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.