Essential writing skills: pantsing and planning your writing

Writing a novel – quickly and with quality – demands every skill a writer can bring to bear. It starts, not with actually writing, but with project planning – and moves from there.

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…

Project planning? Sure. There’s a school of thought that urges writers to indulge in free-flow – ‘seat of the pants’ writing. You start off with a blank page and start typing, following your imagination. Hey, apparently Stephen King does it, among others.

Actually, none of these writers quite do that. There’s a distinction between writing to produce a great novel that’s going to appeal to its audience – capturing and holding a reader – and just writing for the joy of it. The former is what professional writers do, and it’s often hard work. The latter’s a form of entertainment for the author, a pastime.

Sounds harsh, but it’s true. So what’s really happening when a top author ‘pantses’ their way through a book – and how do they make it work?

Several factors are at work here. The first is that these people are experienced – they’ve paid their dues, they’ve become ‘unconsciously competent’ at their craft. Writing is part of their soul. Words are their servants – these authors don’t struggle with the mechanics of styling or composition. They know how characters work, what constitutes a character arc, and how that integrates with a tight plot.

More to the point, most of these writers have also done the necessary groundwork and planning for their book. Isaac Asimov once summed it up. He never plotted a novel out as such – but he always knew where it would end. That gave him the direction to aim for. And it was essential.

All these authors, in short, blended planning with free-form; they had the structure of what was to be done – and then used their imaginations and competent writing skills in free-flow creativity around that skeleton. Best of both worlds.

This points the way forward for all of us. It takes about 10,000 hours – or a million words – for an author to make the transition from the first halting steps when they don’t know what they don’t know (‘unconscious incompetence’) through to realising what they don’t know (‘conscious incompetence’), familiarity with what’s needed (‘conscious competence’) and then – finally  – the glorious moment when writing becomes part of their soul (‘unconscious competence’).

There are no short-cuts. And that learning never stops – all writers are, really, apprentices at their craft. But the onus is also on to have a good foundation – and it seems to me that the best-of-both-worlds approach to planning and free-flow is an excellent approach for all writers.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Buy print edition from Fishpond

Buy from Fishpond

Click to buy from Fishpond.

Buy from Fishpond.

Click to buy from Fishpond

Buy from Fishpond

Writing inspirations – suddenly it was 1930

Here, for the inspiration and enjoyment of NaNoWriMo participants and writers of all persuasions, is another photo I took during the 2014 Napier Art Deco weekend. This seriously fun festival celebrates the magic of fantasy Hollywood, all to the backdrop of the fabulous art deco buildings in Napier, New Zealand.

Anybody might think it was 1930...

Deco with deco – classic car, classic building, the former local newspaper office in Napier.

Aside from the twenty-first century car intruding on the left, anybody might think this was 1930. What does the image inspire you to write?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Click to buy from Fishpond.

Buy from Fishpond.

Click to buy from Fishpond

Buy from Fishpond

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Buy e-book from Amazon

Essential writing skills: three steps to starting that novel from scratch

So you’ve got a novel lined up to write – maybe for NaNoWriMo. Where to now? My take is to start from the fundamental principles. What is the novel doing? And no, don’t tell me the plot. What is its purpose?

Another photo I took of Giverny, same specifications as the other.

Photo I took in Giverny – Monet’s garden. This garden was made for one purpose – to draw an emotional reaction through art. Identical purpose, in fact, to a novel.

I say all this rhetorically. A novel, like all writing, has to take the reader on an emotional journey – and it has to be able to first capture the readers with that journey, and then hold them. To do that it needs a specific structure – one that not only contains a well-paced plot, but which integrates that plot with the development arcs of the characters.

On the face of it that can be daunting to disentangle, but it’s absolutely essential. Books that fail to integrate plot, character and pace will also fail to capture readers. It’s one of the reasons why novice writers shouldn’t ‘seat-of-the-pants’ their way through a story, unplanned. Doing so reduces the act of writing to personal entertainment – a pastime that has meaning for the author – but the results aren’t likely to grab many others. Yes, there are ways of ‘pantsing’ and it’s a valid technique, but it has to be handled properly – more on that soon.

So how do you disentangle the complexities of character arc, plot and pace to produce an integrated whole? My take is this:

  1. Start with the lead character. This is the heart of the emotional journey. Use a piece of paper to plan out their character arc – the ‘start point’ for the character, how they change, grow or develop as characters; and where they end up. This is the basic pacing skeleton for the story. Why paper? Because it forces you to think differently than if you’re typing. It’s a key tool at this planning stage.
  2. Do the same for any supporting characters – noting that their character arcs need to be different. Indeed, the difference between needs, wants and the ‘turning points’ when a character grows is one of the essential elements needed to drive tension in the story.
  3. On another piece of paper, develop the plot skeleton – key events, the actual settings and so forth, structuring it around the fact that the key turning points in your lead character’s development arc are what gives true emotional drama to the events. Write down the key elements and line them up with the pacing skeleton based on the lead character’s arc.
  4. Stick the whole thing in a drawer for a week. Then pull it out, get a fresh piece of paper, and copy-write the structural lists on to it. Why? Because the act of doing so makes you think about it – and if a new idea occurs, include it. Wash, rinse and repeat as necessary until you’re satisfied that it all works together – that your character arc and the dramatic plot points are meshed.  Work on it. And, all going well, that should give a basic structure for the story.

Of course, there’s a lot more to writing fiction than this – a lot more, indeed, to planning content. More on that soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Buy print edition from Fishpond

Buy from Fishpond

Click to buy from Fishpond.

Buy from Fishpond.

Click to buy from Fishpond

Buy from Fishpond

Fellow writers – here’s the 2014 NaNo inspiration schedule.

It’s National November Writing Month again folks – just three weeks to go before it begins, and to help you along I’ve got some posts coming up about writing. These include posts about structure, about how to build characters, and about how to keep writing even when the muse departs.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

Yes, I had to pose in the entrance of the 2012 Hobbit Artisan Market in central Wellington, such as it was – you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in Prince Caspian’. Am I a geeky Tolkien fan or what?

My background? I’ve been writing since I was seven. I was formally trained in fiction writing, though I am better known for my non-fiction. Many of my publications are in history, but of late I’ve veered back to the sciences, my original passion.

Aside from my feature articles, academic papers and professional work in publishing, I’ve also written and published over 50 books, a fair proportion of them with Penguin Random House.

It’s been a hell of a ride, and I’m still learning – as Hemingway says, we’re all apprentices. We’re also all in this together, folks – every writer has something to contribute. And if we work with each other, inspiring others to write great books, we can build a bigger pie for us all to share.

I’ve got a regular schedule planned for the next few weeks, through to the end of November. At this stage the schedule – posted around 7.30 am on the day, New Zealand time (evening before in the US) – is:

Friday – inspirational photo
Saturday – essential writing skills
Sunday – inspirational photo
Monday – more essential writing skills
Wednesday – a post on something else (surprise, though it’s likely to be either science or something about the books).

And I might have some surprises for Tuesdays and Thursdays. Keep a lookout for all this and more. Right here – this bat-time, this bat-channel…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Click to buy from Fishpond.

Buy from Fishpond.

Click to buy from Fishpond

Buy from Fishpond

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Buy e-book from Amazon

Why New Zealand doesn’t need to worry about a zombie apocalypse

New Zealand has been hit by three significant earthquakes in the last two days. Luckily not strong enough to do damage, and remote enough that even a larger shake would have been more nuisance than apocalypse. But they are a sharp reminder that we live on some very ‘shaky isles’. The next one might well bring tragedy.

The Christ Church Cathedral - icon of a city for nearly 150 years and the raison d;'etre for its founding in 1850. Now a ruin, due to be demolished.

The Christ Church Cathedral – icon of a city for nearly 150 years and the raison d’etre for its founding in 1850. Now a ruin.

It’s to get a better handle on that looming apocalypse that GNS Science have been exploring the Alpine Fault this past few months – drilling far down to set up an early warning system that will give us some prior hint when is about to rupture. Not if, but when – this fault moves every three centuries or so, and it last ruptured in 1717. Go figure.

Well, actually you don’t have to. A study published in 2012 indicated there was a 30 percent chance of a devastating quake occurring on that fault some time in the next 50 years – before 2062. Because probabilities are calculated as bell-shaped curves, this did not mean a quake would occur precisely in 2062; it meant the quake might occur any time from 2012 (low probability) through the mid-twenty-first century (high probability), to the early 2100s (a low chance of it happening that late, but a very high probability of it happening, if it hadn’t happened by then).

This fault is thought capable of generating quakes with magnitude of up to 8.3. Huge. A Civil Defence exercise held in 2013, built around that potential, can best be described as scary. While researching my book on earthquakes, I contacted the author of the exercise – who filled me in on the details. Uh…ouch.

For obvious reasons the science of earthquake engineering is well developed in New Zealand. Some of the world’s leading systems have been invented here, notably the lead-rubber base isolator. This is designed to keep a building ‘floating’ above its foundations. When an earthquake hits, the ground moves – but, thanks largely to its moment of inertia and the reduced energy being transmitted to it, the building doesn’t. Not so much anyway. The first system was installed in the early 1980s in what was then the Ministry of Works building, and major structures to receive it since have included Te Papa Tongarewa, the national museum; and Parliament buildings.

It’s a clever idea. And tricks like this – along with a raft of others – all have to be applied quite seriously in earthquake zones. One of the outcomes, certainly as far as civil defence planning is concerned, is that the likelihood of casualties during the quake is reduced. Buildings constructed with proper attention to earthquake-proofing won’t collapse, and if they’re done right, they also won’t shed parts that crush people beneath. That’s what caused most of the casualties in the 1931 Napier earthquake, for instance, which provoked New Zealand’s first serious earthquake-proofing regulations.

Study, inevitably, is ongoing. But what I can say is that New Zealand doesn’t need to worry about a ‘zombie’ apocalypse. The ‘earthquake’ apocalypse we’re actually facing is serious enough. For more…well, you knew I’d say this – it’s all in my book.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Click to buy from Fishpond.

Buy from Fishpond.

Click to buy from Fishpond

Buy from Fishpond

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Buy e-book from Amazon

Is Comet Siding Spring going to turn our Mars probes into shredded tinfoil?

Shiver in your shoes, Martians! This month – specifically, 19 October at 18:28 Zulu – Comet C/2013 A1 ‘Siding Spring’ makes its closest approach to Mars. The nucleus, a few kilometres in diameter, will come a smidgeon under 120,000km from the red planet.

Mars from the Siding Spring nucleus at closest approach - a picture I made with my trusty Celestia astronomy package.

Mars from the Siding Spring nucleus at closest approach – a picture I made with my trusty Celestia astronomy package.

That’s close. Though not as close as once feared. When the comet was first discovered by Robert H. McNaught in January 2013, using the 20-inch Upssala Schmit telescope at Siding Spring observatory in New South Wales, it was thought likely to hit Mars. It was only later, after multiple observations and cross-checks, that the orbit was refined.

Good news is that this is a tremendous opportunity – and there’s a fleet of orbiting satellites up there for the purpose.  Two, the US MAVEN and India’s Mars Orbit Mission (MOM) – arrived just last week. That puts a lot of instruments in close proximity, and the Indians have plans to use MOM to check for methane on the comet as it brushes past. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will use its HIRISE camera to look at the comet nucleus and activity. Mars Odyssey will check out the coma. MAVEN will make a range of observations with eight different instruments. Even the rovers on the ground, Curiosity and Opportunity, will point their cameras at the sky – Curiosity’s ChemCam, which can pick up the composition; and Opportunity’s PanCam, which will give us a visual from the surface of Mars.

More shenanigans from my Celestia software. This is a view looking from inside the coma towards Mars and the Sun at closest approach.

More shenanigans from my Celestia software. This is a view looking from inside the coma towards Mars and the Sun at closest approach.

Bad news is that this fleet of satellites took years to get up there, cost billions of dollars – and are basically irreplaceable. The nucleus won’t get near Mars. But the coma of dust and debris surrounding it will. Estimates are that during the several hours it takes Mars to pass through the comet’s coma, the planet will be peppered with about five years’ worth of normal meteor activity. It’s all small stuff – nothing more than 1cm diameter, most of them only fractions of a millimetre. But the relative speed is 56 km/sec (200,000 km/h). That’s – uh – impressive. At that speed a 1 gram mass has a kinetic energy of 15,680,000 joules, or 4.35 kwH. In human terms? Enough to run a domestic fan heater on high for a couple of hours. Woah! And that’s just one particle. There are going to be a LOT of particles skidding past Mars.

More Celestia fun; a picture I made of planetary orbits at the moment of Siding Spring's Mars encounter.

More Celestia fun; a picture I made of planetary orbits at the moment of Siding Spring’s Mars encounter.

Precautions have included adjusting orbits so the probes will be on the opposite side of the planet from the comet 100 minutes after closest encounter, when the dust is estimated to reach its highest density. The MRO shifted its orbital parameters to that end on 2 July, while Odyssey did so on 5 August and MAVEN on 9 October. Still, that’s not a complete fix – they’ll travel back around into the danger zone soon enough. Other precautions include pointing the spacecraft so more delicate components are shielded by less crucial elements. And MAVEN will be put into a partial shut-down mode. Once the danger’s past, they’ll restart the science.

By 22 October, according to mission timelines, it’ll all be over. And, if the cometary debris hasn’t shredded them into tinfoil, they’ll be back to their normal work exploring the red planet.

Is Earth in any danger? None whatsoever. Even if we were at closest approach to Mars, the comet wouldn’t affect us – but as it happens, we’re nearly a quarter-turn away from Mars in any case, just at the moment. That’s not the issue – the issue is the several billion dollars worth of science equipment we’ve got around Mars at the moment, its survival – and the science we’ll get from them during this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

It’s NaNoWriMo time again – and here’s the deal

National November Novel Writing Month begins in a few weeks – challenging writers around the world to produce a 50,000 word work of fiction in just 30 days.

Wright_Typewriter2That’s a pace to challenge the best of the professionals. Although it’s definitely do-able. Don’t forget, Jack Kerouac whipped out On The Road in one three-week writing barrage. It’s one of my favourite books and has to be considered a literary classic by any measure.

So really, the question is not ‘whether’, you can blast 50,000 words out in that time-frame, but ‘how’.

We can’t do much better than taking a lead from Kerouac. Despite his intent to write via a spontaneous free-flowing ‘stream of consciousness’, he actually put quite a bit of prior planning into On The Road, including several earlier false starts. When he sat down at his typewriter to begin the marathon, he already had his characters sorted out, the plot and events in his head, and knew where he was going. The detail of his text then danced around that in what, to my mind, was an ideal blend of pre-planned structure with the soaring creativity of free-flow writing.

Progress, nineteenth century style; bigger, faster, heavier... more Mordor.

That’s me by the truck. A double-size truck designed to carry 100-ton loads in one hit – but not daunting, once it’s figured out. Like a novel, really…

Of course it’s easy to say that. The real issue is doing. And I’m going to help you. Over the next while, through the lead-up to NaNoWriMo and beyond, I’ll be detailing just how to make all that happen. How to write stuff – fast and well. I’ve got some posts lined up that’ll give you tips, tricks and techniques for getting there – plus, to fill the gaps between the regular posts, I’ll be re-blogging a few classics from my earlier NaNoWriMo advice, years ago. And check out other stuff on this blog, too – I’ve put up a lot of writing tips and techniques over the years.

Writing well? Sure. One of the conceits of NaNoWriMo is that anything blurted out in a month will always only be ‘first draft’ – the intent is to get people writing as much as anything else.

I disagree. I think that with the right amount of pre-work and planning, it’s possible to write something good in that time. That’s right – 50,000 quality words. In thirty days.

Stick around. I’ll show you. I’ve got regular posts lined up about how to do it, inspirational posts to spur your thinking, and more. Watch this space.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Click to buy from Fishpond.

Buy from Fishpond.

Click to buy from Fishpond

Buy from Fishpond

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Buy e-book from Amazon