Part 1 of a 2-part interview. Because it’s, like, long.
(Click HERE to go to Part 2. Backwards is good sometimes.)
Over two years later and it’s still in the #1 bestselling spot on Amazon’s Fiction Writing category list, with occasional brief drops to #2 for newcomers (like my book, which sits at #2 as I write this), but only for a day or so. Then its back on top where — after reading it, I must concur — it belongs.
Randy is a really smart guy. Great guy, too, but smart trumps cool in this business.
He’s smart not just because he has a Ph.D. from U.C. Berkeley and calls himself a “deranged physicist,” not just because he blurbed my book, and not just because he’s written six award-winning novels and publishes the world’s largest digital writing magazine and a killer blog…
… like that’s not enough to merit the badge…
… but because when he speaks, writers listen. He earns the Really Smart Guy nametag every time it happens.
I invited Randy to join us here on Storyfix, and to respond to six top-of-mind questions that keep circling in my head, and possibly yours.
SF: As we both acknowledge in our work, the world is flooded with writing books. Are they all saying the same thing about “how to write a great story,” or in your view is there really so much variance and imprecision in the fundamentals, as well as the creative options, that we need all these voices out there?
RANDY: I wish I could say that my way is the best way to write a novel and that all those other fiction teachers out there are mentally impoverished scoundrels, but . . . that just wouldn’t be true.
There really are vastly different ways to write, and there’s a good reason for that.
The purpose of fiction is to give your reader what I call a Powerful Emotional Experience. The problem is that there are 7 billion different readers out there, and there are probably 10 or 15 fundamentally different emotive experiences. So there are different measures of “goodness” in fiction, and therefore there are different ways to write.
I’m sure you’ve noticed that you hate certain books that get great reviews or that are riding high on the bestseller list. I sure do. And there are books I love that get terrible reviews and that sell like spit.
So it really is true about there being “different strokes for different folks.”
Writing fiction is hard and I don’t think anyone ever really masters it. So there is always more to learn and there are always new ways to explain how it should be done.
The short answer is: Yes, we really do need all those other writing teachers out there, even those mentally impoverished scoundrels who (gasp!) disagree with me.
SF: My take on those books is that most offer a narrative swing at defining both the writing process and the ultimate product. They describe it using very grad-schoolesque aesthetic lit classstandards, soft quantifiers, qualifiers and criteria (like, a story should touch the reader’s heart…), sort of like trying to teach a singer or an athlete how to develop a sensibility for their game beyond the basics. As if you can teach “talent.” Not wrong, just hard to grasp, like telling an alien what it feels like to be in love (no formula for that one). I think you and I are drawn to each other’s work because we’re among the few to offer a “model” for story development, something for the left brain to chew on while the right brain reflects on life and art and the finer points of literature. How has your background as a technical professional served you in this regard, and what do you say to writers who accuse us of imposing a “formula” on their creativity?
RANDY: Let me say first that I absolutely love your approach to teaching the craft. It’s left-brained. It’s logical. And you even use the word “engineering” in your title, which has to strike a chord for me, being a physicist.
I’ve certainly come across books on how to write fiction that just didn’t click for me. And I’ve been astounded to learn that the very books I thought were pedantic or dull somehow had value for some of my novelist friends. I’ve been absolutely aghast to learn that one of my closest friends doesn’t like Dwight Swain — the fiction teacher who first helped me see what made fiction work.
A little about my background — I’m a computational physicist. I generally do physics by seeing in my mind the solution to the problem. I’m very visual and if I can picture it, I know how to solve it. That’s an intuitive leap. But then I have to convert that to a series of rational steps, so the blasted computer understands how to solve it.
So my entire working career has been this weird mix of taking my intuitive right-brained understanding of something and turning it into a left-brained process.
I guess that’s why my Snowflake method always just seemed obvious to me. It takes my right-brained mush and forms it into left-brained sense.
I don’t worry much about writers who don’t “get” my methods. I don’t get theirs. I figure that if I can help some people use a process to mold their creativity, that’s great. If my methods don’t help everyone, then maybe some other teacher can help them. I get e-mail all the time from people who tell me that I’ve given them hope that they can write a novel. That always makes my day.
As for the whole “formula” thing, that’s a category error. A formula is a process that leads to a predictable result. My methods (and yours, Larry) are “design patterns” — fundamental patterns that guide us in reaching unpredictable results. Great fiction doesn’t spring from a formula, but it can be guided and honed by using design patterns.
By the way, I stole the term “design pattern” from the world of software engineering, which stole it from the world of architecture. I’m fundamentally an architect. So are you. We’re story architects.
Architecture is a beautiful blend of science and art. Good architects don’t use formulas, they use design patterns.
SF: Tell us about your model — the Snowflake method– and how it empowers writers. I love it, by the way. It would be self-serving of me to view it as a somewhat expanded, completely aligned cousin
of my own Six Core Competencies, but I can’t help myself. How do you see them as similiar, how are they different, and how can they work together? Why do writers need what we’re selling?
RANDY: I think that’s why we get along so well. We’re both working with the same mental model — the Three Act Structure of a novel. I really appreciated your book because it helped me understand that structure better.
The Snowflake method is a process I developed back in the summer of 2002 to explain roughly the steps I take to get from a vague and fuzzy idea to a well-structured first draft. There are ten steps in this process. The full method is explained here: http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com/art/snowflake.php
The reason I call it the “Snowflake method” is because it uses the same “divide and conquer” approach that works when drawing the famous “Snowflake fractal” invented by a mathematician named Helge von Koch in 1904. You can find out about this fractal here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koch_snowflake
The idea is to start with something simple and then keep refining it by adding detail, until you’re done. (And of course you’re never done, but eventually you have to send your manuscript in.) At every step in the process, the story is well-structured, even though it’s incomplete.
The first step of the Snowflake method is to write a one-sentence summary of your novel. This is hard work. Anyone can write a bad one-sentence summary. It can take up to an hour to develop a really compelling sentence that captures the essence of a novel.
This corresponds, very roughly, to your First Core Competency — the Concept. I think that your teaching on this is complementary to mine. You explain in detail what a good Concept is, how to refine it, and so on. I spend a lot of time examining actual one-sentence summaries and improving them. I insist that it has to be a single sentence, no more than 25 words.
When I teach at conferences, I often do mentoring workshops where I have 10 writers for several hours and we critique each writer’s first chapter. I always ask them to submit a one-sentence summary of their entire novel. I find that most of them can’t explain in a few words what their story is about.
And if they can’t explain it, they won’t be able to sell it. So I often spend a lot of time working with each of them to hone that sentence. Once we’re done, a lot of times a writer will suddenly understand what her story is about for the very first time. Or she’ll have new insights into directions the story can go. Or she’ll know which parts don’t fit the story. It’s like magic.
My Snowflake method asks the writer to alternate between developing the plot and developing the characters. Plot and Character grow up together as you work through the Snowflake. When you’ve worked through the first nine steps, you’re ready to write your first draft, which is the tenth and final step. It will automatically be a well-structured first draft.
One difference in the Snowflake and your framework is that I don’t teach much on Theme. That’s your Third Core Competency, and it’s important, but I like to leave that for last. I always worry that if the writer is consciously focusing up front on the Theme, they’re going to turn it into a heavy-handed allegory. So I ask writers to think about Theme last, after the story is mostly developed.
Theme is important. But I’ve seen novels that were basically sermons in story form, and that’s just too disgusting for words.
I think one thing that you and I agree on is that the first draft can be very close to the last draft. If you plan your story right, it’ll come out the way it should. No need to go back and slice it and dice it to get it to make sense. Yes, you always have to edit for grammar, spelling, punctuation, word usage, tone, rhythm, and all that. But that’s just sanding the edges.
We also agree that seat-of-the-pants writers are not immoral, wicked people. They’re not wired to plan things up front, and that’s OK. But they’re not off the hook when it comes to story structure. They still need to have a novel that “gets the story physics right” as you say. They just have to do that after the first draft is written, and not before.
Click HERE to go to Part 2 of this interview.
Randy earned a Ph.D. in physics at U.C. Berkeley and is the award-winning author of six novels and one non-fiction book. He writes about “The Intersection of Faith Avenue and Science Boulevard.”
Randy publishes the world’s largest electronic magazine on the craft of writing fiction, the FREE monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine. His ultimate goal is to become Supreme Dictator for Life and First Tiger and to achieve Total World Domination.
Oh yeah, there’s that writing book, too.