Structuring Your Novel: A Review

As a “pantser” writer, me and structure/outlining don’t necessarily go together naturally. Oil and water, we are.

However, every writer should continue to learn about her craft, and that’s where K.M. Weiland‘s new book, Structuring Your Novel, comes into play. I was absolutely delighted, I must say, when K.M. asked me to be an early reader, as I was for her last nonfiction book, Outlining Your Novel. Even so, being in a bit of a hectic time of life, I’m getting to the actual reviewing a bit late. But, that old adage is true: better late than never.

Being a pantser means I don’t usually pay attention to structure, whether it’s outlining or otherwise. I’ve only actually ever used an outline with success once, and that was for NaNoWriMo back in 2009. Yet, K.M.’s previous non-fiction book left me thinking, and while I’m still not an outliner, I can honestly say I recognize the merits of outlining, and when I’m stuck, will sit down and outline the next few chapters to get me going again.

I approached Structuring in much the same way. I’m a pantser: what can this book do for me?

Well, a lot, I’ll say that. Not so much a “how to” book, more a “these are the qualities of a strong book” book, Structuring Your Novel uses examples from familiar books and movies to describe fundamentally how all successful stories are arranged, what readers and viewers expect. Surprisingly enough, if you’ve read enough quality books or watched solid movies, you probably intuitively know a lot about story structure. But, K.M. lays it out perfunctorily so you can understand why you need to do XYZ by a set point in the story, for instance, having all your major characters introduced by the first plot point, around the 25% mark in your story.

What I learned most: I don’t have to outline my novels, but I should sit down and at least figure out if my drafts are in line with what typically happens in a book. Is my first plot point too early? Too late? What can I do to adjust its timing?

Additionally, I really enjoyed the second and third parts: Part Two is on Scene Structure, and Part Three is a short piece on Sentence Structure. Some of “Scene Structure” will be familiar if you’ve been following K.M.’s blog, Helping Writers Become Authors, but it’s nice to have the refresher in an easy-to-snag spot on my Kindle. Sentence Structure really is a crash course in many do’s and don’t’s common in early novels: repetitiveness, ambiguity, pompous words, etc.

Who needs this book: Every fiction writer who wants to get a better handle on the elements of storytelling, outliner and pantser alike. While newbies especially would benefit, those of us who are old-hands at story (whether published or not) can use the refresher, and gain new insights into how to tell a superb story. Maybe we will realize we need to move some bodies around in our stories because of Structuring. (That’s a little murder mystery writer humor!)

Structuring Your Novel is available through Amazon.com (and other booksellers) for $2.99 for Kindle presently, however, the list price is $12.75. Paperbacks cost $10.42, also at the same list price. Whichever version you pick up, it is well worth the cost. Getting a solid grasp on structure–even if you’re a pantser like me–will help make you a better writer, and in the end, isn’t that what all of us writers want?

Until next time,

Pacing in a Nutshell

Not too long ago, I was skimming my Facebook friends’ statuses and came across one which actually made me stop and go ‘What?’

This particular update had to do with the person, someone I don’t know in real life but have networked with through friends of friends, going to see the recent movie Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey, Jr., and Jude Law. Truth be told, my husband and I went to see this flick sometime around the same time and had a completely different reaction from my FB buddy, which ran along the lines of comparing the movie to a Three Stooges film, all the while admitting to those of us who chose to read the post that this person was spoiled by the TV drama 24.

Admittedly, I’ve never watched 24, but have lots of friends that do, so I understand the concept and that it’s a very fast-paced show–much more than Sherlock Holmes. I tend to enjoy fast-paced books–one of my favorite authors is Vince Flynn, so I’m not a stranger to fast pacing. And, I’ve read Brandilyn Collins’ work, which I’d have to say is non-stop action to the point where you literally race through the book. (Of course, the signature of her Seatbelt Suspense novels is the slogan ‘Don’t forget to breathe.’ That pretty much says it all with her books.)

But, could there be such a thing as too fast a pace in a book, TV show or movie? While each has to judge for themselves, I think there could be. The normal, accepted arc of a book allows for periodic climaxes, drawing back down to a less tense level, continuing to spiral up and up until you reach the ultimate climax. The drawing back part is essential as it allows your reader–and your characters–a chance to catch their breath, come to terms with what happened, and prepare for the next climax. In my current WIP, Homebody, near the middle I have a scene and follow-up that I think exemplifies this principle. While the scene is too long to post here, I’ll thumbnail it.

My two main characters are Rick and Amanda. Amanda’s home has been broken into while she’s there, alone, by two prison escapees intent on killing her. As they’re torturing her, Rick shows up, figures out what’s going on, and goes gonzo on the escapees, shooting one (not lethally) in the process as the other gets away. The cops show up (Rick had the foresight to call them, suspecting something was up when he showed up) and detain both Rick and Amanda until they can figure out what’s going on. As they’re escorted to the police station for further questioning, Rick is allowed a few minutes to reflect on what just happened–and thank God that Amanda wasn’t hurt. The following morning, Amanda’s given a chance to tell the reader how she’s dealing with nearly being killed, adding a little more time before she has a fit of anger at Rick, who wants her to leave town until the second escapee is caught. All of this takes place over about two chapters, about 15 – 20 pages for me.

Having an ebb and flow in your writing of action and reflection helps keep your readers’ interest. And, who knows? Maybe it helps them from being desensitized by too much action.

So, how do you handle pacing in your own projects? Are you one who’s constantly pushing action, action, action, barely giving your reader a chance to breathe? Or, are you one whose climaxes are small, gently building until the end of the book? Or are you somewhere in between?

Until next time,

P.S.–Keep in mind the book dissection I’m wanting to do. I’ve made it easy to submit your suggestions and/or requests in the column immediately to the right. Please contact me about the dissection forum or anything else you’d like to mention privately. I want your feedback!
–L.S.

Hidden Framework

I love documentaries.

Okay, stay with me. This really does have something to do with writing.

I particularly love documentaries about film making. As a J-school grad, I was required to do my time in the radio and TV departments to get my degree. And, for fun, I took a non-required course in Film Theory. Part of the reason was I loved the instructor, Mr. Hayes, who has since retired as of last spring. But, I also took it because I love stories, whether printed on paper or on film.

Recently, I was watching one of the documentaries that came with my copy of IronMan (2008, Marvel/Paramount). I do this a lot: sit down, watch a documentary about one of my favorite movies. A lot of it was about the special effects, choosing the actors, getting the designs right, etc. What I really found fascinating was the post-production–that time between when the last scene is filmed and it debuts in a theater near you.

Watching what director Jon Favreau went through in those post production weeks got me to thinking about how much detail he went through to get the movie on screen, and I wondered how much the average viewer would actually notice. I know as a director, it’s his artistic vision that gets the movie to whatever point it’s printed and sent to the movie theaters around the world. How much time, energy, thought is put into making a great movie, especially one which is heavy on the special effects?

Probably a lot more than the average person would realize. According to the documentary I watched, it was right around two years — TWO YEARS! — from the time the project was dreamed up to the time it debuted in May 2008. From my understanding, for a movie of its scale, that’s actually pretty darn quick.

The post-production segment was also interesting for other reasons, too, since it dealt primarily with special effects. (Okay, I admit it. In my Top 10 Dream Jobs, working for Industrial Light & Magic is probably at least #5.) They showed how they attempted to accomplish these effects so they were as seamless as they could be–so the average viewer couldn’t tell where reality ended and the effects began.

In our writing, how well do we hide from the average reader that framework which we put our characters, setting, and plot on? If Joe Schmoe walked into Borders or Barnes & Noble and picked up your book, would he be able to tell all of those ‘effects’ that we writers use to tell an engaging story? Perhaps a few… but overall, would he just say, ‘Hey, this was a pretty good read,’ or would something nag at him that bothered him?

It could be the way the story’s told. Something about the characters that don’t seem just right. A weak or predictable plot. If we as writers don’t take the time to rewrite and thoroughly edit our works before putting them before an audience, we run that risk of getting a negative reaction. But, if we take the time, as Favreau did on IronMan, to make our work as good as we can get it, we will get that reader’s response of, ‘Hey, this was a pretty good read.’

So, how well do you hide your ‘framework’?

Until next time,

P.S.–I’m completely looking forward to the debut of IronMan 2 on May 7. If my husband’s not careful, he’ll find he’s sitting with me at 12:01AM in the theater that day! — LS

For additional reading, I recommend the following blog posts:

Suspense With a Twist: Top 10 Mistakes New Fiction Writers Make

Plot Whisperer: The End is the Beginning