Thursday, July 26, 2012

Structure--Why It Might Be the Missing Element to Make Your Writing Sing (and How to Balance It with Passion)

Writers come to my classes to learn structure.  There aren't many classes that teach it, I've found, and it's my specialty.  But the desire for structure is often accompanied by certain looks--teachers get to know them!--when I hand out the charts, list-exercises, and storyboard instructions.  Do we really have to exit the creative flow to do this?  

Yes.  It's half of the process of writing--whether your goal is a poem or an essay or a full-length book.   

But so many writers dislike structure.  I did too, when I began writing books.  I thought, Just write!  And that worked for quite a while.  But when faced with the accumulating scenes, chapters, islands, and continents my daily freewrites became, I was overwhelmed.  And I often stopped, purely because I didn't know what to do next.

Keep writing?  Maybe.  But when would this mass of material manifest a book?

Wise editors on my first books taught me how structure creates a framework. Without the framing of a house, there's nothing to hang the walls on.  Without the framework of a book, chapters just ride along and eventually flop.

I've found structure is a framework for both your book and your writing life--no matter your genre or style.  You may enter your writing conceptually, from action and event, or from the poetry of image.  All will hang better with structure.

How Structure Works in Your Writing 
These past two weeks, I've been teaching at a glorious arts retreat center on Madeline Island, off the coast of Wisconsin in the middle of Lake Superior.  Writers come to these retreats to learn structure for their books-in-progress.   

After the writers get adjusted to the idea that structure is actually beneficial to the creative flow, they really begin to enjoy it.  Each day I introduce a new structuring tool.  Storyboards, image charts, character growth arcs, and other techniques let writers get an overview of all their bits and pieces, chapters and ideas.   

Over the week, they begin to see how structure supports the book's message.  It makes it more accessible to the reader.

We all love the ease of daydreaming about our books; we enjoy exploring and re­searching and letting ideas flow onto the page.  But if this is all we do, it can get in the way of finishing.  Structure tasks take this raw material and give it shape 

Structure Tasks--What Are They? 
I find structure most helpful when I feel overwhelmed with too many "islands" (scenes or snippets of writing), when I can't see how to proceed, when I've lost the thread of my book--or even its original purpose.  I go to my favorite structure tasks to get oriented again.

I also like to use structure tasks when I need more objectivity about my book--if I've gotten too lost in the leaves and need to see the forest again.

Some favorites . . .  

1. Getting a storyboard started or updated.  Many writers in my online classes or Madeline Island retreat get intense relief when their storyboard finally works--and becomes an accurate a map for their book.   

The storyboard helps shape or create a form for your book.  You suddenly see where all the ideas can fit, and flow together in harmony.  (Watch this short video on storyboarding if you're not familiar with the term.)   

Storyboarding is a structure task because it condenses and focuses your writing process.  It helps with overwhelm.   

2. Re-energizing my daily writing schedule:  When you have a routine of writing even 20 minutes each day, the momentum you build will become a finished book.  Not only that but the routine itself is calming.  You stop wondering if you'll ever get back to your writing--because you know you've committed to a short session the next day.  Just like daily exercises, daily writing practice helps us feel relaxed about the book journey.  It becomes a structure we can lean against and try riskier things.
3.  Going into the details via line editing:   If you need a structure task that takes you deeper into the details, versus toward an overview, line editing is a perfect match.  It's the smallest, most focused form of revising, because it goes line by line through the manuscript.  To really get benefit from line editing, approach it at revision after the content and flow of your story is intact.  Line editing makes adjustments in pacing and language, word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph.  It checks the ending and beginning of each chapter to make sure transitions are strong.   

I polled my classes about other structure tasks and these suggestions are their favorites.  They helped these writers feel good about their books again.   

Set up a great desk for myself (stop writing on the couch).
Clean the clutter on the desk.
Talk with my family about getting time to myself for writing each morning.
Finally get that new laptop that my teenagers can't use.
Storyboard my chapters into a more logical sequence--get rid of the mess.
Transfer my chapter files into organized folders on computer.
Break my huge manuscript into individual chapter files.
Learn Scrivener (a software program that storyboards on the screen). 

And When You Need to Balance the Structure Tasks . . . 
Some writers love structure too much.  They spend hours and hours with their storyboards and never get to the actual writing.   

Remember that structure alone can't make a book--and neither can free-flowing creativity.  So, both are needed to keep oriented.

Also, structure tasks can activate the Inner Critic, who loves to get you down when you're trying something new.  Criticism from others and self-doubt from the Inner Critic wipe out passion very quickly.  I recommend a support system of other book writers when you're first trying structure tasks.  Support is essential to keep your vision for your book alive and well.  Feedback that positively mirrors your cre­ative efforts keeps you confident and believing.  

So if you (1) are addicted to structure and not writing or (2) try a structure task and begin to wonder Why am I writing this book? you may need to balance with something more fun that helps you recall your passion for your project.

I call these passion tasks, because they let us explore the ever-changing reasons we are doing this creative project--and show us whether we are expressing ourselves in the most au­thentic way.
Write a dialogue (on paper) with your book.
Write a letter to Inner Critic to get it to settle down.
Make a mock-up of your book cover.
Make a collage of any book chapters that aren't work­ing.
Make a collage of your goals about your book.
Write about why you don't want to write this book-even why you hate and fear it.
Cluster or freewrite about what you have read in Your Book Starts Here and how it could help your writing.
Find a different writers' group--one you can flourish in.
List thirty things you love in your life to remind your­self of your passion.
Wear brighter colors--not black.

Do you relate to any of these tasks? They come from a diverse group of writers of all backgrounds, cultures, educa­tion, and skill levels.  

Maybe one of these tasks will interest you and you will try it for yourself. It is hard work to change your writing habits--to learn to add structure if you're a free-flowing writer, or add passion if you're a linear writer.  

The goal is to develop both the flow of creativity and the solidity of good structure in your writing life--and let your book become all it's meant to be.