Guest Post: Out of Your Book Mess and Into Story
I promised you a guest post from Jeffrey Davis, and here it is. Jeffrey would be the first to admit that this post runs a bit long–but I want to tell you that it is worth reading every word! (I wrote a bit about Jeffrey, why I'm promoting his program and his upcoming webinar here.) Enjoy reading!
Out of Your Book Mess and Into Story
Sometimes I get flare calls.
An accomplished art critic calls and says she has a rough manuscript in the works and a book proposal her agent can’t sell. It involves renowned figures. Mounds of research. Book over 9 years brewing.
A business executive calls and says he has a book topic and concept and nearly a hundred blog articles circling around the topic. 2 years percolating.
An MFA grad and writing professor calls and says she has a nearly completed draft of her memoir. 3 years in the making.
Each one of these potential heroes is stuck in the middle of a creative forest.
Being stuck in the middle is frustrating and often lonely. You’ve gone beyond that first-love phase when you were struck by the initial inspiration. You’ve moved solidly into the “stand in love” phase. And how do you find your way out of this mess in a way that feels true and empowering – instead of just compromising?
No easy answers. But I will offer some ideas. We all need help, yours truly not excluded.
Draft to discover. Craft to design.
People get tripped up on drafting versus crafting. Writing is mostly rewriting. Still, drafting and crafting each are essential.
Draft to discover more of what you have to say, what your character has to show you, what that experience 12 years ago possibly means. Your own curiosity will drive you through the middle.
Drafting draws us deep.
To craft to design means you simultaneously learn the art of crafting experiences for readers.
You become a story architect who re-sequences drafted parts in ways to captivate readers. When you remember the captivating books that have cracked you open to new ways of imagining, feeling, and thinking, you can appreciate that those authors have absorbed craft knowledge in ways that let them design experiences for you.
Where’s the heart line?
At a certain point you have to ask, “What’s the heart of this book? What’s the heart of the Story?” You have to know your own heart connection. It’s the tender “why” that drives you to stand in love with this book through the difficult middle. It might be a personal story that you will never share with readers – although you might with a media interviewer when the book comes out.
But a Story, regardless of genre, also has its own heart line. One way out of the middle is to discover and trace the heart line.
A book’s “heart line” – versus the plot line – describes the movement from beginning to middle to end of what happens with the main character’s core yearning. Let’s break that down: Main character? Yearning?
Unless you’re truly exceptional at your craft, I’m only giving you memoirists and novelists one main character per book. The one who has the most at stake to lose. The one whose yearning we most clearly are drawn to care about.
Thought leaders, teachers, journalists, and other trade nonfiction authors, your hero is your targeted reader.
Yearning is what burns in the main character’s heart that he or she deeply desires to be fulfilled. In the film Thelma and Louise, naive and wide-eyed Thelma at first simply wants a taste of freedom away from her good ol’ boy husband for a weekend. In the course of the story, that want bursts into full-blown yearning to be free to be one’s true self.
Maybe your character yearns to feel at home in the world. Maybe he desires to fall madly in love again.
The reader of your trade nonfiction book on health might want to relieve her fatigue, but what she yearns for is vibrancy and vitality.
Your book’s core yearning is also your entryway into your readers’ hearts.
I’ve never been a woman married to a good ol’ boy, but I have felt stuck and compliant in relationships and have yearned for a taste of freedom – and my innate empathy goes out to almost any underdog. Thelma’s yearning becomes my yearning. Now I care and can be moved.
Shape the opening
Many first-time authors don’t want to mess with the opening. They want to start with the Big Bang of drama. But where to go after that? These writers often avoid the delicate art of establishing and sustaining tension.
Once you discover the yearning, you can play with designing your book’s first part laden with tension. Call it the Broken World or Ordinary World. Call it the Prevailing Problem. It’s the story architect’s entryway that situates readers into this world of characters or concepts you’re asking them to inhabit.
The opening subtly introduces the tension among 1) the character’s situation (she’s married to a dolt), 3) her percolating yearning (freedom!), and 3) her resistance (where would she go? what would she do?).
When you discover your character’s yearning plus the external situation and internal resistance that conflicts with that yearning, then you have the makings for unfolding tension in your readers.
Do you only get one yearning? Yes. For now. If your protagonist or reader has three or four or five yearnings, then you haven’t yet done the work of discerning and choosing. After a certain point, the book’s story deserves your decisiveness.
I’m not talking formulas, you rebels (myself included) reading this. I’m talking core, fundamental Story forms that move your readers with a rewarding experience. That’s the craft you’re devoted to learn, hone, and make your own once you’ve drafted to discover these elements.
What is the Tornado Moment?
We human beings are wired to be curious about and to desire change and also to resist change. Isn’t that funny? And irritating?
In a captivating memoir or novel, something surprising happens that changes the protagonist’s course of action. In a captivating trade nonfiction book, a radical idea or a provocative premise comes along to challenge and change the reader’s course of thinking.
Think: A tornado comes along and drops Dorothy in Oz: “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Think: After your character loses her mother, her father, and most of the rest of her family, she makes the craziest decision of her life: to hike the Pacific Coast Trail by herself. (Cheryl Strayed and her memoir Wild.)
Sometimes, this moment in Story is quiet. A decision. Meeting a stranger who becomes an ally. But it arises out of the causal sequencing of the Opening and it launches the character or the reader into the book’s fertile section – the Middle. The Quest.
Then you can better decide what stays in your book and what doesn’t. You clear the middle of clutter.
When if at all is the yearning fulfilled?
Stop the never-ending story. Please.
Look at your drafts and maps. At what point does the character fulfill – or not – that yearning? Dorothy awakens back in Kansas and realizes “There’s no place like home.” Sentimental, maybe, but it moves us. Thelma has her pal gun the convertible gas pedal and launch off the Grand Canyon cliff to reach mythic freeze-frame freedom. Yearning fulfilled.
Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You has a final section that recounts several hero stories of people who have followed their skills to find their passionate work. Yearning fulfilled.
Not everyone in a memoir or novel gets what they want. In trade nonfiction, you’re expected to fulfill your readers’ yearnings. So, if your book has essential concepts or steps, regard them as potential steps toward readers fulfilling their yearning. Then imagine the afterword you can offer.
Know who the real hero is.
It takes vulnerability and courage to send that flare that says, “I need help finding my way out.”
If you’re sticking it out and unravelling the inevitable creative mess of the middle, if you’re willing to finesse your craft on behalf of your Story and the readers who need it, then in my book you are a hero of the highest caliber.
Ultimately, though, you and I know who the real heroes of your potentially captivating book are: your readers. They’re the ones who will love your book in ways you never fathomed and who will be changed or awakened in ways, grand and small.
Your book becomes their magic tool that aids them on their own life’s quest. And that is a wonder.
Jeffrey Davis is founder of the Your Captivating Book Mentorship Program and author of The Journey From the Center to the Page. He and his team help smart-working people shape their Story – in books, platforms, and intentional lives.
Have you ever gotten stuck in the middle of a project before? How did you find your way out?