Friday, April 17, 2015

Rest Breaks for Book Writers--When Are They Procrastination and When Are They Required?

This week I'm taking a rest break from my book.  I'm still thinking about it, still mulling over its many problems, but I have recognized some important signs of burn-out that I need to attend to.  I've begun pushing rather than listening.  I have a more-than-usually-overactive Inner Critic.  And occasionally, a feeling of the blues about my work will creep in. 

It's been one intense winter here in New England.  April rolled in with deep depletion and a longing for green grass and sunshine.  I felt drained in every part of me.  First step was finding a place to recuperate--so I lucked out with an airbnb house on an island in Florida for a week with my family. 

Of course, I brought my book with me.  I thought I'd spend each day on it.  Ha!  What actually happened was this:  beach walks, painting, sleeping, eating, and more beach walks.  Not a whole lot of writing.   

We push ourselves so hard.  We work, we parent, we partner, and we try to write our books.  It's all good.  But there can be a break, can't there?  When it your feeling of "nothing left to give" just procrastination and avoiding hard work that will take you from breakdown to breakthrough--and when it is a sign your writing actually wants you to take a break?

Crying jags often accompany this, for me.  I start wondering where I've lost myself.  This isn't the sign of depression, at least for me, it's a creative emptiness. 

Julia Cameron in the much-loved guidebook, The Artist's Way, suggests a weekly artist's date to keep in touch with ourselves, to not get to this lost place.  And I can usually honor that.  But sometimes life shoots us too much too fast--maybe a death in the family, a change of homes, loss of job, even good things like marriage and buying a house.  Everything takes energy and time.  What gives?

In the realm of manifestation and creativity, I had been stretched to the max these past months of winter.  I didn't know any other gear to drive than Intense.  I didn't know how to get back to the "necessary boredom" that Dorothy Allison talks about, the place where my own creativity bubbles up.

Jennifer Louden writes in The Woman's Retreat Book "If there is one cosmic law I know the consequences of ignoring, it is this one:  you cannot create from an empty well."

Tomorrow we fly home from our island vacation.  I'm sunburned and sleepy inside, but new ideas are bubbling up.  My manuscript which has been ignored all week is starting to interest me again. 

It always happens:  As I began to fill up again, with long hours staring at the ocean or painting the sky, new ideas have started coming in.  An idea of how to solve that sticky plot problem, a place to get information I need.  An enthusiasm for my writing that I thought I'd lost forever.

This Week's Writing Exercise 
1.  Take stock.  Do you need to feed the artist?  Is she or he starving from too much output and not enough input these past busy months?
2.  If the answer is yes, can you carve out time for a rest break?  Even five hours in a day when nothing is needed of you is amazing and precious.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Go On! Make a Bad Decision! Your Story Will Thank You

Still life.  A painting term for something captured in time.  Frozen, unmoving, maybe even perfect.  Looks pretty.  Gets a little boring after a while.  Is far from real life, isn't it?

Still life never makes a good story.

Bad decisions? They do.

Bad decisions is how your plot is furthered.  Whether you're writing memoir, fiction, or nonfiction, it's likely a bad decision brought the narrator or the reader to where they are right now.  Trouble is, most writers like to keep their characters out of trouble.  They like to stay safe.  

Staying Safe
Recently, a student in my classes was agonizing through a bout of writer's block. She had started the semester with chapters that just flowed onto the page.  Then, in the fifth week of our twelve-week class, she got really stuck.   Nothing worked:  freewrites, encouragement, feedback.  When I read her five weeks' worth of writing, I could see why.  The world she was writing about had gotten safer and safer, until she didn't know how to escape.

Still life.  So . . . I suggested she look at the bad decisions in her chapters.   Try to find something that made everyone uneasy or got them into trouble.

Qualities of Risk
What you're after here are the qualities of risk.  Where is the edge in your chapter?  What might happen if you sharpened it, raising the stakes?

In my online classes we build a book from ideas laid out on a storyboard.   It's like an easy, visual map of where the story rises and falls.  I asked my student to go back to hers and review the major plot points.  When she did, she realized nothing big had happened yet.  She said she was saving the big stuff for later.

That's fine.  But then, why would a reader want to read on?  They may never get to the big stuff.  And neither was she.  All the bad decisions happening later means that there was little momentum to propel the plot now.

So we talked about it.  She explained that she is a very nice person.  She believes in a world where most people are good at heart. She just couldn't see getting her characters in trouble, painting them as anything but good people too.  Yes, eventually, everything would fall apart in their lives, but for now, she wanted things to be OK for them.  Easy, fun, with everyone getting along.  No risk.

Telling a White Lie
I like this writer.  Who wouldn't?   I also believe in that kind of pleasant world.  When I have a day like that, it's golden!

But it's not golden on paper.

Although I'm not suggesting nonstop murder and mayhem.  Just a few bad decisions.  Like telling a white lie, watching the consequences unfold.  Or withholding something.  Or avoiding someone.  Or . . . you know!  You've made them, haven't you?

Even this nice writer has.  I asked her if she'd ever told a white lie.  She didn't even flinch.  "Of course," she said, "who hasn't?"

"Remember how it felt?"  Yes, she did.  She got a little uneasy.  "Go back to it.  Find out why you told that little lie.  Find other bad decisions you've made.  Then list them, and transport one into your story."

We've all made bad decisions. We've been on the receiving end of other people's, too. They are hard to forget, no matter how hard we try. Think of what your "story" was after the decision. It probably had drama, movement, energy, and consequences. That's what you're after in your writing.

This Week's Writing Exercise
This week write about one really bad decision you made in your life. Write about it in all its glory.  I like to set a kitchen timer for 15 minutes, to limit the agony.

Maybe you're far enough away to not feel the pain of it again, but if you do feel some embarrassment or unease as you write, good thing--because it'll make the writing that much more emotionally grabbing for a reader.

Now look at your book draft.  Where are the bad decisions?  If you don't have many, make a list of 10 things your character would never do. (Use this equally for memoir or fiction.)  Now write one scene, one moment, using one item on the list--imagining it happening.

See if this provides momentum. Gets you unstuck. Out of that "still life."

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Big "W" and Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey Story Arc

Writing a book is hard work.  So it helps to get help--anything that has worked before.  What makes a story satisfying?  What keeps us reading?  One writer who has solved this question for many of us:  Joseph Campbell, his Hero's Journey, and the W structure that evolved from his work.

Campbell offered a classic definition of mythic structure in storytelling.  The narrator, the hero, starts a quest and faces challenges that change him or her by the end.  It's the structure you see in so many films, books, and classic fairytales.  Most movies out of Hollywood follow this structure. 

In the big W, there are three defined sections, or three acts.  Each gives the story a certain kind of movement, up or down.  The sequence creates a W, falling action and rising action, back and forth. 

Since a book is a big project, this template can make order out of your pages of chaos.  First question to ask yourself:  can you divide your story into a rough beginning, middle, and end?  Good. 

Next questions:  Does the beginning provide a challenge, an initial crisis (also called a "triggering" event because it's similar to pulling the trigger on a gun--it must propel change).

In the middle, do events get more complex?  Maybe the initial crisis becomes bigger.  Maybe more a problem isn't solved as easily as we expected.  Do positive events change someone's life in some way, causing their own problems? 

Finally, is there change by the end?  Do things resolve at all?  What is different about your hero by the final page?

These are the basic elements of the big W.  Use its template to check your book's structure.  You may find some pieces missing!  If so, read on.

Act One:  Set Up a Strong Beginning
Dilemma must be present in the beginning of your story.  In my writing workshops, we read recently published books to locate the opening dilemma, the triggering event.  Often it is on page 1 or 2.  That's normal in today's publishing world--readers want to know what's at stake, right out the gate.
Some writers question this.  They prefer what I call the Tolstoy approach.  Tolstoy used the first seven chapters of War and Peace to set up his characters, setting, and background information.  You may love this slow entry into books, but would Tolstoy be published today?  I'm not certain.  If you're interested in being published, you may have to set aside this slow entry idea.  You may have to move your backstory out of the way.

Backstory is the background of the story--and so many writers place it first.  I once read a student's mystery manuscript, where backstory comprised the first four chapters.  As a reader, I lost interest fast.  I skimmed ahead to where something happened.  Backstory is history.  It's not electric for your reader now.  Readers are smart--they want to get into the problem first, then hear about how it happened.   

Ask yourself, Is the dilemma presented immediately and clearly? Is it big enough to propel the entire book? Remember that a triggering event should be an externalized action without which the story would not happen.
Act Two:  Accelerating the Tension in the Middle  
Act two is the next two legs of the W, the upside down V.  It offers a rising action first.  Hope, new ideas, a friend, a possible solution!  The rollercoaster cranks up a steeper slope, we get a new view, and the tension builds.  After  a tiny pause at the top of the grade, act two drops like a stone.  Another falling action plummets us to a new low.

Act two, or a book's middle, is a tricky part.  It's easy to get sleepy here.  How many books have you abandoned as a reader, after a great start, because of the slow down?  The big W helps you avoid that.   

I like to call act two the arena of "new complications."  It should make your hero's journey a lot more complex.  Does it?   

By the end of act two, things are at the lowest point.  We encounter a crisis of greater magnitude than any other moment in the story.   Things really fall apart now.   The tension is intense, with a sense that there's no way out.
Ask yourself:  Do my act two make everything more complicated?  Does the bottom of act two contain the worst moment in the book?   If not, then think about ways you can show the dilemma worsening.   What complications can you add to heighten the tension?   Make sure what you are revealing feels much more complicated than at the first turning point.

Act Three:  Finishing with a Surprise
Act three is the final leg of the big W.  It offers a rising action, an upward movement--new solutions, the mystery solved, a new identity for your hero, a new perspective.  

Whether something unexpected is revealed or a new level of understanding brought to light, make sure the dilemma of your book is resolved.  Or if not resolved, at least talked about why it's not resolved.   I'm not talking Hallmark card saccharine stuff here.  Just some tying up of the mystery.

Act three is like a big exhale of tension.  It delivers a new level of clarity about the story or subject. Your characters might  realize how much they have grown, and how overcoming all those dilemmas earned them their insights.
Ask yourself:  Does my book have a new revelation or realization or discovery at the end of the story?     

Not all writers like this big W theory of story structure, but it has been a lifesaver for me.  It's helped me produce and publish so many books, that I can't imagine not having it in my back pocket.  It helps me check my creative flow against something solid and structural. 

Friday, March 27, 2015

Finding Time for Yourself: The Value of Writing Retreats

Writers who take on a book learn that it is always connected to their lives, some way, somehow.  Even if the story is about another planet.  Even if the writer is making it all up.   

We can't write completely outside of who we are, especially when we're spending 300 pages doing so.  This means we must face ourselves squarely, look at our motivation for our project, as well as any oh-so-personal obstacles to getting there.

It requires being alone with our creativity.  Writing retreats are great places for this to happen.

Necessary Boredom
Each summer I teach two week-long writing retreats on an island in Lake Superior.  They are sponsored by Madeline Island School of the Arts, and we live on campus in cottages and gather each day in a sunny classroom to orient, plan, and learn--then go off to write alone.  I find the coming together, the daily check-ins, balanced with the solo writing time, is the key to making a retreat work.   

Also, the location is ideal.  Remote and beautiful, Madeline Island is lined with lagoons, inlets, and beaches.  A cute lakeside village sits on one end of the island, full of arty shops.  A writer's senses get filled with summertime blue skies, lake breezes, sailboats, and grassy meadows of wildflowers.  The pressures of normal life slip away and "necessary boredom" filters in.

What is necessary boredom, and why is it so important for writing?   

Writer Dorothy Allison coined this phrase.  It's the inner stillness that promotes creativity, that lets us wander inside and come up with original thoughts.  I find that writing retreats offer a chance to perceive whatever has been swimming underwater.  It begins to surface, to be looked at.  Inner lives finally inform the writing. 

But inner lives can be scary to face alone!  The balance, again, of community and coaching are what makes it possible.

The Dangers of Writing Retreats
I've been on many writing retreats.  Sometimes my take-away is less than stellar.  At several, it became all about impressing the teacher and fellow writers, more than finding out about our own work.  (I left that one early.)   

The big questions:
1.  Does the retreat offer enough stillness and writing time?
2.  If you get stuck, is there a way to learn some new skills or get coaching to keep you going?   
3.  Is there just enough comraderie but not too much to interfere with writing time?   

I remember one retreat that featured so much partying I was too tired and toxic to see beyond a bottle of aspirin.  The fun I supposedly had doesn't come to memory; I can only recall the regret I felt when my writing didn't budge.

Looking at Your Own Motivation--The First Question
Good retreats provide (1) necessary boredom, (2) coaching and new skills when you get stuck, and (3) just enough community to feel support but not social overwhelm.

Retreats also force you to ask those big questions about your writing, hopefully bringing you to a new perspective:   

What's driving you to write this book, really?    
If you didn't have to write it, would you?   
What will keep you facing the blank page?
What are the personal benefits to me?  If no one else were to read this book, would I still write it?
Your Primary Obstacle--The Second Question
When the book doesn't get written, the reasons are as individual as the writer.  Maybe you don't have enough time.  Maybe you have too much fear, and it keeps biting you when you sit down to write.  

During the retreats on Madeline Island, writers inevitably get stuck.  My job is to coach them through the stuck place and reacquaint them with their reasons for writing--as well as the courage I know they have.

Creativity and Courage
I urge them to remember what it was like to waste time in sheer exploration. It may sound counter-intuitive, but each day on Madeline Island we practice time management from a perspective of creativity.  With some structure and plenty of writing time, writers begin to see that elusive thing called time and what it really meant for them as creative writers.

As each writer got more relaxed and felt more at ease with the group and our daily schedule, as we got to know each other as a creative group, we began share more intimately, be foolish in front of each other.  We gradually read more of our raw writing, scenes just created that day, and this let everyone practice being fearless.  As voices were heard and respected, these voices got stronger.   

I am always amazed at how the week grows organically, how it becomes custom-made for each person.   

Some writers choose to spend the whole week exploring ideas, branching out of their known worlds into the unknown.  They write short pieces that may eventually become chapters.   

Others craved a good map, a serious direction for all the material they'd accumulated.  I coached them through storyboards and image boards.  We made collages of our books, of our characters.   

One afternoon, I sent everyone to the beach to write the "container" of their books.

It is always hard to say goodbye on Friday.  We become quite a family by the end of the week--which is how a good retreat should be.  Knowing each others' true stories is often the best door to really knowing a person. 

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
If you're curious about retreats, check out my Madeline Island summer writing retreat, for book writers at all stages.  Click here. 

And get a taste of the big questions by setting aside some time to dialogue on paper with your book idea.  Ask yourself the two questions below, letting yourself write whatever comes and responding as honestly as you can. 

What do the answers tell you about your own book-writing process?

1.  Why am I really writing this book?
2.  What's the primary obstacle I face, in writing this book?

Friday, March 20, 2015

Studying Stephen King: Subtext and Dialogue Use by a Master

My April 2 dialogue workshop is almost sold out, so I wanted to give those of you who are coming (and anyone who can't come) a jump start on understanding subtext in dialogue.  Subtext is the undercurrent in written dialogue. 

It makes dialogue expand from information-giving to emotion- and tension-fostering.  It's what makes dialogue really work.  And what gets your manuscript past that round (rejection) file.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Navigating a Big Writer's Conference--What's Best to Do, What Do You Bring, How to Make the Most of Your Time and Money

This spring, two major writing conferences happen.  One is the annual AWP (Associated Writing Programs) conference in Minneapolis on April 8-11.  The other is the Muse and the Marketplace, the premier New England conference sponsored by Grub Street writing school, on May 1-3 in Boston. 

Mega-conferences are high opportunity and high overwhelm.  Concurrent workshops, panels, and pitch sessions with agents tempt you to multi-task or bilocate.  But the best results often come from thinking carefully ahead of time about what you want to leave with--more skills, more contacts, a sense of where you are in the publishing process, a hopeful connection with an agent? 

Dialogue Skills to Develop Real or Imagined Characters--And Help Sell Your Book to a Publisher!

Imagine a publisher sitting in front your manuscript.  By some wild luck, and your hard work, it has arrived in his or her hands.  Now it awaits trial.  Will it pass or fail?

The publisher skims the pages until a section of dialogue appears.  It's read and the entire book is judged on how the dialogue moves.  If it's good, the publisher turns back to the first pages and begins to read your story.  If the dialogue is clunky, the manuscript is set aside with a sigh (or a laugh) and the publisher moves on to the next in the stack.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Structuring for Nonfiction Books--How Do You Do It, So Your Reader Can Follow It?

We were taught in school a three-part structuring tool:  Tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.

While this essay-structure helped me pass my high-school English classes, it never came in handy as I began writing books.  In fact, I had to unlearn that tool, pick up completely different ones.  No longer impressing a teacher, I had to impress my readers.  And a reader's mind gets bored with knowing what's coming.

This is obvious in fiction and memoir--we want to dive into the story, be surprised.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Structuring Phase--The Second Stage of Building a Book

This two-part post discusses the two phases of book building.  If you missed part 1, just scroll down.

How do you know you are in the structuring phase of building your book?

Friday, February 13, 2015

Gathering Phase and Structuring Phase--Two Stages of Building a Book

Writers who have published books know that there are two phases in the book-writing journey. They cycle back and forth during the time you’re planning, writing, and developing (editing) your book. They apply to all genres: fiction, memoir, and nonfiction.  

It’s good to know what phase you are currently in, so you approach your book-writing journey with the appropriate tools. Knowing your phase will also keep you from getting discouraged or overwhelmed.