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So, other than Brandon Sanderson’s sage advice, Dan Wells gave what I found to be the best presentation at LTUE (the aforementioned symposium at BYU.) His presentation was on story structure, something I have been struggling with since I started trying to write a novel. (I began planning Chronos in August of 2008. I wrote it from November 2008- September 2009. And since then I’ve been struggling with what to do next. A post to come on what I did wrong …)

Anyway, there are different kinds of writers. Stephen King just defines his characters, comes up with a “what if,” and goes. Some people call these “Discovery writers,” some people call it “Pantsers.” (as in writing by the seat of your pants). I call it lazy. If you don’t agree, read The Stand. You can’t tell me that somewhere around page 500 you weren’t feeling lost. And you can’t tell me that not one, but two random bombs is a satisfying resolution to the plot. (King talks about this decision in his book On Writing. He says he was floundering with the story, didn’t know what to do next, but couldn’t turn his back on such a large manuscript. So he decided to just blow everything up. Twice. Not the kind of ending I want for my story.)

The other kind of writers are the planners. These are the people who spend months planning before ever writing. At the signing for The Hero of Ages (book 3 of Sanderson’s Mistborn series), I asked Sanderson about how much he planned before writing. He related something similar about Stephen King (which I guess he got from On Writing too), then went on to tell about Orson Scott Card. He apparently plans for months and months, then spends maybe two months writing. Now Ender’s Game was the first sci-fi book that really grabbed me. I LOVE that book. Nothing Stephen King ever wrote has affected me in the same way. 

So. I’m a planner.

But how to plan? Sanderson says he makes a word document called, for instance, “The Elantris Book Guide.” He plans about his characters, setting, magic systems, history of the world, plot…everything. Then he’ll write.

I’m still looking for a create-a-character method that I love. Any ideas? As far as plot, I’ve been trying to use The Snowflake Method, which I could never really get into. But now, the seven-point story structure method has revolutionized my planning.

On Dan Wells’s website you can watch the video presentation, but, more importantly (given his pacing!), you can also find the Powerpoint that goes with it. The sum up is this:

1. Start at the resolution. Where do you want your character to end up?

2. Next, start your character out at the opposite extreme. Now they have to change to become who you want them to be.

3. Find a midway point. Here your character will move from reaction to action.

Now, to show you the rest, it makes more sense to show you the steps laid out in order.

Hook- start main character (MC) in opposite state as the ending. (IE- ends up as a powerful wizard, starts off as an orphan living under the stairs)

Plot turn 1- introduce the conflict. MC meets new people or discovers a secret. (Harry learns he is a wizard!)

Pinch 1- something goes wrong. Villain is introduced, MC is forced to act. (A troll attacks)

Midpoint- character moves from reaction to action. (Harry finally learns the truth about Voldemort and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and swears to protect it)

Pinch 2- situation becomes hopeless. The Jaws of Defeat. The death of a mentor, a plan fails, the bad guy seems to win. (Ron and Hermione fall to traps in the dungeon, and Harry is left to face Voldemort alone.)

Plot turn 2- MC obtains the vital piece of info/courage/item he needs to vanquish bad guy. (Harry finds the stone in his pocket, and learns that the power to defeat Voldemort is in him- by touching Quirrel.)

Resolution MC succeeds, and is now a changed person. (Harry defeats Voldemort, has friends and cool new powers.)

It seems rudimentary, but when I tried to map out my (already written) novel, several steps were missing. Finally I was able to pinpoint why it just wasn’t right. I was missing key points in the plot that would motivate the characters to do what they did.

Now, of course, there is more to it than this. There is also the Ice Monster Prologue, and Try/Fail Cycles, not to mention round characters and rich environments. But watch the presentation for that. Or maybe I’ll write another post on this.

What I love about the presentation is all the examples he gives to illustrate how this method works for all genres of great fiction. He uses the examples of: Harry Potter (1), The Matrix, Othello, Pride and Prejudice, and The Tell-Tale Heart. Also mentioned are Star Wars, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. There was so much info in this presentation, it could have been two hours instead of one (hence the break-neck pacing). But I have studied the power-point many times, and typed a few outlines of what I’ve learned. If you want me to email them to you, I certainly will.

The amazingness of this method really comes when you see it applied to so many different stories. I actually haven’t watched the video since attending, so I don’t know how good or bad a representation it is of being there in person. But I do know that I’ve never been this excited about story planning before. I am currently working on “Book Guides” for a fantasy novel and a fantasy trilogy, and I will be using Dan Wells’s Seven-Point Story Structure method to work out the plot.

What’s worked for you?

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Squish Your Pots

This is the story of how Brandon Sanderson changed my life, and my writing career, forever.

In February I attended a writing conference called Life, the Universe and Everything: A Symposium on Science Fiction and Fantasy. This was a three-day event held at Brigham Young University (henceforth known as BYU. Actually, it’s always been known as that…) full of panel discussions on various scifi/fantasy topics. Most were writing related, but there were some art based panels as well. The panelists were published authors, working artists, publishers, and a few well-placed specialists (like a cop who worked with Ted Bundy on the panel about serial killers, or the doctor on the abnormal psychology panel). But the highlight of the weekend was easily Brandon Sanderson. (Read Elantris. Then read Warbreaker. Or vice versa. You’re welcome.)

Ok, to be fair, I’m kind of obsessed. And that weekend I was little more than a restrained stalker. But there were two distinct occasions on which uberfans like me were given the opportunity to sit at the feet of the master. Literally.

 So Brandon Sanderson was the guest of honor, which means he was on several of the panels and available for Q&A a lot. But twice he was on a panel and had an hour break after, and went to the dealer room (where some people were selling art and books) for a more intimate Q&A.

A bunch of us followed him in there like groupies and stood around for the first few questions. When it got awkward standing there and it became apparent no one was going to fix it, I plopped down on the floor and sat indian-style. Everyone followed suit and our worship session began. Seriously, it was a little weird. We asked questions, he answered.

Then Brandon Sanderson changed my life.

I essentially asked what I should do with my flawed first novel. I knew it had problems. Big ones. Should I work on it till it was better, or give up and move on? He replied with a modern-day parable.

I paraphrase. Poorly:

“Expecting to sell your first novel is like expecting to learn to play a scale on the piano, record it and sell a CD. The first time you play it through without  a mistake is great. Good job. Now play it 9,000 more times, then move on to a concerto and record that. Writers are the only artists who are so possessive of what we create. When learning to paint, students make 100’s of sketches and at least 100 paintings before creating a masterpiece. Musicians practice for hundreds of hours. Yet we expect to create something sellable on the first try. Have you ever taken a pottery class? (I have. My teacher wasn’t as cruel as what he’s about to describe.) You try and try to make a pot, and you can’t. (Throwing is HARD.) The first time you make a pot, misshapen and ugly, you’re so proud! Your teacher comes over, looks…and squishes it. “Do it again,” she says. And again. Until you can make that crappy, ugly little  pot in your sleep. Now you are ready to make a good one. As writers, we too have to practice. We practice by writing. And we have to learn to squish our pots. Stop cherishing every word we write. Learn from our mistakes. Squish our pots. And move on.”

Now, you have to know that Brandon Sanderson wrote 7 novels before writing one he felt was good enough to seek publication. (Most of  the authors there had a similar history.) He was picked up by Tor, a Sci-Fi publishing giant. Knowing that alone pretty much powered me through writing my first novel. I had to learn to let myself make mistakes. I still do. But knowing about  Sanderson’s first 7 unpublished novels helped me see that if I write this novel, and it comes out bad, it’s ok. I can still make it to the New York Times Bestsellers List someday. It basically gave me the courage to try something I’d  never tried before: the biggest writing undertaking I’d ever…undertaken.

And now I have to squish that pot. I ‘m actually going through it again, rewriting a lot of it, trying to correct some of the major mistakes, but I know I will end up squishing it soon. There are a few cool surprises in there and one character I really like, but that doesn’t make the whole mess a masterpiece. I have lots of other ideas. It’s kind of depressing knowing all these cool ideas will be some of my first novels and likely never see the light of day, but if this is all the ideas I ever have, I’m not going to be  career novelist anyway.

So, in short, it is ok to write imperfectly. Isn’t that freeing? You can write something that sucks. Go ahead. You can write 450 pages that suck. What great practice that was! Now squish your pot, and do it again. And this time, do it better.