Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Brainstorming--Shannon Style

Last week I showed you guys my "loose outlining" method, (if you missed the post you can find it here) which is actually part of the way I brainstorm a project. So I thought I'd use this week's "Shannon Style" post to show you the rest of the ways I brainstorm--even though I have a feeling you're going to laugh at how ridiculously organized it is (I know, it's supposed to be a "storm" for a reason--but I'm a tad OCD, okay?)

Okay, here is a VERY edited down version of what my "brainstorming file" looks like (usually they end up about 10-15 pages long, but I whittled this down to two to keep it simpler for this post, so keep in mind that this is really just the starting point)

(And I know these are kind of hard to see--though if you click on them you should be able to read them better--but don't worry, I will explain them below)
So basically it's a single document with a lot of color coded categories. And I know that's a total nerd-alert way of brainstorming, but I'm a very organized person, and it makes my life SO much easier when I'm actually writing the draft, so I don't care. :P

Here's the categories I break it down into:
  • Main Characters
  • Setting Ideas
  • Basic Plot in One Paragraph
  • Inspirational Music
  • Inspirational Pictures
  • Books to read/reread
  • Random Thoughts/Partial Ideas
  • Loose Outline
  • Rejected ideas

And just like last time, let's look at those one by one:

Main Characters: A quick list of all the characters essential to the story, along with a couple of sentences defining their role. I do MUCH more in-depth character development for each character in a separate file (something I will cover in a later post) but I like to list them here because it helps me to see if I have too many characters, too few, and how they're going to interact with each other. I also use this as sort of the testing ground to decide if a character is worth developing further, or if I have a dud on my hands and need to go back to the drawing board.

Setting Ideas: Personally, I like my setting to be an integral part of the story, whether it's a world I've created or a real, existing place. So I do a lot of brainstorming to figure out where the right setting is, and all the key "locations" in that setting. A lot of times this section gets filled with links to things I've found via google, sometimes even a few pictures if I find something perfect. But this is the space for my brain to visualize all the places that will be in the book, and make sure it's as rich and detailed as possible.

Basic Plot in One Paragraph: Not really something people think of as "brainstorming," but I include it because it's a really good writing exercise for me to force myself to break the plot down to it's barest elements and see it in a single paragraph. Helps me to see if I have too much planned for the book, or not enough, and it also forces me to start analyzing the plot and searching for holes, gaps, or inconsistencies. 

Inspirational Music: I can't write without music playing, so I always make a playlist for the project and one for each of the main characters. But I have like 4000 songs in my iTunes library, so building those playlists could be a Herculean task if I didn't have somewhere to brainstorm them. Anytime I hear something that fits--especially if it's a song I don't yet own--I make a note of it here, maybe even find a link on youtube (if one exists) and I'll use this later when I'm ready to make my playlists. (And if you want an idea of the kind of songs I use, THIS is one of my favorites right now.)

Inspirational Pictures: I do a lot of random googling when I'm searching for story ideas and I stumble across a lot of awesome images that spark bits and pieces of inspiration. But it got annoying to open them in separate windows, so I started inserting them into my brainstorming file so they'd all be in one place and I could look at them all at the same time. It REALLY helped my brainstorming process. (and yes, I usually group and sort the pictures based on what they are. We've already established that I'm a nerd.)

Books to read/re-read: Writing is reading--IMHO--so a big part of my research process is reading or re-reading books that might be similar to what I'm working on. Partially to learn what works and what doesn't, but mostly to see what's already been done and adjust my ideas accordingly, so that my project is as original as possible. I keep a running list as I brainstorm and try to tackle the majority of them before I start the draft, that way I can make adjustments before I'm too far in. But if it's a long list of books, I read the main ones first and crank through the rest as I write.

Random Thoughts/Partial Ideas: This is the longest and most chaotic section of my brainstorming, and is often filled with completely fragmented ideas, usually in the form of a question, like: "what if this character is afraid of ducks?" (okay, not that bad, but kind of). It's all those little ideas that hit me at random points in the brainstorming process and I can't decide if I want to use them or not, until I've really thought them through. So I make a note of them here and revisit later. This is also the first place I turn when I hit a wall. It's amazing how often that weird, "what if" question I wondered about while brainstorming turns out to be the PERFECT solution to the plot problem I stumbled across in the draft.

Loose Outline: All of the brainstorming I do is working to build this, which I covered last week. It's very vague, and only about a page-and-a-half long, but it's the framework for the main plot of the story. I won't let myself dive into the draft until I have this in place.

Rejected ideas: I'll admit it--I'm a saver. I can't bring myself to throw anything away, which is kind of part of the brainstorming process (you're tossing out so many ideas at that stage, it's natural that a ton of them won't work.) But I just never know when the idea that I thought was absolutely atrocious turns out to be the one thing that makes everything come together, so I can't delete them. I also don't want my brainstorming getting too dauntingly cluttered with craptastic ideas though, so I created this section to save my sanity. Ideas I'm pretty darn sure I'm not going to use get cut and pasted here, way at the bottom of the brainstorming file. That way they're still there, on the off chance I do want them after all.

And there you have it: Brainstorming--Shannon Style. I usually spend anywhere from a few weeks to a few months (depending on how complicated the story is) working in this file, ironing out kinks, refining ideas, getting everything organized enough in my brain to finally dive into the draft. 

The best part is, it's all so clear and organized that if, for some reason, I can't get started on the draft right away, (if, for example, I'm in the middle of revision on another project) I can easily reread my brainstorming notes whenever I'm ready to dive in, and they let me pick up right where I left off.  It's how I've been able to juggle my MS and my sekrit MS at the same time without any problems. I'm even thinking about juggling a third. We'll see if I'm that crazy. ;)

Anyway, enough about me and my process. What about you guys? How do you brainstorm a writing project? Anyone else as OCD-organized as I am?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Outlining--Shannon Style

Since everyone seemed to enjoy the peek into my critiquing method last week, I thought I'd start a new weekly post series, giving you guys a glimpse of my approach to various writing elements/processes. But fair warning: my head is a crazy place to be. Enter at your own risk. :)

So today I thought I'd tackle my approach to outlining. And those of you that know me are probably thinking, "WHAT???? You hate outlining!!!!!!!" Which is true. Well...actually, "hate" isn't really a strong enough word. I loathe and despise outlining with the intensity of a thousand fiery suns, and nothing--for me--guarantees a dull, lifeless draft more than outlining the darn thing ahead of time.

But...I'm not totally a pantser either. I'm a connect-the-dotser.

I am way too OCD to just jump into a draft with no idea where I'm going or what I'm doing. So I do a lot of brainstorming before I start (in a very organized way--I'll show you guys my brainstorming method in another post). And part of that brainstorming is what I like to call a "loose outline."

Here's what I HAVE to know before I can start a draft:
  • Starting point
  • Inciting incident
  • Major turning point
  • Major turning point
  • Major turning point
  • Hopelessness
  • Climax
  • Resolution
Okay, so let's look at those one by one.

Starting point: My best guess at where the story should start. I'm usually wrong, and end up changing it later, but I pick the most logical place I can and work from there. Note: my goal is to always come into the story as late as possible. I want my inciting incident be less than 20 pages away from my starting point. Preferably 10.

Inciting Incident: Now, obviously, some stories follow a more untraditional plot structure, but most of what I write tends to be fairly plot driven. Which means at some point something needs to change for the character to really get the plot started--and the sooner it happens the better. (For example: in THE HUNGER GAMES, the Inciting Incident would be when Prim's name is drawn and Katniss volunteers to take her place.)

Major Turning Points: These can also be called "complications" or "reversals of fortune." Basically, I'm an evil writer, and I like to make sure nothing goes easily or smoothly for my characters. So I want to plan at least three major turning points for them along their journey to make them really struggle. I usually do way more than three--though several of those will be "minor" or sub-plot related--but the rest I like to leave up to the drafting process. I won't start until I have three awesome ones planned though.

Hopelessness: Have I mentioned that I'm an evil writer? Well, I am. In my screenwriting training we were taught that it was absolutely essential to push the main character to the point of "hopelessness"--and it's exactly what it sounds. Strip the character of pretty much everything they care about, make it seem like there's absolutely no possible hope for any sort of resolution, and then hit them one more time right where it counts, just to seal the deal. So I try to figure out the big things I'm going to rip away from my poor characters, and some idea of how I'm going to do it, before I dive in.

Climax: Usually follows the "hopelessness"--or, sometimes is wrapped up in the "hopelessness"--but we all know what this is. It's where everything that's been building comes to a head and boils over. The character must now face the problem head on. I absolutely cannot start writing a book until I know this, because it's the spot on the horizon that I'm driving the story to. My goal. I may not know exactly how I'm going to get there, but I have to be able to see where I'm headed. Otherwise I'll get hopelessly lost in the weeds and never find my way back out.

Resolution: I don't have to know all the specifics of the ending, but I do need to know whether it's going to be happy or sad, what the character is going to lose, what they're going to gain, and what major plot lines I'm going to tie up. But a lot will change as I power through the draft, so I try to stick to just the basics, that way I allow plenty of room for the plot to evolve.

I know that may seem like a pretty detailed outline, but it's really not. Usually it's about a 1-2 page document by the time I'm done. All I'm doing is giving the story its spine, and marking all the "dots" I need to "connect" as I write. It's a far cry from the scene. by. scene. act. by. act. 30-page outlines we had to do in film school. And that's what I want--because those outlines KILL my creativity.

For me--it's impossible to tell if a "small" scene is important until I let it play out on the page. It's too easy to say, "oh, nothing important will happen there, so lets skip to something bigger," and end up skipping all the good, fun moments that become everyone's favorite scenes. I *almost* made that mistake with my current MS, and if I hadn't changed my method, everyone's favorite character wouldn't exist. (True story. I'll share it someday, once I'm able to talk about my book online.)

But I also need some sort of structure to keep me from rambling all over the place. So that's why I've come up with this hybrid, Shannon-style method of outlining. It keeps me organized enough to not veer too far off course. But it gives me the freedom to let the story unfold more organically, so I can have those wonderful "gifts" and "surprises" that only come when writing freely, without preplanning. It's the best of both worlds. For me, at least.

What about you guys: do you outline? If so, how detailed are your outlines? And if not, do you do any preplanning, or do you just dive in blind? It's fascinating to hear about everyone's process. :)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Critiquing--Shannon Style

Since so many of you have entered to win my 25-page critique (which, btw, I am blown away by--I can't believe how sweet and enthusiastic you all are!) I thought I'd use today's post to talk a little bit about the way I critique. (Let's hope it doesn't trigger a mass exodus of people deleting their entry for the contest. *bites nails*)

Okay, setting my neuroses aside, I'm what you might call a thorough Critiquer. In fact, when I first sent notes to my CPs, they came with a long email explaining my method to them before they opened the document and saw how...colorful their pages were:


This is...pretty standard for a crit from me (okay, fine...maybe it's a little conservative--I didn't want to scare you all off. I leave a LOT of comments. My CPs will testify)

So what exactly are you looking at?

Well, first--I always highlight repetitive/redundant words/phrases in yellow and any adverbs that jump out at me in teal. I'm not saying the writer has to change them. I just want to make it easier for them to see where they are.  A lot of times they don't realize  how many there are until they see it that way.

And then...there's the comments. Anytime I'm confused, or have to read something more than once, or feel unsure about something--I leave a comment. Usually a long one. But I'm not pointing out things I don't like. I'm just questioning everything.

Every line of dialogue I ask myself: can I see the character saying this? Every description I ask myself: can I picture this? Every emotional beat I ask myself: can I understand why the character is feeling this? Do I believe it?  And if the answer I come up with to any of that is, "I'm not sure...", I make a comment. Not because I necessarily expect the writer to change anything, but because I want to make sure they've really thought it through.

I know how writing goes. I know what it's like to get in "the zone" and the words are just flowing flowing flowing and it's SO clear in your head. But sometimes in the haste to get the words down, we rush through things or skip something important or forget to provide certain details to help the reader see what we're seeing. And even when we revise, it's so clear to us, we often don't realize it doesn't read that way to others.

It happens to all of us. Don't be fooled into thinking I send perfectly clean pages to my CPs. (I am woefully blind when it comes to my own writing.) But I try to read really slow and carefully when I read for someone else--the same way I hope someone will do for me. I try to point out anything that makes me pause and think..does that really make sense? And I leave lengthy comments because I like to try to explain why I'm feeling confused, what I'm wondering about, what I feel like is missing. That way the writer can better understand what I think the problem is. Then it's up to them to decide if they agree or disagree and tweak accordingly.

I fully expect they'll reject some or most of my comments--and I'm fine with that. (I'd honestly be a little worried if they took every note. No way I'm right all the time) ;) And I never want them to see all the comments and think: she didn't like my pages, or she thinks I'm a bad writer. It's quite the opposite, really. I have been lucky enough to read some of the most amazing drafts ever--and they still got colorful, comment filled pages back from me. It's just my method. I'm slightly OCD, extremely detail oriented, and I ask a lot of questions. It makes for very...festive looking critique pages.

But for the most part it seems to be well received. (Well...my CPs haven't dropped me--yet... ) And I swear, I'm not brutal. I am also very generous with my happy faces and "awesomes"--plus plenty of blonde jokes and invented words. I promise you won't feel hopeless by the end.

So on that note, if you haven't left a comment to enter to win the critique, you might want to go here and do that (assuming I haven't just scared all of you away)

And what about you guys: what's your approach as you critique? What are you watching for? What makes you leave a comment?