Table of Contents—The Skeleton for Your Non-Fiction, Self-Help Book: How to Create It

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I recently wrote a blog post about the difference between plot and story in the novel or memoir and the top three items to initially focus on when creating story. But what about the non-fiction, self-help book?

While I believe we begin in the same place with each of these genres—getting to know our people (for the non-fiction, self-help book this is your Ideal Reader), the process to create a solid foundation diverges from fiction and memoir after this step.

Rather than concern ourselves with an opening scene and inciting incident for this type of book, as we do with fiction and memoir, we must create a cohesive and complete (or as complete as possible) Table of Contents (TOC).

So, how do we do that? We begin with questions. There are six types of questions we can consider. Below is an example of one type, which might be considered a question of fact.

  1. What is your Ideal Reader’s BIG question? (This is the question that’s compelling her to seek you out and want to buy your book that will change her life with your method, program, or process.)

    Example: Can I create and maintain healthier relationships?

  2. What’s your answer to that question? (This is your direct answer, which, on the surface, is quite simple.)

    Example: You can create and maintain healthier relationships…
  • What’s your WHY to your answer? (This helps you begin the process of delving deeper into your answer so you can clarify and demonstrate HOW.)

    Example: …because you can learn to [fill in the blank with how you can and will help her achieve this].

The first and last step above can take some time to perfect, but after you have the question, answer, and “because” (your WHY), you can then begin to create a list of steps—which might include anecdotes, instructions, exercises, etc.—that will serve as the beginnings of a TOC and will not only inform and guide your Ideal Reader through your method, program, or process, but will guide you, as well, in the writing of your book.

Of course, there’s much more detail and inquiry involved in creating a polished TOC, and this is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. But this is a good place to begin.

Just as we can think of the plot in a novel or memoir as the body that contains all the elements of story, we can think of the TOC in the non-fiction, self-help book as the skeleton that holds all the elements together.

Try the steps above and see what starts to fall into place.

Sending you mad writing mojo…

Happy writing!

Story and Plot: What’s the Difference?

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You’ve likely read or heard me go on and on about how your people (your characters and/or your Ideal Reader) come first when preparing to write a book. As I’ve posited many times over, once we know our people DEEPLY, the plot starts to reveal itself.

But what about story? How does it figure into the process of getting our people from the beginning to end of their adventures? And what is story, anyway?

Kurt Vonnegut clarified traditional, recurring story forms to help us comprehend the concept of story by visualizing them in shapes.

Here’s how I think of it.

First, plot is the container within which your characters and their stories live and breathe. I think of it as the body that holds all the parts—the locations your people occupy, the scenes they live out, and the exposition that reflects their experiences in their adventures, conversations, and conflicts.

Story, on the other hand, is the heart of it all. Story pumps the blood within and throughout and gives life to your people’s thrills and tribulations—the plot. Or, the path your people will follow throughout the story.

Story is what makes your readers care and keep turning the page.

This likely sounds vague and intangible. And it is, in a way. It’s what we, as writers, feel within us when we conceive of a protagonist and care enough to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Likewise, it’s what makes our readers stay engaged throughout and, in the end, feel they’ve had an experience that goes beyond simply reading words on a page.

So how do we create story?

Just like a body is made up of many parts, so is story. And just as with all the many parts of the body that keep it running smoothly, we can think of the many parts of story in the same way.

Without understanding these important and essential features, it can be difficult—if not impossible—to begin and keep moving forward.

To help you begin to create a path for your people and get to know them, here are three essential aspects to a solid foundation for your novel or memoir.

Opening scene
This scene puts your reader right in the story world by showing her who your protagonist is, what her status quo life looks like (before the inciting incident), and what she might need or want to change. That thing she desires.

Inciting incident
This scene happens in a ways (I always tell my clients to use three chapters or 45 pages as a guide… this can always change as the writing and story evolve). It’s the event or situation that happens and is out of the protagonist’s control. It’s what sets her off on a new trajectory that serves as a path for the story’s unfolding.

Sensorial experiences
Using vivid descriptions—including setting and place—that create a lucid, true-to-life sensorial experience for your reader is essential. When you help her see, smell, taste, touch, and hear, as well as sense, the details of your story world, you infuse her real-life world with wonder, which makes her want to keep invest in your protagonist and your book.

So, what then, after these elements of the story have been determined and written?

We keep checking back in on what we discovered about our protagonist’s deepest desire, wound, and fear. And we write scenes that build on and connect with each other, that suture the protagonist into the reader’s heart, that offer a means to understand this particular human’s—your protagonist’s— inner world.

We keep asking the all-important question: “Why?”

And if we keep writing, we find the answers.

Sending you mad writing mojo…

Happy writing!@

The Top 3 Things You Need to Know About Your Protagonist or Ideal Reader

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A common mistake I see people make in book creation is to focus on plot or structure way too early in the process. While these are absolutely important aspects of the book creation puzzle, we need to take care of a few other important pieces first.

As I always say, the people come first. This means that before we can begin to think about plot or structure, we need to get to know our characters. When I say “character,” I mean the protagonist, antagonists, and supporting characters in your novel or memoir. I also mean the Ideal Reader for your non-fiction, self-help book.

Here’s how it breaks down for each.

Fiction—Protagonist, antagonists, supporting characters… The people who help and hinder the protagonist on her quest.

Memoir—You and your family, friends, exes, and more… The cast of characters who have helped create the story of your life, for better or worse.

Non-fiction, Self-help—Your Ideal Reader and You… If you plan to weave your own story into your book.

So, how do we get to know our people?

Here are three essential points we need to consider in character development (think of your Ideal Reader for your non-fiction, self-help book as a character in the story you’re writing about and responding to).

Deepest Desire
Fiction—This is the state of being the protagonist in your novel wants more than anything—what the story is all about.

Memoir—This is the state of being you, as the protagonist in your memoir, looked for throughout your life—possibly unwittingly—that has led you through the thrills and tribulations of your life.

Non-fiction, Self-help—This is the reason your Ideal Reader wants your help—the state of being they yearn for AFTER they’ve experienced your method, program, or process, which you will walk them through in your book.

Deepest Wound
Fiction—This is the event or situation that happened in your protagonist’s life—likely early on—that causes them to yearn for their deepest desire.

Memoir—This is the event or situation that happened to you at some point in your life that likely caused you to repeat unhealthy patterns and/or changed your life and who you were.

Non-fiction, Self-help—This is the event or situation in your ideal Reader’s life at some point that makes makes her want her deepest desire (and your help).

Deepest Fear
Fiction—This is the belief your protagonist has about what will happen if she doesn’t realize her deepest desire and likely creates an unconscious obstacle to her success.

Memoir—This is your belief about yourself or about the world that allowed persistent unhealthy patterns to remain in place… until, of course, you gained the perspective necessary to change the pattern and write your memoir.

Non-fiction, Self-help—This is what your Ideal Reader fears will happen if she doesn’t (or in some cases, if she DOES) realize her deepest desire.

So… why is knowing this information so important?

When we begin to know our people this deeply, the plot begins to unfold naturally. And when we begin to see the plot unfold, we can begin to think about structure. Because when we understand the whats and the whys behind our people’s actions, we can begin to envision mileposts along the trajectory of their stories.

To put this all in context, think about your best friend. When you first met her/him, you had an unformed opinion about who they were. As you got to know them over time, they became more real and easier to empathize with. This is how we want to think of and treat our people—our characters and Ideal Readers… by understanding and caring about their deepest life experiences and feelings.

This quote says it all:

“Knowing a person is like music. What attracts us to them is their melody, and as we get to know who they are, we learn their lyrics.” – Anonymous

After we know more about our people—and memorize their lyrics—we can then move forward with the creation of our book. The way this takes shape is different in the non-fiction, self-help book than in the novel or memoir.

Come back soon for the next post—How to Create Structure in Your Non-Fiction, Self-Help Book—and I’ll give you a few tips and tricks.

Until then, do some writing on the three points above for all the major players in your story, and let me know in the comments below what you discover.

Sending you mad writing mojo…

Happy writing

5 Narrative Devices to Consider When Creating Story

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In his book, My Reading Life, Pat Conroy says, “The most powerful words in English are “Tell me a story.” 

And I agree.

Stories and narratives are far more than entertainment. Story validates us, connects us, heals us. The individual and collective narratives we live and re-tell shape us and the world we live in. 

Understanding how our individual stories shape our collective narratives is essential, I think. So, as writers, giving clear and rational thought to the ways in which we tell stories is also essential. 

While the list below is not an exhaustive one, it offers five narrative devices we can consider when sharing stories. (Keep in mind that narrative device is different from story arc. Think of story arc as living inside the container of narrative device.)

1. REAL-TIME NARRATIVE

Real-time narrative, is fairly self-explanatory. It is a story told in real time. For example, if a week passes in the protagonist’s life, the story will take the reader or viewer through that time period as well.

Real-time narrative is generally used in TV, film, and theater but can be found in some literature.

Examples of real-time narrative

Literature—Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf | Ulysses by James Joyce | A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Screen—24 (TV) | ‘night Mother (film) | My Dinner with Andrea (film) | 12 Angry Men (film—also a stage play)

Theater—‘night Mother by Marsha Norman (also a film) | American Son by Christopher Demos-Brown (also a film) | Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee (also a film)


2. CHRONOLOGICAL NARRATIVE

This one is also self-explanatory. It’s a story told in the order in which it occurs. It’s sequential, even though dreams, flashbacks, or memories may be used to fill in backstory or create layering.

Chronological narrative is the most common storytelling device used. Grab a novel from your shelf, and chances are, it’s told using the chronological narrative device.

Examples of chronological narrative

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood (In this novel, Atwood even heads chapters with specific dates.)

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf (It’s been a while since I read this novel, but I do believe it fits.)

Katerina by James Frey (Frey does a fair amount of dipping into the past, but the story, itself, is chronological.)

Acquaintance by Jeff Stookey (My current read. So far, chronological, with minimal mentions of the past.


3. REVERSE CHRONOLOGICAL NARRATIVE

Reverse chronological narrative is just as it sounds. A story told in reverse.

Examples of reverse chronological narrative

Literature—How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez | Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis | Counter-Clock World by Philip K. Dick

Screen—Two Friends by Jane Campion (TV movie) | “The Betrayal” (Seinfeld episode) | The Sweet Hereafter (film) | Memento (film)

Theater—Betrayal by Harold Pinter (inspired both the Seinfeld episode and The Sweet Hereafter) | Merrily We Roll Along by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart


4. EPISTOLARY OR DIARY NARRATIVE

Epistolary or diary narratives are stories told through an exchange of letters or emails, or through diaries, journals, blog posts, or recordings.

This type of narrative is believed to have started in the mid-seventeenth century.

Examples of epistolary or diary narrative

Literature—Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes | The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky | The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (also a film)

Screen—13 Reasons Why (TV) | The Handmaids Tale (TV—based on the novel) | The Carrie Diaries (TV) | Bridget Jones’ Diary (film) | The Lake House (film) | Julie and Julia (film)

Theater—Love Letters by A. R. Gurney | Dear Elizabeth by Sarah Ruhl | Hate Mail by Kira Obolensky and Bill Corbett

5. BREAKING THE FOURTH WALL NARRATIVE

This is traditionally thought of as a device used in playwriting, when a character in a play breaks from the illusion of the story on the stage with the other characters and speaks directly to the audience. We also see this in film when a character speaks directly to the camera.

This narrative type can be accomplished in writing and literature, as well, in a couple of ways. The first is the use of second person “you,” when the narrator or character speaks directly to the reader. With this type of narrative, we might also see something like, “So, dear reader… What would you have done?”

Examples of breaking the fourth wall narrative

Literature—Orlando by Virginia Woolf | The Dark Tower by Stephen King | Puckoon by Spike Milligan

Screen— House of Cards (TV) | Malcolm in the Middle (TV) | Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (film) | High Fidelity (film) | Amélie (film)

Theater—William Shakespeare and Bertolt Brecht plays


Check some of these out and see the effect each has on the reading/viewing experience, then consider ways you can use them in your own writing.

Please leave a comment below if you can think of or come across others. I always love adding to my lists!

Sending you mad writing mojo…

Johnnie
XO

How to Use Mercury RX in Aquarius in Your Writing Practice

Writing doesn’t always mean perpetually moving forward without pause. We flow and ebb. We wax and wane. As does the creative process.

I always recommend that writers use Mercury Rx as an opportunity to re-visit, re-consider, and re-vise their work rather than forging ahead with new projects or new pages on a current project. (Of course, I would never suggest that you not write if the impulse is strong, but if you don’t have a pressing deadline and the work will not be harmed by a step-back, Mercury RX can give a 3- to 4-week window of time to breathe and re-set.) I think of Mercury RX pauses a times to tend to what’s already there.

This RX is in Aquarius until February 20, so when we understand how this energy impacts us, we can consider more specific ways to use this planetary influence and continue to honor our writing practices.

According to The Mercury Retrograde Book by Yasmin Boland and Kim Farnell, during a Mercury RX in Aquarius, “You feel creative and ideas flow thick and fast.” They also say, “your final decisions should wait.”

This Rx, then, is ideal for brain dumping. This is not a time to think about writing polished prose, starting a new project, or launching into the void with a current project if you’re uncertain about certain aspects of it.

Allow yourself to pour the thoughts and ideas in your head onto the page. Treat the brain dump like a long free-write. Write stream of consciousness if that feels right. Be as detached as possible to the words’ purposes right now. The goal is to do a purge and get it all out so that you can begin to sort through it all when Mercury goes direct again on February 20.

This is also a good time to re-consider all things writing. Here are some questions to ask ourselves during a Mercury Rx in Aquarius.

  1. If you’re in a writing group, is it meeting your needs?
    If not, is the group structured in a way to allow for adjustments? If not, do you need to leave the group and find a new one or simply go off on your own for a while?
  2. Are you ready for technical malfunctions?
    Aquarius is all about tech, so be aware that your laptop and other devices may (almost definitely WILL) experience snags and upsets. Back up all your important work, even if you have it on the Cloud. And be prepared to either let the writing sit until the problem is solved or write by hand (never a bad solution, as science has shown that writing by hand has all sorts of positive benefits for us).
  3. Do you have in-progress work or a “waiting-to-be-started” file?
    Almost all writers have a backlog of ideas either in their heads or in a digital or paper file somewhere—stories, situations, and people that have bubbled up at random times felt to hold enough significance to warrant deeper consideration. Many of these are in different stages of completion. Some are merely random ideas accompanied by vague notes. If you find that something on your list no longer resonates, remove it. If something sparks you further, keep it, move it up the list, spend some time thinking about how to expand it and bring it to life when Mercury goes direct again on February 20.br>
  4. Are you prepared to wait to take praise and/or criticism to heart?
    Boland and Farnell also recommend avoiding confirmation bias during this time. What that might look like in your writing practice is a perceived, overblown sense of the worth or lack of worth of a project, which can arise from our own belief systems and thought patterns and be reinforced by comments from others who provide feedback on our work. If you have a reader or readers and someone raves about your newest pages, take it in stride, and wait until Mercury is direct again. Likewise, if someone harshly critiques your work during this time or finds only room for improvement, avoid the temptation to deem yourself a a bad writer. It could be that the person providing feedback has been afflicted with some kind of communication disruption themselves (thanks to the Mercury RX). Best to set those pages aside and be willing to revisit after February 20 with your own objective eye. Decide then for yourself if the pages truly are superb or if they do, in fact, need some kind of attention.

As for me, I’m using this time to print out the draft of my novel, which I completed during NaNoWriMo last November (and have been tinkering with since), along with ALL the random notes I’ve jotted down and typed up. (There are SO MANY!) I’ll be organizing these pages and creating an action plan to begin my revision process. I can’t wait!

I hope you’re navigating this Mercury RX without too many bumps or bruises. I’d love to hear how you’re using it to manage and enhance your own writing practice. Please leave me a comment below and let me know.

Sending you mad writing mojo…

Happy writing!

Johnnie

XO