Saturday, January 18, 2014

Write different

My writing process has remained essentially unchanged for many years. How I do what I do has proven reasonably successful. But when does habit become rut?

I've recently attempted to change my process to see if I can improve the process.

I rarely outline my stories prior to writing, and even then my outlines are nothing more than a sentence or two. So, I studied the "Save the Cat!" beat sheet, which is a general outline for successful movies, to see if it could be used to outline short stories.

Though many of the "beats" in "Save the Cat!" match the beats I use instinctively when writing fiction, there are additional beats I can add to flesh out stories. After a few false starts, I've successfully outlined three short stories using every beat in "Save the Cat!"

I have not yet written any of the stories I outlined this way, but it's clear this method can produce valid plots. And, though I have yet to write these specific stories, I have a greater appreciation for and understanding of my own method of plotting.

I have also reached the point where I'm starting to worry about carpal tunnel syndrome, among other things, and desire a less manual method of putting words on paper.

After I had my quadruple bypass surgery in 2008, when I couldn't sit upright for long stretches of time, I purchased dictation software for my computer. I attempted to write stories with it, but found the process cumbersome and frustrating.

Shortly before Christmas I purchased a new computer and installed new dictation software. Two of the four stories I've submitted this year were dictated, one successfully and one not.

The first draft of the first story I dictated was a garbled mess. Though the software usually correctly interpreted what I said--a vast improvement over the software I used in 2008--I attempted to dictate the same way I write.

My process is sometimes chaotic. I may write the first scene and then follow with part of the third scene, jump back to make notes for the second scene, and then write a rough draft of the last scene, jumping back and forth until I've created a full draft. This did not work while dictating and I found scenes out of order and parts of scenes stuck in the middle of other scenes.

The first story required extensive editing prior to submission, and I found myself rewriting entire sections. In short, dictating added work rather than saved it.

On the other hand, my second dictated story was successful. I thought more about the story before I began dictating, I had a better grasp of the plot and the characters in my head before I began, and I was able to dictate each scene in order so that I had little editing or rewriting to do after I had a complete draft.

I suspect studying "Save the Cat!" helped with dictating my second story because I was thinking more about plot prior to dictating than I usually do before I sit down to write.

I doubt I will use "Save the Cat!" to plot all of my stories, and I doubt I will dictate all of my stories from this point forward, but I do know I've added new tools to my writer tool chest and, perhaps, will be a little more productive in the future.


Brian Drake said...

I've used Save the Cat myself as an experiment, but I have yet to finish a story based on the outlines I made. Part of the problem with Save the Cat is that it makes everything the same. MARVEL'S THE AVENGERS and SKYFALL were written to that formula, and they have the exact same beats. Watch them one after the other and you'll see it. Quite glaring. It was after people discovered the similarities that a blogosphere backlash against STC started.

However, since short stories require you to get down to business quickly, STC does provide a guideline for getting the action going as fast as possible. Then again, so does Lester Dent's short-story formula (available in many places in cyberspace), which is also worth playing with.

Michael Bracken said...

Dent's formula never spoke to me. STC does, perhaps because many of the beats match beats I already use and because, unlike Lester Dent's formula, they aren't described by specific word count. They are malleable, and in a short story some of the beats might only be a sentence long.

The best thing about studying and toying with any formula is that it forces you to examine your own process. And anything that makes us better and/or faster is a good thing.

Brian Drake said...

Couldn't agree more. There's always something new to learn.