Hundreds of thousands of people around the world are driving themselves nuts (a) trying to write beautiful sentence after beautiful sentence that (b) build upon each other to (c) craft a novel during NaNoWriMo (National Write a Novel Month).
Go here to read the first post: Why NaNoWriMo is noble nuttiness–and 8 steps to make it easier
The word that matters in that first paragraph is “build.”
You don’t build with beauty.
Because pretty words aren’t what truly matters. Not for anything of length.
Writing is like building a house, except most writers get taught that it’s the surface stuff that matters–the drywall and the paint, the cabinetry and tile work. Then we’re surprised when our pile of 75,000 pretty words crumbles because there’s no foundation.
Sure, pretty words can hide a bad structure when you’re talking about something small, like a beautiful wooden beach hut sitting on the sand. You can hang out in there for an afternoon or a weekend. Sooner or later, though, it’ll get blown down or swept away by the waves, because the hut isn’t built to last.
Hear me now and believe me later in the week: the longer and more important what you’re writing is, the stronger your foundation needs to be.
Why first drafts are always bad
The first draft of anything is typically terrible. That’s gospel, something we all accept.
Here’s the thing: the terribleness of a first draft increases exponentially with its word count.
We all wrestle with that bad first draft. Making the words prettier doesn’t really help. You flail for hours, days or maybe weeks. Bang your head against the wall while drinking all the coffee produced by the nation of Columbia and hoping a solution floats down to alight upon your noggin.
Chances are, it’s the most frustrating part of writing.
Because real culprit is always structural, and nobody teaches us structure.
They don’t do it in journalism school, where the only blueprint they hand us is the Inverted Pyramid, which needs to be taken behind the barn and shot.
They don’t do it in creative writing or in speech and debate.
I have a background in all three. It doesn’t happen.
Instead, we get drilled in the detail work: how to write headlines and ledes. Proper grammar and copy editing. Logical fallacies and types of arguments. Character analysis and literary themes.
Good things, all of it. Just not enough to help us when we need it most.
How size determines structure
Before you write anything, the first question is simple: What’s your goal? What’s the end product?
Because size determines structure, and structure determines size.
Here’s a quick and dirty guide matching structures to sizes:
- The Inverted Pyramid — only useful for something short and informative (500 words or less)
- Five bazillion rhetorical structures I won’t bore you with — good for speeches or opeds
- One-act play, sitcom or short story — narrative with one major reversal or revelation
- Two-act play, hour-long TV show or novella — narrative with two major reversals or revelations
- Three-act play, movie or novel — narrative with three major reversals or revelations
So it’s not just nitpicking to say NaNoWriMo is a little misleading when they tell people the wordcount goal is 50,000. Which is really a novella, having a different structure than a full novel.
If you tried to write a novel with only two acts, it would feel incredibly slow. A novella with three full acts would come off as breathless, frenetic and overstuffed.
A novel using the Inverted Pyramid or most rhetorical structures would get you torn apart by an angry mob, because they’re not meant for something that long.
Quality beats quantity. A brilliant blueprint with a four-word logline and a one-page outline that matches size with structure beats the hell out of a hot mess of 85,000 words.
When you start with the foundation and blueprints, everything else becomes easier. Nobody builds a house room by room. They do it in stages: foundation, framing, roof, plumbing, electrical, floors, drywall, cabinets, finishing. The bigger a thing is that you’re writing, the more you want to break up the job into stages. Because if you try to do it room by room, or chapter by chapter, you’re gonna forget things. Important bits. And it’ll be like trying to install plumbing in a finished house: not fun, not easy and not a quick job.
Writing is building
You’ll hear authors like Stephen King talk about writing as gathering a giant pile of words, then carving out the weak ones to expose the good within. Like a sculptor turning a block of marble into a statue.
That’s one way to build, by feel.
And if you’re a literary god who’s written 300-billion novels, yeah, you don’t need to outline or mess about with blueprints. You know five different ways of pouring foundations, framing a house and finishing it off. You could do a one-story rambler, an art-deco loft or a Victorian mansion with turrets.
There’s no need to refer to blueprints when you can close your eyes and rewrite them in your head, knowing the engineering will work out, that you won’t forget to build stairs connecting the first floor (Act 1) to the second floor (Act 2) and a hidden staircase to the third floor (Act 3).
Inspiration is great, but it’s a jealous and unreliable mistress that will happily abandon you for the next shiny object. She won’t take you all the way home, day after day, especially if you’re trying to write something long.
Build rock solid
There’s structure in any written piece. The only question is whether that structure is solid rock or weaker than wet cardboard.
Writing is about curiosity and surprise: making your audience curious about the outcome of characters and places they care about, and surprising them, over and over, with the events that happen.
That requires setups and payoffs, reversals and revelations, betrayals and transformations. Those are your building blocks. You ratchet up the tension and suspense until all the various threads of the story pay off at the end.
When you study structure, it’s like Neo seeing the code of the Matrix–you can look at the Word document and see the blueprints and bones beneath the words.
Everything you do, as a writer, should be for a reason. Especially when you’re trying to write a book, which is the most fun a writer can legally have.
Variety is key.
You wouldn’t build a house with 7 bedrooms, no bathrooms and a living room the size of a closet. It’s the same with a novel: a thriller that’s 300 pages of fight scenes is just as boring as a romance novel that’s 300 pages of steamy McSteaminess–both of those things are repetition without a purpose.
Any piece of writing has to fit the scope of what you’re doing. The Harry Potter series wouldn’t work if you tried to cram that giant cast and epic story into a two-bedroom rambler in the suburbs, because it would feel claustrophobic. A short story with two characters set at Hogwarts would feel empty.
There is no One Magical Way to Write–but the laws of physics still apply
I’m not peddling a book with The Secret and Magical One Way to Write, a method involving two lazy Susans, stacks of index cards and five different colors of highlighters, though that would be fun as a joke only other writers might get.
What I am saying is there’s an art and science to writing. Just like architects study math and science along with art and design, writers need to pay attention to both sides of our craft.
Writing a novel without using the letter “e” isn’t a radical artistic statement, just as it’d be silly and stupid to build a house without a roof or any bathrooms. Yeah, it’s different. The fact that nobody will buy it doesn’t make you a misunderstood genius.
Even the most radical and creative architect won’t pretend the laws of physics don’t apply. In fact, the most creative architects are probably the best at understanding the science and engineering behind the design, because they’re pushing the envelope to make insanely creative giant buildings that cost $253 million and WILL NOT FALL DOWN.
The more risks you’re taking, artistically, the better you have to be at the boring fundamentals, the hidden stuff underneath that makes it all work. Otherwise, you’re gonna have a bad time and look pretty silly.
Editing is repairing and polishing
Witing and editing are completely separate things.
Proofing is like a building inspector, checking for obvious flaws and big mistakes. It’s a quick job compared to the other types of editing.
Copy editing is a tougher, like a contractor who comes in to fix a leaky roof.
The most talented (and expensive) editors are the structural editors, who can take a hot mess of 120,000 words and find ways to trim 30,000 words and combine six characters while finding payoffs without setups and Chekhov guns flashed in Act 1 that not only don’t go off by Act 3, but are never seen again.
If you’ve ever had a major home repair, you know it’s tough to fix something huge in a house that’s still standing. Starting from scratch is easier.
This is a painful truth we all learn. Writing a novel is tough enough, then editing that first draft makes the writing bit look like a cakewalk. I’ve done to myself many times, and authors randomly hire me to do structural editing.
The easy part is fixing ugly sentences. Nine times out of ten, the real work is tearing out all the drywall and plumbing as we pour a new foundation and reframe the whole thing.
Want to learn structure? Don’t buy books about fiction
I own just about every major book on journalism, fiction and rhetoric printed since Ike was president. Most are only useful for detail work or kindling during the zombie apocalypse.
There are some decent books out there about writing fiction. HOWEVER: The only field of writing that truly teaches structural goodness is screenwriting, and I didn’t learn about this from college or writing conferences. It only hit me thanks to my sis, a Nicholl Fellow down in Hollywood.
And listen, the movie folks are 100 times better at explaining structure, and teaching it, than the fiction folks.
Why are screenwriters so good at structure? Because scripts aren’t about pretty words.
Not because screenwriters aren’t talented. Gorgeous words are stripped away, on purpose, to expose the blueprints and structure of the story, which is all that matters to Hollywood.
You could rewrite all the dialogue of a script, change the character names and genders and switch the setting to a space station orbiting Mars, yet it wouldn’t change the essential nature of that story.
Because story isn’t genre or setting. It’s the blueprints of what happens and why.
Screenplays are generally about 15,000 words or 120 pages, with few words on each page. Stack a script next to a 400-page novel and yeah, it would look puny. Except that slim screenplay of 15,000 words has just as much story packed inside as that 100,000-word novel. It’s just laid out far more efficiently.
What should you do?
If you want to learn structure, start with SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder (short, wonderful) and end with STORY by Robert McKee (longer and deeper).
For people who like music, check out the lyrics of country songs. Yes, country and western. In just 200 words, you can tell an entire story, like the Dixie Chicks do with Traveling Soldier. And once you’ve read Snyder and McKee, you’ll be able to channel Neo and see the code, the structure, behind those 200 words. How it works. Why it works.
Music itself is another good place to look for how to put together a piece of writing. Composers don’t sit down and write a song, start to finish. They do it in parts: the melody first, or maybe the words or the beat. Then there’s the chorus and the bridge, the guitar solo, the interlude, all these moving parts. You better believe the first draft of a song is terrible. They work on every part, over and over.
And just like a novel, every good song has an opening hook to grab the audience and an epilogue (yes, there’s a fancy musical term I won’t use here) to bring it all to a close.
So listen: I don’t have a dog in this fight. I just know there are writers around the world trying hard at something they love, and often banging their head against the wall. My wish is to share things they didn’t teach us in college or writing conferences, things I’ve had to learn the hard way.
If you work at it, you’ll start to see the code, the hidden blueprints behind how any book, movie or TV show is built. And you’ll never write the same again.