Saturday, September 24, 2011

Scott Westerfeld & Plot Knots

I got to hear author Scott Westerfeld speak at The Wild Rumpus bookstore today, and it was wonderful. I go to YA author events as often as I can and Westerfeld was definitely among the top speakers I've ever heard. He has an easy style, had a really interesting talk (and pictures!) prepared about how pictures stopped being popular (in anything other than young children's books) these days when they used to be so prominent, and the Q&A time was killer.

Things he said that stood out to me:
- someone asked him basically what kind of reaction he got when he came up with this complicated "weird" story idea for the Leviathan series. His response was awesome--that complicated stories are a lot easier to write than simpler ones--there's so much to explain, so many places you are freed to go with it. He gave the example of trying to summarize Season 3 of Buffy--and how hard that is to do quickly because there are so many intricate things going on with so many characters and interweaving storylines. And Westerfeld does do some seriously complicated storylines. I loved the Uglies series, but it was really his Midnighter's series that impressed me with some f'ing SMART, intricate, kick-ass storytelling. Really, Leviathan too. So intricate, so smart, love it.

-which leads to the next thing he said that totally surprised me: he says he's not a plotter! Doesn't do outlines. He just goes with it, and said he'd rather just try things out and write it several different ways if he has to. And when he comes to a plot knot that may arise, between research and his extensive worldbuilding, he always finds a solution. For example, if you've read Leviathan and Behemoth: he didn't know what kind of creature was in the eggs for a long time!!! Then it turned out to be the awesome perspicacious loris!

I am a big Plotter. But I'm learning you can only take it so far: you outline, you write, then you step back and see the story has a giant lump sticking out the side that's going to have to be lopped off (aka, I think I'm gonna have to kill this one scene). But once you do that, the whole shape is now wonky, and you have to re-think what it's going to look like. Plotting and outlining shouldn't be taken to the point where you forget to allow the story to grow organically--you are not some supreme god able to control every element of the book you are writing and the world you are creating in it. It should surprise you.

Art imitating the Big Things I'm learning about life: trying to hold onto it with a clenched fist of control isn't the way to go. Things will be a lot more exciting and spontaneously creative if you learn to let go.

So, I'm looking at this mass of words that will eventually be a book, a cohesive and hopefully moving thing. And I'm teasing out thoughts and playing around with the shape (without trying to be so immediately controlling), just digging my fingers in the clay and seeing where it goes. Some question tools I'm using as I explore:
  • What's the emotional core of this book?
  • What's the climax (and how does that connect to the emotional core)? 
  • How are all these chapters driving towards that climax?
  • What's necessary, what's not?
  • How do I bring these characters to life?

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