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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.

How Will You Tell This Story?

The act of story telling involves a set of decisions that get made in the beginning. Are you writing a memoir or a novel? Is this a narrative or non-fiction how-to advice? Is it a collection of short stories or essays, or a cookbook?

It doesn’t end there. There will be a framework for your story. Is it told through your character’s eyes? Are they on a search for answers? Is it more about the place? An event? A community? Will it be told through multiple points of view or just one?

Beg, Borrow & Steal

For me, I don’t like to read books on writing, I like to look at what other authors have done. When I was writing my outline for Mother Tongue, I went straight to popular books in a genre similar to mine.

In Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, she tells her story through her eyes, across three countries, and how the places and people change her. It’s a story of personal change. All feelings, all the time. For me, not a fit.

In Mary Roach’s Stiff, she follows the science. The book starts with the most basic of questions: what happens to our bodies when we die – and follows it into ever more fascinating depths. She let’s the questions lead the narrative. I admired the approach but it felt too removed for my book.

In Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein, he blends his personal narrative (honest and forthcoming but not touchy-feely) with his exploration of the world of memory-hacking. It was a memoir but rooted in journalism. He was fully present in his book but he didn’t have any personal drama. I liked it. It felt just right.

For my book, a memoir, where I wanted to learn three languages fluently by uprooting my family to China, Lebanon and Mexico over the course of two years, this let me balance all my desires: good science about bilingualism to back up my claims, interesting stories, personal stakes, but not so emotion-driven.

For my book, perfect. For yours? That’s up to you.

Some Questions to Ask

First: Who is running the show with this book?

The characters?
The universe they live in?
The idea/concept?
The place?
An event the book chronicles?
A mix of more than one?

Second: What is at stake? Why should we care? (As readers)

Let’s revisit my examples:

In Eat Pray Love, Liz, the main character is running the show. We care because we connect with her imperfection and struggle to do the right thing and make sense of her life. Who hasn’t felt lost?

The entire book is fully committed to solving that initial question.

In Stiff, the concept of “What happens when you donate your body to science” is so strange it holds your fascination. We care because we’re curious.

The entire book rewards us at each and every turn by delighting us with stranger and stranger revelations.

In Moonwalking With Einstein, the concept is curious, but then we begin to root for our young journalist to pull it off.

The book holds both themes consistently, but if he didn’t put himself into the narrative it wouldn’t have been as strong. The science of memory learning is interesting, but his achievement of winning the US Memory Championships puts it over the edge.

So How Will You Tell This Story?

This is the beginning of your book structure. It’s the lens you use to show the reader this world. It closes doors but it opens them too.

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1Daily Free Writing
2Who is running the show with your book?
3How does this change your story?