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Posts by Kate Paulk

Return to the Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Subconscious matters

So, we’re finally moving towards the end of the reposts of the Extreme Pantser’s Guide – we’ve covered a bunch of craft matters, and a few other bits. Today’s post is about ways to con… ahem… persuade the subconscious to play nice.

After which I will attempt not to swear at the bloody cat. For Reasons.

The Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Working with your subconscious

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Return to the Extreme Pantser’s Guide: the Afterglow

Those of you who expressed sympathy over the Roomba poopocalyspe will no doubt be pleased to know that it has not been repeated. Unfortunately, this is because the thing is now scheduled to run in the evening, and we’re making sure to check and remove feline indiscretions prior to the scheduled runs. I fear there will be a litterbox in the living room if this continues. We really want to keep the kitty potty downstairs, but when one of the little darlings insists that his potty is upstairs dammit, it’s kind of difficult to argue. Especially when he does it while we’re at work.
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Extreme Pantser’s Guide: A Good Climax

Today did not go the way I wanted it. I got home to yet another Roomba poopocalypse courtesy the cat with bowel issues doing his business in the wrong place again. So another set of brushes goes into the trash because it’s not worth cleaning them, the Roomba gets scrubbed as much as possible (about halfway there right now – there’s more to go before it’s usable again), after which I will be reprogramming the bloody thing so there’s time for a poop patrol before it starts its cycle.

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Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Building to the Climax

And another week, complete with server crap-outs and other work-time chaos, although the Christmas long weekend was nice. And quiet – I like quiet.

This week’s instalment of the Extreme Pantser’s Guide is a pantser perspective on building towards the climax of a book. As usual, I haven’t changed anything, so take it as read any observations are about 3 years out of date – if not more. Read more

Return to the Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Emotional Matters

December and January tend to be rather… fraught where I work, and this year is proving no exception. So far we’ve had a server crash, a critical bug that only surfaced with a very specific set of unusual data, and – inevitably – someone screwing up in the kind of way that causes everybody else (aka me) a ton of problems. And we’ve got a month or so of peak time to go.

Yeah, I’m just a tad on the distracted side, although to be fair, when am I not?

In any case, today’s thrilling installment of the Extreme Pantser’s Guide is covering writing emotion and some suggestions for doing a better job of it. As always, this was written several years ago and has not been edited. I’m just reposting the thing.

The Pantser Body of Knowledge: Emotion and how to make it happen

Oddly enough, emotion is something a lot of pantsers have trouble writing, and I’m no exception. I think it’s because many of us feel the emotions of our characters as we write them, with the result that we see more on the page than is actually there.

It’s rather an odd thing: first we have to feel the emotion ourselves. Then we’ve got to depict it well in print. After that, if we did it right, someone we’ve never met reads our book, and feels the same emotion we started with.

The key to the transition is words, and powerful words. For instance, if you use the word ‘yawn’ a few times in a scene, you can guarantee that a high proportion of your readers will start yawning. That’s one of the best known trigger words. ‘Itch’ is another one. Describe the crawling skin and maddening, prickling itch of an allergy rash, and your readers will be trying not to scratch – and often they’ll be feeling itchy in the same body part where your character is itchy.

This, fellow pantsers, is applied, even forced, empathy. Our goal is to make other people feel the way we do, using only words.

So how?

People-watching is good for this, as is taking note of how people you know respond to emotions. There’s always going to be a layer of social conditioning on top of the human-universals: if it’s not done for men to cry in public – or at all – then your male character suffering terrible grief is going to try to divert it into a socially acceptable channel. If women are expected to make with the waterworks at any moment, then your female character probably will. And so forth.

There are a whole lot of physical cues you can use to depict emotion. Someone shuffling along with slumped shoulders and head bowed is certainly tired – maybe even weary. Add quick gestures to wipe their eyes, and you have someone who is utterly miserable and wants to be anywhere else.

Nervousness and fear will show in things like more sweat (which smells different than normal exertion-sweat – it’s stronger and sharper), dry mouth, agitation as adrenaline starts flooding their system. They might wipe their hands on their clothes, because their palms are sweaty, and they could press their hands flat on something so they don’t clench into or onto the nearest object. It’s an instinct thing: scared people grab something to hang onto and hold so tight their knuckles show under the skin. Often they’ll go pale: that’s the fight/flight reaction redirecting blood flow towards the muscular system to better enable explosive action.

Happiness shows in walking straighter, with a bit of a bounce to the step, shoulders back a bit, and open and relaxed kind of posture. You don’t even need smiles – those are usually to signal to someone else that you’re happy.

These are all external cues, things someone else will notice. There are plenty of internal cues as well, things you can use without stating the emotion involved.

Your character’s chest aches, his stomach clenches, and his heartbeat increases: he’s probably scared. His eyes burn and his throat closes on him: grief. His muscles are tight, his heartbeat increases, his teeth clench and he wants to clench his fists: anger. Everything feels light, heartbeat is slow: happiness. His face gets hot, he wants to dig a hole and pull it in after him: embarrassment.

I’ve personally found that emotion cues best when I don’t actually mention the emotion in question, just describe its effects on the character who’s feeling it, and in many cases their attempts to deny that this is what they’re feeling (usually because in the spirit of ‘things get worse’ they’re in a situation where giving the emotion in question free rein would get them killed).

Here’s an exercise for those who have difficulty getting emotion across: write a short scene (no more than a page) from the point of view of someone feeling an intense emotion they can’t allow anyone else to see. Now give that scene to a friend to read. Afterwards, ask them what they thought your character was feeling. If you’ve done it right, your reader will have the right answer. If not, ask what your reader would have expected someone feeling that to do or feel – and try the piece on a few other people because there’s always the chance you’ve been getting feedback from someone weirder than I am who totally mis-cues emotion. (If you have the misfortune to totally mis-cue emotion, find people who will tell you what the emotional cues should be for the emotion you want readers to feel, and build up a reference list of them. Aside from anything else, it will let you pretend to be like everyone else and possibly save you a lot of trouble).

As always, read books where it’s done well and take mental or actual notes on how the author does it. Sarah is excellent with this, as is Terry Pratchett particularly in his later books (Snuff has several magnificent examples). If you’re looking for strong emotions that are kept beneath a socially acceptable façade, you can’t do much better than Georgette Heyer (A Civil Contract has possibly the best example of a woman desperately in love with someone – and never once lets him see this because she knows it would repel him).

I don’t necessarily recommend pumping your friends for information about how it feels when their spouse dies or some other tragedy occurs – although if they know you’re a writer, they might well know to expect this – but do observe how they react. We’re writers: we’re going to observe and take mental notes anyway. The whole time I was driving (1500 miles, two and a half days) with a broken ankle, I was mentally taking note of the way the way my foot swelled up, the nature of the pain – the burning under my skin that made me whimper, the flashes of white and the nausea if I didn’t have the foot absolutely straight when I was hobbling around, how it never ever stopped hurting, just fluctuated between bearable and uncontrollable whimpering… all of that – and how I responded to the whole ordeal.

The more emotion you can show through character action and physical cues, the more chance your readers will feel it too. And that should always be the goal.

Return to the Ultimate Pantser’s Guide: Lesser Lights

So another week has vanished with little to show for it apart from the usual explosions at work (why yes, that server we’ve been agitating to have replaced for the past five years really is overloaded and obsolete. Why do you think it keeps crashing in peak time? And no, it really isn’t a good idea to format your flat-file data so that one record type allows leading spaces and the linked associated record type doesn’t. What makes you think you doing this makes it my problem?). That of course means it’s time for another instalment of the Ultimate Pantser’s Guide, this time a quick look at the “joys” of minor characters and how to “promote” uppity ones into the unexpected corpse that just derailed your hero.

The Pantser Body of Knowledge: the Lesser Lights

Minor characters, we loves them we does. Particularly with ketchup.

Oh, not the redshirts, at least, not only the redshirts. Fine, yes, I do enjoy redshirting people who irritate me.

So, you’re going to be running into any number of minor characters through the course of the story, everything from the fellow who sells you overpriced drinks at that fancy resort to your favorite bartender in the grimy dive you usually frequent. Oh? Sorry. My subconscious seems to live in Evil Bastard Central, and that place has more grimy dives than a mud wrestling competition.

At any rate, minor characters typically fall into a few broad categories, whether you’re a plotter, a pantser, or somewhere in between. There’s your named minors, usually people who have some kind of importance to what your majors are doing – the hero’s valet, the villain’s favorite general, the bartender the hero pours out his woes to… These guys will serve multiple roles so that you don’t overload the poor reader with seven hundred names in as many sentences, and you’ll usually flag them with a reminder like “the leader of the elvish ghosts I enslaved”, just so the reader doesn’t need to scootch back forty pages to the last time said character made an appearance. The risk to pantsers is that the named minors can very easily take on their own life and take over your story. More on that later.

Unnamed minors usually get a distinguishing ‘flag’ of some sort. The one-legged beggar, the short (or tall) guard, that hot redhead down at the bar (I think my subconscious is thirsty). They’re generally functional bits that serve a purpose but are mostly forgotten as soon as they’re out of sight.

Then there’s the local color – these aren’t usually characterized as individuals, but as groups, and mostly show up when the story is playing tour guide. They help to fill out the sense of a world beyond what the main characters see, and a culture that isn’t ours. Of course, they, like all the other minor character categories frequently end up in the final one I use…

The corpse. Yes, corpses can have character. If it’s hot and there’s no refrigeration, rather a lot of it, and quite robust. The thing is, the corpses serve multiple purposes too, and that’s apart from the value as future fertilizer. The state of a body tells your main something about how it got to be one. If it’s upright and walking around, there’s probably a necromancer somewhere nearby. Recently roasted, you start looking for anything that’s combustible. Lots of bodies and blood, you’re probably looking at a war zone or a very enthusiastic group of bandits.

Naturally, the easiest way to deal with a named minor who tries to take over is to make arrangements for him, her, or it to become a corpse. That isn’t always possible. Sometimes it turns out – particularly if you live in extreme pantser pants – that the person you thought was a named minor character is actually one of your mains. This can be traumatic, and in extreme cases lead to the Epic With Everything.

The way I see it, if this happens to you, you can go one of three directions. You can roll with it, see where it takes you, and clean up the mess when revision time happens. Alternatively, you can promise the uppity named minor his/her/its own book later, conditional on good behavior now. The third option is the corpse – which can also serve as a warning to any other minor characters with Ideas.

Yes, I know. This is a problem pantsers have. Our characters feel so much like real, independent beings to us that we think and speak of them that way. So long as you know which universe has the feet and the bills you’ve got to pay, it doesn’t matter, not even when your subconscious has a bar tab spanning the entire multiverse of your imagination. That one only comes due in the form of “you will write this story now”, which isn’t too much of a problem unless you’re being paid to do something else now (Welcome to my life, by the way).

A final word on corpses. Don’t be scared of them. Your writing will be a lot stronger if the dead bodies mean something to your hero (they usually mean something to your villain, typically “that’s that nuisance dealt with”). Offing your hero’s best friend has much more emotional kick than some random stranger who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Offing his puppy… well, you’re just a bastard author with godlike powers of manipulating events, aren’t you? (Besides, how can the hero possibly look after a puppy when he’s off adventuring all the time? Seriously. That puppy wouldn’t ever be really his anyway.)

Return to the Ultimate Pantser’s Guide: Heroes and Villains and Oops! Oh my!

It’s hard to believe another week has gone by. I swear someone is stealing my time. Of course, it helps (not) that my daily routine is currently something like “Go to work. Come home. Find the latest round of cat puke and clean it up. Fix dinner. Go to bed.”

On the somewhat plus side I seem to be regaining at least some of my get up and go (at least, it doesn’t seem to have permanently got up and went) and actually spent a little time on the book of faces yesterday.

I may even get back to blogging on my own site again. I need to – I have a presentation and video from the test conference I spoke at that needs to go up and some other odds and sods I need to sort out there.

At any rate, I’m not in total hibernation any more.

So with that said, I hereby present to you the latest reinstalment of the Extreme Pantser’s Guide (also known as the Pantser Body of Knowledge and the Ultimate Pantser’s guide depending on just what my fingers decide to type). Enjoy.

The Pantser Body of Knowledge: Heroes and Villains and Oops! Oh My!

The time has come to take a look at the art and craft of characterization. This probably seems weird, since characterization is one of the things pantsers tend to get “free” – but getting it and writing it well aren’t the same thing. It’s worth reading up about what makes a good character and learning the skills of portraying a good character without the – often dubious – benefit of having this person show up inside your head and tell you stuff. Aside from anything else, your characters are the ultimate in unreliable narrator.

They’re artifacts of your subconscious, no matter how real they feel to you, and you don’t always know enough about their world and environment to know when they’ve got something wrong. This is where that bane of pantsers (yes, pantsers have rather a lot of banes. We collect them, I think) comes from, namely the character who thinks/acts like someone from your current era and culture despite being from something completely different.

Now, before people start jumping all over me, yes it is possible to do this. When you do, it had better be a deliberate way to show up some absurdity of the current era/culture and not because you think that’s how everyone thinks and acts. Trust me, it’s not. The US is currently more or less based on individual and guilt – meaning that it’s wrong whether anyone sees you or not, and that responsibility as well as glory rests on the individual’s actions. There’s two spectrums there – every society lies somewhere between the extremes of group-based versus individual-based, and shame/face versus guilt. Most of them fall somewhere in the middle, recognizing some individual rights/responsibilities, and operating on a mix of guilt and shame. More to the point, the more ‘natural’ (as in, this is mostly how humanity has been throughout history) mode leans heavily towards group-based and shame/face. This isn’t meant to be a critique or condemnation – it’s more to point out that the modern US (and the rest of the Anglosphere) is something of an anomaly, historically, so there’s a pretty good chance that anything you write is going to have at least one group and face oriented character. And that person will think and act very differently than you do.

Right. So culture shapes thought. So does climate (ask any Aussie, including this one). So does geography. All of that goes towards who and what your main character is. If he’s never been outside space stations and space ships before, he’s likely to have a bad case of agoraphobia the first time he walks on a planetary surface. Someone from a desert could regard water with near-religious awe.

Now comes the fun part – when pantsers write, we tend to be very strongly inside our character’s point of view. When readers read, we tend to start from the assumption that this person is like us. If drawing the character isn’t done well, the result can be jarring to say the least. A really bad effort can see the book take a flying lesson – which isn’t a good idea if you’re reading on an ereader.

As usual, go to the resources that are there to help plotters build realistic characters, and read them for the information about presenting the character information to readers. The goal is to Heinlein it in, the same way you Heinlein setting. The second big resource is authors who are experts at this – Terry Pratchett (who, let’s face it, is an expert at just about everything), Sarah Hoyt, Dave Freer, Mercedes Lackey (to some extent – she certainly has that rare gift of making a whiny, unlikeable character sympathetic – it’s worth reading the Vanyel books just for that technique). I’m sure there are others – this is just a list that comes to mind right now (and since I’m perpetually semi-brain-dead and usually stealing time from something else when I write, research isn’t an option).

The goal you aim for is to have the character’s actions and responses drop information about their life and basic assumptions without an “As you know, Bob”. The character who reaches for a weapon when stressed or startled – and which weapon – tells you a lot about the kind of person they are and some about their technology and social status. Basically, the first reaction of someone who does a lot of fighting, either as a professional soldier or something less formal, is going to be to go for their weapon, and they’ll feel naked without it. The same kind of reaction applies to someone who’s paranoid, although they’ll usually be wanting to go for a concealed weapon.

One plotter way to figure out this kind of thing is to watch people. It’s easy to do: sit somewhere busy and just observe. Take note of the little unconscious gestures – these are the tells that will give away an emotional state someone doesn’t want to admit to. Some of them are universals, like blushing, clenched fists, flexing the fingers, clutching something and the like. Others are specific to the culture: Western Anglo-Saxon-based cultures view looking someone in the eye as an indicator of both trustworthyness and respect, where many Asian cultures consider it respectful to avoid a direct gaze. A lot of hand gestures are culture specific , too – although I’m not aware of anywhere that treats a nod as “no” and a headshake as “yes”. The US (and most of the West, plus by now most of everywhere else) regards the upraised middle finger as a defiant and crude way to tell someone to “go forth and multiply” as it were. Raising the index and middle fingers is seen in the US as a “Victory” sign. But in Australia, New Zealand, and the UK (and probably elsewhere), it’s only “V for victory” if the back of your hand faces you. The other way around, particularly if you move from horizontal to vertical, has more or less the same meaning as the middle finger. Then you’ve got the individual-level gestures. This person chews her hair when she’s nervous. That one jigs one leg. Someone else never stands still. These little things can be used for the equivalent of “stage business” to break up the he-said-she-said rhythm of dialog and show more about your characters.

And of course, the more you, the pantser, practice these techniques, the more you’ll find yourself doing them automatically. You’ll go to revise something and clean up your dialog and it will all be there, with the kind of revealing details that leave you wondering if the blasted thing started to write itself when you weren’t looking (It didn’t. Trust me on this. It’s just that pantsers get into a kind of writing trance where the words just happen, and they don’t necessarily remember writing them all. It’s the same reason you don’t always remember doing some routine task, even though you actually did do it. Your subconscious was driving.)

So, with all of this in mind, your hero needs to be a bit larger-than-life (just because we all know life as it is, and most of us prefer life-as-is to be kind of dull), more or less aimed in the correct direction, but most importantly, sympathetic. Readers will accept and even empathize with someone they’d normally smack for being a total loser if it’s done right, but let your hero kick a puppy and you’ve lost them forever. This is actually an issue in a number of really old books: most modern Western readers have grown up in a culture that regards it as a Very Bad Thing to harm the helpless, and human nature is such that cute and helpless gets a stronger reaction than ugly and helpless. Yes, you probably could justify your hero beating grandma, if she’s nasty enough. You’d never get past kicking a puppy or a kitten. Heck, you’d probably lose them there even if you were going for humor.

One thing I’ve noticed is that any character, no matter who or what they are, who goes out of their way to protect the helpless will be liked. I can — and have — written a character who is verging on psychopathic but who sticks to an absolute refusal to harm the innocent. People like reading about him (no, this isn’t published, yet).

On the flip side, it’s kind of passé to have your villain kick the cat to show how evil he is. Villainy in stories can be anything from standing in opposition to whatever your hero needs to absolute evil (which I have yet to see portrayed effectively, but that’s a different issue). If your villain has any interaction in the story – it’s possible to write one who doesn’t and is seen solely through the actions of underlings – then he, she, or it, needs to have similar kinds of characterization. Since many authors don’t like spending time inside the minds of their villains, that means external cues. Body language is always a good one: someone who is confident of their abilities will stand straight and often use a dominant pose. Gestures will be strong, and you won’t see a nervous twitch anywhere.

Another characterization tool is the choice of words. Someone who’s nervous will talk around a topic rather than getting to the point. Someone who’s in charge and – for illustration purposes – evil will give orders and expect them to be obeyed, instantly. After all, if you kill your underlings in horribly inventive ways because they don’t obey quickly enough, you would expect them to be in a hurry to do what you tell them. Tone can be conveyed through pure dialog, as well.

As for oopses – you start writing thinking Freddy is your hero, but he’s actually the villain of the piece, or vice versa – that’s what revision is for. If you find out you got it wrong and it switches on you partway through, keep writing and use a nice, easy to find way to flag where you have to change things around. I use [this] to flag out anything I need to correct, look up, or otherwise check on once I’ve finished the story. The square brackets don’t get used anywhere else in my writing, they don’t get lost or changed if I switch word processor, computer, or operating system (yes, I routinely do all three), so I can do a search for “[” and find everything I’ve marked along the way, and fix it all.