Category Archives: Writing & Publishing

Plotters and Pantsers

Credit: Ann Again

Plotters and pantsers is a literary phrase often used by writers.

I confess I’m a pantser. I’ve tried hard to plot. In fact, right now I’m in the midst of an excellent book on writing called The Anatomy of Story by John Truby. And everything he says makes absolute sense … except for the fact that I find it overwhelming. He’s fantastic; he gives you examples for everything he talks about … but nevertheless, if I was to follow everything he mentions I would go raving mad and totally incapable of writing a single word.

Jim Butcher, author of The Dresden Files (which I love – please God, let him finish the damn books) has a whole series of articles on writing a novel. He breaks down the craft into more manageable nuggets which I will paraphrase and share in forthcoming posts – sometimes teaching someone else something helps to drill it into your own brain. That’s what I’m hoping for anyway.

The final person who I’ve looked to for help is Chuck Wendig whose maniacal posts are not just a hoot to read; they actually do help you to understand some of the ways you can improve your writing skills.

But the bottom line is when you are writing your first draft, it’s just too difficult to think of breaking everything down and plotting your story with a mind to symbolism, theme, moral argument, beliefs and values, desire, drive … yikes! I’m already getting a headache.

I think that all comes after you’ve got the essentials of your story down. I start with an idea, and that idea changes many times before I’ve got it down pat. Once the characters have some kind of personality, I let them do the talking, and let them suck me into their world and tell me what they’re doing and what the plot is; what they have to overcome and how they plan to do it. That, to me, is what pantsers do (so called because they fly by the seat of their pants).

Plotters of course plot everything out before they write – and that’s a good thing if it works for you.

Plotters or pantsers – let me know what you are.

Intro to Novel Writing

This Intro to Novel Writing post is for newbie writers who’d like to take a stab at having the best fun in the world.

Step 1 – Put on Your Thinking Cap

Every successful book starts with a kick-ass idea. Without that, you’ve got nothing. So, how does one come up with that awesome idea?

What best-selling author Stephen King does is to ask the question – what if? He says he then takes two unrelated ideas and sees if he can get them to work. That’s how he came up with the plot of Carrie. Two unrelated ideas – adolescent cruelty and telekinesis. With over 50 published books (most of them best-sellers) his formula apparently works!

You can find good ideas everywhere. Look up unusual and interesting facts, take an actual murder case or an event you’ve read about or seen on television and make it your own. Change the characters and the setting – perhaps even certain elements of the event and throw in some other incidents and voilà – you’ve got the possible foundation for a great story.

Step 2 – Elaborate Your Idea

Now it’s time to do some serious thinking. You don’t want to just copy a story you’ve read somewhere. That would be plagiarism. What you want to do is take the scenario you’ve come up with and figure out who the main characters are (more about this in the next step). Next, it’s time to let your mind wander and wonder:

  • I wonder what would happen to character X if he was an athlete, or an alien, or secretly married to twins.
  • I wonder what would happen if character X spent his/her childhood as a changeling, or his parents were Russian spies, or perhaps he can remember NO childhood. What caused his amnesia?
  • I wonder what would happen if character X was really a fairy or an alien pretending to be a human? Or what if character X had the power to annihilate the world by clicking his fingers – what would happen?

Step 3 – Characters

Novels are populated with people. So you must come up with a main character who the story will be about. For example, J.K. Rowling’s famous series Harry Potter is … about Harry Potter. But Harry doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Harry interacts with his friends Ron and Hermione and with his enemies like Voldemort. He has a family, albeit one that hates him, and interests like playing Quidditch and getting into trouble.

So too, must your characters.

Who are the characters that will people your world? Does your main character have a family? Has she lost her family in a vile and cruel way, or maybe she grew up in foster homes. Give her a background, physical traits and a job. Give her likes and dislikes.

Step 4 – Conflict

Interesting stories are full of struggles. If your hero gets the girl right away – where’s the story and why would anyone care enough to read to the end of the book. The characters in your story need to have a quest. There must be something they hope to achieve and there must be something or someone who is always in the way, preventing them from getting to their goal. The bigger the struggle to overcome, the better the book.

Step 5 – Sub-plots

No character in real life or in a novel lives in a vacuum, pursuing just one thing in life. In reality, we might be accountants who enjoy writing the next great novel at night; we might be a mild-mannered journalist by day and Superman by night. So too, your characters. Give them layers – that’s what a sub-plot means. Perhaps your hero is trying a man for murder, but that’s not all he does. He probably has a love life on the side and perhaps it’s not going well, or maybe his mother has upped and married a man who is younger than him and because of that your hero can’t concentrate on the job he’s got to do. Have fun coming up with sub-scenarios.

Step 6 – Read & Write

Read books in the genre you are writing. Romance writers should be soaking up as much romance as they can. If you’re reading about it, that’s fine. If you’re experiencing it, even better. If you enjoy writing thrillers, read them as well. A good writer is a voracious reader. Learn from the books or soak it up through osmosis.

Now comes the toughest, but most fun, part. SIT DOWN AND BEGIN TO WRITE.

Congratulations & Next Steps

If you’ve followed Steps 1 – 6, you’ve generated a few solid ideas and have come up with a plot line or two. You’ve learned a few techniques and you’re raring to get started. Do it. Start writing. Eventually, you’ll reach a point where you’d like input from others to find out whether your story is actually interesting: are your words making sense? are your characters compelling? do you even have a plot?

Beyond-the-Lamppost Weekly classes can help you.

You can join the Lamppost Writers Weekly Classes held in Oakville, Ontario. There is something for everyone to choose from. Small classes of not more than 8 students mean lots of individual attention to focus on your writing’s strengths and weaknesses.

OR

Sign up for the 12-week Online Creative Writing Classes. Each week you’ll send me 3-5 pages of your novel and each week you’ll receive in-depth feedback on your work to help you grow as a writer. Also expect to receive a weekly handout to help you understand the intricacies of creative writing.

Writing Fantasy

The biggest Do of writing fantasy is letting your imagination run free – after all, it is a fantasy that you are writing. However, within your fantasy world you need to have some rules. You get to make up the rules, but … you must abide by them – and it must be believable. It helps to make notes on your fantasy world, giving it a history and peopling it with characters so that it becomes real to you. But unless you are writing high fantasy, you won’t need to reach to the level that J.R.R. Tolkein or Georges R.R. Martin went to. (Is there some spooky coincidence to them both bearing the R.R. middle initials?)

Beware Cliches

Whether you are writing high or low fantasy, or even urban fantasy – there are many creatures
that have now become cliches: dragons, vampires, and werewolves are common examples. Does that mean you can’t use them? Not at all. It means you need to find something fresh about them – forget twinkling vampires – Stephanie Meyer beat you to that in the Twilight series, plus that was the weakest point in her book, if you ask me.

World Building

This is the fun part. You get to decide what type of a world it is, whether magic is a natural resource or a treasure that only few can possess. You get to create continents and oceans and people. You are a God, but just like God put certain physical rules into place – you have to do the same. He was consistent. Gravity is something that is felt over the entire world – not just in North America or Asia. In the same way, make sure you remain consistent in whatever you choose.

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America‘s website is a resource that all fantasy writers should explore. This particular page (see link above) lists tons of questions which will help you build your fantasy world.

Best Blogs on Writing

I love skimming through the blogs listed below. They kick butt – mine! and force me to get back to the hard work of writing my novel. I’ve listed them in no particular order.

1. http://terribleminds.com/

I have absolutely no idea what books Chuck Wendig writes, and I don’t really care. All I know is his blog is a hoot, but not for the faint of heart. He swears – a lot, but his ramblings on writing – here’s an example: http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2016/08/09/25-reasons-why-i-stopped-reading-your-book/ are on point.

2. http://www.publishingcrawl.com/

This is one of my favorite blogs. They are a group of authors and publishing professionals who break down the profession into easy-to-absorb blog posts. They will also periodically accept queries to critique – although they only choose a few. As a bonus, they have a section entitled ‘Books Discussed/What We’re Reading’ which is great if you’re at a loss for something to read

3. http://queryshark.blogspot.ca/

Literary agent Janet Reid is truly a shark! Make sure you can survive her bite if you send her a query to critique. She’s merciless. But – her comments are on-point, and you can learn plenty from her rantings.

4. http://www.betternovelproject.com/blog/

This blog, run by Christine Frazier breaks down well-known and popular novels like Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and The Hunger Games and studying them to find out what makes them a best-seller.

5. http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/grammar-girl

No writer can survive without good grammar. It’s a fallacy to believe that your editor will fix everything. If you write ungrammatically, you won’t even be able to get to the stage where you will need an editor. Grammar girl is an indispensable aid.

Read them all, or just one of them. And let me know what you think.

The Internet and the Writer

As a writer, I can safely say that the internet is a boon and a bane to me. So easy to waste time and energy getting sidetracked by Facebook, or by some research you knew you had to do. One click leads to another, and another and by the time you’ve scrolled through umpteen pages – it’s lunch time and you’ve written but a single paragraph.

1. Research

Everything is so much easier with the internet at your fingertips. Whether it be looking up a word or synonym in a thesaurus or finding the perfect name for your character from sites like fantasynamegenerator.com

I’ve researched agents, publishers, scrolled through dozens of blogs to learn about the publishing business, or to check on my favorite authors. You want it – it’s there.

2. Agent Tracker

Looking for agents for your book just became that much quicker and easier. All you need to do is type in your criteria into your favorite search engine and within seconds you can find all the literary agents you could possibly query.

3. The Miracle of Email

Once upon a time, you had to send your query and first pages in by snail mail. Not only did it cost a bundle, waiting twelve weeks or more for an answer was completely unfeasible. Nowadays, with a click of your mouse you can send your query out to as many agents as you want. How great is that.

4. Google Earth and YouTube

With Google Earth and the ever-expanding world of travel blogs, you can journey anywhere in the world and garner some cool virtual insight into places you know you’ll never be able to afford to visit. I had to do some research on Kolkotta and while I lived there when it was known as Calcutta, there’s a lot I’ve forgotten. Somewhere, someone has visited it and uploaded a wealth of information just for you.

5. Online Forums

I’ve used online forums like Absolute Write to check what others have thought of different agents – whether they respond back or just throw your precious words on the scrap head. I’ve also answered questions on sites like Quora so that others can benefit from something I know.

Just don’t waste your time.

You might also like these posts from Writer’s Digest:

Keep Your Muse Well-fed

Keep your muse well-fed, or watch her vanish. She is like a never-ending hunger that needs food but fails to get filled. And that’s good. She, the muse, is what brings that creativity to you. Feed her well.

What is the Muse?

The Muse comes from Greek mythology. They were nine goddesses who embodied the arts and  inspired the creation of literature and science. The muse can descend at any time, and if the recipient is not ready to receive, she will disappear and that inspiration will be lost.

Ray Bradbury, prolific science fiction writer, was a big proponent of the muse. He fully believed that when she descends and gives you the gift –  that story controls you. In a 1980 essay he said, “My stories have led me through my life. They shout, I follow. They run up and bite me on the leg— I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go, and runs off.”

If that’s not the muse, I don’t know what is.

How to Feed the Muse

1. Gather Experiences 

All those adventures and impressions from childhood and beyond should be collected and stored away to be used when needed. Snap up the landscapes, the textures, the foods, the experiences, the flavors to be given new life in a novel of your own.

2. Read Indiscriminately

Those writers who read only one type of genre are starving their muse. Can you subsist on just chocolate? Likewise, the muse is nurtured on every type of novel. Trashy romance or classic Hemingway – they both do their job in providing the variety that the muse requires in order to inspire that wonderful story that lurks within you.

 

3. Cop a Phrase, a Word, a Line

Write down fresh similes, fragments of paragraphs that you enjoy reading, or words that tease your tongue,  and action verbs and adjectives that you wouldn’t normally think to use. Then when you’re stuck, look through these lists and one of them might trigger the right inspiration.

4. Write with Enthusiasm

Writing is a joy, not something that you should feel you’re forced to do. Sit down to your computer with anticipation and wonder about what will come from your mind down and in and out your fingers. Enjoy the sensation of creating.

6. Surround Yourself with Like-minded People

Forget about people who are negative. Surround yourself with other writers who are supportive of you and your craft.

You might also like these posts from Writer’s Digest:

 

Impersonal Writing

Take a look at any newspaper article and you’ll have a good example of what impersonal writing is. That works well and good for a reporter as they are just stating the facts about a particular situation. However, if you are a creative writer, then you need to instill some personality into your writing style. That is the very essence of creative writing.

First Person Point of View

When writing a novel, the personalities of your characters need to shine through – otherwise your story will fall flat. You need to get right into your protagonist’s head and into his/her point of view. Writing in first person will help you to do this. You’ll notice that urban fantasies and young adult novels often use this approach so that the stories are up front and – well, personal.

Omniscient Point of View

Yes, omniscient point of view is quite often used in novels, but while it may seem easy – it’s not.

Credit: Fablehaven Wiki – Wikia

The best omniscient writers are those that infuse that omniscient voice with a personality as well. Many children’s books like The Narnia series by C.S. Lewis and the Fablehaven Series by Brandon Mull are two examples of wonderful novels written in the omniscient voice

Stick to impersonal writing if you are writing non-fiction. That’s where it works. If you are writing fiction, work on instilling the characters with their own personality.

You won’t be sorry.

You might also like these posts from Writers Digest:

Reading for Pleasure after Writing

Credit: fatmogul.com

There’s one problem with reading for pleasure after writing a novel – it’s tough to do. That’s because you can’t help critiquing the writing to a certain extent.

It’s a mark of how good the writer is, if the ‘critiquing’ part of your brain gets shut off, and you can enjoy the momentum of the novel to its fullest.

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”
 Groucho Marx

And it makes sense. After all, now that you’ve honed your craft, it’s so much easier to pick out passive language, poor plotting, weak characters, limp verbs and so on, and so on.

On the flip side, when reading a book by a master writer, you get to enjoy all the lavish words and descriptions, the fresh similes and metaphors and you get to feel envious – wishing you were the one who had written all those beautiful lines.

Choosing a Novel

I’ve watched myself choosing a book at the local bookstore or library, and find my habits quite interesting … and something for every writer to keep in mind. I check the title (yes, I judge a book by its cover!) read the blurb, then read the first paragraph. Quite often I toss it, if the first paragraph, sometimes even the first line doesn’t grab my attention. It’s rare for me to pursue reading something that I don’t feel pulled into, immediately.

Here’s my trick to now enjoying a novel – I give that critical part of my brain a sleeping pill and for the time that it’s out cold, I enjoy the book. When done,  I re-read the story and give my inner critic leeway to judge … and learn, copy down phrases to inspire me and enjoy the pleasure of a well-written line.

For those novels that are duds – I cheer. If those stories could get published, then there’s hope for my books – because, after all, I am so much better a writer than they.

You might also like these posts from Writer’s Digest

Staying Focused on a Single Story

Credit: Attitudes 4 Innovation

I know I have trouble staying focused on a single story – and that’s good and bad, depending on how fast the ideas flow and how fast you write.

Staying focused on a single story allows you to put all your efforts into getting the manuscript done, polished and edited and finally out the blinking door and onto a literary agent’s doorstep. Then, you can start on something else.

But having more than one story going at a time works for those of us who find that if they’re stalled on one plot line, can continue working on something else at the same time and – voila! At the end – you have two novels for the price of one!

Pulled in all directions? Have great story starts that go nowhere? Mind too full of ideas? Here’s what to do.

How to Keep on Track

1. Weekly classes definitely help to keep you on track since you are forced to cough up 1,500 words each week. The pressure, as many of us know, forces the brain to produce.Look at the Big Picture

2. Set a goal and tell the world … or perhaps just those who are supportive. If you know you have a deadline of a year to complete your novel, and you have a personality that sets store by deadlines – you will honor it and reach your goal. Give yourself some motivation for getting there. It could be anything – from a new app to a fancy new outfit – whatever will give you the impetus to get there.

3. On the flip side of goals and deadlines are penalties which you can give yourself or a trusted accomplice to exact. It could be monetary or whatever you determine, but it must be something that will hurt, if even just a little bit.

4. Force yourself to write or dictate into a phone a certain amount each day. I find that inspiration often hits me when I’m walking Indy, so I always carry my phone around and talk into my memo app. I may look like a fool to people who pass me by, but hey! who’s laughing when I’m that much further along in my manuscript.

5. Brainstorming with your writing group can also help to keep you on track. Enthusiasm is infectious and if your writer friends are enthusiastic about where your story is going and what your characters are doing – you’ll get fired up again and the creative thoughts will begin to flow again.

You might also like these posts from Writer’s Digest