About 3: Child-Rearing, Body-Building Language Teacher Takes Scalpel to Hapless Narratives

Child rearing, body building, language teaching and storytelling are four things I think about a lot. No doubt some of my students wish I thought more about fashion, sports and computer games, but there's no help for it. Those three things just don't grab my fancy--except as subjects for fiction. Hmm. These days, I love to blather on about the making and telling of stories. What makes a story good? What makes a narrative work? What do successful stories have in common? How can I write instantly popular perrenial classics that allow me to make TEFL a hobby rather than a career? I like telling students my theories and I like asking other authors what they think and how they do things.

A month or two ago, I asked Steven L. Peck, whose novel A Short Stay in Hell is in development heaven, whether he planned his narratives. I asked because I was milestoning two of his three or four currently published novels (A Short Stay in Hell and The Scholar of Moab) and they seemed to hit what another FBAF sneeringly calls my "template" pretty spot on. The answer contained words like "no", "organic" and "surprised at how it turns out". That other FBAF, Sarah Dunster, whose novel Lightning Tree also milestones fairly well, also doesn't plan around the despised template.

This told me two things. First, I know a lot of pantsers. Second, the milestones don't require the author's awareness. To test this second notion, I milestoned my own novel, Jack Squaw. I wrote Jack Squaw during very brief daily sessions between September 1996 and July 2002. I wrote it as an exercise in starting and finishing a novel and to exorcise my literary extravagances (namely overuse of simile and metaphor and overcreativity with vocabulary). Eleven years after penning the last word, I plugged the numbers into an Excel spreadsheet that calculates the classic positions of the milestones based on the number of pages, lines or locations (Kindle) between the first and last words of a narrative, and the first and last page, line or location of same. What I saw surprised me. Everything was spot on. This surprised me because I wrote the 65,755-word first-and-only draft at a time when I had no notion of milestones or sequences or any other organizational term beyond beginning, middle, end, sentence and scene. The narrative just emerged from the premise and the actions of the characters in the setting they were confined to. I wrote it by feel and common sense.

Just to be sure, I chopped up more than half a dozen short stories I'd written before I studied narrative structure. Same result each time. The milestones were there and in place.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote on my FBP Facts about Fiction:

"Structure?" cried the carpenter. "Of course! Imagine what a mess I'd have if I didn't plan!"

"Not me!" snorted the snail. "I just let it grow and it turns out perfectly!"

It was meant as a jab at my FBAFs who pooh-pooh the infamous template. But now I see it's true both ways. Yes, structure exists and is paramount. No, it does not have to be consciously planned. As I also like to say:

A narrative works or it doesn't. The rest is forensics.

The point is this: I am not a missionary for milestones. I don't need to be. They exist. They occur. If a narrative works, it probably has them. My aim in pondering theory, analysing narratives and confronting authors is to get at what goes on in people's heads and on the pages they ink up. I want to scrounge up principles and tour the variety of approaches to making and telling stories.

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