Posts Tagged ‘structure’

In both composing music and writing, we talk about the value of limits.

Shouldn’t the imagination be limitless, you might ask?

Well, yes and no. Without some sort of structure within which to organize the imagination, the end result tends to be disjointed, rambling, and/or incoherent. Structure tends to allow the impact of a work to be more easily conveyed and understood. Even experiments in looser structure or “no” structure are informed by their structure or lack thereof, and they are using that difference or lack to say something.

This is why in music we have different forms: the sonata, the concerto, the art song cycle, the rondo, the fugue. Each form has its rules, and the rules must be understood before some of them may perhaps be broken or subverted or played with. In a similar way, prose has different forms, common structures, and genres that form sandboxes within which we play. (And even if we leave the sandbox all together, it’s rare that our work isn’t somehow informed by that fact.)

Structure lends definition to our ideas, which in turn gives us more artistic freedom. If we literally have every single note of every single rhythmic value at every time at our disposal, there are so many possibilities it becomes difficult to think. We face decision paralysis, or at the very least spend huge amounts of time considering such a large number of alternatives, most of which wouldn’t be very effective at all in practice. Structure frees us to consider more possibilities by narrowing down the scope of our canvas.

A very structured waffle. I can attest to the fact that it was quite delicious.

A very structured waffle. I can attest to the fact that it was quite delicious.

Sometimes life feels very similar to me. As nice as all that advice sounds to “live life without limits,” if you spend more than a few minutes thinking about it, it’s simply not practical. We are constantly placing limits on ourselves and our lives: where we decide to live (or if we decide to be nomadic, because that places different constraints); what careers/education we decide to pursue; what lifestyle choices we make; how we spend our time. Because each minute we decide to spend practicing piano is a minute we aren’t going to be spending writing or cooking dinner or hanging out with family or what-have-you. Ultimately we are limited by the number of hours in the day, by the number of hours we need to spend sleeping, and by our finite life spans, as well as by a host of other individual mental, emotional, and physical traits.

While some of these limits can be frustrating (why do I need eight hours of sleep per night? why?), they ultimately allow us to set our priorities and pursue our lives according to what we value and find important. Overall this is a positive thing.

Except when it isn’t. We become so used to living within limits and imposing more limits upon ourselves, at a certain point we might stop being conscious with our decisions. Not only that, we might not even recognize there is a choice in the first place. This is when limits move from being a force of good to being a force that holds people back.

Limits help us make decisions, be who we want to be, and accomplish what we want to accomplish. But limits also exist to be questioned. It is only through questioning that we can discover which limits are useful and which are unnecessary. It is only through questioning that we can determine which limits are real and which are unconscious beliefs we hold that might not actually be true.

It is only through questioning that we can realize our full potential, whether that be in a specific creative project or the creative project that is life.


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I’m back from the Rainforest Writers’ Retreat, and what a lovely five days I had! After all the hullaballoo of looking for a place to live, I was even more ready than normal to have time away from my cell phone and the logistics of my life. Whenever stress would intrude (say, from an e-mail from my current landlord), I’d go outside and look at the lake–sometimes rippling in the wind, sometimes a perfect mirror of the clouds overhead–and I’d feel much, much better.

It's hard to look at such beauty and not feel something loosen inside. Photo by Amy Sundberg (me!)

It’s hard to look at such beauty and not feel something loosen inside. Photo by Amy Sundberg (me!)

While my writing focus has been much improved this year compared to last year, I’ve been noticing as February progressed and the house search continued its grim plod that it was gradually worsening. It was taking me longer to get started writing every day, and I was taking more and more breaks. By the time I actually found my soon-to-be home at the beginning of last week, my focus was so shaky I had lowered my daily word count goal. So I went into Rainforest this year worried about my ability to produce.

I’m happy to say I was as productive as I hoped to be, which gave me food for thought. Why, I’ve been wondering, am I so much more productive and focused at Rainforest than at home? And is there any way to replicate any of Rainforest’s effects?

Factors that make Rainforest work so well for my productivity:

1. It’s remote, with no phones or cell reception, and very spotty internet connection. Without much communication from the outside world, it’s much easier to focus.

2. I clear the decks for the trip, which means for the most part I don’t have real world concerns intruding on my time or focus either. (Real concerns can range from daily dog care to doing my taxes to planning this social activity to going to appointments to doing chores.)

3. The word count board builds in accountability to my peers. This works better than an announcement on Twitter would because there’s a more tangible feeling of community and that we’re all in this together. I see people writing constantly, and conversation often revolves around how the writing is going that day.

4. I have extra motivation because of the resources used to take the trip, which ends up giving me the feeling that I’d better make this time count.

5. Because I have lofty (for me) daily word count goals, I tend to engage in less general shilly-shallying while ostensibly writing.

6. My writing day is more structured with meals and activities than it often is at home.

Some of these factors are hard to duplicate at home, most notably #2. I have to spend a certain amount of time each day dealing with life stuff, and sometimes that amount of time is much higher than I would ideally want it to be. So it goes.

Today, though, my first day back writing at home, I experimented with #5, otherwise known as the Shilly-shallying problem. And lo and behold, since I am now less accustomed to shilly-shally after a few days of better writing habits, I was able to cut down a great deal on the procrastinating that can accompany writing. And this on a day when I had a great many stressful life concerns piled up and demanding attention. Key to this, I think, was encouraging the belief that I could write my words in spite of what life was throwing at me, as well as remembering what it felt like to take those concerns and put them off to one side for a while and very deliberately doing that during my writing time.

I’m going to keep playing with that, and soon I’d like to experiment with #6 and see if adding a little more structure might help my productivity as well.

What has helped you become more productive?

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While I was definitely kept busy last week with the Backbone Project, I was also hard at work on Theodora Goss’s YA Novel Challenge, which officially began last Wednesday on June 1. I knew going into it that I wasn’t going to start with the actual prose writing by Wednesday because I needed time to plan out the novel first. I am a die-hard outliner; the mere thought of beginning a novel without any idea as to where I’m going fills me with horror. Mind you, I understand that some writers find an outline too constraining, and we all have our own creative processes, but for me, I want to have a clear plan. Maybe it goes with my list-making compulsion, I don’t know.

I’ve been spending the last year learning more about structure as it relates to the novel. I’ve used the basic index card outlining method ever since my first novel, and it’s one of my very favorite parts of the process. I LOVE index cards! So much less pressure than the actual committing words to the page part. At Taos Toolbox last summer, I learned about the three-act structure in more detail (which left me slapping my forehead, I might add). I then devoured Kristen Lamb’s blog series on structure (there are eight parts to this series, although I was unable to find a page that listed all of them together, unfortunately) and was completely fascinated by thinking about story in this new way. And finally, I picked up Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, which is a book about screenwriting that spends a lot of time on structure, and devoured it in three or four days at the end of May.

Now, I understand that a screenplay for a blockbuster Hollywood movie and a novel are not exactly the same in structure, but they can have a certain amount in common, depending on genre and related concerns. Plus, just as I have an inordinate fondness for index cards, I love organization of all types. I love being organized! It’s such a great feeling. So I decided to try applying some of the things I’ve learned during my outlining process.

My YA novel’s working title is The Academy of Forgetting. Isn’t that evocative? I’m in love with my idea. I first conceived of it back at the SCBWI Winter Conference in January 2010, so it’s been floating in my head for a while. I’d already completed some brainstorming, a basic premise write-up, and some thoughts about characters and various “reveal” moments. Oh, and research, especially about neurobiology (which, by the by, is a crazy and fascinating subject). So last week I printed everything out so I could have it in front of me, and then I got to work on my version of a beat sheet, adapted from the one described in the aforementioned Save the Cat! This beat sheet gives me an idea of the various components of the story that need to happen, and around when they need to happen.

Then I got to break out my beloved index cards and begin to arrange my three acts:

Obviously the proper work environment must include dog toys and weights….

Strangely, I ended up with Act 1 on the far right and Act 3 on the left, which feels backwards, but I decided to go with it.

Luckily, I had the services of a prime story consultant, and her favorite toy cow.

This kept happening once I arranged the acts in their proper order. I’m not sure if she’s so in love with the story that she wants to sprawl all over it, or if she hates it and wants to hide it from view. Maybe she believes in a Zen-like teaching method….

Once I had the novel laid out like this, I began adding two things to each index card: +/- (or -/+) to denote the emotional change for the protagonist in the course of the scene depicted on that index card; and a >< to denote the conflict going on in the scene. So a finished card looks something like this:

I know that conflict description is a bit cryptic (actually, maybe the entire card is cryptic; I chose one that wouldn’t be too spoilerific), but the important thing is that I know what I’m talking about.

Finally, I typed up all of my cards, creating a four-page outline. To this document I added my adapted beat sheet that includes approximate page numbers of when things should maybe happen. And now I have a road map for the book, from which I can feel free to detour wildly if I don’t think it’s working.

What do you think about structure and writing a novel? How extensively do you outline, if at all? What about your process makes you deeply happy, the way index cards make me giddy?

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