Writers and Editors (Pat McNees's blog)
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How to shape a book

March 26, 2015

Tags: story structure

by Pat McNees (updated 11-20-16)
Developmental editors help authors find the right shape for their book. You can also learn a lot about structure from the following pieces, among others:
Telling science stories…wait, what’s a “story”? (Bora Zivkovic, A Blog Around the Clock, 7-13-11). " In the Inverted Pyramid approach to journalism, the first couple of sentences (the “lede”) provide the next most important information, and so on, with the least important stuff at the end. In many ways, it is the opposite of a narrative – the punch-line goes first, the build-up after. The beauty of the Inverted Pyramid for the writers and editors is that any article can be chopped up and made shorter....You can’t do that with a narrative, where clues can be hidden all along the way, and the grand solution comes close to the end. "

John McPhee has written a few helpful pieces on structure--in particular:
Frame of Reference: To illuminate—or to irritate? (John McPhee, New Yorker, 3-9-15) "You will never land smoothly on borrowed vividness. If you say someone looks like Tom Cruise—and you let it go at that—you are asking Tom Cruise to do your writing for you. Your description will fail when your reader doesn’t know who Tom Cruise is."
Progression: How and what? (John McPhee, New Yorker, 11-14-11) 'In this context, I wrote three related pieces that became a book called “Encounters with the Archdruid.” To a bulletin board I had long since pinned a sheet of paper on which I had written, in large block letters, “ABC/D.” The letters represented the structure of a piece of writing, and when I put them on the wall I had no idea what the theme would be or who might be A or B or C, let alone the denominator D.
'"That is no way to start a writing project, let me tell you. You begin with a subject, gather material, and work your way to structure from there. You pile up volumes of notes and then figure out what you are going to do with them, not the other way around."
Structure (Beyond the picnic-table crisis, by John McPhee, New Yorker, 1-14-13), You can find more such stories in the New Yorker under "The Writing Life."
John McPhee, The Art of Nonfiction No. 3 (Paris Review interview by Peter Hessler, Spring 2010) Terrific interview. "I kept telling Yolanda, This thing I’m working on is stillborn. It’s no good, it’s not working, it’s flat, it’s dead. It took two years to write the first draft—how would you like to be married to somebody who says that every day? Poor Yolanda! That’s what I did. Eight hours a day I’m feeling this way. And then there came a day when I wrote a note on her desk and I said, I’ve just learned it’s on the New York Times best-seller list."
"Why’s this so good?" No. 61: John McPhee and the archdruid (Nieman Storyboard) "I’ve always felt that when we think about writing, we pay too much attention, in these terms, to the architecture, and not enough to the engineering. We focus on the outside of the skyscraper – the sparkle of someone’s prose, images, metaphors, bits of description – and not enough on the innards: the structure, the plot (a word that applies to nonfiction as much as to fiction), the careful doling out or withholding of information to create suspense, all of which, in the long run, ultimately determines whether or not we keep on reading. A key secret of McPhee’s ability to make us care about his vast and improbable range of subject matter lies in his engineering."
Storyboard 75: The big book of narrative . A wonderful online treasury of some of the most popular posts on Nieman Storyboard. Read and learn.

Making Your Book's Structure Serve You, Your Argument, and Your Reader (Sophia Z. Lee) from her excellent series of pieces on the Legal History blog
How to Revisit Events in Your Book Without Being (Too) Repetitive (Sophia Z. Lee)
Disciplining Detail (Sophia Z. Lee)
Using Articles to Advance but Not Preempt the Book (Sophia Z. Lee)
Finding a Publisher for Your Book (Sophia Z. Lee)
Epilogue (Sophia Z. Lee)



More great pieces about story (narrative) structure (Writers and Editors)