If you’ve written a novel or memoir but haven’t been able to get it quite right – something isn’t working and you’re not sure what – reach for The Story Cure (Ten Speed Press, 2017). In this uplifting and highly readable book, Dinty Moore, a.k.a. “the book doctor,” delivers on his promise to diagnose common problems and prescribe “pain-free” solutions.
Dinty focuses on the “big picture” elements of story: premise, beginnings, characters, dialogue, scenes, sensory details, point of view, voice, plot, and structure. He offers a holistic approach to ailments that he believes reside in the body of the story, not in the mind of the writer.
He urges writers to focus on the story, not on themselves, and this is what makes his guide “pain-free.” If writing is painful, it is because writers have become sidetracked by self-doubt, insecurity, perfectionism, procrastination, self-loathing, and despair. Dinty brings writers’ attention back to the story – to the breath, the heart, the body of prose. How liberating to forget oneself in life and writing!
Dinty is the director of creative writing at Ohio University and a much-loved presenter at conferences and workshops. I attended his session at the Creative Nonfiction Collective Society conference in Toronto last spring, and he is as warm and witty in person as he is on the page. From his book I learned four things that I’ve already put to use in editing memoir.
First is a way to explain the concept of “premise” to authors.
Premise has always seemed to me to be a nebulous concept. It’s generally defined as what the story is about at a deeper level than plot. But what does this really mean? Is it the theme, the thesis, the “heart” story, the hero’s journey? After decades of teaching writers, Moore devised a unique metaphor – “the invisible magnetic river” – to explain it.
Ah ha! This metaphor makes the concept visible. It vividly shows that everything in the book – characters, dialogue, setting, description, plot – has to be drawn toward the river, the current that propels the story forward and makes readers want to turn the page. The river itself is invisible because a narrative is a journey of discovery for both the writer and the reader.
It’s vital that authors know what the premise is, because its power works both ways: if a word, scene, or image does not share the magnetic pull, then it doesn’t belong in the story. Once an author knows the premise – sometimes they don’t, and as their editor I’ll help them articulate it – they can see which words clog up the river and have to be let go.
Second, Dinty’s holistic approach to revision made me realize the all-pervasiveness of point of view (POV). Handled well, POV seeps into the setting, sensory details, what the narrator knows and notices, the words chosen, the personality behind the voice, and how close or how distant the reader feels to the narrator. These elements have a cumulative effect that is much larger than the sum of the parts.
Third, sometimes a cure requires “tough medicine.” For instance, to articulate the premise, the author must know what the main character wants. But what if the author doesn’t know? Dinty suggests that the author make a list of everything, big and small, that the character wants and definitely does not want. Underline the strongest desires and fears. If the author cannot distill the strongest desire into a powerful “my character wants” statement, Dinty encourages the writer to step away from the keyboard and substitute “I.” What do I want the most? What do I most fear?
“The power of the story you tell is going to flow from you, the writer; those fears and desires you feel mostly deeply are the fears and desires that will provide your book with force and energy, pulling the reading into every page.”
Finally, don’t give up. The aim of Dinty’s book is to help authors finish their novel or memoir. To do so, he offers instructive examples of what works and why, creative prompts and exercises to guide you in the right direction, periodic “check-ups,” and a playful and optimistic approach to writing and revision.