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!

Less Time to Write=New Perspectives

I’ve been busier than usual with community activities, recertifying as a fitness professional, and researching and planning the switch to an electric car. Time well spent, but meanwhile, book eight in the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series has been getting about an hour a day of attention. I don’t feel like a full-time writer.

On the plus side, when I’m less wrapped up in the book, I question everything about it. Does the plot really work? It has to be meaningful, not just a puzzle being solved. How does it further the lead characters’ series arcs? How does the very nature of the mystery challenge their development? How does it interact with their personal lives?

Then there’s this question that comes up with every book: Is the antagonist character too much like prior antagonists?  And how does this new enemy make the perfect opponent to fit my main characters’ strengths and—even more important—their flaws?

How many components of the plot need to change? Are there aspects of it that might turn off my long-term fans? If I feel it doesn’t sustain visionary fiction element of the series, my readers might think so, too. I have to create stakes that are  serious as death without the threat of murder.

This blog post was my “thinking aloud session.” I’ve got some revisions to make, but I’m more confident of them now. Thanks for listening!

Musery, or Conversations With A Goddess

by Janis Patterson

On one of my writers’ loops the other day a bunch of us were lamenting the fact that we all couldn’t just write and leave the business side of publishing to someone else. These days however you are published you have to deal in the non-creative side of the book industry – publicity, editing and all the rest. As we all were having the same problems, someone said she was grateful for other writers, as ‘misery loves company.’

Well, you know I can’t leave a single quip unturned, so I popped back, “Shouldn’t that be musery?” My rather smart-ass remark has turned into a… well, not a phenomenon, but a comment that is spreading. ‘Musery’ is a growing concept.

So what is Musery? It is taken from the legend of the Muse, a mythological construct of some goddess or another who is constantly whispering fantastic prose into a writer’s shell-like ear… which all writers know is pretty much wishful thinking. Even if you get ideas constantly peppering you like beneficent shotgun pellets as I do, ideas by themselves are pretty useless – nice, and a necessary beginning, but by themselves pretty much useless. No book ever came from ideas alone. It would be sort of like trying to live in only the foundation of a house.

Ideas (and it takes many to make a book) are only the beginning. You need believable characters, many complications, conflicts… the whole menu of writerly tools. Many of us need the interaction and brainstorming with other writers, and then there is research and finally – and perhaps most importantly – a command of the language that can make the whole heap of disparate parts into a readable and hopefully enjoyable book.

This seemingly magical combination of elements is the essence of Musery, which boils down to the basics of inspiration, imagination and skill. Done right, it appears effortless, which is probably the basis of the popular belief that some magical creature dictates the finished product to the writer, who has only to write it down, thus perpetuating its own myth that writing a book is a piece of cake that anyone could do if they only took the time.

Yeah, right. The fastest way to reach your Muse always has, is and always will be hard work. Now I have to go propitiate mine with a couple of hours at the computer.

Getting Unstuck

 

Last weekend, I ran into a fellow writer and asked him how his new book was going. He said it was hard. Very hard. I said mine was too, and he replied, “If they’re good, they’re all hard. Can you imagine what you’d have if you could say, ‘It was easy, I just wrote it?’ ”

When it’s hard, here are some things I’ve found that help me move through the muck:

Trying the scene in a different point of view. (Of course, this only works  if you write in the third person.) Figuring out who has the most at stake in the scene and shifting to their POV can give a scene more energy and drive.

Cutting the last few lines or even paragraphs of a scene or chapter. How often have I said this to critique partners, and how often have they said this to me? “The scene really ends here.”

Revisiting the protagonist’s character arc. What will challenge her to go where she needs to go next psychologically?

Revisiting the protagonist’s story goal. Is the main plot sufficiently  driven by what she wants and what’s getting in the way of it, or have I gotten sidetracked? The fertility of my garden of subplots is astounding, and some of the things that sprout in it are weeds.

Examining the protagonist/antagonist relationships.  I usually have multiple oppositional characters in the way of my main character’s goal, presenting conflicts that push her to change and mature. As with subplots, I have to examine these characters and make sure I haven’t cast  too many.

Doing  an intense writing workout. For example, cranking out a 2,000 word short story in a single sitting. I’d already plotted it while running. I knew the instigating event, the protagonist, the antagonist, the secondary characters who complicate things, the settings, the themes, the ending, and the twists. Was it a brilliant story? No. But it shot me clean through a plot and made me review skills for structuring and tightening a story. I knew intuitively what to skip such as the transitions that were easily implied and the descriptions that a reader would have already imagined. And I have the satisfaction of having finished something. Now, back to the book in progress.

*****

I haven’t been totally stuck, by the way. I have two new releases this month: Small Awakenings, a book of reflective essays, and a boxed set of the first three Mae Martin  psychic mysteries. The boxed set is on sale for $2.99 through the weekend.

Writing is My Life or My Life is My Writing by Paty Jager

Artful Murder 5x8There’s not a writer out there who hasn’t brought something from their life into their writing. Writing whether for pleasure or for money, deals with everyday life experiences. It has to. One can’t bring the full flavor of life into a story without allowing something they have experienced to come into the writing.

Everyday happenings: the pungent aroma of coffee brewing, the dampness of mist walking on the beach, the blinding glare of light from an oncoming vehicle at night, the sweet and sour tingle on the tongue while eating candy.  All of these everyday things are used when writing. The senses and what we see and feel around us are used to show the characters in the same or comparable settings.

When I started planning Artful Murder, book 10 in the Shandra Higheagle mystery series and my March release, I had to draw on past experiences. Far back experiences. LOL In Artful Murder, Shandra volunteers in a high school art department.

While figuring out who the murder victim would be and lining up suspects, I went back to memories of high school and found the one teacher who the boys made fun of and the girls found creepy.  He became my murder victim.

I made the victim worse than the real life teacher. And I gave the principal a reason for ignoring the complaints of the other teachers and students. Which, of course, added more suspects and widened the net of suspects to parents and significant others of the female teachers.

Students are more savvy to what is going on in their schools than teachers think. I used this and a person with a grudge to add even more fuel to the ffire that was about to explode at the school.

I can honestly say that I have more fun fleshing out my mystery books than I do the other genre I write. There is something therapeutic about putting the people or events that I’ve come across through my life into books and find my own justice.

SH Mug Art