Monday, August 10, 2009

Book Structure 101

I've had some queries about book structure, so I thought I'd take a look at some of the common mistakes I've discovered people make, based on doing manuscript assessments over the last 7 years.

Starting in the Wrong Place.

A lot of authors (even experienced ones) start their book in the wrong place. This is because they have to write some backstory about the world and the characters to get a feel for them, before they can plunge into the story. Then they love what they've written or it becomes 'invisible' because they've read it so many times that they just don't see it.

Often I'll be reading a manuscript and the story won't start until chapter two, or later. Your editor is a busy person. They aren't going to read through backstory to get to the juicy bits. Also, have you noticed how a lot of readers will pick up a book, look at the blurb and read the first couple of paragraphs? Then they'll decide if they want to buy the book. You need to plunge right into the story. That's why one of the first writing exercises we did at VISION was the Opening Hook.

So, get out your favourite books and take a look at where the authors started the story. How did they hook you in?

So you need to Start at a Moment of Change. Even if you go back later and fill in some of the backstory.

Crushed by World Building. In science fiction, fantasy and horror (which is now being called dark urban fantasy), there is a lot of World Building. The trick is slipping that world building in, in such a way that it doesn't slow the pace of the narrative, while giving enough detail to explain what is going on. I love world building and my books tend to be top heavy with this, which means I have to only leave in what is absolutely necessary.

Go back and look at your favourite authors, how have they done this?

Put off by Pacing. You need to keep up the narrative's momentum to sustain the reader's interest. You'll be running three or more narrative threads and sometimes you can neglect one of these.

I was assessing a 700 page book with seven narrative threads which included time slips. I suggested the author get a page of graph paper, divide the side of the paper in chunks of 50 pages, then give each of the narrative threads a colour and drawn lines down the page to show how many pages had been devoted to those characters. Plus they needed to mark which timeline the threads belonged to. It sounds complex when I write it now, but it provided a clear colour coded visual of where the story was getting top heavy in some narratives, while skimping in others. If the author is having trouble keeping track of the narrative, then the reader is going to be lost.

So keep track of your narrative and, if you think the pacing is slowing down, 'put your character up a tree and throw rocks at them' as one of the best selling romance authors said. Make sure your characters have enough problems. I call this the Worry Factor, you want to keep your reader worried about your characters, so they will keep turning those pages to see what happens.

Beware the Sagging Middle. This is where some authors run out of steam towards the middle of the book. This is where you need to have some twists planned to keep the characters and the readers on their toes.

I can't get no Satisfaction. When writing genre there's an unwritten contract with the reader. We promise to deliver a satisfying story and part of that is Resolution. The readers have followed your characters through a hundred thousand words of story. They've identified with them, they've worried for them. Give the readers (and the characters) the resolution they deserve.

These are all general suggestions. Open the books you love and analyse how the authors delivered on their unwritten contracts.

And for an excellent detailed look at story and structure, go to Richard Harland's Writing Tips.


KylieQ said...

Oh boy, this has just put some thoughts into my head that I really don't want to consider...

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Kylie, it is so easy to get too close to a manuscript. We all do it. We slave over the book, create the world, nurse the characters and don't see the flaws.

That's why having a crit group you trust is wonderful.

sal said...

Thanks for that Rowena. I'm in saggy middle land right now - editing/rewriting is so much fun, isn't it? When you have to take your self-criticism seriously at last and face the flaws and take action (rather than fall about weeping and moaning as I tend to)!

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Sal, I find rewriting more fun that first draft.

Because I'm a 'panster' not a 'plotter' I set off with only a vague idea of where the story is going. this is scary and I'm never sure if the story is going to workout.

With rewriting, the story is there and I'm refining it, adding layers. This is fun.

sal said...

Is it??
Show me how to find that fun, Rowena! I think I'm a 'pantser' by nature myself but what I'm finding hard with the re-write (and adding layers) is being decisive and keeping a consistency of tone.
I think I remember reading an interview with Margo L. once where she spoke about this being what made her leave novels alone for awhile - it was so hard to stay true to the story for the entirety of a novel. I think she went on to say that it took her a long while to learn to listen for the story that wanted to be told, and not force it to be something else. I have a feeling I'm in the midst of that lesson myself, and failing at it!
The layers I've begun to add I now want to un-add. They just don't feel true to the story. But this adding and un-adding could go on and on interminably it feels!
To me this is something more subtle than the nuts and bolts of craft and something that almost seems too hard for people to talk about in any meaningful way - but that doesn't mean it's not a real issue for writers!
Tell me, you writerly folks out there, have you ever got so stuck you quit, even on something that seemed to have quite strong promise? I've had really positive feedback on my initial chapters from people I respect. BUT!
I've been stuck in the same spot in the re-write (round the start of act 2) for months and it's driving me nuts. I've tried everything from leaving it alone, to pushing through, to working in a different part of the MS etc etc. It is slow going to the point of no going.
I'm now scared that if I keep pushing I'll just end up breaking the story's spirit entirely.
No, not much fun happening here at all!
Sooo ... another request Rowena? Maybe you could do a post on your process of adding layers - how you make the decisions ... and stick to them, how do you manage this process whilst staying true to your story?
Thanks and sorry for the weeping and moaning!

Anonymous said...

Hi Sal,

I in no way claim to know what I'm talking about, but in regards to where you're stuck, have you had feedback on that section?

I know when I hit a stumbling block in re-writes it's because I'm still too close to the story. Getting a good crit always works to belt me around the head with the obvious. The trusted folks who gave good crit on the first couple of chapters could probably help you here as well. I know it's hard finding someone with the time to commit to a whole MS, but it is worth the search.

I can take or leave a rewrite. Sometimes I love it, other times I hate it. I usually love it when I'm working with good feedback, and hate it when I'm going it alone. As a 'pantser' I find I'm usually adding in world building during a re-write. I tend to tell a story then construct the world around it from the fragments I initially needed to give my characters something stand on and push against.

Cheers, Lisa.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Hi Sal,

Agh! My comment back to you has disappeared into cyber space. So, here goes again!

Layering for each book is very individual, so I don't think I could write a generic post about it.

Time away from a book is excellent for helping you see what is working and what isn't.

If I jam up when rewriting a book, it is usally because something isn't working and my 'inner writing wizard' has realised it and said, Stop. If I go back to the beginning and rewrite/read from there, I can usually power through the problem.

Sometimes, you get so close to a book you can't see what the theme is. If you take time away, read other books, see movies etc, this will help you discover what your theme is. Once you know the theme, you can write with this in the back of your mind. You don't hit people over the head with it, but you can come up with scenes or rewrite scenes to help bring the theme out.

Hope this helps.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

LJ, I tend to work like you do. Building the stage back-drops as I write and adding to them when I rewrite.

sal said...

Thanks Rowena and LJ. Not sure anything besides riding this out is gonna work for me but I appreciate your solidarity! Yes, have a great local spec fic crit group and am about to begin an entire manuscript development 'process' with Kim Wilkins and a bunch of great folks I met during QWC's YotN and YotE. Trying to get my second draft ready for that, but I guess if it's not ready, it's just not, and the critting I get through that will just be what I need in order to get there.
Our local group tends to work with reading just one chapter at a time, and I definitely can see the value on getting feedback on a larger section.
Thanks again,

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Sal -- Year of the Novel AND Year of the Edit???

You lucky thing!