Not thinking structurally

Warning: This post is longish, rambling, and possibly incoherent.

I don’t think structurally.1 But most of my novelist friends do. When they talk about the books they’re currently writing, they rabbit on about three and four-act structures, beats, setting things up for the climax, the dénouement and blah blah blah.

I’ve never thought about my books that way. I have no idea what the act structure of any of them is. I don’t know what a beat is. I am an idiot savant novelist.

I suspect part of this is because when I first started learning how to write novels I’d never heard of act structures or outlining so I didn’t use any of those models for writing a novel. I winged it. And thus learned how to write novels by winging it.

Mostly I have no idea where my books are going. I’ll have an initial incident, or sense of the protag, or a setting. Occasionally I think I know how the book ends, but mostly not. In fact, when I think have an ending I find out that I am wrong.

When I’m writing the first draft, I’m very often lost in the sentence level, or going from scene to scene. For a long time, I can’t see very far ahead, which means I don’t have much of a macro view. Not until I’ve written the first draft and can look at the whole thing. When I start rewriting, deleting and moving scenes around, I don’t do it to balance out acts—on account of having no idea what the different acts are—I do it to get the book to feel right:

This bit drags = I delete it or trim viciously.
This bit doesn’t really make sense so early in the book = I move it.

The way I think about structure is most clearly articulated in my post on how to rewrite, proving that I do think about structure, just not in the organised way so many of my friends do.

I wonder if part of this is the winging it versus outlining it school of writing. In order to write an outline you have to start with an overall sense of the structure of your book.2 Whereas I learn what the structure of my book is by writing it.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I just realised that the book I’m working on right now has three parts. Could they be three acts? Could I accidentally be doing what I thought I didn’t know how to do? The first part sets everything up, introduces all the characters, reveals the main conflicts. The second part, well, I’m not sure how to describe what the second part’s doing given that there’s not even two thousand words of it. And the third part will, hopefully, bring stuff to a head and then wrap everything up. Or something.

We’ll see.

I defnitely feel that I have a much stronger sense of the structure of this novel and where it’s going at a much earlier stage. I’m about half finished and I’m pretty sure I know where it’s going and how to get there. It is most odd.

I suspect that Scrivener may be at least partly to blame. The way it works has made me aware of the overall shape and, well, structure of my book almost immediately.

I’m also enjoying writing this book a great deal. Something about working with Scrivener has forced me to think about the craft of writing in ways I haven’t before. I feel like I’m being stretched and the book is better for it. Even if I do wind up writing a book with the English-speaking world’s most conventional structure: the three-act structure.3

Whatever. Nothing wrong with reinventing the wheel.

  1. I’ve been tinkering with this post for quite some time. Part of my problem writing it is that because I do not think structurally about my writing I do not really have the language I need to write this post. I borrow other writers’s language, but most likely I don’t use it in the ways they intend, hence the messiness. I’m just feeling my way and thinking out loud. My apologies! []
  2. I once wrote an outline of a book—for Magic or Madness. However, I wrote it in order to sell the book (and trilogy) and once I got stuck into the writing I never looked at the outline again. []
  3. I may have more coherent thoughts once I’ve actually finished it. []

Scrivener (updated)

Many of my writer friends have recently switched from WordToolOfSatan to Scrivener. Since the always trustworthy Holly Black and Lili Wilkinson recommend it so strongly I decided that I would give it a go.

I’m here to tell you that I am in love. Scrivener is the first writing tool for computers that I have ever fallen for.1

Before you race off to get a copy here are two key points about Scrivener:

  1. It’s only available for Macs. It’s now available for PCs too.
  2. It is not a word-processing program; it’s a program designed specifically for drafting long documents (such as novels).

Continue reading

  1. I’ve had some really beautiful pens. []