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.

How about nonfiction?  You might think that essay-structure is solid for most nonfiction books.  Yes, if you're writing for academic audiences who are still working in that essay model.  But if your readers are long out of school, looking to be engaged and interested in your topic, you've got to pick up another tool.

I've written and published a lot of nonfiction books.  My best structure tool for them is the same as what I use for fiction and memoir--the storyboard and the W template (click here for a video all about these, if the idea is new to you).  But there are some modifications to make when writing nonfiction.  You have a slightly different path to walk along that W.

Leslie from New York City writes about architecture and design.  She read my post on Structure Advice for Wordsmiths:  Why Good Writing Comes After Good Structure When Developing Your Book and had some good questions.  She's a good wordsmith, she says, but the structure can be baffling. 

"I can craft the words, but it's getting the foundation right.," she says.  How does the structuring advice I gave in that post apply to nonfiction?  How can you create a solid foundation in a nonfiction book?

Most nonfiction books have three goals:

1.  To present the benefit of your material--why it is useful and important to a reader--usually through illustrative examples (anecdotes or stories, a la Malcolm Gladwell and others).

2.  To take your reader through a series of steps,  or stages of increasing complexity,  in a way that makes it easy to absorb the material.

3.  To help a reader apply the learning to his or her own life.

Fiction and memoir often work with three acts, kind of like three parts to a story, where each part builds on the previous one.  Act 1 usually sets up a problem.  Act 2 develops the problem, makes it more complex, makes it more universal.  Act 3 resolves the problem and/or shows the narrator or character becoming a different person because of what's happened.

In nonfiction, these three acts work very well too. 

Act 1 in a nonfiction book sets up the need--why would the reader want this information you're sharing?  Usually people read books for entertainment, for education, or for inspiration.  What's your book's benefit to the reader?  Use act 1 to establish the need for your material.  As mentioned above, writers like Malcolm Gladwell accomplish this with stories, using real people.  You can too.

Act 2  in a nonfiction book presents the method, the steps to learning your material.  How do you build a bridge?  How do you understand why Britain got to love a certain food?  How do different species of butterflies migrate?

Act 3 in a nonfiction book differs by genre.  Most nonfiction books use act 3 to show the reader how to use the material that's been presented earlier.  Obviously, some nonfiction books (how-to books, self-help books, business books, etc.) will have more of this than a book on history that is designed to educate, not inspire.  But some nonfiction books are a call to action, or a call to arms. 

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
If you're working on a nonfiction book, read first.  Find recently published nonfiction books in your field.  See what those authors did to structure their books.  You can do this online by browsing the tables of contents. 

Then take your ideas and make a long list!--including stories you might have that show your reader the benefit of your topic.  Using what you learned by reading, can you see a way to divide your material into the three acts?    

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?
  1. You’re beginning to wonder the point of your story.
  2. You’re getting overwhelmed by too many islands, ideas, chapters, research, or information and want to begin to organize them.
  3. You’re curious about how you might start your book.
  4. You’re beginning to see a clear way to begin or end but are flummoxed about the middle.
  5. You are working from an outline but it seems too restrictive, and you want to include more ideas but aren’t sure how they fit.
  6. You are realizing you have more than one story-and wonder if you can include it in your book.
  7. You have letters, journal entries, or important backstory (history) to use but are confused as to where it might fit.
Structuring begins to happen anytime-you can move into the structuring phase when you only have ten pages written, using it as a brainstorming tool for planning which islands to write next.

You can also wait until you have a substantial amount of islands (scenes, fragments, ideas) written out.

Either option works well.   

I usually use the structuring phase when I first begin a book. I write a little then I play with possible structures. From my structure exploration (storyboarding) I get many ideas on what to write. Then I go back to the gathering phase to do the writing.

This may seem backwards to you. In many writing classes, especially in high school and college, we’re taught to use an outline, which assumes we know our structure before we begin to write-fairly ludicrous to expect this, yes? Except for some nonfiction projects which are well researched early on, or a book idea you’ve been simmering in your mind for many months or years, it’s impossible to guess a good flow without experimenting on paper.

So, an outline is a often “best guess.” You end up redoing it as you learn more about your book, which is fine. The danger with an outline is that our linear brain gets ahold of it and decides the imposed order of the outlined topics is set in stone. It becomes very hard to change.

It’s far easier to use a storyboard to play with ideas and a possible structure for your book. Storyboards are used by many, many publishers.  

As a book doctor and editor, I was often hired to take a manuscript and analyze its structure. One project recently was for a writer in New York City whose latest novel had been rejected by a dozen major publishers. I came in for the structure analysis.  

I storyboarded the book and voila, the problem emerged. Two of the four characters had narrative arcs (inner stories) which stopped mid-book.

Storyboarding is fun, easy, and fluid.  You can learn more about it here on my video, if you wish, and see what it’s like.  

I find it opens the creative faucet inside and I get LOTS of new ideas for my story. See if it works for you.

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.

Gathering Phase
How do you know if you are in the gathering phase?
  1. You are just playing with an idea for your book and it feels unsure right now.
  2. You are enjoying freewriting but don’t feel ready to edit or structure the freewrites yet.
  3. You have lots more research or interviews to do (maybe you haven’t even started this).
  4. The idea of starting to structure your book idea makes you mad, sad, or anxious.
The gathering phase happens over and over throughout the book journey. We cycle in and out of it, but we always start with it: an idea, a nudge to write, a character that won’t leave us alone, a compelling body of information we want to share, an experience that changed our lives.

In the very early stages of book writing, we begin to gather ideas, build on them, brainstorm new ones. It’s a fun, exciting, scary, and fertile time.

In my online classes and storyboarding workshops, we work with three gathering-phase tools:

1.  We study the inner and outer story of our idea to learn about the two areas for gathering ideas.   Inner story is the meaning, the why.  Outer story is the event or what's happening, where, with whom, when.   Most writers naturally excel in one of these.  

You may have a great plot for a novel. Or you may have brilliant research or methods to write about. This “outer story” information is crucial, but it’s only half the picture. Inner story counts equally-the meaning of the plot (what changes because of what happens) and the meaning of the research (what does it mean to your reader).

2.  We study the concept of "islands."  Islands are single scenes, or snippets of information, or a setting description, or a character sketch. They do not necessarily have a beginning, middle, and end. Writing teachers have discovered that writers who work in islands rather than via an outline often include the inner story more readily. This is because islands are not gathered in a linear fashion. They appear in random bits.

3.  We also look at another primary “gathering phase” tool: the Brainstorming List. Keeping a brainstorming list is the a very effective way to counteract writer’s block-you always have something to write about. And if you can free yourself from having to write your book in sequence, or chronology, islands can be tackled in any order.

These three tools are the main components of the gathering phase. They are very important in your toolbox now, and will be even more important later, as you begin to structure and edit your book.
  1. Inner and outer story
  2. Writing in islands (instead of by outline or chronology)
  3. Brainstorming list
These three tools may be plenty for you to work with right now. Especially if you are still early on in your book-writing journey. So stay there for a while and practice developing the inner or outer story that you haven’t thought about yet.

When you are ready, at your own pace, you can take a step into structuring phase, which I will talk about next week in this blog post.

Friday, February 6, 2015

How Do You Start Your Chapters for the Most Punch? Some Simple--and Surprising--Structure Tips for All Genres

Michelle from New Zealand watched my video on story structure and sent some questions about how to begin a story.  

Although Michelle writes short stories, this question is important for book writers too. 

"Some stories begin with a problem," she wrote, "and it is solved through several small events.  I can't find how the other stories might begin. "

There are essentially three ways to begin a story (or book).   
1.  Through characters
2.  Through a location (usually a location that is vital to the story and ends up being as strong as a character)
3.  Through what's called a "triggering" event

In most schools, newbie writers are taught to read the classics.  These are stories or books that have lasted as favorites through generations.  Maybe they were radical in their day (Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird).  Maybe they're just solidly written with characters we can't forget.   

Twenty years ago and back through our literary history, classic stories often began with characters or location.  The writer might hint at an event, something that happened or will be happening, that will change everything.  But we read quite a few chapters before we actually get involved in event.  Mostly, we're learning about the community, the history of the village, the people.  (Tolstoy is a great example--War and Peace only introduces character and place for the first seven chapters.)

A big shift has happened in story structure in the past years.  We readers have gotten impatient.  Or publishers are gearing toward a new generation of readers, the movie-goers?  Our brains have changed, certainly, and we may not be able to hang in there for seven chapters before something happens.

So most stories start with event now.  From what I've been reading lately, I'd say 90 percent of fiction and creative nonfiction books and short stories, even short essays, published in the past year have a triggering event on the first page.   If not the first page, the first chapter at least.

One editor told me they only read two pages of submitted manuscripts at her publishing house now.  "If nothing happens within two pages, it goes in the round file," she said.  How common is this?  If recently published books are any example, I'd say, "Very."

In my workshops on book structuring, I give writers a way to test this for themselves.  They are asked to bring two recently published books to class--hopefully books in the same genre as their book-to-be.  I ask them to find the first moment that something big happens.  They look for a dramatic event that causes conflict for someone and has the potential to make big changes in the storyline.

Usually, it's on the first page or two.  They're often astonished by this.  You can try it too (do try this at home, or a bookstore!) and see for yourself.  It's the trend now in publishing, good to know, right?   

Your exercise this week is to scan your first chapter-in-progress.  Does anything happen?  If you're relying on character or location to provide momentum, you may want to rethink your plan. 

Friday, January 30, 2015

Writing in "Islands"--How I Wrote My First Memoir in Forty-Five Days

A novel in a month?  A memoir in six?  I never believed those promises, tooted by many writing books.  Not until I came across the concept of writing in "islands."

I'd already published five books, with the help of great editors, when I first heard of  "islands."  A writing friend knew I was struggling--a publisher was interested in my memoir and I had to deliver in three months.  I'd honed my skills in nonfiction, even won some awards, but memoir is a whole different animal. 

I was moaning to this writing friend about how to even get started, with such a deadline looming.  She suggested I check out a book by writing teacher Ken Atchity.  Called A Writer's Time, rereleased many years later as Write Time,  the book was not at all about time management but about the two-part process of book writing.  Atchity had noticed over the years of working with new authors that those who actually finished their books allowed random-access writing before any organizing happened.

In other words, nobody used an outline.

For my nonfiction-writer self this was heresy.  All good writing comes from thoughtful organization first, right?  But Atchity was proposing, with years of evidence to back him up, that our creative brains need to explore before they organize.  Right brain holistic before left brain linear. 

Atchity called the process writing "islands" before forming them into "continents."  Write random islands, he suggested.  Let yourself go anywhere.  Start with an idea for chapter 5, instead of trying to figure out chapter 1 first. 

I was stuck, so I had nothing to lose.  I decided to try it. 

I knew my memoir would be roughly twelve chapters.  So I got twelve file folders and on the cover of each, brainstormed islands (scenes, ideas, descriptions, events, people) that might be in each.  I was able to loosely group the islands I came up with.  Since I wanted my memoir to also give good information about handling change, I made copies of research and added it to different folders.  When I began writing, I would scan the island ideas, pick one, and write.

My deadline imposed a quick timeline.  I wanted to write two chapters a week, which turned out to be about twenty islands.  But I promised myself I could write islands from any chapter (file folder) on any day--I didn't have to stick with one chapter until it was done.  Just accumulate the three hundred pages of islands that would form my manuscript.

It was the most amazing writing process ever, for me.  I finished the draft, all three hundred pages, in forty-five days.

There's nothing quite so joyous for a book writer as seeing that stack of printed pages on the desk.  Yes, it was a shitty first draft (as writer Anne Lamott calls our first efforts), but it was a draft.  Much more than I had in hand when I began.

I've gone on to write and publish seven more books using Atchity's island method.  Since then, I've seen parallels with Natalie Goldberg's freewriting logic, and other writing systems, but I am so glad I discovered Atchity.  His book is available used, and it's worth picking up, if you'd like to try the method.   Or check out how I used it for other books--and how the editing process (next step after islands) takes the book to the finish line--in my own writing book, Your Book Starts Here.

I firmly believe in this method, although I have changed it over the years and books, taking what I learned from Atchity and adapting it to better fit all genres of writers.  If you can, check out Write Time and see what you think!  Maybe it'll help you write your draft in much less time than you imagined.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Growing Out of Your Rootbound Pot--Why Bravery on Demand Can Help Your Writing

Simone de Beauvoir once wrote, "Every time I start on a new book, I am a beginner again. I doubt myself, I grow discouraged, all the work accomplished in the past is as though it never was, my first drafts are so shapeless that it seems impossible to go on with the attempt at all, right up until the moment . . .when it has become impossible not to finish it."

This comes from her 1965  book Force of Circumstance, which is one of many published works during her long literary career.   New book writers might read this in astonishment.  How come such a prolific and experienced writer had such beginner's emotions?

Does it never get easier?  Do we ever feel like we know what we're doing?

Maybe not.  That's what writing communities are for.  I see it happen each semester when I begin a new online class and the group of writers find companionship, support, and accountability in each other.  We keep each other on the edge of learning, where creative bravery resides.

The need for bravery in our art is not limited to writers, of course.  I once asked a professional speaker about this.  I wanted to know if he ever got stage fright, felt that beginner's nervousness.   This man has delivered hundreds of talks to audiences of thousands.   He said he always feels jittery before he goes on stage. Every time.   He has come to expect tense shoulders, butterfly stomach.  He likes the opportunity to be brave on demand.

I asked why he still gave speeches if he didn't feel he'd conquered fear in his art. "I'm glad for the fear," he told me. "It keeps me from falling asleep creatively."  If he starts taking his creative expertise for granted, he loses any freshness and edge--the elements that makes his performances memorable.

So this week, as my classes begin, I thought about what next step in my personal writing life would require bravery.   I thought about a new software program I've been stalled out on but longing to try.  Learning new software demands time and brain power, two things I haven't had much of this winter so far.  But I took a step:  I called a writing buddy who loves this software and she talked me through first baby steps to try it.

Not only did I feel instant glee at my own bravery--the simple act of trying something new--but as I practiced the new software, new ideas came through for my book.

So many writers, even published writers, hold themselves back.   They stick with what they know, be it a favorite template for stories, a certain plot idea, or even similar characters, because it is safer.    They don't want to be a beginner again.  It could be quite humiliating! 

Especially if The Book has become a huge haunting presence, with so much still unknown--like how to finally finish it!

One reason taking a new class is a helpful step for so many writers is that it is all about courage and not knowing.  You go into learning mode, not "already knowing" mode.  It's scary, but a great way to avoid writer's block and ongoing discouragement about a writing project.

What's a scary project you might embrace this week?  Or, if not embrace, just consider? 

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1.  List three scary and exciting new things you could try that would take you new places in your writing.

2.  Pick one.  Take a small first step toward trying it.

3.  Post your results here in a comment on this blog.   

Friday, January 16, 2015

Enough Already! Is It Really Time to Start Revising or Are You Just Bored with Your Book?

Poems, articles, columns, and short stories are all creative commitments, to be sure, but even if they linger unfinished for a while, they are short relationships compared to 350 pages of manuscript.  With a book, you regularly re-evaluate your progress, your purpose, and your plans.  You recommit again and again.

 But is it ever done? When is enough, enough?  These questions come up at two particular stages,
I've found.  One marker is when the writer is ready for revision.  The other is when revision is finished and the book is ready for final editing.

A writer from New York, who has been working on his nonfiction book for several years, sent a very good question about this:   "At what point does one realize what they are trying to write is the final 'version'?" he emailed me.  "My subject/point of view has changed several times.  When do I stop?  I know the book evolves but it seems like I'm always evolving.  I struggle with having new ideas that change my point of view."

As You Evolve, So Does the Book
Unfortunately, there's no predicting exactly how long it will take to really "get" your book.  And then, after you do "get" what you're really writing about, how long it'll take to manifest that on paper.  Most first-time book writers (as well as veterans) can relate to the question When will it ever end?  There are certain ways of telling where you are in the continuum.

How much time have you really put in on the book?  Two hours a week?  Less?  After two years at two faithful hours a week, it would be possible to have a good rough draft.  But unless you have a lot of writing experience already, you may only have that--a rough draft.  Why?  A writing colleague put it this way:  "After three days of not writing, it takes a while to get back into my story."  The book disappears from your consciousness after three days, so you may not be able to spend the next writing session actually moving forward.  Rather, you may be spending half or more of it reacquainting yourself with the book.  That's OK--as long as you're aware of it and don't expect miracles.

When I began writing books in the 1980s, I expected miracles.  But I was lucky back then--I worked with editors at the publisher's office.  They helped me evaluate where I was in the journey.  I learned from them, wise souls that they were, about the re-acquainting time that's required after not writing.  I learned that more time goes in to building the first draft than new writers prepare for.  They told me not to be surprised if my books, all nonfiction back then, took two to three years before a solid draft was formed, one that could stand up to revision.  I learned with each book I published that most need at least a year or two of attentive planning and writing, discovery and exploration of both voice and topic, before a writer has enough of a manuscript to begin revision.

Obviously, if two years goes by, you won't stay the same.  Why expect your book to?  If you're prepared for that too--and I wasn't, for my first books, but editors wised me up--you won't be frustrated with the changes that naturally occur.  Because during this planning and writing stage, books are supposed to change.  They evolve as we get to know them better, as our skills grow, as we get clearer about what is the book and what is not.

Each time I felt my book was ready, each time I got to that point when I thought to myself, Enough! Get the thing out the door, I had an editor to check in with.  Most of the time, he or she pointed out the blind spots that I'd overlooked in my inexperience.  Slowly I let go of my cherished idea: that a book took just months from inception to publication.  When I cited writers who churned out two volumes a year, my editor said I could probably do that after I had four or five books under my belt.  And that became true.

So how do you find out, without a publisher's editor, whether your planning and writing stage is indeed over and you're ready to move on to revision?

Revision Is Not Just Editing
First you need to understand just what revision actually is.

This is another lesson I learned the hard way, working with a publisher's editor:  Revision is not simply substantive or copy editing:  cleaning up sentences, fixing typos, and massaging the passages a little.  My editors taught me that copy editing is like the final touch.  It comes just before publishing, only after a manuscript is strong and complete in its content, structure, and language.

Before the editing, comes the revision.  Although it's very important to create clean copy, if a writer tackles  technical work before the book is solid, it's like embroidering curtains on a barely framed house.  Not at all a useful exercise. 

I learned that revision literally means "re-seeing," and this all-important stage is about taking what you've created and seeing it anew, from a new viewpoint.  Whose viewpoint?  The reader's.  Revision is where writer invites reader into the room where the book lives.  Then, once the book and the reader get acquainted, the writer leaves.

Robert Olen Butler, who wrote the well-loved writing book From Where You Dream, talks about how hard it is for most writers to actually leave the reader alone with their stories.  Most writers feel the strong need to interpret and tour guide their work to the reader.  You can just feel the presence of a hovering person, wanting to make sure you really understand what this or that passage means.  In revision, this has to go.  You as the writer must let your work live and breathe on its own.    

It's very hard for most writers to tell when they are hovering, interpreting, and otherwise annoying their potential readers.  For this, most of us need feedback.  When I am questioning if my manuscript is ready for revision, I will find three kind readers and formulate three questions for each reader to answer.  I don't need to know if the writing is good or bad--that's irrelevant at this point.  I need to know where the reader stumbles, senses too much of a hovering presence of the writer, loses interest.  These passages exist in all early drafts and readers, if asked, will help you find them.

Then you look at these passages and try to "re-see" them.  What were you intending just there, in the manuscript?  Why didn't your intention reach the reader?  Did you get scared, omit something important, bluster your way through to try to hide it?  This is very common.  Finding these unconscious places is the first step to revision. 

These places are where you lost heart.  You need to go back and put it in, before you go any further. 

Early Drafts Come from the Heart, Revision Comes from the Head
One of my favorite scenes of writing instruction comes from the movie, Finding Forrester.  Forrester, the famous recluse writer, played by Sean Connery, puts a typewriter in front of the young writer Jamal.  Forrester begins to type.  The young writer doesn't.  So Forrester asks, "What are you waiting for?"

"I'm thinking," says the young writer.

Forrester shakes his head.  "No, no.  No thinking.  That comes later."

As they start to type in unison, Forrester slips in these simple instructions.  They explain so clearly the difference between drafting and revision:

"You write your first draft with your heart," Forrester says.  "You revise with your head."

So many of us get this backwards.  We think so much about our early drafts that the pages don't actually contain any heart.  We get down plenty of words, often good words, but unless the writing has meaning, unless it reveals the heart of the writer, we're not going to reach our readers. 

Feedback prior to revision lets me know if there is more heart needed, more revealing that can be done.   It's only after I have given everything I have to the manuscript, that it's ready for the head part, the thinking.

This Week's Writing Exercise
1.  Rent the movie, Finding Forrester.  Watch it again, from a writer's point of view.  What can you learn from this fictional character about the process of writing?

2.  If you have a completed draft and you wonder if you're ready for revision, take a deep breath and find three readers to help you.  Avoid choosing immediate family and close friends, especially those who know your book pretty well.  Look for people who can give you an overview.  You're going to ask them to read the manuscript and mark in the margins any place where they (1) stumble or (2) want more.  Tell them you aren't looking for fixes, you just want to see where you've lost heart, lost the reader's perspective.  You're asking them just to respond as readers. 

3.  From this review, you'll learn a lot about your book and where it is in the continuum.  

Friday, January 2, 2015

Building on What's Working: A New Approach to Setting Writing Goals for the New Year

Some writers think writing a book is just this:  sit down, write, and hope for the best.  Goals are a waste of time, because in a purely creative world, it's the flow that matters.  Just keep the flow going and you're golden.  Your book, too.  Right?

Not really.  Goals are valued by most professional writers.  They give markers and deadlines.  Writing is easily put aside in favor of a thousand distractions.  Goals give accountability.  A way to see if your writing process is actually working for you. 

When the morning email delivered Cheryl Richardson's weekly post, I took a break to read it.  Richardson always presents a fascinating twist on goal-setting, and I look forward to her new year's articles.  Most often, they deliver ideas I can really use.

In anticipation, I've already jotted down what I want most to accomplish with my writing in 2015.  I work with learning goals as well as tangible (production) goals.  My current writing group is helping me align descriptive passages with character growth--a cool new skill I've been learning these past months.  More of that went on my 2015 goals list.  I also have several final chapters of my novel twisting in revision, trying to find their purpose.  Discard or rework?  Another goal.  I also need to find better feedback, maybe through a class.  I enjoyed taking classes in 2014, and there are some great ones I'd like to try in the new year.  Most looming, I've promised an interested publisher my manuscript by March. 

All of these goals feel important--to me.  They give me energy when I think about them--a sure sign that I'm crafting goals that are aligned with who I am now as a writer.

But before I set these goals, I began a different kind of list--and here's where Richardson's post was timely.  I thought about what I've learned and accomplished in my writing life in 2014.  What strengths have I built this past year?  How can I use them as jet fuel for my next steps?

Richardson proposes that we build from our strengths.  It creates firmer ground for the next step if we acknowledge our progress.  We look back on the year to see what is working--and we set our new year's goals from there. 

Writers don't naturally do this.  About time we begin, eh?

So here's your writing exercise to launch into the new year.  Two steps, both delightful (or so they have been for me).  Find what worked, then find where you'd like to go from there.

New Year's Exercise for Writers
1.  Grab your calendar or journal, whatever would give you clues about your progress this year.

2.  Begin jotting down both your tangible accomplishments (pages or chapters written, classes taken, feedback received, tangible outer progress made) as well as your learning accomplishments (skills, understandings, learning, practice started and maintained, feedback groups built).  Don't censor this list--everything counts!

3.  You may also want to jot down what your writing has given you this year.  I loved doing this--and got some surprising answers, such as the chance to be part of a creative community, something in my every day that is only for me, and right-brain food). 

4.  Look ahead at the twelve months of 2015.  If you imagine yourself at the end of 2015, what would you most want to have accomplished during the year, in terms of your writing?  Again, include both tangible results and learning results.   

Friday, December 19, 2014

Imagining Your Finished Book--A Three-Part (and Very Encouraging!) Brainstorming Exercise

Winter can be a bluesy or beneficial time for writers--depends how much you enjoy holing up with your words and ideas.  Sometimes it helps me to think from the end, visualize where I am heading, especially when the days are gray and my writing feels just as blah.

Many pro writers use this "thinking from the end" idea--novelist Roxanna Robinson mentioned how she writes to an image when she begins a book.  But you can also use it like creative visualization, thinking about the real end of your writing journey, when your book is finished!

So, with the blog taking a holiday break next week, here's a three-part creative visualization exercise to keep you brainstorming your book's completion.  I hope it'll feed your writing right to the New Year.  (It's from my part 2 online class, which still has some spots open for January term, if you'd like to join us--to keep your book alive and kicking until the sun shines again.)

Three-Step Creative Visualization Exercise for Book Writers Who Want to Actually Finish Their Books

Step 1: 
Grab some paper and a pen or your laptop.  Set the kitchen timer for 20 minutes.   
Write, without editing or censoring anything, about how you might feel when your book is finished. When it is published.

Let the writing go wherever it goes--even if it brings up concerns and fears about this, which it might, as well as excitement.   

Step 2: 
Find a piece of 8-1/2 inch x 11 inch white paper that you can fold in half lengthwise to resemble a blank book cover.   Find a published book you love to use as a guide. 

Grab 4-5 magazines and a pair of scissors, some glue or tape, and a big sheet of paper.  Set the kitchen timer for 30 minutes and scan the magazines for the perfect image for the front of your book when it is published.  You can also do this online with images from google or 

Print the image or cut it out and paste it to the front of your book cover. 

You know those blurbs that are on the cover of books after they are published?  In your wildest dreams, who do you want to write a blurb for your book?  Which reviewers from The New York Times, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly might read your book and rave about it?  Draft some stellar reviews for your book and paste them to the back cover.

Some of my students go all out with this exercise, adding a bar code and back cover copy and even a spine.  Get into it--it's really fun (and actually helps you feel like you might someday finish!).

Step 3: 
Design your publication party. 

When books are published, someone (friends, relatives, book clubs, even the publisher sometimes) will throw you a publication party.  What would you just love to have at yours?  Music, food, literary stars, speeches, thousands of books sold?  Set your kitchen timer for 20 minutes and list all your wishes.

Put these up where you can see them, in your writing room or on your desktop or phone.  They are big boosts for doldrum days.

Happy holidays and see you again toward the New Year!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Take a Break from Words: How Image Boards Help Your Writing

One of my workshop students with her image board.
Flummoxed by the main character in my novel-in-progress, I got the idea to browse internet photos to see if I could capture her in image rather than words.  What might she look like?  If my novel became a movie, who would play her?   

Scrivener, my all-time favorite writing software, allows cut and paste of online images.  I found my main player, then I went on to create a gallery of faces of everyone in the book.  Once I saw them, they came alive in a new way.