The process of editing this book generated some interesting discussion between myself and a colleague: Is there such a thing as a novelist who naturally knows how to shape a story from beginning to end, or is it something we all have to learn?
A minority of my clients are natural structuralists. Interestingly, I recall a time when I was, and how I lost it, and when I found it again. I think all writers have a top strength and a top area for growth. Structure can be either one, or somewhere in between.
In my case, I lost the feel for it due to absorbing a variety of conflicting (and sometimes utterly misguided) advice as a very new writer. The first two novels I ever drafted were terribly written but correctly structured.
For this reason, I think it’s tremendously important that writers keep in mind:
- Internet advice is piecework. It doesn’t give you enough meat to understand it in the greater context of your whole book. For instance, a blog post or forum discussion on characterization may or may not succeed at relating character development to plot, theme and structure.
- Critique groups can only rise to the level of their most experienced member. This was a difficulty for me too, early on: Being part of an online group that critiqued novels 2,000 words at a time (what structure?) where 95% of the members were extremely new, unpublished novelists.
I can still recall, about a decade ago, a particular critique group submission: a beautifully voiced opening to a police procedural. It used a fantastic control of narrative distance to sweep in on the crime scene. It was like having a movie’s opening pan shot play through your head.
It was stripped down to a page and a half by one critiquer because the narrative passages “failed to include action.” That, my friends, was a horrifying thing to see. That was zero sense of scene structure at work. It was sincere, but not healthy.
So in discussing this with Katie, I began to wonder if this is why we see so few writers who know how to structure. Perhaps the online environment of anyone’s-an-expert and 500-word blog posts that contradict each other from blog to blog are part of the problem. Or maybe it doesn’t come naturally to most people. It’s hard to say.
What I do know is this: Strong structure is one of the top three things missing from novels that take a rejection slip. If you don’t know what it is, grab hold of it. If you do, stand on your knowledge and don’t let the confusing hodgepodge out there interfere.