Taking the Fight to the So-What Moment

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Few of us are famous. By definition, the word fame labels such people and things as well-known, and there are real limits on how much the world can know about somebody. If you’re like me and not famous, you can still have a memoir inside you, on your laptop, or in the pages of a favorite notebook, one that’s worthy of publication. You don’t even need to have experienced something as unique as cutting off your own arm to escape the wilderness. The key to getting your story into the world and creating a book is to do battle with the so-what moment. You do that battle with the fundamental tools of storytelling.

Writing&SellingYourMemoirSome of those tools help craft sentences and sections, and others serve to steer your story and reel in readers. Paula Balzer examines this in her book Writing and Selling Your Memoir. Some of the weapons to battle that moment — when a reader first sees yours is another story about a broken home, addiction, abuse, financial ruin, or infidelity — rely on the bedrock of voice and style. Your writing must emerge over so many words and drafts that you’re fluid in your voice: the writing that sounds like you and you alone. Everybody has memoir stories to tell, yes. But only you can tell the story in your voice.

Style is comprised of rules and choices, but staying consistent with your voice is a great start to honing in on style. A hair stylist makes a statement for you when you emerge from their salon. Your hair becomes an expressive, emotional element when it’s styled. Your writing makes the same leap when you write towards exuding style. Style has elements, in the classic Strunk & White textbook The Elements of Style. Like the individual cuts, curls, and colors of the salon, the grammar, punctuation, and choices of those elements make up writing style. Like the hairdo that makes us look, good style compels reading.

Reaching for style involves rewriting, the practice that gives you a go-to repertoire. No gerunds, for example. Short sentences, several of them, followed by one long one. The exquisite use of just the right word, although it’s one that’s rare as a just-minted coin in the reader’s hand. It’s the fadeaway jumper from Michael Jordan, says Ben Yagoda in The Sound on the Page, or John Coltrane’s use of the modal scale in jazz. Or leaving out the obvious, like Hemingway did, “and agressively omitting adjectives, metaphors, commas, and connecting words and phrases.”

Although a memoir’s experiences may not be unique, even that can work in your favor. If a story has a high relatability factor — many of us have grieved for someone we’ve have lost — it’s easier for our readers to connect with us. At their essence, stories of marital infidelity are really about betrayal. If you’ve never married, you can still relate to betrayal. And betrayal, and its aftermath, contributes to a universal theme. The little guy who fights the big Goliath of a company can bring down an unfair competitor. But how? Showing us exactly which moments contribute to a universal theme propels a story about a hike through the Appalachians to overcome doubt about abilities  (A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson) beyond that story’s so-what moment. It was just a hike, so what? It was also a discovery about how a hiker is made, or born. And we connected with the main characters early enough in the story to stay on the scene and watch whatever happened next.

In the big picture, the battle against the so-what moment is won or lost with effective writing. The elements are the same as for any kind of story, nonfiction or fiction. You need a good hook. Your story must rush to an engaging moment before the reader has a chance to ask that so-what question. That moment probably lives inside a scene I get to see as the reader. Many people have taken their kids on a two-week vacation in a car. The hook can be the quest for more than just pictures, souvenirs, and dog-eared programs. Those two weeks might be a way to find a proof of love, like a detective story. But only if that proof is elusive. I took a two-week road trip one summer across Midwest ballparks. But the perfect game was not the one I planned. Life is like that, if you’re lucky, and can stay out of your own way on the road.

“We just don’t automatically have the kind of mind-blowing material that results in the “tell me more” situation right off the bat,” Balzer says in her book. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have the material to write a fascinating memoir— it just means we have to battle the so-what moment using some of the other tools in our toolbox.”

The sharpest tool in that box is theme, but it’s also the most elusive. You can work a great deal of the way into a memoir, or any book, before you discover the story’s theme. This is the spine that Sydney Pollack described when he was telling the story of how he directed Out of Africa. “We spent about two years trying to find what I always call a spine or an armature of this piece. Sort of trying to distill the idea  down to one or two clear sentences that could be a guidepost,” he said. “What is it really about? We finally settled on possession. Freedom versus obligation. If I say I love you, what price am I expected to pay?” Out of Africa is based on Karen Blixen’s memoirs, by the way.

“Most best-selling memoirs, if you were to boil the story down to their core, probably have the same story as someone who lives down the street from you, or as someone who works in your office,” Balzer writes. The memoir writer has to mix many additional elements into their book to compel a reader to click the buy button for $12, or carry that paperback to the register. The elements must come from the craft of writing, especially style and voice.

 

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A boatload of books on making fiction: tools to use on a cruise

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bookstoreA coaching client who’s developing a novel recently asked me a delicious question. What books would I recommend to a fellow fiction writer, one who’s setting sail for a cruise around the Pacific?

There are so many on my shelves here, and on my Kindle as well. Collected, curated and used over the last 12 years, these are the ones I’d grab if my boat was leaving the slip.

A list of fiction books to take on a sail around the Pacific. What a fun assignment

1. Gotham Writer’s Workshop: Writing Fiction. Great overview of the craft.

2. The Making of a Story, by Alice LaPlante. 650 pages covering every aspect. About 150 of them are writing, top-notch. Exercises in each chapter, too.

3. Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. Get it in paper. Worth every glorious page.

4. Scene and Structure, by Jack Bickham. How to flow between scene and sequel.

Screen Shot 2014-08-29 at 1.26.29 PM5. Showing & Telling, by Laurie Alberts. Finally gives Telling its due in creating a story

6. The Scene Book, by Sandra Scofield. Everything you want to know about making compelling scenes.

7. The First Five Pages, by Noah Lukeman. Crafting an opening to a book that agents want to pick up.

8. Story, by Robert McKee. Brilliant 400 pages on story structure, with movies as examples. Get the audiobook as a companion.

scene-structure bickham9. The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler. Joseph Campbell’s classic story archetypes (like The Mentor, The Gatekeeper) illustrated with examples from movie stories.

10. Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maas. The master of making tension on every page. Has a dandy workbook as a companion novel, too

11. Characters and Viewpoint, by Orson Scott Card. Sci-Fi master has a great style while showing the way to start a character.

12. What Would Your Character Do? by Eric Maisel and Ann Maisel. Psychologist to artists (and Creativity Coaching trainer) Maisel, writing with his wife, has great personality quizzes for your characters.

13. The Novelist’s Notebook, by Laurie Henry. (Another one you should buy in paper.) This one is special, a book with essential questions and rules you establish to explore for your novel. You write upon the pages of this hardback book, the size of a nice journal. I used one for my novel Viral Times, and now another for the forthcoming Monsignor Dad. A place to store ideas and get concepts for meta-writing — the scaffolding of your book’s structure.

14. Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, by Roy Peter Clark. Great instruction on making anything more clear and compelling. Branch to the right, to put the noun+verb combo as close to the sentence’s start as possible, for example.

15. Now Write! Fiction Writing Exercises from Today’s Best Writers and Teachers, by Sherry Ellis. My essential text for leading the creativity nights and mornings in the Workshop’s meetings.

There are many, many more. Inspiration takes up a whole shelf. Some others are focused on poetry, and still more on the art and craft of creative non-fiction. They say you have to make time to read if you want to write, and it is also true about reading these textbooks and guides. Grab a few from your library to audition them before you buy.

A list of fiction books to take on a sail around the Pacific. What a fun assignment. What are your go-to books to make your fiction glitter on the page?

8 Fundamentals to Writing Better

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Storytelling is your writing tool, whether for fiction, or non-fiction essay. Story is the new secret weapon in communication for non-fiction, a tool that’s been proven through the charms of fiction over the ages. Non-fiction writers can use the structure and arc of a story to teach or make a point, always in service of transmitting an idea or an experience to a more receptive readership.

Meaning, sense, and clarity: These three foundational blocks in the tower of writing make everything else possible. Write sentences that say what we mean; to ensure that our logic makes sense; employ the clarity of economy to make our writing succinct.

Paragraphs and the unit of meaning: Break down a long piece of writing into units of ideas. Locate those that may be most effective at the length of a single sentence, for emphasis.

Commas, colons, periods and other stops: Practice the use of various kinds of punctuation: those methods that give effective writing good flow, as well as simplifying ideas.

Making muscular writing: Strong writing flows from using straightforward words and stronger nouns and verbs. Muscular writing emerges from a branch-to-the-right structure. Vary sentence lengths to create powerful writing.

Looking for language: Study skills to expand vocabulary while keeping our message clear. Practice how to choose Saxon- vs. Latinate-rooted words and eliminate clichés.

Propelling your pace: Working with the concept of the Gold Coin – essential moments of each communication, spread like coins throughout – practice skills to master pace.

The road to revision: The power of the second pass is essential. Practice making first drafts smaller and compact, as well as finding the redundant expressions that are common to those early drafts.

Show spunk about the sentence

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Out on the Writer’s Digest Web site this week, an article on grammar boils down the writing of a good sentence to four commandments. Bonnie Trenga advises us about what we should, and more often should not, do:

1. You shall not write passively.
2. You shall not overuse weak verbs like “to be” and “to have.”
3. You shall not fluff.
4. You shall make every word necessary.

They are so fundamental that we need to know them like our own faces in order to cast them off. See, breaking rules is part of writing, too. You’re working inside rules like these four to be polite, so readers don’t struggle to enjoy your writing.

An antidote to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style

A list of rules, though, can become a rutted road for a reader. You might have this experience if you watch TV on the reality channels and see one episode after another of house flipping shows. The hopeful but innocent flipper introduced. The stern advice from the host. The headstrong ignoring of said advice. The cheerful praise of finished flip work from Realtors, followed by grim assessments from the buyers during the open house.

Read enough such formula and you begin to long for something that tastes different. Learning how to differ is the advice you can read more about in Spunk and Bite, a good antidote for the writer who’s lashed to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.

Write something that follows these four commandments without fail. Then rewrite it so it bends, or even breaks one of the rules. See if you can create something unexpected but understandable. Know the rules, but break them when you can.

Oh, one more bit of advice: Set any intentions or guides like these in positive statements. The brain can only process affirmative statements. It throws away the word “not” or “don’t.” So,

1. Write in the active voice.
2. Select strong verbs to limit your use of “to be” and “to have.”
3. Choose the best word, the one understood easily and most accurate.
4. And yes, “You shall make every word necessary.”