Writing techniques

Today I’m going to talk about writing methods.  We all have our favorite ways to create stories.  I consider myself to be old school when it comes to the creative process: think on an idea, scribble out a few test scenes, consult a baby names book for character names (this was always fun to explain in high school), and do a bare bones outline touching on key plot points.   I’d then write the rest of the story pretty much on the fly.  My outline provided the basic course I intended to take, but did not factor in any concepts that took me off that path.  Early drafts of Renegade were written with this method- and it undoubtedly led to the dozens of revisions that followed.  Simon and I didn’t communicate very well in the early days, while Autumn and Arxon remained largely faceless/flat in my mind. There’s actually a lot about Simon’s history that didn’t even factor into the book back in the day. This is a concept I can’t imagine ever letting slip considering just how important it became.  And it leads to the main reason I am revising my writing method.

I have been participating in National Novelist Writer’s Month, aka NaNoWriMo, for the past four years now.  The core idea of NaNo is wonderful: it encourages writers to create an idea and just write, write, write.  Scenes are flat? Fix it later! Characters boring the hell out of you? Light a fire under them! Plot stymied? Have aliens invade/a time traveler appear/the mailman deliver a life-changing message! NaNo is not bound by rules, a rigid outline or elevated expectations, be it by the writer or potential readers.  It’s a huge sandbox where anything is possible.  While I’ve only won back in 2010 and 2012 (both stories were Renegade‘s sequels, Exile and Savior respectively) this year I am going to try to go in with a story from scratch, and with a new writing method.  Because NaNo is so fast paced there’s no time for a billion rewrites.  You choose an idea, you gotta stick with it and make it work.  It might not be the best idea you’ve ever come up with but hey, it’s still something you committed to.  That is NaNo’s strength.

2009 was my first year doing NaNo, so I had no idea what to expect.  I liked the plot- a disillusioned convenience store clerk whose store was actually a gateway between dimensions- but his character was so dull I had to surround him with imminently more fascinating people to make the story bearable.  I reached about 25K before I bid Chris goodbye.  Although I didn’t win, I still took the experience to heart.  I had rediscovered the sheer joy of writing again.

2011 introduced me to Catherine Chandler-Caine, a young woman who became an indentured servant to the gods after her death thanks to Loki’s conniving ways.  ‘Tainted’ was vastly different from my other stories, both in tone and content, and was destined to end badly.  I reached about 25K with Catherine before I lost sight of what to do next.  The good news about ‘Tainted’ is I ended up going back to it some months later and was able to get right back into it.  I don’t think I have seen the last of Catherine and Loki.  I have two good friends who will be happy to hear about this, heh.

Getting back to this year’s idea: I will be employing what is known as The Snowflake Method for its creation.  What is the Snowflake Method you may ask? It’s an idea that encourages you to think of your story in small parts that gradually build to a larger one, just like what happens when you start cutting into a folded piece of paper.  Each cut helps to create the snowflake.

I don’t know about other writers, but I will spend so much time looking at the big picture I don’t see its components.  Other times I lose sight of it because its components are all over the place, and the picture gets muddled.  So by simplifying a story in this way, it may help me keep everything in focus.

One of the first things the Snowflake Method asks of writers is to summarize your entire story in a single sentence.  I admit, summaries are my weakness.  I can be and have been so utterly lost in all details that anytime someone asks me, I usually just tell them to read it.  This approach doesn’t help sell books (especially if you are its sole voice rather than a publishing house) so I must overcome this handicap.  Another thing I like about the method is it essentially helps prepare things you may use in a query letter or synopsis.

After several attempts this is what I came up with: “An ex-ghost hunter with supernatural powers is hired to find a missing teenage girl.” Now that the groundwork has been laid, I proceed with the second step, which is write up a paragraph expanding on the sentence:

For years an old farm outside Doylestown, Pennsylvania, has long been rumored to be haunted. When several teenage girls go missing, a local medium tracks down former ghost hunter Gabriel D’Angelo to find her. Gabriel is reluctant to get involved; he had left the business because of the toll it took on him to physically send ghosts to rest. As the investigation unfolds, and more girls go missing- his sister among them- Gabriel, along with Maria Cavanaugh, his ghost companion since childhood, and Evelyn Wright, a local horror novelist, soon learn that the source of the kidnappings is the vengeful spirit of a little boy. Armed with the knowledge that the boy had been abandoned by his brother, Gabriel, Maria and Evelyn stop the disappearances by forcing the spirit to relive the events that led to his death.

Got a setting, a plot, the character’s inner and outer conflict, and the end.  The next step focuses on the who, what, where, why and how of your characters, and then write up a paragraph explaining their storyline.  I’m going to stick with Gabriel to keep it simple.  This is what I came up with for him:

Gabriel D’Angelo

Born into a family of ghost hunters, Gabriel D’Angelo’s life was forever changed after a ghost named Maria saved him when he was a child.  Gabriel wants to live a normal life away from any and all things paranormal, including Maria. Gabriel’s goal is to save his sister from Adam’s ghost. The main conflict Gabriel experiences comes from Maria’s presence in his life. So long as she is around, he can never truly be free of what he can do. But he needs this ability in order to rescue Sophia and the other girls. Gabriel cannot prevent Adam from killing the girls he has kidnapped; this leads him to realize that he cannot avoid the paranormal anymore.

Ever since Maria saved him, Gabriel could not just see and communicate with spirits, but also send them to the other side through touch. This ability led to his parents taking on cases that dealt with paranormal activity related to ghosts with unfinished business. Many of these haunts were violent in nature, and Gabriel would have been targeted if not for Maria’s protection. Gabriel left the business at nineteen, cut ties with his family- including Maria- changed his name from D’Angelo to Duvall and moved to Iowa to start over.

He is now 36 and teaches gym at a high school just outside Cedar Rapids. He protects himself both with pills and wards so as to not invite unwanted spiritual activity. He hasn’t been able to maintain any relationships for longer than a few months, and he spends most of his time alone.  Sophia is the only family member he still communicates with.  Over the holiday break, Sophia convinces Gabriel to return to New Jersey to spend time with her and her fiance, Zachary. Sophia also invited Gabriel to visit a medium who had worked with the family in the past.  He refused at the onset, prompting Sophia and Zachary to go alone. A few days later Gabriel gets a call from Sophia asking he meet them in Philadelphia. Something big was happening.  However, when he gets there he is greeted by Maria, who explains Sophia was investigating a case concerning a missing girl, and she hadn’t been seen in a few days.  This ultimately draws Gabriel back into the life he spent years avoiding.

I still need to clean up the messier details, but it’s not bad for a WIP.  I now have a clear picture of Gabriel’s role in the story, and what is expected of him.  I also have a clear picture of Gabriel himself thanks to his face model:

chris noth

I regret nothing.

So there you have it, friends: a little glimpse into my plans for NaNo, and maybe a new tool to use for your own writing.  I am always up for new ways to improve my methods.  I’m not sure this will become the norm for me, but it’s certainly fun to try.

Happy writing, all!

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