One of my latest writing adventures was helping out Stuart Horwitz with his latest book, Book Architecture: How to Plot and Outline Without Using a Formula. I coauthored a chapter with Stuart called “The Expanded Series Grid in J. K. Rowling’s Novel Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” I’m so proud to have contributed to this book because it’s unlike any other writing book I’ve ever read.
Most writing books analyze contained aspects of novels—the dialogue in one book, the characters in another, the plot twist in yet another . . . you get little tidbits but never a bird’s-eye view of why one whole book was successful. With Book Architecture, we finally get that all-encompassing look.
Each of the book’s chapters digs deep into a different work: the movies Slumdog Millionaire and The Social Network, the classic children’s book Corduroy as well as The Great Gatsby, Harry Potter, Catch-22, and Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.”
Obviously I’m biased, but I can’t recommend Book Architecture enough!
An Interview with Stu
Q. You’ve said before, “Writing a book is a pain in the ass that takes years. Make sure your idea thrills you!” What was it about this book that so thrilled you that you were willing to spend years on it?
Stuart: Asking the hard questions first! On the one hand, I feel that a book has to pull at you, nag at you, and not let you go. . . . And on the other hand, I’m one of those people who just does what’s next, next.
After publishing Blueprint Your Bestseller, the concept of “series” was the thing that everyone wanted to know more about (I see that we’re getting to that concept a little bit later). I got comments that BYB had helped people take their books apart, but by the time we got to Chapter Nine of that book, “Bringing It All Together”—well, that was laughably short.
I protested that we would need lots of full-length examples to show in depth how books are reconstructed, and they should come from popular fiction but also literary classics and Academy-Award winning films, and then I thought: Hey! That’s not a bad idea . . .
Q. You say that “plot” is a four-letter word. Why? And what word or words should die-hard plotters replace it with?
Stuart: I’ve gotten in a lot of trouble for suggesting that “plot” is a useless word. But it is, for two reasons. The first is that it is a singular word, and seems to stand in for everything that happens in your book that, you know, is important. One word can do all that?
The second reason “plot” is relatively useless is that a focus on plot tends to privilege events above all of the other elements of a work: characterizations, symbolism, relationships, settings, etc. Even in the most relentlessly genre-driven fiction, you still can’t consider the events apart from the personalities and the texture that inspire and surround them.
I think it’s easier to just call everything a series, which as I’ll explain in a minute, is a different use of that word than a set of volumes in a particular genre with a lot of the same characters.
Q. In your first writing book and now in this latest one you’ve introduced the breakthrough writing concept of “series.” Since it is a new concept, it can be difficult to grasp at first: What exactly is series and how can a writer’s understanding of it improve her writing?
Stuart: Series is the repetition and variation of a narrative element so that the repetition and variation creates meaning. You have likely heard repetition and variation applied to art in general: the use of melody in music, the architectural pattern. But repetition and variation of a narrative element—what is that?
A narrative element is anything that can be identified in a reader’s mind as something discrete, for example, a person, a place, a thing, a relationship or a phrase. In fact, the repetitions and variations of series are how a person becomes a character, how a place becomes a setting, how a thing or object becomes a symbol, how a relationship becomes a dynamic, and how a repeated phrase becomes a key to the philosophy of the work.
The repetitions and variations of each series form individual narrative arcs. When I help writers with their work at Book Architecture, we gain practice graphing these series arcs, including the skills to have these arcs interact, intersect, and collide. We braid these threads of series into a whole tapestry—through the use of series grids, like Rowling’s. And we use the third tool of the series target to make sure that all of these series are about the same thing, because your book can only be about one thing.
Q. On the other end of the spectrum from plotters are pantsers. A big theme in your book is, “Intelligent planning is not the enemy of creative genius.” You have an outlining technique that you say is non-formulaic, but to many pantsers, an outline in itself is formulaic. How does the Book Architecture Method approach outlining differently?
Stuart: The outline I’m talking about comes from the work itself. It doesn’t supersede the work or dictate how it should go. It is more like a map of where you are and a way to give yourself a sense of the possible directions your work can go.
The type of outline we work with in Book Architecture is spatial in nature and helps visualize the interaction between elements better than the linear list we learned in high school (you know, the one that starts 1., 2., 3. and then under 1. we get 1.a… 1.a.i…).
I love that J.K. Rowling released a snippet of her use of this kind of outline for the fifth volume of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I think sometimes people think famous writers don’t use the same tools as us . . . because they’re just geniuses and stuff. But Rowling’s grid—and the grid Joseph Heller put together for Catch-22 featured in Chapter Six of my new book—show that they do!
Q. You’ve been an editor for fifteen years. What are the most common struggles you’ve seen among writers and how can we avoid those pitfalls?
Stuart: Well, I think every writer could practice being a little bit more realistic. I don’t mean about potential publishing success, I mean about the writing process. We swing wildly from expecting it to be easy to trying to make everything perfect. Neither one of these approaches is particularly fun, and you have to have fun—that is the cardinal rule.
I don’t mean stupid fun, I mean intellectual aliveness, being fully engaged in what you are doing, believing in your work or changing it so that you do. That’s what we have to keep asking ourselves: Am I still having fun? If you feel that window closing, you can change tack or you can hurry up and bring things to a conclusion before you stop caring about the work altogether.
Nothing is ever going to be perfect. What we write represents a time and a place and we have to leave that “fresh feeling of not having been too well-worked,” as my friend Jim Freeman describes it. And then we go on to the next work, which is what I’m going to do after the promotional phase of Book Architecture. It’s what we all have to do.
Stuart Horwitz is the founder and principal of Book Architecture, a firm of independent editors based in Providence, New York and Boston.
Stuart’s clients have reached the bestseller list in both fiction and nonfiction, and have appeared on Oprah!, The Today Show, The Tonight Show, and in the most prestigious journals in their respective fields.
Stuart’s first book, Blueprint Your Bestseller: Organize and Revise Any Manuscript with the Book Architecture Method, was named one of 2013’s Best Books on Writing by The Writer magazine. His latest book, Book Architecture: How to Plot and Outline Without Using a Formula, is already garnering five-star reviews on Amazon.