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Finding Your Theme

Finish Your Book in Three Drafts (3D), the third book in the Book Architecture trilogy, came accompanied by a wealth of writing know-how in the form of 9 bonus PDFs. We are opening up the vault for the first time and publishing them here: one blog at a time. Behold, PDF #6.

In Finish Your Book in Three Drafts (3D), I recommended four ways of finding your theme. What follows here is a hybrid of these strategies that I designed for a workshop setting originally but that can be applied to your work as it stands right now.

Although I definitely recommend doing theme work while preparing to write your method draft, it can be done at any time, and more than once. Each iteration gets you closer to the heart of something that is always changing before it gets fixed in the form of a finished book.

Step 1. Write a four-sentence description of what your book is about. You might use the top four of your series sentences in a top-down order of importance, or you might just use your presence and your instinct.

When we did this exercise in class, my student Kimberly reflected on her work-in-progress and wrote the following:

This is not a theme so much as it is an elevator pitch—you know, that brief speech you are supposed to have prepared in case you ever run into a literary agent and have exactly one minute to pitch your book.

That is for the external world. A theme, on the other hand, is for you, to help you bring your book to the next level by rearranging the key components around the one thing that holds your work together.

As such, you can probably take out the who, the where, and the when from your theme-in–progress…after all, you already know them. See if you can focus instead on the what, the how, and the why, when you complete the next step.

Step 2. Reduce your four-sentence description to a two-sentence description of what your book is about.

This is a bit like reducing a sauce over medium-high heat. You don’t want to damage any of the ingredients, but you have to end up with less.

When Kimberly combined and eliminated her theme material, she came up with the following two sentences:

 

This is close, but there is still too much going on here. While the last three actions—“finding hope,” “accepting the past,” and “choosing a future”—are all obviously related, each could be the theme of a book.

Step 3. Reduce your two-sentence description to a one-sentence description of what your book is about. Kimberly chose hers by circling it in her notebook:

“Choosing a future” is rich enough that it implies other necessary actions; it is internally wound in a way that provokes both curiosity and identification in the reader. “I want to read about that,” someone might say. “That affects me today.”

“Choosing a future” is short as far as themes go; you know from 3D that a theme can be as long as twenty-eight words or longer. The shortest a theme can be, however, is two words: a subject and a verb. If you just have a subject, like “Madness” or “Adultery,” you might proliferate your manuscript with associations, but you will get distracted and confused without a direction to travel in.

One of my students once told me the theme of her novel was “Conformity.” Her story looked at three generations of Germans: the first succumbed to the Nazi regime; the next violently rejected anyone who was a part of their nation’s darkest era; and the third tried to navigate a path between generations at such odds with each other.

It wasn’t until my student announced, “Conformity corrodes,” that the subject could be limited, or at least bounded, and the verb could operate through all of the major actions of her book. Having a subject and a verb is akin to having a topic and an angle at the same time. Of course, a theme can be much longer than two words, as evidenced by the variety presented in 3D and the next PDF (PDF #7 – stay tuned!). But it has to be short enough that you can remember it when you are at your desk and you get a new idea. By holding the theme in mind, you can then ask, “How does this idea apply?”

Ten Tips for Working from Home

Writers and editors find themselves oddly prepared for the situation many of us now find ourselves in.  

As it happens, I have just written extensively about working from home for my book, Making a Living as a Freelance Editor, which will be published by the University of Chicago Press in Spring, 2021. I gained permission to reprint the following excerpt, which might, unfortunately, apply to a wide variety of industries right now. If you have to create structure (including breaks!) in your day and no longer have a commute to signal when it’s okay to quit, there might be something here for you, too.

  1. Design a workweek that suits who you really are. For example, I am ready to work at 6:30 a.m.—but it could be 4:30 a.m. if there is a pressing reason. You might feel that the only way you are working at that hour is if you are still up. Conversely, my brain shuts down at 8:00 p.m. and things take two to three times longer to process. I am only working harder and not smarter. Even with the restrictions that may be upon you where you are sheltering, you can still think about, What am I like?..
  2. Start with your own system. While you are designing your perfect workday you might derive inspiration from other sample list-making systems but, bear in mind, trendy time management and productivity gurus can change with the season and it isn’t necessary to reinvent the wheel. It is better to start with your present system and evolve it rather than overhaul it based on someone else’s ideas, only to quit your new plan almost immediately.
  3. Create a Weekly Calendar. My spreadsheets are pretty simple: In the first column I list the client’s name, the second column the hours I intend (or estimate) I will spend on their project this week, the third column how many of those hours I have accomplished, and the fourth column any notes regarding such things as due dates. After I have completed a client’s work for the week, I will cross it off, digitally speaking, by highlighting the line in a darker grey. Even just seeing everything I have to do for the week ahead in one place helps me take a deeper breath. It also helps me manage additions that pop-up into my schedule.
  4. Create a Daily List. In addition to your weekly calendar, you need your list for today. To be able to concentrate, you first need to know what you are focusing on. I make my list each morning, ideally after I meditate for twenty minutes. If I make the list (or check my email) before I meditate, everything feels pressing, with those who shout the loudest seeming to be heard the most clearly. If I make the list after I meditate, some surprising things see the light of day—and everything else has a more purposeful feel to it.
  5. Do your hardest tasks first. A lot of people know to do this; doing it, on the other hand, can take some discipline. This is just a reminder that when you work your way down from the most complicated assignments to the easiest ones—when you knock out the key projects earlier in the day—you get more quickly to that great feeling we love to have at work: I got this.
  6. Work real hours. I realize this is a time when we may not be meeting all of our goals, but a good week for me is forty-five hours of work. When I say forty-five hours a week, I mean forty-five real hours, recorded in quarter-hour increments. Going on Facebook doesn’t count. Waiting for someone to call who doesn’t, doesn’t count. Either we are doing things that are tangibly contributing to the business or we are not at work.
  7. Take breaks. Your day can’t be all work, of course. We need to take breaks to refocus our minds, and breaks are best when we take them intentionally. If you are coming up from one work session, and before you head into another, should you check email? Is that a break? Unlikely. These days, menu planning, helping a middle schooler with homework, or running the dishwasher again are more likely to empty our minds temporarily.
  8. Tame the email beast. I have set times during the day when I review my email. This may not work for the nature of your job, but I still think we should eliminate the phrase “checking my email” from our vocabulary entirely. There is no point in just checking email; this puts you in a reactive, burdened state. When you review your email you should have the time to do something about what you are reading. During my set times, I engage with email instead of just checking it, by using three related strategies:
    • If it will take less than two minutes to respond to an email, I do it now (H/t to David Allen for this strategy.)
    • Second, not every email needs a response. I know. I couldn’t believe it either when I first really figured that out.
    • Third, after an email has been responded to (or not), I put it in a client file or a general archive. Let’s face it, no email is ever really gone unless you put it in the trash and then delete the trash. If you do a search by name, you will come up with everything you and that person have ever talked about, so you don’t have to worry about losing anything. But you don’t have to look at it every day, either.
  9. The joys of punching out. If you have worked all the hours you planned to today, it is time to go home. Even if you are already home. Taking time to regenerate, whether it is simply for the rest of the day, or for the weekend, is important for you to do your best work (as is taking a real vacation again someday). Some people like to make their list for tomorrow at the end of their workday. I say, let tomorrow take care of tomorrow.
  10. Write a brief work journal entry. At the end of every day, I make an entry into a journal: 100–150 words about the biggest challenge I faced, a question I don’t yet have the answer to, a long-awaited triumph or a small piece of an evolving strategy—whatever is the most pressing content on my mind. When I shut that journal, I will listen for that imaginary socking noise of a timecard entering and being stamped by one of those metal clock boxes…punching out, people. I’m done.

You can consider all of this a work in progress. What matters is to reflect on what you are like, and then to evolve a system that is sane and works for you. And don’t forget to write it down.

P.S. If you can’t stick to a rule, that means that it needs to change, not you. These aren’t official laws; they belong to your system, and that system should be set up to maximize your efficiency, income, happiness, and performance.

Writing Mantras for Your First Draft

 The Notes You Have

 

How about some writing mantras?

Finish Your Book in Three Drafts helps writers know what draft they’re in. The first, or “messy draft,” is about writing as many words as you can before showing it to anyone else. Before you go back and revise it. Before you second guess yourself. It’s about putting the “creative” back into writing.

Generating new material so recklessly can be hard sometimes, but: Never fear.

Finish Your Book in Three Drafts provides writing mantras for each draft, helping writers remember which draft they’re in. Read the book for more help on powering through your messy draft.

If you want instant gratification, however, download the Book Architecture Draft One Mantras. Courtesy of our Colorado office, these fourteen images are easily installed as your Desktop Background for your Mac or PC. Then let these writing mantras guide you, nudge you, speak to you, and inspire you. Oh and you have to write, too.

Personal Essay Writing

It takes a certain kind of organization to make money and develop its people in equal measure. The national PR agency, InkHouse, recently created Hindsight 2020, a book of essays written by the team about moments of consciousness that opened them up to new points of view. According to CEO, Beth Monaghan, such moments of clarity are important in PR because new connections are the essence of stories that allow someone else’s experience to exist next to our own. That is the very job of PR, to bring people and ideas together.

As the coach and developmental editor for Hindsight, I oriented prospective writers to the judging criteria. This criteria would be used to select the top 20 entries for inclusion in the book—and eventually the top three winners as well. Each essay was scored in four categories, with a maximum amount of 25 points per category: VOICE, STRUCTURE, PROFICIENCY, and IMPACT.

VOICE, or: How well the writer’s unique voice comes through in content and expression.

  • Since this was a work setting, the first thing to tackle was how comfortable authors felt to liberate their voice. Wasn’t this work, after all? How close did they want to allow their co-workers to get? I encouraged them, wherever appropriate, to get personal. This was the kind of workplace in which people really did want to get to know each other, and not just use inside information to seize a weakness and climb past someone else on the corporate ladder.
  • Trying too hard is an inherent turnoff for audiences in both PR and in essay writing, so I tried to steer writers away from trying to impress. At the same time, it wouldn’t do to go to the opposite pole and try to shock anybody on purpose, to put the chip on the shoulder on full display.
  • Rather, they were encouraged to consider who their true audience members were. Was there one person at work who got them? Who can you tell your truth to? Who raises your frequency? Who calls you to account? Who loves you at your best?
  • Because see, here’s the thing: There is no such thing as voice in the abstract—there is only tone of voice. Or to put it another way, you don’t look for your voice; you find your audience. And then the tone you take to ring some bells for them, that is what delivers a great sentence. And another one…

STRUCTURE, or: How well the piece evolves around its theme, balances digressions, and creates links and repetitions.

  • For readers of this blog, it will come as no surprise that I recommend honing in on one’s theme as the key to structure. The overarching theme of Hindsight was a moment of clarity that opened the author up to another point of view, a new perspective, or a new curiosity. It could be a historical event, a moment in their life, or their work. Writers then chose a personalized embodiment of that theme.
  • When presented with such a topic, you may have more than one possibility floating around your head. If that was the case, I recommended trying out several possibilities—and being honest about which one really had your heart and mind. Where the writing goes, the writer needs to go after it.
  • Once a moment of clarity was chosen, it was examined; when examined, it was seen to be actually a series of moments. Scenes, if you will. I ran through the five definitions of scene to help generate first draft material, select second draft material and hone third draft material.
  • Finally, we discussed placing those scenes in either chronological or narrative order. We took it as a matter of aesthetic faith that there was a perfect order for one’s chosen scenes that would best relate a moment of clarity that had stayed with its author.

PROFICIENCY: Or, Proper sentence and narrative structure; capable handling of facts and research where necessary.

  • Since we were exploring writing within a public relations environment, it was important to place the essay in the wider context of the world. Such “data” could include findings from a study, a quote from an expert, or statistics that would bring in a degree of objectivity.
  • We didn’t cover topics like grammar or consistency of stylistic usage, but we did touch on how to use the drafting process to bring out clarity in their work. Earlier drafts sometimes can only ask a question that the later drafts will answer. Working on an essay five times will make it stronger than working on it once. That sort of thing.

IMPACT: Or, Effect on the reader in terms of opens up a new point of view/curiosity.

  • I loved this criteria for judging. At the same time, an author will never know that. Or rather, the only way to assess what topic and approach will move others is to assume if it really relates to you, it will relate to us.
  • The question then becomes: What’s in it for me? Which topic, which aspect of that topic will lead to greater self-knowledge? What are you still trying to understand? If you ask yourself a key question, readers may ask it of themselves.
  • To get the answer, of course, you have to open yourself up. You have to allow yourself to be changed. What space do you want to move into? Where is the energy coming from that needs to be liberated? Or to put it another way, in order to make something interesting to other people, you may have to scare the shit out of yourself first.