A monthly column written by an Authorlink contributing editor.

We welcome your questions, comments and input to this page.

ASK THE EDITOR Shaping Your Story

By Susan Malone

September 2001

As we've gone through the various aspects that make up a novel (most of which hold true for nonfiction and short stories as well), we've talked about plot, characterization, and style, including the various subheads of each. Now let's put all of this together and delve into the whole—the Shape of the book.

Anyone who's completed a written work knows that a book (and again, this holds true for short stories) is more than the sum of its words, i.e., you can excel in all the areas of writing, and still not wind up with a good or publishable piece. And when you don't, provided you did indeed accomplish your goals in the other areas, the problem lies with the overall form of your book; its structure and most importantly, its shape.

Many writers work from outlines, which is a great way to go. Then you always have the structure in front of you, and can reshape it as you write while still being cognizant of the form. But many writers, especially more mainstream and literary ones, don't. They write from "discovery," letting their characters drive the story and take them down avenues they never would have imagined at the start. It's a freer form of writing, and one that allows for a greater range of creativity. But it also leaves you with a big blob of a first draft, whether as a book or short story.

Unfortunately, it's this craft of sculpting away, of reshaping and refashioning, that's being lost in today's world of publishing (the reasons for which are another column entirely).

Once your first draft is finished and you've taken some time away from it, then begins the process of revision. As I've said before, revision isn't polish but rather a complete reworking of what you have, and here's where you must see both the forest AND the trees—a difficult proposition at best. Here's where those beautiful words come into jeopardy of being axed by the hand of a jealous god (you), and where you must learn not only to find clarity of sight, but also have the courage to kill your story's lesser aspects.

Begin by taking a hard look at the overall shape of your book. What is belabored?

What is missing, i..e., what needs cutting away and what needs additional attention? Next, be certain that what remains is absolutely necessary. Does a scene further the plot? Does a section spend too much time on a character who isn't your main one? Do all avenues lead back into the main stream, or have you spent too much time describing a dry creek that while beautiful in its description doesn't really mean squat to the river as a whole?

Much of this is what I've talked about before concerning focus. Still, it's more. Focus is only part of shape, rather than the other way around. It's a tool to make certain the form of your story has symmetry AND function. Anyone who's ever seriously raised dogs or horses or cattle or any other animal understands very well how form relates to function. You can have a dog with a gorgeous front and a powerful hindquarters but if it all doesn't fit together correctly, the dog can't move worth a flip. In animals we call this "balance." And it's no different here. You can write a grabber opening, a cohesive middle, and a bang-up conclusion and if the front doesn't flow into the end correctly, well, you just have a big nonmoving mess.

Another big point here concerns structure. One of the best resources I know regarding structure is Christopher Vogler's THE WRITER'S JOURNEY. He specifically delineates plot points and where they should come, among other things. Still, shape is more. Again, structure is PART of shape, but not the whole animal. Structure just gives you the skeleton around which to add the muscles and tendons and ligaments and bone. But you can take two dogs (or humans) with almost identical skeletal form, sending them in opposite directions, and they'll come back looking very different indeed based upon lifestyle (other genetic factions not withstanding).

To effectively shape a book, you have to combine all of these factors and indeed, ALL of the ones about which we've been talking, into one well-fashioned form.

Again, it's not the easiest thing in the world to pull off. And until one finds his sea legs, the task can be overwhelming. It takes time, practice, and lots of instruction.

What Michelangelo said of finding David in the marble holds true for writing as well.

David was there all along, the sculptor said, he just had to carve away enough stone to find him. Sometimes I do think his job was a hair easier in that what he chipped away were bits of rock, and often what we as writers must carve out are sentences and sections and passages that contain our very best words. Haven't you had this happen? You know, where you've written something that takes at least your own breath away, only to discover that it no longer fits the finished book? Oh, how we hold to those passages, defending them for no discernible reason except that of course we love them.

And that's the rub in playing God. You gotta know when to let go, and have the fortitude to do so. In the end it's what separates the amateurs from the pros.

Susan M. Malone is a Contributing Editor to Authorlink.com, a multi-published author, and owner of a successful editorial service. Ten books she’s edited have been published or sold within the last three years. Check out her listing under Editorial Services, and email her at aaasuz@aol.com