To structure or not to structure

To be honest, to not structure is not an option.  No one wants to read stream of consciousness, at least not willingly.  One of the first pieces of advice I’ve had on revision is the need to revise for structure before you delve into content. If you think about it, this makes perfect sense in that scene-and-sequel events that make up a story are interdependent. Moving scene A before scene B can change any number of consequential events.  It can also play havoc with your plot (presuming you have one), but may be a necessity to stay faithful to your timeline, or the laws of physics. (Wow, Jim is at the lake and in outer space!).

As an example, I spent last November (2013) cranking out a contemporary young adult novel, tentatively titled “Jonathan of Jamesville High.” One of the difficulties of Nano writing is that it takes place in the frenzied environment of 30 days to generate 50K words. So when I am struggling to kick out the requisite daily number of words, trying to set and keep events in their proper order can be quite a challenge. You also get into the challenge of trying to maintain consistency of character appearance, their names, locations and setting details.

That said, the added difficulty, at least for me, is that I don’t reread my previous Nano content (that is the only way I can avoid my inner critic from barking at me).  So it was, that I often tossed in a scene that I needed to come earlier, and noted that before moving on to more content.  By Nov 30th, I had 50K words, but when I reread it, the structure was an absolute mess.  To make matters worse, I used a multi-stranded plot, which wove characters in and out of the plot-line in some fashion. (I’d like to say in a deliberate way, but I’d be lying).  The coupe de grace was that I had used a school schedule that is no longer in use.

To some extent this was not a surprise; I wanted to capture events in a public high-school, but did not want to get buried in bureaucratic and administrative detail.  For one thing, the constraints of Nano made it impossible to quickly research, backtrack and try to shoe-horn everything within a more contemporary class schedule.  So I proceeded with what I vaguely  remember from the Jurassic era of my youth.  That worked well enough to get me to my word goal.  Six months later, when I dragged the manuscript out of my digital folder and looked at it, I realized I had a major problem (one of many).

The first problem I had to resolve was coming up with a class schedule that would have some passing resemblance with reality.  My wife, a high-school teacher of 25 years, gave me her school’s bell schedule. This proved to be invaluable in figuring out what kids are faced with when it comes to number of classes per day, lunch periods, and minutes per class period (or block).  I already had some classes defined in the text and the general order. However, what threw me the most was the schedule is not linear, rather it is cyclical — that is to say — it varies between X day and Y day.  Classes on X day are different lessons than Y day, and the school year alternates between the two.  Please note, there is A LOT more to the philosophy and implementation of school schedules than what I am talking about in this post, but it would be a serious digression to get into that.

Once I pinned down the schedule, I had to pick the classes, and where lunch was supposed to be.  Since I had more than one character, this proved to be quite the challenge.  Finally, I picked apart every scene in the story, stuck a day and time on it, and rearranged it in a chronological format.  Now when I reread the piece, obvious gaps and discrepancies in the plot-line jumped out.  At this point, I’m still struggling to iron out problems and fill in gaps, but the story hangs together better than it did before.  Now I just need to figure out how to handle simultaneous chronological scenes, but that is less of an issue than getting the timeline right in the first place.

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