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J. Campbell (for the novel writers)

edited September 2005 in - Writing Tales


  • Heard of that bloke? He started those theories which most writing courses teach now. That in order to be successful with the readers, books have to follow certain structure. I wondered - this is about the people here who are into writing novels - do you believe in such teachings, that your book must follow an precise structure? Do you do that, plot in advance, create the characters, outline their actions, invent the environments etc etc. And only then start writing. Because I didn't (I wonder if that was why I got stuck in the middle, hehehe!)Do you know what's going to happen to your characters all the way? Or just sit and invent the story page by page?
  • Hi, I usually just start off by writing and see where it goes, my characters usually take on a life of their own and I worry that if I have a plot, it will be hard to stick to. However, I'm currently writing a new piece with a plot outline and it's going really well. Even if it strays from the outline from time to time, agents and editors expect this and providing the finished work is still good, they won't mind if it isn't exactly the way you originally planned it.
  • I plot in advance before I start writing BUT during this first novel I am still working on I have come up with many more ideas as I have gathered more words together and the plot has taken so many new roads.  I just believe you need a basic plot so you know where to start but once you start writing you could be heading in the opposite direction of where you began!
  • Fiction is a fickle subject with many twists and surprises.

    Make a basic plan of beginning, general scenario and end, before commencing to scribe, and stick to it. The many ideas that present themselves during the compilation process should be noted for future creations. You need to stay focused and discipline yourself to follow your original thinking to its conclusion.

    The time to deviate is when it comes to editing. You may then decide to incorporate ideas that sprang forth during the composing stage. However, if the original theme works you use these extra thoughts for your following stories.

    The foregoing is good advice, given to me years past by an accomplished author. That's all very fine in theory but I admit to being distracted by "better" ideas as I am writing. That's why it takes "forever" to finish each scenario.
  • Hi Gardenia and anyone who is interested,

    I have the book The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler.  It is a mythic structure for storytellers based on Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces.  I love reading it and would love to read J.C.'s.  However these books do tend to raise questions.  I also have the writing tool, StoryCraft, which has been devised around the ancient storytelling patterns identified in these two books.  I haven't used StoryCraft yet because at the moment I am into picture book biographies and therefore use a different approach but my novel for the 8 – 12 age range will be going into it one of these days.  I'm no expert, far from it, but I think there's room in the creative process for writing without any thought for structure just for the sheer joy of creating characters, action etc.  For example, if a conversation drops into your head write it down; go to town on it, even if it has no bearing on your present chapter.  Maybe later you will be able to incorporate it.  But sooner or later you are going to need guidance on the story's creation as a whole.  To me, writing without a structure would be a bit like driving around, knowing your general destination, but meandering and getting lost because you forgot your map.  How many times do you have to stop to ask the way?  The above books are a map for writers.

    Thanks Jan for your basic plan, I've filed it away for future reference.  But after the basic plan I would probably still need to keep looking at structure according to the above books and any other books I can get on the subject.  Ciao.
  • I knew the late Patricia Highsmith ('Strangers on a Train', The Ripley books etc.) who rarely knew how her stories would turn out. What preliminary work there was could have been scribbled on the back of an old envelope, and in Pat's case, probably was! She was more concerned with getting inside the heads of her characters (even the psychopathic ones)and letting them tell the story. Every writing day was an intellectually imaginative adventure. In her home near Fontainbleau she wrote in a smoke (Gaulois) filled attic which served also as her bedroom and hanmmered her stories out on an ancient portable. Writing for three or four hours a day she found it helpful to take regular breaks and do something manual like washing the dishes.These non-creative intervals would allow her subconscious mind, she said, to make a creative leap forward to the next part of her story. 
  • All writers are different. Some plot every detail, others write what comes out of their minds, then others like me fall between the two. I know where I'm starting,where I'm heading and what I want to happen at certain points between. What we write isn't set in stone, that's why we have revision.Note what the "experts" say, but find out what works for you and don't let it worry you. Have fun finding out.
  • I used to free write and enjoyed it but I did an MA in creative writing and came across Vogler which is very good.  A perfect complement to Vogler is Story by Robert McKee which is the book for film scriptwriting but is also excellent for novelists.  The two books are not prescriptions and they don't force one to plot in detail but they help to explain why some plots work and others don't.  The point is to know the rules of story (if there are any) and these two books help to explain them.  The writer can then choose to do whatever they like but if they read or write something and can't figure out why it doesn't feel right, Vogler or McKee will probably point them in the right direction
  • I have never written to an outline, and feel I probably never will.  I always start with a basic idea of who I'm writing about (in the case of what I'm writing now, a minor character from my last book, who I wanted to explore because she was interesting), but I also have no real idea of where the story is going.  I was relieved to read an interview in Writers' News with Michele Roberts, one of my favourite writers, that she never plans, she never knows what the ending will be - where's the excitement, if you already know the ending? she said, or something along those lines.  Like reading a book, I believe half the fun of writing is in NOT knowing what will happen.  And isn't that what writing is meant to be about - fun?
  • Another thought on plotting v free writing.  Be careful if you believe that you are only doing what some published authors are doing when they say they don't plot when they write a novel.  Writing is their trade and by being published, they obviously know their trade.  They may not plot but they know the structure of the novel, whether by instinct or by learnt craft.  For example in the crime genre you will find that many of these non plotting novelists are sticking to a structure because they understand what they are doing.  As they write they use all their tools of structure to ensure the story is balanced and flows and has high points and low points etc.  It's a bit like jamming as a musician.  An expert musician can jam along and yet produce quite a beautiful and coherent piece of music that sounds composed, because they know the rules and know what works.  Someone who can't play an instrument is highly unlikely to produce a good sound by jamming because they don't understand music.  What I am suggesting is that free writing a novel is unlikely to work unless you understand the theory of story and plot and structure first so that you can 'feel' what is right and what is wrong as you go along.  Apologies if I sound too much like a teacher, but I am (Physics, Smith! wake up at the back!) I don't mean to put anybody off what they obviously enjoy doing.
  • I am surprised - reading your profile note and this so well analysed reply - that you are still unpublished. You obviously know how to put sentences together :)
  • Thanks writerchris for your considered thoughts on the subject structure versus free writing.  I particularly appreciate the analogy of the jamming musician.  I usually have to jam along Sunday mornings with our mountain choir so I know what you are talking about.  One day I hope to be able to write novels for children and picture books for young children with an innate sense of what is good and workable structure without having to resort to 'how to' books all the time.  But you know, I love reading this kind of book.  I find the whole study of learning one's craft fascinating.  Having said that I think that it's also a good idea to write freely just to get all your ideas on paper and to allow the literary muse full rein without thinking of how the novel or story is going to work out.  I think that I tend to get bogged down with structure and this stifles my creativity - presuming, of course, that I have some!  It seems to me that we all have to find our own way of balancing the different methods of approach in our writing. 
    Ciao from Rita
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