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Stuff We Love: Type Two Fun

…which “occurs when a task is difficult at the time, but feels rewarding afterward, often because it challenges the practitioner to test their limits and grow,” as defined here.

Team BA ran the Carlsbad Half Marathon in January. It wasn’t a New Year’s resolution, really. It was more of a: “Hey, we both like running, and challenges, and hanging out, so let’s do it.”

Madison was happy with her performance. She felt strong until mile 10, when her fuel tank plummeted to empty all at once, with no warning. But she was on track to get her personal best time, and so for the last three miles her thought loop sounded something like: this feels horrible and impossibly hard, but I intellectually understand that I’ve trained and am physically able to keep this pace until the end; if I don’t, it’s a choice. And that’s not a choice I’m going to make. 

I, on the other hand, was frustrated by my performance and had to do some hard self-coaching and critical training review. I crunched the numbers. I saw that for races in the past in which I ran a certain number of miles in the four months preceding, I was very pleased with my times. When I ran 80% of those miles in that span, I was pretty happy with my times. When I ran under 65% of those miles, as I did this time around, the outcome was not good. And I shouldn’t be surprised with a subpar outcome.

But, believe it or not, we really would both classify the experience as fun. Engaging with the process of living through a whole variety of avenues can reveal new strengths, expose areas ripe for improvement, and help develop skills already in place that are serving you well.

And so: we discussed, we regrouped. I signed up for another half marathon in June with a revamped plan in place, backed by data and my desire to own my best performance (i.e.. not just go out there and do the middle-aged man shuffle). Madison is venturing into new territory with a long trail race later in the year, confident that her willpower (and, you know, training) will see her through.

In running and in writing and in editing and… Team BA wants to be thoughtful about what going all-in means, and then we want to do it.

Asking The Right Questions (At The Right Time)

“When the questions are answered, the play is over.” 

Playwright Louis Catron said that and it has since become one of our bedrock literary concepts. By keeping the questions we’re posing in our writing clear, we can answer some, while leaving others pending, creating a satisfying sense of forward progress as certain reader expectations are met and new ones arise. This narrative tool is simple, powerful, and applicable to all genres. 

Where To Start?

All writers are familiar with the concept of the inciting incident. This is where we pose the first question, or set of questions, to the reader. This could be done with nuance; perhaps we’re given a glimpse into the mind of a complicated character and we come to the end of the opening scene wanting to understand: “Why is she this way?” Sometimes it’s done with a heavier hand, such as a spy novel that begins with a chaotic action scene; here our question is more like: “Why is he being hunted?” In either case, the question or questions are responsible for engaging our interest. 

This touches on the commonly used–and commonly misunderstood–writing axiom in media res which means “in the middle of things.” Writers sometimes attempt this by plucking a lone, out-of-sequence scene from the middle of their story, chronologically speaking, and put it at the start of the narrative. Then, they spend the next chunk of the work leading up to it again, until the reader can finally figure out exactly what the first scene meant after all. This is not how the literary device was originally used and there are better ways to hook the reader. 

While it is important to capture the reader’s attention quickly, without wasting too many precious words on exposition or setting the scene, curiosity can be suitably piqued through the creation of compelling questions. It isn’t necessary to backtrack. If your first scene engenders interest, if it implies a world where something is at stake and immediately transports the reader into a situation with dramatic tension, why not just continue from there?


Carrying Questions Through The Narrative

An end to our questions is an end to your narrative, which readers will need at some point. At the same time, readers want the questions to unfold slowly; they want things to play themselves out. 

If all questions start at the beginning and all are answered at the end, the work will likely feel static and rote. Establishing the most effective rhythm of asking the right questions means knowing when to leave them for the time being while weaving in reminders of what needs to be answered — and then providing those answers in turn. All of this requires thoughtful mapping. 

Sometimes we get answers to questions before the end of the book, which is very satisfying. It gives us a sense that things will get resolved. Conversely, we might get a new question in the middle that brings a fresh sense of beginnings to the narrative. Maybe a question is answered in a way that immediately poses another, or else leads to a deeper question off its back. 

When enough questions that we didn’t see coming are being asked, or creative resolutions we didn’t expect are being provided, or layers of questions are being woven into a tapestry of intrigue, there comes a point when the reader gives themselves over to the mastery of the author. This is where the “Eh, we’ll see” energy –- the natural skepticism we all bring to new books or other forms of narrative -– gives way to, “What?!” And they’re all in. You’ve hooked them.

Clients Crushin’ It: Jimi Simmons

Madison Utley speaks to author Jimi Simmons about writing the first volume of Demon Motors: Run What You Brung, starting in on volume two, and the important balance of finding your own way as a writer while remaining open to the right kind of support. 


Q: Talk to me about your writing past. What kind of experience did you have before working on this book? 

A: My whole career has been in the film industry. Everybody I know writes a screenplay at some point. I hadn’t done any organized writing before, but I’ve always jotted down stories and things that happened that could be good to use later. But when I finally really sat down to write, the screenplay format felt like it was holding me back. I kept finding myself focusing on: “Where’s the camera? What location would this be shot in?” I was preoccupied with all the periphery stuff instead of character development.

Once I switched to a novel format, the storyline stopped feeling secondary. I wrote the majority of the book in two months. I locked myself in and really went for it. The characters are really an amalgamation of personality types I’ve known throughout my life, so I felt like I knew them and could work with them really well. I’d create a scenario and throw them into it and sort of write down their response. It flowed really easily. On the surface, Demon Motors is about the street racing scene in San Francisco, but lest that alienate readers thinking it’s just some gearhead talking about cars, I made sure the interpersonal part of it is really compelling too. 

Q: Tell me the inception of the story. 

A: This book started as a writing practice I used to get deeper into myself, really as a therapeutic thing. I was going through a pretty crazy time personally and I knew from past experience that nothing was going to change or stabilize until I turned inside and figured out the reasons for what was happening and changed it at the core level. So, in the beginning, it was quite a selfish thing. I was determined to get through the parts I needed to work on emotionally and if the story came out, the story came out. If it didn’t, it didn’t. I really did most of the work for myself. But then suddenly, what seemed like random stories and snippets and experiences began to look like they could be tied together. I just wasn’t exactly sure how though. 

Q: What did you do at that point?

A: It was really important to me that the book be true to my vision and so I was hoping to find someone who could guide me and show me the way, while respecting that. I went to a few book fairs and met a bunch of people but it was just this sort of rote: “Well here’s what you need to do if you want to be an author.” Nothing was clicking. I tried tapping all resources available, but unfortunately none of them seemed to fit my style, my voice, or the story I wanted to tell. 

Then I heard Stuart speak at a book fair in Boston and I was like, “I know this guy. This is one of my tribe.” We met up and he was just so supportive. His book, Blueprint Your Bestseller, was incredibly helpful because I had all of these half chapters and paragraphs and content that was related but scattered. Stuart showed me how I could put all of those pieces together into a story that made sense. But the thing I’m most proud of is that when people read this book, they say, “I can hear your voice through the whole thing. It sounds like you’re telling the story.” For me, that’s a huge compliment. That’s what I wanted. It brought the joy back into the process. There’s definitely going to be a Volume Two, which takes place about six years later. I’m a few chapters in and having a lot of fun with it. 

Q: What advice would you give to a writer embarking on their first book project? 

A: I explored almost every resource available to authors and at every turn, there was someone wanting to charge me money to show me how to be like everyone else. Maybe it was because of my age or my experience, but it was easy for me to say, “No, that might be the way it’s ‘supposed to be done,’ but my priority is telling my story my way.” So I’d say don’t wholly accept just anybody’s advice–mine included. Don’t think you need to do it the same way someone else did. Listen to what you know you need to do. Trust your gut and if something doesn’t feel right to you, then find another way to do it. 

That said, at some point you’re going to need help or advice from someone you can trust. It can be hard to find that other voice that A, believes in you; B, has the experience necessary to give good advice; and C, can hear you and you can hear them. But it matters. Whether it’s a writing partner, somebody like Stuart, or a publisher, you need an advocate, that person on your side who will push you to be better while also reminding you: “This is good and this will work.” 

Emi Nietfeld: On Writing Memoir

Madison Utley speaks to debut author Emi Nietfeld following the publication of her memoir, Acceptance, which tells the story of how a child faced with a seemingly endless series of challenges–including parental mental illness, foster care, and homelessness–and operating largely without the assistance of advocates, managed to propel herself into Harvard and beyond.

Here, Emi invites us into her writing process, explaining how she went about striking the right balance between factual integrity and structural clarity and sharing how Stuart’s book on writing, Blueprint Your Bestseller, helped her shape her manuscript into what The New York Times called “a remarkable memoir.”


MU: In the epilogue of your book, you tell readers about your experience of researching your own life. Your time as a child in the mental health and foster care systems meant you had thousands of pages of documentation to draw on. That information included many things you had forgotten, remembered differently, or couldn’t have known at the time. Talk to me about the process of reconciling that disparity. 

EN: I started writing my book about seven years ago. I began by completely relying on my own memory. The serious research part didn’t really start for two and a half years, when beta readers of my earliest drafts continued to question my motivations in certain situations and I couldn’t actually remember the why. 

Doing the research and confronting the facts from my past was one of the most difficult parts of the process. Every time I read the medical records or the emails or other things I came across, I was emotionally devastated. I often felt like I could not own up to what I actually did or said. I was mean. I stole things. I lied to people. But ultimately, I felt it was really important to be completely honest about my own mistakes and things I had done in Acceptance. 

After spending time with the research, I went back and rewrote what I had already written to take into account the fuller picture of the truth. It became both about taking responsibility for my actions while not bogging the story down with every available fact.


MU: How did you balance your commitment to telling a more honest version of your story with presenting a well-structured, navigable narrative to readers? 

EN: The detail available in my research introduces a lot of extra ups and downs in the story. Basically, I had to emotionally consolidate what I was thinking about in order to write it in a way that guides the reader without having them go over a bunch of those speed bumps. 

There’s also always this struggle between telling an authentic story and the demands of the marketplace. That was something I grappled with a lot early on. But over the last seven years, both writing the book and writing some essays and shorter pieces, I became more comfortable with the idea that there’s not just one version of the story. Tying what happened in my own life to questions that are relevant in the world is actually a powerful way to connect with readers. I feel lucky that I had a publisher and a team that was really thoughtful about making sure that I was only saying things that really felt true to me.

For example, in my early drafts of the memoir, I was trying to present myself as an overcomer with this really inspiring story. In that version, I deserved to get into Harvard, to work at Google, to have these really great things in a world where so many people do not. But being more honest about my experience pushed me to find the thing that’s bigger than myself and my own story, which is this question of resilience and how the ideal of resilience can be used against vulnerable people. Over time, conveying that message became more important to me than having readers like me or read me in a certain way.


MU: Tell me more about how you honed in on that driving theme to center your story around. 

EN: One of the best books that I read about writing is called 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School by Matthew Frederick. The main takeaway is that in architecture, to build a significant building, there is usually what’s called a parti behind it, a unifying principle. Every choice about the building emerges from that one principle. That idea was really useful as I considered how to make my memoir be about something and how to shape my story to have artistic unity.

Like a lot of memoirists, I had written early versions where the feedback was, “This is less of a memoir that has a focus, and more of an autobiography.” I was stuck there for six drafts, really, struggling to make it cohere. Then, a friend’s mom who’s a writer recommended Blueprint Your Bestseller and I really appreciated how it was so straightforward in laying out: here’s how to do this edit. I was able to go through that process in one month and do a complete revision. I went from 400 pages to 200-something. The feedback I received from beta readers looked dramatically different. Before, I had to beg people to read it and after I did that revision, people would read it in one or two days and there was a lot more excitement.


MU: What has been the most unexpected part of getting your memoir into the world? 

EN: The thing that’s been surprising to me is how many doors having published this book have opened up and, I think, will continue to open. Maybe that seems obvious, but I was so focused on getting this out as the goal. But now, to have it published and for it to have gotten good reviews, as well as having been able to publish essays along the way, I feel like I’m in a totally different place in my career than I was before it came out. I have this feeling of, “Oh, there are more directions that I can go.” 

I’m not from the literary establishment. I studied computer science. I was working in tech. Moving towards getting this book published felt almost like being a pawn in a chess game, where in any situation there were only two moves that I could make and I had to keep making those moves over and over again. Now, I’m a rook and it’s great. I have more moves I can make. It feels like there’s a lot of possibility.