Pantser Writing

So if you’ve read my last post, you know that I strongly recommend outlining, especially if you want to keep a steady momentum and keep a short deadline. But the truth is, I don’t always take my own advice. I would like to, because when I have outlined my first draft comes easier and is much cleaner.

But stories don’t always work the way you want them to and this is the case with my current project.

A first chapter I wrote way back before I even had children sprang to life last winter, lurching out of the obscure recesses of my hard drive and demanding attention. I wasn’t quite sure where it wanted to go, but the feeling of it began to become clear to me and the characters started speaking.

One late night when I had to go to bed but was reluctant to leave it, I put together a working outline of where I wanted it to go when I picked it up the next night. And the next night, it went in a completely different direction.

I wrote a looser outline of how the story would end, leaving plenty of room for unexpected twists.

When I consulted it next time I hit a lull, I was completely off course.

This story wanted to remain a mystery to me. Writing it was like navigating a heavy fog. I could only see what was going to happen when it was right in front of me.

Some ideas stuck. Some twists I came up with at the beginning remain, waiting for their big reveals. The characters who popped out at the beginning have claimed the personalities that they presented with. But the story, insists on being written by the seat of my pants.

To be honest it’s kind of a mess. But it’s also pretty exciting. I’m still not sure who the villain is. I’m still not sure how the anti-hero will prevail. Or if he will at all.

Seat of the pants writing is not the easiest way to write and when this manuscript is finally done I am in for a whole lot of serious editing, which is not my favorite thing to do. Writers who are dedicated to pre-plotting and outlining may abandon stories that insist on veering so wildly off course.

In my earliest novels, seat of the pants writing was the only way I worked. And those novels are unlikely to ever see the light of day again, but some surprising and exciting ideas and plots came out of them, and this will be the case for my newest work as well. Only this time, I think (or hope) I have learned enough to be able to clean this up into something awesome.

There is no wrong way to write a book, except not to do it at all. A story will tell you how it wants to be written, whether it’s with disciplined pre-plotting or complete chaos. If you let it call the shots in the first draft, it will take the pressure off of you and will actually make the experience of writing it pretty fun.

Tell me what you think. Are you a pantser or a plotter? Have you have had an unruly story that just insisted on going it’s own way?

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#NaNoWriMo : Some tips to get er done

I’ve tried to participate a few times and never quite made it. But you can learn from my failures.

If you’ve decided to participate in this year’s NaNoWriMo, first off, Congrats! It’s an awesome opportunity to stretch your limits and see what you can do. And you can do this, but the way is fraught with danger! Danger I say!

No, seriously, not danger, but it’s very easy to get off track and fall short of your goal. I know because I have done it myself. In fact I still have an awesome start to my NaNoWriMo manuscript from 2008 sitting on my hard drive, collecting digital dust.

But, I’ve also managed to churn out a few first drafts in a month’s time. Just not the month of November. If I wasn’t already 75% through a manuscript already, I would be participating in this year’s challenge.

So, get your work space ready. Decide that you can do this, and check out these tips to stay on track.

1 Outline

Seriously. Outline this story. You have already been told this so you might have done it in October, but if you haven’t do it now. It doens’t have to be exact. It does not need to be complicated, but having a framework to go off of, and a clear idea where the story is going will keep it moving. Whenever you start to feel the momentum slowing down, refer to your outline and move onto the next plot point.

2. Take advantage of the resources available to you.

One of the most helpful things I have come across in completing my work is having a writing community of real writers to bounce ideas off of, commiserate with, and tap for research. There are hundreds, probably thousands, of NaNoWriMo writing forums. Find one you like and use it! Often, just talking about your novel (with people who’s eyes don’t glaze over when you say “my novel…”) is enough to get the wheels turning again.

3. Turn off Social Media

We all know social media is the dark lord of time wasting. And your time is valuable right now. Don’t let the dark lord suck it away, even in your awesome NaNoWriMo forum, or you will be one of those people who is talking about the book they are writing instead of finishing the book they are writing.

4. Don’t edit it. Don’t even review it. For now.

No spell checks, no clean ups, NO REVISING. Just move forward for now. If you stop to read over everything you’ve written, you will be tempted to start fixing things. If you try to clean it up as you go along, you will never get done. Clean up later. Create now. Forward and not backwards. Even if you changed the MC’s name in chapter twenty.

5. Write every day. Every. Day.

Even weekends. Even Thanksgiving. It doesn’t have to be 5000 words, but try to write a paragraph if you have a busy day. Time off kills momentum and you need to keep momentum to finish this. Every day. I mean it. And yes, I mean you.

6. Have a life.

You can write a chapter a day and still grab a drink with your BFF, go on a date, re-watch all of Stranger Things. You should. Because writing is awesome, but you need to live to have stuff to write about and writing burn out is a real thing that will destroy your motivation if you let it. When your eyes start to cross or you are more stressed about what your MC is getting herself into than your latest work drama, take a breather. Just, you know, write first.

7. Take a Walk or just a brooding ten minutes

I need to write a post about my brooding breaks. They may be one of the most important parts of my process. I usually take one when I’ve completed a scene or a chapter and they allow me to collect my throughts, work through my transitions and start to piece together the next scene or decide it’s time to go to bed. It is imperative you get away from your computer to take a break. Go outside, take a walk, or just go sit in a different chair if need be, but no distractions, no phone, no TV. Just think, or brood. You will return to your manuscript fresh and ready to go on.

8. Outline.

Yeah, I know you thought it didn’t apply to you, but now you’re stuck in your story half way through and have no idea where it is going or how to get to the end from here. So take a walk and work out a rough idea how to get to where you want to go and then write it down. There is no hard fast rule that says you have to outline before you start, but whenever you find yourself stuck, an outline WILL tide you over until the seat of your pants starts flying again.

9. Accept the Suckage

First drafts are bad. It’s okay. I know you don’t want it to suck but the strong difference between those who can write a novel in one month and those who cannot is that the ones who do it accept that at the end of November they will have a completed first draft. It might resemble a flaming dumpster fire but it’s a flaming dumpster fire that can be edited into a diamond. If you try to make it perfect while you are writing it, at the end of the month you will have a beautiful twenty pages.

10. Love what you do

This is your story. This is your voice. It is important whether it’s a space opera about fighting vampire robots or a generational drama about American immigrants. Write what you love and love what you do. That authenticity will carry you and your work further than any other method you use to complete your first draft.

Good luck!

First Draft Climax = Total Trash

Maybe you have this problem too. It’s a trend in my process that I’m just beginning to come to terms with. The rest of my manuscript will be generally logical, clean and coherent, but the climax is a giant, raging mess.

It’s all over the place. It doesn’t follow a rational path. Motivations, descriptions, tone and setting are sloppy at best and there is often some long info dumps revelations that DRAG it down. So over all, my climax is just awful.

Usually by the time I get to the climax, I’m in full blown writing mode, so I have two choices. Power through, let it come out as it is, or beat it into submission.

Now I have to admit I’ve frequently tried to beat it into submission. After all the climax is pretty much the most important part of the novel, the part I have been writing toward the whole time. But pounding away at it has a tendency to sap my motivation. To be completely honest, I love writing, and when I don’t love it, well, I don’t really want to do it any more.

And the truth is, even when I do get through it in this fashion, it’s still pretty bad.

So my newest method is to let it suck. Let is be the heaping pile of hot trash that it wants to be for now. I’m going to have to go in there with a bulldozer during edits anyway, what ever gets me to the end of the story is the method I should take. I will have a clearer idea on what it needs to be concise and effective after the story is done, the theme has emerged and I’ve had time to identify specific problems.

First drafts aren’t supposed to be good. They’re supposed to be finished.  Even something as important as the climax isn’t going to be any good to you if you can’t finish the book.

Finish the book. Let it be trash. Trash can always be cleaned up.

 

When you have writing momentum DON’T STOP!

You will scrape and toil, pecking out a few horrific words and deleting them for days, weeks, months, years. You will stare at blank pages in utter horror as the words in your mind shrivel, unwritten, into dust. Then one day you still start to write and it will flow.

When this happens, my best advice for you is don’t stop.

Your words are a boulder that is rolling down a hill. Let it roll! Let it crash over cars. When it hits a plateau let the force it built up rolling, keep it moving forward,until it hits another hill.

Do not stop the rolling boulder! It was was hard to get moving in the first place.

Skip the Game of Thrones finale, if you have the writing momentum. It’s on Demand. Your words are not. Let them roll out or they will stop.

Skip the early bedtime that you wanted to get. You can hazard through a tired morning if it means you spilled two thousand words onto a page.

Even skip the night out, unless you have amazing tickets, already hired the babysitter, or your meeting a friend who’s only in town for the night. Then, do the night out, but get home and get writing as soon as it’s over.

Skip everything you can skip. Work. Dinner. Bathroom. Life. Just don’t stop!

Okay, well, you may have to stop, sometimes. It’s very hard to pull off mad artist these days.

But put off all the things you can, at least for a couple weeks, if you can keep the momentum going that long. Because it is a gift, and it does not last, especially if you don’t get on that big rolling rock and ride it as far as you can.

Other people will have great advice for you on how to finish a first draft. It all can work, but for me, from me, this is the only fool proof advice I have.

Don’t stop. Keep writing, until the well dries up or you finish the draft.

Things you learn when you’re a writer

You might have gone to grad school for creative writing. Or maybe you’ve just joined your first crit group. You might have written twenty eight novels or still be pecking away at your first short story. Regardless of where you are, there are some things that you need to know. I am going to tell you these things. In fact, many people may tell you these things, but it’s likely you’re going to have to learn them through experience before they really sink in.

So if you’re just starting out, this is just a heads up.

  1. Everything about writing takes time. The writing part, that’s the short part. Editing, submitting, waiting for response, publishing, everything takes time. Lots and lots of time.
  2. Everything about writing takes patience. See above.
  3. Your first works won’t be that good. You can fix them or you can move on.
  4. Sooner or later, you’re going to need to redraft. You may think by editing as you go you are saving yourself time or effort. You are not. Just get the first draft done so that you can get to that second, third and fourth draft.
  5. You are a writer for a reason. Even if you’re struggling to find your voice, it’s there and with time and practice it will emerge.
  6. Not everyone’s suggestions are valid to you. It’s your story. When people try to start rearranging it, they’re trying to turn it into their story.
  7. Most of them time “They just don’t get it” is not a good excuse. You may use it alot when you start to get critiques on your work. The thing is, if the people reviewing your work just don’t get it, neither will your readers.
  8. Only JK Rowling is JK Rowling. We’d all like to have that first manuscript we punched out during a hard time in our lives become an international sensation, but the truth is even JK Rowling’s idea took seven hard years from conception to publication.
  9. Your ego will be crushed. Again and again. Just say goodbye to it. It’s not serving you anyway.
  10. You can do this. Yes. It takes a lot of work and even more perseverance. No one can do it for you, and for a long time, there won’t even be anyone to do it with you, but if you have been gifted with the burning desire to write stories, to share your mind with the world, then there is a reason for that, and if you keep moving it will come together for you.

What are some lessons you have learned about being a writer? Please share!

How to be an excellent critique partner

If you want to keep improving your writing, you will want to foster relationships with people who give you the best feedback. But in order to get you need to give. A great critique partner is not going to continue to spend their precious writing time scouring over your chapter if you are not offering quality feedback in return.

This can take some practice but there are some ground rules.

 

Identify strengths! Whether it’s the idea, descriptive abilities, strong characters, use of language this should be the first thing you look for when you critique another writer’s work. If the writing is generally strong, tell them! If the writing is still in need of a lot of work, it’s even more important to tell them where their strengths lie so that they know where they are safe once editing begins, and to encourage them to keep going.

Consider the genre. Romance is not the same as Thriller. Pulp Horror is not the same as Literature. It may not be your preferred genre but that doesn’t mean you can’t critique it. If you really don’t understand the genre, you can fall back on the basics. Clean writing, strong characters, solid plot, grammar, descriptions, ect. If you don’t feel qualified to comment on the effectiveness of a certain troupe in the genre, then don’t. Insisting that a romance is “frivolous” or a fantasy is “ridiculous” because they are not what you would choose to read for pleasure is not helpful. It’s really kinda douchey.

Don’t pander. No matter how “nice” you are or how much you want the other writer to like you, you’re not help to anyone if you just feed their ego. You may be blown away by their work. That’s awesome. Tell them that! But if you see flaws in their work, it is your job to point them out. That is why they gave you their manuscript.

Be professional. Writing is work. Providing feedback is work. Yes it is personal work but the critique you are offering should not be taken personally. It is to help them improve their work, so keeping your language professional will help keep the line intact, prove you are taking their efforts seriously and allow them to consider your efforts to be serious as well. We are writers, people. We know the difference between “Your character is such a bitch” and “I’m concerned this passage could alienate your character from readers”.

Consider the writer’s skill. Determine where they are in their writing and critique accordingly. If someone is a new writer, their work should not be judged on the same scale as a published literature professor and writer of twenty years.  New writers will become non-writers if you rip their work apart the first them they submit. Give them time to adjust to peer critiques. Participating in critiquing the work of more experienced writers will do more for them then your harsh review of their own work and even without you nit picking every single thing that is wrong with their writing, you will start to see their work rising to the standard around them. On the other hand, a more experienced writer can not only handle more extensive criticism, they are likely seeking it out specifically as they are already aware of where their strength lie (although you shouldn’t skip that party).

CONSTRUCTIVE Criticism. Please! Telling a writer you don’t like it, It’s weak writing, The story makes no sense, it’s boring, it’s too sad, you just can’t get into it… it’s not helpful. All it does is make the writer feel kinda crappy about themselves, about you and undermine any helpful advice you may have in the future. Why do you feel the writing can be improved? What are you struggling with understanding? How is the story dragging? Offer suggestions, not problems. Otherwise you’re useless. And also kinda douchey again.

Never ever ever ever assume you know the writer’s story better than them. I shouldn’t even have to mention this. But i do. I see if all the time, particularly with chapter by chapter submissions. You can say “I can’t see how you are going to pull this together” or “I’m really surprised you made this choice”. Maybe that will be helpful, but it’s even more likely that the writer is trying to keep you on your feet. Telling them that they are writing their story wrong, that their character shouldn’t be this way, that the twist doesn’t go with what you thought would happen is silly until you’ve seen how everything turns out. It’s not your story. Don’t try to hijack it.

Work to your own strengths. If you are a grammar queen, make those grammar notes! If you are more of a big picture person, comment on how the work is coming together. You are best equipped to help others in the areas you excel in. You should never ignore problems that you notice, but don’t kill yourself trying to correct punctuation if you know you can be most effective helping them to develop their characters.

What are some things you have found most helpful in critique partners? What are some things that you have learned to avoid?

You’re always moving forward, unless you give up

There is nothing quick about being a writer. Writing a book takes a long time. Editing a book can be just as long or longer. Publishing takes forever. Making money… I think you get the point.

In this very long process, it is easy to get discouraged. In fact, it’s pretty much standard. When you finish writing a novel and realize how much work it needs, when you spend years editing and it’s still not right, when you can’t find an agent, a publisher, when your self published work languishes, literally at every step you are going to be discouraged because it feels like after all this work and all this time you are stagnant.

This is only emphasized by the fast furious flurries of activity, writing and editing binges, critiques, contracts, launch parties, that seem to consume everything while they are going on.

With these big exciting milestones, it’s not always easy to see the little steps in between. They are frequently eclipsed by the waiting game that plays such a prevalent role in the path to becoming published author. But if you find yourself discouraged while you wait for these big things, it’s time to scale back and look at all the little things that you have been ignoring, because that is where the real progress is made. Even if it doesn’t seem like progress.

Because another reason we get discouraged is that these little steps can feel like they’re going backwards. A bad critique, a failure to impress with your novel, a query rejection.

But they are all pushing you toward what you want, as long as you keep going. Each failure is an experience to learn.

If you join a new crit group that tears apart a manuscript that your last crit group was praising, it’s not a back slide. You just leveled up. You’re going to learn things you never would have learned in the last group.

Your query’s been rejected again? Now you know that query isn’t working for you. Write a new one!

A reader doesn’t like your book? Find out why and determine if it’s something you can and want to fix. Maybe they are seeing something you missed. Maybe it’s not for them.

There are also little steps you take every day, cutting a few words, writing a new chapter, reading articles on writing, signing up for classes and seminars that are pretty mundane but all provide the potential of that final piece to make your work click into place.

And don’t forget the way you help other writers. Reading and critiquing the work of other authors can not only give them the benefit of your knowledge but also help you to zero in on your own strengths and flaws. Supporting other writers gives you a community to support you, people to bounce ideas off of and to commiserate with.

The milestones are huge. They tend to overshadow our little steps, but they cannot be accomplished without them.

You are not stuck, no matter how long it’s been since your last milestone. You are never stuck unless you throw in the towel forever.

 

Keep writing, friends.

 

The overused phrase

We all have one and it’s practically invisible. To you.

But your readers will start to notice it and notice it and notice it, and soon it will start to overshadow your entire story.

Yesterday I came across a tweet on my feed. An otherwise awesome book used the same description so many times it was distracting her. Soon other people were chiming in, recalling their own experiences with this situation and I remembered my own.

I was reading a series by an author I had been reading for years, but this time I kept getting held up. Over and over characters were described as having a “shock of red/black/white/blue hair”. Now there is nothing wrong with this description. Once. Maybe even twice.

But over the course of this series it came up again and again and again and it started to become bigger than the story itself. Eventually, I was rolling my eyes so hard that I just put down the book and didn’t pick it up again. (To be fair there were some other frustrating issues, but this is the only one I remember, years later).

The thing is, just about every writer I know has this problem, including myself. And we are practically unaware of it.

A few years ago, when “The Silent Apocalypse” was up on a critique forum, a writer pointed out that I wrote “certainly” about twelve times in one chapter. He certainly noticed it. It certainly was distracting him. When I did a search of the manuscript, I found that I certainly used the word a lot and it certainly didn’t match the voice of every POV character using it.

But I never would have noticed if someone hadn’t pointed it out to me.

While we are busy killing darlings and cutting adverbs, we writers may not even consider looking for phrases we use too much. This is why it’s crucial to have betas, peer critiques and editors go over your work. And if they’re reading chapters separately, make sure you ask them to keep an eye out for this specific issue.

If you suspect you may have an overused phrase, search it out through the find function in word.

It certainly will go a long way in cleaning up your work.

 

Start encouraging other writers now

Hey. You with the finished novel and the query plan. And you with the agent and the possible interested publisher. Also, you over there who just got smeared on a writing critique website and that chick beside you with the Masters in Creative Writing. All of you, listen up.

You might be great. You might be golden. But you ain’t shit without other writers to back you up. And if you going around with your Grammar Nazi red pen and your condescending  and overly worded notes on how they should have written their novels, you aren’t doing them, or yourself any favors.

In my life I have read all sorts of writing from all sorts of people and there have been times I have put my hands over my face and thought, this is too hard to read. Sometimes the genre was just not my cup of tea. Sometimes the writing really did need a lot of clean up. Sometimes they had a writing quirk that I fixated on until it drove me crazy. Sometimes It was just so really good that I wanted to gouge my eyes out in jealousy. It’s honestly happened many times for many different reasons.

But the fact of the matter was, I always did read it, all the way through. And after I digested it a bit, I could always see the light glowing in that story.

Every story has a light.

A unique voice. An amazing premise. A clear and concise manner of wordplay. A riveting style.

The truth is, I have been wealthy in the work I have gotten to read. There is very little I have gotten my hands on that hasn’t revealed it’s light to me. Hasn’t taught me something, changed my ideas just a little, made my brain spin in that beautiful, awesome way the brains of writers do.

And you will never read most of it. Because someone, or sometimes, multiple someones, have beaten that story down. They convinced the writer that instead of chipping away at the rock and mud and sometimes, yes, sometimes even caked shit, until they shined that gem gleaming at the center, that instead that gem itself was trash, and maybe the writer was trash as well.

Now, please, let me clarify a moment, before going on. Not everything you ever write is going to be diamonds. You are going to write a lot of petrified dinosaur poop with some garnets sprinkled in. Especially when you first get started and before you tell your ego to take a back seat to honing your craft. But you can salvage those garnets and you can keep trading them up until they surround diamonds if you keep working at getting better.

And working at getting better takes some serious diamond hard will. Not all of us will make it. Not because we can’t, but because we get crushed under the egos of the peers and mentors we go to to help us refine our craft.

So here is my plea to my fellow writers, who have used that diamond will to forge on.

Keep looking for the light in the words of those around you. Keep looking for the lessons they have to teach you. Keep looking for their strengths. Keep encouraging writers, every writer.

I’m not telling you to pander. To flatter. To lie. Those things serve no one.

But find the strengths in the work. Find that spark that made that person decide they wanted to write in the first place and while you give your criticism, and please do make sure you tell them how to make their work stronger by elevating the strengths that are already there.

A person can learn grammar. They can learn plotting. They can learn to set the tone. But they need to feel like it is worth it. And it is always worth it.

Neil Gaiman is quoted saying “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

This is what we, as writers and as critics, need to remember. The story is unique to the writer. We do not know where it is going until it has gone there. We must read as readers and not as writers. We must acknowledge that every story is a journey for the writer, because we know every story we write is our own journey.

Not all of our journeys deserve publication. Not all of our paths lead to riches. But we learn along the way, don’t we?

And to your benefit, you never know when that kid your encouraged in night school is going to unleash the NYT bestseller, or the girl in your crit group is going to be endorsed by Stephanie Meyer. Do you want to be the person who told them their story sucked because you thought the twist should be something different, or do want to be the one they are endorsing when you release your first work because you made it possible for them to see their flaws and play up their strength?

Wait for your perfect ending

You can write the most awesome book ever, with a perfectly acceptable ending. And it will be a very nice book. But if you want something more than very nice, then don’t call it finished until the perfect ending comes to you.

By perfect I don’t mean tightly edited and polished. That goes without saying. What I mean is that you want that ending that gives you chills. The ending that makes you actually gasp when you think of it. Why? Because gasps and chills in the writer will translate to gasps and chills with the reader.

These endings don’t always come easily. Sometimes you can have a fantastic story but the ending alludes you, or it’s there but it just doesn’t feel right. I frequently struggle with this problem when I’m working on a new project. My most recently manuscript is complete in it’s first draft, but the ending is still only okay. So I’m waiting for the perfect ending to come.

Getting this perfect ending is not easy, but it it worth it. To illustrate, I am going to talk to you about the Disney movie, Moana.

I have two young children, so Moana has been on quite frequently in the last month or so. And amazingly enough, I’m pretty okay with that, because it is an excellent movie. And it has a PERFECT ending. I mean chills, every time. In fact, to date, I have not been able to catch my favorite scenes of the movie without a few sniffles as well.

So if you haven’t seen it, stop reading now and go watch it because:

SPOILER ALERT

The perfect ending of Moana almost didn’t happen. Writers at Disney struggled to recreate their princess mold and portray the Polynesian people and their mythologies with respect and authenticity. And they wrote and rewrote the end over and over where Moana faces off with Ta-Ka and is saved by Maui. This would have been acceptable. They already made a non-princess who was capable and removed the love interest aspect of the story, but it was far from perfect.

So the writers went back to the drawing board and asked themselves just what they were trying to achieve.

Setting out to further evolve the princess standard they’d started to change in Frozen, they knew they wanted a capable, realistic heroine. Someone that we all can aspire to, someone who fails and keeps trying. And they wanted her to be able to save herself. Relying on a demigod to fix everything in the end was not a good enough ending.

With this vision crystal clear, they set about refining the theme, refining the story, looking at it from all aspects.

Another strong theme of the story was respect for nature and how humans inevitable can wrong nature in their quest for power. It was in the merging of these themes, personal identity, feminine power, perseverance and preservation of nature, that the ending finally clicked into place.

And it is glorious.

Watching it twice a week with my children glorious.

So if your ending is good but not great, great but not perfect, take some time to brainstorm.

What are the themes in your story?

What are trying to say? What do you want your reader to come away with?

What has your protagonist struggled with from the beginning?

How does the final conflict reflect this struggle?

Keep looking at the big picture. Keep looking at the little nuances. Keep shifting the puzzle around until it clicks into place.

How will you know when it does?

Chills.