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Writing 101 – Pantsers and Plotsers

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This is my second Writing 101 article. The purpose is to provide a little of the lessons learned I have discovered over the years as an independent author (Indie). It may help you, or it may not.

Pantsers and Plotsers

The writing community seems to like to divide itself into two broad groups: the pantser and the plotser. A plotser is someone who plots out their novel, and a pantser is someone who writes by “flying from the seat of their pants” (i.e. makes it up as they go along). Each group is passionate about their form.

There are pros and cons for each method. I am firmly in the plotter realm. I carefully craft my story line, with an eye to timings, sequence, etc. I work backward from the climax of my novel to the start, work my way back to the end, and then start writing. I use a product called Scapple (developed by Literature and Latte – the makers of Scrivener). It’s nothing more than a Microsoft Visio-like product. But if you use Scrivener you can suck Scapple outlines in; which is nice.

I truly don’t fully understand pantsers. I admit I’m a little blind on the subject. Pantsers basically sit down, open their writing software (or pad of paper) and start writing. I always imagine Snoopy sitting on his doghouse writing “It was a dark and stormy night…” when I think of pantsers. Snoopy is a pantser, lol.

There are articles for pantsers on how to plot as one (really?), and they have me scratching my head. I suppose there are pros to being a pantser. You have total freedom to go wherever you want. You are not confined to an outline and can do whatever you like. I suppose you will have moments where you pleasantly surprise yourself, as well. The problem I see with this approach is that you will often write yourself into a corner. I did this with my first novel (unpublished) attempt and set it aside before plotting out the New Druids series. I have since written five novels in that series with one more to go. My first novel is sitting on Scrivener wasting away. I plan on going back to that novel and plot the thing out. The point is, being a pantser stopped my writing for years. Being a plotter gave me wings.

I suppose for short stories and even novellas, the pantser approach would work. I still wouldn’t recommend it. There is still a structure to writing, regardless of size, and I believe that plotting will achieve that best.

How to Plot

There are several plotting tools which some writers use. Examples are the Snowflake Method, and the Hero’s Journey. There are even templates for these plotting tools for Scrivener. Just try Google-ing it. These tools give you nothing more than a template to plot out your story. The Hero’s Journey provides plot points and character development stages. Snowflake is a little more complicated. But they are only tools. You need to fill in all the detail. The point I am making is that they are not a quick fix or a magic bullet to your writing.

I admit to using neither. For better or worse, I have read enough fiction in my life that I know how a good story develops. On my own, I plot out the story, provide challenges, surprises, challenge my characters (and kill them sometimes), all while keeping my eye on the goal: which is the climax. I know that a flat story fails to excite a reader. You need the challenges of life, the antagonist thwarting the best laid plans, and the surprise no one saw coming. Readers want the protagonist to rise to the challenges and become a better person and discover something about themselves they never knew existed. Why? Because we all want that with our own lives. It can’t be all vanilla. We read and watch movies in order to live through the life of the protagonist. We cheer them and cry with them. THAT’s what you need to write.

There are tons of articles on the web explaining how to plot. I roll my eyes at most of them. You see, I don’t believe you can cookie cutter a plot. You first need a compelling story. Then you need to know how to write. This is not the Disney movie Ratatouille: not everyone can write well. But I plot out my story line. Use a whiteboard, sticky notes, or Scapple; whatever floats your boat.

When I write I always try to see my writing through the eyes of the reader. My plotting is the same. I can predict easily 9 times out of 10 the conclusion of any Hollywood movie within the first 30 minutes. I love it when I am surprised when a novel or movie goes in a direction I did not see coming. I try to capture that in my writing.

And admit it, it is those kinds of novels that keep you reading until the last page is turned. Sometimes it is the journey through the novel that captivates you. More often than naught it is the ending you are anticipating; with a plot that builds and twists. You hold your breath and turn to the climax and hope to be amazed. It’s true some endings are inevitable. You knew Tom Hanks would get off the island and that Matt Damon would escape Mars. But some are not and we remember those stories so vividly (I see dead people…). You have that “ah-ha!” moment and then lie back and put all those sneaky little clues together and you have a new favourite author.

Plotting Benefits

Because I plot out my novels, and break them down into chapters and scenes, and then populate Scrivener with all those details, I have found a wonderful freedom in my writing. I can write any chapter in any order I want. I can take a plot line and write it out in its entirety, or I can jump from scene to scene. That is so liberating. Especially if I run up against a particularly difficult section. I can put it aside and focus on other areas. It’s wonderful.

Another benefit is plotting will have a greater chance of removing plot holes. Plot holes are horrible. It suspends the reader and kicks them out of your world like a glass of freezing cold water being poured down your back. Plot holes mean you have failed in your writing. Examples of plot holes are: illogical events, contradictions, unresolved story lines, impossible events, and continuity errors. Imagine the Three Little Pigs with the wolf starting with the brick house and working his way down.

By the way, even as a plotter, I am not immune to plot holes. However, because I can see the entire story line, I can easily rectify the problem once I identify it (read my blog article Writing 101 – Editing). My imagination is the best spackle there is. I can patch, sand and paint over anything.

The Best of Both Worlds

So time for a full confession: I am a plotter AND a pantser.

Yup.

But! I plot out my story line as fully as I can first. The problem is that I can’t plot out everything. Also, as I write – and I’ve mentioned this before – my characters often write their own story. I can’t count the number of times a character has changed dialogue and even changed events in my New Druids series. This is very much a pantser moment for me when it happens because I almost always go with it. I trust my characters know themselves better than I do. The beauty here is because I have plotted out my story, I can see the immediate cause and effect of that change and adjust relatively quickly. I consider this the best of both worlds.

Conclusion

I must say, every author will have their own approach to writing. If you are new to writing, I cannot emphasise enough that it is better to just write than worry about plotting out an entire novel. Writing is about writing. It’s why it’s called writing. Duh, moment there folks. You will produce something and something is always better than nothing.

I do suggest that you try to plot though. This means that you have the entire story in your head. Or maybe just a cool ending. Or something in the middle. Start there and work your way backward, forwards, and sideways. Then finish it. Please. The world needs to read your story. Trust yourself.

Writing 101 – Editing

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If you are new to the world of writing, allow me to peel back the curtain a little. This will be the first blog entry where I try to expose the complicated world of independent authors (Indie Authors). Maybe these will help other wannabe authors out there on their road to becoming an author.

This first article will address editing.

Indie Authors and Failure to Edit

There are a number of Indie Authors who do not take the time, money and effort to have their work polished. I was guilty of this error with my first novel – sort of. Reasoning can be varied why new indie authors don’t follow this simple rule: always have your work edited.

There are a variety of resources for editing. They range from amateur to professional and by very little money to a lot of money. For my first novel, I found (after very little searching online) a woman who offered inexpensive editing. I paid for this and thought I had received good feedback and results. In hindsight, it was very poor work. My mother always said “you get what you pay for” and I believe that. I had a beta reader (and now a good friend) for my fourth novel read my first novel and she sent me pages and pages of errors. My ego took a hit that day. And I felt shame. And I loved her for it.

TOOLS

The truth is, it is expensive to get really good editing. There are tools today that will greatly help you; such as ProWritingAid and Grammarly. They improve your style, grammar, highlight overused words, score your readability, expose clichés, and variety of other fantastic tools. I use ProWritingAid and bought a lifetime premium licence. Even better for me, ProWritingAid works seamlessly with Scrivener 3. I can load my *.scriv file directly into ProWritingAid, make changes, save it, and open the book in Scrivener and all is well. Both ProWritingAid and Grammarly will embed within Microsoft Word, so there is that if you use Word to write (shudder).

What these tools don’t do is make your novel sing. They won’t point out plot holes and character flaws, and how that sentence doesn’t help your story, or how you keep telling the reader what they are seeing rather than showing them. The tools are great but they are not a replacement for humans who specialise in editing.

EDITORS

What can an editor do for you? Easy answer: their job is to make your story better. They provide clarity, a better enjoyment for the reader, clear up logic, flow, sentence structure, character development, and a variety of other issues. They also correct typos, but this is a minuscule service compared to the polish they apply. It’s the difference between wiping down a kitchen counter and having someone reorganise your kitchen, put in new cupboards, replace worn out appliances, and disinfect the whole thing. Get it?

You need to understand their services and what they provide:

  1. critique: get an expert opinion on your novel’s prospects with advice on how to improve it
  2. proofread: to read and mark corrections
  3. edit: to prepare for publication

A critique is valuable in allowing you to determine just how much work you are looking to pay for. It tells you what works and doesn’t work. They’ll tell you what state your novel is in and should provide an estimate for the amount of editing required. I don’t value this services very much. I prefer tools and beta readers to get my novel to a final draft state.

Proofreading is not as difficult as editing and therefore can be a cheaper service, but it still performs a vital role. Proofreading will only correct grammatical, spelling, punctuation and other language mistakes. If you go this route, take the time to finalise your manuscript first. Don’t give them a first or second draft. You will piss them off. I proof tons of stuff at work. Being an author means my co-workers think I have some special powers or something. So I get everything. I can immediately tell when someone hands me something they wrote sitting on the toilet. I give it back and say “nice try”.

BETA READER POWER

Use the tools I mentioned above to get your novel as close to a final product as possible. Then send it out to your beta readers (yes, you need beta readers!). They are fantastic as another set of eyes who can find the typos you no longer can see because you are too close to the work. They will also advise on areas they don’t like (or really like!) in your novel. Do yourself a favour: if a beta reader says they don’t like something, listen to them. No one likes it when they say your baby looks ugly in those clothes. Don’t argue. They might be right and probably are. Sometimes they are wrong, but usually only because they don’t have the whole plot of your series in mind (like you do).

Don’t use family as beta readers. They will blow well-meaning sunshine up your nether regions. You need constructive criticism. Only the power of a stranger who doesn’t care for your feelings will deliver this. Some beta readers take immense pleasure in ripping your novel apart. Gaea bless them! They are wonderful.

NOW THE EDITOR

It is possible that you have managed to get your novel into a perfect state. Typos are gone. Plot holes are filled. Characters are rich and vibrant. Congratulations. You might still want a proofreader. You will need to judge that. If you didn’t have beta readers, you might want to pause here and consider the value of hiring a proofreader. Once you decide, and either use a proofreader or not, you need an editor. Resist the urge to plop your novel on Amazon and expect instant recognition. The first typo or bullshit plot line your reader encounters WILL result in a negative review. You need to avoid that. Indie authors live and die based on reviews.

Depending on your financial state, it might limit your options. You could try fiverr.com or freelancer.com for inexpensive editors. You can try some start-up publishing houses or even find an English major holding a diploma with the ink still wet on it. Your call. But please try the internet and research editors. Also, go to indie author Facebook sites that specialise in this area and ask for guidance and recommendations. One thing I learned right away as an indie author is that other indie authors are the best people in the world I have met so far. They will gladly help. Don’t be afraid to ask.

COSTS

As said already, costs will vary. I would suggest a $200 editing job for a 100K word manuscript is a risk. Most editors will charge per word. Usually around $0.025 per word (or 2.5 cents per word). Yup. Around $2500 CAD. You should expect unlimited revisions with that. You are paying for a final product that is polished. There are middle ground editors. There are maybe friends who say they can edit. Be careful of said friends. There is a world of difference between a friend who think they can write really well (just like you, actually) and someone with years in the industry getting novels ready for publication. Using my previous kitchen analogy, it’s the difference between knowing that friend who can replace your dishwasher and the hired professional who completely renovates your kitchen to a modern world standard. You can hire a cheap contractor, or go all out. Your manuscript is your baby. You decide its future.

Stoc: Review

The Red-Headed Book Lover has reviewed my third novel and once again she humbles me with her praise. It’s fun to read a great review and I hope you can enjoy her words as much as I do. Click Here to go to the review.

Writing is such a passion for me. I often get asked how do I do it, or how do I get my ideas. I can’t answer that because it just comes so naturally. I live lost in my imagination most of the time – and I suspect everyone does this – I watch the world and think “what if this happened, or that happened?” Writing for me is just an extension of that. I find it so easy to write that it truly is a pleasure. 

NaNoWriMo 2018

NaNoWriMo is back! 

“What is NaNoWriMo?” you ask.

Why it’s the National Novel Writing Month! The goal is to write 50,000 words during the month of November. This works out to be 1,667 words per day!

“Huh?” you ask. “Is that a lot?”

Well, a chapter in one of my novels averages 5,000 words and I can crank out when I am in the zone, about 8,000 words in an evening. So, for me, 1,667 words is not a lot. Relatively speaking. Except: I procrastinate. Sadly, I will put off writing for a week and then try and play catch up with feverish intensity.

Participants know NaNoWriMo can be intense and frustrating and scary, at times. The happy news is that I am a member of the Ottawa NaNoWriMo branch. We meet throughout the month at cafes and we encourage each other. I attend the Barrhaven meetups near me every Monday night in November. The ladies are wonderful and I find I can find focus. You want to meet me? Come out to the Ottawa NaNoWriMo meetups on Monday night in Barrhaven, Nepean. I’ll be there!

By the way, I did this last year for my fourth novel, Freamhaigh and I attribute NaNoWriMo with allowing me to release the novel in April this year, when normally I don’t publish until late May – July. So thanks, NaNoWriMo!

If you are a writer looking for inspiration and need that extra push, then I recommend NaNoWriMo. It gives you a structured goal and rewards you with badges and qudos from fellow NaNoCrats. All that we creative souls need to thrive is love and adoration!

This year I am starting NaNoWriMo with over 20K words already written of my fifth novel, Cill Darae. This means that I will, by the end of November, have over two-thirds of the novel completed. That makes me happy, but I am counting my chickens, aren’t I?

So Happy November, folks!

 

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