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VIEW FROM THE TREEHOUSE
Celebrating the creative life and all that feeds it.

Friday, 22 May 2015 23:08

Being True to Your Writing Process

A few years ago I was preparing to embark on a new writing project – another suspense novel. I had done some preliminary freewriting and knew who my characters were, the main conflict of the story, the opening scene, and how it would end.

I was about to begin my usual involved process of creating a scene-by-scene outline of the plot (a stage that generally takes me about 2 months) when I got talking to another author friend about how she writes her novels.

This author, a confirmed ‘pantser’ (preferring to fly by the seat of her pants), described how wonderful it was to write a story without having any idea where it was going, what an adventure of discovery it was.

This author listened to what I already knew about my characters and said, ‘If it was me, I’d just jump in and start writing.’  

Her suggestion sounded so wonderfully liberating, her process so creative, I decided to try it. Again. Even though I had tried the ‘pantser’ approach before and hadn’t had any success with it.

Perhaps I’d moved on as a writer, I thought. Perhaps it made a difference what kind of story you were writing. If the method was as great as pantsers all say, wasn’t it worth another try at least?

With no disrespect to that author (or any other pantser for that matter), my decision to follow her advice was a mistake. In the end that story took me months longer to write than if I’d taken the time to plot it first, and I floundered and second-guessed myself the entire way through.

In my novel writing journal I recorded my frustrations at the time: ‘I can see now what the problem has been. I have no road map to follow. The biggest upside to doing a detailed outline first? It’s a hell of a lot easier to fix if things go wrong.’

What I learned from this experience is that outlining doesn’t stifle creativity, in my case it frees it. As an outliner I’m not deprived of the thrill of discovery, I simply have it in a different place then pantsers do.

And really, when you think about it, is there all that much difference between my detailed outline and a pantser’s first draft?

Please understand – I am NOT saying that my way is right and pantsing is wrong. I’m simply saying: be true to your process, whatever it is, and never let anyone else talk you out of it.

Thursday, 04 June 2015 04:40

Plotter or Pantser - Which Are You?

Ever wondered what your natural novel writing process is? I firmly believe the Plotter vs. Pantser issue comes down to one question – how comfortable are you with not having a plan?

A few years ago my husband traveled to Ireland with a friend. He booked his flight to Dublin and organized a rental car for his arrival. And that was it. He made no hotel reservations and had only a rough route planned for seeing the country.

My husband works a 9 to 5 job where every hour of his day is structured. When he goes on vacation the last thing he wants is more of the same. A fixed itinerary just makes him feels like he’s back at work.

He prefers the freedom to hop in a car, drive until he comes to a place that looks interesting and book his accommodation then. And when he’s decided he’s been in that place long enough, he checks out and drives to the next one that takes his fancy.

I admit this approach has its appeal. However if I’d been embarking on that same trip to Ireland – a place I’d never been – it would’ve made me a little nervous not checking out the accommodation first and making firm reservations ahead of time. What if I got somewhere and there was no place to stay, I would’ve worried. (Mind you, with the amount of Guinness my husband consumed, sleeping in a peat bog probably wouldn’t have bothered him.)

With the accommodation ‘framework’ of my journey in place, I can relax in the knowledge the basics are done and just enjoy myself.

The same applies to writing a novel. For me, facing a day of writing without a plan is too stressful. And when I’m stressed I don’t write my best and can’t enjoy the process as much.

With an outline, even just a loosely-planned route to follow, I’m much more relaxed. It doesn’t mean that route is set in stone and there won’t be surprises along the way.  

As with traveling, unexpected things always happen on a novel-writing journey. When they do, I simply alter my outline and proceed on my new course.

Friday, 07 March 2014 07:06

Writing Retreats

We’re coming up to my favorite time of year. Retreat season!

Normally I write at home, alone in my work room. But three times a year I organize retreats on behalf of my critiquing partners and a group of other novelist friends. Eight of us rent a secluded seaside camp and meet there for a week of uninterrupted writing.

Some writing retreats I’ve heard about have a mentor who presents talks and gives feedback on participants’ work, but ours aren’t run that way. At our retreats everyone simply works independently on their current project, taking full advantage of the lack of distractions they might otherwise have at home (housework, phone calls, family demands, TV, etc).

Each of us gets a table in the hall overlooking the ocean and from dawn till dusk (and on into the night for some) all we do is sit and write – with breaks for coffee and walks on the beach as each of us chooses.

At night after dinner, we have an hour of group discussion. Anyone who wants to can read something they’ve written that day or present a problem they’ve encountered with their story for the group to brainstorm.

Why I love retreats

Sitting in that hall with seven other dedicated writers working around me, I feel lifted on a wave of creative energy. There really is something to group synergy. All of us agree we write far more while on retreat than we would in the same amount of time at home. (One of our regular attendees wrote the first draft of her entire novel in just three week-long retreats!)

It isn’t just the lack of distractions I love. It’s being surrounded by people with a common goal and the same passion for writing I feel. As I sit there beside them I have a clear sense that what I’m doing is important, that others value it. Sometimes I lose sight of that fact when slogging away alone at home.

At the moment I’m preparing for our first retreat of the year coming up at the end of March. (Only three weeks to go!)

This one will be a bit special for me as my debut novel, RUN TO ME, is due to be released in the U.S. and U.K. on April 1st – halfway through the retreat. Since I can’t be overseas to launch my book, I’m planning a celebration dinner at the retreat complete with champagne. We might not get much writing done that night!

Because we engage with the world via our senses, writers are often urged to use all the senses when writing description. But for getting a first draft down on paper it could be better to focus on just one.

Each of us has a dominant sense in processing information about our experience. For the majority of people that sense is vision; for the second largest group it’s hearing.

Having been part of the same critiquing group for last 15 years, I’ve had a fabulous opportunity to observe the different ways our members go about writing a first draft. I’ve become convinced each person’s dominant sense plays a big role in their creative process.

For example, when one of our members writes a scene she has to be able to ‘see’ it first. Before she can begin to write, she has to visualize clearly not just the place, but the season, the time of day, the angle and quality of the light, as well as her characters’ actions and appearance. 

In total contrast, my first drafts are almost entirely dialogue. Being strongly hearing-dominant, I don’t need to know what my characters are doing, what they look like or even where they are. I just put them together and listen to what they say to each other.

For me this approach is hugely enlightening. The way a person speaks gives me all sorts of clues about who they are – their age, education, nationality, region of upbringing, attitudes, morals, socio-economic background, emotional outlook and much much more.

If you doubt this, think of all the different ways there are to say ‘yes’. From a military person’s crisp ‘affirmative’ to Ned Flanders’ ‘Okally Dokally’. Each version gives a clear insight into character.

I believe that knowing your dominant sense can help you as a writer creating your first drafts. If you’re not having any luck ‘seeing’ your scene, try 'hearing' it instead. 

Some of us like to spy on her characters, others like to eaves-drop.

Friday, 31 July 2015 03:01

Is Suspense Classed As Crime Fiction?

For years I felt I had a clear handle on the differences between mystery, suspense and thriller. While there is certainly some overlapping of elements, in their purest forms these genres are distinct.

Mystery

The classic mystery is about solving the puzzle. The protagonist is usually trained in some way – a police detective, private eye, forensic expert, medical examiner, profiler, etc – and is the one who ultimately solves the crime. 

Even the amateur sleuth possesses qualities that elevate his crime-solving abilities above other characters as well as the reader. 

Whatever his training, the protagonist in the mystery is the one in charge, and is usually one step ahead of the reader, showing the way and uncovering clues with his superior knowledge and intuition.

Suspense

In contrast, the suspense novel is an emotional ride. The protagonist generally has no special training and is not prepared for the dangers they must face. In fact part of their journey in the story is that they must reach deep inside themselves to find strengths they never knew they possessed in order to survive and defeat the bad guys. 

In suspense the reader knows things the protagonist doesn’t which helps to generate the suspense. (What gets the reader to the edge of their seat is knowing the killer is hiding in the closet when the hapless protagonist goes to open it.)

Thriller

Thriller is a term loosely used these days but to my mind a true thriller is suspense on steroids, meaning some element of the plot is beefed up in some way. 

Rapid pacing is sometimes enough to earn a novel the label ‘thriller’ but more often it’s the story’s stakes that are heightened.

In a suspense the protagonist and his loved ones are usually the only ones at risk whereas in a thriller the threat is to a wider community – cities, whole countries, possibly the entire world. (Which is why Hunt For Red October, with it’s threat of nuclear war, is a techno thriller and Cape Fear is a suspense.)

International Thriller Writers based in NY, groups mystery, suspense and thriller novels together under the heading ‘thriller’. American bookstores have the same three genres shelved together in their ‘mystery’ section. Australian bookstores group them under the umbrella of ‘crime’. Whereever I go these three genres have always been lumped together.

Yet when I attended the Adelaide Crime Writers Festival a few weeks ago, all the panelists and attendees seemed to be talking about was fiction involving an investigation.

This pretty much leaves ‘suspense’ out in the cold as suspense novels don’t always have an investigation, and if they do it’s not the main focus of the story. So does that mean suspense isn’t classed as crime?

Australian groups like Sisters In Crime seem to hold to this investigation criteria as well. In fact I once heard an Australian agent say, when asked to define the crime genre, ‘There’s a body on the first page and the rest of the story is about finding the killer.’ 

All of which leads me to wonder whether ‘crime’ has emerged, at least in Australia, as a completely separate genre, containing elements of mystery and suspense but distinct from both.

Thursday, 27 August 2015 23:52

Hitting The Creative Zone

Something exciting happens for me at the point where I become fully engaged with a story I’m writing.

Up to that moment it’s as though I’m standing outside myself watching what I’m doing. I analyze my process, contemplate whether it’s working or if a different approach might be better. I ask myself questions about the plot, its direction, its characters and how it might end.

But the minute the story comes together in my mind and I become fully engaged in writing it, my focus shifts and everything else drops away. It’s no longer me making stuff up, but a group of real people caught in a drama and I’m right there beside them.

I realize this is one of the greatest pleasures I take from writing, this losing myself in what I’m doing. All the cares of my everyday life just disappear. Total immersion exhilarates yet at the same time gives me peace.

I experienced a similar joy playing the violin. There was no ‘me’ when I performed a Bach Partita from memory, there was only the music.

Maybe that’s what Nat Goldberg meant in Writing Down The Bones when she said, ‘I don’t do writing. Writing does writing.’

Once I reach this point where I’m living more in my story then out of it, I notice that journaling begins to lose its appeal for me.

Much of my everyday personal journaling is about what’s happening in my life and sorting out any issues that arise. But when my aim is to forget myself and my problems, journaling – like analyzing my writing process – feels, and probably is, counter-productive.

A fun alternative I find is to journal as one of my characters. I ‘become’ that person and write out my reactions toward other characters and what’s been going on in the story.

As well as yielding deeper insights into the people I’m writing about, this practice keeps me firmly anchored in my story, with my own real-life problems shut out.

Friday, 17 January 2014 06:14

The Desperation Factor

I’m currently plotting a new novel. I write suspense so of course I’m looking to incorporate lots of tension, twists and turns, dangerous scenarios, and heart-pounding action. But that’s not enough. There’s another ingredient, equally as, if not more important, that has to be there before I feel compelled to start writing.

Desperation.

For me desperation is what makes a great story. My characters can’t simply want something, they must want it desperately. And there has to be some major obstacles stopping them getting it. The more desperate my character’s need and the bigger the obstacle standing in their way, the greater the drama. It’s not enough to simply put them in danger.

The most compelling needs of all are emotional. Our desire for love. Our need to protect those we care about. The wish to be forgiven our mistakes. A person fighting to achieve such goals is hard to look away from, especially when the odds are against them.

In Run To Me, my first book, Zack desperately wants a mother’s love; Shyler desperately wants her son to return. Those desires mean as much, if not more, to those characters than their very lives. These are elements over and above the dangerous situation they find themselves in. Without those desires, the danger these characters face means little. Their desperate needs are what make us care.

Characters in desperate situations is what draws writers to tell their stories and readers to read them. So right now that’s what I’m searching for. So far my plot has pace, conflict and a few surprises. But it doesn’t have heart.

The search continues…

Wednesday, 02 July 2014 02:19

From What-if To Plot

A question writers are often asked is 'where do you get your ideas from?' For me ideas come from anything I see or experience that intrigues me enough to ask 'what-if': 

What if a woman saved a man's life and then learned he was a serial killer?

What if a woman who'd lost her son had to save a homeless boy from killers?

What-if's are seeds that stories grow from. I get what-if's from many sources - dreams, news stories, interesting facts, people I meet, overheard snippets of conversations, personal experience, even films or books that didn't go the way I wanted them to. All I need is some kind of spark that catches my attention and makes me wonder.

Whenever an idea comes to me, no matter how small or fragmentary, I write it in one of the notebooks I keep. Even partially-formed ideas can sometimes coalesce with others to form useable plots.

(I never trust myself to remember ideas. I know from bitter experience I won't; at least not with the vision and energy I got when they first came to me. Every time I read through my notebooks I find things I completely forgot putting there!)

Sometimes what-if's come with a ready-made story attached to them. More often I have to explore an idea to see what's there. Here's how the process generally works for me:

When I'm ready to start a new novel, I pull out my Ideas notebooks and read through them. As I do this a number of what-if's usually leap out at me. If one of them grabs me and won't let go, my decision is easy - I take that idea and move to the next step of developing it. Often however I can't choose between several ideas and have to go through the process with all of them.

I start by getting a few cheap notebooks - one for each idea I want to develop - and for the next few weeks my writing day consists of the following:

1. Seated in my comfy plotting chair, I open one notebook and freewrite on the idea by hand until I run out of steam.
This is literally stream-of-consciousness writing, I'm just wandering with no direction. I write down anything and everything that comes to me. Why did this idea catch my attention? Who might the story be about? What do they want? Who or what stands in their way?

Before long I start getting flashes of images, conversations or dramatic scenes that the story might contain. Paying no attention to where they'll appear in the story, I record these ideas, which generally give rise to more.

When I've exhausted my thoughts on one plot I take a break, then switch to the next notebook and do the same with that idea.

I work this way because of something I long ago learned about myself - ideas always come to me AS I'm writing. (I think because I'm hyperactive my thoughts are always racing and I have trouble focusing. Forcing myself to write out my thoughts slows them down and gives me a better chance to consider them.)

2. The next day (or next writing session) I read through my freewrites of the session before and underline the parts I like. Starting with these pieces of the plot I freewrite again, adding more bits as they come to me. If I don't like anything from my last day's freewrite I go back to the beginning and freewrite on my original what-if.

After several weeks, these freewriting sessions usually yield the synopsis of a story. For me the synopsis is 'telling' the story - it's a general overview of what will happen and the people involved. Once I have this, I then move on to 'showing' the story by creating my scene-by-scene outline. (See entries: Why I Outline and How I Outline)

The hardest thing about this initial exploration process is convincing myself I'm actually working. Freewriting feels too easy to me. If I'm having fun it can't be work!

I have to keep reminding myself that play is a vital part of the creative process. My instinct is always to try and take control of the story's direction, but in this early development stage that's not what I want.

I have to trust my subconscious (or higher self or wherever creative thought comes from) and let go of the reins. In this formative stage my goal is to simply remain silent and listen to the story seeking to emerge.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014 10:42

Writing In Layers

I gradually discovered my writing process over the course of writing eleven novels. In earlier posts, I’ve discussed how and why I outline before I begin. But the step after that – transforming my outline into a first draft – I actually do in several stages. A process I think of as ‘writing in layers’.

Some aspects of writing come easier for me than others. Dialogue, for example, is what I find easiest. Description on the other hand takes me longer, as does internal monologue and scene transitions. And brilliant metaphors – don’t hold your breath!

So in creating my first draft, rather than focus on all these elements all at once, I do each one individually. I write the story through several times, each time focusing on a different element, starting with the one I find easiest and adding the harder ones in subsequent layers.

Sometimes I do this a chapter at a time, but usually in larger blocks. So I might write a hundred pages of mostly dialogue and then go back and flesh them out before moving on to the next hundred pages.

Why dialogue first.

We all mentally process and recall information via our senses. When you think about a lover, you might see their face as well as hear their laugh; you might even recall the scent of their perfume and the feel of their skin.

But everyone has a dominant sense in this regard. For the majority of people, that sense is vision, but for the second largest group, it’s hearing. (When you remember a phone number do you see it or hear it in your head?)

I fall into the second category. I don’t know if I was born that way or my training in music pushed me in that direction but this has affected the way I write.

Because I can hear what my characters are saying easier than I can see what they’re doing, my first layer is mainly dialogue (with a bit of action narrative thrown in.) Whenever I get stuck, I just sit back, close my eyes, silence my thoughts, and after a moment, almost without fail, I start hearing my characters speaking.

I think of this initial dialogue layer as my ‘getting-to-know-you’ draft. My outline only tells me so much – the basics about my characters’ backgrounds, conflicts and goals. Hearing what they say to each other – the words they choose, the attitudes they adopt when conveying them – tells me a lot about who they are. I also get a clearer sense of how they interact and challenge each other.

Adding layers

In my second layer of writing a first draft I focus on what my characters are thinking. I guess because thinking is only one step removed from speaking, I find this the next easiest element to add.

This is a fascinating layer to write. It’s amazing how the impact of dialogue can change when you add what the characters are thinking as they speak. If a character says one thing while thinking the opposite, it completely changes the effect for the reader. And if a character thinks something but holds themselves back from actually voicing it, it adds depth and conflict to the scene.

In the final layer of writing my draft, I add the parts I find hardest to write – description of the setting, the action, the people; transitions from one scene to the next; the odd snappy comeback, a compelling metaphor here and there. Because I’m not trying to do everything at once, I can relax and enjoy adding these details.   

With this layer done, my draft is complete. But it’s still only my first draft. At this point I find it helpful to set the manuscript aside for a while, or give it to my critiquing partners for their thoughts and comments.

In the meantime, I read a few books on craft to remind myself what I’ll soon be editing for. Then I come back, read my manuscript all the way through, marking the things I want to change or add in the revision stage.

You would think this approach would take much longer. Hard enough writing a novel once, let alone four times! But actually the opposite is true for me. Because I’m not constantly stopping to fuss with the things I’m not as good at, I can get my dialogue layer down really quickly. Then, with the bones of the story on the page, I can have fun playing around with them and fleshing them out.

Every novelist needs to discover their own process. And this probably won’t happen from writing one book. Most of us experiment with different approaches, especially in the beginning. Chances are you’ll have to get a few books under your belt before you know what works best for you.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015 06:47

Magic Sentences

I keep a notebook of my favorite sentences, phrases from the books I read that I can look back over again and again and hopefully learn from.

What impresses me about some of these sentences is the author’s skill in creating a mood appropriate to the story’s genre.

Like these lines from Dean Koontz’s horror novel, The Darkest Evening of The Year:

Her daughter glided at her side, as firmly attached as a remora to a large fish.

Amy had the feeling that something more than the man himself lived in Brockman’s body, as though he had opened a door to a night visitor that made of his heart a lair.

The hooded eyes looked sleepy, but the reptilian mind behind them might be acrawl with calculation.

Every time a read those words, ‘acrawl with calculation’ I literally get goose bumps. What power words can have!

As you may have guessed, Koontz is one of my favorite authors. Check out the imagery in these lines from his novel The Taking:

The room had the deep-fathom ambience of an oceanic trench forever beyond the reach of the sun but dimly revealed by radiant anemones and luminous jellyfish.

The nape of her neck prickled as though a ghost lover had pressed his ectoplasmic lips to her skin.

As effectively as a leech taking blood, fear suckled on Molly’s hope.

As much as I love a brilliant metaphor, often it’s just the sheer magic of the words that captivates me. Like these lines from The Orphans of Race Point by Patry Francis

On the street that was as much a part of him as the face he saw reflected in the store windows, he felt his sense of isolation burrowing deeper.

It was a broken, hallucinatory night of sleep. In the wind, the shack that stood on stilts shook like a houseboat tossed on mercurial seas.

What impresses me most however is that these authors conjure their special magic using only the simplest words. Words every writer worth his ink has at their disposal.

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