Congratulations to KM Weiland on the release of her writer’s help book Structuring Your Novel. Using familiar story examples, KM explains the journey from opening lines to “The End.”
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 where 95% of the members were extremely new, unpublished novelists.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.