Friday, November 23, 2012

Organize your book on a wall-- with 6 updates

Update 1: organizing your material in a 'narrative arc'
Update 2: use a timeline
Update 3: cover one wall of your office with a whiteboard
Update 4: John McPhee uses all kinds of tricks to organize his books
Update 5: using Velcro to fasten the tile board to a wall 
Update 6: Natalie Goldberg's 'timed writing' as a structure tool 

Paralyzed by too much information? Don't know how to start your book?
In the Internet age, it is easy to collect so much information that you become paralyzed. Where do you start? How do you begin to organize a huge mass of information?

I use the "wall trick."
First I find a blank wall. Ideally 8 feet by 12 feet, but at least 8 feet by 6 feet. Blank walls are fairly hard to find in most homes and offices. Whenever I move into a new office, I leave one wall blank for a whiteboard.
A really, really blank wall
Next I make a PostIt (or index card) for all the major and minor topics, and sort the PostIts into piles.

Then I stick PostIts to the wall and create a sort of outline. I rearrange the PostIts over days and weeks that it takes me to work out the structure of a book (or article).

A documentary filmmaker friend uses the same technique. Her films usually have several characters, so she gives each character a different color card to keep track of when, where, and how often characters appear.

Update 1: The narrative arc

There is a trap in using the Wall Trick, and it is this--the physical act of sticking index cards on a wall tends to favor a heirarchical top-down structure. A is more important than B, which is more important than C and so on. The final layout can easily end up looking something like this...

This structure is fine if you are writing an informational piece. However, if you are writing narrative nonfiction--a story--the tree structure will not work. What you need instead is a narrative arc.  

To figure out your narrative arc begin by creating a timeline on the wall. Don't worry about the structure of the piece, just get the timeline right.

Once you have the timeline you are ready to identify the chunks that go into your narrative arc.  Study the timeline and find your complication (point A), the crisis (point B)  and the climax. Once you have those, you can plot the rest of your narrative arc.

This image of the narrative arc is from Jack Hart's book Storycraft. Hart's superb book tells how to construct the narrative arc for your story--clearly, simply and concisely. This is a book that every writer--fiction or nonfiction--should own. Here's a chunk on Google Books that shows how good this book is.)

 Update 2: Timeline
Another way to get started is to organize your material in a timeline. The timeline is a good way to step back and get a bird's eye view of what happened, when, and who was involved. A timeline will work for fiction and nonfiction both. Many writers use a timeline *before* doing a narrative arc.

Update 3: Install a very large, cheap whiteboard
Whenever I move into a new office I go to the local lumber yard or Home Depot and buy a 4'x8' sheet of "solid white tileboard" ($12.98 in Jan. 2013). I fasten the 4x8 sheet to one wall of my office and use it as a large whiteboard. The tileboard is not as 'slick' as 'real' whiteboard, and i'ghosts' when I wipe the board clean. So I keep a bottle whiteboard cleaning solution nearby for cleaning the surface. A large whiteboard is so useful I think I might cover one whole wall with tileboard the way Kevin Kelly does in his office.

Update 4: John McPhee, arguably one of the best nonfiction writers in the world, talks about how he structured his books and articles. The moral, if there is one, appears to be -- do whatever works for you. There is no one way. (Paywall in New Yorker) Structure. Beyond the picnic-table crisis. by John McPhee January 14, 2013 .    Another, non-paywall, article on McPhee and structure is here

McPhee's structure diagram for Travels in Georgia

Update 5: Just finished covering one wall of my office with white tileboard for under $50. Construction details and photo when I get time. We used Velcro to stick the 4x8 foot sheets of tileboard to the wall instead of construction adhesive. If I ever change offices I won't have to resurface and repaint the wall.

Update 6: Another cool method for structuring a book. I just finished listening to Natalie Goldberg's audio CD version of 'Writing Down The Bones.'  I bought it at Copperfields in Santa Rosa on the first spring day of 2013. It was outside the store, on a bare wooden remainder shelf for $15.99. It is really a book about creativity, and the mind. Whenever she says "writing" and "literature" you can easily substitute "design" and "architecture" or "yoga practice" and "Yoga."   Anyway, in the book Goldberg explains her 'timed writing' exercises as a means of structuring a book (or article, or poem.)  The essence of the exercise is simple. Choose a time... say five minutes or an hour... whatever works for you. Then, using pen and paper, start writing and don't stop until the time is up. the rules are simple, too. Keep your hand moving forward, for the entire time. Do not edit, do not stop, do not go back. write whatever comes up. (there's more to it than this, but this is a short post) Put the result aside for at least four days. Then go back to it and read it carefully. circle anything that is "hot" or "good." (You will recognize it instantly.)  then paste these chunks into a new document. Rearrange them to find the elements of your structure. 

I tried Goldberg's timed writing method with a difficult article. I couldn't find the focus... the structure... of the article I am working on.  I set a kitchen timer for five minutes, and began writing one line topics on a pad of paper.  No editing, no going back, no crossing out or correcting. Keep moving forward. The exercise immediately revealed four key topics that I need to cover in the article.

I recommend the collector's edition audio CD version of Writing Down the Bones to any creative worker.

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