Structure For Gardeners – Part I - Overview
In September (Hero’s Journey) and October (Plot Skeleton) I offered several blog posts taken from the first two writing seminars I hosted last summer on Facebook Live. This month, over the next five blog posts, I want to share the information presented in the third writing seminar which dealt primarily with how to take those plot elements we discussed in the first two seminars and put them into one of the many viable structures that help a writer produce a book. Pretty primary stuff, but critical to aspiring writers.
Today we will look at the critical overview of what I called, Structure for Gardeners. On Wednesday we will continue with “Three-Act Structure” and Friday part three will look at “Plot vs. Character”.
Next Monday, the 16th, we will continue with “Point of View” and then we will conclude this series of blog posts on Wednesday, Nov. 18th looking at “Developing Plot and Backstory.”
All of the material in the Facebook Live seminar I called Structure for Gardeners comes from varied sources I’ve come in contact with over the years. In other words, I’ve stolen it from somebody else or some other source – which is okay, since most of it came from courses offered by writers who were there to share the information with other writers.
Some of the sources were Nancy Rue and Angela Hunt’s “Nangie” seminars along with excerpts from conference seminars by authors DJ Williams, Kathy Mackle and Wanda Dyson. I also picked up the outline for the Three-Act Structure from The Master Class website.
One of the main themes woven through the Hero’s Journey and Plot Skeleton seminars and blog posts was a distinction I came up with several years ago.
I believe there are two basic types of authors – architects and gardeners.
Architects are the kinds of authors who build everything before they start – they create extensive outlines, develop detailed chapter summaries and often build meticulous biographies for each of their main characters, sometimes going as far as finding photos of individuals who look like their characters and keeping those photos in front of them.
Gardeners, on the other hand, plant a seed, water it, let the sun shine on it for a while and then see what happens. How does it grow? Maybe it starts growing in one direction then, unexpectedly, it sends off another shoot in the opposite direction. Who knows what stages it will go through before it reaches harvest?
Often, one of the Gardener’s greatest vulnerabilities in writing, or getting their writing completed, is a lack of structure. How can I get from seed to harvest without wasting a lot of time and effort traveling down branches that bear no fruit? Which is often what happens.
Steven King, the highly successful author of scores of thrillers, has written an excellent little book titled On Writing. In that book, King asserts that all writing is organic. That a book’s plot will tell you, the author, where it’s going. That the book's characters will reveal themselves to an author over time. That the story lives and breathes and changes like a child growing into a young adult. King, at heart, is a Gardener.
So, being a Gardener myself, and after spending much-too-much time writing myself into dead ends, I decided I needed to have some kind of structure so I didn’t just drive myself crazy.
After much trial-and-error, one of the most effective things I’ve created for myself is an Excel Spread Sheet that I’ve named “Outline/Timeline” (creative, right?). Since my books are Suspense/Thrillers that occur over a vast geographic landscape with a large cast of characters, and action taking place in very tight timeframes, I’ve found it extremely important to help my readers – and me – stay grounded and focused through these scene changes. So, I put a date/time stamp on every chapter and every change in scene location in a book.
This is very hard to keep track of and keep accurate. Thus … this.
The Excel Spread Sheet illustration above allows me to freely move anything, from small scenes to large chapters or combinations of chapters, from one place to another while keeping in mind both the timing and chronology of events. This spreadsheet has only two columns, one on the left for the day/time stamp that helps me keep the timing straight and the second, large section on the right for scene description. The spread sheet with this post is pretty much a finished product for the book Ottoman Dominion, to be released November 17, 2020.
But here’s a copy from in the middle of writing process for Ottoman Dominion that shows you the kind of revisions I make as I edit a manuscript. Essentially, this spreadsheet is my ‘outline’. At the start, I fill it out with all of the details I know about a manuscript before starting the writing. Then I print out that initial Outline/Timeline.
As I proceed through the writing process, I keep the spreadsheet in front of me so I can make notes about any changes that need to be made or I can jot down notes as I think of things that need to be added to the plot. So, each version of the spreadsheet, and there are usually multiple versions through the writing process, is a living document that changes as my understanding of all the subplots deepen. Or as I see that the timing of scenes is off and I need to rearrange their order.
I think you can see how this tool helps me remain organized in both my thoughts and the structure of the book. And, because my books often move rapidly back-and-forth from one location to another, I add at the end of the spreadsheet the relative time zones of each location in the book. (Beware of Daylight Savings Time! Some countries do, many others don't)
As an aside, I believe my publisher, Kregel Publications, has adopted this Outline/Timeline format which they now require from all of their authors.
But there are certainly many other ways to structure your task of writing. On Wednesday we will look at the standard three-act structure used by many writers.