October 3, 2016

03102016

One of the best things about the internet is that you can get anyone to teach you to write; as long as they’ve recorded and posted a series video lectures of themselves doing so. Luckily Brandon Sanderson, one of the current greats in fantasy writing, has done exactly that. A while ago did a post detailing this news as well as giving a recap from my perspective on the first in this lecture series in order to enhance my own education. Today I do the second.

Find the lecture below, and my recap below that.

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This lecture, entitled ‘cook vs chef’ covers writing formulas. Sanderson starts by explaining what cook vs chef means, which is that the difference between the two is that a cook follows a recipe and a chef comes adds to a recipe and comes up with something new. Meaning that when using writing formulas the idea isn’t to rigidly stick to the formula and make sure you tick every box, but to start with them but then add more, add your own style. He also notes that for himself he doesn’t think about formulas while he’s writing, but usually when he runs into a problem or as a way to analyse a story when it isn’t working. For myself it’s much the same. Having studied screenwriting I was well initiated in the three act structure, which I find extremely helpful, less when beginning a story but more throughout it when I need to figure out what sort of plot point should come next.

The first formula he sets up is an analyses of the parts that make up story structure. Think of a venn diagram, where you have three unconnecting circles representing plot, setting, and character. Over the top and connecting all those is a fourth circle representing conflict. Sanderson explains how conflict is what ties them all together. For example you could have a character at odds with their setting, or at odds with other characters (or even themselves) or at odds with the plot and what the world thinks they should do. At its most basic that is what a story is.

The next formula, or rule, he talks about is the advice that ‘you should always start a story with a bang’. Sanderson explains that this doesn’t mean start with an action sequence but with a really intense character moment that will draw people in. I’ve learnt much the same thing. With screenplays the rule is to start as close to the action as possible. Another way to put this is ‘in late, out early’. Meaning start your story as late into the action as possible, then leave as early as you can once it’s resolved. He then goes on to explain what it means when people say you need ‘a hook’, namely something that introduces the idea of your story in a concise and interesting way, and encapsulates the kinds of emotion and tones you are going to give your reader by reading this book.

Sanderson next talks about what makes a good character and what makes a character interesting. He references the quote by Kurt Vonnegut “Start a story with somebody who wants something really badly, even if it’s just a glass of water”. I’ll add to that by saying that the character has to have a strong will to seek that something that they really want, there’s nothing worse than a passive protagonist. He then goes on to list aspects that make a character interesting, including: conflicted morals, they need to be capable, they’re out of their depth, their relationships with others, that they seem real and relatable, that they are proactive, they’re flawed, they’ve got a past, and they’re funny.

To aid with this character development Sanderson next gives us another formula; a timeline where at one end you have the everyman and at the other you have the superman. He tells how the everyman reminds us of ourselves, who we see ourselves as, and are a person we can become sympathetic towards, and that the superman are hyper competent people who we want to be like and find interesting. A lot of stories have characters who move along this line throughout the story, becoming the superman. Which here can mean becoming super dominant in their field, or in high society, or whatever.

His next formula sticks with the character development and involves three scales that range from high to low; they are competent, likability, and proactive. He explains you can use these scales to drive what makes your character interesting. Someone who’s competent is very interesting to us, even if that competency is in a very narrow area. Likability works simply by making us like the character. He states the adage “if you want an audience to like someone have them pet a dog, if you want the audience to dislike someone have them kick a dog”. Finally, proactive. Simply, we like a character who moves the story along, who tries to fix a problem even if they don’t always succeed.

Sanderson explains how by moving characters up and down these scales you can create different styles of characters who will all be interesting for different reasons. Take Sherlock Holmes for example. He has high competency and high proactivity, but low likability. Whereas Watson has high likability and medium competency and proactivity. Both are interesting characters but for very different reasons.

Sanderson then finishes up the lecture by detailing a few further methods for the development of characters. Including: Create a list of questions to ask yourself about each character. Write a monologue from the point of view of a character, almost as if they were being interviewed. Ask yourself why doesn’t a particular character fit the role you’ve given them? With the aim to develop the worst person for the job in order to maximise conflict.

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Lecture number two done. Good stuff, right? Learning continues to be fun.

Talk soon

Damian

July 7, 2016

07:07:2016

Fantasy writer, world creator, and inventor of magics, Brandon Sanderson, has done a very kind thing. Apart from being possibly the most prolific writer currently in existence, as well as a podcaster of some note on the topic of writing, he also spends part of every year presenting a series of lectures on writing at Brigham Young University over in the States. Realising perhaps that all his fans and would be attendants of those lectures don’t live near Ohio, or in the States at all (says the Australian), Brandon has decided to record them and post them to the one country we all have a passport to, the internet. This is his kind thing.

In the interest of my own education, and possibly yours, I thought that as I watch each lecture I would share it here. I then also had the thought that to truly make the most of this knowledge I would accompany each video with a recap of the main points and my take on them in relation to my own writing. This second point is a much more selfish addition as I can’t imagine it’s going to be amazingly interesting to read and I’m mostly planning on doing so in order that all his little knowledge chunks stick in my head. However, if you don’t want to watch the whole video and are more inclined to be the kind of person who prefers looking over someone’s shoulder to copy their notes then this summary is for you.

Happy watching.

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Sanderson starts this lecture starts with what I believe to be one of his most important, and to me personally, relieving, points; that every writer has a different approach to plotting. As I’m fairly new to this writing game I’ve recently been trying to figure the “right” way to plot, with the certain fear that I was doing my plotting “wrong”. Sanderson’s explanation of the process quickly dissuaded me of this notion, basically stating outright that there is no one right way to plot. Phew. My perfectionist brain was struggling with that one, not helped by having heard ambiguous advice on the correct way to plot in the past. Mr Sanderson even went so far as to say that writers might find that they plot every project slightly differently. Phew, again. He then broke down plotting into two forms; Discovery writers – who just start writing their story, exploring and discovering it as they go, and; Architects – writers who start with a big, detailed outline before beginning their story. Discovery writing can be a good way to figure out your characters, where outlining is beneficial in helping to create a well structured story. These two types of writers are really the end points of the plotting spectrum. In reality each writer will be somewhere on this spectrum; obtaining a plotting style that is really a hybridized version of the two. For myself that’s exactly the case. I’ve found that usually I’ll be struck with an idea and want to start discovery writing it immediately, getting that spark of an idea into words and dialogue as quickly as possible. This can involve writing anywhere between a single sentence to a couple of pages; whatever it takes to get that spark fleshed out. Once I come to the limit of that initial idea then I go into architect mode, starting a notes document for that project and slapping down any broad ideas and thoughts I have surrounding that first spark. This document becomes my sounding board, and gets constantly updated and altered as I figure out what the story is. Once I’ve got all the broader plot points down – especially the ending as I need to know where I’m writing towards – then I discovery write my way from plot point to plot point, updating the notes doc as I go if I change or find new things of relevance.

Back to the lecture; Sanderson next talks about the realities of wanting to be a writer. His basic advice to those who want to be a professional writer is that they should be doing at least six hours of writing a week, equivalent to around three thousand words. For me this was great news as I had recently decided to give myself a weekly word count and had chosen pretty much that exact number. Very reassuring. He then followed this by saying that he’s found it takes about ten years of maintaining this level of writing, on average, before a person has a chance of getting published. This was more sobering, but, as someone who prefers the realities of a situation rather than the more comforting illusions, also welcome. It’s his belief that a writer should be writing a novel a year, and if they can write two even better. Like I said, he’s prolific. I personally like that goal, it’s challenging but attainable. I also don’t mind the ten year rule. If it takes ten thousand hours to master a skill then you simply have to do it a lot, and if it takes writing ten less than great novels to get to the one great one that has a chance of being published then so be it. Plus, writing’s fun, and while putting in that many hours is definately work it’s still not as great a burden as it sounds.

Sanderson’s final topic for this first lecture was about workshopping, more specifically, workshopping as part of a writer’s group. He tells how he’s been part of a writer’s group since he was at university and still meets up with his group regularly in order to workshop each other’s writing. For me I have a sort of sporadic, spread out, writer’s group. The Lady Holly is my first port of call and is great with helping me work through an idea as well as the initial editing. I then have Brother Jonathan – who apart from being a writer himself has the added bonus of having completed a professional writing and editing course, as well my friends from the Masters course; Sean and Gabe. While we do all share each other’s writing and give general points to each other we are lacking a more formalised and routine meet up where each person has a word limit to write and share before each meeting. I have thought of setting up something like this in the past but have until now been a bit slack, I might have to change that. If I do decide to start one I now have Brandon Sanderson’s rules for workshopping.
For the workshopper (those doling out the advice to the nervous recipient) he suggests the following:

  1. Be descriptive with advice, not proscriptive. This means rather than offering all the things you think the person should add to the book, pinpoint ideas where you’re confused and help clear them up. The most important thing to remember is that you’re trying to help them make the best version of their story, not change it to what you think it should be.
  2. Stay positive. Make sure you let the writer know all the things you think they’re doing right. Point out the parts that made you laugh, or blew your mind, because as well as boosting the writer up it also ensures that they won’t make the disastrous mistake to remove those bits in revision. Then you can say some negative stuff. Kindly.
  3. Discuss. This means if someone in the group mentions that they didn’t like a certain bit but you thought it was awesome, say so. If it turns out that that person didn’t like it but three others in the group did, then the writer has a better census on whether or not to keep it in. It’s also important to talk about why it worked for some people and not for others as it allows the writer to know if the reaction they’re getting from that part is the one they want.
  4. Drop it. If you have a pet peeve about the story and you’ve said your bit on it then let it go. It’s up to the writer if they take the advice or not.

His advice for the workshopee (the one receiving the advice) is simple and has one point; be quiet. Try not to say anything at all while the group discusses your work, don’t defend or explain, just listen. If you’re lucky they’ll forget you’re even there and will discuss it amongst the group like the perfect test audience you want them to be, leaving you free to just take notes.

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We’re done. Fun though right? He’s already posted two more lectures but I won’t write those up until I actually get time to watch them. Isn’t learning the best? The answer is yes.

Talk soon

Damian