Monday, June 8, 2009

How to Balance Structure and Exploration in Your Book Writing Process

I've just spent a few intense days reading the galleys for my upcoming novel, Qualities of Light, which will be published this summer. My editor is wonderful, and I love how the book has come together.
I began it almost nine years ago with a short story about a complicated family of artists who live on a lake in the Adirondack mountains. Through many twists and turns, dozens of rewrites and moving over half the manuscript to be in another book, I finally got my story. Who was telling it, what it was really about.

Now that it's going to be published, I'm working on its sequel. These characters won't leave me alone, and that's a good thing. But it's as if I've forgotten everything I learned on Qualities of Light. I'm once again agonizing over that balance beam a novelist--and any book writer--must walk between structure and exploration.

When Exploration Starts a Book
When you begin a new book, you enter via one of two doorways. If you start via exploration, it feels like an expansion inside. You're following a winding river, not sure where it's going to lead.
You get a direction, a glimmer of light, and you follow it. You may overhear a snippet of conversation and it intrigues you. Ideas float into your writer's vision. You're pulled into these ideas, and they take you somewhere. One writer said, "It leads to a moment. I write to that moment."

Writing a book from this doorway is expansive and playful. You may wonder, Am I really writing a book? (Or, Am I really a writer? Both worries surface for me, with each book I start from exploration.) But the gathering of images and words on paper is too much fun to stop. It brings you insights, it can change your life. You may also look as many book writers do--distracted. A conversation in your head is occupying most of your attention and nobody else can hear it.

But there's a point when you start to lose your way. Writing expansively is fun, but it just creates more and more ideas. Eventually, you need to structure them. You need to get serious, as one of my teachers would say. Fish or cut bait.

How do you do that? Coming from exploration, you use tools like outlines, storyboards, and character/plot lines--the structuring place where some writers begin.

How Structure Begins a Book
I began some books (the two novels mentioned above) from exploration. My nonfiction books were all begun from structure. I had an idea, yes, but I outlined or storyboarded it immediately. The structure formed the book-writing journey.

Structures are reassuring to many writers. They create the outline and it's like a good map--or so they feel at the beginning. Structures can take you far. But most structures only represent part of a book: the plot, the action, the outer thread of the story. To get deep into character, emotional truth, insights that surprise both you and the reader, you have to go back to exploration.

Moving from structure into exploration is a wild ride, especially for very linear thinkers. I recognize these writers (I are one!) when they come to my class, outline tightly in hand, and refuse to deviate from what they've already decided. No matter that their book hasn't sold, that agents or editors have told them "it needs depth" or "it's a bit dry." Exploration would give them exactly that depth and juice, but it's too scary.

I learned this when I fell into fiction. I learned how to explore. Because much of the good stuff came from places I'd never been as a writer.
The goal? Balancing these two. Exploration writers move to structure, to get their books grounded in form that a reader can follow. Structure writers explore, to give their stories juice and energy. It's a lovely dance. If you're feeling stuck, it may be because you're not welcoming the other part of the process.

Writing Exercise for This Week
This week's exercise asks you to freewrite for 20 minutes about where you are with your book or your writing in general. What are you craving right now? Do you long for wild rides or more sense of direction? What's your next step--more exploration or more structure?