A confession: As a writer, I love it when the structure of a project is predetermined. I'm happiest when given a format, word counts, what Deb Heiligman called "restrictions" in her terrific INK column last week. Perhaps it has to do with cutting my teeth as a nonfiction writer at Time-Life Books, back in the pre-Google days. Each volume of those fabulous series, on subjects ranging from The Civil War to The Seafarers to Mysteries of the Unknown, was thoroughly mapped out by a team of editors, researchers, photo editors, and art directors before the other staff writers and I received our assignments for it. The layout was pretty much set in concrete, and our job was to write copy to fit. Heck, we didn’t even do our own research. There was a separate research staff for that. They gave us thick packets of photocopied material, with relevant sections already highlighted. If I needed more information for a photo essay or a picture caption, I asked the researcher assigned to the piece to see what else he/she could find. It was actually a pretty efficient system, and the discipline and deadlines it imposed were great training. I still take pride in the excellent quality of the books this team approach created. But I have to say I was jealous of the researchers, who got to hang out in the Library of Congress and other cool places while we writers stayed put at the office. I felt like I was missing something, the thrill of the hunt perhaps.
After I left Time-Life to freelance, I was hired to write several books—including one called Wildflowers—for a children’s nonfiction series called My First Pocket Guide. Now it was up to me to do the research, and I took to it like a fish to water. The books had a fairly rigid format. Each book was to be 80 pages long and feature about 35 specimens. There was one specimen per spread, and each spread had to include a 2- to 3-sentence introductory text block, a “Where to Find” map box, a “What to Look For” box listing size, color, behavior, and “more,” and a Field Note containing a fun fact about the specimen. Each spread also had to include a line drawing of the specimen, a full-color photograph of it, and an illustration linked to the fun fact. Although I had to stick to the format, it was up to me to decide which animals or bugs or wildflowers to include in the book and how to organize them. I had to create structure within the existing framework. (It occurs to me, by the way, that creating a similar book could be a fun classroom writing activity. Each student could research one specimen and then create a page for it using this format. The students could present their finished pages to their classmates, and all the pages could be bound into a book.)
My newest book, Master George’s People, took me a long time to write, in part because I struggled with structure for so long. Other than a word count, I had no restrictions to help me out, no comforting format to follow. I only knew that I wanted to tell two stories in the book—the story of what life was like for George Washington’s slaves and the story of how Washington’s attitude toward slavery changed over his lifetime. I had to fight against letting Washington’s story overshadow the other. I finally found my way in by returning to (this won’t surprise many of you) the primary source material. Once I identified a pivotal scene for an opener—that of slave children playing in Washington’s boxwood garden—the rest of the structure seemed to spin out more or less logically, although I can't say the process went smoothly.
Although I’m pleased with the final result, I can’t help feeling that I approached the issue of structure backwards in this case, making things harder for myself than they had to be. Next book, maybe even while I'm still researching it, I’m going to try tackling structure first. Maybe I'll sketch a diagram or "a looping doodle with guiding arrows and stick figures," a strategy discussed by John McPhee in his recent New Yorker article about structure. The idea, he writes, is to "build some form of blueprint before working it out in sentences and paragraphs." A blueprint, that's kind of like a format. And did I mention that I'm very comfortable with formats?