Thursday, September 13, 2012

Tips from the Tops ... more on structure

"Some writers ignore structure at the start of a project, and gradually coax it out of their material. Some - in particular, traditional nonfiction writers - need a design before they begin, which they edit along their way, as unforeseen twists in their material make new demands. If you have trouble with structure, it may be helpful to choose one straight off and use it as a guardrail as you write. You may need to replace it later, as your writing spills out of your plan, but you will have learned a lot about the meaning of structure by forcing yourself to conceive of one at the start. It can be easier to find the right one by butting up against the wrong one than against nothing at all."   Susan Bell, The Artful Edit

Tip: Choose a structure straight off.

Top: Susan Bell in The Artful Edit

My take on this tip:   ARGGGH! I so long to follow this advice but I really don't think I can. Here's a brief precis of my approach and history. I wrote a novel called Feckless. I had a premise and I kind of knew what I hoped might happen but not really. I got to the end. Hurrah. It isn't well written but I will get back to it someday. I started another, True (now called The Surface Dwellers) that I really liked the writing of - the rhythm in particular. I stopped midway as I didn't think I had a handle on the structure (what the hell is structure anyway - so damn slippery). I thought I'd write a mystery just to practice writing structure ... thinking that a mystery has an imposed structure that would force me to know something - to have that 'guardrail' if you like. Fine. Wrote it. Finished it. Like it but it needs more work but probably not on the structure so much. Just tightening and brightening. Then I started another mystery which I think is quite a bit better but stalled out in the middle. Don't even know who done done it. Yah. Then remembered that I'd written the first mystery to help me with my REAL important literary novel. Went back at it. Finished it. Think the writing is good but the story a bit constipated. Damn! Where is the structure? Haven't the foggiest. Then wrote the first shitty draft of a new novel and wowza - no problem with the structure or the writing or constipation. Needs a lot of work on the writing but otherwise I'm gleeful.  So now I'm looking again at what Bell considers structure : "structure is the design that underpins your prose. It is your narrative fence." Okay, I kinda get that. I think this last novel was easier in a way as it was in the structure of a picaresque - or in modern parlance - a road story. A certain number of characters set out on their journey in order to accomplish something and in doing so find out stuff about themselves they did not know. Yeah!  Bell goes on to say that "structural imbalance makes itself known by ... "sagging": where the narrative drags instead of trots along." She goes on to say that as a writer we should know the difference between philosophical narrative (Virginia Woolf) or the ruminative and the downright, unalterably boring. Gaaah! Bell says in order to see our own structure so that we can discern problems in it, we must look at structure in everything we read - forcing our minds to see the contours that are often hidden by the story.

So ... I think I did look for structure in the opening chapters of The Surface Dwellers and didn't find it. I found too much poetry and a rhythm that although pleasant didn't really support the story. I found that I started with one idea and veered off trying to sing a song the characters did not want to sing (in fact, I think they aren't even singers - they might be mimes!). I will go back into the trenches of my novel - of all my novels and figure this out. I will do it with joy not trepidation. After all - I chose this life.

1 comment:

Margot Kinberg said...

Jan - I think we all have to face the kinds of people we are when we write. Pantsers have to face the fact that structure plays a role in novels. Planners have to face the fact that spontaneity breathes life into stories.