Week eight: Let's talk about our word problem

It is week eight of 2019. How was your week in writing? Were the words stubborn or shy, or did they come skipping right out of your brain and onto the page?

Writers have a lot of problems with words – coaxing them out, controlling their erratic behavior, choosing which ones to axe and which ones to spare. But for novelists, I think the biggest problem may be that there are so very many of them. Masses of words. Giant heaping piles of words. 

This is one reason novelists often resist revision. It’s impossible to see around to the other sides of these piles of words to get a full picture of the landscape, and it takes so much effort to move a pile from one place to another with your tiny little garden trowel.

I sympathize. And, if you are my client, I am going to tell you to polish up that little trowel and do it anyway because that’s how you turn a mediocre novel into a good one, or a good novel into a great one.

But before you start blindly flinging words around into different piles, I’m going to give you two more tools. Both of them are adapted from The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne, which we started discussing last week.

The first tool is a big tall platform you can use to survey the entire domain of your novel. Once you see all of your piles from up above, you can start to evaluate what’s working and what’s not. Coyne calls this the “Foolscap Method,” and his procedure involves identifying a series of components that help define the boundaries of the book: the external and internal genre, the point of view, the central scenes. As an editor, I simplify this into something that looks like a summary or blurb of the book, and that might work better for you too. The key is to see the big picture of your book, however you get there.

Like Lisa Cron in Wired for Story, Coyne advises trying to fill in as much of this big picture as you can before you start writing. Unlike Cron, however, Coyne acknowledges that you will almost certainly have to revisit it after you finish your first draft. For example, did you break through the genre boundaries of the paranormal mystery plot you thought you were writing? If so, what do you want to do about it? If that romance path looks like a dead end from on top of your platform, then maybe you fill in the gap in your wall and let the forest grow back over the path. But if it takes just the right twist and leads straight back into your domain, maybe you want to redraw your borders to include it. These are the kind of big questions your platform will help you answer. (You might also be able to pick off an evil troll while you are up there.)

The second tool is a map with a gazetteer listing all of the places in your domain and the important things about them. This is the “Story Grid” of Coyne’s title, and I think it’s the most useful piece of the book. At its most basic, the Story Grid is simply a spreadsheet with a brief summary of each scene, along with a number of key facts about it. Coyne advises a method that I think is too exhaustive (and exhausting) for most books, so I advise you pick and choose which elements to include if you try this tool (and I think you should). I generally leave off the character columns in my spreadsheets, for example, but I often include a separate backstory column. 

The value of this spreadsheet – your map and gazetteer – is that you can use it to evaluate the structural integrity of your various piles of words as well as see how these piles relate to one another and to the boundaries of your domain. Rather than painstakingly moving one of your giant piles from one place to another, only to find that it doesn’t look great in the new spot either, you can make that assessment before the move and then execute it with confidence. You’ll realize that the little hillock next to the new location needs to be shoveled in with your relocated pile, and that the lopsided pile down the way needs to be carted away altogether. You can make a holistic, coherent revision plan for your whole book, which will make the next draft dramatically better.

This is what the Story Grid can do for your own work, but I also think it makes an excellent learning tool. As Coyne puts it, “Just as to be a bodybuilder, you need to be a weightlifter first, to be a writer, you need to be a reader first.” If you are just starting out as a novelist or if you are contemplating writing in a different genre, you can learn a tremendous amount by putting together a story spreadsheet for several novels to see how they work and what they have in common.

Coyne’s tools can also be reassuring when you get buried in your piles of words and feel like you will never be able to shovel yourself out. “You as the writer are not the problem, the problem is the problem,” Coyne reminds us. Use your brain and your tools and figure out how to solve it. 

Here’s to using your tools, y’all,

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