Thursday, June 18, 2009

the humpty dumpty school of writing

I know a lot of writers who map out their novels. (I do know some writers who follows the pen, but to my mind, those books have a certain inbred formula or genre.) John Irving knows every single thing that happens. I am a big believer in Truby story structure myself. John Truby is a screenwriting guru who watched hundred of films to see how they worked, how they didn't work, and what makes story. He threw out the three act structure which is too static and came up with tools like psychological wants and needs and desire lines and moral choices--and it is all invaluable stuff for a novelist.

So what's with the humpty dumpty school in my tagline? It has to do with the process. Yep, I mapped out my novel, but now, 150 pages in, I have to take it apart. There are too many summaries instead of scenes. The driving desire line wobbles and the moral choice feels soft to me. Nothing feels as if it is building and where are the stakes? I am so agitated about this that I am tempted to put that novel aside and pick up another one I am working on, but I won't. This is the gritty, hard, soul crunching work. Beside Truby, I've been googling other writers' processes. It's so gratifying to read that other writers have the same issues and I am not the only one bobbing in this sea of hungry giant squid! (Hey, I know how to swim.)


Jeff Lyons said...


Great post! Well, you know me. I'm a Trubyite as well... but... what you're touching on is the real story structure method.:) It's great to have a starting point, and I think Truby and all the other gurus provide that (truby's is the best), but at some point we all have to leave the comfortable and enter the chaos that is really development. Its a mysterious mix of our subconscious, unconscious, and our craft all coming together in the crazy-making thing called real process. Truby isn't about process really.. I don't think... he's about how to get out of the shute. I know he (and others) think they can lead a writer down the road from soup to nuts... but they can't. In the end we're bone chillingly alone and it's just us, our characters, and that grim faced editor waiting for pages.

Tools are great, but at some point they ALWAYS turn into baggage... the heavy kind they used back in the 1930s when Pan Am was still around! We all have to drop the bags at some point if we want to get through the door... and then the whole ballgame changes. We find the right lines, the right characters, etc.

I think this is the truth of it. Yay for the tools (Truby et al), but they're not enough. Never have been, never will be.


Caroline said...

I absolutely agree. Tools are the life rafts you cling to until you get used to the murky ocean depths and start discovering what it is you are really writing about. Rules are meant to be broken, boundaries stretched, and it really is out of those scary, out of control moments, that great art begins to breathe.

Clea Simon said...

On the flip side, if there were clear rules that when followed allowed people to make art then, well, everyone would be doing it! Go wild!

Katharine Weber said...

Surely not Humpty-Dumpty. All the king's horses and all the king's men and what they failed to do are not part of this -- it's up to YOU to put it back together and of course you will do it absolutely brilliantly. You need a new nursery rhyme. Maybe:

Bat, bat, come under my hat,
And I'll give you a slice of bacon;
And when I bake,
I'll give you a cake,
If I am not mistaken.

Inviting a bat under your hat seems more like dreaming up a novel.

Caroline Leavitt said...

LOVE the poem, Katharine. I think I'll post it over my desk. But of course, the king's horses and men couldn't put HD back together again, but I bet he did it for himself! I could say he was a good egg, but that would be too punny.

Jeff Lyons said...


Yes, but even coming out of his shell he suffered under his own yoke.

Sorry, couldn't help it.

Jessica Keener said...

Great post, Caroline, and one I struggle with regularly. Wanting to create signposts to follow, then finding those signposts shift as I'm writing. I suppose this shifting is, in some ways, what keeps me going after the story. I need to feel that I'm chasing a story or digging for it while I'm writing it.


Unknown said...

Hi Caroline,

Long time no comment. Oops. Catching up. Hope you're doing well! :)

To add my two cents, I did the first two drafts of my novel "by the pen" and considered myself anti-outline. Now I'm having to do massive outlining and problem-solving to even get started on the third draft, though, which is frustrating in that it feels like I would be much further along if I had just done it all long ago. Since it's my first novel, I guess I needed to "feel it out" the way I did to get a handle on the process, so all the time and work wasn't in vain. But I am convinced now that Truby, Irving, and all you other wise people are onto something, and I will be figuring things out much sooner next time around.

Thanks for all you post about the writing process. It's always intersting and helpful to read! Take care.

Lisa (Schmitt)

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