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Posts tagged ‘Writing craft’

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).



I see in today’s paper that Australian research identifies me as a ‘slogger’ – a bloke who would like to work less but needs the money. And there I thought I was just a lazy beggar who would like to fish a bit more often.

The interesting part to their whole schpiel – which didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, because I am not a pigeon and they have a desperate need to put everyone in pigeon-holes – was that it seemed to hinge aspiration and reward… and that it was plainly very, very viewpoint orientated.

According to them, I would be less well socially connected, and less adept at it than any other group. Now I’m no Kim Kardashian (just in case you failed to notice the beard) and I’m a failure at twittering my every moment and movement (including bowel, or, after alphabet soup, vowel). But I have if anything too good an actual social life and chat to too many people the book-of-faces.

I’m a writer, I like to watch, to listen, to study people, to think about what they say, and why they say it. This means I can better grasp what a character – who is vastly different to me in every imaginable way, and possibly some I would rather not imagine – would plausibly react in the bloody awful mess I put them in my books. I am kind like that. I mean, here I am playing god, I could at least have them win the Lotto, meet Mr or Miss Right, and live happily ever after with a large library and enough Chateau Lar Feet (as this is Dave Freer writing, not something common like Chateau Lafite) and Magret de Canard with a black cherry reduction, to at least die happy. Nooo, instead I put them in awful positions (some not even in Kama Sutra) facing certain death, usually sober and before dinner. Yes, I am a miserable bastard. Being one is a tough job, but someone has to do it.

Of course, tough jobs are supposed to pay well (which would put me on the wrong side of the pigeon-hole margin). Sadly, no one else seems to think it a tough job (one of these point-of-view things I alluded to). In terms of aspiration, however, I’ve never come across an author who didn’t aspire to being rich and successful. I’ve met an awful lot who aspire to be Castle on TV – rich famous and living the good life without all the tedium of actually writing. I’ve met others – and I’d put myself among them, who would do the job if they didn’t get to write, and fair number who could certainly have been richer than an author is likely to be, if they’d chosen a different path. Some of them even realized that before they went down the writer’s path.

Now, sloggers (according to pigeon-holers) work because they must, and don’t earn much, or ever hope to earn much. Yet… all novelists, for at least for a substantive part of their job are literally sloggers. Producing a book (let alone a career as an author) is a long-haul process. And part of any long haul process is sheer dogged determination – or plain old-fashioned slog (unless you are Castle, and that only happens on TV.) Even if somehow you do make every ounce of writing your twentieth novel a thing of joy (and yes, I manage to end up loving my books, even those I wished I had never agreed to write), there is still editing and proofs, and then inserting the proof corrections.

And even those of us who love the writing itself are faced with horrible parts of it. For me the most difficult is writing the ‘links’ between the scenes which I have to make sure maintain continuity – usually complex – and yet must be short, clean… and the reader is barely aware of. There is always a resentful part of my mind that says ‘I am working my butt off to make this slick, clear… and virtually invisible. You would only know it existed at all (if I have done it well) if it wasn’t there. Like the servant who actually did the cleaning in the society hostess’s home (and listens to her being praised for it), there is a degree of resentment that my hardest and, IMO some of my best work is something that is only good if no one knows I’ve done it.

The times of sheer dogged slogging is an unavoidable fact of life for 99.99998% of any author who makes a career out of it. You just can’t let it show in your writing, because your readers are paying you for tedious attention to detail in your work, not for tedium in their entertainment.

Like my laziness… it’s a question of perspective and perception. I’m not much good at just sit-and-do nothing. Hell for me would be sunbathing. I do work long hours, but I have slowed down from 5 hours sleep a night – which is when I wasn’t being lazy. I’ve actually got a rigid system of self-bribery and corruption worked into a structured calendar, word counts – which have timed ‘rewards’ of checking facebook, or working in the garden, or going fishing – yes, I really do book the hours, and even try to enforce some reading, research and even free time. I’m not very good at the latter, but there is a point where you’re either staring at the screen or writing crap you will delete. It is, compared to most office workers, terribly regimented and disciplined – and the boss watches every damn thing I do.

Of course to the reader who is waiting for the next book I’m also a useless, lazy scut who never gets around to it.

So: as usual this is all about writing and technique. And as usual I have been trying to do what I am informed is wicked colonial imperialism – showing not telling. If that’s wicked imperialism, bring it on, I reckon, because it works for readers. ‘Wicked’ is a point of view issue too. What I was trying to explain is a layer of complexity that many writers never quite grasp.

At the bottom end characters are WYSIYG (what you see is what you get) which is lovely when translating e-books, but a bit weak as a character. The character is as they are portrayed – both in how they see themselves, and, identically as they are seen by anyone else. IE. Joe is a hard-working, clever, kind man. That’s how Joe sees himself, and how other characters see Joe. That is also how the readers see Joe. And oddly, comments like ‘unrealistic/ dull/poor/one-dimensional characters’ will creep into the reviews. That may be true, but I have often found this really is an inability to express something the reader is aware of without grasping quite what causes the disconnect.

The disconnect is of course, that what the character perceives themselves as – from their own point of view – is never what others see them as. Many writers manage this reasonably well. Joe sees himself as a hard-working, clever, kind man. Mary (another character) sees him as lazy, dim-witted, and un-feeling.

This is real life. Listen to any dispute and you may think that the two principals are describing a separate set of events. Divorce cases, doubly so. And when you get down to poltics… Well, looking at it from Australia, ardent Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s supporters plainly live in widely separated alternate universes which branched off from each other just after there first was light.

Dispassionately, and from neither point of view… exists another real story entirely, with more or less elements from both and things which are in neither viewpoint. Just so with the story in the READER’S head. This is the stage which great authors get to. They understand that they’re working with each character’s perception of themselves, and the other (often multiple) character’s perception of themselves AND of the other characters. All of this adds up to the author carrying his or authorial perception of the character to the reader. Joe sees himself as a hard-working, clever, kind man. Mary sees him as lazy, dim-witted, and un-feeling. Mary sees herself as not popular, and unhappy about this, and far brighter than Joe. Joe sees Mary as happy, loving and understanding, and not too bright. Both of their actions and responses are shaped by own perceptions… and by reality (in this case, authorial reality) The clever author manages to carry through the ‘reality’ that Mary doesn’t care for Joe, but wants to be liked, and is manipulating his feelings. She’s not actually as bright as she thinks she is, or she would realize that her un-lovable-ness isn’t how Joe sees her. But she’s brighter than Joe think she is. Joe, on the hand is hard-working, none-too-bright, but is actually kind.

It’s a multi-dimensional maze, which the reader SHOULD be unaware of as they’re led through. It’s a slog, getting it right, because to do so you will have to enter (at least) three different head-spaces.

This is why head-hopping is a poor idea. It confuses most authors, and that in turn confuses most readers. That is why the discipline exists, not for its own sake.

Of course, it’s never that simple. The ‘authorial’ head-space will quite possibly be not quite the way the reader sees it. When I was writing JOY COMETH WITH THE MORNING I wrote the book from a single point of view (hers) but made it clear by the responses of the other characters to her, that her perspective was not theirs, and that they saw her quite differently – and of course, I as the author saw all of them quite differently.

What I should have been prepared for… but wasn’t, was the range of very different ways readers saw her.

It’s a complex web we weave.

But we set out to deceive.

That’s why it is called ‘fiction.’

Suitable language for a lady

“You may charge me with murder—or want of sense—
(We are all of us weak at times):
But the slightest approach to a false pretence
Was never among my crimes!

“I said it in Hebrew—I said it in Dutch—
I said it in German and Greek:
But I wholly forgot (and it vexes me much)
That English is what you speak!”
The Hunting of the Snark, Fit the fourth, Lewis Carroll

As a fisheries scientist, one of the places my work took me was into the fish-factories, where the catch was processed.

Now: I’d grown up being a obnoxious fisher-brat in the harbor, on and off a commercial fishing boat, been at an all-male boarding school, been a NCO during my stint as a conscript.

I labored under the delusion that I could swear the devil out of hell, his ears burning. I always laugh when I hear these upper middle-class female arts graduates expecting me to be deeply impressed by their venturing on the courageous use of ‘…ing ( you know, like Sir Terry Pratchett. “…ing”) I’m sure it’s meant to make them sound avant-garde, liberated, and tough… Yeah, well. Fish factories. Almost always female staff, the wives, girlfriends and daughters of the fishermen. You’ve heard of fishwives? It’s true.

I learned I hadn’t even got to the kindergarten stage of descriptive foul language. Your daring hot-house flower lib arts graduate is a premmie baby by their standards.

I got on very well with them, they thought I was nuts, as all I wanted from the sharks were measurements their guts and a piece of vertebrae (age and growth studies, – bone-deposition rate is seasonal) and I thought they were the salt of the earth – and very salty it was indeed at times. It was all in Afrikaans, which is a wonderful snot-clearing language for describing your drunken husband’s sexual inadequacy in great and scathing detail. I did my best to swear back, and that they found very funny. They’d all attempt to teach me new colorful expressions to try out on the vicar. This pastime delighted them and has flavored my books ever since.

In the context… oddly, there was nothing offensive about it. I had the greatest of respect for them – trust me on this, ANYONE has the greatest of respect for someone who can fillet a fish in less than two seconds, the knife speed only eclipsed by the non-stop tongue – which was at least as sharp as the knife. But aside from that, they worked incredibly hard, cheerfully and loudly (and, um, most educating obscenely) for a pittance, under conditions which would make most first-world women puke (just the smell would do), to keep food on the table, to keep their families going. The West Coast fishing communities were rife with alcohol abuse, drug problems, plenty of violence, poverty and yet… they could laugh. And work. And the language was appropriate for those ladies, who were, by-and-large, worth ten of the bwave feminist Ivy League Masters in Post-Modern English Literature and victim of masculine micro-aggression, saying that daring ‘fuck’.

Language and context for that language are major issues for writers, and not just because not all of us have blundered into fish-processing plants.

There is appropriate language use for the appropriate context – just as in real life. The difference being that context is determined by the reader, NOT by the actual reality. Let me explain: I was avoiding work on Facebook the other day when I happened to see a sidebar comment by an historian I know (An Historian, like An Elk. They too have theories, but not always about dinosaurs). I read it, read the original post which was something of a rant by an author who writes about Chinese myth. She’d been reading some High fantasy set in the 15th century… and hit, in dialogue, the word ‘Okay’.

This was a terrible affront because in fifteenth century they did not say ‘Okay’.

Which is true.

They also in reality didn’t speak modern English (or as most high fantasy seems to be set in Europe, any kind of English). Indeed in her own novels set in a mythological China, they probably wouldn’t speak much English either, and, to judge by the directly translated instructions which I have frequently read — too late — on Chinese-made appliances, the language and expressions are quite different. (Brush-cutter instructions may otherwise presage doom and destruction. ‘If you fell your leg in a whole, place blade in earth to stop revolutions’.)

They probably used a colloquial expression, which if you translated for meaning… would translate as ‘Okay’. The objection is meaningless.

Or is it?

Yes… in reality. No, as a writer.

English is a rapidly evolving and changing language – read a Bulldog Drummond novel (1920’s thriller, contemporary setting) and it jumps out an hits you in the face (yes, the attitudes of the author are also something of a shock to people who assume the mores of today are eternal and anyone in 1920 who didn’t conform to modern mores was an …ist (choose your …ist) rather than just reflecting the zeitgeist of their time.)) It’s particularly obvious in a contemporarily set novel – but less so in period pieces and fantasy and sf. Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom is easier for modern readers to cope with than Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond. You could say the same thing about Georgette Heyer, with her Regency and Historical novels being ‘easier’ to read now, than her detective novels which had contemporary settings, and language (they read more like ‘period pieces’ now).

There are expectations of a kind of language. The expectations (like the mores, and attitudes to sex or women’s liberation) are quite probably wrong and owe more to Hollywood than historical accuracy. But this is my point: They are what the reader expects. If you (and yes, I did this. I regret it) use modern colloquial English appropriate to your character’s station in your fifteenth century novel (where as in Shadow of the Lion, the characters are speaking bastardized Frankish ) many readers will expect the fake-formal olde English of the High Fantasy Novel and will be pissed.

(the pic is a link if you are interested)

It’s a pain in the ass, but there it is.

Knowing about it hopefully makes it easier to deal with. And there is nothing like knowing a convention, or a rule, to improve your ability to break it and get away with it.

The cock crowed thrice…

I was occupied in those delicate rural pastimes which give us country folk our reputation for sensitivity and finer feelings while thinking about tonight’s post. In other words I had my hand up a rooster’s nether end. It was warm, which was a nice change for my hand, on account of it being bloody freezing out. The rooster may have liked it less, but it was dead. My hand was bloody, but no longer freezing.

I was engaged in country art… having plucked the rooster, I was now occupied in drawing it. I could have won a Turner Prize for it, had I added a bit post-modern angst. Which kind of brought me around to the topic for to today, partly about roosters, and partly about art and the eye of the beholder.

Now, oddly, to you, for us chicken is a rare treat, which only happens when 1)my chooks stop laying, 2)Someone else gives us a chicken. Yes, I could start doing meat-chickens, and I will one day. But between writing, bits of farm work, building, fishing, hunting, growing all our veg, and raising pigs to magically transform them into bacon, I have quite a full plate, and life keeps handing me bits I’m not overly good at to learn like electronic wizardry, and auto-mechanic skills. We can eat quail, pheasant, ducks, turkeys, Cape Barren Geese – none of which I need to feed or keep alive.

I’ve learned one thing that really applies to writing from this: learn how to do simple stuff extremely well, before you venture onto complex things. I make bacon really well. Really, really well, I have been told. So why don’t I do… some really fancy-schmanzy pork product? I don’t because I’m still mastering bacon. When I’m totally confident with that I’ll move on. I do. I did Salami for the first time last year. Just plain Salami, and that was quite a job. It was good. I’m gearing up to tackle it again, better. Every time will be better, because I know and understand the basics really well. All too many people start writing the great, meaningful novel when really, they need to get good at writing a simple story that really holds audiences.

So going back to the rooster… One of my mates (that’s Australian for friend, before you jump to any conclusions) got himself an incubator, and ordered in some eggs and got given a few. His early success was pretty tepid – with the only success being one rooster from the eggs he’d been given. A cross, not a bad bird, but not what he was after. Still, that was his first successes, and got reared, while the second batch came in and hatched, this time successfully, with one rooster, of the breed he wanted.

You can see where all this is going, can’t you?

Well, not directly, you can’t.

The chicks having no mother-hen but him, followed him around, and were very tame and very pampered. He wanted eggs, and to breed. They’re not dinner chooks. They were heading for a good, long and pampered life, with every chicken treat lavished on them. They have a huge run, palatial nesting boxes, a warm roost, and cool perches for summer, get loads of fresh produce as well as grain and laying mash. Their master goes in and lets them eat from his hands and stand on him while they do it.

All they have to do is lay eggs… or fertilize them. That’s all the customer wanted, and he was prepared to put up with a bit of chicken-poop on his knees for it.

Now, usually roosters have a couple of features that tend to stick on the mind and not just the trouser knees.

One is: they crow. They crow a lot. And not just at cock-crow either. If they ain’t opening their mouths to eat, they’re crowing about how Alpha they are… especially if there is another rooster within earshot.

The second is they’re top of the pecking order. Chickens are patriarchal hierarchy in the epitome. Women’s lib doesn’t get much of a look-in. If chickens really are the distant heritors of T. rex’s dinosaur mantle, Rachel Swirsky’s dinosaur love would have told her to ‘get back into the kitchen and make me sammich’ which would indeed have been something unique and new in the annals of modern sf. I’m sorry, that’s chickens. They’re not PC. They lay eggs. They’re pretty good to eat. And two roosters in one pen… can get terminal.

Only this was not the case. The roosters got on fairly amicably… well one of them did. The second, desirable, pure bred rooster seemed to know the run was his by right, and while he was wary about making it physical, because the crossbreed was a bit bigger, he never shut up, and was a demon on the hens. The cross-breed seemed to figure he was there on sufferance, and within limits accepted being number 2. And pure-breed had to keep crowing about it.

Getting older… the pure-bred started feeling his oats, and took to attacking everything, even my mate, coming to feed him. And he crowed, all the time, to let number two know. Unfortunately, he let everyone else know too.

Now my buddy’s quite capable of killing chooks, but this one he’d raised from the egg. It knew it had as much rein as it liked. But when it finally half-killed one of the laying hens…

My friend decided he’d rather have the half-breed. He put the important one in a cardboard box, and gave it to Barbs for me.

It crowed all the way here.

And it got here, and crowed at me, three times. Once from the box, once when I grabbed its feet, and third time it stopped half way.

I gather the half-breed has stepped up to the position nobly.

I guess, besides a roast chicken dinner, there is something for this writer in all of this.

Firstly, even if you’re the best breed, and the chosen one… the customer who provides all that chicken food might decide he prefers the rooster who doesn’t behave in a way the customer finds offensive… and crows about it. As customers come from all over the spectrum – unless you’re targeting a very section exclusively – being loudly partisan about something that is bound to offend a large chunk of your readers is not bright. There are of course people who are selling to their ‘side’ and they gain by this. But many TradPub authors are not. They’re just used to being the chosen ones. The last you may see of them –metaphorically speaking– is a severed foot hanging out of a Labrador’s mouth (said Labrador looking puzzled but determined). But it does go further. None of us are that great we can afford to think ourselves above peeving our buyers.

Secondly, I guess the moral is IF you’re doing well, shut up and enjoy it. You don’t have to tell second-place Sam about it every ten seconds. He knows.

And then the subject of art? Yeah, well… One man’s art is another’s pile of drawn chicken guts. It often seems to come down to how confidently the ‘artist’ claims his painting – or book, is art.

Or some people just like chicken guts.

So now you can tell me fowl stories, but no foul language. I’m chicken, and it’s no use egging me on.

I can’t afford an editor

This piece is, strictly speaking, aimed at authors eschewing the traditional publishing path and facing up to the parts that traditional publishing was supposed to add to your book or story, but sometimes didn’t.

Naturally, this piece is done without the benefit of an editor (I can’t afford it, and I don’t get paid for this) or even without the compensations I suggest. I don’t have time for them, if you want to read this today. It will be full of errors. Deal.

No matter what they tell you, the best training for writing novels is more writing. It’s no different in that sense from long distance running or long distance swimming.

Notice that I chose the long form of all three…

I don’t think any new writer ever starts without doubt about his basic skill in this profession (please think of it as that. It’s not a hobby, or catharsis. Not if you want to write enough good books. Hobbyists produce occasional books or stories, some very good, some good, mostly bad or average. Writing is no different to any other field in this respect, much as publishers might try to kid you otherwise. Hobbyists are cheap, unlike hobbits who are expensive and hairy footed.)

I take that back. No potentially competent writer starts without doubt. (I still have lots. If you would like some, I can spare it.) If you know that you are Heaven’s gift to the world of literature… you probably are. To modern literary fiction. And no amount of lack of sales despite the huge volume of marketing and display can change this. But if you are (or have the potential to become) the sort of story teller that many people love and remember the stories told by, and moreover part with money to read, you question yourself. Your direction, your skill.

And this, of course is the first stage of editing. Doubt.

If you have no doubt, you’ll never accept any editing, not from yourself or anyone else.

Of course where so many of us fall is that doubt overwhelms. Common sense, and self-confidence never get a look in.

But what if I really am rubbish? What if I am taking the wrong direction entirely? Surely the answer is that I need guidance, and that guidance is therefore beyond price.

(Sigh). There IS no wrong direction.

Repeat after me. There is no wrong direction in Independent Publishing. You want to write first person piano-dwarf sadomasochist erotica set in Weimar Germany, or a treatise on anti-Zorasteran tactics? It’s a big world and sooner or later the internet is going to put you in touch with others of like mind or interest. If you want to be popular and read by millions… well that’s a different matter. Don’t ask traditional editors, because they’re trying to pick (at the very worst) bestsellers, and based on the results they have a 99.9% failure rate. It’s something we (editors and the rest of us) lack the tools for, or the training for. All they have is instinct or the following the herd – and a lot of books to choose from. They can put you in the top 10%, but that’s still a lot of failing books for every great seller. An editor-for-hire is even less likely to be telling you that really, dwarf erotica, especially with pianos, is a limited market. And hell, I might be wrong. If it is bizarre or funny or even politically correct enough, millions of copies might get sold. (I spend a fair amount of time sneering at the ‘politically correct’ because I personally despise the unthinking mindless following of prescribed rules, many of which fail the most cursory extension of logic, but there seem to be a lot of people who like it and obey it slavishly. It might work for you.).

What there is, and you should worry about, is technique. Much though I disapprove of it, being nearly as gifted as Shakespeare at original usage of letters, spelling is a non-negotiable. Fortunately a spill-chucker can do the worst, although it does require you to know the difference between a beech, a beach, and a lady dog. The reason spelling is important is the same reason you need elementary grammar. (And I mean elementary. It will not matter to most of your audience if you decide to boldly go where no infinitive has been split before. Or, if you have sentence fragments.) Look, the grammar-grundies, who naturally love to emphasise their importance, forget the purpose of regular grammar and spelling. It is to make reading easier. That’s all. If your audience doesn’t know if they are an audience – “you’re audience” or whether they’re your readers – “your audience”, then they pause reading to think about it. And this really, truly, is a case of hesitate and they are lost. The purpose of grammar is to make communication between the writer and reader better. The grammar needs to be fairly consistent, and enhance your clarity. Anything else is pure vanity. It’s pretty, may make you look clever, but it’s not going to lose you thousands of readers if you split an infinitive. Grammar-grundies are relatively rare, along with dwarf-piano erotica fans. Most people read for the story.

The important parts of other techniques — and there are books full of them — are largely about not confusing the reader, and very often by following an accepted convention. People are used to them, so they work (which is what writers like Jeanette Winterson miss when they re-invent the wheel in sf). First, second, third person, omniscient POV. How change point of view. Tenses, correct capitalization, commas and quotes, not to mention ellipses… This is stuff you should have learned at school, and seriously, if you’re paying an editor rather than trying to learn them, you need a second job, and deserve to pay through the nose for it. Get a few books, study your favorite authors… and then work on picking up those communication issues.

The first, single most effective way you can do this…


………..Is to leave it be for a reasonable time.

Yes, really. Stories need to ferment. Well, it’s either ferment or get some distance from you, or you from them. I find immediate self-editing much, much less effective than hitting a story again after three months. That’s the period that works for small brains like mine. You may find weeks or years work better for you.

Secondly, if you really care, and can’t pay someone else to struggle… start at the back. Read each sentence, from the end of your manuscript. If you actually read the words backwards aloud, at double speed, it will tell you that Elvis is Satan and living in Poughkeepsie, but, while I am sure this is very valuable to you, reading the sentences the normal way around, but out of context lets you pick up many errors, in logic, and communication, plain old missing words and typos.

The next step is to get other readers involved. Unless you have a dedicated fan club… try trading favors. I’ll read yours, you read mine. And try getting at least three first readers. Five is better. Me, I always do odd numbers, and after applying logic, personal bias, and then looking things up (in that order) I still have doubts about a point… I go with the majority. Your system may differ.

At this point, if you can afford it, it’s worth getting someone who copy edits for a living to quote. The manuscript ought fairly clean and quick to do, and if their rates are based on time needed and suppressing the gag reflex, it ought to have helped a lot… and you will have learned a lot, which passing steps one and two and going straight to commerce won’t do (or will do much more slowly). If not, I’d advise repeat steps one and two.

Odds are your final product will be cleaner than most traditionally published stories, and the next piece you write will be better.

So: any tricks or ideas you have to achieve clean manuscripts?

Oh to pay for the sand in the arena – you might have a look in at my website, where SAVE THE DRAGONS is available – which has never seen a traditional editorial process, although some wonderfully talented people have edited it Or at one of the shorts

– edited as above, because the short will never make enough money to pay an editor.

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.


The Pantser Body of Knowledge: A Good Climax

Now we’ve reached the part of the book that governs whether readers will be saying “wow”, “meh”, or “ho-hum”. Obviously, “wow” is the reaction you want. This section, whether five pages or fifty (five hundred is rather overdoing it, and exhausts your readers) must be intense, impossible to put down, and it must seem to rise naturally from everything to this point.

Extreme pantsers often need to go back over their draft to prune anything that weakens the climax, strengthen the areas that make that particular set of events inevitable, and hide anything that suggests another outcome or explicitly eliminate any potential alternatives. The do or die (whether literal or metaphorical) climax has to be the point that everything moves to, and it has to be impossible to escape.

This, of course, is where the deific powers of the Author come into play. In order to eliminate everything else, we have to make sure beforehand that there is no intelligent alternative, and no dumb alternative either. We get to use anything and everything to push our leads to the climax: the weather (that snowstorm at the beginning which delayed your hero for three frustrating days turns out to be critical to making sure he doesn’t get his army to the pass before the enemy has their forces in place), the landscape and recent history (what do you mean, the river’s flooded? It hasn’t rained here for weeks – but it’s been raining non-stop in the mountains and that water has to go somewhere), circumstances that keep your lead from refueling his spaceship, leading to it running out of fuel at the worst possible moment (and coming out of hyperspace in the debris field of an uncharted black hole – no-one ever said you have to be nice to your leads. It’s better if you’re not. It makes their victory so much more satisfying when they’ve had to deal with seven kinds of hell along the way), you name it.

What extreme pantsers often find is that after enough study and practice (don’t ask me to define ‘enough’ – I don’t know what it is), they’ll be doing these things without realizing why. Sometimes doing them in previous books in the series. I did this in ConVent as a throwaway line which turned out to be central to the plot of ConSensual. Terry Pratchett, of course, is the master of this, with his running gag about the Battle of Koom Valley turning into epic tragedy and epic heroism in Thud! He’s also utterly brilliant when it comes to eliminating options for his central character. I won’t spoiler, but the climactic sequence of Snuff is another magnificent example of how to do it right.

Now to the mechanics of the climax sequence itself. It may be one scene, several scenes, or several chapters. Regardless, the basic feel of it should be a wild breathless ride that, once started, can’t be stopped. At the start of the sequence, tension should be at or near the highest point of the book, while the pace should start picking up from whatever it was at the end of the buildup until it’s at the fastest for the book. L. K. Hamilton’s first three books are perfect examples of this (although it’s worth mentioning that these are guidelines rather than rules. Sometimes you need to ignore them – my basic rule is to work this way unless I can boost the emotional impact of what I’m doing by doing something else).

Once again, I’m using Impaler for an example, although the climax sequence is actually somewhat atypical. It’s one of those cases of what I remember well enough to discuss without having to go back and check and isn’t going to spoiler the piece for too many people.

So, the buildup ends with the fight for Constantinople about to start. I have chapter break there, starting the climactic sequence with a new chapter. Vlad’s use of black powder bombs under the walls of the city work, bringing a section of wall down. The tension heightens while he and his men haul cannons and lead horses through the rubble into the bailey of the partly completed Castle of Seven Towers, and start bombarding one of the walls from the inside.

Tension and pace increase with the collapse of the castle wall. The rest of Vlad’s army is bombarding the city, sending incendiaries and bombs over the walls and using cannon and battering rams to bring down the repaired section. At the same time, his naval allies are using cannon mounted on ships to bombard the harbor walls. Vlad is following the messages from all these fronts of his attack, while watching for defenders in his section.

He doesn’t find them in time – they’re too close for his forces to do more than organize a hasty defense, and his small entry force is seriously outnumbered. The battle ramps the pace up while Vlad and his men fight to survive, until Vlad is injured. Here, the pace drops but the tension rises: Vlad can’t fight, but he refuses to leave the field. He endures some crude battlefield first aid, is helped onto a spare horse, and surrounded by his bodyguards.

Now the pace settles to something a little less frantic, but remains tense. Vlad is observing the battle, coordinating as best he can. His forces breach the city walls in multiple locations and open the remaining gates, then work their way through towards the palace on the very edge of the peninsula.

Now the tension ramps up to its highest: the palace walls are intact, all the gates are closed, and there’s an army inside that’s large enough to cause a lot of trouble to Vlad’s tired and injured soldiers, possibly enough to defeat them. The main palace gate opens.

Here the climactic sequence shifts from the struggle to sorting out the results. The major issues haven’t been resolved yet, but it’s become inevitable that they will be resolved, mostly in favor of the main character (unless a tragic ending is part of the book).

The army inside the palace is led by Mihnea, Vlad’s missing and wounded son. He’s escaped, killed the governor of the city, and offers his father the head of the governor in a symbolic gesture that acknowledges Vlad’s status. This ends the military/action aspect of the climactic sequence, dropping the tension levels and the action levels a lot, but leaving the relationship between the two very much unresolved.

In most cases the climactic sequence ends when the action stops: for Impaler I tend to see the climactic sequence running a little longer, past the next day when, after being treated and spending the day resting, they attend the Easter service at the newly rededicated Hagia Sophia, and at which Vlad is the bemused observer of what everyone around him believes to be a miracle in which he is blessed by an angel, and the angel points to a section of earth which is later dug up and reveals a pre-Byzantine crown (Vlad sees nothing).

For me, the end of the climactic sequence is the execution of Mihnea’s betrayers, because that scene marks the reconciliation of father and son, as well as cementing Vlad’s rule in Constantinople. Honestly, everything from the end of the battle for Constantinople could be considered part of the wrap-up: Impaler is unusual in not having a clear distinction between the climax and the wrap-up.

If you liken the climactic sequence of a book to a sled ride down a mountain, Impaler includes the part when the sled is slowing down on the lower slopes, but hasn’t stopped yet. It’s more common for the sled to stop suddenly: either way, it’s made it to the bottom with the main character more or less intact but changed by the experience.