A friend recently expressed a desire to write a post-apocalyptic novel and has the seeds of an idea for the cause of the global catastrophe. I warned her that writing a novel could be hazardous to her sanity.
I'm one of those people who has always written stories, but rarely finished my projects. I have no shortage of ideas...it's the execution where I get bogged down. I'm an English Major and love to read, but none of the courses I took actually taught me how a novel was written. So later in life I took a couple of college-level creative writing classes and got an "A" in both of them. In fact, one of the instructors told me that my writing would get noticed. That made me feel good! Yet I still got bogged down on long story projects.
I joined Willamette Writers and started attending the organization's annual conference. (For anyone in the region who wants to do writing of any kind [fiction, nonfiction, screenplays, graphic novels, poetry, etc.] I highly recommend this group and the conference!) At last! Published authors presenting sessions on how to write novels, not just read and evaluate them.
Fast forward fourteen years -- I'm finally grasping the novel structure as well as the vital plot points that make a long work of fiction readable and publishable.
Am I that dense?! (No comments from the Peanut Gallery!) I don't think so. It's just that, writing a full length novel isn't all that easy. As the folks at the WW Conference say...if it was easy, everyone would do it.
Just like riding clinicians -- the presenters at the writing conferences can be contradictory. What works for one person may not work for another. And like the riding lessons I've taken, some times it just takes presenting the same old information in a new way to make it sink in. Whether it's riding or writing -- you're not ready to learn it, until you're ready to learn it. Suddenly one day the lightbulb goes off, you get it, and you're ready for the next step.
Memorable Moments from the WW Conference:
I believe it was Irene Radford who taught a session entitled "The Muddle in the Middle." It was my introduction to the Three-Act Structure.
The Three-Act Structure comes from Syd Field's iconic book, Screenplay, The Foundations of Screenwriting. But you're writing a novel, not a screenplay, you say!
Ah, but Grasshopper, you must learn the archetypal story arc developed eons ago when our ancestors gathered in caves around flickering fires.
Which brings me to Steven Barnes who gave an enthusiastic session on" The Hero's Journey." The Hero's (and Heroine's) Journey comes from Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces and Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey. Campbell's research across cultures and eras revealed a common archetypal story arc. George Lucas openly applied this story structure to "Star Wars."
Most recently, I've acquired a better grasp of story structure from the conference sessions presented by Larry Brooks. He discussed what he calls "The Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling." These are what he considers the foundation of a story that must be in place before writing begins. Larry also "demystifies" story architecture -- you remember, the Three-Act Structure discussed above. Some writers develop a detailed outline of the novel before writing, others jump in with blank pages and discover the novel as they write. Regardless of the process, Larry indicates the finished product must contain specific occurrences at specific points to be publishable.
Next comes Laura Whitcomb, whose Novel Shortcuts, Ten Techniques That Ensure A Great First Draft and her presentations on "Shortcut to the Scene" further clarified my understanding of how to organize the stuff of a story.
These are only a few of the folks who have helped me absorb the complexity of taking "What if...?" to a real live novel. The books and conference sessions I've referenced above have worked like the ingredients of a recipe. They have built upon one another, combined, congealed, and eventually created my much improved understanding of a complete story that will satisfy the reader.
And I'm still insane enough to give it a go!