[Day 4 of 90] Indie Publishing’s Unhealthy Obsession With Structure


The past few days I’ve been getting emails from people explaining that not all of my stuff is hitting their inbox.

To be honest, I have no idea why. Might be my autoresponder. Might be some things that I’m testing within the autoresponder (like “Perfect Timing”). Might be the black magic of my enemies.

I don’t know.

What I do know is, I’m not going to stress too much about tech stuff at this point.

Instead, I will continue sending out emails AND I will post those emails to my blog at http://www.mikeshreeve.com/.

If you go a day or two without hearing from me, check there.


Here’s what I did today:

Finished Nowhere To Run, and started in on Rain Gods by James Lee Burke. Taking notes and building my outline the whole way.

I love, love, love seeing different writers using different techniques to paint similar emotional tones.

It not only gives me sources of inspiration and techniques to use myself, but it also reiterates/reinforces the fact that:

There are no rules in writing.

And that’s what I want to talk about today:

The self-published author’s obsession with structure

Here’s something important to remember:

Storytelling structure is NOT a tool for creation.

It is a tool for analysis and editing.

I don’t know if it’s because self-published authors still struggle with feelings of legitimacy, or if the allure of a “formula for writing bestsellers” is too strong to resist, but in the world of self-publishing structure has been overblown and abused.

On occasion, I work with new authors/struggling writers in one-on-one settings.

I discovered a very disturbing trend among nearly all of these authors:

Many failing writers begin with structure, not story.

Story is what happens. It’s the emotional context. The characters.

Structure is the way that you organize all that stuff to AMPLIFY its effect.

Let me try and put it another way:

Structure is a set of tools to make your existing story better.

It is NOT a formula for creating stories because it can only IMPROVE what already exists. The story must exist first before structure can be applied.

What happens though with self-published authors, is that they buy into the idea that story creation can be formulized.

It can’t be.

Read the past 3 days of emails to find out why.

What CAN be formulized is the AMPLIFICATION of your story. Of turning it from a dull, boring mess of random events into a clear, emotionally powerful, compelling read.


Story structure is much more simple than you’ve been taught.

Quick Economics Lesson To Show What I Mean:

Writing coaches and teachers are incentivized to over-complicate what they teach.

To make their programs appear “better” and therefore draw in more students, they must provide “new” insights, “advanced” techniques etc.

Positive student outcomes are rarely the primary objective when creating these courses. More often, the objective is profit.

Now, I’m not trying to scare anyone or start a revolution. I’m simply suggesting that you take into consideration the above facts when stressing about complicated story structure.

As long as you consistently study books in your genre, analyzing them deeply, finding out why readers (yourself) are willingly spending money on the words printed on the page…

… And you remain true to the emotional human experience, using yours to create honest stories…

… Then the only structure you’ll ever need to AMPLIFY your work can be found in the following free videos:

Watch These Free Videos On Youtube. They’re Free. And Awesome. And All You Need.

Got it?

Let me put it another way:

80% of your results come from 20% of your effort.

Your goal should be to identify which 20% is bringing you all those results and ditch everything else.

By now, that’s a well-known meme in the world of productivity, achievement, etc.

But it really does work in the world of fiction as well.

The key is to identify that 20% of YOUR writing effort that results in the 80% worth of results from your work.

Instead of trying to focus on 100% of story craft, characters, plot, pacing, setting, structure, etc., etc., etc.

Identify the 20% of ALL of that that you both enjoy working on…

… And have talent/experience/an inclination towards/are good at/want to become good at.

Then pour all of your energy into mastering that 20%.

Let me give you a few examples:

James Patterson sells a lot of books. He has focused on the 20% of his effort that helps him sell the most books. I would say pacing, and high concept story.

His characters are flat. His settings are barely a step above the “suspended character and white space”. His internal conflicts are laughable at best.

But his pacing is insanely well done. I don’t think anyone is better at high concept storytelling then James Patterson in the world of fiction.

And that’s why he sells so many books. Like I said in my last email, he is better at providing value in that ONE or TWO areas then everyone else writing books in his genre trying to also provide value in that same area.

Another example is Margaret Atwood. To me, her 20% (that brings her 80% of her success) are the worlds she builds, and the characters she creates in those worlds.

Her pacing is so-so. Action? Not so much.

But she still wins awards for her books. She still makes a fantastic living writing stories.

And the reason is because she is significantly better at 20% of story craft (a small subset of the entire craft picture), then nearly everyone else writing in her genre.

You don’t have to be good at everything to make GREAT stories.

You only have to be good at a few things within the giant world of story craft.

And that goes for story structure especially.

If all you focused on in story structure was the hook, inciting incident, and “dark moment”/midpoint, you could become an INCREDIBLE storyteller.

If all you focused on in story structure was The Middle, and the resolution (and you had a high enough concept to pull people into the overall story to get to the middle), you could have all the fiction success you desire.

The point is, instead of letting structure take over, instead of writing your story to structure…

… Focus on a few aspects of structure/story craft that you can wrap your head around and control.

Then apply those tools to amplify your story.

I have a son who is three years old. It will be many, many years before I let him hold the chainsaw even though a chainsaw is an effective, useful tool.

But the problem with tools like chainsaws is, unless you can control it, it will end up hurting you.

If you’re struggling with structure, chances are that it’s because you can’t get control of it. It’s too big. Too much. Too soon.

You understand it on a surface level, but nothing specifically in depth.

Instead, step back, identify one or two tools that you want to master, charge hard and learn everything you can about them (by looking for them in stories you are reading) and then apply that to your story.

What you’ll find is that your stories become more vivid. They read better. They’re more interesting. And people start paying for them.

The alternative:

Ignore everything I say, and keep obsessing over story structure.

Eventually, you’ll become such an expert in story structure you can teach others your complicated story design methods too.

Mike “Don’t Hold Me Down With Your Rules” Shreeve