I know I seem a little hung up on the idea of to plan or not to plan. I write a list of 20 things I want to achieve each week in my day to day life, so planning is clearly something that appeals to me.
I’ve just been reading the approach of another writer who does not like to plan. He thinks it limits his creativity and runs the risk of forcing his characters into places they don’t want to go. I feel very strongly that I don’t push my characters into decisions or actions that don’t feel natural for them, they have freedom of choice, and yet I plan, so what is the difference?
I think it might be semantics.
I wonder if what I am calling a plan others might call a first draft, albeit an extremely short fist draft. The person I was reading about who doesn’t like to plot simply writes the scenes as he sees them, eventually writing enough to find the whole story, at which point he pulls it together and gets to work on writing the joining bits, what he calls his second draft.
Until I have a beginning, middle-ish and an end-ish in mind, I generally don’t commit an idea to paper, but when I do, I go through the discovery of those ideas in much the same way as I feel I did when I wrote my pantser novel, I just go through the process much faster when writing a plan.
Then, when I sit down to write the novel I have the plan in mind, but if things change I let them. So is that pantsing? Is that planning? Who knows, I think writing any story is magic at work, no matter how you get there.
After the success of my pantsing trial and subsequent lack of writing over the past month, I’ve decided it is time to try out another method. A lot of my writing friends regularly use this one, but I’ve always been too afraid to give it a go, until now. This is what I call the write the interesting bits method.
In this method writers write the highlights of their novel, not necessarily in order, and then go back later and write the connecting parts to turn it into a complete novel. I guess the theory is that you’ll be more inspired and they are the bits you can normally see more clearly.
I’ve always thought this was fraught with danger because if you wrote an earlier scene after you wrote a later scene, things may come out differently to how you expected, and that might have a knock on effect. But I also thought pantsing had too high a risk that you might never finish, but I did.
So I’m going in with my eyes open, I can imagine there will be some massive editing involved when I’m finished. The project I have in mind is pretty well mapped, so I can’t see myself going massively off track, regardless of what order I write it in. My biggest challenge is working out how to save all the parts I write in a way where it is clear about what scene comes before or after the other scenes.
I’ll let you know how I get on.
I read many novels which go into a lot of detail about what characters looks like. Some even go so far as to tell me what they are wearing and usually it does nothing to move the story on. If a person is dressed inappropriately or extravagantly that will tell me a bit about their character, but describing the softness of the shoulder pads in their shirt and the ripple of their stone-wash jeans when they are sitting around home just mires the story in a time period. Fine if you want us to be in the 80s, but a lot of stories could easily go across times if the fashion didn’t get in the way.
Then you get stories at the other extreme (which probably most of mine fall into) where you are lucky to get a name for the character. I’ve actually done it once where I was writing a first person story and didn’t even drop my character’s name into it. This can be done successfully (mine wasn’t), but I think there are two important things that you (usually) need to specify about your character; gender and approximate age. All the rest can be up to the reader.
The book I’m reading at the moment did not mention the main protagonist’s age, so for some reason I got it into my head he was a middle-aged man. It was only at the half-way point in the book that I was told he was in his early 20s. That went some way to explaining the excessive running and apparently inappropriate relationships with a (I thought) much younger woman. I wish the author had mentioned it earlier. The character underwent a painful morph into a younger self in my head, but he keeps slipping back to his portly, balding older self as I get back into the story.
Of course different readers want different levels of description, so all I can recommend is write what you like. I often get told off for not showing my readers what colour my character’s hair is, how tall they are etc. The way I see it is if it is important to the story, or if I’m going to mention it again later, then I’ll tell you when you first meet. Otherwise, make the character your own. Every book is experienced by each reader differently and that is part of what I love about books over movies.
I was pleasantly surprised by my pantsing experience, but I’ve also hated it in equal measure. There were times when I thought I would not find an end for the book, and that made the thousands of words I had written feel like a waste of time. There were also times when I just had to write it out to see if it was heading in the right direction, knowing I might have to (and sometimes did) axe all those words.
The whole time I was writing I felt like I had no control. There were times when I got a glimpse maybe four or five chapters ahead, and then I felt comfortable, but there were just as many times I sat down at the computer with no idea what I was going to write. For a control freak that is terrifying.
The dislike of this out-of-control feeling but the love of the speed led me to look for the real difference between planning and pantsing, so that I might be able to find some kind of plantsing medium.
This is what I concluded; when you get an idea for a novel you turn it over in your head, you ask the question ‘what happens next’. If you are a planner, you write the answer to that question in note form in a book that you probably bought especially for the purpose. If you are a pantser, you ask yourself the question when you sit down at the keyboard to write the next chapter. That’s pretty much it. For the pantser the first draft is really just an elaborate plan. Likewise, the planner’s plan is their pantsing first draft, but significantly shorter.
I think the real problem for me comes from the type of story teller I am. As soon as I have the story documented I feel like it has been written, so the aching urge to finish it dulls. That ‘documentation’ might take the form of a 60,000 word pantsing first draft, or it might be a two page dot-point summary. And when all is said and done it is always going to be easier to turn that 60,000 word first draft/plan into a tight, finished novel than the two page synopsis.
So the next thing I will try is to think long and hard about my next novel. I will watch it unfold in my head and maybe note down parts but not the whole story, and certainly not the ending. I want to know the ending, but I will not write it down. Let’s see if that can help me get the good bits of pantsing, with the comfort of planning.
I have just finished writing a novel which, when I sat down to write it, I didn’t know much more than what happened in the first chapter. I had faith that it would be a novel, and I had seen a lot of my writing friends successfully write novels with similarly no idea about where it was going, so I had support from them that I could do it too. This was my experiment with pantsing.
The first thing I was overjoyed to learn is that pantsing is fast, really fast. I started writing my novel on April 4th and finished it on July 31st. I have written a planned novel in a similarly short time, but it had about two years in research and note writing and quite a few non-starts over many more months in that time.
The next thing that struck me is just how much hard-core editing I’m going to have to do. I have to insert people into earlier chapters, remove stuff that never went anywhere, inject some foreshadowing and delete out foreshadowing for things that never happened. This is all stuff I rarely need to do when planning.
The last big difference I noticed was the drive to sit down and write. I don’t know if it was to do with pantsing, a wet cold winter, or the deadline of a submission period I wanted to sub this novel to, but I wrote about 3,000 words a week while working full time. Part of it was the excitement of seeing what would happen next and knowing that my mind wouldn’t head out into the next part of the novel until I’d written the bit I knew about.
After all this, I actually still feel very unsure about pantsing. Next week I’ll share my conclusions about the process and what I’m going to do next.
In an effort to free up more writing time on the weekend I’ve started writing my blog posts on a week night. The problem is I work with computers all day so when I get home the last thing I want to do is turn on a computer. My solution has been to write longhand into a notepad.
I don’t normally write a lot by hand (shopping lists, notes, that’s about it really), but I know a lot of writers who always write their first drafts longhand. A writer friend of mine said she preferred it for first drafts because she didn’t feel the urge to go back and correct or edit like she does when she is typing.
Maybe one of the reasons I don’t like longhand is because I do go back and edit as I go. Even this short post was covered in cross-outs and microscopic inserted text by the time I got to this point. Squiggles and arrows rendered the draft almost unreadable.
Freehand writing makes me feel limited, not liberated. So I think this week’s post may be my last longhand writing effort. I might just have to fire up the computer on a week night. Who knows, I might even end up writing.
I’m not a person who needs a lot of description, you tell me I’m on an island and I’ll create an island in my mind. If that island needs to be so large you can’t see from one end to the other and it is edged in cliffs, you need to tell me that. I was seeing a small sandy island with a few coconut trees.
The same goes for people. If a character’s vivid green eyes are going to star in chapter three, I need to know about them in chapter one, or else my character is likely to have different coloured eyes. The moment you tell me a character is called Sally, I build a fully formed picture in my mind of what Sally looks like. So if you need something on or about Sally, tell me about it up front.
That is as far as I go when it comes to description requirements. If Sally can look like anything, and you never mention her flowing blonde hair, or penchant for wearing cowboy boots somewhere later in the book, I’ll be happy if you just tell me her name is Sally. I do like to hook an age on her, but if you don’t give me one I’ll just assume she’s my age.
This is also how I write, and it gets me into trouble. I know a lot of readers out there want to know not only what the characters look like, but what they wear and even how they do their hair. You won’t get that from my stories unless it is relevant. Not only is that because I think clothes and hairstyles can date a story, but I think this unique picture is what the reader brings to the story, making them a part of it. It adds to what makes reading the book better than watching the movie.
Following on from last week’s post, I just wanted to say a little something about world building. I attended a 5 hour workshop on this topic once which helped me to see how much more there was to world building than you might think.
Any spec fiction writer knows that the world in which you set your story can be as, if not more important than the characters you create to move the story along. For me the world is often an exploration of something in our world that has been taken to extreme, or it is there to highlight the progression of a current belief or ideal.
For that reason you need to know your world as intimately as you know any of your characters. Off the top of your head you should be able to answer the following questions, at least in a general way;
- How do people get power (if electricity is used)?
- How do people get food?
- Do people live in cities, towns, alone or all of these?
- What form of government is in place?
- What rules apply to any magical/psychic powers that exist (there should always be rules about these things)?
- Is there a religious belief(s)?
Now I know a lot of these questions will be completely irrelevant to your story, especially if you write flash fiction, and I’m not suggesting you put these things into your story, what I am saying is that as the owner of this world, you should know the answers to these questions.
There are some excellent workshops and books out there on how to improve your world building, and if you are going to spend a lot of time in worlds of your own creation, I think they are worth the investment. Many authors fall so in love with the worlds that they build that they set many stories in them.
As a reader I love other worlds and I enjoy reading stories set in other parts of a world that I’ve come to love. But be warned, every word you publish about a world will be read and remembered, so if you change the rules about your world, you need to include the explanation for how or why that rule was broken.
I’ve been thinking about my first novel a lot recently because I’ve had some ideas about how to improve it, but it would require a total re-write. That would be the fourth re-write and the tenth edit. I really don’t think I’m up for it.
I was talking to a friend about her first novel and she said that it was put in the bottom draw and will never surface again. She has not laboured over it improving it as she improves her craft. Then she said something that resonated with me; we never see the rehearsals of a play, we only ever see the final performance. She sees her first novel as one of her rehearsals.
If I was to start writing my first novel from scratch I would do it completely differently, changing both the structure and story, but then it wouldn’t be recognisable as my first novel anymore. When I look at the first novel I see so many ‘mistakes’ of story writing in there, even if I do still like the story.
So I think it is time to put it in the bottom drawer and move on. There are too many other novels in me to keep going back to my rehearsal. It is time to get onto opening night.
There is a theory that you need to do 10,000 hours working on a skill to master it. Now while I would never say that I have mastered writing, the countless hours I have spent doing it, studying it and sharing it with people who know more about it than me have certainly improved my writing.
Yesterday I spent the day in the garden. It is my third year of having a sizable garden and I reflected on how different my gardening was yesterday to what it was three years ago. When I first started gardening I would see a plant I liked in a garden centre, bring it home, plant it, and then watch it die.
I knew there were things I should consider like fertilizer, soil PH, drainage, sun exposure, frost tolerance etc. but it was too daunting and I didn’t want to learn. Randomly I started putting seaweed solution on everything I planted and got slightly better results. At that point I started watching some gardening shows.
Yesterday I mixed up my own potting mix and added different ingredients according to what I was planting. Everything now gets some kind of wetting agent and I only put sun-lovers in the sun, no matter how much better I think they would look down the side of the house.
This little bit of knowledge I have gained over the last three years has improved the survival rate of my garden significantly, but I know there is a lot more I could do. I haven’t ever measured my soil PH and my knowledge of companion planting is rudimentary at best. But I now acknowledge that I will need to learn these things when I’m ready if I want my garden to thrive.
So while it may not be true that you need to do 10,000 hours of something to get good at it, the fact is you do need to put in time, effort and be willing to learn. Knowing how to put words on the page does not equate to being a writer. Playing notes on the piano does not equate to being a musician. Doing anything well requires effort, and the sooner you embrace that and start to learn, the sooner you become better at whatever it is that you wish to master.