The 100-pronged structure attack

Like every sniveling arts & culture nerd, I've been "working on my novel," which is so frequently ridiculed that it's hard to understand anyone posting about it, unless they already sold it to a publisher. But really quick, here's a few thoughts in my defense, many of which are just about my artistic philosophy in general.

1. I'm young! Better to start now at 23, rather than waiting until I retire or my kids go to college.
2. In my artistic experience (mostly with different forms of visual art, but also with cooking and writing) everyone starts off bad. You have X number of failed attempts and disasters in you before you'll produce anything remotely worthwhile. Hence, the best thing to do is just get these disasters out of the way as quickly as possible through regularly working on them. In a forgotten age, this was known as "Practice." In other words, the best way to look at your first novel is this: practice for your second novel. Thus, once I get this one out of the way, the second one will come faster and sharper.
3. I occasionally scribble this down as something I want on my tombstone: "The world's worst drawing is a lack thereof."  In other words, I'll take the guy doing the crappy, biginner's-step awful art over the guy who's too lazy to do anything but heckle any day. 
4. It's good for you, internally! I dislike it when people stretch creative muscles for the wrong reasons. Too many people figure their book would suck, and therefore not sell, and therefore serve no purpose. What ever happened to writing for fun?  In terms of what should motivate you for creativity, here's how I prioritize things: #1. Do it for yourself, #2. Do it for viewers/readers and their praise, and #3. Do it for material success. If I enjoy writing, who cares if it doesn't sell, or even if nobody likes it?
5. I feel like I've had enough of a win ratio with smaller writing projects that I can be motivated about this.

Now that I've written another overly long contextual introduction, here's what I wanted to bring up. I'm a big fan of structure. In fact, I think it's the most important part of writing. If it sucks and rambles in its outline, paragraph or logline format, it'll  suck in its larger format. Although my methods have changed, I haven't written a story without outlining in some form or another since sophomore year of high school. 

But what to outline with? There's any number of recorded outlining formats, and zealous cults form around all of them. Here's some of the ones I'm familiar with:

1. Syd Field's 3-act screenwriting formula
2. Any number of structural recommendations from Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat!" including his personal logline format and his 15 beat story outline.
3. The Hero's Journey, made superfamous from Star Wars
4. One my teacher Stephen Glover was a fan of was a 9-beat arc, labeled "You, Go, Seek, Find, Take, Return, Change." In other words, a protagonist plus six verbs.
5. Any number of "Adventure Planning Guides" recommended for roleplaying games.
6. An arbitrary order of events, which was the first way I outlined (before I knew outlining and structure were so beneficial.)

Furthermore, character outlining is something with many many models. It's another issue that's covered copiously in roleplaying games, with numerous models, and most authors I know have their own version. These outlines vary from lists of physical features (hair color, strength score, etc) to more probing, conflict-oriented inventories (what is your character ashamed of? What would make him sell out his friends?) 

I started extensively outlining D&D characters in high school using a document I made up called "Oscar's Exhaustive Character Outline." A year or so later, in theatre class we were given a character outline to fill out for homework, and I liked seeing the similarities and differences between my outline and my teacher's outline. The outline focus in my past payed off, as I was one of only two students to get an A on the assignment. (The other was my wife!) After the assignment, I added many of the questions to my own personal outline. Over the years, so many character outlines have been incorporated into my own, including stuff from practically every RPG or creative writing-oriented teacher I've come across. 

Currently, I occasionally get stuck on a part of my story outline. So what I've been doing is going back to the parasitic, absorbing nature of my Character Outline. If I can't figure out the breaks and beats using one form of story outlining, why not try out another? Most of them fit into each other, but by having these other options available, I can pick and choose what works best at the time. 

Case in point, I landed on the smallest form of story--a title, a main character, and a logline. I then jumped into my personal story arc outliner (a mix between Glover's setup, Snyder's setup, Hero's Journey setup and arbitrary order of events.) But I couldn't get it! I didn't know what to do in the second half. The breakthrough came when I first tried doing each method separately as far as I could take it, and finally tried labeling each of the "Three Acts" with a sentence each. 

Suddenly it came easy. At that point, I discovered I had no trouble labeling acts One and Two. After that, the task of thinking up a single sentence for the last third of a book seemed easy. 

I guess what I'm advocating is that you avoid writer's block by seeking out wiggle room. If you hit a wall outlining, it doesn't mean your story sucks, and it also doesn't mean the god whose altar of outlining you worship at is full of crap. It just means that you'll benefit from a little perspective, eh? 


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