How can contemporary writers possibly manage to create anything original, when so much has been written before? There may be nothing new under the sun, but since what we've got here, under our sun, is both infinitely vast and infinitely minute, there's hope for us. One place to find originality is in structure. Recently, I've been thinking about two novels whose structures are essential to both their readability and their resonance.

CASE 1: Regeneration by Pat Barker

The novel opens with Siegfried Sassoon's open letter in objection to the (First World) War. Later in the first chapter, we are given another text, from a military citation for valor bestowed on Sassoon before his collapse. In between these texts, we get short alternating sections of about a page (or less) from two close-third points of view — that of the central character, Rivers, a psychiatrist, and that of Sassoon, the soldier-poet-shell shock victim. There is much dialogue in Regeneration, and it often drives the story, providing essential information, and yet it manages never to feel expository. As the first chapter, so the novel. It is built of many short sections within longer chapters, with frequent point-of-view changes and many inserted texts. Such quick changes could be wearying, if not carried out so expertly, but Pat Barker always gives just enough material for her readers to sink our teeth into a situation, just enough to trigger our emotional engagement with the situation. Then she rips us away and presents us with another facet of her story. She develops her readers' curiosity with these short scenes and also teaches us (without us ever feeling we're being taught) how the parallel narratives reflect and comment on one another.

CASE 2: The Blind Assassin

This complex novel is one of my favorite books. I sat down one night early on in the pandemic and charted out its patterns, hoping to understand how it was built.

The Blind Assassin is unusual in structure. The chapters can be grouped into three main types: newspaper clippings that document events in the life of Laura Chase, chapters that follow Laura's sister, Iris Chase's story, and excerpts from the eponymous novel-within-the novel, "The Blind Assassin" by Laura Chase. The novel-within-the novel and the clippings have a much larger presence in The Blind Assassin than the found texts in Regeneration. Despite an initial feeling of great textural variety and difference in scale across the three types of section in The Blind Assassin, on closer examination, the unfolding of the sections turns out to be extremely regular. I believe the rhythms underlying the three narrative threads are one of the keys to the book's power.

The three types of narrative are quite diverse and sometimes deliver contradictory content in terms of the facts of the outer story about the Chase family, but they nonetheless cohere and work together. Perhaps the greatest lesson I take from The Blind Assassin is that regular patterns add meaning by teaching readers to compare disparate parts, allowing those parts to accrete meaning and expand the readers' tolerance for dramatic shifts. This regularity paves the way for a story rife with turmoil, tension and conflict. It makes all the messiness both easier to digest and narratively more devastating.

At the end of this note, you'll find a link to my chapter breakdown including a bar graph that shows the shape visually.

PROMPT: Create a map of your novel (or story, or memoir or other text).

These days, writers use many different digital tools to help them organize, keep track of and otherwise map their novels. Perhaps the most common app I hear about is Scrivener, but there are many, including Manuskript, SmartEdit Writer, Dabble, Plottr and Quoll Writer — some expensive, some open source. Whatever the price point, all these apps by definition keep you tied to your devices. Even if you use one of them with good results, I'd like to propose an analogue mapping project. A change of mindset is always good for getting perspective. In our digital era, the antidote many contemporary writers need for what ails their works-in-progress is ... paper.

Or even another writing tool. One day recently, I forgot my phone when I went to the dog park. I had nothing to do but watch the dogs, which was fine — in fact it was great, because it got me thinking. Before long, I was sketching in the dirt with a stick, drawing ideas for how to rearrange a book I'm working on. That new interface — the very awkwardness and transience of drawing in the dust — made me simplify my thinking, and I may have solved an important problem.

I think that the best way to map your novel is old school. There are a lot of analogue options, but I gravitate toward tape-and-scissors, chop your manuscript into bits and lay them all out on a pool table kind of stuff.

The non-digital mapping I'm suggesting doesn't compete or conflict with any app you may be using. Take all Scrivener or Manuskript's info— if you have it — and use it. Then direct your attention to things that cannot so easily be tracked or detected by these programs. Scrivener and its competitors do not know what happened to you that day in kindergarten that made you love dandelions. Even my favorite of the writing apps, the open-source Manuskriptwhich has a link to a method for composing a novel based on

\ fractals and snowflakes as structural elements — could not guide a writer to dream up the sort of fractals that structure Toni Morrison's Beloved.

When you set out to assess, map or organize the sprawl of your novel, think about its various aspects: parts, points of view, time, settings, major events and characters, themes. Once you have a working list of your parts, reconsider their order. Did the story come out alpha-to-omega? There are infinite possibilities, beginning with the order.

A straight-forward place to begin is with time. Is your novel chronologically linear? Is any novel, really completely linear? Almost every work of fiction of any length contains flashbacks. What sort of flashbacks are you using? Longer set pieces or short glimpses, threaded into paragraphs or even into sentences that are set in the present? Possibly both. If both, is there a pattern or a rhythm that governs when your flashbacks are longer and when they are shorter? If there is no rhythm, should there be? Rhythms are pleasing to readers, as I said, because they can imbue meaning.

If your structure isn't already evident to you, ask yourself what is unique to your story. Maybe your text is about baseball or hurricanes, dreams or invasive species or terrorism. Whatever it's about, there are sure to be structures innate to that concept: innings, spirals, shape-shifting, rhizomes, cells whose members remain anonymous but have parallel traumas and grievances... All these things would make great structural schema. Now, whether or not you are a visual artist, try to draw it. Use the way the world you're writing about is shaped to help you structure your text.

I recommend doing this by hand. Of course, you can also type it, if that works better for you. But, whatever your medium, make this map fit onto one page. You might redo this map several — or many — times before you find a way to render your text that fits onto a single page. Keep at it. (You could think of this exercise as a visual version of developing your elevator pitch, a task which is useful even if you aren't pitching the project.) Perhaps you'll end up drawing dozens of different maps that could represent your novel differently. Make as many as you find useful.

In conceiving your map, or maps, it will help to decide what belongs in the Legend or Key. A map legend makes it easier to understand the different elements included on the map, but it also defines the scope of the world by saying what's included. A hiking map uses colors to represent various types of terrain, different sorts of lines to indicate trails, paths and roads, various icons to indicate summits and other landmarks, and contour lines to represent steepness and altitude. It also usually includes a compass rose. What are your story's cardinal points? What are the elements you need to include for your map to usefully represent your text? Many will be unique to your narrative, but make sure you account for important technical elements such as time shifting, pov changes, and setting.

As long as it continues to be illuminating or useful, keep searching for patterns within your map. Once you have a map you like, consider how you could use it to revise the text. Maybe you'll reorganize things in a big way. What if you moved sections of text around? Could you create a better or more narratively satisfying structure? As you consider such things, ask yourself: Where is your central conflict introduced? your crisis brought to a peak? your catharsis? Are there secondary plot lines? If so, consider their narrative arcs with regard to conflict, crisis, catharsis, too. Are there characters or storylines left unresolved? Ends that need to be tied? Or maybe your changes will occur at the granular level. Take what the mapping has revealed to you back to your manuscript in any way that works. Maybe you'll plug new ideas about structure, character and theme in to your writing app, or you'll try index cards, Post-its, or a murder board. Have fun with it.


Pat Barker, Regeneration, opening

Blind Assassin Analysis by Elizabeth Gaffney

© Elizabeth Gaffney 3/22/2021


One reason I write is my father. I know — it's a bit like saying a fish swims because it lives in water. What choice does it have? We are formed by our early years, which, most often, means by our families. Which things about my father were most important in shaping me? As a person, I believe that all of them were crucial in making him the man he was, which made him the father he was to me. That includes a lot I don't even know about. Narratively though, that's way too much. Some of it must go. Most of it. To write the novel, or even just to write the Craft Post that tells a story about my father and his influence on me, I must carve a great deal away.

My father was a painter, a teacher, a body surfer, an apostate ex-altar boy, an aggressive driver, a philanderer, a mentor, and the second eldest in a family of seven boys and three girls. He changed his little siblings' diapers as a boy and his children's as a father in the Sixties, when plenty of American men demurred from that side of parenting. He was a good shot, a bad sport, a lover of nature, a drinker, a smoker, a crooner, a liar, a bestower of unconditional positive regard, an eviscerating critic, a union organizer, and — did I mention the most important thing? — a brilliant, unsung artist. I'd like to think I've rendered some of his complexity in the fathers I've created in fiction, but truly I know I haven't. Not even close. As Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote, "Not people die but worlds die in them."

Like all humans, my dad was such an expansive mass of contradictions that any attempt at a complete depiction of him in fiction would be a sloppy, confusing mess. I know this, but I keep trying to do it. It seems important to me. Then I remember that whatever I, as his daughter, know of his life isn't even the tip of the iceberg. Worlds died in him. This reminds me in turn (and not for the first time — some lessons must learned over, every single day), that fiction doesn't really represent our world. Fiction, or whatever form of writing one practices, is ontologically different. It's not reality, it's art. It's the world distilled, interpreted, given shape.

Being a distillate, fiction is potent. In his 1955 Paris Review interview, Ralph Ellison says that "One function of serious literature is to deal with the moral core of a given society." Ellison makes a point of the fact that he did not begin to write with the purpose of activism. "I wasn’t, and am not, primarily concerned with injustice, but with art." On the one hand, he truly cared about craft and style. On the other, he felt deeply about the injustices of American society. Ellison wouldn't have the same impact if he wrote a political screed instead of his novel Invisible Man. So, the art came first and brought the beliefs with it. The fact that the art was exceptional amplified the protest that underlay it. Ellison was writing for the sake of art, for the sake of justice, and to show other human beings his vision of the world. After a fair amount of pesky needling from the paris Review interviewers — Was Invisible Man "a purely literary work as opposed to one in the tradition of social protest"? — he says forthrightly that he sees "no dichotomy between art and protest."

At the end of the interview, he returns to the issue.

I feel that with my decision to devote myself to the novel I took on one of the responsibilities inherited by those who practice the craft in the U.S.: that of describing for all that fragment of the huge diverse American experience which I know best, and which offers me the possibility of contributing not only to the growth of the literature but to the shaping of the culture as I should like it to be. The American novel is in this sense a conquest of the frontier; as it describes our experience, it creates it.

As it describes our experience, it creates it.

Literature shapes the culture. Art effects change.

Yevtushenko concludes "People," which I read at my father's funeral — so tongue-tied with grief I couldn't wrangle up a eulogy — "again and again, I make my lament against destruction."

Yevtushenko's ululation and Ellison's dream of cultural conquest are two versions of the same act. Lament can transform grief, catapulting it out of the grave not at any target on Earth but higher, into the ether. Stories of protest like Invisible Man transform society by revealing narratives that have been unseen and undervalued in our society.

Many of us are at this sort of project, when we tell our stories. We throw up webs built of figments and fonts, and we hope they transform midair into worlds that are vivid, solid and universal. If we loft them high enough, up out of the stratosphere, our stories might capture their readers' imaginations firmly enough to set them free not just of gravity but political, personal and geographic boundaries. These readers will forget their own identities and the cares of their day while they read and simply be people, people who inhabit the fictional dreamworlds we've conjured, blissfully unaware that we've seduced them into a state of radical empathy.

I write in the face of infinite vastness and imminent destruction in order to put down an invented, constrained, highly personal version of the world that helps me understand it. Sometimes my agenda is larger, even grandiose, sometimes it's very small. It doesn't matter how profound or political your story is. There are myriad stories that need to be told. None of them has to be about world peace or social justice to be important. It might be about the death of a parent, the loss of a child, the implosion of a dream. Whatever it is, once it's written, you can share it. And if someone else reads it and connects — even just one reader — you've pushed destruction back.

Literature can show us why life matters, why it's worth carrying on in the face of brutal reality, whether racial injustice, climate catastrophe, viral spiral or some personal ordeal. It offers the possibility of hope and, when all hope is exhausted, the possibility of meaning.

How do we choose what to write when the universe is limitless, possibly meaningless and certainly beyond our comprehension? We start by drawing lines. In contrast to the universe (or the legacy of enslavement, or just my fucked up Dad), a work of art is tiny. Even a doorstopper bestseller. As artists, we start by delineating our canvas. We set our range and scope. This constraint is the beginning of creating meaning.

When I begin a piece of writing, it's often in the wrong scale. Too large, too small, too all-over-the-place and wildly out of focus. I rarely know the proper scope of a project right away.

The first set of prompts is designed to help you think about scope and scale, what you're including and why.


1. Write a paragraph as long as you please describing yourself, your project and your intentions. Address some or all of the following:

        • Why do you write?

        • Why are you writing this project that you're working on right now?

        • Why not something else? Given that the world is wide, how are you deciding what to include and leave out?

        • What have you got down on the page, so far? What's missing? Where do you hope to take it? What impact would you like it to have on your readers?

        • What do you need to do to reach the next phase or level?

        • What external supports could help?

2. Whittle that paragraph from step 1 down to a single sentence, at most two. Try a few versions and see if you can get closer and closer to an "elevator pitch" that does justice to your project. Would it sound better or more interesting with a description that was less authentic to your book or project? What might that tell you? Do you care more about authenticity or what people think?

3. Ask yourself about all the things you were forced to leave out in step 2. Reconsider the scope and scale of your project. Is it a multigenerational saga? Does it take place in the course of an escalator ride? Are there point-of-view changes or multiple primary characters? Think about what you have chosen to include and to exclude and how these choices affect the shape.

4. List three things you need to work on. Three are likely more than three, but for now, choose just three. They could be writing tasks on any scale, from developing a particular character, purging cliches, addressing a pervasive technical issue such as tense or point of view, writing a missing chapter, adding flashbacks, or eliminating needless repetitions. Pick the three that seem most crucial, and save the others for later. It's more likely you'll be able to follow through if you set overseeable goals. Add more when you're ready.

© Elizabeth Gaffney 1/20/2021


Ralph Ellison, The Art of Fiction 8, The Paris Review

Ralph Ellison, Prologue to Invisible Man

Yevgeny Yevtushenko, People