Story Porn, by John Voorhaus

 

From: http://writerunboxed.com/2015/09/24/story-porn

I’m in the outline/development stage of writing my next novel, a mystery/thriller called Stella Blue, and as I do with every major new writing project I take on, I have lately asked myself, “What do I want to learn this time?” It has become clear to me that my writing gets better, faster and is more fun (well, scary fun) when I’m out on the face of the wave between what I know and don’t know about my craft.

This time out, I have a couple of goals in mind. One is to do a much better job of outlining and mapping the story before I start writing a draft in earnest. As some of you know, I’m a proudly self-defined “pantser” – I write by the seat of my pants. I’ve always claimed that this was because if I knew in advance where the story was headed, I couldn’t be bothered to write it. These days, I don’t think that’s true. If I’m being honest with myself (as I learned to be from writing my last book, how to live life) I’d have to say that part of me rejects outlining because I perceive it as dry, dull work – heavy lifting at a time when I want light skipping and jumping. But my growth as a writer demands that I part with the pantser model, at least temporarily, if for no other reason than to overcome a certain prejudice and find out, really, if outlining has anything to offer me at all.

The other goal, related to the first, is to see if I can come up with some brand new ways to think about story development. I understand outlining to be the part of the process where I gather raw material for the story. I want to do a better – and therefore must do a different – job of this than I have in the past.

Why do I need new methods for story development? Because I hate story development. In the early days of finding a story it seems like I’m mostly just staring off into space thinking of nothing at all. Sometimes this feeling gets so bad, so frustrating, that the story never develops at all. I don’t lament this – I never force a story to come – I just call it another dry well and move on to the next.

This time around, though, I’m making great progress and having great fun by using a simple new technique I call “story porn.” Basically, all I do is look at pictures that I think might be relevant to my story, and then wait to get excited by what I see.

For instance, Stella Blue takes place (among other places) in a commune in Vermont in the early 1970s. Simply by Googling images of commune life, I find my eyes (and therefore head) stuffed with thrilling bits of visual information. That’s the porn part. Such information causes all kinds of interesting questions to spring to my mind. What are the rules of life in my commune? Where do jealousies and rivalries lie? These people all look so happy – what could make them mad enough to kill? That’s the story part. Together they add up to story porn, an easy, effective (for me anyway) new path to story development.

It has a pleasing rhythm. I write until I can’t think of anything else to write and then, instead of staring off into space, I stare at pictures. I stare at pictures until I think of something to write, then I write. When I run dry again, I go back to my pictures. Words to pictures, pictures to words, back and forth in a nice, gentle, productive process of advancing my story and my understanding of all it has to offer.

To make this method work for me – really spin like a top – I find that there’s one significant process block to let go of, and that’s the need to be writing all the time. See, I used to think that staring at pictures was frivolous, lazy, or otherwise worthy of contempt. I was enslaved by “the myth of efficiency,” which believes that only the act of putting the words on the page is “real writing,” and everything else is one or another form of time-wasting distraction.

I’m training myself to be okay with distraction. I’m training my mind to let my searches take me where they will. I’m rethinking this whole idea of efficiency and recognizing (as I knew all along) that story development is an inherently inefficient process, just by its very nature.

I’m also letting go of the need to write things in chronological order. There’s so much I will have to know about this story, why should I limit myself to discovering things only as events unfold? If a picture gives me great insight into something that happens in the climax of my story, or somewhere in the middle, or at the beginning or before the beginning, I don’t bother asking how it all fits in. I just write it all down. I’ll sort it all out later. That sorting out… that’s called the first draft.

Another thing I’m mindful of here is the need to operate at an appropriate level of detail. There are so many questions I need answers to, but I don’t need them all right now. Just to give you one example, I hate a certain character’s name. Every time I write it, I remind myself that it needs to be changed. Yes, but it doesn’t need to be changed right now. As long as I understand that the current name is just a placeholder, I can continue in my development, unafraid to be wrong, or vague or undercooked on the page. That’s a big breakthrough for me.

I can’t write the same books over and over again, just as, per Heraclitus, you can’t enter the same river twice. I have to keep reinventing myself, my words, my stories, my approach. That’s the only way I’ll get better, and if I’m not committed to getting better as a writer, what the hell am I doing here in the first place? So now my browser history reflect my journeys to hippie times, mountain biking, religious cults, the Grateful Dead, the Green Mountain State, and how many hits of acid can be found on a typical sheet of blotter.

And my official Story Outline document is a big, fat hairy mess of what-ifs and maybes, sprayed all over the pages in no particular order.

That looks like progress to me.

Or anyway it looks like fun.

And not for nothing, but tomorrow is my 60th birthday, and if I’m still having this sort of ridiculous fun at my age, I have to think I’m doing okay.

What are the best parts of your process? What are the worst? What discoveries have you made about your approach that you can concretely share with others? Where does your writing day typically take you, and what can you do to take it some place new and different and lots more fun? [Share your thoughts with John at his post on Writer Unboxed.]

About John Vorhaus

John Vorhaus has written seven novels, including Lucy in the Sky, The California Roll, The Albuquerque Turkey and The Texas Twist, plus the Killer Poker series and (with Annie Duke) Decide to Play Great Poker. His books on writing include The Comic Toolbox, How to Write Good and Creativity Rules!

 

 

 

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