Last week we talked about novel structure and why it’s important. You might be wondering how structure should fit into your writing and editing process. Because there’s no one way to write a novel, there’s no definitive answer.
Different writers address structural issues at different times, and it can vary from novel to novel. Your own process will be influenced by your plotting style.
Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Some writing circles get pretty heated over the plotting vs. pantsing approach to writing a first draft. So-called plotters outline their story in detail before they sit down to write. Pantsers, well, fly by the seat of their pants. Stephen King vouches for the latter method in his book On Writing, but that doesn’t mean it works for everyone. My take: if you need to outline, do it. If it slows you down, forget it.
However, pantsers may have more structural revisions to do in later drafts. I work well this way and don’t consider it an issue. Some writers may view it as a waste of time and energy. If you outline your work carefully before you begin, you might produce a more structurally sound first draft. If you write wherever your heart takes you, prepare for more feedback from critique partners on pacing, chapter order, and the like.
If you get lost, map it out.
Even if you don’t outline ahead of time, you can outline during or even after your first draft. I personally find this helpful if I feel like I’m getting too deep in the weeds. Preliminary outlining doesn’t work for me, but that doesn’t preclude me from outlining throughout the writing process.
It’s okay to admit it: sometimes pantsers lose our way. Some writers swear by specialty software like Scrivener to organize their work. I once wrote all my plot points on index cards so I could arrange (and rearrange) them in a huge grid on the floor. If you feel overwhelmed at any point in the writing or editing process, don’t be afraid to bring your story’s structure into the physical world.
Follow your instincts.
Sure, commercial fiction sells well for a reason. Plot formulas make stories feel more accessible for readers. But as you gain more experience writing your own work and critiquing others’, you’ll hone the most powerful tool in your arsenal: your instincts.
Several years ago, I attended a conference to pitch a manuscript. Over the course of a 10-minute conversation with an agent, my novel’s whole world got turned upside down. I ended up coming home with a new plan for it — one that involved adding large sections written from the point of view of my story’s antagonist. It seemed like a weird and crazy idea, and it required me to reopen a project from which I’d planned to move on. But that change made the book what it is today. My brain resisted, but my gut told me it was the exact right thing to do.
While we should know the rules and understand readers’ expectations, occasionally we’ll experience a revelation that pushes us to break one of those rules. As a new writer, I didn’t always know a good idea from a bad one. You might write a few flops, too. But as you gain experience and confidence, you’ll learn how and when to give your story a rock-solid structure — and when you need to burn it all down.