Fiction and memoir writers, you’re going to love this episode! I have Gabriela Pereira of DIY MFA back on the podcast to help you make your manuscripts amazing. We talk about how to write great characters, how to find a plot and story people will want to read, and how to choose the right ending for your story. And, she fills us in on what you should do if the first draft of your novel is…not good. You’ll learn how important the first page and the first chapter are, and how you can make sure you’re getting your reader interested in your book right away.
Then, Gabriela tells us how you can use storytelling theory to write a compelling memoir. She tells us how we need to use the principles of great writing (characters, plot, and so on) also apply to memoir so it’s more relatable or aspirational. You’ll hear a great framework that you can use to decide which stories from your life that you should put in your memoir…and which ones you should take out.
You can also catch Gabriela in these episodes of the Blogger to Author Podcast:
Gabriela Pereira is an author, speaker, and entrepreneur who wants to challenge the status quo of higher education. As the founder and instigator of DIYMFA.com, her mission is to empower people to take an entrepreneurial approach to their creative careers, and unleash their artistic brilliance. She earned her MFA in creative writing from The New School and speaks at national conferences, industry events, and college campuses, including: TEDx, Writer’s Digest conferences, the Claremont Mckenna Athenaeum, and INBOUND. She is the author of the book DIY MFA and the host of both the Writer’s Digest Podcast and DIY MFA Radio.
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Where you can find Gabriela:
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Click here to get access to Gabriela’s free Starter Kit. This kit will help you get jump started on your path toward becoming a writer and author, and it will teach you some of the tips and tricks Gabriela learned while getting her MFA, too!
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TRANSCRIPT: WRITING GREAT FICTION AND MEMOIRS WITH GABRIELA PEREIRA
This is a direct, unedited transcript; please excuse any typos.
So, for those of you who may not have listened to Gabriela’s prior to interviews on the podcast, could you just give us a quick rundown of who you are and what you do?
I am the founder and the instigator emphasis on the word instigator of DIY MFA, which is the do it yourself alternative to an MFA or master of Fine Arts in writing. Basically what I do is I help writers get the knowledge without the college and I’m doing little air quotes with my fingers right now. I’m basically. Yeah, it’s, it started out as this weird experiment that I did sort of on myself using myself as a Guinea pig back when I had just graduated from a traditional MFA program and I was trying to recreate that experience or rather continue that experience. Basically I was one of those people who went to Grad school and just didn’t want to graduate.
So I was trying to figure out ways to like keep that going and have that same like intellectual energy that I’d had in school. And then it became, you know, it sort of grew from a little teeny tiny blog to a much bigger blog and now it’s, it’s a full on business. We teach courses. I go, I travel around the country giving talks and doing interviews. I’m speak at conferences outside of the writing space now. I’ve started speaking at marketing conferences on sort of the art of storytelling in business and things like that. Um, I gave a Tedx talk last year, so I’ve been, it’s been slowly growing. I mean it’s taken almost like eight or nine years to get to this point that it’s now at a place where it’s my full time job and I love it. That is so awesome and incredibly inspiring to.
Oh, and it’s also a book my agent and my editor’s will kill me if I don’t mention that there’s also a DIY MFA book. I sort of forget about it sometimes, but yeah, there’s a book.
Any of you who are listening to this particular episode, definitely go pick it up because I think it’s going to be incredibly valuable for you as you work to really apply the lessons that Gabriella’s going to teach you in this episode.
So, let’s kind of dive in a little bit. So if listeners make sure you go back and listen to our previous two interviews that we had. The first one is episode 24. We get a lot more into Gabriela, his backstory, which I think is fascinating and I think you’ll learn a lot. We talk about traditional publishing versus self publishing and then she walks you through some of the steps that you should take as you’re beginning to kind of plan out your book and she’s got a framework that she teaches and suggest and you can learn about it. Then, in episode 43, we took an even deeper dive into the writing process and really the process of putting together a manuscript, really for any genre, but I think it’s especially applicable to nonfiction.
So, I wanted to bring Gabriela back on because I will be the first to admit that I am not a fiction expert, but Gabrielle is, and she helps a lot of people in her free Facebook group and then in her courses and with her book as well who are fiction authors. Then, I’m also gonna get her to talk a little bit about memoir a little bit later in the episode two. So Gabriela, could you start off by just kind of the basic advice that you usually give to fiction authors and then maybe some things that they should know before they’re getting started and as they’re working on their novels?
Yeah. So the first thing, at least for me, when I’m writing any sort of work of fiction or anything with a story thread, even if it’s like a piece of nonfiction, but it’s like storytelling based as opposed to how to step by step stuff. I would start with the character and for me that’s really important because I think the character is creates something of a lens through which your readers will experience the story. The character gives us a window, a way in to the world of the story. Think about it. If we had seen the movie, The Wizard of Oz, but instead of Dorothy landing in Oz and then going off on her adventures, we had just been living in Oz all the time. It would and we didn’t have that character to sort of anchor the story and take us on that journey alongside her.
It wouldn’t have been a very different story and in my opinion, probably not nearly as engaging because it would, we would have just been dropped into this random worlds without any sort of character to hang our hat on. Nobody to root for no one to truly care about. Obviously there are subsequent Oz books that got built out after the first one, but I think having that entree into the world of the story is really important. Same thing if you look at contemporary books like you know, look at, uh, you know, The Hunger Games series would be very different if we didn’t have Katniss Everdeen to root for. Harry Potter would have been a totally different story if we didn’t have the title character to root for having that key character at the helm and sort of at the core of your story is really important.
So how do you go about figuring out who that character is and what they do and everything. Like I said, I’m totally ignorant on this, but what do fiction authors need to know about what they need to know about that character before they can really get into the meat of writing?
So, the way I like to think about characters, and it’s funny, I was actually building out, so I’ve started taking a lot of these storytelling things and techniques and applying them to things like business and business writing and stuff. So, I was actually just building out a PowerPoint the other day on exactly this, but even though every single character on the planet and just like every human is a super unique, special snowflake, I mean, I like tell people I’m not just a special snowflake. I have a Unicorn Horn or a Unicorn snowflake. I’m just special. And yet, you know, there really are only two types of characters in all of literature. I know. Yes. How can there only be two types of characters in all of literature? Well, because they’re very broad buckets as you are about to hear. The first is the everyman relatable character, the ordinary joe or Jane, the boy next door girl, next door character, the regular dude or do that go on about their lives and then weird stuff starts happening.
This is the premise of like so many different stories from, you know, weird, speculative fiction. I mean, thank twilight zone. Every single Twilight Zone episode ever made is essentially a regular people doing regular things. And then weird stuff happens and then it goes off in some crazy direction. So you have the, the every man, the ordinary Joe or Jane bucket, and usually the way these characters play out, whether it’s in a romance or whether it’s in a thriller or what have you, is this regular character has some sort of specialness inside. We just don’t know what it is yet. And somehow over the course of the story that character special-ness comes out and they show that they are able to rise to the occasion and do something amazing.
So, you know, remember that movie back in the nineties, Speed, Sandra Bullock’s character. I mean, she’s just like, she’s a regular lady, go into work on a bus and yet she totally kicks. But by the end of that movie, she’s like, you know, doing all these crazy things, driving the bus when the driver gets injured doing all of this heroic stuff that she didn’t even realize she was capable of and yet she was because she rose to the occasion, um, you know, again, like it’s all about having that character, having that sort of inner specialness that we don’t necessarily see.
Another example would be like Bilbo Baggins, right? In The Hobbit, he’s just a regular old, you know, guy from The Shire, hobbit from The Shire, and yet we can tell right away that there was something special about him because he would not have been taken on that journey with all of those doors. And with Gandalf, if there were a whole lot of other habits they could have picked, but they picked him and they picked him for a reason. It’s just not clear yet what Gandalf’s reasoning is. And it’s the later when we start seeing his cleverness, the way he kind of outsmarts what is it, the goblins or some of those creatures that turned to stone, we start to see his, you know, how he’s kind of, he’s witty and he’s clever and he’s smart. And that’s when we start to realize like, oh, he’s not some regular old habit. He’s got something. There’s something to this guy. So it’s the same kind of thing again.
Also, Luke Skywalker and Star Wars, we don’t realize that, you know, the whole, I am your father thing doesn’t happen until, you know, Empire. But we get a sense pretty early on that there’s something unique about Luke that his dad was this great jedi, I that he has, he gets his dad’s lightsaber. There’s a little bit of specialness is just kind of the neat the surface. So that’s the first bucket, the seemingly ordinary character who’s really super special on the inside. We just don’t know quite how yet. And eventually they showed their true colors.
Then we got the other bucket and that’s the larger than life, heroic character. The big charismatic. This character, when they walk into a room, everybody notices, I think Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby. This was a guy who, I mean he doesn’t just, he just, it’s not that he even is just naturally that big and crazy and huge as a personality. He amplifies that intentionally even more, which makes it even more kind of chaotic and crazy. And part of what’s the allure of the entire book is just kind of seeing how far down that rabbit hole Jay Gatsby is willing to go. Right?
And in fact, he’s so big as a character, so bombastic, kind of like a bull in a China shop for a lot of that book that it’s kinda hard for the reader to like him, which in large part is why I personally think that a F. Scott Fitzgerald shows a peripheral narrator notice that we never actually get inside of Jay Gatsby’s head, because quite frankly, I don’t know that most readers will be able to handle the hot mess that is the insight of Jay Gatsby’s head. And F. Scott Fitzgerald very wisely keeps us out of there.
The person who gives us an entree into Jay Gatsby’s world is his friend Nick Carraway, who lives next door. He’s renting out the house, the guest house or whatever. And he is then sort of our way into Gatsby’s world because their friends, we kind of feel like we’re aligned with Gatsby, were willing to like him because we like Nick, and so we’re willing to go along for that ride. So you’ve got these two buckets. You’ve got the big. And by the way, the, the larger than life characters. I mean, you can also have superheroes, like you’ve got the superman type characters and you’re Batman and all of these sort of comic book superhero characters. I can fall in that bucket, but you can also have some quieter characters fall into that bucket.
For example, I am willing to argue, I can find ways to like literary basis to support the argument that Elizabeth Bennett, who is the protagonist in Pride and Prejudice, is a larger-than-life character. Why is that? Because she’s a woman in a world and in a space where she would have been very repressed and yet she is willing to stand up for herself in a way that none of the other women characters in that book or in most of Jane Austen’s novels is willing to stand up for themselves. She read, she rejects suitors when the expectation is to say yes to anyone who will marry you, she stands up for herself.
She talks down to Lady Catherine, who is this woman that everyone reveres this really crotchety old lady, but everybody looks up to her because she’s incredibly rich and she has a title and yet Elizabeth Bennet is willing to argue with her and go sort of tête-à-tête and like kind of like that banter back and forth like, you know, Lady Catherine throws the gauntlet. It’s like they’re constantly at each other. And that in my world is a character who’s very much larger than life. So, um, she’s like larger than life within the context. You don’t have to be loud and brash and obnoxious in order to be larger than life character. You don’t have to have super powers to be larger than life character.
So what do we do with these two worlds now that we’ve of sort our characters into these possible buckets will then, what do you do with them? Well, the whole point of a book of a novel, of a story, any sort of narrative work is that you want the character in some way to change. And so how do you do that? Well, this is where what I call the opposite as possible theory comes in. I have this theory that whenever you write a character, you need to show that the opposite as possible from the very moment that that character appears on the page or maybe within a few moments that the character appears on the page.
So what does this mean for the everyman character you need to show that glimmer of specialness. So like we talked about how, like I talked about earlier with Bilbo Baggins, that we see those little hints from the get go that he’s not just an ordinary guy, a hobbit with Luke Skywalker. We see right from the beginning that he’s not just any old kid living on Tatooine. He’s got something to him. He’s got heritage parenting parentage that is special and important. On the flip side, with the larger than life characters, that’s where you need to show a chink in the armor. You can’t make them feel more special because they’re already special as it is and it’s like you’re amplifying something that already is amplified and it would be crazy, right? Your book would go off the rails, so instead what makes the character relatable or interesting to the readers is when we see those larger than life characters fail or when we see them a vulnerable in some way.
So great trope that often you know that when done well can be really good way of showing these larger than life characters is when you take a larger than life character who’s super powerful in some arena of their lives. And then you put them in a totally foreign weird scenario where suddenly there, and I’m doing air quotes here, their super powers that might not actually be supernatural super powers, but their abilities are suddenly moved.
So you take the, you know, this is where a lot of those like switching places comedies or buddy comedies where like two people accidentally end up in each other’s lives where the humor comes from. Seeing characters who were like, you know, the, the ball busting like lady and the office who’s yelling at everybody and now suddenly she has to like take her daughter’s place in the third grade play. And she, you know, because they’ve switched bodies or whatever.
That’s where the humor comes in because you’re seeing this very powerful character suddenly having to grapple with a different types of power plays that they are so not equipped to grapple with. And so that’s how you can kind of like play with those two types of characters to put them in scenarios that will bring out the opposite of who they are. Bring out a little hint of something other than what we expect from them. Does that make sense?
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. How do you come up with a good ending for a book, then? You take them on this journey. You show the either the everyman is special in some way, or you show that the larger than life character is vulnerable in some way, or that they’re otherwise not perfect, or however you want to phrase it. So, how do you come to a conclusion that’s good?
So before we get to the conclusion, we have to figure out the mechanism that’s going to take them through this journey. Right? Because right now all we’ve got is a character, but we don’t even know what journey they’re on in the first place, and so that’s where the characters desire comes in. No story exists without a character and without that character wanting something. Complacency does not work well in fiction or in narratives in general. People have to have a desire. Now that desire can be very simple, very basic. It could be like your character wants a glass of water, but it needs to be a desire that is compelling. So for instance, if your character wants a glass of water, but all they have to do is walk over to the kitchen and pour themselves a glass of water from the pitcher in the fridge.
That’s not a very exciting story, but if your character wants a glass of water and they are stranded on a desert island and there no drinkable water in sight and they have to figure out a way to get drinkable water out of the plants and the trees around them. Now that is the beginning of a compelling story. So your character, you’ve started with this character, you figured out now more or less, which of those buckets your character fits in, and by the way, I’ve been talking about them as though they’re buckets, but they’re not really buckets. They’re kind of like a spectrum and these buckets are the wild extremes at either end, but often you will have characters who are somewhere in the middle that they may have some larger than life tendencies, but then they also have some areas where they’re more relatable. Every man, regular joe kind of character.
So you don’t have to make your character go from one extreme end of that spectrum to the other either. It could just be a gentle nudge, like your character could be just slightly every man and then they become a little less of an everyman. It doesn’t have to. I mean that’s most literary fiction is in that zone, right? Where you have this every man character who then shows a little bit of something that’s not an everyman and that’s where a lot of literary fiction exists.
So, it doesn’t have to be like crazy extremes either. It’s just that a lot of the genres and a lot of those sort of classic tales tend to have those extremes. And also, because it’s easier to point to examples. So when you have the really wild, crazy extremes. So once you know what the character’s desire is, then now we’re talking because now we actually know what your character is going after and then you can start to like place those key moments between them and the inevitable end that will walk them through that journey.
And this, I mean we can talk about if you want to talk about three x structure, this is where having a sense of what three act structure is, can be really useful. Not in the sense that you want to use it like a paint by numbers formula, but so that you know, more or less what the trajectory is that you’re, that you’re going for so that you’re not. So you don’t go down some crazy tangent and then end up meandering forever.
Are there common places where fiction writers then get stuck in this process? And do you have maybe like one suggestion to help them through that?
Yeah, I mean I think one of the places where I think fiction writers do get stuck is they get stuck in like the plot process. And this happens a lot, especially if you’re writing science fiction. You get that great idea. You get this great premise. Usually Act 1 is usually not the problem. Usually writers can get through the first act of their story and act one essentially is that part of the story where you meet the character if find out what they want and then the end of act one is worth something really big and important. Or, sometimes something very small, but also importantly happens that puts the character in a new world, whether that new world is literally a new physical space like a Dorothy ending up in Oz or it just ends up being like the characters now in a new zone within their operating space, like their regular world. So the key thing with the end of Act 1 is that once the character goes through that door, once they get up, once they end up in Oz and they realize they’re not in Kansas anymore, there’s no going back.
Like they can’t just suddenly say, “Oops, I changed my mind. I’m out of here. I’m going to go back to my status quo.” And that’s fine. So Act 1 is usually not the problem. Most writers get through act one because they know what that premise is. Usually the premise is enveloped in whatever that mechanism is that pushes the character out the door. Think like, for example, The Hunger Games, right? What’s the premise? Girl ends up fighting to the death in this crazy arena that’s televised and it’s called the Hunger Games. Act 1 is all of the stuff that leads up until Katniss gets selected or rather she volunteers to end up in the arena and take her sister’s place. So Act 1 actually is very short in that book. It’s only a chapter and a half, but that’s pretty quick. Like the premise of the book is all enveloped in that act.
The trick comes in when you’re in that new world, when your character is in that new space, then what the heck do you do with them, and this is where a lot of writers often end up meandering. They start exploring the world and exploration by the way is really good. Like you can learn a lot about your character, about your story by trying different things, by having them follow the red brick road instead of the yellow brick road. I always wondered where the heck, the red brick road in the movie, the yellow brick road leads. You know how they have those two roads and they’re sort of like intertwined and then like one goes to the city. I always wanted to follow the other one. I’m like, why can’t we do it because I want to see profits, but you know you can meander and you can find out where those places where those roads lead, what those places are in your world, but at some point you’re going to have to start making some choices so that you’re pushing the character towards that inevitable ending, and I realized I didn’t quite answer your question about the ending.
The way the ending plays out is that you basically have two choices to make. First you have to answer the question, does your character inevitably eventually get the thing they wanted in the first place? So Dorothy wants to go home? Does she eventually get to go home? Yes, she does. The question. The second question you need to ask yourself is, does your character still want that thing? By the time they get to the end of the book, you may not have the answer to the second question. You probably will figure out the answer to the first question at some point while you’re meandering through act two and figuring things out in act two, but it may take a long time for you to realize whether or not the character still actually wants that thing and that sort of the beauty of writing and the discovery of the story and the character.
Sometimes your characters evolve and suddenly you get to a point in the middle of act two where you realized the character looks at themselves and realize this, I don’t really want this thing anymore. What the heck am I doing? And that’s a really interesting story because then what happens to that character if they keep pursuing that thing that they now realize they don’t really want, but they’re still pursuing it. Anyway. That’s an interesting conflict, so you get to make all these really cool decisions as you work your way through. I think my piece of advice would be to understand, to read a lot, read a lot of books, particularly books that are in the zone that you want to write in so you understand what the conventions are of that space. This is not to say that you were going to imitate all these other authors that you’re going to imitate the formulas.
This is not about reducing things to some formulaic approach, but rather about you understanding what the rules are so then you can decide whether or not you’re going to break them and if you do decide to break them how you’re going to do that, but reading is probably the best educator. I think a lot of writers, and this is ironic coming from a writer who has written a how to book on writing, but I really don’t think you should be reading how to books on writing until you’ve started and you’ve been in the thick of it. Writing something before you get there. You need to be reading a lot of other books that are the types of things you want to write. Presumably you want to write that type of thing because you love reading those things and you want to tell the stories that you haven’t been able to find on the bookshelves.
That’s the best reason to be writing. So go out there and read those things so you can then write the things that haven’t been written.
And so once you’ve written your manuscript care novel, how do you know if it’s any good? And I’m asking you this because we were at a conference together several months ago and you mentioned that your superpower, at least one of your superpowers that you can look at a story or a novel or whatever and you can tell what’s wrong with it and you can fix it for people. So I feel like you’ve got a good eye for this. So I guess number one, how do you know if it’s good? And number two, if it’s not good, how do people figure out how to fix it aside from coming to you for help?
First of all, what I will say this for any writer out there, you need to embrace the very real possibility that your book will suck in its first iteration. You’ve just got to accept that it’s true of every single writer. Nothing ever comes out like believe it or not, Stephen King and all those amazing other writers did not write those finished beautiful, perfect versions as their rough draft. That’s why they’re called rough drafts. I’m in at the alignment tab, goes even further. We call that draft zero. It doesn’t even count as a draft yet. It is just word vomit on the page and then you make it into something after that. So accepting that the first draft or the draft zero or whatever is going to be really rough. Accepting the roughness of it is, I think really important. Also honoring why it exists. There is a reason we created like you create drafts zero. It’s not because that is now you know the thing you tinker with in Polish, but instead think of it as like, it’s the raw material.
These are just the lump of clay that you now get to shape and mold and turn it into something gorgeous. One of my mentors, writer who I love, I’m James Scott Bell, he always says, “You write hot. You revise cold.” Like ,you have that sort of heat of passion while you’re writing and you’re drafting the first or the zero draft, but then you have to be calm, cool, collected. You’re going to be chipping at that with a scalpel and with little chisels like it’s not going to be a, you know, some big artsy endeavor like sort of passionate endeavor like you had when you were first drafting it. That said, I’m with the superpower thing, so I want to add a layer of specificity. So my specific superpower and this taking years for me to figure out a what my superpower was and be like, how to explain it.
It’s not so much helping people with their writing, but being able to identify from the very first page what the problems are that are creating a ripple effect throughout the novel and a lot of editors and agents also have this ability. They have to train themselves to be able to look at the very first page or the first chapter of a writer’s work and identify whether or not they should keep reading because they get such a volume of things to read every single day. That if they had to read all of it, if they had to read to the end of your book to realize whether or not they liked it, whether they want to acquire it. That’s a whole lot of work for them to do and so things I look for when I’m looking at the very first page or the first five pages of a writer’s work is it’s really basic.
It’s do we have a character to care about? If that character is not present on the page right from the get go, or even if it’s not the main character, but age, character is not present on the page right from the get go. If it’s all sort of backdrop, painting and creation that’s not engaging to readers, readers are going to check out. Readers are impatient. They want to get into the story and they want to care about a character from the get go. So I look for a character on the first page of character who I can at the very least go along for the ride. I don’t necessarily have to like them. Some thrillers, for example, start with the villain. You don’t see the hero until the second or third chapter and the villain you see often and will see the actual crime being committed in the first chapter.
In some books, you don’t have to like those characters, but you have to at least be interested in them enough to keep reading. The other piece is that I see as like something that I look for or rather if I see a lot of. I will caution writers against his overexplaining of the world or the space where the story operates. You see this, especially when it’s a fantasy or sci fi or historical, any place where the world of the story is really important. If there’s a lot of explanation of that world, then readers are going to check out very quickly. So again, it’s all about the characters. If the character is in that world, navigating it and scrambling and figuring things out and operating in it, then we get into the story. Notice for example, like going back to the star wars example with the, with the exception of like, you know, the, the text that appears in that opening scene, the opening shot, everything else like we are dropped in the middle of the action.
We don’t get explanations as to why Princess Leia has ship is getting shot at and why, you know, R2-D2 and C-3PO have to go on this mission. Like all we hear a little snippets of dialogue and we kind of have to put the pieces together. It’s almost like we have half of the puzzle pieces and we put them together and then the rest get filled in as the story continues and that’s the kind of writing that you we want to see in those early pages. If there’s a lot of explanation, a lot of like, well, R2-D2 is this droid and C-3PO is doing this and this, and why this ship is flying over here. You’re going to bore your reader to tears. So, showing the character, experiencing the world as opposed to explaining the world itself is another thing that often ripples out.
Like if that’s appearing on the first page, chances are it is going to be a problem throughout the rest of the book. The other thing, and obviously in one page it’s hard to see this happen, but if you’re beating say the first chapter of someone’s work, I want to see something happen by the end of the first chapter. It doesn’t have to be a big something, but there needs to be some action, some reason why that chapter belongs in this story other than the fact that it paints a scene or it sets up the character’s family relationships or something. There needs to be a reason for that chapter to be in the book. So you often want to ask yourself like often what I see a lot of his writers will write a lot of those like kind of clearing their throat chapters just because they need to get a handle on their world and that’s fine.
That’s a great reason to write those chapters. But then you want to remove them because now you know all that stuff and then start on chapter four or whatever chapter it is, where stuff actually starts happening to your characters. That’s where you start and you just take all of that, clearing your throat stuff out of there. And so then when you’re, you know, you’ve completed a draft or two, I mean, how do you know if people will want to read it or how do you know if it’s any good? And so how do you know if it’s any good? Well, this is where, so I think in one of the previous episodes I talked about the pyramid method of like how I approach revision. So I often start one, once I’ve written something that is fiction or narrative, I will then go back and I’ll revise, but I don’t try to revise each draft of that book.
Like it’s not like every time I go through beginning to end I’m thinking of like everything at once. Like I’ll go through beginning to end and I’ll only think about say the character and sometimes I’ll only look at the protagonist, the main character, and then the next time do I’ll only look at a supporting character. Like I’ll refine one character at a time. So that you’re really looking at each individual characters journey as opposed to, you know, like trying to juggle 18 characteristic in your head at once. Now does that mean you revise for every single, like if you’re writing star wars every single Java and every single storm trooper? No. You really only look at the main characters. Like in the case of star wars, I’d probably look at, if I, if I was writing that as a novel, I’d look at Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, Princess Leia, maybe Han Solo, and that’s it.
Those are the really important characters that you want to make sure they have a trajectory throughout the story. The next layers you want to make sure the plot is working. Like are there any holes? This is where you tinker with things and you make sure that your character, there’s a continuity between one event that happens leading to the next event. Um, you know, I was just in Florida at Hollywood Studios in Disney World and there’s this one person on the set in the Indiana Jones movies. Like literally all this person does apparently is make sure that Indiana Jones has his hat. Like that is that person’s primary function is to make sure like, okay, is this a hat scene or not had seen they were talking about this and like, you know, that’s kind of important, right? Because in a movie, if you were to watch that and suddenly like Indiana Jones in one shot has this hat and the next one he doesn’t.
That’s a total, this continuity, so you want to kind of do the same thing in your plot. I’m not talking about what your characters are wearing. I’m talking about sort of the continuity. Are you making sure that there’s a logical follow like that there’s a follow through from the first scene to the second scene and then it makes sense that the characters after that scene would do the thing and seeing three and et Cetera, that it’s a domino effect and that you’re not just sort of saying, oh wait, we need a scene at the school, plop a random scene in here, and then it feels like jarring to your reader. That’s the kind of plot stuff that you want to make sure that you’re taken care of and revisions that you’re creating that follow through and then as you go up, like you know, then you’re refining things like within each scene, like:
- Are the characters speaking in a way that makes sense?
- Is the dialogue feeling natural?
- Does it feel stilted or weird or the descriptions distracting or are they enhancing the story?
Those types of questions.
How do you know when you’re done? I like to think of it as the law of diminishing returns. You know how like in diminishing returns, there’s a curve and like with each incremental improvement, it’s not quite like it will never hit perfect, but eventually you have to make a choice. Like is it worth doing one more round of revision and all the work that entails to get just a teeny tiny bump in the improvement or am I okay with the level of imperfection that’s in it right now? For me that where I am on that scale, where I am on that diminishing returns curve depends a on the thing that I’m writing. If it’s a book that’s going to be published in print, obviously I’m going to edge as close to perfect as I can get.
If it’s a blog post, not so much. You can go in and edit a blog post that’s not the end of the world, so you can kind. You have to sort of see what your comfort level is. The other thing too is it’s going to be different for different people. Some writers are much more comfortable with imperfection. I’m a perfectionist. I know that that typo on page 17 of my book is going to haunt me until the day I die or at least until it goes into a third printing, you know, it’s like that kind of a thing, so I’m going to be much more perfectionistic because that’s my nature, but for some writers they’re willing to live to sit with that discomfort and that’s cool.
I would love to shift the conversation still little bit over to memoir, because you know memoir is a lot of storytelling and we’re kind of chatting about this before we hit the record button. So, could you help out our listeners who are either working on a memoir, or if their book is going to include maybe just some components of memoir, and could you speak to the storytelling component of that and essentially how they can make the story that they are telling even if it’s about their own life, more compelling to readers?
So basically everything I’ve already talked about completely applies to memoir. The only difference is that instead of you writing and making stuff up to fill in the scenes, you are drawing now from stories and scenes and anecdotes from either your own life or the lives of people in your world. So that stuff about character and you know, is your character in every man and how do you make that character? How do you show that specialness? Or is there a character larger than life? And how do you show those chinks in the armor? Again, you want to think about like if the. If you’re the subject of the memoir, because sometimes people write memoirs about someone else too, so it could be somebody else, but what were the subject of the memoir is, which of those buckets do you think you lean towards? And if so, how can you then cultivate that hint of the opposite?
So, if you’re leaning toward an everyman, sort of a relatable memoir where people are going to go, yes, I’ve been there too. How do you then sort of show the rise, you know, the rising up, how you rose to the occasion, how you did something extraordinary, overcame some adversity, etc. On the flip side, if it’s more of an aspirational thing, um, you know, the sort of “Look how far I’ve come” kind of memoir, the sort of “people can aspire to do that” memoir. How do you also show that vulnerability, that softer side so that people can see it even if they can’t see themselves as they are now in that larger than life space, they can kind of relate to the process of getting there and feel like, okay, I might not be there yet, but I could be there someday. That aspirational feeling, in terms of the storytelling, this is where the art of memoir really comes in because you can’t just make up scenes.
Um, although there had been some memoirs who’ve take the whole memoir genre very loosely, like I’ve actually had interviews with memoir with a memoirist who had a compilation of memoir this in an essay or an anthology and we talked about this very thing, like how different writers have different opinions of how true to life a memoir needs to be, but assuming that you were going true to life here and that you’re sticking pretty close to the facts.
And then don’t go tell Oprah that it’s a true memoir when it’s not.
Exactly. Some people take it, you know, they kind of stretched the definition of memoir. But assuming that we’re sticking to the facts, the art comes in with what you choose to put in versus what you choose to leave out as you’re choosing from the stories in your life, you need to ask yourself like what’s that overall trajectory?
What’s that overarching story that you want to tell? And then you have to choose the anecdotes that support that overarching theme, that thing, that big idea that you want to share. It’s almost like, you know, I’m thinking of it now like it’s kinda like doing a Ted Talk or a TedX talk, you know, you have ted terms, they, they talk about having your idea worth spreading. So what is the idea worth spreading that your memoir is going to tap into?
Then, choose stories that are going to support that idea we’re spreading that are going to help feed into that. And then you need to be talking about the plot element. Create that continuity. You want to make sure that you’re, you know, that, that you’re putting the stories in the right order. They don’t necessarily have to be chronological. Some memorize jumped back and forth in time, and it’s more about the emotional arc as opposed to the chronological arc. Other people stick very closely to the chronology, this part of my life, this next phase of my life, that last phase of my life, and that’s the order that they go in, but think about how you’re putting those dominoes in order so that the continuity you create sort of an emotional continuity as well as a chronological continent.
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