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Span of Control - Lakeshore
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2005-10-16 12:26
Subject: Span of Control
Security: Public
So in writing "Death of a Starship" a couple of new things came to me. One of them was a sense of a widened span of control. I think this might be an important concept, depending how people process their own creative efforts.

What I mean by "span of control" is the story size (and shape) that I can hold in my head and manage organically, to produce a competent (or better than competent) first draft with a strong, consistent voice. As opposed to work outside my span of control, which tends to be far more laborious, requiring multiple restarts and editing sessions and considerable editorial/critical input. Painful, in short.

Note that I have always written longer works than my span of control -- "Into the Gardens of Sweet Night", which is 15,600 words long, was written about the time that my span of control was around 3,500 words, and people liked it enough to land it on the Hugo ballot. Rocket Science is well outside even my current span of control, let alone where I was when I wrote it, but it seems to have made quite a good impression.

So obviously I don't need to write within my span of control to create a successful story. It's a distinction of craft or technique more than a quality barrier. In that case, why do I think it matters?

Two things. One, my voice is much more natural and stronger, at least in my judgment, when I'm working inside my span of control. That's where writing is fun, with rhythms and the odd shot of blistering white fire.

Two, outside my span of control I fall prey to many common writer fears and troubles. Inside my span of control, I tend to be highly confident. This means I can make more progress on areas needing improvement (emotionally engaging character arcs, for example), and play to my strengths without being self-conscious or contrived about it.

Prior to "Death of a Starship", my longest span of control has been about 20,000 words. I never left that zone through the 44,700 words of this first draft. Essentially doubled it in the last ten days. This means my perspective on my next two novel projects is much improved. Novels have never felt like a natural length to me, "natural" apparently equating roughly to "falling within my span of control."

Also, a couple of people commented on my remark about matociquala working without a net. What I meant by that specifically was that she exposed her immediate and interim goals publicly and reports daily on her progress. I work daily, or almost so, and I write from beginning to end without a lot of formal structure or process -- it's not that I really work with a net either. It's just that matociquala does in a tent with hundreds of lj readers looking on.

Any comments on "span of control"? You guys have your own experiences of equivalent phenomena? I'm curious, because by and large I am an unconscious writer...I deliberately don't break down my process in detail, I don't read a lot of books on writing...I let Fred do it down in the plumbing, and feed him tools when and how I can. "Span of control" is one of the few critical concepts I've always been overtly aware of in my own development as a writer, which gives it special resonance for me. As always, your mileage may vary.
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it's a great life, if you don't weaken: facepalm napoleon
User: matociquala
Date: 2005-10-16 20:15 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:facepalm napoleon
That's really interesting.

And I think I have no span of control. Everything I write, I write by following the headlights. Very, very rarely I'll get a story where I know most of it before I start. But usually, I'm at most a scene or two ahead of where I'm working.

Except for one thing: I usually know how they end.
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Jay Lake: fishbones
User: jaylake
Date: 2005-10-17 13:13 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"Write by following the headlights" is an excellent way to describe my process, too. Perhaps we approach Story in a similar fashion after all. I propose that we repair to the bar in Madison and discuss forthwith.

However, I did fail to express myself effectively in one respect: "span of control" has less to do with knowing what's going on in the story (well, almost nothing, actually) and a lot more to do with how long a piece of text I can work with completely inside my head while maintaining tightly unified themes, settings, characters, subplots, undercurrents, symbolism and whatnot without having to stop and make a bunch of notes and work it out on paper.

I don't think I'll become a good novelist until my span of control hits novel length. Which is why I have been so excited about "Death of a Starship."
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it's a great life, if you don't weaken: FANtasTIC!
User: matociquala
Date: 2005-10-17 14:17 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It's E.L. Doctorow, I think. I stole it from somewhere, anyway.

Ah, okay. What you refer to as "span of control" is actually something I don't do at all. Or more specifically, it's a second-draft process for me. I actually find that the sign of a good novel is that it's too big to all fit in my head at once, and I'm not in control of it.

What's interesting is that as I've gotten better at short stories, I find that they, too, get too big to manage inside my head. I was just Saturday night describing trying to come to grips with a new novel as being a bit like being like one of the sharks in James and the Giant Peach, completely unable to come to grips with this wonking great thing until I could find a corner to get my teeth into. Novel-writing, for me, is very much a process of Eating Something Bigger Than My Head.

Which is probably why I under-write so heavily. I have to find the narrative the first time through--and then the first and third drafts give me a chance to add symbolism, prune off the bits that never went anywhere, layer and polish and tweak and make things fall into line in later drafts.
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2005-10-16 20:28 (UTC)
Subject: Span of Control
I agree with the idea, as far as my writing is concerned, although it sometimes seems to vary with me. I know that when I wrote my first novel, the first 15,000-20,000 words were very tight, with strong rhythms and interlinked symbols and all sorts of things going on below the surface. And then, once I passed that particular point, not only did my writing slow down, but there were none of the strong undercurrents holding things together. It was a terrible strain just to get the words out, let alone do anything fancy with them.
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miki garrison
User: mikigarrison
Date: 2005-10-16 21:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Hmmmm... interesting. To use your terminology, I actually feel like I'm working much more 'in my span of control' at around 60-120K. Writing short stories, on the other hand, I feel acutely out of my comfort zone. At the novel length, I feel like I can just relax and write the damn story the way I want it in my head -- at the short story length, I seem to struggle a lot more, and also just be distractingly aware of my writing process as I go, if that makes sense. So many of my short stories end up shifting over to the novel queue, with a post-it-note of "Shit, another one that wants to be a novel when it grows up." I'm not really sure if that's just chickening out on my end, or if I should just accept it as it is...
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2005-10-16 23:40 (UTC)
Subject: Novel Length vs. Short Story Length
I'm a lot like you, but I think it's because I always wrote very long stories and novels when I was a kid. I'm a lot more comfortable writing novels than I am writing short stories. I've been writing for about 25 years (okay, so somebody else wrote everything down for me before I could actually write), and I just figured short stories out about 6 years ago. Before that, I found the pacing of them quite difficult. I didn't understand how the breadth of a novel could be condensed into a short story. Of course, that in and of itself was the problem.

With novels and novellas, on the other hand, I may daydream them for a year or two before I actually start the process of writing. ("Daydream" may not be quite accurate. It's like I'm watching a film on DVD, and I can rewind and fast forward and look over different versions of scenes before I pick the ones I like.) I can write novels in quick bursts, while I may work on a story (or just the idea for a story) for a year or more. I'm not sure why the process I use for generating a novel doesn't work with short stories. It may be because I have a lot more room to play in a novel, and I'm more (self-) conscious of getting the short story structure right.

And just because I'm a total weirdo, I find I'm also comfortable with the short-short form.

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Jay Lake: gnome
User: jaylake
Date: 2005-10-17 13:22 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
That's fascinating...I never thought of span of control as having a minimum, as it were. For me it's always been "0 and up..." Though truthfully, writing below about 500 words and crafting a successful story is very hard. I've only managed it about twice. So maybe my span is "500 and up..." Yours is "60,000 and up..." apparently.
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mlerules: Brain
User: mlerules
Date: 2011-03-14 15:12 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Fred, eh? Heh.
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