Sculpting a Novel

Writing a novel is like building a house.

Or riding the roller coaster of this line chart:

Or drawing a snowflake.

AKA: The Snowflake Method.

Unfortunately, I’ve never built a house, I’m afraid of roller coasters, I’ve never been that great with charts, and I just don’t get the snowflake thing. But I was a sculpture major in college, and that’s when I learned how to write a novel.

Let me explain.

When sculpting a person, you start with the armature, or the framework that holds up the clay. This means establishing the big gestures, such as whether your person is sitting or standing.

The armature is the basic structure of your novel–the elements you must know before you even begin writing. Who is the main character? What is the point of view?

Once you have built your armature, you can begin to block in the big pieces of the body: the torso, arms, legs, and head. These are not fancy body parts, mind you. These are ugly lumps of clay.

This lumpy body is your plot. Just get it down in lumps and don’t worry about making it pretty–that comes later.

Now look at the sculpture from all angles to determine the proportions and measurements. Everything else you do from here on out will depend on the accuracy of these fundamentals.

Read that lumpy novel draft and try to consider it objectively. Do all the pieces of the plot work as a whole? Do all of your characters have a reason to be there?

Now that you’ve got all your lumps in the right place, you can start shaping them into features. Start big. Find the planes of the shoulder blades and the arch of the neck.

Dig deep into your characters, draw out subplots, carve away excess.

Work from the limbs and big bones down to the fingers and toes and noses.

Drill down from chapters to scenes to paragraphs.

Once you’ve got all the pieces in the right place, hone in on the fingernails and hair and nostrils. Remember to step back and look at these details as they relate to the whole. It’s easy to get caught up in a fingernail and forget about the hand.

Now that the plot is worked out, you know the characters inside and out, the chapters are in the right places, and the scenes are doing the work they need to do, you can can turn your attention to the sentence structure and the word choice, remembering to step back and make sure this detail work aligns with the manuscript as a whole.

At long last, when everything else is where it should be, you can texture the surface of the sculpture, smoothing the skin over the belly, creasing the eyelids, and roughening the elbows.

Check your punctuation and format the manuscript.

That was an extended metaphor for one simple idea:

When confronting the daunting task of writing a novel, it helps me to think of the novel not as words and chapters and sentences–which can sometimes seem so final–but as a big heap of clay that takes a long time to become a sculpture. And if I decide along the way that I don’t like the head, I can just chop it off and make a new one. It’s all very liberating.

That said, maybe you’re more of a line chart person, or a snowflake follower. Do you write a novel like building a house? Or do you have your own bizarre metaphor? What works for you?

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2 thoughts on “Sculpting a Novel

  1. Jess says:

    I always like this one, from Stephen King (sorry about the long quote):

    “…Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground in tact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. Either way… the techniques of excavation remain basically the same.

    No matter how good you are, no matter how much experience you have, it’s probably impossible to get the entire fossil out of the ground without a few breaks and losses. To get even most of it, the shovel must give way to more delicate tools: airhose, palm-pick, perhaps even a toothbrush. Plot is a far bigger tool, the writer’s jackhammer. You can liberate a fossil from hard ground with a jackhammer, no argument there, but you know as well as I do that the jackhammer is going to break almost as much stuff as it liberates. It’s clumsy, mechanical, anti-creative. Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. This story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.”

  2. Karen Z. says:

    Hm…I’ve never understood that line chart thingy, either. When I’m working on a story, I think of it like a puzzle and try to fit all the pieces together. Sometimes you can force pieces together, but when you get to the end, you have to pull those pieces apart again and figure out where they really should go, if you want the picture to make sense!

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