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.

Some Books I Read This Year

So as I sit here with my news years eve lunch of cheese and crackers (a mild goats cheese with some delicious red onion chutney) I’m going to scroll back through the 2016 shelf of my goodreads account and remember some of the books that I enjoyed the most this year.

I hope you don’t mind me just listing the books that I thought were great without going into too much detail about them. I feel like I could try and explain what it was about them that worked for me but I think too much would get lost in the attempt. That personal connection to a book that comes as much from inside the reader, their mood, the place, the time, is hard to pin down. But great books are great books, and these were the ones that meant a little something extra to me.

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes was excellent. A story of a conductor in 1936 Russia, trying to balance art and expression with the dangerous politics of the time. I also really enjoyed The Ploughmen by Kim Zupan. This was about a young sheriff who is tasked with looking after an elderly criminal with a violent past and the unsettled relationship that forms between them. I also read No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy (the first Cormac McCarthy I have read, but there’s certain to be a lot more). Both those books now occupy the same little bit of my memory, since they have very similar settings and tones.

So what else? Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama was a random purchase and ended up being the perfect accompaniment to a two week break from work that I took in March. This gigantic Japanese crime novel is about a detective who has been moved to the media department and ends up embroiled in an unsolved case that has been dredged back up. Reminded me a little of The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy.

My Mr Bs Reading Year turned up some really fascinating books. My personal bibliotherapist selected Martin John by Anakana Schofield for me, which was one of the most unsettling reads I have had a for a long time. The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector and The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt were both excellent as well. In fact, The Sisters Brothers now lives in that same bit of my brain as The Ploughmen and No Country For Old Men. While I think of it, The Ploughmen was a Mr Bs Book too.

Two of my favourite writers had new books out this year. Dave Eggers Heroes of the Frontier was wonderful and I loved every word of it. It’s the story of a woman and her two kids travelling across Alaska in a camper van, trying to leave the past behind and figure out a future for themselves. It was sort of chaotic and calm all at the same time and the ending was perfect. I adore the ending. Also Alison Moore’s new book Death and the Seaside took a look at unethical social science experiments, which is a subject I have been fascinated by ever since I first heard about stuff like the Stanford prison experiment and Stanley Milgrim. I love Alison Moore. All her books have this haunting, whispery quality. Very quietly spoken books. I also read her second book He Wants and am currently reading her collection of short stories.

So there you go, a bunch of cool books that I read this year. I have a massive to-read pile on the go so 2017 should get started with some decent momentum. I think hidden in books seems like a sensible place to be.

Happy new year.

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.

November Happened

November seemed like it disappeared in a flash. One minute I was sat in the Waterstones café setting down the first tentative words of my Nanowrimo project, the next I was plugging the numbers in to the website to get my little winners medal. 50,000 words in 30 days is the goal. I managed it in 27.

I went in knowing I was going to give it my best shot, but I had some reservations. I wasn’t entirely sure I would be able to give it the time it needed. Coincidentally I had the first week of the month off from work, which gave me a good boost at the beginning, but for the rest of the month my schedule away from writing was far more hectic than usual. Work has been intense and demanding a huge amount of my time and energy, both physical and emotional. I was certain at some point it would all catch up with me and something would give. But it didn’t. I found time to write every day but one, and wrote more on average than was required to finish on time. The intensity of it was actually very useful. It gave me an outlet that I needed. A thing that wasn’t work to focus on.

I wrote in cafés, I wrote at home, I wrote at work during my lunch break, I wrote in the kitchen while I was cooking. I wrote fast and I didn’t look back. Now, looking at my scruffy first draft, I can hardly remember where all these words came from.

This was my first successful attempt at Nanowrimo, and was the first time I have ever gone into it with a decent plan for what I was doing. I had a near complete outline, themes, characters and some specific scenes in mind for key points in the story. Really by the time November started I was straining at the leash to get going and so the first 10,000 words spilled out so easily that I was starting to wonder why the whole endeavour had seemed difficult at all. By 30,000 words, I had remembered. There came a point where I had written everything I had planned to write and was struggling to keep the momentum up. Around the middle of the month I started to falter.

But things kept happening. I would stare at the screen for twenty minutes, and then a character would take the lead – say something I wasn’t expecting, do something I wasn’t expecting – and I’d be off again. By the time I set down my 50,000th word I had a complete arc of the story I had intended to write, but with some huge gaps here and there and a bunch of inconsistencies to resolve. I am taking a little break from it for a while. I’m going to get Christmas out of the way, I’m going to wait for the intensity of my work life to lessen a little, and then I’m getting back in there. I’m excited about this novel. I think it’s got something.

When Nanowrimo was over, once I had written my final word, it was actually hard to think what I used to do with my time before I filled every minute of it with writing. For a few days I just seemed to walk around the house, blinking in the light, trying to figure out what to do next. I’m glad I did it though. It was intense but valuable. I went from having an idea I was excited about and a few pages of notes to a (very rough) first draft in an amazingly short space of time. And the knowledge that I was sharing the experience with other writers all over the world was surprisingly motivating. I didn’t make it to any of my local groups write-ins and meet ups, thanks to my busy schedule, which was a shame. I would have liked to. But maybe next year, since I am sure I will want to do this again.

So I Unpublished All My Books On Amazon

I’m a little embarrassed about how neglected my blog has been. Months and I haven’t found time to write a single word on here. I feel vaguely justified given how much harder my work life has been than normal, but still, I thought I was better than this. Turns out, I’m not. Turns out I am exactly this.

Even though I haven’t been writing on the blog at all I have been doing plenty of reading and more writing than usual. So, about four-ish years ago I got very excited about the idea of independent publishing (I wrote a bit about it on here) and published four books on Amazon. Two novels, two collections of five short stories each. I put a ton of effort into it, not just trying to get the books as good as I possibly could, but also on presentation, cover design and all of that other stuff that goes with it. There was a bit of a learning curve. The first cover for my first book was terrible, the second version was a lot better. The way I put the ebooks together was initially very clumsy and became more refined as I went on. I made paperback versions through createspace, which I think turned out very nice. But overall, the whole experiment was a bit of a failure. Sales were very low, free giveaway were respectable (mostly) but didn’t manifest into many reviews. So a few months ago I pulled the plug and unpublished all four books.

The idea was not to give up, but to try a different approach.  I loved the idea of indie publishing. I was inspired by indie video games and the way that people who made them used the platforms available to them to create new, esoteric forms of games that wouldn’t have been possible without independence. But indie publishing wasn’t working for me the way it was working for some writers, and I had to be realistic about it. What I realised, a little slowly perhaps, is that there was a place for the kind of books I was trying to write, and it was traditional publishing. All the books I love come from there. I don’t know why I didn’t notice it sooner.

(It’s not that indie publishing is bad by the way, I definitely don’t think that. My books just didn’t fit in there. That’s all.)

So once I had pulled my books down I thought I’d better get on with doing some new writing and actually start sending stuff out again. It had been ages and I had to remind myself how it was done. I even bought the latest copy of writers and artists yearbook. Then I wrote a new short story, the first I had done in a while, and entered it into the Bridport prize. I never expected to have any success with it so I kinda just forgot about it, but I ended up being shortlisted. This is by far the best writing success I have had and it has energised me. I am just getting ready for this years Nanowrimo by actually planning and getting myself all set up for it. I have never succeeded at nanowrimo, though I have only tried twice, but I am feeling excited to get started. I even bought a Bluetooth keyboard for my ipad so that I can write in coffee shops and libraries. I’m writing this blogpost on it now. If you have noticed typos, that may be because this keyboard is going to take a little getting used to.

I kinda miss having my books for sale on Amazon, even if no one ever actually bought them. It felt like I had done something. But taking them down has turned out OK so far. This is the most inspired I have felt for a very long time.