Writing as Discovery

by Janis Patterson

Want to start a lively ‘discussion’ among writers? All you have to do is say something about how ‘plotting’ or ‘pantsing’ is superior. It doesn’t make any difference which; both have their outspoken and extremely vocal adherents. Just make sure you can hold your ground or you have a direct path to an exit. Both sides have passionate adherents.

For those who aren’t familiar with the terms (if there are any of you left out there!) ‘plotting’ is basically an outline, yes, like you used to make in elementary school, but adapted toward a book. Whether it’s the old Roman numeral/Arabic numeral/alphanumeric letter – i.e., bullet point type of outline – or a paragraph style, the outline is a detailed road map of every twist and turn in your story. ‘Pantsing’ is taken from the old phrase ‘seat of your pants,’ meaning you just write and see what happens.

In general, pantsers tend to do more re-writing than plotters, but plotters spend more time on pre-writing work.

I am an avowed pantser. Sort of. My personal system is sort of like a suspension bridge. I know where the story begins. I know where the story will pretty much end – but that has been known to change. I know a couple of plot points in between, though they can be shifted a bit during writing. Then all that’s left is to spin the webwork of the story between them. Does my story change while I’m writing? Yes, it can and has, and I think that’s a good thing, because that means the story is growing organically and being true to itself and – more importantly – to its characters.

Plotters vary from those who put down only a few plot points and notes to those who put in every raise of the hero’s eyebrow and every shrug of the heroine’s shoulders. They also do lots of pre-plotting work, making character sheets, location maps and doing interviews with their characters. I once saw a character worksheet that was at least 5 pages long and included such things as the character’s favorite flavor of JellO and their maternal grandmother’s maiden name. Personally, I’ve had close friends for decades and I don’t know that much about them!

Always willing to improve my craft, I once took a much touted ten-box plotting course that was supposed to be almost magical in creating a book’s structure. A stubborn person, I finished it even though I knew from the second or third lesson that it wasn’t for me. After all, I had paid for it and believe in getting my money’s worth.

Basically you put every turning point and every reaction into one of the ten boxes. An outline, just minus the Roman and Arabic numerals. Using this system I plotted a pretty good romantic suspense novel about Egypt, antiquities smuggling, trust issues, terrorism and a dirty bomb thrown in for good measure.

It will never be written, at least not by me. By the time the last box was filled in I was so bored with the whole idea I never wanted to see it again. Believe me, it shows in the final product when the writer is bored with the project. No matter how good the writer is, the book is lifeless and mechanical.

Don’t think this is a vote either for or against plotting or pantsing. It’s one of those things to which there is no one ‘right’ answer for everyone. The writer has to decide for himself what works for him. And perhaps it is the reader who is the ultimate judge, though most don’t have the slightest idea of the writer’s process. They just know if they like the book or not.

So what do I do? I get an idea for an opening situation, I sit down and I start to write. If the idea is sound, if the story is a good one, the characters just take over and I become more scribe than writer. Do I have to go back and do some re-writing when the plot changes direction? Occasionally, but it only makes the story stronger. Sometimes it surprises me what comes up on the screen as I write, and to my mind that is a good thing. Remember, someone – I don’t remember who – said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

Wishing everyone a Merry Christmas, and a wonderful holiday season!

Writing as Discovery

by Janis Patterson

Want to start a lively ‘discussion’ among writers? All you have to do is say something about how ‘plotting’ or ‘pantsing’ is superior. It doesn’t make any difference which; both have their outspoken and extremely vocal adherents. Just make sure you can hold your ground or you have a direct path to an exit. Both sides have passionate adherents.

For those who aren’t familiar with the terms (if there are any of you left out there!) ‘plotting’ is basically an outline, yes, like you used to make in elementary school, but adapted toward a book. Whether it’s the old Roman numeral/Arabic numeral/alphanumeric letter – i.e., bullet point type of outline – or a paragraph style, the outline is a detailed road map of every twist and turn in your story. ‘Pantsing’ is taken from the old phrase ‘seat of your pants,’ meaning you just write and see what happens.

In general, pantsers tend to do more re-writing than plotters, but plotters spend more time on pre-writing work.

I am an avowed pantser. Sort of. My personal system is sort of like a suspension bridge. I know where the story begins. I know where the story will pretty much end – but that has been known to change. I know a couple of plot points in between, though they can be shifted a bit during writing. Then all that’s left is to spin the webwork of the story between them. Does my story change while I’m writing? Yes, it can and has, and I think that’s a good thing, because that means the story is growing organically and being true to itself and – more importantly – to its characters.

Plotters vary from those who put down only a few plot points and notes to those who put in every raise of the hero’s eyebrow and every shrug of the heroine’s shoulders. They also do lots of pre-plotting work, making character sheets, location maps and doing interviews with their characters. I once saw a character worksheet that was at least 5 pages long and included such things as the character’s favorite flavor of JellO and their maternal grandmother’s maiden name. Personally, I’ve had close friends for decades and I don’t know that much about them!

Always willing to improve my craft, I once took a much touted ten-box plotting course that was supposed to be almost magical in creating a book’s structure. A stubborn person, I finished it even though I knew from the second or third lesson that it wasn’t for me. After all, I had paid for it and believe in getting my money’s worth.

Basically you put every turning point and every reaction into one of the ten boxes. An outline, just minus the Roman and Arabic numerals. Using this system I plotted a pretty good romantic suspense novel about Egypt, antiquities smuggling, trust issues, terrorism and a dirty bomb thrown in for good measure.

It will never be written, at least not by me. By the time the last box was filled in I was so bored with the whole idea I never wanted to see it again. Believe me, it shows in the final product when the writer is bored with the project. No matter how good the writer is, the book is lifeless and mechanical.

Don’t think this is a vote either for or against plotting or pantsing. It’s one of those things to which there is no one ‘right’ answer for everyone. The writer has to decide for himself what works for him. And perhaps it is the reader who is the ultimate judge, though most don’t have the slightest idea of the writer’s process. They just know if they like the book or not.

So what do I do? I get an idea for an opening situation, I sit down and I start to write. If the idea is sound, if the story is a good one, the characters just take over and I become more scribe than writer. Do I have to go back and do some re-writing when the plot changes direction? Occasionally, but it only makes the story stronger. Sometimes it surprises me what comes up on the screen as I write, and to my mind that is a good thing. Remember, someone – I don’t remember who – said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

Wishing everyone a Merry Christmas, and a wonderful holiday season!

Mea Culpa!

I admit it. I goofed, and send my most profound apologies to everyone.

2020 has got me! Between deadlines and some familial issues, yesterday’s posting date just slipped by like… well, I don’t know like what, but it did.

Again, my apologies. I will do better. I promise.

Seeing the Bones

By Janis Patterson

No, this isn’t a forensic column, at least not in the physical way. No bones, no blood, no autopsies, no dead bodies. Instead I’m talking about the skeleton (again a bone reference, sorry -) of your story.

Not long ago a dear writer friend of mine and I were talking (while sitting out under a leafy tree, eating ice cream – lovely!) about writing technique. She was telling about a conversation she had had with another writer about the skills needed to construct a good, sound, readable story. She used a story she had read for an example. It was a good story (I had read it too) but it lacked something. There was a ‘mechanical-ness’ about it. You could almost hear the writer thinking, “Have I put enough emotion here?” “I should put more description here.” “Got to watch my beats and pacing.” “What is the proportion of dialogue to narrative?”

It was, she said, like looking at a hand performing a graceful motion, but instead of seeing the skin, you saw the working of the bones through the skin.

And I don’t care how carefully the story is crafted, that is bad writing.

A story (short, novella or full novel) should take the reader away, give them a different reality that is totally believable within its own framework – not a look at how the story is created. It would be like being taken for a ride in a luxurious car, but with every action a mechanical voice announces “turning steering wheel 90 degrees to the right, now turning steering wheel 90 degrees to the left to get back to straight progress” or “applying 10% brakes to slow down for approaching crosswalk” or some such nonsense. It would take all the pleasure out of the drive.

Every action and reaction in a book should happen because it is dictated by the needs of the story – the action and the characters – not because of some esoteric road map of plot shape, beats, pacing, dialogue/narration proportions and other underlying necessities of construction. Readers should see the story as a cohesive whole, unbothered by the mechanics.

The reader should see only the gesture, not the bones beneath.

The Great Printer War

by Janis Patterson

Normally I am very soft-spoken. Normally I am temperate in my language. Normally… but nothing about this situation has been normal, not even my language.

Years ago I bought an inexpensive little b&w laser printer – nothing fancy, as at the time I did very little printing. Most of my work and documents etc. were done on-line. A printer was a luxury, so I got a cheap one. It came with a decent-sized cartridge and I got almost two years of printing before the cartridge expired. I bought another; it was more expensive by a few dollars, but…

Another year or so and another cartridge, for a few dollars more… (sounds like a title, doesn’t it?) and as I still did very little printing I went ahead and paid.

Until last week, when the current cartridge ran out and to my horror I found that the cartridge (which is fairly small) cost almost twice what I originally paid for the printer itself! To my mind that is just wrong, especially since lately I am printing so much more than before!

Well, on our last two trips to the computer store to get things The Husband needed I had been looking around and fell in love with one of the Epson ink-tank color printers. It is supposed to do everything – copy, print, scan… the whole nine yards. And while Epson makes three versions of this kind of printer (with escalating features and prices) I decided I could afford the least expensive. I mean, it’s an investment, isn’t it? My cheap old one was a number of years old, so who knows how much longer it would last, and even if it did the cost of three cartridges would almost pay for the new printer plus a year’s supply of ink… and just think of the colorful things I could do – holiday letters, birthday greetings, handouts for my ladies’ club… You agree, don’t you? Well, please do even if you don’t, because I did it and I need validation. So I bought the printer.

Except I didn’t. The computer store didn’t have one, just their mock-up floor model. Same thing with the office supply store where we’ve shopped for years. Both offered to have one delivered to me, but could give no idea of when. So, muttering angrily, I went online. Amazon could get me one in just six weeks. The on-line version of our computer store felt sure they could get one to me in just five weeks. The printer’s manufacturer was out of them in their store, and had no idea when they’d get more!

Finally, my muttering growing into a full growl, I checked online at a national we-sell-everything store and found they could get me one in two and a half weeks. Knowing when I was licked, I jumped on it and sent them my money.

Mirable dictu! Three days later they said they could get one delivered to my front door in two days. I was delirious with joy. Until the thing arrived. I unpacked it, removing all the tape and packing materials (some of which were in the oddest places!) and put it on my desk. Then the unholy circus of installation began.

I am not a computer person. I am a writer. I put words down one after another. I speak several languages with wide variations of fluency, but computer-tech stuff flummoxes me, especially when it is written by someone who is not only a computer genius, but to whom English is obviously no more than a third or fourth language. Translating what the manual (manual? a two-sided cheat sheet that came with the machine) said into sensible English took longer than unpacking the thing. Even when the directions were fairly clear, there were no indications if you should be doing whatever was the next step on  your computer or on the printer screen. AAAAUGH!

Fortunately the loading of the ink reservoirs (something I had feared because I am a klutz) was easy as pie. Priming the print heads was automatic, and topping off the tanks with the remaining ink as easy as the first filling.

Then came the bad part. I had to download programs and sync with my wifi, and that is when both computer and printer turned against me. I finally gave up trying to connect the devil device with the wifi and went with my standby plug USB cord. Then I had to make the computer recognize that there was a new printer attached, something it most definitely did not want to do. The instructions were of no help, not even telling me on which machine each action had to be performed.

By now I was in full swear mode, turning the air blue with such fluency it was a wonder that my mother’s ghost did not come back to wash my mouth out with soap. The Husband, who is equally or even more than a techno-naif than I, stood by and very wisely did not say a thing.

After about twenty minutes of following vague instructions down rabbit holes and clicking on all sorts of improbable things, the new printer shook itself with a growly groan and began to spit out perfectly printed test sheets.

Why? How? What had I done? I have no idea. I would swear that I had done the same thing at least three times before, but nothing had happened until that minute. Maybe the cyber-gods had taken pity on me; I don’t know and really don’t care as long as the (several expletives deleted) thing works!

In these days where even the smallest home computer seemingly can do everything but the dinner dishes, why do we have to go through these trials? Why can’t everything be set where when you get a new piece of hardware you just plug it into the wall socket, then plug it into the computer and presto! everything works. Seems like I remember something from years ago called Plug ‘N’ Play. What a wonderful concept! All the owner should have to do is put in the proper plugs (even I can do that!) and the two machines start to talk to each other and then start to work. Does such a wonderful idea still exist in the real world? It should. It really should.