Off the Brakes – Back to Writing

I haven’t written lately, mostly because I’ve been a.) really busy with the end of the semester, b.) without any ideas of what to write, and c.) a little depressed with the coming of winter. And frankly, I’ve been putting the brakes on my writing.

I’ve talked about this before, but to me, writing is like driving. You’re not great at it when you start. I remember the first time my mom let me drive our old 1985 Mazda stick shift. I made it to the end of our dirt road just fine, put the car back in first, and when Mom said turn right, I did. Right into the ditch. She never told me to stop turning, after all! But with practice, we all get better. Every single thing we learn is a new skill. Some of us prefer automatics; others stick shifts. Some of us have both. Some of us like convertibles, others minivans, others sports cars. Some of us never get away from driving in the 3 and 9 positions; others drive with our knees while we do ‘YMCA’ with our hands. (Not that I do that or anything.)

About a month ago I gave my friend a copy of my work in progress. It’s definitely not his genre – his favorite book is The Godfather, and I think his second favorite is basically anything by or about Theodore Roosevelt, so an urban fantasy about ghosts was, I knew, going to be a stretch for him – but I trust his judgement. Plus, he’s well-read, so I knew that where I was most struggling with this book – the plot structure – was where he could really zoom in and help me.

Then, over the last week, I started having doubts. Not about giving him the book – about the book itself. Again. This is what I always do – I run through the things that might or might not be true, might or might not be wrong, and I freak out. Put the brakes on the whole thing. Go back through. Rip it all up and burn it down and start over. And in the end, I think for a while it’s better – but then, the cycle starts over and I’m right back where I started.

In fact, it’s been so bad lately that I haven’t even been able to write on the sequel – I know more or less what revisions I want to make and I was able to work on it a little last week and felt pretty good about that, but since then, nope. Again, the doubts come running in and the brakes get put on. It’s sort of like driving a Formula One car, I imagine – you have to drive fast, you have to be 100% committed to putting balls to the wall, but going 200 mph is so freaking scary, and when you add in another 15 or 20 cars and put them on the same track – well, you can either put your foot on the gas or the brakes. Brakes are bad in a Formula One race. Brakes are bad in writing, too.

And I’ve put the brakes on lately.

In fact, last night I called him and said, “It’s all just a waste of time. It took me ten years to put that piece of crap in your hands!”

“It hasn’t been a waste of time,” he said. “You’ve been doing something you love, and you’ve been getting better.”

It took a little while, but he convinced me to not give up quite yet. Admitted it’s not his genre, but that so far he’s not finding anything glaring. For now, at least, it’s enough to get me back to the coffee shop, with the Hamilton soundtrack on my earbuds (my new obsession!), and back to writing.

Foot off the brake. Back on the track.

 

Outlining for Pantsers – or How to be Organized When You’re Not.

You may have heard the old “plotters vs. pantsers” thing. Plotters outline. They have detailed notes on chapters and characters before they ever start to write. They have notes on their bulletin boards and when they’re done with a novel, it’s done. They don’t take random road trips; they take their car to the shop for an oil change and new tires first, and not only do they have AAA maps, they’ve also got a GPS and fully charged cell phones, and an itinerary planned down to the hour.

Pantsers, on the other hand, say screw that! Let’s take this road, it looks interesting. Hope there’s a gas station soon, because we’re sitting on a quarter of a tank, but hey! If not, we should have cell service. Wait. Where’d the signal go? Oh well! Keep going! They have a character, or even a scene, in mind, and they just write until they either finish the novel or the novel finishes them.

Guess which I am? 🙂

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been involved in edits and rewrites to a manuscript. It’s changed considerably in the past months, and I’m having trouble keeping up with it all! My friends think I’m so organized. I haven’t got the heart to tell them it’s all a ruse, a clever illusion so complete that even Penn and Teller would be fooled.

There’s a saying among writers:  “You can either plot it before you start, or after you finish.” Pantsers often end up with a novel that’s a bit of a hot mess – the characters are often fantastic, and a lot of the scenes are engaging and surprising because pantsers have this ability to let the characters do whatever the hell they want to do. But they may not flow well, and some scenes may be extraneous. Some plot ideas are just dead ends. So when they finish that first draft, they have to put the work back into it to turn that hot mess into something coherent and cohesive. Been there, done that. Want my spare T-shirt? 🙂

Last year at the Rose State Writers’ Conference, I attended a workshop on “Outlining Your Novel.” I took those notes out this morning to see if there was anything in there that I could use for my current predicament.

  • The presenter argued that you should outline ahead of time, even if you don’t follow it. This is because when you start, you should at least have an idea of where you think you’re going. And if you get stuck, or start to go down one of those scary roads, you’ve got that outline there to maybe bring you back.
  • For her own novels, she makes a list of 10 key scenes she wants to see in the story, scenes that she’s really looking forward to writing. Three or four of them are what she terms “money shots” – scenes she really wants to get on paper, scenes she’s dying to write. The others are going to be good too, but not quite as gripping. These are jotted down in no particular order.
  • As we all know from reading and writing, stories often fall apart in the middle. She suggested looking at the three-act storyline (which I admit, I’ve never truly understood and still don’t). For me, the best way to do it is to think about it this way:  what does your character want? What are they going to do to get it? And what can do you do to stop them from getting it?
  • Every scene should lead to the next one. Your character has a setback? Let her rebound in the next scene. Your character’s in trouble? Leave that chapter on a cliffhanger and continue that scene to the next instead. Keep the reader reading! Likewise, each ‘act’ must build towards something. (Truthfully, I think this is where pantsers sometimes have an advantage:  we just follow the characters, so when they get in trouble, we follow them to see how they get out of it.)

HOWEVER. This presenter admitted that outlines change. You may start out knowing precisely where you want this novel to go – let’s say you’ve got a heroine who is fighting against her evil older sister, a queen. But then you get into the novel more. You start to figure out who these characters are. You realize that the queen’s not evil at all – she’s just frightened and misunderstood. And that love interest you created for the heroine? He’s not as nice as you thought he was. Voila! You’ve just written Frozen. Congratulations. As you spend time with  your characters and get to know them, they’ll start to do things you didn’t imagine. And when they do that, your story takes on a life of its own. That’s one of the reasons why outlines can be tricky – if you get too attached to them, refuse to follow that interesting dirt road your characters insist on going down, you could stall out.

Another way to keep stories moving – and another good reason for outlines – is that there’s never just one plot. There’s your Main Plot, the Big Picture if you will. Take Harry Potter #1, for example. The Big Picture is Harry finding out who he really is, and preparing to go against Voldemort. But how many smaller plotlines are there? His friendships with Ron and Hermione. The Quidditch team. His rivalry with Draco Malfoy. The classes he’s taking. Do they all tie into the Big Picture? Yes. They all help to create that Big Picture, don’t they? But the smaller plots can get lost. Outlining can help you plug them in.

Outlines needn’t be great big things with Roman numerals and huge chapter synopses. Where’s the fun in that? But let’s say you’re like me, and you’re a pantser who’s rewriting a novel. Where can that take you?

What I’m doing is creating a to-do list for the novel (which I discussed earlier this month). I know what scenes need to stay and which are going to have to go; I know what scenes I need to write. My job now is to figure out where they go, and then tie them together. I can’t worry about tying them together at the moment; we’ll get to the flow and confluence of the scenes later. Since I’m adding a character, I have to weave in his story line to the original manuscript. And along the way, figure out where scenes go for maximum buildup to the end.

So my outline is, I guess, a work in progress. I know it will help immensely once I get it done. And there’s no right or wrong way to do it. Like I said – Roman numerals are not necessary! For examples of this, see the links below.

 

http://www.betternovelproject.com/blog/series-outline/ – Deconstructing J.K. Rowling’s Series Grids.

http://michelleboydwaters.com/handwritten-outlines-of-famous-authors/ – Some great images of ‘plot outlines’ by famous authors, including Joseph Heller and Sylvia Plath.

Writing ‘Order of the Phoenix’ – Rowling’s Outline

I think this has been going around the internet for a bit, but I thought I’d share it anyway — JK Rowling’s ‘spreadsheet’ for Order of the Phoenix. It’s similar to what I do with Post-It Notes and a blank bedroom wall, but neater. (And clearly, her cats haven’t been having fun with this, either.)

http://electricliterature.com/j-k-rowlings-spreadsheet-shows-how-she-wrote-harry-potter/