A Novel Approach to Novel-Writing and Structure

theweekendnovelistWhen I was in ninth grade, I couldn’t write a five-paragraph essay to save my life. I had good reading comprehension, and understood the material, but for some reason the structure of a five-paragraph critical essay eluded me. I spent hours after school sitting down with my English teacher, trying so hard to understand what I was supposed to do. It was like ramming my head against a wall. No matter how hard I worked, I always ended up with C+, B-, maybe–if I was lucky–B on the top of my graded paper. And I had NO. IDEA. WHY. I swore I was doing what she asked me to do; hell, one time, my mother even sat in with me on one of these tutoring sessions, and even she couldn’t understand what I was supposed to do. 

By tenth grade, I’d pretty much accepted that I was never going to get it, that every paper in my academic career was going to be a flung-to-the-wind Hail Mary attempt for a decent grade. 

Then, I had Mr. Tulloch, and my whole understanding of critical writing changed. For our first big assignment in his writing class in tenth grade, we were going to write an essay on The Heart of Darkness, type it up in proper MLA format, and turn it in. The revolutionary catch? He was going to write the essay. We just had to put it in the right format. And he was going to write the essay in front of us, sentence by sentence, showing us what he was doing and why. He broke down each paragraph and how to structure each piece of our argument (Statement, Quote to Support, Explanation of How Quote Applies–then repeat). He told us how many examples to use, how to place them for greatest efficiency, what each paragraph of the five did what and why it worked best that way. Sentence by sentence, he wrote a critical essay on our book, and piece by piece, until we had an excellent example of what our essays would need to be like. Was it formulaic? Yes. But once I mastered that rigid formula for essay construction, I could experiment, shift the paragraphs, alter the structural flow to best achieve what I wanted to do in any essay. 

Since that day, I never got anything lower than an A- on a paper, and that was a 20-page examination of a book I hadn’t technically read all the way through. The only comment? “Could have gone a little deeper.” Oh yes, yes it could. But the structure was perfect. 

This is the anecdote I thought about while reading The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray. It’s not a book I would have appreciated when I first started trying to write, because I would have chaffed against the step-by-step formula of creating a novel (which is supposed to be ART and UNIQUE). I would have worried that his method would turn me into one of those *horrifying* commercial writers who churn out two books a year and wind up on the New York Best Sellers List because–ugh, who’d want that kind of success? I would have feared that a methodical approach to novelling would kill my creativity and stilt my ideas. 

As a more mature writer, far less afraid of losing whatever little spark it is that makes me want to write, I can only say: I think I’m in love. 

Is Ray’s approach formulaic? Yes. Does it have a use? Absofreakin’lutely. I think this book may have finally taught me plot structure in a way I can wrap my head around. I’ve never been a strong plotter. Intellectually, I understand the whole Aristotle’s Incline, three acts, yadda yadda yadda. But I never GOT IT well enough to know how to apply it to my own work. Or how to dissect other works using it. I’d try, but hit some kind of mental block, and eventually give up, thinking “This structure doesn’t work for me, apparently.”

But that wasn’t it. I just didn’t get it. I read tons of words on plotting and structure, and over and over I read the same examples, the same explanations, and over and over I failed to connect the dots. The common explanations just didn’t click for me. But after reading this book, I feel like I get it for the first time. 

The book is broken down into 52 bite-sized tasks in the effort to construct a whole novel. As of right now, I’m starting to run through it with my own work in progress, and am finding it opening mental doors I didn’t even know were there. Do I agree with every step Ray recommends? Eh, maybe not. But his method has shown me a skeleton to hang my own process on, to make my summary-drafting technique more efficient and fruitful, and how to move forward from that summarizing to full prose. I loved his construction method, even given that I’m not typically a “jump around” kind of writer, leaping from one scene to another. This book provides just the right amount of structure-to-creative leap, in my mind, to both capture the fun of a first draft, and keep that first draft from devolving into a hot mess. 

It’s also shown me how to fix existing manuscripts I have by giving me those structural elements to look for–just as Mr. Tulloch gave me the structural tools to look for in a critical essay. And after mastering the most common plot structure, I imagine I’ll be able to twist things around and adjust them to what want them to do for any given project, just as I learned to do for essays. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and if you’re struggling with plot and the common ways of explaining structure haven’t helped, this might be the book for you. 

(This was one of the five books recommended by Peter M. Ball in his post about narrative structure.)

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