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Art of Writing

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How to Start Over

I get up on a soapbox about many writing realities, among them the following:

1.)  Make sure that stepping back to assess is part of your writing process – that you’re not just writing forward blindly. If you can use a professional to help you with this step (a coach, an editor, a writing class, a writing group with a solid critique process in place) all the better.

2.)  Don’t be afraid to throw out work that isn’t working. Holding onto pages just because you wrote them doesn’t serve your story or your reader. It just makes it harder later to let go.

3.)  Make sure that you are inviting the reader into the work by showing, not telling, and by letting the story unfold on the page. We want to BE there, not just hear about what it was like. (**For my take on how this applies to non-fiction, see below.)

I thought I would take a moment to show you what it looks like to put those Big Ideas into practice.

Over the last two weeks, I have been assessing the pages of the novel that I began working on in Lisa Cron’s Story Genius book. I used the feedback I got from my agent about what was working and what wasn’t working (which was not specific to the start of the story – it was about the way the protagonist was coming across to the reader in general), and I made the decision that I was not starting in the right place.

I was coming into the story a little too late. In my zeal to start at the very moment the wolf was at the door for my protagonist, I left a lot of the story off the page – including the chance to have my protagonist’s beloved actually make an appearance in the story (rather than be dead through the whole thing.) Too much of the opening was told in backstory – and I saw that if I backed up a little bit and actually told it in real time, I could go a long way towards showing more of my character’s relationship to the man she is about to lose.

Not too long ago, I used those opening pages to teach a lesson in the Story Genius workshop on weaving in flashbacks. I think it was a good lesson and I think I did a very lesson. If you studied those pages for that purpose, fear not! Everything still holds. In fact, everything about those original opening pages is still good. It just wasn’t good enough. It was a draft that has now been supplanted…

So here’s what I did to move forward:

·      I opened a blank document. I wanted to give myself the experience of starting at zero and not worrying about “saving” anything I had already done.

·      I closed my eyes and pictured a scene – an actual moment in a singular time and place when something was happening that was directly related to my protagonists’ struggle so the reader could FEEL her struggle.

·      I assessed my idea and decided it was viable according to some key criteria: it would still be a moment with a lot at stake, a lot of forward momentum, and a lot to show the reader. It would still be tied directly to the spine of my story.

·      I brought the characters onstage – onto the page – introduced the conflict (both large and small) and wrote until that conflict (the small one, the scene-specific one) was resolved, which is the end of the scene.

·      I wrote the opening lines of the next scene that would happen as a result of what had happened in the first. If there’s not a cause-and-effect trajectory driving from the start to the end, your story will fall flat. My goal here was to make sure that what I was writing would drive towards the scenes I had already written. I had taken these scenes out of play but they were still THERE in my mind, lurking, waiting, hoping…. And I believe PARTS of them will still work. Not all of them – not by a long shot. But a chunk of them. I will have to do some massive rewriting (taking out the flashbacks that now happen in story present, for one thing) but that’s okay.

·      I used “TKs” (to come) to stand in for information I didn’t yet know.

·      I assessed what I had written again, and decided I liked it better than where I had started before.

·      I went back in and made sure the character’s reactions and motivations were on the page.

 

Some of you may recall seeing the original opening pages I shared here before. If you have not seen those and would like to look at them for comparison, you can check out the back-to-back posts HERE.

And HERE are the new opening pages – rough as can be – but alive in the world. For the moment anyway, they have risen above the original opening and are now the presumptive opening of my novel.

** Everything I say here applies to non-fiction just as strongly. I was working with a client recently on a book that is a prescriptive how-to for business executives. He showed me pages from a chapter where he had written a long recitation about his own life – from back in the day all the way through to the present. It was meant to show the reader that he understood their reality but it was flat and somewhat indulgent. We discussed a better way to begin, and he came up with a fabulous story that takes into account the cultural zeitgeist of this moment, and his readers’ reality, and his own place in it all. It was dazzling – 1000x better than the other opening. And he only got there because he was willing to do what I just did with my own work, which is to put it on the chopping block.

So what about you? Where do you need to start over? Maybe it's not the beginning of your book. Maybe it’s just the beginning of a chapter. No matter where it is, follow these steps and just do it.

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How to Tell the Difference Between a Scene and a Chapter

Last week I wrote a post about how to end a chapter and I got several writers asking me this follow-up question: How do you know the difference between a scene and a chapter?

This question confuses a lot of writers, so I thought I would try to explain it, and to show you how it works, using an example from a client who very kindly allowed me to carve up her work-in-progress and share it with you. (Thanks, Shelley!!) I am talking about fiction and memoir here, but will also reference non-fiction where appropriate.

So first, some definitions.

What is a scene?

  • A scene is the smallest unit of story.  Characters come onto the “stage” in one time and place, and one action occurs. As soon as you switch location, time,  or point of view, you are switching the scene.
  •  For non-fiction where there are no characters per-se, a scene can be thought of more like a chunk of material, where one concept is described or illustrated.
  • A scene may not offer a concrete conclusion to the action or idea presented – but it will most definitely be connected to the next action or idea. It will lead to it or point to it.
  • Scenes are often delineated by an extra linespace, but not always. Sometimes there is no break. It on the scene and the story. 

What is a chapter?

  • A chapter is comprised of related scenes that are all working together to make a similar point, or set up a critical moment. Think of chapters as a sequence of scenes. Of course a chapter can be just one scene. Mega-selling writer James Patterson sometimes writes chapters that are just one scene, and sometimes even just one page long.
  • Think about making a new chapter when the character’s goal in the scene changes, or the direction of the story changes.
  • in fiction, the scenes in a chapter all lead to a crossroads or a decision or a moment of truth: they move us forward through a change (that sets up the next change in the next chapter.) Chapters should be connected in what Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story, calls a “cause and effect trajectory.” One happens because of the other. They are not a random collection of things that happen. They cause the next thing to happen.
  • In non-fiction, the end of the chapter almost always offers the end of a thought or concept, and those thoughts and concepts build to a new understanding of something.

How you move through scenes and chapters is part of the art of writing. It dictates the flow, or pace, of your work. A novel with short scenes and short chapters is going to have a much different feel to it than one with long ones. Sometimes writers vary the length of scenes and chapters to emphasize an action – a short scene after a long one, for example, can pack a strong punch.

There is no right or wrong, but to give you get a feel for how this works, I went through one client’s submission that was just one giant chunk or writing. Shelley is writing a young adult novel about a girl who is learning about her family’s troubling past from her grandfather. In the attached sample, she presents a series of important scenes. Some of the writing, as you will see, is very good, but it all was sort of glommed together, which made it very hard to follow.

Download the 30 pages below. In order to see my comments in the margin, you can’t view it on an ipad or a phone. You need to full spread of the computer.

I took out all the line edits I did on these pages because they made it pretty messy. I just left in the comments, because I thought you might like to see what those look like.

The comments highlighted in YELLOW are the ones pertaining to scenes and chapter. I explain why I suggested a scene or a chapter.

Please remember that this is a work in progress, and this is the first crack at this task of dividing up this chunk of text. It will no doubt change and grow – but this is what it looks like to do this work.

TK, which you will see me use throughout, means “to come.” It’s proofreader-speak for anything that needs to be added.

 

DOWNLOAD SCENE EDITS HERE

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How to End a Chapter

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How to End a Chapter

I was working on a client’s manuscript this week (a novel) and noticed a recurring pattern: at the end of every chapter, she stopped abruptly, sometimes even in the middle of a conversation. One character would ask a question and the other would simply not reply. I kept turning the pages thinking that there must be extra line spaces inadvertently added in, but no – that was where the chapter ended.

I asked the writer what was going on, and she said, “I did that to create tension, so the reader would want to know what was going to happen next.”

While that impulse is excellent, the execution wasn’t there. It’s not random curiosity that you want to engender in the reader. It’s story-specific curiosity.

You want a chapter to bring the main character to a decision or a crossroad or some moment where something specific at stake, so that the reader wonders what that character will do. The decision or action has to have meaning to them and their internal reality – the truth of what they want and why they can’t seem to get it.

Writing a novel is building what Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story, calls a “cause and effect trajectory.” One thing leads to another thing, which leads inexorably to the final moment when the main character has to face the thing we have come to watch her struggle with.

There is a fabulous explanation of this truth from the writers of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. They talk about a test: if you can say, “and so” to link together the element of your story, you have missed the boat. “And so” means you have a collection of things that happen—probably random, probably not leading to anything, probably not capable of capturing a reader’s attention. What you want instead is to link things with “because of that…” 

One thing happens and because of that another thing happens and because of that the next thing happens.

Cause and effect. It means everything is linked. It means everything has to be there in order for the whole to make sense.

You can watch Trey Parker and Matt Stone talking about their “because of this” theory HERE.

It’s the fundamental lesson of story, and one that you can stop and measure at the end of every chapter.

Ask yourself:

 

·      What’s the thing that has happened in this chapter?  

·      What, then, is the thing that happens because of that?

 

That’s what the reader will turn the page to find out.  If you can’t answer, you’re not finished with that chapter.

And if you have to stop in the middle of a conversation or invent some drama to urge the reader forward, think again.

For memoir, you have the advantage of being able to look back on your life and see the connections that led from one thing to another. You can see the dominoes lined up. And your bigger task is to take OUT some of the pieces that don’t apply to the one trajectory we are tracking.

In how-to and self-help, the “because of that” test will help you to build a solid argument that draws your reader through a series of steps and decisions to become something new – smarter, skinnier, divorced, or whatever state you are guiding them towards.

Crafting better chapter endings is a powerful way to become a better writer. Pay attention to the flow of one chapter to another and you will be on your way to a story your reader can’t put down.

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Leveraging Curiosity

I was working with a writer this week whom I shall call Steve. Steve is writing a novel and we were working on a bit of dialogue that, in my mind, stopped the story cold. 

The scene was between two old friends. Character B was prodding Character A (the protagonist) about a situation that will later explode in Character A’s life. Character B sees clearly the train wreck that is coming, and tries to call her friend out on it,  but Character A deflects the prod from her old friend in this way:

 “I said nothing in reply. I was not going to get into that conversation. Instead, I changed the subject.”

It was a very small moment, but my notes in the margin were strong: “Wait WHAT? Why wouldn't’ she go there? The reader is DYING to find out! Why are you keeping it from us? This is going to piss off your reader…”

Steve’s answer to me: “Because if I explain it there, it will give everything away. I’m saving that reveal for later.”

Steve, in other words, had a secret he wanted to keep from the reader and he wanted to keep it because he felt that the opposite -- holding his cards really close to his vest -- would pique the reader’s curiosity.

This is a very commonly held belief, but unfortunately, it doesn’t work that like. In fact, it works precisely the opposite way. That’s the secret about keeping secrets in writing.  They usually only work if you let the reader in on it. Otherwise, the reader will be feeling left out, dismissed, disregarded.

If Steve had instead told us something of the secret, we would have been curious in the way Steve really wanted. If he had written this….    

“I said nothing in reply. I was not going to let memories of my mother’s death influence my career choices, and didn’t even like suggestion of such a thing on the table. Who did Sally think she was to question my integrity in that way? She of all people should have known better. Instead, I changed the subject.”

…the reader  would have thought, Oh NO I don’t have a good feeling about this, I think this is going to come back to bite Character A, I wonder when that will happen and what she will do and what the consequences of that will be. I’m going to keep reading to see if I’m right and to watch this drama unfold.

We read, in other words, for the WHY of the story – why people do things, what they make of it, what it MEANS to them. We don’t read for the what – for what happens. We talked about this last week on a bigger picture scale, but I wanted to drill down this week to show you exactly how this works.

You can give away what happens all day long as long as you let us know there IS a why and that it’s coming.

A fantastic example of this truth is in the memoir When Breath Becomes Air, which I am currently reading. This book is the story of Paul Kalanithi, a 36 year old man who was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer when he was a chief resident in neurosurgery at Stanford Medical School. It’s a tale about life and death – but mostly death. Kalanithi dies in the end. And the reader knows that the moment they read the book jacket copy:

Kalanithi himself reinforces that truth in the very first sentences of the book, in the prologue:

“I flipped through the CT scan images, the diagnosis obvious: the lungs were matted with innumerable tumors, the spine deformed, a full lobe of the liver obliterated. Cancer, widely disseminated. I was a neurological resident entering my final year of training. Over the last six years, I’d examined scores of such scans, on the off chance that some procedure might benefit the patient. But this scan was different: it was my own.”

So is not a secret to the reader what happens in this story – not in the slightest. We know everything about what happens.

What we read for is how he makes meaning of his reality – in other words, the why of it. In particular in this case, we have the following questions in our head:

  • Why did he decide to write about his own death?
  • Why did he decide to have a child when he knew he was going to die?
  • Why did his wife agree to that?
  • What did it feel like to make that decision?
  • What does it feel like to chronicle your own death?
  • What does someone who knows so much about what sustains life bring to the task of dying?

I just read a passage last night in which, having gone back in time to Kalanithi’s decision to go to med school and having followed his journey through it, we arrive again at the day of diagnosis.  This is now the second time he has written about this day – first in those sentences from the prologue I quoted above and now on this page – page 119. Only moments have passed between the two instances and we are right back with a man reading his CT scans.

He writes:

“Lying next to Lucy in the hospital bed, both of us crying, the CT scan images still glowing on the computer screen, that identity as a physician – my identity – no longer mattered….”

The only difference to the reader is that this second time, we know even more about why this moment matters to this man in particular. We know that Kalanithi has witnessed many deaths, has wrestled with the meaning of life, has made professional choices based on his beliefs about life and death, and has just suffered the loss of a colleague who took his own life. We know even more acutely what death means to him and we know with more assuredness that death is coming for him.

But again, no one in their right might would stop reading just because we know what’s going to happen. It’s not the WHAT we care about it. We KNOW what. It’s the why we continue to read forward to find out.

In your own work, look for places where you are holding back information from the reader.

  • It might be in dialogue like it was with Steve. Make sure you are not being coy with information, that you are not holding back things on purpose. It almost never works – because if the good thing happens on page 100 and your reader never makes it there, who cares?
  • It might be when conclusions are being drawn from a scene or situation – it’s easy to assume the reader knows what the conclusion is (Isn’t it obvious? the writer thinks), but we usually don’t. We need to be told. Every time your character thinks a thought or makes a decision or takes some action, we want to know the conclusions the protagonist is drawing from it. Why does it matter, why are we being asked to pay attention?
  • It might be in how you are structuring your entire story – giving us far too much what before you let us have any why. We want why

Odds are good that you can add in the why in small and large ways throughout your work. My advice is to err on the side of saying too much. You will do more damage holding back than you do in spilling your secrets.

I’ll leave you with one last moving passage from Kalanithi’s book, where he employs this tactic with masterful precision. He and his wife Lucy are having a discussion about whether or not to have a child, given Kalanithi’s diagnosis. She begins the conversation:

“Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?”
“Wouldn’t it be great if it did?” I said. Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.

That last line – that add on – is what gives that passage such depth and nuance and power. Kalanithi doesn’t leave us to wonder what the conversation means or why it matters. He doesn't leave his question unanswered. He answers it himself, right on the page, and thereby invites us into the heart of his devastating experience.

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The Secret Writing Sauce

I often hear things of interest to writing and the writing life when I am driving around in my car. I hear them on the pop rock station my radio is still tuned to, even though I no longer have teenagers in the house. I hear them on the station that on Thursdays plays three songs in a row by the same artist and tells stories about the making of the music. And I hear them constantly on my local NPR station, which is why I write a check to them every year in support. (The plea that always gets me is the one where they say, “How many times have you stayed in your car in the driveway listening to the end of a story?” The answer is, “So often, I think my neighbors are worried about me.”)

The other day I heard a teaser for a piece on NPR’s Science Friday on how telling stories to robots makes them smarter. I was like, “Whoa, WHAT?”  I thought it was going to be a story about how robots could be taught emotion from stories. Later I went to the NPR website to listen to that podcast and it turned out to be a fascinating discussion about using stories to teach a robot manners and morals. All good stuff – but not what I had hoped for. What I had hoped for, however, was contained in a story that was linked to it – a story from 2015 about a guy who was actually teaching computers to tell stories.    

The work featured was from Mark Riedl’s Scheherazade. Riedl is the director of the Entertainment Intelligence Lab – “the premiere venue for emerging, high-quality research on the role of intelligent systems in creating, understanding, and interactive management of narratives.”

Posted on the NPR site was this example of a story written by Scheherazade, the computer:

With sweaty palms and heart racing, John drove to Sally’s house for their first date. Sally, her pretty white dress flowing in the wind, carefully entered John’s car. John and Sally drove to the movie theatre. John and Sally parked the car in the parking lot. Wanting to feel prepared, John had already bought tickets to the movie in advance. A pale-faced usher stood before the door; John showed the tickets and the couple entered. Sally was thirsty so John hurried to buy drinks before the movie started. John and Sally found two good seats near the back. John sat down and raised the arm rest so that he and Sally could snuggle. John paid more attention to Sally while the movie rolled and nervously sipped his drink. Finally working up the courage to do so, John extended his arm to embrace Sally. He was relieved and ecstatic to feel her move closer to him in response. Sally stood up to use the restroom during the movie, smiling coyly at John before that exit. John and Sally also held hands throughout the movie, even though John’s hands were sweaty. John and Sally slowly got up from their seats. Still holding hands, John walked Sally back to his car through the maze of people all scurrying out of the theatre. The bright sunshine temporarily blinded John as he opened the doors and held them for Sally as they left the dark theatre and stepped back out onto the street. John let go of Sally’s hand and opened the passenger side door of his car for her but instead of entering the car, she stepped forward, embraced him, and gave him a large kiss. John drove Sally back to her home.

 

We can all read that story and recognize it as a narrative, but we can also agree that it is flat and dull, wholly lacking in the secret sauce that we come to story for.

The question, of course, is then, well what IS that missing thing? What IS that secret writing sauce that holds our attention and rivets us to the page and makes us feel something deep and essential?

I happened to be working this week on a webinar I am going to be giving today about the memoir H is for Hawk – a webinar about why this memoir by Helen Macdonald has taken the world by storm and what we can learn about our own work from it.  (You can still sign up and either join me live at 9 am PST  for the webinar or get the recording.)  So I have been immersed in writing that was the opposite of flat and dull -- writing that is imbued with that secret thing. You can feel it almost any random lines from the book. For example:

“There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.”

 

And this:

 

 “Nature in her green, tranquil woods heals and soothes all affliction,’ wrote John Muir. ‘Earth hath no sorrows that earth cannot heal.’ Now I knew this for what it was: a beguiling but dangerous lie. I was furious with myself and my own conscious certainty that this was the cure I needed. Hands are for other humans to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.”

 

No computer would ever put the words “tense, shining dullness” together in a sentence, or grasp the sorrow in the passage of time the way that first paragraph does.

And the writer seeing Muir’s words as a “beguiling but dangerous lie” and being furious at herself for her “conscious certainty” just takes too much self awareness and introspection and layered understanding for a computer to grasp.

Even the line “hands are for humans to hold” is so simple and straightforward – and yes, maybe a computer could come up with that line -- but the way it is used is packed with so much meaning and emotion, and it’s hard to imagine a computer ever grasping those layers. This writing is the product of a human in touch with her own humanity.

Just for fun, I went back to the computer’s story and edited it so that we could see precisely what was missing, and where the writer (if a computer actually had volition) could go back to try to repair it. I wasn’t paying attention to the grammar and the structure of the computer’s story (where there are a lot of problems) but just to the emotion and meaning.

Take a peek at what I did HERE and you will see how often I am asking, “Why?” and also “And so?”

Because that’s what we come to writing for. That’s what we are desperate to experience and feel – the why of it, the meaning of it, the sense of what things mean to another living soul.

Next time you sit down to work on your own writing, think of the souls on the other end of the exchange who will one day read your work, , hoping to make a connection. They’re cheering for you! 

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