Manuscript Monday: The “W” in my Wrollercoaster

defining moment memoir structure narrative arc restructuring manuscript W plot structure writing
John Lithgow signing copies of his memoir, titled Drama.

Restructuring a manuscript is torture. But like the delicious pain during a good hour of lifting weights, I love the difficult and time-consuming (but very rewarding) pain of this surgery on my writing.

As I told you last week, the agent (I won’t call her my agent yet, but hope to soon) suggested letting my readers into my process a little bit, and talking now and again about the memoir I’m working on. And to quote John Lithgow, when I went to hear him speak at Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures last year, “Writing a memoir is a colossally arrogant thing to do…requires the kind of self-confidence almost indistinguishable from folly.”

So now that we’ve gotten out of the way that I’m fully aware that writing memoir is both difficult and egocentric, I also believe enough in the content and craft of what I’m writing. My goal is to deliver a relatable and empowering piece to women of my demographic (and maybe even a few of you guys out there 🙂 ).

There are a number of shapes to choose from when structuring any story, whether truth or fiction. The latter, for me, is easier, because in fiction I can create transitions, change characters and events, and pull circumstances from thin air.

It’s difficult to come to terms with revising a memoir to adhere to a specific plot structure, because I know the order in which my life events occurred, and since I’m so close to the material, it’s not always easy to see sections of my life in terms of narrative arc, or that lucrative but distasteful word, “formula.” (Because although applying formula skillfully can be brilliant, a formulaic book can easily be a mundane read.)

But when I attended a memoir workshop at the Southern California Writer’s Conference, in which memoirist Maralys Wills discussed applying the “W” plotline used in novels to memoir, it made sense. She used an example of a memoir about climbing Mount Everest. And while I unfortunately drifted in and out of reverie during the session (because it struck such a chord with me that I went into brainstorming mode of how to apply it to my own work) here is the jist of the “W” plot structure.

defining moment memoir structure narrative arc restructuring manuscript W plot structure writing
Traditional(ish) W plot structure as best I can remember from my short workshop attention span.

After discussing the “W” structure with other writer and editor friends over the weekend, I started to internalize their notion of seeing that “W” as softened—cursive, even—the undulating lines of a rollercoaster: a perfect metaphor for most of our lives. But where the craft really makes you sweat is determining which events in your life were so defining as to be the peaks and which to be the very pit of the valleys. We all have those highs and lows. It’s why we all understand the rollercoaster metaphor. But not every up and down moment in our life defines us, and not every moment is something a reader needs or wants to know. The art, and the craft, is in seeing yourself through those defining highs and lows in a way that has brought you to a different way of understanding, one that you hope your readers discover with you and find their own inspiring truth through reading yours.

defining moment memoir structure narrative arc restructuring manuscript W plot structure writing
Dumbed down version of many of life’s rollercoasters. I prefer to see the “W” plot structure as an undulating rollercoaster. It’s easier to accept formula as applied to manuscript this way.

So with input from a few beta readers, and with encouragement from the agent who wants to read the full manuscript, I am taking the chapters of my book and rearranging them to meet these waves of tension and relief, but doing so in a way that keeps the same purpose and vision of the book. She wants to read it when I’m done with the full rearrangement, and reminded me to do this slowly, and do it right, because I only have this one shot with her. So when I hand it over, she needs to be so blown away by it that she can’t help but sign me. (Yes, in the possibility that she’s reading this, I’m schmoozing 😉 .)

Without giving away too many details, I will tell you that my beta readers, with their ability to look at the manuscript objectively, identified Chapter 3 as the place where my book should begin. Currently chapters one and two are a little more reflective and quiet, and while they have sound writing and flow, don’t create an immediacy and as strong of a connection for the reader as chapter three.

So the manuscript now opens at age sixteen, with the death of my father, and the destructive way I reacted to it (then and for years afterward). The event itself was a “defining moment,” of my life and of my personality. This first change alone is a profoundly different tone to begin the work, and it makes more sense in the context of the overall purpose and understanding of myself at the conclusion.

So that’s the “W” in my Wrollercoaster. If you were writing a book of your life, what do you think of as your defining moment, or moments? How have they shaped or changed you?

Love, Marla

P.S. Fitness followers: I hit it HARD today! An hour of weight training with trainer Mike at the Center for Fitness and Health, followed by an hour of elliptical. Yee freaking haw!! What was your workout today?

29 thoughts on “Manuscript Monday: The “W” in my Wrollercoaster

  1. I’m just hoping that the “brother” character in the story isn’t villified to any great degree; I happen to know that the real person is of general good character. 😉
    Also just an observation: I noticed that the “rollercoaster W” greatly resembles boobies!
    …yea I know, so much for my “general good character”

    1. Oh dear God, I really needed that laugh right now, Jeff.
      Well, I suppose the boobies thing works. It is a memoir about girly things, aimed at helping girlies go through girly things, after all.
      And now that I think about it, perhaps I should add in some gratuitous villifying a la your torture of my Baby Beans dolls. 😉

      1. Hahaha…yea, I’m sure I have a few shots long time comin’! I’m sure Wendy would get some vicarius satisfaction from it too.
        “The evil that men do lives after…”

  2. Best wishes as you move forward on this leg of your journey, Marla. I’m not sure I always agree with the “immediate catch” in activity, as I think the reflections give time to know a character prior to just being there. But I understand that, when you’re working with an agent and an audience, there’s give and take. I’m sure your rollercoaster will be a much “funner” ride!

    1. Thanks, Jody. Yeah, I think we’re in the minority on our reading taste. I’m with you in how much I love reading the more quiet and reflective reading. I will still be weaving my reflections throughout and I hope this different approach will reach more women than it would have in its previous version, since that’s my goal.

  3. How interesting, your lesson on writing. It really makes sense and I like the cursive w also. You can tell I haven’t had lessons before. It made me think on my life. Even though I’m not writing a memoir, I have been given a “Grandma, Tell Me Your Memories” book that I’ve been avoiding for a few years. I should get at it; I may not have many left.

    1. Write it, Ginny. Write those Grandma Memories. They are more precious than gold, and while I have no doubt you have plenty of time, the earlier you start it the happier you will be that you did.

  4. Way cool, this writerly wrollercoaster…I’m on my first ‘deep’ revision of a YA novel. Your loopy W is making me see it really begins much further down the track. Holy cow! Thanks, Marla. So happy the [your] agent suggested you share with us. Wheeee…(Day 56 sugar-free)!

    1. I’m so glad, Pierr. YA, huh? If you ever get the chance to go to the Southern California Writer’s Conference, I have several friends there who are YA writers and it’s such a beautiful network.
      Congratulations on the 56 days of freedom from sugar!!

  5. I love your “dumbed down” version…. I can so relate. Good luck on the writing. I look forward to hearing more of your process. 🙂

    1. You are so great. <3 But seriously, I hope they will do pre-orders when I get to that stage. I have this long laundry list of things to start doing in addition to the revision, like starting to speak at womens' groups. I feel like I'm suddenly juggling my ovaries.

  6. Omg! This post is so good and informative that I want to go and write a memoir! : ) not gonna happen. And you could be the pioneer of the “cursive w model”! xoxo

    1. Do it. I strongly believe each of us has something to tell or share. Whether it’s in the form of memoir, or essay, or even a children’s book. You, woman, have some great material that other moms could benefit from.

  7. I can’t answer these questions without starting my own memoir, and that sounds too painful. Also, is your wrollercoaster-riding self giving the horned hands? \m/ \m/ 😉

    1. It is so painful, but it really is worth both the catharsis for ourselves AND the meaning it can bring to others if we find the way through it that makes that connection. Yay! Metal hands on the roller coaster! They were actually “I Love You” signs, but as I mentioned in a post last year, my family always mixes up metal hands with the signlanguage “I love you.” (In this case, I was going for I love you and got metal, so that was a fun twist!)

      1. Oh, to me it’s the same sign: I love you/Horns…same thing. \m/ 😉 Also, maybe someday I’ll sit down and write something like this, but it’ll still be a while. When I do, though, I hope you’re not too famous and busy to give me some pointers. =)

        1. Hey, it’s like your great post this morning “How to Sit Down and Shut the Fuck Up.” I promise to never be too full of myself, haha. Seriously, you’ll always have my ear, eyes, liver, what have you.

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