Monday, October 14, 2013

Story Notes, Story Words & My 86 Seconds of Fangirly Fame

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Scribblers and Book Bandits,

If you watch the first 1 min and 26 seconds of this video , you will see me being fangirly famous (sort of); I promise it will be useful to you, if you do, because we'll be analyzing the writing style of Lauren Oliver based on the info she shares about her writing process.

Yeeeah, did you hear? Christy Luis!

Okay, onto the real subject of this post.

Lauren Oliver writes enormously popular Young Adult and Middle Grade fiction (Before I Fall, The Pandemonium series, The Spindlers). I've only read the first novel, but its unusual structure and skilled plotting drew my attention--it was a very impressive debut. Oliver also runs an innovative e-publisher called Paper Lantern Lit. She and other "story architects" find writers with a strong voice and teach them about the higher order writing skills involved in structuring story. The architects provide the structure; the writers provide "the talent."

All this talk about structure is what interested me in Lauren Oliver. She obviously has a strong writing method that works for her, so I decided to ask her about it.

What she shares in this video is a mix of planner/pantser writing style. I want to talk about it with you and compare it to 1.) a strict planner's process, and 2.) a strict pantser's process.

I asked emailed this question to Oliver: "You said you write 1,000 words a day. Are all of these words 'story words?' Or do outlining and brainstorming count?" A writer-friend and I had recently discussed the benefits of writing "story notes" along with story drafts. She and I have both wondered if story notes really "count" towards daily word quotas when one is working on a novel. In order to truly understand this concept and its relevance to our own processes, it will be helpful to compare the "panster" method, which uses very few "story notes," versus the "planner method" with its targeted story notes (outlines, brainstorms, etc.). The key for each individual writer is to discover her own happy medium, as Lauren Oliver has. We will analyze her method after looking at first the pantser, then the planner method.

"Story Words" are written “in the moment” --they are short sighted because they come from deep a character's point of view; in contrast, Story Notes are good for long range planning and following several idea strands to see where they could end. Story notes and story words come at the problem in two different ways. These two approaches are also known "pantser" versus "plotter."

Sometimes writing a scene is the only way to discover bits of a story. Quick example: I was trying to outline my first few novel chapters and the plan wasn't clicking very well, but I had to write the chapters anyway for a school deadline. As I wrote, I realized my main character was actually an orphan working as a prison guard as payment for his room and board in the prison's training wing. I may never have found this knowledge, which solved several of my story snarls, simply using story notes and outlining. I had to write in the character's prison-issued shoes in order to understand his sad existence.

In writing NaNoWriMo novels (50,000 words in 30 days during National Novel Writing Month, which is November), I learned some of the benefits of "just writing" without listening to my "inner editor"--the pantser method. Extreme versions of this method have worked well for some authors, such as, say, Ray Bradbury. Pantsers write first drafts, or even multiple drafts, of the story in lieu of outlining and story-notes. Bradbury advised his students to write 4 pages a day. "Most of that will be bilge, but the rest will save your life.” He would think about the work and organize its structure after writing it. These types of writers often say, "Once I've got words on the page, it's much easier to 'fix' them."

But as far as I can tell, I don't work well writing 1670 words a day (average for a NaNoWriMo day) off the cuff. NaNo gave me a few nifty plot twists, a bit of lovely prose and a giant mess of a first draft. In attempting to revise two (and a half) NaNo novels, I learned that writing that way is simply too fast because I literally don't have time to outline, write story notes and discover all the options I could take. I have no time to explore and ruminate. Each time, I ended up throwing out the entire story draft because it's structure is too much of a mess. It doesn't matter how much I love the lovely bits if there is no real useable story.

I think my stories turn out this way because my natural story choices aren't usually the best. I have to explore all of my options in order to find the perfect one (at least on the structural and outer-character-arc levels). Juliet Marillier is an example of a professional author who explores extensively before actually writing. You can read two great breakdowns of her process, here and here, in her own words. And I know I've probably mentioned this about a thousand times on the blog and elsewhere, but John Truby offers a thorough and effective array of structural techniques in his book The Anatomy of Story. I am still mining this "planner method," because I didn't even know about it until after I wrote my first novel NaNo style (which is probably a good thing. I would have run away screaming before I had a chance to get hooked). For my second NaNo, I outlined a little bit in preparation, but I still didn't know what I was doing. Bradbury did say that plotting should happen  after the first draft. So there is a planning, organizing and plotting phase that a writer must go through. Why not do it before actually writing?

It seems to me that story notes and first drafts accomplish much the same thing, even if they go about it a bit differently. I try to solve as many problems as I can using story notes because it’s much quicker for me than spending days on a sequence of scenes which I must promptly throw out because, well, the structure was unstable/a character took an entirely wrong turn/should have been the antagonist instead; etc. So story notes should count at least somewhat towards a daily word goal. (I will address that "somewhat" in a bit.)

Let's get back to Lauren Oliver for a sec, because she falls right in the middle of this planner/pantser debate. Oliver's process is a bit more of a "pantser" method than I am able to work with, at least at this point in my journey. She writes 1,000 words a day, and 90% of days, she's writing "story words" not "story notes" like brainstorming and outlining.

I researched Oliver a bit and found other insights into her process that contextualize this tidbit. In a different video, Oliver also says that she begins novels impulsively by writing about 10,000 words of her story without slowing down. If the story seems to be jiving, she sets it aside and compiles a working outline before continuing on with her word count. Perhaps the "working outline" is a very SMALL working outline, or perhaps she only takes a few full days to write it. At any rate, she does not take months to do so because, as we know, she writes 1,000 story words a day.

Oliver also offers that she started trying to write novels at a very young age and it took her many years to actually finish one. When she finally did finish one in college, it had no plot. So if young writers just blast out ginormous word quotas from the beginning, most of it the writing be structural miasma. I believe this is why Oliver also often says that it takes time to build up the discipline of meeting a word quota everyday. The quotas may be time quotas, fifteen minutes a day, in the beginning (as she said in another video). I believe by this she means that beginningish writers can meet some sort of quota and raise the quota as they grow in skill enough to properly meet it every day.

And in another video, she mentioned that her first drafts are, let's say, what Hemmingway calls first drafts. This means that she does what many pantsers do and basically uses her first draft as an outline. Her guest author friend essentially answered the question the same way as Oliver, but allowed that sometimes she "cheats" by letting "planning" into the word count.
So what I'm getting from all of this is "What you put into the words is what you get out of them." If you just let loose and write thousands of words a day, you will probably have to snip a lot of lousy and a lot of wonderful writing because it simply doesn't fit the end product. But that does not mean we have to write as Juliet Marillier does in the posts I linked above, outlining every paragraph, practically. In fact, that may be taking too much control and losing creativity, for some people. 

But truly, for several reasons, writing "story words" and "story notes" go hand in hand. When one or the other isn’t helping, I switch.

Eventually we need to recognize when it's time to begin. We cannot just write story notes forever, obviously--we must hone our skill and gradually work towards the confidence that we can begin our stories. I've come to the conclusion that it's important to "write write" at least a little bit during every writing session, be it character exercises for your novel, actual scenes, or even writing on another project that is past the planning stage (I'm preaching to myself, here, but feel free to take it to heart).

I think the NaNo method of a first draft can work wonders if I outline it significantly first. I'm working on a big 'ole outline right now, and I hope to blast out the first draft during a NaNo stint(perhaps next month, perhaps during Camp NaNo), outline in hand. I'm using John Truby book that I mentioned earlier in order to write my outline.

This is my opinion based on trial and error, and it will probably change in my growth as a writer. We all must discover through trial and error what works and what doesn't for our unique processes. It’s time-consuming to really search out and understand my own process, but I guess that’s why they say it takes a million words or a decade to learn how to write well!"

Hopefully you find something helpful in this mess of methodology comparison, whether you're a pantser or a planner or something in between. Should you write story notes? Or should you press on with your word count? It's up to you to find out.

Photo Attribution:
Different kinds of Kings of Clubs. By Tired time (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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