Search Results for: structure

Pace and story structure: a blueprint for keeping the reader gripped

seattle_bway_mambo_01I’ve had an interesting question from Josephine of the blog Muscat Tales:

Can you talk about pace? How to speed up/slow down the action/plot – and when? Is there a general blueprint for this or does the story type dictate the peaks and troughs of emotion, action and change?

There’s much to chew on here. And I think I can provide a few blueprints.

In order to answer, I’ll reorder the questions.

First, a definition. What’s pace? Put simply, it’s the speed at which the story seems to proceed in the reader’s mind. It’s the sense of whether enough is happening.
When to speed up or slow down?

This comes down to emphasis. You don’t want the pace of the story to flag. But equally, you don’t want to rip through the events at speed. Sometimes you want to take a scene slowly so the reader savours the full impact. If you rush, you can lose them.

Here’s an example. In one of my books I had feedback that a scene read too slowly. Instead of making it shorter, I added material? Why? I realised the reader wanted more detail, that they were involved with the character and needed to see more of their emotions and thoughts. The feedback for the new, longer version? ‘It reads much faster now’.

More pace, less speed. It could almost be a proverb.

So pace is nothing to do with how long you take over a scene or the speediness of your narration. Whatever you’re writing, you need to keep pace with what the reader wants to know. If you linger too long on something that isn’t important, they’ll disengage. If you race through a situation they want to savour, they’ll disengage. But when you get it right … they feel the book is racing along.
How to keep the sense of pace?

This comes down to one idea: change. The plot moves when we have a sense of change. Sometimes these are big surprises or shocks or moments of intense emotion. Sometimes they’re slight adjustments in the characters’ knowledge or feelings, or what we understand about the story situation. A change could even be a deftly placed piece of back story. But every scene should leave the reader with something new.

This feeling of change is the pulse that keeps the story alive – and keeps the reader curious. In my plot book I talk about the 4 Cs of a great plot – two of them are change and curiosity. (The other two are crescendo and coherence, in case you were wondering.)

strucWhere to place the peaks and troughs of action and emotion

And now to peaks and troughs. These are your major changes that spin everything in a new direction. As a rule of thumb, they work best if they’re placed at the quarter points (25% in, 50% in, 75% in). You usually need at least three, but you can have more if you like. Just space them out equally through the manuscript so you make the most of the repercussions. But that’s not a cast-iron rule (more here about general story structure).

The biggest question is this – has the plot settled into an unwanted lull? You might solve it by moving a pivotal revelation to one of these mathematically determined points.

Does the story type dictate the use of pace and change?

Yes and no.

Why no? Because these principles are universal – a change is whatever will keep your audience interested. It might be an emotional shift. An earthquake. A person recognising a stranger across a room. A betrayal. A murder. A cold breeze that echoes the fear in a character’s heart. An assailant jumping in through a window. A line that pulls a memory out of the reader’s own life. It’s all change.

Why yes? Because the type of story will dictate the kind of change your readers want to see. Thrillers need big bangs and danger; interior literary novels need shades and nuance.

Why no, again? Because all stories need change.

Thanks for the pic Joe Mabel

nyn3 2ndThere’s lots more about pace and structure in my plot book, of course.

 

 

 

NEWSFLASH Chance to WIN 2 print copies

So many readers of My Memories of a Future Life have told me they wanted to discuss it with a friend. So I dreamed up a special idea to mark the relaunch with the new cover. Enter the giveaway on Facebook and you could win 2 copies – one for you and one for a like-minded soul. Closing date is this Wednesday, 12 Oct, so hurry. This could be the beginning of a beautiful book club… but don’t enter here.  Follow this link and go to Facebook.

mm-for-newsletter

Any questions about structure or pace? Any lessons learned from experience? Let’s discuss.

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A conversation about story structure – and writing rules

Become a native in the world of your storyThis post was provoked by a tweet. I was working on Nail Your Novel 3 and tweeted that instead of writing ‘the three-act structure’ I’d written ‘the three-cat structure’. Keyboard possessed by Blake Snyder?

Teddi Deppner (@tmdeppner), who you might have seen commenting here from time to time, rejoined:

‘I sure would like to see alternatives to the 3-act structure. Especially for non-movie, non-novel storytelling.’ She elaborated:

‘I want to write serial fiction that offers an experience more like an ongoing TV show (instead of a novel)… I wonder how comic book writers structure their stuff? Maybe that would be similar, too…’

It happened I knew just the man…

‘Husband @MirabilisDave is a comic writer, however it’s not an ongoing story but a big story split into many episodes.’

mirabdaveThen Dave said:

‘Not sure that I do use 3-act structure. I just write each episode as it comes, like a TV show. Structure emerges, not planned.’

Darn! There I am, writing about structure for my next book, and I’m nearly trounced by my own team. Dave has always been sceptical of writing ‘rules’. I persisted…

But does the structure follow the 3-act pattern?’

He said:

In retrospect, you can see a 3-act structure in each season.’

Phew.

3 and 4-act structure

In case you’re scratching your head, here’s a catch-up. Briefly, the ‘act’ structure is all about where you put crescendos and twists in your story. There’s a general pattern that turns out to be most satisfying to audiences – a major change at roughly a quarter in, then another one at the three-quarter point. That’s three acts. It’s also good to have another change at the halfway point, which actually makes four acts, but some people don’t count that so they call it three. Why three? It’s beginning, middle and end. Simple.

Whether you call it three acts or four, it works so well it’s been translated into a fundamental formula. Some writers use it to outline before they start. Some use it to troubleshoot – if the story feels flabby, you can tighten it by restructuring to fit this shape. If you have a long-running story with characters and plotlines that mature at different rates, you can construct each of the arcs so they hit those markers.

mirabBack to rules

… and back to Dave. As I said, he’s wary of the idea of storytelling ‘rules’ or ‘principles’, preferring to write by instinct. Indeed he told me that many years ago, a friend came back from a writing course with news of a wondrous formula – this three-act thingy. Dave had never heard of it, and indeed had already published several books. However, when he investigated further, he found he’d structured them with the major crescendos and twists at the quarter points.

This is how it is with writing – or any art. We all understand some aspects innately. For others we find it helpful to be shown a rule or a principle. In my case, I understood structure and pacing from the get-go. I struggled, though, with ‘show not tell’ and needed a good bit of nagging to grasp it.

Thanks for the pic, Sandy Spangler

Which writing rules do you find easy and which do you find difficult, either to grasp or to accept?

ebookcovernyn3Update December 2014: The ebook of Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart: Nail Your Novel is now available on pre-order. It will go on live sale on Twelfth Night, 5th January, and if you order beforehand you can get a special pre-order price.
‘On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me… Twelve drummers drumming, eleven pipers piping, ten lords….’ Is that too complicated for an opening scene?

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Story structure: why plot milestones might not be equally spaced – and why that’s good

Darmstaedter-Madonna-golden-ratioI’ve had a question from Jennifer Ibarra.

How exact do story milestones have to be? I did a lot of planning and put them in the ‘right’ points in the story (25% for the first turning point, half way for the midpoint, 75% for the second turning point). But they’re off by 1-2k words. Will the story feel unbalanced? Or should I keep trimming and adding?

The short answer: Stop! There is much to discuss…

What are we talking about?

Let’s backtrack. Stories have natural turning points, where the plot increases the pressure on the characters. When you build a story from beats (episodes where something changes) you’ll find they often fall into a pattern (usually used in movies).

Act 1, the first quarter, is the set-up with the event that begins all the trouble – the inciting incident. Act 2 is the second two quarters, where the problem is being actively tackled and confronted. Act 3, the last quarter, is the resolution. In each of these phases, the stakes change, and the protagonists’ goals and feelings change.

Why do they divide like this? The audience seems to have an internal clock, and feels the story needs these emotional shifts. They also find it most satisfying when played out in these phases. (BTW, some people call it the three-act structure, some decide there must be four acts because act 2 has two parts. Both terms mean the same thing. Another name for these shifts is plot points. Clear?)

How exact do these act points have to be?

If you’re writing for TV they matter to the minute. Movies could be more fluid, but commercial studio executives are so used to formulae and paradigms that they only commission stories that fit it. And they go to expensive conferences that reinforce this so it becomes holy writ.

But novels…

Although stories fit a natural structure, the divisions aren’t exact, as Jen is discovering. Here’s another part of her letter to me:

Once we start writing the scenes out, they take on a life of their own, and no matter how careful we are in planning, things will shift around

They do indeed. And that’s good.

Stories are organic. You can’t rush certain sections to get them to a plot point or you might race ahead of the reader. Curiously, when that happens, they might tell you you’re going too slowly. In fact, you might need to slow even more, make sure the reader understands why the scene’s events are important.

Remember, these plot points are emotional crescendos. They are times of greatest tension, pressure and surprise. And they work because of how you’ve primed the reader.

Equal but not equal

Here’s an example in action. My Memories of a Future Life is 102k words. When I released it in episodes, I aimed for roughly 25k words each. I actually got 26k, 31k, 19k and 28k.

I have to admit, I’d forgotten the proportions varied that much (although they obviously worked as readers said they were gripped). I realise this tells us something about the different flavours of each act. (So thanks, Jen, for making me consider it.)

Act 1 contains set-up, whicterreh has to be balanced with momentum. That’s tricky and it’s why beginnings are often too slow. The reader needs enough back story to understand what matters, but must also feel they’re seeing characters reaching a point of no return. (I wrote a while ago about a scene that I cut from Act 1 because of the pace – Carol’s performance dress. Not because of wordcount, but because it repeated an emotional point. If I’d left it in, the reader would have felt the story was circling over the same ground.)

In Act 2 we’ve settled down. We’re involved with the characters enough to be curious about their back story and lives. (I could have added the black dress scene here, but the moment for it was gone.) At the same time, the complications are thickening.

In Act 3, we’ve turned a corner. Situations get worse, problems are more desperate. There won’t be much new material because this is a phase of consequences. Bad choices come back to bite. Fuses burn up. We’re building to a crisis.

Act 4 is the climax, and the reader will be turning pages fast. But it has a lot to pack in. The denouement will be intense and pressured. There will be reversals where it doesn’t go as planned, and moments when all seems lost. There will be revelations. Each of these story beats will need immense space, as if time has slowed down, to do justice to their impact and to allow the characters to react and adjust. There will be many ends to tie. After the final action, you don’t just tip the reader into the street, blinking. You need a leave-taking, to send the characters on into new lives. The reader knows they’ll be leaving them behind, so will savour the chance for a few less-pressured, appreciative moments before parting for good.

Here we can see there are good, organic reasons why each act may not hit the same wordcount, even though it will feel near enough to the reader.

Novels aren’t movies

Although there’s a lot that novel-writers can learn from movie storytelling, the media are not the same. The popular prophets of the three (or four)-act structure – Robert McKee, Syd Field and Blake Snyder – are script doctors. They’re not talking about novels and they probably don’t read them. Indeed movies and TV have to fudge the plot points with fillers – extra miles in a chase, a scene where the character polishes his revolver and stares into a glass of whisky. There’s usually music or a montage to divert the audience’s attention from a scene that’s spinning its wheels. In novels you can’t use fillers; they don’t work. And what’s more, you don’t have to.

So Jen, you’ve already done enough. You’re writing in a medium that allows you different act lengths. Enjoy it!

Thanks for the golden ratio pic Snotty on Wikimedia Commons

What would you say to Jen?

 

ebookcovernyn3Update December 2014: if you liked this discussion, you’ll find loads more in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel – which is launching right now! Special pre-release price if you reserve a copy before 5 January.

 

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Structure, creativity, one-click publishing… and the fossil record for our books

John Rakestraw of Unbridled Editor invited me on his Blog Talk Radio show today. John used to be an actor before he became a freelance editor, and we had a great time nattering about fleshing out characters, creativity, where a story starts, the liberating influence of story structure and how to create a story that pulls the reader in.

We also waded into the big questions facing writers today. What becomes of publishing if epublishing is as easy as hitting a button? As the classics of the future are written on computer and manuscripts disappear, will there be a fossil record for how our books evolved? And speaking of what is on record and what is not, there’s a little chit-chat about ghostwriting and not being able to tell people I wrote the books they loved… Proper post tomorrow, in the meantime – hope you enjoy our natter.

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How I made my writing career – writing coach, novelist and memoirist Gina Troisi @Troisi_Gina

How do you get a career working with words? We all find our own routes. In this occasional series, I’m interviewing people who’ve made writing the centre of their life and now have a distinguished publishing reputation. Today: Gina Troisi, who has award nominations, writer-in-residence posts and is now about to release a memoir, The Angle of Flickering Light, with Vine Leaves Press.

Roz Tell me how you got here.

Gina I decided I wanted to be a writer in third grade—it sounds cliché, but I clearly remember learning the writing process in the classroom, and becoming fascinated with it. I grew up writing furiously in journals, crafting stories and poems; it was a creative outlet I desperately needed, but I barely showed my work to anyone. I had very little confidence.

As an undergraduate, I majored in English Literature, and after college, there was a stretch of years where I took writing classes out of a local woman’s home. I was going through a very difficult time in my life, but these classes offered me the best kind of solace. It was this fabulous teacher, Nancy Eichhorn, who suggested I apply for an MFA, and encouraged me to submit my work for publication. I began working on my MFA in 2007, and I spent that time focusing on craft and technique; I immersed myself in the act of becoming a better writer. When I completed my MFA in 2009, I began to send my work out for publication.

Roz Your memoir, The Angle of Flickering Light, is about your troubled childhood. Were there many steps before you felt able to show the manuscript?

Gina Oh yes!

Roz How many incarnations did it go through?

Gina In some ways, I’d been writing about the themes my entire life—about my childhood, about recklessness and the act of numbing oneself, and about the search for identity and belonging.

I’d been writing about those themes my entire life… my childhood, recklessness, the act of numbing oneself… the search for identity and belonging

Gina Troisi

Roz When I’ve worked with memoirists, it’s a long struggle to find the wisdom and insight to give readers a meaningful experience.

Gina I think writing memoir takes a great level of self-awareness. We need to get to a place personally where we understand ourselves—our actions and our decisions, our patterns, and the ways in which we’ve been shaped.

I remember hearing the author Joyce Maynard say that in order to write a memoir you have to “let the ashes cool.”

Roz “Let the ashes cool…” I love this.

Gina It takes time to process the moments that have made up our lives, and to gain an honest perspective. I had to reach a point where the “I” in my book was just another character.

Roz Also, we change.

Gina We encounter so many versions of ourselves throughout our lives. 

Roz Yes, and we might not realise unless we write about a time when we were much younger, or under great strain. I see it in my old notebooks, the things that upset or amused me ten years ago, twenty years ago. I recognise where the feelings came from, but I would not react that way now. And then other things are exactly the same, they never change.

The Angle of Flickering Light has been commended in several awards over the years, as far back as 2012. Tell me about its gestation.

Gina The book originated when I was in graduate school. My intent was not to write a book-length work. But I found that I was generating stand-alone essays with recurring themes and characters.

I originally presented the book as a collection of essays back in 2012, and I began sending it to agents and small presses. In 2013, I received interest from a small press, but the editor wanted major structural changes, and to morph it from an essay collection into a memoir. I dove deeply into that revision, but the press decided to pass. So I found myself with two versions of the book, and by this point, I wasn’t sure which was the more structurally sound. I took a break to focus on other projects, but continued to send the original version out to contests. At the end of 2018, I returned to the memoir with fresh eyes, and I spent about seven months reworking it.

A couple of authors from my graduate program, Penny Guisinger and Alexis Paige, had both published books with Vine Leaves Press. I read and loved both of their books, which led me to other VLP titles. The writing was exceptional, and Jessica Bell’s covers are amazing. I decided to submit, and to my great delight, they accepted the memoir.

Roz Inevitably a memoir will involve real people. How did you handle this?

Gina I changed many names and places. I also omitted details and characters, and sometimes merged and compressed events and moments. Every choice I made was to either protect the privacy of others, or for the sake of narrative clarity.

Roz Tell me about that beautiful title.

Gina The original title was Shadows on the Sidewalks, which is a title of one of the chapters. The chapter focuses on the narrator’s relationship with her boyfriend, who is struggling with heroin addiction. But while much of this book is about wandering and restlessness, about movement and motion, I didn’t want the title to indicate that the relationship in that chapter was the focal point of the book. It’s actually about the narrator’s relationship with herself.

The Angle of Flickering Light is a line from an intimate moment in the narrative, and I like that it’s an image, but also speaks to the idea of finding flickers of light in darkness. The book is largely about hope and resilience, and about searching for light within, rather than outside of oneself.

The book is largely about hope and resilience… searching for light within oneself

Gina Troisi

Roz Yes, it works well. As you say, the title is the reader’s lens for the whole book. The Angle of Flickering Light is also mysterious, alluring. It beckons you in.

Let’s talk about the structure you used for The Angle of Flickering Light.

Gina Structuring this memoir was the most challenging part of the process, particularly because it covers such a wide range of years. When I returned to the book in 2018, my main goal was to find and thread the narrative throughline more tightly in order to clarify and highlight the heart of the story.

Roz I love that moment – when I finally grasp the emotional purpose of the book I’m writing. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, I’m always looking for it. That’s when I understand what to do with my material.

Gina Once I found the prominent thread, I attempted to tailor each chapter to illuminate it, and it enabled me to veer off into the past or the future as I saw fit—to move around in time more freely.

Roz Moving on, you’ve been widely published in literary magazines. Was it all leading towards this memoir?

Gina I think a lot of it was, yes. But there are also themes and subjects that tend to enter my work often, no matter what genre I am working in. Some of these are addiction and perseverance and mortality.

Much of my work explores the ways in which we survive. And I’ve always been interested in the relationships between people—in the way we connect with one another in raw and authentic ways.

Roz Who do you like to read? Who are your influences?

Gina Oh gosh, there are so many. Joan Didion, Andre Dubus II, and Alice Munro are a few of my heroes. Jeanette Winterson. Lynda Hull, Sylvia Plath, Mary Oliver for poetry. How about you?

Roz Many, many many. From your list, Joan Didion is a favourite. Also Hilary Mantel for the way she explores the humanity of historical moments. Ann Patchett for her sweeping sense of romance, even though she does not write romances, if you see what I mean. Taylor Jenkins-Reid for sass. Janet Fitch for rawness – read her and she seems to take your skin off. Meg Wolitzer too. I’ve just read Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, very slowly. Not because it was difficult, but because I wanted to savour every moment.

You’ve studied for an MFA and also taken a writer in residence post. What did these experiences give you? Methods, routines, anything else?

Gina My MFA was a low-residency program, so I attended seminars and workshops two times a year for ten days at a time, while the rest of the year I worked one-on-one with mentors, and met monthly deadlines. This schedule taught me how to incorporate writing into my real life—to prioritize it over almost everything else, and to integrate it into my world despite my work schedule or personal relationships.

Roz This is so wise! I remember when that happened to me. I found myself among people who always had a book on the go, or maybe more than one. I had tried various creative pursuits, but had missed the essential lesson – how to make an art the centre of my life, which was what I needed. I suddenly felt at home.  

Gina The writer-in-residence post gave me the beautiful gift of time, and also allowed me to work with some wonderful creative writing students. Both experiences offered me inspiration, stimulation, and purpose.

Roz You’re a writing coach as well as an author. How do you protect your creative energy while also giving your best to students?

Gina I love working with students, and I find it feeds and nurtures me creatively. It’s such meaningful work. I am doing it less and less since I started my day job at an educational assessment company a few years back because in order to protect my writing time, I often have to say no when I’d like to say yes.

Roz You wrote a terrific post about this on Ian Rogers’s blog, But I Also Have A Day Job  In it you describe so well the artistic lifestyle – the freedom to wander, the patchwork of randomly acquired jobs that let you make writing the centre of your life. But you found it all had a price.

Gina For many years, I resisted the idea of a full-time job because I was terrified it wouldn’t allow me enough time to write. So I juggled part-time jobs with various schedules: I tended bar, I ran a writing center at a community college, I taught and tutored. I ate meals in the car while driving from job to job. I had no health insurance, barely any savings, and no money put aside for retirement. One day I added up how many hours I was working, and I found that I was working at least 40 hours a week, but without any of the benefits, like paid days off and holidays. And I thought, how did this happen? I decided it was time to reassess what I was actually resisting, and to try a new approach.

Roz How do you unwind?

Gina Hiking in the woods, visiting the ocean, listening to live music. And of course, reading. There are also times when I collapse on the couch and give in to Netflix.

Roz What are you working on now?

Gina I am working on two novels-in-stories. One of the collections revolves around a particular restaurant in a small New Hampshire mill town. It explores economic and class issues, and consists of a cast of characters who thread a larger narrative about the way it’s possible to find and form surrogate families.

The other collection takes place in a coastal Massachusetts town, and is focused on the lives of a married couple who lose their only child in a tragic car accident just after he turns eighteen. It poses questions about parenthood and loss and perseverance, and it sifts through what ultimately sustains us during times when it seems that nothing will.

Roz Profound questions. Do they have working titles?

Gina The working title for the restaurant collection is called Then You Were Gone, and the other collection is called What Remains.

Roz Give me some amazing final words!

Gina I find that most of what I have learned about writing aligns with what I have learned about living. That being said, I think the most important trait for a writer is perseverance. Discipline is a close second, but it is essential that we are able to handle rejection. I tell my students that the difference between those who publish and those who don’t is the refusal to give up, and I deeply believe that.

You can tweet Gina @Troisi_Gina, find her on Facebook, Instagram and her website. The Angle of Flickering Light is published by Vine Leaves Press. Find it here.

If you’d like more writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk (and my very exciting new novel), look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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I wrote a trauma recovery memoir in lockdown – what now?

This email just arrived.

I have completed a manuscript about my childhood trauma and how it shaped my life, to tell my truth, to finally heal and put it behind me. I need to know if it is good enough to publish and am therefore seeking an editor who can proofread and correct mistakes.

Has any other year taken us so far into reflection and self-examination? These last few weeks I’ve had many emails like this.

So if you’re considering these questions, here are some answers.

You don’t need an editor yet

The first phase isn’t to look for an editor! Especially not a paid one. But you’re right to seek another opinion on the manuscript.

Beyond spelling, proofreading and publishable writing

You need to look at more than spelling mistakes and proofreading.

Here’s something that few people suspect unless they’ve had a memoir published. The manuscript that the writer completes, in those solitary, searching hours, is not usually ready for readers. This is not a question of spelling and polish. It’s about writercraft and your audience.

The writer’s draft, the reader’s draft

We write memoirs, initially, for ourselves. And that’s a considerable feat. We collect the material, get it straight in our minds and set on the page. Talk our soul through its troubles, tell it to the page. Bring order, maybe catharsis, closure.

For some, that journey may be enough – and has immense value in itself. But that’s not usually a version you can publish.

Not just about you

For a reader, the memoir is not just about you. It is a journey for them to understand the world through your unique experience. While they will respect your honesty and ordeals, and will want to be on your side, they’ll need help.

There is much your reader will find difficult to understand – people, behaviour, motivations. So they will need context – more than you realise.

They’ll also need more insight than your private memoir might have provided – insight about the other people, insight about you. Memoirs of this type have to navigate some of our most uncomfortable behaviour – when we were deluded, or scared, or cruel. When you write for yourself, you might not have to acknowledge all these dimensions, especially if you’ve been harshly wronged. But if you write for a reader – who is a stranger –  you often need a higher degree of wisdom about everybody’s muddles, imperfections and worries. You don’t necessarily need to forgive or redeem them. But you do need to understand them.

You

You also have to apply these principles to yourself. Although you’re the ‘I’ voice, the reader doesn’t know you. To them, you are a character in the story, so you must present yourself with the same care, context and insight as any other character, so the reader can know you. This might involve considerable self-examination.

Writercraft

As well as reaching this state of insight, a memoir also needs writercraft. Real life is sprawling and messy. It’s writing craft that will organise this sprawl in a way that will keep the reader engaged.

You need a structure, with a beginning, an end, and some turning points along the way. Although these ideas are more commonly discussed for fiction, they’re just as necessary for real-life stories because they’re essentially how you keep the reader’s curiosity, empathy and attention. Real life doesn’t, in real time, fit narrative paradigms, but you can stretch and condense passages so they form a narrative shape that is compelling.

Especially, consider the ending. Your experience, as lived by you, doesn’t have an ending, but the reader needs one. Where will you let them go? At what point have you given them a satisfying experience? Your book’s ending might be anywhere in the real chronology – in adulthood if the story happened to you as a child. Or you might prefer a more adventurous structure – beginning with the present, swinging backwards in time, then coming again to the present with new eyes. Time in real life is unreversible; in narratives it can do whatever you like.

Other points about structure

There’s also the pacing. Someone else’s pain can quickly become abstract and repetitive. Even the most sympathetic reader can become dulled unless you keep a sense of narrative progress. There’s more about this in my plot book.

How many characters?

You also might have to reorganise your characters. In your personal memoir, the version behind closed doors, you probably included absolutely everyone. But this might be too many characters for a reader to grasp.

Why is this a problem? It’s because the reader is not you. To you, each person is different and distinct, drawn into your story in their own ways. You know all of these intimately, because you lived it, but you don’t have the space to give all that context to the reader. So in a memoir, you usually need to trim your characters.

Also, you need to think about them as dramatic roles in your journey. You often need to combine several real people into one character who represents a force – a supporter, a mentor, an antagonist.

A further point. Can you write about these real people? Even if they’ve moved on from your life and you don’t see them face to face, the internet can keep everyone together. And publishing a book certainly can. You are only a tweet or an email away from anyone’s reaction. You might have to worry about libel, so you have to be very careful about what you say about a person who can be identified.

To answer the question: do you need an editor?

An editor is not what you need at the moment. What you should do now is more drafts.

Keep this one. It serves a valuable purpose in itself. Start a new version, the reader’s version. This time, look beyond your pain.

Look beyond yourself too. A memoir needs to understand everyone, or at least give them the chance to be understood. This applies also to you. There’ll be things you’ll wish you’d done differently, for good or bad. Your actions, reactions and protective behaviour. Understand yourself in those moments and those decisions. You will judge yourself a lot, but while you do that, also remember you’re human. And so is everyone else in your story.

Although you might not need an editor at this stage, you might benefit from a writing buddy who can look at the manuscript and explain where they don’t understand your thinking, where you’ve failed to give context. If you’re struggling to find a structure, they can also suggest where you turned a corner and didn’t realise. And even where you might end.

This might take many passes. That’s normal. I’ve been interviewing a few memoir writers recently on this blog and their books took years – to acquire the distance, the wisdom, the fullest appreciation. Find them here.

First, breathe. Then write a draft for the reader.

Thanks for the green shoot pic, Neal Herbert, Australian Dept of the Interior

If you’d like more writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk (and my very exciting new novel), look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Shades of the truth – talking memoir and fiction-writing with Scott Gould @Scott_Gould

  1. Embrace cliches
  2. Don’t write what you know.

That’s two pieces of writing advice you won’t see everywhere. They are from Scott Gould, award-winning short story writer and novelist. Scott has now crossed into memoir with Things That Crash, Things That Fly, which chronicles the startling and sudden break-up of his marriage. How was it, I wondered, turning the unsparing writer eye on your own character, your own actions, your own real people? We got together for a chat.  

Roz I’ll talk about your memoir in a minute, but first let’s discuss your other books. You have Whereabouts, a novel, and a set of linked stories Strangers To Temptation. There’s also The Hammerhead Chronicles, another novel coming later this year. What unifies your work – any themes, approaches, types of character?

Scott The first two are unified by time and place, both set in the US South and in the early 1970s. Why the early 70s? That’s when I was 12 or so (yes, Roz, I’m old) I was deeply affected by coming of age in that period of time. I remember so much from that era—the music, the social and political unrest, the crushes and the slow dances with the girls who were the object of aforementioned crushes—and that place…the humid, rural, silly and proud South. (Proud for a lot of the wrong reasons, I might add.)

Hammerhead is still set in the South, but it’s contemporary. I think I’ve mined my 1970s dry.

I guess what unites those books is my desire to look at a world and its flawed characters (flawed physically or emotionally or spiritually) and see how they navigate their own tiny spaces in that world. I like following them around and seeing if they can clean up and survive the messes they make. (That’s close to a theft from Faulkner; I think he said something about following his characters around. Sorry. But like Picasso said, “All art is theft.”)

I like taking clichés and stereotypes—like the Southern pick-up-mobile-home-hound-dog—and flipping them on their ear. I’m not one of these people who despise clichés. I actually love them because they give me something to experiment with.

Roz What an interesting way to think about cliches. Yes, I get that. All cliches start from a truth, a recognisable and resonant truth. Before an idea becomes a cliché, it is briefly the wisest thing in the world.

Scott Clichés exist because people have developed this universal idea of what something means. If I can flip it or etch a new aspect onto it, then I’ve made something entertaining. I think that will be real apparent with Hammerhead. There’s some wild stuff going on in that novel, lots of cliché spinning.

Roz So: your memoir, Things That Crash, Things That Fly. How was the transition to writing about your own life?

Scott It wasn’t a transition as much as a flipping back and forth over the years. And a great deal of my fiction is autobiographical. You can really see that in Strangers to Temptation. But I believe all fiction is based in some shade of the truth. Even if you’re writing about some fantasy world or some post-apocalyptic nightmare, and let’s say a character who limps and you want to describe that limp to the reader, and you suddenly think: “Hey, my uncle Jake used to have a limp. I’ll describe the way he walks.” That’s reality blended into fiction.

Roz I think it goes beyond small details. To make a story real, we draw on our experience of behaviour, personalities, emotions, relationships. The characters we most want to write are the people we want to understand.

Scott I always tell my students, “Don’t write what you know. Write what you know well enough to lie about.” That’s a mantra for my fiction writing. So I didn’t just turn off the fiction spout and start writing the memoir. The two are related, don’t you think? First cousins maybe.

Roz Indeed I do. When I published a collection of personal essays (Not Quite Lost), I realised they were the origin stories for my fiction.

Scott I had been thinking about writing the memoir for years—not right after I was separated and divorced, but a couple years after that, I started thinking: “I need to write this down. It’s got all the elements of a good story. Loss and desire, a fall and a redemption of sorts, darkness and light, tragedy and humor. Lots of interesting juxtapositions.”

Plus, I needed to do it for my heart. It was somewhat stitched back together, but the stitches were getting frayed. I remember thinking that if I could write it down and make it into a piece of art, I might come to some new understanding that would be healthy and healing. That was probably a foolish idea, but art has erupted from sillier beginnings.

Anyway, I think the book really took flight (pun intended) when I was awarded the teaching fellowship to go back to Italy and research a WWII pilot who was killed. I recall making a late-night, probably bourbon-fueled deal with myself: “If you get this fellowship and go back there and put yourself through that gauntlet of memory and anxiety, you better damn well get a book out of it.” Well, I did win the fellowship and I kept my promise to myself.

But I wasn’t writing the memoir steady, from start to finish. I would write some, then put it away, because it was too damn hard to face sometimes. Then I would get mad at myself and pull it back out and arm-wrestle with it again.

In the meantime, I was writing stories, and sending them out and trying to work on novel manuscripts. I guess I’m a juggler. I like to have a lot of things in the air. I was constantly in transition between fiction and the memoir. And that may have not been a bad thing. I wanted the memoir to have a definite arc to it, so maybe working on stories simultaneously was good for maintaining the idea of a narrative.

Actually, I’ve never really thought about that connection between the two. Thanks, Roz…

Roz The subject material is frank and honest. And very involving. I shared your certainty that the relationship could be salvaged, the many moments of surreal awkwardness, the sense of inevitability and disappointment. Were there many drafts before you reached this one?

Scott For better or worse, I’ve never had an issue or problem with writing extremely honestly about myself. In the Prologue to Things That Crash, Things That Fly, when I say, “I will tell you anything you want to know,” I really mean it. I think it’s the duty of any writer to be brutally honest with the reader. As a writer you’re trying to bridge the gap between your words and the reader’s emotions. And if you don’t develop some sort of trust with the reader, you’re doomed to fail.

Roz It’s the honesty that creates the relationship with the reader, which makes the narrative feel like a special encounter.

Scott And you achieve a level of trust by delivering information to the reader in a crafted way. Your use of specific detail, handling of point of view and narrative stance, characterizations…all of these craft elements (and many more) web together to make this comfortable, honest, safe place for the reader to exist. And that place is the story you are trying to tell. God, is this making sense? I feel like I’m blathering.

Roz Not blathering at all. This is a good definition of the power of prose – inviting the reader into your emotional sensations.

Scott I remember the early drafts of the memoir possessed the wrong tone. It was too whiny and too mean-spirited. And I knew it. But I still existed too close to the story. That’s why I needed some years between first and final draft. I needed to find the correct emotional connection between me and story, one that the reader would understand and allow.

Roz When I’ve helped writers with memoirs, they’ve often needed quite a bit of midwifery, coaxing them to look more deeply, to excavate further. Sometimes to forgive themselves.

Scott I always tell my students, when you’re writing a personal essay or a memoir, you are a character in the piece. There’s a difference between the ‘I’ that writes the story and the ‘I’ that lives within it. Put the ego and the fear and the anxiety aside, and treat that person in the story like any other character in a piece of writing. Tell the readers exactly what they need to know about that character.

If you can create separation between I-the-Writer and I-the-Character, it helps with the level of honesty, I think.

Roz Inevitably, a memoir has to involve other people who are also in vulnerable situations, in this case your daughters and ex-wife.

Scott I resisted for many drafts pulling them into the story. I suppose that was because they had already lived through the trauma and I didn’t want their characters to go through it again. I know, very weird and probably therapy-worthy. But a very well-known writer, who picked this memoir as a runner-up in a book contest, told me I needed more of my daughters in the story to make it work. So I dialed up their presence slightly, but carefully.

Roz I liked your delicate approach – they aren’t named and they’re seen mainly in glimpses. But it was enough. What lines did you draw about how you’d involve them?

Scott I was very selective in the scenes they appeared and very precise (I hope) in the way I used their appearances.

Roz Did they see the manuscript?

Scott They’ve known about the book for years, but they haven’t read the manuscript. Actually, as I write this, I’ve just mailed them copies. I’m a little anxious about that.

Roz I also thought the book ended in just the right place.

Scott Endings are always hard, right?

Roz They’re hard enough with fiction. Even harder with non-fiction. Life doesn’t just turn off. You could keep going for ever.

Scott I tend to adhere to something I heard the novelist John Irving say. He said that when he begins a novel, he always knows the last line. It gives him a compass heading as he navigates the twists and turns of the narrative. So when I began this, I knew I wanted to stop when I returned from Italy. I wanted that bit of homecoming, and I wanted my daughters there. That seemed like an logical emotional destination. Of course, the epilogue gave me the opportunity to expand the ending slightly and tie up some loose narrative threads. But for all intents and purposes, the story ends when I arrive back home after the Italy journey. That felt right, felt like the narrative circle was closed.

For a long time, the structure was wrong. I kept experimenting. I had an agent who wanted me to do some weird time-warp, Quentin Tarantino thing with it. And one agent who turned me down suggested I rewrite the book as a novel. (It was a disaster.) A hugely important moment for me was when I read this amazing memoir by Sonja Livingston called Ghostbread. It’s told in very short chapters. I was captivated by that idea of a very staccato rhythm. I thought, I can do that. I can break my story into tiny fragments, all of which add up to the total emotional experience of the story. And that’s what I did.

Roz You have three titles releasing within a short time – Whereabouts was last October, Things That Crash is this month and The Hammerhead Chronicles is coming soon. Was that deliberate?

Scott Whereabouts appeared last October from Koehler Books, this memoir in March from Vine Leaves Press. The novel that was supposed to come out in June from the University of North Georgia Press, The Hammerhead Chronicles, has been moved to February 1, 2022. (They want to wait until the pandemic is over so we can visit bookstores and stuff.) And I just found out I won a short fiction contest sponsored by Springer Mountain Press, and that collection of stories, Idiot Men, will come out this August.

Roz Wow, you can’t be stopped.

Scott It’s kind of strange and wonderful that all of this is happening at once. I don’t have any explanation for it. I’ve been grinding for a lot of years with nice, but modest results—stories in wonderful literary magazines and anthologies—but nothing on the book front. Then I hit my early 60s and the floodgates opened.

Some of these manuscripts had some age on them and I rewrote. Some were new.

I don’t really worry about publication. I love seeing my work in print, but I don’t set out with the goal of publication. I enjoy the process and I enjoy practising my craft. I enjoy taking a tiny speck of an idea and turning it into a fully-developed story.

I don’t mean that I love writing. Writing is hard and soul-crushing and exhausting…but, man, when you get it right, when you work the process and the craft takes over and you create a story when one didn’t previously exist? That’s a good day.

 Roz It makes it all the soul-mining worthwhile. So how did you come to each of your publishers?

Scott I had writer friends who published with them or I researched them on my own or I read a book and said, “This is really good. Who’s the publisher?” I kept my eyes open and did my due diligence.

 Roz Do you have a literary agent?

Scott No. I’ve had an agent at various times, and it never amounted to anything.

Roz Same here. I’ve had two. Each time, it was a confidence boost, and I felt I’d made the grade, but I didn’t fit the markets they sold to.

Scott I’m sure agents are wonderful and necessary for a certain type of writer…but I don’t seem to fall into that category, which is fine. The world is a big place and there’s plenty of room for everybody.

Roz Do you have any tips for submitting to literary journals? Has being published by them helped you get deals for longform work?

Scott A writer friend told me that if you aren’t getting rejected twice a day, you aren’t doing your job. I took that to heart. I submit relentlessly, realizing that I’m going to get hammered with rejections. I don’t take it personally. When a story is rejected, it doesn’t bother me if I know the same story is out to another eight or nine magazines. I’m a grinder. I put my head down and keep moving forward.

Roz Was your family creative and artistic or did you create your own path?

Scott Growing up, my family wasn’t super artistic, but my mother was an avid reader and insisted we always have a book in our hand. (I remember in the sixth grade, my parents let me stay up all night, one a school night, reading Robinson Crusoe, cover to cover.) So I was always interested in books and stories and language, which led to me being an English major in college (when I realized my basketball career was over and I wouldn’t be the next Larry Bird). In college I took a couple of creative writing courses and I was doomed to start chasing stories.

Roz Have I remembered this right… during Things That Crash, you were working in advertising. Was that useful in your creative writing, or even a welcome antidote?

Scott I took a too-long foray into the advertising business. Being a copywriter taught me how to be clear and concise and fast. But I eventually had to get out and return to teaching and writing stories. I thought, If I have to think up another clever, 75-word way to convince somebody to open a free checking account, I’ll jam this pen in my hand. I think some of the precision in my language comes from those years in copywriting.

Roz You teach creative writing. What level/age group?

Scott For the past 17 years, I’ve been teaching creative writing at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities, one of the nation’s only public, residential high schools for the arts. I teach creative nonfiction to high school juniors and seniors (usually 16-18 years old), and they are amazing. They have such energy and such seriousness of purpose.

Roz I want to linger on that phrase: ‘energy and seriousness of purpose’. Creative people never lose it. This is why I love them.

Scott I love talking with them about images and structure and intent and craft. Some of them continue their writing careers. Some don’t. But they ALL leave with an appreciation for language and the power it contains.

Roz The arts are something we never truly master. Even if we are teachers ourselves, there’s always more to learn. Where do you do most of your learning?

Scott I’ve been writing for a long time, Roz, and every day I wake up and realize I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. And I consider that a good thing. You see, as writers, we’re always apprentices, and if I ever get to the point where I think I’ve got it all figured out, I hope somebody is standing nearby who can slap me back into reality.

 Roz Give me some amazing final words!

Scott You will never figure out the perfect way tell a story or build a character or construct a scene, because the world around you constantly shifts, constantly brings new factors into the narrative equation. The important thing is that you always try. Sit in the chair, respect your craft, chase the language around the page and do the best you can. Keep grinding.

Find Scott on Facebook Twitter @Scott_Gould and his website. Things That Crash, Things That Fly is published on 10 March 2021 by Vine Leaves Press but you can grab a copy right now.  

If you’d like more writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk (and my very exciting new novel), look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Stuck at the beginning of your novel? How to get going

‘Please help,’ wrote the author to me. ‘I’ve been writing a novel, I have a mass of text but no idea how to pull a plot out of it.’

We’re now doing well with the plot. But one big thing is holding her back.

‘Should this be the opening? Or this?’

We don’t know yet, I say. Don’t worry. Write a placeholder scene, and make the decision later.

We talk. We make much progress about themes, events and character arcs. Then my author returns to the question. Should this be part of the beginning? Or this? We haven’t even got to the first plot point. (What’s that? Here are posts about story structure.)

My author is finding it extraordinarily hard, very counter-intuitive, to postpone the decision about the beginning.

Why now is not the time to decide the beginning

Although you have to start somewhere, you cannot decide the proper opening until you know the rest of the book very well. Here’s what an ideal opening has to do.

1 It holds a lot of information back.

(You didn’t expect me to say that.)

2 It tells the reader just enough.

(Just enough for what?)

It tells the reader enough to make promises. About the tone, style, themes. About how the narrative will scrutinise the characters and events. About the issues and experiences the story will explore. Those are deep promises, and you must live up to them. (How do you know which promises to make?)

There’s also a 3:

3 The beginning should intrigue, beguile, ignite the reader’s curiosity. And in a way that’s faithful to 2.

Some beginnings are simpler than others

Beginnings are simpler for genre writers, as the reader’s expectations are relatively well established. But if you’re writing a novel that’s more complex or unconventional, you have to direct the reader to your unique flavour – your themes and angles and interests. You might not yet be aware of them all.

Certainly you won’t know them as you’re assembling the book for the first time, from all your swirling ideas. Perhaps not until you’ve made several revisions. (That’s one of the meanings of revision. Not just rewriting. Re-vision. )

The beginning is somewhere in the end

Here’s a nice cryptic idea. The story’s resolution, the what-it’s-all-about moment, will also be, in some way, signalled in the beginning. Probably obscured, of course.

Why is your ending your ending? Usually because a question is solved or a situation concluded. In some novels, particularly non-genre, you may not be sure at first what you’re solving or concluding. The biggest questions will stir up as you live with your themes, plot and characters, the angles that most attract you as you write and revise. Go with that, let the book become what it becomes. If it’s taking you a surprisingly long time, you might be cheered by this: the slow-burn writer.

Your ending will probably work best if it’s somehow signalled in the beginning, so once you know where the bulk of the book is taking you, you can shade the beginning appropriately. But if you fix the beginning from the start, you may limit your explorations. (There’s more about this in my plot book.)

Start here… for now

Write a placeholder opening, something that gets you going. Don’t worry at all about whether it works for the reader. Make sure it works for you, gets you in the flow. This draft, and probably others that will follow, is for you, your playground, your lab, your quarry, your rehearsal.

The beginning, the official proper beginning, is for the final performance, when you’ve done all the other work and are ready to invite readers in.

(Thanks for the bike picture Paul Harrop.)

PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here (where you could win many beautiful books) and subscribe to future updates here.

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Critiquing a friend’s book… how do you tell them it doesn’t work?

I’ve had this interesting question from Jan.

A friend has finished drafting her first novel. She asked me to proofread before she sends it to agents. I explained she would up her chances if she got it edited too, so she asked if I could do that.

I’m reading the manuscript and have found what I feel are fundamental issues. For instance, I’m 57 pages in and nothing dramatic has happened, I still don’t know the theme of the book, or what any of the characters are driving towards. There is a lot of description, but I haven’t been able to discern its purpose.

I really want her to have the best chance, so how do I essentially ask her to rewrite from scratch? She’s proud of the manuscript; (she should be, she wrote 92,000 words and had the dedication to stick to it). I’m trying to work out the best way to approach the things that need fixing without making her feel like I’ve torn down her baby. What should I do?

Ahhhhhh, Jan.

I sense you feel this is an unusual situation. It is not.

With developmental editing, especially of a first novel, it’s not unusual for me to (gently) tell the writer they need to completely redraft.

First, let’s assume your friend chose you because you like her kind of book. That’s important. A reader who loves a racy plot in a weird special world won’t want the same things as a reader who loves the quiet ordinary, told in poetic clarity. One person’s paint drying is another person’s delight. So let’s assume she knows your tastes, and you know hers, and all is aligned.

Assuming that, you’re looking for exactly the right things. You’ve responded as a reader who should like the book. You don’t think she intends you to feel that nothing has happened, and that it seems to be aimless. You’re not engaged or curious, though you are eager to be.

Still, she’s written 92,000 words. And now you’re going to tell her to do it all again. How do you do that without apparently dismissing her achievement?

Writing is rewriting

Tell her that rewriting is normal. If she hadn’t heard of editing, she probably doesn’t know this. First-time writers are often so relieved – and rightly so – when they type ‘the end’ that they think the work is done. If they have heard of editing, they imagine a brief tidying of spelling and grammar, and perhaps a nifty rewording along the way. Far from it.

Jan, tell your friend it’s not unusual to need several goes at a manuscript before it’s ready for readers or an agent. Most first drafts are rough. Here are posts about a slow, multidrafting writing process. Some books need to find themselves as we write. I did 23 drafts of the novel I’ve just finished… Sometimes we add layers as we understand better what we’re trying to do – and that polishing is part of the joy. Sometimes, though, it streams out fast. We’re all different. Sometimes, we’re even different from book to book.

Writing is many skills

Here’s another thing to tell your friend. Writing is many skills and you can’t learn it all at once. Tell her she’s taught herself some excellent lessons already – persistence, finishing, a routine that allowed her to complete the book. Also description. Even if the description is not effectively used, she’s had to vividly imagine the scenes and the story world, and that’s a necessary skill.

But there are numerous other aspects to a good novel and now she has to learn those. How to structure a plot. How to create characters who are individual and filled with life. How to give information without beating the reader around the head. How to direct the reader’s attention and emotions.

Some are reasonably obvious. Some are so subtle that you don’t notice them unless you know to look for them. And they all have to work together, all at once. See my previous point about layering and redrafts. Those are the arts she now needs to learn.

Her book is not rubbish

Might she think you’re telling her to abandon that book? Not at all. Until she knows about these craft points, she doesn’t know the potential that’s in her idea. She doesn’t have to ditch this story; she now has to learn how to do it justice. To write the same book, but much better. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t, but she won’t know that until she tries.

Also, she’s not the first person who’s had to be told this.

We’ve all been through it. See How exactly do you learn to write professionally. Is she missing these craft skills because she’s never taken a course? See Can writing be taught. And should she feel foolish because she wrote a book without knowing how to? An editor wouldn’t think that. Look at Why your editor admires you, and why you might not realise this.

Oh yes. And we all get nervous about feedback. How to prepare for comments on your book manuscript.

Thanks for the end credits pic fliegender and the burning page pic ubhape2.com

If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, including my own (much drafted) third novel, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

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From fragments we build a book – Ep 27 FREE podcast course for writers

Just before we recorded this episode I’d been chairing a roundtable at a writing conference. I was struck by how our books come together from fragments. Snippets of inspiration and research; structures that reveal themselves in pieces which we join together like a jigsaw puzzle; snatches of voice that suggest characters or perhaps the narrative tone of the entire work; the contributions from beta readers and editors later on; the way we might be pleased with certain parts but have to sweat over others. Books are long haul; they come together from so many directions. This creative process is what we’re talking about in today’s episode.

Asking the questions is independent bookseller Peter Snell. Answering them is me!

Stream from the widget below or go to our Mixcloud page and binge the whole lot.

PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

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