I think my next topic on this blog will be those peaky “Motivation-Reaction Units.” That is clearly one of the most requested items on the wish list of my loyal blog readers. Also, since I’ll be teaching MRUs at the ACFW conference this week, the topic is going to be fresh in my head. Since I’m flying out for the conference tomorrow, I think today I’ll content myself with answering some of the numerous questions that were posted here last week that can be answered quickly.
How about an article on how to outline a book before writing?
I remember reading something on your site somewhere that said all a writer needs is a good word processor and spreadsheet program and to dispense with the expensive, so-called writing software that’s on the market.
So, how do you begin this process? I have some ideas that I want to flesh out. (OK. They’re driving me absolutely bananas!) I can’t get my head around them in any kind of tangible form or them out of my head. I’ve tried note cards. I’ve used up I don’t know how many legal pads. I’ve got a copy of JKR’s ouline for the first half of HP5 and I know that’s the sort of thing I need. But how to go about it? How do I break up the various characters/groups/plot points/etcetera so that they fit into an outline? Is there an order to the madness that helps make it all fit together somehow?
Randy sez: The quick answer to this is the Snowflake method. This is how I do my pre-novel preparation and it’s the tool that uncounted numbers of writers around the world do it. Not everybody wants or needs to do preparation before starting writing, but if you need to, then the Snowflake may well work for you. If only a part of it works for you, just use that part. If you need to adapt it, then adapt it.
A heads-up for the future: I am currently working on a software product to make the Snowflake method a snap to work through. More details on this as I get closer to finishing it. This is my next major personal goal–to get “Snowflake Pro” finished and out the door. And it will have a major new feature that I won’t disclose right now.
My biggest craft-related problem (today) is keeping all the “science” straight. My story is set 60+ years in the future and takes place on the moon. I know I need to invent “future history” but I still want to the science of it all to be plausible. This story is for kids ages 8 to 12 so I can’t get overally technical but it still needs to be “real.” How much leeway with the science do I really have here? Can I take current theory on moon colonies, use of lunar resources, etc and twist them to make it work for my plot? Is it ok for a scientist to read my book and say “that could never happen because…” or do I, as the author, have permission to stretch reality here? I wouldn’t ask this question if I were talking about characters or location… but SCIENCE just doesn’t seem like something I can fool around with very much!
Randy sez: Oh, go ahead and fool around with it! What will it hurt? The truth is that even the best scientists have trouble predicting where science will lead us 60 years from now. Sixty years ago, (1948), few if any scientists foresaw nanotechnology, quantum computing, personal genome sequencing, the Web, personal instant cryptography on demand via public/private keys, or a zillion other things that my kids take so much for granted that they’re barely aware that these things exist. They’re just part of the landscape. When I started graduate school back in 1980, nobody I knew owned a computer and the height of computing power were the Cray supercomputers that cost hundreds of dollars per hour. I just bought a laptop for $1000 for my daughter, who’s heading off to college this week and it has more computing power than one of those Crays, and is massively easier to use. So take what you see today in science and stretch it way far. Back in the 1980s, Carl Sagan wrote a science fiction novel (CONTACT) which proposed the idea of using wormholes for rapid space travel. It prompted his friend, Caltech physicist Kip Thorne to take another look at wormholes and that prompted a cottage industry in teleportation papers in physics journals that lasted several years.
A craftey issue of mine is detail. I don’t like over detailing things, but this leads to what I believe is under detailing. Quite often my characters are in tense situations and its all speed and action and no time to really slip in details of the environment etc. At least that is how it feels to me. How do you deal with that in your novels?
Randy sez: In tense, high-action sequences, you have zero time to work in details about the environment. You work in those details by varying the pace and putting in the details in the slow segments. You of course don’t want an entire novel going at light-speed. The reader must be allowed to breathe. Pacing in fiction is a fine, fine art, but it boils down to this: “faster, slower, faster, slower…” The proportion that is faster will depend on you, but if you make it 100%, then nobody will read your book and if it is 0%, again nobody will read your book. How do you set the proportion? Easy. Write it at the proportion that you personally like it. I guarantee that there are other readers like you who will like your choice. There may not be very many of them, but there will likely be enough for you to build an audience.
Before I quote Camille’s question, let me define two acronyms. “GCM” stands for “Goal Conflict Motivation” and it is a common method of analyzing a scene (which unfortunately I have never mastered, since I learned my scene analysis elsewhere.) “PEE” is the very unfortunate acronym for “Powerful Emotional Experience” which is a phrase I pioneered long before I realized what acronym might one day replace it. Since I believe that creating a Powerful Emotional Experience in your reader is your primary goal as a novelist, I am going to stick with this terminology, despite that acronym.
With that said, Camille asked:
I know narrative summary can be effective when done right. How do you know when to use it, and what are some ways to do it beautifully? I know every scene should have a GCM and create a PEE – so if the events I need to show aren’t enough to warrant a scene, what are some ways to slip them into a summary?
I’ve also heard that a scene is also necessary if it moves the story forward, reveals more of the character, gives important information to the plot. But I probably should not be stringing too many scenes together which don’t pack some GCM or PEE, right?
Maybe it’s a pacing issue? I have a 48 hr period of time in the middle of my 360 page novel that spans 90 pages. Is that a problem?
Randy sez: A scene needs to have a point to it. The point is always to provide the reader with a Powerful Emotional Experience. If you can think of no Powerful Emotional Experience that your scene should prompt, then you don’t have a scene, so slit the throat of that passage. Your only other real option is then to summarize it efficiently using “narrative summary.” Here you are on your own. My advice is simple but rather useless: “If you are going to use narrative summary, then be brilliant.” Unfortunately, I don’t know how to teach you to do that. I am always trying to learn how to teach things, so if anyone knows how to “be brilliant in narrative summary” then email me with your secrets. Sorry, Camille, if this seems like a non-answer. This is why I rarely use narrative summary.
I’d like a discussion on the importance of the author stating the protagonist’s goal for the story at the beginning of that story/novel. Doesn’t making the goal clear up front give the story forward momentum and spine? Or am I barking up the wrong tree?
Randy sez: This is a good idea, but it’s not always possible, for the following reasons:
1) Most characters, being real people, are hopelessly self-deceived about their real motivations or they don’t spent enough time thinking strategically so they don’t have a well-formulated Big Goal.
2) A story is about extraordinary events in a character’s life, so even if he knows what his goal is at the start of the story, that goal is often changed radically by the extraordinary events that overtake him. For example, in STAR WARS, Luke Skywalker can imagine nothing better than being allowed to apply for the military academy for next year. It never occurs to him that running across the galaxy to rescue Princess Leia TODAY and destroying the Death Star TOMORROW are even on the agenda.
3) A goal is often rooted in a character’s backstory. Explaining the goal may therefore require giving the reader a big chunk of backstory in order to make the goal intelligible. No reader will put up with that, so therefore you can’t do it right off the bat.
What’s the solution? Easy. Right away in the book, make clear the protagonist’s immediate goal. This is a short-term goal that can be easily explained and can be won or lost within a single chapter. You don’t need much backstory for this. (You don’t, so don’t tell me you do. You DON’T.) In that first chapter, you deny the character that small immediate goal, and you do it catastrophically. This leads to a new goal and a new one, and then before you know it, the character has formed a new goal–the main goal of the book. Now you are launched.
Camille’s question about pacing is also intriguing. Instead of 48 hours, my issue is needing to jump several years at a time. Is a date at the beginning of each chapter enough to cover that? In order to keep myself moving, I’ve simply dated and written each chapter as it develops, without worrying about transitions. On later readings I can go back and insert transitions if they seem necessary to clarity.
A date is good and will cover a big chunk of the problem. You may also need to insert a bit of narrative summary to fill in any important details. Or you can do it in interior monologue or in dialogue, being aware of the hazards of both of those. In general, filling in these gaps is backstory, and you ALWAYS need less than you think you do and you can ALWAYS it put in later than you think you need to.
My next blog will pick up on MRUs again. I’ll try to cover at least some of the topics in my ACFW lecture and then we can do some examples. Since tomorrow is a travel day and my duties at the conference start Wednesday, I will likely be blogging very sporadically or not at all until next Monday. Conferences are simply nonstop action for 15 hours per day, and finding a minute to blog is very hard.