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Posts tagged ‘Writing craft’

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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

So how?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

 

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.

 

The Pantser Body Of Knowledge: Setting – the mythical tribe of Fakawi

If you’re anything like me, setting isn’t something you, the extreme pantser, thinks about. It’s just there.

The problem with this is that without learning how to Heinlein the key setting information, there’s a tendency to either stop everything for a big fat infodumpus, or to wind up with talking head syndrome, where there’s simply not enough detail, and the reader ends up like the mythical tribe of Fakawi, which is known only for appearing in strange places and shouting “We’re the Fakawi!” (If you’re confused, try saying that out loud. Preferably where small children won’t hear you, and not at work).

Most of the pantsers I know – me included – have a tendency to include only the setting information that their characters notice. This isn’t enough. When you think about it, you mostly don’t pay much attention to familiar surroundings: it becomes background and not worthy of mention. I’d describe my workplace environment as “a cube”, for instance, and not think to mention the Demotivator poster I have on the wall, the way I use color coded highlighters on a large planner to give me a month-at-a-glance view of what’s happening, the assorted notes stuck to the cube wall. I certainly wouldn’t consider anything like the height of the cube walls and what they’re made of relevant, or the desk, or the chair. Everyone here has a pretty decent mental image of what my cube looks like, because we all know what cubicles are and how they work from movies, TV, or personal experience (or from Dilbert, which is sadly accurate).

Would someone from late Victorian times have any idea what I’m talking about? Not likely. And therein lies the fun of setting and why pantsers need to focus on it. We pantsers tend to be strongly character-driven, and not notice the things that our characters don’t notice. In any genre that doesn’t involve here-and-now-and-familiar, that means we’re likely to leave out things readers need to know. We know them, but they never leave the familiar confines of our skulls.

So, how to stop this happening? Usually the first step is to let something you’ve written sit for long enough that it’s moderately unfamiliar, although if you can bully… ahem… convince a friendly mentor to read it and tell you where you need more detail it does help. Then you go back and edit. A lot. Mostly Heinleining a detail here, another there. Instead of a ‘tree’, mention the pale barkless trunk, the lack of branches until twice your character’s height, and the narrow leaves the color of old ashes – preferably on separate occasions in the same scene rather than all at once. If you can weave it into what’s happening even better: the character’s clothes are the wrong color to blend in with the tree, he can’t climb it because it doesn’t start branching until way too high, and those damn leaves crackle underfoot and reek of eucalypt and he’s never going to avoid the pursuers unless he can get to someplace he can hide.

Going back and doing this to something antique of yours that you have no intention of publishing, just as an exercise, is also helpful.

What eventually happens – and yes, this does seem to be typical of pantsers – is that the more you do this kind of editing, the more you start remembering to add these details in when you’re writing your first draft. Eventually, putting in the right information happens automatically, although not usually before you’ve gone through a profoundly unnerving period when you’re doing it automatically but you’re not actually recognizing this and you have absolutely no ability to judge what’s going on.

Since extreme pantsers also tend to improve in leaps, this is pretty common, and terrifying – you know what your writing is different, qualitatively, than anything you’ve done before. But you don’t know if it’s good or not because your conscious mind hasn’t caught up yet. In my experience, the best thing to do with this is to ride the tsunami and trust the judgment of your first readers (you do have first readers who’ll tell you if you go off-track, right?).

All of this leads into the second big problem with setting that bedevils extreme pantsers. We tend to get a kind of core dump of what the world is, and tease out details as we go. Unfortunately, it’s usually real-world enough that it breaks the rules of story: it doesn’t make sense.

Everyone here knows that reality doesn’t have to make sense. It just is. Story is a different beast, and setting has to follow the rules of story, or it won’t satisfy readers. Hell, reality doesn’t satisfy most people, which is why conspiracy theories are so popular – they make more sense than stuff just happening.

We pantsers have to take what we have and figure out some kind of narrative history to attach to the setting to make it make sense. And yes, that history is its own story, which then needs to have enough bits Heinleined in to give the right feel and to make sense of what’s there. It’s the same basic process, except that most of this information won’t actually appear in the story, and may never show up anywhere except inside your skull, but without it your story is effectively rootless. I usually find I get this information through deconstruction of the “Okay, these people don’t like magic. What would make them so anti-magic? A magical disaster? Okay, so what would have caused that?” kind, going back through the world’s history until I’ve got something that works and feels right.

A final word here for the extreme pantser: don’t discount ‘feels right’. If you’ve done your research and have a decent idea of how people work, how stuff happens and the like, ‘feels right’ is a kind of thumbnail guide to ‘all the pieces are in place somewhere even if I can’t see them all consciously’. There are times when that’s all you’ll get until after the book is finished. Sometimes until after it’s published. And yes, that has happened to me.