Probably the question writers get asked the most is, "How did you get to be so beautiful?" No, actually that one is topped ever so slightly by, "Where do you get your ideas?" But I think fiction writers spend more time thinking about structure than they do plot. Even more than they spend thinking about fashion, hair styles, makeup, makeovers, or which Olsen twin they would like to look like most.
I have plenty of ideas - ideas are everywhere. I can read something or overhear (okay, eavesdrop on) something and a scene, or a character starts to form in my heavily caffeinated brain. Plot is not my problem. (Good plots...well, that's a whole different discussion.)
But structure! Structure is something my brain spins round and round like a Rubik's cube. At the moment I am getting back to work on novel #2 (still nameless the poor thing) and I seem to be spending all my time thinking about structure. I have long discussions with myself about what is the best way to tell this story. Who is telling it? Is it happening now? Or did it happen long ago? Do I tell it in order? Or would it be more suspenseful for the reader to tell it out of order? Finding the right structure is a little like finding the right box to wrap a gift in.
There are so many, many ways to tell any story. It's finding the best way to tell it that separates a good story from a great story.
(By the way, if anyone knows of a good or interesting book for writers on structure, please tell me about it. I am seriously obsessing right now. I get like that. And if you have any beauty tips you'd like to share, hey, leave a comment about that too.)
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Great post! I do the same thing, and though I loathe outlines on principle, I always wind up with one when I work on long-form fiction.
I think it must be hard to write about structure without sounding formulaic, because I've never seen a book about it that didn't come off cheap or trite. I haven't seen them all, though, so surely one is out there somewhere. I do like Jesse Lee Kercheval's Building Fiction (I know--I reference her book all the time, but it really is terrific) for her conversations on structure, and you might enjoy it, too, because she asks a lot of the same questions you're asking. Her approach is more questions and possibilities than answers or how-tos, but then, that's why I like it.
I tend to steal my structures from other sources, though that sometimes gets me into trouble. With the novel I'm revising now, the structure is based on a combination of the Egyptian Amduat and the Tibetan "book of the dead." I have an outline for a kind of vampire novel that's based on geography, on city names. My novella does the old "cycle of seasons" thing. Sometimes these structures wind up being more complicated than they're worth, but if I'm stealing them from nonliterary sources I can at least pretend they're not formulaic! :)
I'm not working on an outline - I rarely know where I'm going when I start writing (I break all those how-to-write rules). I need to find the right "box" (structure) to put my story in - then I'll go about filling the box. When I wrote Last River Child is was originally told in first person, then after about 4 years or so of work I realized it couldn't be in first person and had to rewrite the whole damn thing in third person, which added a few more years to the project. It was worth it in the end because the book got published, but this time around I'm trying to avoid that mistake. You learn as you go, but every story is unique. Each time I face a blank page I feel like a novice again.
Many thanks for suggesting Kercheval's book. I haven't read it so I'll look that up.
And it's not stealing, Sam! You were "inspired"! I can't remember who said all of art is inspired by either nature or other art but I've always like that quote.
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