Monday, August 27, 2012

Myth Structure

I look for myth structure when I’m editing; every protagonist goes through some portion of the hero’s journey and tension builds when he stalls on a step, tries to skip a step, or runs away from the journey.

Perhaps your reader has never heard of Hero of a Thousand Faces or saw Bill Moyers’ interviews with Joseph Campbell, but he instinctively knows what the steps of the hero’s journey are – in the same way he knows how a story should “go”. I remember a six-year-old telling me that in his story first the boy finds a magic rock and then he loses it and the he finds it again.

Following are the steps in the hero’s journey. Imagine your favorite book or movie, or the manuscript you're working on right now – can you identify the steps in the plot?


The Call to Adventure
Refusal of the Call
Supernatural Aid (the Helper appears)
The Crossing of the First Threshold (into adventure)
The Belly of the Whale (hero separates from known world and self)


The Road of Trials (tests, often in threes)
The Meeting with the “Goddess” (the union of opposites)
Woman as the Temptress (hero is tempted)
Atonement with the Father (“father” as ultimate power)
Apotheosis (deification, hero rests)
The Ultimate Boon (the goal of the quest)


Refusal of the Return (to everyday life)
The Magic Flight (escape)
Rescue from Without
The Crossing of the Return Threshold (returning with wisdom)
Master of the Two Worlds (maybe just the material and spiritual worlds)
Freedom to Live

Sunday, August 19, 2012

"Sybil" and Schreiber

How far would we go, as writers and editors, to have a mega-best-seller?

Sybil Exposed by Debbie Nathan came out in 2011 and it finally floated to the top of the stack of reading. I was fascinated with the story because it is the story of a writer, Flora Rheta Schreiber, who despite having serious doubts about her subject matter, wrote a best seller. She was goaded on by psychiatrist Dr. Connie Wilbur, who was trying to make her name diagnosing and curing patients of multiple personalities.

Shirley Mason, the real Sybil, was dependent on Dr. Wilbur and Dr. Wilbur on Shirley. And Dr. Wilbur and Shirley Mason depended on Flora Rheta Schreiber to tell their story. The relationship between psychiatrist and patient -- and Shirley Mason's awareness that she was faking it to make her psychiatrist happy -- is summed up in an article on the PsychCentral web site.

But what of the WRITER? Flora Rheta Schreiber was the psychiatry editor of Science Digest when she heard about Shirley Mason, a patient of Dr. Connie Wilbur. Debbie Nathan writes that Schreiber was influenced by Truman Capote's In Cold Blood -- a "non-fiction novel" -- a serious work.

Schreiber had a startling true story and two compelling protagonists, a troubled woman and a caring psychiatrist. But who was the antagonist? The multiple personalities? Shirley Mason's mother became the antagonist, a crazy woman, sexually abusing her daughter, fragmenting "Sybil" into multiple personalities. Presto, there's the arc of action: young woman, horribly abused, fractures into sixteen distinct personalities, but with therapy from a caring psychiatrist, "re-integrates" all her personalities into one and lives happily ever after.

It would have made a great work of non-fiction, a case study with composite characters and events; even if Dr. Connie Wilbur was there as herself. But Sybil was presented as non-fiction, the truth, no composite characters (a claim changed with a subsequent edition) and barely-disguised real names--and it was a huge hit, on the New York Times best seller list, seven million copies sold. Almost immediately readers who knew Shirley had guessed "Sybil's" real identity.

Nathan states that Schreiber had received a sizable advance and was under pressure from Dr. Wilbur to publish. Nathan states that Schreiber had her doubts and considered withdrawing from the project, but pressed on, looking for the best-seller, and she got it. In doing so Dr. Wilbur, Shirley Mason and Flora Schreiber became "Sybil Inc." -- a real entity, designed to mine the Sybil story. A "Sybil" musical? A board game?

And what of the EDITOR? I would have been very dubious if asked to edit the manuscript as non-fiction. Sixteen personalities? Has anyone checked the facts? Could "Sybil" really have been present at the real events she's described? Are some of these events made up? Why was "Sybil" taking a cornucopia of mind-bending drugs? Wouldn't they affect what you believed you saw or what you said?

But I also admit I am coming from a 2012 perspective, after working on stories like the"satanic ritual" daycare cases -- where the "confessions" of children were coerced. (The full story of one case can be found in Frontline: Innocence Lost, which aired on PBS in 1991, 1993 and 1997. )

After "Sybil", Nathan writes that Schreiber was compelled to write another non-fiction novel. She published The Shoemaker: Anatomy of a Psychiatric in 1983; it made the best seller list, but not for long and was generally deemed a flop.

Nathan writes, "It was one thing to promote the illness of 'Sybil'... who would not have harmed a flea. It was quite another to make a victim-hero of the infamous Joe Kallinger, who... was a murderer." (page 206) Flora had become very friendly with Joe Kallinger and called him "Boomy Bum Boo" (page 205) -- and the families of his victims pressed charges against Schrieber.

How far would you go as a writer or editor to create that best seller?


Sybil by Flora Rheta Schreiber

Monday, August 13, 2012


The ugly fact is books are made out of books.” (Cormac McCarthy, The New York Times, 1992)

Plagarism has been in the news again, this time a storm around TV host, Washington Post columnist and author Fareed Zakaria. He acknowledged and apologized for lifting parts of a magazine article and parts of one his books. But wait, maybe he didn’t plagiarize, according to The Daily Beast. Maybe he or his researchers were guilty of being lazy -- grabbing a clip online and not bothering to track down the source.

I am fascinated by the story behind Q.R. Markham's "Assassin of Secrets"; which is comprised of passages lifted from a number of other novels, which led many to ask-- why did the author think--in the age of Google -- that he could get away with it? Or was it an elaborate ruse?

This New Yorker article says “Assassin of Secrets” is looking more and more like pastiche or collage, rather than a “novel,” as we properly understand the word.

Rowan wouldn’t be the only writer in recent years—the era of redefining what is meant by ‘intellectual property’—to use plagiarism to make a statement. Those whose points have been well-taken, however, have generally been up-front about their borrowing. Among the best-known are Jonathan Lethem, whose 2007 essay in Harper’s, ‘The Ecastasy of Influence: A Plagiarism,’ comprised only lifted passages; and the British “collagiste” Graham Rawle, whose 2009 novel “Woman’s World” was “assembled from 40,000 fragments of text snipped from women’s magazines.”

Both of these were praised for their meta properties: they worked on the story level and also critiqued and commented upon the stories they told through their acts of appropriation. If Rowan is trying to comment upon the spy genre—on how it is both tired and endlessly renewable, on how we as readers of the genre want nothing but to be astonished again and again by the same old thing—then he has done a bang-up job. If he wants to comment on our current notions of discovery, to turn us all into armchair detectives, Googling here and there and everywhere to solve the puzzle, he is a genius. (David Shields, whom James Wood wrote about last year in this magazine, might approve of his project.)

Monday, August 6, 2012

There's only one story

It really is all about the story and I can’t say it better than Bob Mayer:

The product is the story. Not the book, not the eBook, not the audio book. The Story.

The consumer is the reader. Not the bookstores, the platform, the distributor, the sales force. The Reader.

Authors produce story. Readers consume story. If anyone is in the path between Author and Reader they must add value to that connection.


I taught "Writing for Non-Writers" at a community college years ago. I expected maybe a half-dozen students, to my surprise, forty-plus people signed up. In the first class, I handed out two index cards to each student: on one, I asked students to write down what they wanted to write about.

Invariably, someone said, "I don't want to write down my topic because someone will steal it."

"OK just to write poetry or fiction or non-fiction, you can further subdivide that into short story, children's book, western, mystery, biography, etcetera... if you wish," I said, writing on the whiteboard, "Or any combination of those. Or maybe you want to write for magazines or newspapers. OK to write 'I don't know yet' too."

The class sorted the index cards by topic; we had two poets, seven who wanted to write children’s books, several who wanted to write for magazines and a couple of "I don't knows"; the class was just about equally divided between people who wanted to write fiction and those who wanted to write non-fiction. There were a large number of people who wanted to write biographies.

I had the class find the others who were writing in their genre; another invariable question, "Do we have to stay in these groups?"

"Of course not, but who's going to understand better your struggles than someone who's writing in the same genre as you?"

"I think it would be better if you mixed us up," said one gentleman.

"I will, next class," I said. "Take a few moments in your groups to exchange names, then we'll talk about your story."

"How do you know my story?" the gentleman asked as a woman--perhaps his wife -- poked him in the ribs.

"I don't know the details of your story," I said after the groups had met. "but I do know that there is only one story and that is -- something happened. Something happened and there's a story in it.

"Everything was going fine and something happened to upset the apple cart; everything was going to hell in a handbasket and something happened to make it less hellish; or nothing happened -- that is, something is always on the verge of happening, but it doesn't happen, or perhaps earth-shaking events are happening around your hero, your protagonist, but they don't affect him or her."

The room was dead silent except for the sound of pens scratching and laptop keys tapping.

"Can you repeat that?"

"Why don't you have slides?"

I repeated what I said and wrote on the whiteboard:

OK - not OK

Not OK - OK


And I said, "Writing well means listening well. The slides are on my website. OK, quick show of hands; as far as you know at this minute, how many of you have a story in mind where everything starts OK and things go awry? And... they start awry and get better? How about nothing happens?"

The two poets looked at each other and laughed. I said, "Poetry is a little different. There can be an arc of action--that's what we're talking about here -- the arc of action; but many poems are a snapshot of something in the human condition, explored in nuanced ways; poetry is more like painting to me."

“But there’s still a story.” said one of the students. “I make up stories about paintings all the time.”

I wrote on the whiteboard: