Novel Writing
Charlotte Rains Dixon  

The Value of (Groan) Structure

Structure_building_sunset_237219_l So, it was a weekend spent mostly away from the computer.  Two days spent celebrating my birthday with family and friends.

And suddenly it is Monday morning again.  Besides numerous manuscripts to read for people and a bunch of unfinished assignments, there's the novel rewrite to get back to once again.  And despite the fact that I'm feeling just the tiniest bit unfocused this morning, I am on it.  No really, I am.  On it.

Or at least I will be once I finish meandering about the internet writing this post.  But here's the deal–when I do get back to the rewrite it is going to be simple to ease right back into it.


I'll tell you why: structure.

Because I have a structure for rewriting in place.  Because when I finished up on Friday, I reviewed what I had already done (five chapters!) and looked ahead to where I would start after the weekend.  This was easy to do because of the structure I've created for myself.

Here's the deal: as writers and creative types, we resist structure.  I know I do.  I want to be wafty and spontaneous and free.  And yet this resistance has led me astray on several occasions.  Jumping into writing a novel without having the vaguest idea where I was going, for instance (I'm not talking about my current novel here, but an earlier one I wrote).  Or starting a knitting project without figuring out a pattern.  And don't even get me started on how many times I've headed off for an appointment without finding the address ahead of time.

Even though we resist structure, it is inherent in writing.  For instance, just by choosing a genre, you're imposing a certain amount of structure on yourself.  Say you decide to write fiction over non-fiction, you've already narrowed things down.  And then you can choose even further, if you want to write romance, mysteries, thrillers or literary fiction.  Each of these has a certain structure that you'll need to follow in order to get published, or even have a novel that makes sense.

It is easy to embrace the romantic notion that all you have to do is start writing, and voila, after a few hundred pages you'll have a novel.  Go ahead and try that and see what you come up with.  I've done it myself and gotten only pages of writing on yellow legal pads to show for it.

So, don't resist structure, it is your friend.  That being said, it can be a wobbly friend, or a rigid friend, or a fair-weather friend.  You can create a loose outline of events in your novel that is more like a list (what I did for this current novel), or you can create a very rigid, OCD-type outline, complete with roman numerals and all that.  But come up with something. 

And after you've created a structure for the actual novel, come up with a structure for how you will approach it.  Will you start at the beginning of one draft and go all the way to the end of it?  (My preferred method; actually I think it is the only way to write a decent novel for a variety of reasons I don't have room to go into here.)  Or will you be one of those writers who has to polish every word and every sentence before moving onto the next?  (The mere thought of working this way makes me cringe.)  Again, it is your choice.  But choose something.  Because once you have a plan, a structure, in place, it is so much easier to proceed.

And then when you come back from a weekend away and say to yourself, now where was I on that rewrite? you'll know the answer.  And you can get right back to work.

What are your favorite structures for planning and for doing the actual work?  Do tell.

0 thoughts on “The Value of (Groan) Structure

  1. Jessica

    For my current draft I’m using a storyboard. I have two small noticeboards set up in my lounge room and am gradually adding cards to the story. It’s great on a number of levels.

    It helps me to know what points I have to ‘plant’ early on so I can ‘pay them off’ later.

    It shows me where the holes in my story are, which means I can predict where my writing will bog down and hopefully work out a solution before I get there.

    It helps me understand the pacing of my story. Usually my third act is too quick. I’m hoping my storyboard will reveal when it should start and how long it should go for.

    And of course, it’s a great reminder of what I should be spending my time on. (Shuffles shoes and look a little guilty.)

  2. J.D. Frost

    T. Jefferson Parker writes like that–a lot of structure. He’s written some very nice police thriller things. I heard him explain in an interview his approach to writing “The Fallen.” He said he outlined for three months. When he finished the outline, it was extensive, like 25k words.

  3. Charlotte Dixon

    Jessica, I’ve used the storyboard technique, too, and I like it, though it tends to become like wallpaper to me, and after awhile I no longer notice it. I used to have my screensaver set to say “Why aren’t you writing?” and at first that was great and then I just ignored it. Familiarity breeds contempt and all that.

    J.D., my sister’s biggest claim to fame in my eyes is that she went out on a date with T. Jefferson Parker. This was years ago, when they both lived in Laguna Beach and I think he only had one book out. I’ve never come up with that extensive of an outline before, but if I ever did, it seems like the book would then write itself.

  4. J.D. Frost

    A date with T. Jefferson Parker! Wow. What did he do, take her to a bank robbery?

  5. J.D. Frost

    I’ve read several of T.J.’s books, so I’m a fan. He appeared a couple of times on Barbara De Marco Barrett’s podcast. She produces that from the University of California Irvine. I think T. Jefferson is an alumnus of that school.

  6. Charlotte Dixon

    All I remember is that he had a dog. Though a bank robbery would have been very entertaining! At least from a writer’s point of view, since we have to experience everything we can to write about it. Right?

  7. Charlotte Dixon

    T.J. is definitely a southern Cal boy. When my sister dated him they both lived in Laguna Beach, back in the days when it was still a bit of a sleepy beach town and you could actually afford to live there. Wait, aren’t you from southern California? Or do I just associate you with the place because you once commented that you’d seen the Eagles when they were a back-up band for Linda Ronstadt?

  8. Christi Corbett

    I loves me some plotting, outlines, and structure! Can’t function without them.

    Oh, and I had to laugh at your comment about what your screensaver says…Mine says “You’re not Writing” which means if I can see it I’ve been away from the computer too long so get back to work!


  9. Charlotte Dixon

    So glad to hear you are a kindred spirit when it comes to plotting, Christi. I think one reason I love my critique group so much is that we all sit around and brainstorm ideas to make each other’s stories work better! Maybe its time for me to put that “Why aren’t you writing?” back on my screensaver!

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