Sunday, February 24, 2008

Kate Wilhelm, Storyteller

One of the better books I’ve read on writing in recent years has been Storyteller by Kate Wilhelm. I got mine in hardback from the SF book club. It’s copyright 2005, from Small Beer Press. She made one particular suggestion in that book that I’ve tried a couple of times and found informative.

On page 17, Wilhelm suggests taking one of your stories and going through it paragraph by paragraph. Next to each paragraph write whether it’s “setting,” “character description,” “action,” and so on. This should give you a nice visual on how you’ve constructed the story. On page 53, she gives an alternative way of doing this exercise. Take a copy of a story or book that you don’t mind marking up, get some colored pencils, then underline the material that is about character, setting, action, etc., in different colors. Wilhelm says that a good story should have a “rainbow effect” when you are done.

Certainly, too much “setting” would suggest a static story. I’m also guessing that literary stories would have a lot more “character” paragraphs in them while genre stories might be heavier on “action.” I would imagine fantasy and SF stories would have heavier amounts of “setting” than contemporary thrillers.

To take this suggestion a step further, it might be a good idea to try this exercise on writers you admire. Select particularly effective examples of writing and examine them to see how the writer put the piece together. I haven’t tried this on other writers yet, but I think I’m going to have a look at one of Dean Koontz’s older thrillers.

24 comments:

Billy said...

I'm not big on conventional exercises, but I rather like this one. Thanks for sharing.

And thanks to your wife, you've been tagged -:) You're tagged

Jack said...

That sounds like an interesting exercise. I like the idea of the rainbow effect.

Steve Malley said...

That's one kind of balance I've never thought to look at. Thanks!

By the way, your books arrived yesterday. *Totally* stoked!!

FANCY said...

Hello ...

Maybe you want to drop by...You are in my site...*LOL*

ivan said...

Enough of the amateur left in me to beware of tinkering with the process.
Like watching your fingers while you type. Big "Clang!" coming up for sure.
If you look at all good writing, almost blow on the words, perhaps, you might find it's just made of fairy stuff and bits and pieces of filigree.
If you trace the finished product all the way back, you might find just sunworms, or even worms.

I tried Ms. Wilhelm's process on a very fine novel c. l962, The Magus, by John Fowles. Just found, as I say, filigree and even the worms of Mr. Fowles' experience underneath the fine writing.

It might be sh*t that had produced the flower in the first place and you might not want to dig that deep.

My opinion, anyway.

Julie at Virtual Voyage said...

Charles, someone made a comment on editing their m/s (WIP) like this on Bernita's a while back, and a few people picked it up as a good idea
for dealing with submissions. Included things like dialogue, POV etc.

Travis Erwin said...

Interesting concpet. I'm gonna try this one.

Travis said...

I like this idea. It seems like this could also assist in editing. Like if you have a bunch of sections that you can't classify as action or character or setting or something else of real note, then you might just have a bunch of words that aren't necessary to the story.

Charles Gramlich said...

Billy, I'll obey the commands of the meme next time I post, probably Monday.

Jack, it actually works out fairly well.

Steve Malley, cool. Glad you got them.

Fancy, thanks, I've added you to my blog list.

Ivan, I think there is a legitimate concern. I think for me, writing has become so habitual that I'm not sure I could alter my basic pattern without a tremendous effort, even if I found out I should.

Julie, it would probably be a good idea to use something like this to look at, say, a sample submission package.

Travis Erwin, it's a challenging exercise.

Travis, yes, may be. If you have a section that can't be defined then maybe it is a problem. Good point.

Shauna Roberts said...

Some romance writers use a similar system to track whether they have enough emotion and whether it builds properly through a scene.

My characters have a bad habit of reacting to every disaster with only analysis and action, so I've found the system useful for figuring out where to add emotional responses.

Donnetta Lee said...

Good thinking, Charles. I'll try it.
Donnetta

ANNA-LYS said...

Hi
Found You @ Fancy's blog, and had to walk by. Will certainly be back within short :-)

Demon Hunter said...

Very interesting, Charles. Thanks for sharing this. It definitely sounds like a useful technique. :*)

Charles Gramlich said...

Shauna, my problem with conveying emotion is trying to find new ways of doing it without falling back on the cliches, which are cliche because many of them are accurate.

Donnetta, thanks.

Anna-lys, thanks for stopping by. I appreciate it.

Demon Hunter, it's been useful to me.

Josephine Damian said...

Charles, great idea to use colored pencils or markers. I've also seen it suggested for people who use index cards to outline to use different colored cards for plot and subplot, and use different color for each character. If you have too many subplot/secondary characters colored cards then you have a problem.

Josephine Damian said...

Charles: FYI - the BookEnds gals started their erotic romance :-O
contest today, but said they're NOT going to follow the list next time - possibly the thrillers could be next...

Sarai said...

Thanks for the suggestion on writing books. I love seeing what other authors use to improve their craft.
Need to check out this book.

Charles Gramlich said...

Josephine, thanks for the heads up on the contest. The index cards thing is a good idea. I wouldn't necessarily do something like that every time I write but it would be interesting to do as a revelation of technique. Probably be surprising.

Sarai, Wilhelm's is a good one, although there is a lot of history of the Clarion conference there that is not heavy on technique. It's still worth a read, I thought.

Sarai said...

So I feel silly doing this here and ruining a good post but I have no way to email you. You won the Play it forward contest. Let me know what you would like and I will get it out in the mail this week!
(sorry for the interruption)

Miladysa said...

I would love to see some of my favourite books marked up in this way but would struggle to find the time to do it though.

I am very tempted to try with my own writing :-D

Another great tip Charles - Thank you!

Charles Gramlich said...

Sarai, Wow. Cool! Thanks. I appreciate it. Certainly not an interruption.

Miladysa, yes, it would be something well worth seeing. I definitely wouldn't have time to do a whole book but maybe a piece of one.

Danette Haworth said...

Charles,
Timely post--I'm revising a manuscript right now.

Barrie said...

Any chance you'll share what you come up with on the Dean Koontz front? :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Danette, cool.

Barrie, I will, although since I'm in mid-semester right now it might be a while. Thanks for stopping by.