Friday, January 25, 2013

Coming in for a Landing

Today writer and editor T.J. Loveless ruminates on when pantsing it just isn't cutting it, and how to get the benefits of an outline even when you don't, can't or are morally against outlines.  T.J.'s cat-filled, heavily padded web lair can be found here.

~Standing at the podium~

Hello, my name is T.J.  And...I'm a Pantser.

There are two types of writers. The Outliners who write every plot point, scene and the sequence it should follow.  This type of writer knows their story, understands how it will move forward, how it should end.

Then there are Pantsers.  Called this because the idea pops in our heads and we sit in front our writing medium of choice to blindly follow our imaginations to the bitter end.

Followed by major revisions, edits and “I can't believe I wrote that.”

The problem with pantsing through an MS is the obstacles, speed bumps and brick walls when not sure what happens next.  It is a common complaint among pantsers – we know the beginning, the end and what should happen, yet don't know the details of how to move our worlds forward, the conflicts, or most of the plot. We prefer to remain airborne, flying by the seats of our pants, hoping we can work through the various problems faced while writing our lovely stories.  And find ourselves cleaning our homes to a bright shine, cooking, the dogs are worn out on walks and driving the family crazy as we try to get over the dreaded writer's block.

I tried outlining. I really did. Composed five pages of plot points, scenes, characters, places, issues.  The problem?  I boxed myself in, obsessed when the story took a turn I didn't have on the outline, unable to move the story forward. I froze. Deleted the entire fifty plus pages I'd already written.

Seems I couldn't win.  I needed to find some kind of middle ground.

For those of us unable to work with an outline, and tired of hoping we can fly through the turbulence to the end, it's time to land in reality. Design various ways to stay true to our Pantser style yet learn lessons from Outliners.

As an example, I'll toss myself into the fire. Aaron? Got the fire extinguisher ready?

For my current WIP, Going Thru Hell, I decided to try something a little different.

I knew outlining would render me useless, however, I did know the beginning and end of the story, the characters and their roles, the place and the major plot.  I had an idea of what conflict would be necessary to keep the story moving.

How? Instead of immediately sitting down to type every thought attached to the story, I let it stew a little. Thought about it, went over the characters until I understood all of their idiosyncrasies, what kind of action scenes I wanted and why. I didn't write it down. I simply let the story roll through my gray matter, allowed it to unfold and my imagination take flight.

Once I managed to get a very rough outline in my head, I typed it out. Not in typical outline fashion. I wrote two sentences saying who, what, where, when, why and how. Followed by little three sentence paragraphs about the major points, conflicts and location.  I went online and found pictures of actors in roles of characters similar to the characters in my story.  Found a picture of a dragon to match how I thought the Mesopotamian goddess, Tiamat, might have looked. 

Without it being an outline, per se, I felt a little freer to make any changes necessary.  I could still fly, but wrote out a general idea of how I wanted my story to move forward.

Several times I've made changes.  I'm not boxed in by the outline. One character surprised me by becoming more important than I'd originally imagined. I'm okay with it and added the new twist into my one page document.

Since I began writing Going Thru Hell, I've only experienced writer's block once. I started writing the story in November, with the goal of having it finished, edited and in the query trenches by February.

I'm going to make it.

Will this method work for my fellow Pantsers? I don't know. It might. It might not.  The point is to find your way from the crash and burn of Pantsing and move to a better method, avoid the road blocks and still fly the turbulent skies of writing.

More of T.J.'s blogging is at the Writing From the Padded Room blog.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Jumping the Tracks

Guest blogger Joyce Alton, who is the secret identity of the all-powerful Clippership at AQC, provides words of wisdom about when the best laid writing plans go south and don't want to come back.

Outliner: A person who pre-plots a story and follows a plan.
Pantser: Someone who jumps in and writes without a premade plan covering start to finish.

I’m both. It depends on the story. But I do tend to lean more towards Outliner these days. I like having a focus and to be able to pick up where I left off without having to go back and re-read everything I’ve already written.

So the question is, what happens when you are an outliner and the story jumps the tracks? You’re going along, everything’s falling into place the way you originally thought it would, and then you write yourself into a corner, or a character decides to ditch the script, or you get a really great idea that had nothing to do with the original idea but would make the story a lot better.

If this makes you feel panicky or upset, I recommend to keep breathing for starters. Don’t clutch your hair or kick the cat. Get up and go for a walk, down a cup of water, go do the dishes. Chill out.

One of my mantras is that nothing is written in stone, especially outlines. 

In fact, chances are, you are going to have to rewrite that outline almost as many times as you rewrite your story. Perhaps more. And that’s a good thing. Take real life for example. We can have a plan that we’ll grow up, go to college, get married, have a couple of kids, move up the ranks at work, and own a home by age 30. Doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. But it’s good to still have goals and a plan. A writing outline is the same thing. 

We know what the story is, we’ve planned out the steps to get the reader from Point A, to B, to C, and finally to D. It doesn’t mean the story will end up that way. So what do you do? Your hero is supposed to be on a certain street at a certain time in order to save his friend’s life from a burning building. But somehow, your hero got sidetracked back at work with a project his boss threw out at him last minute and which ratchets up the tension of your side plot. Is your story doomed?


It’s just taking a more natural course. Stop and think for a moment. Suppose the friend is killed in the fire. How can you use that instead? Was the rescue scene merely to give your hero brownie points? If he was supposed to make a vital discovery during that scene, are there other ways he can find this information out? If it’s absolutely crucial for the friend to survive, what are the new repercussions you can use? Does he now resent your hero for not meeting up with him like they were supposed to? Is he badly burned or crippled? How does this change his role in the story? How can you use it to get back on track to Point C? If you can’t, change Point C to something better.

That’s one of the things I love about writing, especially before you let anyone else look at your work. Nothing’s set in stone. Entire story threads can be ripped out and rewritten. The only one who will know is you.

I’ve had key scenes mapped out in my head before that the story never reached. Disappointed? Sure. But trying to force those scenes in always ended badly. Readers can tell when writers are forcing the story line or characters. Some of the tell-tale signs are unbelievable character actions and reactions, or motivations; moments where something miraculous and unexpected is thrown in to save the outline; or too many conveniences in the plot. Outline must not come before story telling.

Story telling is a natural art form. It should flow. If an outline isn’t working, the story won’t be flowing. It’s time to ditch or revise the outline. Revising an outline is a whole lot easier than rewriting an entire story. Outlines are shorter. Having to rewrite a forced story is a pain in the neck and ego. 

Better yet, keep your outline simple from the start. I wrote a book in two weeks using this method. I had a general story summary in my head. For an outline I wrote down a list of fun titles for fourteen chapters. That was it. Then I wrote. I had a goal and was able to stick with it, but I’d left myself enough wiggle room to have fun and play with the story. It developed into something more organic, with twists I didn’t think of before. And yes, the ending came out a little bit different than I originally thought but I liked the result better.

Your story will jump the tracks despite careful planning. Look at it as an opportunity to re-imagine the story, to stop and evaluate what you’ve already done and whether you like it or not. Embrace the changes, don’t fight them.

Read more of Joyce's thoughts on her blog, Yesternight's Voyage.  It's sort of like getting fire straight from Prometheus, only with a lot fewer ravens.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

"The Daughter's Dowry" picked as one of 2012's best

My short story, "The Daughter's Dowry" published by  Black Gate Magazine, was chosen as one of 2012's best short stories by Tangent Online.  Novelette, actually, is the what they're calling it.  It's a nice feeling to be chosen for this sort of thing!

For everyone who helped this story reach its final form, thank you!  This includes the intrepid first readers, Jan Moretti and Susan Lazar, who, way back in 1999, gave me their impressions, and, later on, the great and powerful Barbara Young.  With every story, the initial drafts have just enough that needs alteration to make comparisons with their final form (i.e. published form) painful.  But those early positive reactions were important in keeping Daughter's Dowry and the other stories in this series somewhere near the front burner.

As the first story I'd written for a new writing group we'd formed, The Daughter's Dowry also served to show that writing for and with a group was something that could work for me.  And, given that another story from that group, Mortal Star, was my first published piece, just made that all the clearer.  Other stories from my time in that group were also published (such as Seven Minutes to Bangor, in Stupefying Stories), and others remain fond favorites of mine.