Tag Archives: pantser

How to solve the plotter/pantser dilemma – Guest Post

calvin-hobbes last minute panicToday we welcome author Alison Morton, who has ideas on how to quell the raging debate between plotting and pantsing.

Do you sit down at the keyboard and just write, a vague idea of the characters and their story swirling around in your head? Then you’re a pantser who writes by the seat of your pants. Maybe you plan every scene and chapter in meticulous detail, paying careful attention to the rules of structure used by your genre.Undoubtedly, you’re a plotter.

Well, I’m not entirely sure these extremes exist, in the same way that Elinor and Marianne Dashwood don’t but are symbols for extremes of Sense and Sensibility. When I write, I usually start classically: a character who is suddenly faced with a terrible dilemma, but I only discover how she’s going to resolve it once I start writing her story. However, sensible hat back on, I do like to know the point she’s going to reach at the end. The story has to have some definite purpose otherwise it becomes a soup of pure muddle. But if I don’t have free rein to develop the story, let the characters spark off each other and encounter and deal with setbacks, then I don’t enjoy the actual writing. There’s no point in creating a story if you can’t have fun doing it!

Now I’m drafting book four in my Roma Nova series, I’m learning how to resolve this dilemma. Yes, I’m acquainted with the main character and I want to tell her story. But that’s it. I need to let her run around in my head a bit, to have some adventures, get into trouble, struggle to get out, land in more – you know the rest. More than anything, I have to get to know her, to find out what she wants, what’s stopping her, what she has to do, or Goal, Motivation, Conflict, as creative writing tutors call it.

My way of doing this is to write down 30 lines of plot. Less an outline, more of a wireframe as I like the 3D analogy better.

Line 1: The beginning – the inciting incident
Line 2: Impact and realisation
Line 3: The plan
Line 6: First enormous set-back (turning point 1)
Line 15: First glimmer of light (turning point 2)
Line 21: Gritting on in face of terrible odds and sacrifice (turning point 3)
Line 25: Despite developments, we might be getting there – the false dawn
Line 28: Catastrophe/black moment – do or die
Line 30: The end – the resolution and loose-end tying-up

I have not put all the lines in, but you get the idea. It’s not fixed but it gives you a skeleton which holds the whole thing together but which will become absorbed into the finished product and never be seen by the reader. Once you have these thirty lines and accept that you might have to change or omit some of the lines and substitute new ones, then you can release your inner pantser, and create and imagine to your heart’s content.

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Alison Morton grew up in Tunbridge Wells, a former spa town in South East England, and worked in the City of London, dealt in coins and antique jewellery, head-hunted chief executives, served as a reserve military officer and owned a translation company. She completed a bachelor’s degree in French, German and Economics and several years later a masters’ in history. She now lives in France with her husband.

A ‘Roman nut’ since age 11, she has visited sites throughout Europe including the alma mater, Rome. But it was the mosaics at Ampurias (Spain) that started her wondering what a modern Roman society would be like if run by women…

A wordsmith much of her life – playwright (aged 7), article writer, local magazine editor and translator – she came to novel writing in reaction to a particularly dire film.

‘I could do better that that,’ she whispered in the darkened cinema.

‘So why don’t you?’ came her spouse’s reply.

Three months later, she had completed the first draft of INCEPTIO, the first in her series of Roma Nova thrillers. INCEPTIO was shortlisted for the 2013 International Rubery Book Award. The next in the series, PERFIDITAS, will be published October 2013.

Find out more about Alison’s writing life, Romans and alternate history at her blog  and say hello on Facebook or Twitter.

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New York, present day, alternate reality. Karen Brown, angry and frightened after surviving a kidnap attempt, has a harsh choice – being eliminated by government enforcer Jeffery Renschman or fleeing to the mysterious Roma Nova, her dead mother’s homeland in Europe.

Founded sixteen centuries ago by Roman exiles and ruled by women, Roma Nova gives Karen safety and a ready-made family. But a shocking discovery about her new lover, the fascinating but arrogant special forces officer Conrad Tellus who rescued her in America, isolates her.

Renschman reaches into her new home and nearly kills her. Recovering, she is desperate to find out why he is hunting her so viciously. Unable to rely on anybody else, she undergoes intensive training, develops fighting skills and becomes an undercover cop. But crazy with bitterness at his past failures, Renschman sets a trap for her, knowing she has no choice but to spring it… 

Inceptio is available at your local Amazon.

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How do you develop your stories?

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The most common question I get asked when people find out I’m a writer is, “How do you get it finished?” I sympathize with this question, because until I found out how my brain works when putting together stories, I’d never finished anything either. I would get 3-5,000 words into a novel and then run out of steam every time, and I couldn’t figure out why, except that I must not be very creative.

 

Well, it turned out that the explanation was (thankfully) much more easily overcome. It wasn’t that I wasn’t creative, it was that the way most books and classes on creative writing suggest you go about cogitating a story didn’t work for me. What a relief!

I actually found this out by accident when I was beginning to plan my first NaNoWriMo effort in October of 2011. I had read Chris Baty’s book No Plot No Problem in May, and decided I’d try out National Novel Writing Month. I fully expected my novel to be terrible, but at least I could check it off my lifetime to-do list.

 

In the book, Baty says that you can’t start planning your NaNo book until a week before the November 1 start date. I didn’t realize the book was several years old, and now people plan a year in advance, so I waited until mid-October to really even think about it. I had decided I wanted to do a treasure hunt, but I had no idea what that would involve.

 

I began by reading World History for Dummies. True story. But I didn’t so much read the text as read the gray boxes and other ancillary information, and then reading the text if I wanted more information. Using this method, I came across ancient Persian ruins at Ctesiphon, in what is now in Iraq, and that is what started the whole story.

 

With IXEOS, the first book of my sci-fi trilogy, the story started similarly, when I read about the almost-200 miles of tunnels under Paris in a National Geographic magazine. I knew that would be in a story one day, and when my daughter and I had a strange encounter with a flock of ducks while kayaking, the two melded and became the basis for the novel.

 

As you can see, these two novels started with a location. Undaunted Love started with the idea of a romance in the Civil War South. The Hoard of the Doges, the sequel to Solomon’s Throne, already had established main characters, but the story itself started when I came across some interesting information on Venice in the Middle Ages.

 

This isn’t how most people who teach about writing suggest you go about the whole process, but once I discovered that unique and interesting locations really got my creative juices flowing, I’ve had no trouble creating full stories that flow relatively effortlessly from start to finish. I use the locations to put together a plot, and from there, I add characters. (Yes, this is backwards from most “how to write” suggestions!)

I write a lot of notes on various locations while I’m in this stage, in a notebook I use just for this “noodling” part of the process. After I’ve found the basic structure, I start working on the plot that will connect the locations. For IXEOS, it was the tunnels, which have portals that lead to other manmade tunnels around the world. Once I have a basic plot, I start working on the main characters.

I don’t really outline. I’m what you might call a “plotting pantser.” I know the basic plot points, the beginning and the end. If it’s a treasure hunt, I know where the Quinns are going and something about each location. I do big Stickie Notes on the main characters with basic information. And that’s pretty much it.

Having the whole story loosely defined lets me be flexible and to develop secondary characters and other locations that fit the story as I’m writing. That works for me, as I like to know my ultimate destination but perhaps take a few back roads while getting there.  But (so far, at least), I don’t change the ultimate destination, which gives me a target to aim for and keeps me from going off on tangents (which usually end up getting edited out anyway).

The way to finish a novel is to figure out how your own brain works in putting together a story. Some people need a lot more structure before they start than I do. A few need less. Many start with a plot idea or a great character. That just doesn’t work for me. If you’ve felt stuck after the first several thousand words, analyze your plotting process and see if what you’re doing is what best suits you, or if you’re doing it that way because someone told you that was the best/only way.

When you free yourself from other people’s methods and start to develop your own, whether that’s a wall full of index cards, a thousand Stickies, a formal outline, or just a list of locations, you’ll be able to finish the story. And finishing is a necessary first step to getting your work out there into the world. Or at least what will allow you to check “write a novel” off your bucket list.

 

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Musings on muse

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I had coffee with a new writer friend on Monday, and am having lunch with an old writer friend today (hey, it’s my birthday week!). We are all on this journey together, although I’m a little farther along than they are, having self-published my four novels, with a non-fiction coming any day, and several more books on the schedule for 2013. I enjoy sharing what I’ve learned, good and bad, about indie publishing. To be honest, I don’t find any bad, although there are frustrations, such as marketing and inexplicable surges and dips in sales. It’s great to see so many people taking control of their product and, in effect, becoming small businesses.

Because of a number of events out of my control, I haven’t been very productive for the last month in my own small business. I have a book that is in desperate need of editing, another in desperate need of writing, and a third that’s partly done. All of these are behind my self-imposed schedule. It’s frustrating, and the temptation is to a) pull my hair out, b) hit something, c) anchor myself in this desk chair UNTIL IT’S DONE, and d) all of the above. Repeatedly.

I am not a huge believer in “the muse.” I have found that I write when I prepare to write. On days I don’t want to write, I write anyway, knowing I can edit it later if necessary. (It’s interesting… when I go back and read my manuscript for the first time, I can’t ever tell when those days were!) I don’t write when the muse strikes, wait for the muse, or even look for her. What do I do instead?

Well, when I’m looking for an idea, I always start with locations. To that end, I read all kinds of things. National Geographic. World History For Dummies. Weird news stories that cross my screen on strange discoveries. I take notes or send myself an email when I find some weird fact, even if I’m not actively story-hunting at the moment. When something strikes me as particularly interesting, I start researching it. Sometimes that original idea becomes the story, like with the tunnels under Paris in IXEOS, and sometimes it doesn’t. I wrote a screenplay, Laid Waste, when I first found out about those tunnels in Paris, but the story ended up having absolutely nothing to do with them. It was still the springboard.

Once I have a location or two, I start to noodle a plot. This involves a lot of staring into space and quiet drives. Sometimes a muse shows up here, sometimes not. Sometimes it’s just a matter of something that makes sense that connects the locations I have in mind. After that, it’s onto the main characters. Again, it’s usually figuring out what kind of person would do what I want done and go where I send them. For Solomon’s Throne, I had 2 concurrent stories and 7 unusual locations, so the tie-in was a little difficult. I finally settled on a Portuguese Jesuit priest for the older story line, since my locations happened to follow the Portuguese Spice Route (I love happy accidents!). For the modern story line, I didn’t want the usual action adventure stand-bys of military/paramilitary organizations or another governmental body, so I ended up with an international art leasing company.

Perhaps there was a muse involved, but not in this way: “I’m not in control of my muse. My muse does all the work.” Ray Bradbury

I think the hard work is enjoyable, but it’s work, all the same! This quote suits my style better, I guess: “Writing is total grunt work. A lot of people think it’s all about sitting and waiting for the muse. I don’t buy that. It’s a job. There are days when I really want to write, days when I don’t. Every day I sit down and write.”  Jodi Picoult

What about you? Is the muse doing the work, or are you?

 

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Camp NaNoWriMo starts in 4 days!!

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As I’ve written here before, I am a NaNoWriMo addict. Well, not an addict in the bad sense. It’s just that the challenge is perfectly suited for the way my brain works. I’m a project person. My philosophy on all projects is, “Go big or go home.” Clean the house? Bah! Amateur! I will rearrange the furniture, switch rooms around, rehang the pictures, and paint the walls. Plant some flowers? Too easy. I need to build two eight foot long raised beds and plant my crops for the summer. Sad but true. (Sad, because usually the small things don’t get done until they’re big things that interest me.

Last April, the Office of Letters and Light (the parent organization of NaNoWriMo), held its last Script Frenzy. That was really sad, because it was my first time doing it, and I had a blast. I came out with a darn good script, too, called Laid Waste, a dystopian drama. Anyway, because they didn’t have enough people, they’ve moved one of the Camp NaNoWriMo weeks to April, and allowed scripts as part of the official challenge. (Previously scripts were considered rebelling, except during Script Frenzy.) The other Camp NaNo will be in July. This all works great for me, since my daughter is getting married in June, and I have two graduating kids in May.

Anyway, I’m not writing a script, I’m writing book 3 of the IXEOS Trilogy, Darian’s War. You’d think that, perhaps, I’d have done a little preparation for this endeavor. But no… We are also trying to get our house on the market, I’m in the final stages of editing book 2 of the trilogy, IXEOS: Rebellion, and I’m writing a non-fiction book. And we’re going on a vacation over Easter. Yeah. Those special words you just thought are running through my brain all the time, right about now!

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The real question is, are YOU ready for Camp NaNo? One great feature this time around is that you can set your word count goal anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000, so you don’t have to get 50,000 to win. The Camps, I think, have fewer winners than the November “main event,” so I think this is a great idea. My daughter entered because she could set her goal at 10,000. This is about all she can manage, with graduation in May and her wedding in June.

If you aren’t ready, I hope you are a pantser (someone who writes their novel by the seat of their pants), but if you’re a plotter, or a plotting pantser like me, you still have time. I planned my whole first NaNoWriMo book in a week, per Chris Baty’s “No Plot? No Problem” book, not realizing that things had changed and you could plan sooner. I have no advice for you pantsers, since you’re just waiting for 12:01am on April 1 to get going. But I do have some hints for the plotters who haven’t yet started.

Index cards, notebooks and/or Stickie notes. If you are a plotter or a plotting pantser, you will need to have some things written down to guide you through the month. I use a notebook, and write all my research and ideas fairly willy-nilly as I go. Because I am only coming up with a general outline, the beginning, the end, and some major plot points, my main note-taking is on my research into any historical or geographical facts I need to get started. (I do continuous research during the writing, too, so don’t feel like you have to have ALL your research done before April 1.) If I’m working on a new book, meaning one that’s not in a series, I use really big Stickie notes (about 6×8″). I write each character on a Stickie, with general information (ie physical description, job, location). I use these big notes because I stick them on my closet door. Using the giant ones means I can see the notes from where I’m sitting, and I don’t have to search for my scribbles anywhere else.

If you’re a real outliner, try to transfer your notes to a Word document or to Scrivener. Scrivener has a great cork board view, where you can organize virtual index cards just like on your wall, without the holes or ruined paint. If you don’t have your entire book outlined before 4/1, don’t panic. Get what you know down, and work on the rest when you’re done writing each day. You don’t have to know each chapter to start the first one. Baby steps…

Limit your forum time. I know, you get a lot of encouragement from the NaNo forums and cabins. But I also know that they’re a time sucker! I don’t use the forums much at all during the month I’m writing, but I tend to lurk around before and after. If you’re ready to go, that’s fine. Make some friends, have some laughs, get some good recipes. If you’re not ready, steer clear. You’ll start out with a virtuous search for help, and end up joining a tea exchange. Nothing wrong with a tea exchange – I did one in November. But that’s not where you need to spend your time right now!

Be realistic about research. I do a ton of research. Seriously. A ton. But don’t try to do it all prior to starting, even if you’re a plotter. For one thing, even with a great outline, you don’t always know what will come up. Maybe someone will speak in Swahili, and you didn’t see it coming. In this day of the internet, you can do amazing things in just five minutes! You can

  • Pull up the Louvre on Google Earth and describe it down to the last brick.
  • Find a full list of Korean or Italian or Scottish surnames.
  • Look at a star map and find out exactly what constellations are visible where and when.
  • Study a map of the London Tube and figure out which stops your characters would get on and off.
  • Learn how an EMP works.

Research stresses a lot of people out. I research things that I worry about, like smuggling weapons and how to make a WMD. I just use a search aggregator so that (hopefully) Homeland Security isn’t going to show up at my door. While the NaNo forum has a great thread asking about all these questions and more, it’s a lot faster to just keep some research windows open and do it yourself. It doesn’t make you a bad writer if you’re doing research in the middle!

Plan your month and daily word counts. I’ve written about figuring out word counts before here, but here’s the short version. There are 30 days in April. Theoretically, you write 1667 words a day for 30 days and you have 50,000 words and a winner’s badge. But Easter break is this month. Tax day is this month. My birthday is this month (if you are looking for things to celebrate!). Maybe you’re going to a wedding, or throwing a party, or, like me, putting your house on the market. In short, in a perfect world, you have 30 days, but in real life, you may have 27. That’s okay! Don’t worry about it!

Here’s why. Take a deep breath. Look at your calendar and determine the realistic number of days you’ll write. I know that I can’t write every day. My brain needs a break. I also know that I will be traveling April 1-3. One day is a lot of air travel, so I’ll count that day in. But April 1 is probably a definite no, and the 2nd is 50-50. We’re having a moving/yard sale on April 6. So that’s probably 25 days of writing for me (the 3 days with something going on, and 2 for mental health). If my goal is 50,000, I divide that by 25 instead of 30, and I get 2000 words a day. That would be my goal. (Since my personal goal is to finish the novel, which will be about 85,000 words, my actual goal is 3400.)

Now, figure out a way to keep track of your goal. I have a Stickie note app on my desktop, and I keep a tally every day. Here’s what that looks like:

UNDAUNTED LOVE

June 1    3266        GOAL 3,000         3266
June 2    6935        GOAL 6,266         3669
June 3    10,723    GOAL 10,000       3788
June 4    14,070    GOAL 13,723       3347
June 5    17,715    GOAL 17,070       3530
June 6    20,830    GOAL 20,715       3115
June 7    24,066    GOAL  23, 715     3236
June 8    27,223    GOAL  27,066      3157
June 9    28,062    GOAL  30,223        839  (-2161)
June 10  32,432    GOAL  31,062      4370
June 11  37,494    GOAL  37,432      5062
June 12  42,517    GOAL 42,494       5023
June 13  45,535   GOAL  45,517       3018
June 14  50,049   GOAL 50,000        4514
June 15  OFF
June 16  53,335   GOAL  53,049       3286
June 17  57,104   GOAL  56,335       3769
June 18  60,551   GOAL 60,104        3447
June 19  64,039   GOAL  63,551       3488
June 20  67,143   GOAL  67,039       3104
June 21  OFF
June 22   70,349  GOAL 70,143       3206
June 23   72,446  GOAL 73,349      deficit -903
June 24   75,608  GOAL 75,500      3160
June 25   80,026  GOAL  78,608     4418
June 26   85,846  GOAL  83,026     5820
June 27   88,370  DONE!!!!    GOAL 88,846

The numbers in the second column are my actual word counts after writing for the day. The goal is the previous day’s total word count plus that day’s goal. The final number is how many words I wrote for that day. Notice that, even though I didn’t meet my goal on two of the days, I did not add that deficit plus my next day’s goal. I just added the next day’s goal. If you look through, you can see that, most days, I more than met my 3,000 words a day goal, meaning I had “words in the bank.” Some days just don’t go as you want them to… Don’t set yourself up to fail by making the next day miserable. Just pick up where you left off.

Prepare your family or roommates. Especially if this is your first NaNo event, prepare the people in your house, and any others who may be effected by your focus on writing during the month. Prepare menus if that will help you keep up with things. My first NaNo, our meals were the most organized they’ve ever been! Let people know it’s not just the time writing, but time thinking. Be prepared for your brain to be more tired than usual at the end of the day. Creativity is exhausting, especially if you’re not used to writing daily. If you get resistance, put your foot down. It’s one month… Everyone can manage!

Don’t edit. Decide right now that you aren’t going to edit as you write. For many of you, that is tantamount to cutting off your pinky toe, I know. But do it anyway. If you can manage it through one book, you’ll never go back to the write-edit-write-edit loop that keeps so many people stuck in my-novel-will-never-be-finished land. This is your first draft. Read that again. It’s your FIRST DRAFT. It’s supposed to suck! It would practically be sacrilege if it didn’t suck! That’s okay! If you forget something that should be in Chapter 2, don’t go back. Write it right where you are, and make a note to move it when you’re done. I’m totally serious. Why? Because if you go back to Chapter 2, you’ll start reading to see where to put it. Then you’ll find problems and start editing. Before you know it, you’ve spent two hours editing Chapters 2 and 3 and written exactly zero. Don’t start! You can fix it all later – the words aren’t going anywhere. (Speaking of that, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE save and back up your work daily! NaNo is rife with stories of people whose computer ate their work…)

Just do it! Nike has it right. Sometimes, despite setbacks and against all odds, you just have to do it. Bribe yourself, bully yourself, get a buddy, chain yourself to your desk… If you have decided you’re going to do it, then you owe it to yourself to try your best. Yes, things happens. People get sick, life gets in the way. That’s okay. If you can say, at the end of the month, that you did all you could do to win, then that’s the important thing. I happen to believe you actually can win, unless we’re talking major natural disaster or personal catastrophe… You can do it!

If you’re participating, let me know! I’m jswwrites in the forums, although I won’t be there too much. I’d love to know how it goes, and answer any questions if I can. Good luck!

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DISCLAIMER: I am a 5 time NaNo participant and winner, but I don’t represent NaNoWriMo in any capacity other than as an enthusiast!

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