The Story Grid

Like a Tiger in the Lowlands: Advice for Writers (Part Two: Writing)

Following on from my previous post, this one gathers some thoughts about the writing process. While craft can be learnt from teachers, mentors and writing friends, a writing process can only be acquired through doing. At the same time, much can be gleaned from those who have been in the trenches for many years, which is why I recommend some excellent books and essays here, where I learnt some of the tips that have worked best for me.


The Glide and the Scene

At NYU's Creative Writing Program, back in 2011, even though I was studying an MFA in Poetry, I was permitted to take novelist David Lipsky's craft of fiction class. It was boot camp 101, it was full on, it was David smoking e-cigarettes and real cigarettes out on the steps, conversations constantly interrupted and taken back up again and lectures delivered while rocking back and forth on a skateboard; it was hour-long craft conversations via phone while you were trying to get some work done; It was Nabakov and Lost (the TV programme); it was hilarious, and infuriating, and enlightening. What I took away and have never forgotten, is that - per Lipsky -writing both fiction and nonfiction can be reduced to two core elements: 

(1) The Glide, and (2) the Scene.

The scene you already know. You know you are in a scene when there is dialogue, action, mixed with some pithy description of characters, and description of landscape or cityscape to orientate you. Scenes are the core of the novel or short story or a piece of New Journalism. Getting from from Scene A to B to Scene G: this is where the glide comes in. The glide is everything that is not a scene.

The key point David made was:

Make your scenes as good as you can, employing all the tools of the novelist or fiction writer, even if - especially if - you are writing creative nonfiction. Then, make your glides as interesting as your scenes.

Show and Tell

David liked to remind us that writers are now up against the renaissance of television as a medium. Some of the best writers are writing for HBO. To fully employ our arsenal, we must tell as well as show. Some say show, don't tell, and for the most part it holds true. But we have both at our disposal, and some judicious telling mixed in with showing will go a long way. (In another sense, the glide is the telling, the scene is the showing.) When I first wrote the memoir project I am currently working on, back in 2008 I didn't understand why it didn't "pop". After David's class in 2011-2012, I picked it up again, reread it and realised immediately that 80% of it was telling, not showing. I completely rewrote it according to "show and tell" and "make your glides as interesting as your scenes". That advice alone was worth the dosh it cost to attend that MFA programme.


Draft # 4 by John McPhee

Draft # 4 by John McPhee is a superb book on the craft of nonfiction. If you are writing creative nonfiction, read it. If you are not, read it. The whole book is available on The New Yorker website, where these essays were first published. Here is the link.

On Writer's Block, read his essay "Draft No. 4". For structure - and here he is superb - read (you guessed it) his essay titled "Structure"

The Lead

McPhee offers key advice about writing a lead in this piece for The Wall Street Journal. He writes: 

"You're wading around in your notes, getting nowhere. You don't see a structure for the piece you're trying to write. You don't know what to do. So you stop everything and hunt through your mind for a good beginning, a good way to scissor in. Then do it; write it; get a lead on paper.

If the whole piece of writing is not a long one, you may plunge right on and out the other side and have a finished draft before you know it. But if the piece is to have some combination of substance, complexity and structural juxtaposition, you might begin with that workable lead and then be able to sit back and think about where you are going and how you plan to get there.

Writing a successful lead, in other words, can illuminate the problem for you and cause you to see the piece whole, to see it conceptually, in various parts, to which you then assign your materials. You find your lead, you build your structure, you are now free to write."


Your Memoir, Not Your "Memoirs", and Definitely not Your Autobiography

While we're almost on the subject of memoir, per Vivian Gornick - a memoir is a slice of your life, not your life. It is your life filtered through an arc, a story line, a through line. It is a memoir, not your memoirs, not your autobiography. It's your memoirs if you're Winston Churchill or a famous rugby player, or if someone else is writing the book for you, but otherwise not. Here is Gornick interviewed in The Guardian, linked to above:

"If a memoir is to achieve literature, it has to have an organizing principle, it has to have an idea, it has to have something that will be of value to the disinterested reader,” she said. “And that doesn’t happen so often, because most people who are writing memoirs are not writers.” The books that these other people – celebrities, crime victims – create she calls “testament”, a genre she traces back to the second world war and credits with creating the appetite for memoir in America. But she’s very clear on the nature of the skill involved in elevating the book to literature: “The ability to turn yourself into a persona who is able to generate drama, narrative drive, conflict, all the things that are required, is very hard,” she told me. “And not too many people achieve it.” 


For When Things Get Difficult


The Binder / Folder Method

If you are writing a longer project and need to work out where the various scenes in your draft belong, separate the scenes by page. What I mean is: 

Separate the book according to scenes. Each scene will start on a separate page. Then print out the whole book on single-sided paper. If a scene is a page long, great. If it is several pages long, staple those pages together. Then put the whole project in a binder, then spend some time reading through. Chances are that having the whole thing in front of you, you will gain clarity as to where things can be moved around.

(I was recommended this method by memoirist and essayist Jeannie Vanasco, author of The Glass Eye)


Note Cards / The Fanning Method

McPhee does something similar with notecards. Each scene will be summarised in a word or short sentence, and in this way the arc of the story can be discovered by utilising a bed or a large table - any large or long surface that can give you enough space to lay out your material. By the way, a similar method works for poets who are trying to work out how to order their manuscripts: fan out the poems on a table, or on the floor. It works best if you have a room where you can leave your work overnight, or over several nights. This will not work if you live in a tiny New York apartment.



If you need something more detailed than McPhee, then I thoroughly recommend Sean Coyne's The Story Grid. If the stakes are not high enough in your book and you can't work out what's going wrong, if an editor or an agent or a first reader gives unhelpful and vague advice as to why they think it just isn't working, Then Sean's book is a complete craft class and is incredibly valuable. His concept of the five commandments of story telling is very helpful, and is applicable to a scene or an entire book: 

  1. Inciting Incident

    1. Causal

    2. Coincidence

  2. Progressive Complication

    1. Active Turning Point

    2. Revelatory Turning Point

  3. Crisis

    1. The Best Bad choice

    2. Irreconcilable goods

  4. Climax

  5. Resolution

Often the literary writer will feel that hooking the reader isn't important, but, even literary writers have to keep the reader reading. This is something genre writers take for granted. (The downside of genre is that while the story might be compelling, the writing can be chipboard, not mahogany. Equally well, the problem with mahogany is that it can be "yawn!") Coyne can be a bit down on literary fiction, but if you ignore that and focus on the prize, then this book can be valuable, especially if storytelling isn't your strong suit.


Morning Pages (Per Julia Cameron)

One of the most valuable things I have learnt came via Julia Cameron's book The Artist's Way. As cheesy as some might think it is, apart from following the 12-week course she outlines in the book, her "morning pages" method of getting the ball rolling is invaluable. Since the age of 16 I have written a diary / journal on an almost daily basis, but Cameron's process-driven suggestions helped me to make it a fixed part of the day.

The process is simple: at a time that suits you best (usually the morning works best for most, as clearing the mind of psychological junk via journalling tends to set you on a positive path for the rest of the day), write three pages and do not stop for anything until they are finished. Three pages of Microsoft Word might be a little too much; best to use a size like a Moleskine notebook, which is 19 X 25 centimetres, or 7.5 X 9.75 inches. If you are working on a specific project, you can journal your way into it, as long as you free yourself from perfectionism and judgement as you write; you can write on a bus, a train, the Metro / Subway. The method can adapt to you, and is a valuable way of generating new work. After a week or two, when you have some time, go back over your diary and highlight / underline passages that could be used in a poem, an essay, the short story or novel you're writing. Copy it onto your computer, and there you go: you're already into the second draft. Steinbeck's Journal of a Novel is a great example of a process journal. On the left page he wrote his thoughts before the day's work, then he wrote the novel (East of Eden) on the right hand side.


Writing 15 Minutes A Day

Bearing in mind that writer's block is an issue - and one that isn't talked about enough - one of the best books I have read on the subject is Joan Bolker's Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day. I bought it during a lengthy spell of writer's block during a book-length academic thesis, and it saved my bacon. While other books I read about writing a thesis barely acknowledge the psychological difficulties of writing, this book tackles it directly. Her main point is that if you are paralysed, write 15 minutes of anything. "But I'll never finish like that!" I hear you wail. "I'll never get my 10,000 hours under my belt!" LMAO, folks. Yes, but, 15 minutes of writing is better than the nothing you are currently doing. And, the positive reinforcement that ensues once you start means that you will almost never stop at 15 minutes. Something that is in motion will tend to stay in motion, and all that jazz.

Bolker divides the writing process into

  • The zero draft;

  • The first draft;

  • The middle draft;

  • And the final draft.

The zero draft is that point where the manuscript is an unholy mess, where the file contains material not even related to your project; where the draft is disorganised and messy, and exciting, sparking with energy, and a lot of repetition, and dispiriting redundancy. Here is where you got it down on paper, everything can only get better from this point on. Why would the draft contain material not relevant to your book? Well, because one of the ways in is to trick yourself into a sense of safety, and that is by writing anything:

"I don't know what I'm doing. I hate this. I hate this. I hate this. I'm bored. I'm so scared, I wish I could stop. Ok, I'll just write for 10 more minutes and stop."

Until you reach the moment where you write: "What I really want to say in this book is..." Then the door starts to open.

In transitioning from zero to first draft, simply delete all of the throat clearing, print it out, and then mark up the text with a view to things that belong together and cohere. Take notes directly onto the hard copy, then add your changes to the digital version. At this point, you're beginning to make headway into your first draft.

Bolker is great on all of this. I highly recommend her. If you are writing anything other than an academic thesis and the title puts you off,, just substitute novel, poetry, short story, etc., for dissertation. It works for me every time. (On the book's Amazon page, there is some complaining from dissertation students that it would benefit creative writings more than academic writers.)

Finally, her key points are:

  • Write 15 minutes a day;

  • Use journalling to discover and refine what you want to say.

  • Use journalling as a way of writing while you are afraid, and homing in on your core thesis.

  • Use it to write your arguments and counter arguments. "What if A?... What if B?..."

  • Write first (once you've written, the rest of the day is yours).

  • Use the zero draft method;

  • Use the "chunking" technique, which is to split the project into do-able chunks. I.e.,

"Today I'll transcribe my notes"; "tomorrow I'll group them in the file by theme / subject"; "the day after I'll print them out and mark them up"; "the day after, I'll make those changes on the soft copy." You get the picture.


Writing Intelligence

Given that many younger or beginning writers wonder if they're "intelligent or smart enough", I have to admit that I have never heard the word smart used more than at my two years at NYU's creative writing program. I also hear it way too much in literary circles in New York, used as a compliment: the latest smart book or essayist. My side of the world equates "smart" with "a smarty pants", not someone you want to be. A particular book or poet or writer is "smart", a scene is "smart" or not "smart" enough. A sign of our times, too many writers believe a writer's intelligence to be paramount, but It depends on the type of intelligence. I believe that the best writers have in fact been stupid in certain respects. They have been slow, wool gatherers and dreamers, or seemed so to the outside world. Their "smartness" was hidden. Although we need our analytical side, we also need instinct and intuition, not only cerebration.