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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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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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A Scene is the Smallest Unit of Story

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I was working on a scene in my novel-in-progress this week that wasn’t going anywhere. It was flat, dull, lifeless. Everything was happening in the scene that I wanted to happen, but it was just sort of sat there.
 
I dove in to try to fix it, and realized that the way I approached the fix is a tool many of you could put in your author’s toolkit, too.  It starts with the awareness that a scene is the smallest unit of story.
 
What does that mean?
 
First you have to know that a story is about change. At the very heart of it, when you strip everything else away, that’s all it is – a way of tracing a change in someone. They started out as one thing and ended up another.
 

  • They were a person who didn’t believe in love and ended up in love.
  • They were a person who took their mother for granted and ended up taking everyone else for granted, too.
  • They were a person who never felt heard and thought the way to being heard was to become an actress and realized that they were wrong.

 
The change can be big and dramatic or small and nuanced, but if you don’t have change, you don’t have story. (Note that this definition of story applies to memoir, too. And actually it applies to non-fiction of every kind but the change is taking place in the reader themselves, not the characters on the page. They go from not knowing how to lose weight to having a plan for healthy eating. They go from not understanding how to do well as a manager to being a good manager.)

 

Every scene of your story is a tiny slice of that arc of change. Therefore in every scene, something has to change.

 

In the scene I was working on, I brought one character on stage to make the other doubt her ability to write the story she has to write. She is a TV writer named Ruby and she is my protagonist. She is up against a pressing and very emotionally resonant deadline because her writing partner, who is her lover and her best friend, has been in a terrible accident. They were days away from doing an 11th hour rewrite on the finale of their hit TV show, and she doubts her ability to write without him. The guy I brought on stage to provoke her is a big movie producer named Jason, and he was the guy who hired her partner but did not hire her.
 
I thought I had the ingredients for a great scene because here is an antagonist, a truth-teller, someone who can rattle Ruby.
 
But the scene was flat because although it provided an external bit of “drama” it didn’t allow Ruby to move, to grow, to react. There was no consequence to her action – no dominos falling against each other. Nothing, in other words, was changing. So I knew I had to make something happen.
 
I dove back into the scene and here's what I asked myself:
 
What’s the worst thing that can happen here? What can I do to cause Ruby to struggle even harder than she is struggling?
 
The answer was that Ruby would learn something about Henry from Jason that she didn’t know – something worse than what she imagined had happened, something that would give her no choice but to take some kind of action. (And action, remember, can be a decision, a shift in mindset, a commitment… it doesn’t just have to be a sword-fight or meteors falling on Kansas.)
 
No sooner has I asked the question, then the answer came to me:  Ruby would go into the scene believing that Jason was the bad guy – he had hired Henry without Ruby. In the midst of the scene, Jason would tell her that, in fact, Henry had applied for the job. He had wanted to write without Ruby. It had been his idea. Ruby would exit the scene knowing that Henry had taken action to write without her – which would make her angry enough to want to prove to him and to herself and to the whole world that she could write without him. So instead of hemming and hawing and doubting, now she’s on fire.
 
Boom! Story deepened by a mile, scene made resonant, story moved forward.
 
Ask yourself the same questions of every scene you write -- What’s the worst thing that can happen here? What can I do to cause my protagonist to struggle even harder than she is struggling?
 
Odds are good this will shake out an answer that will move your story forward.  

 
To read the revised scene CLICK HERE

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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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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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