Creating A Birds-Eye View of Your Book

Creating A Birds-Eye View of Your Book

Three years ago, I saw my literary hero Nick Flynn speak about the challenges of writing memoir at the University of Virginia. Playwright, poet, and serial memoirist, Flynn discussed the differences between writing a poem and a book. With a poem, he said, you think and wrestle and cajole your words into some kind of meaning over the course of a morning then you go to lunch. But with a book, you spend years walking around with all of these pages in your head. You fear that moving too quickly or paying too much attention to the outside world will send those pages tumbling to the ground. Sometimes it takes so much energy and headspace to manage those pages you become an asshole. 
 
Sound familiar? 
 
I’ve spent years balancing the stories inside my head, hoping to form them into something coherent and maybe beautiful. But in June of 2018, I signed up for the 2019 Writer’s Hotel Conference and was forced to reconsider how I tackle book-length projects. As a conference attendee, I was given the following submission deadline for my yet-to-be-written manuscript: February 15, 2019. To be ready, I needed to knock out the entire draft over the next seven months. Then life took over, as it always does, and frankly, I got stuck regarding where to begin. With four months left to my deadline, I had no choice but to fast draft and find an efficient way to tame my pages into some semblance of order. 
 
Let me introduce you to my new BFF: the chapter summary project. 
 
Chapter summaries are exactly what they sound like: three-to-five sentence summaries of the major events in each chapter. They should include what’s happening, any major conflicts, plot points, and revelations that move the story forward. When part of a book proposal, they have one main goal: make the reader want to know more. As the writer, they can give you a birds-eye view of your narrative arc. 
 
Rules to follow when writing chapter summaries are listed below. For the purposes of this post, I also suggest some additional items that can help you tame an unruly project. 

 

  • Write your chapter summaries in the first person, present tense.
  • Spill the beans. While your story may contain cliff hangers and surprises, chapter summaries let it all hang out. Reveal the major conflicts, revelations, and decisions made by your protagonist so you can see what kind of story you’ve written and how it’s resolved. 
  • Be succinct. If you’re having trouble doing this, it’s likely your chapter is unfocused or too ambitious. For now, record everything that occurs. We’ll return to these chapters later on. 
  • Label each chapter summary with the following itemstime markers (such as month/year when things occur or the age of the protagonist), locations (if there’s more than one), a list of characters who appear in the chapter, and the chapter’s function in the overall narrative arc. Chapter functions may include introducing certain characters, heightening the dramatic need, or serving as major plot points. While this information is inappropriate for a book proposal, it’s a must for your chapter summary project.  

 

 
Once you’ve created your chapter summary project, take a one- or two-week break from your work. Bake yourself a cake. Do your favorite dance. Throw yourself a party. You’ve just completed an extremely difficult exercise. Celebrate this milestone! 
 
After your break, here’s what’s next. 

 

  1. Identify the narrator’s/protagonist’s dramatic need. What does he or she really want? If this is a memoir, what broad theme are you trying to illustrate through your life story? For example, are you trying to illustrate how to find your voice, make peace with the past, or regain a sense of wholeness? Whatever it is, write this down.
  2. Interrogate your story to ensure all events drive toward the resolution of your dramatic need. In memoir, this can be challenging because life is filled with funny, powerful, and poignant experiences. But in story world, only the events that serve the protagonist’s dramatic need belong. Each one should serve a purpose and carry the appropriate weight for the story. For example, if your story is about finding your voice in a troubled mother/daughter relationship, wild childhood adventures with siblings or friends only belong if they helped you find your voice or impacted the mother/daughter dynamic. If they don’t, cut them. Losses can happen at pivotal points in our lives. If you introduce a major loss in the final third of the book, there are two questions you must ask yourself: Does the loss fit with this narrative arc? Can I write about it in a way that drives toward the resolution of the main story? If it creates a gaping wound for the narrator that overshadows the original dramatic need, requires the introduction of many new characters, or cannot easily tie back into the main narrative arc, perhaps this loss belongs in its own book. 
  3. Identify your main characters. Make sure they appear early and return often. Weed out secondary characters who aren’t serving specific purposes and slim down character lists in overpopulated chapters. 
  4. Determine how you will use time. Ask yourself whether you’re creating a linear story, a frame narrative, braid or patchwork quilt. If this your first book, or you’re early in the drafting process, keep it simple. A linear structure is always a good starting place. Once structure has been addressed, look at your time markers to see if the amount of time addressed by each chapter feels reasonable or whether leaping through time would be more effective. Create some rules around how to navigate time and memories then use these rules consistently. Here are a couple of examples. In Sharon Harrigan’s memoir Playing with Dynamite, she tells her story in the simple past tense, however, imagined scenes are written in the present tense to create a sense of immediacy. Rob Spillman’s memoir All Tomorrow’s Parties is a braided memoir that simultaneously tells of his coming of age in Berlin and his return to Berlin after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The child’s story is told in the past tense while the adult story is told in the present tense. 
  5. Examine your unwieldy chapter summaries. Ask yourself the following questions. How do these events move the story forward? Are they necessary? Are they in the right spot and of the right length? Justify everything then bend your chapter summaries to the will of your book’s narrative arc. Give each chapter a focus and a purpose. Delete tangents. Separate events that don’t go together. Make sure everything is in the right place. Modify the connective tissue between chapters so that it includes enough “therefores” and “buts” to create a compelling, inevitable end. (Check out this essay on story structure.)
  6. Print your completed chapter summary project. Paste each chapter summary onto an index card so the project is easy to manipulate. Lay it out and see if anything needs to be added, rearranged, or revised to create a seamless flow. Get it as right as you can before you revise your draft. 
  7. Return to your manuscript knowing you have a handle on your work. As things change or new revelations occur, revise your chapter summary project so you don’t have to keep all those pages in your head. 

 

 
In August of 2019, I’ll have a chance to see Nick Flynn again at the HippoCamp Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers. I can’t wait to see what other gems he’ll offer. If I’m feeling brave, maybe I’ll thank him for validating the struggle I’ve felt around the pages in my head and share how that struggle led to a major change in my drafting process. 
 

 

Heart Speak Column #2: When a Medically Impaired Mind Derails Your Memoir

Heart Speak Column #2: When a Medically Impaired Mind Derails Your Memoir

Co-authoring a book under optimal circumstances can be a trying experience, but add intermittent cognitive impairment or cognitive decline to the mix, and the challenges are monumental. Learn how to move past heartbreak and outmaneuver the challenges dementia adds to the writing process as I respond to our latest letter writer in Heart Speak, The Memoir Writing Advice Column #2: When a Medically Impaired Mind Derails Your Memoir. Like to post your own question? Learn about our submission process

Twenty-two years after my brother’s suicide I’ve found peace

Twenty-two years after my brother’s suicide I’ve found peace

Twenty-two years ago today, my brother Joe died by suicide during a mental health crisis. He was twenty years old. I was twenty-two, the same age as his death. This morning I walked along the road by the writing retreat where I’m spending the weekend so I can finish the first revised draft of the memoir I’m writing about this loss. It’s almost sixty degrees. Every once in a while, the sun peaks from behind the clouds. Peepers, returning geese, and a very persistent rooster fill the air with the songs of nature. Daffodils threaten to bloom. Life goes on, and I go on with it.

It’s fitting that I’m cloistered away so I can write about him today. During the past four months of intensive writing, I’ve relived much of the pain I felt after his death and the challenges of experiencing a loss so devastating I wasn’t sure if I could ever recover. There’s been much snot-bubble crying, but also some laughter and a sense awe, not to mention a deep feeling of connection to him. Writing resurrects those we’ve lost, and in the process, we resurrect the parts of ourselves we lost too.

If I could talk to my brother, I would tell him I love him and that sometimes he’s an asshat (just like me). I’d tell him that I’m proud of him for trying so hard in spite of all that happened to us and the challenges he faced as a person living with a very serious mental illness. I would tell him I wish he could’ve made a different choice and stuck around long enough for me to give him shit about his gray hair or wrinkles or sagging pecks. We would both lament how the music that once defined us is now “classic rock” and how we’re not sure what’s cool anymore. But most importantly, I would tell him that while I wish he was here, I am at peace. My life is a good one, I spend most of my days feeling very grateful. Maybe he would remind me that he’s never lost as long I keep saying his name and continue to put my pen to the page. Maybe he’ll remind me of the thing he said in his final letter to me: You’re doing great and I love ya.

Before he floated back to that space of memory he now calls home, we’d hug one more time and say the precious words that ended so many of our conversations: love ya. In hearing those words, I would remember that love and life are what we’re here for.

Live fully, love each other deeply, and say I love you as often as you can. If you are concerned about a loved one, say something. If you’re not sure how, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273- TALK (8255). They will show you how.

Shanti Namaste, Friends. I love you.

 

Writing Is Your Gift: How to Share It With Others During The Holiday Season

Writing Is Your Gift: How to Share It With Others During The Holiday Season

The holidays are upon us. Whether you celebrate Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, New Year’s, the Solstice, or Festivus (for the rest of us), the end of the calendar year is filled with opportunities to celebrate all that is good in our lives. Growing up as a Buddhist with seasonal affective disorder, I’m partial to New Year’s and the Solstice: both symbolize rebirth and the return of the light.

Though I’ll be honest, this time of year hasn’t always been my favorite. While television shows and movies tout the saccharine trappings of the season, I’m very aware that for many people—including me—the holidays can be dark times filled with financial woes, reminders of loss, and family strife.  For a long time, my holiday decorations were limited to the string of lights I’d wound around the six-foot cactus I overwatered or nothing at all. In an effort to be more festive, this year I strung colored lights around my porch and erected a cat-proof Festivus-pole-style holiday tree to remind myself of what’s important: friends, family, our inner light. 
            
At the 2018 Festival of the Book, UVA Professor Mark Edmundson said to write for one other person. See the written word as a gift and refuse to narrow your definition of great writing to a few simple genres. Consider the poem written as a birthday gift. The card that contains your heartfelt best wishes. The love note penned and left on a desk. 
 
As we close out the year, I invite you to view your writing as a gift rather than a vocation. Instead of imagining grand pieces you’ll one day submit for publication, let your art have a simple, rich, and immediate effect on someone else. I guarantee you’ll be rewarded for your efforts. Let’s face it, the thank you of a friend who enjoys your irreverent holiday card is way better than a Submittable rejection. One makes you soar, the other causes you to flip your computer the bird. Even the elation of acceptance is fleeting. Soon after the victory anthem in your head kicks off, you’re left with the panicky realization that someone will actually read your work. Such is the yin-yang of the creative life.  But the love between two people can last a lifetime. 
 
A couple of years ago, one of my dearest friends gave me the best possible gift a creative nonfiction writer could ask for: a pile of letters I’d written to her between 1993 – 1997, years when we lived too far apart to see each other and were too broke for long distance phone calls. At the time, those letters were the lifeblood of our relationship. Many refer to a pivotal time in the book I’m currently writing and confirm key events and things I once believed or said. While I was at The Porcheslast month, banging out my 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo, I read those letters and was transported back in time. 

Letters are a gift for both the giver and receiver. Every year, my husband and I exchange a love letter as our primary holiday gift. I keep them in a special drawer. Every once in a while I reread them and smile. As a closing activity for my Memoir in a Year Part I class, I’ve asked my students to write each other letters of encouragement. When the writing life gets uncomfortable, I hope they serve as tangible reminders of my students’ inherent worth. But letters don’t have to be written just for those you know. During a difficult time in author Reema Zaman’s life, she gave love notes to strangers on the subway as a form of encouragement. Each one contained simple messages like You Are Loved. 
 
Letters aren’t the only gifts you can give during the holiday season. At fifteen, I gave my mother a poem for Christmas. For weeks, I hid the draft under my mattress and revised it after lights out. The effort made me feel like a real author; her tears the gift of my hard work. I’ve also written poems as eulogies and short stories as parting gifts. When my grandmother passed away, I titled her eulogy Lessons from the Gramosphere and used David Letterman’s Top Ten List as a structure. While it was a bit irreverent, and I did say damn in a Catholic church, we all laughed at the quirky lessons my grandmother instilled in us.  
 
Lennie Echterling, one of my mentors from the James Madison University Counseling Program, pens an annual holiday newsletter stuffed with pun-filled articles that serve both as entertainment and social commentary. It’s his way of connecting with family, friends, and those of us who’ve long since graduated, while also reminding us that while the world may be troubled and our work may be hard, we don’t have to be serious all the time. During my master’s program, I watched him write songs for his grandson and stories for friends. Last year, he published a picture book titled Good Night Jung
 
In her new book Almost Everything: Notes on Hope, Anne Lamott writes, “Truth comes in small moments and visions, not galaxies and canyons; not the crash of ocean waves and cymbals . . . The stories we have loved, beginning with our earliest days, are how we have survived, grown, and not ended up in the gutters barking at ants (knock on wood). These stories have saved us, like Jesus and the Buddha, and Martin Luther King have saved our lives and our souls, and Molly Ivins, Mary Oliver, Gandhi, and E.B. White have saved our sanity, our hearts, and our families.”  
 
As writers, we inherently know that stories will save us, but sometimes we forget that truth comes in small moments shared between one or two people or a handful of friends. For the next two weeks, forget about what you wish to accomplish or why it’s so hard to do this and share one nugget of truth with someone you love. Have faith that this is enough. On January first, you can reacquaint yourself with your neuroses and begin suffering where you left off. 

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