So, the other morning I woke early - well, at 5:50 a.m. , which is not the sort of early where I can really grind my forehead into my pillow to get back to sleep, but which is early enough for me. My laptop was at my mattress-side. I lifted it onto my chest and opened it (I’ve gotten good at typing that way, and so on; needs must) - and I found two happy surprises.
The first surprise I discovered in my email.
People have been finding my copyediting website, somehow, and through it my email address. A woman had written me a few days back to ask me if I give structure guidance for stories. She had a half-finished novel, and just wanted to know if she was on the right track.
I had written her back the next day, taking the morning to do it. Here’s most of what I wrote:
You ask if I give structure advice on a whole-novel level.
It is the first time this question has come to me. I’ll answer by saying
that I don’t, and explain, and you can decide if it amounts to advice
beyond that. As the first inquirer, you get to see my answer in rough
I don’t give the sort of whole-novel structure advice you’re asking
about because I’m not convinced that my takes would be worth
paying for - so I’m certainly not going to charge for them - and
because I’m not sure I believe in it, exactly. In structure advice.
Or, I don’t disbelieve in it, but, unless the advice came direct from
a novelist who has written, and continues to write, a whole string of
productions that I’ve loved, I wouldn’t treat the advice as
There is certainly a lot of advice out there. I know of several lines
of it, the Hero’s Journey and beat-structure recipes and the like.
The difficulty is that these guidelines, if explicitly followed, seem
to me to foster a lot of stories that play out predictably, reliably,
professionally . . . in a series of rises and falls and progressions
that all tend toward the “happy ending.” (You may detect that I’ve
held back a more pungent characterization.)
Meanwhile, there are a lot of stories that I’ve loved onto which
these structures map approximately . . . and some onto which
these structures can be stretched only with difficulty, if at all.
(Nor do I trust the stories I’ve loved to be necessarily good
examples, for that matter.)
I’m answering as a reader. I like stories that vary, where I discover
how they play out - and I like surprises and new tones. I take
stories and novels to be experimental, or to be experiments; I like
them to take chances, and I like to see what fun new creations
have shambled off the slab. (This view can’t be extricated from
the fact that it comes from me. I was once told - not just about
stories, but in general - that I am a person who claims to search
for diamonds in the rough but is just as likely to pop up waving a
frying pan I found, and, when asked where the diamond is, to
answer happily, “Look at this frying pan.”)
What I do is to take the things that writers have done and go
line-by-line to help what they were trying to do come through
more clearly. I’m good at that, I think, and I pull out all the stops
I don’t tell writers what sort of thing to try to do.
If there’s one piece of advice I’d be minded to give you, it’s that
in my experience it’s impossible to tell anything definite about
a draft that you haven’t written yet. The possible futures of an
unfinished draft are infinite, indefinite, in a way perfect and
always doomed to betrayal to some extent . . . while it’s only
possible to see flaws, or things that could be done better, or
new inspirations or possibilities in a specific, finished, imperfect
and lop-eared piece of writing. So I’d be minded to tell you to
forge ahead - without structure advice or other advice - blindly,
intuitively, with dead reckoning and fingers crossed and for
that matter using anything at all that helps you, and finish the
first draft to the end. After that you can see what you want to
polish, or feel out how it disappoints you, or go with some
line of refinement or another. But finish the draft first. So you
can see it.
Other editors do give the level of advice you’re asking about,
and I’d guess that they too would do better if they had your
completed first draft to look at, so that they have something to
analyze or critique. None of the above means I’d counsel you
against asking other editors for this sort of help; I am conscious
of the likelihood that my own take could be substantial
ignorance. Though my broad and variety-seeking reading
tastes I’m in no doubt about.
So: no, I don’t - and in the meantime, for what it’s worth, I’d
counsel you to plunge in and finish making a mess. :-) Get yourself
the finished first draft. Until you do that, ignore everything but
trying to write the story you wanted to write. But that’s just my
take, and it’s free.
I hope this is in some way helpful - the editor said ruefully, scanning
back up the email with a raised eyebrow. :-) Good luck with the novel.
(If you’d be looking later for someone to help with it on a line-by-line
basis, you can definitely ping me and see if I’ve hit a gap between
assignments. I’m still at a stage where your odds would be pretty good.)
I’d been slightly worried about this, and looked it over carefully before I sent it, and then I still wasn’t sure about it. It was a fresh ramble answering a new question, and a sensitive writer could have read me as mocking what she was asking for. Editors do give that line of developmental advice. And how much genuine incompetence on the subject had I cheerfully exposed? What would an editor who does work on this level have made of my remarks?
I mean, those structure theories certainly do “work,” for what they do. And they do not forbid interesting stories; I enjoy good TV and movies, after all, which are even more structured formats, by a great deal; “good” does happen . . . But these formulas do give me indigestion, and the patterns and predictability that they do foster when explicitly used as a building basis, most of all in those same most-structured media. -sigh-
I did make very clear that my reasons were personal, at any rate. (And did say, “and for that matter using anything at all that helps you”, although I could have paused to make the thought noticeable.)
(And, in another direction of thought: That vulgar simile that I skated past and then alluded to was, er, quite vulgar.
How well-tuned is your sense of delicacy in professional communications, Mr. Editor, sir? My sense of le mot juste - or of fun - occasionally places bets I barely notice.)
But the response that I now found waiting for me, a couple of hours old in my inbox, went as follows:
Thank you for your response to my structure inquiry. I really enjoyed
what you wrote and it actually inspired me to relax a little, not worry
so much, and just enjoy the writing process! I’m pushing through to
the second half of my book, letting the pieces, for now, fall where they
I can live with having had that sort of effect on a writer.
So that was the first smile in the first blue hint of morning.
I found the second smile five minutes later. A Facebook friend in Sweden had written a new comment under one of her posts, pursuant to an exchange that we had had about her young child and reading. She said,
We read the book btw, Robin and the Pirates - read the last part
yesterday and she liked it! Thanks for the tip, it was the perfect
combination of words and pictures. Lots of words and very
interesting artwork! :)
(I didn’t ask what language she found it in. She’s an Icelander living in Sweden and she seems to speak everything. I know that copies of the French-language version can be found cheaper.)
So someone had read Robin and the Pirates . . . to a child . . . because of me.
So, between the two, my question is: When it’s only 6 a.m., and you discover that you’ve already justified your existence, what do you do with the rest of the day?
(Answer: Of course you do something, and I did. The thing refuses to stay justified.)
Last updated February 13, 2015