Essential writing skills: how ‘pantsing’ can lead you adrift. Beware.

I posted a while back on the way to approach novel-writing as a blend of both planning and seat-of-the-pants free-flow.  You plan the skeleton of the story ahead of time, then ‘pants’ your way through the details.

Yes, this IS my typewriter. What's it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er - introductions...

Yes, this IS my typewriter. What’s it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er – introductions…

The trick throughout is to stick to that plan. Or, if it does seem to be failing on the back of too many new and good ideas, the trick is to recognise WHEN it’s in trouble, stop, and re-cast it accordingly. If you don’t, you lose the benefit of the plan and end up with your pantsing in a tangle.

OK, that was an awful image, but you get what I mean.

I can’t stress that point enough. If you ‘pants’ your way off into the creative blue yonder, I guarantee you’ll end up writing your characters into a position where they have to do something uncharacteristic – or where something unlikely happens. For instance, they’re on one side of the continent but the volcano into which they have to drop the magic dingus is on the other, and they have only five minutes to get there. Or you get to the point where they have to do something that the internal consistency of the setting prevents.

There’s no faster way to break the suspension of disbelief than to have to create a sudden deus ex machina to get your characters out of that sort of tangle.

The best way to avoid this sort of problem is not to get into it in the first place, because it WILL involve re-writing. Danger signs include too much time pantsing and not enough checking back against the structure and characters. But if you do end up tangled – what then?

There is, alas, only one answer. Re-writing the first draft. The only question is the scale of the re-work. If you find yourself, for instance, having to introduce an unlikely device to get your characters out of trouble, you may be able to get around it by re-working a much earlier part of the story where the device is first introduced. That way it becomes part of the plot and doesn’t look like an add-on.

But quite often the only actual answer is to scrap significant tracts of the material and start again. Which is fine – all writing is good writing, to the extent that everything adds to experience. But if you’re up against a deadline, either for a publisher or to meet the word-count of NaNoWriMo, having to re-write risks disaster. And if you’re writing to earn an income, time is money – meaning that the re-write time, effectively, reduces your rate of return.

That’s why it’s better not to go adrift in the first place, and keep an eye on that plan while you’re ‘pantsing’.

Copyright ©Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: the importance of styling

I’ve always argued that to write quickly and well means getting the fundamentals right first – the structure – and worrying about the style later. It’s a technique that’s really only come into its own with the advent of word processors – though, and without any sense of paradox, I also believe it’s important to at least plan using pen and paper, because of the way that different thought processes emerge.

Wright_Typewriter2Once you’ve got that draft, of course, the issue is that styling – and, in its own way, that’s as critical a part of the whole process as the structure. So what do I mean by styling? This is the front end of the writing; the way in which an author adds meaning, nuance and their characteristic ‘voice’. It can change the way the work is received – can drive readers off, or pull them in, depending on how it’s handled. It is, in short, a very powerful tool.

Styling involves getting the right words, the right phrasing, the right vocabulary and the right tone to the sentences. The word ‘right’, in this sense, is relative; it’s a value judgement. Different authors have different preferences – and so they should. If we all styled the same way, life would be boring. That said, a consistent style is often used by commercial magazines as a part of their branding. Take Time or National Geographic, for instance, where different contributions are re-styled in editorial to be consistent with the corporate ‘brand’.

In these and other magazines – including some I’ve written for – the author’s contribution is re-worked to meet a style without changing the meaning or content. And that principle also applies to your own novel – where the end point isn’t necessarily a ‘corporate’ style, but where you are trying to get it into a consistent shape that reflects your desired ‘voice’.

Some writers look on it as ‘re-writing’, but it isn’t – using the approach I recommend, it’s integral to the process. The time and effort required to get the styling right is often at least equal to the time and effort required to develop the structure and prepare an initial draft. The art of styling is also the art of preservation – keeping tight to the structure and themes you’d originally worked into the book.

If the book has been structured correctly – in the case of a novel, around the character arc with the narrative events and setting acting as backdrop – there should be no problems with extraneous scenes or extra characters, or padding, or any of the other irrelevancies that detract from the function of the character arc as the key device for capturing and holding readers.

Sometimes, of course, issues crop up structurally along the way as you review the work – meaning some re-work. But ideally, not too much.

So how does ‘styling’ work in the specific? More soon.

Copyright ©Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: keeping focus as you write

It’s often difficult to keep the focus going as you write. Apart from the creative muse running dry there’s the relentless call of – well, everything. Noises outside, social media, The Internet and all the rest.

None of it is helped by the fact that these days we’re conditioned to have an attention span of around – OOOH, POSSUM! – fifteen seconds.

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume...

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume…

That’s one of the down-sides of the internet where, according to the figures I’ve seen, the average user flips between media around 27 times an hour. That’s a little over two minutes per interaction – Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, YouTube, Instagram, texting, messages and so on. We are conditioned to have an endless hunger for new, an endless quest for instantly gratifying entertainment.  All of it shallow, transient and brief. And even brief sometimes isn’t brief enough. I’ve seen stats for YouTube videos in which, typically, viewers last about 90-100 seconds into a four-minute video before flipping off to something else.

It’s not limited to the web either. TV scripting usually demands an ‘action moment’ every eight seconds or so – a hook – as a device for capturing channel surfers. That’s had its impact on the pace and rhythm of the stories which, by earlier standards, can best be described as frenetic.

We live in a world where instant fun, instant gratification and constant novelty is expected, where any one thing can capture us for seconds or at best a couple of minutes at a time. A world of derp, not to put too fine a point on it. That stands in diametric opposition to the sustained single-thread concentration demanded of reading – and, more especially, of writing. But that conditioning is insidious, especially because we usually write on the very same tool we use to get that massive wealth of content flowing past us.

So how do we get around it?

There is only one answer. Ignore the distractions. Switch off the internet. Turn off your phone. Take yourself away from screens, except the one you’re working on. Or switch off the computer altogether, sit down with pen and paper, and get going for a solid planning session as a first step to writing.

Most of us have to wedge writing in around other things, and that can be turned to an advantage too. If you schedule your writing time – even a thirty-minute burst – it can sometimes be possible to also orchestrate it so there are no interruptions.

The very best writers do it. Jonathan Franzen apparently writes on a laptop disconnected from the internet, sitting in a room facing a blank wall. No distractions; just the inner voice.

It really is the only way to go.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: learning from Heinlein about keeping that plot plausible

It’s at least two generations since science fiction became mainstreamed – no longer popularly viewed as mere kiddie fiction and fodder for nerdish drop-outs, but a core part of everyday fiction consumption.

XE atomic rocket motor - exactly as Heinlein envisaged - being assembled for cold (non-fissionable) test firing at Jackass Flats, Nevada, 1967. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

XE atomic rocket motor – exactly as Heinlein envisaged – being assembled for cold (non-fissionable) test firing at Jackass Flats, Nevada, 1967. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The cause of it, by and large, has been the combined impact of Star Wars and Star Trek – both so popular they’ve become culturally iconic, well outside the limits of the sci-fi genre.

So it’s OK to write science fiction, and a lot of credible writers do. For those writing sci-fi, of course – and I figure that a fair proportion of NaNoWriMo novels and other fiction will fall into that category – the challenge is always keeping the stories plausible. It’s this plausibility that establishes and then sustains the suspension of disbelief, however way out the setting might be. And that’s one of the keys to capturing and holding reader interest.

So how’s it done? To my mind one of the doyens of ‘plausible’ sci-fi was Robert A Heinlein, author of Stranger In a Strange Land among other classics, but also of a dozen ‘juvenile’ novels set in what – by 1950s standards – was a far-away future. But they were completely credible stories.

He did it in three ways. First off, he found a balance between wild imagination and realism. The realism became the foundation. In Have Spacesuit, Will Travel (1958) for instance, incorporated a very realistic description of a spacesuit, thanks to Heinlein’s own work designing pressure suits for the US Navy in World War Two. It was completely credible – in fact the A7L suits that NASA used for real on the Moon a decade later were pretty much to this specification. Much of his future was based on what he knew was plausible – and, from a 1950s perspective, on its way. His ‘atomic’ rockets used NERVA technology – a decade away from hardware when he wrote about them – to propel his interplanetary rockets on real-life Hohmann transfer orbits. His ‘torch’ ships employed the mass-energy equation E = MC <exp> 2, and were limited by Einstein.

This meant that readers didn’t blink when Heinlein also introduced an undefined magic space-drive to propel the Wormface ships in Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, adding a plot revolving around multiple dimensions and time travel. In fact, given that he wrote some of the hardest science fiction ever published, Heinlein got away with a great deal of hand-waving – telepathy in Time For the Stars, ‘monatomic hydrogen’ and the ‘mass-converter’ in most of his books, the Horst-Conrad ‘impeller’ drive that ‘gripped’ the ‘fabric’ of space-time in Starman Jones (that phrase really is woo woo, as Heinlein very well knew), along with artificial gravity in the same book. And then there were the FTL ships that ended Time For The Stars.

Buzz Aldrin descends to the lunar surface, 20 July 1969, illuminated by light reflecting from the regolith. Photo:NASA.

Buzz Aldrin descends to the lunar surface, 20 July 1969, illuminated by light reflecting from the regolith and wearing a A7L suit that, in engineering terms, was a LOT like the fictional suit Heinlein described a decade earlier. Photo:NASA.

But those weren’t the only ingredients for suspending disbelief. Into that mix he also stirred credible plots based around realistic characters. And that is the secret, because it grounds the story, however way-out the setting, in the real world. In a world the reader can identify with. A world that is ‘different’, perhaps, but not ‘too different’. It all comes back to the fact that writing is all about people – people that you or I might feasibly identify with – or get to meet and know – doing things that you or I might also, quite feasibly, also do.

It’s all about character arcs, which remain the back-bone of novels – even science fiction stories. Heinlein was very well aware of this. His ‘juveniles’ brought it out particularly, because they were all coming-of-age stories. A well-established arc, and one of which Heinlein had complete mastery.

That’s why his stories were plausible. And those ingredients for plausibility also made his tales much more than just science fiction – with their realistic characters, facing realistic human problems, his novels demonstrated that Heinlein was one of America’s literary greats. In my opinion, he was up there with his near-contemporary, Ernest Hemingway.

Copyright ©Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: sitting down at the typewriter and bleeding

On my experience there’s a point authors hit with every book where it’s just easier to put it down. You’re stuck on a plot point, or out of ideas, and it’s just too haaaaaaaard. And so the book goes back into the drawer and you go back to firing up Steam for another zombie-shooting session, or whatever.

A wonderful quote from Katherine Mansfield.

A wonderful quote from Katherine Mansfield.

None of which cuts it in the profession. Even in this age of shrinking advances and limited publisher opportunities, if you fail to meet a contract you’ll certainly be up to refund some thousands of dollars in advances.

Or suppose you got your dream job and you’ve got a script to finish for the next Dr Who episode (someone in my city, Wellington, does just that for the BBC). The filming schedule won’t wait for you to re-discover the muse.

That’s also true of self-pubbers, not least because – well, the onus is on to be professional. And there is only one way to do that.

Writing, in short, is all about keeping going – no matter how hard it gets. A bad first draft is always going to be better than no first draft. You can always re-write later – this is what word processors at good at.

This is also where National November Writing Month comes in. It’s an excellent example of the sort of pressure writers come under professionally, and the trick is to keep going – keep pushing – even when the muse has long vanished. As Hemingway put it, you sit down at the typewriter and bleed.

I’ve mentioned it before, I’m mentioning it again now, and I’ll mention it again later. Because this is probably the key thing writers have to master. It’s a mind set as much as a skill. Keeping on keeping on.

The question, of course, is how. And there are tactics and strategies to help. Planning is among them. So is brute-force writing.

More soon.

Copyright ©Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: summing up the secret to writing that NaNo novel

In the past few weeks I’ve been outlining ways of planning for that elusive ‘first draft’ of your novel – which is what National November Writing Month is really all about.

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume...

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume…

Go check out those posts, if you haven’t already. If it’s done right, that draft should be a good basis for developing into a saleable novel without too much re-casting. The principles, just to recap, are:

  1. Plan first, write later.
  2. When making that plan, everything pivots around the ‘character arc’ of your lead character – this is what drives the narrative. Yes, you need subsidiary characters with their own arcs; but it’s best, certainly when on a learning curve, to focus on a single lead character. Keeps things simple.
  3. Planning doesn’t mean ignoring ‘seat of the pants’ free-flow writing; the two work together – the plan gives the structure and the ‘pantsing’ provides the creative spark to flesh it out.
  4. Don’t get too hung up on the specific wording in this first draft. The key is to get the structure, pace and flow right first – in short, broad strokes.

Working to that general plan should make it possible to knock out a 50,000 word draft in thirty days. It will almost certainly read badly – the usual issues with swift drafting are passive language, repetitive phrasing and vocabulary, and a general feel of ‘clunkiness’. But that’s not an issue – that is what word processors are for.

The more crucial part is having the right elements in all the right places; getting the character arc right and being able to tie the plot to it in a series of waves that maximise the tension at the pivotal point where the character arc resolves. As we’ve seen, that lead character arc acts as a very determined editor; using it as a tool, you can judge whether a scene or sub-character is extraneous or not.

What’s next? Cleaning up that wording and applying a suitable writing style. Of which more anon.

But before that, there’s the practicality of actually hammering out that draft. Which is a challenge in itself, not least because of the need to keep the pace going.

More soon. And meanwhile, get writing…what are you waiting for?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: the core of novel writing

One of the many challenges beginning writers face when setting out to tackle their first novel – or their second, or their third – is the fact that ‘good ideas’ often come as snapshots of particular scenes, or a setting, or a scenario.

Wright_Typewriter01Characters – and the essential character arc – usually take second place in the planning and writing process. It’s a classic issue. The reason why it happens, in part, is because we are fed entertainment in ‘scenes’ and ‘settings’, around which part of the emotional pull is grounded. Some guy has a blue Police phone box that’s bigger on the inside than the outside and can go anywhere in space and time. Coooool!

The problem is that this isn’t the whole story. The structural priority in fiction writing – and, for that matter, in any writing – is the emotional journey on which the writer takes the reader. This is always based around the character arc, and always demands movement, a direction. More, in short, than a static scenario. The problem with a succession of snapshot ‘ scenes’ is that they often don’t link to that directional character arc.

The answer is to step back, reverse the whole process, and start with the character arc. Jot down notes about those cool settings and scenes on a set of cards. What is the appeal of that setting to you – the emotional pull? This could give insights into the kind of character that would inhabit it. Then start working on the characters. Focus on one character only to begin with. This is your lead character. Forget the setting. What does the character NEED to develop, to grow? What is their journey?

Once that’s sorted out, look back at the scenario and setting. Does that fit? Will it work with the character? The priority MUST be the character journey, from which all else follows. That’s because this is the core of the novel – the means by which readers are captured and then held. Narrative plot events, cool scenes, and cool setting all play a part. But they are the background – secondary to that character arc, around which all must pivot.

Want proof? Go check out that show about the guy with the blue box. The stories aren’t really about his TARDIS or the neat places you can go in it. Are they?

Copyright ©Matthew Wright 2014

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