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NOVEL IDEAS: WEAVING STRUCTURE & THEME



Yesterday, we talked about the value of short forms in learning techniques you can call on when the story you want to tell calls for that technique. Today the conversation is about the novel. How do authors do it? Once they’ve mastered technique, how do they settle on a particular structure or form to suit the story they want to tell?

It’s not always an easy thing to break down, separating the weave of story from how the story is told. But I asked three fabulous debut authors what structural or stylistic devices they used in writing their new novels, and how these devices tie in with the theme or story arc of their books. Their insights into process are as unique and compelling as the stories they tell.

Here’s how Jeanne Dutton, author of Freaked (HarperTeen, 2009); Sydney Salter author of Jungle Crossing, (Harcourt, 2009); and Lauren Bjorkman, author of My Invented Life (Henry Holt, 2009), approached the structural challenges of writing their novels, and how these challenges have informed their next books.








Freaked is the story of one boy’s road trip to the most unforgettable show of his life,” says author Jen Dutton. I made the stylistic choice in Freaked not to include “white space” or gaps in the time line (except between one chapter break). This means that the action of the novel is compressed into a 48 hour period and the narrator dwells on small, internal details rather than large, external ones.

“I also chose to use very little dialogue. I opted for this approach for two reasons: I have listened to a lot of Deadheads tell their stories and when it came to relating their favorite show, everything was important, from the breakfast they ate that morning, to how close they were to the stage.

“Second: I wanted to reveal a sense of Scotty’s feelings of restlessness, isolation, and his small private sadnesses and joys. When I drafted Stranded, my second novel (due out in June 2010), I opted for snappier pacing, action that was much more external, and lots of sharp banter.

“I made my decision because the main character and narrator Kelly Louise Sorenson, is much more of an extrovert, more likely to tease the world with her words and engage with other people. Even when Kelly Louise is alone, she still has imaginary conversations with others. I guess that’s a little like me.”

--Jeanne Dutton







“In my middle-grade novel Jungle Crossing, says author Sydney Salter, “I wrote two intertwining stories. One takes place in contemporary Mexico, the other in an ancient Mayan kingdom. My modern Mayan character tells the ancient story to my 13-year-old protagonist, who is an American tourist.

“To differentiate between the two stories, I wrote the contemporary story in first person, while the ancient Mayan story is in limited 3rd person. I worked hard to create conversational transitions between the two stories, since the 3rd person telling isn’t really in my contemporary Mayan boy’s voice—it’s written from the ancient teen girl’s perspective.

“The themes in both stories also echo each other. The biggest challenge, however, was making the two stories equally compelling—something that took quite a bit of revision. While I have written another (unsold) story using this technique, I find that each new novel demands its own unique structure. But I always learn a lot from my previous work’s challenges.”



--Sydney Salter






“In My Invented Life,” author Lauren Bjorkman says, “Roz experiences flights of fancy so real that the reader cannot distinguish them from “reality.” After a while, Roz cues in the reader by breaking from the fantasy with a statement such as, ‘I'm so lying. This is what really happens.’

I also use the present tense to give the story immediacy. Roz evolves so much by the end of the story, she couldn't possibly portray herself as clueless as necessary if she told the story in the past tense.

“I love using devices, and made up entirely different ones for my new novel, Miss Fortune Cookie. My main character, Erin, wants to make independent movies. I start each chapter with a header like those used in screenplays. Some of the flashbacks are in screenplay format, too.”

(note: check out Lauren’s website for her amazing real life adventure of growing up while sailing around the world!)



--Lauren Bjorkman



Jeanne, Sydney and Lauren are all part of the Classof2K9. Congratulations to each of the debut novelists in 2K9!



Tomorrow, another 2K9 novelist, Suzanne Morgan Williams, comes to Tollbooth for an in depth discussion of her stunning debut novel,
Bull Rider. Williams is a pro who brings years of experience to her insights into writing and the writing life. Don’t miss her discussion on writing about topical issues versus creating a timeless story!


--z.v.

Comments

( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
scgreene
Dec. 17th, 2009 05:10 pm (UTC)
Terrific interviews, Zu. It's amazing how often we can doggedly plow away at an unwieldy plot that simply won't give in to our whims, when a clear-eyed examination of our structure could reveal that therein lie the difficulties. It's a lucky writer to whom the structure arrives as an integral part of the plot. More often, it's an element of the whole that the writer neglects to reconsider when things aren't working. Structure is all too easy to overlook. All three books sound terrific.
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