Sunday, November 23, 2008

Support Writing 2 -- Macro

[Continued from Previous Post: Support Writing 1 -- Micro. This was originally a single post, split for length.]

Plotting is another set of notes. As I said above, I don't actually outline, but if I think of an interesting plot twist and am afraid I might forget it, I'll jot it down in the Notes file. If I run into a roadblock, I'll try to work it out by "babbling" about it, and for that I'll usually start a separate file called StoryNameBabble.doc.

I started using babbling as a solution to a story problem during my first NaNo year, when I ran into a roadblock and couldn't figure out how to get past it. I'd been exchanging e-mail with a writer friend who was also NaNoing that year, and decided to ask if she had any ideas. Of course, to do that I had to explain everything from the beginning -- what I'd had in mind and what I'd done and where I wanted to go and why that wasn't working, what the problems seemed to be and why and what I'd thought of to maybe fix them and why the possible solutions hadn't worked... everything.

And in typing all that out, every detail, explaining the problem in so many words from the ground up, to someone who didn't know anything at all, I came up with a solution.

I assumed at the time that writer's block was now a thing of the past for me. It didn't turn out quite that well, unfortunately, but it is a great technique and often helps. Most of my longer stories end up with an associated babble file at some point.

[I'd give a babble example but they tend to run a couple thousand words or more, so....]

The trick, though, is to explain everything. Pretend you're asking for advice from a writer friend -- someone who knows about plotting and worldbuilding and characterization and pacing and POV and all that, but doesn't know anything about your particular story. Write it like you're actually talking to that person, and explain everything, just as you would if you were going to send them that e-mail and wanted to make sure they got what was going on first. They need enough info and details to understand exactly what's up before they can give you any advice. (Heck, if just writing about it all doesn't work for you, you can actually send it to your friend and maybe they will have an idea for you. :) )

Explaining what possible solutions you've thought of already and exactly why they won't work is particularly helpful. What ended up producing a solution for me at that point was that while I typed, I found I didn't want to look dumb in front of my friend, so I was coming up with more and more possibilities. I didn't want her to go, "Well, why don't you just do X?" and have to do a facepalm. And having just explained my story and what direction I wanted to take it in minuscule detail, I had all the info at the top of my head, ready to feed into ideas and options. In trying to cover all my bases before I sent the e-mail, I came up with a scenario that would work, and I was able to get back to the novel again.

It's all about details, though. It's like you're spreading all the pieces of your story out on the desk in front of you, so you can see it all at one time. It seems like it should all be there anyway, in your head, but in reality (or at least in my reality -- your head might work differently, and chances are at least a few of you do) when I've been working on a given chapter or scene, focusing on a particular plot thread, the rest fades a bit, as though it's been filed away. It's still there, and I can get to it when I need it, but it's not right there in immediate sight. It's like the difference between having things out on the desk and having them in your desk drawer.

On my current WIP, I started doing something new. This story's structured differently -- I had a lot of backstory but I didn't want to actually start the story thirty-two years before the main plot begins. [wry smile] Neither did I want to tell thirty-two years worth of flashbacks or reminiscing conversations or whatever, but I really wanted to get some of that past info in; it showed how the relationship between the two main characters developed, which is vital in order for the present-day storyline (a kidnapping story which turns out to be a part of something larger) to work for the reader.

What I ended up doing was going back and forth, scene by scene. The first scene was labelled [Thirty-Two Years Ago] and then the next was labelled [Today]. Then [Twenty-Six Years Ago] then [Today], etc. It was an experiment and at first I was afraid it wouldn't work, that the backstory would be boring or annoying or whatever, but reader response has been overwhelmingly positive, yay. So that's a technique I'll keep in my toolbox for future use when appropriate.

As I go from scene to scene, I bip around between multiple viewpoint characters. Where I am now, I'm caught up with the backstory and everything is "Today," but I'm still showing what's going on at different places, with different characters. To a certain extent, I have some discretion in what order I put the scenes; it won't always ruin a progression or even look strange if I put Scene Q after Scene T rather than before. I've been writing this one as a series of scenes, rather than a single, smooth story flow, so what's been in my head has been ideas for scenes I want to write, each of which has one or more plot points I need to get across to the reader. When I finish one, I grab the one I want to do next -- usually in a different setting and often with different characters from the previous scene -- and keep going.

I've gotten to the point, though (fifteen chapters in) where I can't hold it all in my head anymore. Or rather, maybe I could but it's getting iffy and I don't want to gamble any further and start losing vital chunks. So I've started jotting down notes, like:

SCENE: [2--scene couple of weeks after 1] Blah-blah-scene description, mainly jotting down all the plot points.

This is the fanfic story I mentioned a few posts ago. I'm not comfortable actually giving details in this blog, but you get the idea. The note in [square brackets] links this scene with two others; this is number two, so one of the others comes before it and the other comes after. The three together have to go in a particular sequence, and have to happen a certain length of time apart, so I made sure to hilight it. Each scene in this cluster has a similar bracketed note, in blue to make them stand out and make it visually obvious that they're together when I'm scanning over the list of scenes. I have another cluster of ordered scenes with their bracketed notes in green.

Formatting things this way, I can bang out notes for a scene whenever I think of it, without having to worry right away about what order it'll come in.

[I know it sounds weird, but in many cases with this story it really doesn't matter, up to a point; there are three or four people or groups acting independently in parallel, and until they get together and talk or their activities cross, the fine-grained order doesn't make a difference in the story. I make final ordering decisions as I write, looking at what I need to build a good flow, with rising action and tension in the proper places at the chapter level, grabbing scenes from the pool as needed.]

But I find that I now have notes at the scene level for a little way forward into the story -- seven scenes ahead at this point -- and this is the closest I've come to outlining since my last disastrous attempt. I'll admit I'm a bit nervous about it, but with this many major characters and this many major plot threads which all have to braid together evenly and wrap up at about the same point, however many chapters in the future, I feel like I need some sort of scheme for taking plot notes and planning things out. It's not really an outline, but it serves some of the same functions as one. We'll see how it goes. [crossed fingers]

So how does everyone else work? Do you outline? If not, do you do anything else to help keep the plotlines straight and make sure all the ends get woven in reasonably neatly? What support writing do you do, outside of the story itself?



laughingwolf said...

i have not been outlining, mostly gone by the seat of my pants... works well in screenplays, not so much in nano... so far

thx for the tips, will try to incorporate some....

Steve Malley said...

I've been meaning to do a post on my latest working method.

One important thing that kept me on track this last time was starting with a single tag-line sentence. Whenever I felt bogged down, that sentence reminded me where the story was headed...

Charles Gramlich said...

In high school and college, when I had to turn in outlines, I usually did the paper first and then the outline. These days I sometimes do rough outlines for long pieces, but never for short pieces. I think what this means is that my brain,for whatever reasons, sort of naturally outlines things as I work on them. I do keep a kind of running outline as I go with long nonfiction because it helps me at the end see what might need to be moved around a bit, or where I can cut and paste different sections into different chapters. But the outline develops as I go, and does not come first.

Angie said...

LW -- I hope they help. :)

Steve -- looking forward to seeing how you do things. It's always interesting to see how many different ways writers have of working and organizing things.

I usually have at least a general idea of where a story's going too, and keep that in mind. Making the trek is the hard part, of course; you never know what sorts of rivers and mountain ranges will spring up in your path. [wry smile]

Charles -- me too! LOL! The final paper was always worth the most points, so I wrote that first. Then final outline, then rough draft, then rough outline, then brainstorming. (We had to turn all of that in when I was in high school. :P ) That way, if I rant out of time at some point (which I usually did, being a first-class procrastinator) the pieces which were missing were always the low-value ones.

I think if I did outline, I'd do it that way. [nod] I have a general idea of what's going on at first, and details come as I write.


Spy Scribbler said...

I'm just starting book 4 in a series, and I've gone back through the first 3 books to make a "series bible," much like what you describe.

Recently, I spent three hours making an outline/storyboard. It was GREAT! I was so proud. And then my finger twitched, it was a new program, and I accidentally deleted it.

I'm not doing that again, took too long, so it's back to pantsing for me!

Angie said...

SS -- Ack! :( Oh, man, major suckage! I hate when that happens, no matter what it is that gets lost.


Rick said...

I'm so glad I found your site. These are wonderfully helpful postings. I look forward to coming back again. Writing methods should be a subject of enduring interest to any serious writer.

writtenwyrdd said...

I use a relational database for stories that are either from an extremely detailed world or from what is intended to be a multi-story series. Then I can keep track! Problem is, it can take waaaay too much time to get the details into the database! I'm thinking it's worth it, but who knows? It might just be me pandering to my obsessive-compulsive nature and writing avoidance.

Angie said...

Rick -- thanks, I'm glad you're finding all this helpful. :)

WW -- oh, man, I haven't had a fully relational database to play with since... '88? Something like that. I'm sure there've been some advances in twenty years, and it'd take me longer to get up to speed in whatever I was using than it did to actually enter the data. [laugh/flail]

Something sort of similar that I've seen other writers do, and which I've thought about, is to use a wiki to keep track of a world and a set of stories and characters. I figure if either of my major worlds (one SF, one urban fantasy) which already have multiple stories set in them gets big enough that my Word files are too cumbersome, I'll give the wiki thing a shot.


writtenwyrdd said...

I use a free relational database and it's easy to use once you learn how. It's the learning how part that's a pain!