by Mary Carroll Moore
That first phone call came on a busy day at work. I was preparing 700 stuffed cherry tomatoes for a catering job that night and here was a publisher on the phone asking if I would consider authoring a book. It would be based on my cooking school, which had just been written up in USA Today. Of course I said yes—who wouldn’t? I didn’t tell the publisher I knew nothing about organizing a book manuscript.
That was the early 1980s, and authors worked under the careful counsel of editors at publishing houses. Back then, we were coached, and lucky to be so. Times changed in the 1990s, houses shrank their staff, and I was still authoring books. But I suddenly found myself completely at sea: my first contract for a memoir in hand, and no help with how to structure it.
Back then, writing classes didn’t teach structuring or organizing a book manuscript. I searched for any guidance on how such books were put together. What did you leave in? What did you leave out? And most important, how did you combine the organic flow of writing with the necessary scaffolding that made a book coherent?
Outlining had served me well in nonfiction. But with this new book—in the newly popular genre of memoir—even chapter 1 seemed impossible to write.
It embarrassed me, a published author, to give up, to renege on my book contract. Before I finally made that phone call, a friend rescued me. She loaned me her well-worn copy of Kenneth Atchity’s A Writer’s Time.
I’d never heard of Atchity. I was already good at time management. I needed book management.
“It’s not about time management,” my friend told me. “Read.”
Former director of the UCLA writing program, Atchity was one of the first to detail a two-part process of book creation. Natalie Goldberg delivered the first step in her “freewriting” exercises in Writing Down the Bones. Atchity took it further. Since books demand two sides of the creative self, he proposed, both the random and linear, freewriting lets us craft random “islands” of writing. Then when we’ve created sufficient “islands,” we form them into continents via a storyboard.
I knew, somehow, this was correct. It was an organic approach for the writing process with an organization technique—via storyboards—for the structure. I knew storyboarding from my work as a hired consultant at publishing companies. Storyboards were routinely used by small presses to plan work-for-hire manuscripts that would be produced in house. Could a storyboard really organize the unwieldy mess that was my memoir?
I devoured the first five chapters of A Writer’s Time, then using what I’d learned, drafted the complete memoir in forty-five days. Thanks to my storyboard, chapter 1 flowed together beautifully—a profound relief. That first memoir was published in 1991 and is still in print.
Storyboarding became the glue that held my manuscripts together as I wrote more books in more genres. I liked its organization, its simplicity, and its logic. But I still wondered how to craft a storyboard to show, versus tell. Most storyboards were event trackers, and they did not reveal the emotional arc of a book.
As I transitioned into the genres of memoir and fiction, which demand an emotional arc, I was noticing that strong events weren’t enough. And sending my characters into their heads to ruminate meaning of those events was not effective. I needed to show emotion, not talk about it. But how could I take my beloved organization tool to the next level?
Another friend to the rescue: a screenwriting buddy shared her discovery of the three-act structure. A method born back in Aristotle’s time, the three acts delivered something called rising and falling action. These movements in story are primarily outer events, but they can also reveal the inner story—the emotion or transformation beneath an outer event that gives that event its meaning. Vivian Gornick’s dense little book The Situation and the Story gives marvelous examples of this phenomenon in memoir. Gornick excerpts passages from well-known writers, including Joan Didion’s essay, “In Bed,” about that writer’s persistent migraines, that taught me new ways to “search out the link between a narrative line and the wisdom that compels it,” as Gornick writes.
Combining storyboarding with the three-act structure, referring back to Gornick’s prompts on how to reveal deeper meaning, my book-writing approach slowly evolved. If you’re curious to see for yourself, here’s a short video you can watch. It shares the method I use to organize a manuscript, the same one I teach in my book-writing classes at Grub Street.
In the end, books are all about organization, not just about sitting down and letting it flow. Good organization rescues us when we’re sinking into confusion about how to delve for meaning, it brings us ideas on how to infuse our manuscripts with emotion, and it gives us ways to structure outer events into a logical sequence that a reader can track.
That’s why storyboards work. They are an essential tool I wish I’d known about back in the 1980s (and I’m glad I know about now).