Adventures Around the Web Nov 11-17, 2017

Your Story Lives in the Details

It sounds simple.  Add details.  Be specific.  It’s not.  It’s an incredibly hard skill to learn, especially when writers a cultured to treat description as boring.

Leadership lessons from a female Apache pilot

An officer talks about resiliency and failure, plus being a woman in a male-dominated place. Most notable is this quote about the culture for women:

”… It is a culture shift but it has to come from the top down because that is how the military works. It can’t be organic and it has to be the men who are taking the responsibility because the women can’t change it in the very small numbers that they are in.”

When memberships in the VFW or the American Legion come up, women say they don’t feel welcome, and they’re told to join and fix it.  ^^ That’s the reason that suggestion doesn’t work.

The Meaning of the 13 Folds (of the U.S. Flag)

My experience with seeing the flag folded is from NCIS and other TV series where the soldiers or Marines in their crisp uniforms and white gloves precisely fold the flag, then hand it to the family member at a funeral.  Scroll down past the image for a text version of the image describing what each of the folds means.  Link from my reunion cabin mate Lila Sise Spurgeon.

Are You Writing a Book or a Movie?

A lot of writers gravitate to movie writing advice to write novels.  This link above shows why that’s not a good idea.  There’s value in studying movies, like I’ve been doing Die Hard as part of the Novel Structure workshop. But it’s easy to veer away from the other senses and visceral reactions when trying to write a like movie, and have POV problems.

And, finally a quote I ran across at work this week, perfect for indies.

“If you’re going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big.”

– Donald Trump


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.

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.

Sometimes Good Things Are Not Easy

I’m going to take a leap of faith and publish three indie books next year.  One will be Sisters-At-Arms: The Story of a Woman Soldier in Desert Storm (which will be the Desert Storm blog posts you’ve been reading).  The second is Red God, a contemporary fantasy set in an alternate world of Hawaii.  I’m finishing that one up now.  The third is a mystery called Murder on the Morro Strand, set in Morro Bay, California, where my family went to twice a year when I was growing up.  Morro Strand is a beach there.

I hope to have a total of ten books in the year, which is a really scary goal for me.

I always wanted to write novels, ever since I started writing when I was eight.  Everyone around me thought this was a too big and scary goal and pushed me to short story writing.  When I became an adult, I tried tackling that novel and ended up really stuck at the one-third point of the book.  It was “Now what?” and I didn’t know what to do.  I ended up figuring that I’d revise the beginning, since a lot of advice suggested if you got stuck, the problem was the beginning.

I thought the problem was that I couldn’t get subplots into the story because it seemed like at the point something else should be coming into the story.  I felt like I had a novel’s worth of material, and yet, I couldn’t get past 100 pages before it ran out of steam, so I always felt like I was running too short.  I ended up revising that beginning and revising it and revising it, trying to figure out to get the subplots into the story.  I revised it so much that I was sick of the story.  Yet, I didn’t want to give it up because it was my only idea for a novel!

Enter cowriting.  I hooked up with a cowriter, who said he was great at doing subplots.  I decided to set aside the first novel.  We wrote a thriller, and then after about 80 rejections, redrafted it as a new book.  We were making submission rounds when we broke up.

That was when I realized I was back at square one.  I hadn’t solved the problem of subplots or running too short.  I looked everywhere for any piece of advice, finding mere scraps.  Most writers tend to write way over, so there was plenty of advice on cutting and editing.  Not so much on too short.  I literally wrote Book #4 with my eyeballs on the word count, watching as the words slowly eeked their way up.  I still ran too short, and I couldn’t explain why.

I battled for every word to get it to pop over agent minimums, using every workaround I could find.  Then I went to a writer’s conference and met an agent, apparently impressing her enough that she remembered me.  She gave me personal comments — just a short paragraph, really, and the moment I read them, I knew the problems she mentioned were caused by those workarounds.  I’d messed up my book trying to fix it.

It was a real low point for me.  It was near Thanksgiving like it is now.  It seemed like the only books I could do at the publisher’s lengths were ones with the cowriter.  I wondered if I should stop trying for novels and just go back to short stories.  But I wasn’t quite willing to give up on that yet.

So I was looking around the internet for subplots and ran across Holly Lisle’s How to Revise Your Novel. So I signed up.  Holly’s method for revision is more based on outliner methods, than for people who write into the dark (we don’t outline), or pantsers.

I remember going through one of the early lessons and one of the things that she practiced was not revising until she had identified all the problems.  That become a frustrating experience for me because I saw so much of the junk I’d added for word count that now stood out for me.  I stuck to the lesson because I wanted to learn where the problem was, but what I really wanted to do was slash out all that stuff so I could see the story.  There was so much of it that it made it hard to do some of the lessons.  I was pulling at my hair.  It was really bad, and such a slow process.  I wanted to charge ahead and fix it.

The problem was that I still didn’t know what I was doing to mess up the stories.  As far as I could tell, I didn’t have themes, subplots, or a character arc.  Somehow those had never ended up in it.  About halfway through the lessons, the problem seemed to reveal itself to me:  I was starting too late into the story.  So late that the natural development of the story was thrown off.

Why did I start so late?  I thought it was because I have trouble seeing how to start a project until I’ve worked my way into it.  The actual cause was several pieces of writing advice that I’d seen over and over again:

  • Everyone starts with backstory.  Cut off the first fifty pages.  Start as close to the action as possible.
  • Start with the action.

Those two pieces of advice pushed me into starting in the middle.  It took a lot longer to figure out it wasn’t the only advice causing problems.

I emerged from the class ready to tackle the book again, though the revision techniques weren’t for me.  The book still ran short.  I still had a problem that I couldn’t identify.  So I wandered from cheapie writing class to cheapie writing class.  Two instructors flaked on it, and I derailed my novel trying to insert a theme because I wasn’t able to identify one for my book.  It wasn’t until I took an Odyssey class with Barbara Ashford, who isn’t an outliner that I could see a difference in the advice.

Nearly all of the writing advice assumes you’re outlining.  A lot of it is a particular writer’s process, not an actual technique, but it’s often presented as a technique.  Still, it would take some online classes with Dean Wesley Smith before I started to realize the impact of that.  DWS prefers not to outline (the phrase “writing into the dark” is from him).  The problem was not subplots or missing themes or character arcs.  It wasn’t a problem with me starting in the middle.  It was how-to advice.

Most of it assumes that the writer is a beginner.  It also assumes that the writer is doing it wrong or will screw it up.  And it assumes the writer is outlining.  I’ve been writing for decades, so I’m not a beginner, and I find vaguely insulting that the default is that it’s going to be messed up (this is particularly true for anyone who talks about pantsers).

As a result, I walked away from two writing boards that I’d been a member of for years and dropped several writing blogs.  I knew some of the stuff was garbage, but it’s super easy to try something suggested because it seems reasonable.  That’s how I got sucked into the outlining related advice.  It all sounded reasonable.  I had to remind myself in the beginning that I knew what I was doing, because it was that pervasive.

And I look back on it, and most writers wouldn’t have survived what I put into it.  They would have given up.  Too many people think writing is easy, and they look for shortcuts where there isn’t any.  It’s a lot of investment in time and learning, and you never stop learning.

I started Red God in July of this year.  It is 5000-6000 words from being done.  I’m kind of shocked as I write that.  It’s the fastest I’ve ever written a book, and it’s really good.  I don’t care how long it is any more.  It’s the story that counts.

From The Daily Post Writing prompt: “Good things come to those who wait.” Do you agree? How long is it reasonable to wait for something you really want?

Exorcising Writing How-to Advice

Last week, I wrote about leaving the writing message boards because my writing was getting polluted by a lot of the nonsense advice being passed around.  But I’d also started pulling back from general writing advice from how-to books even before that (some writers were absolutely horrified at this.  Writing advice is a huge safety net).  I was finding that the advice assumed all writers outline and didn’t provide anything really for someone who might not be doing that.

One of the core problems for me is that a lot of the how-to advice is common sense and seems perfectly reasonable.

Until I apply it to when I’m writing, and it turns the story into a freaking mess.  I could not tell this until I tossed out all the outlining-flavored advice, and once I did, the story simply worked.  Writing the story also went back to being a lot of fun.  Using outlining flavored techniques really sucked a lot of the fun out.

But it’s a constant battle, because I’ve been hearing that advice for decades.  It’s like it’s imprinted on me as a default.

I’m currently at the one-third point in my current book.  It’s a place where I always have trouble in every single book.  The story was going great, and then suddenly it’s ‘what do I do?’

LEFT BRAIN: Ack!  Ack! Story is broken!  Story is broken! Go find the problem and fix it!

I wound up stuck at that point, mainly because I’ve been at war with the Left Brain.  It figures all that writing advice out there is useful and maybe a turning point would help resolve the sticking point.

No, no, and no.

Because that wrests takes all the creativity away from my Right Brain that’s actually trying to do the writing.  What’s happened in the past is that when I let the Left Brain dictate what happens next — story beats were one of those things that seemed really reasonable but were horrifyingly bad —  I ended up trying to make the story fit what I’d come up with.  The story, in turn, became very convoluted and twisted because the creative process of discovery as I wrote was not allowed in.  It distorted the story so badly, in fact, that this is a complete redraft from scratch, and I have not used anything from the original version.

I end up feeling like I have to keep giving Left Brain an NCIS head slap to stay out of the story’s business.

The hardest thing right now is that I am literally doing a scene that I do not have any idea what is going to happen in it.  How-to advice and writing rules all say that’s a bad idea, and it’s what I have to do.

It’s trust the process.