Tag Archives: MFA

The structure of a novel

In the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of Poets & Writers magazine, John Stazinski (page 29) bemoans the tendency of MFA programs to concentrate nearly exclusively on the short story at the expense of the novel because it’s too time-consuming to workshop complete novels. Thank goodness Grub Street is now experimenting with a novel-revision class to fill the gap.

VCFA logoLucky for me, VCFA was not one of those MFA programs. In the first few semesters, there were limits to the number of pages I was allowed to submit for critique/review, but in the final semester, the complete draft of a novel was welcome. It was an intense final semester. My faculty advisor, Kathi Appelt, required multiple re-writes of my novel—never mind line edits. The focus was on structure—on the intersection of the story arc and the emotional arc—on Big Picture elements of the craft.

Now I can’t read a novel without marveling at and dissecting its structure. Of course writers need to learn how to craft engaging characters and settings with mesmerizing descriptive details. But plot matters! A well-conceived story arc is just as necessary as beautiful prose.

Take John Green’s Looking for Alaska, for example. He intentionally deviates from the classic climax-and-denouement structure with brilliant results. Early chapters are labeled “before” and later chapters “after” and the life-changing moment occurs in the middle, leading to a denouement that at first glance appears too long. But no. The climax is not that moment-in-the-middle, but comes when the protagonist realizes he can’t live fully if he remains stuck on life “before Alaska” and “after Alaska.”  The structure Green has given to his novel is the very structure the protagonist is struggling to escape.

Or take Uma Krishnaswami’s delightful The Grand Plan to Fix Everything. Her theme involves life’s coincidences, and she presents the story from the points of view (close-third person in alternating chapters) of one protagonist and multiple secondary characters. Readers glimpse a postal carrier here and a Bollywood movie star there, and in the end, of course, the characters’ lives intersect. But it’s the structure of the novel in multiple POVs that makes the intersection work.

It’s one thing to know the story you want to tell, and another to figure out how best to tell it. Such is my current quandary. Last week I completed the draft of a novel, and I’m now letting it rest so that I can return later with fresh eyes to ask: what structure—what sequence of scenes—will provide maximum dramatic tension for my readers? Right now I’ve got one viewpoint in part one and another in part two. But will alternating the points of view (the way Uma did) serve this story better? Hmm. Thank goodness I have early-level reader-friends willing to critique an entire novel, not simply ten or twenty pages at a time.

On Creativity

Last month a young woman told me she was pursuing a PhD in children’s literature instead of an MFA because she “wasn’t creative enough” to write fiction. She reminded me of a time when I thought I wasn’t creative enough. A time when I preferred orderliness to messiness. A time when I was good at regurgitating facts and taking tests. A time when I didn’t understand or appreciate the nonlinear nature of the creative process—a process that isn’t easy to judge with an alphabetical grade: A minus, B plus.

Creativity is messy. It involves trial-and-error. Play. Experimentation. En route to the finished piece, a lot of work product gets thrown out. A whole lot—volumes more than what appears in the final manuscript, the final painting, the final musical score. The creative process is time-consuming and all-encompassing and often a singular activity, and I now pour hours of myself into it every week. It’s the most rewarding process I know. To create something from nothing is life-affirming and life-changing.

Although the goal might be the finished product—the book, the painting, the musical score, the play—the joy is in the process, itself. There are lots of books out there about embracing the process. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron is one I’d recommend. When I read it, I thought some of her suggested activities sounded lame, but I did them, anyway, and the results surprised me. The activities loosened me up. My writing started to flow. It wasn’t polished writing, but at least it was flowing. Later I would figure out how to polish it.

When a person tells me she is not creative enough, I don’t buy it. We’re born to create. People who think they’re not creative enough probably have too strong of an internal editor or critic wagging a finger at them. Too much of a need to please some sort of parental figure or teacher. When we let go of that need to please and create for the sake of creativity, we discover infinite possibilities within. As Annie Dillard reminds us, such things “fill from behind, from beneath, like well water.”