If you’ve ever read a blog post about story structure then you’ll be familiar with the whole Hero’s Journey… thing. You know he’s got a thousand faces, and there’s this thing that’s like the big rock from 2001 only it represents myths? The guy who does the soup also does literary criticism? It’s confusing, I know.
If we’re going by the blogological output alone, there are three schools of thought:
- The George R. R. Martin approach: you have to let your story grow naturally. Water it with the tears of a third-born daughter, shed under a waxing moon, and anoint each page with the fresh blood of a living vole. Return after the sun has risen, and what you write will make sense. The story is alive, and it’s speaking to you.
- The freewritingadvice.com approach: it’s a numbers game. Get a crate of Meccano. Make friends with a civil engineer. Buy a desk. Use software. Sketch out chapter outlines. Go online and order a bucket of amphetamines, take two weeks off work, and design a machine of unfathomable complexity. If someone makes demands on your time, hit them with a hammer.
- The Neil Gaiman approach: just write. Just sit there and write. Write a word, then another word, then another word. Make sure you pick the right words, put them down in sentence form, and soon you’ll have a finished story. Make the words. Do the stories. Finish the writings. If you don’t, then your family will starve to death.
Hank Epublish, successful alumnus of www.freewritingadvice.com
Everyone eventually figures out that all of these methods can work. Mysticism, pragmatism and Gaimanism are all fine ways to make a functional story, but the next bit of learning is figuring out which method works for you. I couldn’t find any blogs on this.
Do you write a whole novel by the seat of your pants, then look back and find out it’s nonsense, or do you dip into a bunch of different ones and see which one you take to the most? If you stall halfway is it because the method is wrong or the idea is bad? It’s a hard thing to mull over, and it doesn’t help that you’re trying to decide while acclaimed independent author Chuck Wendig is rocking back and forth in the corner screaming curse words and flinging hardback anthologies of filth-ridden listicles at you.
I mentioned last time that I’m working on two novels. More specifically, I’m not working on two novels. I’m not working on a third novel, either, but that’s less of a current failing and more of a previously-achieved failure. For new listeners, the two novels are called Gitt and Executive Nine. I’m watering the former with the aforementioned third-born daughter while pretending to the nice people at Unbound that the synopsis I sent them is sturdy, and definitely made of something stronger than matchsticks and sellotape (it isn’t). I’ve never written a story like this before, and I’m feeling it out blindly in the hope that some kind of intuition will guide me.
I’ve planned the latter using a framework set out by disturbed shaman Dan Harmon (Community, Rick and Morty). People are leery of diagrams when it comes to art, but in the middle of Novel One I often felt lost, and a bit of structure might have helped me avoid some bad pacing issues.
Campbell’s heroic cycle, left, and Harmon’s story circle, right
The difficulty and effectiveness of this tool, as well as of the modes of thinking explained by loud thinking man Film Crit Hulk in The Myth of Three-Act Structure (a mind-altering piece of literary analysis) only becomes apparent on application. It’s a plan that doesn’t make sense before contact with the enemy. This is why new writers often disregard them as nonsense – it takes a lot of time to really understand the impact that good structure has.
But then again, some writers don’t plan, and some of the most amazing stories I’ve ever read have been written blind. The Ocean at the End of the Lane was a beautiful, sinister musing on childhood and memory, and Gaiman wrote it by accident. It was meant to be a short story. How does an author do that? You could point out, rightly, that Gaiman has been writing for decades, and that a writer’s feelings for how stories fit together must improve with practice. Is a sixth sense for made-up events something you can learn? Can you make yourself a storyteller?
This is going to be a disaster.
It could be that plans are training wheels, and eventually you really can feel your way through, but what about the people who get it first time? What about Harper Lee, who wrote one novel and burned the world down with it? I don’t want to believe in genius, but putting the words down in the perfect order on your first try seems stunningly unlikely.
I’m trying it both ways, just like at that club in Shoreditch that one time with the tequila. I want to see which one works. It’s scary though. I know putting words on paper isn’t actually scary, like that club in Shoreditch, but it’s the big, boundless patch of time that bothers me. I don’t know how long it will take. What if I only have so many tries? What if neither works? I might get to the end and realise I haven’t improved; that a year, or two years, or more, while not wasted, have passed without the real one happening.
I’m starting to think that the tension between planning and winging a novel is really an anxiety about luck, and about work of a particular length. Think about it: lots of things that are overly long can be worrying. Dry spaghetti longer than 1.9x the diameter of the pan. The period you’re spending locked away with only yourself and a work of unknowable quality into which you’ve poured a dangerous quantity of your own self. A penis.
No matter how hard you work, or how carefully you think, or how sincerely you speak, the process of making up 90-odd thousand words is chaos. Your whims at any particular moment, or the fragility of any single train of thought, puts the thousands of variables determining the reader’s response outside your control. I feel like Joyce didn’t believe this. His work reads like someone struggling for control over every tiny sensation felt by the audience, as if it’s the product of a week he spent mud-wrestling with Barthes on a pile of loose paper.
If we can’t really control it, how much is down to luck? Is growing as a storyteller like becoming a better gambler – just an endless fight to reduce luck’s influence? I really don’t like that thought. It makes me feel like all the decisions I’m making are superstitious, just fumbles in the dark.
Trying two different approaches at once is a clumsy attempt to bring some sort of empiricism to the process, but, honestly, I don’t think it’s going to work. I worry that running two systems at once will muddle the output. I want to get better, but I want to do it quickly, so I’m hedging my bets in the hope that one of them will start to pay off and give me a clear way forward. Like the process itself, this approach isn’t really an experiment. It’s a gamble.
Of course, I know what the real mistake is here. I’ve spent the day writing this entry, and in that time two projects in desperate need of attention have sat untouched in a drawer. I wonder if they’re incubating or festering in there?
I thought I’d find insight writing this, but from here it just seems that thinking too much makes people sick.