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golden thread

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A Game-Changing Revision Tactic : The Golden Thread

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Anyone who reads this newsletter knows what an evangelist I am for thinking before you write. This is not to say that I am a fan of detailed, complex, rigid outlines that lull you into thinking you can know every nuance of a massive complex creation before you create it – I am not. But I am a huge fan of intentionality and knowing your characters and knowing your point and being aware of your audience, and I am constantly pushing writers – including myself – to bring more of all of this kind of thinking into the writing process as early as humanly possible. It makes an enormous difference to have a target at which you are aiming, even if you end up somewhere slightly to the right or left, or above or below, the bullseye.

That being said, the truth is that you can’t know everything before you write. You can know some things, and critically important things, but the heart and soul of the book? I believe that the only way to get there is by writing.

I have experience this reality myself multiple times. When I was writing my novel, The Only True Genius in the Family, I knew what it was about in a ballpark sort of way, and that was enough to guide me towards the end. But it wasn’t until I literally wrote the last scene that I really got it in my bones. (Well, actually, I didn’t get it all. I had a brilliant editor who had to hit me over the head with a 2x4 in order for me to see it.  I had planted the seeds of the story and watered them and made sure they got sun and made sure there were no snails or deer to eat them, but they didn’t really bloom until she said, “LOOK WHAT YOU WROTE, JENNIE.” I remember I laughed out loud. It was so obvious. It was right there….)

I have coached writers through this dawning of awareness dozens and dozens of times. Most recently, it happened with a writer who after a year of working on a novel with me finally realized what it was really about. We had been talking about the point and the topic and the deep story and the theme all that time but she just hadn’t FELT it.  She didn’t OWN it.

Not long before that, it happened with a writer who finished her manuscript and suddenly couldn’t wait to go back to Page 1 to strengthen her point, because she finally really GOT it.  

It’s truly like a lightbulb going off, like a lightning strike. It feels like an electric jolt. Like a deep, soul-level recognition of what was there in your head all along – and it is both a thrill and a relief.

The question then becomes – what do you DO with that knowledge about what your story is really about? Odds are good that point that you have a complete or nearly complete manuscript. So what do you physically DO?

The answer that I use in my own work and in my coaching is something I call The Golden Thread.

Imagine that your manuscript is a tapestry. It has a pattern carefully woven into place. The golden thread is your newfound awareness of what your story is really about.

If you weave the golden thread throughout your tapestry, it’s going to sparkle and shine. It’s going to be the thing that draw’s the viewer’s eye, and takes your tapestry from good to great, or from great to extraordinary. It’s the thing thing that gives it meaning.

Here’s how it works:

1.)  You have to anchor the golden thread to the very start of your book – often in the very first sentence, or paragraph, or page. It needs to be there, shining and bright, so that the reader can track it as they go. If this means re-writing your opening paragraph, or page, or even the entire chapter – fine. Do it. That kind of edit is what we call serving the story (instead of your ego) and it’s what all good writers eventually learn how to do. When people talk about “killing your darlings,” that’s what they mean: let go of what isn’t working even if you love how it looks or sounds.

2.)  Imagine now taking that golden thread and making stitches across the work. There will be moments when the reader will see a flash of it, and moments when it is not visible at all, but it always there, vibrating in its golden thread way. You will do this all the way through the entire work, sometimes letting the thread shine through several times on a page, other times not for entire chapters.

3.)  How do you know when to show the thread and when to send it beneath the surface of the story? Do a revision where the only thing you do is look for places to show The Golden Thread. Imagine that you are the reader. Really put yourself in the shoes of someone who is not you (check out my How to Edit document to see how this is done) and look for places where they might feel cheated. Look for places where you were stingy, where you were holding back (information, emotion, the truth, yourself) and then don’t be stingy: let the gold shine through. You might only be adding a word here and there, a phrase or a sentence or a whole paragraph, but if put in the right places, it will be more than enough.

4.)  If you can’t find enough places for the thread to shine through, add them. Add scenes, arguments, chapters – anything you need to make room for The Golden Thread to shine. Think of the whole book as a frame or a showcase for The Golden Thread. You want to set it off in the best light. Change whatever you need to change to make sure you are doing that.

5.)  When you get to the end, of the book imagine that you are pulling the thread tight and anchoring it down again. This is your resolution – the point at which the reader really feels deep down the thing you want them to feel. This is when they can tell you what the book was about with as much assuredness as you yourself can.            

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How to See the Story

                                                             One of Mary Reaney's beautiful designs

                                                             One of Mary Reaney's beautiful designs

Over Thanksgiving my kids were talking about the concept of a “lame superpower” – which I take to mean a superpower that would be cool to have, but also somewhat useless in comparison to actual superpowers such as being invisible or being able to time travel. One such lame superpower that was discussed, for example, was the ability to wake up with a smile in your face every day – before coffee.
 
This whole train of thought led me to think about a superpower that I believe many writers possess – and one which I believe we should all seek to strengthen. It’s the ability to see stories – to see the resonant moment in our own work, to see the core of the point we are trying to make, to see the idea that is strong and powerful and everlasting and not just the next shiny thing in front of us.
 
I think this would be a powerful asset, because sometimes the story is so maddeningly elusive. I have a client whom I shall call Joanne. I have been working with her one on one for a year – and she has been working hard.  She never misses a deadline, she estimates that she has written 500,000 words, she is willing to throw things out, to start over, to try again and again and again. And yet only this week did she really SEE her story.
 
Here is what she wrote about it:
 
 I feel excited about the story as if it were a new idea.  I can see how it plays out and, most importantly, I understand why I’m telling it.  I am embarrassed that it took so long to get here, but my sweet spouse’s reaction was pure delight: I found the key piece of the story!

I kept looking under the lamppost where the light was brighter.  I kept looking there until you suggested I wander over to the dark side of the street where more interesting things were happening if I’d stick around long enough to look and listen.

 
[This is Jennie and I didn’t want to include the next part but this writer made it a requirement of my using her words, so here it is…] I would not have gotten here without you.  It’s that clear.  You showed me what we missing, time and again, and the last piece helped click it all together. Thank you a million times over!
 
A year to see your story isn’t actually so bad. That’s actually somewhat fast. I have taken three times that long to find a story I was writing – and that was only after an editor led me to it by my nose. (In a post in the next weeks I’m going to write about what you DO once you have this aha moment – how you write forward, how you revise, how you use this information…. I call it The Golden Thread. Stay tuned for that!
 
The truth is that sometimes the words get in the way of the seeing, or the world, or our doubt, or a million other things. But like Joanne, when we see it, it’s so clear.
 
I am going on a trip this weekend with a friend who has just embarked on a grand adventure in her life. She is an interior designer who has a newly empty nest at home. She loves to travel, and loves to make spaces beautiful, and she has made a commitment to transform ten houses in ten cities in ten years. This is a commitment to how she wants to live in the world and how she wants to work – not from one home base, but from ten home bases. We are travelling to New Orleans, where the first of the ten projects is underway.
 
All I can see here is the story. It is like a neon sign flashing in the night! Who wouldn’t want to know how she chooses the cities, how she chooses the spaces, how she populates the spaces with lovely things in under a week  ( a one woman extreme makeover), how she meets people in the new place (the realtor, the woman at Restoration Hardware, the professor from the college down the road, the owner of the building…) what she does when she visits the new city, why she does it, and what lessons she will take to the next city on the list (which will be Rome)?
 
I see in stories and my dear friend simply does not… she is not chronicling the first of the ten, not writing blog posts about it, not taking pictures of the process, not taking notes. Part of me is jumping up and down and screaming, “Story, story, story!!!” I feel as thought my heart is about to burst.
 
But another part of me is realizing that my friend is not a writer. She tells her story in different ways, through furniture and art and fabric and rugs and even the glasses in which she serves drinks. A few weeks ago, she held a cocktail party for all the new friends she has met in her new place, and I have been to her parties so I know what they are like – warm, friendly, festive. I am certain that everyone who came enjoyed themselves and marveled at the lovely surroundings and felt the enveloping glow of a woman who likes nothing better than to host a party in a pretty space – even for people she has only just met.
 
I would tell the same story in a very different way – I mean, I can just SEE it: ten chapters, a through-line about making the world more beautiful and being at home in the world, a thread of how-tos about the stores visited, the money spent, the secret list of things that you can buy at Target that you don’t need to buy somewhere more expensive.
 
I have the power to see this story – but not the motivation to tell it.*
 
Having both the story and the motivation?? Maybe that isn’t such a lame superpower at all.
 
* Yes, yes I know that I could actually write my friend’s ten houses story on her behalf. But I have so many of my own stories to tell – I don’t need to borrow anyone else’s. And since you asked (ha!), my dog story is going just fine, thank you. I have a character who is writing a twist on Romeo & Juliet-- I basically need a play within a play within the story -- and so on my weekend outing, I will be reading some Shakespeare and thinking about the fabulous movie, Shakespeare in Love, and trying to tell myself that I can do this. 

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