Last week, I talked about the great lessons for writers in The Art of Asking, and this week I’d like to go over the structure and design of the book. Amanda Palmer tells her story in a series of vignettes – short snapshots of a moment in time – and normally, that is a recipe for disaster. It’s very hard to maintain narrative drive or to present a clear central question that the reader holds in their head as they move through the story. Palmer pulls if off, though. So let’s take a look at how she does it.
 
1. She makes one single, overarching and powerful point. 

The vast majority of writers in ALL genres fail to do this, and it’s the main reason they fail to connect with agents, editors or readers. A book needs to make one point. It doesn’t matter whether you are writing an epic fantasy novel about a grim robot-driven future, a YA about falling in love for the first time, a self help book for children of divorce, or a cookbook about cheese, you have to make one main point. There can be a boatload of other points that you make along the way, but the path from beginning to end needs to be about just one thing – and the sooner in the writing process you can define this point, the better.
 
Palmer did this hard work before the book was even a twinkle in her eye, when she was preparing to give her now-famous TED talk. In The Art of Asking, she discusses her process, on page 5 of the book:
 
"I aimed my TED talk at a narrow slice of my social circle: my awkward, embarrassed musician friends. Crowdfunding was getting many of them excited but anxious. I’d been helping a lot of friends out with their own Kickstarter campaigns, and chatting with them about their experiences at local bars, at parties, in backstage dressing rooms before shows. I wanted to address a fundamental topic that had been troubling me: To tell my artist friends that it was okay to ask for money, and it was okay to ask for help.
 
 “… Each online crowdfunding pitch features a video in which the creator explains their mission and delivers their appeal. I found myself cringing at the parade of crowdfunding videos in which my friends looked (or avoided looking) into the camera, stammering, Okay, heh heh, it’s AWKWARD TIME! Hi everybody, um, here we go. Oh my god. We are so, so sorry to be asking, this is so embarrassing, but…please help us fund our album…
 
“… I was hoping I could give them some sort of cosmic, universal permission to stop over-apologizing, stop fretting, stop justifying, and for god’s sake….just ASK.”

 
 
You see how crystal clear that is? Clear audience, clear intention, clear point. The fact that the talk, and the subsequent book, spoke to a much LARGER audience than her embarrassed crowdfunding musician friends is not an accident; large audiences are attracted to passion, conviction, and clarity. The irony is that sometimes stories designed to attract large audiences fail to do so because they are too vague, too watered-down, too desperate to please. Palmer’s message that it’s okay to ask for help -- that it’s good and healthy and soul-saving to ask for help – reverberates out from her original intended audience to touch a whole lot of us who aren’t struggling musicians.
 
It’s a message I took to heart a few weeks ago when I had the flu and my neighbor asked if she could go get me some chicken soup at a chicken roasting restaurant about a mile from our homes. I was going to say no and save her good graces for a rainier day. But then I remembered Palmer’s message – that we need to practice asking for and accepting help, that it makes us better people -- and so I said, “Yes, thank you, that would be lovely.” I enjoyed delicious soup for the next three days, and I believe that my neighbor enjoyed being able to do something to help.
 
Palmer’s message sticks on every page of her book, and in her reader’s minds, because it is so clear and intentional.

 
             Every book needs a clear audience, a clear intention, and a  clear
          point, and the sooner you nail it down, the better.  

 
 
2. She asks for – and earns – her reader’s trust.

A reader of a book – of any book – is judging whether or not the author is trustworthy. We ask, Does this author respect me and my time? Are they asking too much of me? Or too little? Do they respect my intellect? Are they taking me somewhere I want to go? Are they doing so with authority? A writer can get away with all kinds of unorthodox things if the answer to those questions is YES!
 
The Art of Asking is not a chronological story. There is very little about this book that is linear in any way. But if this book were a tapestry, you would bable to step back and see the patterns, and the logic, in the way the thread work together to form a pleasing whole. And as a reader, you can FEEL that underlying integrity. And as a result, you TRUST Palmer when she takes off in what might at first seem to be a strange direction.
 
Here’s an example from very early in the book, when that author-reader trust is still forming:
 
On p 14, she sets up a story about asking. She talks about the day she decided to make a living as a living statue -- basically asking people for money in exchange for a moment of performance art. But then she doesn’t TELL that story, which is what we expect.
 
On p 15, she swerves and gives us some background on what artists actually do. She doesn’t explain the swerve. She just does it and invites us to come  along. She talks about being a kid and learning how to connect the dots in  the world and how that’s what artists do. She does this for three pages. And while, on the one hand, as a reader, we are kind of thinking, “Wait, what  happened to the bride statue story?” on the other hand, we realize that in order to understand the bride statue story, we must need to understand what Palmer is saying about connecting the dots. We TRUST that she is making a larger point.
 
If at this point, she didn’t bring it around – if she left us wondering or hanging  or having to work to hard to follow her somewhat loopy logic – we would put the book down. We do this as readers every day. Watch yourself the next   time you read something that doesn’t earn your trust. You won’t give it     fifteen pages….
 
Page18 features a photo of Palmer as the bride stature – which we have yet to hear about – and the placement of that photo helps cement the trust. Yes, she seems to be saying, we are still talking about becoming a bride statue….trust me. Come with me…
 
Page 19 features the lyrics of a song that have to do with being a bride, and keeping secrets, and asking for things. As a reader, we are now resting in this rhythm – this non-linear, non-chronological, kind of crazy rhythm – and we are waiting for the payoff, which we believe with all our hearts is coming….
 
On page 21, we finally get the story Palmer set up on p 14, which begins with Palmer working in an ice cream store and finally winds its way around to her her being a living statue. The payoff is substantive, because the bride story is not, it turns out, a simple story about an unusual job. It is the heart of her entire point. It encompasses everything she believes about connecting – dots and people. And about asking – for a dollar, for attention, to be seen, to be heard. She took her time to tell it on purpose, and with authority, and in her own unique way, and it works beautifully.
 
Some writers try to pull off this kind of unusual narrative design without thinking about the reader’s experience. They expect the reader to come along, to keep up, to figure it out, to draw the correct conclusion, but they don’t give us any clues or cues or footholds to help us in that effort. They leave us outside looking in. And we hate that.
 
Imagine that you are taking your reader’s hand and leading them through your story. You want a firm grip, a clear idea of where you are going, and a clear sense of how you are going to get there, even if the journey is going to be a little circuitous. You want to earn your reader’s trust.


 
               Imagine that you are taking your reader’s hand and leading                    them through your story. 
 
              
 
3. She is an expert weaver. 

The main point of Palmer’s story (the difficulty and importance of asking) is carried forward by the main story of the book (Palmer’s struggle to ask for a loan from her husband.) In addition, there are some smaller points and stories that run throughout The Art of Asking, and Palmer weaves these together with perfect precision.
 
We hear about some of Palmer’s failed love affairs, which are a counterpoint to the story she tells about falling in love with Neil Gaiman. We hear about her deep friendship with a man named Anthony, who taught her about love and trust and asking, and about Anthony’s grave illness. We hear the ongoing saga of the bride statue story, and the incredible interactions she had over more than five years of doing that work – including one breath-taking story she tells about an encounter she had with another living statue who was having a very bad day. We hear about her ongoing effort to make good music and to hold a band together. We hear about her ongoing effort to connect with her audience in authentic ways over the Internet and in person, and the satisfactions and heartbreak of that work.
              
I haven’t done it, but I can promise you that if you were to track these themes with some epic color-coded Post-it note system, there would be a logic and a distinct rhythm to when they appear. Palmer has an innate sense of rhythm – which you would expect from a musician, and which all good writers have, too. How long can you wait to give the reader the next bit about the Neil story? Will they remember what last happened with Anthony if it happened twenty pages ago? What about 30?
 
You can almost imagine Palmer actually weaving – picking up this thread and then that one, carrying over this idea and then that one. The result is a rich reading experience that – again – gives us a feeling of trust. We are in the hands of someone who has paid attention.
 
If you are writing a story that feels random to the reader – that feels like is has no underlying architecture or purpose or plan – they will know it, and they will not be kind. This is the fundamental problem with most vignette-based designs: they actually ARE random. The writer has not, in fact, paid attention. They are trying to get away with not doing the hard work of finding a form for their material. Don’t be that writer.
 
 
              Readers want to be in the hands of an author who has
            paid attention. 


 
4. She cut out all the extraneous stuff. 

In the Acknowledgements of her book, Palmer thanks a lot of people for helping her with the book – and many of those thanks are about things she ended up cutting. On p 333, Palmer explictly thanks her husband for this: “He took my first manuscript, pen in hand, and suggested massive cuts. I trusted him, and for the most part, took every suggestion.”
              
Cutting is one of the hardest things to do, and it’s one of the most essential.  It’s the way many authors give their book the narrative drive and the laser-focus that it needs to be great.  I can imagine that there was an iteration of Palmer’s book that was filled with all kids of stories that didn’t serve her larger point, all kinds of detours that took us too far away from the central path before circling back, all kinds of distractions that would have irritated us had she left them in. She asked some very smart people to help her identify those weak areas, and she got rid of them.
 
Ruthlessness is a skill every writer needs. We may not all have Neil Gaiman and Michael Chabon to help us with our cutting (such a shame!), but we still need to do the hard work of deciding what gets to stay in our books and what should be kicked to the curb. 
 

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