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What Kind of House Would You Like?

As an expert in structure, sometimes writers think I have an ideal form in mind already when I help them revise their manuscripts. Like there is a right way to organize a piece of literature. But that’s not true. And it’s not even entirely true — although a good place to start — to say that the form should fit the content, and that’s how you discern your ideal structure.

Sometimes it’s what do you like? Do you want something kind of Bauhaus-y, so that when visitors come over they marvel at the lines and ask, where do you put all your stuff? Do you want the equivalent of a cozy — if well-made — Cape? What feels like home to you?

Two Kinds of Good Ideas

In writing we need to go back and forth, between outlining and pantsing, between structuring our writing sessions with preliminary notes and research and charts (outlining) and letting go into discovery and the creative inspiration of the moment (pantsing). That dynamic is the premise of Finish Your Book in Three Drafts.

What you find during this process is that sometimes you get ideas for what you are writing — the content — and sometimes you get ideas about what you are writing — the form.

These structural ideas: where pieces go and how they fit together, whether elements might repeat, how to vary your form once established if you’re really getting jazzy… a lot of time we don’t pay attention to them as much as the great line of dialogue or the resonant emotion. But they are just as important.

There are two kinds of good ideas.

Doing the Work

It’s kind of a self-help phrase, “doing the work,” used in various forms of therapy, recovery and personal development programs.

All of which I love, by the way. But since you are a writer, let me come at it from a different angle. At that is what happens if you don’t do the work.

If you don’t do the work, you project your psychic struggles through your fiction or attempt to settle scores with your non-fiction. If you don’t do the work, you are driven by subconscious complexes rather that being able to receive information from the collective unconscious.

If you don’t do the work, you are passing on a form of contagion, whereas if you do the work, your creativity will flow more smoothly. Because if you stop avoiding things in real life it actually makes it easier to write about those things.

A Memoir is About Connections

Every book has a known and an unknown. For a memoir, the unknown is the connections.

Working from a database of what you remember, what you may have previously written down in a journal, or what others may remind you is the raw material of memoir. As such, it may seem like just execution to get it all down.

But what if you took time to think on the page? To dig, not only into why something happened, but what it meant for other times in your life?

The ability to make those connections is what will matter to the reader, not the details of your life. The connections are what connects.