Philip Brewer's Writing Progress


Tuesday, 20 July 2004

In case you haven't seen it, I did write the entry for the 17th about the BBQ, with pictures.

The last couple of days at the writing jam, I talked to Toby and Dave about novel writing.

I've started and abandoned two novels in the past few years. In each case, I my sense was that the story premise wasn't strong enough to carry a novel. So, I was looking for suggestions on how to tell if an idea is big enough to carry the weight of a novel. It turned out that Dave had done quite about of thinking about that topic.

Dave showed me a neat chart he'd made, where he compared the structure of "Ender's Game" the novelette to the structure of Ender's Game the novel. The chart showed the novelette on the left, diagrammed almost scene by scene. On the right it showed the novel, diagrammed in similar detail, arranged with the main plot in one column and two subplots in another. Where a main plot element was shared between both works, that item spread across both sides of the chart.

Viewed that way, several differences were quickly clear. The novel has a large opening section that does not appear in the novelette. It also has two subplots that the novelette doesn't have. And it has a final section that carries the story on after the novelette ends. Most important, where the novelette hits each key scene, the novel hits the same scene and then deals with the aftermath in further scenes that are not in the shorter version.

Dave also showed me another interesting chart. It works with the rather obvious notion that every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. You could argue just where the divisions go, but having picked whatever spot you like best, you could then take those sections and divide them similarly into beginnings, middles, and ends, and then divide those as well. Somewhere along there you will come up with roughly scene-sized bits, which can also be divided into thirds.

As I said, it's a rather obvious notion, but for some reason, it struck a chord with me. Where I find the idea of a 100,000-word novel daunting, I find it much easier to imagine writing, say, a 20,000-word beginning to a novel that begins with the hero in his element but shows how he gets pushed out of it by the end. Then I can write another slightly longer segment where he struggles with his new situation, but learns to deal. Then I can write a third segment where his old problems flare up again, where his old strategies of dealing with them fail, but the new things he's learned turn out to be what he needs to succeed and save the day. That gets me to maybe 70,000 words. Throw in a couple of subplots that pick up the themes of the story (Globalization is one. Intellectual property is another. Family loyalty comes into it. There's also a love story.), and there I am with a whole novel.

(As an aside, Toby mentioned that the success of such works as Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom seems to have change the sense in the publishing community that novels have to be 100,000 words or more. As they were back when I was a kid, novels in the 60,000 to 90,000 word range may be publishable again.)

We talked about globalization at the BBQ, and both Toby and Dave had interesting things to say about who is helped and hurt by it, and about who is empowered by it and who is not. It's a topic I'm interested in.

Anyway, on the long drive home from Bluffton, I told myself the whole story, roughly divided into thirds, then told myself the story of the thirds and divided them into thirds. When I got home, I wrote a bunch of it down in an outline.

This evening I jumped in at the beginning and wrote 1000 words of a novel. It was very satisfying.

Busy at the day job. I need to be in early tomorrow for a call, so it was slightly foolish to stay up so late writing my novel, and rather more foolish to stay up even later writing this journal entry. But, it's what I wanted to do, and who's to tell me to do otherwise?

I'll keep you posted on the novel. I have high hopes.


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