Friday, November 7, 2014

Structure Advice for Wordsmiths: Why Good Writing Comes After Good Structure When Developing Your Book

We all admire wordsmiths, those who can sharpen and hone words until they sing. I have the pleasure of working with many top-notch wordsmiths in my book-writing classes:  writers well-published in magazines, blogs, newspaper columns, reviews.  You'd recognize their names, you'd admire them too.

Two such wordsmiths attended my workshop last week at the Loft.  Both are working on books and have learned from editors that they need to beef up their book's structure.  


Editors are trained to see structure--weak or strong.  They are helpful to book wordsmiths who have excelled in short pieces but never attempted a three-hundred-page project.   

I've been on both sides of the table.  I worked for twelve years as a magazine writer and syndicated columnist.  My job was wordsmithing six hundred to six thousand words--short pieces.  I didn't have too worry too much about structure, although the piece had to flow well.  But it was a picnic compared to the seven-course meal of a book manuscript.

When I began working as an editor in publishing, I learned how few writers know structure tools.  Maybe because writers have long depended on editors to help with structure.  But now, many writers need to learn this skill.   

So how do you analyze your work for structure?  Does it hang together to carry a reader from page one to the end?  Where does it slump?   

Why Good Structure Comes Before Wordsmithing
In early drafts, books must be more about content and structure than wordsmithing.  Reason:  no use decorating your house until the walls are up.  Wordsmithing a poorly structure book is like try to hang draperies on framing.  But what are the steps to analyze your book manuscript? 

So many skilled and experienced writers, facing their first book, don't know where to start.

When I worked as an editor, I used a special chart, which I'm sharing with you this week.  It helped me analyze the structure of a book by either scene or chapter.  Basically, it looks at the purpose of each part of the writing and whether the parts form a cohesive whole.  Parts are simple:  the conflict, people, and place in each chapter.   If the structure is strong, these three elements will give a certain take-away--the reader will get a point or purpose.   

Once you have listed all of these elements, plus the take-away, for each chapter, you ask the big question:  do the points line up?  Do they create a unified message or theme or purpose for the book as a whole?  That's the flow of strong structure.
The answer is usually no.  Most of us writers are blind to the big picture as we write our chapters.  The chart helps us see where and how blind we've been, so we can repair those chapters, bring them into alignment with the larger story.
 
Your Weekly Writing Exercise 
You'll need a large sheet of paper.  Or several 8-1/2"-by-11" sheets of computer paper turned horizontally (landscape format).  Or the ability to create a spreadsheet on your computer.  Use whichever works best for you.  Create five columns.
  1. In column #1 list your chapter numbers or titles.
  2. In column #2, jot down a few words about the main topic or conflict of each chapter.  (What is this chapter about, what happens, what's the primary conflict?)  I use shorthand here: "Barb meets Joe on the farm" or "first day at school."  Brief is good.
  3. In column #3, list the primary location.  If the chapter moves locations, list them all.
  4. In column #4, list the players.  Who is in the chapter?
  5. The fifth column is the reader take-away.  What's the reader going to get from this chapter?  What's its purpose?  This is the hardest one, often requiring some thought or consultation with others who can read your chapter and give you a reader point of view.
  6. Once you have the columns filled in, read through them.  Asterisk any that either don't have a clear take-away, have more than three locations, or don't have a primary conflict.   These are the ones to rethink.  
  7. Finally, look through each of your columns separately.  Do the conflicts vary enough?  Are they showing a rising and falling of tension (some being small, others more dramatic)?  Do the main players in your book reappear often enough so the reader won't lose track of them?  Are the locations meaningful and not too plentiful (I try for no more than 5-7 locations if possible--more than that is hard to keep track of.)
You will very likely come out of this analysis with a good-sized list of chapters that work well.  And a list of those that don't quite.  Now work on the content, beefing it up, filling in the holes or deleting what is not serving the book.

This work requires some ruthlessness.  Many times I've found weak chapters to be my very favorites, but they do not serve the larger story and I must either set them aside (for another book, perhaps) or rework them.

Save your wordsmithing for after the work of structuring.  Once you have a strong building, you can spend as much time as you want choosing the drapes.