Saturday, February 26, 2011

Outcomes

You don't approach a real-world task, like cooking a meal, or making a pirate ship, by simply dragging out the first glitzy tool you see and trying to put it to use. Do you?

Well? Do you?

OK, maybe you occasionally get a shiny new toy and want to try it out, but that's not how you go about tasks most of the time. I hope.

So why should writing be any different? If you're cooking, you have knives to cut things up with, pans to boil things in, ovens to bake with. The analogues of writing are not as physical and obvious as cutting, boiling, and baking, but they are there.

I like to think of it in terms of tangible outcomes. You don't pick up a tool thinking "I'd like to use this...now, what am I going to do with it?" You start off by thinking "I need to do ... (fill in the blank), which tool will best achieve that?"

The problem with writing is that I reckon people rarely dig deeper than "I need to write a story." Sure, the written story is the ultimate outcome, in the same way that a meal on the table is the ultimate outcome of cooking, but I believe there are some intermediate goals in writing that people maybe don't think of as concrete outcomes with appropriate tools to get them there. They just get stuck in with all sorts of writerly things, and eventually a story emerges.

Of course, I may be wrong! Please feel free to share in the comments how closely, or otherwise, this describes you.

The things I want to share are how I see different aspects of the process of writing. And I'm going to look at some desirable outcomes in this process.

I'm kicking off with one that I'm sure most people will relate to...

Outcome - factual consistency

This is about avoiding things like the blue-eyed hero on page one turning up with brown eyes on page fifty three. Or the captain's cabin being next to the sick bay in one scene, and a hundred yards away in another.

I thought I'd get this one out of the way because it's a bit of an oddball. It's both easy and difficult to discuss.

The easy part is that I only really have one tool to offer here, and that is to keep records. Document any facts from your story that you might need to use in more than one place. This applies to events, settings, characters, culture, technology...pretty much anything you can think of.

The difficult part is that practically any tool you might come across could fall into this category. They can almost all be used for factual consistency checks. Conversely, I suspect very few tools are used solely for this purpose.

Example 1: a plot outline is primarily a tool for organising your thinking about the flow of the story, but you can also refer back to it to ensure you keep your story consistent about what happens in what order.

Example 2: I draw maps and floor plans a lot to help me envisage a scene when I need to describe it. Those same drawings are crucial references later on to make sure other scenes at the same location are consistent.

Example 3: If I had to hazard a guess at the most commonly-used writer's tool, I'd suggest character sheets. Many folks use detailed templates to capture appearance, background, traits, beliefs, etc. They may well use these sheets as tools for developing fully-rounded characters, but once you have this information written down it becomes a tool for factual consistency.

This is all common sense, and this post is a bit light on startling originality. But I do have a few specific suggestions to make.

Once you have a record of some facts relating to the story, remember to use your records. The records themselves don't ensure consistency. Only you can do that. When you write a scene, check over the details of the characters that appear in it. Is it taking place in a setting you've already got some facts about? Review those to refresh your memory.

Avoid duplication. If you have the same facts repeated in different places, you can create a maintenance nightmare for yourself if (read "when") you need to change something.

While writing Ghosts of Innocence, I started keeping a dictionary, or glossary, of words important to the story. This included people, places, drugs and poisons, items of technology, cultural references. This was a useful reference, and may make a great appendix to the book itself one day, but I soon found it difficult to maintain. The reason? Almost everything in it was a duplicate of information I already had elsewhere, and the elsewheres were more important to my process, so the glossary kept getting overlooked. This is probably something that would be best left to the end. With hindsight, I'd make sure my other tools had some way to identify information to be extracted into a glossary later.

Adapt your tools. Maybe you need to keep some information about your characters that isn't in the character sheet template you use. Well, why not adapt the template this time? Add in the extra details rather than keeping them separate. You might even find occasions where it makes sense to merge two tools into one to avoid having parallel sets of details.

If you do have to duplicate information, and it will be necessary sometimes, decide which tool is your authoritative source.

For example, you might have sequences of events listed in a plot outline, and also mapped out on a timeline in a calendar. I suggest you choose one of those to be your definitive source of truth. That is the one you start making changes to. The other records then follow. If there is ever any conflict between different records, always refer back to your chosen authoritative source.

Quick aside: What if your facts are variables rather than constants? What if they change during the course of the story? You may have characters who change over time, or a setting that is totally different after some catastrophic event. In this case, you need to make sure your tools allow for some kind of version history. Maybe you keep a separate character sheet for your heroine as a young girl, compared to same heroine as housewife, compared to same heroine in her secret life as an elite undercover agent. Just make sure you use the right version in each scene!

Finally, before you go overboard documenting the crap out of every little detail, remember that both your memory and the story itself are valid records too, if you choose. Some things might be so embedded in the story that you won't forget them. Or some scene in the story might describe a place so effectively that it can serve as your primary reference. The choice is yours.

Outcome - long term memory

Just a little addendum, for those who like to throw themselves into a story without any kind of ancillary documentation. Outlines and character sheets are for wimps, you think, and you might remember every little detail about your characters now, while you are writing their story, while things are fresh in your mind.

But what about in six months time, when those batches of queries you sent out are starting to bear fruit, and an agent is interested...providing you make a series of revisions...and you've been working on a totally different story in the meantime and now can't remember who was who, and why was it so important to go to Mordor in the first place?

All of the above, talking about maintaining factual consistency while writing, applies equally to remembering what the heck was going on when you come back to your story after a break.

Just a thought. No pressure...

8 comments:

  1. Interesting post.
    Yeah, I'm the long term memory person, probably because when I don't write the original story, I write the sequels to it, so it's a long shot I'd forget anything.
    I do start writing stuff down if I feel I'm losing grip - like the plot points that are to be revealed in each volume of my book series and what's the ultimate goal.
    Then I started pondering whether to kill of all my MCs or not and kinda got lost there (still consider killing them off, but I have 2 more books to write and 4 to revise before I get there).
    But if I were to write Sci-Fi or Fantasy - more at a time, I'd probably write world stuff down. Though I bet, like Tolkien (btw, I'm reading LOTR now and still ain't exactly sure WHY they're going to Mordor :)), I'd stick to one world. I do tend to get overly attached to things :)

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  2. Hi Ian,
    A very interesting and very detailed posting. I must say that I do, very much, relate to what you have noted. One of my pet peeves is 'factual consistency' and I have come across this on a number of occasions. I also like to think that correct facts are vital. I was going over some writing with an aspiring writer, who was thousands of miles out in regards to writing about the distance between LA and London.
    Hope you had a good weekend. My friends in Hope BC have told me they are snowed in.
    All the best,
    Gary.

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  3. That is an excellent point, Stephanie. I hadn't thought about sequels or series of books. Long term memory is important there.

    Hello and welcome Talha and Asma, and thank you for your kind words.

    Gary, I think you hit on another related outcome to add to my list. As well as consistency, accuracy is vital. Thank you. And, yes, there is a lot of snow around in BC right now. Even we had a little during the week. And please reassure Penny that I know all about the perils of yellow snow :D

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  4. Lovely post! This particular passage spoke to me--

    "Finally, before you go overboard documenting the crap out of every little detail, remember that both your memory and the story itself are valid records too, if you choose. Some things might be so embedded in the story that you won't forget them. Or some scene in the story might describe a place so effectively that it can serve as your primary reference. The choice is yours."

    Most of my story exists in my head, apart from a basic outline and notes as I go along and research this and that.

    One thing that might help in the querying department is to write up a really good synopsis when you're done, and maybe even a chapter by chapter outline, documenting each scene, so then you'll have a reference when that agent calls three years down the road :)

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  5. It's definitely a challenge to balance the new book with the old. My WIP is a follow-up to the one that's coming out this summer, and I often can't remember details about the characters who are recurring. And yet I'm one of those readers who'll catch every inconsistency!

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  6. Hey Mysti, glad that thought resonated. It's actually one of the reasons I started this series. I see folks suffering extreme angst whenever they see cool techniques that others describe but which they aren't using. My aim is to help people make reasoned choices about what to use, and what to not use, and (most importantly) to have the confidence to give themselves permission to say "that's cool, but it's not for me".

    And I just added "publication" to the list of outcomes. I will definitely want to talk about synopses and chapter outlines at some point.

    Jennifer, I started on a sequel to Ghosts of Innocence, plus the latter is going through protracted revisions, so I am forever delving back into my notes for those little details that might trip me up. I'm so glad that my software development background taught me the value of good documentation.

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