There’s this book I started writing when I was 13. There have been times when I’ve thought, Gosh, it’s been five years since I started, I better finish this thing! Or ten years. Or fifteen. Now I’m up to 22. It’s not like I haven’t been working on it. To the contrary: my current draft is 165,000 words long, give or take, and it’s been through two gut rehabs. I’m in the middle of the third.
This time — for the first time — I’ve brought in professional help. My problem (one of them, ha) is that I’ve always simply written. I feel inspired, or depressed, or committed of an evening, and I pop out 5,000 words. I have never written to an outline. I’ve hardly written to even a vague idea of plot. I’m not saying this to be charmingly self-deprecating, get you to ask to read my MS, and hear you say, “Wow, it’s actually got great structure, what are you talking about, you crazy next-best-seller you?” No. This book is a hot mess. Let me tell you why.
For all the hundreds of thousands of words I have written in my life, and for all the Ivy League writing classes I’ve taken, until a couple months ago I had literally never spent time with the bare bones of narrative structure for fiction. I got the technical details for playwriting (not my milieu) and poetry (for serious not my milieu), but somehow, all of my fiction writing classes were built around peer review and a general sense of enthusiasm for Your Unique and Special Inner Voice. Turns out that knowing narrative structure really helps structure a good narrative!
Up until this point in my writing life, whatever movement a story had, it had because I’ve read so much that I’ve got some mute instincts for the shape of a story. Story is something I feel. Arguably, story is something you must feel, but being able to top-down critique or shape my own work is opening up whole new worlds of possibility for me. I know. Pity me. I’m in my mid-thirties and just figuring this out.
For me, this structural work is powerful not least because I have some native aversion to conflict. The inestimable Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a workshop book for writers; one of the voice exercises asks you to imagine you are an on island. What do you do? What do you see? Wallowing in the luxury of simply writing a scene for the pure sound of it, I didn’t put any pressure on myself to shape it. Here is what happened. I wrote a scene in which literally nothing happened. My narrator walks over the island, to the highest point of it, and looks out at the ocean. The end. Meets no boars in the brush. Begs food from no one’s campfire. Hears no voices, no distant gunfire, no rising storm over the water. This insulated, conflict-avoidance mentality which seems to be my comfort zone for writing makes for terrible stories. I mean, awful stories. The very nature of story is conflict.
Pulling back and doing this structural analysis of my hot mess of a novel has been empowering. And exciting. And overwhelming. Helping me keep such cool as I have and make progress towards my goal of one day not hating my own book is a friend of mine with tremendous powers of organization. She has broken my goal down into sensible, manageable, truly bite-sized mini-goals, and when I’m having trouble she seems to know exactly what I need to hear to keep going. (She does this professionally, by the bye. If this sort of personal project management sounds like manna from heaven to you, as it did to me, comment or message me and I will give you more info.)
So I’ve got professional help and I’ve got friends and family cheering me on and I’ve finally got the tools I never knew I needed to fix some of the gaping holes in this sprawling, under-engineered work. My goal is to have done with the gut rehab by my thirty-sixth birthday this summer. Since I finished my first early draft of this when I was 16, achieving this goal would have taken a cool twenty years.
Still — it’s better than thirty. Wish me luck, would you?