Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Structuring a Novel

Structure is the bane of my existence. I simply don't get it and it drives me crazy. I come up with an idea. I create characters. I make them walk and talk and do other things (these are romance novels, after all). There's dialogue and setting and motivation and conflict, but when it comes to what order to put stuff in, I fall apart.

I always start out with the best of intentions and often with an actual outline. I start writing, convinced that I will start at the beginning and work straight through to the end. It never happens. I end up thinking about this perfect bit of dialogue that I don't want to forget so I jot it down, then another scene pops into my head and then I get hung up trying to write a transition and decide to just say screw it and write the part of the scene that's important and come back and do transitions later and pretty soon the first 200 or more pages are written, but they're an unholy mess of random occurrences.

I just hit that point on my latest romantic suspense novel, The Bones Will Tell. I then wasted an entire week of precious writing time, arranging and rearranging and rearranging again the first one hundred pages of the book. I was near tears on Wednesday thinking I would never be able to get it to work and would have to do a major rewrite. Then everything clicked into place.

Boom.

Now I'm sailing. Everything's falling into place. A huge amount of the most important scenes are written. A lot of what's left to do is transitions and reaction scenes. I know this is my process, but quite honestly, I hate it.

Do you love your process? Do you love structure?

17 comments:

Molly O'Keefe said...

oh my gosh Eileen =- I could have written the same post this week! I love structure - the jigsaw puzzle of editing is fun for me - but when I run into a problem with structure and for it it's as I go into the second half of this Bantam Book - things aren't working, my characters need to do things in the second half that I haven't set up in the first half so, for a week, instead of sitting back and thinking about how to change it - I just kept running at that wall - head first...over and over and over again. This vacation, when I didn't have time to work, but had LOTS AND LOTS of time to think- and I was forced to stop running into the wall - well, wouldn't you know - BOOM.
Now things are moving.
Sometimes getting our heads in the right spot is harder than getting words on the page.

Karen W said...

Hear, hear - both Eileen and Molly. This said as I struggle to stay in order on my current SRS (due 11-1). I keep writing random scenes too and have kind of realized this is my process as well. Glad to know other writers struggle with the same issues.

Now for a caffeine infusion....

Stephanie Doyle said...

Eileen... is this the part where you threaten to hurt me again...

I'm all about structure, but my process is totally linear. Beginning, middle, end.

I might think of future scenes but it's never occurred to me to write them until I get to them.

I will jot down scraps of dialogue to hopefully remind myself what I wanted to say. I've got pads all over my house with odd phrases...here and there. If anyone read them they would think I'm nuts.

But when it comes to the writing the only thing I might do to is "walk it backwards". I think about how the story ends, then figure out what I need to do to get to that end.

Eileen said...

Yes, Steph, I do want to hurt you, but it's only because I'm so jealous. I would love to be able to think like that!

Yes, Molly, running at the wall over and over again until I'm black and blue.

Yes, Karen, the random scenes! I have less than 100 pages to go and I think I have everything for the ending set up and it's just a matter of bringing it crashing down around everyone's ears. Still, will it come out in order? No! Grrr.

Maureen McGowan said...

I like the idea of structure. I love learning about structure. Can I EVER apply it consistently in my own work? NEVER.

I've never written completely out of order before, but I do make notes about future scenes, etc.

With a few of my earlier books, I really enjoyed taking them apart and putting them back together in the revision process, but I discovered this winter that I don't enjoy it so much under pressure of a deadline.

So, here's an empathetic hug for your near tears, and a celebratory one for your success at figuring it out!

Eileen said...

I constantly think I've found The Answer. First it was The Writer's Journey, then I found Save the Cat, then The Anatomy of Story and on and on and on. Every time, I think someone is going to give me the magic formula. Every time it makes perfect sense until I actually try to do it. Then come the tears.

I guess it's all fun and games until you actually try to write a novel. :-)

Maureen McGowan said...

That's me, too, Eileen. I keep having these aha! moments when I think the next one will be easier because of some new way to think about structure. Then I have to do it.

But I do think that all that book learnin' has made me a stronger storyteller.

Sinead M said...

My process is also linear, but I leave out all the good stuff, the nuances, the character tics, and so it's a broad stroke and then I have to go back and add that in..

to me that's more painful

Eileen said...

OOh, I like to go back in and layer that stuff in. The painful part for me is getting the actual action down on the paper.

Karen W said...

Or how about when you go to a seminar like Michael Hauges. I went earlier this year, took copious notes, got home all fired up, resolved to redo my WIP. It lasted about two days and I was right back to random writing.

And yep, I go back in and layer. My problem is repetition. I don't just foreshadow in my first drafts, I hit the reader over the head with a hammer!

Stephanie Doyle said...

I'm definitely a layerer.

My editor's notes for my last manuscript was all... a little more here, a little more there. I love it. You add one sentence and it's like bam.

Where I think I go wrong is I'm too stubborn. I have never gone to a workshop and looked at a different approach and thought... hey I should try this.

I remember once someone talking about using a board to pin up phrases and pictures from magazines and using push pins to connect things... I snorted so loud I had to leave the room.

In my world you get an idea, you sit down and start on page one. You keep writing until you type the words THE END. Then you hit your word count button and hope and pay you're in the right word count range.

It took me a while to really seey that everybody's process is different. Everybody works the way they do and I think few can change it. For some those pictures and pins are everything.

But what I bet is that everbody probably hates their process a little too.

Either way you cut it, it's hard. And anything that's hard you have to hate a little bit.

Eileen said...

Steph, I. Want. Your. Process. Gimme. Now. OMG. That sounds like heaven!!!!!

Karen, Yep. We're apparently writing twins separated at birth. Was the Hauges seminar good? I've used his screenplay mastery article to help me when I'm writing synopses. It really helps me focus.

Maureen McGowan said...

"I snorted so loud I had to leave the room."

Laughed my ass off reading this. (Wishful thinking. Checked ass. Still there.)

That collage thing wouldn't do much for me, either. But I have found a little up front planning helpful. I really got a lot out of a workshop I took with CJ Lyons a few years ago. She kind of combined a lot of other people's stuff into something clean and manageable... Course, I thought I was using it for this current book, and it's either not going well, or I've taken WAY too long to get to my Act 1 turning point... but whatever.

I do find having those major goalposts ahead of me helpful. Even if they keep moving or changing.

Maureen McGowan said...

Michael Hauge is amazing in person. He did a talk at RWA 2 or 3 years ago that blew my little mind. I've also listened to it on tape a few times (although the first 45 minutes or so, he sounded like he was talking in a fishbowl until someone gave him a new mic.)
The Ottawa Romance Writers are having him talk in September. **Maureen just remembers** So, I have that to look forward, to. Yippee. New goal. Make sure I'm well into the revision stage on new WIP by then so I can use his talk to figure shit out.

Stephanie Doyle said...

Yeah but Eileen with my process if I get stuck on Chapter 7 I sit there until I can move again - where you might get around it and get 8-10 done in way faster time.

That's why I think whatever a writer's process... when asked they'll say they hate it, but it is what it is.

Eileen said...

Ohhhh, I get it. It's like hair. If yours is straight, you want curly. If yours is curly, you want straight.

Really, if you make it into a metaphor about hair, I'll eventually get it. :-)

Molly O'Keefe said...

I can't tell you the number of times I've heard something and it blew my little head right open and made me change everything I was doing at the time and then, I start the next book, vowing to remember all that stuff - and I don't. Obviously, the longer we do this, the more internalized everything gets - but still, in the heat of things - no one's process is pretty.

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