Tuesday, 15 December 2015

How Writing Rules Can Sometimes do Bad Things to Good People

A week or so ago, I found a thread posted in the Writing Forum of an online writing community I've been a member of for a while. Its title was "Words You Hate/Won't Use."

It started off innocently enough. The Original Poster listed 'gingerly,' 'albeit' and 'fastly' among her no-no words. Others added 'righter,' '-ish' words (like 'tallish' and 'brownish') and the godawful 'moist' (I can totally get behind that one.) There were smatterings of debate as to the dictionary-defined validity of some of the words offered ('fastly' was contested for a good few pages of the thread.)

My own, personal 'oh-hell-no'-word is actually a phrase - and it's entirely my own fault that I hate it because I was the one who over-used and abused it in a novel I started about ten years ago, that limped to about Chapter Five before I shuffled it quietly into the Novel Graveyard on my hard drive. I had two male characters who appeared to have only one way to express troubling emotions, and that was to "rake his hands through his hair." They were both at it, every time things got a bit tense for them, and after seeing that action so many goddamn times in one of my read-back sessions I wanted give them both a buzz-cut and staple-gun their hands into their pockets. This has had a hangover effect on my writing ever since; I can't use it in any of my stories now without feeling a little bit sick in my mouth. (I think I may have one variation of it in Redemption at the moment - or I may have already replaced it with something else and then dissociated from the whole traumatic experience. If it is still there, trust me, it's living on borrowed time...)

So far so conversational. But then things started to get a bit hardcore. Words like 'suddenly' and 'very' came up, along with 'then,' 'got,' 'almost' and 'just.' Not just once, but several times, with many others agreeing with those who put them forward. And adverbs in general, of course - and while we're at it let's not forget the dysfunctional families of 'was' and 'to be' (beGONE, evil Passive Verbs!)

The same little add-on phrases starting creeping in too - you know the kind of thing I'm talking about. 'Using this word in your writing just screams 'amateur'...' 'It's an example of lazy writing on the author's part - there's always a better/stronger word you can use...' And of course the ever-so-humblebrag 'I've made a point of eliminating every instance of that word from my writing now, and if anything it makes my writing stronger.'

Reeeeeaaaalllly? You've eliminated every instance of words like 'very,' 'then' and 'got,' have you? Well, aren't you the Star Pupil of your Fiction Writing 101 Class?

I'm sorry if that sounds snarky... well no, perhaps 'sorry' is the wrong word. Perhaps what I really mean is "I have no wish to upset or offend you, but my brain is rejecting what you just said so hard that this response is projectile-vomiting from my speech-hole faster than anything more polite and less sincere." Yeah, that sounds more me, I'm going with that, thanks.

Pick up a book by any famous-to-insanely-famous author - go on, any book you like. Pick one by your favourite author if you like. It's okay, I'll wait for you until you get back.

Done it? Good.

Now, do you notice a total absence of adverbs, so-called 'passive verbs' and words like 'very,' 'got' and 'then' in their work? To the point where they clearly made it their mission to weed them out like the canker-sore Violations of Good Writing Rules they truly are? Nope, didn't think so. And yet those authors seem to have done okay for themselves - even garnered themselves a bit of respect, you might say.

Perhaps those Fiction Writing Rules hadn't been hewn in fire onto their stone tablets back then - or said authors simply never got around to engraving them on their souls. How lucky all us millennium-generation writers are then, living in a webby-connected world that guarantees we'll never miss the chance to hear them trumpeted loud and long - and as such, be saved from committing such a heinous crime as a wanton adverb to the page...

Yes, my brain is projectile-vomiting again - I should probably calm down now ... *deep breaths, thinking happy thoughts...*

But here's what's winding me up about the Writing Police; how must fledgling writers, new to the craft and eager to stretch their creative wings, feel when they read this kind of twaddle? When basic words like 'very' and 'then' - words we all grew up with and use in our speech every day of our lives - are suddenly signposts to the writing equivalent of a minus score on an IQ test? Veterans don't realise just how damn scary this zero-tolerance attitude can be to the padawan writers. No matter where we are on the road to getting our work in front of readers, we're all in this together, aren't we? We should be helping each other, not finding petty little ways to make it even harder for new members to join the Proper Authors' Club.

Of course when it comes to writing there are things that work and things that don't. Yes, a lot of the writing rules - even this one we're discussing now - were invented for a reason, and being at least aware of them and why they're worth knowing will help you become a better writer. And obviously the staples like spelling, punctuation and grammar are important, because readers need to understand what they're reading.

But these are the technical skills of writing, and there's more to a great story than making sure the i's are dotted and t's are crossed. Even Stephen King, in his book On Writing, follows up his lecture on shunning adverbs with the cheerful admission that he doesn't always follow that rule himself. Why? Because godammit, sometimes that dirty old adverb adds the right pinch of spice to your prose, to the point where it would be more wrong not to put it in.

Getting perfect tens for your technical skills in writing will not guarantee a great story because story is not just science; it's an art. And when you sacrifice your art on the altar of technical perfection, all you end up with is a dead chicken. We don't learn the rules of great writing to slavishly live by them; we learn them to understand when, why and how it's okay to break them.

Readers who aren't writers don't invest huge chunks of their time learning all the Rules of Great Writing, because most of them aren't bothered about such stuff. Unlike fellow writers, they don't read books to critique them; they read them to be entertained. And sometimes, seasoned writers forget that in their quest to define what 'quality fiction' really is.

So, to all you writers-in-training out there, don't let yourselves be intimidated by The Rules - or the folks who sigh and tut at you when you 'break' them. It doesn't mean you're a bad writer and there's no hope for you, and it definitely doesn't mean you should give up on your dreams. You don't have to ban every adverb, talk exclusively in Active Voice for every single sentence or slavishly follow any jackbooted clusterbag of Thou Shalt Nots. Yoda said "Do or do not. There is no try." For writing, I would amend that to "You learn much more by doing than you ever will trying not to do."

Just keep doing what you do, for as long as you love doing it. And trust that, the more you do it, the better you'll become at knowing when you can improve your work by following those pesky rules - or equally, by not following them. Your choice. Your story.

Your rules.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Why Being a Writer means Learning to Care Less

Whaat? That's not right, surely?

Writing is about baring your soul - you 'open a vein and bleed onto the page,' as Hemingway is widely rumoured to have said (although there's plenty of evidence that Walter Wellesley 'Red' Smith actually said it before him.) We write about the human condition; the frailties, the hopes, dreams, joy, anger and despair of life. How can we do that if we have the empathy of a lump of granite?

Relax, I don't mean that kind of not caring. Pretty much impossible to purge that from a writer's soul anyway. We're born to notice stuff, think deeply about that stuff and then be compelled to write about it - and caring about it comes with the territory. No, I mean the kind of caring that can destroy a writer's career before it's even begun, and has certainly done for the dreams of many an aspiring one -  caring about what people think of you as a writer.

There's a kind of poetic cruelty in it really. While you're writing your novel or whatever you must care like the mother of all Care Bears. You must care about every moment of every plot event. every hint of subtext, every word of character dialogue... you must care...

Right up to the moment you've finished and you're ready to reveal your work to the world. And that's when you're supposed to immediately flip your Care Switch to the 'off' position, so that when the dissenters, naysayers and folks who just plain don't like what you spent a huge amount of time caring your arse off about can descend upon it and pull it to pieces like the contents of a KFC Bargain Bucket. And you can smile sweetly and thank them for their 'feedback.' Because don't we all know that "all feedback is good feedback?" As somebody somewhere said that one time...

While I've been writing Redemption, I'll admit I've been having the odd fantasy moment. Some people dream of winning the actual lottery; I've indulged in dreams of winning the book publishing lottery and having gazillions of people reading Redemption and loving it. And heck, part of the reason it's taking me so long to write it is because I want to make it as good as I can in order to have the best odds of even knocking at the door of that dream. To have a best-seller... that must be truly awesome, right? The ultimate high for any writer.

And then I remember how that went for E.L. James.

When Fifty Shades of Grey first hit the readersphere it was the red-hot, New Awesome Thing in the world of books. Everyone who was anyone had read it or was reading it, it sold in the squillions and every living creature in the western world except perhaps garden insects had heard of it. Everyone wanted to talk to Ms. James, the 'shy housewife' who had written it apparently on a whim, powered by little more than divine inspiration (we-ell. okay, maybe a little Twilight inspiration thrown in as well) and good old-fashioned determination. She was a freakin' legend, and her book was a resounding call-to-arms, both for the neglected lady-readers and the aspiring writers longing to be her...

For about.... ooh, the first five minutes of its published life. Remember that? Most people don't, 'cause that's how short that time period was.

Suddenly, as quickly as it arrived, the tsunami of PR turned from positive to very, very negative. It was amateurishly badly written! It painted a horribly inaccurate and offensive picture of BDSM practitioners! It set a terrible example to young girls - that wanting to be with a douchebag who abused and uber-controlled you was totally okay if he had washboard abs and truckloads of cash to splash! And then the hate trickled down to Ms. James herself; she was the bad writer of the bad, bad books - and probably all kinds of weird as well...

In no time at all, it became trendier to say that either you had read her books and hated them, or you hadn't read any of her books and would never lower yourself to do so. (Even if the fact that it and its two follow-up books made their author ridiculously rich suggests there are a hell of a lot of liars out there.) But Ms. James didn't change a word of the text in the time Fifty Shades went from Hero to Zero. All that changed was the viewpoint of first the media and then the media-gobbling public. So if that kind of nuclear manure-strike can happen to someone who, on balance, wrote a phenomenally successful trilogy in terms of both notoriety and sales... well, what hope is there of escaping derision and mockery for the lesser-known and practically invisible writers? Like... erm, me for instance?

Does E.L. James care about all the mean things people have said about her and her work? Dunno - maybe we should ask her after she's adjusted her posterior on that pile of money she's probably sitting on right now. But for us lesser-known and aspiring writers there is no bottom-cushion of wonga - and there may never be - so we're probably gonna care that little bit more if we 'fail.' And if we care too much, we may believe it's Fate's way of telling us we're not meant to be writers and we should quit while we're ahead, before we embarrass ourselves any further.

We must not care enough to believe that.

Us writers write because we have to. We write because it's who we are as much as what we do. And it's only when we're brave enough to write things we fear people don't want to read that we can dig deep enough to write our every best stuff. We have to care enough about our writing to not care what criticism we attract from those who read it. This is about more than just growing a thick skin to cope with it when it arrives; it's about shutting your ears to the negative voices telling you not to take that risk in the first place.

Some of the greatest writers in history have written stuff intentionally designed to piss certain sections of society off. That, in part, is what makes it great writing. If you write to be liked then you're basically King Canute, screaming at a tide that does what it damn well wants to. You can't please all of the people all of the time, as the saying goes. So you might as well say what you mean and mean what you say.

Be you. Because there's no-one else better suited to the job.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Because Even Dedicated Writers Need a Break Sometimes.

The interior of the Hydro Hotel, Eastbourne, UK. For when you need to
get your Downton on!

It was Stephen King who famously said that he wrote every single day except Christmas Day and his birthday (and even then later reneged on including his birthday.) Ernest Hemingway agreed with him, along with Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury and scores of other great and good writers. Haruki Murakami had this to offer:

'When I'm in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m.'

(Oh good. Thanks Haruki, because I was starting to worry that my typical routine didn't look Jeremy-Kyle-Show-slothful enough compared to other writers, but you've fixed that for me nicely now, haven't you?)

The point they're all making - and the one that's echoed by millions of writers, writing teachers, writing blogs and the metric tonne of all the writing advice that's out there ever - is that 'proper writers' write every day of their lives, no matter what. That, like breathing, slacking off for a few days is fatal. Because your creativity is like a muscle that, if not subjected to its regular routine of push-ups, will burst like a bag of blancmange the next time you try to lift a Mars Bar out of the fridge.

And yeah, I get what they're saying. I was once a huge advocate of this thinking myself, to the point where I'd feel guilty if I 'missed' a day of writing (and then spent an anxious bedtime trying to convince myself that commenting on that blog post did so count as 'writing.') I was that annoying one that said things like "even if you just write a bit in a journal about how you can't seem to move forward on your w-i-p, you're still exercising that creative muscle." I still think that's true, by the way. And I still see the wisdom in writing every day, even if it's only a teeny-leetle bit...


I had an experience a couple of months ago that prevented me from doing that for almost a week, when I was hospitalised with cellulitis and blood poisoning. Although I tried to minimise the inner self-flagellation for it at the time, the unwanted hiatus didn't do a lot to dispel my belief that taking a break from writing every now and then made it harder to come back to that writing afterwards - in fact, if anything it reinforced it. But... it wasn't disastrous. Kind of like falling off the wagon with a diet really; okay, I finished off two portions of half-fat cheesecake because - hey, look! half the fat! - but I got through the stodge-cravings for the next couple of days... and look, I haven't morphed into a female Homer Simpson after all. So yeah, taking that break from writing wasn't ideal, but it certainly wasn't a catastrophe...

But then a writing friend of mine pointed out that, actually, a week lying in a hospital bed unable to walk, in severe pain, with a high temperature and having three different types of antibiotics intravenously pumped into your limbs is not most sane people's idea of a 'break.' (Virgin Holidays certainly aint offering it as a package, that's for sure.) 'Breaks' are meant to be - well y'know, devoted mostly to doing fun stuff, preferably with loved ones, at a reasonable level of general health. And, she added, since I hadn't had one of those kind of breaks for a stupidly long time, I was talking out of an orifice that wasn't my mouth (she's kinda blunt like that, bless her weird-shaped sports socks.) Maybe what I needed was a break - an actual one, with fun and stuff - rather than just a medical interruption.

And then it came to pass that my son got a chance to go on his first residential school trip, i.e. staying for a couple of nights in a kid's camp with all his school chums (and four teachers with the stress tolerance of a Mother Theresa and Bear Grylls hybrid, I would imagine.) Which meant that, while he and his mates were off rampaging through forests and terrifying the local wildlife, my husband and I could have a couple of days off from being Mum and Dad. The world was our oyster - for two whole, glorious days!

Well, Eastbourne was, to be precise. Okay, so it wasn't exactly Vegas, but it was two days in a four-star hotel with a view of the beach.... in November, admittedly... with breakfast and a two-course dinner in the evening thrown in. Entering the hotel felt like stepping onto the set of Downton Abbey, and all of the other guests looked old enough to have been around in that era (well, it was Eastbourne...) We got to eat proper, posh food - the kind of posh where you have to pretend you understand the sort-of-frenchified descriptions of it in the menu (and then don't even mind when it turns out to be something completely different from what you thought it was, because it still tastes amazing anyway.) We got to sleep in a posh bed in a posh hotel suite, being ordinary humans instead of Mum and Dad. And we got to meet (and people-watch) the kind of characters you can only find in a hotel trapped in a 1930's time bubble, in a town rated in the top ten for retirees, in November. It was flippin' bliss, let me tell you.

But most of all... I didn't do any writing at all. None. Not even a postcard. For two whole days.

I still took the tools - and the good intentions - of course. I had the Kindle, the blank notebook and the assortment of pens shoved in the suitcase, ready to whip out at the first hint of holiday fun downtime. But... I suppose I just had too much fun, because they stayed in my suitcase for the whole two days. And did I feel guilty? Oh heck yeah - when I remembered to... which wasn't that often, if I'm honest...

But here's the weird thing. Since I came back from those two days of skiving off writing, my daily word count has doubled. It's like my mini-holiday has given my brain a mojo infusion; I've always loved the story I'm writing (not a lot of point in writing it otherwise) but now I'm back to loving the process of writing it as well. For the last two or three months that had - well, not gone exactly, but certainly needed increasing amounts of chocolate waving under its nose to tempt it to come out and play.

So Stephen King, Kurt Vonnegut et al (and especially YOU, Mr Haruki)... I salute your dedication, I really do. You are writing superheroes and no mistake. But I... am not. It would seem I need more time off writing than Christmas Day and my birthday, and now that I know my creative abilities are not going to shrivel up and die in the space of a couple of days, I'm going to take that time out when I need it.

And next time I might even send a postcard or two.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Why it's Okay to say "Na-NO, Wri-Mo!"

It's that month again. The one that comes around every year and messes with the brains of writers.

I'm talking of course, about NaNoWriMo.

Like teenagers in a How Cool Are You Competition, writers are asking other writers all over the Interwebbyworld "Are you doing it? Have you done it before? Did you get to third base last time? D'you think you'll get there this time?"

So, with that in mind, let's get this out of the way right here, right now... if you're 'doing it' this year - well done you. No seriously - and sincerely - it's a massive thing to undertake, and having the danglies to do so, even if you don't expect to succeed - in fact, especially if you don't expect to succeed - says a lot about your determination and strength of character. And it gets you writing like a thing possessed for a whole month, so yaay for anything that gets people passionate about writing! For a whole thirty days of a randomly-chosen month...

(Dammit, I nearly made it to the end without any hint of snark... I was soooo close.... )

Sorry. I have certain feelings about NaNoWriMo. Y'see, for me it's like having a delicious but huge chocolate cake, and being told that the whole darn thing is for you - yes Preciousss, only you! - but you only have this teeny-weeny time period to eat the entire thing. Now I love me a bit of chocolate cake as much as the next chocolate addict... but what I don't like is being given ludicrous conditions for eating that cake. Especially when the reasons for those ludicrous conditions arose as a result of some random somewhere decreeing "It will be done this way, because that's where my Pin of YOLO landed when I covered my eyes and stuck the point into my Page of Car-azy Rules!"

Thanks for the lovely chocolate cake - much appreciated, believe me - but I will eat it when, where and how I want to - and in a way that doesn't end in me being violently sick and hating chocolate cake for... I dunno, a very long time. Like maybe even weeks.

Not only that, but I watch some ( not all - but definitely some) of the other competitors in this cake-gobbling competition and... well, they make me sad. They take that chocolate cake and they go "Yeah! I'm-a gonna do this!" (probably in a Mr. T-type voice.) And then they go "nom-nom-nom-nom-nom" and succeed in eating the entire cake. And then they are stratospherically pleased with themselves, because it's the only time they ever eat chocolate cake at all, never mind this much in one go. They have basically done a Bear Grylls with the chocolate cake challenge, i.e. done it purely for the sake of being able to tick it off some mental list of Things I Must Do To Be Totally Awesome, rather than for any love of chocolate cake itself.

Which means that, once it's done... well, that's it. No reason to eat chocolate cake again now unless... oh, I dunno, maybe I'll do it again next year, just to maintain my awesome, y'know? But no, not as a regular thing. Why would I  - what's so awesome about eating chocolate cake normally, in smaller, non-awesome quantities, all throughout the year? Pffft, that's for losers!

Some of these Bear Grylls-cake-scoffers take the level of self-congratulation a step further. So impressed are they at the phenomenal amount of cake they managed to ingest in such a short period of time that they decide the world should see that cake for themselves - like, really see it, and right now, before their guts have had time to extract all the goodness from it and decide if it was a healthy, nutritious cake or not. So they barf it all right back up again, in a nasty, slimy pile and cry "Look! Look at what I just did! Behold its awesomeness - bet you couldn't produce anything like that!" And then they get really, really cross with anyone who points out - however tactfully - that it's just a pile of cake-sick. "What the hell do you know, lightweight? D'you know how long it took me to make that? I'll tell you - hardly any time at all! Because I made it in NaNoWriMo 'cos I'm that awesome!"

These are the type of NaNoWriMo-ers that make me feel sad. They're otherwise known as - perhaps unkindly, perhaps not - 'wannabe writers.'

You can spot them a mile off. They talk abut NaNoWriMo as being their 'chance,' their 'opportunity' even their 'letter of permission' to 'finally' write that novel. As if all the mysterious embargoes that were somehow preventing them from writing it in any of the other eleven months of the year are suddenly magically lifted just for November because... um, somebody somewhere said so, and lots of people agreed.

So, when November the first cracks open, they 'know' they've got the next thirty days to be awesome writers. Thirty days of wearing the ball-gown and dancing with prince before - bong! The clock chimes midnight and they turn back into pumpkins again. Those thirty days must seem like precious jewels of time to those writers, and the pressure to use them wisely and come up with the goods must weigh heavily.  Because remember, this is their one chance to finally write that novel...

Sadly, these are the writers that are least likely to know the cold, cruel truth about NaNoWriMo - and probably wouldn't want to believe it even if you told them, because it destroys the metaphorical summit they're heading for in their mind.

You CAN'T finish a novel in thirty days.

You can certainly write 50,000 words in thirty days, as per the NaNoWriMo brief. But calling those 50,000 words a completed, publishable novel is like calling a dead cow a T-Bone steak. There's a heck'a-load of other processes gotta happen before you can serve that thing up for public consumption, and that can take anything from weeks to months - maybe even years. Or maybe even... never. Because, even after lavishing all the time and love in the world on it, it may still just... y'know, not be good enough to publish. At all. Ever.

Seasoned writers know this, of course. They know all about rewrites and multiple drafts and beta readers - and rejections and then more rewrites... They're also the ones who don't wait for each November to rock around before they start word-painting. They're more likely to take NaNoWriMo for what it really is; a jolly game to get writers in the mood for barfing up a first draft as quickly and crazily as they can. It's a calendar-based motivational tool, nothing more.

So if you have 'writer-friends' in your life who try to nag you into doing NaNoWriMo, or berate you for 'wimping out' of doing it year after year... maybe it's because you're already writing stuff all the time instead of just waiting for November. And y'know what? If you are, it doesn't even matter if you're not hitting the magic word-count of 1,667 a day. You're proving you're in it for the long haul - which is what you need for writing anything worth publishing. There's a reason the tortoise won the race and not the hare.

That's why I'm not doing NaNoWriMo this year. I'm gonna be too busy writing.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

3 Writing Monsters That Aren't Just for Halloween

Don't letcha Evil Bonnie getcha!
Since it's Halloween, I thought I might take the opportunity to discuss... the evil monsters lurking in the dark of the writer's mind. Because, since they're not limited to showing up only when the trick-or-treaters come round, they can be a lot more destructive a lot more of the time.

All writers have 'em. Yep, even the likes of Stephen King (and we're not talking the kind he likes to write about.) They can be habits that drag us into a rut, they can be destructive self-beliefs that are hard to shake off or they can be the damning voices of criticism from our own Inner Grinches. All of them can bring writing sessions to a screaming halt - sometimes for days or even weeks at a time. They're often the real reason behind Writer's Block, that phenomenon that may or may not exist depending on which side of the fence you stand on. 

Me, I got flippin' loads of 'em. This is why I've never even considered auditioning for The X Factor or Britain's Got Talent (I mean, apart from the fact I'd probably be laughed off the stage - and not in a good way.) Those same bugaboos that hit me in the writing doldrums would have an absolute field day if I ever decided to stand in front of Lord Cowell and his Big Red Buzzer. 

Well, they say the best way to deal with your inner fears is to face them head-on. And what better way to do that than list three of the biggies on a blog page and make them all terrifyingly public, eh? Hey - I'm doing it so you don't have to (unless of course you want to, in which case, come join the party! I got cake!) Let's do this...

1 - I cannot write unless The Muse is In The House

That feeling of sitting in front of a blank page when the brain-champagne just isn''t flowing is a soul-crushing one, I know. When this happens, writers are faced with a stark choice. They can either:

A) - continue sitting in front of that page and filling it with whatever crap they can pull out of their head - knowing, with every word, that it is pure, steaming crap and they're probably going to junk the whole lot when they read it back tomorrow...

B) - or they can say "the time is not right. I'm not in a Creative Frame of Mind today, so it's pointless for me to strain my poor artist's brain in this barbaric manner. I shall come back tomorrow, renewed and refreshed."

B is what happens when the writer believes that their creativity comes from some 'other' place, outside of them but channelled directly into their brain when the stars have aligned and their creative brain is most receptive to these psychic messages from the imaginosphere. Which sounds very lovely and spiritual on paper... but kind of makes your creativity a jailer and you its prisoner. If you have to wait for your Muse to show up before you can start writing... well, what happens if he's a massive tool who suddenly decides he doesn't want to hang out with you any more? How hard are you prepared to grovel, beg, offer up sacrifices to him in a desperate bid to persuade him to keep shaking his magic booty for you?

Don't let your creativity be the boss of you - you gotta be the boss. That's why A is most often the better option, even if it's the more painful one. Because even the worst writing in the world can be made better, and even if it really, truly can't... you've still done your mental push-ups for the day. Think of it in the way an athlete might think of training for a marathon. He might go out to run on a day when it's hacking down with rain, so he gets wet and cold and miserable, and then a bunch of kids laugh at him and call him a loser, and then some arsehole in a range rover ploughs through a puddle and tsunamis him, and then some little old lady's dog snaps at his ankles as he sloshes past...

Does he think the whole session was an utter waste of time when he gets home, simply because he was miserable for nine-tenths of it? No. He put the time in and worked his muscles. And your creativity is a muscle too. Use it or become the writerly equivalent of Homer Simpson.

2 - I cannot write if I don't have my [insert Special Thing here.]

I'll come clean - I am soooo guilty of this one. With me, it's Special Candles, Special Music and chocolate (all chocolate is special by default.) My candles must be scented - but they must be the right kind of scented; foody-type scented like Honey and Vanilla rather than Toilet-Duck-type scented like Midnight Rain (who decides what 'midnight rain' smells like anyway? Do they have the meteorological qualifications to make that call?) The Special Music must be instrumental (lyrics are too distracting) and atmospheric but not too spiritually uplifting (in case I get too lost in it and forget I'm supposed to actually be writing stuff.) Oh, and it also has to be only just loud enough for me to hear; not loud enough to distract me but also not so quiet I can't hear it over the other distractions I'm trying to distract myself from with my Special Music. Chocolate just has to... be chocolate.

If I have all three of these Special Things going on for my writing session - man, I am going to kick ass! I will be totally in the zone and everything that flies out of my brain will be solid gold keepers, for sure. Except of course when it isn't - but that's okay, because I don't remember those times anyway because selective dissociation... however, I do remember every single time where I didn't have my Special Things and my writing suffered as a direct result of that...

It's all tosh, of course. Breathing in nice smells, chillaxing to mood music and shovelling chocolate in my face definitely improve my mood - but do they really have a magical mojo effect on my writing? Even now, my heart wants to say yes, but my brain has got her sensible pants on and says no, of course they don't. I've written some pretty good stuff without all that palaver going on, and, if I'm honest with myself, I also know I've written the equivalent of steaming horse-dump while high as a kite on my Special Things triad.

And Special Things come in all sorts of guises. Some people feel they can only concentrate on their writing when the house is tranquil and close to silent - i.e. spouse and child-free. Others need their 'proper writing space,' with a big desk and all their equipment within an arm's reach. Nice if you can get it, obviously - but real life isn't always that obliging. And many successful authors didn't get those kind of optimal environments until after they hit paydirt - which means they must have first spent an awful lot of time putting up with less-than-ideal conditions and carrying on writing anyway...

Special Things are nice to have... as a little treat. They're even good for motivation when you really don't feel like writing ("just write for an hour and you can have that luvverly chocolate bar that's siren-calling you from the fridge!") But letting them become the equivalent of your lucky rabbit's foot ("I can't write without it - it brings me luck!") is, like the Muse above, just another way of making some otherworldly thing responsible for your creativity rather than owning it yourself. You make the magic happen, not your talismans. If background noise distracts you, wear headphones (fun fact: even if you don't even listen to anything through those headphones, just the feeling of having something blocking your ears can be enough to 'cancel out' background distractions.) Try writing something away from your writing space, even if that means doing it the Stone Age way with a pen and notebook. Embrace the power of adaptivity!

3 - This book/I will never be good enough, and I'm too deluded to see how terrible it really is/I really am.

I saved the worst for last. You're welcome. It's that feeling, when you're squirreling away at your latest w-i-p, that comes over you in a flash and sucks the love right out of you - "Why the heck am I still bothering with this? No-one's going to read it, and if they do they're going to hate it... why did I ever imagine this was something anyone would want to read? Everyone's going to tell me I suck and I should never write another thing ever again, not even a shopping list..."

It's your Inner Grinch, popping up to mess with your head. His official job is to make sure you never settle for half-assedness (or at least, that's what he'll tell you if you ask him) but he often goes a bit overboard, because, well, he's a bit of a dick like that. And you take everything he says to heart, because you do actually care about your writing and you really don't want to inflict donkey-barf on your reading public... and props to you for that, because it's the right attitude to have. But you're probably judging yourself way too harshly.

Want proof? Allow me to introduce you to... the world of e-book self-publishing!

Now don't get me wrong. There are some fabulous e-books out there where the authors went completely indie and did it all themselves, from writing the thing in the first place to designing the cover, compiling the whole thing into e-book format, self-publishing it through one of the many digital options available now (Amazon, Smashwords, CreateSpace et al) and all their own marketing. Indeed, I've read and loved quite a few that are of a quality easily equal to anything published by the Big Six.

But... I've also seen a metric tonne of self-published e-books of woeful quality (thank the stars for Amazon's 'Look Inside!' feature, which must surely have saved millions from making the mistake of actually parting with money for those atrocities.) And by woeful quality I don't mean I just didn't dig the story, or the author's 'voice,' or the subject matter they were writing about. I mean they were badly written at even a basic, technical level. Littered with typos and spelling and grammar errors, sometimes to the point of wondering whether what you're reading is actually in English. Characters changing the spelling of their names, their hair and eye colours and even their genders - sometimes in the space of a single paragraph - not as part of the plot but simply because the author wasn't paying attention and couldn't even be arsed to do the most basic of proof-reads before hitting 'publish.'

Obviously no book will please all of the people all of the time. I recently read a brilliant self-published sci-fi e-novel about a same-sex relationship between a civilian man and a cyborg-soldier who deserts to live a normal life with his lover, and while I loved it I can imagine how hard it would have been for that author to persuade any of the Big Six to even consider it for publication, because, sooo not mainstream, y'know? On the other hand, Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series has been hugely successful, gaining millions of adoring fans... but I would rather watch paint dry than read any more of it than I tried to, not because of any perception about the writing quality but because it's just not my thing.

But, even when you encounter the badly-proof-read, shoddily-cobbled-together messes I mentioned previously, a quick look at the accompanying figures show that some people out there in cyberspace are actually buying - and, presumably reading - even these books. Of course, it's highly likely it's the last book they ever read by that author in most cases, but still... it begs the question: how confident of their writing abilities must those authors have been that they would have slapped up the first draft of their novel for public consumption without even bothering to read it through for mistakes? "Pfffft, nooo, I don't need to check it, I'm frickin' George R.R. Tolkien, I am!"

If you're doubting your own writing skills, and worrying that you're not 'good enough' to publish anything... chances are pretty damn solid that you're already a lot better than those jokers. And some folks out there have actually bought their books. A few might even have... actually liked them - enough to look past the structural and technical car-crashes because they just really dug the story that author was (albeit cack-handedly) trying to tell. Let's be realistic here, those numbers will be teeny-tiny and there aint no way in hell those 'authors' are gonna make any kind of proper living out of their writing unless they pull their socks up. But one thing you can't argue with: they didn't let their self-doubts stop them from putting their work out there for people to see, Why then, as someone who does care enough about the quality of their work to want it to be the best it can be, should you?

Yeah... not everyone's going to love your stuff. And, certainly to start with, you're going to be writing stuff that... isn't that good. (Trust me, when you re-read some things you wrote ten years ago that you thought were fab at the time it can be a cringeworthy experience - been there, done that, worn the *embarrassedface.*) But that's why we keep writing; to learn from what we did before and get better and better. This isn't like The Hunger Games - it's not 'kill or be killed' every time you write something you want others to see. It's a series of stepping stones to where you want to be. Occasionally you'll slip off and get an icy, dunked ass. But that's when you get back up and carry on, because the stones will still be there.

What are YOUR Writing monsters? 

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Why the Drafts Don't Get Easier As You Go Along

As I said in a previous post, I recently spent a week in hospital with cellulitis and blood poisoning, which temporarily nixed any opportunities for productive work on Redemption.

That was about a month ago now, and, yeah, I have been working on it again since then. But progress has been slow. This is Draft Three of the story now, and even though I've got the whole plot sorted out and properly hanging together thanks to the detailed outline I finally managed to draw up (after a draft one of pantsing and then a draft two of... well, basically slightly more organised pantsing) I'm not exactly banging out the word-count like a monkey on Sunny D.

This has been confusing for me. Surely, now that I've got a proper, scene-by-scene breakdown to work to, the words should come thicker and faster, right? I mean, the hard part - the planning and plotting - has already been done, and all that's left is putting the meat on the fully-functioning skeleton. So why did I just spend nearly fifteen minutes swapping between typing 'as he ran past' and 'and ran past' because I couldn't decide which sounded better? Why is writing this starting to feel like trying to explain quantum string theory to my mum after I've drunk several Jaegerbombs?

I'm pretty sure it's not because the uber-doses of antibiotics I've had to take in the past month have eaten large chunks of my brain away and now I'm an imbecile. Could it be my period of AWOL from Redemption has left me feeling distanced from it? Maybe... but again, my outline should help me get over that hurdle. It surely couldn't be because I've fallen out of love with the story and I'm secretly not that into writing it any more, could it? Nope, that definitely isn't true; thanks again to my proper, working outline, I'm probably more pumped about the story now than I've ever been.

So what the heck's going on then?

I asked several writer friends about this - authors who are further down the novel-writing path than I am - and it seems this is actually normal. The most organised outline in the history of outlining can tell you everything you need to say to tell your story - but it can't tell you how you're going to say it.  And since the point of each successive draft is for it to be better than the ones before... the pressure's on before you even commit fingers to keyboard, whether you're consciously aware of it or not.

Deep down, I know this third draft can't suck at the same level as my first and second ones sucked; I've got to up my game or I'm just wasting my time. So I'm reviewing each sentence as I write it, checking it for quality against the blueprints of my previous drafts. After all, I don't want to repeat the same mistakes...

But then I risk creating whole new ways to doof this third draft up - as a result of trying too hard to avoid those previous mistakes. Annnd maybe I'm thinking about that a little too much as well. I know my characters way better now than I did in my previous drafts, and... okay, maybe I've started to care about them enough to want to make sure I don't misrepresent them - yep, even the villains of the piece. Things matter more now; getting it right matters more. Which means the fear of getting it wrong looms that much bigger as well.

That's why, as my author friends confirmed, the drafts get harder each time, instead of easier.

And since things that get harder need more work and take longer... it all adds up to the prospect of 'less fun.' But that's the cold, harsh truth of it; writing a novel isn't always fun. There are times - sometimes long, lonely times - when it totally sucks, and every session in front of the computer feels like eye surgery without an anaesthetic. And that's when the writer has to get their Inner Masochist on and knuckle down, no matter how much they don't feel like doing it.

For my part, I want to complete Redemption to a standard good enough to publish, however long that takes me. Heck, it's gone past that; I need to do it (and will do it) before I can write any other novel ever. A huge part of any writer's determination to complete a novel comes from believing in the story they're writing, and I do believe in Redemption (even in those dark moments when I'm utterly convinced that I'll never be a good enough writer and I'm just deluding myself that I have any talent at all...)

When you love your novel and believe in it, it can feel like you're in one of those toxic relationships where the object of your affection treats you with disdain but you keep on giving them chances. Non-writers will look at you with pity and shake their heads, wondering why you put yourself through this when you could just save yourself the heartache and move on - but you keep going, because you know in your heart that you're meant to be together and it'll all work out in the end. We're a pretty bonkers lot like that.

So let's embrace the Hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would be doing it. Yes, I know when it comes to writing novels it sometimes seems like everyone is doing it, but honestly, for every ten people that start writing one, only one or two will actually finish it. Whatever it takes to motivate; the allure of potential fame and fortune, the thrill of seeing your work 'out there' for others to read - or even the promise of a mountain of chocolate as a reward for getting the job done. (Whaddya mean, you haven't done that? Doesn't everybody do that?)

What do you tell yourself to help you keep on trucking when the going gets tough?

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Who's Writing Your Novel?

I know - you're the one with your bum glued to the chair, making words and smooshing them together to make story-things. But it's the characters you create that make all that stuff happen. So... how do see your role in that process? Are you a Puppet Master, making your little pretend people dance to your tune - or are you David Attenborough, spying from conveniently-placed bushes and reporting everything in hushed tones of reverence? In other words, do your characters 'write your story for you,' or they merely your actors, following the script you devise for them?

True Believers - the ones who favour the David Attenborough approach - will say things like "The characters in my stories are real people to me - they have their own agendas and I can't make them do anything they don't want to do." Meanwhile, Architects regard characters as simply part of the overall construction; to them, treating their characters as sacred makes no more sense than saying mortar is more special than bricks when it comes to building a house. And of course, both camps strive for 'characters that feel real in their stories; that their readers can connect with - even if they don't particularly like them.

But it can all go horribly pear-shaped too. No matter whether you believe your characters are semi-sentient beings living inside your story-brain or the building blocks of your story-sculpture, sometimes they just won't do what you want them to do. They throw their toys out of the pram, the pieces won't fit together properly... pick your poison, the end result is the same. You find yourself saying some variation of  "She won't do this anymore! I needed her to do this thing but now I can't make it work and I don't know what to dooo!"

How can this have happened? How can people that were made by you, in your own head, suddenly turn around and do a Kanye West on you with the plot you carefully and lovingly constructed for them? And more importantly, what's the solution? Do you treat them like real-life rock stars and bend over backwards to please them - the natural instinct of the True Believer? Or do you, as the Architect,  get your own Inner Kanye on and decide that, actually, you are the God around here and you decide what goes down?

If you're a True Believer, you're faced with two options. Option One is to find someone else to carry out the part of the plot your troublesome diva character won't, or change your plot to fit in with what said diva 'wants' to do instead. This may still require at least some plot tinkering, because even once you've found your willing backup character, if he wasn't around for that moment originally you'll have to engineer some way to put him there now, that makes sense and doesn't muck things up for other characters or plot points ("but he can't be rescuing Mildred's cat from the burning building - he's supposed to be bonking Pedro's wife in a grungy motel two hundred miles away!")

If that's not possible, you're left with option two - and that's not automatically a bad thing. You might only have to tweak things a bit, so that you change a few events but everything still basically heads in the same direction. You might even find you like the new ideas much better than the old ones. But sometimes the changes you have to make are so radical that it means you're now telling a different story from the one you set out to tell. And that's fine - as long as you're more emotionally invested in your characters than the story they're enacting for you. But if the original story was one that was dear to your heart - that made a point that your storyteller soul felt driven to put out into the world - and now that message has been sacrificed for the 'integrity' of your characters... well, it might be difficult to tell the new story with the same passion. Especially if a part of you is still grieving for the loss of the old one...

By now the Architects will be facepalming at the whole touchy-feeliness of the above and crying "Oh for god's sake, get a grip!" Since they view their stories and their characters like an infinitely-supplied box of LEGO, their attitude is that they built this world and the characters in it, and if some of them bricks aint doing what they oughtta they're gonna get a smiting from the all-business Hand of Story God. Characters and plots can be broken apart just as easily and efficiently as they were made, and then rebuilt into whatever serves the story they're determined to tell. Hermione's phobia of clowns means she won't date Frank, the Ronald McDonald mascot at her local fast-food joint? Pffft, get rid of her phobia then. Or have Frank flipping burgers instead. No biggie - as far as an Architect's concerned, making it all work together is surgery, not psychiatry. No mourning the demise of the Story From Their Soul for them...

What they have to watch out for though, is that they don't allow this single-minded approach to blinker them. While it's certainly possible to 'change' a character to fit the story by removing certain personality traits and replacing them with more suitable ones, Architects need to be sure they're not doing so purely through stubborn determination to make that character fit no matter what. Because if it's done badly or with poor judgement, you get the Frankenstein's monster effect where it looks like a character has been randomly bolted together from a mix of different kits, just so that it will behave the way it 'should' at any given moment.

And this is why character biographies are a writer's best friend - whether you're a True Believer or an Architect. Sometimes just tinkering with one key event in a character's backstory can be enough to change their personality completely, believably - and, crucially - in ways that better fit their role in your story ("Mungo always felt inferior to his older brother, who was lauded as 'the smart one.' What if Mungo was the smart one instead, and felt that his brother resented him for it?") You can go as deep as you feel you need to; some writers approach it in the same way as a therapist might profile one of their long-term patients, while others include even the teeny-weeny tidbits like favourite colours, tv shows and ice-cream flavour. (Personally I feel the latter is where you can potentially cross the line from Useful Knowledge to Pointless Time-sink, unless knowing that level of trivia actually plays some crucial part in the story. But hey, if it ices your gateaux, have at it...)

So... which are you? Are you firmly one or the other, a bit of both - or do you flip between the two depending on what you're writing? (I'm probably more inclined to the last one.) How do you deal with the challenges of 'unruly' characters? I'd love to know.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

When Your Best Laid Shemes Gang Aft Agley...

It was Scottish poet Robert 'Rabbie' Burns who first penned the phrase "the best-laid schemes o' mice and men gang aft agley." These days it sounds more like something a Scotsman might say after ten pints, but back then it meant "even the most carefully-planned plans can end up whooshing down the toilet when life gets a hold of them." Or as close as. And that's certainly what's happened to me over these past two weeks.

Remember how I had my outline for Draft Three of Redemption all ready to go, and I was eager to make a start and do this thing? Well, on that first Monday that's exactly what I did - out of those traps like a greyhound, so I was. When I went to bed that night I was happy I'd made a good start, and that, if I could keep that momentum up, I should finish draft three in a fraction of the time it took me to do drafts one and two...

...Except that, when I woke up the next morning, I was feeling... not so good. My right leg was so painful - from hip to toes - I could barely stand on it, never mind walk, and I was pretty sure I had a temperature. As the morning wore on the pain got worse, and by eleven a.m. I was lying on the sofa wearing a cardigan and shivering under two coats trying to keep warm (this is when it's a relatively mild 20 degrees c outside.) Obviously something was wrong, so I decided to ring the NHS Direct Line.

(For those of you not in the UK, that's a number you can ring to get medical advice from trained professionals before you head off to a hospital or ask for an emergency appointment from your doctor, to determine whether or not you really need to to do so. It was set up because the already overstretched and under-resourced hospitals were getting a bit fed up with people rocking up to their local emergency rooms with period pains and the flu. Yes, that was really happening.)

When I got through I answered all their questions about my symptoms, fully expecting to be told, at most, that I probably had some sort of virus and to take some paracetamol until I could get an emergency appointment with my doctor for some antibiotics. So I was more than a bit surprised when they said they were sending a couple of paramedics round to my house straight away. I was even more surprised when, after prodding me a bit and taking my temperature and blood pressure, those paramedics then radioed for an ambulance to take me to Pembury hospital. Blimey, must actually be something serious then. This was a diversion from my plans for the day, to say the least.

Less than twenty-four-hours later I was diagnosed with a severe form of cellulitis - and, with blood oxygen levels below 90% and a temperature hovering close to 40 degrees it was clear I wasn't going anywhere for a while. After a further seven days of being stuck with more needles than a shaman from one of those rainforest tribes Sting liked to hang out with back in the day, and intravenously pumped with so many different antibiotics I actually wondered if I'll have to spend the rest of my life living in a bubble-tent, I finally went home with strict instructions to continue the two antibiotic courses I still have left, and to spend as much time as possible with my leg elevated for at least the next couple of weeks, preferably 'above heart level.'

Having no desire to take up a career in a can-can line, this is why I'm now typing this with the offending leg propped up on a cooler box, at a not-particularly-comfortable 45-degree-sideways angle. 'Above heart level' is, unsurprisingly, not an option for this activity, but since the payoff is being able to write again, I'll settle for 'bum level' and to heck with it. Besides, I've had to deal with the knowledge that I Missed A Whole Week of Writing.

Before I began Redemption this wouldn't have bothered me in the slightest. A whole week of no progress on a writing project? Meh, so what, I got a busy life. But that was before I got serious about my writing; before discovering Chuck Wendig's website and reading his tough-love blog posts about finishing what you start, before drawing up a proper timetable for myself and treating my writing like an actual job that I showed up and clocked in the hours for. Now there was a gaping hole over a week wide in my time spreadsheet and it was bothering the heck out of me.

Of course I didn't spend the whole week doing no writing at all. Even in hospital I managed to scribble in a notebook after a few days (turns out a cocktail of intravenous antibiotics and morphine makes for some crazy-ass dreams, and there's no way I was going to let them disappear into the ether.) Besides, when you've read all the books you have with you and the only other alternative is watching The Jeremy Kyle Show... hell, I'd copy out the bloody phone book rather than put myself through that. But I never wrote anything to do with Redemption in my notebook - in fact, it's fair to say I wrote about anything and everything other than that. And yet, the feeling that I should be never left me.

What kind of rubbish, non-motivational guilt is that? To berate yourself for being a slacker on your w-i-p, but then blatantly not do anything to fix the situation? Maybe I felt there wasn't anything 'useful' I could handwrite in a notebook about Redemption. Maybe I needed a break from it for that week - particularly since I spent most of it feeling like utter crap, so most of anything I wrote would probably have been equally crap. Or maybe... some subconscious part of me decided I needed to step away from the actual writing of the thing, and spend some time just thinking about the writing of it instead. Because I certainly did a lot of that.

In every project - whether it's an architectural design for a building, the computer code for a software program or the order of events in a surgical procedure - there comes a moment when the person in charge has to step back and take a broad look at it from above, seeing the whole thing all at once from a godly overview. My moment for that just happened to coincide nicely with being very ill in hospital (or, more likely, forced me to take that moment at that time.)

Or maybe... it really doesn't matter and I should chill the heck out.

Do I need a boatload of excuses (even good ones) to justify taking a week off? Of course not. And that's what I've learned from this experience. Life just gets in the way sometimes - for all of us. And when that happens, beating ourselves up over the things we haven't achieved just saps our confidence when it comes to getting back on track. Everyone deserves a holiday at some point - yep, even writers. And while mine wasn't the kind to get me writing 'wish you were here' postcards to friends and family, it took me away from my normal routine for a bit (I certainly didn't miss the housework!) Once you have schedules and goals for your writing it's easy to pin all your expectations on them, so that falling behind even a little bit can feel like a downhill free-wheel to failure. It isn't. Just put the wheels back on and carry on trucking. Forget the past - tomorrow is another chance to start anew.

Even if you have to do it with one leg propped up on a cooler box.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

A 5-Step Process to Unsticking a Stuck Bit in Your Novel

As I've mentioned previously, I'm about to embark on a third draft of Redemption.

My outline is done, the Emergency Chocolate Supplies are stockpiled and - most crucially - my kid is back at school again, hurrah! I mean, god I'll miss him and the house will seem sooo quiet when he's gone. (And it genuinely will. Faced with the prospect of not hearing him bellowing to his best friend over Skype through his mike-and-headphone-combo, at a volume that suggests he thinks it's just for decoration and he actually has to shout loud enough for said best friend to hear him from several streets away.. yeah, I can feel that hurrah coming on again...)

I'm going to have a guess at what you're thinking now. "Third draft? It's taken her three goes to even get the basic story sorted out?" Um, yeah. This is largely because I pretty much pantsed it through the first draft and only constructed a proper outline for the whole thing after re-pantsing it to at least the three-quarter mark of the second draft. Not the best way to do it, so it turns out. Lessons have been learned - albeit the hard way, which seems to be how I usually do it. And part of creating the outline I now have for Draft Three was finding the problems in the story I had, and then figuring out a way to fix them.

Some were easy, because the problem was obvious. Others, not so much. I knew something wasn't working, but I couldn't figure out why or what I should change to put things back on track again. When you spend long periods of time looking at something from a close-up view you can get too familiar with what you're seeing, so you stop seeing it as weird or broken because it's become your 'normal.'  I had plot-holes I couldn't see how to fill in (or find an alternative way around), sub-plots I wasn't sure I should include and characters suddenly demanding bigger roles in the story than I'd planned for them at the start. And for those problems, sitting down at my computer in front of my w-i-p and pulling the text apart just wasn't enough.

Talking story problems out with another human can be a good option - particularly if that human is a fellow writer. But sometimes that's not possible. If the only other fellow writers you 'know' are online, there's a delay to the whole 'talking' process - and it might be that the people in real-world, close proximity are either not interested in discussing your latest w-i-p or... let's just say they're less than ideal for the purpose. That's a position I've been in at least a few times since I started Redemption, so it was clear I needed to have some way of figuring out problems for myself - at least until getting to the beta-reading stage. Luckily, through a process of trial and error, I found one. And I'm sharing it here today because I thought, if it helped me, it might help others too.

Step One - Walk away from the work.

Yes, you read that right. Like a partner who's pissed you off, to get right down into the gory guts of the problem you need some time apart. That means walking away from the computer or whatever word-crunching machine your w-i-p is stored on, or the notebook and kitchen table if you still handwrite everything (you cute little quirkster.) Don't just leave the room, leave the house. Go somewhere outside - a public place where there are lots of other humans, all going about their business and none of them particularly interested in what you're doing ('cause they're not, you know - even when you do your very best to look all writer-ly.) What you need is a new environment, somewhere completely different from your usual writing space, and filled with the kind of 'white noise' of busy people all doing their own thing. Cafes are good, since the seating is comfy and  - well, coffee and cakes, yeah? Other options include libraries (handy for any impromptu research) and local parks if the weather allows. But before you go, make sure you take these things with you:

- a blank notebook. Because you will be doing some writing.
- at least one nice pen, for the same reason. Just the one is fine, or you might like to make notes in different colours for different categories of notes. Your call.
- something to spark your mind for your warm-up exercise, which I'll get to next. One of the best things I've found is a series of books called 642 Things To Draw, where an object or one-word concept is given and a blank space left below for you to draw that thing - except, as a writer, instead of drawing it, you write about it. (They also do a series called 642 Things To Write About, but they're more like a collection of traditional writers' prompts that encourage ideas for stories. They're great for when you're looking for that, but too much of a distraction for our purposes now.) If you don't want to splash out on one of these though, you could take a newspaper or magazine - or don't bother if you're going somewhere that's likely to have signs or promotional reading material (cafes have menus, for example.)

Once you've arrived find yourself a comfy place to sit, where you're not likely to be disturbed or told to move on (another good reason for coffee and cake in a cafe.) And then...

Step 2 - The warm-up exercise.

This is important for two reasons. First, it eases you into the right frame of mind to pick the problems in your novel apart in a public place with noise and general hubbub around you. I don't know about you, but I always have this slight worry about looking.... we-ell, a wee bit pretentious, poring over a notebook and looking all studious in full view of people having a laugh and a gossip over their paninis. (I know, it's ridiculous; in reality nobody gives a monkey's what I'm doing.) So doing this first is a way of getting comfortable with doing something that nobody else around you is doing, before getting down to the part where, if you're anything like me, you're going to be pulling a lot of faces and laughing/tutting/sighing to yourself.

And secondly, it gets your brain into the right creative frame of mind; an abstract, random-thoughts mindset that doesn't necessarily grab for the logical by default (this is why the Draw books I mentioned above work better than the Write books for this exercise.)

Take your one-word prompt from the Draw book, or a single word from the newspaper of magazine you brought, or a single word from a sign or menu around you, and write on that subject for either: ten minutes, a whole page of your notebook or the size of the designated space in your Draw book.

(This is why it makes sense to pick a noun or verb as your single word, unless you really think you can wax lyrical on the subject of 'and'...)

Don't stop to think about what you're writing, don't go back to read anything you've written and don't reject any of the things that come into your head to write about - just let it all pour out without censoring or mentally editing it. You might only need to do this exercise once to get 'in the zone,' or you might want to have a few goes at it. Whatever it takes to get you feeling comfortable and ready to tackle the next step, which is...

Step 3 - Identify the problem.

Well duh, yeah, I hear you cry. No, I mean you need to drill down, be specific. For example, 'I can't get from this bit of the plot to the next bit' isn't specific enough, you need to look at what's causing you to have that problem. Why can't you get past it? Do other things need to happen before the two plot points will connect? It doesn't matter at this stage if you don't know what those things are, just knowing they're missing is enough. Alternatively, perhaps you now can't use the ideas you had for this part of the plot because they're not plausible any more; perhaps something else happened earlier in the plot that now makes what you were planning to do at this point seem far-fetched or out-of-character for the people involved. Write it down in your notebook, and then read it back. If what you've written generates a new question - why, how, where, when, who - write that question below it, and then write down whatever answer comes to you. Keep going with that; reading what you've written, writing down any questions that arise from it and the writing down answers to those questions, until you feel you've reached a point where can't drill the problem down any further. Here's an (albeit generalised, because - spoilers) example from my w-i-p:

PROBLEM: I need a reason for the bad guys to have suddenly 'picked up' on the heroes location right now, just as the heroes believe they've contacted someone else to help them.

QUESTION: Is there anything already existing in the plot that would enable them to do that?

PROBLEM: Yes, but that only works within a twenty-yard radius. The heroes are well out of that range at this point.

QUESTION: So what's needed is something that works from a further distance - about a mile radius or something?  How would the bad guys suddenly get this ability?

ANSWER: They've always had it - but it should only kick in at this very specific point in the plot.

QUESTION: Why wouldn't it have kicked in before? What would've stopped it kicking in?

THAT'S THE PROBLEM! I need something to happen that suddenly 'triggers' the bad guy's ability to be able to track the heroes down from a much greater distance, that they weren't able - and had no motive - to use before this point.

The trick is in writing it all down like this in your notebook, because just thinking or talking about it is like mist in the air; there's nothing to grab on to. Writing it down forces you to make it real, something you can see right in front of you (like an IKEA flat pack, but with more available floor space.) And once you've done that, you're ready for the next stage...

Step 4 - Reconnaissance

Now it's time to make some lists.

First list: what else is going on in the scene where our problem first raises its gnarly head? Where are we, who's here, doing what, to and/or with whom? Put down everything, even the seemingly insignificant details - "Fred takes off the band-aid on his hand from his earlier accident with the tin-opener and replaces it with a clean one."

Second list: what's happened in earlier scenes that are - directly or indirectly - causing these things to happen in this scene now? So for Fred's band-aid adventure, for example, you would certainly include the tin-opener accident - but you might add that it happened because Fred is left-handed and therefore somewhat clumsy with a tin-opener (I'm a southpaw too, so I know that pain.)

Third list: what is likely to happen in the future as a result of what's happening now? These might be things you already have scheduled in your secret diary of plot happenings (because they're all part of your master plan bwah ha haaaa...) but equally they can be things that only occur to you now, as you write the previous two lists. To pick on poor Fred again, perhaps his leftied ineptitude extends to applying Band-aids as well, and as a result his wound turns sceptic and his hand falls off. Write it all down, no matter how crazy or plot-ruining it sounds (in fact, if it is a potential plot-ruiner I'd argue you have even more reason to write it down, as you may have just inadvertently discovered a new problem you didn't even know you had. You're welcome.)

And the final list: what needs to happen in your plot - both to get past your problem and to keep the story as a whole working? This will probably include some of the things you've already listed, but don't stop there; go deeper and look between the lines of what you've already got for new angles that maybe you haven't considered yet. This is to identify things that are non-negotiable; changing them, cutting them down or removing them completely is not an option because the whole plot would fall apart. You can then take this into consideration when you move on to the next part...

Take those lists and go through each item on it. Do any of them have any effect - direct or indirect - on your current story problem? Does anything actually prevent your problem being solved - or could anything actually be used to help solve it? It's surprising how many seemingly insurmountable problems get fixed this way; the one I used as an example in Step One was fixed by getting to this stage of the process, as I realised ramping up a reaction already occurring between two characters in a scene would change the game in a crucial way.

Has this helped you solve your problem? Great! Or maybe it hasn't. In which case, there's one more step you can try...

Step 5 - Switch it up, flip it around

If you get to this step, it's a good indication you can upgrade your problem from minor to major - which means you're gonna need to do a lot of work to fix it rather than just a few sneaky plot tweaks here and there. Yep, we're talking major rewrites I'm afraid. Don't do that face. You've come this far and you're a writer - you can do this.

Still got your lists from Step 4? Good, because you'll need them again. This time, take each item on each list and use it to make another list - only this time, we're going to change it up. First write the opposite of each event, and then write as many different alternatives to it as you can think of. Let's grab Fred and his tin-opener accident again for an example. Here's what we originally had:

Fred cuts his hand trying to open a tin, because he's a lefty-paw and tin-openers were designed for right-handed people.

The opposite of that might be... well, Fred doesn't cut his hand, because even though he's a lefty-paw he is world bloody class at opening tins. Or... Fred does cut his hand, because he's actually right-handed after all and some heinous monster swapped his normal tin-opener for one of those so-called 'left-handed' tin openers!

Both of which, I think you'll agree, are pretty crap as alternative scenarios go. So let's change it instead. What if... Fred got the cut on his hand when his girlfriend threw a tin-opener at him in a jealous rage? Or maybe it wasn't a tin-opener - maybe it was a glass... or a knife? Maybe it wasn't his girlfriend - maybe it was a contract killer, hired to wipe him out? Maybe his hand wasn't cut after all, but injected with nanobots that his evil nemesis can remotely control, causing him to do things with that hand completely against his will? Hmm... erring more towards bonkers now, but it's interesting so this is good...

Go nuts - anything and everything goes. And yes, that includes all those sacred items on your list that you previously marked as non-negotiable. Could be that it's one of those very things that's causing your problem - and if you've got this far I bet you'll have a sinking feeling that's true already. Keep doing it with all the items on all of your lists, and something should eventually click. In fact, quite a few things might click all at once. You may even end up with a radically different plot from the one you originally had. But that's not a bad thing. It's a lot of work ahead of you, for sure - but you're a writer so it's not a chore. It's just a brand new story, sitting in a pot ready for you to cook.

I really hope this 5-step process helps anyone who's wrestling with the roadblocks and wrong turns that every novel can occasionally hit. It's not perfect by any means, and I'm always up for any other suggestions you guys might have. Writing a novel is hard - and the only way to truly know that is to actually try and write one. And to keep on doing it anyway, because we love it. We're kinda crazy like that.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

5 Ways My Writing Has Been Like Working On My Allotment

As of this month, I have now had my allotment patch for one whole year - at the same time, I have also been working on Draft Two of Redemption. And during this time I've learned a lot of useful stuff from both activities.

On the surface they don't seem related to each other. But a lot of the stuff I've learned can be applied to both writing and growing stuff, so maybe learning the lessons from one has helped me to look at the other in a different way as well. And because this is a Blog and I like to tell people about my stumbles and tryouts so they can be more sensible than I was... let's do this:

1 - Aim for Functional Before You Go For Beautiful

As I said previously on this very Blog, the plot of land I was given was in a right old state when I got it. Neglected for over two years, it was a wasteland of couch grass, ivy and thistles with roots that practically had an Australian accent by the time you got to the bottom of them. Added to that the wire netting, old pipes and half-rotting bags of fertiliser entwined underneath said urban foliage.... well, Kew Gardens it certainly wasn't.

But I had visions - oh, yes I did! One year from now this weedy eyesore would be transformed into a thing of beauty, with perfectly symmetrical plots lined with neat, green lawns, bearing more fruits and vegetables than I could eat in a lifetime...

Mmmmyeah, didn't quite happen like that. Oh I've done pretty well when it comes to the fruit and veg part; I've grown and harvested potatoes, onions, curly kale, sweetcorn, peas, gooseberries, tomatoes, peppers and a metric tonne of courgettes ( or 'zucchinis,' if you're American.) But only in the spaces I managed to dig in between the jungle infestation I didn't get round to clearing. So it's a functional allotment... but still not what you'd call 'pretty.'

And that's a pretty good description of the process of draft one through two of Redemption, to be honest. Draft One was a weed-infested wasteland - like most first drafts are - and maybe I was a little naive to think I was going to be able to sort it out and make it beautiful in a single, second-draft pass. Weeds have very deep roots, after all, and sometimes you think you've pulled one out only to find you didn't get all of it and the darn thing's grown back again. It takes as long as it takes, so sometimes you have to scale back your goals; first get it functional, then work on getting it beautiful.

2 - You Gotta Have a Plan, Stan

I'll stick my hand up and confess; when I took on that allotment I didn't have a chuffin' clue what I was doing. I'd grown stuff in pots and containers before, and that had worked out okay... surely it was the same, but just, like, in huge containers, right?

No. Soooo much no. The world invented gardening calendars and manuals you could demolish a shed with for a reason, and this reason is that plants are kinda picky about when they're going to start growing and for how long. In our modern world of global trading and intensive farming most of us take it for granted that we can stroll into our local supermarket and buy things like potatoes, onions and carrots any darn time we want to, from January to December. So it can come as a surprise to discover that, when you're trying to grow them yourself, they're working to a goddamn schedule - something to do with 'seasons' or some such malarkey. How inconsiderate of them...

As a result, I couldn't grow a lot of things I wanted to grow in my allotment because to do so successfully I would have to travel back in time and plant the seeds a couple of months before I decided I'd quite like to grow them. Sometimes you can cheat and buy them as young plants from a garden centre if you're quick (and I confess, I did do that for a couple of things) but the more sensible way is to assemble the aforementioned gardeners' calendars and manuals and work out your battle plan for the whole year in advance, so you know exactly what's happening, when it has to happen and for how long...

And if that sounds an awful lot like an outline for a novel... it's meant to. Yes, this was the year I finally figured out that outlining was something I needed to know how to do properly and then actually do it. No more going in blind and rewriting the bits I wasn't happy with 'organically,' to see what 'felt right' when the time came; I had to look at the whole story and decide in advance precisely what was going to happen and when, where, how and why. My outline for Draft Three is taking shape already - and it's good to know that, this time, I already know most of what's ahead of me. Heck, I might even make some spreadsheets - for my novel and my allotment.

3 - Sometimes You Don't Get What You Thought You Were Gonna Get

I planted a load of King Edward potatoes in one patch, and in the picture on the front of the packet they looked like... well, your standard King Edward potato. So I was a bit surprised when about half the potatoes I dug up a few months later were red-skinned -  still lovely, perfect for chunky, oven-baked wedges in fact - but not what I thought I was going to get.  I don't even know how that happened. And lets' not even mention the carrots... oh okay then, I'll mention the carrots. I sowed lines of purple carrot seeds (yes, they were going to grow into actual purple carrots!) between my rows of onions (that's supposed to stop the carrotfly getting to them, apparently.) When their little tufty green heads appeared above the soil I thinned them out as per instructions, watered them and cared for them as lovingly as if they were my own children. Until, months later, at least two other seasoned allotment-ers gently pointed out that they weren't carrots at all, but weeds. How on earth straight rows of weeds with tops that looked very similar to carrots manage to grow in exactly the place I'd planted carrots I'll never know, but that's what happened (and it is what happened; carrots don't produce little purple flowers in July, like mine did - nope, not even purple ones.) Point is, plants can be tricksy little hobbitses.

I also got a few surprises with Redemption draft two. For example, I'd been writing from two POVs up until this point, convinced that I needed both to tell the story properly. And then it gradually dawned on me that one of those POVs, far from providing tension and foreshadowing crucial plot points, was actually ruining them in the style of a human Spoiler Dispenser with his 'can't tell anyone this, but...' diary entries. Either that or repeating in technobabble what he'd previously said in laymanspeak to the other POV character. Not cool, Dr Harvey. You are hereby demoted to Standard Major Character.

On the one hand, I don't know why it took me so long to see such a basic error - but on the other, maybe I needed to see it in full bloom to know it had to be eradicated (like my carrots-that-weren't.) Other characters have turned out to have more depth than I'd previously realised, and will now be playing a bigger or more complex role in Draft Three (Junor, Jim, Randy and Fraser.) So, like my surprise crops, at least not all the unexpected results were unwelcome ones. And I've learned some useful stuff for next year.

4 - You Need To Tend To Your Plots Regularly...

Some days - mostly the baking-hot, beach-weather ones - I looked out over my allotment and thought "Y'know what? I can't be arsed to go over there and dig today." Other times I watched the rain sliming down my windows and thought "My god, I can't go out in that - I'll catch some form of Victorian consumptive disease!" And it's fine to play hookey and have a duvet day... every once in a while. But the thing about summer is that you get quite a lot of hot days - even the UK, believe it or not - and when it comes to the wet, windy and cold days of winter the UK's got them down to an art form. So when I started letting the climate dictate whether or not I would go to my allotment, those 'odd days' quickly turned into two or three weeks at a time. Which meant that when I eventually sloped back like the kid who knows she hasn't done any of her homework for ages, everything was overgrown and neglected again. I had to fight my way through 2-foot-high weeds and couch grass to get to my crops, and when it came to tidying it all up and preparing new plots I barely knew where to start. It felt like I'd gone a step backwards, and now I had twice as much work to do just to get back to where I was - all because I'd got lazy and kept telling myself "Tomorrow. I'll go over and do stuff tomorrow..."

I had bad-weather days with Redemption too. Days when  just the thought of sitting down to open up that Scrivener file and knuckle down into a writing session was enough to make me wish I cared more about housework than I do (so I could at least run away from the screen with a feeling of 'fifties housewife pride rather than lazy-arsed shirker's guilt.) Being a mum of a school-age child guarantees an excellent supply of excuses for slacking off; sports days, birthday parties, various PTA-sponsored events...

I told myself it was fine. I was just taking a break from the thing for a few days because I'd hit a gnarly bit I didn't know what to do with, and when I finally came back to it my brain will have magically unblocked itself - like sneezing out a really gluey bogey, presumably - and I'll just know what to do to fix the gnarly bit.

Except that nine times out of ten I didn't, any more than I did before I left it. And on top of that I'd forgotten a lot of what I'd done so far, so I had to go back and look through all my notes to remind myself again. Leaving the problematic bit alone wasn't what caused the problem; running away from the rest of it as well was my mistake. Even if I'd switched to adding new info to my character biographies, putting all the subplots into a spreadsheet - or even restructuring the outline - I'd still have been keeping myself in the loop with the story as a whole.

It's the same as it was with the allotment; if I'd made myself walk over on those sunny days just for five minutes, to water the plants or pull up the weeds in one patch, for example, I could have saved myself a lot of work later on and still indulged in a little bit of slacking off.

I guess that's why so many authors who've 'made it' say you need to write every day, like working a muscle or training for a marathon.

5 - ...But Sometimes It's Better To Leave One Part Alone For a Bit.

Weeds were - and are - a constant annoyance on my allotment - if there was some sort of award from growing the strongest and most impressive weeds, I'd walk away with it no problem. Accidentally bend the stem of a precious little seedling? I can practically hear it scream in agony before it crumples into a Camille-esque heap and dies. Gouge out the heart of a thistle and roar like Brian Blessed as I tear its roots from the ground? The bloody thing just pops up again a week later like I've done nothing more than give it a haircut and a massage. How does that even work? Damn you, Mother Nature!

At first I thought the answer was to swoop on every weed in every patch when it was just an ickle baby, smiting it while it was at its most vulnerable. Until I realised that meant being hyper-vigilant, scanning each patch on a daily basis and turning weed elimination into a never-ending job with standards of perfection that would make a professional forger beg for lenience. "I only weeded this bit two days ago, how in the holy heck have they all come back already?" became something of a catchphrase for me (and a lousy one for someone aspiring to the superhero title of 'Weeder Woman.')

Eventually I realised a far more effective tactic was to... just let the weeds grow. Because for most of the ones that grow on my allotment, trying to dig them out while they're tiny is a fiddly and messy job that involves getting right down on your knees and tooling around with mini-forks and dibber-things. You can easily spend an entire day faffing around like that, only to find that when you've finished things don't really look much different from when you started. However, letting each baby weed grow a foot high and then yanking the whole thing out, roots and all, is a breeze - five minutes work per patch, tops. And boy, does it look like you've accomplished something afterwards!

I've now adopted a similar approach when I'm working on Redemption too. For each rewrite and edit of a scene, I decide in advance what element of improvement/cleanup I'm going to be focusing on - and stick to that task and nothing more. If I spot things I can fix on the fly - spelling or punctuation errors I hadn't previously noticed, for example - I'll do that, but if I see anything that requires switching my focus from the Plan for Today - for example, further research to check if that thing this character says is still true, adding in new plot elements to explain that new bit I added into the previous scene - I leave it alone, to deal with another time. Yank it out, roots and all, when it's time to weed that particular part of the patch.

So... that's the lessons I've learned this year. I shall be taking them with me into the next one, and hoping the processes - in both writing and gardening - will help me be more effective at both.

Have any of your non-writing-related hobbies taught you more about your writing? Why not drop a comment below?

Saturday, 8 August 2015

4 Things This Pantser Has Learned About Outlining

I've said it more than once before on this blog of mine; I'm a pure-blooded Pantser when it comes to my writing.

Most times I might have a vague beginning, an approximate end and a sort of squishy-malleable bit that constitutes the middle in my head when I sit down to start writing something new. Sometimes it's no more than a "What if this was going on, and then that were to happen? That might be cool..."  But in either case, the process is largely an unmapped journey for me - jump in that car. put the pedal to the floor and see what there is to see, baby!

And while that usually works out just fine for me with short stories and song lyrics, for writing novels... not so much. Not at all, in fact. Truth is, for something as big and many-headed as a novel, you need to have an outline to work to (unless you're Stephen King, but that's only because he is an anomaly in the fabric of storywriting-space and has more than earned his free pass on that one.) Outlines are your road map. Outlines - way more than Google could ever be - are your friend.

But can a Pantser outline? Doesn't that go Against Nature? I used to think so. The very idea of sitting down in front of a blank page and laying down a numbered list of plot points before I ever got to writing a word of the actual story was enough to make my brain blue-screen. But that was before I finally wrote a complete first draft of a novel (Redemption.) And as I ploughed through Draft Two the jury delivered its verdict: if I didn't want this thing to tangle itself into an unholy mess, I needed to outline it before I jumped any deeper in. And I'd better learn how to do that, whether I liked it or not.

It's been a bumpy road, but I've learned a lot of stuff in the process. And since I know I'm not the only Pantser out there, I thought I'd share what I've learned. So here we go...

1 - Even the purest-blooded Pantser can outline.

It's true! There a gazillion ways to outline, and they're all different. Some of them barely feel like outlining at all. The one that works best for me is the Index Card Method, since it feels exactly like pantsing, except... well it's pantsing in advance, if you like. You fill out one index card per story event as it comes to you and then stuff it in an envelope or something for safekeeping. You can do this over as long a period as you like; one or two massive brainstorming sessions for the whole story, or in spare moments of inspiration as they come to you over a period of days, weeks or even months. You can even do it for a future project while you're working on your current one, with minimal disruption to either.

The great thing about this method for a Pantser is that nothing feels 'locked down' - you can shuffle the order of the cards, add more in or take some out without the whole structure collapsing. So if you really do believe you're allergic to outlining, I suggest you give this one a go. It might just be the cure.

2 - You don't have to outline right from the very start.

Sometimes your brain is just so full of story you want to pour it all over the page like a Jackson Pollock painting, or your head will just, like, explode, man. You can see the whole thing, playing like a movie in your mind - the set, the costumes, the characters...

And when that happens, the very last thing you want is some mental schoolmarm-type yelling "STOP! NO! Thou must OUTLINE thy creative outpourings first!" You can practically feel the vacuum from the fun being sucked right out of the process. You don't have time for that shizzle - if you don't release your creative waterfall right now, it might drain away to nothing before you can capture it in all its story goodness. Well the good news is... you don't have to.

Ninety-nine-percent of the time, first drafts suck anyway. So really, it doesn't matter if it sucks because you went in there with no map, no compass and no Kendall Mint Cake or because the gear you did have (i.e. the Outline) didn't help you one bit. Unless you tell people, no-one's gonna know - and even less will care, probably. So if you prefer the barf-it-up-and-see method for first drafting, have at it and leave the outlining stage for... well, when you've got something to outline - i.e. a completed first, second or beyond draft.. 'Cos that's just how most Pantser's brains work anyway.

3 - Sometimes you think you've outlined when you actually haven't.

This is certainly what I thought when I started work on the second draft of Redemption. "Well duh, yeah! Here's my outline, look at it; I've got a perfect little summary of every single scene I've written, including where and when each scene happens and what characters are in them, and they're all in the right order... that's me good to go..."

Mmmmyeah, that's not an outline. Not really. It's no more an outline than trying to figure out how to make a cake by reading the list of ingredients, i.e. it might tell you what's in it, but it doesn't tell you what to do with the stuff - or even if you need all of it in there or maybe need to add in some stuff that isn't and should be... 

I'm not saying it's not useful. In fact, I'd say it's essential - for helping you to create the real, actual outline.  Because only by looking at the complete but summarised form of what you've already done, using the cold and distant overview of Story God (bwah ha haaa) can you make hard-nosed decisions about what needs to be cut, what's still missing and which order everything needs to go in to make sense. And you'd be amazed how much things can change in that process. For example, I've removed an entire secondary POV from Redemption Draft 3, because it was only when I read my Draft 2 'outline' as a complete document that I realised the character's take on events wasn't needed - in fact, far from being a form of foreshadowing, most of the time his input only sucked the drama out of them. (He's still in the story, but he doesn't get a turn on the mike any more - sorry Dr Harvey, but that's showbiz for ya...) 

And once you've made all those decisions... that's your outline. Don't worry if it looks different from the one you had before - in the early drafting stages, it should. Because even if it means you've got a metric ton of rewriting ahead of you, that's progress. You're another ledge closer to the top of the mountain, intrepid story-sherpa.

4 - There are many resources out there that can help with Story Structure. But not all of them are good for Pantsers.

I know this because I've read a metric lorryload of them over the past few years. There are good ones, great ones and bloody terrific ones, and there also 'meh' ones, bad ones and truly terrible ones. But... there are also 'right' ones and 'wrong' ones. Books that aren't bad in any way - but will nonetheless not help certain types of writers in the least - and may, in fact, actually hinder them.

A great book for Pantsers is the wonderfully-titled 'Take Off Your Pants!' by Libbie Hawker. It teaches a lot about story structure without locking you down into a blow-by-blow blueprint that Thou Must Stuff Thy Story Into, like trying to squish an entire pig through a sausage machine. Pretty much any of Chuck Wendig's writing how-to books are also a great investment, and while it goes quite deep into the psychology of the human mind and storytelling, The Story Book by David Baboulene contains a load of useful stuff about the essence of creating good, well-paced plots. I generally read bite-size chunks of books like these in the morning, over breakfast, just before I start my daily writing session, and not only did I feel like I learned a lot from these books, I would actually get up from them inspired to go write, right now..!

However, on the flip side... other things inspired the opposite mindset in my Pantser brain - as in, left me feeling like a total doofus who was just kidding herself she had the intelligence to write anything anyone would ever want to read, ever. I mention them here not to be snarky, but so that if any of you have, are, or will be trying any of the following you won't feel bad if they don't help you either - it's no reflection on you or your intelligence, they're just not geared to the Pantser, that's all:

The Snowflake Method - I'm sure it works wonderfully for plotters... but to me it just felt like that thing where you're trying to untangle a ball of wool and somehow every loop you try and untangle just puts two more new knots in it that weren't there before. When I was a software technician I used a similar process to the Snowflake Method - they called it 'Top-Level Design' but it was the same principle - and I found it helped me a lot with computer programming. I don't write stories like I write computer programs though (and that's probably a good thing, because most of the computer code I wrote was pretty darn boring.)

Mind Mapping - this one surprised me. I mean, all those free-wheelin' bubbles with lines coming off them, and bubbles connecting to other bubbles sounds like the way a Pantser's mind works, right? Turns out, no. From my experience, I think it's actually just a Plotter's way of trying to be freeform. I made some mind maps - and hell, they looked pretty darned good too. But they didn't tell me a single thing I didn't know on a gut instinct already - about my characters, the plot, themes, anything. I don't need to see what's already stored in my head drawn out in bubbles and lines in front of me, any more than I need a set of instructions to make myself a cup of tea.

Anything with a rigid 'story structure template' to follow - and there are some titanium-knickered examples out there, believe me. The worst example I saw not only had a detailed, non-negotiable schedule of events that absolutely must happen for your story to be considered worthy of reading, it even dictated the time in percentage of the book's whole for each of those events to happen - and gave you a handy formula for calculating those percentages in your own book, including necessary adjustments if you had a Prologue...

Yeah, that one felt like it actually ripped my IQ out of my brain and beat me around the head with it crying "Fool! Call yourself a writer? YOU ARE NOT WORTHY!"


Even if you're the Pantsiest Pantser in Pantsville, outlining is a useful skill to have in your toolbox. It's kind of like learning CPR; even if you never use it on an actual person in the real world, you carry this nice little feeling of security around with you forever afterwards, knowing that you could do it if you ever had to step up to that plate.

What's your take on outlining? Love it or hate it? Any tips and experiences to share? Feel free to drop a line in the Comments below.