Friday, May 27, 2016

When Does Your Inner Critic Appear? Three Scenarios of Self-Sabotage and How to Renegotiate Your Contract

Scenario #1:  The new chapter draft is going pretty well.  You're writing steadily, enjoying a renewed commitment to your book.  Suddenly, from some dark place in your mind, a switch goes on.  An unrelated thought or feeling slips in.  Maybe something you forgot to do or say.  A small mistake or failure.  The thought distracts you and you slowly leave the story flow.  You begin to hate the writing--or at least, it feels less delightful. Even a little boring, unoriginal?  You're derailed.

Scenario #2:  You give a chapter draft to a friend, spouse, relative to read.   You're pleased with it.  You imagine they will be too.  Maybe even impressed.  They bring back comments.  Even if they say, "I loved it," a flood of (1) fear, (2) anger, or (3) shame hits you.  You can't bear to look at the writing, to use their suggestions.  It's all sucky anyway, and you really shouldn't waste your time.

Scenario #3:  Pick one:  You get sick, your cat gets sick, your kid gets into a fight at school, your boss goes on a rant with you as the target.  Outer life overwhelm strikes, big time.  Worry and agitation sucks up all your energy.  Less and less of that energy goes to your book.  After a week or two, you can't even remember it.  When you force yourself to sit down and open the file, you're dismayed at how flaccid it is. 

All these scenarios have something in common:  they're fostered by the IC, our personal inner critic.

The inner critic is our internal gatekeeper.  Its job is to protect us.  It has a very loooong memory, way back to our first creative efforts in childhood.  Unless we had an exceptionally supportive environment for our creativity, both at home and at school, we probably logged some embarrassing moments about "showing off" or "being unoriginal" or "did you really make that or did you copy it" or any number of other creativity slams.  When we edge up to this again, as adults trying to write a book, the IC goes on amber alert. 

It hovers and watches.  As long as we're not really making progress, it's OK--we won't get hurt.  But if we begin to do well or we expose our writing to others, however well-meaning, the IC raises the alert to red. 

It'll begin to sabotage.  However it can. 

I have experienced this so many times--I get sick or my life explodes just as my book gets going good--that I no longer believe it's coincidental.  I think we create these situations to protect ourselves, to have a damn good excuse not to write. 

Don't believe me?  Try logging it.  When do you stop writing your book?  Is it one of the scenarios above where you've (1) done well or taken a leap, (2) showed your writing to someone, or (3) let your outer life drama take over your creative energy?

You're not really victim to the IC.  You created the contract with it, you can rewrite that contract.

Writers who keep writing, despite all the scenarios above, still have an inner critic.  They've just learned to work with it.  They aren't swept away by the fear, anger, or shame that can come when they raise their skills or share their writing or get pummeled by outer life events.   

They write anyway.  And they finish their books. 

Your weekly writing exercise is to write a letter to your inner critic.  Renegotiate your contract.  Thank it for its lifelong service and ask for a little more leeway to do what you need to do. 

PS  In my week-long book-writing retreats each July on Madeline Island, I coach each writer about the IC and when it may hit.  It's predictable for many.  About midweek, sometimes sooner, a wall appears.  The wall of past limits, those memories the IC uses to keep us limited now. 

I recognize them as they begin to percolate in a writer and I coach that writer through.  It can be hard to do without support and someone who's been there. 

Best results can happen in the retreat environment:  a breakdown leads to a breakthrough.  Many writers emerge from these battles changed, the contract with their IC completely renegotiated. 

Friday, May 20, 2016

Character Loops--Reader-Pleasing Techniques for Using Characters in Your Story

I'm getting ready to teach a new online class this summer (starting June 8) about characters, so I'm having fun going through all my techniques, tips, and exercises learned and taught these past twenty years, trying to find
the best offerings.

I'm also reading up:  devouring, actually, a few just-released novels and memoirs, to see how characters are being used today. 

How many, how often do they appear, and how much weight do they have to carry in a story, to please a reader?  To keep her (me, in this case) engaged?

Last night I stayed up late to finish Lisa Lutz's new novel, The Passenger.  I think it's going to rival Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, and I also think it's much more sophisticated than either of those in how it uses characters.  

Readers Track Characters
Whenever a character is introduced, the reader subconsciously makes note and begins to pay attention to that character's purpose in the story.  When they appear, what they do, how much they're developed.  We readers don't track nameless characters or walk-on's (the waiter, the store clerk) unless they're given interesting characteristics.  Even minor characters are logged in the reader's brain and must carry a consistent thread through the story.

I remember when my first novel was at the publisher's.  I got an email from my editor asking about one of the minor characters, Chad.  Chad, evidently, had dropped out of the story around chapter 14.  My editor was tracking Chad (she liked him) and wanted me to create a "loop," where he appeared again.  A "loop," she explained, was like a road that circled back by the end of the story to where it had started.  Chad would walk along this road, appearing in various chapters as needed, and by the end the reader would feel satisfaction in knowing he was accounted for.

I reworked several chapters under her guidance and it did create a much stronger presence for Chad in the novel.   I was hooked on "loops."

Lutz's novel, mentioned above, has excellent loops.  Without spoiling the mystery, I'll say that one of the important characters, named Blue, disappears for most of the middle of the book.  I was happy to see her go, truthfully--she's a tragic influence on the narrator--but I did wonder why she was introduced and what she'd do by the end.  I was tracking her.

Lutz began bringing in hints of Blue, very skillfully, setting up her reappearance at the end--a surprise that is anticipated because of the loop she creates.  We are given just enough about Blue when she's offstage to feel satisfied when she walks back on.

Your writing exercise this week is to check out one of your minor characters and see how this characters loops back into your story by the end.  How present are they through the book?  Do they disappear?  Can you resurrect them (as I did Chad) to create that reader-pleasing loop?

I'd also highly recommend The Passenger if you're looking for a good novel to read (maybe not before bed, since it's a thriller, though).

Friday, May 13, 2016

My Favorite Tool for Checking Story Sequence

Two of my private clients are working on nonfiction books.  They have a ton of expertise to share, but they normally teach in person, so putting their techniques and theories into a logical sequence on the page has proven challenging for both.  They found my website and decided to work with me to check the structure of their books-in-progress.

I start them with basic structure analysis techniques, which I learned as an editor at different publishing houses.  Most writers just write--they don't necessarily know anything about structure.  Editors used to take care of that, but they don't anymore, so we writers must learn to analyze the structure of our own books and get them in shape before we submit the manuscript.

Once a client has put together a basic structure analysis chart (see last week's post, below), I work with them on the sequencing of chapter purpose, using one of my favorite tools.

What Question Does Your Chapter Ask?
Each chapter (or scene, eventually) must have a clear purpose.  It must contribute something to the story--not just be there because it's well written and you like it. 

An easy way to figure out a chapter's purpose is to find out what question it asks. 

Chapters can ask simple questions that have to do with what's happening onstage (Will I get caught as I'm searching my parents' bedroom?  Will we win the fight?  Will I get away before he sees how embarrassed I am?).  They can also be more complex, or conceptual (Why do we see the world this way?  What's wrong with our approach to money?  Where does our belief in might versus right stem from?). 

It takes a bit of work to figure out a chapter's question.  Some chapter questions will be obvious.  Their purpose is very clear.  Others, not so much.

Once you have the questions sketched out, copy and paste them into a new document so you're not distracted by the chapter text.  Look at the sequence of just questions.  Do they create a clear path for the reader?  Are the questions, or chapter purposes, logically arranged?

Once you get the chapter purpose described, you can use this tool for character arcs--the progress of a character or narrator or reader through the story.  For each chapter, write the stage of the character's consciousness.  Describe their awareness of themselves, the problem, its solution.  Then copy and paste these descriptions into a new document and study the sequence.  Is there a clear series of changes, that make sense, from beginning to end of story?

When I've tried this for a manuscript-in-progress, I usually find big holes.  It's become my favorite technique for story sequence--and the quickest way to catch the places I've raced ahead and left my reader behind.   

Friday, May 6, 2016

Writing versus Structuring--Why Both Are Important and How to Toggle Between Them in Your Writing Sessions

John, from Texas, is writing a memoir--his first book.  He's a good writer and he's accumulated about 30,000 words so far, writing in what he calls "flow writing," where he just sits down each day and lets the memories pour onto the page.

John's story is good--riveting, in fact.  But a few months ago he reached a point of being confused about where he was going with the book.  He'd written as much as he could remember, but now he felt stuck.  He found me through my website and contacted me for private coaching. 

Friday, April 29, 2016

How to Use Different Points of View in Your Story

Teri, a blog reader, sent in a great question about points of view.  I've gotten variations of this question often in my online classes.  Teri's two narrators switch back and forth, alternating chapters. 

She wondered if she needed to make their amount of chapters equal.  Does she need as many chapters from her male character's point of view as from her female's?

Variations of this question crop up often in my online classes. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

Tips on How to Read Your Own Work Objectively

Mary Beth is working on a memoir and has taken my online classes and my week-long writing retreat in Tucson.  She's got a solid draft of her manuscript and is now going through the chapters, revising and tightening the focus.  She emailed me recently with a great question--something we all run into.

"How can a writer learn to read her own writing from a reader's eyes/brain/comprehension?" she asked.  "When I reread my work--it's me --how I write.  I'd like to be able to reread it and go 'You're doing the same thing.  Change this or that.'  Maybe I'm looking for a magical way to reread my work."

Friday, April 15, 2016

How Do You Find a Good Editor--When You're Ready for One?

Kathy, a writer who has attended my Madeline Island retreats and online classes, has almost reached the finish line with her memoir.  

I've watched her work hard over the past few years, creating a strong structure for her book, workshopping her chapters, and fine-tuning.  She wrote me this week about her recent trials, trying to find a good copyeditor who will help her catch errors and get the manuscript ready to submit.

Friday, April 8, 2016

How Do You End Your Story? Where to End, How to Decide, What to Make Sure You Include

Andrea, one of my online students, send me a great question this week:  "I haven't quite decided how my story is going to end," she wrote.  "I have been mulling this very question for months, and I cannot come up with an answer. It's really perplexing and I think it's keeping me from moving forward."

She also mentioned being worried about covering too much time in her novel (one whole year).  Funny thing, these two questions are related.  If you solve one, you can solve the other.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Planting Twists in Your Story to Keep Readers on Their Toes

You know that old saw about "nothing is certain except death and taxes?"  We expect unexpected twists and turns in our real lives.  Stories should be that way too. 

In life, we may dread the unexpected.  In story, we anticipate and delight in it.  It keeps us on our toes, as readers.  We're engaged, turning pages, wondering what's going to happen next.   Funny thing, though:  Writers who are living high drama in real time often avoid it on the page.  So their writing feels safe, predictable, an easy ride--everything we want our lives to be. 

Everything that writing shouldn't be.

How do you overcome the tendency to keep your characters safe, to tone down your plot, to avoid changing things up? 

Friday, March 25, 2016

"Never Give Up!"--The Inspiring Story of Elizabeth Di Grazia's New Memoir

Elizabeth came to my classes a few years ago with her memoir-in-progress.  She was obviously a talented writer, but what struck me even more was her determination to tell this story, and tell it as well as she could.

At my July week-long retreat on Madeline Island, I watched her dismantle her book as she knew it--much writing already completed, but the structure not yet working--and we talked a lot about her options with timelines, backstory and present story, the threading of her life now and her childhood.  She came up with a unique and workable structure during that week and continued building her book through classes and mentorships. 

Not long ago, I got the announcement that her memoir was being published.  House of Fire has just been released by North Star Press. 

I interviewed Elizabeth for the blog this week.