I’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.)
Where 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.
There’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.
Any questions about structure or pace? Any lessons learned from experience? Let’s discuss.
This 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…’
‘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?’
‘In retrospect, you can see a 3-act structure in each season.’
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.
Back 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?
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.
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, which 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!
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.
I’ve recently been coaching a memoirist, and these are the key concepts we were musing about.
Show the struggles. Many people are spurred to write a memoir because they overcame a great trouble, survived against the odds or scored a personal success. But that postive focus can steer you wrong if you write a memoir about it. A memoir is not about how well you did or the things you should be congratulated for. It’s not about showing off. A memoir is about how hard everything was – and also how hilarious, heartbreaking and heartwarming. But mostly, it’s about how hard it was. So show us that.
Actually, struggle is the point of most stories, whether fiction or non-fiction. A story isn’t just the ‘what’, it’s the ‘how’. While there might be a limited number of plots and whats, there are infinite ‘hows’. The ‘hows’ contain the vibrant, varied stuff of life, and strife. And difficulty, and challenge, and humanity. They are the story.
Don’t focus exclusively on your strengths. They won’t make the reader root for you. If you show us how you successfully did something, the reader will think you found it easy. Especially if the success seems to come from a talent, or a birth circumstance, or a personality that is more courageous or rebellious than average. Your strengths are part of you, of course, and you’re right to be proud of them, but they don’t help the reader connect with you. But – reprising point 1 – struggle does make the reader connect. When we struggle, we are all in the same place – hopeless, lost, scared, angry, anxious, yearning, or making great sacrifices, or caught between several irreconcilable choices. That’s where we can all really talk to each other.
Some memoir manuscripts are dense screeds of narrative explanation. This can be dull to read. Memoirists often don’t realise they can give us ‘scenes’ as well, just as a novel would, where they describe actions and things people said.
‘I take it,’ they said, ‘that you speak good Spanish?’
‘Not one word,’ we said.
We all do this naturally in conversation anyway. And you can do it in memoir. Dramatising is good. Dialogue is good. Description and action are good too:
‘The judge turned to me and cocked a thick eyebrow…’
Some memoir manuscripts are just a collection of anecdotes. No matter how interesting they are, the reader wants more. They seek a bigger structure and a shape, a beginning, middle and end. They want a reason why the story starts where it does, and why the end is the end (because it could go on through the rest of your life, couldn’t it?). The beginning won’t be your ‘I was born’ moment, either, or not always.
What about the stuff between the beginning and end? Aim for a sense of development, of things changing all the time. You’ll need turning points – which means you need an awareness of story structure. You might have seen screenwriters talk about the three-act structure – which, confusingly is actually four. Essentially, it’s where the reader starts to look for a bigger change, and it usually comes at the quarter marks of the book.
So at some point you should plan how the overall journey will work, the phases the book will go through. Look for distinct turning points, and massage the writing so they fall at the quarter points of the book. By three-quarters of the way through, the amount of struggle should be reaching its most significant point, with the biggest pressures. The final part of the book will be trying to establish a new order, ready for a new status quo. (There’s loads more about story structure here. )
Wait! Your story is real life. Some phases might have taken years. Others happened over a few hectic and traumatic days. How will it fit this pattern? Remember, you are not creating a day-by-day diary, you’re creating a ‘story’, which is an artistic construct. You are also adding – interpretation, emphasis, insight and context. Maybe including flashbacks for back story. All of this allows you to shorten or lengthen, in order to give the reader the best experience.
The reader wants significance. They want to feel your story is interesting and also universal. Whatever it starts with, whatever you do, a memoir isn’t just about you, fighting your plucky battles, finding your way through. It’s also about the reader and the big truth we are all involved in.
You often have to dig for the real heart of an incident, why it matters enough to be in the book. So splurge about everything, as if no one’s there, all the time in the world, no book to fill. Just take a stroll with your thoughts, dwell in them. You’ll write far too much, but it’s how you find the gems. Then open your eyes and start to think of the reader. You might also find that some experiences you thought were formative were not.
You won’t necessarily know the book’s truest shape until you do this.
Write with a sense of learning about yourself. That journey of discovery will also become the reader’s. In the end, your book will bring you – and them – to a new place, perhaps wiser, perhaps comforted, perhaps entertained, perhaps changed, perhaps renewed. Perhaps everything.
David Starkey was always a writer at heart. After a few attempts at novels he found his feet in poetry, and has published a range of collections, including one that follows the plot of a series of The Sopranos. If that’s stopped you in your tracks, fear not, we will talk about it in due course. His latest book is What Just Happened: 210 Haiku Against the Trump Presidency. We’ll talk about that first.
Roz Why did you choose the haiku form for this material?
David I initially started the series by writing one 15-line poem for each month of Trump’s awful presidency, but he did so many bad things in any given month, I quickly realized that I would have to go week-by-week. Around that point, I remembered David Trinidad’s hilarious Peyton Place: A Haiku Soap Opera in which he’d written one haiku for each episode of that 1960s TV show. I didn’t want my book to turn into an epic, so that seemed like a good model, and I decided to stick to the traditional five-seven-five syllable pattern, which forced me to be careful with every syllable. Haiku purists might have trouble with some of the poems, but my subject matter was anything but pure.
Roz Why is poetry your chosen medium?
David When I was young, I wanted to be a novelist, but although I’ve finished a couple of (thankfully unpublished) novels, I haven’t yet been able to get the hang of it—though I haven’t given up yet. But basically, I became a poet by default. I had a knack for it, and the longer I worked at my craft—it’s been 35 years since I published my first poem—the better I got. At least, I hope that’s the case.
Roz What is poetry? Is it possible to answer this? What do you look for in a poem?
David Just about anything can become a good poem—I’m open to whatever a poet wants to try. But when it comes to the poems I really enjoy reading, they’re usually imagistic, concise and alive to the possibilities of sound. I like to hear assonance and consonance in service of the phrasing.
Roz How did you arrive at this creative career? Were your family in the arts or are you an outlier?
David Both my parents were schoolteachers, and while they valued education, they certainly weren’t big into the arts. I grew up in a lower-middle-class neighbourhood in unexciting Sacramento, California—it wasn’t the sort of place where anyone is expected to write poetry.
Roz Did you enter the world of professional creative writing directly or did you take a longer road?
David I always liked to write, but before I became an academic, I worked for an insurance company for a while. That was pretty miserable.
Roz You’ve got an impressive range of credits, with poetry published in American Scholar, Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, Southern Review and many others. How long did it take to get serious attention for your work?
David I started getting published fairly quickly after I began writing seriously, but that’s probably because I was so persistent in submitting my work. This was back in the mid-80s, when you typed up your poems on a typewriter, used Wite-Out to make corrections, and surreptitiously made copies on the office copy machine.
Roz Were there many rejections? Are there still many rejections?
David Yes, I’ve been rejected countless times, and no doubt there are many more rejections ahead. I think that rejection just means that a writer, especially a poet, is still willing to take risks and experiment, to get things wrong first, before getting them right.
Roz I love that. But I think rejection is different in longform publishing. Certainly a book will be rejected if it needs more work, but it might also be rejected because it doesn’t suit the publisher’s audience.
In your poetry, what are your main themes and concerns?
David I write a lot about family, and though I’ve just called my hometown ‘unexciting’, I frequently draw on the city and surrounding farmlands and foothills for material.
Roz Have these changed over the years?
David As I get older, I’ve begun writing more elegies. And I’m always open to some odd incident or happenstance becoming the germ for a poem. In fact, if I am an “underappreciated” poet, as I read a few years back, it’s partly because my tastes and subject matter are so idiosyncratic. You get a sense of that eccentricity in What Just Happened, which mines another of my favourite themes: politics, in particular America’s perpetually disappointing behaviour, which we saw so clearly during Trump’s reign.
Roz If I could whistle up a time warp, what would Today’s David say to Earlier David?
David I hope I’m more sophisticated and more concise than I was three and a half decades ago, but of course there’s a certain jouissance any young writer has that’s inevitably going to diminish over time. That said, I think tonally my work has been pretty consistent: there’s always lots of irony in a David Starkey poem.
Roz You’ve had 11 poetry collections published with small presses. Tell me about that.
David I completed my MFA in poetry writing at Louisiana State University in 1990, and of course I was hoping I would be the Next Big Thing. I’d received a lot of praise in my graduate program, but there are a lot of graduate programs in creative writing, and more coming online all the time. So, when I didn’t win the Yale Younger Poets prize, or any of its equivalents, I soon realized that my best publication chances were going to come through small presses, which are generally more welcoming to someone like me, who doesn’t excel at schmoozing.
Roz Is it possible to sum up each of your collections in a word or two? If we put them all together, would we see the barometer of David’s life?
David I don’t know that I could sum up each book in a single word, but I’d say the arc has gone from very small micro-presses to those that are more robust in marketing their writers’ work. I think if you read the books from first to most recent, you would get a pretty good sense of what was happening in my life and my general attitude toward things. One big caveat: I write frequently from other people’s perspectives—in fact, I’d say a good half of everything I’ve written is some form of a dramatic monologue. So, the actual details in any given poem might be completely fabricated. And, again, I’m liable to write a poem about anything, so there are a lot of tangents in there.
Roz Let’s talk about editing poets. How does one edit poets? And what do poets look for in an editor?
David I think serious poets want to write the best poem they are capable of writing at that particular moment. A good editor is someone who works with the material that’s already there, who doesn’t try and take over another person’s poem and make it their own.
Roz What about teaching? How does one teach poets? What kind of guidance do they need and seek?
David What young poets need and seek don’t always match up. When poets are first starting out, as they usually are when they take a community college creative writing class, they really benefit from being exposed to lots of different writing that they probably didn’t know existed. For instance, if all you’ve read is sentimental verse celebrating birthdays and anniversaries, or on the other end of the spectrum, you think poetry equals hip-hop, and that’s it, you’re going to be surprised by how many other ways people have found to effectively express themselves. My creative writing textbook is going into its fourth edition this year, and I think part of its success is due to how keen I’ve been to seek out and share a wide variety of new writing, in all genres.
Roz I notice Wikipedia mentions your collection Like a Soprano, based on the TV series. This is such a surprising idea. How did you come to write it?
David The book by David Trinidad that I mentioned earlier was an inspiration for Like a Soprano. However, instead of writing one haiku for each episode, I went with the prose poem, which gave me a lot more flexibility to handle the nuances of the show. I was also thinking of how in centuries gone by poets would write about the gods and heroes, and yet they seem so distant to us now. Our new mythology is formed by television—and movies and video games—and Tony Soprano is a larger-than-life figure for our time.
One of the main characters in the show—Michael Imperioli, who played Christopher Moltisanti—lives in Santa Barbara and was nice enough to write a blurb, so I thought Like a Soprano would make a bigger splash than it did. But it turns out that if you make a Venn diagram, the overlap between viewers of The Sopranos and readers of literary poetry is, alas, pretty small.
Roz The unexpected combination of genres and readerships… This is also a hazard for longform writers. Anyway, tell me about another work of yours that you wish would get more attention.
David It’s the book I published just before What Just Happened. It’s called Dance, You Monster, to My Soft Song, and it contains the best poems I wrote between 2014, when Like a Soprano was published, and 2020. Like so many pandemic-era poetry books, it seems to have been lost in the shuffle.
Roz You founded – or helped to found – the creative writing programme at Santa Barbara City College. How did that happen?
David Prior to my arrival at City College, creative writing was just a couple of classes offered every once in a while. As founding director, I went through all the official curriculum development that a college requires, gave the offerings some structure, set up a reading series, instituted student writing contests, and so forth.
Roz Does this mean you have created your own ideal creative writing programme – and what does that look like?
David I don’t know that it’s my ideal programme. American community colleges are designed to propel students into four-year institutions after just two years, so there’s not a lot of continuity among the student population, but I think it’s done a lot of good over the past 14 years. I just retired a month ago, and it’s been hard to let it go.
Roz You’re a co-editor of Gunpowder Press…
David I started Gunpowder Press back in 2014 because I wanted to publish two books of poetry. The first was by my late friend, David Case, who died when he was just 49. He named me as his literary executor, and I heard from publishers that bringing out a book by a relatively unknown poet who was no longer alive to promote it was a losing proposition for them, no matter how good the poems were.
Then my Santa Barbara friend Chryss Yost had a wonderful first book that she’d been having trouble publishing. As it happened, Chryss was also a whiz at book and web design, and after I published her book, I asked her to come on board as co-editor.
Most of the books we publish are through our annual Barry Spacks Poetry Prize, which is named after Santa Barbara’s first poet laureate. Chryss and I choose our 10 favourite manuscripts then forward them, without names attached, to our final judge, a prominent poet who changes every year. We also have an anthology series, started by Chryss, that features poets of California’s Central Coast.
Roz Also you’re co-editor of the California Review of Books…
David I got the idea for The California Review of Books when our local arts paper, where I’d been publishing book reviews for years, decided to focus only on local writers. I teamed up with Brian Tanguay, another of the paper’s long-time reviewers, and Chryss Yost, and we’ve been publishing reviews since January.
Roz For both, are there any mistakes or shortcomings you see frequently in submissions from authors?
David It’s the standard thing most editors would say: some potential contributors don’t seem to be aware of the type of work we publish. But the submission chances for the two are very different, at least at the moment. Getting even a very good poetry book published by Gunpowder is really difficult, but getting a strong, 1,000-word review published in CRB is absolutely doable.
Roz What have I forgotten? Oh yes, your six textbooks on creative writing, and several other textbooks you’ve edited or contributed to. Do these represent changes or refinements to your teaching approach over the years?
David I think a lot of students, and teachers, dismiss textbooks as a not very important genre of writing, and it’s true some are pretty horrible. However, it’s extraordinarily hard, and time-consuming, to write a good textbook. As my teaching matured, I did become a better—and, yes, more refined—writer of textbooks, certainly since the first one was published in 1999. The older you get, though, the more actively you have to work to place yourself in the mind of a 20-year old student.
Roz What are you working on at the moment?
David I’ve started and stopped several projects since I finished What Just Happened. I usually have a sense after five or six pages that something has the potential to make it to the finish line, and if it doesn’t, I will quickly abandon ship. I like Keats’s thought that ‘If it come not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.’ That doesn’t mean there won’t be plenty of hard work and revision, but I don’t want to feel like I’m swimming upstream—to use my third cliché of this response.
Roz You’re teaching the writers of tomorrow. You’re publishing them too, and your own body of respected work. Are you living the dream?
David I always remind myself how lucky I am to have the time to write at all. Most people are too busy trying to make a living, or simply finding edible food and clean water, to even think about writing poetry. Having the chance to sit down and say what’s on my mind is an incredible luxury. I’m definitely living the dream.
Today I have a guest spot at Muddy Stilettos, talking about five books I can read again and again. I read them chiefly for pleasure, but also with awe and envy.
Writers learn from reading as much as from writing. I can’t tell you the number of times I have advised an editing client: read more. The problems I’ve found in your manuscript would be solved by tuning your awareness through reading. This goes for problems with style, use of back story, dialogue, descriptions, interiority…
Writing prose is not just storytelling, or plotting, or worldbuilding, or character development, or structure management. It is also a performance, like an elaborate magic trick, enacted on the reader’s mind through your use of words. To do it well, you must understand how your reader thinks, what they are interested in, how they are second-guessing you, how they are responding to the visual shape of every sentence, every comma. Some of this can be taught, but a lot is picked up by constant exposure, by reading like writers.
Circling back to the top, here are the five books I nominated at Muddy Stilettos (which I always want to spell with an e, stilettoes). These books were milestones for my latest novel Ever Rest, and they will continue to influence and inspire me, whatever I write. Which books are your eternal teachers? (And do come over. High heels are optional.)
PS If you’re quick, you can enter this giveaway to win a signed print copy of Ever Rest.
If you’re a regular at this blog or you follow my newsletter, you’ll know I’m a huge believer in creative self-editing.
That’s what I’m teaching at this three-part masterclass at Jane Friedman’s online academy. I’ll be delving into the art of self-editing, showing you techniques to evaluate your work, spot opportunities to deepen characters, sharpen the plot, restructure if necessary, strengthen the themes and refine the language – all to help you take a rough manuscript and polish it to professional standards.
The course starts this Thursday (15 April 2021) and continues on the two Thursdays that follow. If those times aren’t convenient, each session will be available as a recording afterwards. Step this way.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.