Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Neither a pantser nor a plotter be

Barbara here. I really enjoy following Rick on this blog's rotation schedule, because he always gets me thinking, which inspires me with blog topics when I am down to the wire. He and I have walked a similar writing path and hence share many experiences and insights. I too have a stack of full-length novels on my resume as well as three novellas. Rick and I have the same publishers for both. Thankfully, I don't write advertizing copy but I do write short stories and indeed have just finished one entitled The Lighthouse for a cross-genre, Poe-inspired anthology put together by horror/ dark fantasy writer Nancy Kilpatrick and eclectic, "anything goes", mystery writer Caro Soles. Look for nEvermore! from Edge Publishers later this year.

Short stories share with ad copy the same economy of words and powerful punch. Each word has to count, and there is no space or time to waste. Like poetry, short stories have to make every word and action the most perfect choice it can be. They are rigorous training for any serious writer.

Like Rick, I have confronted the issue of outlining at various times over the past 20 years. Or its variant, synopsis writing. Generally, publishers love them and writers hate them. Publishers want evidence that you know what you're doing and will produce a credible story at the end of the day. Some writers – the sort who outline fanatically – do know what they're doing, but some of us are straitjacketed by outlines, have little idea where we are going, and prefer to just let ourselves loose on the page. It's always terrifying, but after ten published novels (and numerous "practice novels") I've learned to trust that it works. No doubt it is not the easiest or most comfortable way to write a novel, but for some of us, it's the most creative way. I've often joked to incredulous readers that if I don't know where I'm going, how can the reader possibly know?

However, as Rick mentioned, the publisher of our novellas wants a detailed chapter outline before the contract is signed, so I have learned to do those. It helps that these novellas have a single point of view and a simple, linear plot. And they are short. No back story or flashbacks, no interwoven subplots, multiple story lines or three hundred pages of unwieldy plot. I start at the beginning of the story and brainstorm to the end before I write the actual prose. Things may change in the writing and characters may surprise me, but the bones of the story are there to act as guideposts throughout the writing process.

I have just today finished the first draft of a brand new, full-length novel in a new series. In this project, everything was an unknown. The characters were all strangers to me, the setting was unfamiliar, and for the first time I was writing an amateur sleuth adventure thriller instead of a police procedural, so I had none of my usual signposts to follow. Although I normally write multiple point of view, in this novel I was writing scenes not only from three points of view but also with three simultaneous story lines coverging towards the final climax.

It was terrifying. Incredibly hard work. I found I couldn't simply let myself loose on the page, because I was weaving a story involving multiple threads, so not only did I have to ask myself what would this character be doing next, but what are the other characters doing at the same time? I've never been one for lists or charts or coloured index cards, but I found myself keeping a file of notes on my ideas as the plot progressed. Notes on what I thought might come next and on problems I had to fix in the story I'd already written.

And I found myself doing mini-outlines. Not of the novel from beginning to end, but at pivotal points in the story, I would take stock, brainstorm forward three or four scenes, and jot the scene ideas down. When I'd written those, I'd imagine the next few. In fits and starts, I made my way to the end of the novel. Part free form, part outline. Now that it's done, I feel it was creative but still controlled, and I am ready with my file of notes for the rewrites.

Perhaps this will be the new style for me, one of the truly diehard pantsers. Neither a panther nor a plotter be, but a manageable hybrid of the two. We shall see.


Rick Blechta said...

The Night Thief has one fantastic cover! Congrats to the designer.

Eileen Goudge said...

Well said, Barbara. I fall somewhere in the middle. I am fairly comfortable with outlines but prefer to wing it. The downside to being a pantser is you can lost midway. I think of an outline as a compass rather than a map. As long as I know I'm going in the right direction...

Patricia Filteau said...

Barbara, Appreciate these remarks from a seasoned writer like yourself. It seems you are letting your approach to creating the story evolve along with the increasing sophistication of the stories you are producing. None So Blind is such a compelling and complex read written with clarity and sophistication. I not only thoroughly enjoyed the tale but learned a lot about producing a great story. Thanks for your contributions – so useful to us neophytes in the craft.

Barbara Fradkin said...

Thanks, Patricia and Eileen. I like the metaphor of the compass, although I don't always know whether I'm going in the right direction. And as writers, we always want to be evolving.