At a conference as large and as awesome as the SCBWI Summer Conference, there are numerous sessions to choose from. They offer it all. The first day of the conference, I chose to attend Matthew J. Kirby’s talk entitled, “Form, Not Formula”. I’m so glad I did.
Matthew J. Kirby is a trifecta presenter: he’s smart, he’s interesting and he communicates information well. I would gladly attend day-long or multiple day workshops led by him. He’s full of good information and he’s good at getting it across.
So, in this session, Kirby talked about the form of story. He likened it to the framing of a house. It’s an armature the gives the story a trajectory. But it’s not a story until you put someone into the structure.
I took pages of notes in this session. I’m going to share just the highlights here.
Story, Kirby says, is “an act of meaning-making.” Plot imposes structure on story to clarify and focus the meaning.
Plot must serve the purpose of the story, and not the other way around.
A meaningful story resonates, illuminates and expands or challenges our understanding of the world around us.
Kirby is a collector of quotes, and shared a number of them during the session. One of the best, perhaps, was from Richard Peck: “The story should be the question and never the answer.”
Kirby went on to explain different models of plot and form, the differences between outer plot and inner plot, and how to create a satisfying form for a story.
Form, he says, is a contract with your reader, and it should stay true to itself. For example, answering the form of a mystery with the climax of an action/thriller won’t satisfy your reader. You won’t have fulfilled their expectations.
Here are some bits of advice left us with:
- Aim your trajectory at a point where it seems that all is lost
- Learn when to pack it in and when to leave it out
- Sensory and emotional details bring a magnifying glass on a scene when it matters most
- Let the story unfold naturally, be guided by your characters and not the plot
- Plot serves your story, and so do you
Trust your characters, Kirby says, and the events you’ve set in motion.
Great session. Great advice.
When I go to readings or workshops I often hear people ask the author or presenter, “Do you outline?”
The subject generates a lot of chatter out there in the writing world. Do a quick Google search and you’ll see what I mean. Mine is certainly not the first blog to address this topic.
People want to know: how much planning does the author do before he writes? Is he a planner or a pantser? Does he use notecards? A whiteboard? Post-its? Does he know the ending before he writes the first word? Does he write the scenes in order?
And so on.
I suspect people want to know Bestselling Author #1’s writing process so they can know the secret to becoming the next bestselling author.
From my experience, it doesn’t work this way. Just because J.K. Rowling uses a certain method doesn’t mean that is the method you or I should use. We don’t have J.K. Rowling’s brain (if you do, she’d like it back). We each have our own brain, and everyone’s brain utilizes information its own way.
If you were to ask me my process, I’d say I write sort of a half-pantsed with a plan. How’s that for helpful?
The first time I sat down to write for real, with a firm goal and intention (not just for fun or for a grade), I wrote an outline. Just a quick sketch of what would happen in each chapter. Then I set out writing. By chapter two, I found myself revising my outline to match my story. And the more I wrote, the more I deviated from the outline.
The characters had other ideas. They knew better than me where we were going. And they were right.
Other times I’ve written an outline and I stayed with that outline. When I felt the pull to move away from the outline, I fought back. No, I’m writing this story and I know what it’s about and you characters just shut up and do what I tell you.
None of those stories ever worked. Ever. Most of them just fizzled out under their own lack of energy. (Keep this in mind; I’ll speak more on this in my next post.)
When I sit down to write, I have snatches of lines, pictures of scenes, sometimes even the ending is there in my head, waiting to be written. As I write them, more lines and pictures and scenes come to me. The story dictates itself. It feels itself out.
For me, writing is like taking a road trip. I know I’m driving to Mount Rushmore, and I know the kind of car I’m in, but I’m not exactly sure which route I’m taking. Am I sticking to the highways, or am I going to take some back roads along the way? I let the story tell me where it wants to go. And sometimes — every now and then — we don’t even end up making it to Mount Rushmore. We end up at the ramshackle diner off I-90, and the entire story plays out there.
Is this an efficient way of writing? Not really.
Does it work for me? Yes.
Will it work for you? Probably not.
But trust me in this: you’ll be a far better writer if you figure out for yourself what works for you.
How do you figure out what works for you? By sitting down and writing. It always comes back to sitting down and writing.