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Novel writing: Structure versus Free Expression

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Article by Alison Wells © 17 May 2013.
Posted in Guest Blogs ().

Aside from what we’ll call ‘practice novels’ I’m working now on my 3rd and 4th novels and I’ve been thinking a lot about the interplay between planning and structuring a work and following the initial fresh impetus of what you want to write. How can we produce but not force, how can we keep organised but not limit our potential for imagination and layering in our books? While we’d all like a definitive ‘how to’ novel writing guide, I’m not sure one exists. Our brains all work slightly differently, some of us are more rule bound than others, some are more organised and methodical, others thrive on chaos.

One well known method for planning out the structure of a novel is the Snowflake Method. Starting from the fine detail up, it provides a way of defining the heart of your novel and moving from there to the larger picture. Its proponent Randy Ingermanson acknowledges that there are many ways to write a novel and that this is just one way that works for him. His method starts with a one line summary of the novel, then a synopsis with a similar procedure for expanding character from a one-line identification to exploring everythin g about their background and their journey through the story. Your analysis reaches right down to a scene by scene account of what happens from which you write your story.

Ingermanson acknowledges that you might feel that the creativity has been sucked out of your manuscript by the time you are writing to the points of the structure. Although there will still be some problems to be solved and episodes that don’t sit right.

The way we write our novel though, also depends on how our particular personality reacts to struggle, challenge and how we process motivation. Psychologists have found that motivation relating to our interest and feedback from the task itself works better than that from external rewards. Our experience of our emerging novel itself must make it worth our while to keep going. Some people are easily buffeted by failure and setback, others are more resistant, some brains are more singleminded, some think of every eventuality. Writing a novel is hard, no matter what kind of brain you have and I know I find myself having to apply all sorts of tricks and motivational prompts to keep myself moving even when I’m generally pleased with my progress.

My own experience of starting a new project this time has brought this tension between creativity and structure to the fore. Several of my novels gained wordcount through doing the yearly 50,000 words in a month challenge NaNoWrimo but the results were different each time in terms of clarity of the resulting work. My first literary book The Book of Remembered Possibilities is complex psychologically and structurally and I had not put that structure in place when doing a first draft, the result was many many (torturous) months of extricating the story and restructuring.  On my next book which is now at 2nd draft I had written a short story which had the chronology and main events of the tale detailed within, so I used this as a starting point and expanded each element. This was a much more joyful experience as I had plenty of scope for creativity and free expression in both the language of the telling and in adding new events.

The new project I’m working on is one that I’ve been excited about since last year. It’s a book, in my mind ‘with a May feeling’. I’ve been eager to get some words down and so this May have decided to participate in the #15KinMay hashtag on twitter. A flash fiction piece I’ve already done has set the tone for it and the 15K is a blank slate for me to write scenes, notes, storylines etc. Meeting author Claire Kilroy at a Mountains to Sea event, she explained that she writes many many more words that she ever uses and that she extricates her story from them. She acknowledged that it can be a long process but I’ve found that there are many benefits from the free expression and unbounded creativity that can come from challenges like Nanowrimo and my current 15K. You are constantly asking ‘what if?’ and ‘How about if that happened the other way around?’ etc. You are not bound on a previously set out path.

However what if’s can be infinite and having now written 10K words my intuition tells me that it is time to set out some scaffolding for the project that I can work around. Scaffolding can be identifying the chronology or the character challenges or the main storylines, the kinds of things that the snowflake method suggests. But if you’re the kind of person who needs the excitement of the unknown to propel them then perhaps your scaffolding can be ‘the bare bones’ rather than rigid structures of steel. Putting in certain structures or foundations can be a springboard for further invention. On the other hand standing back or sitting under you novel can promote a general readiness for finding related things that can layer your novel.

I’m drawn to the joyful approach outlined by Aaron Hamburger. He says ‘In my experience, one of the surest ways to kill the creative energy of a work of fiction at its inception is with an outline.’ He likens finding the shape of your novel to the process used by sculptors in finding the shape of their piece within the clay. This requires intuition, an ability to stand back as well as come in close to get the detail that will accentuate the piece. Hamburger has moved further, (probably as a more experienced writer, he has developed an awareness of what works) he prefers now an ‘organic’ approach, putting the ‘raw material’ on the page and ‘searching for patterns.’ What works for him is reverse outlining.  He writes an outline based what has emerged in the piece in retrospect. Once he sees how the story has unfolded he can then note any areas that should be developed or sketched in more and what doesn’t fit.

While writers are sometimes characterised as plotters or pantsers (seat of the pants writers without an outline) I think that what we are looking at is the same process from other sides of the mirror. It is a push –pull process where push is the impetus behind our excitement and imagination and the pull is how we structure it to make sense. You might begin in one direction but the other direction pushes back, ‘what if’s’ need to settle on a more finite set of possibilities, structure needs to bend to allow originality and surprise. With my book The Exhibit of Held Breaths (in draft stage) I wrote the draft around the structure of the original short story but developed in. Then I used the reverse outlining technique to have a clearer view of the chronology and storylines. I did it on a chapter by chapter basis, writing a short summary of the events and characters in each chapter. By highlighting where each character appeared I could then see where one character was too predominant, where I needed to fill in or explain a chronological gap etc. Armed with an idea of the gaps I needed to fill I could go back to work exploring the new possible scenes with as much imagination and original turn of phrase as possible.

As first time novel writers we’re eager to follow the tried and trusted methods and techniques for novel writing, we may feel more comfortable with an initial structure for instance. As we continue to practice and produce works we will get a better idea of how the novel writing process works best for us given our particular temperaments and based on our experience of the push-pull and interplay of expression and structure at various points from initial idea to completion.

It would be interesting to hear from novel writers as to how you work around creativity/expression and structure, each approach will be different, and perhaps different for different projects. Please leave a comment if you’d like to share your experience.


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Alison Wells runs the Random Acts of Optimism blog and lives in Bray, Co. Wicklow with her husband and four children. Her short fiction been published in many magazines and online and print anthologies and she has been featured on Sunday Miscellany. Shortlisted for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award, Bridport and Fish Prize's she has just completed a themed short story collection Random Acts of Optimism and a literary novel The Book of Remembered Possibilities. To read Alison's full blog, visit Head Above Water. Find out in her Random Acts of Optimism how she manages to juggle writing, children and life.