Friday, February 5, 2016

How Long Can My Timeline Be? Story Arc Questions and Answers

Many first-time novelists and memoirists struggle with timelines, asking excellent questions in my classes.  Two favorite ones: 

* How long a span of years or months or days can my book cover?

* What should I condense, what should I expand (Do I have to relate everything in real time or can it be summarized)?

A memoir writer from Massachusetts recently emailed me about this.  She wants to cover her childhood in the first quarter of her book.  Then she asked about fast forwarding fifteen years to the next major turning point.   What will this do to readers' attention?   Will they stay with her?

Similarly, first-time novelists ask me about how much of a character's background is necessary, for the reader to make sense of their actions in the main story.  Isn't it easier to just start early in their lives, show why they are who they are, then bring on the crisis?

Neither a novel or a memoir is an autobiography of anyone, real or imagined.  Unless you're famous or writing this for your children as a family legacy, it's totally unnecessary to include everything.   In fact, readers get bored with the details that fascinate you, the writer. 

Not sure about this?  Pick up any recently published novel or memoir.  Where does it start?  With the person's birth, or childhood?  Not usually.  That part is background, so it's often left out of the early parts of the story, the first act.  You're only trying to engage the reader, get them hooked on what's happening now, the big fight.  Then, they'll begin to be interested in the background, the why.

So, first find the big fight.  It's the biggest struggle in your story, for the narrator.  Then consider starting at the very edge or right in the main action of this big fight.  Finally, choose careful sections of the backstory (the past) to weave in. 

Great examples abound.  Cheryl Strayed's memoir, Wild, starts with her PCT hike, and weaves in her abusive childhood and heroin addiction.  By the time these appear, we're already engaged in the current big fight (is she going to survive the hike?).   Paula Hawkin's The Girl on the Train starts with a train ride where the narrator sees what looks like a body.  We learn as we go along about her soured marriage and her alcoholism. 

This is harder work than just starting with day 1 and working forward chronologically, granted, but it's compelling to readers today.  An agent was talking about the hundreds of book openings she reads, and many that she never reads on:  "The opening has to grab me.  Don't start with exposition, the background.  Put us right in the action." 

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
Look at a few books online or on your bookshelf.  Pick books published in the past year or so, because these give the most accurate sense of the publishing industry today.  Where do they start?

Then consider your own book.  If you set aside the childhood, the background of this book you're writing, where might you begin?  Rework your plan from there, and trust your reader more.  Then choose small sections of your backstory that are vital to the motive of the narrator.  List them.  See how you might weave them into the main storyline in small bites.

Friday, January 22, 2016

What Memoirists Always Ask: How Much of My Story Can I Tell without Hurting Others?

Anyone who has written creative nonfiction (memoir, particularly) has probably run into the question of story ownership.  How much of your experience do you really have the right to write about?  When your story crosses into other people's lives, is it still yours to tell?

I've long admired Patricia Hampl's approach in I Could Tell You Stories.  She discusses the lines she's crossed and what came of it.  Mostly, she lost people in her life.   I remember how angry one of my family members became when I wrote about my very religious grandmother's mugging and loss of faith in God because of it, her eventual death.  "That's not the way it happened," this dear relative said.  But it was the way it happened, from my experience.  And I wrote about it as honestly as I could, to the best of my memory.

Who is right, in terms of memory?  Brain science tells us that memory changes as soon as we remember something.  Just the act of remembering will shift the details. 

And are my stories always my own?  Do I write them without considering the others who were involved?  Sometimes, I do.  Sometimes, not.

There are many approaches to dealing with how much of your story you own, and I recently came across one of the best articles on it.  No easy answer here, but thoughtful ideas.  It's your writing exercise for the week.  Check it out here.  

Friday, January 15, 2016

Three Essential Tools for Getting through Any Post-New-Year's-Resolution Slump

Making New Year's resolutions about my writing is fun.  Energizing.  At New Year's, anything is possible.  I look at what I haven't managed in 2015 and set my sights high for 2016.

I ride the high until around mid-February, usually.  Then I need to have three essential tools in place to help me get through the post-New-Year's-resolution slump.

These three tools are the main reason I've managed to write and publish thirteen books in three genres. 

They are:  (1) accountability, (2) inspiration, and (3) determination.   They usually matter in that order.

I can't write long without external accountability.  I need a deadline, a show-up date to deliver my chapter or scene.  I need to have readers (editor, writers group, writing partner) who care that I'm still writing. 

I have a lot of internal accountability--I'm very disciplined.  I keep plugging away on my own for a while.  My norm is five weeks.  After that, I need external reasons, outside my own head, for showing up.

You may feel excited about your writing possibilities, those goals you set when 2015 was exiting and 2016 was entering.  You'll run a good race for a while and feel happy about your progress.

I'm not being negative when I say this:  Most writers, without external accountability, will have a hard time keeping going.  Maybe you'll last longer than my five weeks, but I'll bet by February, some of your enthusiasm has waned. 

Since I know this about myself, through many years of hitting the wall, I plan for it.  This week, I signed up for an online class with weekly deadlines.  It starts February 2.  It will keep me writing.

Real inspiration is a writer's main energy.  Pushing yourself via discipline works for a while but most burn out without regular inspiration.  Julia Cameron made a killing on this idea with her book The Artist's Way and her weekly artist dates.  She encouraged us to go out and seek inspiration.  Mostly, to give ourselves new ideas.  To fill the well.

I find inspiration by reading good literature.  I make time for reading, always.  Even if it's just fifteen minutes before bed.  I don't read to numb out (I used to--and it's great on vacation).  I read to inspire myself.  I get ideas from what I read, and I get new ways to structure my scenes and chapters.  I ask my students for recommendations, I ask my Facebook friends, I comb Goodreads. 

Another key to keeping inspired is encouragement from fellow writers.  I cultivate this.  I am very cautious, too.  I've partnered with great writers who are very critical--at first, this is fun.  But after weeks of criticism and no encouragement, I drop them.  I need the "what's good" as well as the "what to fix." 

You've got to want to write.  Writing is not the fast way to fame and fortune.  It takes work, and it has to come out of your core, your heart, your passion, to stay important in your busy life.  It has to feed you--and not just the hope of becoming a bestseller and retiring early.  The process itself must matter to you.

I find my determination when I am writing every day.  Somehow, the story itself begins to fill me up.  I begin to live it, cherish it.  Over the holidays, I got busy with family and fun, and I set my book aside.  It was hard to get back to it once the new year came.  I had lost my determination.
Happily, one of my readers, Steve, sent me this link.  It's a little article called "When to Write."  It reminded me of the importance of just writing.  I recommend it for your writing exercise this week.  I think you'll find it gives you accountability, inspiration, and the determination you may have lost these past weeks.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Emotional Peaks: How to Make Sure They're in Your Scenes and Chapters

When you read a great story, you don't even notice how you're engaged.  You just are--right?  But skillful writers plant a rhythm into their writing.  Like breathing, there are peaks and valleys of emotion and tension through all great scenes, chapters, even whole books. 

In a class I taught, I drew a diagram of a river on the board to illustrate this.  "This makes it very easy.  I just put heightened moments of tension at each bend in the river," one student noted.  "Maybe a big decision, a change of heart, a new understanding.  Or an external shift, like a move or a marriage or a big loss."  It made a big difference in her book structure to finally understand these "emotional peaks:" to view her scenes, chapters, and manuscript like a flowing river.

A reader from Cincinnati attended one of my classes and sent a followup question about these emotional peaks.  "You mentioned the emotional shift that happens in our writing, and why it's important," she wrote. "Could you help remind me with what needs to go along with emotional shift in terms of dialogue and setting, or strategic placement in story arc?"

Start with the Larger Story
First, learn to view your book from its larger story.  In my book structuring classes, we use a storyboard to analyze the structure and the "peak" moments.  You can also draw a winding river on a large sheet of paper and ask yourself about the main turning points.  Place them in the bends of the river.  On the storyboard (see my video here), we use a W diagram, which makes it easy not only to see the turning points, but also the tone of what comes before or after each turning point.

Once you have in mind the emotional shifts in your larger story, begin to look at each chapter.  Chapters require some shift in the external story or the internal story.  In other words, something needs to happen to make a chapter a chapter.   When I work privately with writers at my annual writing retreats or through my retainer program, I set them up with a chart to easily tell which chapters have enough of a shift, and which are just taking up space.  Once you see the duds, you can add an event, a realization, a moment of emotional shift.

Working from larger story to small units of chapters is a sound plan--it keeps the book cohesive.  If you change chapters around but don't keep the whole book in mind, the book can begin to fall apart structurally.  It's happened to many writers.  Sometimes, it's not easy to recover the book. 

Once your chapters feel like they have an emotional peak, or a shift, you can begin to work on the placement of elements to precede and follow the shift.

What Comes Before, What Comes After
There are three types of scenes:  setup, action, and reflection.    Most emotional peaks happen either in the action or reflection parts of scenes.  I think successful scenes nowadays (in any genre--even nonfiction) usually have a smaller amount of setup and more action.  This wasn't always the case--we've changed as a reading culture and want a faster pace in our literature now. 

My students learn to analyze how much setup, action, and reflection they have in each chapter.  Most have too much of one, usually setup or reflection.  These don't deliver the emotional peak without action.  We readers need to see something onstage in front of us (an example, an illustration).  Readers don't believe a change that's just talked about or thought over.  They need to actually see it.  Makes sense, right?  Same with you, in your life, most likely.  Deeds speak louder than words.

So your first task is to make sure you are showing the change (show, don't tell comes in very handy here!).  You can have setup, and you can have reflection, but if you don't have action, it's not going to be believable.

To answer the reader from Cincinnati, step back and look at these three elements in every scene you're questioning.  Make sure you have action.  That will make a huge difference in how much readers follow the bends in the river of your scenes, chapters, and whole book.

Friday, January 1, 2016

New Year's Goal: Submit Your Manuscript! But First, Learn to Write a Killer Query Letter and Book Synopsis

Is one of your New Year's goals to finally get that manuscript submitted?  Get off your endless revision-hamster-wheel?  

For your New Year's reading pleasure, check out these three great articles--what you need to know before you submit.

How to write a killer query letter.  A guest article for Writer's Digest website, written by agent Barbara Poelle.  Click here.

How to write a great book synopsis (also called a chapter summary).  A blog post written by YA author (Lunar Chronicles) Marissa Meyer.  Click here.

And, for those of you who are lucky enough to get a YES! from an agent you solicit, here's a great tip list of questions from agent Chuck Sambuchino to ask before you sign that contract.  Click here.

Happy New Year, and enjoy!

Friday, December 18, 2015

Big Magic: How to Keep Writing When You Have NO TIME!

I'm a great fan of Elizabeth Gilbert's articles about writing, and especially her newest book Big Magic.  This week, I'm sharing one of Gilbert's posts from a few weeks ago on her Facebook page.  It's possibly the most inspiring article I've read recently--effectively addressing the hole we all fall into:

I have NO TIME to write!!

If this is you, and especially if this is you right now, in the craze of holidays, read on.  It's your writing assignment for this week.

Click here for the article.
The blog will be on vacation next week.  Have a happy holiday, whatever you celebrate.  And keep writing . . . 

Friday, December 11, 2015

Character Lists: A Great Way to Coax Your Characters out of Hiding

In her book, Write Away, mystery author Elizabeth George talks about her writing process as she begins a new book.  She first writes detailed ideas about the plot.  She also researches the setting, often with trips to the location she's thinking of using.  And she always puts together a character list.

Her character lists are many pages of stream-of-consciousness ideas about each main player in her book.  If you read Write Away (which I highly recommend), you'll see an example from her novel, In the Presence of the Enemy.  She shows the entire character list for one of her main characters, Eve Bowen. 

What I appreciate about George's character lists is that they cover both the outer appearance and external life of the character, and the psychology of the character--what I call the outer story and inner story. 

Here's an excerpt of George's character list (outer story) for Eve Bowen:  "She is about five feet six inches tall.  She exercises at a gym early in the morning.  She wears makeup and wears it well, the sort of application that ends up looking like she doesn't have any on in the first place.  She wears only a wedding band, a gold watch, and the same kind of earrings all the time:  button types that match her outfits."  And George's character list (inner story) for Eve:  "Eve can't forgive injuries.  That's her greatest weakness.  Once you're her enemy, you're her enemy forever."

Your Weekly Writing Exercise

This exercise is perfectly tailored for the holidays, when we tend to be inundated with people--fun social gatherings, obligatory office parties, family meals. 

1.  Choose a character, either someone fictional or someone real.  If they are a player in your book, so much the better.  But you can also practice this exercise outside of your story.
2.  Write a character list for this person:  1/2 page minimum about their outer story, 1/2 page minimum about their inner story. 

Write more if you want, if you can.  Elizabeth George's character list for Eve Bowen runs seven pages, but she's been at this a long time!

Friday, December 4, 2015

What's Subtext? Learn about This Key Element of Dialogue, Used in All Genres

In real life, we value honesty in dialogue.  Say what you mean, don't make me guess.  Within reason, of course.

In literature, dialogue is all about subtext.  What's not being said.  What's read between the lines, literally.  Learning how to write effective subtext may be the best thing you can do to make your dialogue shine.

Think this is only for fiction writers?  Think again.  Subtext exists in all genres.

Here's a real-life scenario (not mine but a friend's):  A family at the holiday dinner.  The college freshman is home, bursting to share her news about a year abroad.  She's nervous, because her brother is also home for the holidays, and her brother traditionally gets the most attention. 

But, brave girl, she begins anyway. 

"Mom, Dad, I have something really important to tell you." 

"Heather," her mother interrupts, "pass the peas to your brother.  He's not eating enough."

The girl tries a few more times.  And the parents keep derailing, deflecting.  What's the subtext?  Somewhat lame example, yes, unless you are that girl.  Or those parents.

What's going on here--that's what we'd think if we read this on the page.  It would increase tension.  It might make us read on to find out.  They've just had a big fight?  They're broke, and don't know how to tell their daughter no year abroad is in the offing?  They are afraid the daughter is pregnant and they don't want to hear? 

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
As with any dialogue skill, tuning your ear is the first step.  Holidays are stellar for snapping up subtext in real-life dialogue. 

Listen for subtext in holiday conversations these next few weeks; see what you catch.  Train your ear to hear this all-important undercurrent.

Then read this good overview from the Gotham Writers' Workshop folks, to learn more about how to add subtext to your writing.

Friday, November 20, 2015

A Business Fiction Success Story--The "Buzz" about Lura Fischer's New Novel

When businesswoman Lura Fischer joined my online book-structuring class a few years ago, she told me she wanted to write a business fiction book.  I didn't know that much about this new genre, but I watched Lura build her story over the months we worked together.  This month, her new novel, Buzz, was released and rose quickly to #1 on the amazon Women in Business category. 

Buzz is a novel about "a relentlessly principled young businesswoman" who is "facing ominous threats to both the life of her business and to herself."  In classic storytelling, Lura places us in the business world of Taki Fujimori.  Taki "must draw on her samurai heritage to battle nefarious forces in the workplace and save her young company from dying," Lura says about the book.  "At the same time, a 500-year flood threatens to sweep her away into oblivion."  Taki is also on a quest to piece together her family's past.     
Taki's core values for both her life and her business are "vitality, genius, and heart," Lura told me.  She weaves business strategies and management tools into the story, so the book can teach as well as entertain with its compelling story.

I interview Lura for this blog post.  Here's her journey to publication in her own words, and the interesting story about business fiction, a rising new genre.

Q:  Can you share your definition of business fiction--what is it, how does it differ from other kinds of fiction, and who is the primary audience?

LF:  Business fiction features a fictional story with dilemma, characters, and container, like other fiction, plus it has embedded business concepts throughout the narrative. Business fiction has a dual responsibility, to both inform and entertain--and, when done well, inspire its readers. My intention was to tell a unique story, composed of vitality, genius, and heart - the same core values I espouse through my relentlessly principled protagonist in Buzz.
If you look at the Business and Money category on Amazon, there are a myriad of subtitles under that genre. I focused on two categories: Women in Business, and Entrepreneurship & Small Business. My focus, when writing this book, was on the millennial businesswoman. I wanted to reach out to the young business owner and tell a fantastical story, while also offering vetted business tools and practical solutions to everyday challenges. So far, more men have read the book than women, based on my Amazon reviews! I really love that, because I think men are just as hungry for meaning and relevancy as women are in business. And our brains are wired for stories, so it’s more palatable to absorb principles written in story-form format--sort of like gobbling up a yummy birthday cake, loaded inside with bright-colored fruits and veggies.

Q:  Why did you want to write a business fiction book?  

LF:  I was inspired by my husband’s business/suspense fiction book, written ten years ago (Navigating the Growth Curve, by James Fischer). I loosely collaborated with him on it, and suggested he use a pair of Japanese-American twins as support characters for his book. Ironically, I redeployed the same twins in mine. Although I have a business background as a commercial lender and an entrepreneur, along with my husband, he is the guru. I’m more like the guru’s muse. Inspiration is my best friend on the playground of life. I realized I might as well tackle something really big and scary because of such a stalwart friend. And, personally, I liked the dimensionality of a story layered with business concepts, sprinkled with Zen stuff, and having a glistening dollop of romance up on top. How fun is that? Adding a little love, to enliven business-as-usual, has been such a meaningful mission in writing this book.

Q:  When did you start writing it?  How long did it take?  
 LF:  I started writing Buzz about 3 years ago. Up until that point, I had written extensive loan summaries on bank clients--striving to bring a client to life, as much as possible. In fact, I was sometimes too creative and my boss would roll his, or her, eyes at my desire to go beyond the numbers and tell a rousing story. I imagined myself around a campfire, regaling bank executives, but that’s not a venue for storytelling! I finally found my calling, and your online classes, Mary. They helped me foment this unbridled desire to write into a digital and print reality. What a journey our book takes us on!

Author of Buzz, Lura Fischer 

Q:  During the process of writing the book, did it change a lot or did your original vision for it stay the same?  

LF:  Once I vowed to write my business-fiction book, I had a dream. Two momentous things happened in the dream: One, I saw my book represented by a codex. On its vellum pages, I saw both text and concentric symbols in medallions, dotting the pages (similar to the Phaistos Disk, from the Ancient History Encyclopedia). I knew intuitively my book would house disparate story elements, some mystical, which would ultimately provide my heroine’s symbolic journey, about good prevailing over malicious-ignorance in the workplace. Two, an actual explosion occurred in my brain, and I inwardly saw a blinding light flash across its curving interior---like a light-wave tsunami within my skull! So my vision for my book was granularly embedded within me. I had little recourse, then, but to try and ferret out what was encoded there and write it down, as best I could, over the course of my book’s developmental life.
Q:  Can you share three to five big things you learned along the way?
LF:  I’ve learned that taking a risk, writing the book I envisioned, as wonky as it seemed at times, gave me creative confidence. That confidence fueled my passion and ignited my purpose. The more risks I take creatively, the more I come alive, both on and off the page.
I downloaded my book on Kindle Direct Publishing this past Veteran’s Day and, one week later, I offered a free-purchase day to the public. My book is number one (#1!), in both the Women in Business and the Small Business categories today. It won’t last, but it is so much fun to see #1 in print, even if only for a day. Big and small wins need to be celebrated and infused back into our writing.
Additionally, I’ve learned there is the business of writing your book--- then there is the business of your book being your business.
Let me provide a few tips I found useful from my brother, Mark. He decided to write a book because he was sinking in financial quicksand; he resourcefully grabbed a pen to pull himself out of the mire and began to write sci-fi novels. He’s written eleven books in over two years and is a HUGE commercial success. Now, he is brilliantly imaginative and innately talented (buggah!), but he told me some things that would help any aspiring writer: Check out books in your genre on Amazon, or go to Barnes and Noble and feel the weight of a book in your hand, like yours. Research covers in your genre and hire an artist who captures the spirit of your book.

Then create a great blurb for your book and vet it with everyone you can, to see if the blurb captures the essence of your book. Hire a developmental editor and a line editor (can be the same person) and don’t rely on friends and/or family to give you the unvarnished truth about what works in your book, and what doesn’t. There are terrific, economical, websites out there, promoting skilled people as your team of experts.

Q: How are you promoting your book?
LF:  I made a deal with Amazon for exclusivity for a few short months and I am glad I did. Writers have to decide for themselves how they want to position their book for maximum exposure.

Sure, I feel like a shameless hussy at times, putting up a Facebook announcement with my book’s ranking (actually a friend helped me with this), or going to promotional websites that advertise your free day to booksellers and readers. As a self-published author, writing the book was the easy part. Sort of like buying a horse for thousands of dollars only to discover its daily ongoing maintenance is mindboggling.

In only one week, I feel like I birthed a gigantic, unwieldy baby, and am now bending over backward to subsidize its college fund. The life of your book is just that--a living thing that needs your attention before, during and after.

After you get your writing team together, get a support team! You’ll need it.

Q:  What would you suggest to other writers who are trying to write business fiction?

LF:  First of all, welcome pioneer! You’ve found a niche that has so much potential.

This genre needs to be explored and championed by you. If you are not an academic, like me, you’ll need to trust yourself as never before. It is easy to look at the competition in this field and feel rather stupid, because only a handful of “experts” stand out. So what! A good story is a good story is a good story. Go for it!

What if business fiction is not your dream? Believe me, I understand that too, because my next trilogy is a mystical romance. You can always find a way to link your memoir, your short stories, or your suspense thriller to a budding genre.

Go online and see which genres are adolescents, then intentionally make a bridge to it in your writing, somehow, someway, so that you can target a market that is expanding and not oversaturated. It is highly competitive out there and I realized Women in Business is a growing, often undervalued, market.

Go beyond the scope of being an author to being a creative traveler, navigating beyond your written word. Explore!

Check out Lura's book here. 

Friday, November 13, 2015

Where Do You Get Your Ideas? A Basic Primer of a Novelist's Writing Process

One of my online students, new to writing fiction, brought up a couple of good and very important questions in class this week.

1.  How do you start writing a novel?  What are the steps?
2.  Where do you get your ideas?

In this blog I'm going to tackle the second question--about idea gathering--because it's really the first step to writing a book of any kind.  But I'd love to refer my student, and all of you, to Elizabeth George's wonderful writing-craft book, Write Away, where she details her writing process.