Friday, July 17, 2020

What's the Primary Environment of Your Book--Physically, Emotionally, Intellectually, Spiritually? And Why Does It Matter?

A new author wrote me this week. She'd read my writing-craft book, Your Book Starts Here, and it helped her realize which book project she needed to focus on first: a self-help/memoir hybrid. But she was confused by my chapter on finding the primary environment of your story. How did this apply to her book?

Every book has an environment that it lives in. I think of it like a lab where the experiment lives in a beaker or container.

Everything happens within that container.

It's easy to imagine the container of a novel: it's the physical setting, the culture a family or community, the era when it takes place. A story that takes place in the sixties in the U.S. has a different container than a sci-fi novel. In memoir, same thing. Our memoirs are particular to our personal stories--wherever they take place.

I think of a memoir written about civil war in Rhodesia (Alexandra Fuller's Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight) compared to a memoir about being a scientist (Hope Jahren's Lab Girl). Really different containers.

Let's look at nonfiction next--the self-help twist of this author's book and what it brings to the container question.

Her book chronicles a weight-loss journey, the memoir part, but it also delivers information and encouragement to others on such a journey, which is the nonfiction part.

This writer says there are a lot of "environments" in the book: thoughts, emotions, and the physical environment of her experience of weight loss. That's all good--the memoir side of her equation would include stories about her journey. 

Readers will need to have illustrations of her experiences, which are anecdotes or actual examples of times she struggled or was victorious or learned something new.

Rather than just telling us a realization, self-help/memoir hybrids show us these turning points through actual stories. How is this done?

Recently I reread Brene Brown's self-help book, Braving the Wilderness. It seems informational at first glance but if you study her chapters, you'll see story occupies at least 50 percent of the page space. Which is a great ratio to shoot for with any nonfiction hybrid.

Brown's own stories are there, plus anecdotes from other people she knows or has read about. These stories humanize the information, so readers don't feel they're being lectured to. She's an expert but the expertise comes to us in a very digestible form.

That's the ideal 50-50 balance of outer story and inner story for this genre.

So, then, what's the environment of such a book? You only have to look at the title to see it: the wilderness. It's all about the wilderness of the world right now, the metaphor of things being wild and out of the norms of control that we've grown used to.

Her stories all take place in the "container" of wilderness. Not all literal wilderness in nature, but psychological, spiritual, and emotional wilderness.

How might this take-away transfer to my reader's weight-loss book? I'll put my own spin on this, and she can see if it works for her or gives her an idea of where to go to find her own.

In a weight-loss journey, you let go of what you no longer need to carry. You also possibly embrace a new image of yourself. It might feel uncomfortable, unprotected, or at least unfamiliar to live without the weight you're used to carrying. You have to get used to new movements, new look, new clothes, maybe taking up less space physically and otherwise.

These are all my thoughts, and she will have her own, since every journey and every book is different.

But whatever she comes to, she can jump right in to imagining the "environment" of her weight-loss book and choose stories and examples that connect around it.

Examine any published hybrid (memoir/self-help or some similar combination) and you'll see a container. It might look like the book's message, or theme. But if it's well structured, the stories and examples will all connect to this container, as Brown's wilderness container holds all of her stories.

Good question, slightly complicated answer. If this is the genre of your book, take time this week to browse online or in a bookstore for published titles in that same genre.

See if you can discern the container, the primary environment, of these books. Chances are, they got published because the agent/editor/publisher could.

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