structure

Before we begin, practice healthy creative habits: Clear your space of clutter, set aside some time to focus and spend 2-3 minutes doing your Daily Free Writing before you begin. See Lesson 2 for more about DFW.

Let’s take a deep dive on yesterday’s lesson. There are a lot of different kinds of books in this group… just from reading the messages in the Intro thread, it’s clear that we’re running the gamut. Short story collections, novels, memoirs, and non-fiction. So what does identifying the driver of your book mean if we look at different types of books? It’s easy to list options: characters, universe, idea, and event driven stories but what does that even mean?

It’s about keeping your book interesting. How do we do that? Interest is just engagement. It’s connection. It’s not knowing what to expect next whether that’s a griping turn of events or a new way to look at coding webpages. If you’re writing a cookbook, there is a story in there. Otherwise it’s just a dry list of recipes. If you’re writing about car repair, there needs to be some narrative device, something, to transform it from just a manual. Books without stories are: encyclopedias, dictionaries, textbooks and manuals. As far as I know, no one in this group is writing one of those.

Let’s look at some examples of how this kind of storytelling can play out. I am going to take a fictional story about living in Turkey for two years and show you have different my outline could look based on the type of book I choose to write.

EVENT-DRIVEN

Peter Friedman’s book from From Beirut to Jerusalem was largely about a period of time in the 1980s when he lived in Beirut. It was an EVENT book. It chronicled the events during that time. That, hands down, was the most important thing because without the events (the chaos in that region and historical importance) then it would just be a book about a reporter living overseas. Might work, might not, but the EVENT was the hook. So what does that mean for you, if you’re writing a book like this? It drives the story telling. There’s a story arc around this event and you should break down your chapters to pace the book around the biggest more intense moments related to the event.

Often when people start writing a memoir about something that happened to them, they might break down the chapters into corresponding time frames. Say you’re writing about living in Turkey for 2 years:

Chapter 1: Arriving (Jan, Feb, Mar)
Chapter 2: Attending school (Apr, May, Jun)
Chapter 3: The Flood and Aftermath (July, Aug, Sept)
Chapter 4: The Hazelnut Harvest (Oct, Nov, Dec)
Chapter 5: Falling in Love (Jan, Feb, Mar)
Chapter 6: Deciding to Stay (Apr, May, Jun)
Chapter 7: Our Wedding (July, Aug, Sept)
Chapter 8: Happily Ever After (Oct, Nov, Dec)

Is this a character driven story or an event story? Well this MIGHT be an event story, if for example, you just focused on the flood. Let’s say that was a book-worthy event and we’re going to manipulate our narrative around that. Then our outline would look like this:

Chapter 1: Arriving and Attending school (Jan- Jun)
Chapter 2: The Rain Begins (July)
Chapter 3: Everything is Lost (July)
Chapter 4: Chaos (July)
Chapter 5: An Unlikely Hero (July)
Chapter 6: The Kindness of Strangers (July)
Chapter 7: Finding Hope (July)
Chapter 8: Aftermath (Sept)

Right? So we’re compressing timelines and giving the event full control of the story. We’re thinking about the story arc from the perspective of the event, not from the perspective of the narrator or main character. We will develop those secondary storylines, but not yet.

(PS: Another way to say this is PLOT-DRIVEN.)

UNIVERSE-DRIVEN

A lot of science fiction falls into this category (it’s a strange new world, let’s go see what it’s about…) but there are times when this is used in travel writing as well. In J. Maarten Troost’s The Sex Lives of Cannibals, it’s about him, sure, but he’s just the narrative device that let’s see that world. It doesn’t really matter what his personality is like, or what is at stake for him. Not really. What matters is that he’s a decent narrator, in that he’s curious, relatively willing to go out and look at things, and through him, we get to explore the world of Tarawa, a remote South Pacific island in the Republic of Kiribati. I read the book years ago and I can’t remember much about Troost, but I definitely remember that little island.

Does this sound like your book? Then your outline should be focused on all the many different ways you can explore, try to understand, interact with and observe the world you’re describing. When you’re breaking down your outline every, single chapter should be dedicated to that purpose. Ask yourself: what’s all the possible ways that I can (or already did – if you’re writing about something you did in the past) explore this new place? For example, if my book on Turkey was not an event book, but was actually about me, being a stranger in a strange land, then here’s what my outline might look like:

Chapter 1: A hundred ways to say “more tea”
Chapter 2: The curious habits of Turkish men
Chapter 3: Navigating the secret sisterhood of women without children
Chapter 4: My brilliant (and failed) attempt at online dating in Turkey
Chapter 5: Brewing moonshine
Chapter 6: Road trip
Chapter 7: The Flood
Chapter 8: Aftermath

Right, so it’s mostly a book about the universe you’re in, the strange and curious habits of these new-to-you people and while it’s based on the same experiences, you’re going to give more weight to the cultural oddities and to describing this universe to the reader. The flood is still there, it still has dramatic impact, and your love affair and marriage might be in the aftermath, but those items are compressed to let other elements shine.

IDEA-DRIVEN

Let’s swing away from memoir style books and go straight to a travel guide. The idea-driven book format applies to more instructive or how-to titles. You’re going to start with a concept like, “How to Live in Turkey for Cheap.” Instead of a story arc, you’re focused on how to break down that IDEA into digestible parts. Each chapter is furthering the reader’s understanding and building to the next concept. If you want to mention the bus system, you’ll need foundation information first: basic phrases in Turkish to get by, notes about the currency, a basic introduction to the country. The “story arc” type moments of excitement will not come from drama, but from big reveals on things that are truly unexpected. For example:

Chapter 1: How I fell in love with Turkey
Chapter 2: The Basics
Chapter 3: Finding a Place to Live
Chapter 4: Unusual Tips for Getting a Job <— BOOM
Chapter 5: Traveling Around the Country
Chapter 6: Food, Culture, Relationships
Chapter 7: Long Term Visa Hacks <— BOOM
Chapter 8: Staying Forever: Marriage, Kids, Residency, Citizenship

You’re pacing out the information to cover everything they would need and presenting it in an organized manner, but also give some consideration to how you’ll frame certain chapters to make them more exciting to the reader and to take that information/idea/concept to the next level. You wouldn’t want to lead with all your best stuff… you want to build up to it and space it out.

CHARACTER-DRIVEN

In Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love we have the classic character driven story. It’s about her personal transformation. The stakes for her are this: she is trying to save herself. We empathize with her because she’s vulnerable and open about her pain. If she was vague or only alluded to her marriage troubles, this book wouldn’t work. Her emotional landscape is critical to this kind of book. Here’s how our Turkey book would read:

Chapter 1: The Breaking Point – Why I fled my Perfect Life to Live on a Farm in Turkey
Chapter 2: Everything Gets Worse – Cultural Misunderstandings and Loneliness
Chapter 3: Did I say worse? Then Came the Flood
Chapter 4: Rebirth During the Hazelnut Harvest
Chapter 5: The Boy With Brown Eyes
Chapter 6: Resistance
Chapter 7: Trying to Flee
Chapter 8: Taking the Leap: Love, Marriage, Baby and more…

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There you have it, the same life experience, carved into four very different styles of book. The thing to note is that elements from all four will be at play in the final book. There will be characters (even in the travel guide, that lead chapter will at minimum give some context and history about the author), there will be a universe to be explored, there will be ideas and knowledge sharing (perhaps passively) and there is an event (although in the travel guide I might cut out the flood depending on how much personal story goes into the final outline).

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Today’s assignment:

Take a look at your outline and based on the type of book you’re writing, start filling in chapters. Expand your sketch so you have a rough timeline for your book (if you haven’t already). Then look at each chapter and ask yourself, “Is this chapter doing the job of driving forward the kind of story I’m writing?” Fill in gaps in your outline as you are inspired. Smooth out rough spots. Endeavor to spend at least one full hour in heads down, no internet, no distractions, only writing mode.

 

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1Daily Free Writing
2Explore the type of book you're writing
3Spend at least one full hour expanding your outline based on your book style
4As you go, think critically about the job of each chapter within the context of your book. How is this chapter contributing?