National novel writing month by spreadsheet

It’s National Novel Writing Month in about three weeks. Fifty thousand words in thirty days.

Outrageous? Hardly. Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road in a single three week frenzy. But – and here’s the trick — only after a lot of planning and several earlier false starts. And that, I think is also the key to a four-week, 50,000 word burst. Planning. So will I be joining in? Maybe next year. I have a contracted book due to a publisher that month – and besides, the novel I’ve mentioned a few times in this blog currently has all the appearence of a spreadsheet. And the other idea I’ve had for something of around 50,000 words isn’t even that far.

But wait! Surely, you say, writers must create? It’s not a structural planning exercise…is it? To which I say writing’s not either-or – it’s both. Creativity is the underpinning of all writing, and the more of it the better, but it’s only part of the essential mix. Structure gives shape to the inventive art. You have to capture the reader – then hold them. And that doesn’t happen by itself. That’s true on any writing scale, any genre. The pace has to build, hold – and then explode with a punch.

To make the work readable for a wide audience, that structure also has to be recognisable. Abandoning accepted forms is like trying to build a car without four wheels. Yes, there have been attempts, like the Reliant Robin. But they’re widely regarded as jokes. Or, if they’re creatively brilliant – like Fuller’s Dymaxion – they don’t catch on.

When it comes to a novel, character development, plot, pace and style have to form an integrated whole. What does the scene do for the character? How does the scene build tension, particularly relative to character? Does the scene move the plot along? If the answer to any of these is no – then what is the scene doing there? It’s possible to blurt all that out by seat-of-the-pants creativity. But not usually. Hence the plan. I won’t trunk on. There are some great books on it – James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure (2004), for instance.

it’s not restricted to novels, either. Years back I wrote a book on the New Zealand experience in the Italian campaign of 1943-45. It happened that the campaign panned out like an epic play – the build up, the challenge about a quarter of the way through, a lull during which the heroes questioned themselves. Then the  climactic push to a heroic flourish at the end.

Reality imitating art? Sure. But it gave me a ready-made epic structure.

And did anybody notice? Of course not. But then, that’s the beauty of having good structure. It sits behind the creativity, unobtrusively.

More later about creativity. For the moment – how do you handle structure? What’s your favourite technique? Do tell.

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2011

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