How I Killed my First Novel (and How Structure Could’ve Saved it)

Club Classic was the tentative title, after the main character, and the story could’ve worked. It was a story of self-discovery set in a near-future “dystopia lite” where mega corporations have officially replaced the United States government and split the country into newer, smaller states.

The titular Club Classic was a professional dancer trying to find a sense of self in a world where everything from the walls of people’s homes to the surface of the ocean was covered in advertisements, and where the aforementioned mega corporations seemed to know everything about everybody.

I stuffed a lot of strange, risky ideas into the story, but the core of it could’ve worked. The only problem was, I had no idea what the core was. The story had too many darlings, and I had no framework at all for what I should cut and what I should keep when it came time to revise.

Indeed, I spent quite a lot of my own money hiring a respectable New York editor to look over the manuscript. He did exactly what he was meant to do: he gave me an honest assessment. He never said, but rather, implied that the manuscript was a complete mess.

With hindsight, I can tell he was being enormously patient and generous with me, but at the time it stung. He even wrote me a detailed synopsis of how he envisioned the final version of the story. It had a lot of the same elements of my story but it didn’t feel like mine.

I thanked him and payed him. I told him I would keep him in mind for any next steps, and he said he would be happy to work with me again whenever I was ready.

Then I went through, to date, my most painful and embarrassing writing experience.

I was sitting in a Starbucks with my laptop open, switching between my manuscript and the editor’s notes. I can’t tell you how long I sat there, although it felt like days.

I’ve had writing moments before when my hands felt paralyzed, because I was so confused about what to write next. This time, my entire body felt paralyzed.

No, not even paralyzed: chained. I remember squirming on that couch, trying to escape. I wanted to escape writing. I wanted to escape my first and truest love. I wanted to escape the very thing that makes me who I am.

The only thing that pulled me back to myself was remembering the time I had quit writing, which had lead to darker and scarier moments than even this.

So I did the only thing I could to keep myself together and keep writing: I killed my first novel. I closed the manuscript, closed the notes, and I haven’t looked at either of them since.

To prevent a similar disaster with my next book, I spent the next few weeks absorbing books on story structure (funny how they never taught me that while I was getting my Creative Writing degree—a story for another time).

I found two different story structure systems that I liked, so I smashed them together to create my own multi-layered, purposefully redundant story outlining system.

The result: a complete first draft of a full-length manuscript in about six months, while still working a full-time day job. I’ve made plenty of tweaks to the manuscript since then, but the magical thing is that every time I go back to tweak it I know exactly what I need to change and where.

Often, I find I can make the fix I need just by replacing a single conversation, or by moving a plot detail forwards or backwards in the story. No matter what tweaks I make, the structure still holds.

I used to fear structure because I thought it would make my stories feel formulaic. Not true. If anything, my novel manuscript by now feels a lot more natural than some of my short stories, which I mostly pants my way through.

This is the same manuscript, by the way, which got at least one agent interested in seeing more, and which has gotten rave reviews from my brilliant and merciless test reader, Gabby.

I’m extremely happy with where my writing is now, but the one thing that pains me is when I think back to Club Classic and realize how it could’ve survived if I’d only planned ahead, and how much pain and anguish I could’ve skipped on a personal level if I’d only embraced story structure.

This is all to say that, if you are a writer, you should make a point to study story structure and outline in advance at least one of your projects. Yes, even if you, like the old me, think you are a pantser.

Structure: it won’t kill you, but the lack of it might.