When Pantsing Goes Bad

I am not, by nature, a pantster.  Which is not to say at times I haven’t found myself winging my writing, or my life for that matter.

Yesterday I had one of those days.  It was the last day of school term and it was shaping up to be pretty busy.  I had to help at school in the morning, go to a family conference at the hospital, and cook a meal for a family with a new baby.   Perfectly manageable with a bit of planning, but knowing I’d have the children home for a few weeks, I spent the past week ignoring the house and squeezing in as much writing time as I could while they were at school.   And because of that everything started to fall apart.  Fairly rapidly.

I’ll spare you the details, except to say I should have gone to the grocery store before I started cooking and I ended up running late everywhere.  By the end of the day I was exhausted and glad it was over.  And I was annoyed with myself because I could have made it so much easier.  Planning 1.  Pantsing 0.

For me, the same is often true when I try pantsing with my writing.  Because if I don’t know where my characters need to go, they often end up going nowhere – or stand around having inane conversations.  In fact sometimes the result is so bad it’s funny.

For example I wrote a scene where two characters (Aiden and Callum) rode quite a distance so Callum could show Aiden where something significant happened.  They both rode home, hung around the house and then the next day the Aiden rode back to the place and the story progressed.  The funny thing was I remember them getting back to the house and thinking – okay now what?  What resulted was a bit of huffing and puffing – all pointless.  There was absolutely no value in them doing the long ride back, especially when Aiden knew from the outset he was going to need to stay at this distant place and look for answers.

This is such a quick fix (just have Aiden stay out there) it normally wouldn’t even rate a mention.  But it’s still alive in an old draft because I wrote it during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) – the month where you try and turn off your internal editor and just get the story down on paper – warts, pointless outings and all.  The aim is to end up with 50,000 words at the end of the month, which you can go back and whip in to shape later.  But the annoying thing was if I’d thought about it – even briefly – I could have saved myself several hundred useless words.

Another problem I struck pantsing, was writing myself into a corner.  In the same NaNoWriMo I also had some of my characters get snowed in.  There is an unnaturally harsh winter, and it is important to the plot that they have a period of time cut off from the rest of the world.  The thing is I have never experienced that much snow myself and I didn’t really know how that might impact on their day to day survival.  Nor did I have any time to do the research I needed to make it feel real.  To compound my frustration, the weather event itself required a thaw before the story could continue – and I had another POV character in another part of the kingdom who needed to be affected by this weather too.  Do you want to see how I pantsed my way out of that:

For the first time since Magda or Matthew could remember, the snow remained banked up in deep drifts for the entire winter, and didn’t start to melt until late in the spring.

With the good weather came the Rohe.

As you can see it is good old first draft clunk, but I can remember the precise moment I wrote that.  I just could not resolve the issues, so I skipped over them.  At some point I’ll have to go back and sort it out.

But despite my frustrations, pantsing the writing wasn’t all bad.  I have got most of the third book down, even if it will need major edits later.  It has given me a lot of raw material to draw on for my current WIP, and my planning self has a good ending to work towards.  And once I let my internal editor back into the game I found I had great insight into what was working and what wasn’t.

I could do with a few less days like yesterday, but sometimes we just need to do whatever we can to get us through – with life and with writing.

Have you ever written yourself into a corner? Or followed a rabbit trail to find it goes nowhere?  Or have you just had one of those days and can relate? I’d love to hear from you.

Pantster or Planner?

Who knew there were so many ways to write a book?  As I’ve ventured into the writing community, I’ve discovered the approaches to storytelling seem to be as varied as the stories themselves.  There are even a few funky terms to describe some of them.

For example, a pantster is someone who just sits down and writes a book without actually knowing where the story might take them.  Flying by the seat of their pants so to speak.  I know writers who are pantsters, who’ve told me once they know how the story ends they struggle to finish the book.  Apparently the thrill comes from the act of discovering the story.   (Do you get the feeling that I, in no way, shape or form, fit into this category)?

Then there are the planners.  These people outline their books out to the nth degree.  Every plot and subplot is carefully worked out, and there are even graphs and formulas that can be utilised to make sure the storytelling process is as effective as possible.   This category appeals to my sense of order.  I have visions of lassoing my story, wrestling it to the ground and tying it up so tight that it can’t get away from me.  However, in my reality, the story is such a slippery little thing that I can’t get a rope anywhere near it and all I end up doing is getting myself tangled up.  (Like I’m doing with this metaphor…).

The majority of writers probably sit somewhere in between the two.  We do a bit of planning, let the story take over sometimes, and generally do what we can to get it out there.  The blogisphere is full of people willing to share tips on how things have worked out for them.  But at the end of the day, we all have to find what works for us.

I belong to a great writing group with the grand total of 3 members.  My writing buddies are both talented, prolific writers who blow me away with their beautiful stories.  And as a member of this group, I’ve grown in confidence and ability as I’ve learned with and from my friends.  But even in a group of 3, it staggers me at how different we are in the way we approach writing.  One is incredibly focussed and can sit down and work a story until she is well and truly satisfied with it.  Her daily output makes me giddy, she has a seemingly never-ending well of ideas, and is not afraid to write and rewrite.  The other, has a voice that is so unique it makes me want to weep (in a very good – kinda jealous way).  When the muse strikes she can also produce screeds of words, and can write several books at the same time.  Or the occasional poem, or totally unrelated short story.

The last member has a tendancy to dream about the story, rather than hanker down and write it.  (Oh yeah that’s me…).  In fact I was once quoted: “If you gave me a block of wood, I’d start sculpting with sandpaper.”  I’m a muller.  I like to let ideas stew in their own juices.  I write them down and then think about how it panned out.  And then go back and edit.  I’ve been working on the same story for over 3 years now. (In my defence, I did almost finish a book, until I realised it really was the end of a trilogy, and had to go right back to the beginning…).   If you’re all about the numbers, my daily word count probably won’t impress you much. And not so long ago I felt pretty inadequate because of it.

BUT (I’ve put it in capitals because it really is true) I’ve learned that as different as my writing buddies and I are in approach, we are the same in that we have a burning desire to tell our story well.   And it doesn’t matter whether you write it in one great big fast outpouring, or a slow steady trickle as long as you enjoy the process and learn something along the way.  I’m proud of them, but equally proud of me.  It’s taken a while, but now I write when I can, how I can and I make a point to enjoy it.  Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.  But today I’m one chapter closer to finishing my book.

It’s good to be open to new ideas, and to learn from those who’ve gone before us and set the bar high.  But whether you’re a pantser or a planner, I think being a writer is one of the best things any of us can be.

How about you – panster or planner?  Or have you ever had writer envy and wished you could write like…?

A Little Less Epic

It has occurred to me that choosing to write epic fantasy for my first book (and a potential trilogy at that), wasn’t the smartest choice I’ve ever made.  It didn’t help when I was reading through George R. R. Martin’s website (of Game of Thrones fame) and he remarked:

Given the realities of today’s market in science fiction and fantasy, I would also suggest that any aspiring writer begin with short stories. These days, I meet far too many young writers who try to start off with a novel right off, or a trilogy, or even a nine-book series. That’s like starting in at rock climbing by tackling Mt. Everest.

Now I know he wasn’t speaking to me personally, after all by no stretch of the imagination am I young any more.  And I do know of other authors, Patrick Rothfuss being my latest and favourite example, who have struck gold with their first novels.  But writing epic fantasy does, at times feel like you’re scrabbling up some unforgiving rock-face, or at best like you’re trying to eat an elephant.

One of the reasons I like fantasy is – you get to make the whole thing up.  If you want people to ride horses and wield swords and fight for truth and justice, well they can.  The thing is you really do have to create a whole world in your head and it has to be consistent.

I have no problem visualising my fantasy realm – Gaelladorn. It has some great places like the Reach, which is elevated and craggy, somewhat like the Scottish Highlands, or the great sheep stations in the South Island of New Zealand.  Or the capital city Tamar, with its winding cobbled streets, and the newly built Sanctuary, of honey-coloured stone dominating the skyline.   It’s great as far as setting, it plays like a small movie through my mind as I write.  The problem comes, for me, with the political structure.

I hoped I wouldn’t have to give too much detail about how legal system in my story works. I’d rather focus on the characters.  But about a third of the way through the novel I’m starting to think one of my main premises isn’t going to work.  Or it certainly doesn’t work, for me, in its present form.  The question is (and please feel free to wade in): Is it is logical that the King wouldn’t have a direct role in managing his troops?  When Marcus, shifts from being a General to being King, he is told (by the Overseer – a religious office that sits above the Kings) to create a distance between himself and the military.  Technically the soldiers fight for the whole realm, not just one kingdom, so possibly it could be seen as him having too much influence.  But would a King really have to sit back and rule while the others are out fighting?  King Arthur didn’t.

I suspect I will have to tone down the ultimatum and create tension with his continued involvement with the military.  It also means I will have to go back and rewrite an earlier scene that I quite liked.  Frustrated?  You have no idea.

I was growled at the other day for saying something I’d taken to writing group wasn’t very good.  “You are too hard on yourself!” they protested.  (They being the aforementioned writing group).  So just in case you think I am struggling with self-doubt and shooting myself in the foot I would like to point out:  I am enjoying this journey immensely.  I love that I am a writer and I get to nut out all the details.  Sometimes I crash and burn, and other times I fly.  It makes for an interesting journey!

It also seems everyone has an idea about how you should go about becoming a writer.  Bless George R. R. Martin, I suspect every Tom, Dick and Harry who has ever picked up a pen is asking for his advice.  Martin had a long and varied writing career, before he wrote his bestsellers.  It worked for him, so I respect his opinion. Although it doesn’t mean that’s how my journey will be.

But for me, I write where my heart is.  And as much as I’d love the variety to work on other projects, this is what I’m loving and feeling.  Sometimes I wish it wasn’t so big.  Because then I might be able to get it done sooner and be able to share it with you.

Do you ever have days where you feel like you’ve bitten off more than you can chew? Have you had any troubling issues with world-building – or tips to share? Or do you have any views on the King versus General issues I’m having? I’d love to hear from you.

A Few Choice Words

Today I was tagged for the 777 challenge by Jennifer Wagner.  Basically the challenge asks for 7(ish) lines from page 7 of your work in progress, and for you to tag 7 other writers to do the same.

Well, I’m not much for tagging others (although please feel free to have a go), but I was curious to see if there was anything interesting on page 7 of my WIP.  To my delight there were 7 lines that summed up a little interaction between two of my favourite characters:

In an instant the General was back.  The transformation both fascinated and saddened Celeste.  She’d always loved the wild, energy that drove Marcus, but seeing it reined in, broke her heart.  And she wished, not for the first time, that he’d chosen a different path.

She was about to slip away, when Marcus casually tapped his thigh with his third and fourth fingers.  The movement was so subtle, she almost missed it.  But then he did it again, without breaking his stride or so much as glancing in her direction; and she knew she’d been made.

To be honest, I’ve asked myself what you will learn about my writing style from only 7 lines. It’s not like this is a showcase passage in the novel, nor can you see any of the context of what’s going on between Celeste and Marcus.  However, in this quick click society our work does get judged at a glance, and often not on it’s full merit.

Whether it is a potential agent trying to make a decision based on a query letter, or a potential buyer flicking through a few pages to get a handle on what the story sounds like; we might only have a few words at best to capture their attention.

One website where this concept is fully realised is Webook.com’s Page to Fame.  Writers submit a short summary and the first page of their novel to be rated on a scale of 1-5 by the webook community.   Higher ratings result in being elevated to higher levels, where 5 or 50 pages will be reviewed and more feedback is available.  It’s a quick, anonymous, way to gauge how your work is being perceived, especially in the crucial opening phases.

I must admit when I discovered the site, I got a bit addicted to the rating process.  I read a lot of first pages.  And it didn’t take long to realise, some writing was obviously strong – and some clearly had room to improve.  As a writer it really reinforced what the agent blogs seem to be saying.  Get the to point quickly and write well.

I’m still not sure I’d like my future to hang on 7 lines.  But if it comes down to that, I do hope they’re good ones.

What do you think?  Are 7 lines enough to get a feeling for the writing?  What if anything can you glean from the 7 lines I’ve shared? 

The Happy Dance

There are plenty of days when I wonder if I will EVER finish my novel. When I’ve gone at a scene so many times that I’m convinced the whole thing must be a dud. But there is something about the story I’m working on right now that I can’t let go of.   In fact the ending is as clear as any shooting script – in my mind anyway. So one way or another I am determined to find the perfect story arc to bring this one home.

Today, however, is a day of the happy dance. I feel one step closer to my ultimate goal.

After a rocky start, the stars aligned and I finally nailed a chapter that has been a thorn in my side for months. I feel like a bottle of bubbly someone has given a good hard shake.  Maybe I can write this story after all!

This break-through has been building all week. It all boiled down to connecting with one of my POV characters.

Last week, I drafted a shocker of a chapter which I shared at my writing group. It’s a small group, and very supportive, so instead of awkward throat clearing or uncomfortable silences, my friends reminded me what they loved about this particular character. (And trust me they had to look hard to find any good traits in that draft).

But what they said reminded me how lovely and very likeable this girl is. She is the softer half of another character hell-bent on having his way. So she brings some well-needed light, in what can at times be a dark story.

When I got hold of what they were saying, and really connected with her, the scene finally worked.

So good day today. Words on paper. Story on track. Something to look back upon if the road ahead proves rocky!

Where are you on the journey?  Are you stuck? Struggling? Or doing your own happy dance?  I’d love to hear from you. 

Art or Craft?

I love to write.  To let the words flow out and hopefully spin a bit of magic as they fly.  It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.  What lands on the paper, to me at least, is art.   A whole lot of dreaming in a big, mushy, colourful heap.

The thing is, although it is perfectly formed in my mind’s eye, it invariably doesn’t come out exactly right.  It often has skewed points of view, crappy grammar, and a passive voice.  But I know that somewhere inside the clunk, is a story that sings.  That is just waiting to be polished up and released to the world.

More than anything I want to be able to put together prose that is so great you can’t see any of the cosmetic flaws, because of the story itself.  Bearing that in mind, I figure there are two ways to approach this:

1. Pretend your story will stand on merit alone, and trust others to be able to see its shining virtues.

I lived in this place for an embarrassing length of time.  That’s not to say it’s a bad place; especially if you are writing for the sheer joy of it and don’t have any aspirations to share your work.  But for me there always was that hope that someday, someone else would want to share my stories too.  The cold hard reality is, if people can’t see past the mistakes how will they truly see what you’re trying to say?

2. Roll up your sleeves and learn from the people who make it look so easy.

There are so many great resources for aspiring writers the hardest thing is not to get swamped and lose heart.  In my opinion balance is the key.  Keep a firm hold on why you want to write – the thing that drives your passion for words and makes you want to keep creating. This is the source of our art as writers.  But remember every time you miss the mark, you are one step closer if you learn something from it.  And this is where the craft is so important.

I recently submitted a piece of work for review in an online critique competition.  (Check out Beyond the Hourglass Bridge , I’m not-so-anonymous-now Entry 2).  I was somewhat devastated to realise I have a long way to go when it comes to the grammatical side of writing.  But I figure if someone is going to be good enough to give me the benefit of their skill, I will accept it gratefully. I can work on minimising the passive voice, and learn how to use commas and semicolons properly. The critiquers were also gracious in their positive feedback, and my fragile writer heart was able to accept this too and not crumple up in a defeated heap.

Another useful tool I’ve discovered lately was from Rachel Aaron, and I touched on this in an earlier blog.  If you love what you write, the words will flow.   Her blog-post was entitled How I Went From Writing 2,000 Words a Day to 10,000 Words a Day.  It took me a few tries to get my head around it.  The first time I was a bit too focussed on the word count.  I did get a whole heap of words down, but they weren’t quite right and I ended up scrapping most of it.  Obviously I hadn’t put enough time in figuring out where my scene needed to go.

I still felt Rachel was giving great advice, so I had a good long look at my POV character.  What she was really going through?  What did I love about her? How would she feel about the events playing out about her?  Once this clicked into place the story came alive, and I’m much happier with the scene.

I’m so far from where I need to be, but at least I’m moving closer all the time.

To finish with a quote from the Lord of the Rings:

‘But where shall I find courage?’ asked Frodo. ‘That is what I chiefly need.’

‘Courage is found in unlikely places,’ said Gildor. ‘Be of good hope!’

Sometimes we could all do with a troop of wandering wild elves to give us a bit of encouragement.  Happy writing!

How do you find the balance between following your story and learning the finer points of the writer’s craft?

Release your Inner-Hermit

It is not uncommon in fantasy novels to come across the hermit.  The isolated, anti-social individual who shuns other people for a peaceful solitary lifestyle of contemplation.  If you want to get any information out of a hermit, you need to win their trust and prove somehow that you’re worthy of it.  When I started this journey I realised there was a reason why I have a soft-spot for hermits; I can relate totally.

I have a great real life family and friends, but must admit I really need peace, quiet and headspace to write.  I have also been reticent to show other people my writing.  Will they like it, hate it or worse – be unresponsive?  I’ve been encouraged by many people to get connected with the on-line community and start opening myself up to new writing / reading relationships.   But the thought of doing it filled me with dread.  To make matters worse I didn’t know what the rules were, or how to really go about it.  Could I really let go of my inner-hermit?

Fortunately, a good friend, who happens to write one of my favourite writing blogs (Seeking the Write Life), came around and gave me a few lessons.  Within a few days I’d managed to cobble together a blog and made a leap of faith into the rapids that is Twitter.

It’s been a heady first week.  I can’t tell you how excited I was when someone came to visit my blog, and became a follower.  It didn’t even matter that it was my Mum.  But then others came too, people I didn’t even know, and I was euphoric.  The journey has well and truly begun.  But as complete novice there have been a few lessons to learn the hard way, and I share these here:

1. Just because you put it on the web doesn’t mean anyone will come and look at it.

So thank you to all those who took the time.

2. If someone sends you a direct message on twitter, telling you someone is spreading rumours about you – don’t believe them.

Day one on twitter I got such a message and clicked on it.  How could people be spreading rumours on my first day?  I’m not very exciting and so I have to admit I was curious – what could they possibly say?  The link took me to twitter and asked me to log in.  I was already logged in at the time, but as a newbie figured it must be because it was a “direct message”.   I logged in and finding no rumours, soon discovered it was a phishing site.  Then, feeling very foolish, had to go and change all my passwords…  On the same day I also friended someone who spamed me with descriptive titles of pornographic movies.  I discovered it is quite easy to unfriend people too and not feel at all guilty.

3. Don’t keep stalking your stats.

It’s true.  I spent an inordinate amount of time watching them and getting all excited because someone in Canada came to visit.  It has to stop.  I hope people come, but this is a journey I need to take whether anyone comes or not.

4. Spend more time writing than blogging.

It’s true I want to be a writer, and my writing time is precious.  So now that the first week is done, and I’ve not only survived but even made a few new friends, I have to set a few boundaries.  A time to write, and then a time to blog.   And a very strict time limit on twitter…

Wish me luck!

Have you got any advice for the newbie social networker?  And if you blog, I’d love to know if you had any unrealistic expectations, or misconceptions when you started out?

Sage Advice

I read a great post yesterday by Rachel Aaron: How I Went From Writing 2,000 Words a Day to 10,000 Words a Day.  I’m not sure 10,000 words a day is realistic for me yet, but Rachel’s advice was rock solid: Identify your most productive writing time and environment, get your objective straight before you start writing, and love what you write.

The last one in particular was a real light bulb moment for me.  Essentially what she was saying was; if you are bored writing the scene, the reader probably won’t like it either.

Now I’ve been stuck writing an important transition scene for weeks.  I’ve rewritten it time and time again from the POV of my main protagonist and nothing seemed to work.  My output dried up, and I was frustrated.  Taking Rachel’s advice I sat down and thought why don’t I love this scene?  What is it about this scenario that was putting me off?  The answer was blinding clear – my character was emotionally detached from the whole proceeding.  He didn’t want to be there, and deep in his point of view neither did I.  Yet the event itself was pivotal to the story and to the world-building – it had to stay.

Once I understood the problem it was much easier to resolve.  My story is told from multiple points of view and there was another character for whom this event was both positive and life-changing.  I re-wrote the scene from her POV, and suddenly the block was gone, the words flew onto the page and I feel like I’ve finally have a grip on the story again.  It’s not perfect by any means, but a great burden seems to have lifted.

So thank you Rachel Aaron, I am truly grateful!

How about you?  Have you received any timely advice lately? 

Lost for Words

Okay, so I’ve become quite bold lately.  I’ve started telling people that I write.  Hey, I’ve actually thrown off my inner hermit and put myself on the web.  And people, for the most part have been really nice.   But the thing is once you’ve put yourself out there people tend to want to know what you write.   And I’m afraid in my experience the conversation heads rapidly down hill from there.  It usually goes something like this:

“Wow that’s great.  What have you published?”

“Er.  Well I haven’t actually finished the book yet, but I’ve got this great idea and I know how it all ends.  I just need to find the time to finish it.” 

“Oh.  Well what’s it about?”

Now for someone who purports to like using words, this is when they usually fail me.  Things I’ve actually said include:

“It’s an epic fantasy.”  I’m very clear about the epic part.  I once had a very awkward conversation with a real estate agent who thought I was writing erotic fiction…

“Yeah it has dragons in it.”  

“There’s a guy, and his wife died and he makes some bad decisions.”  Wow what a hook.

“Actually it’s a trilogy…”

So as you’ve guessed, I am still working towards the putting together a pitch stage.  But in the spirit of this blog, and the sharing of the writing journey, I have put up a new page about my current work in progress – The Fall of the Kings  It has to be an improvement on the above.

To all the writers out there who might have gone through this awkward phase too, I’d love to hear how you handle the Question.  And for all those wonderful people who have tried to show a genuine interest – thanks.   I’m obviously a work in progress too!

Uncharted Territory

Truth be told, I’m a bit of a dreamer. Great forests of giant oaks, mountains shrouded in cloud, magical gemstones and journeys into the unknown have captured my imagination since I was a girl. I grew up on a dairy farm in Wharehine, north of Auckland in New Zealand – which to my young mind was full of magical places. A stand of native bush beneath our house was transformed one summer into the Kauri Kingdom, fairy tooth-brushes were collected from the purple-flowered creepers on the old pa site, and an old dinghy on the water-lily-logged dam at the bottom of the hill opened up a slow moving world of water nymphs and daydreams.

I was five the first time my Nana read me the Hobbit. Whenever I’d stay overnight with her, I’d get up early in the morning and climb into her bed for a story. Before she started to read, we’d pore over the map to get our bearings. My eyes were always drawn to the mountain with its little entrance and the dragon drawn above it – promises of both danger and treasure. I remember she’d wait until I was very still before she’d start to read. And I loved it all.  The rhyming names of the dwarves, Balin and Dwalin; Oin and Gloin: Dori, Ori and Nori???  There were so many of them and even then I remember they just seemed to keep coming. I was almost as overwhelmed by their number as Bilbo. But snuggled in with my Nana, I was captivated by Tolkien’s world opening up before me. I wanted to see the Misty Mountains and travel by barrel down the River Running. To believe that if faced with the same circumstances, I too could be a hero.

For years all I did was dream, and lose myself in other people’s stories. I visited Middle Earth, Narnia, Camelot and Prince Edward Island (okay it’s not a fantasy realm but it might as well have been in the hands of Lucy Maud Montgomery), where good fought evil and eventually emerged triumphant. I travelled to other worlds with Anne McCaffrey, back in history with Diana Galbaldon and fell in love with Richard Cypher in the early Terry Goodkind novels. But somewhere along the way, I realised I wanted to tell my own stories too. And one in particular is ready to be told.

So this is the scary part – the part that makes me feel like a female Bilbo standing on the edge of the great adventure –  the beginning. It’s one thing to dream of other realms. But to share them with you too? We’ll have to see.

This blog is about my journey. There and hopefully back again. To write the novel or die trying.

What will you discover if you come with me? I don’t really know. This blog might be about writing, or fantasy or other people’s great books that make me want to weep at my own baby-steps (Patrick Rothfuss). Or something else entirely. But I’m willing to find out.

I’ve shut the door behind me and stepped out of my comfort zone.