It’s Carnival season in New Orleans, although of course there will be no parades with floats this year on Mardi Gras Day. What has popped up instead are these colorful and inventive house floats all over the city, residents turning entire blocks of homes into parades in their own right. It is tremendously entertaining and inspiring to take a walk every day through my neighborhood and also those in different parts of the city. I am grateful for them.
It was fascinating to watch the idea for these house floats evolve in real time. Born first as an idea posted on Facebook to have a Krewe of House Floats, within days there were thousands of followers in a group, and then neighborhood-specific sub-groups emerged within that. Then, people began to build the floats, either themselves, or hiring unemployed float designers to do it. An entire community emerged around it. People worked on instinct, gut, and desire. The house floats sprouted up like wildflowers all over the city. What a wild, good energy. It has been fun to stumble upon them every day. But not everyone has the time to explore wildly. Eventually, a map had to be created, which can now be found online. A structure had to be put in place in order for the houses to be enjoyed in a specific way.
I bring all this up not just because these house floats have been the joy of my life lately (although they really have!), but because I have been thinking about them in terms of how I develop the structure of a book. Obviously, a city-wide art project is not a book. There are thousands of creators, thousands of end products. But watching these houses evolve has been an incredible example of how creative drive and idea generation can take liftoff from a basic structure.
I pulled a few threads I liked from watching this project grow: An original idea sparking interest, brainstorming sessions around it, creating a basic structure/guidelines within which to launch creative development, making the art and executing it, and then implementing another organizing principle to make it accessible to a large audience. This is an extremely math-y way to look at creating something big and beautiful but there’s a whole lot of fun chaos within this process.
When I develop a book — another big and beautiful thing, although certainly much smaller than a house — I think first about how I want it to feel, the experience of reading it. For example, would the subject matter be better suited to long chapters or short chapters? Do I want to tell the story in a linear way, or do I want to move around time? Do I want the intimacy of a first-person perspective or the ability to pull back a bit in a close third? These are all the most basic of questions but they are important ones.
In my world, all of these parameters (and more) are part of the organizing principles of the book. They are a set of rules I decide upon, and the rules define the structure. When I have determined them, I feel safe to continue and develop the book. I don’t need an outline, or an end point when I start the book. I just need to know how it’s going to work. That, to me, is the most important structure of all.
I spend the next seventy-five thousand words or so figuring out which of those rules work in actual execution, and which ones don’t. I revisit them every so often, maybe every fifty pages, maybe every hundred, or when the well feels a little dry, when the characters are paused for a moment, catching a breath.
Then maybe halfway through the book it’s time to outline the chapters I’ve written so far and take a guess at what I think is coming in the future. The plot, surely, is part of the structure, but the way I write, I never know how it’s all going to play out till I get to close to the end. (If I relied on the plot for the structure, I’d never finish a book!)
Finally, I’ll revisit those rules again when I’m done and ready to show a draft to a reader. Voice, story, time, chapter length, more. Those rules might change once you know someone else is going to look at it. My mantra lately is: The first draft is always for me, the second draft is for the rest of the world.
An idea, an organizing principle, creative development, a finishing point, and then a new set of organizing principles. Revisiting, refining. Structure is not just something you point your finger at and decide it’s done. It’s a constant evolution until the last sentence is written.
A city-wide art project is not a book, yes, but it is about presenting a point of view, exhibiting life, and connecting with the world. It is about having an artistic vision – and shouting it literally from the rooftops.
Take inspiration where you can, when you can. I take it from my city, these homes, these streets. Right now, it is my structure.
You are reading Craft Talk, a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans (and sometimes elsewhere). Last week I donated to Youth Empowerment Project.