Helen (heleninwales) wrote,

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Imagine you have a jet pack...

One of my LJ friends has just been reading Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. I read this some years ago but wasn't impressed (my views coincide pretty much with these reviews). I passed my copy on to someone else so what I have to say about it is based on my memory.

Don't get me wrong, there is some good advice in Bird by Bird, but I'd already read and fallen in love with Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones and I only have room on my shelves for one ditzy self-obsessed American writer who says all you have to do in order to write fiction is observe the detail and do timed freewrites. :)

To be fair, a lot of what Goldberg says in her book is meant to be applied to poetry and she doesn't claim to be telling you how to write a novel, so her books stayed and Bird by Bird was given short shrift.

At the opposite extreme are writers like Jack Bickham and Lars Eighner who advocate planning the novel's plot and the structure of each scene in advance. Oh, and in case you think that women write intuitively and men plan, that's not the case. John Braine in How To Write A Novel describes his method in which he basically does a giant freewrite and follows his characters and situations to see where they will take him, then he summarises what he has produced, then he works on the summary until it reads well as a story, then he rewrites the novel from scratch, following the summary which has now become his outline. Meanwhile Patricia Wrede starts with an outline, begins to write the story, finds that her characters have other ideas, changes the outline to accommodate the new developments, continues to write, characters surprise her again, rewrites outline to take these developments into account, continues to write... (rinse, lather and repeat until end is reached). Some writers write straight through to the end without revising anything (method advocated by NaNoWriMo), others do a rolling rewrite and can't continue until the chapters written so far are solid and well polished.

And you know what? It doesn't matter which method you use; they all work. What is more, once the novel is finished, if it's worked as a novel, you can't tell which method the writer used to get there. What is more, some writers use different methods for different stories.

OK, now most of you reading this probably knew this already, but it does mean that you can't teach anyone A Method for writing. All you can do is show them lots of different ways that work for other people and hope that they can find a method or combination of methods that will work for them.

You can write top down (the pre-planners) or bottom up (The Bird by Birders). Or you can do a mixture of both, which is what I do, namely have an overall feel for the type of story I want to write, have some detailed images or snippets of scenes in my head and then have to wrestle everything else into place.

However, one thing I think I can safely say is true, at some point during the process of writing the novel, you need to have thought about all the different levels of the novel which are:

  • The top level -- overall plot arc. (Should be able to summarise this in a few paragraphs or a diagram.)

  • The middle level -- how exactly the story is divided up chapter by chapter, scene by scene. What happens in any given scene. Thinking about where you want to increase the tension and where you might want to ease up a bit to give characters and readers a slight breather. Which character will be the viewpoint character for this part of the story.

  • The bottom level -- This is the level of the actual writing. How are you going to describe the setting, the characters and the action? Which words will you use? What are the characters actually saying?

You can plan all you like at the top and middle levels, but at some point you need to get down to the nitty gritty of writing or there will be no novel, just a plan. But just staying at the bottom level won't work either. I remember one of the regulars some years ago in rasfc[*] saying that she had diligently followed the advice in Bird by bird and it had worked -- up to a point! She had ended up with some 80,000-100,000 words of beautifully observed character and description of setting. What she did not have was a novel because it had no sense of a plot arc; it was just a series of interesting but static vignettes.

So this is where the jet pack comes in...

You need to be thinking at the right level for the problem you are trying to solve. That might be on your hands and knees peering at a tiny detail of the murder scene so you can write it more vividly, or it might be hovering at tree-top level as you decide which scenes to include in this chapter, or it might be flying high above the landscape of the novel as you work out whether it's a comedy or a tragedy. Thinking about two levels at once is unlikely to work because if you're hovering (eg deciding what this scene is supposed to be doing), you can't see the detail and if you're down on the ground looking for detail, you can no longer see the overall picture, just the little bit of story in front of you.

I used to do this middle level pre-planning in my head, much as asakiyume describes here, but these days I try to do more of it on paper because if a scene gets too polished in my imagination, when I come to write it, the words never seem to do it justice. I have even devised a Scene Planning Sheet that includes prompts to remind me to think about what the scene is doing and what needs including before I try to actually write it.

I normally find that the story ideas my students come up with are fine and the story doesn't work as well as it could do because of the actual quality of the writing. Usually they forget to include any description so the story is just talking heads in a nebulous "somewhere" that often isn't even clearly indoors or outdoors. In these cases, the student can usually see everything very clearly in their own head, but they're forgetting to give the reader enough clues to enable them to construct their own version. These people need to work at the bottom level, getting better words on to the page.

However, there are also a fair number who end up telling the reader all about the characters and events instead of producing vividly written scenes in "real time". The overall plot outline may be fine. The quality of the words on the page may also be fine, but the story isn't engaging the reader because we're not there in the middle of the action. In this case, trying to get better words on the page isn't the answer; there needs to be some thinking and planning at the middle level first.

For example, instead of telling the reader that a character is upset because she has just broken up with her boyfriend, perhaps the story should show the scene in the restaurant where they had their final row? Or perhaps it would be better to show the scene an hour or so afterwards where she sobs down the phone to her best friend? Or perhaps the story should show the scene where she wanders along the cliff top path, thinking about how awful her life is and contemplating throwing herself over the edge? Or... Well, you get the picture. There are lots of ways of conveying "This character is upset because she has just broken up with her boyfriend" in a vivid and interesting way. The story is unlikely to need all of them, so you have to choose which one you will show in order to convey what you want to say.

Choosing which is the best scene to show depends on lots of things and there are no general rules that can be applied. If the story is actually a murder mystery and the break up with the boyfriend in not significant except insofar as it means the protagonist is free to fall in love with the detective, as per romantic subplot, then probably the walking along the cliff path would be the best option because then she can stumble across the first body at the same time, which will get the main plot moving. If the story is chicklit, then you might want to show both the argument in the restaurant and the sobbing down the phone because the best friend is important to the rest of the story and the happy ending is that the row was over a misunderstanding and protag and boyfriend get back together again. Or... Well, you see the problem?

But the thing is, unless you are someone who writes a detailed outline before you start writing, you might not actually know in advance which scene(s) will ultimately work and therefore have to write all of them. Once you have a complete first draft, you can delete those that don't fit the rest of the novel.

Anyway, this is a long-winded way of saying that unless you are a writer who produces a rigid and very detailed outline and never lets their characters diverge from it one iota, then trial and error seems to be a necessary part of the writing process and no amount of thinking can shortcut it.

[*] The Usenet group rec.arts.sf.composition.

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