This afternoon I attended The Fantastic in Word and Image Author and Artist Workshop
, which featured Will Shetterly (willshetterly
) and Robert E. Vardeman
. Moderating, was the fabulously talented Liz Danforth
, who is a librarian here and was IMHO, an unadvertised bonus.
The format was very similar to a panel at a con, except that it was four hours ling with a break in the middle and a few snacks on a table in the back of the room.
I arrived late, due to a combination of factors that included a last minute conference with my husband over a trip to the grocery store, construction that required a detour to a different freeway underpass, a train which I handled by a second detour, and then me driving to the wrong location even though I'd checked the address twice and looked at a map, and even though I don't normally confuse the streets Tanque Verde and Golf Links. I might have even managed to get there in time if it hadn't been for going to the wrong place. Despite arriving twenty minutes late, I was greeted with friendly smiles and discreet waves by the people who know me. And as I crept into a seat, a woman sitting a couple of chairs down did a double take. She and I know each other from our involvement in the Society of Technical Writers, but had never discussed our interests in fiction.
Most of the audience were beginning writers, and the basic premise was that they would "hear trade secrets from veteran fantasy, science-fiction and comic book writers and artists." At this point, I'm not sure how many actual secrets there really are, since sff authors and artists are, in my experience, pretty open about the process of creating fiction and getting it published, but our panelists did their best to introduce folks to the basics.
As I walked in, the topic of discussion was outlining. Both Bob and Will favor the use of an informal outline or synopsis. Bob, if I understood this correctly, has always used one, even for short stories. Will, OTOH, came to them more slowly, starting his writing career with a preference for just sitting down and writing. He suggested that people who prefer not to use and outline or synopsis try playing with them and reminded us that if, as the story progresses, you find yourself wanting to deviate from your chosen script that it's okay to do so. Toss it out and write a new one any time you feel like it. Which, as he expressed it, was just common sense, although I have proved myself more than capable of twisting myself into all kinds of knots when attempting to follow an outline. (And, what do I think I'm doing when I use a fairy tale as the basis for a story, after all? Perhaps, my difficulty with outlines is all psychological and if I can think of them from a more relaxed position they can become a useful tool, instead of yet one more barrier.)
The discussion segued neatly into plotting. I had a little trouble with taking notes and focusing on what was being said at the same time (obviously, my super-student skills are fading), but IIRC Will mentioned that there were three different "plots" that are all active in a story: 1) the action plot (I think this is the one most of us are familiar with), 2) the relationship plot or story, and 3) the transformation plot or story. Will used O'Henry's "Gift of the Magi" as an example. In the action plot, we have a young couple who buy each other Christmas gifts. (Will said this better, but I think you get the point.) In the relationship story, we have newlyweds who don't yet know each other as well as they think they do, so each sacrifices something they value and which the other wants to honor, in order to get the money for the gifts, in the process bringing their love for each other into greater focus. In the transformation story, each of the characters grows just a little. It is the interaction of the three plot-types which give us a satisfactory story. Had only the action plot occurred, without the other two, the story would not have worked.
Bob commented that the action plot keeps him on script and helps him to avoid straying off on unproductive sidelines, but he thinks he would be very uncomfortable trying to plot out the relationship and transformation aspects of the story in advance, as he prefers to "discover" them in the writing of the action story; that's where his satisfaction as a writer comes in.
At one point, and it may actually have been at a different moment in the workshop, but I think it fits here well, Liz told us a story about her ex-husband, Mike, who is also a writer. Once while traveling abroad, they were asked to declare the purpose of their visit. "Business, or pleasure?" the guard asked. "Pleasure," they replied. But, looking at their passports, the guard responded to Mike, "No. You writers are always working." Liz went on to tell us that this was very true of Mike. Even when he wasn't sitting at a keyboard, he was always thinking about his writing. When he finally sat down to write, his fingers would fly over the keyboard like crazy, as if he were "channeling" the story, but what was really happening was that he had the complete story in his head, ready to be told.
I'd like to pause at this point to get your thoughts on outlining, plotting, and story arcs. When you're writing, do you like to use an outline or synopsis? If you don't, is it possible that you're doing a lot of this work in your head? Have you ever tried working (playing?) with plots other than the action plot?( My answers )