Friday, August 15, 2014

How Chapters Are Built--What to Include, What to Skip, and How to Know If You Actually Have One

This week's post is part of a weekly lesson in my online book-structuring classes, Your Book Starts Here, Part 2, sponsored by the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.  To find out more about the fall session of this class, click here.

My approach to teaching book-writing is built from my years of publishing, working as an editor, and teaching thousands of writers.  I used to think books were built from outlines.  I used to believe that books are most easily constructed when the writer knows exactly where he or she is going at the start.   

I don't buy that anymore--too many writers never finish their books.   

So I teach a different approach:  let the random, creative self explore first.  Then organize the explorations into a rough map to get the big picture.  Then build skills to refine and expand the material.  Finally, create your chapters.

This is radically different than many methods to book-writing.  And it may not appeal to you.  Most writers want to know exactly where they are going, when they begin.  But it's almost impossible to know where your book will take you on its journey, or so I've found.

For me, the freedom of exploring an idea must come first.  Then I need a glimpse of the larger structure, an image to write towards, as novelist Roxanna Robinson once said.  Even if that image gets changed, it keeps my goal of a whole book in sight.  I tracked my own experiences with writer's block for many years; they mostly happened whenever I got too hung up in the little moments of my story, the fine details.

A Chapter's Internal Pacing Informs the Narrative Arc
The inner story of a book is the transformation of a person, the main character or narrator, through a series of outer events.  Without a narrative arc, a book is just like reading a list of crises.  Readers want to witness growth.  The narrative arc is the journey of growth.

You can track the inner story, or narrative arc, of your whole book via your storyboard--click here for more about storyboards.  But each chapter must also contribute to that narrative arc, via its build up of scenes and tension.

Each chapter has a purpose, not just to provide information, but also to show the incremental steps a character (real or imagined) takes as they move through the story.

The movement will rarely be linear, straightforward, because a human journey is mostly one step forward, two steps back.  But movement has to be apparent to the reader to keep the arc alive.  This is what makes up the internal pacing, the perceived changes in someone's character.  The growth we track as readers.  
If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know that an "island" (thanks to Ken Atchity for that term) is a fragment of writing--it can be anything, really, a setting description, a flashback, whatever.  No limits.  Eventually islands might grow into scenes, which are developed islands, also called dramatic moments.  Let's start by defining the difference between a scene, or dramatic moment, and a chapter. 
What's a Scene?
One great definition of a scene is a moment when an emotion is articulated in some way, usually via action. 

In fiction or memoir, this might be a run-in between two characters.  Or a memory of a past event that still brings a surge of shame or delight.  Or a conversation where someone doesn't get their hopes realized--or does. 

Scenes are small time capsules.  They are potent because they contain more than is openly revealed. 

In nonfiction, a scene might be considered an anecdote that demonstrates the book's theory or a step of that theory.  For instance, a weight loss book might contain a scene where a man stands in front of a pastry counter at the local grocery store, calculating his chances of getting a doughnut and getting outside before his wife, shopping in another aisle, notices.  A nonfiction book on how to play the piano might contain "scenes" of information (like developed "islands") that explain the keyboard.

Important:  Scenes are not necessarily complete.  They don't require a beginning, middle, and end.  But they usually offer developed ideas, developed characters and setting and action or information.  Scenes often leave us hanging, which tells us there will be another scene later to finish the story.  We'll read on to find out where the thread continues. 

Chapters are very different.

What's a Chapter? 
A chapter is a sequence of scenes that carry the reader to some new level of understanding about the story or the book's topic. 

In books, chapters are less wrapped up--you want the reader to read into the next chapter, right?  Not close the book at the end of a chapter and perhaps not pick it up again.  William Goldman and David Morrell wrote this about chapters:  "Jump in late, leave early."  Those two ideas are so helpful to crafting strong chapters.

Jump in late, or "enter late," means to begin your chapter in the middle of the action, rather than with a preamble.  Why?  The reader gets engaged faster.   

They'll more likely read on.

Leave early means to end the chapter with a question, something unresolved.  Again, why?  Because this helps the reader want to start the next chapter immediately.  It creates a page-turner.

In nonfiction, a chapter concludes more overtly.  There's a hook to future material, certainly; otherwise, why would we read on?  But nonfiction chapters deliver information and there's a sense at chapter's end that we've received enough to ponder and absorb.  Nonfiction chapters often end with completion of  
thought, while fiction and memoir leave something deliberately unfinished. 

So, as we build chapters, we need to consider three things:
1.  Choose an island or scene that jumps right into action.
2.  Have enough scenes that something changes in the character or narrator, creating a narrative arc.
3.  End with something unresolved.

These are the building blocks.  One long scene can create a good chapter, but it must satisfy these three requirements.

There's a fourth:  if you use scenes or islands, you must piece them together.  You must craft transitions between them so the reader follows along without any stumbles.

Creating Transitions between Scenes and Chapters
Transitions are sentences, images, dialogue, repeated objects, a setting feature, and other elements that bridge two sections in a chapter.  They allow the reader to move smoothly between the emotions/meaning of one scene into the next.  

Example:  Oranges are peeled at the end of one scene and an orange glow is in the sky at sunrise in the beginning of the next.  These scenes might be in different times, even take place in different eras if one is a flashback, but the reader will be able to transition because of the repeating image.

Transitions are not just visual:  they can be smells, sounds, heat or cold, light or dark, a piece of furniture or a room or an object--whatever has meaning and can be repeated without too much fanfare.

The idea is to plant the image then return to it, creating a good transition as you do.  They are fun to think of--and worth studying in books you admire!  I bet you don't even notice them in these admired books at first.  That's good writing.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Taking Back Control of What We Write--and Read: Moving Past Our Training and Culture

Voice and theme were the topic of a recent workshop I taught at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.  We had a lively discussion about the way we are writing--and reading--today.  A writer from the class emailed this week with more thought-provoking ideas. 

My premise:  We are being taught to write a certain way, in school, in business, a way that goes for appearance over substance.  It's changing the way we approach creative writing (books) and also reading.

Studies document our brains changing, our attention span growing shorter.  Nicholas Carr's The Shallows:  What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains was a finalist for both the 2011 Pulitzer and PEN/Faulkner awards.  As writers, we are very interested in this change!   

The writer in my class added this idea:  we are also taught to focus on the main ideas, not just when we write but when we read.  "This makes it tough to engage someone to read a whole book," she said. 

What if the world is being split into two camps:  those who love books, who have been avid readers their entire lives, who somehow survived the training and still kept their love of complex literature, and those who find literature confusing, uninteresting--perhaps because the ability to read for shown meaning was trained out of them?

The writer in my class says she last read fiction books in junior high, "an occasional non-fiction book since then but I usually have a high motivation to learn something on the topic and am thus more effective at forcing myself to read it to the end.  When I read setting, I skim right over it."  She is looking for the main ideas just like she was trained to, but setting usually only has images and description.  "Not surprisingly," she adds,  "I resist writing setting."
Voice and theme come from shown meaning, from images, primarily used in setting.  Images that arise organically from the writer's core and life passions.   

Uh-oh.  If our ability to enjoy theme, understand shown meaning (versus told meaning, which nonfiction uses) is being trained out of our brains, will we be able to find the meaning that emerges as theme, as authentic voice?

I'm not talking about the structure experiments that are stretching the norm:  the cinematic books, the rise of graphic novels, the shorter chapters in many novels and memoirs (sometimes one paragraph or one page), or the new overall structures like Joan Wickersham's The Suicide Index and episodic novels like Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge.

Evolution happens in any creative art.  Neither good nor bad, it reflects the changes in our culture.  What I don't want to see:  our training away from substance dictating the new forms.  Do we want only literature that tells us what to think, rather than asks us to think deeply, reflect, mine the story for personal and universal meaning?  Have our brains become too impatient for this?   

Training away from meaning in school and the corporate world may not be stoppable.  We're quicker now, flashing through our lives.  Sadness is when the speed creates a sense of disconnect with art.  When writers begin to think that appearance (proper punctuation, spelling, sentence structure) is more important to readers than what we have to say, we die a small death as literary artists. 

Early in my teaching career, I came across the writings of Carol Bly, most notably author of The Passionate, Accurate Story.  In that book, Bly tells about a young writer who tried to write about her parents' divorce and its devastation on her and her siblings.  But before Carol worked with her, she had only received feedback on her mistakes in punctuation.  Easy to see why this writer learned that how her papers looked was top priority--the substance didn't count.

Creative writing classes try to train back in the time it takes to understand meaning.  Bly's classes were famous for this.

Are you coming from a school or business writing backward which values obtuse language over directness, appearance over meaning?  I thought I'd escaped it in my school years only to encounter it in corporations where I worked:  concerns over litigation ruled the page, when a company can't say what they mean.  I learned to write a lot about basically nothing.  Our words show up on the page, but they lack any sense of us.  I had to relearn how to first find my meaning, then to write it.

Good books are made up of three equally important parts: content, structure, and language.  Content is what's happening, the events, the characters or real players onstage, the setting.  Structure is the sequencing of the content, how it flows to the reader, the order you present each event or information.  The plot.  Language is the appearance, the fine-tuning of voice, pacing, and theme. 

If you zero in on language first--from your training that appearance is what counts--you may try to perfect one sentence, paragraph, page, or chapter, and never bring a book into being.  You may never give yourself time to explore the substance of what you want to say, what means the most to you.

Allow yourself time to explore--without censorship--what you want to write about.  What means the most to you.  What you are passionate about.  If that schoolteacher or boss in your mind whispers, "Watch out, that comma is in the wrong place" or "Terrible word choice, you must go back and find a better one now," first let yourself become aware of this critical voice inside.  Acknowledge where it came from, where you learned it.  Know that there is another way. 

Take a creative writing class (emphasis on creative) and unlearn these awful rules inside your head.  Know it will take time.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Crafting Pathways in Your Book: Internal Conflict, External Conflict, and How They Form a Story

Some of the nicest moments in my life happen when nothing happens.  I think of kitchen conversations with friends, sitting in my garden, watching a sunset, taking a walk in the country with my sweetheart.  Peace is the reigning atmosphere, and it nourishes me.  It's what I most crave in my life.

But not in my writing.

A writing teacher once told me:  "If your story is too peaceful, if nothing happens to force change, it's not a story."  The definition of story is something happening and someone changing because of that event. 

Good story answers two questions: 
(1) What does this person (your narrator or character) want?  (2) What's preventing them from getting it?
Story structure gurus like John Truby say that if you know the answers to these two questions, you have the basis for a good story.  If you are still searching, you don't quite.

Answering These Questions Creates a Pathway
Each of these questions starts a journey.  The book's story answers the questions, but not all at once.  It takes time, a series of events in scenes and chapters, of course.  The sequencing of these scenes and chapters make a kind of pathway through the book, which your reader will walk along.

The pathway must be both easy to follow, with expected twists and turns, and it must present surprises.  We read on to find out what happens.  We hope to be surprised.  So part of the art of structuring a book is to plan the surprises.  When will they happen along the pathway?

A trick that makes this easier to understand and work with:

1.  What does the person want--this question creates a pathway of internal conflict.  The desire for something that is not easily achieved makes the person work harder, become more creative, change his or her desire, or give it up.  Conflict builds inside:  Why can't I have what I want!?  What else can I have?  It's a pathway of searching, inner discovery, and internal change.  Sometimes this is called the narrative arc or inner story.

2.  What prevents them from getting what they want--these are usually external forces.  An event, such as a death or move or breakup, changes the outer scenario.  It's no longer the world the person thought it was.  Not only that, but few books have only one crisis, or outer event, to trigger change.  There's usually a series of events, small and large, that continually batter the character.  This can be called the external conflict pathway.  Sometimes this is called the plot or outer story.

I find it easiest to think of these separately, to chart them separately at first, then see how and where they intersect in the book.  When does an external conflict trigger more internal conflict?  Or vice versa?

When I'm starting a new book, I begin with the pathway that calls out to me.  Maybe I first get a sense of character, so I'd start with the internal conflict pathway.  Or maybe I'm writing about an event that changed my life.  I'd start with the external conflict pathway. 

Using a storyboard's five turning points (see my video for more on this), I asked myself different questions for each point in each pathway. 

For the external conflict pathway:
1. What triggering event (outer event) could cause loss and a reaction?
2.  What changes in the plan because of this loss?
3.  What's the new plan, mid-story, that gives new hope but won't work out?
4.  What's the riskiest edge the person can face, where all is lost?
5.  What's the new reality?

You can see that this outer story structure is dependent on having a strong opening event that triggers a reaction, that shakes the status quo.  Points 2 and 4 are called "turning points" because they require a change in plans.  All that has been solid ground is now lost.  Point 4 is usually the worst moment in the story, the riskiest edge the person can face.  By point 5, the final chapters, there's a new reality, a new status quo.

For the internal conflict pathway:
1.  What does this person believe to be true?  What do they have to give up about this belief when the triggering event happens?  What do they have to become?
2.  What new reality do they face as the plan changes?
3.  What new hope do they have?  (Often at this point, the person believes things can go back to where they were before.) 
4.  What would make them the absolutely most vulnerable?  What do they learn?  What will they now fight for?
5.  What's the new reality?

You can see that the two pathways have intersections, similar questions being asked at similar points in the story.

If you're working with more than one narrative voice, multiple point-of-view characters, for instance, you'd create a list of questions for each.  Their external conflict pathways might be the same, but their internal conflict pathways will always be different because this makes them individual and unique in your story.

If you want to try this, start with the big questions:  What does this person want, and what is preventing them from getting it.  Then chart your external conflict pathway and internal conflict pathway, and see what you know so far. 

Likely, unless you've written and revised your manuscript, there will be holes.  This is normal.  Don't let it throw you.  Keep the question on simmer in your mind and let ideas begin to come.

I find that even asking these good questions start a creative spark inside. 

We can try to live calm, pleasant lives, not seek out conflict when we're not writing.  But good story is born of conflict.  If there's no conflict, if we all just sit around drinking coffee and talking, it's not a story.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Overwriting, Purple Prose, Sentence Fragments, and Other Things You May Not Know You're Doing--Until Your Writing Gets Rejected

I've been compiling a list I wish I had years ago, when I started writing books.  These are red flags to editors and publishers--signs of an amateur writer.  We've all been there, or are there now.  We make these kinds of goofs because we don't know any better.  I learned the hard way.  

As an editor, I easily saw these mistakes in other people's writing.  Easy to catch from that distant view:  the writing seemed off, the author intruding or not trusting the story, and closer examination revealed one of these problems. 

It's really tough to see these mistakes in our own work.  But maybe this list will alert you, educate you, and help you avoid those awful rejection letters!

Overwriting--Making Sure the Reader Gets the Point 
Overwriting is so common among writers and we are so blind to our own use of it. When we overwrite, we feel an uncontrollable urge to repeat a point--be it an emotional take-away from a scene or a memory, details of setting, or information.

It happens because we don't trust the reader's smarts.  We're putting up a little signpost:  You get it?  You get my point?  It smacks the reader right out of the dream of our story.  Author intrusion, big time.

How does overwriting appear?  Most often, when the writer both tells and shows the same thing. 

An example:
"Henry slammed his palm on the table and Megan's glass jumped.  He was mad." 

Slamming his palm is shown action.  It communicates anger.  Adding the interpretation (told) "He was mad" dilutes the emotion of the shown action.  It basically says to the reader:  "You're an idiot, I know.  Here's an extra clue."  It also signals that the writer isn't trusting the shown action to deliver the point--that Henry was mad.

Readers are super smart.  They love immersing in the story's dream.  They resent the author's voice whispering from the stage wings:  "You get it?  You sure?"  It's more than irritating.   It'll often cause them to stop reading.  Imagine what repeated overwriting does to your chances of being published. 
To look for overwriting in your own work, search for any place you're trying to make a point, communicate an emotion, deliver information.  Study the passage to and see if you've presented it more than once.  Did you choose to show or tell?  I find feedback essential to pinpoint where I overwrite--even experienced writers are blind to this occasionally.    

Purple Prose--Too in Love with Your Words? 
Sometimes we write something smooth and lovely, a simple sentence, and we feel proud of it.  But then on reread we think:  It's too simple.  It needs more adjectives, more stuff.  So we add on.  The original action gets lost in purple prose.  Ironically, we fall in love with the words more than the meaning
and can't remember what we were trying to say. 

One of my online students passed on this excellent essay on purple prose, which says it all.  Click here to read if you want to check the warning signs that invasive purple prose is creeping into your writing. 

Sentence Fragments--Try to Look Cool but Confuse the Reader?
Sentence fragments are trending--unfortunately.  Somewhere, a writer discovered them in a published book, thought they were a cool idea, decided to try them
too.  Sentence fragments are what's called a device.  They have a certain purpose, structurally, to speed up the writing. 

Like any device, once the reader catches on and sees the author's puppeteer actions, the purpose is lost.  Wizard of Oz stuff--behind the curtain is a tiny man playing with dials.  The dream goes away and the reader, disgusted, goes away too.

Would you recognize a sentence fragment in your own writing?  Here's an example:  "Sighing loudly after fitting the key into the lock."  Or "Before she went into the classroom and caused a scene."  Or "Snuggled up on the couch next to her."  These leave the reader hanging.  Who sighed?  What happened before?  Who snuggled?   

There are lots of kinds  of sentence fragments.  Here's a great article about them if you want to begin to identify these in your own writing and use them more cautiously. 

Using First Names instead of Pronouns--Hi, It's ME! ME! ME!
What's wrong with this writing?  (Not just that it's a rough, rough draft, but what else do you notice?)

Jessie ran up the stairs.  She pushed open the door, wondering what she'd see.  Jessie set her coat and backpack on the floor then crept toward the kitchen.  Nobody was there.  Nobody in the bathroom, or the hall.  She stood in front of the bedroom door.  Did she leave it closed that morning?  Jessie eased it open.

This writer used her character's proper name, Jessie, three times in one paragraph.  She went on to use it fifteen more times on the page.  There's nobody else around--we know it's only Jessie's voice, her viewpoint.  Each time this writer reminded us it was Jessie and no other, readers feel the itch of irritation--do we look stupid?  Of course it's Jessie.  Stop it already with her name!

But many writers, especially new writers, don't know the name-pronoun rule, so here it is:  Unless you're writing a scene where there is confusion potential--more than one person speaking or moving around--keep proper names to a minimum.  Aside from irritating the reader, they also call attention to themselves rather than the action, so they take us out of the dream of the story very sharply.  

That's the fab four.  Watch out for them, learn where you slip into using them, and see what you can correct before your writing leaves your desktop.  As you begin to notice these, avoiding them will become more natural--you'll get fluent fast.   And hopefully publish more too!

Friday, July 4, 2014

When Is It Time to Send Out Your Manuscript? How to Be Smart about Next Steps

A blog reader from New York recently emailed me:  "I've finished my novel (again) and I'm thinking about what to do next.  My critiquers have been very helpful.  Should I now run it through beta readers, copy editors, etc., before I pitch to agents and editors?  I'm rather sure I'll self-publish, since the money (however much a pittance) is better than going through agents and editors.  However, I'd like to see how my book stacks up in the eyes of the pros and whether or not it's ready for (Amazon) prime time."

I only speak from many years of making mistakes.  First, we usually think our manuscript is more ready for prime time than it is.  I've sent mine out too early, in a rush of "I'm sick of working on this" or enthusiasm from recent writers' group feedback, with bad results.  I lost the goodwill of an agent I was courting.  I turned off at least one publisher.  The war wounds were hard to recover from.  So my advice, however hard to hear, is take your time. 

An experienced author once told me:  "You want to be proud of this book ten years down the road, after it has been published.  You don't want to pick up a dusty copy and cringe."

I followed his advice with my last three books (takes me a while to learn) and they are still in print, and I am still proud of them. 

So when do you know?  When is it really time to hit the streets with your hope?

1.  Hire an editor.  When you've done as much as you can, when you're cross-eyed with reading the manuscript yet again, shell out some money to be sure.  Editors are not cheap but they are happy additions to the process.  Two great resources:  Grub Street writing school in Boston and The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.  Both have listings of faculty who hire out as manuscript readers.   Find out their terms, test them with one sample chapter, see how the exchange feels to you.  Are their comments useful, encouraging, giving you the next step?  Or do you feel deflated and ready to ditch the project? 

2.  Spend time with the editorial comments.  I often take the hired editor's comments back to my writers' group or a writing partner to discuss.  Then I make a to-do list--and ask the editor for clarification if I cannot get a clear next step from the suggestions.  For instance, "This character is not quite coming alive on the page for me" translates to what?  What next step would you take?  If you're not sure, you'll stall out.  Discuss with your buddies, email the editor for ideas.  Get something solid to step on so you don't flounder.

3.  Go through your revision checklist again, after you've made the changes.  Remember that small changes in one chapter will ripple into others.  Pages added mean page references (in appendix, table of contents) are changed too.  Click here and here for past blog posts about my revision checklist.   Very important is the step of printing it out and looking for balance of white space and text (point #2 on the checklist).  Mark the changes on the printed manuscript this time, not in your computer--hold off on that step.

4.  With the same printed, marked-up manuscript, do an outloud read-through.  This is my most important tool.  After I've marked the new changes, gone through the revision checklist, and feel the changes I will make are solid, I read it aloud.  To myself.  Or to a tape recorder.  I use a yellow highlighter to mark ANY moment when I stumble, have to reread, feel something is missing, or hit an awkward passage/word/chapter.  I try not to be too frustrated by this--there is bound to be stuff I find, and I just have to accept that's the nature of the book writing process.  We miss our own mistakes.  This catches 99 percent of mine, usually.

5.  One more round.  Make a to-do list again of the places that need more attention.  Do the work.  Go through the revision checklist, read aloud once more.  The goal is to have it sail along completely smoothly when read out loud--the big test!

6.  Now find your beta readers.  These long-suffering friends are exchange partners--you do it for their books, they do it for yours.  Write a list of questions you want them to focus on.  Give them time to read and respond (I usually ask for 6-8 weeks turnaround, but that's not possible sometimes, so do your best).  Be sure to write their names down in a safe place for (1) mention in your book's acknowledgements page and (2) a thank-you copy of the printed version after publication. 

7.  When you get feedback from the beta readers, start with step 2 again.  This may send you running and screaming, but you're almost done!  Often, after this much work, the manuscript is very close to being ready.

8.  When it passes the final read-through out loud, it's done.  Ship it off!  And take yourself out for a celebration (or sleep for a week).  You've earned it.   

Friday, June 27, 2014

Working with Unexpected Character Questions: Finding Your Character's (or Narrator's) Inner Story

My summer writing goal is to bring one of my favorite characters to vividness on the pages of my novel-in-progress.  I've gotten good feedback about her, but she has a ways to go.  I haven't been listening to her as much as I ought, and it's showing in her scenes.  Some are sluggish, repetitive, and she's hiding much of her inner story from me still.

So this week I decided to ask her (I know, this is weird) to help me out.  Give me some clues.  Maybe in a song or a snippet of overheard conversation, let my creative brain hear some ideas on how to bring this character into more relief.

One of my recent music favs is a singer/songwriter named Gretchen Peters.  I was driving to Vermont, listening to one of her CDs, Hello Cruel World.  And a favorite song, "The Matador."

Love that song.  Circles in my brain over and over, but since I asked my character for help--whoa.  Something clicked in these lyrics.   They may not speak to you, but did they ever speak to me!

His rage is made of many things: faithless women, wedding rings
Snakes and snails and alcohol, his daddy’s fist thrown through the wall
Ah but he’s beautiful when he’s in the ring, the devil howls, the angels sing
Sparks fly from his fingertips and words like birds fly from his lips

Read more here. 

These two concepts--my character's rage and when she's beautiful--really woke me up.  I've never imagined asking about these.  They are unexpected character questions.  They open up worlds inside.

When I got back to my writing office, I sat down at the computer and began to brainstorm.  I pretended I was interviewing my character on the page.  I asked her:

What is your rage made of?
When are you beautiful?

And I let it rip.  I got images, ideas, and enough material to build several new chapters and rework others.  Somehow, this dichotomy of rage and beauty--something that is in all humans--brought me the inner story.

Try it this week, if you have a reluctant player on your story's stage.  It works for memoir too, especially if you're writing a secondary character you think you know, but may not know as well as you think.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Writing Strong Transitions: Scene to Scene, Chapter to Chapter, How to Keep Your Reader Turning the Page

I learned about the importance of transitions during my MFA study.  One of my thesis advisers, a talented novelist, read my novel-in-progress and liked it but felt my background as a newspaper writer hampered my transitions.  "You end each chapter like you would a journalistic piece," she told me.  "It's complete, nothing left to push the reader forward into the next chapter."
She was right.  As a syndicated newspaper columnist for twelve years, I was trained to keep my thoughts short, and wrap them up with a flourish.  The goal was reader satisfaction, a sense of completion.  Closure.

"Closure is the last thing you want in the middle of a book," my adviser said.  "You want to keep your readers turning the page."

Most writers in revision--and some in early-draft stage--come to a point where they begin to look at transitions.  Transitions are the small but essential bridges that lead your reader from the end of one scene, one thought, one idea to the next.  Whether within a chapter or between chapters, unless transitions are solid, the reader will choose that moment to set down your book.  And maybe never pick it up again.

Transitions of Chronology
These are the simplest and easiest to write--but not always useful unless you stay in strict time sequence in your scenes.  Chronological transitions are phrases like these, placed in the next scene or chapter to indicate the passage of time, change of location, or change of point of view:  "By the next morning, he . . ." or "Two days later . . . " or  "It had only been three weeks since she'd last . . . "

Chronological transitions can feel clunky to the reader after a while.  They are like reading a chart of time passing, unless done well.  I use these, but sparingly.  More often, I play with word and image transitions.

Word and Image Transitions

A simple way to transition is to repeat an image or word.  In The Hours, Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer-winning novel that tracks the lives of three separate women, he uses the image of yellow roses.  In one scene, yellow roses are being arranged in a vase for a party; in another, they are being piped on the top of a birthday cake.  The reader doesn't consciously go, "Oh, yeah, yellow roses again," but the image is registered and a sense of smoothness results.  We note it subconsciously and read on because the tiny bridge is there, making our transition easier.

Whenever I move within a chapter to backstory, or a memory, I will craft a transition.  Possibly I'll repeat an image, like the yellow roses.  One scene might have oranges on the table in a bowl, and the character or narrator as a child is staring at the strange light playing across them.  The next scene might have someone juicing those oranges the next morning. 

Senses are another excellent way to transition.  Say you are writing a book set in a doctors' offices.  What is common to these?  The paper on the exam table (repeat the feel of it under the skin, the crackle as you slide).  The antiseptic smell.  The well-used copies of Outside or People magazine that feel so worn as you turn the pages.  The cold air.

You would choose one of these and see if you can repeat it.  Use it in one scene, then again in a slightly different way in the next, to create the transition.  Smells and sounds are particularly strong transitions in a reader's subconscious.

Dialogue or Gesture Transitions
You can also use repeated dialogue or gestures.  Lighting a cigarette, coughing, picking at a torn cuticle, or a certain phrase repeated--these are embedded as transition in so many books!  We readers, again, don't necessarily notice them, but don't think they are placed by accident.  Skilled writers work hard at this.

Object of Obsession Transitions
If a certain object--in my last novel, Qualities of Light, a stolen jackknife--becomes the object of obsession in your book, carry it through as a transition tool.  Repeat mention of, or a sensory note about, this object as you move between chapters and from present time to backstory.  The reader will feel the smoothness of this repetition back and forth through time.

Beware of using the same language each time, though.  Brainstorm ten ways to describe aspects of this object, for instance.  Jackknife had "sharpness," "cutting edge," "shiny steel," and other descriptors.  I didn't always say the word jackknife, but when I used these knife-like images, it created the transition.

Transitions, when first created, may have a mechanical feel.  As if you are manipulating the language and it will be obvious to readers.  This is where feedback comes in handy.  I felt my transitions were awkward and obvious when I first wrote them in, but my editors loved them. 

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1.  Make a list:  read the current ending of each chapter and the beginning of the next, and note key images, words, objects, gestures, or dialogue you have in place that could serve as a transition.

2.  Do any transitions already exist--aside from time chronology?  How can you strengthen them?

3.  Where are transitions completely missing between your chapters?  How can you add them in? 

Once you have crafted strong transitions for the chapters, begin work within the chapters.  Each scene within a chapter ("islands" of writing) requires a good transition to keep your reader engaged.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Pros and Cons of Feedback on Your Writing: Finding Out What You REALLY Need (and Getting It)

I teach all levels of writers, and I especially love working with brand-new writers.  Someone who has just gotten an idea for a novel.  Or a parent who has been meaning to write a nonfiction book about their special needs child and what this writer learned while navigating a difficult school system.  Or a beginning memoirist who is still reeling from childhood but driven to get the stories on paper.

They all want me to tell them how to write, but in the same breath they say, "And be sure to tell me what's not working.  Don't hold back."

This approach is a mark of new writers, I've learned.  Most experienced writers learn what makes them keep writing--and it isn't always critique.  But a new writer is still high on the energy of the idea.  They can't imagine the long haul ahead.  They think writing is easy.

One stand-out memory from a past class was such a new writer.  He was in one of the online classes I took before I began teaching.  When he introduced himself to the group, he said he was new but used to criticism.  He told us, "Give me all the critique you have!"   

In other words, don't just give constructive feedback but also what was totally wrong, what really sucked (his words) in our humble opinions.   

I watched, not really knowing yet about this phenomenon.  The group took him at his word.  They told him how much he still had to learn.

The writer lasted about 2 weeks before he stopped writing altogether.  He dropped the class, I think.  I wasn't surprised.   I was surprised that the teacher didn't step in, but maybe she felt it was good to weed out the weak early?  It's not my way, as an instructor.

I learned a lot from watching this feedback process.  It reinforced my approach, which is based on the stages of a writer's growth, finding the best level of feedback for where you are, so you keep writing.   
Stages of a Writer's Growth--and Feedback Needs
In the early years of our writing journey, we need mostly constructive feedback.  We need what will help us thrive, figure out our unique voice, explore story ideas without too much negative self-talk or external critique.  Our own critical voice is usually strong as we struggle through our learning curves.   

Best now to hear what's working.  Also, what can be improved, but via suggestions and questions given in a constructive way.  In my classes, I ask questions that open doors for the writer. 

Each time I read one of my student's pieces, I see (always!) things that are strong.  Things that are unique to that writer's experience, perspective, voice, and style.  I point them out.  Knowing what works, will help the writer at this stage.   

Then I look for areas where I want more, as a reader.  Where I felt things were missing.   

I want to know more about the setting, for instance, where this event is occurring.  What the narrator is actually doing physically in the scene as they reflect on their past or future challenge.  That's called the outer story (the outer details of what is happening) and grounds me, as a reader, in the inner story (the thinking or feeling).  So I might ask about this.   

Or I might ask to read more about the sensory details--what the character or narrator is smelling or hearing at that moment.  These elements bring out the inner story too and make the scene more intense for me as a reader.  That's a good thing.
Two steps to giving feedback:  (1) look at inner and outer story, and ask myself what could be developed more.  Then (2) ask a question or two about that missing area.   

Questions ignite ideas in the writer's mind and bring more good stuff to the page.

No use, truthfully, in saying to someone:  "This really didn't work for me."  What does this do for the writer?  Mostly, they begin to question if they should be writing at all.  Maybe they are stupid and (on and on) . . . The Inner Critic has a field day.   

The writer slinks off and becomes what we call in online classes a "lurker," if they even continue writing.  No way they will share their writing again.

We're trained in school to get criticized more than we get encouraged.  I was, at least.  When I was at revision stage in my MFA, I got a lot of critique and at that advanced level, I needed it.  But when I was beginning each of my books, I mostly needed to hear what was good, strong, and working.  Constructive feedback kept me going and opened the creative door wider and wider into new ideas.

Everyone's writing has strong areas and weak areas.  My teaching style is to first build up the strong areas until they are solid enough to stand on, so that when you do face your weak areas, your whole foundation won't collapse.   

What are you getting as a writer, right now, in terms of feedback?  Is it appropriate to where you are in your book journey?  How might you get more of what you really need?

Friday, June 6, 2014

Raise the Emotional Stakes: Strengthening Alchemy between Setting, Character, and Conflict

Morning: writing at my sunny desk.  Task:  revise a stubborn scene.  Advice from recent feedback:  bring more emotion into it.

Sunshine and spring in New England today is no help.   In my fictional scene, it's chilly October in the northern mountains of New York state.  I'm sitting comfortably in my chair, laptop in front of me, spicy tea and good music and sweet air at hand.  My character, in her scene, has just crashed her small plane--on purpose.  She's bleeding, shaken, and starving.

So our situations couldn't be more disparate.  How do I have the gall to attempt such writing--to capture the desperation of this person who only exists in my imagination?

Because I know such desperation.  I've never crashed a plane, but I know well the survival instinct that my character rides on in this moment of the story.  To access my own memory of this, I use the writing techniques of alchemy.

Alchemy simply means a combination of elements to create something magical.  In writing, these are three:  setting, action, and the character's physical state.  Combined in certain ways, they manufacture magic for the reader.  That magic that all good literature offers--where we readers can lose ourselves for a few hours in a different world. 

The Alchemy of Place
Place details are either wholly ignored by most writers--"too slow for me," one of my students once said--or used too much.  Some writers dump a lot of setting details in the beginning of each chapter, the start of each scene, as if "setting the stage."  Setting must be placed where the alchemy actually occurs.

Use of the senses is the first element to successful settings.  Especially smell and sound.  These access the reader's own memories of place, make your job almost effortless.  In my online class, Strange Alchemy, we begin by studying famous writers' work--how do they place the sense of place in each section of a story, chapter, scene?  George Saunders, Judy Blundell, Flannery O'Connor, and many more teachers help us learn that placement is everything!  When we give feedback each week on excerpts from writing by fellow students in the class, our eye is already tuned to whether the placement is strong.

Place is the backdrop used by professional writers to depict emotion.  Whatever the character notices--or doesn't notice--tells the reader about their emotional stage:  their distractions, their memories, their angst.  It's too good a tool to ignore.

The Alchemy of a Character's Physical State
Next is the character's external self--not what they are thinking or feeling, which could be unreliable, but how they present themselves in the world, consciously or unconsciously.  A twitch, a certain favorite piece of clothing, a way of moving their hands, an itchy ear, all reveal emotion. 

As with place, it's good to have enough but not too much.  In Judy Blundell's award-winning young-adult novel, What I Saw and How I Lied, she introduces the two main characters in the first page via certain physical details that completely show their future trajectories in the book:  the mother who smokes in the dark and whose lipstick-covered lips catch on the cigarette paper with every drag--a tiny but revealing sound heard by her not-sleeping daughter; the young girl who carries Baby Ruths in her bike basket to the foggy beach each morning to eat breakfast alone there.   

I make a list this morning of my downed pilot's physical state--what is she wearing, what is moving or held still in her body as she waits, what aches and itches, what she does with her hands. 

Combined with place, these physical elements of character create the first step of alchemy.

The Alchemy of Action
Place and physical attributes are only useful, though, if they are juxtaposed with action.  Dennis Lahane, author of Mystic River and other works, talked about this in an interview I read many years ago:  If a character is in the same room for more than one page, get them out of there.   Stillness is a pause, a valuable pause, but it doesn't move the writing forward.

So instead of my downed pilot being able to sit and starve silently, reflecting on the wilderness around her, she must be doing something within a page.  Action is the final element of alchemy.  It's only by seeing a person in action that we really know them. 

Put together, these three create magic. 

When I begin a scene, I often will work on each element separately, to make sure I've covered it, then combine them in paragraph or chapter in good proportion to each other.  Action usually takes the most space, then the physical state of the character, then the setting.  Each is crucial to alchemy, but they work in a hierarchy. 

Intrigued?  Consider studying the attributes of alchemy with me this summer in my online class which begins on Monday, June 9.  We spend four weeks on action (specifically, raising the stakes in your writing), four on character development, and four on place/setting.  Each week includes short readings in memoir and fiction by well-known writers, to study and learn from, as well as some very helpful writing exercises I've developed from my own work.  To learn more or register, click here.   

Friday, May 30, 2014

Emotional Gateways--How They Help You Write and Revise Your Book

On June 2, next Monday, I begin teaching my summer online classes.  In both the beginning and intermediate level classes, we examine how scenes, chapters, and whole books are built to deliver the exact meaning the writer wants. 

Katherine Dering, a writer in past classes, just had her first memoir published.  She wrote me this week: 

Your classes were very helpful to me finishing and getting Shot in the Head, a Sister's Memoir, a Brother's Struggle published:  where to start, what to cut or add, finding central images, rising and falling tensions, inner and outer story, inviting the reader into the all helped.   People tell me they couldn't put it down.  Mary, you must have gotten through to me.

Not an easy process.  But intensely rewarding when your book is finished and published, as Katherine now knows.  Those readers who can't put her book down are engaged because of the story's drama, of course, but also because of the emotional gateways this writer has crafted so expertly.   

What Are Emotional Gateways?
Most good books offer a series of gateways where the reader's own past, thoughts and feelings, memories and values, can connect with the story on the page.  Imagine them like entrances into the secret world of the book.  Emotional gateways are responsible for that blissful experience of getting lost in a story, thinking about it for days afterward, feeling rage or sorrow or joy as you read about someone you'll never meet but whose world is entirely real to you.

Emotional gateways are openings into a book's meaning.  They are more powerful that intellectual delivery of ideas and concepts; they hook into more primal centers in the brain.  They depend on images and senses.  There is no effort to retrieve the memory, unlike the work it can take intellectually.

Crafting strong emotional gateways is a skill every writer can learn, and I'm fierce about its importance in creating strong writing.  In my classes, we work on first expanding use of the five senses.  Involuntary memory evokers, the senses are the simplest way to open emotional gateways for readers.  (Remember Marcel Proust and his rhapsody on the tiny French cake called a madeleine in Remembrance of Things Past?)

After expanding use of the senses, what's next?  Practice relaxing the linear side of the brain and engaging the image-based mind. 

I use many exercises in my online classes to help writers learn this.  I offer the excellent resources of Robert Olen Butler's From Where You Dream (see below for blog post on this book) and Robert Boswell's The Half-Known World--two writing books that clear the way to image-work I also recommend daily freewrites based on images and collage work (Sue Monk Kidd, author of The Secret Life of Bees, and many other writers use cut-out pictures to prompt the image brain). 

Most vital:  train yourself to not censor the images that come onto the page, even if you have no clue how they connect to your chapter or scene.

A writer from Canada emailed me recently.  She asked how I approached my own writing after learning about emotional gateways.  What changed?  Everything. 

I still write and revise with my lists, my charts, my character timelines and other linear tools.  But I give equal time to image work.  When my writing feels stalled out, I freewrite--just for 20 minutes--on a random image.  I know that "stalled out" feeling is just the linear brain becoming too active, critical, and disengaged from emotional gateway work. 

Truthfully, for most of us, it takes re-awakening the part of ourselves that is so little used in daily life.  Once we do, it makes a tremendous difference in our writing.  

For more information on my online book-structuring classes, where you can learn and practice emotional gateways, click here.