how much to just imply.  It's about skillfully shaping your book with enough image to fire the imagination of the reader.   

This week, your weekly writing exercise is to find a copy and try one of the Portfolio exercises on narrative or design that Pink offers.  Let me know how your right brain likes it.

And check out Pink's other writing at this link.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Making a Map of Your Book's Structure--Three Different Kinds of Storyboards

Storyboards, the visual map that filmmakers use, are a lifesaver for writers needing to brainstorm the structure of their books. I use them to chart the primary pathway through my piles of material.  A great tool for organizing and structuring novels, nonfiction books, and memoirs, they can be approached in three ways.

Both my online classes and my Grub Street workshop on February 26 play with storyboards , so I wanted to revisit the three kinds you can use, depending on where you are in developing your story.

First, remember that storyboards benefit both writer and reader, but in different ways.  For the writer, they give the first glimpse of the book's structure.  I couldn't possible create publishable books without them.

For the reader, the storyboard smooths the pathway through the story.  Holes in the narrative become very apparent and can be filled.  Too much talking also shows up clearly--as well as digressions.  Storyboards help you trim the fat and bulk it up--wherever each is needed.

But storyboards can also help you chart a character's growth, or the development of a place (setting).

Storyboard Resistance
Many writers resist storyboards.  They aren't always as fun as the "flow" writing that we think of when we imagine creative writing.  You have to use the more linear part of your brain. 

On good days storyboards yield tremendous insights into why that &*%% chapter feels so out of sync or what kind of ending might work best. 
On bad days, storyboards feel like bossy mother-in-laws, telling us what we're doing wrong. They point out exactly what we don't want to look at about the book-in-progress: where we have too much blah-blah-blah, where we've skipped a juicy opportunity for conflict, where we've stayed on track or gone on a tangent. Essentially, it becomes clear as day where the book isn't yet working.

This can derail some writers. 

Storyboards also present, often for the first time, the glimpse of how your book will be when it's actually published.  Sometimes this is so scary (the thought of actually being published!) that writers abandon the project in emotional overload. 

But I believe in storyboards.  I create several for each book I write and I keep the best ones on my office walls, reminders that I am grateful for their linear know-it-all attitude.   Better realize the problems now, via a piece of posterboard in the privacy of your own home, than later via a rejection letter from an agent, yes?

The Golden Opportunity of Storyboards
A big question as you begin your book is this:  How are you going to know if your story flows when it's outside of your own inner worlds?

You can craft a draft, of course.  Get it typed out and printed, read through it.  But it's still hard to see if the idea you presented on page 31 will thread through to page 231 in a way your reader will track.

Some writers make long lists.  I do this too.  Facts to check, threads to follow.  The lists on my desk are as numerous as my printed drafts, after a while, and I start to go crazy under all that paper.  Here's where storyboards present a golden opportunity, like a good map out of a swamp.

A writer needs to know the structure of her story flow, the placement in time and space of each idea or plot point.  It's not just enough to churn out the words. The sequence matters, a sequence that readers can follow, and you need some method to clearly see sequence. Filmmakers use storyboards to provide this.

I use a giant W to structure my storyboards or a row of empty boxes lined up on my posterboard. I place Post-it notes along the W that represents scenes or ideas or chapters, then I move them around until the sequence of ideas equals a reasonable flow for my book.

This kind of storyboard charts the events, the outer story, and you can see if you have enough happening. 

Character Storyboards
Another kind of storyboard charts the character's growth through the book. 

Early in the revision process of my novel Qualities of Light, I did a storyboard for each of the main characters.  I learned, to my dismay, that one of them, Chad, had dropped out of sight in chapter 10.  Not so great because he was competing for Molly's attention as the other love interest in the story.  By crafting a character storyboard for Chad, I could immediately see the problem--and it was not apparent when I read the draft. 

I used a character storyboard to chart the progress of my reader through my nonfiction book, Your Book Starts Here, and realized I had planted too advanced material too early in the book.  Once I saw that the reader (my character, in a sense) wouldn't have understood some of the basic principles by that point, I could rearrange the chapter order to not overwhelm or confuse.  Much better sequence. 

It's not uncommon to emerge from a storyboarding session with an awareness of what still needs to be written--whether it's an event or a scene to show an aspect of a character.  I usually find missing sections or even chapters, places where a character or location has dropped out of sight, transitions that need to be made. Research still to do. 

Setting (Container) Storyboards
Sometimes a book's setting is so real and vivid, it is like a character.  I love books like this.  When I want to create them, I use a storyboard to track the "development" of my setting--how it grows in influence and changes in impact through the story.

So a third way to use storyboards is for your setting, or the "container" of your story--its culture, value and belief system, its history and atmosphere, the physical and psychological effect it has on the people and events. Chart the images, when you do this one.  How do they change as the story proceeds?  (Scroll down to review the impact of images in the post from last week.)

What If You're Just Starting ?  Using a Storyboard to Brainstorm I also use storyboarding during the first weeks and months of my book journey--when I have little written.  I imagine, or brainstorm, ideas for how I might create the narrative.  On the Post-It notes, I jot scenes or ideas or things I want to include.  Then I begin arranging them on the W storyboard, just to see what I have.  Most of the time, I get more ideas from this.  In fact, ideas start flooding in.

Storyboarding really lets you see possible ways to bring your book into manifestation.

So you can use storyboards to begin your journey or to organize it when you start to feel restless and overwhelmed with the amount of words you've collected.  It's always a good time to storyboard when you want a clear direction and development of your original idea.

This Week's Writing Exercise
This week, watch the video below. 

Then get yourself to an office supply store. Buy a posterboard and some Post-It notes. Go home, take a deep breath, and try creating your W storyboard.  Start with just two moments:  the opening and ending of your book, by asking yourself the questions below.

1.  Where might you begin? What moment do you see launching your reader into your topic or story? Write a note about this on a Post-It and place it on the storyboard.

2.  What moment might end your book? Where would you like the reader to be at the last page--with what new understanding, hunger, idea or feeling? Write a note about this too.

If you get brave, if you get enthused--as I did--see how many of the other Post-its you can place on the W.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Creating the Image Arc for Your Book

This week I'm in Florida, treating myself to a workshop with my wonderful painting instructor, Susan Sarback of the School of Light and Color.  It's truly a gift to myself to be able to get away from the chill of New England and get saturated with images of sea, sun, and sky.

It seems fitting that last week one of my online classes created the "image arcs" for their books, a process I didn't have a clue about as a new writer, but which transformed my understanding of story when I found out about it.

Image arcs exist in all books--essays and short stories often have them too, although they are most apparent in longer works.  Images thread something called the "inner story" which is where readers get the emotion from your writing.  Events provide momentum; images provide emotion.  Both are needed to (1) keep a reader reading and (2) make your story have an impact on more than just an intellectual level. 

When readers "fall in love" with books, it's usually because the image arc is strong and well threaded throughout the chapters, from beginning to end.

But how does a writer begin working with her book's image arc?

I didn't even know the image arc existed when I began my early books, and I worked primarily with editors at the publishing houses who took care of that sort of thing.  I was responsible for the material itself, they did the fine-tuning.  But as I published more and taught more about how books are constructed, I found out about this very important element. 

So this week I want to share with you the writing exercise that my online class has been working on (Part 3 of Your Book Starts Here class, sponsored by the Loft Literary Center).  I find this exercise interesting to do at any stage of book writing, but it's most helpful at revision.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise:  Creating Image Arcs
Images link the parts of your book's inner story, providing a pathway for a reader to follow. 

Images are part of "language" revision.  This exercise asks you to track the key images in your book to see if they create this all-important pathway for your reader.

1.  Look at the 5 main moments of your book.  You can use the W storyboard, as explained in this video I made.  Write down the events associated with these moments, as specifically as you can.  To do this exercise correctly, it's important to choose one event or a small series of events that happened in the same time frame (not over weeks or years, for example, but in several hours or one day). 

2.  List the primary location for each of these 5 events.  You may also notice that certain objects, or details of atmosphere such as weather, stand out in these events. 

3.  Find the key image in each of these 5 locations.  The key image might be a body of water, an object, a certain sense like smell or weather, a building, a color, a texture.  Make a list of these 5 main images.  Note:  you may have images that repeat within these 5--that's fine.  Ask yourself how the repeating image changes, evolves, at the different points.

4.  Now look at the chapters between each point.  They are bookended by a pair of images, yes?  (Act 1 has two main points, triggering event as #1 and end of act 1 as #2.)  How does each chapter between those bookends continue the image you begin and transition to the image you end with?

5.  Can you build this pathway, or image arc, in the chapters between your points?

This is a wonderful but challenging exercise.  If it interests you and you'd like to work more on it, consider attending one of my summer or fall retreats on beautiful Madeline Island (July and September this year), where we spend five days together exploring the deeper levels of your book--including its image arc.  

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Drawing Solutions--How Visual Maps Help Your Book-Writing Dreams Come True

I first met Patti Dobrowolski at a seminar on the East Coast, at a time when I was trying to manifest a new goal with my writing--finish and get my book on writing, Your Book Starts Here, published at last. I knew I was stuck.  I felt overwhelmed by the need for a good editor and a bigger vision for the book.

I had lots of chapters, but I knew they weren't especially good.

Patti is a fireball on stage.  She loves what she does, which is mostly about drawing or visually mapping the goal-setting process.  She handed out copies of a simple goal-setting worksheet made up of three parts:  (1) a place to describe the vision of how you'd be or feel when your goal was realized, (2) any obstacles that stood between you and your goal, and (3) three bold steps to take.

Patti is the founder of Up Your Creative Genius, a consulting firm that uses visuals and creative processes to help companies and individuals around the world accelerate growth and change. A critically acclaimed comic performer, internationally recognized keynote speaker, writer and business consultant. She talked about how she'd imagined getting into a Broadway show in New York, and how she used this goal-setting method to imagine it.  Of course, it came true.  Since then, Patti has brought her innovative visual practices to NGOs, Fortune 500 companies, small businesses and individuals around the world.

So, in that seminar, I wrote down my vision for my book project.  I imagined finding a wonderful editor who would help me take it the final steps to publication.  I saw it being the basis for my classes, and I wrote down how it would benefit all the writers who would use it. 

Three Bold Steps
The last aspect--three bold steps--intrigued me the most.  I thought about this seriously.  What would be my wildest dream?  First, to find a fabulous editor who believed in my book and would be able to help me take the final steps in shaping it.  I knew such an editor in New York, but she was pretty busy.  I took a deep breath and wrote as one of my bold steps to email her and ask.  She might think I was insane but it really wouldn't hurt.

The second bold step was to take the plunge and get my website revamped.  It was old and tired, and I knew just the right person to help with that.  But what I had in mind would cost thousands.  Was I really able to justify the cost right now?  Would it make that much difference?  I imagined the book being published, people visiting the site, and decided yes.

The third bold step was about my book cover.  I wanted something really great.  I also wanted the interior to look amazing, with some graphics and a clean feel and wide margins for taking notes.  So I wrote down:  Find a designer and typesetter whose work I love.

After the seminar, even though I was reinvigorated by Patti's unique method, I put the chart away as life went on.  Daily demands took me away from my book ideas and it wasn't until a month later that I remembered Patti's chart and what I had promised myself.  I found it and looked over my three bold steps.  They still seemed incredibly scary to me, but I knew they were what I wanted.  I started taking action.

Miracles Happened!  This Method Works!
The editor, to my drop-dead astonishment, said yes.  She and I began working together and within months the manuscript took shape, becoming something so much better than I could've imagined.  With the enthusiasm of that success behind me, I contacted the website designer and forked over the money to start working with her.  When she sent me the template for her redesign I was astonished again--a huge step up.  Amazingly, she also did book design work and I talked with her about a possible cover.  Again, the results were better than I had imagined.  The best typesetter in the world was also easy to find.

Was this magic?  Or just good visioning, with the help of Patti Dobrowolski's wonderful template?  Had she really allowed me to tap into my creativity--my creative genius--in some new way, which allowed these miracles to happen?

I'm a great believer in good visioning.  And a firm supporter of Patti's way of doing it.

Her new book is just out, which gives all the details of how to do this visioning for yourself.  It's called Drawing Solutions and it's wonderful.  She's doing a book give-away contest the week of February 12 and click here to enter the contest.

Questions for Patti
I asked Patti to answer some questions about her process and how she discovered it, then wrote her book.  Here's our conversation:

When did you first know you wanted to write a book?
In 1995, I began experimenting with using visuals to goal set and develop the Snapshot of the Big Picture process. I realized how simple it was for me to make change when I had a visual to help inspire me, and be a road map for the success.  It was at this point that I thought, I should really write a book about this.
How long did this book take to write, from first written word to publication?

I started writing the book at a workshop lead by a writer's coach, Tom Bird.  I remember sitting next to a woman at a conference and she was the speaker and her book had just come out.  I asked her how long it took and she said, "Five years."  I thought to myself, I just finished my first draft, it will never be five years, maybe 1-1/2 at best.  How long did it take me?  Exactly five years!

Who do you imagine is your ideal reader for this book?
The ideal reader is someone who has a dream but isn't sure quite how to get it started.  It may be as simple as writing your first book, or creating that change that keeps you up at night, that you fantasize about.  That is the perfect reader, because this book helps to motivate you and get you doing by helping you see that by using a visual and lining up your brain to start working for you, you too can make that dream a reality.
What are some of the funny/tragic/inspiring experiences you had during the book-writing journey?

Tragic:  the typos that were found after I had two copy editors review the materials!  Funny:  how easy it was to get derailed in the process.  Anything became an excuse not to edit!  Here's a synchronistic thing:  Early on when I sent out query letters to get an agent, and one of the agencies that approached me gave me some really solid advice:  The agent said, "Look at other people's websites:  you have to have a slick video, a cool platform, a unique differentiator."  He then offered to coach me for about $10,000.  I declined, of course, thinking I could get that stuff together on my own (which I did).  

Recently I got a referral from a friend to do a private coaching session for a woman in transition (this is a two-hour session I do in person or on Skype and I draw a big map for them real time)  That woman was the former business partner of that agent.  She had left the agency and was going out on her own.

What's some advice you might give a new writer who is interested in putting together a book? 
Discipline is critical!  In my case, what I learned from Tom was to get up every day and write for two hours or a certain number of words, without going back and editing.  

Also, I went all the way through just writing the book before I came back and edited it.  I wrote longhand and when I went to transcribe it into the computer, that was my first edit.

What's your experience with publishing these days and why did you decide to publish the way you did?  
While I did land an agent, he couldn't ever figure out how to get a publisher interested in my book. So I decided to do POD (print on demand self-publishing), which Tom Bird outlines in his writing.  

I think, for me, this was absolutely the best choice. I am still learning about it, but all that money that would have gone to a publisher goes directly into my pocket and that is very satisfying.  It does go right back out the door, however, for advertising, etc.  But I think it is worth it.

What would you never do again, in terms of book writing or publishing?  
Probably never work with an editor I didn't know. I spent a huge amount of money getting a "writing coach" and a New York editor who was recommended by a  friend of a friend.  While I was happy to have them, I see now that they took me down a path that diverged from me developing my own voice, and I eventually scrapped what they had me write and went back to my original idea.

Anything else you want to share? 
While writing a book is an enormous amount of work, there is nothing quite as satisfying as finishing it.  It feels like a huge mountain, but once you are on the top, you see the whole range of mountains there are and yet each of those next peaks do not feel quite as daunting as this one.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
The weekly writing exercise is to check out Patti's book!  You may have some miracles appear in your life because of it, as happened to me.

Imagine your personal three bold steps, and see what it might take to bring your book into manifestation.