Breaking Storytelling with Process

I started writing when I was eight.  I loved writing adventures.  Before class, I’d get a sheet of notebook paper and write my stories (and sometimes when I was bored during class).

My friends loved reading the stories, and I had several who got involved by drawing pictures.  That was just too cool.  Pictures can add another layer to the story.

I didn’t think much about any writing technique when I was doing it.  I was just imitating what I saw in the many mystery novels I was reading.  I wrote mysteries like Nancy Drew and Trixie Beldon, with my own character Sharon McCall.

So I was horrified when I read this article by a well-meaning teacher who thinks schools should teach children storytelling.

It’s this paragraph that I have the most problems with:

We shouldn’t be asking children about fronted adverbs, but about act structures, character arcs, reversals and the qualities of protagonists (and antagonists). What is the difference between real speech and fictional dialogue? What constitutes a dramatic event? The list goes on and on.

Craft is character, setting, plot, story.

Process is three act structure, character arcs, and reversals.

I would not want to be a student in her class.  She would have sucked the joy right out of storytelling trying to teach how she thought I should write.

What is this obsession with trying to force people into a certain way of writing? Wouldn’t it be much simpler to encourage the students to read lots of books and write stories that those books inspire?

I’ve been trying a research technique mentioned in a book called Becoming an Every Day Novelist.  One of the important things about writing fiction is to do a lot of reading of history.  But that’s been difficult for me.  I don’t always like the book–a lot of the books feel dry.  Plus, sometimes I get a book that interested me when I got and then doesn’t a few days later.

But J. Daniel Sawyer suggests starting with Wikipedia and reading something every day and following the links.  I’m finding it’s fun because if I don’t like a topic, I can wander onto another.

These are the topics I checked out this week.

  • Richard Oakes
  • Zenobia
  • Quintus Publilius Philo
  • plebs
  • praetor
  • super user
  • stalagmites
  • U.S. Route 113
  • Thunder River
  • Powell Expedition
  • Naked Woman Climbing a Staircase (a painting)
  • Ballet Technique
  • Scots Monastery
  • Umbrella
  • Elephant
  • EIN
  • Star Wars
  • Golden Gate Bridge
  • Bridges
  • Dams

I’m only doing about half an hour a day, following whatever catches my interest.

Pantser’s Guide to Writing: You Are Not Broken!

Cover for Panters Guide to Writing You are Not Broken

For writers who don’t outline—called pantsers—it’s hard finding anything on how to write that doesn’t involve outlining.

Author Linda Maye Adams, a pantser writer, cuts through some of the myths and may save you wasted time looking for solutions.

In this guide, Linda Maye Adams addresses the issues that derail pantsers and also provides tips to make the writing process easier.

Available on from your favorite booksellers for $3.99, including Amazon and Smashwords.


Nano Day 14 & Pantsing 101

Unbelievably crazy day at work.  I was amazed I came home and didn’t just not want to deal with anything.  But I got some writing in anyway.  Did a little at lunchtime, too–I was thinking of grabbing more than that, but a friend joined me, and we had an interesting talk about the aftermath of the election.  Not on who won, but speculation on strategies we might see.  In DC, the new President always affects everything everyone does here.  Sort of like when I was in the military.  Get a new company commander and now we do things differently.  So we shall see what happens.

Downtown is already starting to build all the stands for the inauguration.  They started that the day before the election.   Might see if I can go downtown on the weekend and see what they’re doing, take a few pictures.

Pantsing 101

I had enough that I needed to rearrange the scenes for some semblance of order (we’ll see how that works out).  One of the pieces that popped into a much later scene is now something I’m also bringing in earlier in the book.  If I’d written “straight through” without stopping as “everyone” says is the correct way, that later scene would have come in, but I wouldn’t have been able to see the connection of where I could put it.

At one point during a past project, my creative brain got so tired of writing “straight through,” that when I put a book through Holly Lisle’s How to Revise Your Novel (which is for outliners, by the way), I was finding all these things that came in way, way out of order, but were stuck in the story where they were.  Rearranging during the creation process is a like play in itself, like having a big jigsaw puzzle and moving around all the pieces until the right piece fits.

Day 13 Word Count: Collision: 1000

Story Total: 10700

Nanowrimo Day 1 & Pantsing 101

I decided to do Nano this year, for the first time, though informally.  I’m not registering on any of the sites or participating in the social parts of it.  Rather, I’m just using it as a goal to write a completed book in 30 days.

The tool I’m using to write is Scrivener for Windows.  The story has a working title of “Collision,” and is science fiction.  I’m not setting a daily word count goal, and I’m sure I will have days I don’t write (usually Friday).  The last time I tried a novel in 30 days, I was focused solely on getting that word count.  I didn’t get all the way to the end, because I was trying to write straight through (without cycling).  The story warped out of alignment, way out of alignment, and there was a point where I was typing to make word count, but not producing good story.

This is about producing a good story.

Pantsing 101

I came up with this idea while working on the novella I just finished on October 31 (my subconscious clearly knew the story was almost done though my head kept thinking there must be another 10K).

The idea started with an exciting action scene (since the working title is Collision, you can guess what that action scene is).  I spent the last two weeks playing around with it in my head.  Outliners would say that I was outlining in my head, but it’s nothing like that.  It was more like being in a bank and imagining what would happen if it was held up while I was there.

My first instinct was to plop this scene right in the beginning of the story.  But I think that was my critical brain trying to jump right in and muck things up.  It always wants to rush through everything, sort of like a child who races downstairs before everyone is up to open all the Christmas presents.  So I think it’ll be a later in the story.

That’s a change from the last story.  An action scene popped in there, too, in the first third, and I ended up taking it out because it was too soon.  Elements of it ended up in the last third.  Sometimes ideas don’t come in the proper order, and sometimes that order isn’t always obvious. 🙂

Day 1 Word count: 1200

Pantsing 101: 3 Things to Avoid

We had three secrets that would be helpful for the pantser writing a book without an outline, so we have to have 3 things to avoid.

Avoid asking for permission

This is common on writing message boards.  Writer comes on, posts a question, and it’s along the lines of “Am I allowed to do this?”

Unfortunately, this is usually asked from writers at the same skill level, and they often don’t know any more than the person asking the question.  If the question is about pantsing, invariably, you’re going to get “You have to outline.”  On one of the Facebook pages I’m on, one of the writers was shocked that you didn’t have to outline.  She’d heard everywhere that it was “required.”

Avoid “fake experts”

There’s a shocking number of fake experts out there.  These are people who either no credentials or little credentials but claim expertise on how to write books.  Because of NANO, I keep seeing ads for this business, trying to sell me on how to write.  Extensive site, but generic writing advice.  The About page didn’t tell me if the owner had any writing experience, which means he doesn’t.  A writer with experience isn’t going to hide that.

The problem with the fake experts and pantsers is that outlining is easy to teach.  They can pound their fists and declare “All pantsers books are a mess!” or “Pantsers need structure!” and make you feel like the way you write isn’t the correct way—and they have no idea what they’re talking about!

Yet, they can sound very credible, so you must learn to watch for them.  One of the most telling ways to discover fake experts is from Forbes:

Real experts have no trouble saying:  “I don’t know.”

An example of this happened several years ago.  A writer posted on Dean Wesley Smith’s blog that he/she was struggling with writing a memoir.  Being a fiction writer, Dean admitted he didn’t know.

Soldier, Storyteller: A Woman Soldier Goes to War(For the record, I did provide my experience writing Soldier, Storyteller.  The writer’s experience sounded similar to mine.)

Don’t switch to outlining because you run into trouble on the story

Every time I read a writer saying, “I’m a reformed pantser,” I cringe.  I wonder if that writer tried the outlining and then gave up writing entirely in frustration, figuring they couldn’t write.

If the story is a mess, or you painted yourself into a corner—assuming it isn’t your head talking and saying the story is garbage—stop.

Start reading back to where the story felt right.  Pantsers tend to go down rabbit holes.  Sometimes those yield great rewards, and sometimes it isn’t the right direction.  It might be that you just need to take out some scenes to get back on track.

By the way, this is also another reason why “writing straight through to the end” isn’t a good idea for pantsers.  You have to be able to back out of the rabbit hole and steer away from it.  Can’t do that if you go straight through.

But also, if you stop and work out the problem, you’ll learn a lot about how you write and about things that you need to do so your process works.

Pantsing 101: 3 Secrets that make pantsing easier

No one talks about it, but there are a lot of secrets that make pantsing a novel easier.  In fact, some of the secrets are dismissed by outliners (go figure)

Turn off spell check

That wavy red line identifying when you’ve spelled a word wrong or one it doesn’t recognize is quite disruptive.  In a business writing class, the instructor said it was like a bell going off, telling you to do something.  It triggers the need to stop and fix the spelling error—and interrupts the creative flow.  Turn it and the grammar checker off, and then run it after you’re done writing your scenes.  Or run it when you’re don’t feel much like writing.  We’ve had up and down weather changes and my sinuses have not been happy.  Good time to run spell check.

Don’t make more work for yourself.

Get the grammar and the punctuation reasonably right and fix the typos when you run the spell check.

Being sloppy means that you are making more work for yourself.

But especially, never ever utter the words, “I’ll leave that to the revision.”  Because a pantser’s story evolves out of what’s already been done in the story, that decision can affect everything after that point.  I said “I’ll leave that to the revision” on a thriller I was working on.  That single decision caused multiple things that needed to be fixed to bring everything in line.  Once I did that, those changes created more things that needed to fixed, and those in turn required more things to be fixed.

If you’re stuck, stop and figure out why and what you need to do while you’re still in the first draft, while you’re still creating.  Much easier taking care of it in creative mode than trying to fix a completed story.

Move around in the story

A lot of writers approach the first draft as something distasteful that needs to be knocked out of the way in the most expedient process (also how “I’ll leave it to the revision” ends up creating problems).  The result is a piece of advice that is not good for pantsers: Write straight through to the end and don’t touch anything.

But as a pantser, the story is evolving as you discover new things about it.  You may have to go back to Chapter 2 and add a sentence or a paragraph for something later in the story.  All of that builds up subconsciously in your head, so that missing something might knock the story out of alignment.

This is NOT revision.  Don’t tweak sentences to make them sound better.  Resist the urge!

Instead, fix story related issues that result from the way you’re pantsing and the way the story evolved.  There might be a character you introduced and thought he was going to be more important and then he never showed up again.  Or maybe you said here that this event happened 25 years ago, and later, it’s 20 years ago.  Get those things settled so they can be settled in your head by the time you wrap up the story.   It does make a big difference!

I generally do a lot of moving around early on, but mostly catching typos and adding more setting and five senses, since I tend to write thin.  But as I get near the end—I’m at about 8K from the end on The Crying Planet—I have to move through the entire novel.  It’s looking for continuity errors, things that I put in that sounded like a good idea at the time but didn’t pan out, characterization changes, and anything that’s unclear or inconsistent.  I don’t change any of the sentences unless it’s unclear, and I do run into some where I’m scratching my head and wondered what I meant to say.

An outliner might say this is a waste of time, but it isn’t.  Taking a little time here can help you also reconnect with parts of the story that you forgot about.  I’ve been having trouble figuring out how to end the story, and moving back to review everything reminded me that I had three scenes early in the book that I had to connect to the ending.  All of it helps your creativity as a pantser.

There’s a lot of advice out there that says “don’t do.”  Trust your instincts as to what works for you.  It’s not wrong just because someone else says it is.

Pantsing 101: Story as a Direction

Not understanding story is one of the biggest reasons that a pantsed book can look terrible to a developmental editor or other writers or a publisher.  You throw everything in but the kitchen sink, including a 20-page scene that sounded cool, but fizzles out at some point.

Not having a story is like being out in the middle of the desert (having had way too much experience with the desert part!).  It’s flat.  There’s miles and miles of miles and miles.  Maybe there’s a cactus here and there, or an oil barrel someone’s dumped.   You wander over, have a look, but there’s nothing guiding you generally.

Story is like being a road.  On either side, you have curbs, or at least the edge of the asphalt and those bumpy things to tell you if you stray off the road.  You can still turn down that coolly named Aqua Ter (sounds like an underwater station) to see what’s there or check out what the heck the Stonewall Jackson Memorial is (not much, by the way).

You always have a direction, even if you aren’t sure where it’s going or ends up yet.

When you don’t have that direction, the story can turn into a mess and make you all that outlining advice be a siren’s call from across the sea.

But story is also a difficult concept to understand, and worse, it’s easy think you know what it is and have no idea once you make first contact.  I read just about every craft book out there and thought I understood story.  I did two novels, but during critiques of the second book, and other writers’ books, I realized how little I knew.

I’d like to say there was a craft book that could be read with a definition that gives you the lightbulb.  But it’s a surprisingly complex aspect of writing.  I think it’s something you have to come to your own understanding about.

So try taking a book that has been published, preferably a best seller, and read it cover to cover. Enjoy it.  Don’t nitpick the sentences for flaws.   If you want a book recommendation, try Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer.  He’s a pantser, and he talks about the writing of the book at the end, so you get an extra surprise there.

Then go back to the first chapter and reread it.

After that, go to an online critique group and read the first chapters of those writers and mentally compare it to what you read in Michael Connelly’s book.  It’s not about having the inciting incident (a term that comes out of outlining) or a plot point (another term out of outlining).

It’s that you are going somewhere, even though you don’t know where.


Bonus tip: Type the first thousand words of Michael Connelly’s book.  This is amazing way to learn something new about craft.

Pantsing 101: What the heck is pantsing a book?

NanoWrite is coming up in just another month, and with it will be the debate: Outliner or Pantser?

I’m not sure why there’s a debate.  You write whatever way works best for you.  Period.  It shouldn’t matter.

Yet, if I search the internet for pantser, I get a lot of outliners scratching their heads and trying to define it, then concluding it really doesn’t work.

And they never tried it.

So what the heck is pantsing?

The name comes from “writing by the seat of the pants.”  It’s not a very good name for what we do, and others have tried to come up with better ones: Gardener, organic (does that mean outliners are inorganic?), non-outline people.

But it boils down to a writer who does not use an outline to figure out their story.  Instead, they write it like the way a reader reads a book—they discover it and the characters as they type the words.  One writer I ran across said:

He picked up a pen and started writing because that was natural to him.

Everyone’s different when it comes to writing like this:

  • They might know what the ending is.
  • They might have no idea who it will end (the case with my current book).
  • They might know what happens in the next scene.
  • They might have no clue what happens in the next scene.
  • They might write the scenes out of order.
  • They might need to write them in order.

But if you read most writing books, and probably hit the writing message boards, it’s clear that the general opinion is that writing without an outline is a Really Bad Idea.

Why does pantsing get such a bad rap?

Outlining is easy to teach, like in Evan Marshall’s The Marshall Plan to Novel Writing.  In the book, he gives step-by-step instructions on how to write a book by building an outline first (I tried this.  My book failed by the time I hit chapter 3 and my creative side gave up on me).

It is also hard for people who are used to outlining to comprehend how someone could write an entire book without having everything laid out in a roadmap.  People have told me that my first draft is the outline, or even that I must be lying about outlining, because they cannot comprehend that I start a story one word at a time.

But the biggest reason is a craft issue.  If the writer is doing a first book and doesn’t understand the concept of story—a distinct possibility—pantsing makes it look ten times worse.  Writer submits it to a developmental editor.  Editor sees the horrible mess resulting from the combination of a craft issue and pantsing and declares that pantsing is the problem.  So the writer thinks their way of writing is wrong and that they should outline.

There’s a lot of misinformation about pantsing out there.  It’s important to trust yourself and not listen to what everyone is saying you “should” do.  Outline or not, it doesn’t matter.  The only thing that counts is the finished story.

Why outlining doesn’t work for everyone

It took me a long time to figure out that most writing craft advice that I find in books and online assumes that you’re outlining.  It’s so common that even people who don’t outline don’t realize they’re being told to use outlining techniques.

So much so that one of them periodically creeps into my writing and becomes like a big boulder that falls on the mountain pathway.  No way to get around it to the other side other than to zap it with a laser beam into bits and pieces.

My book is in three parts, with each part being a particular planet.  I started writing the part that takes place on the second planet and a big boulder dropped in.

It was a simple piece of outlining advice, which is to know what’s going to happen next. 

So I plopped in what I thought happen next and the story stalled out.  It took me a while to figure out what was going on as I tried to get around the boulder, but far less time in the past.  In fact, Scrivener helped because I could visually see scenes and chapters.  Part 1 had 13 chapters.  Part 2, where I had 3 chapters. 

This is a major section of the story, and I was zooming through it like it wasn’t important.

That’s because when I use one of these recommended outlining techniques, it kicks the natural development of the story to the curb and aims at the event, I suppose, like an infantry man charging a hill.  It’s more of “accomplish the mission and get that event in there,” not follow the natural course of the story. 

The result in the past was a very busy story that made no sense because I kept trying to use all these outline techniques that are recommended for pantsers. 

So it’s pretty important to understand what works and recognize what doesn’t.  Everyone tends to treat outlining as a once size fits all, when the writing process is completely different from person to person.

Keeping Track of What’s in the Novel

This topic’s prompted by a comment over at Dean Wesley Smith’s blog, where he is currently running a series on Writing into the Dark (not outlining).  In the comments, we got to discussing character questionnaires and interviewing characters.

I don’t use either technique. I’ve looked at questionnaires and not been impressed, and character interviewing just seems to odd to me.

Or actually, it all seems like outlining to me. In this case, outlining the character.

Just like the story, I wouldn’t know anything about the character until I wrote the story. A character worksheet would force me to make decisions that I don’t know about yet.

Then there was the question, which was “But you keep track after you write, right?’ Like write down who the POV character is for a scene, what they were wearing, what happened in the scene.  A story bible of sorts to refer to.

Nope. Not at all. I don’t keep track of anything as I’m writing.

I have a very good memory, which is a function of being visual spatial. I might write a scene, and as I write it, I’m mentally connecting it to another scene already in the story. It’s like I can see the direct connections, and all the connecting parts get into the new scene. I don’t have to refer back to summary of the scene to know what’s in it. I can generally even hop back and land within a couple of scenes of it because I can see where it is in my head.

I can have trouble remembering how to spell things.  Usually I’ll hop back and look, but sometimes I just do a botched spelling and move on, for fixing later.

As for the character pieces, It’s the same thing. I remember reading about a writer who had to physically write down that her character had tea at exactly 8:00 in the morning every day or she’d get it wrong. I found that quite strange because once I connect to that character, it’s part of the landscape in my memory and comes into the story when it needs to.

When I’ve tried story bibles or variations of one, I end up stalling out on it. I think, “What should I write down?” and it seems stupid to write down the character’s name when I know what it is, and it seems stupid to write down that character’s favorite color is when I already know what it is. The result is that I spend a lot of time wondering what I should write down in a story bible and don’t write anything at all.

Going through my messed up electronic files, I found at least five instances of character name lists. I started them all, thinking I needed it to remember a character name, and then never used them at all and forgot they were there.