• Here’s the Story

    I wrote a book called The Forest for the Trees and it’s an advice book for writers. For four years, I blogged every day about the agony of writing and publishing, and the self loathing that afflicts most writers. A community of like-minded malcontents gathered and thus ensued a grand conversation. Now, the most popular posts are gathered in Greatest Hits ( a work in progress) Gluttons for punishment can scroll through the archives. If I've learned one thing about writers, it's this: we really are all alone. Love, Betsy
  • Archives

How Can a Loser Ever Win

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Structure, structure, structure. We’ve talked about it before and for fuck’s sake we are going to talk about it again. When there is a problem with a manuscript, when it’s “not working,” when the material is good but the flakes don’t fly, it’s usually because the structure is flawed and by that I mean it’s fucked. What is structure, asks the simple son? First, slice a seedless rye in even slices. Butter every other one. Thematic? Chronological? A dovetail of the two? How good are you? How many plates in the air can you successfully spin? How devout are you? How unpredictable? If you have no idea what I’m talking about, mark up your favorite book and track the changes, the breaks, clock the way time moves. Pick a tense and stick with it unless you know how to drive a stick. Yo, what up? Is structure organic or something you apply to a work, asks the silent son, silently. For me, it’s  organic. I subscribe to the idea that the choices you make in the first pages are more than clues, they are the dead sea scrolls, the shroud, the grail. You set the tone, style, syntax, pace, point of view, etc.  It doesn’t mean you can’t make adjustments. It doesn’t mean you can’t turn it on its head. And sometimes it isn’t until you get to the end that you see the beginning. And that is the place to start.

Define structure according to the gospel of you.

48 Responses

  1. Structure is the tree on which the ornaments hang.

  2. Structure is that 40’s wiggle dress that looks so good on hipless girls. It’s all the secrets I can never know. How to walk properly in heels. How to get the smear completely off the inside of the car window before driving into the sun. How to make a football spiral, a clematis bloom, an editor pull the trigger. I always choose structures that are bigger and smarter than I am, and thus the unravel begins.

  3. You’re describing music. It’s like a song. Rhythm, harmony, melody, voice. We dance with the reader. We lead, they follow: twirl, dip, hold ‘em close. Very close.

  4. …and he took in his hand a mustard seed, which is among the smallest of seeds from the garden of herbs, and he planted it in fertile ground in a sunsome place and he gave it water and it sprouted. he sheltered it from the harsh drying winds and he kept it well-watered and it grew.

    and it grew until it was greater than the king’s mighty oak and many-branched as the amazon of legend and in its crown nested all the birds of the heavens, and he called it the book of life.

  5. Structure. Finally, I can admit the Day Job has its purpose in my writing pursuits! The form-follows-function approach to building design is also a handy guide to all manner of writing. Although, I’m not adverse to the occasional non-functional, decorative details, too.

  6. Structure is helpful. But to me, realizing where the beginning of the story lies..that’s the trick. It’s not easy. But thanks to your post, I think i just did. That moment! In my case it’s a quote from a cavalier creative director explaining why it would never work between us. In 1974! His words were mortifying, and they set the tone for my entire romantic life. Thank God I took notes as the years went by. The pattern is now unmistakable and most amusing – even to me.

  7. After I bought a Rubik’s Cube, I got so frustrated that I read some genius-yahoo’s directions on how to solve it. Hopelessly confused, I peeled the squares off, (it was a cheap version, the squares came off), and I rearranged them. It never looked the same after that so I threw it in my desk drawer. Every once in a while I’d take it out, mix up the colors and play around with figuring it out. Of course it didn’t work, and could never be solved, because my peeling of the squares screwed up the correct color arrangement, the structure. I’m thinking it’s time to throw it away because it will never be right again.

    Sometimes when you fuck with something too much the original intent becomes lost in a little leaf-pile of small colored squares. That’s when you give it up and move on.

    I am very good at jigsaw puzzles. At work we have hundreds displayed on the lunchroom walls. No structure to a jigsaw, until it’s finished and glued. Without glue they are nothing more than funny little shapes of cardboard. I write with glue on my mind.

  8. The huge black clock hand is still at rest but is on the point of making its once-a-minute gesture; that resilient jolt will set a whole world in motion.

    (first sentence, King, Queen, Knave–Nabokov)

  9. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: character timelines. Know your characters inside-out and they’ll make sure everything works out in the end. They are the structure.

  10. I agree with you. While there are spinning plates involved I think the structure is already breathed to life in the work’s first words. The grail is there. Hidden, to be revealed (even to the writer sometimes)

  11. Structure is 3 rickety acts built of oaktag and post-it notes: http://ellenmeister.blogspot.com/2012/09/writers-how-do-you-begin.html

  12. It keeps me up at night.

  13. Betsy–I love this post, and I totally agree about the clues on the first page. I think about shape, and letting all the ideas sit until the shape emerges from the underground. I have found that sitting with an idea works as well–sitting quietly in a room, and being patient–the shape reveals itself. So perhaps…write the first page and wait until you understand it.

  14. I suck at structure, but somehow, subconsciously, it is always there.

  15. Structure implies science, anathema to artists. Don’t make me be Vermeer. Learning color and perspective sucks. I want to be wild and free like Jackson Pollock. But you’re just like my fucking readers; you demand that it make sense. Like plays, my structure comes in three acts. It begins with a question. Why is the question important, and to whom? Then I will show you the answer.

  16. I’m such a loose writer that without some kind of imposed structure my stories would float like mist. I have to be careful, though. Too much author imposition, in the initial writing, kills my flow. My characters rebel.

    Basically for me, structure = revision. That’s when I’m able to pull-in the reins and guide the beast. Before that, it’s a runaway horse.

  17. Beginning. Middle. End. I visualize it like a roller coaster.

    The reader gets on, gripping the rail in front of them, anxiously awaiting the jolt that signals the ride is starting. Their nerves are on edge as they go up the first hill, and within minutes, WHOOSH! They somehow hang on, they get bumped around, their heart rate is up as the ride navigates twists, turns, ups and downs, sometimes throwing them to the left, then the right and OMG, upside down! Just when they think they can’t take it anymore, they screech to a stop, exhilarated and satisfied.

  18. What’s a structure?

  19. Driving in the truck this morning, I listened to a new CD, Green Light on the Southern, by Norman Blake, a fine guitar player (Ask 100 great guitar pickers who their top five influences are and 103 will have Norman Blake on their list). In the liner notes, Norman writes that he has grown “weary and has to stop and rest,” so the album is of songs he sings and plays around home, many inspired by the railroad and played on a variety of vintage guitars, dobros and madolins.

    I like the album more each time I listen to the stories he tells, about missing his grandmother inThe Old Wooden Rocker, freedom in Railroading On The Great Divide and the sadness of The Tramp thrown to his death from a train because “he was only a tramp.” Every note is crisp and clear, Norman’s voice cracking or strained at times — he’s entitled — and his elegant backwoods phrasing preserving history, the structure built on his 74 years of life.

  20. It’s just storytelling. It’s whatever keeps the kids around the campfire.

  21. Organic with discipline; that’s structure for me. In the beginning, it’s all feeling, mood, painting that first picture, placing that first clue. I start my “bible” after I’ve written chapter one, keeping track of plot, character introduction and development as I drive the story forward. Beware the flabby middle. Avoid plot points that miss a developmental beat. I never know what I will leave on the page when I sit down to write, but I always know the scene I need to write and am clear about the job that scene needs to accomplish. And I never lose mood, that initial feeling. And I still get lost in the act of writing.

  22. Structure.

    First draft of memoir, tenses changed with the experience of trauma sentence by sentence–time hopped around. NOT stream of consciousness, god do I fucking hate that description. This age than that age, round and round. It felt true! But boy was it fucking opaque, coded, understandable to me and perhaps a truly astute therapist.

    Second draft, everything marked by year, by voice. Literally laid out across the floor with scissors and tape. Retyped, rearranged, rewritten and painstakingly verified. What conversations were when? What knowledge did we have when we had them? Cut and more cutting. Structure, chronological for the next three drafts. THIS made it feel like fiction to me. But it’s not.

    Then, next breakthrough someone said, if you re-imagined it as fiction maybe those constraints of time would fall away. I sat. I sulked. NOT fiction. Won’t be.

    Real breakthrough was Betsy’s post about maybe it’s just not good enough. Hope! It was a quality explication of extraordinary crisis. But no point beyond that to it. Real revision, giving the insight and love of today, the present. Now in pieces, each having a beginning, middle, end. Time and tense once again are fuck all. How they now fit together–fuck if I know. Will I figure it out? That’s the million dollar question. I’ve given myself the new year as a deadline. Is it better? Absolutely.

  23. I read somewhere, I think it was in Ondaatje’s, “The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film” that Apocalypse Now/ Heart of Darkness was a journey story…the river is what moves the viewer/reader through it with the trips to shore along the way providing the action. I searched like hell for the quote (I loaned my copy to a friend) because I fear I butchered it here. But when I think of structure I think of that.

  24. Wow, this is what is holding me up right now. I don’t doubt my material at all, it’s just not clicking into any kind of structure…a list of stories is all it is at the moment.

  25. I am the Walrus.

  26. Love this post. Structure is everything.

  27. When I tell readers that finding the right structure for a book is the most difficult challenge I face, they are amazed. How hard could it be? Hitting on the right structure deserves champagne and a toast.

  28. Ya’ll are fucking nut cases!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,080 other followers

%d bloggers like this: