Thursday, 17 May 2012

Writing recipes


I’ve said before, that I read a lot about writing. Early on I just wrote in a kind of stream of consciousness flow. It was easy and the words came tumbling out. But what I hadn’t thought about, at the time, was that it worked for fanfiction where I was writing within a set box of characters, worlds and scenes that I knew all too familiarly because they already existed.

When it came to writing my own stuff, I found some problems. I have a major work three quarters written. I have spent a long time writing and rewriting, to then literally lose the plot. I put the work away and thought that I just needed a break from it. Then when I looked at it again, I realised that in ‘fixing it’ I had mangled it into something I no longer liked. The original story pattern was lost.

I am a scatterbrained person in real life. I forget useful, normal things all the time, but conversely remember useless trivia all too easily. I have learnt to write myself lists. I sit down with my recipe books and I write a menu for the week of what meals we will eat. I can see at a glance if it is balanced; too heavy on the chicken or whatever. Then I write a shopping list and I only buy what is on the list. It’s neat, economical, I only need to shop once and it stops the kids making me nuts asking what is for dinner. It’s written on a white board and is stuck to the fridge. It makes me more organised too, if the night before, I can see what meat to get out of the freezer or what to throw in the slow cooker.

It works; I can see that it works. It saves me money (no impulse purchases). We don’t waste food or throw away things we meant to cook and didn’t get around to using.

So why the hell would I sit down to write one hundred thousand words with no plan?

What was I thinking?

Well I just wasn’t thinking, obviously.

Some people suggest that your book should follow a standard three act scenario, others favour four acts. Jim Butcher writes the Harry Dresden files, and he talks about story arcs and completion of minor plot points in his guides to writing.
I realised that I had unwittingly done a lot of that in my fanfic writing, in my attempt to wind up loose ends. Yay me.

But what everyone seems to agree on, is that you do your research and your homework, first! I laughed when I saw Laurell K Hamilton tweet her followers to ask about the description of a particular room and which book it was in. It was quicker for her to ask the fans than trying to find it herself. She also commented in her blog how a minor character in a series of novels like hers, can suddenly have a greater role in a later book and she doesn’t know what colour his eyes are or what his hair looks like. If you read her books, you will know that she has a serious hair fetish, so it really does matter to her.

Part of what drove me nuts and also allowed such fanfic freedom, is that Stephenie Meyer created such vague characters in her Twilight books. If you read my fanfiction work as mrstrentreznor, you will know that Paul, a member of the wolf pack, is probably my favourite character. At the time I started writing him he had no name, a serious anger problem, an odd barking laugh and he ate a lot (even for a wolf boy). I made up some reasons for him being so angry and wrote a story around that. “What was she doing?”

By the time the Illustrated Twilight guide came out, the Twilight series of books was complete, and NOW SM wrote her shopping list, as it were. Suddenly characters had names. Suddenly there was an extra generation in the family tree. Although she still doesn’t know who Embry’s father is. Picture me annoyed. What a mess, I cried out. Who could possibly be that disorganised?

Oh… wait a second…

I’m that disorganised!

Oh, my god, that’s me!

I am making all those mistakes.

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So what can I do about it?

You can find plenty of advice on the internet about writing methods and formulas. You can go completely anal and use the snowflake method, if that works for you. So long as you have a plan. 

I read Ken Follett’s master class and he does a similar thing; building up a whole novel from a one paragraph summary.

If you have a plan, then you can write out of chronological order. You can write the sexy bits when you are in the mood. Write the sad parts when you feel depressed or angry. Write the ending when you feel upbeat and happy. Or whatever.

As long as you are writing.

And, for heaven’s sake, do your research before you start writing. I love the internet, but I always say ‘the journey of a thousand sites begins with a single click’. You look up one thing and hours later, you are clicking on something, no less interesting, but not what you were supposed to be doing. And this all takes time. Time that you are not using to write. And if you are writing and you wander off to do your research in the middle of the paragraph, then your muse will wander off as well. You will come back, a hundred sites later, with no idea of what you were trying to write. Joel Orr  says to make a mark like %%% at where you need to check information or do some research. Keep writing and search for that mark later. Good advice.

So make your world and your characters as real as you can, before you start writing. It will save you many hours of time later to do your preparation first.

So this time, I am going to put that ruined story away and I am going to start again. I will try a quasi-snowflake method. I will write out all the motivations and distinguishing features of my characters. I will give them more than four elements like SM’s Paul. I will have a plan. I will have story arcs and resolutions.

And it will work!

Make it so! (To quote Captain Jeanluc Picard from Star Trek)