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How to fail at writing

 

Quote by Thomas Edison, "I have not failed. I have just found 9999 ways that do not work." in blue lettering on white.

I’m all for the idea that failure is merely figuring out what doesn’t work, finding out where you need to focus your energy, and that it’s an important part of the learning process that we often stigmatize to our detriment.

However, I really wish my method for producing a novel didn’t resemble Edison’s light bulb-inventing process as much as it does. I’m mainly a pantser—a seat-of-the-pants or “organic” writer—who doesn’t plot my books in advance. (Believe me, I've tried.) For a logic-oriented person who likes to make lists, and plans just about everything else in her life, this is disconcerting, irritating, annoying, and a long list of other synonyms.

For my books, I have learned that I need to understand what the antagonist is doing and why, or I won’t get past the first quarter of the book, no matter how exciting my initial premise. Without the villain's goal and motivation, I can’t figure out how to escalate their actions against the main characters in a way that makes sense.

I also need to know the inner conflict between the hero and heroine (what’s keeping them apart), and the outer conflict (what’s keeping them together). The latter usually relates back to the antagonist/villain, so it’s all linked.

In order to determine these things—because even when I think I have them, I usually don’t—I must write. I write scenes (or partial scenes), discard them, write new ones, repeat. Every scene (or set of scenes) is a method for testing an idea. It also spurs my subconscious to go to work on the story in ways it just won't if I'm only sitting around thinking or making lists of ideas.

Eventually, I do nail it. (Hopefully, it doesn’t take 9,999 times!!) And once I have the early stuff figured out, the rest of the book comes together much faster. Not fast exactly, but faster.

So, if you've ever wondered why it takes me so damn long to write a book, mystery solved.

I’m slowly learning to, well, not love, but at least work with my method. Honestly, I feel lucky I have a process at all. I’m writing, so life is good.

How about you? Do you have a process for writing—or anything else—that frustrates you, but ultimately works?

Plotting for NaNoWriMo & Winners

Do you jump right in?

I’ve always thought of myself as a pantser, despite the fact that my left brain generally rules all other areas of my life. So I was surprised to find potential scene lists for my first two manuscripts while flipping through old notebooks the other day.

Apparently I did more planning in the early days than I remember.

I’ve made several attempts at becoming a planner/outliner, and my best-written book to date was borne of a rough outline and the 30 days of literary abandon known as NaNoWriMo. Yet I still resist moving into the outlining camp.

It’s probably a patience thing. I’m always eager to jump right in when a story is pulling at me. But then several months later I’m floundering, usually after hitting the midpoint and realizing the conflict isn’t strong enough, or that I’ve written myself into a corner.

Which brings me back to the need for a better outline. And I’m starting to think I may have been doing it wrong. Or rather, that I wasn’t patient enough to do it right.

Or do you plot your course first?

With NaNo again looming, I recently picked up K.M. Weiland’s book Outline Your Novel. And instead of answering the exercises with “I kind of have an idea of what should happen there, but I'm not ready to commit”, I forced myself to brainstorm actual answers.

And guess what? Some of the ideas I came up with are awesome (if I do say so myself). Even something as simple as coming up with a premise sentence brought an epiphany on how to raise the stakes.

I’m even more excited to write the book than I was before. And with a decent outline to follow, I won’t get stuck wondering what comes next when I finish a scene.

I don’t see myself writing 80-page outlines any time soon, and the pantser in me still gets the freedom to change the storyline if a better idea comes along, but if this goes well, I may just be a convert. Again.

Winners

Thanks to everyone who participated in my blog’s birthday celebration! Here are the winners (chosen by random.org):

– Signed copy of Scrivener For Dummies: Dave

– Free Scrivener online class enrollment for 2013: Beth K.

Congratulations!

Photo credits:
Cliff jumping: By Rafi B. from Somewhere in Texas 🙂 (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Charting a course: By U.S. Navy photo by Seaman Eboni C. Cameron [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Facing the abyss

Every time I talk about my evolving writing process, I’m sure my long-time blog followers just roll their eyes and think, “Again?” Watching me over the last two years has been like the proverbial tennis match where I’m the ball bouncing between Plotting and Pantsing.

My first three books—and two in there that went unfinished—were written “into the mist”, begun with only the spark of a premise and a rough idea of my characters. After the pain of cutting as many as 15,000 words to work myself out of a corner, and being unable to finish those two books for lack of direction, I decided that I should approach my writing in a more organized fashion. One that befits a logic-oriented, list-making planner like myself.

I came to this opinion after reading brilliant books from the likes of Larry Brooks and Blake Snyder and hearing others wax on about plotting and structure and how it saves them. Published authors talked of the need to provide synopses or outlines for future books to their editors, and I wondered how I'd ever do that if I remained firmly in the pantser crowd.

And while I did manage to do some rough outlining before I wrote BLIND FURY—outlining that helped keep me on target during NaNoWriMo—I still ended up writing blind a lot of the time. Which, to be honest, is half the fun.

So, I fancied myself a hybrid writer, plotser, tweener, or whatever your favorite term is. If I could just take a few weeks of “prewriting” to nail down the GMC for the main characters and get my major turning points in place before I got started, the words would flow like the great Mississippi.

Or not.

So—for now—I’ve decided I’m this kind of writer: a heavy-on-the-pantsing hybrid writer who must (as my friend Sharon Wray put it) “embrace the abyss of revisions” at the end. Because, let’s face it, my need for perfection from the outset came from a desire to avoid those agonizing rewrites that I now think are unavoidable whether I plot or not.

I had become so paralyzed by my need for a workable structure that I didn’t write anything of value for four months! I played with scenes, wrote ten—I’m not kidding—different story openings for a book I’ve been thinking about for months, wrote getting-to-know-my-character scenes, and generally goofed off, but didn’t sit down and get serious.

Some of those words will be useful, but it avoided the real work of starting the book.

A few things helped get me unstuck. Dwight Swain’s amazing book TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER. A lot of omphaloskepsis. And just this week, this post by Allison Brennan.

So, I’m back to where I started, but with a different perspective. I now have an awareness of structure and of what types of scenes I need to be writing if I’m in the first 25K of the book versus the last 25K.

I know about scene and sequel, motivation-reaction units, active setting, and ending hooks. I know that if I finish the book and it doesn’t need any plot changes—ha, I wish!—I’d still have to go back and layer in more emotion, dig into deeper POV through setting, tighten the action, polish the words.

I know that if I finish the book and the structure is off, I can fix it.

I know that if I run with my original idea and get stuck along the way, I can always back up and forge a new path.

I know that the first draft doesn’t have to be—and in fact, will never be—perfect.

So I'm standing on the cliff facing the abyss again.

Time to jump.

Photo credit: MORARU RIDGE IN FOG – BUCEGI MOUNTAINS © Iuliana Bucurescu | Dreamstime.com

Word processing

I’m starting a new manuscript. I love the feeling of having a new story rolling around in my brain. Usually, it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while. And after two years of working at this, I’m starting to learn how my creative half works.

It starts with the spark, whatever that is and wherever it comes from. For example, the spark in Slow Burn was the idea that a guy on a mission finds a woman floating in the water and his reaction when he realizes she’s alive is: “damn”.

But how to go from there to a 300-page book? Good question. I used to just write. It was an exciting and stressful process wherein I wrote about 10-20,000 words and then realized I didn’t know where to go next.

On a few occasions, I backed up and started over and the end result is much better, especially after several rounds of revisions. In a couple of instances, I stopped altogether. I have two 100-page manuscripts out there whose characters I still think about and hope to someday find a story for.

If you’re one of the diehards who’s been around since the early days of me yapping in bits and bytes, you know that I’ve begun a slow progression towards plotting. Actually, that makes it sound like a smooth transition, but it happened in fits and starts with plenty of backtracking. And a one-eighty or two. Be honest, you were all just rolling your eyes as I went back and forth trying to find the magic process that would make writing easy. Hah! As if.

I'm envisioning my journey like a football game where I gained and lost a lot of yardage, but eventually made a first down. I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a plotter—and although I’m migrating toward that end of the scale, I’ll probably never be a detailed outliner like Suzanne Brockmann (she of the 80-pagers)—but I’m definitely not writing into the mist in quite the same way that I used to.

In fact, that post about writing into the mist was written shortly after my first attempt to outline Blind Fury. It turns out that I just hadn't found the right story. I gave up too soon. I didn't play enough.

After I tackled outlining a second time, I met with success. Blind Fury is currently in the CP comment stage after a first-pass round of edits, and is my first book to surpass 70K. I still changed the outline as I went. And in between the major turning points I was still writing in the fog, sure only of my approximate destination. That’s the pantser part of me getting to play.

And yet, I rarely got lost in the fog precisely because I knew where I needed to be and could correct my course—or decide to take a detour—as needed. This doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for me, and I’m so glad to have figured it out. I think knowing your own process is as important as understanding the craft of writing.

Because suddenly, I can estimate how much time I need to write a book. And while that doesn’t matter now, since nobody’s asking, I hope it will someday. I know that I need 4-6 weeks of brainstorming, teeth gnashing, and general fretting that I’m a two-trick pony, before I’m ready to start (though an advance check might induce me to get creative in a hurry ;-)).

During that pre-writing phase, I write random scenes and backstory ideas. I try to come up with a log line and a short pitch, and the GMC for each major character. I get a feel for which story ideas I do and don’t like. I play with the outline. I tweak it. Once I have it down, my brain ruminates while I do other things and bubbles up suggestions while I’m driving or reading a book.

Then I play some more with scenes that I think will fit the outline. Just the ones that pique my interest. And then at the end of that, I have a pretty good starting outline that will probably change—but not enough to make it unrecognizable—along with some scenes which may or may not make it into the final story in some form.

And then I start writing in earnest. With Blind Fury, I wrote almost 80,000 words in two months. That accounts for more than half of the total words I wrote in 2010. And I think it’s some of my best work ever (but I could just be delusional—ask my CPs).

Today I filled in the basic story structure for MS1_2011 (uh, working title) and I’m getting excited. Based on what I came up with, I started playing with character backstory scenes and I’m having fun again. Maybe in another week or so, I’ll be ready to hit the keys in earnest.

I can’t wait.

Working with a map

...

Were you a fan of outlines in school? I know I wasn’t. Unfortunately, they’re a necessity in a writer’s life. If you don’t outline the book beforehand, you still have to do it later on some level in order to create a book blurb, pitch, synopsis, and query letter. If you’re a plotter or a plotser, you’re doing some level of outlining before you write.

Somewhere between my past method of zero planning, and Suzanne Brockmann’s 80-page summaries, I’ve come up with the basic plot structure for my next book. And this time, so far, it seems to be working.

When I’m stuck, I go back and check the outline, figure out what I'm aiming for, and get back on track. Sometimes, I change my route, but still head in the same general direction toward my next plot point.

Sticking to my old cross-country travel analogy, I used to get in the car and drive, knowing I’d end up on the opposite coast, picking the route as I went, with maybe a vague idea of the cities I wanted to visit on the way. Now, I’m planning out the overnight stops and the final destination, while still leaving room for side trips and detours. Maybe someday I’ll be like Ms. Brockmann who uses GPS to plan her routes.

For the first time, I’m finding freedom in the structure. It unblocks those blank-page moments, but I’m free to change the outline as new ideas come to me. Yes, it was a lot more work up front. I couldn’t sit down and start writing the story like I used to without some planning.

In order to keep from feeling cheated out of the fun of writing “into the mist”, I still let myself create scenes as they came to me. I worked on openings, scene ideas for several different story lines, and character sketches/interviews. I created and scrapped multiple versions of the story structure and subsequent outline. This is sure to be an evolving product and process.

Best of all, with my outline entered faithfully into Scrivener, I was able to figure out how a subplot with a secondary character might fit into the story and create a key conflict. I’ve struggled with that in the past, and I believe it’s one of the reasons I could never get to 80K. To get a bigger book, I need more integrated subplots to create a richer story with potential for future books. Those who can fit in the subplots without an outline are either far more talented writers than me, or don’t mind copious amounts of revision.

Is this my new process going forward? Time will tell, but I’m excited by the possibilities.

Pillars of the story

A copy I found in the Westminster Abbey gift shop in London.

I'm munching on deformed peanut butter cups and brainstorming for my next book. There are three ideas swirling in my head right now (or maybe four), but I think I've finally picked one and so I'm figuring out the basic plot points.

Yes, I've said I'm a pantser, mister–or whatever you want to call it–who doesn't work well with structure. I've gone back and forth on plotting versus pantsing and somewhere-in-between so many times your neck probably hurts from watching. But I think my failed experiment with plotting had less to do with the act of creating a structure, and more to do with not having found the right one yet.

But I was recently re-inspired.

My husband and I are watching the Starz! production of Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (on Netflix instant play via Wii–LOVE my technology). He's one of my very favorite authors in any genre, and that book is up at the top of my list of best books ever. It's been years since I read it, so the mini-series–which is surprisingly well done–has been an excellent reminder of what an incredible storyteller Follett is. And I've noticed a couple things.

Follett's not afraid to put his characters through hell. In fact, I cringe at what they go through and at how evil some of the antagonists in his story are. As events unfold, I can almost imagine Follett asking himself, “What's the worst thing that could happen to this character now?”

Also, the character's goals and motivations are very clear, and they act accordingly without fail.

So as I move forward with my next book, I will try to incorporate these elements and create a framework on which to build my story, while still honoring my need to “wing it” from plot point to plot point. The major plot points are the pillars, and the fun is in creating the arches that connect them.

Wish me luck on my journey from apprentice to master builder. And, good luck in your own journey!

A kick in the pants

If you've been keeping up with my posts the last few weeks or months, you're probably starting to think I'm schizophrenic. One minute I'm lauding the wonder of structure and pre-planning, and the next I'm lamenting the missing magic when I write within a structure.

Basically, you've been watching me try to find myself. I cannot regret having any knowledge of structure, and I will admit the lure of it is great for a logic-minded person like me. However, I've come to the conclusion that I may have to fly by the seat of my pants in order to find my best story. I can work the structure back into it later, or keep it in mind as I go.

I hate admitting that, but it's better than struggling to force a method that doesn't work for me right now. (I'm always hopeful for the future.)

Just over a year ago, when I started writing seriously, the time spent writing was pure joy. Yeah, I struggled and backtracked and cut, but overall the process was (mostly) fun. The story just came to me as I went, like brainstorming on the go. All three of my completed works (one which is never mentioned in public) were written that way.

My left brain rebelled and demanded that there had a to a better, more efficient way to do it. And there is. But (apologies to one of my favorite gurus, Larry Brooks) it's not my way. Not now. When I tried it, I couldn't get more than 4-5000 words before I lost the spark, lost the desire.

Today, I read an article that helped me come to terms with my “pantsing” ways. It was written by Jo Beverly, and it walks us through her “process” of writing from scratch. She calls it “Flying into the Mist”. I highly recommend it to all writers who won't or can't pre-plan, and to the people who love them. 😉

Writing by the seat of your pants doesn't mean you can't incorporate GMC, characterization, and good story structure. They'll still be on your mind, but the story will unfold as you go, and you may have to go back and strengthen it in the edit/revision process. Or after you write each scene.

The whole argument about the right way to write reminds me of the working mom vs. stay-at-home mom debate. I've been on both sides of that one too. There's no right or wrong answer. There's only what's right or wrong for you, right now.

Be true to yourself, embrace your own method, and, as always, write on.

UPDATE 2/25/11: In case you haven't been following along, After an incredibly successful trial run for NaNoWriMo, I'm back to outlining to give myself guideposts, but flying through the mist in between. What I've found is that I have to give myself time to play with the (really basic) outline to make sure the story is solid before I start writing from it. This has worked really well for me now, and I might just be sticking to it. 🙂