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What I actually write for publication is such a CHOICE. I’m at that point with my book. I have to focus and choose what to keep and what to drop. I have to find a way to weave my early childhood, my motivations for joining the convent into “backstory.” It might mean changing the whole chronological way I approached the book, possibly a total re-writing! UGH!!!!!!!! But I’ve known that just rearranging the first three chapters, while cutting out NOTHING of the childhood, education, joining the convent parts wouldn’t work. I need to focus on the real heart of the story, the time from 1968-70 and find my beginning! I know the end, of that I’m very certain. It was like a revelation to see the end of the book-our sentencing in 1970. And it helped to have Pat’s suggestion about beginning each chapter of the book with a progressive “tease” from the sentencing. The action, trial and sentencing are important, the public parts of the story. But perhaps I need to also look at the beginning, middle and end of the story of my other very personal decision. How are the two interwoven? It would have been lovely to know this part of the structure of my book beforehand, but the writing process began where it did – first with journaling and telling pieces of the story to classes orally. Then I just wanted to get the whole of the story into the computer. The final book clearly has to be more selective in order to appeal to a wide range of readers, to grab and hold the reader.

The class last night (‘Narrative History and Biography: Works in Progress” taught at the Writer’s Center by Ken Ackerman) has already been helpful. He asked two of us to give our “elevator speeches” as if we had three minutes to tell a publisher about our books. I had a little warning, so I practiced with Pat as if I had met Gina Contrello from Ballantine Books. But Ken stopped me right away when I launched into the description of the book to ask “where are you now?” It threw me off. Why? Oh, I guess I’m in a class and being introduced to these other nine people. So, I said a bit about my difficulty giving up teaching and making this book a huge priority in the last three years, that I have a completed third draft and am waiting for an agent and need some critical feedback.

Ken talked for about an hour about how to find the “narrative arc” (beginning/end) of the story and showed us dozens of different books to illustrate that this can now happen in many different ways. “A Night to Remember,” 31 Days, The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire each choose a particular time frame, a limitation. Reality is infinite. We are using story telling tools to tell the truth, so we need to find the core conflict and its resolution. The story can begin at the end, as does a biography of Emma Goldman – with her exile to Russia. There is a lot of freedom now, even with all the changes in the publishing business.

Then we looked at the two handouts, beginnings of books by members of the class, and gave them feedback. The lecture on “narrative arc” helped us focus on telling the story, finding its beginning and end point, the passion that drives us to write this particular book. In a week I will give the class copies of my first chapters to read!

I had to write this version as best I could for my family if nothing else. I wanted all the details in there someplace. I wanted to tell a woman’s version of the Berrigan-style Catholic Left actions. But the final published book will probably have to be more spare, more focused. I’m really hoping that one of the people in the class can become a possible reader for me.

What choices are you making today? Do they involve letting go? Limiting?

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3 Comments

    • richard maolne
    • Posted September 26, 2010 at 11:53 am
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    A lot of writers use the method Pat (Hello Pat!) suggested. Many a time right in the heat and action of a story it will cut back to the past to give me the boring history of a character.Ugh! But it doesn’t have to be that way. I know I’m bias but the part about you growing up is something i want to read about. Make it interesting, make it the part of the book people comment on. Stop thinking of the backstory as a hurtle. It’s an opportunity to make it great! I know you can do this! BTY, Added this to my facebook page. In fact I started the page for that purpose in mind.

    • Dear Richard, Since you were the first person who received my roughest draft of “my story” several years ago, I am especially honored and happy to receive your encouragement. And, you’re right – the backstory is important and an opportunity rather than an obstacle. Shift the attitude, Joann! I’ll send you the first chapters for as objective a critique as possible, ok?

  1. Sounds great.


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