Structure: From Frankenstein to Brando

Last week one of my mentors emailed me asking if I had sent him the latest draft of my book. He couldn’t find it and thought he’d lost it. “You didn’t lose it,” I told him. “I haven’t sent it yet.” I was a little embarrassed but also glad that he emailed me. It was the kick in the pants I needed.

My memoir has been a labor of love ever since Kaz died. I’ve been writing and re-writing, putting it down, then diving back in. It has felt a bit like a time traveling project… every time I work on the book, I am transported back to us.

Since I’ve never written a book before, I’ve given the various drafts to several readers for feedback. The most recent reader was a woman who was referred to me by a mutual writer friend. Perhaps because she doesn’t know me personally she ended up giving me some of the best insight. She said that mid-way through the draft she started losing interest and only kept reading because she had to. She said some other things too, but it was this comment that really got me thinking because I’ve heard it before (in so many words) from other readers.

The problem isn’t with the story or the way it’s written. The problem is with the structure. The story reveals itself too much too soon, instead of in a way that makes the reader want to turn the page. It’s also the actual order of events, actual persons involved, actual sources, actual dates and so on. On a certain level, this is necessary for a memoir but on another level, it’s not.

As long as I’m not making anything up, what does it matter if certain things are condensed, re-arranged, placed in a different setting, said out of context, etc? I suppose if it’s too fictional I can always call it a novel. Frankly, this is the least of my concerns right now. My main concern is for it to be a compelling read.

So, I conceived of a new structure, one that is actually more simple than what I had but also more daring. This time I swore to myself I would not get on the computer to figure it out, nor would I index card it. I would do it the old fashioned way… a paper edit.

I sat down with the physical draft, several magic markers, a stapler, and a pair of scissors and went to town. Every scene became a loose piece of paper with a title at the top. I put each scene in a specific pile, in chronological order. Then I put dots on the pages to indicate whether I thought it would go in the first act, second act, third act, etc. With my dot method, I could always re-order the scenes to their original piles should I get lost.

Then I started putting the scenes in the order I thought they should go. Only when I was satisfied that I had an order that made sense did I open my computer to copy and paste scenes so the computer draft mirrored this new paper edit. It was painstaking work.

Now, I’m going through the computer draft and refining, condensing, filling out, also very painstaking and a huge gamble. Once I do this, it will be difficult to go back. I have literally dissected the story and pieced it back together again, like a Frankenstein draft. But the goal is to keep fine-tuning it so Frankenstein turns into a Marlon Brando.

It might take a while but at least I have a vision. It’s actually been in my head all along. I just had to reach the point emotionally where I could execute it as a WRITER, instead of a participant in the drama.

11 Comments

  1. a vision is great – i say take your time. it’s your first book – so relish the experience and make certain it is what you want it to be – you can count me in as one of your first readers/groupies!

  2. Writing memoir is really damn hard! I was lucky to have a tough and smart editor help me with mine — we ended up moving a few chapters around. With your TV skills, this will be a little easier — as you know? — create scenes, dialogue, suspense, drama. Make us laugh. Make us cry. Bring us into those rooms and places with you so we feel like we’re guiltily eavesdropping. It is very challenging indeed but you will also learn a lot about yourself in writing it.

    The single oddest piece, for me, is that you become, de facto, a character. So, what sort of person is she? Is she 100% you? 82% you? The sweet you? The scared you? It’s very weird and also necessary to disassociate enough to do it well.

    Would love to be a first reader, if you need any more.

  3. Thanks, that is all great advice!! The disassociation is definitely challenging but I’m getting better at it with time. It also takes a lot of cajones. 🙂

  4. Maybe not. My agent had some smart advice: write it, process it, polish it….then make it beautiful (i.e. something a reader is happy with.) It is much harder than it looks to create significant emotional distance from the powerful moments we want to share and which readers will connect with, but only after we’ve created a sort of cordon sanitaire around it all.

    If that makes sense….?

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