CRAFT: Novel Structure by Chapter (gentler guidelines)

Eep! Well, last night, when I figured I was toast and would soon pop out of the LJ Idol Toaster, I started on this “Craft of F(r)iction Writing” post. So I figured I might as well inflict it on y’all.

A little while ago, I posted some pretty complex “how to structure a novel” story structure guidelines. Dennis, among others, mentioned that he found all of that stuff way too constricting. The “Hero’s Journey” and the Screenplay Paradigm and the “Save the Cat” guidelines seemed too boilerplate-inducing to him. Okay, well, how about this?

Here’s a way to look at a novel as a collection of twenty chapters. Fourteen of these will be Main Plot Chapters, while the remaining six will be Subplot Chapters. A chapter runs about twenty pages, generally. So when you’re finished, you should have 400 pages, or (at 250 words/page) a 100,000-word novel. Perfect! And you didn’t follow a strict structural straitjacket to do it. You merely had this little list to run next to you (against the wind) so you’d know you were following a fairly well-accepted plot arc. Or you could use this after the book is finished to see whether you’re on target.

I don’t feel that this one constricts my creativity. Rather, I think of it as a canvas with edges. I need to stay within the edges so the book will be publishable by NYC houses (because they look for a certain length), but I don’t have to connect the dots or color within the lines. It’s not a paint-by-numbers, but just a way to judge whether you have what you were aiming for.
(The tabs and the spaces don’t work. There goes the neat table format.)

1 General Uneasiness–Something’s About to
Happen (Intriguing Story Question Raised)
2 Conflict–Locked Into The Battle
3 Drama Rises, Illustrating the Conflict–More
Barriers Pop Up, Enemy Seen as Strong
4 Setting up Plot Point 1
5 Plot Point 1: Conflict Changes Character,
Deepens Trouble
6 Consequences of this New Development
7 Setup for Reversal
8 Midpoint Reversal
9 Consequences of Reversal
10 Setup for Plot Point 2
11 Plot Point 2: One of the Forces is Revealed
as the Stronger (for now)–ending in The
Black Moment
12 Going All-Out: The Final Struggle
13 Conflict Resolution
14 Denouement–Wrap-Up and Happy (?) Ending;
Reference Beginning in Final Line(s)

The six subplot chapters get sprinkled in appropriately wherever they fit the particular book. The subplot can wrap up either just before the last chapter or along with the main plot.

There. Isn’t that a gentle-reminder sort of guideline?

A few definitions are in order.

Plot Point 1 is the true beginning of the story. It’s the Point of No Return, which means there’s no turning back–an incident or event has occurred that has changed the character’s life forever, even if he/she backs out of the quest/goal. It often catapults the hero forward into a new understanding of the journey, or a new physical location.

Plot points are the moments of irreversible change in the story, after which the hero/ine cannot possibly return to the life s/he previously had, either because of physical or emotional changes or some new understanding of his/her situation. Sometimes a piece of information causes this (“I’ve just discovered I’m adopted/illegitimate/the son of the true King.”), and sometimes it’s an event that shapes the hero/ine’s destiny. Plot points link the “acts” of a story–the beginning, the middle, and the endgame.

The Black Moment is that turn of events when all seems lost; it can’t be contrived, but must proceed as the result of choices the main character has made and the plotting of the villain dovetailing.

The Pundit story fits into this template. I don’t know whether the mysteries will fit quite as well. Probably not, but there are plot points, a reversal, and a black moment that leads immediately into the final chase, climax, and capture of the murderer. So it’s still a general template without being limiting.

Now, if ya wanna see ORGANIZED, the real left-brain way to do this, see Candace’s storyboard. Or One Slack Martian’s index cards. Or Pooks’ method of scene cards and other ideas from _Save the Cat_ and other places.

Whoa! I would never have the wherewithal (wherewithal? Therewithal! There castle!) to do such an organized thing. I would have the book written by the time I had bought all the cards and so forth. But that is because my process is right-brained as far as planning, and left-brained for the verbal ability. I go into the flowstate when I write, and that’s where the Muse comes in. I know I’ve written about the flowstate before. That’s what makes the people who love videogames, such as hubster, love them . . . that videogame puts him in the flowstate, same as writing a novel or playing the piano by ear or from memory puts me in it. The flowstate is pleasurable. You lose all track of linear time. You don’t realize what you’ve been able to do because you were “on a roll” or “smokin'” or “into it.” If I invoked my left brain enough to do a storyboard, I’d lose all sight of what the story was.

But, as I said, that’s me. If your method is more like the organized methods, go read about _Save the Cat_ and all the manipulatives-based methods (index cards in a stack rubber-banded together, flowchart symbols on a computer screen as in those screenwriting thingies, and so forth.) Whatever works!

“There are nine-and-sixty ways of constructing tribal lays/And every single one of them is right!”–Rudyard Kipling

A last-minute LJ Idol turnaround! Thanks to all who voted!

“You like me . . . you really like me . . . or you got me mixed up with someone else?!” Cross-posted from

Whoa!! Who all “pimped” me in the friendslists? Had to be more than one of you . . . already confessed, and has said the same kind of thing. *sobs* You like me . . . you really like me . . . or else you have an Evil Plan involving sheep and Silly String that you will make me implement. No! Not again! Just got the carpet cleaned!

Seriously . . . wow! How did that happen . . . now do I have to do that post on “My Favorite Canker Sore Moment” after all?

The margins of win/not-win are SO narrow. It’s really a matter of chance and persuasion (“go click, or else”). Good grief–those who are chosen by chance to be on the bottom two as the clock ticks past the appointed hour were just as likely to have stayed (or more likely), so I hope they’ll stick around and play the home game with us.

Congratulations to all who participated in the runoff . . . you made a difference. Whether or not you’re going to regret having made the difference remains to be seen, though I hope you won’t regret it. . . .

Plant where it ain’t blooming

I think I’ve accomplished what I intended when I decided to play in this round of “The Real LJ Idol.” My purposes were to (1) find more people whose journals I liked to read, and (2) find people who wanted to read my journal and become permanent readers/friends who would communicate with me and be sympatico. The people in the competition who have friended me already are the ones who “get me.” The others have either looked and didn’t feel a “click,” or didn’t look because they have a large enough circle to handle already, or possibly saw compatibility issues and weren’t interested. So that’s the story, morning glory. My staying in the competition beyond this point would be silly, as the efforts would be going into the bit bucket and taking energy away from my new projects. I’m not going to suddenly break through and charm the rest of ’em; “if you don’t know me by now, you will never know me,” and so forth.

After the initial disappointment of not going all the way to the final five, I kind of waxed philosophical about the inevitable sort-out and dust-up that’s coming on Monday. I hope wax is OK to use on that kind of surface, as it isn’t SUPPOSED to be shiny. But anyhow, I have two new writing projects that I’m immersed in and that seem to be going pretty well, and I need to focus my energies on that. Similarly, I need to redirect my journal entries into topics that I want to do and can do well, such as the fiction writing/craft posts, the “Mama and her gang of redneck knitting card-player friends” posts that illuminate aspects of the human condition, and the whining.

Also, from now on (assuming I get kicked off, as appears likely), instead of doing a post about some topic I don’t relate to, I can say, “Nyaah-nyaah, I didn’t have to post about My Favorite Canker Sore Moment!” *wink*

Here’s what we planted today:
(actually, this is what it looked like LAST SUMMER. We hope it’ll do this again)

Getting out the LJ vote–yeah, whatever

Oh, very well. Here’s where you could vote for me in the poll on “LJ Idol” and keep me in their competition. There’s a five-way runoff. That link should open in a new browser window, so you wouldn’t lose your place in your friendslist. Just click on the tickybox and “submit poll.” But, as I told *them*, I think it’s kind of an imposition to ask people to go over and do that–when I joined, I was under the impression that it would always be all-participant voting, although if it had been, it’s pretty apparent I wouldn’t have stayed in this long. Still, now it’s kind of a point of honor.

As usual, feel free to not bother. But if you do, consider it a vote against The Popular Kids in a symbolic sense. *grin*

And for reading this far:
“I used to have a weblog, but now I’ve gone back to barking all day.”–dog in New Yorker cartoon

Popularity contests. . . .

It’s kind of depressing that everything in life eventually reveals as a popularity contest.

Except gardening.

“Some people walk in the rain. Others just get wet.”–Roger Miller

“Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter/ Sermons and soda water the morning after.”
–George Gordon, Lord Byron, *Don Juan, Canto
the Second*

“Daily journal entries as long as a typical John Steinbeck chapter suggest [the writer] needs to get away from the ol’ computer for at least a few hours a day.”–Dennis Havens

“There are moments in everyday life when reality cracks, and the numinous world spills through, if only for an instant.”–Fred Burke
“Or permanently, if you’re PKD.”–Shal

Pitching isn’t what it’s cracked up to be–for novelists?

I’ve just read through a thread on Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s Making Light in which she and others point out that perhaps pitching a novel at a writers’ conference doesn’t get you anywhere much, at least not much farther than you could’ve gotten through a query. They originally started out talking about a particular seminar/conference costing $600 (!) that’s set up for first novelists to meet agents and pitch to them, and pointed out that this thing is overpriced and probably not going to get you anywhere much. The discussion continued from there, and it seems that most people agree about pitching being a cargo-cult activity.*

* [Cargo cults arose on remote islands during, I think, WWII. Larger nations and organizations arranged to fly in regularly and drop supplies to the tribes as well as the missionaries/troops stationed in these areas. The members of the tribes had no way to understand what was happening, so they believed that the gods were gifting them with these CARE packages, and a cargo cult arose, making offerings to the gods around the time the shipments were expected. Of course, the shipments arrived, and the gods were assumed to be pleased. I can kind of see how this compares to, say, me and just about everything related to trying to sell fiction to NYC publishing houses.]

I’m bummed, because I’ve already paid the registration fees to go to the Southwest Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) convention here in Dallas in June, and was about to register for the RWA National Conference here in Dallas in July.

And I’ve already got my outfits planned. And had my transportation lined up. Was kind of excited about the two agents and one editor in my “pitch sessions.” However, now I feel guilty for using our household funds to sign up for the conference(s). Sure, it’s entertaining and inspirational to hear the panel discussions, and you do run into interesting people, but I’d intended to try to get the go-ahead to send novels out, and that is apparently not very promising, even if you DO get an OK. Melissa Singer says that sometimes they’ll just tell everyone they meet in those sessions to go ahead and send stuff, but it just goes into the slush pile unless the agent/editor has taken notes and actually knows that’s something he/she wants to see. Sometimes it’s just a matter of being nice and getting the writer off his/her back. It doesn’t really mean that they’re looking forward to seeing your stupid tripe. (sigh)

I had pretty much decided that because Miss Snark, Rachel Vater, and FangsFur&Fey have held those “sharpen your pitch” sessions, this meant we novelists were in the same canoe as screenwriters and now had to pitch our stuff as best we could or be rejected without a chance. I still think that the “pitch” in the query letter is a big decider for agents, because they SAY that they decide whether to request partials using that blurb.

But going to a conference to meet the agent/editor, trying to make a good impression, and doing a great in-person pitch just to get the privilege of writing “SOLICITED SUBMISSION” on the envelope of your partial now seems as hopeless as growin’ tropical plants in Michigan. Even if they take root, they don’t have time to blossom and thrive.

Now, if you already HAVE an editor or agent, I imagine going to a conference where you could meet them in person would be pretty cool. If you know people across the country who’ll be attending, then it’s worth going over there to meet them. The market news is probably fine. It’s just that the *main* reason that writers want to go to these things is to try to get that manuscript seen and let it have a chance. Everything conspires against this.
# # #
“When I’m vacillating about taking some plunge in a new direction or other, I now have my own version of ‘What would Katharine Hepburn do?'”–

“Here’s what is totally unfair: I’ve struggled throughout an entire lifetime NOT to be fat. And now I am. Waah. And if I see another lollipop-on-a-stick-faced talking head announcing that all you have to do is quit drinking all that bad soda and snacking in front of the TV and you too can be thin . . . well . . . somebody is going to have a foot-long Coney dog stuffed down their throat, with a chaser of Cheez Whiz.”–

[Shalanna responds, sympathetically: Join the club. We have a T-shirt (“These Things Are Real”) and an ID Card (“I’m Retaining Water”).]

“The purpose of life is to discover your gift. The meaning of life is to give it away.”–David Viscott