Tag Archives: pantsing

Wobbling On

It will probably surprise nobody to learn that I spent yesterday, and will spend today, taking the least sensible of all the writing options open to me; viz., carrying on with my new WiP. I have nothing to offer here in terms of a sensible explanation besides the fact that the story is bashing me around the brain and writing it seems to soothe the savage beast inside my skull.

Image: dailymail.co.uk

Image: dailymail.co.uk

It’s a little like examining a massive tapestry in a huge, unlit room using only a tiny, weak battery-powered torch. All I can see is the picture which is illuminated by the sputtering beam of light in my hand; the bits still to come are shrouded in darkness. I do know what I want to happen in the story, of course – I have a skeletal plot structure and an ending in mind. The detail, however, and the actual meat of the story which will bring me from where I am now to that wonderful point where I can write ‘The End’, has yet to materialise.

But that’s the fun of it, isn’t it? Isn’t it?

I’m working on a story which I first came up with almost eight years ago, during which time the protagonist was a couple of years younger than she is now and my writing style screamed like something out of the nineteen-fifties. I have a draft chapter of this WiP saved, which I wrote in 2006, and I’m surprised words like ‘balderdash!’ ‘jolly good,’ and – of course ‘lashings of ginger beer!’ (which, apparently, doesn’t actually appear anywhere in Enid Blyton’s oeuvre, despite the stereotype) aren’t studded through it like cloves in a boiled ham. I really find it hilarious that the writing I was doing a few years ago is like something from a different planet – it took me years to shake off the style of writing found in the books I loved to read as a child, and develop a voice of my own.

I’m still not sure I’ve managed it, but I think I’m on the right path at least.

My. That's a big path. Image: helenotway.edublogs.org

My. That’s a big path.
Image: helenotway.edublogs.org

However, I tried to explain this current story to my husband the other night, and I ended up going round and round in a ring of syllables, getting more and more confused. I finished on the word ‘basically,’ which is never a good sign you’ve explained yourself clearly, and he turned to me and said ‘Er. Yeah, that sounds… um.’

I made it sound terrible. Absolutely awful.

Now, admittedly, I’m not very far into the writing of this story yet – fewer than 7,000 words of a first draft currently exist – but, as I said, I do know where I want it to go, more or less. In my head, it all hangs together beautifully. But when I tried to put it into words it came out as something like:

‘So, there’s this pilchard, and it lost its watermelon a few years before in a tragic squash-making accident, and then there’s this spider-thing, with a net, that wants to, you know, catch things, and there’s a bucket and spade which the pilchard really wants and so the spider-thing decides to take it first.’

Clear, non? Of course. I know you guys know what I’m getting at.

It’s important to be able to talk about your work in a way that doesn’t make you sound like you need a long lie-down; summarising your plot and characters should, really, be something you practise from the get-go when you’re writing a book. You never know when you might need to pitch something, after all. Of course, it does help to have written the thing first, and that it’s polished and buffed to as high a shine as you can manage before you start pitching it, but still – always be prepared. It does worry me that a story so clearly outlined in my head can turn into a mouthful of must when I try to explain it, and I hope I’ll be able to do it justice in the future.

I’m also feeling a little like a cobweb in a stiff breeze about this book because I’m taking the same approach as I took for the previous one – ‘Emmeline’ – wherein I knew what I wanted to say, but the story pretty much told itself as it went. I’m trying to rely on my inner pantser, which involves forcibly silencing my far more vocal plotter-persona. So far, the story has set itself in a new location, it has raised the protagonist’s age by at least two – if not three – years, it has developed a whole new set of characters and it has given the Antagonist an entirely new and (if I may say so) deliciously plausible reason for being so Evil. During yesterday’s writing a new character – a boy! – walked into the story and held out his hand in greeting, and I didn’t know his name until I typed it.

So, it was really like meeting someone new for the first time. In a weird, spooky and ‘man, my brain is strange’ sort of way.

And yes, I know I know I should be finishing ‘Eldritch’ (again) and trying to work out just exactly what is wrong with ‘Tider’ and chewing my nails to the quick as I wait for news of ‘Emmeline’, but it’s really hard to resist the lure of a new story.

So, for the moment, I am bending to temptation, and hoping it’s the right decision.

Image: writeontrack.ie

Image: writeontrack.ie

The Blog Tour Q&A

A hundred thousand welcomes!

This morning, I have the inestimable pleasure of taking part in a blog tour; the ever-wonderful and marvellously talented Susan Lanigan (whose novel, ‘White Feathers’, will be published later this year, book fans), has nominated me to carry on the Q&A torch. So, here I go.

Image: researchvoodoo.com

Image: researchvoodoo.com

Since I have nothing like as cool as an upcoming book to talk about, I’ll have to answer the questions based on my two most active WiPs; technically, I’m working on both of them at the moment. So, it’s not really breaking the rules. Right?

What am I working on?

The first of my current Works-in-Progress, ‘Eldritch’, is a book which I had thought was finished and done with several months ago. However, it would appear not. A very kind and generous agent-person, who shall remain nameless, gave me some wonderfully useful and constructive feedback on the book a while back which – unfortunately, in a way – necessitated the total deconstruction of the story and the story world, and its rebuilding almost from scratch. The characters stayed the same, and the basic plot, but everything else – narrative voice, motivation, stakes (i.e. what’s at risk if the heroes don’t succeed), structure and scope had to be reimagined.

Invigorating work.

Image: superstock.com

Image: superstock.com

‘Eldritch’ is about a boy named Jeff who, on the day he turns thirteen, receives a strange gift from an uncle he’s never heard of before. But the gift is no ordinary one: it is a deeply powerful object, designed (or so Jeff is told) to test whether or not he has inherited the magic that runs in his family – but does his uncle have a larger and more sinister motive? (Spoiler alert: yes.)

My other Work-in-Progress is one that should be familiar to anyone who’s been hanging around here for any length of time. It’s going under the name ‘Emmeline and the Ice-God’, but that’s only a holding title, so so speak. It grew out of my NaNoWriMo project in November 2013 and was completed in January 2014. I have edited, polished and buffed this one several times, and it’s lurking at the corners of my mind, giving me no peace whatsoever. It’s my intention to start submitting it in earnest in (probably) March, if my nerve holds until then.

‘Emmeline’ is the story of an odd little girl who, when her parents are kidnapped, is sent immediately to live with strangers. On the way to her new life she meets an odd little boy with no name, calling himself ‘Thing’, who doesn’t know his own age or anything about his past. They become sort-of friends, despite Emmeline’s misgivings, and he helps her to escape from a dangerous situation. Before they’ve even caught their breaths after this scary encounter, however, Emmeline is abducted by a gang of strange and frightening men. Thing, with the help of a group of people calling themselves ‘The White Flower’, who seem to know a lot about Emmeline and her family, sets off after her… But who has taken her, and why?

And what is the secret of Thing’s past?

*cue dramatic music*

So, yeah. That’s where I’m at. Besides trying to prepare stuff for competitions and magazine submissions, and stuff. Never a dull moment.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Well – it’s mine. Isn’t that enough? I write children’s books (or, at least, it’s my ambition to write children’s books, ones which are publishable and enjoyable and which will be read and loved), and they all have elements in common – a child protagonist in a world (usually) devoid of parental-figures, for whatever reason; an unsettling challenge or a frightening adventure; things are learned about oneself and the world along the way; friendship is put to the test; monsters are encountered and dealt with – and my books are no different from this tried-and-tested model.

I’d like to think my characters make my work different from other books in their genre, perhaps. I like to write dialogue, and I like to write with humour, and I hope that makes my work memorable. I’m interested in writing about children who are a bit strange, even eccentric, because those are the sort of books I loved to read as a kid.

In fact, I might as well come clean. Those are the sort of books I love to read now, too.

How does my writing process work?

Through panic, mainly. Panic, and my all-consuming fear of failure.

Things that work in my favour: I am good at imposing deadlines on myself, and meeting them, and I am a goal-oriented type. What that means in practice is I can’t let myself shut off of an evening unless I’ve made a particular word-count or hit a particular point in the text, or whatever. Not always a good thing, from a peace of mind point of view, but it’s good for the old self-motivation.

Usually, I plot things out to the nth degree – I didn’t with ‘Emmeline’, and it worked wonderfully, so I will try that again for my next project – and I like to have a sense of the characters before I begin, so I sometimes jot down biographies and motivations and the places in the plot where a certain character’s actions will intersect with another’s, and what effects that’s likely to have, and so on. I like to have an idea of how the book will end before I begin, but I don’t always manage that.

I tend to write careful, self-edited first drafts which are massively overlong. I then make at least two on-screen edits, looking for inconsistencies and errors and repetition (the ‘Find’ function in Word is my best friend), and when I’ve done this I let the work sit for a while. Then, it’s time to print and take the whole book apart with scribbled corrections, which I really enjoy. Then, after another period of percolation, I go over the book on the computer screen again, looking to cut words wherever possible; anything which isn’t utterly necessary is junked. Then it gets left to sit, again, and checked over once more (possibly in print) before the submission process begins.

So, that’s me.

I figure passing on the baton is part of this whole process, so – if she’s willing – I’d like to tag the fabulous E. R. Murray to answer these questions, too.

And finally – thank you, Susan, for considering me worthy of the Blog Tour Torch!

Image: friday-ad.co.uk

Image: friday-ad.co.uk




Walking into the Wilderness

Wow. So, yesterday’s blog post seems to have touched a chord with a lot of readers. I’m glad to have written something which so many people identified with, but also sad that it had to be written – if that makes sense. I wrote yesterday’s post filled with a potent mixture of anger, sorrow and confusion, and I was glad to have the escape of ‘Emmeline’ to take my mind off it. Nothing helps me to refocus better than throwing myself into whatever I’m working on, and getting out of my own head for a while.

Image: helenafrithpowell.com

Image: helenafrithpowell.com

Thanks to everyone who took the time to read yesterday’s post about crime rates in Ireland and the parlous state of our small nation; I really hope that, very soon, I’ll be able to write a blog post about how wonderfully we’ve progressed and how Ireland is well on its way to becoming a Utopian dream.

But I’m not going to hold my breath in the meantime.

Anyway, today’s post is back to ‘business as usual’: it’s time to talk about ‘Emmeline’.

Image: cuppacafe.com

Image: cuppacafe.com

Writing continued apace yesterday. In fact, it was a little too apace. I had an upper word limit for this project, which – as of yesterday – was smashed, and I sailed right on through like I hadn’t a care in the world. That upper word limit, for the curious, was 80,000 words. Anything above this – as I’ve learned through bitter, bitter experience – is straying into the realm of No Longer Suitable For Children, apparently (even though I often read longer books than this as a kid, but no matter.) I am not finished with the story yet, though I am almost there; I’d hope that within 5,000 words, I should have it nailed. That means – if the Great Spirit is with me – I’ll have draft 1 done this week.

This week.

It also means I’ll have a heckuvalot of edits to do.

Image: gracebooks.org

Image: gracebooks.org

But that’s fine. All in good time, and all that.

Something strange occurred to me yesterday: I realised that I have basically pantsed this whole novel. By ‘pantsing’, of course I mean ‘written it without a pre-arranged plot’; I’ve just sat down and copied out whatever the voices in my head told me to, pretty much. Most of it has been made up on the spur of the moment. I haven’t done my usual thing of laboriously working out family trees for each character, and setting out plans getting to the heart of their ‘motivation’; this, I suppose, is a consequence of it being a NaNoWriMo project, in essence. I began it in a burst of inspiration, and it has continued that way. All things considered, I think I’ve done well in getting it to over 80,000 words, with an end in sight. It’s been exhilarating, if a little exhausting and nerve-wracking, particularly in the last few weeks; certainly, it’s exciting to be at the helm of a writing project which feels like it’s steering itself instead of one which feels so hemmed-in by plotting that the life gets pinched out of the story.

Where it may pose a problem, however, is in knocking the whole thing into shape. I’m sure, much like my knitting, that when I look back over the entirety of the project all I’ll see will be loose threads and gaping holes everywhere crying out to be fixed. However, I do feel, as first drafts go, that ‘Emmeline’ is fairly strong; I’ve been lucky, insofar as I’ve been blessed with rounded characters and clear voices, and they help to carry the structure of the book. That doesn’t mean that my work in editing the story will be any less – in fact, I feel the need to do a good job even more keenly, because I love these characters and I’m committed to this book, and I want to do them justice.

As the story stands at the moment, I have eight main characters, all vying for their own ends. Several of them are looking for the same thing; several others are looking to save their own skin. Yet more are determined to save the life of someone they love, whatever the consequences. At stake are Great Things like the fate of the world. The drama in which they are enmeshed is taking place in a frozen wasteland, sprung entirely from my imagination, in which the characters encounter strange creatures and nefarious goings-on and mythical horrors.

Sounds like I have a handle on it, right? Well.

I have a vague, overall idea of what I want to happen, but what I don’t have is a cast-iron plan of ‘Event A will happen, and Event B will happen as a consequence of that, and then either Event C or Event D will take place, depending on my mood’; I’m pretty much just writing, and seeing what happens. It’s like being snowblind in the wilderness, or – in my case – walking about without my glasses on. Things exist in a general sense, but the finer details are invisible until I’m right on top of them.

I can’t say I entirely recommend writing a novel this way, but I feel like it has done me some good to learn how to loosen up a little and trust myself. I’m not entirely there yet; I still find it hard to open up the file of a morning and cast my eye over the twisty mess I made yesterday in order to sort it out today, but one thing’s for certain: it’s never boring.

Off I go! Image: arthistory327.wordpress.com

Off I go!
Image: arthistory327.wordpress.com

Wherever you’re wandering today, may your path be smooth and may wonders be around every corner.

Write on!



A Thickening Plot

If you write, do you have a method?

Just to be clear – I’m not talking about the sort of method this guy would’ve understood:

There are no words that do this picture adequate justice.  Image: guardian.co.uk

There are no words that do this picture adequate justice. I’ll just leave it here, and you can do what you want with it. Okay? Okay.
Image: guardian.co.uk

I’m talking about whether you have a routine – as in, do you write in a particular place, at a particular time? Do you prefer a pen to a computer? Do you have to start your writing session with a cup of coffee, or a spot of bracing Tai-Chi, or a shot of tequila?* Do you dress in ‘outdoor’ clothes, or do you prefer to slob around in your sweats, or do you (and if you do, it would perhaps be prudent to keep this information to yourself) write entirely in the nude? I’m sure some people do. I firmly believe that if you can imagine something, no matter how ‘out there’ it might seem, it has happened somewhere in the world at some time.

Not – I hasten to add – that I’m imagining any of you writing in the nude right now.

Please excuse me as I drag this post back on track; talk amongst yourselves, if you wouldn't mind! Image: iblogfashion.blogspot.com

Please excuse me as I drag this post back on track; talk amongst yourselves, if you wouldn’t mind!
Image: iblogfashion.blogspot.com

Anyway – moving briskly on.

So, I’m wondering today about routine, and whether or not it’s a good thing from a writer’s point of view. My writing days are pretty much all the same – I get up early, I start early, I work right through the day, usually writing through lunch. I go for a walk in the early afternoon, most days, and then it’s back to writing until about 5pm, whereupon I start getting ready for my husband’s return from work, and I do my best to switch off for the evening. This morning, however, there was a little disruption to that routine, and – would you believe it? – I found it one of the most useful and inspirational things I’ve done in a long time.

My husband had to do some work this morning on our computer, which meant I wasn’t able to log on and footle around on the internet like I usually do first thing. I normally spend about ten minutes checking my blog and my emails, looking at Twitter and seeing what’s going on in the world, gathering inspiration for my blog post and for the day ahead, before I get stuck into the real meat of my day’s work. Today, though, I had the simple pleasure of sitting over a book, waiting for my hard-working and apologetic husband to get through the task he had to complete. Of course it was wonderful to have him here at home for a little longer than expected, even if he was focused on the job at hand during all that time – but that wasn’t the only wonderful thing that happened as a result of my enforced time-out.

A whole chunk of plot, something really exciting and unforeseen, just dropped into my head this morning as I sat looking out at the brightening day, thinking about my work. A whole section of storyline, compelling and interesting and dramatic, started to bloom inside my head like a shy rosebud as I ran to find a pen and some paper to make notes, scrambling like a ninny (I never have pen and paper handy!) I got the bones of the idea down on paper, and then I sat looking at it for a while, wondering how on earth this idea just landed in my brain, and where it came from. Yesterday, when I switched off my computer after my day’s writing, I left the story at a point which could have led me in several different directions, and I wasn’t sure which way I was going to go. I decided I wasn’t going to worry about it. I was keeping things loose, and easy, and free. I was relaxed enough to let it lie, at least overnight, and see what would develop. And, this morning, that relaxed patience paid off.

The last time I wrote ‘Tider’, I had the whole thing exhaustively plotted, right from Day 1. I knew where I wanted the story to go, I had an idea of how the last scene would look before I’d even written the first chapter, I had diagrams and drawings and schematics of all the different plots and subplots and characters and their relationships to one another. I did character profiles, finding out what my protagonists liked to eat for breakfast and what sort of dreams they’d had for their lives as children and how the colour blue made them feel, and all sorts of things. I had Big Ideas for this book, and I wanted it to work. I really did.

But even with all that effort, it just… didn’t. ‘Tider’ (Mark 1) didn’t work. It couldn’t work. It was like a crab with a shell that just won’t stop growing, getting heavier and heavier until finally the creature can’t carry it any more, and it just has to lie down and let the shell crush it slowly into the sea floor. There was so much plot, so many things happening, that the characters were lost under all the encrustation. I didn’t take into account the fact that as you write a book, the plot changes – your characters affect the way the story unfolds. I didn’t, of course, know that when I started out. The plot I’d created was complicated and inflexible and mechanical – Event A affects Events B and C, which affect Event D, and so on – and didn’t allow for spontaneous change. Hence, I was always patching it up and trying to fix it with desperate last-minute tweaks, which ended up having ripple effects that, finally, spelled doom for the story overall.

I didn’t see all this at the time. I do now, which is great, but I wish I’d realised it as I was writing the book. That’s how we learn, though, isn’t it?

This time around, I don’t have an exhaustive plot in place for ‘Tider’. I have an idea where I want the story to go, but it’s not set in stone. The chunk of plot I came up with today only brings me so far – up to the next corner, perhaps, around which anything could be lying in wait. But I’ve realised that’s enough; I can work with that. I can let the characters live out their story, and I’ll write it down as they tell it to me. It’s not exactly ‘pantsing’ – i.e. making up the story entirely as you go along, ‘flying by the seat of your pants’ – but it’s the next best thing, maybe. It’s giving the plot enough breathing room to develop naturally, which makes it more life-like, messier, and more ‘real’.

One thing I do know for sure, though, is that changing up my morning routine shook my brain around just enough to get it to think in a new way, and that my story will be all the better for it. I’ll have to plan a little chaos into my writing routine from now on!

I hope your Friday is unexpected, in all the best ways possible. Happy weekend!




*I’m not advocating writing under the influence, even though it has worked quite well, albeit briefly, for several writers a whole lot more talented than me!