Wednesday, February 3, 2016
Step by Step with Bonnie Schroeder
Bonnie Schroeder started telling stories in the Fifth Grade and never stopped. After escaping from the business world, she began writing full-time and has authored novels, short stories and screenplays, as well as non-fiction articles and a newsletter for an American Red Cross chapter.
One morning last week as I was brewing coffee and contemplating the novel I’m getting ready to write, it all seemed overwhelming. I felt like shelving the whole thing; it was too, too much. I’ve sketched out the premise and drafted a few opening pages, but that’s it. The book will require a lot of research, I don’t know my characters, I’m not even sure I like those opening pages, I’m facing a long road of drafts, critiques, rewrites, and blah blah blah. “How am I ever going to do it all?” I muttered to myself.
A few sips of coffee later, I quit whining. The last two or three years have been focused on writing/revising/editing my latest project (for which I hope to find a home this year), so I haven’t started a novel from scratch in a long time. But I went through my preliminary notes for the last one, hoping to find a clue as to how I did it, and I rediscovered a nifty technique I learned about through the recommendation of a writer friend. It’s called “The Snowflake Method.” You might have heard of it.
Lest I be thought an internet pirate, let me give full credit for the technique to Randy Ingermanson. I do not know Mr. Ingermanson personally; I found his website by Googling “Snowflake Method for Writing a Novel.” You can buy his book on Amazon, but he also offers the basic technique for free on his website, and I took advantage of his generosity.
The principle is simple: you start with a brief premise, then expand the premise, get into character descriptions, sketch out your scenes, and so on. The narrative is developed via a logical progression that takes you deeper and deeper into the story and the characters. Each step leads to the next, more complex step, much the way that an actual snowflake is structured.
On my last novel, I of course deviated from the original design work with each revision, but I’d never have gotten started without the guidance of the Snowflake technique.
The beauty of this approach, for me, is that it breaks down the writing process into separate specific tasks. It is very freeing to realize that I don’t have to do everything at once. By breaking it down into bite-size chunks, I can tackle one at a time without worrying about the road ahead. Looking ahead, at this stage, just freaks me out.
Some of my fellow dog-owners and I like to hike the trails in Griffith Park, and one of our more challenging climbs is up to Mt. Hollywood—a 1600 ft. gain. I invited another friend to join us, and when she looked up at our destination, she started to cry. Honest, she did. I knew she could make the climb okay, she’s in good shape and works out at the gym, so it wasn’t the physical challenge that daunted her; it was the mental one. The end point seemed too far away, the road too steep. I explained to her what the rest of us knew: the secret is not to look up. Focus on the trail in front of you, and take it one step at a time. It keeps you from getting discouraged and it’s safer, too—you won’t trip over any rocks if you keep your eyes on the road just ahead.
There are times, of course, when it’s good to take the long view. On our climb we stop midway for water (and to catch our breath.) And we take in how far we’ve come before we look up at the top of the mountain. Somehow, at that point, it doesn’t seem all that far away. Then we shoulder our back packs and focus on the trail right in front of us, and we do that all the way to the top.
My friend made it just fine, by the way. We were all sweaty and out of breath, but we did it. And the view from up there is always—always—worth the exertion.
So that’s what I’m doing now. Since I have the premise and a couple of characters, I’ll move through the design process and eventually begin to write the manuscript, with my Snowflake roadmap to light the way. And one of these days, I’ll be able to look at the stack of paper on my writing table and think, I’ve come this far. I can make it to the finish line. One step at a time.