Ah, Buckle This…A Pantser’s Guide to Buckling Down and Plotting

They say we are divided, us wily writers. Those creative fluffs that let the words burn through them and damn the story arc consequences until the laborious editing process. Those starched-collar spreadsheet architects that engineer the life out of a story until it can be laid out like a mathematical equation. Two ends of a long spectrum encompassing how we all go about writing our stories.

Whether you’re on your first novel, your seventieth short story, or your tenth attempt at nailing flash fiction, we all have a style that suits our particular intelligence. When I use that word, intelligence, I’m not talking IQ scores or any other accepted standardized measure of smarts. I’m talking about the way we each learn and create. Some of us are spacialists. Some of us are naturalists. Some of us are mathematicians. Some of us are socialis–uh…well not ‘socialists’ in the negative way that gets a bad wrap these days…social butterflies? We all have strengths in different areas of “smarts”. (pssst–check out the cool infographic from blog.adioma.com–based on Mark Vital’s work. If you have an extra minute, look through it and see where your head’s at)

HOWEVER, each one of us–and I’m making this assumption because you’re reading a writing blog–are gifted with some level of literary intelligence. Storytelling. Weaving words. Building worlds with letters. So let’s start on that common ground and get to know why plotting out your story, no matter how fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants-writer you are, will help free up brain space for better writing and save you a literal shit ton of time in editing.

I’m a pantser. I’ve always been that way. It’s a creative deluge in my brain on many days. Hundreds of thousands of words, hundreds of characters, plots galore. ALSO– at least six unfinished nearly full length novels, countless ‘story-starts’ as I call them, and plots that have fizzled simply because the fire burned itself out when it hit the cliff of not having a plan.

If you are on my side of the spectrum, how do we avoid the graveyard of fizzled projects, laying stagnant on our lap tops?

Well, we simply need to learn to buckle down.

OK, OK, COME BACK!

No one shuts off Billy Idol

Jesus, I’m not some pastor dad from a bad 80’s movie, trying to tell you to shut off the Billy Idol and get a real job.

I’m just saying, as we mature as writers we can still have fun, and be responsible (I feel like a More You Know, after school special moment coming on) to our stories and characters.

When I say buckle down, I’m thinking more in terms of a roller coaster. The buckles keep you secure while the ride still thrills and delights.

Here’s how I balance out my willy-nilly need to write untethered and the reader’s need to have structure (yes–reader’s need structure…what happens on the roller coaster is fun, but they don’t want to fall to their deaths on the first loop-d-loop)

  1. When you get your idea (character, plot, situation etc): Write the hell out of it. I always think of them as scenes. I imagine situations or characters that play out in my head and I just write without self-editing the movie in my head. this can be a couple of pages, up to even 10-15 pages of material. Once I feel, like this story/character has potential and I want to know more about them, that I want to invest book-length time and effort into them, I then…
A River Sleeps Through It.
  1. Create a loose story-line. Usually on an informal notebook page, turned sideways. Some people use graphics and spreadsheets. I know myself. If I started doing that it would turn into flashbacks of Anthropological Research Methods and my only C paper…ever… ew, statistics David. That would take all the joy from it for me. Like strapping into a roller coaster with seven belts and having the cart inch along at a safe three-mile-an-hour speed. Don’t fence me in, Excel.
  2. The story line doesn’t have to be crazy detailed. But it should have an act structure. Sure, I could dictate (*snicker* dic-tate) that it be a hard-line three act structure with appropriate crises and resolution points. But some stories require more, (rarely less). If you went through step one above, chances are you have a pretty good idea of at least the beginning and end. You know what your character wants and if they get it or not. The tricky bit is in the center and that brings us to this…
  3. Plotting is important because it will help you get through the doldrums of the middle, where most novels go to die. Having some definite ideas about how crisis points build, where and when they come to a head, and how your character changes afterwards will help you know what to write next to keep the story moving in the right direction. Within that outline, is still a great abundance of wiggle room, so don’t get caught up in specifics when you draft your outline.

Well, I think that that’s all I’m going to torture you with today. You might find, by starting with this simple diagram you feel more comfortable elaborating on it, adding plot points, character transition moments, and secondary or series arcs into it. Good luck out there, pantser. Buckle up, writers. It’s one hell of a ride.

Photo by Dana Cetojevic on Pexels.com

The Beautiful Writers Workshop: #17 Drunk and In Charge of A Bicycle (or How We Should Be Approaching Life in Difficult Times)

Before anyone gets their knickers in a quandary… (see, fancy words are still running over from last week)…I am not, nor have a I ever been (well maybe once but it was completely unintentional and never repeated), drunk and in charge of a bicycle.

Bradbury_2240962bThat line actually comes from an Irish Police report retold by Ray Bradbury in his book, “Zen in the Art of Writing”. Bradbury was talking about the way we approach storytelling and writing, and that is: drunk with life and not knowing where off to next. Such a trip, he wrote, is one half terror and exactly one half exhilaration.

So many schools of thought exist on how best to write your novel or short story. Plan it out, with all of the beautiful arcs, subplots, crises and climaxes, and scientifically bring it home with a satisfying resolution.

Or just write it, in wobbling paces of exhilaration and stumbling wrecks of metal and wheels.

One brings about better structure and fewer injuries…er…plot holes. It also makes the revision process shorter.

The other burns with uninhibited joy and rides the coaster of character dilemmas into the natural hills and valleys of human failure. It is organic and creative, and often a bitch to edit.

I tend to believe that not every writer is always one or the other. Usually, it is a balance between the two…much like riding a bike. The drunk part comes in when we let go of the inhibitions that close down creativity, and/or let our work be curtailed by criticism. Self or otherwise.

This is a time of both terror and not knowing what will come next. A less playful and lighthearted scenario than Bradbury probably meant.

All around us, voices are shouting and arguing. Outside there is a divisive and angry cloud, smothering the world. We are beset from all sides with advice about what we should do, should be doing, should have, should not have, what to feel guilty about, what to embrace…etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

etc
Come on…”The King and I”? This is classic stuff! Yule Brenner! Somebody better be impressed.

We run the risk of letting all of these limitations and confusing ‘advice’ smother the bumbling beauty of writing the stories and characters that intrigue and bring us joy.

It doesn’t all have to be hard-hitting commentary. Let’s face it, we’re in the midst of the first three story arcs of a dystopian novel already. And if we know anything from those story lines, it’s that the true worth of the human race is often preserved in the beauty and art we are capable of.

Writing, drunk in love with the art, is Katniss putting flowers on Rue’s grave, and Peeta painting sunsets while other tributes throw spears around him. It’s Tris not choosing any one trait to define her, but embracing the balance of being a little bit of everything.

 

It’s in the saving of books instead burning them.book burning

So, the exercise is simple.

Write.

This week write. Something beautiful. Something true. Fly by the seat of your pants and damn the torpedos (yeah, I mixed my metaphors, what of it?)

Find a reason to fall back in love with your art, your characters, your world. Find a reason for us to go on. Shut the door and unplug the news, and try embracing something other than the fear and hatred that have become our everyday.

What will save the human race will be the dreamers who live, half in terror, half in exhilaration, and not knowing, exactly where we’re off to next, but knowing its beauty is only limited by our imaginations.

That takes the kind of courage rarely seen in the world today.

Half-Way To an Unknown Destination

Good morning fellow readers, writers, and friends. This morning marks nearly the half-way mark of NANOWRIMO.

In the month of November a gauntlet is thrown, where in writers of all types, genres, and experience levels attempt to write 50,000 words in 30 days. While this ain’t my first rodeo (fourth year participant) I’m quickly finding that every year is different.

Most notably this year’s project has been a study in what happens when I let my “pantser” out.

Before you call the authorities and request a restraining order, what I mean is that usually I have a rough idea of what my novel will be about, some basic plot points, a shady little arc where in I can fit most scenes with relative smoothness. I’m not an all-out “plotter” I don’t have graphs, or charts, or beat sheets. Usually later in my process I come up with something that formal if it helps me fill in the gaps.

But this year–

This year I just started writing about a girl who’d suffered a horrifying assault, ran away, and returns to her childhood home with no intention of staying past the point of handling her grandfather’s affairs.

That’s it.

That’s all I had.

Oh…and a murder has been committed.

And there’s this seasoned old detective who’s lovable but grouchy as shit.

Oooo, and lets make him a divorcee, trying to quit smoking while raising a curious 12-year old boy.

And let’s say he doesn’t deal well with horses. Or heights. And he’s got a paunch, because he’s over forty and can’t get rid of it no matter how many weeknights he plays rugby.

And she gets panic attacks. Bad ones.

And what happens when the lady in question has a panic attack while driving just ahead of the cop and his son on their way to rugby practice?

And her sisters hate each other, and are polar opposites hippie versus yuppie.

And I need to learn Greek. And I gotta start looking into regional varieties of grapes and how rare the Andravidas horse is…and what’s the shape and size of a typical head wound from a roncola…

See what I mean? I’m all over the place. And this book, ladies and gents, it might be the messiest first draft I’ve EVER written. I jump from scene to scene, character to character, out of time, out of place, sometimes contradicting myself within the same paragraph. I’ve never had such a mess of a project.

I’ve never worked on a book that I wasn’t sure I would absolutely finish and make into something better.

But this fella, he’s a different breed.

He’s a quirky little story and I’m sort of hopeful that all of the pants-ing going on here is going to produce some really raw and gritty emotion, boiled down description, some complex characters in tender situations that will amount, later and with a lot of elbow grease, to a decent and intriguing novel.

The point, (yep, there’s one–it’s coming. Wait for it–) is that by jamming out words, even in their flagrant misuse of proper grammar or form, even with complete disrespect for story arc, has allowed me to explore a genre I’ve never written in before without the halting self-doubt that might have stopped me before. I’ve discovered characters who are more than a little fucked up (*gasp* where’s the romance in that?) and may or may not find out the truth let alone a happily ever-after. And that might be okay this time around.

If you’re in the middle of it, and have a day that knocks you back, jump ahead, jump behind…write the characters ten years in the future or what their sixth-grade year was like. The words don’t have to be in order, they just have to be there.

Good skill writers. 16 more days, and you are all over this like a bunch of bacchantes on Dionysus.

Get to it.