Wednesday, August 1, 2012

My Writing Process (and Why NaNoWriMo is only for fun)

Today starts the August session of Camp NaNoWriMo. As I mentioned Monday, I signed up for this session, but have no real expectation of having a 50,000 word draft done by the end of the month. I'm actually not even sure how to do a word count for NaNoWriMo, because in the course of one month I'll probably write half a dozen 'drafts'. Each starting from 0 pages, 0 words.

Sound crazy? Come on, I'll show you how it works.

Confession of a Former Pantser

I used to try writing by the 'pantsing' method - don't plan out, plot out, fill character charts. Just sit down and write by the seat of your pants. I really like pantsing, it seemed to be a great way to let the characters grow and surprise me on their own.

But I never got anywhere.

I always ended up writing myself into a corner, or stuck in a situation where the characters wouldn't speak to me and I didn't know where to go, or just putting words on a page with no goal, which led to really crappy writing. I know some great writers who make pantsing work. I envy them a bit, but eventually I had to admit, I'm not one of them. So I gave it up, and went looking for another method.

I Love Fractals

I've loved fractals since I did a presentation on them in a high school math class. Those buggers are just fascinating the way they build on each other. An insanely simple shape, like a triangle, can become an intricate and beautiful design. So when, in my search for ideas on a new way to tackle my stories, I came across a writing method based on fractals, I was immediately interested.

That method was Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake Method, and if you are interested in some ideas on structuring your writing process, it is probably worth looking at.

The first few steps of the Snowflake Method combine fractal-style growth, with solid character development.

First, write the idea of your story in one sentence.
Then expand that sentence into a paragraph of about 4 sentences.
Then expand each sentence in that paragraph into a paragraph (which should give you a one page synopsis.)
Randy's method has you stop expanding after you reach a 4 page synopsis, and switch to plotting out a scene-by-scene outline, but here is where I took a left turn.

Fractals, remember?

I just keep expanding.

Fractal Writing

Here's how it works. I take my four page synopsis, and save it in one word file, with all the earlier smaller versions. Then I start on what I call 'Expansion 1'.

Opening a new word file, I copy the first paragraph of the synopsis over. I don't edit or expand the paragraph. Instead I use it as a reference for where the story is while I start writing a more detailed version. Here is an example from 'My Mistress':

Mattin's life is turned upside down when Lord Oeloff forces his sister Marta to become his slave. With no other options, Mattin turns to Lady Jahleen, Oeloff's enemy, and offers to become her slave if she can free his sister. After some hesitation, Jahleen accepts his offer, believing that she can use political means to force Oeloff to free Marta and undermine Oeloff's power base at the same time.
  - Synopsis first paragraph

Mattin was coming out of the inn stables when he saw the coach. Ebony and gold, and a perfectly matched team of four. He runs to the market to warn Marta that he thinks one of the fae lords is at the inn. He tells her to hide for a while, but she laughs and tells him to stop being so over protective. Gossip in the market – another animal was found tortured to death. Speculation that a lesser fae was hiding in town amusing himself w/ the animals.
Mattin's fears prove true, and when they reach the inn they find the Lord Oeloff waiting for them. He is claiming Marta as part of the tax owed him by the town. Mattin's father says nothing, silenced by fear of the fae's power. Mattin tries to protest but Oeloff stops him
 - Expansion 1 first and second paragraphs
In total, the expansion of the synopsis first paragraph filled one and a half pages. There are scenes that get significant detail in expansion 1 are the scenes that will be the backbone of the story. Other scenes, and entire chapters, are skimmed in a few sentences.

When I finish the first expansion, which ended up being 11 pages for 'My Mistress', I start on expansion 2. Again, more details, more expansion. Secondary scenes that reinforce and move along the main plot begin getting fleshed out. Side plots (like Brit's on going rivalry with the Head Cook) start getting mention here and there.

Each expansion ends up being about 2.5 times longer, so when I finish expansion 2 on My Mistress, I expect it to be around 25 pages long. Around expansion 5, I'll be hitting 400 pages and 100,000 words. At that point I will have a completed first draft, with fully detailed scenes and (hopefully) solid dialogue and characters.

I'll also have had 5 changes to have caught and corrected plot holes, inconsistencies, and similar authorial dropped balls. So with a good dose of luck, my 'first draft' will avoid needing any major revisions, though scene deletions, character tweaks and other moderate and minor corrections will definitely be necessary. 

My Numbers

So, if I'm going to 'win' Camp NaNoWriMo, (have a 50,000 word draft) I'll need to get at least to expansion 4, more likely at least half way through expansion 5. Assuming that 2.5x expansion rate continues, and going with the industry-standard 250 words per page, that means I'll have written:

Expansion 1 - approx 10 pages, approx 2500 words
Expansion 2 - approx 25 pages, approx 6250 words
Expansion 3 - approx 62.5 pages, approx 15625 words
Expansion 4 - approx 156.25 pages, approx 39062.5 words
just over half of Expansion 5 - approx 200 pages, approx 50,000

Or a total of about 313 pages, and 113,437 words.

I'll admit, I've considered counting all the expansions towards my word goal - at which point I'd finish towards the end of expansion 4, but that doesn't sit right. That's certainlly over 50,000 words, but it's not a 50,000 word draft. More like 4 mini drafts. And that distinction matters to me (it may not matter to the folks running NaNoWriMo, but it matters to me). Call it an excess of stubbornness - I haven't completed a 50,000 word draft until I've completed a 50,000 word draft.

Maybe next time I'll plan ahead and join a NaNoWriMo when I'm ready to start expansion. In the meantime I'm going to have fun next month writing my ass off. The real victory will be watching my story develop over the course of the month.

I hope you've enjoyed my rambling on my approach to writing, and NaNoWriMo. I'd love to here your experiences with writing and pantsing vs plotting, so please drop a comment.

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