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    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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You’re a Bendel Bonnet A Shakespeare Sonnet

We need to talk about structure. I’ve known some editors who feel they can impose a structure on a book. Others who feel it is organic, issues forth from the text. You say potato. I say tomato. Some books lend themselves to certain structures.  The story dictates it to some extent. Some books need to be written before the ultimate structure is clear. What exactly is structure: parts, chapters, point of view, tense are all part of it. Some writers have a sixth sense when it comes to structure. They know how to break a story, when and how to shift tense, how to deploy point of view. The most challenging book I ever worked on structure-wise was Columbine by Dave Cullen. How to write about an event everyone thinks they know about? How do you make the past present? If you are lost where structure is concerned, read a short story collection and analyze how each story is constructed. I always felt as an editor that you had a certain amount of play up to about 75-100 pages at which point you had to commit. I think some of the manuscripts that are submitted to me are in search of a structure. There is no organizing principle. No clock. No shuffle. No feint.

a) my books are structured within an inch of their lives b) I believe in a loose structure that provides a general blue print c) I just write.

61 Responses

  1. C) And then it somehow comes out to A) seemingly on its own. I’m not sure what I would do if it didn’t.

  2. I just write and hope I keep getting my editor extraordinaire to save me from myself.

  3. Thinking that structure issues forth from the text is thinking that sandcastles issue forth from the tide. The most minimal structure is a half-assed outline, or a vague notion of where we’re going. Then a more comprehensive outline, every scene described. And those who truly love structure write an entire draft, and use that.

    • Ha! I was thinking what a disaster my structure is that as I rewrite I’m having to impose it, but now, dear August, I see that I am using my whole first draft. I can always count on you for glass half full…
      All of this is to say that it’s like driving from Chicago to New York via Texas, and next time I’m taking an airplane with a full outline in my notebook.

    • I disagree. My long & short fiction starts out completely loose and free, emerging from the wet sand as I go. Often astonished at what’s forming, I start taking notes. I listen. I write. While sculpting the final draft, the chisel emerges, as does the sandcastle. In the end, it’s a tightly structured piece, emerging from the text. I love a three part novel. I love epilogues & prologues, which I’m often forced to cut. Storytellers vary in their approach. For me, it’s all about being surprised.

      • I like this – especially about the prologues and epilogues….as a reader, I’ve never been turned off by them. I’ve read when editors see them in a ms, they want to cut them out (what you said) and almost always recommend this b/c the automatic thought is the writer is starting off with backstory…

        I’ve always seen them as a hook – and I’d say 99.9% of the time it’s worked for me.

    • I agree, August. You mention a half-assed outline. Got an idea–write it down. If it is only one or two sentences, you have something to help recall your frame of mind at the time. Just winging it is risky. People do it. November is one of them. Some writers just dream up characters and then “interview” them. As I posted below, Jack Kerouac wrote “On the Road” (which I have never read) on a single roll of paper. I have come to lean on an outline. Of course, I write dumb-ass genre fiction, with little success so far. How I fuck it up doesn’t matter.

  4. I don’t think I’ve ever once just started writing without a plan, without what I think the structure should be. I think this comes from never having kept a diary. That said, I may always have a plan, but that plan often changes, kind of like the story (and what it’s really about) changes.

    Last year I wrote an essay about spending a week, as a liberal female, at the US Army War College. My only restriction was the “non attribution” clause I signed which said I could not use anyone’s name, and this proved more difficult than I originally thought. I first structured the essay like the classes I attended with these military colonels — Orientation, Electives, etc… — and that helped me get the story on the page. In the end, these categories fell away and the story emerged in a different form and I figured out how to have conversations without names. It was painful, but worth it.

  5. Somewhere between A and B…but sometimes C just happens.

  6. I always know the beginning and the ending and a couple of things that I’d like to see happen along the way. The rest is winging it.

    So . . . B and C?

    But while I’m editing, I go all type A . . .

  7. For now c. I just write. I am reading “On Writing” by Stephen King and he is against plot/structure driven stories. Usually if he structures it ahead he feels it turns out forced. All of his favorite books didn’t end the way he suspected – they just happened. He likens it to uncovering a fossil a bit at a time. I have to say I’m going with just writing to see what happens…my current project is of the memoir type, so there’s a definite situation and events to follow, but how is what I’m unsure of. And I feel is I wait for that structure to come about too long I will give up. So just write it is.

    And on a side note, I would love a list of all the books you’ve worked with Betsy!! Lol. I picked up Columbine last year and mean to read it this summer.

  8. I’m a (b) while I’m writing a draft. I have a pretty good idea where I’m going, though not a stringent outline. But once the draft is done, it’s (a) all the way in the editing process. I’ve figured it all out by then and it’s tighten and organize, tighten and organize.

  9. whatever the work wants i give it. i’m a cheap whore that way, though it’s a passive-aggressive form of control over what is in essence fractured portions of my own psyche being forced to andor allowed to get up and shake their booty in front of what are sometimes audiences of the not completely enthralled or even willing.

    as for saying tomayto and tomahto, susan and i watched that movie just last night. the dance on roller skates was something else.

    • Hey Tetman, I think you nailed it here. Structure is something that knocks me to the floor. I have a hard time understanding what it is beyond the obvious idea of bones. My best guess for my own work is that I braid my world around reoccurring images that are in essence obsessions. The bits of my life I can’t shake into the past tense no matter how hard I try. The key is that each new reiteration must add something and not just be linguistic echo tied to vanity or simple repetition.

      Tense and chronology fuck me up big time. After I finished the very first draft of my memoir I went through and marked a year next to each paragraph–where that moment or voice was from. Then I spread it out on the floor with scissors and tape and worked like a demon to rewrite chronologically because the whole thing was so fucked up and confusing there needed to be at least one concrete aspect, time. I worked trying to verify what was when with my wife and anyone else who entered the story and then used that model for several years of rewrites. Funny thing is banged out that way the work felt like fiction to me, even though existing in time it was true as I could get the fucking thing.

      After an editor friend whom I think is genius asked me why I didn’t consider turning it to fiction, which at this point I will not, we talked about what fiction would mean and then what if I rewrote it as a collection of pieces each as close to a stand alone thing as I could get it with a beginning, middle and end. What she said, maybe you’ll find that the constraints of chronology would fall away as artificial. Fucking bingo! Immediately I returned to my jumping around in time, tense and chasing tail self in print. I’ve got a mess on my hands but it feels like I might eventually nail it. Now all I need to do is get my pace up as I work about as fast as a snail on heroin.

      Whatever the work wants I give it. Thanks!!

      • the structure arises from the words. the seed to the whole work is in its opening sentence. the writer works as a gardener, bringing the garden of the work to lush fullness and becoming skilled with the pruning shears, hoe, rake, mower, and when necessary the chain saw. in longer works there always comes a point where it’s prudent to jot some notes as to how you want the final garden to look. it’s a living thing and you don’t want it to kill it and end up only with stunted stubble, and you don’t want it to get out of control and end up wandering around lost in it.

        • Indeed the chainsaw is involved. Perhaps I’ll use it to carve lace. Likely I’ll just make a mess. But the pieces are something I’m finding I’m pleased with. Thrilled. Thrilled = they do not make me cringe as I read them aloud. With smaller pieces I do have a sense of where the thing needs to end up, that there is particular thing I’m getting at. Wondering lost is hard to live. As always it’s not a simple mix of things. So thank you!

  10. A good example of a story with structure, IMHO, is The Little Red Hen. Not subtle but it carries you right along.

    In more news, it’s been raining here in Northern Illinois for four hours!

    • In even more news it’s been raining here in England for three and half months.

      • Same in Finland Downith. The sun has made an appearance today and I’m squinting like a creature from the depths.

      • Ah, cool, gray, rainy days… I long to be on a moor or a bluff. (Never have!) I want to be a Bronte. I’m saving my pennies to trade New England for England, next summer. Sunshine & heat are so overrated.

      • and in even more news, in new mexico yesterday it rained four times, three times for almost five minutes and the fourth for pushing fifteen.

    • I’m glad to hear this. I was reading the news yesterday, Virginia, about the drought in the midwest. I was a farm girl there once and the photos of dead corn and cracked, dry land is painful to see.

  11. I found a solid think through at the beginning can save a lot of time at the back. I’m betting I can write the next book in a fraction of the time it took to write the first.

  12. I now write my novels using the 3 act structure and I love it. To me, it’s the perfect framework for telling a story.

  13. D…huh, WTF is structure.

    Only kidding, trying to be funny at 6am is like…ah forget about it.
    Until I read Ron McLarty’s MEMORY OF RUNNING, I never even thought about writing a novel. The way he structures the book, I loved it BTW, one chapter moving forward, another looking back, I thought…that I would like to try, that I think I could do, that would work for me, that I did.
    It was a kick…I’m proud. The book is good but you all know the query suckith.


    • Trying to be funny at 6am is like mumbling in my sleep.

      My stories are limited to around 1250 words, less if there’s dialogue. A short outline, key words, arrows, question marks chart the course. Sometimes, in the writing, things change, but that has to be checked against the outline, to make sure it works. If it’s a multi-part story, A must point to B, but not fully reveal it, and so on.

      The novel, which will get finished if I live long enough, is loose structured, but gets tighter all the time.

  14. A, hands down. Maybe it’s because I started out in screenwriting before I jumped over to fiction, but I’m a plotter, and my outlines definitely follow a structure, though not always a traditional one. If I just sat down to write without knowing what was going to happen next the blank page would paralyze me.

  15. Blindly feeling my way through the drafts. Structuring once I’ve spewed.

  16. b), but sorely tempted by c). I usually have the structure in mind when I start something, but things change along the way. I don’t know why, but the story I imagine doesn’t usually come out on paper the way I hear it when it’s rattling around inside my brain. Going for long walks or resisting sleep stirs up the cranial soup and different ideas surface. The original idea is there in some form, but if it was a straight line my footprints would be dancing around it like the route a child takes when she’s called away from play to come in and get ready for bed.

  17. c. Write
    Write Ideas and imagine
    c. Write
    b. Loosely
    c. Write
    a. P.O.V.
    c. Write
    a. Structure
    d. Read
    Imagine word’s story
    c. write

  18. I feel I basically learned to write after studying screenwriting, which is all about structure. I’m a tight-ass about it, in LIFE and in WRITING.

  19. The neverending debate. Sort of kinda like the chicken or the egg. I guess it’s whatever works for the writer. But then you have to deal with the editor. Not the same animal oftentimes as the editor has to impose some sort of structure,

    I digress.

    What works for me is just to write, with some sense of the beginning and the end and along the way letting it–hoping it?– just happens. It’s worked most times ,though, yeah, by fifty pages it better start getting some focus. The subconscious surprises when something written in the beginning becomes significant further on, that was planted early on and takes root and sprouts with this terrific little detail or plot point . Serendipity was invented for just such an occurrence.

    I don’t outline not because I don’t want the restriction, it’s simply that I haven’t a clue as to what happens next.

    For me the spontaneity of it is the alpha and the omega of writing.

  20. I write with a half-assed outline in my head, the writing goes in a different direction, I fight it, I lose, I write with a half-assed outline in my head, and so on. It’s like trying to reason with a cat.

  21. The paths I take vary, but I always by the end want to wind up at A. Structure to me is immensely important, even if, or especially if, the reader can’t notice it. I find nonfiction easier to structure, the elements seem easier to pick apart and arrange, like blocks. Fiction is a big gooey mess.

    I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about story structure lately. Anyone have good reference material to recommend?

    • Hmmm. The only thing that comes to mind is Story, by Bob McKee. He looks at story structure from the screenwriting side of things, but it’s all very relevant to fiction. It’s also highly readable… And the only other writing book (other than Betsy’s) which I’ve read more than once.

  22. My essays are not jellyfish, they have structured T-rex backbones. The pieces are short so there’s only a little wiggle-room. I must keep it tight without strangling what I want to say. I make my point, wander off a little and always, always, always come back to the main beginning-point the reader has almost forgotten. Jellyfish, not nice, editors don’t like to be stung.

    Hah, there ya go…that’s an example of my structure.

  23. Seriously, usually, as a part of the whole, I hear or read a phrase or pithy saying and weave around it, more than weaving it into. Like you see certain colors and go home and knit a scarf in those colors. For me, a warm scarf, but fluffy.

  24. Structure? It’s like travel. Where the hell is Vivian Swift when you need her? Probably doing her own blog or–heaven forbid–writing! Sometimes the best trips are the ones you do with no planning. Just hop in the damn car or on the plane and go. This is especially true when you’re young. I’ve grown to rely on the planning. I like to have the person, pov, tense, and an outline before I ever sit in the driver’s seat. When I’ve ignored those plans, too often I’ve had to double back–I forgot the sunglasses or even my passport. What’s right? You can be Jack Kerouac, start at one end of a roll of paper and see where it takes you, or you can be Fitzgerald in Gatsby and have everything in its place. The only real question is will the reader enjoy riding with you.

  25. Indeed they are not, and indeed they do, Wry. You do very nice work.

    You know something of my affliction, so you won’t be surprised that I think in terms of stars, compass, and chart. There are times when I push off and see where the wind takes me, then work my way back. But that’s playing, and not getting a story written. A story is more a well planned voyage, but changed by events along the way. I know my bias, but still suspect that a shorter story has to more carefully planned than a longer one. There’s just not much room to stray.

    • Frank, my shorter stories are where I’m most free to discover what the story will reveal. Often I start with only a line or an image and proceed from there. Since it’s a short story, it’s not likely to go astray. Longer works are where I have to be careful I don’t wander off and get lost.

    • Frank, I remember you relating to us about being on your boat while it was snowing. The vision it evoked, (the quiet), will be with me forever. I just wanted to tell you that. It is an experience few encounter, i hope you have expanded on it.

  26. Definitely C first for me – all the way to the end. (just writing, even if it’s drivel) Then it’s B, and finally A.

    Like others have said here, I know my beginning and I know the ending, but what is going to happen in between all that, only a vague idea most of the time. Example, I was writing along earlier this week, within 15 or so pages of “THE END” and I had an epiphany about how something would happen with my protagonist. I ended up writing that part differently than I’d originally “planned.” THAT close to the end. The funny thing is…once I’d decided it was going to happen that way, that decision removed several other problems I was struggling with simply because another character was supposed to be involved instead of the one I ultimately included.

  27. Since my Day Job revolves around buildings, “structure” is a comfortable word, a familiar environment, an important component to a successful design project – and the foundation for my approach to writing. Clients first show me color swatches, pages from magazines and organizational charts almost before they show me building plans. Similar to writing, those first-viewed items are the adjectives and adverbs to the plot (arranging rooms, upgrading storage areas, appliances and security systems, even relocating the main entrance). The end result is really a story of the client’s expectations, desires and personal perspective, easily “read” as one walks through the space.

  28. I’m a C at first. I have to write for awhile to get the idea out. Then I shape it B. I’ve tried writing from an outline, but it didn’t work. Usually I spend a few years questioning my structure and rewriting, and then end up with the structure as it originally became apparent to me.

    • Having said all that, I realized that it applies to my fiction. The non-fiction I’m writing has come together with a structure. Bones first. It’s weird.

  29. C, and sometimes B. Hardly ever A.

    I went to a writer’s conference once with a writer I just ADORED, really thought was great, and when I asked about stringing individual pieces together and creating some sort of arc or thematic connection, she actually mocked me in front of about 35 writers. She informed me that I was doomed to failure if I tried to create arc, that I should just write.

    I thanked her for her comment, and dumped her books in our town’s recycling bin the day I got home from the conference. Well, I kept one, but only because I quote from it each year in one of my classes, and I drew a moustache and bushy eyebrows on her author photo.

    • When your WIP makes it to the Times bestseller list, be sure to include that incident in every interview. Honestly – this person should have read The One Minute Manager before pontificating on her brilliant, uhm, ah, talent.

  30. B. With A I’d be bored and C I’d be lost.

  31. My first novel was all about C. I had two major controls, “love” and “fear,” and I had to stay between the lines presented by first person present tense. Other than that, the only challenge was deciding which horrible and likely post-apocalyptic scenarios to inflict upon my characters.

    Then I read fifty more books in the genre.

    And now three years into the sequel, with twenty partially-written versions, three characterization spreadsheets, and ten distinct plot outlines, I feel just fine about returning to “just writing.” (But I’m keeping the dry erase board on the wall, just in case.)

  32. It’s too bad Mother Nature can’t study up on that. Most of our willows and all of our lawns are dead. Some one should tell her to share.

  33. I’m definately a B – have an idea of the story and loose outline that changes as I move along. Funny, now that I am editing my manuscript, I am wondering if some of the plot changes that I made because I thought I needed to change the structure really work, or if it was stronger in my first draft when I wasn’t so concerned with structure! I just know that ultimately I need a good editor!

  34. I start with one word, build a sentence and then I am off .As I write I ask questions, what if, when, where, all those W words we learned about in school. Sometimes the questions are answered in the next sentence sometimes many chapters later. I control what I want to read, what I want to have happen. Sparse outline, spagetti really, cooked, soft, malleable. I’m a pretty good cook, sometimes.

  35. Somewhere between A and B I have enough of a blueprint to successfully craft an engaging meaningful story, without being so rigorously defined as to leave little room for my characters to surprise me. Often I find the story builds from all the digging I do while outlining: character sketches, story sketches, etc. It’s the material created in outlining which gives rise to my tale. Weird but true. I suppose it’s possible to have a story in mind and put characters in it, but for me I’ve found that often I find my story *after* finding my characters and settings (this includes character and setting back story of course).

    Oh, and I’m new here. Betsy’s book on writing is one of my favorite books on the subject (I’ve read it twice- – and I NEVER do that). On a whim I Google her and found this blog. Greetings!

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