John's story is good--riveting, in fact. But a few months ago he reached a point of being confused about where he was going with the book. He'd written as much as he could remember, but now he felt stuck. He found me through my website and contacted me for private coaching.
When I read his rough-draft manuscript, I could see its strengths: good wordsmithing, a strong sense of detail, vivid scenes, and lots of action.
I could also see that the structure was very weak. I often got lost as a reader, due to large time gaps. John wrote in a condensed form, so some of the scenes were so summarized, it was hard to grab meaning from them, as a reader.
He expected me to coach him on the writing but I asked if he'd be willing to work on the structure first. My first assignment was a structure analysis chart, a tool I use with many of my private clients: I asked him to step back from his writing and create a chart of what he had so far, the sequence of events, the different locations (there were many), and the purpose of each event.
He said it was much harder than he expected, and not nearly as fun as the flow writing--but as he worked on the chart, he began to see how he'd overlooked big parts of his story that would've provided meaning to the events, how often he summarized ("I was bored," he told me, "and just wanted to get through it"), and how often he repeated the same kind of scene, just because he liked it.
By the end of our eight weeks, John was very fired up about his manuscript. He had a map now, a new direction and energy. He no longer thought of his book as a "swamp of words," as he said.
That's the beauty of structure work.
This past weekend I taught at a wonderful writers conference in Boston, The Muse and the Marketplace. It attracts about 800 writers from all over, plus many agents, editors, publishers, and marketing gurus of the publishing industry. Collum McCann and Charles Baxter were among the luminaria. It was truly an event.
In my workshop on Friday, we explored why structure is such a missing ingredient for so many of us. How hard it is for us to believe that structure is useful. It seems not creative, so linear compared to the actual writing process.
After the workshop, one writer emailed me: I came out of your class feeling that structure is liberating," she said. "Know where you're going, and like the truth, it will set you free."
She's right: Structure does set you free. It helps you get objective about your own story. It takes your story beyond your abilities, makes it more universal.
When we have an idea for a book, that original vision feels whole, complete in our minds. The force of its image drives us to write. But as we write, we must force this wholeness through the narrow funnel of the linear brain. It can get squeezed and jumbled, come out on the page with gaps.
In our minds, it's still whole. But on the page, there are missing pieces.
Writing is a very creative and original act for many of us (except on those days when it's not!). It's important, though, to know the other task: structuring. Once you write, you need to step back and see if the structure is also clear.
Your Weekly Writing Exercise
Try a mini-version of a structure analysis chart. Take one chapter (or about 10-15 pages of your writing) and break it into scenes or islands. Each time you change location, time, or event, make it a new scene or island.
Make a chart in Excel or Word with four columns across the top. Place a brief description of each island (5-7 words or less) in the first column, with each island getting its own row. Label the second column "event," the third column "people," and the fourth column "place." Take your first island in row 1 and jot down in the "event" column what happens onstage--what action, if any. In the "people" column, jot down who is onstage in that island. List everyone. Continue to the "place" column and describe where it happens.
Things to watch for:
1. Does something happen in each scene or island? If not, why not?
2. Do the same people appear in every island or scene?
3. Does everything happen in the same place--or in too many places?
4. Is it hard to break the islands apart (they are too packed)?