In the open floor last week, a thread developed on how to tell if that idea you have is a story or a kumquat. There was discussion about how to develop the idea, writing, etc. I want to thank everyone who commented and talked about their process. One thing became clear reading the thread, everyone writes differently and that’s the important thing to remember. Too often, writers (especially new writers) feel like they’re doing something wrong because their process isn’t the same as others they talk with or study. So here is probably the most important rule you can ever learn in writing: quit worrying about how someone else creates and do what works for you. Read more
Posts tagged ‘pantser’
The age-old question for the writer of ‘where do you get your ideas?’ can be a little confusing for some of us. My problem is more like ‘I have too many ideas. Want one?’ and the First Reader always has some on tap (to which I often respond, well, then, you write it) because although sometimes his ideas spark my mind, sometimes they don’t. Which is, of course, why you can’t give ideas away. It doesn’t work that way.
I can have an idea, think that it would work just fine for a story, but if the idea doesn’t come along with captivating characters and a setting, then I don’t have a story. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Having the story come along…
And even then, if the scene blows up my brain all vivid and compelling, and you’re thinking ‘what comes next?’ that’s still not enough. You need a scene, a setting, some characters… and a plot. The plot is usually where it dies for me. I’ll write a few pages, and sit back and think about an ending. An arc of story… and there’s nothing there but thick grey fog. I’ll set it aside, and sometimes it’ll come back to me and say, hey, look, there’s more… like a cheap magician showing you his tricks.
These days I don’t have the time or the patience to run down many of these bunny trails. I will try to stick to the work in progress and plod along toward completion. But once in a while when I’m really stuck, I’ll give in and start to write an idea up. And even more rarely, it’ll surprise me by pulling me along and revealing the plot slowly until I can see that yes, I do have enough there to bring it to completion.
The genesis of Ten Pigeons was a funny twitter account I follow, A Crime a Day. It’s not meant to be humor, or at least I don’t think it is. I suspect it’s meant to highlight the crushing number of rules and regulations that surround us and make it literally impossible to exist without breaking a law somewhere, somehow.
Of course, I look at their feed and immediately think ‘there have got to be stories behind some of these!’
From the mundane to the bizarre, there are hundreds of ideas here. And one of them sparked an absurd conversation in my head that is slowly becoming an entire novel. It all started with ten pigeons…
“It is illegal to import more than ten pigeons a week, unless they are from Mexico.” He blinked at her through thick lenses while she tried to digest this pronouncement.
“Mr. Gaush, I have no intention of importing pigeons. Not even Mexican ones.” Lauren Middling leaned back in her vintage office chair and looked at him. He showed no signs of going away and leaving her alone again in her office, and she was long past wishing she hadn’t invited him in.
“Of course not. Pigeons are very messy. I mean that everything is illegal, somewhere, to some extent.” He crossed his hands over his paunch and reminded her of a pensive owl.
“I’m sure it is.” She wasn’t going to ask him for examples. She was afraid he’d give them to her. He seemed like the kind of man who would have a bottomless font of such trivia. “You came to me because you were afraid you had committed a crime, if I understood correctly.”
He had been slightly incoherent on the phone, and Lauren wondered (not for the first time) if she had too finely developed her pity gland. It served her in her job from time to time as she dealt with grieving widows and bereft parents, but it left her vulnerable to people like William Gaush.
“I am, very afraid.” He leaned forward, his eyes big behind their magnifying glasses. She wondered idly just how bad his prescription was to justify those lenses. “Ms. Middling…”
“Miss.” She interrupted him. “It’s Miss Middling.” She was retro, from the polished wood and velvet-cushioned chair cupping her derriere to the green-shaded lamp on the desk between them.
He blinked in surprise, which was a perfectly normal reaction to her naming preference in this post-modern era. “Miss. Miss Middling…” He faltered like a toy that had wound down.
Lauren prompted him again. “It had to do with your mother’s death.”
The man across from her in the panelled office didn’t look like a murderer, but she knew from experience they mostly didn’t. Murderers, that was. He was short, portly, with a cherubic face and those ridiculous glasses. Dress him in a tuxedo and he’d be a dead ringer for a penguin.
“Yes, er, well…” He found the thread of his thoughts again. “She passed two weeks ago, you see.”
Lauren raised an eyebrow. She found it very effective at getting people to keep talking, while words made them lose their place. He obediently kept going with his story. “I live with… lived with her. I have always, except for one time…” He looked away, briefly, and she sensed that while there was more story there, it didn’t seem to pertain to the case in front of her. “We shared bank accounts.”
“And you are uncertain if you can withdraw funds?” She asked when he fell silent. That was simple enough, and certainly not unprecedented.
“Oh, no, the executor assures me that my salary… oh, I should explain that I was paid for her care, of late. Anyway, I was assured that until the will is probated, I may continue to draw my salary. And I am the sole heir, so it matters little once probate is complete.”
“So what is the crime?” Lauren was feeling wasted time trickle past with more than a little impatience.
“Well, I’m not sure it is a crime.” Gaush stared at her for a long moment. Then he blinked, and went on. “You see, yesterday morning a very large sum of money was deposited into that account.”
“I see.” Lauren wasn’t sure what, but she did understand his concern. “Have you spoken to the bank, Mr. Gaush?”
Perhaps he wanted to know if it were legal to simply stay quiet and hold onto the funds.
“Oh, yes. I keep track of it online, and I went right over to my bank when I saw it. They were able to tell me that it wasn’t a mistake, and the monies originated via a wire transfer from the Caymans.”
Lauren wasn’t up on her non-extraditing countries and banking shelters, but it seemed to her that the Caymans were considered one. It was unlikely that it was an insurance payout, in that case. She asked anyway, but he simply shook his head. “I have all her papers, and there was an insurance, a small one, but it will not be paid until after probate.”
Well, then. This was interesting. She leaned forward over the desk. “Mr. Gaush, what is it you would like me to do for you?”
He settled back into the chair, and a hint of a smile swept over his lips so quickly she nearly missed it. “Why, Miss Middling, I’d like you to find out where it came from. Then, if it is a crime, we shall report it.”
Lauren pulled open a drawer. “I will conduct a preliminary investigation before I commit to a full-scale one. You are not,” She looked at him through her lashes, sternly, “my only client.”
She put the contract on the table between them. “My usual rates are $100 an hour plus expenses.”
“Oh, you misunderstand me.” William Gaush changed visibly before her eyes. He leaned forward, almost across the desk. His eyes were very bright behind his glasses. “If you discover that it is fully legal, I shall split the funds with you. Half and half. If they are illegal…” He shrugged and leaned back. “I shall of course pay you the going rate. But I must have a full investigation, no half-measures.”
“Really, Mr. Gaush,” Lauren was done with the little man, and ready to politely eject him from her office and life.
He interrupted her. “Perhaps you would like my bonafides.”
He opened the soft attache case he’d carried in and leaned against the chair leg. The piece of paper he extracted was slid across the desk top alongside Lauren’s contract. She turned it over.
Despite her best intentions, she gasped. It was the statement from his bank, with the amount of the deposit neatly highlighted in bright yellow.
He was leaning back in her chair, now, with a definite air of the cat who’d been in the cream on his face. “I am told you are an up-and-coming investigator, once a bright young lawyer, but now perhaps…” He waved his hand to indicate the small office. “Despite the brave front, struggling a little to make your brand-new agency get off the ground. Five million dollars would be quite the injection of capital.”
There are trends, and then there are trends.
Look at it this way: you could be trendy and buy jeans with fake dirt on them, for $425. Frankly, I raised an eyebrow when I first saw this go viral, because it’s an interesting psychological study. We are, culturally, fetishizing the working man. Think about it. It’s like guys buying used women’s underwear. It makes them feel like they’re sexy. Dirty pants? Sexy also, I guess. I mean, look at this book cover, and tell me that guy isn’t wearing dirty pants. For that matter, it you scroll through the romance listings, you’ll quickly note that there are some strong trends, and two of them are rich guys (who presumably could afford the fake-dirty jeans) and tough guys (who presumably don’t need no fake-dirty jeans). There are a LOT of writers putting out stories for the trends. But what happens when the trends end?
I suspect there’s a growing market segment that would like to see more sweet romance. I know I hear that from people I talk to – and the one romance I’ve indulged in, I kept sweet. Not just because my Mom and grandma were going to read it (Hi, Mom!) but because it worked better for the characters. I didn’t see a need to write to a trend. I’m not knocking it – there are writers making a ton of money because they are playing to the market and surfing the wave. I just can’t do it myself.
But then there are other trends. The ones that slowly build, and build, and then suddenly take off like a rocket. Susannah Martin interviewed Brad Torgerson and I about the self-publishing trend, and I highly recommend you click on over to her article.
But don’t forget to come back here after!
It’s not that I have anything else exciting to say… Oh, who am I kidding. I have a book.
Persistence has paid off, and two long years after the publication of my last novel, my seventh novel is now available for sale. It’s not out in print yet – that will be about two weeks from now. I could probably just not bother, but it is rather nice to hold this hefty chunk of paper in one’s hand and say ‘I wrote this.’ Right now, I’m looking at all of you out there, readers, because I know most of you are also writers. Two things: one, don’t give up on the story even if you feel like you can’t do this, or you can’t do this fast, or life is in the way of it happening. Keep working on it when you can. I got to a few points with this book where I was doggone good and ready to give up on it. Even my First Reader couldn’t help much, he was too close to it. In the dedication I thank my Mom, and one of my best friends, who both read it as alpha readers (before it was done) and egged me on to finish it. Mom actually was reading it as I wrote the end, because I was working on it in a shared Google Doc file. It was funny to see her colored cursor following mine as the words came out on paper, er, screen, and to have the comments in the side bar when I goofed up, or she wanted clarification on a thing. I wouldn’t recommend that for most situations, but it really did help me finish. I had to, so Mom could read it all!
Second, whack your inner perfectionist on the head and gag her. This book isn’t what I started out to write. Which is not to say that I don’t think I’ve produced a good book – it’s not the book I’d intended. It grew organically in ways I didn’t expect. But Cedar, I can hear you say, you’re a pantser, don’t they all go that way? Sort of. Only they don’t all take two years to finish. I think the longest I’ve taken before this is the Eternity Symbiote, and it’s got issues, being my first novel written and with a half-assed ending. I changed, as a person, my life was radically different, by the ending of the tale. That affects my writing. And that’s why I needed the reassurance from early readers that yes, I was on the right track, and no, I didn’t need to scrap it all.
My main concern was that the pacing was too slow, and that the characters would develop erratically. In the end, I think that although there’s not a lot of action – and by that I mean exciting combat scenes – the pacing does work. And I think that the growth arc is consistent. But I couldn’t see that while I was in the middle of it. I encourage you to not rely on your own perceptions if you are working on a similar problem with your writing.
Oh! Check out the awesome blurb Dorothy Grant created for the book!
When the starship’s captain died midway through a run with a cargo of exotic animals, the owner gave first mate Jem one chance, and one choice. The chance: if he successfully runs the trade route solo, he’ll become the new captain. If he fails, he’ll lose the only home he’s ever known.
And the choice? He’s now raising an old earth animal called a basset hound. Between station officials, housebreaking, pirates, and drool, Jem’s got his hands full!
Umpteen gazillion years ago – or at least it feels that way – I read a truly horrendous excuse for a work of fiction. Mercifully I no longer remember even the title of the thing, but I do remember the result: I thought, “the stories I tell myself are better than that” (they weren’t. Probably) and started to seriously write them down.
Of course, I discovered soon after that what’s inside my head isn’t necessarily going to be the same when I’m done writing it down or typing it out or some combination of both. The act of taking the mental story and transforming it into a physical (or electronic) item that someone else can look at (maybe – my handwriting isn’t exactly good) changes what happens and the ground shifts underneath you.
Weirdly enough, even my earliest efforts weren’t that horrible. I had zero idea about point of view so I hopped heads all over the place, and I didn’t know how to use settings so there was this tendency to gravitate to talking heads in space. What I did have was a damn good instinctive grasp of the big three: plot, character, and pace. Anything else can be fixed, often with relatively minor surgery to a book (well, not the head-hopping). If the pacing stinks, or the characters just don’t gel, or the plot sucks… it’s rewrite time. And I did rewrite. A lot. Usually in longhand, with a “final” version getting typed up on a rattly old manual typewriter, after which I tried to figure out what the hell to do with it (I wasn’t exactly rolling in money and even way back then I knew that I’d have to go via the US market -which since I was living in Australia was just a little difficult).
Most of those pieces are long gone to their merciful rest, but a few survived to get retyped into my first computer and I’m surprised by how much potential there was. What I needed then was someone to point me in the right direction, and to teach me the things that I knew instinctively.
Why the things I knew?
Because I didn’t know how I knew them. I can’t analyze the pacing of a book – but while I’m writing one I can feel when something needs to happen to boost the tension level, or when I need to slow down and let readers take a breather. I can write interesting characters, but be stuffed if I know how I do it. The books that tell you how to take this character trait and that one don’t work for me. I get the whole contradictory mix and it seems to work.
Plot is even more scary. It just flipping happens. I start a piece with no idea where it’s going and end up a lot of words later with something that falls nicely into a classic plot structure complete with echoes of all sorts of things – and I didn’t put any of it in there deliberately. In fact if I try to slide something in it winds up sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb and has to be excised. Even the bloody subplots just happen. A character makes a throwaway comment and I’ve got a new subplot running.
All this is fine, when everything is working. I get a running start and favorable winds and I’m flying (or at least waddling very fast). The problem I have with it – and it’s one I haven’t been able to fix yet after mumpty-umph years writing (mostly unpaid. My first paid piece was less than 10 years ago) and trying to figure it the hell out – is that when it stops, I don’t know what to do. I block. Usually I need someone else to look at it and tell me “you need this” – although sometimes I’ve needed to spend a year or more futzing around with something else instead.
So, plotters, where the heck is the secret decoder ring to doing this at a conscious level? This pantser would really like to know.
Most of you know that I’ve been working on a novel that attacked me about six weeks ago. Yes, attacked is the correct verb because that is exactly what it did. At the time, I was almost 50,000 words into a suspense novel I’d been working on — and was late delivering — and had finally figured out what the problem was. Then, during the middle of the night, the stealth novel hit. It’s obvious now, in retrospect, that the plot had been percolating in the back of my mind for awhile. But when it first hit, all I knew was that it came storming into my head and took over.
In the time since I’ve started “seriously” writing — in other words, actually letting my babies go instead of hiding them under the bed — my writing process has been fairly consistent. An idea would come to me, I’d make a few plot notes (usually somewhere between 5 – 10 pages) and I’d sit down and write. The actual writing process consisted of sitting somewhere with my laptop or, when I still used a desktop, pulling out the wireless keyboard and working. Pen and paper were relegated to those times when something would come to me as I worked that I wanted to jot down so I didn’t forget it.
But not this book. Oh, no. This book turned my process upside down. For one thing, it is the closest thing to actually pantsing a novel I’ve done since the days when I was writing and shoving everything under the bed. To be honest, I’d quit being a true pantser long before then. By the time Sarah forced me to show her something I’d written, I’d started the move to what is part pantser and part plotter.
As I said, this book didn’t want to tell me what was going to happen from one chapter to the next. Because of that — and because it required me to write each chapter out longhand before either dictating it into Dragon or transcribing it — I fought this book tooth and nail. Sarah has listened to me whine and bitch and the nicest thing I’ve called it is the dreckish of dreck. Why? Because it wasn’t conforming to the process I was comfortable with and because it wasn’t exactly the sort of story I’ve written before.
But I pushed through. Part of the reason is because the book just wouldn’t leave me alone. Usually when a plot hits me like this I can make a few notes or write a few pages and it will go back to sleep until I have time to get to it. This one wouldn’t. It took all my other projects hostage, tied them up, gagged them and locked them in the basement. Whenever I balked at finishing, it threatened to take one of my other projects and drop it down a deep, dark well.
So I kept at it and I finished the novel the end of last week. I put it aside for several days and gave my head time to come up for air. I worked in the yard, did some work around the house and some much needed work on an author event our friends of the library group is hosting this Saturday.
And I discovered this book continues to break the rules I’d become comfortable with.
Morbid curiosity had me breaking my first rule of editing. I never, ever look at something I’ve written unless there is at least a week in between finishing writing and when I print the pages out. My preference is to let the novel sit for a month. That gives me the mental space I need to look at what I’ve written with fresh eyes and that, in turn, lets me see what is on the page and not what I think is on the page. I’ve found this has helped me realize when information is only in my head and not on the page for the reader. It also helps me see technical problems that need to be fixed.
But, staying true to form, this book poked and prodded at me enough yesterday morning that I converted it and put it on my kindle. Okay, I’ll admit it, I also printed it out, but those pages are pretty much untouched so far. I can’t say the same for the kindle version of the rough draft.
What I discovered has been interesting. It didn’t take long to realize I’d dropped two cookie crumbs that help explain the main character’s motivation. The problem is that I didn’t pick them up later. So I’ve made notes about where to go back in and correct that problem. I might not have left Johnny hanging off the cliff at the end of chapter 3, but these little bits will make the main character’s motivations more understandable. I also have another character’s father being dead at the beginning of the book. Later, he and the character’s mother are in Ireland and later still they are in Florida. So, either the mother travels a lot and carries hubby’s ashes — or body — with her or dear old Dad is a zombie. While either explanation would fit another book that has been on the back burner for awhile, it doesn’t fit this one. So, I’ve made a note to go in and fix that as well. Of course, there are also the inevitable comma faults and misspellings to correct, but that is part of my life.
Those problems aside — and they are typical of what a lot of pantsers encounter on the first edit pass — the book doesn’t suck. Mind you, I’m my own worst critic and I know it. So this feeling that what I’ve written, and fought at every step along the way, isn’t horrible is new. It is also scary. I can’t help wondering if I’m just deluding myself and this book is the worst thing I’ve ever done. There is the very real desire to shove the book under the bed — or, better yet, to use it as fuel for a bonfire — and never let it see the light of day. But I won’t, at least not yet. I’ll send it off to my beta readers after I finish the first edits. It will be up to them to tell me if it is a cabbage or a worse.
But before I do that, I have to finish the edits and I will be adding the first chapter or two to another book at the end. I can hear you guys asking why I’m doing that when I’m seriously considering burning the manuscript. The answer is multi-fold. When I write, even if I’m on the first draft of something, I tend to put it into a format as close to conversion ready as possible. If I’m OCD about anything, it’s that. For another, if the betas like the novel I’m sending them, I want to know if they’d: 1) read the sample chapters, 2) if the sample chapters are interesting enough or intriguing enough that they’d go looking for the book they are excerpted from, and 3) if the answer to the first two is “yes”, then it will make me have to finish the book the chapters are excerpted from.
And, yes, the real reason is that this latest novel has informed me it is the first of a series and I’m hoping that by writing the opening chapter or two of the next book, it will behave better than this particular book has and will let me finish the project that was interrupted. No, I’m not holding my breath, but I am hoping.