dragovianknight: a woman spans fire filled with fanciful shapes from one hand to the other (Writing - Telling Tales by the Fire)
[personal profile] dragovianknight
For a while, it seemed like everyone on the writing forums I frequent was recommending Take Off Your Pants as THE book to teach so-called "pantsers" how to outline. Hell, in the initial rush of reading it, I might have recommended it to people; I don't, honestly, remember. If I did, I don't regret it, because she obviously has advice that works for a lot of people.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work FOR ME.

I was reminded of this yesterday, when - as part of my week-long-and-counting bout of depression and writerly angst - I decided I was going to write the blurb for The Fantasy Story I'm Not Allowed To Write Because Porn Makes Money. And lo! did I discover I owned Libbie Hawker's Gotta Read It: Five Simple Steps to a Fiction Pitch that Sells.

It should surprise no one other than ME that of COURSE her methods for breaking down the important elements of the blurb follow the same pattern as breaking down the important elements of a PLOT. Likewise, it should surprise no one other than me that this clash of my brain vs methods that don't work the way my brain works made everything worse in my head.

Luckily, Amazon is the Center of All Things, and simply typing "blurb writing" into the search bar brings up a lot of results. After carefully reading the look inside, which fortunately showed enough of the book to indicate that, yes, the author's methods might work with my brainmeats, I picked up Julie C. Gilbert's 5 Steps to Better Blurbs.

I've never heard of Julie C. Gilbert before, but she apparently has a blurb doctor service, which she has mined for a book full of case studies, from original blurb to final blurb. She talks about why things work and why things don't work, the importance of language choice and matching the tone of the blurb to the tone of the book.

She never once mentions things like Theme, which is where my soul usually shrivels up and dies in these conversations. (Libbie Hawker is very big on Theme.)

At the end of the day, stripped down to lists of 5 Things What Make a Blurb, these two approaches may be very similar, but apparently how it's phrased makes all the difference to me brain.

Libbie Hawker's 5 Things Julie C. Gilmore's 5 Things
1. Who is your main character 1. Tagline
2. What does she want? 2. Introduction
3. What stands in her way? 3. Elaboration/complication
4. What will she/must she do to attain her goal? 4. Stakes
5. What is at stake? 5. Conclusion/teaser

Yeah, listed out like that they look very similar, don't they? But it's 2-4 that make my brain balky and angry. Because what my characters want is very seldom the POINT of the book. For example, Kayl? Kayl wants to be a mage (I'm pretty sure her personal tagline should steal one of Jaina's dialogue bits from WoW: "All I ever wanted was to study."), and she's at loggerheads with her father because when you're set to inherit a magic sword you really don't get to ignore your sword lessons, and if this was a young adult book that, right there, would likely be all the plot it needed. But what the book is ABOUT is Kayl being sent to inspect something that blew up on the border, falling off a cliff, and figuring out how to get out alive...which involves figuring out the balance of her magical and non-magical abilities. If I focus on what she WANTS, aka her character arc, instead of what she's thrown into and must deal with, aka the actual plot, readers are going to go in expecting a very, very different book from what this will actually BE.

And yes, I recognize this is probably a matter of semantics, as in "what she wants is to survive the plot", but even knowing that my brain balks at prioritizing character arc as plot. Libbie Hawker also does things like insist the protagonist and antagonist want the same thing and only one can have it, which often requires me to define "want" so broadly as to be meaningless (or I legit can't figure out what they want beyond "the world, destruction of, y/n?", and that doesn't help me).

So, I'm not throwing any shade at Libbie Hawker, her books, or her method. But, for me, whether it's her approach to what makes a story, the actual method of breaking down plot, or just the way my brain parses the method, her stuff doesn't work and winds up being actively destructive.

Which, I suppose, is why there are fifty gazillion books on writing out there.

Date: 2017-07-02 05:20 pm (UTC)
alatefeline: Painting of a cat asleep on a book. (Default)
From: [personal profile] alatefeline
I appreciated reading this! The distinction you draw between character wants and plot events makes sense to me. Motivation matters, but so do the beats of response-to-events!

Date: 2017-07-02 05:42 pm (UTC)
alatefeline: Painting of a cat asleep on a book. (Default)
From: [personal profile] alatefeline
>> but it unfortunately operates at an incompatible gear ratio to my brain and strips my gears <<

There's a lot of those going around.

Date: 2017-07-02 06:10 pm (UTC)
alexseanchai: Blue and purple lightning (Default)
From: [personal profile] alexseanchai

Date: 2017-07-02 06:00 pm (UTC)
white_aster: (Default)
From: [personal profile] white_aster
*squints* You know, I might should read that. Because yeah, I run into the same problem when trying to come up with plots and such. Like, my protags mostly want to be left alone to go do something other than the plot?

Date: 2017-07-02 06:09 pm (UTC)
alexseanchai: Blue and purple lightning (Default)
From: [personal profile] alexseanchai
accurate :)

Date: 2017-07-02 08:53 pm (UTC)
white_aster: (Default)
From: [personal profile] white_aster

lolz yeah. I mean, I know that the point of tension in the plot is because the protagonist has gotten themselves into something they Did Not Want, but...yeah. It does not help when outline things start asking these questions and the characters are frothing at the mouth in my head and stomp off to go read books or something.

Date: 2017-07-02 09:52 pm (UTC)
recessional: bare-footed person in jeans walks on log (Default)
From: [personal profile] recessional
It is a question that super-assumes that The Character's Inner Landscape and Personal Struggles are the Main Cause Of All The Action - that this is what DRIVES the plot. This has nothing to do with whether the inner landscape is EXPLORED in the plot! Just whether, if left alone, the char would not still just be gardening and making apple pies and toddling along happily. The kind of book Hawker writes really does tend to be the kind where it's The Character's Inner Life that causes the whole action of the plot to happen in the first place. Which is fine and dandy . . . if you're writing that kind of story.

As opposed to them being accosted by Events That Have Happened, and then having to deal with them.

Like even thinking of "turning my family history into novels": the story of G-g-g-grandmother Katherine, for example, would be the first kind of story - everything that ever happened to her was ABSOLUTELY HER DRIVING IT. She was a contrary stubbornass kid and young woman who got into huge fights with her village priest because Fuck You I Like My Protestant Friends; she and her husband use to fight like CATS IN A SACK and he eventually left her after she threw a silver rosary he bought her at his head (saith the legend), and then she picked herself and her son up and moved to Scarborough, Ontario (I think) and opened a boarding house, which she ran by herself.

Gggma Kat? Totally a Hawker-model story.

In contrast an ancestor on the other side had a husband who spontaneously bought an estate in Jamaica and packed her and the kids off and then left them there, abandoning them for a woman in Kingston later on and leaving them up the mountain on this huge estate they couldn't really manage. Her story is not a Hawker story: all she WANTS is to go HOME and she CAN'T. What she wants has very little to do with how events unfold, because she only eventually got to go home because her oldest son got old enough to figure out how to sell the damn place and move them back. Now she did a lot of amazing things and kept herself and the kids alive and so on? But trying Hawker's process would be totally useless. "I want to go home. I can't go home because my husband is a dick. I can't divorce my husband because You Can't Do That. I want to go home. I'm never getting to go home."

It's a non-starter.

Date: 2017-07-02 06:09 pm (UTC)
alexseanchai: Blue and purple lightning (Default)
From: [personal profile] alexseanchai
Yup, that's precisely why there's fifty gazillion books on writing out there. No one piece of writing advice will work for every writer!

What does Gilmore mean by tagline? I think I might try to blurb my current project, just for kicks.

The hell does Hawker mean there about only one can have it? Sometimes what the antag wants is the protag dead, which is patently not what the protag wants!

Date: 2017-07-02 06:19 pm (UTC)
recessional: bare-footed person in jeans walks on log (Default)
From: [personal profile] recessional
See longer comment below: Hawker's writing a very particular kind of story, and then forgets that other people write other shit that can't even remotely be slaved to her model.

Date: 2017-07-02 08:11 pm (UTC)
alexseanchai: Blue and purple lightning (Default)
From: [personal profile] alexseanchai

Hmmm how would I tagline my current project? *ponder* "They'd give anything to go home"?

Date: 2017-07-02 08:21 pm (UTC)
alexseanchai: Blue and purple lightning (Default)
From: [personal profile] alexseanchai

Lemme follow the rest of Gilmore's example here...

"They'd give anything to go home. As far as everyone else is concerned, Vivian, Morgan, and Teresa Collins are home. But the United States is a far cry from Phalēron—and Phalēron is at war, and the Collinses were leading three fronts of the efforts to save their adopted homeland. How will they find their way home—and what will they find there?"

Hm? :)

Date: 2017-07-02 08:31 pm (UTC)
alexseanchai: Blue and purple lightning (Default)
From: [personal profile] alexseanchai

I should maybe specify 'Delaware' over 'United States' though?

Date: 2017-07-02 08:37 pm (UTC)
alexseanchai: Blue and purple lightning (Default)
From: [personal profile] alexseanchai
Phalēron is...idk the size of Pennsylvania possibly plus Maryland and/or New York? Pretty much a nation, yeah.

I'm trying to local-focus the Earth-side bits, if only because setting that half of the story right here right now means I can literally go look at the places the characters are being.

Date: 2017-07-02 08:50 pm (UTC)
alexseanchai: Blue and purple lightning (Default)
From: [personal profile] alexseanchai
Hm yeah, that makes sense. :)

(sorry for totally taking over your post!)

Date: 2017-07-02 09:45 pm (UTC)
recessional: bare-footed person in jeans walks on log (Default)
From: [personal profile] recessional
I'd keep the nation name, but would use USA - snappier, shorter, and given you've established This Is Fantasy by the name "Phaleron" would make SURE to avoid someone's brain having even a second of "is that the our-world US or - ?"

Like I don't think anyone would actually get CONFUSED? But I think the usage might be just such as to make their brain trip a bit and give unwarranted attention to "United States", which might be the root of the impulse to think "Delaware" might be a better choice.

Date: 2017-07-02 10:07 pm (UTC)
alexseanchai: Blue and purple lightning (Default)
From: [personal profile] alexseanchai
That's good points. Thanks!

Date: 2017-07-02 06:18 pm (UTC)
recessional: bare-footed person in jeans walks on log (Default)
From: [personal profile] recessional
Heh. I just looked up Hawker: she writes "historical and literary fiction", which is to say high-brow romances focused on one person*. So yeah, her method works fantastic for her, and I bet it works for all the people out there wanting to write romance, paranormal romance, historical romance and so on - basically, OTHER stories focused on the life-journey and relationships of one person within a romantisexual-centric paradigm, where the focus is all about her and herself and her life and her actualization.

Mind, this is a really popular format that sells quite well across genres and even into, say, male protags and that sort of thing. It's just also a very specific format. It means her way of phrasing things makes sense if you're writing even, say, Jane Eyre: Jane is your protag, her search for safety and validity and some kind of life drives most of the book, what stands in her way is she is "poor and plain and little" which remain the major factors that link her obstacles, she has to do a bunch of things to obtain her goal that are very exciting and hard and scary, and what is at stake is not only her ability to HAVE any kind of life she wants, but also it turns out the children and Rochester and so on.

The minute you're doing something else, and especially the minute you have an ensemble cast or a protagonist whose major feature of her life has nothing to do with a romantisexual relationship, it breaks down. Her method works great for Anna Karenina, but it would be shite for, say, A Christmas Carol or ironically even Pride and Prejudice: too many protags, too many antags, too many DIFFERENT lives intertwined for the plot with, if not equal standing, at least all relevant standing as more than backdrop for the plot, etc.

(Examples here chosen literally for how they all fit within Fine Literature from the Canon: the point being, this ain't even a "genre" problem as we understand genre, it's a format problem.)

The trouble is that people who write that kind of story start assuming that theirs is the only kind of story, and even (in fact) do try to rope stories that manifestly DON'T fit in to prove their universality, which is silly. (Like okay sure you CAN roll P&P through this method, but what you end up describing isn't something that resembles the actual book, as you noted would happen with yours: Lizzy's desire, for example, to stay basically herself and to have her family be happy doesn't DRIVE the plot, events drive the plot, her desires just sort of buffet her here and there like the shape of a sail, and it isn't even her being buffeted that is the most important thing, and a bunch of major plot elements are shit over which she has no control and doesn't even find OUT about until later, like Wickham's attempted seduction of Darcy's sister. Etc). (And you can't even pretend to shove ACC into it.)

teal deer: Hawker has provided the universe an excellent screwdriver, which makes a piss-poor staple gun, as screwdrivers tend to.

*look: these kinds of books all end with the heroine getting married to someone or being thwarted in getting married to someone, and are all about her personal relationships, usually with love interest foregrounded. That they may also involve a lot of Deep Thoughts and Lovely Passages and even Not Happy Endings is honestly irrelevant to the basic STRUCTURE of the story.

Date: 2017-07-02 06:25 pm (UTC)
alexseanchai: Blue and purple lightning (Default)
From: [personal profile] alexseanchai
The minute you're doing something else, and especially the minute you have an ensemble cast or a protagonist whose major feature of her life has nothing to do with a romantisexual relationship, it breaks down.

Step 1) Take an hour and write a one-sentence summary of your novel. Something like this: “A rogue physicist travels back in time to kill the apostle Paul.” (This is the summary for my first novel, Transgression.) The sentence will serve you forever as a ten-second selling tool.

Some hints on what makes a good sentence:

* Tie together the big picture and the personal picture. Which character has the most to lose in this story? Now tell me what he or she wants to win.

NO FUCKING WONDER Snowflake Method never works for me! I'm writing ensemble casts! Like. Current project? Who do I write that one sentence about? Vivian, Morgan, and Teresa are equally important! (I conceived of them in that order, so Vivian would probably win by virtue of being oldest, buuuut.)

halp I need a new outliney tool.

Date: 2017-07-02 06:31 pm (UTC)
recessional: bare-footed person in jeans walks on log (Default)
From: [personal profile] recessional
If it were me? I would then assume at THAT point in the process that while their stories are all happening at the same TIME (and intertwined), each one of them is in effect in their own novel, and do the outlining for both of them.

Then by about five steps later you braid those all together because by then what the questions are asking you are big enough that that works.

By "if it were me" I mean this is more or less what I have always done, just less formally and specifically than snowflake-version.

Now in some cases, like the specific example he's giving you there, you can still do the first step - that ten-second one-liner - as written. "A rogue scientist travels back in time to kill the Apostle Paul" is basically "what is the wacky idea behind this novel to hook attention?"

It might turn out that the book is an ensemble, including Peter and the rogue scientist's mother in law and two ducks from down the street, but the whole thing goes into MOTION around "this asshole goes back in time to kill Paul".

The tip in that question is just a possible tip: if you're totally baffled (like your novel doesn't HAVE a thing like "going back in time to kill Paul"), then think about who has the biggest stakes. So like if you were trying to summarize Jane Eyre like that, "a young woman takes a governess job and falls in love" may not be very compelling or work well for you - it really doesn't suggest the eventual SHAPE that Jane Eyre takes.

But "a poor young woman strives to find happiness in a cruel and difficult world" might do that a lot better - you can see that novel coming from that spark sentence.

Date: 2017-07-02 06:40 pm (UTC)
alexseanchai: Blue and purple lightning (Default)
From: [personal profile] alexseanchai
...hmmmmm. *ponder*

The "each their own novel" thing actually makes a lot of sense. Hmm. *wanders off*


Date: 2017-07-03 12:33 am (UTC)
elf: Quote: "I found a special snowflake;" 5-point snowflake (Special Snowflake)
From: [personal profile] elf
Yes, this! I like the snowflake method's ideas, but find its practical setup is atrocious for anything with serious worldbuilding or multiple storylines. But its starting point is great for any novel - "make a single sentence that tells a total stranger what happens that they might be interested in reading about."

The followup paragraph can also work; ignore the three chronological plot points that he mentions, and throw it into three sentences that build on the first one, each mentioning some kind of roadblock and a hint of the resolution.

"An orphan human boy grows up among alien thieves and scoundrels. He gets himself a team of allies, but they come with personal problems or enemies or both. The team is caught up in interstellar politics when they go after a valuable item. They need to develop trust and hone their cooperation skills, or they're all going to be killed by space pirates, or the space police, or maybe a transdimensional space warp explosion, but the point is, they need to work together or more than their little ship is going to fall apart."

... Of course, it's much easier to write the blurb after you have the complete story to work with. But the snowflake method does say that the early parts are intended to be edited and even re-written. They're a starting point, not intended to be the set-in-stone framework.

(And Guardians of the Galaxy has a single protagonist. If it were written for a team, the opener might be, "A band of galactic misfits gets caught up in an interstellar war.")

I've thought of the Snowflake Method's first-sentence as basically being, "how would TV Guide describe this?"

Date: 2017-07-02 06:44 pm (UTC)
recessional: bare-footed person in jeans walks on log (Default)
From: [personal profile] recessional
So like (switching to a second comment in case the other one is being replied to or whatever, apologies for the spam ~dragovianknight), if I were to do EiI as a snowflake method (which might not be a bad idea come to think of it), the ten second summary would be "The unwanted youngest daughter of a queen sets out to conquer the known world."

But at more or less the next step, we end up with at least three separate but intertwined stories (possibly more as I discover them): Delat, Telas and Veli. They all happen at the same time, and in close proximity, and it makes sense to save a lot of repetition and weirdness in the telling to braid them together into one novel, because things each of them thinks and does have HUGELY DISPROPORTIONATE EFFECTS on each other and if I didn't do that I'd have to fill in a lot of blanks with "telling" or whatever.

Now I could change the focus and structure of the entire thing so that it looked more like Hawker's - if I did that, I'd almost certainly pick Telas' pov to live in. But it would become a very, very different novel than the one that I have right now, appeal to a very different kind of reading audience (which: many reading audiences may exist in the same person, mind! I am sometimes an Epic-loving reading audience and sometimes a small-intimate-story-loving reading audience, etc. But it would still appeal to a DIFFERENT one than what I already have). Which is again what I mean by this not being an issue of genre per se, but of how the story is structured and what kind of story it is.

But since all three (plus probably a few more) drive this one for me so much, in figuring out how it works I would separate them out and identify each string separately, before braiding them back together into the bigger plot for the latter steps of the method.

Date: 2017-07-02 06:46 pm (UTC)
alexseanchai: Blue and purple lightning (Default)
From: [personal profile] alexseanchai
yes that is exactly how this novel of mine is supposed to work. three strands, one braid!

thank you lots helpful

Date: 2017-07-03 08:28 pm (UTC)
twistedchick: General Leia in The Force Awakens (Default)
From: [personal profile] twistedchick
I have been writing for decades as a so-called 'pantser' -- I think of it as writing from the back side of my brain. I don't want to have to outline; it's wasted time. Idea map, maybe. But never the left-brained put-it-in-order stuff. For me it's useless and wastes brain.

Date: 2017-07-04 01:20 am (UTC)
queenoftheskies: queenoftheskies (Default)
From: [personal profile] queenoftheskies
I think theme breaks a lot of us. Too many writing books prioritize finding it first as opposed to allowing it to develop organically through the story.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I like the organic blurb development much better.

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