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.

 

Your Writing Conference Toolkit: Planning, Packing, and Pacing Yourself

Your Writing Conference Toolkit: Planning, Packing, and Pacing Yourself

This post originally appeared in the June 15, 2018 edition of the WriterHouse Newsletter.

While summer is fabulous for beach reading and destination vacations, it’s also a great time to attend writing conferences. Whether you’re interested in getting started with a regional option, or you want to apply for one of the more prestigious conferences, the preparation required is similar.

Plan Ahead: Some conferences, like VQR, The Writers Hotel, Bread Loaf, and Sewanee require applications. If you’re interested in the conferences listed above, 2019 applications will open in January; however, the Key West Literary Seminar is currently accepting applications. Even if you’re not interested in a conference that requires an application, planning ahead is important. Most conferences offer early-bird registration discounts and discounts on preferred hotels. And, if you ask around, you may find someone in the area looking for a roommate who can split hotel costs.

Pack Smart: Beyond business casual clothes and comfy travel shoes, you’ll want to pack business cards that include your name, email address, website, and social media handles so you can exchange them with your new conference BFFs. Days can be long and travel meals costly. Pack light snacks for your conference bag. Find out if any meals are included with your conference fee. If there’s a refrigerator or microwave in your room, consider bringing breakfast items like yogurt or oatmeal so you can save a few bucks. Also, be sure to download any conference apps and join the conference Facebook pages so you stay up-to-date on conference happenings.

Establish Networking Goals: One of the big payoffs for conference attendance is the ability to meet writers from other parts of the country who can share resources, serve as beta readers, and cheer you on. But let’s face it, many writers are introverts and networking can be exhausting. (Personally, my people shelf is narrow and quickly fills). Before you leave, set a conference goal to ensure you get the most out of this networking opportunity. At every conference, I try to exchange business cards with at least five attendees and talk to at least one presenter. If you have a book-length project, pitching to agents can be another great way to network. Find out if pitching is an option at any conferences you’re interested in attending and whether these opportunities require additional costs.

Pace Yourself: Attending a conference is like running a mini-marathon. Don’t be afraid to take breaks. If possible, stay in the conference hotel so you have easy access to your room between sessions. Study the conference schedule and decide what’s most important for this trip. For example, at one conference, it may be important to get a good night’s sleep so you can sharply answer early-morning agent questions. At another conference, stretching yourself by reading at the evening open mic may be the right option. Most conferences are annual, so you can always return if you feel like there’s something you missed.

Evaluate Your Experience: Your conference dollars are valuable. Be sure you’re getting the most out of the experience. One week after you return from the conference, fill out any evaluation forms provided by the organizers then ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Am I inspired?
  2. Do I feel connected?
  3. Did I learn something new?

If you can’t answer yes to all three questions, consider whether a  genre-specific conference or a more challenging option is a better fit.

For a complete list of conferences, check out the AWP website.

Happy conferencing!

The Crater Versus The Observation Deck: The Importance of Writing in Scene

The Crater Versus The Observation Deck: The Importance of Writing in Scene

On forty-fourth birthday, I hiked into a volcano. This happened during an early-April bucket list trip with my husband to the Big Island of Hawaii. A recovering adrenaline junkie with a deep love of adventures, I’d dreamed of standing next to a lava river or perhaps watching a lava fountain rise in the air for years (from a safe distance, of course). Since it was my birthday, I felt certain this would happen.The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park includes a series of craters–some erupted in the past while others, like the Halema‘uma‘u Crater, are still active. Our first stop was the Jaggers Museum observation deck. The lava lake in the Halema‘uma‘u Crater was high, and despite the miles between me and the crater, I could see faint lava bubbles pop in the air. Volcanic heat pressed against my skin. (Birthday luck, check one).

When we left the observation deck, we drove a few miles along Crater Rim Drive then hiked through a lush rainforest and into the Kīlauea Iki Crater lava lake. Cars lined the trailhead parking lot giving the air of calculated risk. We laughed at the signs warning of instability and steam vents.


Sign on the rainforest trail into Kīlauea Iki Crater

Inside the crater’s Martian landscape things got real. The largely barren, brownie-batter-like floor was surrounded by high cliff walls. Steam plumed from broken rocks resembling frozen waves. Signs warned us not to veer from the rock-pile-marked trail. Lava could bubble up, after all. If something happened, escape would be difficult.

A mile in, rain battered me. Instead of turning back, I knelt on the lava floor and felt the pulsing volcanic heat—another reminder that while the surface may hold me, a magma river flowed beneath my feet.  I was in adventure heaven.

When we returned to the Halema‘uma‘u Crater at sunset to view the lava lake’s nightly show, the vibrant lava and ash against the twilight and the thrill of being so close to such a magnificent force made me forget my sore feet and soaked clothes. While my spurting lava wishes weren’t granted, the experience met all my birthday criteria.  Thank you, Mt. Kilauea.

         
Inside Kīlauea Iki Crater                                                    Halema‘uma‘u at night

 

We left Hawaii on April 14, 2018. Over the next two weeks, Mt. Kilauea rumbled. Lava continued to rise. On May 3, 2018, the Pu’u O’o crater collapsed. Pressure built underneath the surface.  Spontaneous eruptions broke apart subdivision roads, sending lava fountains hundreds of feet high. That spectacular show I’d witnessed only a few weeks earlier was not the gentle entertainment of a cat-napping giant. It was the precursor to a major eruption.

Like all things, this reminded me of the writing process. As writers, we come to the page ready to entertain and enlighten. But once there, we need to figure out how to approach our stories. Should we stand on the observation deck or hike into the crater?

Many writers start their drafts on the observation deck—viewing the story from afar. They tell what happened. I went on an exciting trip to Hawaii. We hiked in into a crater then viewed the lava lake at night. It was awesomeThere’s nothing wrong with starting here if that motivates you to write, but the excitement happens while you stand inside the volcano, not while you’re looking at one. Readers want to feel your fear, anger, and excitement. They want to smell the steam and feel the rock. To do this, your work must come alive. In writing, the walk into the crater is often called writing in scene.  Richard Roorbach, author of Writing Life Stories defines scenes as “events that take place in a specific time and place. Scenes record events, actions, talk, stuff happening.” It’s the cinematic version of the lived experience. Or, to put it simply, it’s showing rather than telling.

Whether you’re writing a memoir or a short story, showing is essential. But how do you know if you’re doing this? Set a timer for twenty minutes, write without stopping, and see what happens. After you’re done, ask whether the work reads like you’re reliving the experience or like you’re telling it from your armchair. If you’re reliving events, you’re hiking the crater. Keep this up.

If the work feels observational, see if you can choose a specific memory to fully render. Fill it with sights, smells, and sounds. Add some dialogue. If this feels like a challenge, get curious about why you’re standing on the observation deck. Are you having trouble remembering exactly what happened? Is the topic so emotionally charged it feels painful? Are you unsure where to begin?

If memory is the problem, look through a photo album and find a picture that evokes strong feelings (for fiction choose a magazine photo). Show what happened directly before the photo was snapped. Where are the characters? Who is there? Why are they taking this picture?  Repeat this exercise until you get a sense of who your narrator is and what she’s after. Once you’ve exhausted your pictures, create a physical map of your story’s setting, as Richard Roorbach suggests in his book. You can also listen to music from the era you’re writing about to evoke new memories, but don’t forget the power of smell and taste. Follow Marcel Proust’s lead and eat something from the period you want to capture. As you taste that familiar dish, recreate the scene where you ate it. Who was there? What was going on? How did it feel in your mouth?  The more you write, the more you’ll remember.

If, as you’re writing, the work brings up painful feelings or the events you want to write about include trauma, break the experience into smaller parts. Be sure to list the pleasant scenes as well as the dark ones. Include dark humor and events where the narrator received help from others. Choose the least painful scene as your starting point. Write for twenty minutes and see how you feel. In a couple of days, repeat the exercise. If it’s still difficult, write from the observation deck until you develop comfort with the subject. If that doesn’t work, write about something else.

If you’re not sure where to start, follow Kurt Vonnegut’s advice and make your character thirsty. Let his first search be for a glass of water.

In an interview for Writing Hard Stories by Melanie Brooks (a must-read for any memoirist), Andrew Dubus says, “just because we know what happened doesn’t mean we know what the hell happened.” I would argue that until we create vivid scenes for our stories, what happened isn’t even clear. That’s why hiking the crater is so important.

Mastering the scene in your early drafts will illuminate what happened. Along the way, you’ll begin to realize what the hell happened. Sprinkle it in, but remain open to new interpretations. More insightful reflections may arise as you read your complete draft or learn more about the situation. You never know. Life may happen, just as it did at the Hawaii Volcano National Park, giving you a new perspective. Your trips into the crater may begin as a spectacular birthday adventure only to turn into a cautionary tale on luck.

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