Category: the Method

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A Word on the Method, By Jeanette Stokes

When I feel completely stuck in my life, I try to remember that I worked all this out about twenty years ago. If I walk, write, and make some art every day or nearly every day, then I can keep going and life can seem quite livable and sometimes even meaningful. So, when I run out of steam, I try walking, writing, or painting.

When I get stuck in my writing, whether working on a book or a shorter project, I can sink into that dark place of: “This is stupid. I can’t write. All those other things I wrote were a fluke. No one wants to read what I write anyway.” Then, just before I give up entirely and turn to learning macramé, a faint voice in my head will say, “the method.”

As though coming out of a fog, I take a few bold steps toward the bookcase in my upstairs study and reach for Blueprint Your Bestseller: Organize and Revise Any Manuscript with the Book Architecture Method by Stuart Horwitz. This and his two subsequent books lay out a brilliant method. I begin at the beginning, proceed through the steps, and everything gets better.

It is important to have already written down everything I can think of to say on the particular subject at hand. That’s actually the first step. The method is most helpful to me once I have written a great quantity of words and am stuck trying to figure out how to help the project hang together.

One step that is particularly useful is writing down all the scenes I can remember. Trust me, I never want to do it, but it’s like peeling the tough skin off broccoli, it is so much more satisfying to eat if I’ll just take the time to do it. So, I write down the scenes, compare them with what I actually have, and notice what’s missing. Almost immediately, I have some hope about the possibilities for the piece I’m working on.

Then comes the really hard part: Cut it up. I never want to do this step either and once wrote a friend: “I don’t want to print the book out and cut up the scenes. I don’t want to do it. I’m SURE it is the next step, because I have the glue-y feeling about the project. I work on a little bit here and a little bit there, but it is time to figure out the theme and the scenes and stop dealing with it as a big wad of dough. Telling you this will give me the courage to DO IT!”

I print the manuscript out and cut up the scenes, worrying the whole time about how to save the brilliant segues I have written to connect various sections. Once this surgery is completed, I get the payoff: a sense of ease and spaciousness comes over me and I can see! Instead of one tight intransigent blob of words, they come to look like small interesting packets that have a chance of making sense together.

The method works for a book, an article, or a chapter. I remember one particularly satisfying hour of writing when I printed out a slightly tangled chapter, cut it apart, rearranged and deleted, and found the meat. The next day I rewrote it. The method never lets me down.

After separating all the scenes, I get to make charts on the wall of all the scenes and a big bullseye target that helps figure out what the theme is for the project. If I just stick with all the steps, I wind up with a much clearer, cleaner, more accessible piece and I stop feeling like I’m lost in the dark.

Writing is hard, but it doesn’t have to feel aimless. Stuart Horwitz’s method will help you find your way.

Jeanette Stokes, is the executive director of RCWMS and author of several books, including Just Keep Going: Advice on Writing and Life. She lives in Durham, NC.

Revision is Not a Secret

Revision is not something you do after you are done writing. Revision is writing.

A paragraph does not come tumbling out in perfect form the first time you glimpse its need and some of its contents. You (might) get one perfect sentence.

And then in the next draft, you follow the clues and nail another one.

And then in the third draft you have lived an extra day or week and you get another sentence that fits into the groove left by the first two.

And then maybe you show this paragraph to someone you trust and they say, what about?… And you say, Can I use that? And you have your fourth sentence. And if your paragraph was only supposed to have four sentences — you’re done.

To read a longer blog on this process to remind you of what you already know, go here: Four Versions of a Paragraph.

The Secret to What Makes a Great Book

I don’t know how recently you’ve stumbled across this site…but if you have been exposed to even a little bit about my work, you know there is NO WAY I am going to tell you that in a mini-blog. I hate shortcuts. Or, as Ro$hi says in video #6 from Finish Your Book in Three Drafts,

“If the way presented to you seems easy, it is probably false.”

And yet, a current client – whose book I love, by the way – emailed me this very question, saying: “You promised to tell me what makes a great book and what made you say that mine has the potential to be one. Now is the time for me to work toward fulfilling that potential!”

She says I promised this nugget in an in-person meeting. I honestly have no idea where that miscommunication occurred, but this is what I (fairly predictably) responded:

“That’s what we’ve been talking about all along my friend. That’s been in all of my comments urging you towards greater clarity, connections, and depth. There isn’t any secret to what makes a great book. It’s in the embrace of revision, the effort to not quit on a paragraph, a sentence, or even a word.”

P.S. I believe she has done that.

P.P.S. I believe you can too.

Ro$hi dispensing writing wisdom

Good Beginnings Ask Good Questions

Beginnings in literature are highly confusing. In media res, inciting incidents, grab-‘em-in-the-first-five-pages-or-I-can’t-represent-this… you know the drill.

To back up, I think the easiest way to think about plot is that a story has to ask a question. And then not answer it. And then answer it. If it’s a novel, you might want to have several questions, some of which are answered as they resolve themselves into different and perhaps more difficult questions.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. In fiction or creative non-fiction, we start with a question. (In prescriptive non-fiction, the equivalent is identifying a lack which the reader perceives within himself or herself). Beginnings ask questions. Good beginnings ask good questions.