Today’s guest post is by writer Katrina Byrd (@ovenhot).
A few years ago, I sat in a dining room surrounded by friends as Reggie Robertson explained the business model for Robertson’s Metals and Recycling, a business he and his family own in Dickinson, North Dakota. “We have a fair markup.” He explained their process of market research and other requirements of the business. “We maintain our equipment.”
This was the first time I thought of my writing as a business. As a writer, I stay up to date on literary trends. The equipment I maintain is my computer and software. My inventory is my writing (short stories, plays, films). Creating works in line with industry standards requires developing ideas, understanding industry standards and studying plot and structure; recently I read three books on novel planning:
- The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne
- Story Engineering by Larry Brooks
- The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson
“But I Don’t Like Writing According to a Formula!”
Some writers consider themselves what Larry Brooks calls an “intuitive” writer: people who rarely want to work according to a blueprint and cringe at the thought of following a “formula.” But, Brooks says, “If you don’t know what you’re shooting for, if you just make stuff up as you go without much if any forethought, it probably won’t work.”
Moreover, plot and structure books aren’t necessarily calling for adherence to a formula—in fact, they warn against it. Coyne discusses, for instance, the amateur writer: “Despite all of their desire to live by their own lone wolf ways, ironically what amateur writers really want is a recipe.” Amateur writers want to emulate writers on the bestseller list with no consideration for the various ways one can get on that list. They put money ahead of the story, and this makes them their own worst enemy.
One of the values of all three books (and their methods) is that they provide a means of testing whether a story works on a professional level, at any stage of the process.
- Plot Whisperer offers a plot planner, which consists of seven plotting questions, as well as a character emotion profile. Alderson recommends crafting a character emotional profile on the protagonist at the beginning of a story then again at the end. This information is used to create the universal story, which is placed on a line graph.
- In Story Engineering, Brooks’ fundamental concept to story planning is the six core competencies. A writer may start with a great story idea and great characters, but without considering fundamental elements like backstory, stakes, and inner landscape, the story may fall flat, or run into other challenges such as bad pacing and lack of a compelling character arc.
- Story Grid is a tool to aid in becoming your own editor. Labeled with critical information about the global story, the spreadsheet identifies what is working and what isn’t. “It is like a CT scan that takes a photo of the global story,” Coyne writes.
But Do Formulas Work for Literary Novels?
Broadly speaking, there are two literary cultures: literary and commercial. An author needs clarity on what she’s writing to understand how to successfully structure her story. Alderson, Brooks, and Coyne all agree a review of the story’s scenes is a crucial factor in determining the appropriate literary culture.
In The Plot Whisperer, Alderson says stories tend to be action driven or character driven. Scenes at the beginning and at the end of her plot planner help determine story type. High action and a dramatic climax close to the end typically indicates an action-driven story. When a character uses new skills to conquer her greatest antagonist, then the story may be character driven. “If the characters show transformational behavior during a high-action climax, likely your story is a balance of the two plot structures,” Alderson says.
Brooks suggests that in literary fiction, scenes are character driven, while in commercial fiction, scenes are action driven. “Writing literature vs. commercial fiction is a choice a writer can make,” Brooks says. According to him, the key to mastering either style is a solid understanding in the mission of each scene.
According to Coyne in The Story Grid, the commercial culture consists of genres which, in themselves, bring about “obligatory” scenes. For example, if your story is a romance, there are specific scenes it must possess to fit into this category. Coyne uses the story grid approach to help writers identify these scenes before the story is written. Then, once a story is complete, the story grid serves as an editing tool.
According to Coyne, a desire for the “glamorous aspects of literary trade” hinders some novice and seasoned writers from seeing the value of the story grid. According to Coyne, many writers embrace “the thrill of dashing off chapter after chapter in a white heat of inspiration, etc—and they undervalue the blue collar aspects of story construction and inspection.” Coyne designed the grid as a tool to bridge the gap between “commercial necessity and literary ambition.”
Personally, I recommend The Story Grid to authors interested in a guide for long-form narratives. Coyne offers information on structure, editing, and the publishing world. As a recent MFA graduate from Mississippi University for Women, I have a 260-page novel in need of some revision. By putting my global story on the spreadsheet, I got a deeper understanding of how an editor would view my novel. While my novel has a clear inciting incident; strong characters; dramatic action; and a clear beginning, middle and end; my plot points were slightly off the mark. A few of my scenes were obtuse, and in some back-to-back scenes, there was little variation in how the scenes turned or shifted. In four back-to-back scenes, I used dialogue at the turning point.
But the story grid tool is also invaluable at the beginning stages of crafting a novel, and knowing the literary culture in which your work aligns puts you ahead of the game.
What story planning methods do you use? Share with us in the comments.
Katrina Byrd, a writer/playwright, is a 2018 MFA graduate of Mississippi University for Women. Byrd’s short plays appeared in several theatres including Vicksburg Theatre Guild, MOLJOAA Performing Arts Company and Bay St. Louis Little Theatre. Featured in literary magazines across the country, her fiction centers on strong female characters who overcome insurmountable obstacles. You can find Byrd’s fiction pieces in The Disappointed House Wife, Black Magnolias Literary Journal, and Kaleidoscope. Due to an internship funded by the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation, Byrd, visually impaired since birth, was hired to write this review for JaneFriedman.com. At AWP 2018, Byrd also interned with Jane Friedman to provide content for the blog at The Business of Being a Writer website. Byrd is also a 2018 Mississippi Arts Commission Artist mini-grant recipient. Connect with Katrina at Facebook and on Twitter at @ovenhot.