My latest short story "The Night the Lights Came On"

Monday, November 26, 2012

A NaNoWriMo Update and Studying Story Structure

This is my fourth year doing NaNoWriMo, and it is the worst I have ever done, but that's okay. I've barely written two days worth of words. Even though I wish I have been using this time to put a whole bunch of words on the page, I've still been using my time well. I'm building a foundation that will improve all of my writing moving forward. I have been studying plot and story structure like crazy. I have written a couple thousand words, but mostly I've been studying. After finally putting one of my novels through more than one draft (three) and handing it off to beta readers, a process which took a huge amount of time, I saw how much was still wrong with my book. Even after all my revisions and rewriting my manuscript is a mess. The feedback helped me see a lot of the major things that were wrong with it. Talking about it with my friend and co-host of the Pen Fights Gamepad podcast  Donald Conrad helped a lot. He did me a solid and read through it three times! I still can't believe that. He said something to the effect of I have a good story, it's just hidden behind a hall of mirrors. It is buried between unneeded scenes and scenes that need way more. 

I think I'm a decent writer, but I did so many things wrong in my novel even after three drafts that I see I have a long way to go to become a good storyteller. It may be a case of changing what the book was so many times, but I'm thinking it's mostly that it was only the second novel I've written. Time and time again the advice for writers I hear the most is to write. Get words on the page, then do it again and keep doing it. I think this is great advice. I don't think I could wrap my head around all this structuring the story of my novel business until I proved to my self a couple times that I could actually write a whole novel. As they say you need to get all the bad words out, and write a million bad ones until you can start writing good ones. There is a lot to be said for just finishing a novel. Finishing is the hardest part in some ways. The problem is that now I know I can write a novel, once it's written though there is so much wrong with it that I cringe at the thought of revising, rewriting, and fixing it because it will be so much work. I don't mind doing the work and even enjoy revising to make the writing better - I just don't want to have to do such a massive overhaul evertime I hit the second draft of a novel. The more I study the more I learn that almost every successful story follows the same three act structure, so if I don't know this structure and put my story into it, I'm going to run into a lot of problems. Problems like boring the reader, or not having an engaging story. I don't want to write another novel until I feel that I fully understand plot structure and can apply it to my stories before I begin writing them.

It reminds me of art school. I was trying to get better at drawing and so I spent at least an hour drawing in my sketchbook everyday. The problem was I was just drawing whatever seemed to take shape out of my imagination when I should have been studying things like anatomy. If I wanted to draw characters I needed to know anatomy first. I could draw from my imagination in my sketchbook as much as I wanted, and yes I slowly got better but not by much, or I could study what I was trying to draw first, get the structure of how it it supposed to go down, then let fly with my imagination and draw characters. When I analyse the stories I have written with this structure it helps me see right away major things that are out of place or not there. I think I finally have a method now. 

I'm getting my current project "The Truth About Zombies" broken down into an outline with all of the story points in the right places down to each chapter. I decided I wanted this to be a shorter novel, 60K words, and so I broke that length up into 2,500 word chapters. Then I took tools like Dan Well's 7 Point Story Structure, and Blake Snyder's Save The Cat Beat Sheet and wrote out all of the major plot or story points of my novel. The Save The Cat Beat Sheet is for movie scripts, but the story structure is the same as what a great novel should have, and it has the page number each story point should be at on a 110 page script. You can use that number by turning it into a percentage, and get the word count and chapter those plot points should be at in your novel. I know I want my novel to be 60K words and have 2.5K word chapters so it will be 24 chapters long. I know that the turn from Act I into Act II should be about 25% of the way into the story so I will put it at the end of chapter 6. Obviously my midpoint, which Dan Wells tells us should have characters go from reacting to the problem to taking action in solving it, will start in chapter 13, or be set up by the end of chapter 12. I've already written the first 3 chapters of my novel, but already this has shown me that I had things in the wrong places. For example, the B story usually involves the romantic part of your story and should start around page 30 of your script. 30 divided by 110 is .27 so that is about 27% through the story. My B story started in chapter two which is much too early, and I was having trouble figuring out how to flesh out the chapters to get me to the next plot point. Now I know why. I also had the midpoint too early in my book. It looks like I rush things. I was using the 7 point system but not spreading them out to the right places so I would rush to the next point much too fast. So now I'm revising the first three chapters so that all the plot points will be in the right place.

Planning out my book by chapters instead of just writing one massive chunk of text and organizing it into chapters after the fact is proving to be amazing. Now I want each chapter to be a little story of it's own and leave the reader in a place of wanting more at the end. Instead of having things just kind of move along I can plan out all the important things that need to happen in my story and then break them all into the places they need to be. I'm excited. I'm taking the Save The Cat Beat Sheet and placing all the beats into the chapters they need to be in my outline, which is helping me know what all the chapters need to be doing to move the story along. I'm excited and I think this will be my best book yet and one that will actually keep my beta readers wanting to turn the page instead of taking copious notes telling me why they're getting bored or asking why I put things in the story, or why the chapter breaks when it does, and so on and so forth. :)

I used to think writing was all about getting the most beautiful sentences down, but now I see the real challenge is in crafting a great story. One that moves your reader to turn the page and brings them through a journey taking the characters from one place to another. People don't take on huge projects without planning and knowing the structure of what they need to do. From now on I'm going to have everything planned out and know just how I'm going to get from Act I, to Act II, to the midpoint, and the grande finale. I can't wait to write a novel with these new tools in my tool belt. It is going to be another amazing learning experience on my long path of becoming a great novelist. As always, thanks for stopping by and I'd love any comments you have.

1 comment:

  1. I would say you're on the right track...I'm doing something very similar in terms of story structure...