Tag Archives | books

Cutting the Fat

So, my novel manuscript, the one I’m almost done rewriting, originally came in at over 107,000 words.

I know.      spaghetti_fusilli_pasta_242129_l

Waaaaaay too long.

“But part of it is recipes,” I told myself.

Right. Like maybe 500 words.

Under orders from my agent, I’m in the process of cutting it to under 100K. (I’m currently at 99,378, with about 100 pages yet to comb through, so not bad.) I’ve realized as I do this, a couple of things: 1. that trimming the fat is making it a much better book, and 2. that this is a very inexact process.

All that being said, here are some ideas about how to approach cutting your precious words back:

Keep the noodles on the stove.  My characters love to noodle. To ponder. To think deep thoughts about life. And I, in my efforts to make sure the reader gets it, often have them noodle about the same issue. Over and over and over again. Noodling is one of the easiest things to cut. (A brief aside. I was cooking Mac and Cheese for my three-year-old granddaughter the other day and mentioned that the noodles were on the stove.  “What’s a noodle, Nonni?” she asked. Because only people of a certain age call it anything but pasta. Duh.)

Cut entire scenes or chapters.  This is far and away the most painful thing to do. And the most effective–in my case, I ditched several thousand words in one quick swoop.  It was a chapter I’d added in to supposedly give the reader more insight into a particular character, but much of it was fluff. So I held my breath and slashed it. (Though nothing is ever deleted forever. See my procedural notes below.)

Ditch telling and then showing.  I see this often in my client’s manuscripts.  First they tell us something, then show it.  I thought I was good at not doing this. But hahaha, turns out that’s not only the case. Since my characters love to noodle, they often sometimes think about doing something, then say it in dialogue, and then…gasp…they actually do it.  Thus I am repeating the same thing three times. A good rule of thumb in such situations: dialogue or action is always stronger than thoughts.

Edit out sentences that say the same thing in different ways.  Similar to the above, in my efforts to hit my reader over the head with my brilliance, I say it on way. And then another. And then…oh wait, just in case, let’s try yet another way! Away with all of these repetitious bits.

Keep the momentum moving forward.  It’s easy to unintentionally stall the action.  Here’s an example. My main character, Madeleine, is at a party.  She goes outside to deal with one of the party-goers and then thinks, “Suddenly the prospect of returning to the party wasn’t so appealing.” But I’ve still got a bunch of things that have to happen at the party. Yet she’s letting all the air out by saying that. This also happens when writers build up to a scene, say an argument between husband and wife, and then don’t end the scene without writing the argument.

If something is niggling at you, pay attention to it.  Sometimes it happens that a little thought comes into your head along the lines of you should go back to chapter 14 and look at what Richard says. But you ignore it. Because, you’re way beyond chapter 14 and who wants go go back? But that thought keeps niggling at you. Pay attention. This happened to me earlier today and after I dragged my metaphorical feet long and hard, I finally went back–and rewrote a chunk of the chapter. It’s much stronger now.

That’s it for the actual wordsmithing.  But below find a couple of procedural tips:

Keep a hold file.  This is an extra file in which I copy and paste the gems I’m cutting.  I’ve done this for years, so that I’m certain to hang onto my brilliance. However, I learned a better way to make sure I don’t panic when I highlight vast swaths of copy and hit delete. And that is:

Save a new file every day.  I do this by date: BCRewriteFour8.25.16. And so on, through all the days I’m working on it.  Then you know you can always go back to what you wrote the day before and your brain won’t tell you that you can’t delete those delicately beautiful words because the world will suffer if you do. (I learned this tip from Rachael Herron.)

What are you working on? Doing any rewriting? Got any tips to share? Please do!

(Photo by brokenarts.)

2

Dog Days of Summer and Rewriting

wasp_macro_wasp_243277_lI’m back. It didn’t seem like much of a hiatus, at least from this end. And I’m still not finished with the rewrite. But I’m making excellent progress and feel very good about it.  (And, so you don’t think I’m all fakey optimistic, let me just remind you that I sat out most of July working on it because I didn’t know how to approach it.)

I have a couple of brilliant thoughts on rewriting to share, but first, let me tell you a few fun things that happened while I was gone:

  • I got a bee sting while valiantly defending my three-year-old granddaughter from said bee. Her mother is allergic, and we’re not yet sure if Liv is. She’s been stung once, but often the allergic reaction doesn’t occur until the second or third sting. I sure didn’t want to be responsible for anything happening, so I was glad the bee stung me. But it turns out I’m having a fairly intense localized reaction, with my arm red and swollen to about the size of an elephant’s leg. And it itches like a mo-fo.
  • I have a dying root in a tooth. If you’ve never experienced this, it is hard to explain the agony.  And I thought being pummeled by my massage therapist was bad. Also, a helpful note: do not get a toothache in August because every dentist in town is on vacation.  I’m in between dentists because I needed to find a holistic one, aka, one who will not fill my mouth full of mercury. I already have plenty, thank  you very much, and I just went on a nasty three-month cleanse to get rid of it.  Anyway, I have an appointment two weeks hence. Meanwhile, I’m swishing with coconut oil and Listerine and salt water, and using clove oil and Orajel. Also taking lots of ibuprofen, which I know is terrible for me but c’mon, this pain is intense.

Aren’t I a fun date?

Okay, now that we’ve gotten that over with, on to the gems of wisdom about rewriting. Here goes:

  • Every book is its own beast.  You have to honor the shape of what you have, you really do, and listen to how the book responds as you work. Some planned changes just may not work when you actually get to it. For instance, I figured out this elaborate backstory for one of the characters that was just perfect. I planned to fit it in in dribs and drabs. But when I actually got to places it might go, it didn’t fit.  So I had to let it go.
  • Rewriting happens in macro swaths, such as rethinking a character, but the meat of it is in the micro. How a character reacts to the character you’ve rethought, for instance, which you show in dialogue or action.  I’m struck this time through what makers of magic we are–erase one observation from a character’s head and you’ve changed the whole scene. Amazing. Which reminds me of something that used to happen all the time when I was in a writer’s group. I’d bring in a rewrite and people would wax poetic about how much better it was–when really all I’d done was change one or two tiny little things. But that’s the power we wield.
  • It really helps to have someone you can hash out ideas with. I was truthfully sort of scared of my agent at first, but this time through we’ve talked a couple times and emailed about what I’m doing. Also, when Debbie and I went on our writing retreat, we discussed our stories on breaks and at night. It really helps.  Find someone with whom you can brainstorm–or just moan and whine to.

Okay, that’s it, that’s all I’ve got for now. I’m going to go take some more Ibuprofen and ice my elephant’s leg arm. But, I’ve missed you. So please tell me what you’ve been doing this summer and how the writing is going.

Photo by hberends.

4

Well Hey, Otherwhere, It’s Nice to See You Again!

I’ve been remiss in providing you with Otherwhere links for quite some time now. The problem is not that I don’t have enough, it’s that I have too many.  And when I start to corral them, I get overwhelmed.  Okay. Deep breath. Here we go (and forgive me if they are not in any particular order):

Finding your voice from Jen Louden (she’s doing a cool self-guided retreat on this, too.

Having empathy for characters not like you

The Ultimate Summer Reading Flowchart

Three Easy Edits for Better Emotional Impact 

When You Don’t Want to Write

How to Get Unstuck

Great Advice and Ideas from Asian-American Writer’s Workshop

8 Literary Gardens to Escape to This Summer

How I Organize My Time, Tasks, and Creative Ideas (from Sandra Pawula)

Okay, I could go on…and on…and on. But my cats are begging me to feed them and besides, this ought to be enough to keep you busy for awhile, no? Do weigh in on what you’re looking at on the web in the comments.

4

Otherwhere: March 7

carrousel_evening_lights_223804_l

The writer’s life is a mad carnival ride

No snappy titles today, but I’ve got lots of great writing links for you. So let’s get right to it.

Are you trying to ride the news cycle with your current novel? Might not be the best idea.

I gotta admit, sometimes I wonder about this: is writing fiction a worthy endeavor?

What is your story about? When an editor asked me this, it clarified everything. (But then, I can be a bit slow on the uptake.)

How to read more!

Ever thought about applying for a grant for your writing?

The writer’s outlook on life.

Sharing is caring.

Marketing, then and now.

Maybe this is what’s wrong with my current WIP.

My son and daughter-in-law saw Hamilton last November and have been obsessed ever since. What you can learn from it.

Larry Brooks on structure and other things.

Do you need a pen name?

And finally, the seven things a writer needs to make a living.

What have you been reading around the web this past week?

 

Photo by manitou.

 

4

Five on Friday: Marching Into Spring

My library books, with bonus gorilla.

My library books, with bonus gorilla.

How about that title? Clever, huh? Marching into spring…and it’s March this week….I know, you are way ahead of me, you got it on first read.  Anyway. It truly is spring here, with daffodils and crocus and daphne popping out all over, along with my favorites, the pink plum trees.  We’ve had some lovely warm temperatures, too.  Soon we’ll be sitting outside every evening.  Can’t wait.  In the meantime, here’s what’s been going on:

What I’m reading: I’ve had this huge stack of books from the library, because, as I’ve noted before, I put them on hold and then they all come in at once.  But a funny thing I’ve noticed is that when I have so many books, none of them appeal to me. Proving once and for all that too much of anything is not a good thing.  So yesterday I piled most of the library books in a bag to take back and  last night I started a book I bought at our publishing workshop a couple weeks ago, called The Tale of Oat Cake Crag (try saying that several times in a row) by Susan Witting Albert.  The main character is none other than Beatrix Potter.  So far, so good. I’m also finishing a memoir called The Unlikely Lavender Queen, by Jeannie Ralston, which I found on the library staff picks shelf.

What everyone is talking about: Toxic air in Portland. Ugh.

What I’m going to watch:  I swear to God on a stack of bibles (as we used to say when we were kids) that I’m going to watch Spotlight this weekend if it kills me.  Seeing as how it is now available on demand, this ought to be easy to accomplish. We’ll see.  We have a terrible track record of actually seeing movies, because social events and life gets in the way.  An interesting side note: as you know, the movie is about the Boston scandal about priests molesting children and how reporters covered it.  But years before that even happened, here in Portland, my hairdresser at the time was the first to sue a priest because of abuse.  He was really brave to do it, because at first he was roundly vilified on talk radio and in the media.  Until something like 20 other men came forward and said that they, too, had been abused.  I’ve lost track of Joseph over the years, but I’ve always been proud of what he did.

What I’m writing: I turned in the rewrite of my macaron novel to my agent and she’s turned it into the editor who is interested.  So while I hold my breath I’ve returned to the novel I said I wasn’t going to finish.  I’m now determined to get to the end of it, even if it kills me, which it might. In the meantime, I’m having some interesting thoughts about finishing things. Blog post to follow.

What I’m doing on Wednesday nights: Debbie and I run a writing group every other Wednesday night. It is pretty kick ass, if I do say so myself, but not because of Debbie or me–it’s because of our amazing writers.  On alternate weeks, I go knitting at open knitting night at Close Knit.  Which is great fun in a different way, especially because several of us meet at the CruzRoom for Happy Hour ahead of time.  I love the variety of knitters that appear–some old, some young, lots in between.  Some are experienced knitters cranking out accomplished projects and some are brand new.

That’s it! That’s all I got. What is going on with you? What are you reading, watching, writing?

Photo courtesy of my husband.

4

Otherwhere: January 16, 2016

6a00d8341cb7f353ef01b7c6cefc78970b-320wiFirst of all, can you believe it is the middle of January already? Geesh, time flies.  I guess being out of town the first week of the month made it fly all the faster.  By the way, my wise meditation teacher has a theory on why we think that time goes faster as we age: because we’ve done the same things so many times that we are doing them mindlessly.  And if we took the time to do them mindfully, time would slow down again. I don’t know about you, but I’m constantly struggling to be more mindful, so this is good impetus.

Anyway, there’s lots going on around the interwebs this month, even if it is January.  When I was a kid, I hated January.  It seemed do depressing and blah after the holidays.  Now I see it differently–and I love it.  The month feels clean and fresh to me, and the unlimited blank canvas of the year stretches before me.   I’m thinking up ideas for books and content, and getting inspired about things I can do.  Accordingly, I’ve got a mixed bag of links today.  (Oh, when do I have anything but a mixed bag? It is just the way my brain works.)

Writing

How to tell if a subplot is leading you astray, by the always-reliable Janice Hardy.

Stealing time.  We all need more of it!

Creating strong female protagonists.  Always a concern of mine.

The importance of play.

How to find the meaning of life through writing.  Victoria Mixon, author of this post, is listed on the link below.  Nice bit of synchronicity.

Larry Brooks on his rabid belief in story structure.  He will hunt you down and kill you if you don’t follow his method exactly. Or at least that’s how his writing comes off.  He drives me nuts, but he does make some good points, though his bombastic voice often makes me resist his advice.

A list of the best writing blogs.  Some of these are very familiar to me (and probably you), but others, not so much. I can’t quite figure out why they refer to all of them as “copywriting” blogs, though.  Ah well, its a great reference.

Marketing

Creating your author brand.  This relates four easy steps to take. I like.

How to boost your freelance income with a blog.

Making money from your poetry.  I’m still dubious, but the article has some good ideas.

Guilty Pleasures/Time Sucks

I’m in love with a mad Russian and his name is Eugene Kaspersky.  He’s the head of an international cyber-security firm and he flies around the world in his spare time, which is always.  Goes to obscure places (Kamchatka, anyone?) and takes tons of great photos, which he accompanies with wry commentary.

That’s it, that’s all I’ve got.  Have a great weekend and share any great links, writing-related or otherwise, you might come across–including your very own blog!

12

Five on Friday: Happy New Year!

Star_Wars_The_Force_AwakensAfter an absence of, oh a couple weeks, here I am, back with another Five on Friday.  That is if I can find the notes I wrote once I got inspired about this post.  Ah, here we are.  I’ve got piles of papers all over my office because I’m organizing things for the new year.  And then my cat comes and sits on things and that doesn’t help much either.  But anyway.  Here goes:

What we did for New Year’s Eve: Went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens (which I loved), ate take-out Italian and drank red wine, and fell asleep on the couch after having a New York New Year’s (i.e., watching the live version of the ball dropping, which occurs at 9 PM on the west coast).  It was a perfect evening.

What I wanted to finish last year and didn’t: The first draft of my current WIP, a novel.  But seeing as how I started it when we were in France in September and have only about 20K words to go, I’m not too upset.  I may be when I look back over it, though.  It is one helluva messy draft and by messy I mean plot holes big enough to drive a truck through, boring characters, loose ends that don’t tie together.  This, my writing friends, is why God invited rewriting.  Or so I tell myself.  Oh, and I also have a couple knitting projects I dearly wanted to complete but didn’t.  Maybe because I keep falling asleep on the couch at night, my knitting time.

Where I’m headed next week: To Nashville, for Room to Write.  We’ve got a couple spaces left if you live in the area (or even if you don’t) and would like to devote some time solely to your writing.  Great way to start the year!  There’s more information here.  And please join me in beseeching the universe to cure my sinus infection before then otherwise I’m not quite sure how I’ll cope on the plane. laskey_w

What I’m reading: I just finished Shonda Rhimes Year of Yes, which I highly recommend.  (In case you don’t know who she is, she is responsible for the TV shows Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, among others, and, as she says in the book, is dedicated to normalizing the characters we see on TV–i.e. including women, minorities, LGBT, etc.)  The book is worth reading to study her style alone.  She is funny and engaging and she uses a lot of repetition for effect.  But it is also very inspiring–after dedicating herself to saying yes to everything, even things that scare her, she loses 100 pounds, gives the commencement speech at Dartmouth, and many more.

I’m also reading The Book of Speculation, by Erika Swyler, which is cool. There are mermaids who die mysteriously, weird old books, tarot cards, and an ancient house about to fall into the Long Island Sound.  I’m not 100% engaged with it quite yet, but I think I will be.

And finally, I’m reading Home Baked by Yvette Van Boven.  Yes, I’m reading a cookbook.  At least parts of it.  She’s got bits and pieces about flour and other ingredients and I’ve already learned so much.  (Like, the fact that baking powder is basically just baking soda and cream of tartar and you can make your own.)  It is a beautifully designed cookbook (including photos of Ireland and the author’s illustrations) with tons of great recipes in it.

What I wish for you: A very happy and productive 2016, with tons of writing in it, naturally!

What’s going on for you this first day of the new year?

10

Five Things on Friday: July 17, 2015

Ngfood_ngobj_food_228316_lIt's another Five Things on Friday post.  Admit it, you woke up this morning just dying to hop on over here and read the latest one.  Well, here it is.

What I'm Reading:  Still working on a couple of books from last week, including Leaving Time. Don't tell them, but its due today at the library and its going to be late.  I would say it is pretty good, but I'm skimming a bit here and there in order to get through it.  I've been doing that with books more and more lately.  The impatience of old age (see below).  I'm also still working on Alexandra Fuller's  Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness and I still haven't forgiven her for not having a website.   The lack of forward motion in that one has slowed me down.  I am, however, reading her most recent one, Leaving Before the Rains Come, which came in at the library and liking it better.  Because there's conflict aplenty, as in money trouble and divorce, and we all know that lots of conflict makes for great reading.

I'm also reading Stones of Consciousness, for research purposes, and Radical Acceptance, by Tara Brach.  Yeah, I've got a million books going at once.  I see a book I want to read and put a hold on it at the library and then all the holds come in at once.  Haven't quite figured out how to get the flow working better.

What I'm Thinking About: My novel, The Bonne Chance Bakery, which is currently being considered by a list of 20 excellent publishers.  Think good thoughts!  And I'm pondering my next novel.  I finally, as of yesterday, figured out a loose outline of the first segment.  I've been writing and writing, wondering how it would all come together.  More like praying it would all come together.  This is a testament to the idea that you should just keep writing, because it does work eventually.

What I'm Watching: I bet you're expecting me to wax poetic about some golden age of television show.  Ha! Not a chance.  I'm currently totally into American Ninja Warrior and America's Got Talent.  Summer nights, I need something light and frothy.  I also have the Woody Allen movie Vicky Christina Barcelona in the queue because we will be in Barcelona in September for a few days.

What I'm Complaining About:  Well, nothing at the moment.  It's summer.  Life is good.  Okay, maybe I'll bitch about the fact that my son's dog, who is here for the day, barks at EVERYTHING OUTSIDE THAT MOVES. And maybe some things that don't.  This is a dog who barks at jet contrails, after all.

What I'm Celebrating:  My birthday.  It's today.  I'm old.  And I love it.  As I always say, the alternative, being 6 feet under, is worse.  I take issue with all those people who say aging is awful. Yeah, the body has its issues, but the mind and emotions are better than ever.   I intend to live to be 100 and love almost every minute of it.

 That's it.  That's all I've got.  What's going on with you this Friday?

Photo by ngould.

5

Book Review: Step Out of Your Story

Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your Life by Kim Schneiderman

Bookcover1-194x300Once again, the wonderful folks at New World Library have offered me a book to review.  And once again, I'm making slow progress through it because I keep stopping to ponder and do the exercises. I found the receipt of this book particularly serendipitous because shortly before it arrived, I announced that I was pondering offering a class on a similar topic.  (And I'm, um, not anywhere near being done with that little effort.)

So, I bet you're dying to know what the book is about, aren't you?  It is called Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your Life by Kim Schneiderman.  (While it cursorily discusses the various aspects of writing a story, this book is aimed at you rewriting your own life story, not the Great American Novel.)

Since I'm making slow progress through the book (a good thing), I decided to offer you and interview with the author, who can talk about it better than I can!  Here goes:

 What does it mean to “step out of your story?” and how does one do that?

As I write in the opening chapter of my book, “every life is an unfolding story, a dynamic, unique, purposeful, and potentially heroic story with bright spots, turning points, and abounding opportunities for personal growth and transformation.” Most people, when I present this idea to them, accept this to be true. And yet, many people don’t think about what that means. Until something happens that challenges their outlook on life, few take the time to explore the character they’re playing, what their story is about, who’s writing their script, and how the challenges they face can help them develop the insights and skills they need to move to the next chapter.

Stepping out of your story means being able to step outside your life to view it from a novel perspective, both literally and figuratively. That means seeing yourself as the hero of your story, and understanding how all of the classic story elements, especially your antagonists, might be conspiring to help you grow, as many protagonists do over the course of the narrative. Looking at your life this way can also help you embrace plot twists as opportunities to change your life.

Does how we tell our story matter? And if there are infinite ways to tell our stories, is there a best way?

Absolutely. Telling our story is a fundamental way that we come to know ourselves and make meaning of our live. We are constantly sifting through various competing narratives to make sense of our world for ourselves and others. Whether you consider yourself a heroic figure overcoming obstacles or a tragic victim of destiny often depends on how you choose to read the text of your life and the way that you tell your story. We might even describe suffering, in part, as the result of a storytelling deficit, a failure to find a good filing system that organizes the details of one’s life into a meaningful cause-and-effect narrative, which results in an incoherent or distorted story.

While there may not be a best way, there are certainly better ways to tell your story than others. My book proposes telling your story as a personal growth adventure, using the classic story structure to reframe challenges as stepping-stones to a more authentic self and richer life. The classic story elements – protagonist, antagonist, plot, climax, etc. – serve as the architecture of a story. Once we understand how each element of the story scaffolding supports directs and supports the protagonist’s character development, we can use “the story lens on life” to reconstruct a powerful, coherent narrative from the raw materials of our lives.

What does it mean to become a good reader of the text of our lives and how can that help us?

How we “read,” or rather interpret, our story affects how we feel about ourselves, which can influence how our lives unfold. For example, reframing the story of a cancer diagnosis as a tale of finding new sources of resilience and deeper connections with loved ones feels very different from telling the story as one of divine punishment or meaningless misery. In fact, studies show that a positive narrative, and the feelings they engender, can influence prognosis. Similarly, seeing a failed relationship as a lesson in intimacy, resilience, and humility will make us feel a whole lot better, and emotionally ready for our next relationship, than shaping the story as one of self-sabotage and personal worthlessness.

This interpretative lens implies that we value character development in ourselves as much as we value it in the books we read and movies we watch. It entails seeing every person and situation that shows up in your narrative as a personal growth opportunity and recognizing the subtle, often unrecognized personal victories that build character — such as facing a fear, changing an attitude, or kicking a bad habit. This is not necessarily how society traditionally measures success. But or psychotherapists and writers, these kinds of changes mark meaningful progress in someone’s lifelong development, whether that person is a client or an imagined character.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you’re unemployed, and you tell yourself the story that this is just another crappy situation that defines your very difficult life. You ask yourself, “Why does this always happen to me?” Then you finally land a job interview. What happens? If you haven’t eradicated your victim story, it may unintentionally seep out during your interview through your tone and word choice, or you may secretly sabatoge yourself. This may lead you to botch the interview, which causes more suffering and only confirms your negative story.

However, what if you saw the antagonist (in this case, unemployment) of the current chapter in your life (a chapter you might entitle “A Thousand Resumes”) as the necessary force that is pushing you to grow in new ways: perhaps that you are in fact ambivalent about this career path or that you tend to get easily discouraged. In a way, this antagonist is like a personal trainer, and this conflict is the force challenging you to develop your confidence or to become clear about your career direction.

Suddenly, as you exercise control over how you view your situation, the time between jobs becomes an invitation to work on yourself and build your muscles. Through this lens, you might say to yourself, “If I were reading this chapter in a book about the story of my life, I might appreciate that unemployment is nudging me — the protagonist — to get more organized and keep persevering in the face of adversity. I can choose to embrace that challenge, and forge ahead, or drain myself of valuable energy by sinking into discouragement.” Cast in this light, the power of interpretation via the story lens on life offers a powerful elixir for heartbreaks, disappointments, and existential angst.

Does putting a positive spin on your story make it less truthful?

We spin our stories all the time. Every time we open our mouths we make choices about how to tell a tale. Depending on your audience, we may emphasize certain aspects of the story over others, or omit certain details that seem irrelevant, inappropriate, or too complicated to explain. As we tell it over and over, we might remember certain parts we had forgotten initially, or new insights might lead us to spin the story in a totally different direction.

Is one version more truthful than another? Who’s to say? And how does one define truth? Is the objective experience of the things that happen – what I call the “outer story” any more truthful than the feelings we have about what happens – what I call the “inner story?” Some people tend to favor one of these two storytelling styles. But both are “true,” as far as they are meaningful, when it comes to understanding the totality of a person’s experience. That’s why for me, it’s less important whether a story is truthful, than whether it’s personally constructive.

Finally, there are ways to find the redemptive storyline without whitewashing over unpleasant circumstances, repressing feelings, or discounting important life lessons. By reframing your story as a personal growth adventure that identifies the ways you’ve grown as the protagonist of your narrative, there is room for all manner of feelings and experiences, which imbue the story with richness and texture. And the fuller the story, the more it approximates something resembling the truth.

Is there any research to support the efficacy of the third-person storytelling exercises in Step Out of Your Story?

A number of psychological studies in recent years illustrate that recalling past events or thinking about yourself in the third person helps you see yourself through kinder, more compassionate eyes. The reason is that the third person voice creates emotional distance between you and the circumstances of your life, enabling you to see the larger story with greater objectivity. For example, University of California and University of Michigan researchers used a psychologically distancing vantage point when asking participants to reflect on negative memories. Not only did participants report less emotional pain, less rumination, improved problem solving, and greater life satisfaction when discussing matters in the third person, they also gained new insights into those memories without feeling as emotionally overwhelmed. Similarly, in a Columbia University study, students were asked to describe recently upsetting thoughts or feelings, and these bad memories were recalled with less hostility by those using the third-person perspective. In an Ohio State University study, students who recalled humiliating moments in high school in the third-person narrative were more likely to describe themselves as having overcome obstacles than those who recalled similarly embarrassing moments from a first-person perspective. The study concluded that feeling like you’ve changed gives you the confidence and momentum to act in ways that support a perceived new and improved self.

It’s also worth noting that all of this research is aligned with narrative therapy technique known as “externalization,” which uses psychological distancing techniques to prevent people from over-identifying with their problems.

Do people need to be good writers to do the exercises you offer in your book?

No. As I tell my students, your masterpiece of living doesn’t have to be a masterpiece of writing. The exercises are designed for anyone who can compose a simple sentence. The goal is not writing well; the goal is self-discovery. The goal is to write powerfully and authentically. In my experience facilitating workshops, I’ve noticed that the written equivalent of stick-figure drawings may actually teach us more about ourselves than carefully crafted (and controlled) adult sentences. Words-smithing can be about the ego, which I’m trying to help people transcend via the third person narrative. That being said, people for whom writing comes naturally sometimes use the exercises as prompts to get really creative, and have subsequently written some beautiful pieces.

Obviously, no one can predict the future. How then is it possible to predict your own character arc?

One of the ways I help readers get a sense of their character arc is by completing a character sketch of themselves in the third person narrative, assuming the role of both author and protagonist. A character sketch is a technique that helps authors flesh out the personalities and interior world of the protagonist before embarking on a novel. It involves answering a series of imaginative questions that paint a holographic picture of how the protagonist might evolve over the course of the plotline. The character sketch presumes that the protagonist is the soul of every narrative and the engine that runs the story. So, too, I want my readers to understand more deeply who they are as evolving protagonists. The more they understand about who they are, what they’re made of, and what’s driving them, the more they’ll get a sense of where they’re heading.

How can the antagonists of our stories help us grow? Can’t they also bring us down?

Many of us don’t think twice about pushing ourselves to the point of pain and exhaustion at the gym. Yet when life pushes us to exercise our emotional, spiritual, and mental muscles, we often would prefer lighter, gentler, no-impact routines. However, until we are willing to build these character development muscles, we will remain somewhat stunted in our growth, unable to actualize the full strength of what we are capable of, whether in our career, relationships, or communities.

That’s why antagonists are an important part of our story. They are like the personal trainers who push us beyond our perceived limitations to develop our flabby, underutilized emotional muscles. As with a personal trainer, we might openly swear or grin through gritted teeth. We might assign the person sadistic aspirations, thinking the trainer wants to harm or destroy us. But if we read between the lines, whether we like it or not, our antagonist can help us strengthen the underdeveloped areas within ourselves. By definition, they force us to stretch beyond our perceived limitations to discover the true depth of our own capacity to love, succeed, and overcome obstacles.

That’s not to say that we should seek out conflict for personal growth’s sake or use character development as an excuse to endure chronically painful or unpleasant circumstances. Constant pain is a sign that something is amiss. Yet any workout should include a little discomfort so we increase our flexibility to handle more intense situations with greater degrees of ease. It reminds me of something a dance teacher once told me: “Sometimes, when you begin to stretch, your muscles scream ‘no, no, no’ — they don't think they can handle the tension because it's never been asked of them before. But as you gradually ease into the pose, they relax and discover an untapped capacity for elasticity.”

Why do you ask readers to focus on the current chapter, rather than asking them to reframe something that happened in the past or look at their whole life?

While exploring the influence of the past on the present can help us understand ourselves better, we can also get bogged down in old storylines — instead of visiting the past, we might pitch camp there or continue to circle the same old beaten tracks.

The present, however, is the place where change becomes possible. It is the precise moment in the story when you, as the protagonist of your story, can take action and grow. One of the foundational exercises I ask readers to complete is to name and describe the current chapter. From there, I help them reconstruct their story element by element. Eventually, they reassemble these pieces into an empowering new narrative about where they are and where they’re heading. And here is the beauty of this process: once we name our current chapter, distinguishing it from previous chapters within our larger narrative, we may see how the present moment offers possibilities to embrace a new reality and further develop our character. This new awareness can help us get a fresh perspective on areas where we might feel stuck, reframing life's inevitable trials and tribulations as purposeful experiences that won't last forever.

Kim Schneiderman, LCSW, MSW, is the author of Step Out of Your Story. She counsels in private practice and teaches as a professor and guest lecturer at venues including New York University. She also writes a biweekly advice column for Metro Newspapers and blogs for Psychology Today. Visit her online for more information.

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Books I Read In May

Nightingale_hc_lgI can't figure out what's going on.  I know I read a ton last month, but I can't seem to bring any of the titles into my mind.  (As soon as I press publish on this post they will flood into my brain.)  So here's a quick list of the books I remember:

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah.  This is on the best-seller lists and is getting a lot of buzz, and deservedly so.  It's quite good.  I learned history from it, too, such as the fact that gazillions of people evacuated Paris when the Nazis first occupied it.  And I was reminded of the hardships that Europeans faced during World War II.

That's the only novel I can think of that I read recently, and I usually inhale novels like crazy.  But, I have been dipping in and out of a lot of writing books.  I don't so much read them cover to cover, because they have inspiration and exercises in them that lead me to the page.

Wild Women, Wild Voices by Judy Reeves.  I wrote a whole review of this book here.  I'm still working with it for journaling ideas and I like it a lot.  Its not so much a book that's going to help you with plotting or characterization, but more the basic writing stuff, like expressing yourself on the page.

The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson.  This is a book that will help you with your plotting (and there's some info on characterization as well).  I bought it on a trip to Seattle and wrote more about it here.

Naming the World, edited by Bret Anthony Johnston.  This is most definitely not a book you sit down and read cover to cover, because it is a book of writing exercises.  (Although each exercise is preceded by an essay from the author who submitted it.)  Good stuff in here.

Into the Woods by John Yorke.  This is a book on structure and I am loving it.  I ordered it from a bookseller in England (through Amazon) and it took forever to get here and then my husband set the envelope aside under a pile of mail so it took even longer for me to actually find it, but it was worth the wait.  An amazing, excellent book on structure, and its readable, too.  I embedded a video below of him relating "how all storytelling has worked since the beginning of time" at Google UK.

All this reading on story structure has led me to another activity: going to movies.  More on that in my next post.  In the meantime, what have you been reading?

Previous months posts are (which I offer in case you need recommendations):

Books I Read in April (and Part of May)

Books I've Been Reading

Books I Read in January

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