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. 
 

 

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. 

When Memories Fly: Tips for Engaging Your Involuntary Memory in the Writing Process

When Memories Fly: Tips for Engaging Your Involuntary Memory in the Writing Process

Over the past few months, I’ve struggled to figure out where to begin my new memoir. There are so many entry points for our stories. In fact, I wrote those words—there are so many entry points for this story—as the introductory sentence in a terrible draft I cranked out for a writing conference. (Insert palm to face!). There are many different ways to begin our stories.  Each entry point lends itself to a different version of the truth.

But which truth are we telling? In first drafts, we often don’t know, and so we go with what’s safe—the voluntary memories and rehearsed stories that are easy to recall. We list and outline and timeline these pivotal moments hoping they will turn the chaos of life into some kind of order. But as we write about these memories, we may find many of them are simply the backstory we need to tell ourselves before getting to the good stuff.

In his book The Art of Time in Memoir, Sven Birkerts says that involuntary memory is the gateway to the real past. It’s the place where the juice of memoir gets squeezed to create the hidden narrative of our life stories—the ones readers really care about. If voluntary memories are the ones we go searching for, involuntary memories are the ones that come searching for us.

In the most famous scene from Proust’s autobiographical novel Remembrance of Things Past, Proust eats a small sponge cake called a madeleine and is transported back to a childhood moment in his aunt’s house. Each sensory detail vividly rendered, Proust relives the moment rather than recalls it.

As I wrote and rewrote several beginnings for my memoir, an involuntary memory came to me while I walked my neighborhood. Hot and muggy, the hazy sky reminded me of powdered sugar over a cake—the blue only slightly visible. Sweat drizzled down my back. My clothes stuck to my skin. Suddenly I was twenty, dressed in a borrowed skydiving jumpsuit that reeked of old sweat, grass stains, and fear. I could almost feel the fifty-pound pack on my back. I trotted home and quickly knocked out a draft, knowing from experience that my unconscious was on to something good.

That’s the thing about involuntary memory: it’s the unconscious mind’s way of working things out. UVA professor Mark Edmundson calls involuntary memory the most important tool in your writing toolbox—an aspect of the self that deserves frequent rewards if you wish to put it to good use. But how do you activate involuntary memories for yourself?

  • Flip through old photo albums and choose a picture that catches your eye. Study the photograph, look away, then study it again and search for something you haven’t yet noticed. Write about this new element.
  • Eat foods from the period you’re writing about and cook recipes that fill your house with familiar smells.
  • Pay attention to your surroundings—especially tastes and smells which can evoke the strongest memories. It may be the smell in an apartment you visit as an adult or the taste of a dinner party dessert that transports you to a childhood moment. Schools, churches, hospitals, and other institutions frequently trigger involuntary memories because the smells and visuals are so distinctive.
  • Seek novelty in your daily life. This could include activities as simple as starting a walk with a non-dominant foot, eating with your non-dominant hand, or going to a toy store. Novelty forces you to pay attention, and paying attention can lead to big rewards.
  • Select a period in your life. Set a timer for fifteen minutes and list all the things you remember. Conscious activation of memory can prime the pump for the unconscious mind to chip in.
  • Ask your unconscious for help. Write a formal request and tape it to your door. Read the request before leaving your house, and ask your unconscious what it wants as a reward. Whenever you get an answer—no matter how small—offer yourself the reward.

Once you’ve captured a juicy memory, it’s all about what the hell it means. Jot down the scene to the best of your ability then wrestle with what it’s telling you. Make a list of what it could be about. Go for walks. Create some Venn diagrams. Ask your unconscious mind for help.

The book I’m currently writing is about how traveling with a heavy metal band after my brother’s suicide gave me the courage to carry on. Skydiving was something I did in the years leading up to my brother’s death. While it was cool (you should definitely try it), the memory felt very tangential.

Yet the memory persisted. So I went for more midday walks and sweated, and asked my unconscious for help. One day, I was not only back at the drop zone, sweltering in that nasty old jumpsuit, but I was also face down, suspended from the ceiling by a series of straps during a free-fall training class jokingly referred to as How Not to Die. A big fan of gallows humor, I loved that class—name and all.  How Not to Die was the lesson I wished I had taught my brother and the one I had to teach myself.  Finally, I had an opening that framed the story I wanted to tell.

My friend, writer Dana Mich, recently attended Brave Magic with Cheryl Strayed and Liz Gilbert. Their advice was to write fast and bad. I would also add, write open. Had I not written that terrible draft for the writing conference and continued to write new ones while asking my unconscious for help, I never would’ve made the connection between skydiving and a central theme in my book. I’d still be trying to tame the chaos of that time period by working with memories as tired and worn as last year’s running shoes. Instead, I get to explore the skies.

Six Ways to Access the Benefits of Doubt

Six Ways to Access the Benefits of Doubt

The air stings my cheeks as I walk the same four blocks I’ve trudged all winter, taking yet another break from my writing. “Yo, HP (this is what I call my higher power), am I crazy for doing this?” I say this into the wind and follow with my typical barrage of questions. Am I crazy for believing I have a book inside me? Am I crazy for writing all these words then cutting them only to write some more? How will I know when it’s good enough? When will I get comfortable?

After my questions, I always ask for the same thing: send me a sign.

In my mind, a sign is a book deal or someone important praising my work. But HP is stingy with messages that stroke my ego. Instead, a bluebird crosses my path signaling it will all be ok. Later, a conversation with a fellow writer settles my doubt, at least for a little while. But comfortable? I get about an hour of that per year. Always in short doses.

Discomfort is the inevitable sidekick of the writing life. Frequently appearing as doubts, discomfort motivates us to see the world from different angles. It makes us question our assumptions, review our work, and develop email refresh habits. It can make us feel anxious about possible rejections and relieved when we get them. Out of control doubt is crazy-making. But right-sized doubt can motivate us to develop humility, work a little harder, and remain lifelong learners. In fact, that tense, shaken-and-stirred place is where the creative magic happens if we can maintain a sense of balance.

There are three forms of doubt all writers face—doubts about claiming to be a writer, doubts about the writing path, and doubts about the quality of one’s work. If you let these doubts rule your life, they’ll kick your passion to the curb and leave your desk littered with paper balls. Resignation letters may follow as you accept the very lies they tell you about your inability to write anything at all. After all, doubt will have you believe every evening real writers place piles of beautifully crafted error-free pages on their oak credenzas (whatever they are) while awaiting the next award. But you? You’re a pile shuffler with more ideas than answers, and time is not always your friend.

For a long time, I wanted to knuckle punch my doubts on the way out the door. But a few years ago, a wise yoga instructor told me what we resist persists. She said I needed to discover and embrace the benefits of my doubts. So, I decided to listen. Embracing my doubts hasn’t taken away my discomfort, but it allows me to accept that doubt has a place in my writing life. Being a writer means choosing to be uncomfortable. If you think about it, how can we write about the thing that keeps us up at night if we don’t have something serving that function? Doubt makes sure you do. The key is praising doubt for its gifts without letting it run the show.

Strategies for Managing Doubt

  • Balance doubts with affirmations. Find a few you like or print your favorite ones from the list below. Tape them to your desk. Better yet, frame a few and hang them on your wall. You can also follow Brene Brown’s suggestion and create a playlist of anthems you can take into your writing arena. Anthems are songs that help you tap into your courage and strengths. My current favorites include “Ordinary Heroes” by the Foo Fighters, “Do You Realize” by the Flaming Lips, and “Beautiful” by Christina Aguilera. Occasionally, I’ll add a few Sex Pistols tunes to my mix because dark and dirty also pumps me up.
  • Set an intention for every writing project. Make it something personal, meaningful, and unrelated to publishing. The best intentions involve thinking, feeling, or believing something different about yourself. For example, when I wrote In the Land of Flood and Slaughter I wanted to heal from Lyme disease and forgive my mother.  When I received rejections or feedback that required me to do something difficult, these intentions gave me the courage to keep going.
  • Build a writing community that includes mentors who can give you guidance, colleagues who can commiserate and encourage, and mentees who can benefit from your experience. This will teach you how to give and receive the encouragement and wisdom needed to tell your most important stories. While you’re at it, select one or two special writing friends to serve as writing buddies who can keep you accountable and provide feedback on your work.
  • Set simple, small goals. Writing 2 – 4 times per week for five minutes may make you more productive than telling yourself you’ll write every day for an hour. Small goals are easier to accomplish. Plus, studies have shown that short bursts of work can propel you into a state of flow, that lovely state of hyperfocus where time and space slip away. When you meet a writing goal reward yourself. This can be as simple as saying, “Good job writer,” basking in the feeling of having written, or sending an email to your writing buddy saying mission accomplished.
  • Learn to trust your gut. In his video “The Taste Gap,This American Life host Ira Glass talks about the gap we all have between our excellent taste (as in the beautiful, fully formed stories in our heads) and our talent. Sometimes the doubts tugging at your gut are simply signals that you’re approaching the gap. If you can learn to trust that feeling, you’ll be able to target areas for improvement. To use doubt wisely, print two copies of your work. On one copy, highlight the areas where you’re feeling the greatest sense of doubt. Give the other copy to a writing friend and ask for feedback. Don’t tell them about the first copy. Afer the critique compare the two copiesDoes the feedback match your doubts? If it does, then you know your gut is serving you well. If it doesn’t, maybe you’re not giving yourself enough credit. Pay attention to your affirmations and keep writing.
  • Talk back to your doubts. Get out your journal and do a little automatic writing. Set a timer for 15 minutes. Write down the following question: Doubt, what do you want me to know?  Write whatever comes to mind. If you can, use your nondominant hand. Don’t stop until the timer goes off. If you run out of thoughts, write the word thinking until the next idea comes to you. You’ll be surprised to find out what’s really going on.
  • Develop a gratitude practice. Some people start and end the day by writing down three things they’re grateful for. At the end of each writing session, writer Andre Dubus used to write the words thank you. The more you pay attention to what’s working, the more you’ll be able to counter what’s not.

If none of these suggestions work, go for a walk and ask your higher power, your creative self, or a trusted friend the questions your doubts are bringing to the surface. When you’re done, ask for a sign, or better yet a happy surprise, then keep writing and be on the lookout for something good

 *This post also appeared in the April 17, 2018 edition of the WriterHouse Newsletter

Telling It Slant

Telling It Slant

This essay was originally published in the January 31st edition of the WriterHouse Newsletter.

In 1993, the movie Groundhog Day was released in cinemas. If you’ve forgotten the movie’s premise, here’s a recap. Phil Connors, an arrogant Pittsburg weatherman played by Bill Murray, is assigned to cover the Groundhog Day celebration in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania—home of the famous Punxsutawney Phil. The next day he finds himself in a time loop, repeating the same miserable day over and over. And, because it’s a comedy, hilarity ensues.

I enjoyed Murray’s irreverence and the director’s use of the radio to cue the time loop. But what I remember most about the movie is that while each day was a repeat of the one before, we as viewers perceived them differently based on the details.

In Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir Sue Silverman writes, “you’ve all heard the cliché ‘A picture is worth a thousand words,’ but it’s also true—maybe more true—that one word is worth a thousand pictures if it’s the right word.” She says we need to tell it slant—as in not just rendering what happened, but flavoring what happened by choosing precise sensory details that create the right emotional tone.

Silverman’s book is full of helpful exercises, such as writing about a first (as in the first day of school, a date, a love, or house) and slanting the details to reveal how you feel, or writing a physical description of yourself that reveals the inner you.

My favorite exercise on telling it slant comes from Dinty Moore’s book The Story Cure. He suggests writers choose a house they once lived in and describe it from the perspective of a character who’s just returned from war. Once you’re done, describe the same house from the perspective of a character who’s just fallen in love. Read both pieces and pay attention to how the light, color, and sounds differ? Which items are emphasized? Which ones are ignored?

You can modify this exercise by writing or revising scenes while listening to music. Many writers find lyric-free movie soundtracks work best. If you’re not sure where to find them, try iTunes or Spotify. Just for fun, take a scene you’ve written, (perhaps about one of Silverman’s firsts) and re-write it while listening to the soundtracks for Manchester by the SeaStar Wars, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. When you finish, examine the details in your drafts. How did the music influence your writing? Which soundtrack seemed like the right fit?

If you’re not sure what soundtracks might work best, consider the following suggestions:

 When it comes to telling it slant, experimentation is key. Rarely do writers find a detail worth a thousand pictures on their first try. Often, our work looks like the movie Groundhog Day—drafts of the same day written again and again. Rather than thinking of these drafts as failures, see them as opportunities—each version a tuning fork you’ll ring to your scene’s perfect tone.

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