Form Follows Function – The Ongoing Process of Structuring Your Novel

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

It is a common misconception amongst writers that the structuring process is an activity undertaken only at the beginning of the writing process. Structuring is firmly located after generating your story idea and definitely before you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). After your structure is developed, it’s just a matter of using the blueprint to herd the plethora of chaotic words, sentences and paragraphs into a coherent story. Right?

Hmmm, maybe not.

 

Every new beginning…

As you know, I recently hit the midpoint of Divided Elements, my first novel. In many ways it felt like I had finished a mini-novel – there was a full character arc, an ending with clear references to the beginning, major conflict and a very definite sense of beginning, middle and end. But as Dan Wilson sang, “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end” and Maria Von Trapp mused, “When the Lord closes a door, somewhere He opens a window”, the ending of this mini-novel is just the catalyst for the next mini-novel, the closed door to the first half of the story just the opened window of the second half.

Don’t get me wrong – I was prepared for this. I had diligently structured my novel from the first to last scene and had a very clear outline for how the second half of Act II and all of Act III would play out. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was how the fleshing out of the first half outline – with new characters, interesting dialogue, hidden motivations and complex character reactions – would create an internal logic that was completely at odds with this outline.

Suddenly, I found that the earlier reactions of my protagonist were hinting at a vulnerability I hadn’t planned for, a vulnerability that would take her on a different journey of discovery from the midpoint towards her “all is lost” moment. I discovered secondary characters with motivations and secrets that would cause different opportunities and threats for the protagonist in reaching her end-goal. I found that the dialogue and interaction between characters were creating an unexpected dynamic between them that would, in turn, create new and unexpected tensions over the following scenes and chapters.

In summary, I learnt that the micro-level stuff – the stuff you can’t plan and outline – was having major consequences for the macro-level structure. 

My response? I rewrote the outline for the next half of my novel – a process I am still playing with. I am using my newly-developed knowledge of my characters, world and conflicts to reshape the rest of the story. And this knowledge can only come with a deep and intimate understanding of your story – something you can never have at the beginning of your writing process, when characters, events and tensions are just ideas floating in your head.

In trying to capture the importance of how the detail of the early scenes sets the logic for the following scenes, I was reminded of how, in 1896, proto-modern architect Louis Sullivan famously argued that form follows function.

In his classic (albeit prosaically-titled) essay on The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered, he wrote:

It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.

In other words, it is paramount that your writing follow a consistent, internal logic – that your creativity in the writing process (the form) follows a structural integrity that is both continuous and progressive across the full narrative (the function). 

In order to achieve this continuous and logical progression of the narrative, you may find yourself (like me) needing to review and restructure your novel outline. In this way, novel structuring is not a static process undertaken only at the beginning of a novel’s development, but a dynamic process that should be undertaken regularly and used a tool to strengthen the internal logic of your narrative.

Let me know what you think – do you find yourself changing your novel outline or structure because of micro-level details in earlier scenes or chapters?

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Form Follows Function – The Ongoing Process of Structuring Your Novel

Fighting the Blank Page – How to Beat Writer’s Block

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Writer’s block – it happens to the best of us. You are brimming with the desire and motivation to write, but the spectre of the blank page has you sitting at your writing implement du jour in pure terror.

The white page syndrome is not an affliction unique to creative writers and aspiring authors – it happens to artists staring at a blank canvas, architects at a blank sheet, policy writers at a blank screen. For me, the white page syndrome is a function of three very specific preconceptions and perspectives:

1. ‘Nothingness’ is immense – The white page can sometimes seem infinite. It goes on forever and forever… and ever. Unless you do something to mark it. Similarly, the options for combatting the white page are also seemingly limitless. Where do you start? What do you choose?

2. The white page is purity – The white page is perfect in its nothingness. An icon of purity. White as the driven snow, virginal and untouched. And who might you be to think you can interrupt its purity with something that will always be less than its white perfection?

3. The white page offers no hints – With all the universe and beyond to choose from in selecting the words that will spill from your mind to the page, how do you figure out the write ones to end the nothingness and break the purity? The white page doesn’t help you, it just sits there mocking you with its never-ending emptiness.

 

I find the first two problems easier to combat:

1. Limit your choices – Before you start writing, narrow down your choices. It’s the same with all decisions in life – what should I have for dinner, where do I plan my next holiday, what shirt should I wear, what book should I buy next? Rather than rattle through a hundred or so options that are easily available, narrow them down. What should I have for dinner? Thai, Italian or Japanese? Chicken, Pork or Lamb? Chips and Salad or Veges and Mash? Where do I go for my next holiday? Beach, Countryside or Snow? Europe, Africa or Middle East? Cultural Hub or Natural Wonderland? 

Choosing between two or three options is much easier than struggling with a hundred. And each choice will lead to related ones, until you’re in Cuba sipping on mojitos and eating bbq pork with sauce dripping down your fingers.

2. Pop that cherry – First times are typically and universally awkward. Make it easier on yourself and just put anything on that page to take away the pressure of interrupting the white. Draw a squiggle or smiley face in your notebook. Type out a row of asterisks, change the background of your page to an ugly vomit green, mash your hands on the keyboard to bring up a garbled mess as a header paragraph. Things can only get better from there.

 

My solution to the third problem has only dawned upon me recently. And I love it:

3. FInish (and, therefore, start) mid-sentence – I used to finish my writing spells at clear breaks – at the end of a beat, scene or chapter. But all that did was introduce a new beginning – a new white page, if you will – for me to conquer the next time. Beginnings are tough.

When I was in school, my favourite activities were the ones where the teacher would give me a piece of paper with one half of a dissected image and I would fill in the other side.

Or the ones where she would start a story with a sentence and the kid next to her would write the next, and the kid next to him would write the next, and so on until it was my turn to add the next piece.

It’s easier to be creative when you have a starting point to build on. So, recently, I have stopped my writing process mid-sentence. To give you an example – tonight’s writing session ended with this:

He sits closer to her, his shoulder resting lightly against her own. This close she can see

What? What can she see? I don’t know yet, either. It’s like a mini cliffhanger for myself. Instead of the thing that makes me turn the page or tune in next week, it’s the thing that will ramp up my eagerness to write tomorrow. I won’t have to struggle with the blank page, because there is a springboard for me to jump off, a starting point full of unknowns and promise.

And that, dear reader, is how I plan to beat writers block.

Fighting the Blank Page – How to Beat Writer’s Block

Science vs Art in Writing: Antagonistic or Symbiotic?

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Recently, I strayed from my usual posts on tips, tricks and techniques on how to write and let loose with a burst of creative writing. It was an unfiltered stream of consciousness piece that captured a pure moment of joy, a snapshot in time, an unedited response to life. I was surprised at how many people liked it, which got me thinking – was I spending too much time reflecting on the science of writing and not enough on the  art  of writing? And that got me thinking about how the science and art of writing, of literature, and of creativity generally, are related…

All artforms are a delicious meld of art and science.

Art vs Science
Art vs Science
(image courtesy of Zach Baranowski, via Flickr Creative Commons)

Music is heavily grounded in science, with its mathematical progression of notes and chords, its meticulous tuning of tensions to precise values, and its consistently-timed beats in meter signatures written as mathematical fractions. Our understanding of music is grounded in the fundamental science that tells us hitting a certain shaped object, of a certain density and material, at a certain velocity, will result in a sound of particular pitch, volume and timbre. Our ability to perceive music is also grounded in the science of physics and biology. And yet, in spite of all this science, there is that something else. The soul of the music. The part that can’t be captured by mathematical equations or scientific models. That intuitive understanding that a formulaic approach to creation will, in the end, leave the music devoid of creativity.

Literature is no different. Its science manifests in the hard and soft rules that abound in writing advice published in books, articles, websites and blogs (like this one). Hard rules – grammar, spelling, punctuation – speak more to the fundamentals of legible, written communication. Soft rules – develop your antagonist, don’t forget the inciting incident and plot points, ensure every scene has tension or conflict – speak more to the best practice of creative writing. And whilst it is good to remember the science of writing (especially for a debut indie author such as myself), it is important to not overlook the art of writing – the joy, the creativity, the unedited, unfiltered emotional response that writing (and reading) sucks from us.

So, in an effort to live this beautiful dichotomy of art and science, I am going to occasionally intersperse my observations on writing compelling fiction with random outbursts of emotion at the art of writing.

I hope you join the conversations on both – because good art and important science are always enhanced by considered and interesting discussion.

Science vs Art in Writing: Antagonistic or Symbiotic?