January 21, 2010

Subject: On Spew, Snowflakes, and Jane Austen

I have been accused of being too analytical in my writing. Several writing teachers have urged me to write more freely in my early drafts while leaving issues of structure, for example, to later drafts. This recommendation makes sense to me on a logical level, but sometimes writing “to see where the story takes me” frustrates me.

This month, I’m working two short stories. Without intending to, I’ve taken two different approaches to drafting: one is Let-the-Story-Flow and the other is Look-Before-You-Leap.

The first story, which I'll refer to as "Emily Babysits," began with an actual incident, a little kid throwing a full meltdown tantrum at the grocery store. How would a teenager handle such a situation? And so I began writing. I write a long, long story about Emily, who hates babysitting, and the little girl she watches. When I finished, I was surprised by how much I learned about Emily, her family, and her outlook on life.

This method, of course, is the philosophy behind Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month): Don’t worry too much about what to write—just show up at the page and type. Let inspiration take you where it wants to go. I’ve participated in Nanowrimo twice, and each time, I’m pleased to see where thirty days and 50,000 words take me.

But the tough part, for me, is then coming back to this amorphous blob of a novel, or in the case of “Emily Babysits,” story and structuring it into a clear plot. I looked for a clear story focus. It is a short story, after all. Then I drafted up an outline of scenes and started over.

I did not follow the outline. I wrote three new scenes—perfectly fine scenes, only by the time I got to the third one, I realized I was way off track. Where did that cat come from? Why hadn’t the kid Emily babysits shown up? And what was I doing? How could I have spent so much time on these scenes before realizing I was going in the wrong direction?

Spew. That’s what I had written. I had spewed scenes onto the page, and they were going nowhere. Grr. I closed the file and haven’t opened it since.

So my second story, which is my geek story for the StorySleuths StoryChallenge, started with an “assignment.” I began playing around with possible geeky situations. When I found one that excited me, I brainstormed characters. It would be a rivalry story. But that didn’t go anywhere, so I kept at it, focusing on the one character that I connected with most. What made her a geek? At last, after pacing around my office, I realized it wouldn’t be a rivalry… it would be a romance!

But by the time I figured that out late on Friday afternoon, I couldn’t imagine sitting down to start with the first scene. I was tired, mentally and physically (my hands hurt when I spend too much time on the computer). However, I did manage to hand-write a summary of the story.

This week, I’ve taken the summary and turned it into what I called a skeleton draft. The scenes aren’t scenes yet—no real dialogue or action. But they do tell me enough to give me a sense of whether this idea might actually turn into a story. And that’s encouraging.

This method, if I can call it that while I’m in the midst of drafting, corresponds to something I found online years ago, Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. Ingermanson recommends you build up your story bit by bit, starting with a one-line summary, moving into a paragraph summary, which you turn into a page and so on. Of course, the idea of not wasting time on rambling appeals to the part of me that likes to see progress.

I still don’t know whether it’s better to start with an outline and write in a more orderly fashion or to ramble along following a story where inspiration takes you. My guess is it takes a little of both to create art. I would bet that when Laini Taylor comes up with those fantastic images in Lips Touch: Three Times (see my comments on Lips Touch here), it’s when she lets her fingers fly and her imagination run wild.

On the other hand, I can’t help but think of Jane Austen (ok, of Anne Hathaway playing Jane Austen in "Becoming Jane") handwriting those beautiful novels in days when ink and paper were not as abundantly available as they are now. She, like so many other writers, must have spent an incredible amount of time thinking about her stories before actually writing a single word.

Is it possible that today, in our world of pixels and word processing, we write too much? Should we think more before we type? Do any of you ever feel like you write too long? Or do you like what you find when you let your fingers fly?

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