The Importance of Structure

One of the things that is most important for me when writing is that I should understand the structure of what I am trying to write. I might not always know what the structure is when I start, but it is essential that I figure it out along the way. Often when I write I start with something very loose and unfinished, often just a scene or a few sentences that seem like they go together, but along the way if it doesn’t start to take shape I’ll probably just abandon it. My computer is littered with stuff like this. Interesting little ideas, quirky scenes and phrases, but not necessarily stories. A story has to be story shaped.

Recently I started working on a new piece. At first all I had was one sentence, which I scribbled down and then expanded into a scene. Then I wrote another, separate, unrelated scene. What’s it going to become? It might turn into something, but it might just fizzle out. A lot of them do. For it to become something it has to stop being a few strands that feel like they belong to something else and become a complete whole. Something that when you read it leaves you feeling like you have the totality of the thing. And that doesn’t necessarily mean following the usual route of a story. It doesn’t have to mean disruption of the status quo, rising action, resolution. It doesn’t necessarily mean beginning-middle-end. It might do, but it doesn’t have to. It just needs to feel complete.

In a recent essay on the Glimmer Train bulletin, writer David Ebenbach wrote an interesting point on a difference between a novel and a short story.

“What the novel says, I think, is that any single event is the result of many, many things. That’s why you have the hundreds of pages leading up to the climax; those pages suggest the philosophy that you can only fully understand that climax and its significance if you know a whole lot about all the things that led up to it… The short story says something different—not contradictory, but different. The short story suggests that any single moment or detail, in some sense, contains everything”

This is an interesting idea, and a useful way of thinking about form. Novels are about movement, change, impact, cause and effect, consequence. His definition of a short story, the detail the contains the whole, is fantastic I think and really captures something of the magic of a good short story. And thinking about these different narrative forms in this way, as being essentially different in both what they are trying to do as well as how they are trying to do it, means that thinking about how to structure them becomes a little more apparent. I remember when I was young and showing short stories to my mum she used to tell me that they felt like unfinished novels. That was probably because I hadn’t learned the shape of a short story. The condensed, rounded little thing that lets you hold the entirety of it in your hand. It’s very different from a novel, that needs to move and sweep and before it lands.

The structure of a story doesn’t have to feel obvious to the reader, but if it is there they will feel it. Like how you can’t appreciate all the architectural complexity of a building just by walking through it, but you can get a sense of the wholeness of the thing. Structure delivers the reader through the story, and lets them know where the edges are. And for the writer it is the boundary that you are going to work within.

One of the best moments, for me anyway, when writing, is when the structure emerges and I can see the whole of the thing. Suddenly it is manageable, even if there is still a lot of work to do. I know where I am starting from, where I am trying to get to, what to fit in, what to leave out. Learning what to leave out was a big step for me. The first novel I ever wrote didn’t leave very much out at all and I think the first hundred pages or so were chronologically continuous and so the structure, such as it was, was like a slow walk down a long corridor. I am trying to develop a better sense of the motion of a story and the planks that let you walk along it. The way the ending connects to the beginning, the way it all flows together, so that it feels complete and satisfying and whole.

Something To Say And A Voice To Say It In

So recently a big box arrived from Oregon with my free copies of Glimmer Train issue 100. I had been so eager to get these because this is the first time I have had a story accepted, and I badly wanted to see it. I have to tell you, it is a weird feeling seeing the words that I wrote on my rickety old laptop, on my old dining table, with my old cat getting in the way, in such a lavish, beautifully presented book.

glimmer 100

I first heard about Glimmer Train a long time ago when I first started writing and was trying to figure out who to send work to, since I didn’t even really know where to send it. I took a close look at them and quickly decided that they were much too good for the likes of me, and so I didn’t submit anything to them for a very long time. I was never very brave about sending work out, but then last year I decided on a different approach.

It was inspired by my wife’s job search strategy. A few years ago we moved town and she ended up out of work as a result and when she applied for jobs she applied only for the most exceptional jobs in her area that she could, figuring that as each application was unsuccessful she could slowly lower her sights until she got something. Then she would never have to wonder if she had missed out on something better. So I borrowed the strategy and submitted the best short story I had to Glimmer Train, never expecting it to get accepted, but that’s what happened. Old me never would have done that and so old me would have really missed out. Incidentally my wife also got the first job that she applied for. The strategy worked better than expected in both cases.

Since then I have been submitting to the kind of places I never would have dreamed of submitting to. I haven’t had another acceptance since, but I have had some favourable rejections from some pretty prestigious publications. It is very hard to explain why you are so happy to have been rejected by Granta, but when they encourage you to submit again it’s a very good feeling.

About a year ago I had almost given up on ever getting anything published. I figured I would never quit submitting, and I certainly wouldn’t quit writing, because it was way too important to me. But I had kinda made my peace with what the idea that I wouldn’t ever have any success. In a way, this was very freeing. One of the things I love about writing is I sort of end up explaining what I think to myself and not expecting that anyone else would ever read it meant I just wrote more naturally.

I’m a very thinky person but I know that I can end up thinking in circles. It’s hard to get anywhere with the same words rotating around in your head. But talking lets me hear the words and suddenly they sound different and I can figure which are the good ideas and which are the bad ones. And writing has this same effect. Stuff emerges and I get to see it differently. So I figured that even if I never managed to publish anything, this on its own was a very useful thing to do. In my years of writing there have been a number of occasions when I could feel what I was doing had stepped up a notch. When I found a rhythm, or a voice, or a structure, and it all felt a little bit better than it was before. I think the point at which I started using writing as a way of figuring out my own thoughts was a big step up for me. To be a writer you need two things; something to say and a voice to say it in. For a long time I was working on the voice, but it took me a lot longer to figure out what I was trying to say.

So maybe this will be the only story I ever manage to publish but if it is I will still spend a huge amount of my time sitting here writing my little stories, if for no other reason that I find it so personally useful to do so. But for as long as I am writing I will be submitting, and I don’t think I will ever feel like there is a publication that I shouldn’t submit to ever again.

A New Found Sense of Possibility

I have had a very good end to the year. A short story that I wrote called The Sudden End of Everything won first place in Glimmer Trains New Writer Award. This, coupled with being short-listed for The Bridport Prize in the short story category, has made this an amazing year for me. Glimmer Train will publish the story sometime in 2017. This is the first time I have had something published since I started, which feels like a very long time ago now. I’m kinda wishing 2017 away a little because I want to see it. I want to hold it in my hands.

Earlier in the year I wrote a post about how I was giving up on independent publishing and took my books and short stories down off of Amazon. It hadn’t been successful and I realised that that wasn’t what I wanted to be doing, that I had an ambition for traditional publishing. When I took those books down it was to refocus my efforts but honestly, I never actually expected any success. I love writing. I have done for a long time. What I get out of writing, the act of sitting down and putting out some words and seeing what comes of it, is something that I find so satisfying, so personally useful, that I wouldn’t stop doing it for anything. But when I took my books down from Amazon I figured that was all I would be left with. Personal satisfaction. The ambition to publish stuff, and ultimately to publish novels, always felt unreasonably lofty. But unreasonably lofty goals are the best kind.

So as soon as I took my stuff down from Amazon I felt like I had to write more and that I had to submit more. So I did. I wrote The Sudden End of Everything quite quickly and started sending out what I had to different places. I aimed high. I think this is a good strategy. Aim high and then slowly lower your sights. But a Bridport Prize short-list and a win at Glimmer Train, I never really expected any of that. I went from no writing credits to a couple of fantastic ones. Winning Glimmer Trains New Writer Award was astonishing. I spent the following weekend walking around in a kind of daze, certain that there had been some kind of mistake. That it surely couldn’t actually be happening. But then the contract arrived and for a few weeks every time I was having a hard time, when I was feeling low of stressed out, I treated myself to reading it again.

So next year I will be taking the draft of the novel I wrote this year and finishing it off and I will do that with a new found sense of possibility. I’ll be writing more shorts and sending those out too. And you know what the best part is? I’m going to continue with what I was doing, because there might just be some value to it after all. I think as a writer it is easy to be discouraged and it is natural to look around at what other people are doing and think that maybe that is what you should be doing too. That you need to shift away from what is important to you and onto what appears to be successful elsewhere. This year has given me some confidence about sticking to what feels right.

I hope you all have a good end to this turbulent year as well.