Sunday, May 24, 2009

Anatomy of a Book

Posted by: Lisa Hendrix
Currently Working On: Immortal Champion (tentative title)
Mood: Spring Fever (is that a mood or a state of being?)

My collection of writing books outnumbers my husband's sailing books and my son's Star Wars books combined. I've completed seven novels of 100,000+ words each, attended approximately ten RWA National conferences and even more regional conferences, and sat through all three delicious days of Robert McKee's seminar. I have even given workshops on various aspects of constructing a novel. I can explain scene and sequel, tell you all about goal/motivation/conflict, and construct a storyboard that would make Blake Snyder weep with joy.

That doesn't mean I find it easy to build a book.

It's hard. I agonize over the right viewpoint character, the right tone, the right starting place for each book, chapter, and scene. It takes me months of noodling around to get everything in place, ready to go, and more months of writing and polishing before I'm anything close to happy. It's hard labor. Come to think of it, it takes me just about the same amount of time to produce a book as it does to produce a kid. 

So I'm sitting here trying to come up with the one, most important thing all those books have taught me about the anatomy of a book, so that I can write about it. And you know what?

There isn't one thing. It's all important. Setting. Plot. Characterization. Scene & Sequel. Beats. Transitions. Language. Story arc. All of it. Think of them as the organs, sinew, brains, and bones of a book. Without everything in place, the body--the novel--just won't work as well, or won't work at all. As writers, we have to juggle all of it to build a complete, functioning, living novel.

And that's why I ended up with all those books: not one of them--not even Snyders' Save the Cat or McKee's Story, good as they are--explains all of it. There is no Grey's Anatomy for books. However, if you mix those two together,  add a measure of Jack Bickham, and toss in a little Dwight Swain, a soup├žon of  Donald Maass, and a dash of Chris Vogler, you'll have a pretty good approximation.

And a way better picture of the anatomy of a book than I can manage here.

What are your favorite writing books?


4 comments:

Delle Jacobs said...

Exactly. What else can I say?

Genene Valleau said...

I'm also a fan of the how-to-write gurus you mentioned. In addition, I keep several reference books close at hand like a dictionary and thesaurus (though I mostly use online versions any more) and character naming books.

Jessa Slade said...

Oh, oh! You've been to McKee's workshop?!? How come I didn't know this? How come I haven't fawned all over you in a two degrees of separation moment? Okay, it's on my to-do list now.

Lisa Hendrix said...

Jessa -- Yeah, I went and it was amazing. It's not so much workshop or even lecture as it is a 34.5 hour piece of performance art (9am-8:30pm for three days). He loves the spotlight, encourages fawning sycophants, and can be a total jackass about people who need to go to the john, but in those three long days, he'll teach you more than you can even imagine. I filled one 100 page notebook and started another, and that doesn't include the notes I scribbled on my script of Casablanca. I walked out of there exhausted but with the same sense that I had just seen something life-changing as I had when I left the theater after Star Wars.

There's a lot of overlap with the book, but somehow, it's clearer when you hear him talk it through, plus he adds bonus material. And his scene by scene dissection of Casablanca at the end where he shows you how it all works-- wow. Just wow.

Take the course. It's worth every penny.