Chaos theory for writers

butterfly

Silk’s Post #109 — One of the light-bulb moments for me at this year’s Surrey International Writers’ Conference came during the terrific panel discussion, “Edge of Your Seat Tension” with bestselling mystery/suspense authors Chevy Stevens, Hallie Ephron and Robert Wiersema.

The inciting question was a perennial one: do you outline your stories before you write them? (The debate between OPs and NOPs – or planners vs. pantsers, if you will – never ends, does it? It’s the Mobius loop of writing.)

Three heads nodded in unison, well, figuratively anyway. Yes! They all outline!

Damn. The buoyancy leaked out of me like a deflated balloon. I hated to hear this endorsement of the dreaded outline, especially from these admired writers.

Why? I am outline averse. I’ve tried traditional outlining a few times and never could stick it out to “the end”. I’ve flirted with all sorts of other plot planning schemes – from the formulaic to the esoteric – and I just haven’t found a method yet for anticipating my way through the entire sequence of a novel-length story from start to finish.

I lack that crystal ball in my head. Damn. How do these people do it?

Then one of them (Robert, I think) gave the game away. He always writes an outline, he said, and then always departs from it fairly quickly. I had a vision of a happy train jumping the track and chugging off across the hills and dales toward some unmapped and unscheduled magical station. A railroad relative of the Hogwart’s train, perhaps. Hallie chimed in with her own admission of outline abandonment. Chevy noted that her publisher likes her to stick to an outline. She sounded a little sad about that, I thought, like a kid who has to stay inside and finish her homework before she’s allowed outdoors to play.

This was all very liberating. Pantsers unite!

But wait. These writers do still outline, even knowing their stories are, more likely than not, going to skitter off in some unanticipated direction later. Why do they do it? I sensed I was still not off the story structure planning hook (in fact, I’m now immersed in Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering, which seems a promising approach for naturally organic writers like me).

But I’ve been thinking about the tangled and dense issue of story planning for a long time, and there’s something that still bothers me about outlines. Something I’ve struggled to put my finger on. Something opaque that should be obvious, but isn’t (at least to me). Tonight I think I may have just conjured it to the surface.

It’s about predictability.

All writers (and readers) know that predictability on the page is a story-killer. A stone cold murderer of suspense. A fast track to boring oblivion.

But prediction is exactly what an outline seeks to do. It’s supposed to be a roadmap to a pre-determined destination. Just follow the map, strewing words about as you go, and you have a book. You don’t want the resulting book to be predictable for the reader. Yet the outline should do exactly the opposite thing for the writer.

Or should it?

We’re all familiar with the “Butterfly Effect”, a key element in scientific chaos theory. This charmingly named phenomenon comes from the title of a paper presented to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1972 by Edward Lorenz, titled “Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” (Eat your hearts out, all you writers out there trying to come up with a catchy title for your new book.)

In more scientific language, Lorenz’s theory is defined in Wikipedia as “sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic non-linear system can result in large differences in a later state.” Basically it means that predictability goes out the window when many different forces begin interacting with each other in complex ways. Wikipedia goes on to note:

The butterfly effect is a common trope in fiction, especially in scenarios involving time travel. Additionally, works of fiction that involve points at which the storyline diverges during a seemingly minor event, resulting in a significantly different outcome than would have occurred without the divergence, are an example of the butterfly effect.

( Note: This is not all there is to chaos theory. In fact, it’s the simple-to-understand part. Understanding the rest of it probably requires two or three high level university degrees in mathematics.)

To my own (admittedly non-scientific) mind, chaos theory’s application to plotting practically jumps off the page. After all, what is storytelling, if not a “deterministic, non-linear system” for examining the unpredictability of cause and effect in the great saga of human behaviour?

And maybe that’s why outlines so often collapse somewhere along the way to getting a story written. It is hellishly difficult to predict all the twists and turns – the chaos – that will result from the interactions between all the characters and elements the writer brings to life on the page.

Perhaps a good story should be capable of surprising the writer by jumping the tracks envisioned in an outline. At that point, what’s a writer to do?

a) Drag the story out of inconvenient chaos and back to the original outline?
b) Stop writing and do a new outline?
c) Go with the flow?

Chaos theory for writers would suggest that c) is the best answer. Maybe writing is an art, not a science, but the best stories are the ones that reveal some kind of truth about the real nature of life. And life is both messy and precise at the same time.

Just like the unpredictable act of storytelling.

10 best things I learned at Surrey International Writers’ Conference

Surrey International Writers' Conference banquet

Surrey International Writers’ Conference banquet

Silk’s Post #106 — I’m still coming down from a three-day weekend up in the cloud where writers live. Sometimes that cloud is a lonely place. Sometimes it rains for weeks. Sometimes thunder and lightning make you want to crawl under your desk.

But at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference – #siwc2014 or #siwc14 – the sun is always shining when hundreds of writers and their gurus come out to play for three days every year. It rocks!

Bar time with Trish, Karalee, Silk, Joe and Chris

Bar time with Trish, Karalee, Silk, Joe and Chris

While I’ve been recovering (okay, the late nights in the bar and various social gatherings did have something to do with that), Joe has already done two excellent posts on his SIWC experience, and he only came for a day. I better get with the program.

This was my eighth SIWC. So here are a couple of fair questions:

  1. How come I keep going back – haven’t I been-there-done-that?
  2. How come I don’t have a book published by now?

First answer: I keep going back because every year I learn new stuff I need to know, and because it recharges my writing batteries, and because I’ve come to know and love the citizens of SIWC, and because it’s one of the best writers’ conferences in the world (even the big-dog presenters from New York say this).

Second answer: I don’t have a book published yet because I’m still a learner and I haven’t yet achieved a polished manuscript that’s ready to put in front of an agent or publisher. When I embarked on this second career after I wound up my design/advertising agency, I came to the party with 35 years of writing experience. I thought I’d be churning out a novel a year in no time. HAH! I must have missed the Steep Learning Curve Ahead sign when I turned onto that road. Oh, alright alright, my questionable post-retirement work habits and tendency toward procrastination does factor into it too.

That’s why I love the SIWC log line: This Day We Write! This came from a conference keynote a couple of years ago by bestselling author Robert Dugoni, who graciously let SIWC adopt it as their own. It’s the perfect rallying cry in this nebulous writers’ cloud we all live in, tucked away by ourselves most of the year, but connected to each other in a kind of virtual community.

This year at SIWC I attended one 3-hour Master Class, 4 keynotes, 3 panels, 5 workshops, 3 luncheons, 2 banquets, 1 agent pitch, 1 blue-pencil session, 1 theatrical presentation, 1 cocktail party, 1 book fair, and a late night book launch. Plus bar time.

Seriously, I really did need a day to recover.

I also took rather voluminous notes, and will share some of this rich trove in more detail in future posts, but today I want to give you my 10 top take-aways – some new things I learned, some things I thought I knew but now finally understand, and some things that just resonated with me.

1. Emotional impact trumps everything else in fiction. Story, setting, premise, characters, action, plot, voice, style, and subject are all important ingredients – but the real magic only happens if you can cause the reader to experience a powerful emotion. (Thanks to Don Maass for this insight from his Master Class “The Emotional Craft of Fiction.”)

2. To avoid obvious and clichéd emotional reactions in characters, evoke rather than report. We’ve all heard “show, don’t tell”. This is a kind of corollary. Make big emotions – the ones with a lot of gravity – like dark stars that affect everything around them without being overtly visible. (Inspiration by Don Maass, weird planetary analogy by me.)

3. A writer’s number one platform on the Internet is his/her own website. It’s the one thing in cyberspace that’s totally in your control, where you own the space and content. Think of it as the centre of your own online community. Use whatever social media and other channels you are comfortable with – and have time to keep up – to steer people to your website. (This point was driven home repeatedly by multiple social media experts, including two of the best: Sean Cranbury and Sarah Wendell.)

4. The most powerful social media tool a writer can use is (wait for it) … email. There are 3 times more email accounts than Twitter and Facebook combined. 92 per cent of adults use email, and 61 per cent of them use it every day. Email is 6 times more likely to get a click-through (to your website or blog) than a tweet, and 40 times more likely to generate new clients/relationships. (Thanks to Sarah Wendell for doing the math).

5. The 3 most important things that build your social media currency are: generosity, consistency and authenticity. Joe already mentioned this, but it’s so important that it can’t be said too many times. Social media are, first and foremost, about relationships and sharing – not marketing opportunities. Don’t be the person who only reaches out to others when you want something from them. Do more giving than receiving. If you support and share with people 90 per cent of the time, you get to talk about yourself 10 per cent of the time. What a surprise … cyber life is just like real life! (This theme was universally emphasized by experts Sarah Wendell, Sean Cranbury and Chuck Wendig in their “Social Media Smackdown” panel).

6. Characters drive story. Characters need to have agency. Active characters push the plot around, they don’t just get pushed around by the plot. Every character has to have a problem (a want) to be solved (fulfilled). In the gulf between the character’s problem and its solution is the story, which must wind its way from the problem to the solution through a minefield of complications. (While these principles have been repeated by many, in many different ways, Chuck Wendig in his “Kick-Ass Characters” workshop, brought terrific clarity and insight to these essential concepts).

7. To create tension, the writer has to walk a tightrope between withholding and revealing information to the reader. Tension occupies the space between what the writer allows the reader to know, and what the writer allows the character to know. The reader always needs to be slightly ahead of the character, which stimulates worry … but not so far ahead that the character seems slow-witted. (A great panel of suspense writers, Hallie Ephron, Robert Wiersema and Chevy Stevens illuminated this dark corner of writing in their discussion, “Tension: More Than the Edge of Your Seat”).

8. Planting questions makes readers turn pages. While this seems like the simplest and most obvious piece of advice in the writing world, it is a deliberate technique that’s hard to remember when you’re in the flow of writing, and easy to make too obvious when you strew questions around retroactively. The compelling need to know “what happens next” is the most delicious form of tension for the reader. (Another trick of the trade from the “Tension” panel).

9. Dialogue should only consist of things that need to be said, or are inherently interesting. Another seemingly obvious principle that gets wantonly violated by throwing all sorts of debris into dialogue such as backstory, pointless conversation meant to mimic “real life” and other content the author didn’t know what else to do with. (Thanks to Outlander author, Diana Gabaldon – the mistress of dialogue – for this reminder).

The one and only Jack Whyte

The one and only Jack Whyte

10. Read aloud. SIWC’s favourite Scottish icon, author Jack Whyte, is probably the best reader I’ve ever heard. With his rich baritone and dramatic flair, he can make the telephone book sound like gorgeous literature. Listening to him read the finely-crafted opening of his new book, The Guardian, at a special pre-release book launch on Saturday night, I was reminded of another excellent piece of advice that I’ve often received and always forget to do. Read your book to yourself out loud, especially key passages or dialogue that needs to be “just right” to the reader’s ear. It’s amazing how every awkward turn of phrase, bit of unnatural dialogue, misplaced word and run-on sentence will suddenly become obvious.

To wind this post up, I want to share the best word I heard at the conference, and its context:

Avoid online douchebaggery.