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Posts tagged ‘Extreme Pantser’s Guide’

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 As usual, I haven’t changed anything, so take it as read any observations are about 3 years out of date – if not more.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 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.

Return to the Extreme Pantser’s Guide: In the Middle of the Pants

First off, I hope everyone who celebrates Thanksgiving had a wonderful one. I certainly did, and completely forgot to post anything as a result. Sorry…

Moving on. I’m continuing with the Pantser’s Guide posts, not least because I’m slowly crawling out of the hole made by the combination of that time of life and general work and other stress. I’m improving. Not quite back to my normal snark-tastic self yet, but getting there.

So without further ado, some advice on what to do when your find yourself lost in the middle of the pants.

The Pantser Body of Knowledge: In the Middle of the Pants

Middles are often where pantsers have problems. There’s several reasons for this, but the big one is that we pantsers usually know the immediate future of the story, and have an idea how it ends, but what happens in between is pretty vague. With me the problem manifests in false starts — stories that I think have a novel, get anywhere from 10k words in up, then realize that there just isn’t enough there to sustain a novel. What tends to happen is that aspects of these false starts find their way into other books as subplots, or they get revived with extra material from a different false start.

So how to avoid getting stranded in the middle of the pants? It might be better than the damp crotch of the pants, but it’s still not a good place to be. Most of the legs have little ‘here be dragons’ signs, and it’s hard to find a viable way out. Sometimes you can’t even retrace your steps (we won’t talk about what happened to the pants in this case – you probably don’t want to know).

I can’t offer a definitive answer to this, and not just because I’m far from being without sin myself. The main reason I can’t say “do this, and it will work” is that every pantser is different, and extreme pantsers even more so. Everything from the mental exercises we use to switch on that precious flow of wordage from somewhere to the way the things we experience find their way into our writing is different.

That said, these are some of the things I’ve found helpful when stranded in the middle of the pants.

  • Writing exercises. It doesn’t matter what kind of exercise, just something to get back into the mode of fingers on keyboard and words pouring out. I’ve personally found that the exercise of writing blog posts about writing helps to get my mind working the right way to write fiction.
  • Doing it anyway. Sometimes you’ve just got to struggle through even though it’s like pulling teeth. I’ve got more than one published short story that was done this way. This is where knowing the craft really saves your anatomy: you can produce something that might not be quite right, but it’s at least going in more or less the correct direction using craft alone.
    For pantsers, this isn’t easy, and it’s even less pleasant, but it can be done. If you’ve learned your craft well enough, you can find that ten years later not even you can tell which parts you had to fight and which ones flowed.
  • Reread and microplot. I mentioned a couple of sections back that I obsessively narrate the next part in my head, working through possible options that way. Sometimes rereading from the start of a stuck piece then mentally exploring where it goes from there is enough to unstuck.
  • Work on something else, and keep your fingers crossed. This is probably the most dangerous method of dealing with a story trapped in the middle of the pants. It’s why I have such a flourishing collection of starts. Sometimes you can mentally refresh by working elsewhere, and sometimes not.
  • Learn plotting, characterization, world-building and all the other techniques so you can recognize before you get stuck that the story isn’t novel length – then let it resolve in its own space. With the explosion of epublishing, you’re not held to the official lengths where anything that’s between 10K and 90K words is effectively unmarketable. That’s right. The novella is coming back.
  • Don’t start it unless you know where it’s ending. I know I’ve broken this one, but for less experienced pantsers, it really does help. By all means put it in your ideas file, however you handle that, but wait until the story give you some kind of resolution to the mess it’s handed you before you start to write. When I looked back over some of my old starts, recently, I found this was the problem with every single one. I had no idea what they were aimed at, so they got themselves lost in the desert of the pants legs.
  • On a related note, don’t start it if you don’t have at least some glimmerings of a story. It’s all very well to have a wonderful setting and fascinating characters, but if they’re just hanging around doing their normal thing, well, it’s fun to visit, but it’s not a story. Remember, “The King died then the Queen died” is a sequence of events. “The King died then the Queen died of grief” is a story (A pretty cruddy story, but a story nonetheless. The Queen did something because of what had happened, leading to an ending). Yes, I’ve done this, too. I’m not sure how many starts I’ve got where it’s basically interesting character having “adventures” in a neat location, but there’s nothing driving it and nowhere to go.
  • Look for the reasons and the motivations. This is possibly one of the scariest ways to get yourself out of the kudzu-infested middle of the pants, because you won’t actually know where you’re going or why. Here’s how it works for me: I know what got my character/characters into this mess. I know who they are and why they do things (mostly. I have a few who don’t think I need to know these things). So given where they are right now, what would they do next? Rinse and repeat until you get an idea of how to get out of the pants-kudzu.
  • Drop a mountain on them. By all means try to avoid this as a plot method, especially if the mountain is coming out of nowhere, but if you can go back over what you had and find some apparently innocuous act of your character(s) that could generate a really nasty blowback about now, use it. That mouthy peasant your knight smacked down is actually a spy for a rival, and he’s set up an ambush that your knight can walk into and barely survive. The magical oops your wizard made has done the butterfly effect and generated a massive storm targeted on him. The nonentity your space pilot killed in a bar brawl was the son of the space station owner, and when your pilot tries to land with low fuel and air reserves and a cargo of valuables, he’s nearly blown to pieces. The possibilities here are endless. If necessary, go back and insert the incident that triggers your mountain now. Just don’t go overboard – too much mountain dropping, and your readers will start getting suspicious each time the pace slows and be looking for the next one. Also, the words, “Yeah, right.” are the kiss of death. You get that response from anything, you need to insert extra foreshadowing or change what you did.
  • Above all, don’t be afraid to let it suck. Trust me, it’s better to have something that you finish and can fix than it is to have a lost start. Even if sometimes you can’t fix it just yet because it’s… well. The Epic with Everything comes to mind here. I can’t fix that yet, although despite its flaws it has pull. I just don’t have the skills to fix it, yet. On the plus side, it is finished.

This isn’t a complete listing, either. Anyone who’s run into other ways of dealing with the strange ways of the middle of the pants is welcome to add their suggestions for finding a good leg. I’d love to hear them – a new technique is always helpful.

Meanwhile, don’t despair. Strange as the pants are, there’s usually a trouser leg you can use.

Return to the Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Meet the Internal Editor

(Work has Kate snowed under and she asked me to post this for her.)

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.