Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Writing According to Diana Gabaldon
In October, I attended a presentation by Diana Gabaldon, the author of the bestselling Outlander series. The presentation took place at the Charleston Civic Center as part of the 2010 West Virginia Book Festival. Gabaldon shared her insights into how she wrote her first novel and established her career as a novelist. What I found most interesting was her writing process, her experience writing a series, and her advice to aspiring authors.
Gabaldon started writing her novel Outlander to practice writing and to see if she enjoyed writing a novel. What surprised me was that she did not start her novel knowing exactly what it would be about. In fact, Gabaldon picked a setting and worked her plot and characters around it. She knew she wanted to write about Scotland in the 18th century, so she went to the library to research that time and place. Gabaldon also knew that stories needed conflict. When she stumbled upon information about the Jacobite rising of 1745, she decided to work her plot around that historical conflict.
At this point, Gabaldon had found her novel's setting and conflict. She joked that she also wanted many handsome scotsmen in her novel, but she recognized that the story needed a woman to "add sexual tension and balance genders." So, she created a protagonist named Claire, then noticed that Claire "took over plot and told the story."
From there, Gabaldon used the setting, conflict, and characters to develop her novel. She did the latter in a peculiar way as well: she wrote the scenes out of order as they came to her, rather than writing the story from beginning to end.
The way Gabaldon experiments with her writing process shows how writers who want to write can carve out a novel from as little as one element. Perhaps we can jumpstart our creativity by focusing on whatever elements we have (setting, plot, characters) and then linking those elements to others. Or perhaps we can complete the scenes we know we want in our story and, by doing so, discover subplots or hidden characters in our story.
Writing a Series
Gabaldon also explained how she structured the Outlander series itself. First, she mentioned the value of cliffhangers. A fan once noted that one of her novels "wrapped up everything so neatly," and she joked, "Well, see if I do that again!" Cliffhangers give readers an incentive to buy the next novel in the series by either leaving part of a conflict unresolved or by introducing a new conflict. Gabaldon wraps up several plotlines in her novels but always leaves an unresolved or new conflict to keep her readers hooked.
Another topic Gabaldon discussed was the shape of her books. She explained how stories have shapes; for example, the shape of her novel Outlander includes three triangles whose peaks represent the plot's emotional climaxes.
We can come up with ideas by plotting the shapes of our own stories. A peak too early might suggest that the rest of the story will drag without any more climaxes. To fix this, add a subplot or two to build complexity. On the other hand, a long climb to a peak might suggest that the story will drag unless a few minor climaxes occur beforehand. We can also "plot" multiple characters to see where we could add minor conflicts to the overall story's structure.
Advice to aspiring authors
After describing her writing process and the structure of her series, Gabaldon gave the audience advice. First, read everything so you can find out which subjects and writing techniques you like (and which ones you dislike). For example, I never knew I loved economics until I took a course in it. If you find a subject you enjoy, find out more about it, and if you like an author's writing technique, try it out yourself.
Second, write to get your ideas down on paper and to practice writing. Writing down ideas gives you material to work with and completes a major step in the writing process. Also, writing shows you what writing methods work best for you.
And third, don't stop writing. It takes effort to start writing down ideas, and once you lose that momentum, you will probably struggle to pick it up again. Writing constantly will keep that momentum going and can even accelerate it by keeping your work fresh in your mind.
I hope Diana Gabaldon's experience and advice gives you ideas to work with in your own writing. If you want to know more about Diana Gabaldon and her work, visit her website.