In The Sound of Music, Julie Andrews sings, “Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start.” That may be good advice for the Von Trapp Family children, but a writer might want to think twice about it. Many writers tell stories in a perfectly chronological sequence. This happened. Then that happened. Then the next thing happened. This method of telling a story is called linear narrative. Events are presented in the exact sequence in which they occurred. That’s a very effective way to tell some stories. Sometimes, however, the drama of a story can be heightened by breaking out of strict chronology and employing a nonlinear narrative. I Am Born might have been a fine title for the opening chapter of Dickens’ David Copperfield, but few contemporary readers of fiction or nonfiction will cut an author the slack to begin a book that way. Your book must engage its reader in the first page or two. To do that you need to begin with a dramatic scene. That may mean starting your story at its chronological end or in the middle to begin on the high note you are seeking.
As we sat around a campfire in the Trinity Alps on the other side of the Central Valley from the worst of the wild fires, Nancy’s nephew, who just graduated from high school mentioned that he had written his senior thesis on The Hero’s Journey. He enthusiastically took us through the great mythologist Joseph Campbell’s description of the universal elements of heroism in his classic, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. As Cam spoke, I wished some of the authors with whom we work were listening.
I am the lead editor of Stories To Tell Books and a specialist in memoirs and family histories. We also handle fiction and nonfiction, but in memoir and family history a style has arisen called "creative nonfiction" for books grounded in fact and presented using the tools of literature. These are special books, not only because of the subject matter, but because of the unique way they are designed - usually with photos, and in some family histories, a genealogist may want to include endnotes, charts, appendixes and an index. An illustrated book is a whole different project than text-only. As a book editor and designer, I enjoy producing illustrated books because they are so interesting to look at as well as to read.
We’re visiting family this week and as things always do the conversation came around to books. My sister-in-law told us about a friend who had recently self published a novel. He chose not to use an editor. Since the book appeared on Amazon he’s gotten a lot of attention from reviewers, all of it negative. Some have focused on points of style that interfered with their reading experience others bemoaned errors that a good copy edit would have picked up and corrected. The author, like many first time authors, failed to understand that self publishing is about access to publication which eliminates the need for a traditional publishing house, but it doesn’t eliminate all of the steps a publisher fulfilled in the process of producing a book. Quality books need quality editing, good design and an effective cover. Not many authors possess the skills to do all of these things themselves
Many people who set out to write a memoir or family historian see themselves as reporters. Their duty is to recount things exactly as they happened. What’s important is getting the facts right so that their account is correct. Unfortunately the result is often boring. Even nonfiction needs drama if it is to appeal to readers. Making sure your story has it means plotting it well. Certainly when one hears the word plotting one thinks of fiction. But in truth plotting is developing a dramatic way of telling any story. One element of creating a dramatic arc for your memoir or family history is to avoid a rigidly chronological approach. Begin with a dramatic moment in your life or the life of an ancestor to create interest which will draw your reader into the story:
A recent issue of the International Business Times “Business & Books” section bore the headline, The Latest Publishing Craze: Print Books? The piece was triggered by a survey released by the Book Industry Study Group (BISG) titled Consumer Attitudes Toward E-Book Reading . The report sponsored by Barnes & Noble, Baker & Taylor and the Bowker Market Research found that “the percentage of e-book consumers who exclusively or mostly purchase book content in e-book format has decreased from nearly 70 percent in August 2011 to 60 percent in May 2012.” Furthermore, “Over the same period, the percentage of survey respondents who have no preference for either e-book or print formats, or who buy some genres in e-book format and others in print, rose from 25 percent to 34 percent.” Th
Stories are serious business. Or maybe not. The last two New York Times Book Reviews have provided fascinating looks at stories. One serious and one playful. They combine to demonstrate an important lesson for writers.
In today’s tumultuous world of publishing more and more authors are seeking new paths into print. With publishing deals with traditional houses great and small becoming ever more illusive for new authors, and stories of self publishing success dancing on the horizon, authors are embracing self publishing in rapidly growing numbers. Unfortunately many of them lack a clear understanding of what self publishing means. As a consequence many of them are only too happy when an ad for Outskirts Press, Author House or Xlibris pops up Google. Companies willing to help them navigate the world of getting their book into print, onto Amazon and marketed look like just what the doctor ordered. They aren’t.
Dickens opened his biographical novel, David Copperfield, with the line, “I am born.” That worked in the 19th century, but it’s not the way to get started with a memoir today.
The opening lines of your book must interest and engage your readers or they are likely to put your book down never to pick it up again. A dramatic scene to hook the reader works effectively. It’s a technique you often see in fiction. Think of the mystery genre. The book opens with a murder. The hero – cop, private eye, whatever – comes on the scene with a pressing problem to solve, a killer to catch, and the story is off and running. The reader is immediately engaged and goes along for the ride.
Your memoir probably won’t start off with a murder, but there are plenty of less grisly dramatic moments. Place yourself at a turning point. Let the reader see why it’s a critical, life-changing moment. I am currently working with an author who begins her memoir with the moment when she is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and told she has two years to live. She can choose to accept the diagnosis and prepare to die or seek a more aggressive way of treating the cancer than she had been offered. She chooses the latter, finds a successful treatment and has, for the past fifteen years, been a vocal advocate for people in situations similar to her own.
Here's another excellent question from an author with a book in progress.
April H. wrote: I've been working on a chapter here and there as much as time allows, but in the process of selling my home, a lot of my research materials were minimally packed. I am trying to find a way to make a writing schedule even if it's short. Any thoughts?
April, I know you're not the only one with this problem! Real life has a way of intruding on less-urgent projects. it can make you lose your momentum. It's rare for authors to have the luxury of writing often, whenever they want, without interruption.
Here is the thing about writing in short segments: it may not produce your best work. You can't expect to just jump in and be creative, or to achieve a consistent tone in your prose after being away for too long.
So the best things to do in small chunks are the more mechanical ones that you really can't mess up, like sorting and scanning photos, or putting your research into order. That's all logical work. In the same way, small research projects, meant for filling in an unknown piece of the book, can be tackled when you're not really into the book as a whole.
If you brainstorm and make yourself a list of these pesky short-term tasks on one day, then each time you get a chance to do a short session, you don't have to figure out what to do, and you can cross one more thing off the list.
Ideally, if you are going to do the actual writing, the original creation part of the book, try to do it in longer sessions, say for 2 hours or more. Before you write, read over material you have written before. That way, your tone and style will carry from one session to the next, and the book won't seem choppy.
In my own experience, I have tried it both ways - long term, drawn out writing in short segments, and longer, intense, focused sessions of writing. Focused wins, each time, and not just because I get faster at composing sentences. It's because I start having fun with the project, and the ideas start flowing.
As a consequence, I have found that ultimately it's much easier, despite my busy schedule, to find the time to write in longer sessions, and to get lost in the work. I hope you get a chance to experience that pleasure, sometime soon!
The next time you sit down with your book manuscript think of yourself as a sculptor. Michelangelo once said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it’s the task of the sculptor to discover it.” Manuscripts are often a lot like that. First drafts contain a lot that needs to be chipped away to get down to the books essence. Too often writers to cram far more into their manuscript than one good book can possibly contain.
It’s more years ago than I want to remember. I am standing in the batter’s box of the University of San Francisco baseball field. The pitcher’s next delivery is a curveball which bounces in the dirt. The count goes to three balls and one strike. I step out of the box, look down to the third base coaching box where Coach Dante Benedetti claps his hands and yells to me, “Be selective.” Good advice to a hitter ahead in the count. Remember you don’t have to hit every pitch. Just look for the right pitch and hit it well. Be selective. I heard that advice in my head as I read the New York Times Book Review today. I was perusing Elizabeth Samet’s assessment of Hospitals, Hotels and Jails: A Memoir by Anthony Swofford, the author of Jarhead. None too complimentary. It was when I came to Samet’s comment that, “Narrative momentum stalls in a welter of mundane details and contradicting memories,” that I heard Coach Benedetti’s shouted advice.
What will the $116 million acquisition of Author Solutions by Pearson the parent company of Penguin, one of the “Big Six” publishing houses mean for writers? “Penguin’s [CEO John] Makinson said that Penguin’s partnership with ASI ‘will fall somewhere between self-publishing as presently defined, and Penguin publishing as presently defined,’” reported Laura Hazard Owen on Paid Content. “He mentioned “curated self-publishing” and imprints drawing on self-published content.” Author Solutions CEO Kevin Weiss said, “That means more opportunity for authors and more choice for readers.” Really?
If you love books you should be following the Department of Justice’s anti-trust lawsuit against Apple and Macmillian charging that they colluded with regard to e-book pricing. The suit took an interesting turn when New York Senator Charles Schumer wrote an opinion piece titled Memo to DOJ: Drop the Apple E-Books Lawsuit in the Wall Street Journal Tuesday. “The suit will restore Amazon to the dominant position atop the e-books market it occupied for years before competition arrived in the form of Apple. If that happens, consumers will be forced to accept whatever prices Amazon sets,” said Schumer, a ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committees’ Subcommittee on Anti-Trust, Competition and Consumer Rights.
Stories To Tell is in the business of helping people to tell their stories. So, I’m always interested when I see something new in the world of storytelling. I want to pass on two innovative attempts to use tools of new technologies to tell stories both of which arrived in my in-box today. Each is interesting. See what you think.