Turning Pages Into Books, by Louise DeSalvo
June 5, 2010
Turning Pages Into Books
A former student of mine who wrote a brilliant thesis has recently been in touch with a former editor of mine, the one who taught me how to write for a popular rather than an academic audience. My former editor is now an agent, and during the conversation she had with my former student, she asked her a number of questions she needed to think about to turn her thesis into a book.
These questions are the ones we all need to ask ourselves when we’re writing a life, at the point when we have many pages, but when we’re unsure of what the shape of our book should be.
What Is It? Is it memoir? Is it journalism? Is it creative non-fiction? Is it a hybrid form?
What’s the Voice? Is the voice personal? Is it authoritative? Is it whimsical? Is it irreverent? Is it solemn? Is there more than one voice? And if there is, how will the dissimilarities of voice be handled?
What is the Structure of the Book? Is it chronological? Does it begin at the beginning of the story and move sequentially through time? Does it begin at a high point in the narrative and work by association rather than by juxtaposition? Is it a three-part narrative? A four-part narrative? A book in chapters? A book that flows without chapters? Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life is helpful here.
How Long is the Book? Is it 60,000 words? 80,000? 100,000? Is it a subject that needs a very long treatment (see Anne Fadiman’s award-winning The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down)? Is it one that, though complex, can be treated in a short book (see Kathryn Harrison’s The Mother Knot). Or perhaps is the book a series of articles and not a book at all?
What Is the Narrative Arc? Where does it start? Where does it end? What happens to the “players” in the story?
What Is the Story? How are the events in the story linked by cause and event? How and why do they unfold as they do? (Remember memoir isn’t just one thing after another after another; remember, too, the distinction between “The king died; the queen died” and “The king died; the queen died of grief.)
What Is the Argument? What is the point to be made?
What Are the Themes/Issues/Questions in the Work and How are the Issues and Questions Related to the Theme?
What Are the Narrative Threads and How Are They Linked to the Theme?
What Is the Skeleton of the Book? The Chapter Breakdown?
What Is the Central Imagery?
So there you have it. These questions provide us with many things to think about. And as David Allen teaches in Getting Things Done, too many of us just work without thinking about what the purpose of our work is.
This series of questions will allow us to think about the purpose of our work, so that, not only do we know what we want the successful outcome of our work to be, but that we will also get down on paper what we do know but perhaps have never written down in an organized way.
When I’ve asked students to answer these questions, they often resist, saying they don’t know the answers to these questions. I tell them that they do, but that they might not have been able to state them clearly. Getting the answers down on paper, stating them clearly, will serve as a sturdy guide to the work we do as we move towards turning pages into books. If we do, we won’t be just writing, but we’ll be writing toward the outcome we desire.