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A Convert Speaks

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.

Murderer!

I’m sure by now we all know about William Faulkner’s dictum to “Kill all your darlings.” (And if you aren’t, you can read up on it: here.)

A client gave me this “thank you” for all the words I cut from his manuscript. I’m not going to lie, I was a little creeped out at first.

But then I got into the spirit. Yes, that is part of why you need an editor.

  • Because you repeat material without developing it;
  • Because we got the point 100 words ago;
  • Because what you’re talking about now has no bearing on the subject, even though it might also be true;
  • Because you think you’re being cute but you’re just being annoying;
  • Because the best thing you’ve written in ten pages should get a chance to stand out more fully in relief.

These are some of the answers to the question, When is murder not a crime?

 

It’s About the Reader

After thirty years of studying the craft, I finally get it. It’s about the reader, not the writer. Your work has to reach the reader, it has to open out to the reader, it has to be about the reader, even just analogically.

No one really cares about you. When I say this to clients, whether they are writing memoir or prescriptive non-fiction, there is a gasp or a moment of uncomfortable silence while this fact is recognized and accepted.

Once it has been accepted then we can take the next step and say, it may not just be about the reader. It may look more like this (Venn diagram alert!):

Do Not Overtighten

Having recently dropped a kid off at college for the first time, I know what it’s like to put together some IKEA furniture…with the added handicap of trying to read the directions through a film of tears. Not joking.

 

Something about the directions for her bed struck me as useful for writers. In an early step (#5 of #21), they tell you not to overtighten the hex bolts. This is because one piece has to fit into another and there has to be some give — you get to the tightening of both pieces later.

You see where I’m going with this, right? I see a lot of writers overtightening their first draft: wordsmithing, agonizing over the perfect dialogue snippets or vocation for a minor character. Those answers will come over the course of the drafting process if you leave things a little loose. If you overtighten, you will just have to go back to a much earlier step and undo everything you have done between now and then — or worse, snap a piece off in your hand and have to go back to that giant parking lot with the weird trolley carts that don’t hold a damn thing comfortably.

Do not overtighten.