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The Business of Writing

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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Talking About Books With Agents

A few weeks ago, I wrote about turning in pages of my new novel to my agent. I heard back from her and the news is neither victorious (“these are the best pages I have ever read and I already talked to five publishers and we’re holding an auction next week”) nor fatal (“you can’t write and I don't want to represent you and you should give up and find another occupation.”)

The news was, in fact, somewhere in the middle of those extremes – imagine that! Here is what she said:

  • There are some things working well with my story – a good premise, some good moments, a strong sense of timeliness, a strong sense of the “stage” ofthe story – why it happens where it happens, how it unfolds.
  • There are some things that are not working well with my story – the structure (the way the character actually tells the story – why she tells us what she tells when she tells it) may not be serving the story in the way it needs to; the character is not yet wholly on the page yet and therefore someone the reader wholly cares about; there are some holes in the story logic that need to be repaired.

 
In other words, if I want to write a book that a big publisher believes is worth investing in, I have a lot of work to do. There is no "good enough" in this game.

For about four hours after hearing this news, I was depressed and deflated. It was not what I wanted to hear. 

I thought about just not doing it. After all, who cares if I ever write another book? I’ve written eight. That is a lot. That is good run. And the world will not stop spinning if I stop writing. I have another job I love – two of them, actually. It’s not like I need to fill the hours of the day.

But I only entertained that thought for about an hour.

I don’t want to stop.
I love a challenge.
I love my story.
I love the work of writing.

For about three seconds I thought about ditching my agent and finding someone else who thinks that everything I write comes out of my computer ready for prime time. I’d show her!

A writer friend of mine who shall not be named got similar news last week from her agent. But she did not believe her agent was right. She was ready to fight, to argue, to defend her fledgling project.

But I had none of that fire, none of that urge. 

Because my agent was right. What she was saying resonated with me – which is the key thing every writer has to ask about every piece of feedback she gets.  

I’m ashamed to admit that the thought about leaving her lasted even three seconds long. I love my agent. I trust her opinion. She is smart and savvy and she has my best interests in mind. She has stood by me for almost nine years. I would be an idiot to leave her.

I shook off my nasty alter-ego and then recalled that in the midst of telling me what was wrong with my book, my agent said some very flattering things about me and my writing and our relationship and this story that will become my next novel.

I realize what a gift it is to have such a person on my side – and it is one of the reasons I still believe so strongly in traditional publishing. There are lots of very compelling reasons to self publish, and I will no doubt do it again, and I will no doubt support many of my clients who decide that it is the right path for their books, but being chosen by smart people who are in the business of curating the books that get promoted to the most readers is a powerful thing indeed.

The time I spent with my agent in New York this week was, in the end, totally galvanizing. We had oatmeal and coffee in a wonderful little coffee shop, and talked about books and writers and writing and the state of publishing and the state of my writing career.

I don’t want to let my agent down.  She is part of the reason I want to succeed. I would love nothing more than to make her a ton of money. She has supported me for so long with so little return. 

So onward I go.

What I will be doing next:
 

  • Doing an assessment of my schedule/calendar in order to make room to do the work I need to do. I need a schedule that supports my effort. I have been trying too hard to cram in the writing. Something is going to have to give.
  • Doing an assessment on when and how and from whom to solicit feedback. There are times in the writing process when having consistent feedback is critical and times when it’s best to just listen to yourself. I need to figure out where in the process I am.
  • Doing an assessment on the pages themselves – what is worth keeping? Any of it? And if so, WHY is it worth keeping? I’m sharpening the knives for sure. I am very tempted to start with a blank page just to see what happens if I let the 93 pages go and start over again.
  • Going back to the fundamentals of the story in order to work on the logic. Answering some hard questions about secondary characters and the protagonists’ origin story. Who is she, really?
  • Going back to the fundamentals of the story in order to assess the structure I designed. Measuring what is there to see that how it is serving the story and where it is not.

I share all this with you just to make sure you know without a doubt that even I – the book coach who just came back from a gala awards ceremony with a client, the editor whose clients have big books coming out over the next few months, the well-published writer with the wonderfully supportive agent and the editor at the big house waiting to see what I write next – doesn’t get a free pass.

And neither do you.

So if there's something you have not faced about your work, something that is holding you back, something you need to dig down deep to figure out, just do it. And know that I will be doing it, too.

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What Would You Tell Oprah?

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On Saturday, I attended Oprah’s SuperSoul Sessions at Royce Hall at UCLA.  (That's Oprah ^ as she looked from my high-on-the-balcony seat.) I jumped at the chance to hear Cheryl Strayed, a writer who has a lot to teach us all about how to connect with readers, and Marie Forleo, an entrepreneur who inspires me to run a great business. There were many other speakers, as well, and a thousand lessons packed into a very full day.

It was, to be honest, a little overwhelming. How can you take in so much inspiration in one sitting??

I took copious notes on Marie and Cheryl and the first few speakers.

Here’s a gem from Cheryl Strayed:

“Writers come to me with a stack of pages, surprised to hear that a stack of pages doesn’t make a book. A book takes a greater sense of concentration.”

AAHHH -- I just love that! It’s so simple and so true, and I also love that makes it seem so do-able -- Concentration! Okay! I can concentrate!

And here’s a gem from Carol Myss, author of Anatomy of the Spirit, among many other books. 

“The instrument to heal is the soul, not the mind.”

I love that, too – it’s a comforting thought for a woman who tried to “think” her way out of chronic migraines. (Hint: it didn’t work…)

As the day went on, however, and the inspiration kept coming, it got harder for the speakers to make an impact. I realized that I was tuning out the ones who didn’t know how to connect well with the audience; instead of paying attention to their message, I paid attention to the flaws in their performance. I began simply analyzing what worked and what didn’t.

You may not be surprised to hear that the exact same thing that works for speaking to a live audience of 2000 also works for writing a book. It comes down to two simple things:

  •  Tell a story
  • Make a point

I’m not here to throw anyone under the bus, and I won’t name names, but if Oprah invites you to give a SuperSoul Session, you better have a good story to tell. Rambling all over the place without a cohesive narrative is a recipe for boring your audience. Hooking them with one narrative problem, making them curious about how it turns out, letting them inside your head where they can feel what you feel, on the other hand, will allow you to have them eating out of the palm of your hand.

A good story is very often not dramatic.  Marie Forleo KILLED her presentation, and the story she told was a mix of two extremely basic narratives:

  • A tale about how she and Josh, her beloved, almost missed an airplane flight on a trip to Barcelona. (Call that Story Present.)
  •  A tale about a plastic orange-shaped orange transistor radio her mom used to listen to as the mom went about fixing things around their house when she was a child. (Call that the Flashback Story.)

Neither of these two stories seems that riveting on the surface, but Marie wove them together masterfully – the Marie in Story Present learning a lesson from the Marie in the Flashback Story about how everything is “figure-out-able.”

A good story always operates on two levels -- the surface level and on the deep level, and Marie’s story did both. Ostensibly, it was about making this airplane flight, but really it was about learning how to value her beloved and learning the importance of balancing work and life.  When she told us how she broke down in tears, fearing that they wouldn’t make the flight, she is talking about the trip to Barcelona to be sure, but she is really talking about her sense of self – and we, the audience, felt it, on both levels. We got it, on both levels.

The two stories were chosen on purpose to make the Big Point that Marie came to Oprah’s stage make – that everything is figure-out-able. That there is no roadblock you can’t get past, no problem you can’t solve, nothing in life that should stop you from going after what you want.

Marie, in other words, had something to say.

One thing. One point. One Big Idea. She left all the other thousands of other points she could have made at home.

I came away from the day with a renewed sense that this is what each of us – the book writers of the world -- needs to do, as well:

  1. Concentrate – because a stack of pages doesn’t make a book.
  2.  Know your point. If Oprah invites you to speak to her people, and sits in the fourth row staring up at you as you do it, what are you going to talk about? What’s your one big thing? Your one point? You don’t get to make 12 points – just one. What is it? That’s the idea that should drive your book, as well.
  3.  Tell a story with a deep-level purpose – one that gives the reader what they come for: the chance to feel something they need to feel.

I also came away knowing that what you wear on stage matters -- a lot.  It’s not a frivolous thing; your clothes say so much about who you are. So as long as we’re imagining being on Oprah, imagine that you have now won an award for your book. You get to go to the ceremony, and if your book wins, you get to go on stage to accept it. What are you going to wear?? What do you want it to say about yourself as a writer?

This is a real question for my client, Tracey Cleantis, author of The Next Happy and the forthcoming Self Care is Not a Stupid Candle. The Next Happy has been nominated for a Books for a Better Life Award. These are some of the books that were nominated in the past; Barnes and Noble features them on their website:

The award ceremony is this coming Monday, and Tracey graciously invited me to be in New York with her in the ballroom when they announce the winners, along with her agent and editor and some of her pals. I’m flying out this weekend to toast her great success. I'm so excited to join her for her big day!

What is she going to wear?

Here’s the picture she posted on Facebook:

 

I'll let you know the outcome, as well as the outfit, next Tuesday.

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Are You Doing the Work?

I have been having a hard time lately getting my own writing done. I think you could say, in fact, that over the last two weeks, I have completely and totally stalled out on the great momentum I had been enjoying with this project. My mojo came, and then it went – and I am sure you know what happened next because I am sure you have been where I am: I started beating myself up for stalling out, feeling bad about it, feeling doubt that I have what it takes to finish a book, even though I have a pretty solid track record of eight books sitting on the shelf. I started telling myself, “That was before; right now, you have nothing.”

In the midst of this negative mind-spin, there was a funny little exchange in the Facebook group of one of my online classes, and it shone a bright light on my problem.

The writers were raving about Scrivener because there was a sale and everyone was convincing everyone else to jump on board. I bought Scrivener about a year ago and haven’t even opened it. I am eager to know why people love it, eager to better serve my writers who use it, and eager to learn new technology tools, but Scrivener has become just another one of the things I haven’t gotten done.

So I wrote, “LALALALALA not listening.” (Super grown up of me, I know.) One of my writers wrote this ironic little note in reply to me:

“Aww, come on Jennie Nash. Just because you're startup is running away from you, you're dealing with a blog, live Q&As, Lecture Videos, Course materials, dealing with Clients (who love you), reading drafts until all hours of the night, hosting more webinars with guests, trying to have a home life--no, wait, strike that, trying to finish you're own book...and you don't want to take on learning a spiffy new tool??”

That made me feel better about Scrivener and then it made me feel better about stalling out on my own book – and ultimately it gave me the kick in the pants I need to get back to work.

Yes, I am busy. Yes, I have a hundred irons in the fire. Yes, I have a thousand good excuses why I am not writing and they are all really excellent reasons. When seen reflected back to me like that on Facebook, my excuses, are, in fact, ironclad.

Except for the fact that the thing I want most is to finish this book I am working on. I love my client work, love building Author Accelerator, love teaching and doing live events and creating awesome partnerships. I love it all. But I also love my own work and I love the fact that I am not just a coach who tells writers how to write, but a writer who is down in the trenches doing it myself right along with you. So my actions are not in alignment with my desires. My priorities are messed up.

I was inspired by the Facebook exchange to ask myself why. And the answer was very simple and very clear: I’m scared to get it wrong.

I got it wrong last time with my novel, Perfect Red.  It was my seventh book and I was convinced that it would launch my career to great new heights. My agent set an auction date, we had six editors from six major houses poised to bid – which is the dream -- and then on the morning of the auction, none of them came to the table with an offer.

It was a very bad day. I decided to self publish and was convinced I would show them all the folly of their ways. I thought that having published six books gave me some sort of free pass to the head of the line. I thought every bookstore where I had held a signing would remember me, and every reader who had written me about one book would want to read another. I thought I had it made in the shade. I did not have it made in the shade because I hadn’t done anything to serve that audience, to engage them, to entice them, to connect with them. So my self-publishing efforts failed too.

I took three years off writing to focus on coaching. I took three years off to lick my wounds. Getting it wrong again now would feel like the death knell to my life as a writer. That may not be rational, but that’s what I feel.

But because of my work helping writers, I know better than most people that there are no guarantees in creative pursuits. There just aren’t. And falling into the trap of believing that there are – that if I do X, I will achieve Y outcome – is dangerous and counterproductive.

None of us can control how the world will respond to our work. All we can control is how we approach it, what energy we give it, and how we prioritize it in our lives so that it gets done – or not.

I don’t want fear to be in charge. So busy schedule or not, I’m going to face my fear, and I’m going to do the work.

What about you?

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What Wild Success Looks Like

"The Ninth Circle" by my friend  Doug Thielscher

"The Ninth Circle" by my friend Doug Thielscher

I ask this question – What does wild success look like? – of every writer I coach and every writer who comes into my AuthorAccelerator program, because I think it’s a critically important thing for us all to understand. If you’re going to spend at least a year pouring your heart and soul into something, you should have a clear idea of why you are doing it, and a clear idea of what you are aiming to achieve.

In the last year, I have probably read more 250 answers to this question, and I recently realized that almost everyone gives some permutation of the exact same two answers. No matter WHY they are drawn to writing a book, their vision of success usually includes some version of the following:

1. Wild success means being plucked from obscurity. This may take the form of being on Oprah, selling rights to a Hollywood movie studio, winning a Pulitzer Prize or getting on the New York Times bestseller list. Whatever the exact vision, it has to do with being recognized as being worthy. It’s not just ME standing here saying, “I can write! I have something important to say! I am good at this!” It’s some clear authority who has singled me out and said, “She can write! She has something important to say! She is good at this!”  Big, big difference, and it’s the thing we all want. To be validated. To be made legitimate. To have the inner vision of who we are, writer-wise, match who the vision of who the world believes we are.

2. Wild success means getting to keep writing. This often takes the form of people wanting to do well enough to quit their day job. Sometimes people cite getting a three-book deal, or a big advance, but the root desire is the same: you get to keep doing the thing you love and you don’t have to do all the other hard stuff you have been doing all your life. You get a free pass.

I bring up this up because the vast majority of us are never going to get the things we dream about. We’re just not. And I think it’s critical to look at this truth from time to time, because what writers often experience once they finish or publish their first book is despair and heartbreak.

I hate to break that news to you, but it’s just the way it is.

A teeny tiny fraction of writers get plucked from obscurity in a way that is life changing. Yes, you may land a great agent, secure a solid book deal, and score a review on the cover of the Sunday Times, but odds are still really, really good that you are not going to become Elizabeth Gilbert or J.K. Rowling.

That means that you still have to explain to people what your book is about and what you do and why it matters. You still have to fight for readers and money and airtime. You still have to think about what you are going to write next and find the time to write it amidst all the other hard things you have to do. You still probably have to keep your day job.

And as for getting to keep writing? To be invited back to do it again? And paid for the privilege? A very few number of writers win that prize. It usually has to do directly with how many books you sell, and most books don’t sell enough to warrant the writer getting ongoing support.

This is all in my head right now because I had a lot of writers this week feeling a lot of despair. These are writers who are just starting to take themselves seriously, as well as writers who have worked really hard to finish and don’t seem to be getting anywhere with agents or publishers or readers.

And it hurts to have to face that truth. It hurts a lot. Because it’s so easy to think that if you don’t win wild success, you have lost.

I heard a quote this week on the radio during a discussion about the NFL.  The guests were talking about what a successful football season is. Is it ONLY winning the SuperBowl? Do we believe that there is literally ONE team that is successful and 57 others that lose? The conclusion was that this kind of thinking is, of course, absurd. There a many, many ways to have a successful sports season – including being good sports, doing better than last year, building towards future success, being moral leaders to the legion of young people watching, breaking records, making money, and enjoying playing the sport.

The same is true with writers. It’s not just the people who win big and win publicly who succeed.

I think it would help all of us to reframe our notions about what it means to succeed.

  • Actually finishing, for example. Actually doing it and not just talking about it. THAT is a huge success and for many people, that is enough.
  • Learning the craft. Really understanding how books are made, how readers are hooked, what magic creates emotion on the page. It feels good to master something that other people don’t know how to do, to become good at it.
  •  Touching a reader. I know from experience that touching just one reader in a truly deep and impactful way can be enormously satisfying. Yes, of course, we would all like to touch thousands, perhaps even millions, but one is good. One is a good start.
  •  Not taking no for an answer. Not letting someone else dictate what you are going to do with your time and your talent. This can mean, in some cases, deciding to go ahead and publish your book yourself when everyone else says no. Is that as good as being plucked from obscurity? Of course not. But it’s also sometimes the difference between reality and fantasy. We live in a time where we don’t HAVE to wait for an agent to choose us or a traditional publisher to invest in us. We can bring our own books into the world. And perhaps sometimes that makes good sense.

I did an interview a few weeks ago with a writer who stopped waiting for an agent and self published her book. It made good sense for her.

Today at 9 am PST I’ll be doing a live Q&A with another such writer, who refused to take no for an answer and is making good things happen for herself. We’re going to talk about how you do that, and what it feels like and what the risks and rewards are. (If you want to join us or get the recording, sign up HERE.)

What I love about these stories is that the writers didn’t roll over and play dead just because they didn’t get the big juicy book deal. They re-calibrated their ideas about what wild success can really mean and looked at it a little more realistically.  They took control of their writing destiny. They looked despair in the face and said, “No thank you.”

Believe me, I’m the first to raise my hand and say I want to be plucked from obscurity and handed a three-book deal with a crack traditional publishing team that would mean I never have to do anything ever again except write whatever comes into my head.

The yearning for that never ends…. unless you realize how rarely that Big Win happens. And unless you realize that the Big Win is not really why any of us are writing.

As Madeline L’Engle said, “What matters is the book itself.  If it is as good a book as you can write at this moment in time, that is what counts.  Success is pleasant; of course you want it; but it isn’t what makes you write.”

We all know L’Engle as the author of the classic, A Wrinkle in Time. But before she wrote that book, she was a frustrated housewife trying to be a writer and wracking up rejection after rejection.

On her fortieth birthday, upon receiving one more rejection, she wrote this:  “I uncovered the typewriter.  In my journal I recorded this moment of decision, for that’s what it was.  I had to write.  I had no choice in the matter.  It was not up to me to say I would stop, because I could not.  It didn’t matter how small or inadequate my talent.  If I never had another book published, and it was very clear to me that this was a real possibility, I still had to go on writing.”

If you are feeling any sort of despair around your work today (or this week or this year), take a step back from that agony and take a deep breath and try answering that question – What would wild success look like? – in a way that is a little less grandiose.

And think about why you are writing.

Do you have to go on writing, no matter what the world offers you in terms of success??

Good, then do it, and do it with joy.

If you don’t have to go on writing? Also good. Now you know, and you have time for other interesting pursuits.

 

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