Struggling with story structure

When everything shut down back in March because of Covid, one positive thought I had was, “Well, at least I will get lots of writing done.”

Reader, I did not get lots of writing done. I struggled for some time to get any writing done.

But recently I’ve returned to the draft I put aside all those months ago, and I am slowly making progress.

All this time away has allowed me to view my work-in-progress with fresh eyes. And, happily, I’m still enthusiastic about it. These characters are calling to me. They want me to tell their story. And I want to tell it. But I’m trying to figure out the best way to do that.

My work-in-progress is a family drama with multiple perspectives. I have a strong handle on the characters–what they want and need, what’s standing in their way, what they fear. The problem is the structure.

When I wrote my young adult novel (which I am currently seeking a publisher for), the story was very linear, and I wrote it that way. I started at the beginning and went from event A to B to C until the story got to the climax and then to the end. (Of course I had to go in and add and delete scenes in subsequent drafts, but you get the idea.)

My work-in-progress, however, is a bit different. Its focus is on ideas and character, and I want to show how things in the past have affected the family and led them to the present. I need to go back to reveal certain secrets. I need to make sure these are revealed at the right time, both to the characters in the book, as well as to the reader.

It probably doesn’t help that I didn’t write this book in a chronological way either. I started with one scene (that is currently placed somewhere in the middle of the book) and then I moved on to write a scene taking place at another point in time, etc. I don’t regret writing it that way. It’s how the story came to me, and how the story and characters developed in my mind. And now I can truly say I know my characters–and where they are coming from–extremely well.

But now I have some thinking to do. What’s the best way to tell this family’s story? Is this a book of linked short stories? Is it framed by the present and the middle is the past? Or do I alternate between the present and past? Should I divide the book into sections? And then is it divided by time or by character? Both?

There are a lot of options, and I imagine there might be some trial and error as I try to figure this out. I keep telling myself that all the work will be worth it. (Let’s hope I’m right.)

What I learned about writing while writing a novel

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For the past few years, I’ve been working on a manuscript–a coming-of-age novel that I’m quite proud of. This novel isn’t published (yet), but even if it never graces the shelves of the local bookshop, getting the manuscript into its current form has taught me a lot. If you’re in the process of writing a book, or if you’re considering starting, maybe this post will help.

Find what works for you and stick to it

It’s good to remind yourself that there’s no rush, that the manuscript will take as long as it takes. But don’t use that as an excuse to procrastinate. If, like me, you work full-time and/or have other commitments, writing every single day might not be possible. What worked best for me was setting a weekly word count goal of 5,000 words. This way, I didn’t beat myself up if I was too busy to write one day; I could get the words in later in the week. Yes, there were weeks when I didn’t meet my goal, but most of the time I met or even surpassed it.

I’ve heard of other writers who swear by writing 1,000 words every day–some who even wake up at 5 a.m. to ensure it’s done before they do anything else. I’ve heard of others who write on their lunch hour, writers who “binge write” on weekends, or others who write on their commute. The point is, you just have to find what works for you. That might take some trial and error. But when you find it, hold yourself accountable to meet your own goals.

It can be painful, but it can also feel incredible

I didn’t always feel like sitting down to write. Sometimes it took a while to get going, and I’d spend the first while staring at a blank screen. It could be extremely frustrating and discouraging. But that didn’t always happen. Some writing sessions were productive from the moment I opened my Word doc. And when that happened, I felt amazing for the rest of the day.

Maybe even better than that was when a session started off terribly, when I was convinced I was going to sit there for an hour doing nothing before I could give myself permission to call it day. And then, somehow, I’d get going and the story would take off. Remembering that feeling, reminding yourself of how good things can be–well, that can be very motivating when things aren’t going as well.

It’s not all about you

Yes, writing is a solitary act. And if you’re writing just to get something that’s inside you out onto a page, then, sure, it can be all about you. But if you’re hoping to publish, writing is where the solitude ends.

I was lucky enough to have a mentor throughout my writing process–a writer who had been through everything I was going through, who I could turn to with questions. I also had a great group of early readers who provided excellent feedback. The manuscript has become stronger because of them. All of this is before you start to build relationships with editors, publishers, agents, booksellers, and–eventually–your readers.

Writing isn’t for everyone. And for those of us who do write, it doesn’t mean you have to be published (or even want to be published). But whether you want to see your book on the shelves of bookstores or want to write for your eyes only, if you have any desire to write, I encourage you to do so. It’s a very rewarding experience. And when you do, I’d be interested to hear what you learned from the experience.