Pantser Process Stage 3: What do I do?!!

Pink flowers on a tree
Late in summer, we’re now starting to get flowering trees like this.

With my basic research done, I decided to opt first to do a modern setting for flash fiction.  I really wasn’t too sure what I wanted to do.  I was thinking a mystery, because I want to branch out in some of the other genres, but when I first turned on my netbook, I was in a panic.

I didn’t know what to write!

Which is the life of a pantser.

But I kept thinking about this place near me.  It’s a small, historical cemetery that the neighborhood was built around.  Very strange because, for whatever reason, a developer built a house right behind it.  So, this house has a cemetery in it’s front yard.

That’s what I started with.  I began writing.  Still wasn’t sure where I was going with it.  A house I remember walking past to and from school came into the story.  It was a strange looking house because it had been painted green. Not a light green like you might find on most houses, but a high-gloss dark green that you would find on a park baseball field.  An elderly woman lived there, always in dressed in black.  She might have been a nice woman, and maybe a widow, but it had a creepy aspect to it.

By the time I got to the end of the story, I’d finally figured out the character piece.  It weighed in at 602 words.  Definitely horror.

The next day, I redrafted it to bring in the character piece earlier than the end.  The green house comes out and gets replaced by a stucco house, which are all over California.   I’m still missing the setting details, though.  Those are very hard for me to get into the story.  It’s like I have to take my brain out and put another one in its place to add them.  The story is now at 764 words.

Day 3, and it’s time to deal with the setting details.  I end up selecting four.  Sounds simple right?  That’s what gets me on the details — everyone thinks it’s hair color and eye color and is super easy to do.  Except it’s not.  The details have to be picked carefully to give the flavor of the specific area, of California, and to weave in the characterization.   The result is that those four details add about 160 words to the story.

Day 4:  Just fixing the typos and missing words, and then it’s off on submission.

Now it’s off to the Gold Rush story, and I have the same problem: I don’t know what I’m going to write.  Guess I’ll find out soon enough.

How to find details for a story when you’re not good at them

Sunlight showing through the trees
The trees hadn’t quite bloomed when I visited Mason Neck Park for research.

I admit it.  I’m terrible with details. 

I can look at a place, see all the details, come back, and not remember a single one of them.  They all merge with the big picture.  So all the things I see at the beach turns into beach, sand, and water, and I forget about a bunch of stuff I did see.

So I’ve learned these three work arounds:

1. Ask questions about the place

No matter the location, I ask questions about specifics.  If we’re in the woods, then the questions might be:

  • What kind of trees are here?
  • What kind of birds live in these woods?
  • What sounds do they make?

Which leads to the second workaround:

2. Take notes live at the site

Visit the location with a notebook and write down everything.  I went to Mason Neck Park, which is located on Pohick Bay and noted all kinds of things:

  • Flies buzzing past.
  • Warmth of sun
  • Long ago fallen tree being gnawed away

Mason Neck Park was a substitution.  I couldn’t go to the actual location of the setting, which is in Hawaii, so I had to make do.  Woods are pretty universal in how to they operate.  I’m planning on going to Virginia Beach for the beach experience (yes, pictures!).

After I get back, I pretty them up in notes.  I plan to do these trips at different times of the year, since Spring is different than Winter.

3. Research

The library is my friend for looking up specific names of plants.  I usually just make a note in the manuscript with something like:

(Name of tree) towered overhead.

Then I can hit the library once I have enough details to research, preferably ones in the same detail family.

I’ve mentioned some of the things I do in passing and have had people pop up in surprise and say, “That’s what I do!”  So we’re not alone.  If you have trouble with details, what do you do?

Related Posts:

Rule M: Make checklists for your story

Pohick Bay with the sun sparkling off the water
One of my details jaunts including going to Pohick Bay in Lorton, VA and writing down smells and sounds.

We’re onto the letter M in Linda’s Rules of Writing of the A to Z Challenge and on Making checklists for your story.

This is one I’ve been playing around with more recently.  Most of the time when I’ve seen writing checklists from other writers, they cover things I automatically fix without thinking.  Or worse, they’re like what the army used: Pages and pages of pages and pages, to try to cover every possibility.  So I think the checklists are unique to each writer, because we all work differently.

I’m not detail-oriented.  They’re very fleeting for me, vanishing into the bigger picture.  I’ve been working on a scene in a restaurant, and I’ve been having a hard time pulling up the things that happen in a restaurant.  I go in them all the time, and yet, the details aren’t there for me.  Even something simple like sounds is very elusive.

So I’ve been building a checklist of details for places.  I go to a place and sit in it or wander around and write down whatever I see, hear, feel, or smell.  Then, when I’m struggling to pull up details for a scene, I can refer back to the checklist to joggle my memory.

What kind of checklists do you use and why?

Caption: A to Z Challenge Logo

Things I Learned While Writing Miasma Part I

I’m finishing up the final draft of Miasma.  I learned a lot about my writing on this book.  Miasma was seriously messed up when I started on Holly Lisle’s How to Revise Your Novel one year ago Thanksgiving.  It was so bad that I was stumped through most of the class, trying to figure out what the problem was.

Some things I learned along the way:

Word Count Goals:  I’ve had a history of running too short, resulting in a bad relationship with word counts.  I spent so much time doing workarounds to get the word count up and focusing on the number that I lost the story.  I made the most progress with the revision once I decided to let the word count go — it’s going to be around 60K, which means I’ll be going indie.  Word count goals are out.  I’m still thinking about other options to show progress.  I’ve had great fears of being under contract for a book and running too short.  It’s a major fix that takes a lot of time. 

Details:  For years, I thought I was detail-oriented.  Turned out I was over compensating for my not being detail-oriented.  The details vomited themselves all over Miasma, so bad that it was hard figuring out what to revise.  It’s not a matter of me creating a spreadsheet and tracking the details; rather, I can’t tell when I’ve used too many, so the solution has been to let as few get in as possible.  A style sheet during the editing process will help make sure what’s in there is consistent.  I will likely trim more details in the editing.

Part II will be the vexing things that I learned during the course of the story.

What new discoveries have you made with your writing?

Standard Operating Procedures for Writers

The army was always big on Standard Operating Procedures (SOP).  Sometimes they were long, convoluted lists, and other times they made no sense at all.  Like requiring a soldier who lived in the barracks to not have a magazine sitting on a desk.  It had to be somewhere else.  But sometimes SOPs make sense.

Bob Meyer’s blog The Business and Standing Operating Procedures of being this Author reminded of the good SOPs can do when they make sense.  He notes:

I’ve always said there are no rules in writing.  I still believe that.  But I do believe an author needs their own set rules.  I call them Standing Operating Procedures.  We were big on those in Special Forces.  They kept us from doing stupid things, helped us not reinvent the wheel constantly, and allowed us to act quickly and decisively when needed.  In essence they could save your life.

This got me thinking about what my SOP would be:

Simplify.  I like plot-driven stories, but I’ve found consistently that I can keep adding more plot until the story gets overcomplicated.  I’ve been wrestling with structure over the last week, and the magic word hit me: “Simplify.”  This one is such a problem that maybe I need a big flashing neon sign.

Do the Research.  I admit it — I don’t particularly enjoy research.  It’s more of a tool to me, like proofreading and editing.  But it makes a big difference in how the story comes together.

Don’t Focus on the Details.  I’m bad with them, and yet, I constantly catch myself thinking I need to do quick research to get the name of something.

It’s not a lot — only the things where it’s apparently hard for me to remember to either do them or not do them.  By identifying them, I’m hoping it’ll make the bad ones less habit forming.

What would you put on your Standard Operating Procedure?  Tell us about them in them in the comments.

I hope you’ll read my article Writing a Novel When You’re Right-Brained on Vision: A Resource for Writers or check out “On Critique Groups” in The New Writer’s Handbook 2007: A Practical Anthology of Best Advice for Your Craft and Career.  I also have a guest blog on setting on Sue Santore’s blog on October 28.

Battlefield of Details

There’s been a discussion on a message board about if you would research the weather for a particular day in history at a particular location for your story.  Not because there was a major historical storm in that time frame, but just for “accuracy” or for that one reader who would fact check it.  Since I’m not detail-oriented, that’s the bottom level of details that I’m most likely to get wrong because I don’t always know the right questions to ask once I find the information.  I’m just looking at the fact and going, “Okay, X happened here” and I’m done.  Meanwhile, I’ve missed asking an important question that would make how I’m using the detail wrong.

Since details are such a weak point for me, fighting with them will be unproductive.  What details do I have the most trouble with (aside from all of them)?  The worst are the ones everyone refers to when they talk details — looking up a date in history for the weather;  finding the exact real location in a city where a scene takes place; showing a character’s personality by how he touches his hat.  The smaller the detail, the worse it is for me.

So what I did was pick my battles.  I made my cutoff point on details at those small ones that give me so much trouble.  Take the example of the weather on a specific date.  I’d start out by making the time setting more generic.  It isn’t Memorial Day Weekend –it’s late spring.  That means I could hit a tourist book and get general research on the weather for spring in that area.   Then I would connect it into the bigger picture of the story.  It’s part of the setting, probably part of the world building, and can I do anything to aggravate the characters in the story with it?

A couple of examples:

I had a scene I was writing where a character uses some of her magic.  As part of it, I weighed in on a detail — soil layers, of all things — that I was planning to do quick research on.  This one made me wary, because it’s the kind I tend to really get into trouble on.  I end up with too many, lose control of the story, and things get really ugly.  This is the process I went through:

1.  Is it necessary?  If no, the detail is gone.  If yes, next question.  That gets rid of things like looking up trees to give a street a name.

2.  What else does it accomplish?  It cannot be in there for the sake of being a neat detail.  It has to have other purposes.  In this case, the detail helped forshadow a major complication in the story.  It also contained an important piece of world building (yes, soil layers!) on how a specific character’s magic worked.

I did keep it more generalized, since it wasn’t a science lesson on soil but simply showing the character working her magic.

With another piece of the story, the same questions yielded a different result.  The scene was one that had come from the original draft and was being reused with revisions.  It included the fire department — I’d decided at that point I was going to keep one of the firemen characters.  But I had a problem.  The story had changed substantially that I now needed to do research for this scene.  I could already see that trying to get the details about firemen right for this one scene would require fairly significant revision of the scenes around it — and possibly parts of the story because there was something in there that was now broken by the way the story changed.

So when I asked if it was necessary for these details, I weighed in on whether I needed firemen in the story.  Maybe not.  But that meant there had to be a reason they weren’t there.  Connected it up into the big picture.  Ah ha!  Country doesn’t have a whole lot of money, so small fire department.  Country has a tuna factory for industry.  A lot of worker houses are near the factory.  Big fire at the tuna factory takes away the fire department.  And it was far less revision than fixing everything to accomodate the fire department details.  I’m adding a small scene near the factory which does other things, plus a couple of references.  Plus one of the minor characters is freaking out because he wanted the fire department to come, not the main character.

It’s important to pick your battles.  Spending time wrestling with a weakness is not productive, but finding a different way to do things is.

How to Juggle Jellybeans

One of the things I thought when I was revising this novel last year was that it was like a juggling act.  I had all these plates in my hand, and I was trying to keep them in the air–but I kept losing track of what was what.  This was one of the reasons I had to get details under control.  With this revision, the non-lists I made have become a useful tool at controling the chaos and dealing with “jellybeans”–the small, colorful things that are needed in the story but a nightmare for someone not detail-oriented.

The lists actually aren’t very big.  There’s about ten pages of them, mostly because I wrote big and at all different angles.  The goal was not to record the details, but identify things that would lead to appropriate details.  Since I started revising, I’ve added a few more items to the list.  Some of them include jellybeans like:

  • One sense of smell or taste per scene.
  • One sense of touch per scene.
  • One color per  scene.

Then, once the scene is done, I can scan my non-lists and then review the scene to see if I got all my jellybeans in the basket.  When dealing with something like the five senses, it’s easy to either complete forgot to include anything or treat it like a checklist, trying to jam all the senses into a paragraph of description.  Instead, by imposing a limit, I both make sure something gets into the story and I don’t get too much into the story.  I also make sure that what gets into the story is important rather than window dressing.  For example, if I have the limitation of one color in a scene, do I want to waste it by stating the color of the character’s eyes–a detail that’s generally not very unusual–or use it as part of the world building?

Writing Strategies if You’re Not Good with Details

This week’s lesson addresses details, and it’s made me think of what kind of strategies might help in dealing with them.   Most of the advice assumes you’re reasonably good at dealing with them and are just forgotting what you said.  I remember one that said you should note things like if your character drank tea at 8:00 every morning.

For the purpose of this, I’m just dealing with the small details of the story.   To right-brained people who are good at seeing the big picture, there are other things that may be details to them but not the rest of the world.  But the small things can start interfering with the other details.

There are two types of small details:

Specific Details. You’re replacing one word with another.  So instead of saying the generic “dog,” you write the more specific “Golden Retriever.”

Added Details.  This is when you add the detail.  So instead of not mentioning the character’s eyes at all, you write “Her eyes were blue chips.”

When writing the first draft:

1.  Do let Specific Details come in naturally as you write.  However, don’t stop to do research to find a specific detail.  I’ve caught myself stopping to look up the name of a tree while I was creating.  Instead, see Item 3.

2. Omit the Added Details.  If you deal better with the big picture, it’s very hard to tell when you’ve done too much until after you do way too much.  It’s best not to let them get in there in the first place.  Otherwise, the Added Details will become a distraction during the revision.

3. If you have a place where you think you might need to add details or need to do research, put in a marker like [RESEARCH].  That’ll give you a chance during the revision to survey the entire story and see if anything should be added.

During the revision:

4. Read the whole novel first so you can get the big picture.  That way, you can judge the [RESEARCH] markers to see if they fit into the big picture of the story.  What may have looked like an important detail in that scene of the story may turn into something you don’t need at all.  And look how much time you just saved because you didn’t stop each time to look it up!

5.  Focus on any Added Details that you might need to insert.  Here, think in terms of what’s unusual, so you don’t end up adding color this or striped that just to get a description in.  Think about the reason for putting that detail in, like it might be highlighting something that’s going to be important in a later scene.

But how do you keep track of the details?  Obviously, it’s important because some details do get included in the story, and we want to make sure the story doesn’t suddenly have a character who goes from short to tall.  This is one I’ve had to think about because the traditional methods often play to the same weak areas that not being detail-oriented fall into.  We often get things like “make a list,” and that can be a challenge.  Mind you, the method below is for personal use, so you’re working with a strength instead of fighting a weakness.  If an agent or editor asks for a list, follow their guidelines.

Try color coding.  Think of a category, such as character descriptions.  We’ll assign it to green.  So you can either have a green sheet of paper or write it in green ink.  Doesn’t matter what order it’s in, only that’s green.  So instead of having to remember where you put the detail (a problem with lists), all you need to remember is that character description is green.  It also means that if you want to do a quick fact check, you just look for green rather than trying to search through a 20-page list.  You can put them any order you want, draw a box around important ones that you might repeat, draw pictures–whatever helps you associate anything with that detail.

What other methods of working with details have you come up with?

A Pot of Details

As someone who is decidedly not detail-oriented, I sometimes struggle with getting the right kind of detail into the story.  On a first draft, that’s especially a challenge because sometimes putting in a detail in Chapter 2 suddenly unveils itself as being important in Chapter 14 and zooms to major story status where it needs to be developed more.  Others end up being, well, clutter.  The omniscient viewpoint narrator (OPOV) presents even more special needs because that narrator is not limited by what it can see.

To clarify, details mean anything small piece of information.  Sometimes when I say details, everyone automatically thinks of description.  It could also mean world-building/setting, backstory, characters, etc.  Those may not seem like details to everyone, but to someone who isn’t detail-oriented, they present special challenges of what to include and what not to include.

One of the major culprits is description, and not because it’s description, but how we’re taught to do description.    A teacher or website gives us an exercise to describe a forest and make sure we include as many of the senses as possible.    Maybe they provide a picture to get us started.  So it’s easy to focus on getting the picture “right,” mentioning colors and shapes and senses–without ever touching on what actually is imp0rtant to the story in that description.

So some general guidelines for dealing with details:

There has to be a reason it’s in the story. Spending a lot of wordage describing in loving detail a plane taking off when it’s a transition scene are details that can be dropped.  On the other hand, if the plane is going to crash a few scenes later and put your character into jeopardy, then mentioning a shape crawling on the wing is a great foreshadowing (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

Use details to emphasis anything you want to draw attention to in a subtle way. In omniscient viewpoint, you might have not yet revealed your main character, but your narrator can take a moment to mention the man in the “striped shirt,” to highlight your main character.

Weigh in on the importance of the detail. If you spend a paragraph paying attention to something, it better be pretty important in the story.  Ask yourself if it’s fulfilling a second function.  This one might take a second review because it can be hard to tell during the first draft what’s important, so check in on it again during the revision.

Watch out for too much detail digging. This is surprisingly easy for people who aren’t good with details, because we can’t always tell when to stop.   Suppose you’re writing along and need to put in a tree.  Now you hop up, hunt through all your reference books searching for a name of a tree in the appropriate location.  Maybe it takes 10 minutes.  A little while later, you have to grab another book to look something else up.  That takes 15 minutes because the fact is hard to find.  Then you stumble over needing a specific jargon term that most people outside of an industry will have never heard and spend 30 minutes searching the internet … Stop.  It’s your first draft.  Just put in RESEARCH.  If the sentence or scene stays in the book, you can research it during the revision.   On the other hand, you may look at the one where you were digging for that obscure detail and wonder why you bothered.

Working with details in a novel can be a special challenge if you’re not detail-oriented.  But it can be done.  It just takes a bit of effor to think differently to work within what your strengths are.