Thursday, December 9, 2010

Stepping Back Without Leaving the Room

Last month I wrote about deciding which story you want to tell, as narrative nonfiction is more than a collection of related facts—it has to tell a story, with a beginning, middle, and end. Months of research may reveal a half dozen (or more!) potential book ideas on the same topic. One of the greatest challenges an author then faces is to decide which idea resonates most deeply and tells, for them, the most compelling story.

In picture books, especially, there is no room for side-trips, interesting asides, meandering down this path and that—a picture book needs a tight focus and a clean storyline. And because a picture book is illustrated, the story you tell has to be dramatic—people have to do things, and, ideally, do them in different places. (No matter how great, say, a scientist’s accomplishment is, you can’t have a whole picture book of your scientist, page after page after page, sitting in a lab looking into a microscope. S/he needs to get up and move around.)

So you choose your story, the one you want to tell. You’ve been researching for months. The salient facts are in your head. You’re so immersed in the topic that you can often remember not just the facts but the source—book, article, interview—for each one.

You’re in the zone. You’re living, breathing, eating, sleeping, and boring your husband every night at dinner with Whitman or Roosevelt or Twain. You’re there, baby, and you’re writing your book.

You’re also in a bit of a bind.

Because after you’ve laid down the first, rough draft, after it’s there but still a mess, with huge gaps, incomplete thoughts, and fascinating but totally irrelevant details, you can’t really see what you’ve written. The story is in your head, but so is all the other stuff you’ve been reading for the past four (six? ten?) months. How can you possibly hope to see what’s really on the page—how can you tell if you’ve actually written the story you want to tell—when Walt tags along when you go to the grocery store, and Teddy shows up in your Zumba class?


Getting the story out of your head enough that you can see what’s actually on the page.

Time, of course, is a wonderful tool to gain perspective. Setting the manuscript aside for a while, even a few weeks, can do wonders. (Although the way to be disciplined and effective, oddly enough, is blow off the manuscript. You can’t expect those two weeks to give you distance if you spend them reading those last three Twain biographies still sitting on your shelf. You need to take walks, clear out your email inbox, make spaghetti, even start work on a new project.)

But what if you can’t take two weeks off? What if a deadline is looming? What tricks can you employ to bring fresh eyes to your manuscript?

*Since I compose at the computer, simply printing out the manuscript helps me see it in a new way. Printing it out and taking the copy somewhere else—say, a coffee shop—helps, too. It’s even different reading it sitting on the couch, instead of at my desk.

*I have a wonderful critique group that meets every two weeks, and sharing the manuscript with them is extremely helpful. Your critique group has not been reading about Alice Roosevelt for the past six months, and they can hear the story in a way you can’t. In addition, simply reading the story out loud to them is illuminating. (I don’t find reading the story out loud to myself to be particularly helpful for big picture items, like structure, although it works beautifully once I’m at the line-edit stage. But boy does it become painfully clear where the story drags when you are reading it out loud to an audience.)

*In the class I took in October, Stephen Roxburgh offered a couple other tips I’ve never tried but plan to, next go round, and both these tips address the problem of reading on automatic pilot, so to speak (you know—when you’ve read something so many times that you’re not fully engaged while you read it, your brain is elsewhere). One is to print the manuscript out triple-spaced. The other is to print it out in a wildly different font, not a font that is a pain to read, but just a font that makes the manuscript lay down differently on the page, waking your brain back up, making you slow down, and giving you a fresh read. (Since many of us tend to write in Times New Roman, which is a serif font (the kind with the little feet), he even suggested switching to a sans-serif font like Arial.)

Whatever method (or methods!) you choose, the goal is the same—to see the manuscript as it really is, to see what works and what doesn’t, so you can begin to process of revising and turn it into the story you want to tell.


Susan E. Goodman said...

I sometimes write Step into Readings and when I do, I always use 18 point type. It helps me channel the young kid reading it. Long words look really big. Long sentences go on forever. You can easily see the mix of long and short ones. It's very helpful. words

Melissa Stewart said...

I usually rely on the "let it cool", aka "let it simmer" method, but I love the other ideas you've suggested. I'm going to try triple spacing or changing the font the next time I'm at that stage. Thanks for a great post, Barbara.

Linda Zajac said...

Interesting ideas.

Barbara Kerley said...

Susan -- That's a great idea. It never occurred to me to use font size to think about how kid-friendly the text is.

Melissa -- Yes, letting it cool is my favorite :)

Linda -- Thanks!

Carmela Martino said...

Just read this post, Barbara. I loved what you said so much that I've quoted you in my post at today. Hope you don't mind.