Monday, September 20, 2010

Pyramid on Point Method, by Jess Lourey

Remember that episode of Friends where Phoebe jogs?

That’s how I used to write novels—disorganized, flailing, a little fear and a lotta hope. This has worked for me so far, I guess, but then I got tapped to teach an “After the Idea: How to Write a Novel” class for MWA-U, the Mystery Writers of America’s new writer’s education series. I couldn’t spend an hour telling people how to reinforce the seat of their pants, so I had to hunker down and develop a legitimate method.

And I did.

And it works. It works so well, that I finally understood why I couldn’t get past page 60 of the four mainstream lit novels sitting on my laptop, and I saw how I could give my mysteries the extra layer of of character complexity I’ve always felt they’ve lacked. Check out this graphic representation of my method, which I call the Pyramid on Point method, because it reminds me of a square on its side:

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Here’s how it works. First, you write a one-sentence summary of your novel idea. This will come in handy when you’re marketing your manuscript or later, talking about it at conferences, but for now, the purpose is to coalesce your idea. Here’s the one-sentence summary for the November novel I’ll begin writing this winter: “A newly-minted Minnesota PI investigates a suspicious hunting accident, uncovering a brutal small-town secret.” Notice that specifics aren’t important—names, places. You’re just taking an aerial photo.

Next, expand that summary into a paragraph. This should take about an hour. Include the status quo state at the beginning of the novel, what obstacles the protagonist encounters, and how the novel ends. After you’ve got that summary, invite your characters. Get a notebook or open a document on your computer and create a page for every character who’ll appear in the book. Flesh out the basics, like age and appearance, but more importantly, spell out their goals and motivations, the conflicts they encounter and how they’ll grow from them, and their general storyline in this novel. The detail you add here is what will separate your novel from the pack by making it a character-driven story. Don’t be afraid to rewrite your one-sentence or one-paragraph summaries if your characters call on you to do so.

The next step is my favorite: physically sketch your setting(s). If your novel takes place mostly in a single town, draw a street and business layout. If it also spends a lot of time in a specific house or office, draw the floor plan. Also, keep on the lookout for photos online or in magazines that strike a chord with you. Print or cut them out and glue them into a notebook (where you may already have your character bible). When you get writer’s block later, looking at and writing about these photos will push you over the hump. Just don’t spend too much time at this step or you’ll go from writer to scrapbooker.

Next, expand each sentence on your one-paragraph summary to a full page. Include lots of sensory detail, especially smell, touch, and sound. These make your writing cinematic. After this, roughly outline your plot. I don’t believe in detailed outlines, which take the surprise and so the fun out of writing. Simply create a post-it note for each character conflict you’ve come up with (you’ll find these in step 3), with the character name at the top of each post-it, and rearrange these so they happen in a logical order. These conflicts are the nails on which you string your story.

Finally, write the dang novel. This is the thrilling part. You’ve done the difficult work of creating the structure, and it’s time to sit back and take dictation from the Muses. When you get stuck, recharge with your pyramid. Voila! I hope this method brings joy, structure, and depth to your writing like it did to mine. And please, add to my stone soup. What writing tips/method have worked well for you?

p.s. If you’re describing this method to your friends, don’t take the natural step of making an upside-down pyramid shape with your hands. I did this (frequently, and at waist level) during my presentation, and it turns out it means something entirely different in sign language, and it ain’t “pie.”

13 comments:

Crystal Jigsaw said...

Very informative post; it is quite daunting having to rewrite a sentence which later turns into rewriting a paragraph and so on, I have done this and feel I'm simply tinkering with it now.

CJ xx

Beth Groundwater said...

Very funny comment about your "pie" hand signal, Jess! Reminds me of a friend of mine who is a very skilled sign language interpreter. She had to interpret a college-level lecture on something related to sexually transmitted diseases, I think, and many of the signs for sexual body parts and acts are very explicit. By the end of the lecture, everyone was watching her vs the professor, and they gave her an ovation. :)

Darrell James said...

Very thoughtful, Jess. I suppose I accomplish all those things sooner or later. But I never know what the the parts will be until I've written most or all of the novel. I guess I'm a confirmed "seat of pants flyer".

G.M. Malliet said...

Would love to hear more about these classes. Are they (MWA) going to repeat the experiment, Jess? I should probably try to analyze and organize my writing style. I know I should.

Keith Raffel said...

Oh, Jess, I feel abandoned. Have you slipped to the side of darkness where as (Stephen King put it) one is "enslaved to (or intimidated by)the tiresome tyranny of the outline"?

Alice Loweecey said...

Jess, I love it. I'm a Snowflaker myself, but the method you describe sounds great. I used a similar method for 2 books, and now have cut, pasted, rearranged, patched, and knitted together a method from the pieces that works for me.

I'm talking 5K outlines that I always rewrite as the story develops and my characters change things. Far from stifiling my creativity, it gives me a structure within which I can create and play at will. I started out a pantser, but I'll never go back.

All you pansters, come to the outline side! We have cookies. :D

Jess Lourey said...

Crystal, I agree the whole idea can be daunting, but broken into manageable steps where you only allot yourself so much time before moving on to the next gives me a sense of having borders and structure, which makes the process so much more enjoyable. I have friends who are pantsers, though, and they enjoy their process,too.

Jess Lourey said...

That actually made me LOL, Beth, and I hate that abbreviation. :) Thanks for sharing that story.

Jess Lourey said...

Cheers to the pantsers, Darrell! You all keep the world spontaneous.

Jess Lourey said...

Cheers to the pantsers, Darrell! You all keep the world spontaneous.

Jess Lourey said...

Gin, MWA is hoping to bring the workshop around the country. We have a tentative February date in Wisconsin and October 2011 date in Minnesota, but we'll come to whatever area will have us. You're out in the Atlantic chapter, right? You just need to contact your MWA chapter president to express interest in having the presentation in a city near you. I know I learned a ton from listening to the other presenters.

Jess Lourey said...

Nooooo, Keith! I'm not an outliner. I abhor deep outlining. I spend about a week or two on the first six steps of this method and then get right to writing.

Jess Lourey said...

Alice, what's the snowflake method? It sounds pretty.

Yes we have cookies!