"Choose a suitable design and hold to it."

I am a plotter. I think I've mentioned this before. I'm always amazed when I hear people say they just write by the seat of their pants. I can't even conceive of the idea of writing without knowing how something is going to end. Maybe it's my non-fiction background, or my academic bent, but for anything larger than flash fiction I have to have an outline. I think it was probably said best by those wise writing gurus Strunk & White. "Writing, to be effective, must follow closely the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur."

This is not to say that I'm never carried away by a scene or character into something that I hadn't foreseen or planned. Much of the Alex Budge parts of The River Maiden were expanded based on the strength of the character as he appeared in my head while I was writing. Still, I start a project knowing where I will end and what things need to be covered along the way.

Now, I started writing The River Maiden years ago, and when I did I had a very useful mind mapping program that helped us turn abstract ideas into outlines. Unfortunately, since I no longer work for that company, I don't have access to that program anymore. So, now that I'm in the process of plotting the next book, and was looking for a way to get all of the various themes of this book that have been swimming around in my head into some sort of outline. I found a few methods for plotting a novel, including mind mapping as I had done before. But I also found the information about how to use a snowflake diagram.

That's a lot of very specific steps (so specific that they've now made software for it) that get down to more specifics than I'm ready for right now. Instead I'm using it help me layer the various themes of the plot. I have 6 main themes and each section is for outlining that theme and how it all fits together.  I built my own tool for using the snowflake diagram using a folding foam board.


This helped me brainstorm the different movements of the plot and how each of the main characters get to where they need to be at the end. Instead of going through all of those steps however useful they may be, I used the snowflake structure to organize my brainstorming. Since I've had some scenes running through my brain for a while now, this gives me a chance to get them out and organize the. Not all of these points of the snowflake have specific events lined up with them, but it does give me a look at what is needed to move Sarah and Dermot and company to where they will be at the end of this book. While brainstorming the plot, I used the side panels to note locations and characters who need to be fleshed out further. I did this with post-its on the board so that I can move things around as needed. This also enables me to use the board again for the next project (did I mention I'm cheap?).

Snowflaking as we've started to call it around here is becoming quite the thing. My six year old is even using it to plot her work-in-progress "The Day it Rained Kittens". I helped with the writing, but the plot points are hers. I can't tell you how important organization is when your story is being dictated by a six year old.


Of Sense and Substance

Let's get started with a few quotes. "The boy's name was Santiago." Paolo Coelho - The Alchemist

"He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four day now without taking a fish." Ernest Hemingway - The Old Man And The Sea

"When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out and touch the child sleeping beside him." Cormac McCarthy - The Road

What do these first lines from arguably very different books have in common?

It's simple. They get right to the point. They don't mess around with flowery description. They don't set the stage by telling you everything you need to know about their environment. They don't tell you the writer's opinion of the characters. They just drop you right into the action or emotion of the story. Coelho begins The Alchemist with a simple telling of fact and we are immediately attached to Santiago. This statement is evocative chiefly because it plays on the reader's ingrained sympathy for the young and the sparse language clues us in on the type of environment in which he lives. It's beautiful in its efficiency. Likewise, Hemingway effectively sets up the conflict that drives The Old Man And The Sea with one bare sentence. It conjures image of an old man at sea in a small boat and his desperation at not catching a fish for so long. We don't know Hemingway's opinion of fisherman. He doesn't tell us how we're supposed to feel about it, but the old man's desperation still comes through with the accounting of many days he's gone without a fish. McCarthy is a bit more descriptive in the opening line of The Road, but that description comes to us through the character. We don't know what he looks like, or what the woods look like, or that he's hungry. We don't even know what he's feeling aside from the physical sensation of cold, but we are gripped by the heart-wrenching image of a man in the rough caring for a child.

No, this is not a discussion of the importance of great first lines, though they are important. I'm more concerned with the very first of Strunk and White's "Reminders" from Chapter 5 of The Elements of Style. That is to "Place yourself in the background." I have no doubt that this was positioned at the top of the list because of its importance and because it makes the best starting point for developing your own style. They write:

"Write in a way that draws the reader's attention to the sense and substance of the writing rather than the mood and temper of the author...to achieve style, begin by affecting none--that is, place yourself in the background. A careful and honest writer does not need to worry about style."

The key take away from this when writing fiction is to let your characters tell the story. The story is the "sense and substance" to which they are referring.  A "careful and honest" writer is one for whom the story and not the style is paramount. By contrast a careless and/or dishonest writer is one who may become so enamored of a certain style that their story becomes overshadowed by the writing. This is a particular pitfall of genres like historical fiction, science fiction or fantasy. Where the story is set in a world not familiar to the everyday reader, writers may find themselves too caught up in creating the setting. Some writers become so concerned with the environment that they are writing in that the reader loses interest in the story. For example, I recently read  a piece of historical fiction (that I will not name) in which the writer was so interested in mimicking a circuitous 18th century mode of speech that her sentences were sometimes rendered incomprehensible. Compounded by the fact that the novel was set in the late 19th century, the story was buried under the writer's affected style. This is precisely what Strunk and White are exhorting us to avoid.

As a test, try writing your story as a newspaper article, not a feature article like you might find in your local paper, but pure wire service type news. Just the facts. This can help you separate the "sense and substance" from the "mood and temper". It can also give you a point to start from if you decide to rewrite something.

But, you may be asking, how am I supposed to distinguish myself as a writer without affecting a style? We read on:

"As you become proficient in the use of language, your style will emerge, and when this happens you will find it increasingly easy to break through the barriers that separate you from other minds, other hearts..."

In essence, focus on your story and trust yourself. YOU will emerge through the telling of your story. If you are honest and write naturally without affectation, your style WILL come out. You are unique, and no one but you is going to write with your voice.  In Finding Your Voice: How to Put Personality in Your Writing, Les Edgerton uses an interesting exercise to illustrate this very point. In the exercise you take a favorite passage from a classic book. Strip it down to the actions only, and then rewrite the passage in a way that is natural to you. Don't over think it, just write and trust yourself. When I tried this, I used a passage from Jane Eyre which I had read countless times. Despite the many times that I had read and reread and analyzed Charlotte Bronte's words, when I rewrote the passage in my own voice the "sense and substance" were the same but "mood and temper" were entirely mine. I highly suggest trying this exercise, it can be a real eye opener.

So, take a step behind the curtain and let your characters strut and fret upon the stage.

Would you try performing a concerto without learning to read music?

My friend, the college lit professor frequently bemoans what passes for writing education in American public schools. Having taught adults myself in the corporate world and read lots of independent books, I would add that it isn't just a matter of schools today. Maybe it's the internet, maybe TV , maybe people are just getting lazier in the ways they communicate as the world around us moves faster, but it seems to me that the standard of writing (and reading) is going downhill. Writing as a skill just isn't valued much anymore. Now that self-publishing is as easy as it is, any "classically trained samurai" with spell check thinks he or she can produce the great American novel without the benefit of editing or proofreading. Just sit down at the keyboard and bang it out. If you're talented it'll just come to you. Everyone's got one novel in them, right? The trouble is getting that novel out, and that takes skill not just simply banging it out and expecting it all to work. Like any skill, it takes practice to build. No one becomes a virtuoso pianist without knowing what the keys and pedals do and how it works. No one just sits down and bangs out a concerto without knowing about notes and tempo. Writing is the same way. It takes learning and practice. Sure MOST of us can put words together into complete sentences, but that doesn't mean that MOST of us can hold a reader's attention for more than a page or two. Just because you can play a scale on a piano doesn't make you the next Chopin. It's also a skill that like music or dance or any other skill needs constant practice no matter how long you've been doing it.

I'm not saying by any means that I'm a virtuoso, but I at least know that this is a skill I'm building and not one that I'm just going to sit at a keyboard and have or not have. I work hard outlining, writing, editing, rewriting and proofreading (not just spell check). To that end, I also keep handy a very important little book. It's been marked up with pens and highlighters. The spine is white at the edges and the pages are nearly falling out. This is my Bible. Even when I was writing training manuals and product demos for a living this little book was my best friend, and one that is sadly forgotten in a lot of schools today. Some Christians read 1 Corinthians for comfort. I read this little gem. That's no joke. It never fails to make me feel better (cause I'm a total nerd). I'm speaking of course of William Strunk and E. B. White's The Elements of Style.

Those of you who are also writers are likely doing one of two things now. You're either nodding your head and thinking of some of your favorite quotes from this book or you're rolling your eyes and cursing me for adhering to something as silly as rules when it comes to writing. You're saying, "The electronic medium is a new frontier and we're pioneers making our own rules!" or "Rules Shmules! I'm an artist and I'll tell my story the way that I want." You can go right ahead thinking that way. I'm sure I won't change your mind. But to go back to my pianist analogy. You can't just call a B flat into and F sharp because you're a maverick and that's the way you do things. Sure you can sit down at a piano with no training and bang away, but that doesn't mean that other people are going to call it music.

The truth is, if you want to make music that appeals to listeners, you have to follow certain rules of rhythm and chord progressions. The same goes for writing. If you want to write something that appeals to readers you have to make it clear and engaging. It will be far more accessible and reach far more readers if it follows certain rules of grammar and style. It takes a very rare talent to turn those rules on their head and most of us even some the best of us are not that kind of writer.

With this said, I'd like to announce a blog series taking a closer look at what Strunk and White have to say about style. Even if you skip the rest of the book (Though you really shouldn't. It's less than 100 pages.) Chapter 5 An Approach to Style contains 21 "Reminders" about writing style that should be an invaluable guide to writers pf both fiction and non-fiction. This series will look at each of these reminders and why they are important. I'll even talk about stretching or even forgetting some of them and why and when I choose to do that. I'm hoping to get some other writers to contribute on their favorite reminders too. So if you have a favorite tip from Chapter 5 and would like to contribute, just let me know. If you don't have a copy of the book, I highly recommend that you get one.

I'll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from the book.

Writing is, for most, laborious and slow. The mind travels faster than the pen; consequently, writing becomes a question of learning to make occasional wing shots, bringing down the bird of thought as it flashes by.