Monday, January 23, 2012

The Fatal Flaw of My Novel: Structure

I mentioned yesterday that there’s a fatal flaw in Sacred Fire. I’m going to rewrite the novel (again) to fix it. You’re probably wondering what the flaw is.

It’s the structure. Everyone who’s read the novel says it reads like a series of short stories and doesn’t have a central plot.

I had trouble understanding how to apply this concept, so my writing mentor made a list of possible plots to focus the story on. I felt each one would destroy the novel I was trying to write. Finally, I wrote to her, “The story is about Tuccia’s relationship with Pinaria! I can’t make it about anything else!”

She wrote back, “That’s what the story is about? I thought that was just a subplot.”

I was stunned. Then, like the sun breaking through the clouds, everything was clear. The plot of the novel doesn’t run all the way through. It only emerges occasionally.

When I told my husband I was going to stop querying to rewrite my book, he thought I was crazy. I explained to him the problem and he got quiet. Finally, he said, “You’re story is supposed to be about Pinaria? I had no idea. I thought that was just a part of it.”

I first realized this was a problem when I wrote my query letter and found it difficult to summarize the book. Too many things were going on and nothing was more important than anything else. 

I’ve said before how helpful it is to write your query and pitch before you start writing.  It helps you focus on the novel's backbone. If I had done that with Sacred Fire, I wouldn’t be in the mess I’m in now.

My greatest help in fixing this problem was writing two rough drafts in the last year for Hunger and Fierce. The more story lines you develop the better you get at it, and now that I’ve done three, I’m finally starting to get the hang of it. I think.

I wish more than anything I could go back in time and start all over. I wish it so much, it aches. Well, no point in crying over spilled milk. I just need to roll up my sleeves and fix it.


  1. Teralyn:

    There is an upside to this. The subplots that you eliminate could provide great material for future books. I went to a seminar by a very well-known writer and when someone in the audience asked him where his ideas came from he explained that new books usually came from material edited out of the last book. So I guess this happens even to the professionals.

  2. Sounds like you've gotten some good insight into your work. It's always discouraging to start over, but I bet you'll be pleased eventually!

  3. Good luck, Teralyn. It's so frustrating when you have to do more revisions when you think you're done. Structure is a hard thing to get the hang of. I think you're right-- practice is really what helps you understand it.

    Another thing that helped me was the book Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. It really helped me understand the basics of story structure.

    Good luck!

  4. Oh I know what you mean about having focus in a query and knowing what I know now about writing, wishing I knew it before the draft :)
    Thanks for joining the Valentine's day bloghop! I look forward to reading your scene :)

  5. Yes, mop up that spilled milk! :)

    Re subplots: it's about establishing hierarchy. Also finding themes to get them all to hang together and support each other. Donald Maass talks about plot layers supporting each other.

  6. Good thing is that you know what needs to be fixed. Dunno why it is, but most writers really learn to craft stories after they've spent a LOT of time writing stories that don't work too well. I like to call it apprenticeship. :)

  7. Don't worry, you aren't the only one who's had this problem. Many times, it's a lot of trial and error before you get all the kinks out of a story. I wish you all the best in your rewrite!

  8. This is bad news/good news kind of thing.
    Stopping your querying isn't something exciting to do. Want to stick to it.
    Sounds like your good news is that you have the light bulb moment, the ability to rectify in your rewrite what was missing and make it an even more wonderful story.
    I wish you luck as you plug away.

  9. I totally know what you mean. I've been writing my book for more than a year and realized I needed a new structure also. I did a massive outline which helped immensely, and also made me realized I didn't have to re-write the whole thing, just move scenes around and add in a bunch of stuff. (So still a huge task). Good luck on the re-write!

  10. I'm not a big theme guy - always hated those assignments in high school English where we had to discuss the theme of some story. Usually because I had no idea what the heck any of them were.

    And didn't, until I heard a guy talk about adapting a novel into a movie. The movie and book have the same title: "Single White Female." It's about a woman who gets a new roomie; the roomie starts adapting herself to become like the woman.

    But there are several characters in the story. And the script writer said he struggled with adapting it until he understood that the theme is about identity - and that everyone in the story somehow is struggling with that. Once he figured out the theme, then he could tie all the subplots to that theme in some way, with their identity issues.

    He also mentioned that he did get to chat with the novelist about his adaptation and brought this up to him. And the novelist (this is the part I can relate to) said: oh, he'd never really thought of that - had no idea if there even was a 'theme' to the story.

    (All that said, I probably still can't tell anyone what the theme is in any of my stories - I just don't tend to think that way.)

    Btw, I just checked on Amazon to make sure the book and movie had the same title. And when I glanced at the book reviews, this is the beginning of the first one: I actually prefer the film version of this. Though the novel is usually superior to the movie, that's not true in this case.

    I think that's at least partly because the movie successfully employs the theme to tell its story.

    Good luck!

  11. Interesting stuff! I'm a big theme person, but the theme of my book was more about the history that the story and the characters, so now I have to find a different theme to unify my ideas. I'm struggling with this, and it's driving me insane. Thanks for the advice!


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