Category Archives: Robert Olen Butler

Searching for structure

I am reading about structure. All stories have that, they say. All good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

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There should be three acts. I have learned that, from books about heroes and journeys and protagonists and antagonists.

And there should be conflict. All good stories are driven by conflict. The conflict centers around a dilemma. A dilemma is a problem that cannot be solved. It can only be resolved, or altered, or modified, by a change of perception.

There are no answers. There is only exploration, of the story that I have within me, and which by exploration can be let loose, and come alive on the page.

The blank page. Right there in front of me.

And there should be beats, and scenes, each with mandatory steps – inciting incident, complication, crisis question, climactic decision, and resolution.

It turns out that these steps apply on different levels. This sounds rather cool, I would say. They apply, in micro-scale on individual beats, and on a somewhat larger scale on scenes. And they also apply on acts, and for the whole – for the global story. Almost like a fractal.

I am trying to make sense of the above things. I have this goal of putting together a new book. And then one more. And then perhaps a series.

Why, one may ask?

I cannot answer that one clearly enough. Perhaps it is a test. To see if it can be done. Before it is too late.

These are my current, favourite references in this endeavour:

  • The 90-Day Novel by Alan Watt. I purchased this book in 2011, and I used it a bit in my previous project. This time I intend to follow it, and to go through the ninety day scheme that is presented in the book. I think it is a good way to make sense of the structure questions, while still holding it loosely enough so that it does not feel artificial and constructed.
  • The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne. Here I learn about the structure, and the steps mentioned above, and a lot more. There is also a running example, where the author applies the Story Grid to The Silence of the Lambs. The book is very well written, and very instructive.
  • From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler. This book is the opposite of structure. It may help you to make a story come alive, and to make the reader feel something, and not just be informed. I have written about this book also in another post.

A history of words

For 1107 days, producing an average of 145 words per day, it looks like this if you make a graph.

words

The graph shows one bar for each work shift, placed at the date when the work shift took place. The length of each bar corresponds to the total number of words in the book, at that date.

We see from the graph that there are periods of productivity, and periods where the pace is slower.

Referring to the labels in the graph, here are some milestones

  • A – March 2012. This was the start, however not from zero. My input data was 57875 words produced during NaNoWrimo 2011.
  • B – Summer 2012. Vacation time from day job, and deciding to do some work. This blog was rather new, and I wrote about giving it a try, and about the theme of the book.
  • C – Summer 2013. The next summer, and I am not done. Time to speed up. I read From where you Dream by Robert Olen Butler, and it was a game-changer. I wrote this post about Hypnopompia, and I became a little bit more convinced that I would make it to the end. We see that the productivity goes up (more words per day, and less days between each work shift). Looking forward, we see that this will happen also the next summer.
  • D – January 2014. Added this is a work of fiction, and a publishing note referring to the year 2014 (it was later changed to 2015). Started using Scrivener for the writing (before this date, I used Emacs with org mode).
  • E – February 2015. Decided to use Bookbaby (I purchased e-book production and Cover design), and aiming for the release. Starting the final edit, together with my first reader (who, like for Jan Guillou, happens to be my wife). Here I used docx-format for the book, since that was the format to be used for the submission, and Kindle Notes for the editing markings. We saved some rainforest and did it using phones, tablets, and computers. In total, there were over three thousand markings – small but significant changes! (In retrospect, this final editing was very well worth the effort).

Here are some conclusions

  • Every day without writing pushes your release date forward. Your book has a certain amount of words – even if you beforehand do not know how many – and every day you don’t write, the release day is postponed by one day. See this picture, which shows the number of words per day, and this picture, which shows the number of days¬†without¬†writing between working shifts – and you will see the effect more clearly.
  • Sometimes it helps to think that you are closer to the end than what you really are (a post published January 2013).
  • Books about writing can help – they did, surely, for me. But beware – count the number of blogs about blogging and the number of writers writing about writing, and select carefully which ones you want to spend time on.
  • Copyediting is painful but productive.
  • Selling and marketing needs their fair share of work. For me Joanna Penn has been a great source of inspiration. And of course, also here you need to Do the Work.

So, even if writing it was hard (well, at least it took time, but it was a lot of fun), I hope that reading it would be less cumbersome.

Hypnopompia – is that even a word?

Yes it is! – I learned it from Winslow Eliot in her beautiful book Writing through the year.

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Winslow Eliot says that Hypnopompia is that marvelous in-between moment before you’re fully awake. She also mentions a corresponding state, called Hypnagogia, which occurs in the moments before you fall asleep.

It is said that in these states, where you are in a zone between sleep and being awake, there is possibility for increased creativity. This has been utilized by famous persons, in their artistic but also scientific endeavours, and as explained by Winslow Eliot, it has to do with how our brain works:

During hypnagogia, the normal activity of the left/logical side of your brain is inhibited, allowing imagery in your right/creative brain freedom to experience whatever it wants to, without trying to analyze itself.

The whole reasoning, which also reminds us of the interesting topic of the divided brain, suggests that we should take advantage of what is happening underneath – down in that dark chamber that we call the unconscious – if we want to produce great works of art.

It sounds a bit scary to me. If you ask Robert Olen Butler, it is, and should be, scary. He says, in the very fascinating book called From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction – which, by the way, I think, I found via a reference from Sarah Selecky – that virtually all inexperienced writers end up in their heads instead of the unconscious, and he also gives an explanation for why: the unconscious is simply scary as hell.

But there is hope, I think, and I was encouraged to continue writing when I read the book, which I also finished.

It contains many gems, including a discussion about what we could mean when we use the word art. Robert Olen Butler says that what we remember comes out as journalism, and what we forget goes into the compost of the imagination. And only when we let the memories decompose, down in that chamber we cannot access by force of our will, can we recompose them into new works of art.

The book also echoes many pieces of advice seen elsewhere, which tell us to write every day, and it tells us that

Once you are engaged in writing a piece of fiction from your unconscious, it is crucial that you write every day, because the nature of this place where you go is such that it is very difficult to find your way in.

and also that we are allowed to take one day off, occasionally, but beware, as Robert says: you take two days off and you’re on very thin ice.

The book also has some case studies. In these, we are allowed to see the writing of some of his students, and we are allowed to follow discussions on their writings. I found this very interesting, and there are references to Robert Olen Butler’s own works, in the form of shared pieces from his own writings – some that he is satisfied with, and some that he is not so proud of.

As a final remark about the book, I want to mention the chapter called Cinema of the mind. I found it to be an eye-opener, and there are some very interesting studies in there – one I especially remember is from Cat in the Rain by Ernest Hemmingway – showing us how thinking (sorry – I meant letting your unconscious guide you) like a film-maker can help a lot when creating fiction.

So now I try to live as I learned. I have practised a short morning ritual of Hypnopompia-assisted writing for some weeks now. And yes, I can recommend it. It has also increased my word count, so someday I may even finish my writing project.

And in the meanwhile, of course, we should remember that the writing itself is a kind of self-inflicted journey, and that we might also learn some interesting things along the way.