Five Exercises to Clarify What You’re Writing About
If you’re having trouble seeing the forest through the trees, these exercises will help you pinpoint what kind of story you’re trying to tell—and who your audience might be.
’m writing about about upfront.
The Little Mermaid Timeline A:
The Little Mermaid Timeline B:and
Exercise 2: Answer the Query Formula
What or who needs to accomplish what by when, where, and why?
Why are you the best or only person who could write this?
These two questions represent essential elements of agent query letters. It will be awfully hard to pitch to agents and editors if you can’t answer the above.
Considering the answers to these questions even before you begin writing may help you start your project—or tell you this project isn’t actually right for you.
If you are writing a memoir, adjust the query formula to:
What particular thing happened to me and why will readers care?
What was universal in my very particular experience?
If you are querying nonfiction, adjust the formula to: As an expert in X, I’m going to be presenting an exploration of Y with the overall goal of Z.
This formula gets at your premise and/or how you will disrupt a current understanding.For example:As an expert in gut-health, I am going to explore bacteria through the ages with the goal of getting people to stop washing their hands.(Please don’t stop washing your hands!)
This exercise works best for: Book-length projects. Try out different questions depending on your project!
Exercise 3: Write Your Book Deal Announcement
When new book deals are made, they typically appear more or less like this in Publishers Marketplace:
(Name of agent) sold (Author name)’s debut (novel/collection/memoir) (book title) about (what happens to whom in book and why) to (what editor at what house and how). For example:
Big deal Editor via Big Deal Agency preempted Writer McWriter’s debut novel “Jawsy” about the pup of a murdered big white shark who vows to take revenge—for his species and his father—on the tourists of Cape Cod.
Writing your own book deal announcement will not only clarify what your book is about, it will also help you understand who its ideal partners are. Should you consider an academic press? The big four? An indie? Would you prefer to work with an established agent, or someone hungry and new?
This exercise works best for: Book length projects like novels and memoirs, as well as anthologies, short story collections, and essay collections.
Exercise 4: Test Your Story Against Tinseltown’s Three-Act Structure
Since time immemorial, Hollywood screenplays have followed the sacred three-act rule:
Beginning/Act I: Set-up plus plot point 1
Middle/Act II: Confrontation plus plot point 2
End/Act III: Resolution
In Act 1, we set the story up, meet the main character(s), get a grasp of the dramatic situation and any obstacles and stakes, and introduce plot point 1, which is an event or incident that hooks the reader or viewer into the action and spins us in another direction.
In Act 2 (which is usually the longest act), the main character(s) confront whatever obstacles were set up by plot point 1. But watch out, because plot point 2 is about to be introduced, which will force the character(s) to make some kind of decision that will play out in Act 3.
The three-act structure sounds prescriptive, but I promise it can be adapted even for experimental work. The other great thing about this exercise is that it will clarify how much runway you need. If you don’t have a lot of material for a second act, for example, maybe you need to write a personal essay instead of a memoir or a short story instead of a novel.
• Setting: Does the work take place somewhere specific geographically or in a specific time period?
• Crux: What is the heart of the project—what is it about?
By way of example: I haven’t read it, but I would venture that Where the Crawdads Sing takes place somewhere in the American South and is set in a minor tone of yearning. I recently saw a book deal announcement for Megan Mayhew Bergman’s forthcoming The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, which is killer title: Even without reading the book’s logline, the title suggests that this is historical material written in a peppy, accessible tone.
This exercise works best for: Every single thing you’ll write for the rest of your life. Also works for babies.
Identifying what we want to write about isn’t always easy to do alone; sometimes we need a dowser with a diving rod to help. Spots are filling up quickly, but author Lilly Dancyger has a Catapult class this summer on Creating a Narrative Arc Out of a Messy Life that’s sure to help you find the true shape of your narrative, and I have an ongoing self-guided course called The Book Deal Toolkit that will coach you in further detail through some of the above exercises. This course will also help you understand how to query and pitch off-the-book pieces about your project, two essential pieces of this whole “learning what we’re writing” thing.
Please sign up for my newsletter for more advice on how to get out of the weeds with your own writing. I’ve been in that itchy, ugly weedy place before, but I know you have the tools to get to the other (published) side.
Courtney Maum is the author of the novels Costalegre (a GOOP book club pick and one of Glamour Magazine’s top books of the decade), I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, and Touch (a New York Times Editor’s Choice and NPR Best Book of the Year selection), the popular guidebook Before and After the Book Deal, and the forthcoming memoir, The Year of the Horses. Courtney is the founder of the collaborative retreat program, The Cabins and she has a creativity advice newsletter “Get Published, Stay Published” that you can sign up for at CourtneyMaum.com.