If I was an architect or a builder, I’m sure that I’d be building falling-down bridges and houses whose floors tilted so that marbles would roll from wall to wall. My staircases would be crooked and there would be corridors that led nowhere. Surely, the bathtubs would leak onto the kitchen table.
It’s taken me decades to construct this book of mine, this story-without-end. I’ve read countless books and taken classes, hired helpers and still, this unwieldy piece of writing has eluded me like Jell-O slipping through my fingers.
I spent today in a fever, writing a book proposal for this agent Pitch-a-Thon that I decided, spontaneously, to sign up for. It’s hard spending years writing a book that nobody really cares about or wants. I just decided I’d had it, and I was going to put together a proposal and march myself over to this agent and wind myself up and pitch.
The agent has very considerately provided a book proposal Template on his website. I filled out all the sections. It wasn’t going so badly. But then it got to the Table of Contents section.
Include the full Table of Contents, with detailed summaries of each chapter. This section could be anywhere from three to 20 pages – it needs to give a comprehensive, detailed map of what the book will contain.
I have an outline that I’ve been following for the past year or so. I copy-pasted it and started tweaking it and editing the “detailed summaries.” As I did this, I could feel a growing sense of dread and hatred. I hated it. I hated its chronological orderliness.
For years, I have been declaring that I do not want my book to have a “traditional shape.” And yet I keep writing these deadly, chronological, traditional chapters. I ploddingly put them in order. It is killing me.
It turns out that it was a great idea to write this dreadful book proposal. Because it showed me just how deadly bad it is, and how much I do not want to keep going in this vein. In the middle of the afternoon, an industrial sized light bulb exploded in my brain. And I remembered a book.
Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth. Eureka! I scrambled through the thousands of books in our ridiculous collection and finally, after hours, I found it.
I have just spent the past half hour studying the structure of this collection of autobiographical essays. It’s not in chronological order. Hooray! It’s not even in any kind of thematic order. The chapters, or essays, range in length from two pages to 57 pages (akin to a novella). They ricochet throughout her life, starting with a “preverbal baby memory” and then bouncing from teen years, to adulthood, to preadolescence, to age three and ten and eighth grade. The structure is both invisible and unnecessary. It’s a book about her. It’s a book about relationships and family. That’s it. It’s full of beautiful imagery and sentences.
I don’t know if this is what my book will look like. But just knowing that it CAN be a book with asymmetrical windows, boarded up closets and an inexplicable sprinkler system, has made me breathe a whole lot easier.
How do you come up with structure for a book or a short piece? Do you know right away what its shape will be? What patterns or things to hold it together? This has been the single most challenging thing about writing this damn book, and I welcome any shared experiences.