A writing plan: are you a planner or pantser?

Overly organised?

Do you have a writing plan?

It’s assumed there are two kinds of writers: those who have a writing plan, and those who write on the seat of their pants.

I would love to write a synopsis, the theme, the backgrounds of each character, the main events of each chapter before I ever begin, but that just won’t work for me.

 When I start a novel I only have a germ: a snatch of dialogue, an incident, never a theme. I don’t even know what kind of characters will pop up or which will prove to be major or even where the setting of dramatic scenes will be. But despite the discipline of degrees and diplomas and a Ph.D. I’m an irrevocably, irredemiable pantser.

Pantser Process

Working on the small germ, as I write something happens to the character speaking or experiencing the incident. That turns into a chapter. At the end of one chapter, I know what has to happen in the next but not further. By about the fourth chapter something emerges that enriches or expands the plot, becomes a sub-plot or develops one of the characters.

The novel outline falls into place when I know the ending. Usually that’s before I get halfway. Then it’s a matter of laying out the remaining ground, including character backgrounds, needed for reaching that end.

All my fiction has one thing in common (as well as their manner of creation) — they are character-led. I can’t write any other way. There’s no great plan but interesting things gradually emerge.

Example

Here’s an example of my writing process. A Relative Invasion (a trilogy set in the Home Front of WWII) began with one tiny thread.  An elderly man told me his school had been evacuated to a village where after milk and biscuits, the children were walked around the village in a crocodile seeking billets.  A tall seven-year-old, (‘He’ll cost a bit to feed and clothe’) this man was the last to be chosen.   

I thought, children must have been so resilient at that time. And so Billy was born, a sturdy well-meaning child. He was only aged five in 1937, and so I found myself writing historical fiction (with all the research that entails). The key figure at that time was, of course, Hitler, and his rise to power came as result of German resentment, humiliation and envy after the end of WWI.

Consequently, a cousin for Billy surfaced. He would experience these negative emotions and be a psychological bully to make Billy’s life a misery. I made him artistic and physically frail. However, this Kenneth would need to be a charmer for the adults to be blind to the bullying.

Now I had a theme for my novel: the feelings and tensions in Europe (macro scale) would be mirrored in micro by the two cousins in their developing rivalry.  Billy then needed a secret symbol of power to support him. I hit upon a Cossack sabre, that then needed a background story of its own. This led me to research the Russian/Germanic conflict at the start of WWI. I realised that the sabre icon would need to filter right through the story.

I am not recommending this approach to writing, just showing how a novel can unfold as the narrative continues, and in this case, it was a trilogy that emerged.

Remedies

Ideally, have a writing plan. There are loads of HowTos on Amazon. Don’t risk half-baked advice from ebooks. Some may be good, but play safe.  A good book is Diana Doubtfire’s classic writers’ guide a paperback you may get cheap as it’s been around some years.   

Are you are you an inveterate pantser? Then buy Scrivener and let it organise you. See my last post.

(I first wrote on this subject for the ALLi blog)

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Beginner Writers’ Tools. Into serious writing

Once you’ve made the decision that you are now into serious writing, it is no longer a hobby. Now it’s an activity leading to a publishable short story or novel, so it’s time to spend out on a few essentials that will make your life easier. I promise you that the following are not luxuries, but tools that will make your writing tasks smoother, more manageable and more pleasurable.
  • WRITING PLAN  Scrivener  software organizes your writing activities. Your material is sorted, your research is reliably and quickly on hand, Scrivener helps you create plots and outlines.
  • Current costs around $45 and there isn’t space to describe all the features and functions of this fantastic software.
  • Forget writing from A-Z on one document. Scrivener encourages you to write in scenes, sections, chapters, ideas, dialogues, time frames, or whatever takes your fancy.
  • Everything is updated and saved automatically. You can set yourself targets and see your progress. Slip easily between looking at your notes, the outline, research, all beautifully laid out.
  • Quickly learn how with the tutorials, or buy this book : Scrivener Essentials. Author Karen Prince explains things clearly and succinctly: a big contrast to Scrivener for Dummies.
  • When you’ve finished the last chapter and have compiled the various sections into one book, Scrivener formats it for you: paperback, ebook or mobi. This in itself is a huge help. 
  • EDIT AND REVIEW Pro-writing aid  This comprehensive editor surveys your grammar, writing style, over-use of words, and lots more. Paying attention to its advice will make you a better writer as you progress with your book. If you buy Premium, you can submit large documents for analysis.
  • NOTIFY OTHERS Canva You may want an illustration in your book, or want to blog about it or post on Facebook. Canva allows you to painlessly compose visual images from its bank and add text It’s quick, and free too. (Paid version has extra images)
  • FORMAT AND PRODUCE Vellum  Above all, when you’re sure your book is ready, avoid hours and days trying to format your book for the different platforms. Buy a lifetime licence for Vellum and have beautifully laid out books with no stress. There are a number of options for appearance of text.  It’s really easy to use. I’ve written straight onto it on occasion, where I knew I wouldn’t be planning or reorganising much. Editing is quick: your preview is on the right, your input on the left. See an error, fix it right away.
  • SEEK PROFESSIONAL ADVICE  on all aspects of self publishing: Alliance of Independent Authors. £75 p.a. and continuous access to a range of successful authors, editors, self-publishers and their articles, webinars, facebook group and books. 
  • SO NOW YOU’RE READY TO WRITE SERIOUSLY. Get going, good luck!
     
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Writing: in his shoes

Could you put yourself in his shoes?

I wrote about this short story in a previous post Unlikeable character – makes you read on. I’ve just updated the e-book and reminded myself (slight shock) that I’d written horror rather than just crime.

Which writer was it who said we only know what our novel is about once it’s finished? A long time, and many thousands of words later, I remembered this because I had just had that flash of recognition. Potential…how it can work both ways.

I’ve written non-fiction, historical fiction and short stories, often humorous, but I never expected to write horror. Sometimes your story runs away with you and you find it is in a different place from the one you expected. To do this means writing in his shoes, the boy you come to fear.

Writing process

It was seeing each news flash of school shootings and the consequent analysis of the boy responsible that started me on this path. I’d been painfully aware of the several times in my work as a psychologist I’d been asked to assess strangely difficult kids and/or school refusers and witnessed the same anomie and alienation that these perpetrators showed.

I created a character of a different age, imagining a potential perpetrator younger, more accessible, adding something positive – a potential event for saving the boy from causing disaster. But it worked the other way.

In attempting to walk in Jake’s shoes, I’d almost unwittingly written a story of horror. Although I’ve had very positive reviews, including a long-listing from Fish and a winner’s accolade from Bloomsbury, I had every sympathy with a 1-star reviewer on Amazon who said it was the nastiest thing he’d ever read.

It seems likely that many writers find they’ve ended up with a story they hadn’t predicted.

Here’s the beginning of mine: ‘I think I once killed a man and I don’t know why. The bloke lay at my feet, dead. I don’t think I knew him but I couldn’t look at his dead face and they didn’t make me. I’d never seen a dead person and I didn’t want to.’ The word ‘dead’ obsesses Jake when he’s ten.

If you’d like to read more about Jake and walk in his shoes, there are some free copies for the next readers who join my Readers List.

 

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In Writing: hidden undercurrent

 

hidden undercurrent
What lies beneath

Writers’ undercurrents: in the novel you’ve just read — or in your own writing?

Sometimes it’s only after finishing a novel that you become aware of its undercurrent.  For instance, in Dead Water (Simon Ings) the fast paced plot involves the protagonist in a deadly international chase after an evil target; but the undercurrent is the dangerous potential of shipping containers which cruise the globe; an understandable preoccupation.

You may be more unaware of hidden undercurrents in your own novels.  After a while without reading your work again, consider what you’ve actually ‘said’. It may be a romance or a crime story, but what you have allowed to happen in the plot, or between the characters – such as unexpected capitulation –  or within the protagonist him/herself, can suggest unspoken drives or attitudes in your writing.

Even when there’s a distinct variety in the subject matter, authors may unconsciously repeat themes that have marked their lives.

Take two important writers Kasuo Ishiguro and Elif Safak. In 2015 they happened both to be speaking at the Bath Literary Festival, but on separate days, and were probably unlikely to have conferred. However, both authors had a ‘burying’ undercurrent in their novels.

buried
Fons Heijnsbroek

Ishiguro’s first novel for ten years, The Buried Giant, is a fantasy. Its fantastic beings form the plot but the ‘buried’ in his title refers obliquely to the human tendency for suppressing memories about painful matters. Ishiguro suggested all his novels had an underflow of this unspoken, part-forgotten material.

Talking of The Architect’s Apprentice, Shafak referred to the ‘collective amnesia’ of Turkey, saying so much has been suppressed. Sadly, historic artefacts are not being preserved perhaps because, then, uncomfortable events in history are more easily ignored; the role of the woman, the existence of minorities.

Shafak said that there is little urban memory:  residents do not know the origin of their street names, for instance, and are not encouraged to ask questions or to care about the past. She mourns the loss of cosmopolitanism in Turkey. The variety of cultures, nations, sub-groups is precious and stimulates creativity.

This strong feeling about burying discomforting events and feelings, drives these authors’ writing; the undercurrent enriches the work. What undercurrent can be detected from your writing?

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Writing at the speed of light

carbonaceous chrondite
meteorite

 

SPEED OF LIGHT was the theme for September’s Story Friday evening, held at the cave-like theatre at Burdell’s Yard – in conjunction with A Word in Your Ear

Story Fridays are held every second month in Bath, UK. Six or seven writer-performers read freshly-minted stories inspired by a theme, this time Speed of Light. The packed audience heard stories intriguing, exciting, sad, straight and downright hilarious.

I was very happy that another of my short stories was one of these: The Find.  It was not written at the speed of light, however. If you write about meteorites you have to find out about them. This certainly took time, especially as I have no geology in my background. This tale was about the finder who became a – wait for it – meteoriticist, (takes practise to say!) It’s the story of how a young man turns tragedy into obsession and how that obsession separated him from “a peopled life”.

It was read by talented actor, Kirsty Cox. You can judge here how brilliantly Kirsty performed my tale.

Mine was only one of the stories read, the packed audience enjoying a wide range of content that evening from talented writers using sci-fi, romance, humour  to interpret SPEED OF LIGHT in their own ways.

(Story Fridays, A Word in your Ear in conjunction with Kilter Theatre, are the creation of the talented playwright and short story writer, Clare Reddaway.)

I didn’t ask the other authors how long they took to write their stories, but this is relevant because there’s currently a great deal of interest in writing a great many books in a short time to ensure (attempt) a very good income (Anderle). That has sparked a great writers’ debate around quality versus quantity and, in effect, whether everyone can write at the speed of light, or what may seem like it to those who need a couple of years or more to complete one novel.

Writing a huge number of books in a short space of time? Well, it’s been done, it’s being done. Usually there are characters who appear in different adventures/situations in each book, with the genre being closely defined – e.g. urban fantasy. There may be a close similarity of structure, characterization and plot within the books in the series. It fits with a life-style that demands instantaneous gratification.

This writing is at the opposite end of the scale to writing Flash Fiction which may be read in a flash but can take many attempts to whittle away the word count. This means heavy investment in word choice and serious consideration of meaning.

Short stories – that is stories of 1,000 words upwards – are different in many ways and different to write. There’s more to discuss as shown on sites such as Shortstops, Tania Herschmann’s website. How long does it take to write a satisfying story, beginning, middle, end? Something credible, because it has been properly researched. Something memorable? It’s worth asking different short story authors for the answer, which in itself depends on how the germ of the idea came to the author’s mind. More of this in another blog post.

 

 

 

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FIRST FLASH FICTION FESTIVAL

This weekend, Jude Higgins pulled off a wonderful feat in initiating the first Flash Fiction Festival in Bath.

Gaining support from the Arts Council Fund, she was able to attract some of the best flash practitioners to give readings and workshops to enthusiastic participants from five countries.

Vanessa Gebbie, Kit de Waal, Tania Hershman, Paul McVeigh, David Gaffney, Ashley Chantler, Peter Blair, David Swann, Meg Pokrass, Jude Higgins, K M Elkes, Christopher Fielden, Michael Loveday and Calum Kerr all gave generously of their time and expertise.

The weekend course opened with an overview of the genre from Peter Blair (Senior Lecturer, University of Chester) who led through saucy double-entendres and allusions to describe the range of names and kinds of very short fiction. From dribbles, drabbles, palm-held, micro-fiction and many others, he showed how a world could open up from a hard-worked choice of words, and from the power of omissions. Using examples of thought-provoking word-minimalists he discussed the significance of white space, and came near viewing the tiny story on the big page as an art form.

The writing tutor, Pamela Painter, Emerson College, Boston, opened the workshops with a charm that held the audience in her grip. Within minutes she had writers composing the most unlikely but captivating story titles.

Subsequently her workshop plummeted writers into developing stories they had not known were in their heads.

In a thought-provoking and directly helpful workshop Kit de Waal brought participants into her world of powerful stories. She demonstrated how to make the title work for the writer, and used images to stimulate imagination within the ‘container’ that is flash fiction.

Jude, herself, led a dream workshop that produced amazing results. Using three different techniques the original dream fragment developed into a meaningful whole, using myth, underlying thoughts and a current experience.

Charismatic Paul McVeigh talked of the power of every word to summon up a setting, a character, an era through saying little but saying it exactly. He described “opening a box in readers’ brains” calling on their past knowledge to furnish what was not written. He advocates laying personal pain on the line and imbuing every sentence with passion.

Tania Herschmann enlivens her writing with her scientific background. She fascinated her workshop participants with examples and exercises using scientific concepts to form innovative prose.

There were other workshops from Vanessa Gebbie and Christopher Fielden: it was impossible to attend them all but informal discussion between events revealed a very high level of satisfaction. There was enthusiasm for the possibility of a second Flash Fiction Festival next year. Will it need a larger venue to meet the demand?

 

 

 

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Suggestions for writing a trilogy.

 

Much advice for writers suggests that series work best for indies. Is the same true of a trilogy?

A trilogy suggests an entity like the three-movement sonata in music, or the triptych in art. The form must be complete, whereas the novelist has more freedom to finish where s/he likes, at any point, at any length.  

A Relative Invasion is probably the only trilogy I’ll write. It was meant as a novel. I began to write the story of a good-hearted boy, Billy, who was going to need all the resilience he could muster to weather the threat of war, as well as that of his manipulative cousin. A trilogy never entered my mind. I wanted to explore how the emotions that led to WWII might play out in micro, in a South London family. This was a story about a life-time rivalry that would have lasting effects, mirroring the tensions in micro of those in pre-war Europe.

This is what happened when I was in the throes of writing the story:

Billy was only five years old at the start of the narrative. At around the fifth chapter I knew what the ending must be, and I wrote that in full. I then returned to Chapter Five. Just a matter of getting Billy from that point to the end, but by the time I had written one hundred thousand words, he was still only seven. At that point I stopped, thinking I had better made the story into two books. Backtracking, I wrote a suitable ending to Book One, which came at around seventy-five thousand words.           

When Book Two reached a similar length, World War Two had just ended, but I was a long way from the climax and culmination of the story. VE Day provided a natural conclusion of Book Two. Billy was then twelve, and cousin Kenneth, thirteen. Adolescence and the terrible austerity of London’s 1940s lay ahead, together with the fall-out from their life-long rivalry.

Book Three had to bring the boys to adulthood, and by the time I’d written to that point, I was at one hundred and twenty thousand words. I could have started the boys’ careers and made four books, but I had published and described the previous books as part of ‘a trilogy’.  I stuck to this, revised, and cut Book 3 down to one hundred and five thousand words. After all, the climax and the ending were set just as I’d planned.

Billy’s story was told, the arc I’d envisaged had been completed. I had written a trilogy. What can I advise would-be trilogists?

Early on, write a time-line.

Put in the historic events, check exact dates of these. Ensure you record each character’s date of birth, location, key events. In a trilogy, you may need to come back to them. Old incidents come back to bite the bottoms of the unwary.

Write your real ending before you get too far into the narrative.

You need to retain a clear sense of where your story is going as you write chapter after chapter. 

Mark out how much will happen in each book.

This way you can pace the drama evenly, making sure you don’t stack up the high points too closely together.

The flow of life needs to show:

precursors in Book 1, developments in Book 2, outcomes in Book 3. In music the third part would be recapitulation. Outcomes do have this element: a reworking of earlier events. If there’s a crisis in Book 1 it can resolve, but not really conclude there;  longer-term effects should pop up in Books 2 or 3.

There needs to be some sense of linear movement

even if the books are not arranged in chronological sequence. The reader will want to feel the size of the whole time span by the time s/he reaches the end.

Include several fully-imagined characters.

Three books are too many to focus on just one or two main characters. The work needs other characters with their own concerns for the main ones to knock against and react to. The range of possible interactions gives a more detailed picture of the protagonist(s) and a fuller character development .

Similarly, there needs to be more than one theme.

For instance, the main theme in my trilogy is the far-reaching effects of an ongoing childhood relationship. Connected to this is the theme of coming-of-age, bullying, parenting issues, the subtler effects of war service, and a re-examining where personal responsibility lies.

Although the trilogy will follow one arc each book also needs its own arc

My trilogy arc was before WWII began until the war effects in Britain ended – “You’ve never had it so good”) The three books fell into line with historic events: Book 1 – threat of war until its onset; Book 2 – the war years; Book 3 – post-war austerity. Each book contained its own drama; each marked great changes in Billy’s life. It’s these changes that make for a satisfying place to end one book and start the next.

AND I’d also suggest the following about a trilogy:

The story has to be substantial.

It has to touch on something in human nature that will resonate meaningfully over the timescale of your three books so that the three do comprise an entity, not three stories about the same people.

Finally, you need to be a sticker;

someone with a persistent, resilient personality who does not give up what they have started. I wrote these traits into my main character, and he helped me to stay the course.

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Fiction: EVERY character counts.

An exhibition of Breugel is showing at the Holburne, Bath, the first UK exhibition devoted to the dynasty. Not huge or cheap, but well displayed. The family tree shows the connections between the different artists. Breugel the elder, his two sons, one of Jan’s sons, two of his grandsons.

According to Johnson’s recent article in the Guardian, only Pieter, the elder is worthy of acclaim. The younger, he finds derivative, although his copies of Pieter snr’s work have served us well for centuries.

Things might have been different if the sons had received tuition from their father but sadly he died when they were infants. They were apparently taught by their grandmother. That’s a tale in itself.

Johnson doesn’t rate this, that the Holburne displays proudly:  

For the writer, however, the fascination lies in the characterisation shown in every tiny face appearing in the lively paintings. The Breugels studied and reproduced their local people and events rather than imagined religious ones. Avarice, shame, embarrassment, lust, enjoyment are only some of the emotions portrayed in the works. The faces, movement and expressions take us to a time we couldn’t have summoned up with that accuracy.

Writing a novel, have you made every character notable, memorable, as those in a Breugel painting? Even a walk-on part can illuminate the scene, his character impinging on the plot even if minimally.  It’s a wonderful recommendation if readers comment on the particular characters you have created, superb if they’re recalled some months later.

Breugel characters  are alive in the moment of seeing the paintings. This gives the writer a goal to strive for.

 

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New writer? Writing persistence.

Is this how you feel about your work in progress? Advice: the punching must be on computer keys — daily.

Stephen King’s biographical On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft reveals King as an avid reader, a no-nonsense advocate of writing skills, an honest, humorous, generous guide and a devoted husband of over thirty years to boot. The book soon impresses with his engaging style and self-revelations. At first, you may think, there’s no guide here, for the first half of the book relates Stephen King’s early life, hardships, but the message must be taken from his, above all, persistent writing. He writes when he’s hungry, in a corner, on his lap, in a trailer, in a run-down apartment, after ten bit jobs and later, a rough day’s teaching. He does everything to put food on the table for his wife and little one before turning to his writing. But he carries on. Then the wondrous telephone call comes and he makes his first big money. (Carrie is the novel and I wonder if carries on was uppermost in his mind when he wrote it).

This is such a nice guy, you find yourself thinking, I want to know and celebrate his success and then take account of the how and why. That success is so immense, but above all, so appealingly hard-won, that you just can’t refuse to accept what he is saying. And he says it in the second half of the book. His advice is clear, uncluttered, simple and to the point.

Many, if not most writers read books about writing: style, plotting, planning, joining retreats, engaging in courses, identifying underlying themes. They despair that they’ll never gain sufficient organisation and techniques.

King has no truck with much of this.  His recommendations come down to this: honest, always honest writing; getting the story down ‘as it comes’; ensuring that the action is or could be true of the characters; similarly that the dialogue rings true of them. He is not precious, and does not value pretensions.  He states that all his stories stem from some initial experience and the personalities he has met. What he adds is a stunning ‘What If?’

He gets his first draft finished without recourse to beta readers, then puts it strictly away for six weeks. He works on other things.  In the second draft he fills out as well as corrects. At this point he may sit back and think what the novel is really about, what is important and consistent throughout the story.  This is when he might come up with an image or metaphor that enriches the writing.

What is very apparent is that Stephen King is excited about what he writes and loves the activity. He is not identifying a genre where he can make money nor is he intending to write blockbusters. He writes with an audience, an ‘Ideal Reader’ in mind.

His book can clear a writer’s mind and stop the flow of words circling round and down the plug-hole.dyslexia

On Writing is not a new book and it will have been lauded and praised many times before this. However, if there is any reader who has not read a book on Writing, they would do well to read On Writing.   It could well set you on a good, productive path.

Persistence pays, and King has evidenced this. 

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Five essential writing tools

Starting out on your first writing journey?

Starting out, Flickr, Simonov

If you are just starting out to write and self-publish, whether fiction or non-fiction, put some money aside for the journey. After all, if you were about to open a shop,  or offer a repair service, you’d expect up-front costs. Don’t expect the writer’s expense to be limited to computer, printer, ink, paper and reference books. Below I’ve listed five essential writing tools. You will be very thankful for these. If I’d known of them when I began, I’d have saved many months of time.

  1. WRITING PLAN  Scrivener  software organizes you. Forget writing from A-Z on one document. Scrivener encourages you to write in scenes, sections, chapters, ideas, dialogues, time frames, or whatever takes your fancy. Everything is updated and saved automatically. You can set yourself targets. Slip easily between looking at your notes, the outline, research, all beautifully laid out. Yes, you have to learn how but you can use the tutorials, or, easier, buy this book : Scrivener Essentials. Author Karen Prince explains clearly and succinctly: a big contrast to Scrivener for Dummies where the only tilt at your newness to the application is the occasional very weak (and patronising) joke. When you’ve finished the last chapter and have compiled the various sections into one book, Scrivener formats it for you: paperback, ebook or mobi. This in itself is a huge help.
  2. EDIT AND REVIEW Pro-writing aid This is a comprehensive editor, good to use chapter by chapter so that when the book is finished, your editor and proof reader will have far less work and cost you less. Pro-writing aid surveys your grammar, writing style, (over) use of words, and lots more. Paying attention to its advice will make you a better writer as you are progressing with your book.
  3. READ GUIDANCE Kindle  If you don’t have one, do it now. This cheapest one is quite good enough, clear to read indoors or out. You can download free, or free to read guides for your writing, marketing, style etc. onto the Kindle and have it beside you as you work on your book on your desktop or laptop. That’s so much easier than reading, making notes or trying to remember steps, and then returning to your computer to put it into practice.
  4. NOTIFY OTHERS Canva You may want an illustration in your book, but more likely you will want to blog about it or post on Facebook. Canva allows you to painlessly compose visual images and add text. It’s quick, too.
  5. FORMAT AND PRODUCE Vellum  Above all, when you’re sure your book is ready, avoid hours and days trying to format your book for the different platforms. Buy a lifetime licence for Vellum and have beautifully laid out books with no stress. 
    This advice comes from painful experience. If you don’t follow any of it, the same pain will be yours!
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