David: how long to carve?



I'VE SPENT THE LAST WEEK reading a novel for a friend. He’s spent four years writing it in his spare time and the plot is terrific, but it needs a lot of work to turn it into the compelling thriller he’s imagined. He told me how much he’d enjoyed the writing, how it began with telling a story to his children to distract them from the boredom of a walk through pine woods; but he was excited by the prospect of editing, too.

            I thought to myself, he’s a proper writer.

            In my experience, editing is almost addictive. I have to stop myself from starting afresh every time I open whatever it is I’m writing, including this blog, which has already undergone three revisions as I reach this point.

            Michelangelo is reputed to have said: ‘The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.’  If that’s true, it’s enviable. I have to create my block of marble and then work out what’s concealed inside before I can begin. I imagine the sculptor doesn’t inadvertently hack off a finger, but it’s all too easy for the novelist to find the plot unravelling, or rushing off in a different direction. How many of us discover, as we write, a character we’d never intended to be prominent, who walks into the action with a distinctive voice and insists on significant changes to the plot?

            This isn’t meant to happen. I have become a manic planner, using different frameworks for stories to find the best fit for the story in my head. These can include:

  • John Yorke’s five act structure (explained in Into the Woods)
  • The Snowflake method developed by Randy Ingermanson
  • The Hero’s Twelve-stage Journey, devised by Joseph Campbell and refined by Christopher Vogler
  • The Magnificent Seven Plot Points, invented by David Troitter
  • Michael Hauge’s Six Stage Plot Structure
  • The Syd Field Paradigm originally related to screenplay
  • The Lester Dent Pulp Fiction Plot Formula
  • The Plot Whisperer approach created by Martha Alderson
  • The M. Weiland Structure for plotting your novel
  • Kurt Vonnegut’s The Shape of Stories
  • James Scott Bell’s Superstructure

  And there are others … Most of these have a great deal in common but significantly each one asks a set of questions to make the novelist take stock, reappraise, discover (in my case) there’s much to learn.

             It’s a craft as well as an art. Michelangelo didn’t just take hammer and chisel and randomly chip away. I love learning from others, and the innate teacher inside can’t help volunteering to other writers, ‘I’ll read it for you’. I know I will learn more for myself, too. 

How many revisions to this blog, which has taken about 15 minutes to write? Well, maybe 15? I lost count.

Leaning Tower of Pisa: How long to build?