Writing Birdcages Into Mansions

What do you tell people you’re doing when you’ve got an idea for a novel kicking around in your head, but don’t know the first thing about writing one? How do you make them understand, for us non-pantsers, that the time you spend working isn’t necessarily being spent writing? How do you characterize the studying/learning/training that must be done before you even begin?

I was faced with this conundrum on a daily basis when Kristin and I took two months off our bicycle tour last winter to spend time with her ailing father. Her mother, full of polite curiosity, would ask each and every day how much work I got done. She knew I was spending most of the day in a spare bedroom that we had neatly converted into a temporary office. She knew I was in the preliminary stages of writing a novel. That, once our trip was over, our savings and newfound frugality was going to afford me the opportunity to finally make a stab at a career as a novelist. She also knew that I had spent the last thirteen years writing in excess of a hundred videogame strategy guides for then-Penguin imprint BradyGames. She knew that I’ve had books, albeit licensed merch books, crack the top 25 on Amazon. She knew my annual earnings from writing said books occasionally topped six-figures. To her and everyone who knew me, I already was a successful writer. I felt like an impostor.

“Make some progress?”

“I’m nowhere near being able to tell you how many scenes or words I wrote today, if that’s what you’re asking.” I was getting tired of this game and my attempts to deflect the question without being rude were failing.

I sat silently for a few moments, staring blankly at James Clavell’s Shogun on my Kindle, angry for how my words came out. I sighed, unintentionally, and then my lips started moving, speaking an explanation that I had never before considered.

“I feel like a carpenter who can assemble the most beautiful birdhouses, but has been suddenly tasked with building a mansion. I want to start working on the blueprints,” I said, thinking about the outline I couldn’t wait to write “but before I can do that I need to learn building codes and how to do the plumbing and the electrical and the ventilation.” I sighed again.

She laughed and gave my shoulder a squeeze as she got up to check on dinner. The next night, during my turn in the kitchen, we chatted about my learning how to write a novel, about my fear of dialogue, and my goal of having a fleshed out outline complete before we finish our travels. She was happy to hear how my schooling was going and, in the days that followed, instead of asking how much progress I made, would ask if I “learned some good stuff.”

I had.

Back to School

The first step I took in this continuing education was to organize my Internet bookmarks. Now, this probably sounds exactly like the type of busy work one does to trick themselves into thinking they’re being productive. Not this time. As I inspected the untold number of useful, redundant, dead, and uninteresting links that had collected over the past two years I came upon an article about The Story Grid on Joanna Penn’s blog.

Shawn Coyne's Story Grid of the Silence of the Lambs.

Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid of Silence of the Lambs.

Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid instantly became my classroom and for two weeks I pored over his dozens of blog posts, absorbing everything he was willing to share from his twenty-five years as a literary editor. From genre to story arcs to the units of story and point of view, Coyne discusses it all using excellent examples and demonstrations to drive home his point. His goal? To make writers better editors. And the way he intends to do this is by revealing, via one or two posts a week, the building blocks of his life’s work, the then-unpublished book The Story Grid. His is an analytical approach to the craft of storytelling and his Story Grid technique looks as if it was screen-capped from a graphing calculator. It’s scary. But the best part? His Story Grid example is a case-study of Thomas Harris’ best-selling thriller, Silence of the Lambs. How lucky I was to stumble upon an analytical approach to explaining the art of storytelling that just so happens to use one of my all-time favorite books as its example! The teenage me, still in high school when Silence of the Lambs was released, read the story multiple times and was able to recite much of the movie by memory.

As if stumbling upon a dissection of my favorite novel wasn’t serendipitous enough, I had also begun watching House of Cards on Netflix around the same time that I began reading Coyne’s blog. What a stroke of luck this happened to be! Within a week I felt as if I was taking a master’s class in the art of storytelling. By day I was the student in the classroom, taking notes about the units of story, the changing values of a scene, and the conventions and requirements of certain genres, alt-tabbing over to a foolscap document for my own WIP and incorporating what I was learning. By night, the television was my lab, the cast and crew of House of Cards the live example in front of me that turned theory into practice.

The casual observer in me knew House of Cards was terrific; it was full of suspense and a Machiavellian hunger for power that was both attractive and terrifying, no small thanks to the brilliant performance of Kevin Spacey. But this student of storytelling quickly began to see something different. I saw the changing values of the characters as the scenes turned and built into sequences that carried the plot forward from episode to episode.

Within two weeks I was watching television and film in a whole new light. Though I always considered myself a rather critical reader, my scrutinous eyes were shut when watching a movie. The Story Grid opened them.

Of course, one doesn’t learn how to build a house — or write a novel — from reading a single website. I’ve also been diligently working through K.M. Weiland’s Structuring Your Novel and her Outlining Your Novel book and workbook, as well as Robert McKee’s quintessential Story. More about those and my efforts to Story Grid Art of Fielding in the future.

This is an interesting period in my career progression and I can’t help but feel encouraged that Silence of the Lambs is again leaving its mark. Just as Nintendo Power magazine made me want to be a writer in the videogame industry back in the 1980s, when I was just twelve years old — Check! — it was Silence of the Lambs (along with some Stephen King novels and Catcher in the Rye) that made me first want to be a novelist back in the early 1990s. My obsession with games and writing about them led, eventually, to a thirteen year career doing just that. Perhaps my love of reading spawned in part by Silence of the Lambs will similarly lead to another lengthy stint doing what I not only love, but what I always wanted to do?

These next few years, and this blog, are going to chronicle the journey to find out.

Have any writing how-to books or websites that you found invaluable? Ever make a stab at following through on your what-you-want-to-be-when-you-grow-up dreams? If so, let me hear it in the comments below.

Post Image by Antonella Beccaria, used under Creative Commons.

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