Category: the Method

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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.

Seven Themes from Well-Known Narratives

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 #7.

Sometimes I get asked if I think that every great work of narrative has a single theme that sustains it. In other words, does a book have to be about one thing in order to be great?

The answer is no, of course. I am suggesting your book can only be about one thing because of the helpfulness such a construction brings, not because it is some hard-and-fast rule. I suggest a theme because it can give you a mantra to focus your mind.

There was a period of my life when I was into reading Russian novels. I loved Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. In fact, it saved my life one summer when I was working my most menial of waiting-tables jobs. That said, structurally that book is a mess. It seems to repeat entirely 200 pages; I’m not sure it was even edited.

If you take Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina, on the other hand, the theme is present on the first page. In fact, it is the very first line:

Theme #1:

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Tolstoy then goes on to give us 800+ pages, but if we ever forget what this book is about, we can go back to page one and refresh ourselves.

Sometimes the theme comes at the end of a work instead. J. K. Rowling’s theme for the entire Harry Potter series comes in the seventh and final volume; imagine writing a theme not just for one book but for seven books all in the same sentence:

Theme #2:

“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

With a series that spans more than 4,000 pages and has such a large and devoted following, I can’t imagine that a single person out there would disagree with me. That’s a joke. Nonetheless, we will press on, and I will present Potter scholar C.S. Plocher’s rationale for the above theme she chose:

“The biggest theme in the Harry Potter series is the fight between good and evil. Snape plays a big part in that theme because we’re not sure for most of the series if he’s a good guy or a bad guy. Rowling puts a twist on the classic ‘good and evil’ when we find out in the end that Snape is fighting for the good guys but not really for the right reason. Snape loved Harry’s mother and he felt responsible for her death, so he became a double agent for the good side even though he’s ‘spiteful’ and ‘a bully’ (Rowling’s words). Rowling summed up the whole idea in the last book in her series when she wrote on a tombstone, ‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.’

 

I’m not sure if that’s what you were looking for?”

That’s what we’re looking for, all right. Your theme can be stated as a maxim, moral, or message, all of which have different shades of expression. Rowling’s theme is what I would call a maxim. We find an example of moral in Hans Christian Andersen’s short story “The Ugly Duckling.”

Theme #3:

“It does not matter in the least having been born in a duckyard, if only you come out of a swan’s egg.”

It’s a moral because it has a more specific value system assigned to it. Something in between a maxim and a moral is a message. A message is never fully expressed, except through a variety of examples that all add up to something larger than the sum of its parts. In Don Freeman’s children’s book Corduroy, the message is an anti-materialist screed about what’s really important in life. That’s my reading of all the iterations of the I’ve Always Wanted series [for more, see chapter one of Book Architecture (BA)]. The fifth iteration in this series reads:

Theme #4

“I know I’ve always wanted a home.”

A message can exist within one series or at the crossroads of several different series; if it is the latter, it will likely need to be stated a few different ways, as Joseph Heller does in his novel Catch-22:

Theme #5

“Immoral logic seemed to be confounding him at every turn.”
“There just doesn’t seem to be any logic to this system of rewards and punishment.” (If you’ve ever seen the film version of Catch-22, you will either love it or hate it, but I think it does a good job of presenting this theme to the viewer. The movie was based on a 450-page book, so what more do you want?)

When narratives are written specifically for film, it is easier to write the theme directly into one of the character’s speeches so that it becomes memorable, since a screenplay is usually fewer than 30,000 words. That’s what Aaron Sorkin did in The Social Network when Eduardo says:

Theme #6

“See, in a world where social structure was everything, that (the ability to invite— or not invite—friends to join Facebook) was the thing.”

Every chance I get, I praise this film for the way even the tangential scenes all relate to series and contribute to the theme of Exclusivity. (For more, see chapter four of BA).

And now we have arrived at my favorite of the seven themes I chose to include in this PDF/blog. It comes from the film Slumdog Millionaire.

Theme #7

“What the hell can a slumdog possibly know?”

Why is it my favorite? For one thing, its elegance is straightforward. For another, it indicates not only the Inspector’s character but also the attitude of millions of people regarding India’s caste system. But best of all, it also directs the main action of the film (what I have called the central series) and gives us the beginning, the middle, and the end.

All in eight words. No pressure.

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.

The Method & The Mystery

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a guest blog by Kimberly Savage

I make it a point in life: never argue with Albert Einstein. Who knows what he had in mind when he wrote the words above but, to me, he describes the mysterious process of writing perfectly. And how we surprise ourselves along the way.

Applying the method

Starting the first draft of my work-in-progress, I had a sketch of what my book was about: the characters, the setting, the ideas. Enter the Book Architecture Method which both helps you organize the material you already know, and helps you discover things you didn’t know about your book.

I wrote my first draft and then, following the Method, I analyzed it. I figured out my theme. I recalled my scenes from memory. And I wrote down my series.

If you don’t know series, it is the quintessential Book Architecture concept. I think of it as an archetype, which can be a character, a setting, an object, a phrase, an idea, a theme. For more information on series, check out this PDF from Stuart’s third book, Finish Your Book in Three Drafts.

Many of my series that I had in my mind stayed mostly the same, maybe with some cutting and stitching. But I also found I’d started something new in the draft that stood out: Biology.

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What the method reveals

Being able to take a step back is what any writing method should help you do…or else it’s not doing its job. In my case, I saw:

  • Biology is my main character’s favorite school subject.
  • There’s some subtext about genetics – since the character is half Native American.
  • Add to that, the character is a cutter, so there’s blood.
  • And, oh yeah, there’s rumination on life and death – what we know, what we don’t know.

I made Biology a series. If I was wrong, and it turned out to be a dead end, I could always erase it from my series grid.

Then I wrote my second draft, and a funny thing happened. Biology became a big deal in the story. I used it as a metaphor, a scene-builder, a character-enhancer. It became one of the main series of the story. It made my story much stronger, much deeper.

Biology as a series surprised me, because it wasn’t in my head when I’d started. And if I hadn’t been looking for new series and surprises, I would’ve missed it.

Get the big picture

Using the Method is an amazing way to harness the mystery of your own writing.

  • You go beyond what you already know about your story,
  • You identify the mysteries that you’ve created, and
  • You figure out how to make your story stronger with them.

You still have lots of room for all the things you have yet to discover.

So go ahead, give the Method a try. Your story will be stronger for it. And you’ll make Einstein so proud.

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