Struggling with memoir structure?
Struggling with memoir structure?
Aching to start writing your memoir? Hold your horses, Sally!
When I started my travel memoir (the first book I would eventually get published), I wrote as I traveled. The advantage was that I didn’t have to rely on memory. I had conversations practically word for word. I didn’t struggle to recall the smell of a Costa Rican prison or the color of a Colombian sunset. I chronicled the experience as I lived it (or several days or weeks afterward). On the downside, I had no idea where I was going with my story, and it showed in my completed first draft. A young agent took me on anyway. She fell in love with the voice of my narrator but told me the structure was a disaster. If I would be willing to rewrite the book, she thought she would be able to sell it. Her comment was, “It was as if you didn’t know how the book was going to end when you started writing it.” Only later did I admit to her how right she was. I learned this important lesson the hard way — you have to have some sense of where your book is going before you even start chapter one.
By now, hopefully, you’ve formed an idea of what your memoir is about, but before you get very far into the actual writing of your book, it’s critical to think about how you plan to tell your story. Structure is probably the hardest concept when it comes to writing a memoir. However, it exists for a very important reason: to keep your reader from getting bored. Once you master literary structure, you will be able craft a narrative with a logical train of thought that offers suspense at every turn.
I place a lot of weight on this topic, mostly because it is where most gifted writers fail when it comes to writing their manuscripts, myself included. You may have stellar prose and a fascinating life story, but if you don’t understand structure, your story will fall flat. Structure exists to keep your book from wandering. You lay out the facts of your life in a logical way so that your reader never asks, “Um, why is the writer telling me this? What does it have to do with the story?”
Is conflict really the essence of literature?
I’m sure you’ve heard about the importance of conflict in literature, a norm that goes back thousands of years. In Greek mythology, in Hindu folk tales, in stories as ancient as Beowolf, the classic setup goes like this: The protagonist sets out on a quest and faces lots of obstacles that must be overcome in pursuit of his final goal.
While this may be an effective formula for creating literature, I’ve found this advice to be nearly useless when trying to structure my own memoirs. For one thing, I’ve never had to chop off the head of a serpent-covered Medusa or made the enemy of Greek gods after having slept with their wives. Granted, my own life has been filled with obstacles of a much more banal kind, but I’ve still had trouble figuring out how exactly to use these stumbling blocks to effectively structure my story.
Later I realized why I having so much trouble with this simple task. Because this oft-quoted phrase was wrong. Why does everyone from Aristotle to your high school English teacher emphasize the importance of conflict? Because it creates suspense. Suspense truly is critical to your book. In fact, I think this ancient phrase needs to be rewritten. Conflict is not the essence of drama. Suspense is.
Conflict exists to create suspense. But screw conflict. Just work on creating suspense. Here is the good news: this is incredibly easy to do.
It took me years to discover this simple fact, but once I did, it made every single book I subsequently wrote all that much easier:
Suspense exists the minute your narrator wants something.
Sure, there will be obstacles in your book, and we’ll get to this topic later, but for now, the most important question to ask yourself is what your narrator wants at the beginning of the book. Your memoir needs to be structured as a quest. You don’t have to be looking high and low for holy grails or even trying to find a rare species of butterfly in the jungles of the Amazon. You simply have to want something. It may sound simple, but it’s incredibly important.
What does your narrator want? This question, young grasshopper, holds all the answers.
Even if you haven’t advanced very far in the actual writing of your memoir, I suspect you’ve already made a critical mistake. I’m not blaming you. I too once snowplowed before I learned to ski. But if you have started to think of your book as a series of events, you’ve just committed your first writing blunder. Events are secondary in a memoir. Dwelling on them is like buying furniture before you have a house. You may own a wonderful Louis XIV sofa, but until you come up with structure, you’re a homeless person with a very nice couch.
Structure starts with desire. This is what you will base your memoir on. What does your narrator want?
Say you want to write about your childhood. For now, forget the stories of making homemade maple syrup with your mother or of avoiding Crazy John Four Fingers. Think instead about what you most longed for at the time. Maybe it was a desperate need to escape the small town where you were raised or perhaps you simply wanted to become the county rodeo queen.
If you want to write about your cooking class in France, don’t dwell on your annoying Czech kitchen partner obsessed with beets or your problems finding the right shoes to wear (at least not now). Instead, focus on what you truly wanted back then. Was it the desire to eventually move to New York and become a famous chef or simply the hope of creating a truffle cream sauce that would show up your little sister?
The basis of structure is figuring out what your narrator wants, but here’s the complication: this primary desire must shift in some way, or else it gets boring for your reader. It should grow and evolve over the course of the book. You start by wanting something (a need that will often carry you through the first three or four chapters), but events happen to make you reanalyze this initial desire. You are sent off in directions you never expected, still in pursuit of your main quest.
A quick intro to literary structure.
(Don’t take any notes just yet. Pour yourself a glass of wine and simply let the basic idea sink in.)
If this all sounds like Greek to you, there’s good news. Greece was actually the birthplace of literary structure, created two thousand years ago by a man named Aristotle. This pattern of constructing literary narrative has been so ingrained in our psyches that we search for it without even realizing it.
The basic concept is not that hard. In fact, it’s probably something you studied in high school literature classes. A book has a beginning, a middle, and an end. You have rising conflict that culminates in the book’s climax, which you resolve in the denouement.
Yes, I know that a few paragraphs earlier, I already contradicted this basic advice, stressing that suspense is more important than conflict, and I stick by this. In memoir, your first task is to structure your story around your narrator’s basic want. However, just because I advocate slight improvements to this ancient idea of literary structure doesn’t mean that I discard it all together. It has existed for two thousand years, and for the most part, I believe that with a few modifications, it still serves our purposes.
In essence, your book is divided into three acts. Your narrator’s primary desire forms the basis for Act I. In Act II, this desire shifts in some way. And in Act III, you reanalyze this desire yet again, coming to new conclusions about what the journey has meant. In short, the overall structure of your book should follow this pattern:
Act I (the first few chapters, anywhere from two to five): Your narrator sets off on his quest with a specific desire in mind. Each chapter in some way supports this primary want, yet in a slightly different way. (For example, I want an adventurous life and so I go out in search of it in Honduras, Lebanon, and Cuba.)
Act II (the bulk of your book, usually five to eight chapters) : Your narrator’s main goal changes or his desire takes on a different level. In either case, the action shifts course. Each of the chapters in Act II are in some way related to this new or intensified desire. (I get my adventurous life, but it comes with unintended consequences. Now I want to free my boyfriend from a Costa Rican prison.)
Act III (the final chunk of your book, usually around two to four chapters): The memoir is concluded. The narrator is a changed person as a result of all the events he has experienced. He fulfills his quest, achieves an even greater aim, or else comes to a new conclusion about what the quest truly symbolizes. (After freeing my boyfriend from prison and later losing him, I begin to understand that all of my travels have been a search for the childhood I’d never had. So I return to my parents’ house — conveniently they have moved to Bolivia — and find a sense of adventure combined with the youth I’d always longed for.)
If this still sounds a little vague, not to worry. I find literary theory almost useless unless it’s elucidated with clear examples. And later I’ll expand on this topic in depth. But up to this point, I want you to keep this single concept in mind:
Your narrator wants something and throughout the book, this desire shifts course in some way.
I guess I’m asking you to trust me when it comes to a three-act literary structure at this point, and given my personal history of visiting Costa Rican prisons and illegal trips to Cuba and Lebanon, you probably don’t have a lot of reason to do so. Nevertheless, I simply tell you this: I am right. And later on in this article, I’ll prove the soundness of this theory to you.
For now, I’d like to give you some guidelines in developing your first act, partly because it’s the first point in convincing you of the basis of my argument, showing you why the concept of a three-act structure actually works in constructing your memoir. By the end of this article, if I still haven’t won you over, feel free to toss this book against the wall and write a nasty letter to me in care of my publisher.
The point I’m trying to make? You need to make a point with your first act.
(Here is where you put the wine down and start paying attention.)
When it comes to writing a novel, literary structure is comparatively easy, simply requiring you to come up with your protagonist’s primary search by relying on your imagination. But one of the biggest challenges of memoir writing is the necessity to draw on facts from your own life. It has often been said that everyone has a book in them. However, this book can actually be told in a dozen different ways. A lot of things have happened to you thus far. Your task is to take these events and think of how to organize them within the framework of a single search. What do they have in common? You need to combine seemingly disconnected events by linking them to an overall quest.
Why is this so important? I’ve already talked about the way suspense is instantly created the minute your narrator wants something. This is one reason. But there is another one as well.
Your book isn’t so different from those high-school essays we were forced to crank out, starting with a thesis sentence, and paragraphs to support your main point. Memoirs aren’t simply anecdotes from your life. You need to make a bigger point, giving these stories a reason to exist. You need to connect these anecdotes in some way. The way to do this is by first figuring out what your narrator wants.
Let me illustrate the importance of this concept with a personal failure. When I set out to write a childhood memoir, I had lots of fascinating material: kindergarten in Spanish in Peru, living in a station wagon with my parents in the backwoods of Tennessee, gaining acclaim as an actress in a tiny town in South Carolina. In short, the stories I had to tell were far from boring, but the memoir as a whole failed because I never found the bigger idea, the larger narrative want to connect these chapters. When I sent my agent my first draft, her comment was that it read more or less like, “This happened, then this.” But what point was I trying to make?
If I were to write out my Roman numeral outline for that manuscript, it would be something along these lines:
I. I had a weird, nomadic childhood.
A. We lived in Peru, where lots of crazy cultural mishaps occurred.
B. I experienced poverty in Tennessee living out of a station wagon.
C. In South Carolina, I made my mark as an actress.
What is the problem with this outline? If you look hard enough, in a way all of the chapters are related to the Act I idea of having a strange childhood defined by many different places. But the story falls off track because Act I is not defined by a primary want. The chapters that follow are simply stories from that time in my life (I make the mistake of relying on events). I don’t give my reader a reason to root for me. I don’t show the need that defined my time in all of those places.
That is your first goal, and achieving it is not easy. You may already have a sense of what your first few chapters are about, but now it’s critical that you connect them in some way with a primary need, a quest that somehow guides your reader through these pages.
How would I restructure this childhood memoir now? First of all, I’d define Act I in terms of a desire, one that generalizes my experience in all these places. What overarching need defined this period? Longing to make a home for myself, time and time again. With this in mind, all of the chapters in Act I would express this want.
I. I want to make a home for myself in all the strange places that define my early childhood.
A. When we move to Peru, for a while I actually want to believe I am Peruvian, but I am a gringa with blue eyes.
B. When my parents pack up and move us to Tennessee, I want to be accepted by my classmates, but I get free lunch at school and live in a station wagon.
C. When I escape with my family to South Carolina, I hope to find a sense of belonging, but when I make my mark as an actress, my classmates resent the approval I get from teachers and isolate me from the group.
There isn’t a lot of information in those few sentences, but even so, don’t they seem more compelling than the first version I presented? You still don’t know a lot about my life or who I am, yet even so, can’t you relate? I’m no longer describing my childhood in terms of how bizarre it was (although this idea isn’t lost in the second version of the outline). Instead, I make you care about these circumstances by making you root for me. In the end, all I want is to find a home for myself.
In short, before you begin writing the first words of your memoir, you have to understand the bigger story, the needs that define your search.
Your first act: figuring out your first act.
To fully understand how your narrator’s primary desire forms the basis for the first act of your book, let’s me use a fictitious example of a memoir based around a narrator’s search to find the best vodka in Russia. This is the main desire that defines Act I, and the first three chapters are all related to this, yet they all expand on this topic in a slightly new way. Take a look at how it’s possible to do this:
CHAPTER ONE: You journey to Russia, in search of the best vodka on the planet. In Moscow, you visit the finest restaurants, trying out different brands of vodka at each new opportunity. You come to the conclusion that although the alcohol offered in each place is of exceptional quality, it seems to lack a certain personality, that you’re still seeking a flavor you have yet to exactly define.
CHAPTER TWO: You continue your quest to find the best vodka but now instead of restaurants, you want to get to the source of the vodka itself. You visit large commercial distilleries as well as farmers who make the spirit from the potatoes they harvest on their own land. But you still don’t feel you are getting to the heart of what it takes to create an exceptional vodka.
CHAPTER THREE: In order to truly understand the complexities of vodka, you decide to create it yourself. You rent a house in a rural area outside of Moscow and buy yourself a still, resulting in many failed attempts to produce the beverage on your own. The result is a nasty-tasting substance that reminds you of the stuff you drank with your dad in your early twenties.
There is one critical thing I want to draw your attention to in the example above. Each chapter reaffirms the narrator’s primary search in a slightly new way. In short, each chapter is about a slightly different aspect of the search for fine vodka. Chapter One: Fine restaurants. Chapter Two: Vodka from its source. Chapter Three: The desire to make vodka on your own.
When it comes to following this pattern in your own memoir, I suspect you’ll find it’s not as easy as I’ve made it sound. With this in mind, I suggest you simplify. Start out by creating a simple Roman numeral outline. Your first act is defined by an all-encompassing want (Roman numeral I), and the subsequent chapters (A, B, and C) in some way support this desire given new circumstances. In the case of the vodka memoir, the outline would read something like this (notice how each chapter as well as the description of Act I are defined in terms of what the narrator wants):
I: I want to travel to Russia to find the best vodka on the planet.
A. I hope to find this exceptional vodka in expensive restaurants.
B. I hope that by visiting the source of vodka, people who actually make it, I will discover what it takes to create this world-class spirit.
C. I hope that learning the secrets of creating this beverage on my own will clue me in on what an exceptional vodka consists of.
Your first step is to think about the overriding want that will define the first act of your book. Then you need to decide how to break this down into sub-wants that will guide your chapters. For now, I want to focus on wants that are concrete (I talk about the difference between external and internal wants later on in this article). However, don’t worry about defining your wants yet. In the next section, I’ll offer an exercise to help you come up with this. (So put off writing that nasty letter just a little while.) For now, simply keep in mind this all-important point:
Your first act needs to relate to a single quest, one that is divided into mini-quests in each of your first three chapters.
Keep this important fact in mind when thinking about the structure for your own memoir. To show you how I managed to do this with my first book, here’s the Roman numeral outline that describes my first act, an overriding want broken down into mini-wants in each of the first three chapters:
I. I want to have a life characterized by international travel.
A. I head to Honduras, hoping that my parents will clue me in on what it means to leave everything behind and start up a new life in a foreign country.
B. I visit a friend who lives in Lebanon, hoping to see a new side of international life in the Middle East.
C. I head to Cuba, hoping that I can finally understand international travel on my own (this is the first solo trip I’m making without the benefit of having a place to stay).
What have I done here? Basically, I’ve expressed the primary want of a life defined by international travel in a slightly new way in my first three chapters. Chapter One: Seeking out answers from my parents in Honduras. Chapter Two: Gleaning advice from a friend in Lebanon. Chapter Three: Wondering if I can’t make this a reality when I travel solo to Cuba.
Coming up with subwants that are related to my overall act want was relatively easy in the case of my first book, because I simply structured my first three chapters around different countries, and how this want played itself out in each new place. But what if you’re writing a memoir centered in a single country? You begin by examining your entire experience and then think of how to divide up your story into different mini-searches. Let me give you an example from a former student to show you how she tackled this challenge:
When Tara first tried to figure out the structure for her memoir, the task was daunting: How to take the memories of a year spent as a college exchange student in Paris and divide them into three distinct periods (acts, in short), characterized by different wants? Lots of things happened to her there, events that seemed unconnected on the surface. However, with the benefit of time, she was able to look back and deduce what these seemingly random occurrences had in common. All of her chapters in Act I in some way show how she longs to be French but is thwarted at every turn. Here is her Roman numeral outline:
I. I want to become French.
A. I try to leave behind my stereotypical American upbringing, but I find myself living in the Parisian suburbs with a teenager who listens to nothing but top 40 hits and ’80s music — in other words, it’s just like my childhood.
B. I want to shed my American ties and begin to find my independence in Paris, but I have to rely on Americans, and worse, American brands, for my most basic needs — food, warmth, money, companionship.
C. The thing that has made me feel most “Parisian” thus far have been conversations with my favorite French professor. So I jump at his advice to find myself a French boyfriend. Except that the three French guys who attend our Valentine’s Day party are all dating my friend’s roommate Kyra and the ones that hit on me at bars make me miss the American guy I left to come to Paris.
I might suggest to this student that she simplify just a bit more, but in essence, her outline is there. What I hope you take away from this example is how she divided up her primary act want into mini-wants in each of her chapters (what would be slightly more evident if she were to concise this outline slightly). In any case, each chapter is centered around a different aspect of fitting into life in Paris:
Chapter One: Trying to fit in to a French family.
Chapter Two: Attempting to make friends in Paris.
Chapter Three: A desire to fit in with French men.
I hope the overriding concept is beginning to sink in. Before you begin writing your book, you need to determine the overriding quest that will define your first act, and you need to divide this into subwants that will guide each of your first three chapters.
To make sure this is sinking in, take a look at this less-than-perfect assignment submitted by a former student of mine and think of how you’d fix it with the guidelines I’ve already given you:
Act I goal: To shake up my life and career and establish a successful and exciting new life of travel abroad.
Chapter One: I arrive in Stockholm and discover a beautiful city, different life and culture and challenges galore, but find that fitting in is harder than I anticipated.
Chapter Two: On a much-needed trip to sunny Australia, I discover that even the desolate and strange outback with all of its peculiarities feels more welcoming than Sweden.
Chapter Three: Back in Stockholm, I learn how the Swedish concept of lagom influences everyday life in terms of behavior, etiquette and tradition, but that as an American I am by nature not lagom. (Definition of lagom: While there’s no exact English equivalent, lagom means just the right amount or just enough. Culturally, it means “there is virtue in moderation” and that you should not stand out or appear better than anyone else. Thus the American concept of success and being the best does not translate well.)
The first problem I have is with her overall act want: Do her chapters really reflect a desire to create a new and exciting life for herself in Sweden? If this student wanted to keep this as her overall quest, she’d need to rethink the chapters with this in mind. One way to do this:
Chapter One: I hope to discover a new adventurous life in Stockholm but discover that life there isn’t as thrilling as I once imagined.
Chapter Two: I hope that a trip to Australia will fulfill my need for adventure, but soon I have to return back home to Sweden.
Chapter Three: Hoping that at least my career life in Sweden will be exciting and adventurous, I learn that life there is lagom.
Another option is to rethink her overall act want, what this student eventually wound up doing. This is the final version of her Act I outline:
Act I want: I want to make the move to Sweden work.
Chapter One: I try fitting in to Sweden, but I don’t understand their customs or culture.
Chapter Two: I want to have an international community of friends.
Chapter Three: I want to expand my career options in Sweden.
Don’t worry about being deep just yet: Focus on your external wants
When it comes to defining the main want that will define the first act of your book, I want you to think about desires that are external. External wants are desires that you can actively pursue. A few examples:
Contrast the list above with the following, desires that would usually be considered internal:
Internal wants are usually psychological -- they are desires that are fulfilled naturally as a result of the events we live through. That is why they are ineffective when it comes to setting up your chapter structure. Your narrative want needs to propel your narrator to action. Your narrator wants something and actively sets about achieving this goal. How do you actively go about feeling less angry, for instance?
However, an internal want can transform into an external want when you can think of actions you can take related to this desire. For instance, if you want to set up a chapter around overcoming the death of your grandmother, you could write about going to grief counseling, talking to family members, setting up a remembrance fund in her name. In other words, as long as you plan to set up your chapter around events related to your narrative want, almost any internal want can become external.
Again, an external want is something you can take concrete actions toward achieving. Want to fit in? Are there things you can do to achieve this? Then it's an external want.
Want to obtain the approval of your father? If your book or several chapters are about the things you do to impress your father, then it's an external want in your memoir. If, on the other hand, wanting to impress your father is the by-product of trying to become the world's first successful American sumo wrestler, then becoming a wrestler is your external want, impressing Dad is your internal want.
In short, you set up your memoir, your acts and each chapter around narrative wants that you can actively take action toward realizing. And the actions you take are your scenes. Sound simple? I know, it does, right? However, actually putting this into practice is one of the biggest challenges in memoir writing.
I know you’re dying to get back to structure, but stick with me for a few unrelated paragraphs: the topic of “truth” as it relates to memoir.
It’s tough to take the experiences of your life and fit them into a literary structure. So how faithful do you need to be in recounting events as they actually occurred? If you ask other writers about this (which I’ve often done), opinions range from “You can’t change a single word of dialogue,” to “Truth is relative anyway. Sometimes I just make stuff up.”
My view on this is to be honest to yourself and to the aims of your memoir. You can fall back on literary license, but when you do, your emotional debt is not so much to your reader as to yourself. When taking liberties with actual events, the last thing you want to do is misrepresent what you actually felt, simply because it will ring untrue. You will be doing a disservice to your book.
As long as the emotion is sincere, and you explain to your reader in your foreword that you have made several changes, I believe you can rearrange events in time, condense a handful of conversations down into one sparkling dialogue, even (rarely) combine two characters into one. But tread with caution when it comes to making these changes (after all, you are writing about real-life people who may come back to criticize your version of events).
I do take some literary license, but never in a big way (I don’t make up characters or situations) and I mention any changes I’ve made in the foreword of my book. In the memoir I’m working on now, which is about seven years of living in a Mexican barrio, my one big license is changing chronology. For one thing, I often can’t remember the exact order of events, and even when I can, the sequence in which they occurred sometimes doesn’t work within my literary structure. To give you one example: When introducing the character of my mother, I include a phone conversation that in real life actually occurred much later. But I don’t feel I’m being dishonest. Whether my mom called me in March or December doesn’t really affect the bigger picture. My literary aims were to introduce her as a character and the conversation that actually occurred at the time (“Hi, honey, how are you. We’re doing well”) paled in comparison to the one that came later. (“Man, dealing with all these foot fetish perverts at work is really starting to get to me.”)
Another liberty I took was in my first book, Avoiding Prison and Other Noble Vacation Goals. In reality, I traveled to Honduras twice, but writing about two trips seemed to drag out the plot. Yet truly interesting things happened during both of these journeys. My solution? In the memoir, these two trips were combined into one.
Here is where structure should start to gel for you a little bit.
Sorry about that brief segue. In a future article, I’ll talk about the importance of staying on point. But as my mother likes to repeat, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Having said that, I do think it’s important that you understand up front how much license you can take in rearranging the events of your life so that they fit into a literary structure.
In fact, feel free to play with chronology, not even necessarily as a “cheat,” but simply consider the possibility of recounting the scenes of your life out of order. I'll repeat what I said earlier in this article because it’s important: You don’t structure your books around events, but rather around your primary want. Of course, only play with chronology if it advances the main point you’re trying to make in Act I.
Now that I’ve brought up the first act of your book (Did you like that segue?), let me offer a few more suggestions when it comes to figuring out the need that will carry you through the first several chapters of your memoir. Your one-line description of your book should serve as your guide. If you already know your primary narrative waant, you need to express this in a slightly new way in each of your Act I chapters.
While it’s easy to spot these kinds of ever-deepening revelations in other people’s memoirs, it can be extremely difficult when it comes to your own life. The problem is that you have too much information. Real life is not about a single journey, and lots of unrelated things happen on a given day. The challenge is for you to stand back from your life and think of it as literature.
No time to get lazy: Complete this exercise to help you establish your main quest and chapter mini-wants
To help you come up with your external search as well as the mini-searches that will define each chapter, start by thinking about the events that will take place in roughly the first half of your book. In fact, I suggest you write them down, coming up with as long a list as possible, something like this (an example of a book about an American woman who moves to India in the hopes of making her mark as an actress in Baliwood):
I hop aboard a plane that takes me to India (via Germany, Greece, and Thailand).
I have to find a place to live and start scouring the ads in the paper.
I take acting classes from a famous Baliwood actor.
I try Indian food.
I take yoga classes and get involved in Buddhist philosophy.
I start dating a handsome Sikh.
I make friends with an Indian family.
I have a harrowing bus ride.
I explore Indian markets.
I meet an Indian sound editor at a birthday party.
I get a job answering phones for an internet customer support line.
I get cast in a commercial for an Indian university.
Take a look at this list and see what these events have in common. For now, don’t worry too much about chronology. What wants do these events share? Here’s the rub: You only get to choose two larger overriding wants. Here is one way to construct this list:
I want to make a life for myself in India, the first step toward becoming an actress there.
I want to make contact with the Indian film industry.
I limited you to two overriding wants because these two desires will form the thrust of your quest in your first two acts. For now, don’t worry about Act II. Instead, think of how to combine the events in the first half of your list into subwants. What desires do these events share? This is one way to complete this exercise:
I want to set up a new life in India
I make an attempt to understand Indian culture.
I make an attempt to get involved with the people
This list of subwants would form the basis of the first three chapters of your memoir. Your Act I Roman numeral outline would read like this:
I. I want to make a life for myself in India, the first step toward becoming an actress there.
A. I want to set up a new life in India.
B. I make an attempt to understand Indian culture.
C. I make an attempt to get involved with the people.
After completing this task, if you’re still having trouble, ask another writer friend to help you figure out how the items on your list relate to one another. Or if you live in rural Utah and are completely disconnected from other writers, ask your husband, your lover, your cross-stitching partner to give you a hand.
In short, do not write to me. Save your correspondence for nasty letters that I can tack to my wall and subsequently share with my writer friends. (Here’s a secret you may not know: When published writers get together over drinks, we rarely talk about our next books. Instead, we giggle over nasty mail we have received.)
I hope this is beginning to make sense. If not, feel free to write me that biting letter. I have an author friend due to visit me soon, and I’m already on the lookout for material to entertain him.
Complete the exercise outlined in this article: Create a list of events that occur in the first half of your book and reorganize these events into two overriding wants. Once you’ve done this, take the first half of your list and organize these events into the subwants that will define the first three chapters of your book.
Now get started on your own Roman numeral outline for Act I. Do whatever it takes. Even call up that cross-stitching partner if necessary!