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Return to the Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Pacing

Kate got caught up by real life and asked me to post this for her. This is the second in her “Return to the Extreme Pantser’s Guide” posts. You can find the first one here. — Amanda

This chapter is the first of several covering various aspects of plotting and characterization technique from the extreme pantser’s perspective. The thing to remember here, is that this is stuff that matters, and if you as an extreme pantser don’t ‘get’ it free, you’re going to have to work a lot harder than a plotter would to get there – but not necessarily work in the same way.

One of the more interesting things I’ve found as I’ve developed as a writer is that I typically have a vague, not terribly clear feel for the techniques, but I’m not applying them with any sense or consistency because I don’t understand what the heck it is I’m trying to do, much less what my subconscious is throwing at me. Those unfortunate enough to have read some of my early stuff know what I mean here. You can see the shape I’m after but it’s kind of like a small child trying to color inside the lines.

I still color like that, but at least I’ve got better at writing.

So, pacing. This is what makes a story feel fast or slow. Unless you’re planning on writing literary fiction, you’re going to want a variety in your pacing – enough fast sections to drag your readers along with you, and enough slower ones that they have time to breathe. SF and Fantasy, particularly recently, tends to want to start fast, then have something of a slowdown before a series of increasingly sharper accelerations until the climax of the piece. Most – but not all – authors will give a chapter or three of wrapup after that at a nice, gentle pace. Sarah refers to this as the post-climax cigarette.

Pace is partly influenced by vocabulary: short, sharp verbs with minimal assistance from adverbs, action verbs in the sense that someone (preferably your protagonist) is acting… these tend to signal ‘fast’ to readers. Polysyllabic with lots of descriptive usually signals ‘slow’. We as readers are remarkably sensitive to these – to the extent that a particularly fast-paced scene in someone else’s book is quite capable of having me breathing heavily and feeling as though I just outran a bear.

So… read what you can about pacing, but also read fiction with known pace. L.K. Hamilton’s first three books are close to perfect examples of fast-paced. Terry Pratchett’s pacing is generally more leisurely, but again, pitch-perfect.

What tends to happen is that after immersing yourself in well-paced books, the extreme pantser builds a feel for pacing that manifests as “Something needs to happen soon” or “My character needs a break” – also, “Slowing things down here will increase tension” has been known to occur. In my case, rarely quite that explicit, but I do still operate at this level.

I know this sounds very vague and almost – horrors! – frou-frou, but it does seem to work this way at least for me. I’ve had to learn to trust in the pants, not least because the bloody things know more about how this works than I do (As a side note, this is one of the reasons why I’m bloody dangerous when I’m over-tired. It’s not just the narcolepsy, although that doesn’t help. It’s that all the ‘this is not socially acceptable’ filters stop working – which leads to unacceptable truths being aired out, often loudly).

 

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Return of the Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Getting Started

The long-running social media hiatus continues with another repost – the second part of the Extreme Pantser’s Guide – and yes, I do read the comments, I just don’t stay online long enough to answer them all. Or any of them, some weeks. Y’all do a lovely job of carrying on the conversation without me, though, so I’m not fussing.

The Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Getting Started

So, you’ve got the typical pantser problem of a neat scenario that’s grabbed you and won’t let go. How do you know when to start writing it and commit to a story?

I’m going to get really authoritative here and say “it depends”. Really, it does. I’ve started stories with nothing more than the scenario and had them build to a finish. I’ve had others I couldn’t start until I’d worked out how it ended. I’ve also had – not so often – cases where the starting scenario isn’t where the book actually starts, but I’ve got to write the bloody thing to work this out. On occasion, I have to know exactly where it starts before I can write it. This is one of those things that you learn by judgment, and by trial and error.

Yes, that does mean that the more extreme the pantser the more likely there’ll be a large collection of false starts, whether story ideas that didn’t have the pull they needed or weren’t quite right in some other, hard to define way, or ideas that simply weren’t big enough to sustain a book. Don’t throw them out. If your subconscious works anything like mine, unresolved story ideas will hang around like last week’s chili until you figure out where they belong and resolve them. That or they were never really “alive” in the first place.

Most of the pantsers I know operate on a principle of “Start story. Continue until the end.” It’s pretty typical for a pantser not to be able to write out of sequence, simply because if you can’t do the detailed outlining (or the detailed outlining ends up bearing no resemblance to your finished story) there’s no way the ‘good bit’ halfway through is going to end up being the same as what you thought it would be at the beginning – if you even know what that good bit is.

Given all of this, my advice to all you pantsers out there is to get something down as soon as you think there’s enough to carry it. It doesn’t have to be right, it just has to be there. What nailing something down early does is give you a feel for how the piece is going to evolve on you, and this being a primarily subconscious exercise that’s rather important.

While you’re playing with the idea, listen to a lot of different music. I’ve found that certain music acts to ‘set’ my subconscious for writing a piece. I’d also recommend prayer, if you’re the praying sort. I haven’t had this happen to me – yet – but I know people who’ve found themselves stuck with endlessly looping Abba’s Greatest Hits to write something. I gather this gives the conscious mind a pretty powerful incentive to get the thing finished, too. At any rate, the broader your listening, the more likely you’ll find something that works for your story.

For most pantsers I know (and if you’re an exception to this, feel free to ignore it), I’ve found the best way to start is to park butt in chair and start where you think it starts. Sometimes it will take off and you’ve written several chapters without realizing the passage of time. Other times you’ll need more before you can get moving. In either case, you’ve started. No amount of playing with an idea can reify it the way writing it down does.

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Return to the Past: Extreme Pantser’s Guide

Yes, I’m still on internet hiatus and minimal interaction with the rest of the universe. Since I’m also on limited brainpower while some hidden part of my mind (which I’m sure is off in the tropics somewhere with the drinks with the umbrellas and the attractive scenery) recuperates from whatever the heck is bothering it, I figured this would be a good time to start reposting a series I did rather more years back than I’d realized (seriously, 2011? I’d have sworn I haven’t been doing this for that long). So, herewith is the first part of the Extreme Pantser’s Guide, complete with link to the original (at least, presuming WordPress doesn’t do its usual job of messing things up).

Oh, and apologies for being slack on responding to comments. Those are also falling into the “social media vacation” as far as what passes for my mind is concerned.

The Extreme Pantser’s Guide: One – You Are Not Insane

 

Today I’m starting a blog series of indeterminate length: this one about writing techniques and tips from the perspective on an extreme pantser. It will get weird: life does, when you write by the seat of your pants and assorted other parts of your anatomy (some of them without physical existence).  So, without further preambling, enjoy part 1 of the extreme pantser’s guide.

The fiction writing world splits between plotters and pantsers – that is, those who plan it out before they start, and those who write by the seat of their pants as it were. Since just about every piece of advice on plotting, character building and the like assumes it’s talking to a plotter, that leaves the pantsers wondering what’s wrong with them when they simply can’t do this.

Worse, when a pantser tries to work with the detailed outlines and so forth, the result is ‘dead’ – there’s no life there.

Of course, there’s a pretty broad spectrum from the detailed spreadsheet and hundreds of pages of notes of the extreme plotter to the neat idea of the extreme pantser, and everything in between. The thing is, as an extreme pantser myself, I get almost no value out of the usual advice. The most it does is help me to fix things on occasions when I’ve written myself into a corner – and when that happens what I’m actually doing is reverse engineering the plot/characters/etc to work out what I missed and where I went wrong.

So, if that’s the way you work, take comfort. You aren’t alone. If it’s not, feel free to read and snicker at the apparently needless suffering we extreme pantsers endure.

Here’s the important bit: if you write well enough, no-one will know how you did it, and no-one will care.

Well, agents and editors do if you have to deal with proposal hell, since you’ve got to be someone like Terry Pratchett or Stephen King to be able to write what hits you and know your publisher will take it and push it (and even then it’s not a guarantee). Unfortunately, “I’m an extreme pantser. Can’t I just tell you my great idea?” doesn’t go terribly well in the mainstream publishing world.

This is why the opening of online publishing and the indie presses is such a wonderful thing for extreme pantsers. We can write it and publish it, and not have to try to get it past gatekeepers who don’t understand that not everyone can turn in a nice summary of their book before they’ve written it. Heck, I have trouble putting together a nice summary of it after I’ve written it – because I’m not necessarily aware of what the book is about.

Anyone who’s looking for the snuggly hug-me coats can stop right now: what a book is about is not the same as the plot. Anyone who doubts that should read Thud!, Unseen Academicals, and Snuff and then reflect on the plot and what those books are about. Only then can you come and bitch at me for not knowing what my own books are about.

This, ladies, gentlemen, and beings of indeterminate gender or species, is the difference between plotting and pantsing. The plotter is working with the conscious mind. The pantser is being worked by the subconscious – which is usually smarter and faster than the conscious, but doesn’t make nearly as much sense until you’ve got enough of the pieces in place to see the larger picture. Sometimes it takes longer than that, if your subconscious does the Pratchett trick of layering multiple levels of story and “about” in there.

The other big drawback to having your subconscious run the show is that it doesn’t pay attention to things like deadlines, real life, the need to have an income, or pretty much anything else mundane. It meanders on doing its own thing, then pipes up and tells you “Write this. Now” and doesn’t give you any peace until you do it.

Now, it’s not magic. It’s not anything exotic, really. What it is, is the part of you that dreams taking in all sorts of things from everything you experience, making notes somewhere inaccessible to the rest of you, and presenting you with the results. It’s not that different from looking at a situation and feeling like there’s something badly wrong: your subconscious has taken in all the cues and made the call to get out.

We do most things through this method – all those thousands of snap judgments you make when you’re driving, whether you stay well back from that vehicle or start braking shortly before the traffic blockage ahead registers consciously, they’re all handled at a subconscious level once you’ve done enough driving to be able to make the snap judgments. I don’t know what the actual numbers are, but a large part of the average person’s day isn’t lived in the conscious mind.

It’s not surprising that writing would happen that way too.

So, you, the extreme pantser, are not crazy. At least, not because you’re an extreme pantser. I’m not making guarantees about any other kind of crazy.

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Pantser’s Guide to Getting Unstuck

So, you’re a pantser. If you’re really lucky, you’re an extreme pantser like me, where your characters tell you things on a “need to know” basis – and you don’t need to know. And you’re stuck. Hard. You don’t know what should happen next in your story, and your characters won’t tell you.

The methods I use aren’t a guarantee, but they work for me, and they’ve worked for other pantsers. They’re worth trying, if only for the value of seeing words fill that blank space at the bottom of your manuscript. Yes, even if you do have to rip them out later.

So… here’s what I do when I’m stuck.

First step, I try to think through what my characters would logically do next at this point. If I’m really lucky, one of them will get irritated by my fumbling around in his, her, or its skull and start telling me what actually happens next. If not, well, it’s on to step two (which is also the semi-nuclear option).

Second step, throw a mountain at them. Yes, those of you who have heard or seen me rant on the mountain dropping school of plot will be scratching their heads here, but let me explain. Chances are if I’ve got myself stuck on something, there hasn’t been much happen that looks like it’s driven from outside the characters. The outside stuff is where you, as author, can play God in whatever way you choose (it’s also why the Church of God the Author is the true faith of many writers – and why God is a pantser). If your characters aren’t cooperating, you manipulate the environment to make them cooperate. More or less, anyway. You want your hero to go into the creepy castle, and he’s being quite sensible and saying “Hell, no”, you drive him there by constant harrying from the enemy, or you have him attacked and dragged in as a prisoner, or whatever else takes your fancy (I don’t recommend the beautiful princess unless there’s a really fat reward as well. Even the most lust-addled hero knows he’s not going to enjoy it when he’s dead, but large quantities of gold change the risk/reward calculus a bit).

It’s simple enough. You’re stuck, or you’re getting bored, so you throw in an apparently random attack or – the one I use in the Con books – a corpse, and let your characters respond. By the time they’re through dealing with the problem, they’ve revealed a few more and you have what you need to move on.

The only times I’ve found this doesn’t work is when you’ve written yourself into a blind alley. In that situation, you’ve probably also got at least one irritated character because you wrote them doing something they didn’t do, so – of course – they don’t want to talk to you (Avoiding this is why I mentally rehearse multiple options before I actually write the scene. Usually, anyway. Sometimes they just push it on me then cuss me out because they got it wrong or they want a rewrite. Demanding SOBs). For this, mountains, attacks, or corpses will fail. If you’re lucky, you can figure out where they should be and treat the blind alley as a detour of sorts (and of course, give your characters all kinds of grief getting back to where they should be). If not, it’s time to open a new file, paste in what you’ve got, and start backtracking. Delete back to the last key decision (and if your characters aren’t making decisions, you’re doing it wrong), then see if you can move on from there by changing that decision. Rinse and repeat until you get to the one that’s your problem child and move on.

The biggest stuck can be starting in the wrong place. Some lucky, lucky writers can do the “good bits” and then fill in the rest. I can’t – I have to start and work through to the end, with limited backtracking. If I misjudge where the characters are at the start, I can get myself into such a horrible mess the only choice is to throw it all away and rewrite from scratch. I’ve done this a few times, although not – thankfully – recently.

On the plus side, none of this is wasted – while you’re doing all of this, and swearing at your characters, you’re also building your writing skills. So go thee forth and unstick thyself by whatever means thou needst.

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Extreme Pantser’s Guide – What Editing is and is not

I seem to be suffering from premature conclusions again: I thought I was done with the Extreme Pantser’s Guide, then a discussion over at Sarah’s blog made it clear that there was one more installment, namely this one.

Here’s the problem – there are a lot of different functions that get called “editing”. Only one of them is what authors usually mean when they talk about editing without any qualifiers. This causes people to get confused about what editing actually is, leading someone who’s doing typo and grammar checks or manuscript preparation to think he, she, or in extreme cases it, is an editor.

Some definitions first:

Copyedit – this is your basic typo-hunt, grammar check, did you change your main character’s name somewhere and forget to fix it? It can also include adjusting spelling and grammar to house standards (including things like changing UK-standard spellings to US-standard). Mind you, a really good copyeditor is worth their weight in gold and then some, but it’s not the same thing as editing editing.

Continuity edit – a little more advanced than the copyedit, this is still a basic check but focusing more on things like whether you’ve just run your characters through a 48 hour day, or your main has his coat in one hand, a weapon in the other, and he’s scratching his head with the third hand he shouldn’t have. Also such things as a lunar cycle where it’s full for 3 weeks, new one day later, and spends the next six months stuck half-way. Oddly enough a little historical knowledge, science, and google-fu helps a lot here.

Page proof/layout – this is being called editing more often with the growth of self-publishing and micro presses. It’s actually not: it’s the preparation of a manuscript for publication. This is where manuscripts are formatted to house standards, stripped of extraneous internal coding for conversion to ebook formats, and actually converted.

Editing – without any kind of qualifications, this is the kind of plot tightening and focusing that’s what writers mean when they talk about editing – particularly when they talk wistfully about the absence of real editing.

So… someone who primarily finds grammar or spelling problems and maybe prepares your manuscript for publication electronic or otherwise is not an editor. Neither is the person who catches every last continuity glitch in the piece. These people are usually given titles like copyeditor, proof reader, or printer, and they’re valuable – especially if you stink on ice at any of those particular skills. Unfortunately a lot of them are calling themselves editors (there is a prize example in the comments on the post I linked to up above).

Here are some of the signs you have a real editor:

  • There’s a serious effort to keep your voice intact. Every author has one: it’s a combination of the way they use words, how they fit parts of a story together, all the way up to the kinds of books they write.
  • They don’t try to write the book they want: they try to make the book you wrote as good as it can be.
  • They look at how you’re cuing your characters – is the love interest introduced in a way that sets up the right expectations for readers? Are you giving your hero the kind of traits that tend to be associated with villains without any kind of balancing traits?
  • They suggest ways to tighten the pace of the piece so there aren’t any sections where a reader is likely to yawn and put the book down, without turning it into a breathless rush (unless of course it’s the kind of book that demands a breathless rush as its pace).
  • They look at character actions that don’t fit the overall impression of who that character is, and suggest ways to either correct the impression or make the actions fit.
  • They find places where the phrasing is awkward and smooth it over without altering either the meaning or the subtext of the prose. I personally experienced this from Dave Freer – when he was working with me on His Father’s Son, one of his suggestions was that one specific word gave the wrong impression. Changing that word had an immediate effect on the impact of the entire story (this usually only happens with short stories, although it can hit in a novel with a particularly critical section – especially the opening or the ending).
  • They make sure the opening of the piece sets the right tone and expectations for readers. You don’t want a historical novel or heroic fantasy reading like a modern thriller, and you don’t want hard science fiction reading like a regency romance. Well, not unless you’re writing satirically. This, incidentally, is why the tone of urban fantasy tends to sardonic with a strong overlay of kick-ass. The sardonic offsets the inherent oddness of having classic fantasy critters in modern-day settings, while the kick-ass cues readers to expect a whole lot of action.
  • They make sure the first page has enough information that readers are not going to feel like they’ve been on the wrong end of a bait-and-switch operation. What this translates to is that your piece needs to signal its genre and preferably subgenre early.
  • They do the kind of clean up changes that leave your piece infinitely better but still distinctly yours. A really good editor can take something that feels a bit awkward, and turn it into something you can’t put down – but you’ve got to do a line-by-line comparison of the text to work out what they did to make it that way.

This particular skill set is incredibly rare, and authors that do have it usually can’t put enough distance between themselves and their works to edit their own work. This is what authors mean when they say never to edit yourself. Anyone can typo check, although some are better than others. Ditto grammar (never, ever use software grammar checks. They’re designed to turn the tortured phrasing of non-writers into something readable. Good authors not only know what the rules are, they know when to break them.). Even continuity is something you can do for yourself, and as Amanda’s excellent publishing series has demonstrated, anyone can do that, too.

But actual honest-to-dog editing of the sort that the publishing houses have abandoned? That’s a much rarer beastie.

If you find a friend who can do this, bribe them with anything they ask for to edit your work. It’s worth it.

 

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The Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Meet the internal editor

You’ve finished your first draft, you’ve given it a decent amount of time to sit (trust me, for pantsers this is essential), and now it’s time to edit. As with all things pantser, particularly extreme pantser, it’s not that simple. Editor time is when you need to take this thing that’s lived inside your head for months, and put it through the shredder – and most of the pantsers I know (yes, including me) have major problems letting go enough to do this.

Probably the first and simplest tool in the kit for turning on your editor-mind is to phase-shift: to look at the piece in a different format than the one you wrote it in. Print-outs work for this. So does making a copy of the file and getting the copy onto your ebook reader or smartphone (preferably one with annotation or editing capability) and reading it there. The different format is usually enough to keep you out of writer mindset (or worse, “this is my baby” mindset).

Editing somewhere you don’t write is another tool that, while simple, works. The goal of moving is to put yourself somewhere your subconscious doesn’t recognize as writing-space. If you wrote the novel on your laptop while taking the train to and from work, don’t edit it there – or at the very least, don’t mark it up there. It doesn’t matter whether you mark up in approved editorese or not: you’re the only person who’s going to see this stuff, so you’re the only person who needs to worry about it. Highlights on a kindle with a one or two word note to say what it needs are just as effective as handwritten comments on paper, or comments embedded in a word processor file.

A word of warning here: if your word processing application uses any form of auto-formatting turn it off. There are multiple versions of Word in the wild, Word Perfect still happens, and then you’ve got Open Office and its clones, as well as any number of other applications that will create something more or less like RTF (aka “Rich Text Format” – which is text with fonts, bold, underlines and some other formatting, but not the fancy stuff). They don’t all use the same internal codes for anything that is not an obvious keystroke. What that means is that the beautiful file on your Mac ends up looking like someone threw confetti all over it with all manner of weird characters involving tildes and accents where you thought you had a quote mark.

Actually, that’s two words of warning. Do not use your word processor’s embedded comments feature. Not everything you’re likely to be playing with is going to be able to support that. My preference for this is to use something that won’t appear anywhere else in the manuscript as a flag character. So I’ll be writing along and there’ll be something like [add more description] in the middle of the text. That tells me what I’ve got to do and where I’ve got to do it. Sometimes it’s a plot note, sometimes flagging a really crappy sentence, and sometimes a note to remind me that a character’s name needs to change.

For stuff I need to research but don’t want to lose I use the same trick – a sudden burst of [research this] will get added to the story as I write. When I’m done the markup pass-through, I can search for [ and do what needs to be done. The benefit of this is that you can do it with anything, even Notepad (well, if the book isn’t too big – Notepad can’t read very large files. Although if the file is that big, you have other problems).

Okay, so you have your internal editor. Guess what? The editor popped over from Evil Bastard Central, and will cheerfully tell you what you’re doing sucks rocks, while leaning back in a recliner drinking your virtual booze. This is quite normal. I know it sounds like split personality, but heck, we pantsers already host a ridiculous number of personalities anyway. What’s one more?

Quite a few authors externalize the editor-mind, even going so far as to give it a name. Julie Czerneda calls hers the “Great Editor Voice” aka GEV, and posts interesting conversations between her and her GEV on her sff.net newsgroup.

You don’t need to go that far. If it helps to do something like this, go for it. Otherwise, don’t worry. So long as you can flip to editor-mind when you need to, that’s enough.

Of course, the other side of this is getting back to author-mind when you’re done with the editor-mind. That’s… interesting. It’s also crucial – you don’t want to be in editor-mind when you’re writing, any more than writer-mind is good when you’re editing. While the toolset is much the same, they’re used in different ways. The writer-mind is applying the paint, building the picture and framing it, while the editor-mind applies a scalpel to clean up the bits that got smudged, and takes the sander to the frame to smooth off all the rough places and hide the marks where the hammer didn’t quite go where you meant it to, and so forth. Not all writers are good at editing, and not all editors are good at writing.

Depending on how clean your drafts are (in the sense of dangling plot threads, odd byways you forgot to come back to, ideas that hit halfway through that you need to go back and seed and other such pantser oddities), you might not need much in your edit passes. Mine are typically pretty light: there’s a pass for plot/character issues where I’ll usually pick up most of the typo and grammar as well, and a second pass that takes a closer look at phrasing and tightening. After that will depend on what Amanda and Sarah, my long-suffering beta readers and in Amanda’s case editor as well, have to say. You might need dozens of passes to clean things up.

Or not. Pantsers have a horrible tendency to over-edit until there’s no life left. We really can’t edit our work until we’ve had a chance to forget it, and we’ve got to be careful about who we listen to. If you try to fix everything everyone says, you’ll end up with flat, rolled out tofu. Very dead tofu, at that. Instead, look for the possible problem that sits under what they’re saying, and work out how to address that.

And that, fellow pantsers, is that. Go thou forth and explore the pants.

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The Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Working with your subconscious

As you’ve probably noticed by now, subconscious processes are a big part of the extreme pantser’s writing life. That can be… interesting, when you consider that by definition the subconscious isn’t really accessible to the conscious mind. It’s not surprising that pantsers are more likely to block than plotters, and more likely to block hard.

Pantsers also tend to be more likely to have all manner of weird rituals to get things working, with varying levels of effectiveness.

Here’s the key bit: the subconscious mind doesn’t have all those good/bad/correct/incorrect filters that we work with in our conscious mind. It takes in everything and integrates it all regardless of source. The good thing about that is the way the subconscious will end up somewhere we wouldn’t have ever considered consciously – which usually can be used with a bit of judicious filtering in our writing. The bad part is that whatever we do most in any particular domain is what our subconscious considers the ‘right’ way to do it.

Most of the time that’s not an issue. Where it becomes one is in two key facts: the subconscious is a damn sight faster than the conscious mind, and when circumstances change, the subconscious isn’t going to change without a lot of retraining. In other words, if what the subconscious is doing isn’t right, you’re going to need to spend anything from 2 months upwards retraining it – and you’ll still revert to the older, more established habits under stress.

Right now my bugbear is this particular issue. If I’m not overloaded I can write pretty easily by sneaking time in while stuff at work that takes time to do is running. A large installer gets me about a paragraph, opening certain applications is another paragraph apiece, and so forth. Dedicated writing time, on the other hand… I tend to pee it away doing nothing much of any value. Not vacuum-the-cat avoidance behavior, just the endless stream of “oh, I’ll just…” and the next thing it’s time for bed. Basically, I’ve done so much writing in between and around other things that that’s what my subconscious considers writing time. Yes, both ConVent and Impaler were mostly written this way. And no, neither one needed massive amounts of revision (which probably tells you I’m a scary woman who should be avoided – but then people tell me this anyway, so I’m not sure what the difference would be).

So. Your subconscious is being balky and not handing over the goods. What do you do?

Here’s a few suggestions (which is not by any means an exclusive list – I’d be surprised if it was possible to compile one):

  • Buy it a drink. No, seriously. Alcohol loosens conscious control. It’s possible with a few drinks that you could sit down and start writing and the solution to your problem will happen. I won’t say it’s happened to me, but since being overtired affects me the same way, and I’ve had exactly this happen when I’m overtired, the principle is sound. On the down side, you don’t want to do this too often, or you’ll end up with cirrhosis of the liver because you need to stay drunk to write.
  • Do something else. Again, this is one of those exercise caution things. When you hit vacuum-the-cat levels of something else, there’s a real problem going on. But doing something as completely divorced from butt in chair writing/typing as humanly possible can be enough of a jolt to shake things loose, as well as offering some much-needed exercise and mental recharge.
  • Do the stuff you know usually works. If the piece you’re working with insists on ABBA’s Greatest Hits (oh how I sympathize with you) as its soundtrack, play the wretched album as loud as you can stand it (this is where a good set of headphones works to help prevent unwanted domestic incidents), sit butt in chair and do whatever writing rituals you use, then start. The key here is to not futz around – you’re trying to fool your subconscious into ‘normal writing time’ mode.
  • Talk about your piece with your writing friends. You do have writing friends you can bat plot ideas around with, right? You don’t need many, just one or two who are willing to take instant messages at odd hours and won’t call the funny farm when you say “I’m at this part and I have no idea what’s supposed to happen next.” If they’re good at troubleshooting plot, so much the better. I’ve been told I’m pretty good at this, but not at all hours.
  • Explicitly give yourself permission to suck boulders through coffee stirrers. Seriously. Say out loud (it works better that way – when you say something it’s more significant to your subconscious than when you just think it), “It doesn’t matter if it sucks.” Repeat. At this point you’re writing first drafts, and first drafts are allowed to suck.
  • If it works for you, it’s good enough. Tell yourself this until you believe it. Trust me on this, whatever method you use, no matter how bizarre, if it works for you, it’s good enough. Yes this does include setting up an honest-to-dog saddle on a sawhorse in front of your computer and writing while rocking gently in your saddle (I’ve met someone who tells his brain it’s writing time by doing this – and yes, it’s as funny as all get-out, but it works so it’s not as dumb as all that).
  • Embrace your dreams, and listen to them. I may be a semi-unique case here, being narcoleptic, but I often dream plot, and frequently segue between internal narration (I’m effectively ‘writing’ the story in my head) and dreaming in a way that I can’t tell where one stopped and the other started. If the alarm doesn’t wake me up, that’s how I wake up. I emerge from whatever I was dreaming to narrating that dream.
  • Tell the internal editor to shove off. Loudly, and as often as possible. All writers have this one, writing being something of a bipolar and/or psychotic enterprise. When you’re writing it, you’ve got to love it and nurture it, and keep the internal editor’s claws out of it. When you’re editing it, you’ve got to turn writer-mindset off for long enough to find as much as you can that’s flawed and what needs to happen to fix it. Flipping between these two mindsets is one big reason writers are crappy judges of their own work – it’s difficult enough to flip into editor-mind to evaluate someone else’s stuff. The other big reason is that no matter what you do, or how you do it, when you’re rereading something you’re familiar with (and it’s difficult not to be familiar with the novel you just finished writing), you read what you expect to be there, not what’s actually there. Hell, we’re such pattern oriented creatures we do that with entirely unfamiliar text – and miss the most amazing typos.
  • Learn to type. Seriously. When you do connect with your subconscious, you’re going to have this wonderful stuff pouring out and you need to take the mechanics of getting it onto the page out of contention. That means touch typing. As an added bonus, while you’re learning, you’re teaching your subconscious that this is how stories happen.

One thing that it helps to remember is that once you get this right, and you hook into your subconscious for the current story, you get a state that’s called “the zone”. This is a kind of hyper-awareness of what you’re doing where your focus is entirely on your writing and the story simply pours from your fingers. This is where that learning to type item comes into its own. You don’t need to take a typing course for this, either. I personally have never taken one, and I’ve got a typing speed in the general vicinity of 50 words per minute with bursts of quite a bit more (as the saying goes, downhill and with favorable winds). Yes, I do touch type, although my technique is crappy and my typo count is rather higher than for most touch typists. The bit that matters is it’s fast enough to allow me to write at somewhere close to the speed of internal narrative, without having to concentrate on what my fingers are doing. Since I’ve been known to type while half asleep – and on occasion, dreaming – this is a good thing.

Feel free to share any suggestions for getting into the writing zone and convincing your subconscious to part with the goods – and remember that if something doesn’t work for you, try something else. The heart of our creativity is one of those strange places that has any number of ways through the maze, all of them right, but each person’s ‘right’ way is a personal thing and could very well be unique.

 

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