Week 83

83 Right. Went a bit barmy reading up on how to structure novels, and started getting confused where my Quest ended and Reaching My Inmost Cave began. It's the point at which you find yourself pondering whether your main character in an altogether not-fantastical-setting has managed to seize their sword yet, that you realise you have to put the Story Structuring Book down.

I need to stop structuring for the sake of it and work out a structure that'll simply get me to the next stage: writing the second draft.

So, I:

  • Wrote a short, six-paragraph synopsis from memory
  • Split it into three parts so it's more manageable
  • Created a new three-part project in Scrivener
  • Created ten empty chapters per part (the Scrivener equivalent of lining up your pens and pencils and a protractor set on your desk)
  • Started writing an outline for each chapter

A narrative arc that lasts almost 300 pages is daunting to say the least. Then Walter Benjamin got in the way with his whole yayaya, storytelling this, storytelling that thing:

The decline of the story is the rise of the novel.

Yah, thanks Walt. Pithy.

But he's got a point: there's only so much planning and structuring I can do. I need to embrace the mess, expect that there will be unresolved issues, characters who look promising but don't do much by the end, scenes that don't go anywhere.

Starting at the end of this month, I have three months off work to redraft my first draft, and get to the end this time. It's exciting - but also pretty daunting. I know what I am capable of: I worked hard as a student. I got good grades. I am also able to lose entire weeks to Homes Under the Hammer.

By the end of this month, I want to be ready with a fully planned second draft - each chapter outlined, each key plot point built up to - until all I have to do is write it. I've lost my way before when I've not planned enough; but this week I realised once again there's a point at which no more planning can help. You just have to start writing.

Hopefully this draft will be in slightly better shape than the first.

Word count this week: 0 First draft: 128,661

Week 41

This week I had to face writing again after almost four weeks off. I know from past experience you have to chain yourself to the desk. I have a new laptop, and therefore wifi access again (my old Dell had helpfully disabled its wireless card somehow - annoying, but invaluable when it comes to focussing on the task in hand). Now, once again I have the world's knowledge at my fingertips. As well as the world's emails. And the world's opinion on the latest episode of XFactor.

I know also not to expect too much. The first writing session after time off is going to be miserable. Constipated. Discouraging.

So I sat down expecting not to write much, but to reacquaint myself with my storyboard. I now have two - the one developing as the first draft in Scrivener, and the real one on my windowsill, which is of another story altogether. Well, not quite, but the real-life storyboard is my attempt to keep where I think this story might be going in my head, while maintaining where it has actually gone on my computer. I do this to avoid temptation to look back and edit - "don't look back and edit", as Noel Gallagher once sang - and turn into a pillar of salt (eeewoooghh! Toot the horn! Biblical reference! Who do I think I am, Jeanette Winterson?).

Louis Ferrigno as The Incredible HulkI'm about halfway through my story I think; maybe three fifths. Although three fifths would make me at the stage of the "spiral" according to FILM CRIT HULK, who lays into the what he sees as the "myth of the three act structure". (Is Hulk a he? Or an it?)

Anyway. I've always felt uneasy reading books about "story", as they tend to come from a screenwriting background, and novels are a whole lot messier than that. Most of these books cling to the notion of conflict as core to story, and this, I think, gives too much emphasis to a single plot, a line of action around which everyone dances.

HULK (if that *is* his name suggests conflict should exist before the action even begins, and that it is a conceit which brings it to the fore. His (its) suggested structure is as follows:

  1. Intro (natch)
  2. Conceit - an issue arises, eg Romeo falls for Juliet (despite the existing conflict between their two families)
  3. Turn - the issue gets worse and unbearable
  4. Spiral - everything goes into freefall thanks to the character's decisions
  5. Climax

I like it because it sounds like a gym routine (with a slightly unexpected conclusion).

He (grr, it! the Hulk thing gets annoying, but stick with it) goes on to say an act is defined not by an end narrative goal, but by a character making a decision they can't go back on. This grounds narrative in character, not twists. I am very proud of myself for thinking of a plot twist, but it was satisfactory not because it was unexpected, but it made so much sense. Of course that's what the main character would do.

Which brings me onto my third reason for liking this article so much (and not just because of its iconoclastic attitude to the bibles of storytelling). The climax, he argues, is everything. It's the reason you're writing the script or book in the first place. What happens at the end is what the whole thing has been leading up to. I've written before about how much I like stories where you know what happens at the end, whether it's the restitution of the status quo in romances or comedies, or the inevitable death of the hero in a tragedy. The idea that the climax is more than just what you see when the dust settles is fascinating to me. It should be uncanny, something you watch unravel through your fingers.

Anyway, that refocussing on character and plot certainty helped me find my feet in my story after so long away. Thanks Tom for pointing it out to me.

I spent the day reading and updating my character charts, and then wrote for an hour or two, the beginning of a scene where my main character finds herself reflective and reflected. Out of that, I hope I shall find my next big decision for her.

Word count this week: 750 Total word count: 70,438 First draft: 60,422