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.)

Journal, Publishing/Editing, Writing

Lessons Learned from Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

Z_coverI picked up Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald at Logan Airport an hour before my folks and I flew off to Long Beach, CA. I was originally looking to pick up a copy of Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi, but they didn’t have copies yet. I’ll have to track that down… But Z had been on my to-read list since I saw it recommended in the New York Times Book Review.

Let’s lay it out plain: I’ve read The Great Gatsby a couple of times, but not since high school, and while I enjoyed the book, it didn’t permanently imprint itself on my adolescent soul. I knew Fitzgerald was something of a struggling artist, in that while he hit upon some great fame in his time, Gatsby wasn’t received as well as he’d hoped, and I vaguely remembered that he’d also had something of a drinking problem. I knew he and his wife, Zelda, had a tumultuous relationship. But that’s pretty much the entirety of my knowledge of the Fitzgeralds.

I picked up this book looking to find a relaxing beach read, something I could jump in and out of with ease, preferably before bed, all the while checking a to-read book off my list. What I got instead, was a thrill-ride, a few bouts of yelling at characters, and some insight into the triumphs and pitfalls of writing life.

This is a fictionalized version of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald’s lives together, but Therese Anne Fowler made it so real. The characters are both deeply flawed, but also deeply admirable even as they succumb to their various pitfalls. Scott’s alcoholism, procrastination, control issues, and immutable self-doubt makes you both want to hug him and choke him simultaneously. Zelda’s crumbling sanity, her entrapment in a world not yet ready for women’s total independence from their husbands, and her thwarted ambitions (less from her own production than from the interference of those who “know best”), is soul-crushing and sublime. There were chapters where I was ready to jump into the pages and sucker-punch Scott. There were chapters where I just leaned back and thought, “To hell with it: destroy yourselves. See how that works out for you.”

The glimpses of other celebrities from the time, too, adds to the realization of how small the publishing world really was back in those days, and in some ways, still is today. Sure, there are a lot more authors trying to make their waves in the oceans of publication, but when I go to conventions, I almost always run into people I know, or people who know the people I know. Connections are everywhere, as they were even back in the 1920s. Generations of writers who mature and begin publishing around the same times grow up into these cliques of “famous people who knew each other” (C.S. Lewis and Tolkien hung out?! WHAT?!) as if their talent magically brought them together, when really they’ve all just been struggling at the craft together, sometimes for years.

Anyway, that’s the general gist of the story. What struck me, really, was the way Fowler demonstrated Scott’s creative challenges: the procrastination, the partying and alcoholism, the deep desire to aid new writers while neglecting his own work, the poor reviews or lackluster sales, the ego (and immolating self-doubt), and the anguish all of those caused him. In my mind, I guess I’d always imagined Fitzgerald as this chill, hip writer in Hollywood with a bunch of short stories and novels under his belt, despite being a bit of a party hound. This version of his life showed a far more conflicted individual, wrought with the same crippling self-doubt I see both in myself and in so many writers I’ve encountered. I see the urge to skip out on writing for the day, the excuses, and the anguish that follows weeks, months, and years of not producing, which can so easily wear us down. I see, too, that necessary ego–the voice that pushes you on, tells you “you’ve got this,” that you just might be one of the few who “makes it,” maybe even does better than just “making it,” and pushes right on to being considered one of those “famous people who knew each other.”

This novel portrays a Scott that is anxious, dogged, indebted, and his own worst critic. It shows him as a man of great ambition and a great many personal hurdles to overcome. He wants so badly to be considered great, wants so much to find the validation that his work means something, that his name will linger through the centuries among the best of the best. He wants it so much, it actually hurts to read about it at times, because who hasn’t felt that way, at least occasionally? But his own ambition and sense of ineptitude eat him alive.

Simultaneously, Zelda’s story is one I thankfully don’t have much personal experience with. When my husband came to join us over the weekend in Long Beach for my sister’s wedding, I probably hugged him a little extra tight, because I was just so damned grateful that he’s so supportive and loving. No one would argue Zelda and Scott didn’t have a passionate romance, or even that they didn’t love each other right to the end, but it was a tough era for being a married woman with her own ambitions and hopes and dreams. I remember reading The Feminine Mystique a few years ago, and Betty Friedan’s description of what psychologists in the 1950s called “housewife syndrome” felt oh so familiar when reading about the frustrations Zelda encountered. Publishing under her husband’s name because it would make more money, but then having that accomplishment treated as if it were only because of his name that the stories were worth anything; her painting exhibit titled in reviews as “a wife’s artwork”; or her obsessive bid to be a professional ballerina because it was the only thing that made her feel worthwhile being thwarted by assertions from her husband and doctors that she should find all her contentment and happiness in the home, being a wife and mother (even though they had a nanny who took care of their daughter, and Scott was out and/or drunk a good chunk of the time)–it was exhausting and heartbreaking to read. Ladies, we’ve come a long way.

This is a great book, and I do think aspiring writers ought to check it out, if only to see what early fame and too much self-doubt can do to someone in this career. It’s not a relaxing read. From their whirlwind courtship to the New York parties, to Paris and the fighting and mutual destruction, it’ll keep you on your toes. But it also made me want to write. I finished this book and felt like I had a year’s worth of creative energy backlogged inside me. I couldn’t wait to get home and dive in, get things out there, get working. There are a few other things that I think contributed to this, not the least of which is the impending June deadline for the Little Guy, but I’ve been raring to go ever since, and these last two weeks have been more productive than the last couple of months combined.

Maybe a bit of the Roaring 20’s rubbed off on me, too.