Saturday, April 27, 2013

Use X-Ray to Improve Your Structure

So, I'm not a giant fan of the 'Zon, for a lot of reasons (and actually, none of which have to do with my being employed by their main competitor, as it's a part time job and my world wouldn't crash if suddenly my employer disappeared). But I definitely have to give them props for the things they do well, for instance, their fabulous book-finding algorithms.

One thing the 'Zon does really well is the X-Ray feature on Kindle. And it works on the Kindle apps, too, so you can discover it even if you don't have a Kindle. X-ray was designed to allow people to surf easily through a book for all the mentions of a particular character, to define terms, and basically to allow people to more easily navigate a book.

But I've found it is helping me think about novel structure in a way I haven't before.

For instance, here is a screenshot from my iPad of an X-ray from a Kindle book I enjoyed recently, SOMETHING LIKE NORMAL, by Trish Doller.

Looking at this page, I can see a few things. How often is the MC's old love interest mentioned? (Paige Manning) How about one of his close friends? (Ken Chestnut) How much time does the author spend explaining and talking about the Marines? (not a lot)

I can also see how dense these mentions are. The first part of the book is about Travis coming home to North Carolina; the second half is more about him reconnecting with his Marine buddies and coming to grips with what happened to all of them in Afghanistan. As I think about that in parallel with looking at how often and where these characters get mentioned, I can see that in the beginning, there's a lot of to-do about the ex-girlfriend, and while she's still present as the book goes on, her mentions get shorter and more infrequent. By contrast, the love interest, Harper, has exactly the opposite trajectory.

X-Ray lets you see a book's structure at a glance, and lets you peer into the clockwork of books you think work well (and perhaps books you thought did not). Where should it be unbalanced, and where should it be balanced? Which characters get a lot of screentime, and which do not? And importantly, how does that compare to how I've handled the same issues in my own work? It helps me see not only what works in another novel, but also what I can do to improve my own.

Do you have a helpful method for thinking about how you've structured your novels? 

This month I'm participating in the A-Z blog challenge. My theme is "writer hacks," or 26 shortcuts you can do as a writer to get the most out of writing and the journey toward and through publication. Find out more about it at, and hop around to read the other cool blogs that are part of the challenge!

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