AWP 2014: Structuring the Novel

Posted on 12 March 2014

While I spent most of my time in Seattle at AWP 2014 catching up with my far-flung writing buddies, sitting at the Mid-American Review booth, attending readings, meeting or catching up with writer friends (including our own Teri!), and drinking unicorn-themed cocktails, I also attended several excellent sessions. Here’s a (belated) glimpse of what I learned:

It’s no surprise that the first AWP session I gravitated toward involved structuring the novel. Novel structure continues to remain a mystery to me, something that either appears on its own by magic or requires meticulous planning that I continuously fail to accomplish.

If anything, this AWP session was a source of comfort – according to the published novelists sitting on the panel, novel structure is often just as inscrutable to them as it is to me. And, for the most part, they don’t outline. Hallelujah. The panelists included Tara Conklin, Jenny Shortridge, Melissa Remark, and Summer Wood. Here are a few tidbits from their larger conversation:

Jenny: The structure is the hardest, last piece to put into place … It’s befuddling how you build a story out of all this [raw material].

Tara: I outline after I’ve written.

Jenny: I don’t outline, either.

Summer: I have a blind race-to-the-end strategy. I kept worries about structure at bay until the draft was done.

Tara: I don’t have an MFA. I’m a seat-of-your-pants kind of writer.

Melissa, who quit her job in the film/TV industry to earn her MFA in fiction: The MFA is far better [suited] for short stories, but I wrote what I wanted – I wrote chapters as short stories.

Summer:The structure was integral to this particular story, not an external shape applied to the book.

Jenny: We all learn to write killer openings, but the middle … that’s where you feel you have no idea. I always wrote with the end in mind. (Jenny also shared her take on the traditional three-act structure, which includes adding an extra act and makes a lot of sense to me: Act 1: Set Up. Act 2: Seeking. Act 3: Engaging/Acting. Act 4: Denouement.)

Melissa: I had a huge story – I needed to find the present. The structure of the story will come out of the present.

Summer: By “plot” I mean pursuit of desire.”

Melissa: Pacing determines the structure.

Jenny: Every time I start a new novel, I’m starting all over again.

Check back later for more posts from AWP 2014!

Photo: umer malik


8 responses to AWP 2014: Structuring the Novel

  • Sarah W says:

    This is good stuff, Laura—thanks for taking the timet o share it! :)

  • Downith says:

    This is all such a comfort. Thank you.

    • I know, right? I was also comforted by the fact that they don’t outline. I mean, I know lots of authors don’t, but it’s still nice to be reminded that plenty of others are not only writing novels without the safety net of an outline, but are also getting them published. Something to keep in mind as I wade through my latest novel revision…

  • Averil says:

    That last quote is so true. Every time is the first time.

  • Teri says:

    It was so great to see you, Laura!!

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