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Warning: Structural Work Needed – Plotting Your Novel

Dilapidated Room

I drove past a beautiful old building this morning with incredible detail around the windows. When I looked again, the inside had been completely demolished and was being gutted and restored. From the outside it was a beautiful picture of fine architecture and decadence, an eye-catching building which stood out from the rest, but from the inside there was nothing, just rubble and empty space.

It was a strange sight in some ways and it reminded me of building a novel and the differences in how writers construct their work. I have spoken to people who work in any one of the following ways:

Inside Out Model – Beginning with the bare bones, getting the story down onto paper, and then going back and layering it with detail and links, flashbacks and subtle hints of what is to follow.

Outside In Model – Constructing the outside, the look and feel, the genre, narrator, tense, style and character of the novel, and then working inwards to develop the structure, the chapters and the story arc.

Scatter Graph Model – Starting to write chapters, in no particular order, filling in the gaps as and when the inspiration strikes. This method is often discouraged by agents and editors as it is less structured but some of the most creative writers work this way.

Sprint Runner Model – Beginning in great detail with a clear idea of your central character, racing through the first 1,000 words or so and then drifting as you get further into the plot, not being sure where the novel will end. Instead of it being a slower and more steady pace throughout, the writing decreases in speed as the ideas thin out. 

Foregone Conclusion Model – Knowing exactly how the novel will end, much like a science experiment with an expected outcome, but struggling to begin or sagging  in the middle.

These are just some of the many ways in which authors work and there are many cross-overs in their method. I was impressed by Will Self’s ability to do away with chapters completely in his Booker Prize Shortlisted novel, Umbrella. He is not the first author to do this and I am sure he won’t be the last. Some authors prefer fine structure, plotting meticulously before beginning a single sentence, then there are those who are somewhere in between.

There is no right or wrong way to plot a novel and to construct a story, although there are books which tell you otherwise. You have to experiment with what works. Every writer has a preferred way of working and it changes and develops with time.

I’ll leave you with some interesting quotes from the various writing handbooks:

“A basic structural design underlies every kind of writing. Writers will in part follow this design, in part deviate from it, according to their skills, their needs, and the unexpected events that accompany the act of composition. Writing, to be effective, must follow closely the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur.”  The Elements of Style, Strunk and White

“Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few stiff warm-up sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the snow.”  Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott

“Writers of literary and much mainstream fiction usually begin by imagining a character…some writers can’t help starting out with a theme that obsesses them. They imagine characters whose lives might involve the theme, or they work out a plot first. If their allegiance is to character, their theme-based story has a better chance of survival.”  Stein On Writing, Sol Stein

“If there are no rules, or none worth [the writer’s] attention, where is the beginning writer to begin?”  The Art of Fiction, John Gardner


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9 Books on Reading and Writing

 

Taken from Brain Pickings (via kobo writing life) which is a really good website on what’s out there in relation to creativity, thinking, culture and art. These books are highly recommended. I have read most of them and would especially recommend Elements of Style and On Writing.

 01 elements of style 1The Elements of Style Illustrated –  marries Maira Kalman’s signature whimsy with Strunk and White’s indispensable style guide to create an instant classic.

 

 02 bird by bird 2Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott – the 1994 classic is as much a practical guide to the writer’s life as it is a profound wisdom-trove on the life of the heart and mind.

 

 03 on writing 3On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King – part master-blueprint, part memoir, part meditation on the writer’s life.

 

  04 zen in the art 4Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You, Ray Bradbury  –  Bradbury shares not only his wisdom and experience in writing, but also his contagious excitement for the craft.

 

 05 war of art 5The War of Art: Break Through the Block and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, Steven Pressfield  — a personal defense system of sorts against our greatest forms of resistance. “Resistance” with a capital R, that is.

 

 06 advice to writers 6Advice to Writers, Jon Winokur – From how to find a good agent to what makes characters compelling, it spans the entire spectrum from the aspirational to the utilitarian.

 

 07 how to write a sentence 7How to Write a Sentence, And How to Read One, Stanley Fish – an insightful, rigorous manual on the art of language that may just be one of the best such tools sinceThe Elements of Style.

 

 08 hemingway on writing 8Ernest Hemingway on Writing, Larry W. Phillips – a collection of  the finest, wittiest, most profound of Hemingway’s reflections on writing, the nature of the writer, and the elements of the writer’s life.

 

 09 how to read a book 9How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler & Charles van Doren – from  basic reading to systematic skimming and inspectional reading to speed reading, the how-to’s apply as efficiently to practical textbooks and science books as they do to poetry and fiction.

 


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3 things to remember when editing your book

Leave it to rest

Once you have finished your manuscript it’s really important to put it down and have a break from your ‘world’ of characters and plot. If it’s a work of non-ficiton this rule still applies. You have spent years, or at the very least months, working on this book and it needs time to settle – much like a good red wine: open the bottle, let it breathe, and drink. Mmm…I can smell it but let’s not get distracted by wine. If it’s on paper, which is unusual these days, tuck it into a drawer, preferably where a dog or small child can’t reach! If it is electronic then back up, back up, back up. Did I say back up? I can’t over state the need for this. You don’t want to spend precious hours re-editing your work. It’s a tough enough job as it is. Use external hard drives, USB sticks, email, cloud, dropbox– anything you feel comfortable with. Don’t assume that because it is on your computer that it’s safe. Trust me, my mac has crashed completely during the writing of my book and it is almost ready for publication. It has needed two new screens and a new chip and it’s not that old. I love it but they are not foolproof and things do go wrong.

A glass of red wine. Photo taken in Montreal C...

Read it aloud

Reading your work out loud helps you to pick up on any awkward words or uneven and over packed sentences. Try it with just a page of your writing – honestly, it helps. Sometimes when you read the words in your head you miss things which won’t sound right to a new reader. Your writing needs to flow and to do this it is important to hear how it sounds. You have read these sentences over and over but hearing them will give you a fresh perspective. If you can find a kind soul who will read at least a part of it to you this will help.

Edit in stages

It’s up to you how you do this  and everybody edits work in different ways. There are different levels of editing which need looking at:

1. The fine detail of spelling – check for consistent spelling. Are you writing for a UK or American market? Pick the spelling your target readers are used to and stick to it.

2. Grammar – I can’t recommend highly enough the book  The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. This little gem should be in the pockets of every  writer, and anyone who uses words for their job. It contains the best of every critical grammar rule and the authors’ writing on style is timeless.

3. Style – this brings me back to the book above. Strunk and White stress the need to avoid over writing with this quote: ‘If the sickly-sweet word, or the overblown phrase are your natural form of expression, as is sometimes the case, you will have to compensate for it by a show of vigour, and by writing something as meritorious as the Song of Songs,which is Solomon’s.’  The issue of style is important. Your style needs to be consistent. For new writers it takes time to find your voice. Holly Lisle writes a great article about this here.

4. Structure – are you plot and characters believable? Does your story hang together tightly? Is your story arc smooth? Here is a graph to show story arcs for TV and graphic fiction. Does your main character or characters move through different stages and conflicts? Is there tension in the plot? Do they face opposition to their desires? These questions are endless but it is important to check that the structure of the book works. If you are writing non-fiction have a look at this for structural pointers.

Happy editing and enjoy a glass of red (or whatever you fancy) when you’ve finished for the day. I wouldn’t recommend doing both together, although some people manage it.