Up-and-coming writers want to hear how down the line things will get easier. Heck, I want to hear that. Thus, when I sent my current novel-in-progress, Ten Days to a Bad Habit, to my agent Jim McCarthy in New York, I wanted to hear how my first mystery was an amazing delight, staying true to the genre while leaping to new heights. I hoped the tension would squeeze him, tempered by occasional comic relief. I hoped to hear it’d be an easy sale.
Before I go any farther, you have to realize most writers think this way. They’re imagining the European vacations they’ll take, the Ski-Doo lessons in Monte Carlo Bay they’ll enjoy, or even the college tuition for a son they can afford before Chapter One is finished.
Jim instead told me, after tactfully mentioning his favorite parts including some tension and comic relief, that he was mystified about my protagonist’s initial leap into his sleuthing. There was something about the opening few chapters that he couldn’t pin down but it didn’t work. In fact, unlike with his other authors, he couldn’t offer a fix or a solution. I knew where to look: the structure. If the basic plot doesn’t work, whether in genre fiction or in literary, you’re in trouble.
Thus, I did what any former journalist writing a novel might do: contact a blogging author and suggest she write an article about structure. Maybe I’d learn something. I emailed Caroline Leavitt, author of nine novels and book reviewer for People and the Boston Globe, and she said, “That’s a great idea for a blog. I’m so busy—would you mind writing it as a guest blog?” This is what I wrote for her site, CarolineLeavittville.
This challenge also meant I had to hunt down any answers on the subject. I contacted three published authors that I respect, including Caroline Leavitt, whose Girls In Trouble introduced me to her wonderful work. I nabbed Janet Fitch, whose novel White Oleander I was teaching in my Santa Monica College English classes before I met her as a colleague at USC where I taught for two years. I also asked mystery writer and Shamus-Award-winning author Lynn Hightower, whose book Fortunes of the Dead was first devoured by my wife Ann before I got to it.
Lynn and Caroline are also “virtual” colleagues of mine at UCLA Extension—teaching novel writing in online classes. Caroline lives in New York, and Lynn, in Tennessee. I teach on the Westwood campus, usually a class called “The Writer’s Workout,” which has students reading a lot and writing, writing, writing.
I asked the authors first not about structure but, “What is the biggest wrong turn struggling novelists make?” I started with Caroline, who this summer will be working with up to three students in the writing program’s mentorship class. She says the biggest mistake is that students give up too easily. “Next would be starting too early, taking too much time to set up the conflict. You don't really need yards of pages about the weather or the land before you get to the murder.”
Janet said the biggest problem with her graduate students in USC’s Master of Professional Writing Program is that, “They don't write in scenes. I see so much work in which people drive around, go from party to party. There's a lot of ‘action,’ but they never stop and have a real scene. So what's a scene? A scene starts and ends in one place at one time, and something happens in it after which the character can't go back to the way it was before.
“They also like to write with a group protagonist. They don't get that stories need a real protagonist. I think it's that they're still ‘me and my buddies’ in their own minds. They don't identify with themselves as separate from the group, with their own needs, wants and desires. I think that falls away as we get older.”
Lynn, who this summer will be teaching “Crafting the Scene in the Novel,” clearly agrees with Janet and said, “What I see, over and over, is students spending enormous chunks of time and effort on a story that does not work for squat--so much effort for a plot that does not work.”
In classes with advanced students, those who have a draft of a full novel already finished, Lynn has them write out in a few sentences each scene of their novel. They present the resulting outline to her and the other students for feedback. Most of her writers usually see how their basic plot is flawed--boring in parts or simply having some scenes that don’t add to the whole. It’s a tough time to be one of those people.
Lynn explained, “So many writers, and we've all been guilty, spend their time and effort defending what they've written rather than look at it logically and wisely enough to let it go when it does not work. So many students perfect and agonize over the craft of their pretty words, which is of course crucial, and completely pointless if the story does not work.
“Structure is how you make the story and pace work, and without a strong story and structure, your novel has no chance of publication. Bad story structure is the one thing you won't be forgiven. You can make any mistake so long as the story structure and pace are holding tight. It is the reason novels don't get published.”
I wanted to know more about these structure problems, so I asked them how do they teach structure? Caroline said, “You can't teach talent but you can teach structure. I make my students outline, do scene maps, character arcs, and I teach screenplay technique, which can help.”
Janet said that, “I teach them to write in scenes. Then I teach them what a story is and to watch for what the character learns. How to put pressure on character, the character's makeup, his intrinsic conflicts, in order to force him to make the changes he's going to need to make to resolve his problem in the world. Structure is character under pressure and watching for the moment of illumination. That's story, and a novel is a very complex story with lots of realizations and moments of illumination.”
Lynn said, “The story must begin where things get interesting and build from there.
I try to get students (and myself) to hold the story accountable on every level the moment their feet touch down in my class. I talk to them about the overall structure in a lot of my feedback and often find they sort of hear me, but tune it out.”
Lynn says that bad structure leads to three forms of novel death: backstory rapture, a love affair with setup and character, and the convoluted plot line.
Backstory rapture is that the main story is put on the back burner so that all sorts of exposition about the past is brought up. A love affair with setup and character means, “The story begins to get interesting around page one hundred twenty-nine–long after your reader is gone. It means long stretches where nothing much happens because the writer has gone off on a tangent, because they did not have their story mapped out in the first place and have no idea they've taken an odd turn.”
The convoluted plot line is one that is “complex and murky and there are hints of this and that, but the logic and structure are hard as hell to follow, and the writer can't tell what the story is about in less than, say, ten pages. They simply can't give you an elevator pitch because there is no central story.”
I happened to start as a playwright and short story writer, and I never approached a new short story knowing where it would go. I had some basic ideas, but I liked the write-a-quick-first-draft approach and then see what I had. The first draft for me was the basic raw material where I’d move things around, throw things away, and add new dialogue and scenes. I’d struggle to sort out why I wrote the story—what was in my subconscious mind? I looked for meaning, and when I found it, I’d rewrite. I wrote in scenes, which I learned from playwriting.
When it came to novels, I saw early on that I couldn’t write 350 pages and then decide I made a wrong turn on page ten and I’d have to throw out 340 pages. Rather, I learned the joy in writing an outline and playing “What if?” I could imagine a whole scene in nanoseconds, and if I saw as it played out in my mind that it didn’t work, well, I’d try another “What if.”
Despite this approach, though, I’m guessing that what’s happened in my mystery novel is a lot of rationalizing. I’m typing out scene summaries based on how they are presently on the page, and I can see that the story can start sooner and that at another point there’s a leap in logic. I’ve tried not to think about all the writing I'll be throwing out or what I'd have to write from scratch. I’m also discovering as I type out summaries of what I have that there's an art to the outline. I've been paying attention to three things:1) What's the conflict in the scene?2) Does each scene build on what comes before it? That is, is there a sense of plot and is the action rising?3) Do the subplots fit in clearly and juxtaposed well to the main plot?
I asked my three authors, “Are you more of an intuitive go-with-your-guts kind of writer, or are you closer to John Irving who spends a year plotting out his books before he starts writing?” As you may have guessed from Lynn’s earlier responses, she’s someone who meticulously plans.
Caroline said, “I'm more of a John Irving type. I know there are ‘follow your pen’ type of writers out there who happily spill their stories out on the pages, but I find that those kinds of books still are structured and often follow a more rigid formula than if the author had mapped and diagrammed.”
Janet falls into the follow-your-pen type. She’d been a journalist earlier in her life, working on deadlines where instinct helped. She still works on instinct and said, “I feel my way along, don't really shape it as an even semi-coherent story until I have a complete draft. Can't shape what you don't know. I'm easily bored. If I had it all plotted out, I would rebel when it came to writing it. Where's the surprise, from my point of view, the discovery? It would just be grunt work.”
This shows, too, there is not just one way to write. You have to discover what’s best for you, understanding that you’ll have readers, and you want to keep those readers on board.
For my novel, I’ll sort it out. I wish writing was often easier, but we all struggle. Now that I wrote the article I wanted to read, it’s back to the novel. Monte Carlo Bay is calling.
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