For the time being, I have given up pantsing. It’s only been successful for me with a handful of short stories (around the 5K mark). With longer books, I end up with first drafts that either go unfinished and languish in a drawer somewhere, or first drafts that are a pile of mush, plot-wise, and require massive rewrites.
Earlier this year, as I worked on Goblins and Grimoires, I was thrilled with my word counts. But I had no plan, and the result was a manuscript that needs a complete rewrite. I think the mess that was that novella was a tipping point. I didn’t realize it, but I needed a different way.
If I’m being completely honest, I’m still trying to find my way out of a writing dry spell. But I do know that I don’t want to write unusable first drafts. They don’t have to be perfect, but they have to at least make sense.
So I’ve gone back to studying story structure, especially Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering. Armed with a couple of beat sheets—one based on Brooks’ thoughts on structure, another for romance writers and based on Blake Snyder’s work—I’m trying to move forward with a new story. (Note: Both beat sheets were created by the talented Jami Gold and are available at her website.)
I think part of it is that structure doesn’t come naturally to me. I come from a background in poetry, and poetic structure isn’t plot structure. I also have a background in magazine writing, and that’s more of a get-everything-on-the-page-and-cut-and-paste deal. But fiction? Fiction is its own beast, and I have to find a way to grapple with structure that doesn’t lead to massive page-one rewrites.
I’m starting small. A few years ago, I started a holiday-themed short story, Under the Mistletoe’s Spell. I only managed to write an opening scene, and figured the story was just for dabbling. But a few days ago I had a brainstorm—lightning and everything. What if the story wasn’t a contemporary paranormal, but a historical fantasy setting? Add in a Regency-inspired fantasy world and two characters with high stakes, and that could be one smoking holiday fantasy romance. And since the holiday season is upon us, what better time to pen a Yule-inspired tale?
Tonight I plan to gather my beat sheets and the rough synopsis I’ve written and start hammering away, working the story into a structure that hits all the right plot points at all the right moments. This is an experiment. If it works, this method will definitely help, especially with longer stories. And since this is a shorter work, it should be a good place to experiment with story structure.
I’d like to dedicate the next few weeks to finishing a first draft of this story. I keep hopping from story to story, idea to idea, with nothing really sticking. And that’s not really usual for me. Usually I settle in and finish a draft (even if it’s awful—and some have been awful. Not all, of course, but some).
So this is an experiment. Let’s see if it works. If it does, it could go a long way to helping me plot my stories before I begin them.
- Do something writing-related every day, seven days a week: journal, write a poem, take notes on a story, read a writing book, brainstorm, etc. Saturday: Read a chapter in Finding Water by Julia Cameron and did corresponding exercises. Sunday: Brief brainstorming session with hubby. Monday: Wrote 921 words in Under the Mistletoe’s Spell, along with a rough synopsis. Tuesday: Created two beat sheets for Under the Mistletoe’s Spell.
- Reconnect with my spiritual practice. I wrote a couple of brief Pagan songs, so progress on this front. And I’m starting to realize that much of my poetry has a strong spiritual basis, so any poetry I write is very much connected to this goal.
- Start a regular yoga practice. No progress to report.
- At least twice a week, explore another creative outlet, anything from scrapbooking to cooking to home decorating or Feng Shui. Nothing yet.
What about you? How do you handle story structure? Does it come naturally, or is it an area you’ve grappled with? Any hints, tips, or tricks?