Friday, March 30, 2018

Too Much Reflection? How to Make Sure Your Story Doesn't Stall Out

One of my blog readers sent me a wonderful question last week.  It's a question that many writers struggle to answer.  It had come to mind when she read my post a few weeks ago about creating enough pauses for meaning within the flurry of events in your story.

But what about the opposite? she wondered.  If you're not an event writer, and maybe you write in too many pauses, how do you work with that tendency? 

"My memoir hasn't got many events," she added.  "It is a reflective, and in this instance a political, memoir about a chapter in history that requires some explaining as well as my own reflections."

Many writers whose tendency is towards reflection wonder about this.  Can too much reflection overwhelm the narrative? 

A short answer:  yes.  But it's not that simple.  And it depends where you are in the book-writing process.

There are two ways that reflection enters a story.  One is conscious and one is unconscious.  The unconscious reflection arrives very naturally in the early stages of writing a book--because we write to tell ourselves what we're writing about.  We tell ourselves the story to figure out what we want to say.

Most writers need this.  Joan Didion was famous for saying "I don't know what I think until I write it down" and before her, Flannery O'Connor said "I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say."  Not to leave out the men writers:  Stephen King says "I write to find out what I think." Professional writers don't try to avoid this; they often embrace it, because great books are built from this early-stage reflection.  Forget what you learned in high school about carefully constructing your thoughts before putting them to paper and accept that there's often a discovery process that's essential to books.  It consists largely of reflective writing.  

I find it very natural and healthy for the creative brain because it allows a story to travel to new places you might not have considered.

But it's usually unconscious.  Important to realize this! Readers will not necessarily want to be part of this reflective period.  They may tolerate a certain amount of wandering in a book (it's also delightful to be part of the author's discoveries) but the naturally unconscious process of early reflective writing feels loose and unstructured, almost lazy to readers.  They want you to guide them on a more purposeful journey that only comes after you have chewed through the meat of your topic and come up with something unique to say, something new and relevant. 

Unconscious reflective writing might delight us, as freewrites do, as journal writing does. But it's the writer talking to the writer.

That's the first kind of reflective writing:  essential but unconscious.  Once we've done enough of it to know our book inside out, we move on.  We revise, tighten, and bring the reader into the conversation.

That leads us to the second kind of reflective writing.  Its hallmark is story.  Often, reflection in revision comes out as story, as illustrative, humanizing scenes that show a point rather than tell it.  

I think about writers of prescriptive nonfiction (memoir-information hybrids, information-based books, how-to's, self-help, academic books) as guidebooks to a topic or a method or an idea.   In academic publishing they are still purely informational, but in mainstream publishing, because of changes to our reader brains in the past ten years, we've moved to illustrating our reflection with story.  Partly, we can blame this on our media culture but we must also consider the influence of writers like Malcolm Gladwell, Mary Roach, and Rebecca Skloot, to name just a few.

Maybe it's memoir, as in Skloot's case, or maybe it's illustrative anecdotes as in Gladwell and Roach's books.  But unless you're writing solely for academia, for use as textbooks in classrooms, you might need to dial back the purely reflective and replace it with the illustrative to survive in today's publishing world.  This isn't about dumbing down your material or the seriousness of your thoughts.  It's about seeding your narrative with enough illustration to balance the reflection or information.

One of my past students, Katherine Ozment, published a very well-received book last year called Grace without God:  The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age.  This is a heady and controversial topic.  Ozment handled it beautifully by inserting her own story into the discussions about faith and its pros and cons.  If you want to read a good balance of reflection and illustration, check it out.   And it doesn't have to be your personal story that balances the information; like Gladwell and Roach, you can use other people's stories.

This week's writing exercise for those of you struggling with such a question as my blog reader, above, is to take a chapter of your manuscript, no matter the genre, and highlight anything that's internal or reflective.  Where are you (or the narrator) thinking, feeling, mulling over, digesting, remembering?  Highlight these passages, then squint at the pages.  What's the balance?

Then find a recently published book in your genre.  Do the same there (photocopy the pages, to keep your book intact, or highlight onscreen then erase).  What balance does this book use? 

That will give you a pretty accurate ratio to use.  Adjust as necessary.

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