Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Storytelling Lessons Part 1

At my age, feeling like I'm still learning is a good thing.
It's actually what gets me up in the morning.
Image attribution.
As I go back through the novel getting it ready (I hope!) to get out into the world, I'm finding some things I've learned over the last couple of years have really come into focus. Even though I've participated in and 'won' NaNoWriMo three times prior to writing this novel, I feel like this is really The First. It came out longer and more fully formed than any other piece of writing I've done previous. I've been working away at making it better for months and I'm not tired of it. I'm not discouraged that it wasn't better after the Zero Draft or even the First Draft. I'm as excited for this book as I was the last day of November when I knew I had to keep writing and as the day I finally typed The End more than 90,000 words and six weeks after I started.

I am a capital-W Writer. Here are just a few things I've learned from this journey.

THE MORE I PLAN THE BETTER THE WRITING GOES. 
I had pages and pages of notes and lots of links for research that I'd accumulated in the month before I started writing. When I finally opened up a new Scrivener file on November 1st, I was enthusiastic about telling the story I had in my head. I had a beginning and a lot of the middle and some more than vague notions about the end. I knew some big beats that had to be hit and even several fine details that could be worked in to make the story richer.

I didn't use everything, though. As I'm flipping back through those pages I can see things that just didn't work out, things that would have taken me to places I really didn't want the story to go. For that I'm glad, but it's part of the process. Previous to 2011, I would open up a new file with a beginning and then just write by the seat of my pants. Sometimes I would think a little more before I started writing, but not like I did for this book.

Every writer approaches every project differently. This is what finally worked for me: knowing about 60% of what I needed to in order to start.

I HAVE TO LEAVE OUT SOME DETAILS IN ORDER FOR THERE TO BE A PROCESS OF DISCOVERY.
I can't know everything. I don't want to know every little detail of every character I'm going to use. I want to have some breathing room in order to satisfy the surprises that I need to keep my interest. The really cool thing about this book was that I found things out about my characters that I didn't know. I know that sounds like garbage, but in this particular case it's true. Everything I liked about science fiction came out while I was writing this book. Someday I'll discuss the obvious influences but for now trust me when I say that a lot of pop culture SF crept in around the edges.

And that's what enabled me to follow some of the paths that popped up along the way.

FOLLOWING THOSE SUDDENLY DISCOVERED STORY TRAILS IS WHAT MAKES THE WRITING FUN.
When I'd open up the file to pick up where I left the day before, I was often amazed at what had been written. It wasn't always like someone else had hijacked my writing but I found that I leveled up several times during the Zero Draft. A clever turn of phrase or that unsuspected plot turn really opened things up in terms of where I could go. I still had my map, still knew where the story had to end up but now I had some sights to see along the way.

WRITING WITH MY GROUP DURING WRITE-INS WAS THE BIGGEST HELP.
You think that writing is kind of a solitary thing, right? It can be. I'm writing this in my office at home and listening to Los Lobos while I do that. But I can tell you that sitting in a room full of people who are typing as madly as you are trying to get their stories out of their heads the way you are is inspiring. Every once in a while I'd look around and see a writer with her hands to her face and that bewildered look I know had been on my face more than once was somehow comforting.

EVERY STORY OBSTACLE, NO MATTER HOW FORMIDABLE, CAN BE OVERCOME.
Don't question whether or not it's the absolute right thing to do or not, just go with it. You can fix it later. Blow something up. Kill a character off. Break something. That's how you get around/through/over something that's blocking you. And if you're writing in a group, you've got any number of wingmen to navigate you through it. All you have to say is "I'm stuck and ---" and then you'll have choices.

And that's all for this installment. Next one I'll tell you a bit about procrastination. Maybe.