THE CRAFT OF WRITING – PART 4
The Craft of Writing – Part 4
The ANDY BOOKS or
How I worked my way up to THE SNOWFLAKE METHOD
by Kay DiBianca
When our son was a pre-schooler, he and I would make weekly visits to the local library where he would pick out a bunch of books to take home. Many of my fondest memories of those years were of the two of us reading together before his naptime.
I suggested one day that our son write a book of his own even though he was only three years old. His job was to make up the story and my job was to write it down and illustrate it. This led to a short series of “books” written on packing paper, illustrated with crayons, and taped together with scotch tape about a main character named Andy.
Over the years, and several major moves later, most of those books have gone missing, but I recently found a couple of them stashed away in a chest of drawers. Although I didn’t find the first Andy book, this is my best recollection of that story:
Page 1 — “Andy went outside to play.”
Page 2 — “He fell in a puddle.”
Page 3 — “Then he went home and took a nap.”
Brilliant! A perfect three-act plot. Part One introduces the main character and shows him in action. Part two suggests tension and conflict. Part three is the resolution with a peaceful ending. If only I could write like that!
I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to produce a novel with such an elegant structure. But I have learned a lot about the methodology of novel-writing from an entertaining and informative book entitled How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson.
Randy has come up with a way to produce a novel in ten steps. It’s a logical progression from a one-sentence description of the story to a full-blown novel. This process keeps the author focused on the next step to add detail to the plot and create believable characters.
Combining the Snowflake Method with what we’ve learned about plot and structure will give us an advantage in constructing interesting stories that can be delivered in a reasonable time frame.
Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method is a book you’ll want to consider.
I am delighted to welcome Randy Ingermanson as our guest for this article on the craft of writing. Randy earned a PhD in theoretical physics from UC Berkeley, but left that field after a few years to follow his dream of writing. Along with his books of instruction on writing fiction, he is himself the author of award-winning novels including the City of God series, Oxygen, The Fifth Man, and Double Vision.
Welcome, Randy, and thank you for joining us!
Thanks for having me on your blog!
What made you want to become an author of fiction?
I’ve been a voracious reader since I was four years old. At some point along the way, I fell into the delusion that writing a novel must be easy, since it’s so easy to read one. So I decided I was going to write a novel someday. About the same time, I got interested in the world of first-century Jerusalem and did a lot of research to learn what that world was like. I decided that I wanted to write novels set in first-century Jerusalem. After I actually started writing fiction, I realized it wasn’t so easy, but that just made it a challenge. And I like to tackle tough challenges.
Does your background in physics help you in your fiction writing?
It certainly helps me write novels about physicists. But it’s not all that helpful in any other aspect of fiction writing.
How and when did you come up with the idea for the Snowflake Method?
I got the core of the idea in seventh grade when our English teacher taught us how to write “one good paragraph.” The key idea is what problem-solvers everywhere call “divide and conquer.” You break the problem down into smaller pieces and then solve each piece separately.
When it came time to write my PhD thesis, I used this idea to write my thesis very quickly. I wrote out the key idea of the thesis, expanded that to a few parts, expanded each of those to a few chapters, expanded each of those to a few paragraphs, and then used that skeleton to write the thesis.
At the time, it seemed like the obvious way to get the job done. Years later when I had learned all the skills to write fiction, I used a similar process to design my novel before I wrote it. And that process is just the Snowflake Method.
To my utter astonishment, the Snowflake Method has become wildly popular all around the world. Tens of thousands of novelists have used it to design their novels. I hear from writers all the time whose brains are wired to love the Snowflake. Of course, it’s not for everybody. But I am thrilled that it works so well for so many people.
I understand you still have a regular job. How do you find time to work and write?
I make time to work because I have to eat. Then I make time to write because I want to create. Then with whatever time is left over, I deal with everything else in my life, and of course there’s never enough time to do it all. Every writer who ever published a book has had to solve this problem, and they all solve it in pretty much the same way. It usually means that something else in your life doesn’t get done. I know there are plenty of things in my life that don’t get done, but I don’t see a simple solution.
Of all your fiction books, which is your favorite?
Tough question. That’s like asking which of my kids I love best. I love them all.
Every time I finish a book, it’s the best work I’m capable of doing at that time. Looking back on my books, I can see things I would do differently if I were publishing them today. But I did the best I could at the time, and the book I’m working on right now is the best I can do today.
What one piece of advice would you give to new authors?
Create a habit of writing every day. You can analyze author success mathematically, and there are four crucial factors. One of the factors of a successful career is production. A habit of writing every day drives production. One of the other factors is quality. A habit of writing every day builds quality.
So write every day. Every single day.
Do you have any books coming out soon?
Yes, I’m planning to release a novel soon on the life of Jesus of Nazareth. I’ve been working on this book for a long time and it’s the best I can do. My perfectionist nature keeps whispering in my ear that the book would be even better if I wait another year, but I think it’s time to launch this book and move on to the next.
Other than your own books, what book on the craft of writing would you recommend to our readers?
I learned how to write fiction from Dwight Swain’s classic book Techniques of the Selling Writer. Chapters 3 and 4 were especially crucial for me in learning how to make fiction work.
What do you do when you want to get away from writing?
I go out in the yard and work. I’m not particularly good at yard work, but my wife tells me what needs doing, and I do it. We have about 2.5 acres of land in the Pacific Northwest, where it rains a lot and things grow like crazy. So I spend a lot of time every summer fighting a hopeless battle against weeds and entropy. It keeps me somewhat fit, and it puts my mind in a completely different gear, and I come back to the house ready to create.
Where can we find out more about you and your work?
If you’re interested in learning how to write fiction, I have a website dedicated to teaching that at https://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.
If you’re interested in the novels I’ve written, I have a website that tells all about them at https://www.ingermanson.com.
Thank you, Randy, for sharing your expertise with us!
Good morning, Kay and Randy!
Kay, I love the story about the Andy books you shared with your son. What a lovely memory, and it certainly shows writing was in your wheelhouse years before you sat down to write your first novel. So cool!
Randy, thanks so much for taking time today so we can get to know you a bit. I’ve purchased a Kindle edition of The Snowflake Method and can’t wait to delve in. And to your fiction (Transgression first?) I particularly loved your comments about each book being the best work you were capable of at the time. I’ve shared that view about my own work. It’s liberating!
May I ask one question a little off-topic? Your favorite books or papers about physics?
Hope you enjoy learning about the Snowflake Method and that it helps you make progress in your writing!
As for books on physics, I enjoyed Stephen Hawking’s book A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME. I’m told that this is the best-selling book that never gets finished, but I finished it, so there’s probably something wrong with me.
I also enjoyed David Deutsch’s book THE FABRIC OF REALITY. Of course, a book on the nature of reality is really getting into philosophy, but that’s OK. I don’t necessarily agree with Deutsch, but I like his ability to explain things.
Thank you, Randy! A Brief History of Time is a favorite of mine too, and my copy is old and dear. I’ll check out Deutsch’s work. Best! Lisa
Good morning Randy,
Can you tell us a little more about your next book on the life of Jesus? What inspired you to take on such a monumental subject? Do you have a publication date for the book?
Yes, thanks for asking. I’ve been working now for five years on a four-book series of novels on the life of Jesus. Why has it taken so long? Because there was a boatload of research.
Starting in 2015, I began spending several weeks in Israel each summer working on archaeological digs and traveling around the countryside. And of course I’ve been reading a lot of historical books about Jesus.
You might ask how anyone could possibly write a novel about Jesus when the story structure as told in the gospels is so wildly different from the three-act structure used by modern novelists. That’s a good question and it caused me a lot of angst.
I solved the problem by asking what Jesus actually achieved by his life and by his death. Theologians since the apostle Paul have insisted that Jesus defeated “the Powers.”
There are four main Powers Jesus defeated, and so each book in my series will tackle one of them. The battle with the Powers gives each book a bit of a suspense element. Which is important, because I’ve always been a suspense novelist.
This has been a huge project that has been burning a hole in my brain for years. What inspired me to take it on? That’s easy. Back in the fall of 2004, my agent called me and asked if I’d like to work on a novel about Jesus. He had a title all picked out, and some great marketing ideas.
We actually sold that project to a major Christian publisher, but it eventually crashed and burned, so that book never got published. I’m thankful now. I wasn’t ready to write the book then. I am now.
At the moment, I’m waiting for the cover designer to finish the artwork for the cover. Also, I have it out to a number of fellow authors who are reading it for endorsement. Some of them have already sent me their endorsements, and several others will be done soon.
I’m publishing this series as an indie author, because my indie books have done better than my traditionally published books, and I want these books to do well. I don’t have a fixed publication date. When I’ve got the cover done and the maps drawn and when the endorsements are all in, I’ll launch the first book in the series.
How exciting! I’m looking forward to your books. Your description of the journey to publication is an inspiration to all of us who want to produce a quality product.
Great book, Randy, that Snowflake Method. I recently read it and am using it to restructure and beef up the fiction novel I’ve been at for a couple of years. The aspects of your book I’m finding particularly helpful include the successively expanding synopses, the character sheets, the tension-building plot structure (three-acts, three disasters, etc.), and…well…just about everything. It’s a wonderful resource for writers at any stage of development.
I was a little surprised that you don’t think your math and physics background was very helpful in novel writing. The training in organized, methodical thinking…in cause and effect relationships…in how to tell when something has enough substantiation to be believable…in how much research is enough…didn’t any of that help you? Of course the formal physics is of little value, except maybe in science fiction writing.
Anyway, thanks for making TSM available to all us struggling newbies!
Glad to hear you’re finding the Snowflake Method useful!
As for the value of math and physics for fiction writing, my thinking is that fiction is about giving your reader a powerful emotional experience. Analytical thinking and logic and all that are of course useful, but they can also get in the way if you’re not careful. Part of what I had to learn as a novelist was who to keep them from taking over the show, when they are really bit players.
One other question for you, Randy: I loved your “City of God” series and have recommended it to many of my friends. My favorite character in the books was Baruch. Such a well-drawn description of the complexity of a man of faith. I especially enjoyed his questions about Maxwell’s equations that Ari had on his tee-shirt.
My question: did you base any of your characters on people you know? If so, which ones? Can you tell us about them?
That’s a good question, and I’m glad you liked Baruch. He was a walk-on character who turned out to be interesting, so I gave him more and more of a role as he proved he could handle it.
I’d say that all my characters, both the nice ones and the naughty ones, get some of their DNA from me. The fraction rarely goes over 1/3. I don’t want to be writing fiction as thinly veiled autobiography, so I try to limit how much of me they get.
I don’t actually know where the other 2/3 comes from. A few of my characters may be partly based on people I know, but usually only a small fraction.
When I create characters, I start small, with just a few characteristics, and then work out from there. Lately, I’ve found Susan May Warren’s book THE STORY EQUATION to be very helpful. Susie is a close friend of mine who’s written a ton of bestsellers, and her method works well for me in growing out my characters. I’ve evolved her method a little bit, just as I evolve all the other ideas I pick up from other people.
I don’t feel like I know a character until I start hearing their voice in my head. Sometimes that takes a while, but I’ve found that interviewing them on paper helps them find their voice.
Thank you both Kay and Randy for your words of wisdom! Kay, I loved the story about Arthur writing his first story. It reminded me of my son (though older at the time) and how he would dictate a series he had–“James Jammer”–and I’d type them out and he’d make the illustrations. As he started his first novel in the fourth grade writing long hand in a journal, he soon taught himself to type!
Randy, I’ve heard of your Snowflake Method for years so this was a delight to see your interview. Thank you for your words which encouraged me–that you write the best novel you can at the time. I just sent off a proposal today and worried about the story–so your words were very timely as an encouragement–as that of today it was the best I could do!
Thank you again to both of you.
“James Jammer” sounds like a winner of a series! I hope you did a better job of saving them than I did of the Andy books. And Alex started his first novel in fourth grade? I expect to see him on the NY Times Best Seller list soon!
Glad to hear from you.
Perfectionism can kill you as a writer.
I’m all for having high standards. We grow in our skills by stretching ourselves, shooting for 104% of what we’re capable of doing.
But at the end of the project, we need to send it in and move on and accept that we aren’t actually perfect yet. That’s a hard lesson to learn.
Have fun with your writing!
I’m not a writer per se but I’ve had the experience of feeling the anointing when the words seem to flow mysteriously on to the paper, as you suddenly feel like a scribe and not exactly the composer. Thank you for sharing your giftings. Susan
Hi Susan! What a great insight, and I love the way you described it. I have also had the feeling sometimes that the words were writing themselves and the plot going in a different direction than I had originally planned. As if there was an unseen current pulling me along.
Thanks for stopping by.
Please forgive the lateness of this response, but I’ve been having computer problems all week! Randy, I love your writing. The City of God series is one of the best things I’ve ever read, and I only hope I (and needless to say, you) live long enough to finish it. I’m also looking forward to your Crown of Thorns series.
I am a pantser through and through, but the Snowflake Method makes great sense to me and I tell everyone I edit for about it. It’s great for analyzing a first draft–it makes the structural problems pop out like zits!
Randy, if you’re still hanging around despite the lateness of this reply, I had a question about your blog. You said something particularly interesting here: “…that book never got published. I’m thankful now. I wasn’t ready to write the book then. I am now.” My question is, how do you know you weren’t ready then, and how do you know you are ready now? What makes a writer “ready” to write a certain book?
Great question, mlktrout. I’m interested to see what Randy says about that, and I’ll bet there are some others whose ears are perked.
That is a great question! My ears are definitely perked and waiting for an answer!
I didn’t notice mlktrout’s question until today, so I’ll answer it a bit late.
First, how do I know I wasn’t ready to write my book then?
Of course, at the time, I thought I was perfectly ready to write it. It’s only looking back that I realize how much I’ve learned since then. My understanding of history, archaeology, theology, and the geography of Israel have grown a lot since then. And also, I might be a little more mature now, although my cat insists that I am still not fully committed to serving her every need.
Second, how do I know I’m ready now?
Now that I think about it, I don’t know for sure I’m ready. I think I am, but I thought I was back in 2005. So I might be wrong. I might still not have the skills I need. But I’m going to take that risk and publish the book. You can’t wait forever. My editor says the book is good. People I trust say it’s good. It’s time to jump off the diving board.
Because it’s true that I’ll be even better prepared to write the book 14 years from now. But in the meantime, I could get hit by a bus.
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