Archive | September, 2010

How To Avoid Overthinking Your Novel

What happens when you overthink your storyworld so much that your novel is filled with thousands of irrelevant details and your story gets lost?

Sam posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hi Randy,My name’s Sam. My problem right now is that i have seriously overthaught my story. I dream it, daydream it and effectively live in it from time to time. this means that when it comes down to writing, my story is full of incredibly boring details that no-one really wants to read.

Typically, my chapters end up being 1/5 interesting, 1/5 plot important, and 3/5 of solid, useless details that are important for the imagination, but not to the story.

My question is, How do you counteract the cumalative mind-numbing effects of incredible detail, without compramising the integritory of the story, and ‘putting danger around every corner’ to compensate. how do you make sure that youve said everything important and nessisary, without going overboard?

Ive made the mistake of dreaming up a whole new alien world, with new sights, smells, even the fruit. i want to explain the new world and all its glory, but i dont want to make it boring.

Randy sez: First of all, you’re doing things right by thinking about your Storyworld in Xtreme depth. Most of the novelists I know do that. We may be sick, sick people, living in our own little universes, but that’s what novelists do.

Now, your question, Sam, is how to keep that from being boring.

The solution is one I heard in the very first critique group that I ever attended. One of the critiquers quoted a very famous line from a very famous author (but nobody seems to agree on exactly who that famous author was): “A story is just like real life with all the boring parts taken out.”

And my immediate response when I got whacked over the head with this comment was: “Are you trying to tell me something? Which parts of my story are boring?”

I didn’t get an answer to my question, and I left the meeting that night feeling rather miffed. If somebody is going to tell me there’s something wrong with my story, they at least ought to tell me what it is.

I now know the answer, and by a grand coincidence, it’s found in my most recent blog, where Jonathan asked whether a story really needs conflict.

My answer was yes, a story really needs conflict, because that’s part of the definition of a story.

The reason is simple: Conflict is interesting. Conflict means that some character wants something that he or she can’t have. When you read about a character like that, you either want the character to get it, or you don’t want them to do so. Either way, you want to read on to find out what happens.

So the “boring parts of the story” are those that don’t have anything to do with the conflict. The “interesting parts” are those that contribute most directly to the conflict.

Sam, you’ve cooked up an incredibly detailed Storyworld. That’s Job 1 for the novelist. Job 2 is to only show those parts of the Storyworld that relate to the conflict.

That’s your yardstick with everything you show in your Storyworld. The more a detail is part of the conflict, the more time you can spend showing it.

Does this mean you can’t ever show any other details at all? No, of course not. Those details add texture to the story. But if you’ve got 1000 details you could use for that pesky story texture, and if five of those details are critical to the conflict, then show at least those five — and maybe five others that aren’t critical but which you just want to show.

That might be a good rule of thumb for a novelist: For every detail you add in that’s unrelated to the conflict, show at least one detail that is.

What do my Loyal Blog Readers think? Is that a reasonable way to write a story? Leave a comment and say your say!

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

Blog of the Day: Meredith Efken had a couple of good blog posts yesterday and today on her Fiction Fixit Shop blog in response to questions posted here on my site. Meredith is my freelance editor and is helping me catch up on the incredible backlog of questions I’ve got. Today, she talks about dual protagonists in a novel. Yesterday, she answered the question of whether the Scene/Sequel structure needs to apply to the antagonist in a novel.

Why Fiction Needs Conflict

Does your novel require conflict? If so, why? If not, why not?

Jonathan posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Why do books HAVE to be about conflict to be interesting? The human condition isn’t all about conflict, so why should fiction be?

Randy sez: Books don’t have to have conflict to be interesting. I have on my shelf a perfectly fascinating 700 page book titled: PROBABILITY THEORY: THE LOGIC OF SCIENCE, by E.T. Jaynes. This book is brilliant. One of the best I’ve ever read. And it has zero conflict.

You may object that this book is nonfiction. Well, yes. Nonfiction doesn’t require conflict. Nonfiction teaches you something you want to know.

Fiction always has conflict, for the simple reason that conflict is part of the definition of fiction. The simplest definition of fiction I ever heard was told me by Sherwood Wirt: “Fiction is characters in conflict.”

If you don’t have characters, you don’t have a novel. If you don’t have conflict between the characters, you don’t have a novel.

What do my loyal blog readers think? Is it remotely possible to write a novel without conflict? Can you think of an example? Post a comment and tell us all what you think!

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

Using the Snowflake Method on Short Stories

Can you use the Snowflake method of writing a novel to help you write a short story?

I’m fully recovered from the ACFW conference and am now ready to resume blogging at the usual pace.

Chuck posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I’ve been a lurker here for quite a while. I have over the last couple of years purchased your Fiction 101, and 102 series (Excellent investment, btw!)

My question is with short stories and the Snowflake Method. How would you suggest scaling back the Snowflake process to fit short story writing.

Randy sez: The Snowflake method is designed to help you manage the complexity of a novel, which typically runs from 60,000 words on up to maybe 250,000 words. A short story will typically run a couple of thousand words. So we’re talking about managing something that is 30 to 100 times smaller than a novel.

I’d say that you still want to do a one-sentency Storyline that defines your short story. (You’ll need this in your submission letter, so you might as well write it sooner rather than later.)

You probably also will want to write a one-paragraph summary, since that lays out your Three-Act Structure. Story is story, whether it’s long or short. Goldilocks and the Three Bears has a very clear structure based on threes which is useful to study for short stories.

I also think you’ll want to work out your characters’ Goals, Motivations, and Values, along with their Storylines.

I don’t see any need to write a synopsis for a short story. Nor do you need to spend a lot of time developing the characters’ backstories. A short story is really too short to have much in the way of backstory. You’re too busy trying to squeeze in the frontstory to care much about backstory.

Nor do you really need a scene list. (If you write one, it’ll be very short, and will probably just restate what’s in the one-paragraph summary.)

If you use the Snowflake method for a short story, you really ought to be able to do it all in an hour or two, and it will guide your thinking.

I don’t write many short stories, and I usually just think about them for a bit and then write them using that pesky seat-of-the-pants method. But I see no reason not to use some of the core ideas of the Snowflake — as long as you’re not using the method as a way to avoid writing the actual story.

At the end of the day, you get paid for writing the story, not for designing it. The design is an aid to you in getting the story written faster and better. If it doesn’t do that for you, then skip the design and go straight to the writing.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

How Long Should You Compost Your Story Idea?

How long should you “compost” your story idea before you start writing your novel?

Trevor posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I have been reading your website for a while, and I recently bought your writing fiction for dummies book, and thanks to both, I am more excited about writing than I ever have been before.

My problem is that I am stuck in the idea composting stage I have seen you talk about. The good part is that, whenever my brain has a free moment, it just starts grinding away at ideas, seemingly of its own volition. It does give me hope to know that, given the opportunity, my thoughts default to thinking of story ideas. Ideas that I am itching to start writing, if I could just get them into focus.

The bad part is I know I am not a seat of the pants type, and that I need a mostly complete idea to start. However my ideas seem to melt away and get replaced by the latest and greatest one before I can fully develop them. Sometimes I keep combining ideas until it is so convoluted I canĂ­t keep it straight. Then I pull it all apart until I am back at a generic, unoriginal idea.

So, do you have any ideas on how to compost ideas more effectively? I have toyed with the idea of some kind of journal, but that sounds an awful lot like writing by the seat of your pants. Am I just missing the point where I should stop thinking and start outlining? Oh, and I should mention my genre is Sci-Fi / Fantasy and it is usually the world building that is slowing me down.

Randy sez: Trevor, you remind me a lot of my buddy, John Olson. John gets tons of ideas, seemingly without effort. He can spin out a full story idea in minutes. But he has a hard time staying on track and finishing a novel.

That’s a good problem to have, of course. I have the opposite problem. I take forever to come up with an idea. Often, it’s just a piece of the idea and I need to wait for the rest to come — a process I call “composting.” I just write whatever fragments I have on a tablet of paper and stick it in my “Idea File.” Then as more ideas come, I pull out the tablet and add them to the page. It can take years for me to compost a book. Once I start writing, I’m a bulldog and will never let the idea go. I’ll keep working on it until I get it done.

Let me emphasize that both of these character traits are valuable. John’s ability to generate new ideas is worth gold. My ability to see a project through is too.

True story: Years ago, I was nagging John to finish a novel, any novel. I asked him for a list of books he was working on. He sent me a list with ten items on the list.

I gave him a scolding on the hazards of not being focused, and asked him which one sounded most interesting.

He said he liked #4, a science-fiction suspense novel about four astronauts on the way to Mars and an explosion that leaves them with only enough oxygen for one of them to survive the journey.

I told John to write that story and leave all the others for later. John wrote back and said, “OK, I promise I’ll do it if you write it with me.” I called him on the phone to make sure he really wanted to do that, because the idea sounded brilliant to me. We talked for a few minutes and agreed to coauthor the book together.

Within a couple of months, we had pitched it verbally to an editor friend of ours. He liked it and asked for a proposal. By the end of that year, we had a proposal written. Seven weeks after we sent it out, we had a contract. A year and a few months later, the book was published with the title OXYGEN. We won several awards for that book and it really made our names. All because we joined our strengths.

Trevor, it sounds to me like you don’t need much composting time. Spin out an idea, make a commitment, and then start writing. Rather than composting, you need commitment.

You may just find it useful to find a friend you can be accountable to. Or a friend to coauthor something with. Or a friend to play some other role. Friends make the writing business work a lot better.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

Blog of the day: I mentioned above that John and I pitched a novel to an editor at a conference before we even wrote the proposal. That editor, Steve Laube, is now an agent. Steve’s most recent blog entry is “That Conference Appointment” and it’s terrific. Steve has done thousands of conference appointments, and he can tell you what not to do (which is good to know) and what is critical to do (which is even better).