Friday, December 15, 2017

Becoming a Marketing Machine--What It Takes to Promote Your Book

The blog will be on holiday pause until January 5.  Whatever you celebrate, enjoy the season!

It's hard for writers to hear this:  writing your book isn't your only job in becoming an author.   
Once you've completed your manuscript, put it through revision, secured an agent or not, and sold it to a publisher, maybe you think you can relax back and let everyone else handle the nasty details of getting it into readers' hands.  When I began publishing in the eighties, that was the case.  But it's not true anymore.  Now writers need to learn all about marketing and promotion.  It's part of being an author.
Some writers excel at this, whether from natural skills or inclination.  I was never good at it--I had to learn it the hard way when the publishing industry switched from giving a writer publicity funds and support, the "we'll take care of everything" line on your contract, to "what will you do to sell your book?"   I had to hire people (publicists) to help me.  I had to learn how to get blurbs, get reviews, appear at book signings and on television and radio interviews.  When the internet became the best method to promote anything, I had to get up to speed on social media and online book review sites (Goodreads, Shelfari).   None of it was fun for me, a natural introvert who just wants to write.  But I knew it was the only way my books would get in readers' hands.
This week, I wanted to talk with a writer whose book, You'll Like It Here, was his publisher's top seller after it launched in November 2016.   Ed Orzechowski believed in his story so much, he became a marketing machine.  He detailed what he did and I was impressed by all his efforts.  You may not want to do this much for your books, but perhaps Ed's plan will give you some ideas about what you could try.
It helps to know that Ed's book is about Donald Vitkus, patient at the infamous Belchertown State School in Massachusetts.  Ed wanted Donald's story to be heard.  So here's a list of what he did: 

1.  Before publication, Ed secured blurbs from the federal judge who had heard the class action lawsuit about conditions at Belchertown State School, and from an advocacy group. The writer for the organization wrote a review for its blog.
2.  A month before the launch, Ed posted a "Coming Soon," announcement on his home Facebook page. At that point, he  didn't yet have a separate Facebook page for the book.
3.  He also began building his website through GoDaddy (a learning curve, he says), and once the site was up, he posted an announcement about the new website on Facebook as well.
4.  Prior to the launch, Ed's publisher, Levellers Press, created a Facebook Event (Ed says he didn't even know what one was) to announce the upcoming launch. Steve Strimer, who heads Levellers, booked a local hall. Ed emailed everyone in his address book: family and friends (Donald's wife Pat did the same); people he knew from teaching, including faculty and students; members of the developmental disability advocacy organizations that Ed's wife and he belong to, local, state and national; a couple of writers' groups; all the media contacts he  had through freelancing; his high school Class of 1963 (he had the list from being on reunion committees). The result was a standing-room-only crowd of nearly 200, the biggest launch Levellers ever had.
5.  From day one, Ed's book has been featured on the Levellers Press website. Steve arranged for a small book blurb in The Daily Hampshire Gazette's weekend magazine, and an interview on a local morning radio show. He also placed Ed's book with Broadside Books, an independent bookstore in Northampton, and in the two copy shops he operates. Several months later, he put it on Amazon, and a few months after that, as an e-book, too. Ed established an Amazon author page, and about a dozen readers posted reviews. Levellers supplied him with business cards, bookmarks, a table display poster, and promotional book copies.
6.  Ed's former editor (from his freelance journalism days) arranged for a sizeable piece in The Springfield Republican.  Ed sent releases to a regional weekly, and they did articles. A reporter for the senior center's newspaper did a piece, plus another one for a regional arts magazine.
7.  Ed sent news releases to New England Public Radio and WGBY (PBS) in Springfield, and they responded with significant interviews. Donald and Ed were also interviewed for a half-hour program on the Upton Public Access channel.
8.  Ed sent announcements to a few local libraries, who invited him to do book events.  He says "I discovered that librarians are hungry for local author events," and word started to spread. Librarians began contacting him, which he never expected. Some have paid for travel and even provided stipends. He's presented at 16 libraries now, and many of the small towns had the best turnout and participation. The Central and Western Massachusetts library consortium now lists 33 copies of his book in circulation, with several currently on hold. "Hard for me to believe," Ed says. 
9.  He did a book giveaway on Goodreads.  
10.  He only did one reading in a bookstore (not Broadside), and it was well attended.   He sold a number of books at the event and later on consignment, but the profit is marginal.  He also did more focused readings for book groups, historical, and support organizations for parents of children with developmental disabilities, which are the most satisfying.
  
11.  He participated in writers' panels at three western Massachusetts colleges, and began reaching out to colleges that offer human service and psychology programs, mostly word of mouth, but he plans to do an e-mailing.  He says, "I would love to have Donald's story incorporated into college course reading lists, maybe even high schools. One of my former students, who now teaches high school herself in New Hampshire, has used my book for a summer reading program."
12.  He developed a PowerPoint presentation to accompany his readings, with photos of the institution, Donald, and records.   He teamed up with a local photographer for an event at Historic Northampton, who exhibited his photos of the former Northampton State Hospital, and Ed discussed Belchertown State School.
Ed says, "Until a couple of months ago when his health no longer allowed it, Donald always appeared with me, both to speak and sign books. He was always a big hit. People who have attended our readings and signings often have some tie with developmental disabilities or former institutions. They have intellectually disabled children, know someone else who does, or they've worked or volunteered with this population."
13.  Since the launch, he's done about 40 events promoted on his website, home Facebook page, You'll Like It Here Facebook page, and Advocacy Network's page. Ed's website has Facebook and Twitter links, and an email to contact him.
Ed says, "I've found that one event leads to another. Someone who comes to a library reading invites me to a book club, organization, etc. It's amazing to me that, after the ball got rolling, people started to seek me out."
Why do all this?  Of course, to get your book out there.  But also for the amazing experience of someone coming up to you at a library event or bookstore and telling you how much they loved your story.   
So if you're still writing your book, it does help to begin noticing this other task for would-be authors. 

You may not tackle it as Ed did, but you might.   And if you haven't already checked out his book, or want a gift for someone interested in social justice, click here for more information.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Writing about Sex, Intimacy, and Other Dangers


Sex is hard to write about.  I've written two sex scenes in my life so I'm no expert, but I found each extraordinarily difficult.  

The main challenge was not any reservations about including sex scenes in my fiction but how to make them reveal more about character than the character's actions.  That's my personal preference as a reader, as well as a writer, and it may not be yours.  You may be a Fifty Shades of Gray kind of writer and reader, and more power to you.  But I wanted to address the topic, especially after a coaching client sent me this email.
She was reading through her first novel's rough draft, preparing it to send me for feedback.  She came across intimate scenes (her words) that she'd written about the character on her honeymoon, and she had some concern about how they read.  "Too graphic," she said.  "A  bit much for me."
She wondered about how to craft scenes that are intimate but leave something unspoken, that kept the mystery in.  She wanted to reveal more of the character affected by sex and intimacy than about the act. 

In most characters' lives, sex is a dangerous act.  It might be a way for a character trying to prove her coolness or it might be from numbness to the effect or it might be for power.  There's usually an effect from it--at least in literature, if not in life.  Effect on character moves a scene from graphic to literary, where scenes of intimacy or eroticism that have more to do with the human being experiencing it and living with its aftereffect than the mechanics.     

Writing sex scenes brings up our own awkwardness with the topic.  I know many writers who can kill characters much more easily than put them naked on the page.  Sex is loaded, whether from our history, culture, or personal preferences.  It's not easy to write any kind of good sex scene, no matter whether explicit or subtle. 
Totally your choice, whether to include it in your book, of course, but if you do, study up.  Research:  How do expert writers write sex and intimacy scenes?  How much do they veer towards the specifics?  Do they use names for body parts or just allude to them?  Do they show all the steps? 
And most important, at least to many readers, what does it all mean, in the end?  It is about power, love, healing?  Is it the sex only, or is it about the tension between two characters before and after, the disappointment or joy?  What's the point of the sex scene?
This week I had the pleasure of researching a bit on my own.  So many great articles, arguments, and examples of writing exist online, so this week, I'll share three favorites.
Lit Hub (The Best Literary Writing about Sex):  Great excerpts from the likes of Eileen Myles, Alice Munro, Jonathan Franzen, and others.    
Lit Reactor (Five Literary Sex Scenes You Wished You'd Written).
If you're writing YA (young adult), here's an interesting take on sex scenes for younger readers from The Conversation.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Feedback Says My Writing Is "Dense"--What Does This Mean and What Can I Do About It?

A student in my online classes is writing a futuristic thriller about memory loss.  I've enjoyed reading her chapters in class and so have her classmates.  But recently she emailed me about some feedback she'd received that she didn't understand.  She said she couldn't find much information about online, so she was hoping I could help her with what to do with the comments.
 
Readers have told her that her writing can be dense and hard to get into.  As a thriller writer--and someone who is very comfortable with action scenes--this confused her.  "For my book to be accessible I want to make it as quick and easy to read as possible," she told me.   "I've tried to make it fast paced because that grabs people's attention."

She's also tried to minimize description because, she says, "when it's done poorly it slows people down," and I agree. 

So why do some readers say that her writing is dense?

Dense, by the way, doesn't mean stupid, slow, not getting it, or any of the other slurs we might have used (or still use).  In writing lingo, it refers to writing that feels thick to the reader, difficult to absorb.  Dense writing can appear in a couple of ways.

1.  When a piece of writing uses a lot of big words or complicated terms--think legal language or tax forms--it can read "dense" to us.  It takes work to figure out what the writer is trying to communicate.  I once read an article about what happens in the brain when we repeatedly encounter words we don't know or writing that feels too complex to easily understand or makes us work too hard.  The brain literally turns off.  It stops absorbing meaning, or even trying to.  This can even occur when we're reading and a word pops up that we don't know.  Our brains just say, "Nope," and begin right then to disconnect from the emotional impact of the writing.  Imagine a whole paragraph like this, or a page or two.  Not a pretty sight.  This is dense language.  Language, or word choice, that feels unnecessarily complex.

One of my students years ago was a published poet.  He was trying his first novel.  He brought his love for words, especially complicated, poetic words, into his fiction.  At first it was interesting.  Then he began getting feedback from the class (and me) to ease up on the love of language.  Stop trying to make everything beautiful and intense and interesting, and make sure the words he chose actually served the story.

He backed off a bit from the poetry, chose simpler words and structure, and the story blossomed.  Once the story was intact and working, he could go back in and add his poetry.  It was a big wake-up call for him and changed his writing.

Another way dense writing appears is too packed with events or information in too small a space.  One editor I know calls this rat-ta-tat-tat writing.  This happens, then this happens, then this happens with nary a pause for a breath.  If you write like this, and my student who posed the initial question for this blog article might, your goal is to keep things moving fast.  But realize that readers need time to actually "see" what's happening and "feel" the character's reaction. 

They need what's called beats.  Beats are the small pauses between events or dialogue lines that allow us to absorb the meaning.  Beats are a big part of screenwriting, and novelists and memoirists are learning to use them too.  When I add beats, I can do it intuitively, for the most part--although we are all most blind to our own writing.  But if I can't, I grab a favorite published book and read a page aloud to get a feel for where those pauses, those beats, occur.  Then I read a page of my own writing and see if I can sense where the pauses should occur.

Nonstop action isn't all that fun to read, truthfully.  After a while, it's just rat-ta-tat-tat.  And who needs that.

2.  Dense can also have to do with the visual appearance of paragraphs and sentences on the page.  Dense prose means too little white space.  Novelist Alexander Chee has a great technique for seeing this:  print out a chapter and placing the pages end to end, then squint to see the balance of text and white space. 

If you see pages with thick chunks of text, see if you can break them up.  Conversely, if there are lots of one-line paragraphs, consider adding beats to create some density. 

It all comes down to a perfect balance.   

Friday, November 17, 2017

How to Get Enough Distance from Your Story to Actually Write It

In January 2001, physician and writer, Therese Zink, lived through a traumatic experience:  While on an international aid mission in Chechnya, her boss was kidnapped.  "That experience got me writing," Therese says.  "I'd kept a journal since a creative-writing class in high school twenty-some years earlier and dabbled at times with more creative efforts. But after the kidnapping, I had to write." 


Little did she know how long it would take her to learn to write and to tell that story.

Even if you know an event in your life will make a great story, to craft a strong story arc (events) as well as narrative arc (growth of narrator), distance from the real-life event is essential.  Writers can't get the reader's perspective when they're too caught up in "This really happened!" defenses.  It takes time and distance to objectively see what will work and what won't--as well as figure out a way to tell the story so there's universal appeal.  Which Therese has done in her new novel, Mission Chechnya.  

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Magic of Showing Up--How to Design and Commit to a Writing Practice

What's the difference between a writer who gets a book finished and a writer who never does?  A writing practice.  Believe it--there's nothing more important.  Not talent, not a great idea.  It's down to basics:  putting self in chair, putting hands on keyboard or taking up the pen, and staying there past all the internal whining and doubt and misery to actually put words on the page.

But we all whine.  We all get up and sharpen every pencil in the house sometimes, instead of writing.   
 
My two-favorite motivational books to keep me writing are Ron Carlson Writes a Story and Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.  So this week, as a cold hovered and temps dropped outside, I got them out.  Each has so much compassion for the distractions a writer must overcome to have a good writing practice and actually finish a book.  But they also have enough practical techniques to really use.
 
Ron Carlson is a prolific short-story writer.  If you haven't read "Big Foot Stole My Wife" or other stories by him, do a google search and find them.  In his tiny book, Ron Carlson Writes a Story, he takes us through a day in the life, including all the distractions a person could imagine.  It's funny, it's charming, and it's oh-so-true, but each time I read it, I get back in the chair.  I'm inspired to write.  So it works.
 
Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic is much less whimsical.  Gilbert has produced well in her writing career.  She has had huge successes (Eat, Pray, Love) and lesser ones.  Gilbert's no stranger to the magic of the Muse, but she defines it differently.  She is all about listening.  Developing a listening practice, so you hear what to write about.  And using what you hear within a rock-solid writing routine.  Gilbert's theory:  there are great ideas out there, waiting for writers to receive them.  Those who listen, get the idea.  But that's only the first step.  Once you hear the call, you actually have to write. Regularly.  The idea will grow as you do your writing routine.  The book will happen.
 
If you get bored, tired, distracted, the idea will wait around for a while, Gilbert says.  But eventually it'll go find someone else to listen.  She saw this happen with a great book idea that came to her many years ago. 

She was excited, started writing, then dropped it for two years.  Not long after, she heard from her friend, the writer Ann Patchett.  Patchett was writing a new novel, about the exact same idea.  How was that possible?  Gilbert had told no one of her book-in-progress.  Neither had Patchett.  Years had gone by. But there it was.

It convinced Gilbert that ideas wait, latch on, then leave if we are not writing regularly.   

Carlson's approach is much more about showing up and doing the work.  Less about waiting and more about acting.  This appeals to me on days when I'm generally irritated by my writing, by elusive ideas that I can't quite grasp, and by my critical inner voice which questions the worth of any of it.  His theory is that if you show up and just begin to write, you'll get there.  He encourages me to not make too much of this.  It's not a mystery.

I like and use both approaches.  But mostly I try to keep a writing practice going.

Here are some tips I've shared with my classes about finding and sustaining a writing practice.  It's gotten me to finish many books:

1.  Decide how you're best motivated.  Do you work well with deadlines?  Do you write better if you know you'll be getting feedback?  Do you write because you have something to get out?  Do you love crossing "good writing days" off a calendar?  What's driving this book?  If you can figure that out, use it to keep yourself honest.  As a journalist for many decades, I work best with deadlines, so I set up artificial ones with writing partners or by taking classes where I have to produce.  Nothing spurs me on faster.  But that might not work work you.  What keeps you going, despite your doubts or distractions?  if you're a time or page writer. 

2.  Some writers feel successful with their practice if they put in a certain amount of time each day or each writing session.  Others don't care about time but require a certain number of words or pages (NaNoWriMo is all about this).  Find out what feels satisfying to you.  Make a goal that's reasonable, given your life--not wishful thinking.  For many years, I wrote five pages a day as my goal.  I didn't care about the quality but I felt happy each time I achieved that.  Eventually, I had manuscripts.

3.  Recognize the value of non-writing or musing time.  Something you can do solo and let ideas bubble up.  For me, it's a daily walk.  I like to walk and think about my story.  Often, problems work out.  But just getting outside, breathing the air, and moving my body settles me into a rhythm that always helps my writing practice.

4.  Life interferes with a writing practice.  You get sick, your friend needs help, your kids mess up, work gets crazy.  Train yourself not to need absolute quiet or solitude or long uninterrupted periods to do your writing practice.  Grab what you can--a commute with a voice memo to record ideas, an hour at a coffee shop on the way home from an appointment, even the middle of the night if you can't sleep.  Touch in with the book every day. 
  
Your Weekly Writing Exercise
If you haven't read Big Magic or Ron Carlson Writes a Story, grab a copy and immerse yourself.  Then think about the four tips, above.  Which one could you test out this week, to refine or start a writing practice that might carry you through winter?

Friday, November 3, 2017

Pros and Cons of Using Past or Present Tense

A blog reader sent me a great question this week:  "My writing group discussed present versus past tense when writing memoir.  A group member's editor had her switch her present tense chapters to past tense.  She had some of each.  Are there virtues of each or should memoir always be past tense?"
 
I get this question a lot in classes, so it's always good to know the pros and cons of using past or present tense.   
 
Just to recap, we're talking about verb tense here.  Past tense sentence:  John went to the game and arrived late.  Present tense of the same sentence:  John goes to the game and arrives late.
 
Although it's risky to make such a blanket statement, I'd say that novels and memoirs have been written almost exclusively in past tense for as long as literature has been published.   It was the way to write.  Then writers, who love to experiment, began writing a little in present tense, here and there.  It was different, startling at first to readers.  Present tense is TENSE!  It's more in your face, more breathless.  But so is our world now, so modern literature, both memoir and novels, are written in both past and present tense now. 
 
Are there rules?  Not really.  Are there effects on both reader and writer?  Definitely.  It pays to know them, so you can choose consciously.
 
Past tense disappears; it's so usual, we don't even notice it. 
 
And while present tense is immediate, fast, a little more energetic, in your face, breathless, as said above, it calls attention to itself.  Sometimes, it comes across like a "device" the writer is using rather than an integrated part of the story.  It's a style, like using no quote marks for dialogue.  All styles call attention to themselves and have to serve the story to be justified.

If an editor says, Go back to past tense, it might be for this reason.  I'm just guessing because I don't know the manuscript, but that would be one of the concerns I'd have, as an editor.  Is present tense serving the story or is it louder than the story?

Caveats:

1.  Some writers use present tense as a tool to get immediacy in the story.  Like, rewriting a chapter in present tense can give a whole new perspective and more energy if you're stuck.  I love using present tense for this reason, but I usually switch back. 

2.  A friend just got her book accepted--it's very edgy fiction and it's written in present tense.  The tense emphasizes the already edgy plot.  So it works.
 
3.  Some writers who use flashbacks choose one tense for the main story and the other for the flashback.  This is tricky but it's great if you can pull it off.

Mostly, find what works for you.  Read writers who write in either tense and see what effect you feel from the writing.  

Friday, October 27, 2017

Which Point of View Should I Use? A Tour of First, Second, Third, and More

I often get this question in my classes:  what point of view is best for my book?  Who is best to tell this story?  What are the differences between first, second, third, and omniscient points of view?
 
There's an underlying confusion about "voice" and point of view in story, which I want to address first.   
 
Point of view in writing is not your belief about the topic, as it would be in conversation--your "point of view" in an argument, for example.  In writing, it refers to the position of the narrator in your story.  It's the narrative filter, in other words, the way readers will see your story, based on who is telling it.
 
Voice is different.  Narrative voice is more the tone of the person talking; while writer's voice is the overall style you are using.  Check out my blog post on voice for more information.
 
Point of view is actually easier to figure out, because you only have a few choices.  Here they are: 
 
First person:  When you write in first person, you use the pronoun "I" because I am telling the story.  Memoir is usually written in first person because you are the narrator--it's your story.  Fiction is often written in first person--especially first novels, because it's easier to get into the character's head.  First person only stays in that one person's head; it doesn't switch around unless you are using multiple first-person narrators.  Then, each chapter would have an "I" narrator but different ones.  That's complex, so unless you're really good at it, stick with one person for your first-person narrator.
 
First-person point of view is automatically prejudiced, or biased.  We only can see what this person can see.  It's not going to be the whole story, so it's up to the writer to reveal the unreliability of this narrator via setting, action, gestures, and sensory details that contradict the narrator's view of something.   
 
Unreliable narrators are legion in fiction.  A great example is Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, where the narrator is an alcoholic and possibly implicit in a crime.   
Examples of first-person narration:
 
I crossed the street when the light turned green, not caring about the angry drivers who swerved to avoid me.
 
It was years before my father acknowledged how much he missed me; I thought he never would.
 
I'm climbing the stairs, aware of noises in the attic, not sure what I'll find there. 
 
Second person:  Second person narration uses the pronoun "you"--and it's a tough point of view to sustain throughout a 250- to 300-page book.  Why?  Because it comes across as confrontational, in-your-face, and many readers get tired of it fast.  In short pieces, it works well.     
 
Examples of second-person narration:
 
You crossed the street when the light turned green, not caring about the angry drivers who swerved to avoid you.   
 
It was years before your father acknowledged how much he missed you; you thought he never would.
 
You're climbing the stairs, aware of noises in the attic, not sure what you'll find there.
 
Third person:  There are two kinds of third-person narration; one is used a lot, the other hardly ever today, except in academic writing.  The first is called "third person limited" and the "limited" means that it stays in one person's head.  It's a very common point of view in fiction, biography, and nonfiction.  It's not used in memoir.  The second is "third person omniscient" and the "omniscient" means we see all the characters' points of view.  Third omniscient is an old-fashioned style of narration.  It was common in novels thirty or forty years ago, but it's tricky to write successfully today because it gives such a distant feel to the narration--meaning, it's harder to get to know the individual characters when you're writing all of them at once.  It's used in academic writing just because of this distant feel.
 
Third limited can move around to different characters' heads, but it stays in that person's point of view exclusively while they are narrating.   
 
Examples of third-person-limited narration:
 
Jason crossed the street when the light turned green, not caring about the angry drivers who swerved to avoid him.   
 
It was years before Jason's father acknowledged how much he missed him; Jason thought he never would.
 
Jason's climbing the stairs, aware of noises in the attic, not sure what he'll find there.
 
Examples of third-person-omniscient narration:    
 
Jason and Maria crossed the street when the light turned green, not caring about the angry drivers who swerved to avoid them.   
 
It was years before their father acknowledged how much he missed them; they thought he never would.
 
Jason and Maria are climbing the stairs, aware of noises in the attic, not sure what they'll find there.
 
Some basic rules to keep your narrative point of view clean:
 
1.  Stick with one.  If you have multiple narrators, keep them all in first or third limited.  Switch at chapter breaks to be easiest on the reader.      
 
2.  Some writers love to break this rule, playing with one narrator in first-person and the other in third limited.  It's kind of in vogue right now, so if you're tempted, be sure your transitions are impeccable.  Otherwise, you'll lose the reader's trust early on.  Study books that do this well.   
 
3.  Avoid third omniscient unless you want an academic feel to your writing.  It's a lazy way to write, in my view.  It's often what we do when we are beginning, and after some feedback, we learn better and begin to rewrite in third limited.   If you really like the broader perspective and want to try it, experiment with third limited with multiple narrators first.  See if that gives you the broad reach you're after.  Or study writers who do this well.  
 
Here's a great article from The Write Place blog that gives more examples and details.  Your writing exercise this week is to read it then look at your own writing.  What point of view do you favor?  Why?  What might it be like to experiment with a different point of view?

Friday, October 20, 2017

How to Build a Chapter--A Cool New Template to Try for Any Genre

This week I'm teaching on Madeline Island, a beautiful spot on Lake Superior off the shore of northern Wisconsin.  Yesterday my class of ten writers explored a new template I've been working with for building chapters.  As a review for them and a gift for you, I thought I'd share it.
 
Many of my book-writing students, as well as private clients, even those already published, struggle with how to build strong chapters.  Over the past year, I've been studying different templates for chapter building.  Asking myself some hard questions:
 
1.  Do chapters require the same components in fiction, memoir, and nonfiction? 2.  What makes a chapter work?  
3.  What's missing, when it doesn't quite?
 
Last year, a writing friend introduced me to Shawn Coyne's book, The Story Grid. Coyne offers a template for suspense novels that helps fill gaps for many writers of that genre (thrillers, domestic suspense, true crime).  I worked with it, got a lot of help, then ran into walls.  My new novel, Outlaws, is not just a mystery; it also explores the relationship of two estranged sisters brought together by a daughter.   My more "literary fiction" bent felt cramped within the model. 
 
When I tested the Story Grid on the more reflective or information-based genres of memoir or nonfiction, it didn't work as well either.   So I began searching for a more universal model that writers in any genre could use.
 
Benefits of Chapter Templates
Free-flow writing and intuitive decisions about chapter size and where to break them--great when you're drafting or just beginning to revise.  Using the intuitive side keeps the left brain from smothering the subtler levels of story as they emerge.  
 
Early on, you may have some idea of how the accumulating pages could break into chapters.  But, unfortunately, most writers never move out of the go by how it feels mode when revising, and their chapters stay stuck in early structure decisions.  Either they've broken the manuscript into uniform segments, about 10 pages on average, which they decide are good chapters.  Or they choose arbitrary breaks to give the reader a pause.  Neither makes for good chapter structure.
 
As I studied successful chapters, I saw there was a clear pattern.  I crafted this template and tested it with private coaching clients and my classes.  So far, it's held up.  It's solved chapter-structure dilemmas in fiction, memoir, and nonfiction. 
 
Your writing exercise this week is to test it out with one of your not-quite-there chapters and see what you think.
 
Five Components of Successful Chapters  
I found five components exist in most successful chapters.  Here they are and how they're used.
 
Opening setup.  A question or quest opens most strong chapters in any genre.  A dilemma starts the momentum and carries the reader forward into the chapter's main action or development.  It might be as complex as someone wakes up that morning and discovers her mate is not in bed or in the house.  Or an invitation comes.  Or the doctor calls with news.  Or a meeting begins, someone leaves, someone arrives.   
 
The opening setup usually reflects the false agreement of the whole book in some small way.  It gives a hint of what's to come.  In class we looked at a chapter from Sunnybrook:  A True Story with Lies by Persimmon Blackwell, where the opening setup up is preparing for an interview, and Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller, where the opening setup is the girl waking up and needing to pee but she can't wake her parents because they sleep with guns by their bedside.
 
In a nonfiction book such as Complications by Atul Gawande, the opening setup is the start of a surgical procedure.
 
In all three examples, a quest is begun, however large or small.  Because the chapter presents a successful opening setup, a hint of conflict is also presented:  Will the quest succeed?  What else might happen (or go wrong)?
 
Acceleration.  After the opening setup, usually within a page or less, there's some acceleration of the problem.  Things do get more complicated.  This is important:  it gives the chapter momentum.  The reader keeps reading to find out more.
 
Many writers pause to deliver lengthy backstory or information here.  Some is OK, but be cautious about more than a few lines or paragraphs.  It'll drop the tension you've created with the opening setup.  As an editor, when I review manuscripts that offer pages of backstory, I know the chapter is not successfully structured.  As a reader, I often skip or put the book down just there.  
 
In Sunnybrook, the acceleration is the interviewee dressing in a way that covers the scars on her arms.  In Dogs, the acceleration is the girl waking her sister instead of her parents, even though she knows her sister is a risky bet too.  In Complications, it's revealed that the surgery is going to be tricky.
 
Dramatized action.  This section of a chapter covers the most real estate.  Pages, often.  Ideally, it's one scene in a specific moment of time and a specific place, not summarized but dramatized fully onstage in front of the reader.  If there is a sequence of moments, they link or build in tension, one to the next.  They are not unrelated or similar in tension level--that also drops the tension of the chapter and the reader feels we're hearing the same thing again and again.  In Sunnybrook, this is the actual interview.  In Dogs, this is the scene in the bathroom (a dark outhouse with scorpions and snakes).  In Complications, this is the procedure in all its gory detail.
 
Window of truth.  I found this present in so many books I explored.  It's almost a requirement, now, for chapters I love in published books, but I've never seen it discussed in writing classes or craft articles.  I call it a "window of truth" because it connects back to the dismantling of the false agreement that starts the chapter.
 
Say the false agreement is the mental health care system is intact, as in Sunnybrook.  The window of truth is a one line sidebar where the narrator reveals that she knows that's not true--in a big way--and she's going to bust it open.  Say the false agreement is every woman (or kid) for herself in war-torn Rhodesia, as in Dogs.  The window of truth is two lines, where the four-year-old girl reveals that she wants help; she can't do it alone.  Say the false agreement in Complications is that surgeons are gods.  The window of truth busts this open when the surgery is complicated (hence the title) and surgeons are helpless if they hold to this superior belief.
 
It's not much.  It's potent.  It is placed towards the end of the chapter, usually, after we've experienced full dramatization of the question or quest.   
 
The closing setup.  In books, you don't end there, with a neat wrap up.  If you do, your readers won't turn to the next chapter, right?  They'll pause to reflect, set your book down, and maybe not pick it up again.  It took me many thousands of dollars in an MFA program to learn this:  book chapters, except the final chapter, must have a transition that leads to the next chapter.  They must leave something unresolved from the opening setup OR hint at a new dilemma, quest, or question. 
  
I often craft the closing setup at revision.  This kind of transition is often hard to see when you're just drafting.  After the whole-book structure is intact, and your chapters built successfully, it's easy to go back in and tweak the end of each chapter to include a closing setup line or paragraph.  
 
Hint:  the closing setup often loops back to the false agreement.  Not always, but often.  It can fully re-embrace the false agreement, solidifying it even more. 
 
In Sunnybrook, we learn the interviewee is given the job at the mental hospital, but the head psychiatrist doesn't know she is a former patient.  The closing setup is the question:  What?!!?  And we read on to find out how she manages.  In Dogs, the young girl lies when her father asks how she slept;  "like a log," she says, again pretending she can handle wartime life without complaining.  

This week:  See if one of your troublesome chapters can be reworked using this model.

Friday, October 13, 2017

How Powerful Is the "Container" of Your Story?

Book writers must create writing that pulls a reader in, that engages us so well, we can't stop reading. A favorite nonfiction writer, Malcolm Gladwell, spoke about this task--and its challenge to most writers--in the preface to his book What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures.
 
Gladwell's topics are potentially dry. I love his ability to present his material in an amazingly engaging way.
 
"Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade," he said. "It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else's head--even if in the end you conclude that someone else's head is not a place you'd really like to be."
 
Each book writer has their topic, the thing they must write about. Some write about a fantasy world, some write flowers, some write about growing up with addictions. No matter your topic, the trick is to make it engaging. It's harder than it sounds.  
The key is something called "container."
 
This week I'm gathering some new material for my fall online class, Strange Alchemy, which begins October 25 and focuses writers on container in their story.  What is present, now, and how can it be enhanced?  How does container intersect with character--so that you understand a character better by the setting that echoes their motivations or emotions?  How does an event come alive in a perfectly depicted container?
If you have any doubt about the importance of container, think of films.  Imagine The Matrix being shot on a farm in rural New Zealand.  Or that classic, West Side Story, taking place on a ranch in Kansas.  Container may be something you completely overlook as you draft your story, or it might be your favorite aspect.  Not enough container means your reader won't engage emotionally with the characters or events--because (and here's the kicker) container is the main vehicle for delivering emotion and meaning in story.
This is the first step to producing the engaging writing that Gladwell is talking about.
 
Tough Material, Great Container
In my Strange Alchemy class, we read an essay by Susan J. Miller, excerpted from her book Never Let Me Down. Miller's father was a well-respected jazz musician who hung out with the likes of George Handy and Stan Getz. But he was also a heroin addict, and her life was terribly affected by this. Her memoir is heart-breaking. 
 
Some writers are repulsed by such a topic, others feel it's terribly pertinent to today's world.  We always have a lively debate, trying to understand why the essay affects us so much, and in the end, we usually realize it is because of Miller's extraordinary "container," the living environment of her story.
This is the key to engaging writing. Container, the larger environment of your book's story, delivers more emotion than plot, characters, topic, structure, or all of these combined. "It's counter-intuitive," is the comment I get most often--"you would think that good plot, exciting action, would create emotional response." 
 
Good plot creates momentum, yes. It drives the story forward.  But it's container that brings forth that emotional response. It's what makes us feel hit in the gut by a story's tender moment or feel our hearts racing with anticipation by a twist. Without container, plot is just a series of events, like a newspaper report. 
 
Why else would I, as a reader, become so engaged in the healing of a crime-ridden neighborhood, the comeback of Hush Puppy Shoes, and other examples from Gladwell's classic book, The Tipping Point? I don't care about Hush Puppies. Really. But I did when he talked about them. Same with Susan Miller's work. Heroin addiction is not on my list of fun things to read about. But I was totally engrossed by her tale.
 
Because both Gladwell and Miller are masters of writing container.
 
How Is Container Presented?
Container is presented in writing in several ways. Here are a few from just one paragraph of Miller's essay:
 
1. physical setting (being on a speeding subway train, watching the night flash by outside the grimy windows)
2. use of the five senses (screech of train wheels, whisper of her father's voice against her ear)
3. physical sensations (the rocking of a train causing nausea, felt in the body)
4. word choice ("screech" and "whisper" echo the sounds of jazz being played--Miller's overall container for the essay)
5. paragraph length and flow (a series of clauses, separated by commas, giving the impression of movement and jerkiness while on the subway train)
 
The effect of this paragraph--one where her father takes her on a train ride then gleefully whispers that he just dropped acid--is one of terror. A young girl is aware that her father might at any moment decide the train car is a tomb and try to jump off. What can she do? Not much. She just has to ride out the ride.
 
It's an astonishing container.
 
This Week's Exercise
Choose a dead spot in your writing--a paragraph or a page. Insert one of the above tools to increase container. See if you can let go of your preferences as a writer and be willing to see your work from the reader's view. Does more emotion come through?
And if you'd like to join a stellar and warm community online for my Strange Alchemy class which begins in a few weeks, here's the link to check it out.  You need to be working on fiction or memoir to benefit most from the class, but all levels of writers are welcome.