Ah, yes, better late than never. It is Saturday, albeit nearly time for Happy Hour in my neck of the woods, and here is my latest collection of writing prompts for you. I've not been dallying around, I've been teaching all day–a fine group of local students who showed up despite forecasted temperatures of 102 degrees. The good news is that the temps haven't been quite that high and all the attendees were wonderful. So here are the prompts:
#330 She grabbed the envelope, tore it open and then shrieked in ______________ (delight, horror, sadness, laughter, etc.)
#331 The explosion woke her from a sound sleep.
#332 I once knew someone who ate a candy bar and washed it down with a Coke every afternoon. This ended when he was diagnosed with diabetes. And then there was the friend who I watched eat a whole half a pie one night. He was a recovering alcoholic.
Does your main character have a sweet tooth? How does this manifest in his or her life?
#333 Ocean or mountains? Which does your main character prefer?
#334 Life’s a bitch, and then you die. True, or not true? What does your main character think?
#335 If your main character were to choose one word that would sum him or her up, what would it be?
#336 Choose yourself a council of mentors. They can be dead or alive. Write about why each one of them inspires you. Now do the same for your main character.
Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your Life by Kim Schneiderman
Once 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.
I've been writing again–this morning, 2,000 words in an hour, words that came easily and almost effortlessly. This, after noodling around, trying to decide which novel idea to pick up next. (I've got four of them churning around in my brain.)
I'm also a tad bit distracted, because my agent is sending my current novel,The Bonne Chance Bakery out to publishers this week. No big deal. Not. (I don't expect to hear anything for quite awhile, because one thing I'm learning about this process is that everything takes longer than I think it will. Sort of like home remodeling. But I will keep you posted, I promise.)
Anyway, it feels so good to be writing again. So freaking good. And for it also to feel like I'm working on a project that is flowing, if you know what I mean. I've made starts on the other novels and while I have made some progress they didn't quite have the feel of this one–the feeling that the story is right there at my fingertips, that my hands can't range across the keyboard fast enough. I get an idea for something else in the chapter and pause only to make a quick note because I'm going so fast I'll lose the thread otherwise.
That kind of writing.
And guess what? It all came from prompts. I've written three chapters so far and when I looked back on them this morning I realized they had all started with a prompt. I'm sort of like the Prompt Queen, because I push them on others so much (including publishing a weekly collection of them here), but sometimes I forget to use them myself. (The shoemaker's children have no shoes.) But recently, in going through a cupboard in my office, I found a box of prompts I'd made long ago. I rescued it and stationed it on my desk and I've been pulling prompts as starters for this novel. Clearly, it's working.
Here are a couple thoughts on the process of using a prompt to make forward progress on a WIP:
1. Choose at random. Close your eyes and metaphorically pull a prompt from whatever kind of prompt box you keep. Or run your finger down a selection of prompts and use whatever one it lands on. And then don't change your mind! Just use it! One of my best pieces–what will likely be the opening of the novel–came from a prompt I hated. I almost put it back and chose another one, but decided to use it.
2. Start fresh every day. I've been easing myself back into writing the next novel. If I think too hard about it, I freak myself out. As in, this one has to be better than the last! Now that I have an agent, everything I do has to be top notch! And so it kinda works better to pretend that I'm just goofing around. I open a new file every day and I don't call it anything like a chapter. I label it Daily Writing and then the date. Then I write the prompt and go for it.
3. Use prompts from previous writings. (Can't call them chapters, remember.) This morning I used the last line of the previous day's work.
4. Let your brain wander where it will. That's the beauty of prompts–yours may be about flowers in the garden and you end up writing about sailing on the sea. That is a little less likely to happen when you're attempting to make forward progress on a long project, but your hands may still take you unexpected places. Let them. Those often turn out to be the jewels. And God invented the delete key for those times when they don't.
5. Do timed spurts. I'm still a huge believer in this. Set your phone timer for 30 minutes and when it goes off, get your ass up and take a stroll around your office. Or do a couple lunges. Or stretch. It's important to get up. When things are not going well, 30 minutes seems like an eternity and when I'm done, its, yay, now I can quit. This morning, I promptly (ha!) thought, I'm going to do another one. And then another. 2,000 words later I was a happy writer.
I think I'm going to add some prompts to my prompt box, maybe cutting up old manuscripts or cutting out lines from magazines. I like having it sitting on my desk because then I, um, remember to use it.
So, I've probably asked you this before, but what the heck, I'll do it again: do you use prompts for your writing?
But as I've been concentrating fiercely on my rewrite the last couple of weeks, I've realized some things that are working well for me–and things that I'm learning. I'm hopeful these miscellaneous tips will be of value to you, too, so here they are.
1. Getting up every 30 minutes (or so) makes a HUGE DIFFERENCE. I've been at my desk a lot lately, for longer stretches than usual, and I've been consciously getting up regularly and walking around and stretching. One day last week I didn't do this–and I felt completely difference at the end of the day. The romantic image we have of writers requires us to be so wrapped up in our work that we sit for hours. But actually you will feel better and do better work if you get your butt up off the chair.
2. Your main character needs an origin story. Just as superheroes have stories about how they got their superpowers, your protagonist (and probably others in the story, too) needs an origin story. How did she get her obsession for fashion? Why did he become a detective? Did he watch his best friend get killed and vow to avenge him? Figure this out and you've unlocked your character. This deserves a whole post and will get one when I'm done with my rewrite.
3. Use more description than you think you need. I mentioned about how I've been learning this as I rewrite to my agent's notes. And I am finding that more description makes for a fuller, richer read. (Bear in mind that I'm writing women's fiction, and lush description is a huge part of it. In another genre, this might not be so.) Also, as my buddy J.D. Frost brilliantly pointed out to me in an email, you can use description to pace your plot. A lot of it signals a restful spot. A lack of it shows action.
4. Having long stretches of time to write is a wonderful thing. I'm the original proponent of using little bits of time here and there to write when you can, but for this rewrite, I've gotten in the habit of clearing away whole days to work. (See #5.) Let me tell you, it is fantastic, especially when you are working on a rewrite and need to hold the whole book in your head. Having more than one or two hours at a time to devote to the book gives me the mental space to dig deep into character arcs and figure out a more cohesive plot.
5. You have more time to write than you think. I have a lot of clients at the moment. They are all wonderful and diligent and doing good work, and I adore every single one. (I really, truly do–I am constantly amazed and honored to be chosen to shepherd a writer's creation.) And, they all need my care and tending: reading their work and then time on the phone to discuss. I'm also planning three in-person workshops (France here, Nashville here, Portland is already full). And I have a clamoring family that I love to let distract me. Yet I've carved out four full days to devote to my rewrite in the last week. I never would have thought I could do that I've you'd told me so in January. But I did it, by working really, really hard on the other days and carefully managing appointments. It is working so well, I'm going to continue to do this even after I'm done with this rewrite.
6. Notes are your pals. I had pretty much totally gone over to Evernote, which I do love, because I tend to accumulate scraps of paper with notes on them all over my desk. But that's gone out the window with this rewrite and I've got lists and notebooks everywhere. The thing is, this is working for me (it wasn't before, which is why I sought out a different system). When I'm working on chapter six, and I get an idea for chapter ten, it is easier to grab a piece of paper and scrawl my idea on it, then to open the Evernote app and create a new note. The thing to remember is to go through your notes regularly! And the point of it all is to do what works for you to get the writing done.
7. Reading is your BFF now more than ever. I'm reading a ton at the moment. What am I reading? Women's fiction, exactly what I'm writing, with a stray girly mystery thrown in. As I read, I learn. In the novel I just finished, I noticed how the author handled description of characters and emulated it. In another novel I just started, I liked how the author wrote about the setting. All these ideas go directly into my work. (And yes, I will write a post like this one about the books I'm reading soon.)
So that's what I've learned while writing lately. How about you? What are you working on? How is it going?
Here's how an author's career used to look: said author would get her first book accepted by a big New York publisher, and said publisher would tell said author not to worry about a thing, marketing-wise. The happy author would be given a schedule for a tour and appearances and told to focus on what she does best–writing the next book.
Here's how an author's career looks now: said author's book may or may not be published by a big New York publisher. More likely, his book was put out by a small press, or maybe he published it himself. And said author knows that his publishers will do little, if anything, to market her work. He'll be calling bookstores, arranging guest posts, tracking down book reviewers himself. Writing the next book? That's something that will have to wait.
My first example is, clearly, art.
The second, business.
Two aspects of a writing career that exist side by side. And more and more these days, we hear how authors need to master both. Gone are the days when we writers could lavish all our time on the first aspect. This tends to upset us. We mutter dark invectives about having to focus on the business side of our careers. We begrudge time spent away from our writing.
And yeah, I get it. Every once in awhile I like to fantasize about having nothing to do but work on my novels. And then I realize I'd hate that. I like being on social media. (At least most sites. You can take Facebook and shove it as far as I'm concerned.) I love working with my clients. (Please don't tell them, but I learn as much from them as they learn from me.) I don't love cold-calling bookstores or seeking out reviewers, but hey, if it keeps me from working a real job, I'll deal.
And that's just it. In this brave new world of publishing that shifts daily, we really do have to master both the art and business sides of writing. I wish I had better news for you, but there it is. I may not have the news you want to hear, but I do have suggestions for how to make it as painless as possible. Here goes:
1. Always put your writing first. It's the basis of everything and if you're not doing it, you ultimately will not have a career because you won't have anything to market. So do the work, then worry about putting it out in the world. I mean this in a couple of ways:
a. Write your book before you worry about contacting an agent.
b. Put your writing before your marketing efforts on a daily basis. (For me, this means writing first thing in the morning. Then I feel good about what I've accomplished all day long and that gives me energy to do the crap I hate.)
2. Realize that business is not a dirty word. When we whisper the "b" word as if it were tainted, we do ourselves and our work a disservice. Remember, people exist in the world who actually think business–and the dreaded "m" word (marketing)–are fun. You and I may not fall into that category, but realize that business can be every bit as creative as putting words together on the page.
3. Know that the situation is not going to change soon. Don't waste your energy wishing you didn't have to master social media, or figuring out techie tools, or mastering marketing. Don't spend time longing for the old days, described above. Because they aren't coming back. As I used to tell my kids when they complained about doing something, "With all the energy you've wasted kvetching about it, you could have been done by now."
4. Get help. Everyone can benefit from coaching, whether its for your writing or your marketing efforts. If you're struggling, get help! There are tons of wonderful teachers out there who can help you master the skills you don't yet have.
5. Do it with everything you've got. You throw yourself at the page every day, right? You express your deepest feelings and fears and truths, right? Use the same mindset for the business side of things. Throw yourself at it, and give it everything you've got. Approach it with the reverence you give your writing and you will do just fine. More than that, you'll do great.
How do you reconcile the business and art side of your career?
(By the way, I have an email conversation with J.D. Frost to thank for the topic of this article. Thanks, J.D.!)
I am thrilled to introduce you to my friend Lisa, a fellow Portlander. Her fabulous debut mystery, Kilmoon, A County Clare Mystery, just released last week. She's got an interesting take on how to get organized for a book launch. Take it away, Lisa!
Book Launches: How Getting Coached Saved My Sanity
My debut novel, Kilmoon, A County Clare Mystery, came out on March 18th, and if anyone six months previously had told me how nuts the ten weeks before launch would be, I would have shrugged. No biggie.
Uh-huh, right. Come to find out that I have two things going against me when it comes to being a coolly together person:
* I suck at long-term planning and nit-picky organizational tasks.
* I’m a tad neurotic so I get overwhelmed and stressed out easily.
I managed to sail along in the land of delusion until January 1st hit, and then I panicked. I had less than three months until Kilmoon launched. How was I to begin the process of organizing myself, much less actually accomplishing tasks? I didn’t know where to start.
The extent to which I suck at organizational tasks and time management is outstanding. I really am a seat-of-the-pants, wing-it kind of person. But, and this is a big but, if you want to launch your novel with any kind of buzz at all, whether you’re self-publishing or going traditional, you have to have your shite together.
Lisa Romeo, my coach, specializes in writers. Hallelujah! The first thing she had me do was break down the zillions of to-dos zinging through my brain into five categories. These are your primary goals for the book launch. Priorities are good! For example, you might have:
For each category, brainstorm every task you can think of. Go for it. No need to be organized yet. Remember that tasks often have sub-tasks, which have sub-tasks. List them all.
Here are some other tips and tricks that kept me sane:
1. Print out a separate calendar just for book launch tasks and then plan backwards. If you know when you want your launch party, then what are the goals leading up to that? Note the sub-task deadlines. Seeing the tasks visually was so helpful for me. This especially helped me keep track of deadlines for guest posts (blog tour category).
2. White board! I set mine up in the living room where I could see it every time I passed by. For each category, I’d list the tasks for that week. I’d get these tasks from my calendar and also my brainstormed task lists.
3. Each Sunday, look over your lists, revise your priorities as needed, and write out your next tasks for the coming week. You might find that creating a mailing list and a newsletter can wait until after the launch. Perhaps developing a new website has become more important. This is OK!
4. Cheat a little. There are always more tasks that come up along the way. I added another column on my white board for “miscellaneous.” This column might include random tasks such as updating your Facebook banner to include your cover art or ordering bookmarks.
5. Be realistic about how much time you have to devote to book launch tasks. You can’t do everything. This lesson was one of the best things I got out of coaching: let stuff go. I was batty enough as it was without trying to be Ms. Perfect Book Launch Mama.
6. Give yourself a mental high-five when you cross a task off your list. You’re doing it!
I’m here to tell you that if I can make it through launch, then you can too. I’ve found that most people are either less charmingly neurotic than I am, or more organized—that is, most have an automatic heads up on me. But I survived! And, my launch went well too.
You’ll learn some things about yourself along the way. I learned that I suck at follow-through and quick decision-making, but, hey, that’s OK. I’ll factor that in for the next launch. Next time, I’ll hire a coach four months ahead of time. That should do the trick, don’t you think?
Merrit Chase travels to Ireland to meet her father, a celebrated matchmaker, in hopes that she can mend her troubled past. Instead, her arrival triggers a rising tide of violence, and Merrit finds herself both suspect and victim, accomplice and pawn, in a manipulative game that began thirty years previously. When she discovers that the matchmaker’s treacherous past is at the heart of the chaos, she must decide how far she will go to save him from himself—and to get what she wants, a family.
“Brooding, gothic overtones haunt Lisa Alber’s polished, atmospheric debut. Romance, mysticism, and the verdant Irish countryside all contribute to making KILMOON a marvelous, suspenseful read.” —Julia Spencer-Fleming, New York Times & USA Today bestselling author of Through the Evil Days
“This first in Alber’s new County Clare Mystery series is utterly poetic … The author’s prose and lush descriptions of the Irish countryside nicely complement this dark, broody and very intricate mystery.” —RT Book Reviews (four stars)
Lisa Alber received an Elizabeth George Foundation writing grant based on Kilmoon. Ever distractible, you may find her staring out windows, dog walking, fooling around online, or drinking red wine with her friends. Ireland, books, animals, photography, and blogging round out her distractions. Lisa lives in the Pacific Northwest. Kilmoon is her first novel.
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!
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: 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’sSo 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.
I was asked to review this book and I readily accepted because, well, there's nothing I like better than receiving random books in the mail and diving into them. Here's the blurb the publisher and blog tour folks asked me to include:
Literary fiction blends with Plato’s tale of Atlantis is this metaphysical mystery that takes place on an archaeological dig on the island of Santorini. Travels in Elysium is written in an allegory style. If you would like to read an an online excerpt – we have one posted here. For more information or to get your own copy, visit the author's Amazon page. (Not an affiliate link.)
That starts to give you an idea about the book. Here's a bit more: When archaeology student and world traveler Nicholas Pedrosa is given the chance of a lifetime to work with renowned archaeologist Marcus Huxley he discovers much more than he bargained for. Set on the Greek island of Santorini, the book spans genres, including mystery, history and fantasy.
An island that blew apart with the force of 100,000 atomic bombs… A civilisation prised out of the ash, its exquisite frescoes bearing a haunting resemblance to Plato’s lost island paradise, Atlantis… An archaeologist on a collision course with a brutal police state… A death that may have been murder… A string of inexplicable events entwining past and present with bewildering intensity… Can this ancient conundrum be understood before it engulfs them all?
That is the question that our hero faces, and in answering it, he uncovers some long-held historical secrets, including the solution to the mystery of Atlantis.
Info about the author:
William Azuski was born in the United Kingdom, and is of British and Yugoslav descent. Travelling widely through the Mediterranean since childhood, his frequent sojourns in Greece included several months on Santorini in the 1970s, an experience that provided firsthand experience for this exceptional novel’s local setting. Writing as William Miles Johnson, Azuski is also author of the critically-acclaimed The Rose-Tinted Menagerie, an Observer Book of the Year (nonfiction), and Making a Killing, an end of the world satire, both titles recently republished by Iridescent.
I've spent the summer writing book proposals as well as reviewing them. Call it synchronicity, or serendipity, or whatever you want, but I have been immersed in book proposals.
And I've learned a lot.
I thought I knew a lot about writing book proposals before (she said modestly), but now I know even more. So when a couple of writers asked me when I was going to offer the Get Your Book Proposal Written Now class again, I figured this was a good time.
But I put the link up now, in case you want to plan ahead. And the first three people to sign up get a free coaching session with me to discuss your idea for a book. Cool, huh?
Here's the deal with book proposals: you need to write one if you want to pitch a non-fiction book to traditional publishers, because that's how non-fiction is sold. (If you're writing a novel, dream on if you think you can sell it before it's finished. Unless your name is John Grisham or Jennifer Weiner, you can't.)
And even if you plan to publish your book yourself, its a great idea to write a proposal, because it lays out everything you'll need to know to write and promote the book. So it's a great big huge no-brainer to write one either way. And I shall tell you how.
So, please, check it out. The page has a lot more info on what I'll cover and how we'll do it.
And do tell: are you writing fiction or non-fiction? Which is your favorite?