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Thursday, 26 May 2022 22:07

The Plotter Pantser Spectrum

Experienced novelists tend to lean toward one of two methods for creating their stories and sometimes these methods are viewed as opposites.

At one end of the development scale you have the Pantser, the author who gets an idea for a story and sits down and writes with no inkling of where it will take them. At the other end you have the Plotter who can’t set a word of their story on paper without a detailed outline to work from.

What’s in between these two extremes is a wide range of tools and techniques for moving any story forward. My strongest advice for anyone just starting out writing fiction: Don’t lock yourself into any one type. Experiment and be open to all.

The Day Dreamer – unconscious brainstorming

The first step moving away from the Pantser end of the spectrum, is what I think of as the Day Dreamer.

Even if you don’t consciously think about your story between writing sessions, it’s still kicking around in your subconscious with the high possibility of generating other related ideas, things that can happen within the story. These can be events, encounters between characters, snippets of dialogue, or whole scenes.

These light bulb moments may come to you in dreams or when you’re awake, the latter often when you’re doing something totally unrelated to writing like driving or taking a shower. (The second happens so often, some writers reportedly keep a waterproof notepad and marker in their shower for writing them down!)

The Dreamer is happy to let these off-shoot ideas simply float around in their mind, moving in and out of conscious awareness, and allowing them to impact the story however they will.

The List Maker – records their ideas

The danger in letting your off-shoot ideas simply float around in your head is that over time you can forget them. As you start to write and your story evolves, you may find yourself veering away from your initial idea. If you get stuck, it sometimes helps to go back and review your original inspiration.

List Makers guard against losing their ideas by writing them down. If you use this technique you don’t have to write the entire scene, just create a heading that will remind you of the idea you had.

From there you can simply go on pantsing and refer to your list whenever you get stuck. Often just reading over your list is enough to get you going again and can even generate new ideas so your story continues to grow organically.

Freewriting – kneading the dough

Another technique to use when you’re stuck – one that moves you a little closer to the Plotter end of the scale – is freewriting on your off-shoot ideas. If you get stuck, simply choose a topic from your list and explore it. If the idea is vivid enough go ahead write the scene. This will often generate new ideas for things that have to come before that scene and what might come after it.

You can also freewrite about your characters, exploring their backstories, motivations, strengths and weaknesses, and defining moments.

The Timeliner – putting things in order

Not surprisingly, the off-shoot ideas that come to an author as they begin to write are often their story’s highlight moments. Without any knowledge of or focus on structure, your subconscious will frequently give you the first act climax, the mid-point crisis, the act 2 climax and the story’s ultimate resolution.

The Timeliner takes whatever scenes are on the list, arranges them in a logical order and then simply writes from one to the next.

The Quilter - filling in the blanks

Taking this process a step further, you have the Quilter who looks at the timeline and fills in the blanks. Like piecing together a patchwork spread, the Quilter stitches scenes together by asking themselves, what has to happen to get me from point A to point B? What does my character need to know? What experience must they undergo? What information must my reader have?

The Outliner – adding the details

And so we arrive at true Plotter status. Yet even within the Outliner type there’s a huge range for how much detail an outline contains. An author might simply flesh out more of the Quilter’s work. Or every scene can be detailed in full, including whole conversations and lengthy description. (At which point the question in my mind becomes: is there really any difference between the detailed outline and a pantser’s first draft?)

Conclusion

Authors with multiple novels under their belt have a clearer understanding of their process and often identify strongly as one end of this spectrum or the other. However persuasive they might sound in extolling the virtues of their choice, don’t let anyone convince you that one of these methods is better than the other. Try them and find out what works for you.

No two authors write the same. In fact no two novels are written the same even by the same author! Though I call myself a Plotter, I utilize every technique on this spectrum, and each of my novels was written with a different proportion of methods.

 

Friday, 20 May 2022 02:01

A Writer's Pain - passion vs talent

From my own experience and the many emerging authors I’ve spoken to over the years, there’s a lot of pain in this writing gig of ours.

It goes beyond the sting of having a cherished manuscript rejected for the fiftieth time. It’s the question we’re left asking ourselves: Does no-one want to read my work? Will no-one ever hear my message?

I felt this same pain back when I was studying violin at university. In my efforts to master the instrument I realized that no matter how much I practiced, no matter how much I worked to hone my skills, there would always be someone better than me. Someone with more style, flare and natural talent than I could ever hope to possess.

I kept asking myself, With so many gifted violinists out there, who'd ever want to listen to me?

The answer I ultimately came up with – the one that kept me going through years of audition failures and less-than stellar performances – was the same one I give myself today: Just because we can all speak, doesn’t mean we all have the same thing to say.

Back then I was talking about the language of music. Today it’s the language of written story telling.

Like the characters we authors write about, each of us has a unique backstory, a perspective on life different from any other. There are stories that will never be told unless we tell them. And despite the shortcomings that even the best author has, our message can still be heard if we say it with passion.

Your audience might only be small but your work can still have a powerful impact. There’s the concert violinist who performs in a hugh hall to hundreds of adoring fans. But there’s also the rising student who plays to a roomful of family and friends at social gatherings. Both have the power to move their listeners, to provide them moments of joy and release.

When I listen to my early recitals I often cringe at the bumbled notes and awkward phrasing. But every now and then there’s a passage that truly sings, a moment where, even with my limited skills, I managed to say what was in my heart.

I'm not saying passion is all you need and that craft doesn't matter. I'm saying that passion can and often does impact readers even when an author's skills are still developing. 

Perhaps Bradley Cooper said it best with his line from the movie, A Star Is Born – ‘Everyone in this room has talent. Talent doesn’t matter. What matters is if you have something to say.’

Thursday, 28 April 2022 21:18

Eyre Writers Weekend - SALT 2022

So much is happening here on Eyre Peninsula this weekend!

As part of the region’s annual SALT festival, Eyre Writers is hosting several exciting literary events.

The weekend starts off with a Combined Author Talk with our guest Harper Collins authors Meredith Appleyard, Catherine Evans and myself, discussing the Ups and Downs of the Writing Life. (10:30 Sat, 30 April)

That same afternoon at 2pm, Catherine will run her Creative Writing Energy Workshop in which she’ll share some more unusual techniques for boosting creativity.

Then on Sunday we have two author panels, the first in Port Lincoln, the second at Cummins School library. Both will feature the above three authors plus local author Helen van Rooijen who’s launching her latest book this week, The Silence of the River.

As an added bonus, fellow author Helene Young – who just happens to be in Lincoln at the moment! – will moderate the Port Lincoln panel for us and hopefully add her thoughts to the discussion.

Sunday (1 May) is also the release day of my rural romantic thriller, Lying In Wait. So there could be some additional celebrating.

Then on Monday, as a reward for all our hard work, a group of us will head off for a lovely week-long writing retreat at which we’ll probably all do a lot of recovering!

Details for all SALT events can be found on their website: www.saltfestival.com.au

Tuesday, 26 April 2022 01:15

Snake Tails 3

It never snows where we live here in Port Lincoln South Australia but occasionally we get a winter cold enough to freeze the water in our bird bath. On the first mild day after one such winter, not one, not two, not three, but four deadly brown snakes slithered out from under our house.

They ranged in size from a modest three-footer to a massive specimen six feet long and as thick as my wrist – the largest brown I’ve ever seen. Because the weather that spring was variable the four of them refused to stray from around our door so they could slip back under the house when it grew too cold.

In addition to the obvious problem this posed for us getting in and out of the house, having these snakes so close to the door was a danger to our two-year-old grandson, not to mention our dog and three cats and any friends who came to visitor.

At the time Port Lincoln had no snake catcher (I'm not sure it even does now), and as the snakes refused to move on, sadly, it left us with little choice.

My son carried out the deed as humanely as possible, cleanly severing the head of the largest snake with our ax. (The only good thing that can be said for this is that it finally convinced the other three snakes to leave so we didn’t have to kill them as well.)

To our absolute horror, the snake’s headless body writhed on the grass for twenty-two minutes (I know because I timed it).

I learned in my research for Lying In Wait, the possible explanation for this. Some large snakes have a second ‘brain’ midway along the length of their body. This is little more than a bundle of nerves that acts as a kind relay station, boosting the signal from the animal’s head. It continues to fire random signals for several minutes after the animal is dead which accounts for the snake’s post mortem movements.

However, to date I’ve found no explanation for the second bizarre phenomenon we witnessed that day: when my son went to dispose of the snake’s severed head, it hissed at him.

Friday, 15 April 2022 05:46

Snake Tails 2

South Australia is the driest state on the driest continent on earth. It hardly rains here at all from November through to May. And where we live – ten kilometers from the nearest town – we’re not on mains water. We have several huge rainwater tanks behind the house in which we store all the rain that comes off the roof during winter, our wet season.

Because water is at such a premium through the summer months we have to make use of every drop, which includes tipping our cleaning water over plants and fruit trees in the garden.

One particular hot summer day, I stepped out our back door in shorts and bare feet to water the potted plants on our patio. Because I tipped my entire bucket into one large pot I wasn’t surprised to hear some of the water overflowing onto the ground behind it.

As I turned away however it struck me that the sound I was hearing wasn’t so much the trickle of water as the ‘shhh’ of reptilian scales over concrete.

Sure enough as I took my next step a five-foot brown snake whipped out from behind the pot and shot directly between my feet. I was already mid-stride - if I shifted my weight I’d fall on the thing. I had no choice but to plant my foot.

I will remember to the day I die the feel of that powerful cord of muscle pinned beneath the arch of my foot. Incredibly the snake never so much as looked back. By the time I came down to earth – having shot an impressive distance into the air – it was disappearing under the groundcover that edged the garden.

As stated in a previous post, my theory is this particular snake was one of the more placid western browns as opposed to the highly aggressive eastern variety that are – thankfully! – less common in our area. It’s the only factor I can think of that would account for its being so forgiving!

Interesting fact: Snakes smell by tasting the air.

By waving its tongue, the snake picks up scent particles and transfers them to a specialized organ on the roof of its mouth. A snake’s tongue is forked so it can determine which direction the scent is coming from, the same way our ears tell us the direction of the sounds we hear.

Thursday, 07 April 2022 23:59

Snake Tails 1

One of the early scenes in my Aussie thriller Lying In Wait involves the heroine, Andrea Vaughn, rescuing her best friend’s daughter who’s been trapped in an outhouse by a deadly brown snake. To catch and safely extract the snake Andy is forced to construct a device using only materials available on site. And since they’re in a national park her options are somewhat limited so I had to be a bit inventive in finding a solution for her.

Of course once I’d come up with an idea – using a branch and a pair of shoe laces - I had to test it to see if it would work before I wrote it into the story. Meaning I had to see if the model I created could actually catch a live snake. (The things writers do for authenticity.)

The device I created (pictured above) was made from a broomstick instead of a branch but is otherwise exactly what Andy had to work with. Essentially it’s a noose on a stick, similar to what a dog catcher uses for restraining aggressive animals.

The opportunity came to test my device when an obliging brown snake wandered past the front of our house. I felt reasonable safe standing on the edge of our veranda three feet above it, and the animal remained remarkably calm as I lowered the noose down toward its head. (It felt like fishing off the end of a jetty.)

What I hadn’t planned on was the inaccuracy of my control in wielding a stick that long. And the forgiving nature of the snake in response. Not once but twice in my attempts to snare it, I donged the brownie on the head. Yet even when I slipped the noose into place and tightened it gently around its neck the snake showed not the slightest aggression. And when I loosened the noose a moment later it simply went on about its business.

This experience was in stark contrast to one my husband had a few weeks later. He stepped from our house and started for our car parked a few meters from the back door. A brown snake basking in the sun a good twenty meters further up the driveway spotted him and immediately launched an aggressive attack.

My husband had done nothing to provoke it. The snake had a clear avenue of escape into the scrub at all times, yet it chose to turn and come toward the house. It came at my husband with such speed, he was forced to run around the car several times before making a dash back for the house.

Watching from the window, I managed to open the door for him and close it again straight after he scrambled inside. Which was just as well, as the snake followed him up onto the steps where it remained for several moments trying to gain entry into the house.

What caused these two snakes – both browns – to react is such extraordinarily different ways I can’t say with any authority. But I have a theory.

I’d been told by a snake expert that brown snakes in South Australia are highly aggressive and unpredictable. But at the time he told me this it just didn’t gel with the experience I’d personally had of brown snakes – both the time mentioned above and the time I caught one by hand in our chook yard.

I’ve since come to believe he was basing his assertions on eastern brown snakes – a regional variation of the species – and that our western browns are somewhat more placid and less excitable.

What would account for the difference in the basic nature in these two sub-species I still can’t say. I’m just grateful we don’t see many of the eastern type where we live

Thursday, 17 March 2022 19:09

My Writerly Beliefs

In his book, Awaken The Giant Within, Anthony Robbins writes, ‘It’s not the events of our lives, not our environment that determines who we are, but what we believe about our experience.’

That got me thinking…What do I believe about writing and creativity in general? What have I taken from my years of working as both a musician and a writer? The good and the bad, the realities and the misconceptions.

1. Perhaps my number one belief when it comes to any creative endeavor is that talent is greatly over-rated.

I learned long ago from studying violin that consistent practice is far more important. If you say it all comes down to talent and you either have it or you don’t, you’ve surrendered all control of the situation.

Even when it’s there, talent alone is never enough. I’ve seen dozens of gifted people give up when the going got tough because they never had to work for anything before.

2. I believe I haven’t wasted my efforts if I write a book that doesn’t sell. I put it aside and start a new one knowing I can return and revise it later after I’ve honed my skills a bit more. But even if I never revisit the work, I know that writing it moved me closer to my ultimate goal of being the best writer I can be.

3. I believe books sometimes – perhaps even often – get rejected for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the writing. The publisher might already have several authors writing books in a similar style. The topic or theme of the book might not be particularly trendy at the moment. Or just the opposite could be true and the market is saturated with books in that genre.

4. Following on from the above scenario I believe it’s possible to submit the same book to the same publisher a year or so later and get a completely different result. (Which – without going into details – has actually happened to me.) A topic that wasn’t marketable last year is hot today. A slot opens up in the editor’s stable when one of their authors moves on or changes genre.

5. I believe luck plays a factor in the success of an author/book but not enough to significantly alter my approach to writing. Yes, there are things you can’t control once your book is ‘out there’. But the same factors determining my book’s success are effecting other books that are successful. So if my book isn’t selling that well I just need to write a better one next time.

6. Having said that however, I believe a good book can be overlooked for a time. What’s more, I believe it’s possible to ‘resurrect’ such a book at a later date so it does find a measure of its deserved success. Some world event suddenly makes the book’s topic more relevant or interesting. (How many more books about viruses were sold during the Covid pandemic I wonder?) World views and market trends change. Themes become relevant that weren’t at the time that book was published.

7. One of my strongest beliefs about writing and the creative life is that passion is contagious – and so is apathy. I love being around passionate people dedicated to their craft. It fills me with hope, makes me consider options I hadn’t thought of, and encourages me to take appropriate risks I might otherwise be hesitant to take.

I steer clear of ‘dabblers’ who only work when they’re in the mood and never stop telling you about the story they’re going to write one of these days. Or the professional who only badmouths their peers and complains about life’s unfairness.

8. In a similar vein I believe there’s something in group energy that affects creativity. I’ve been running writers retreats for twenty years and I’ve had this experience over and over. Eight people sitting in a room together, each hard at work on their own story somehow create a wave of energy that all of us ride. It’s a buzz I look forward to every year. (And our next one’s coming up in 8 weeks! I’m already packing!)

There’s really only one belief I’ve come to have second thoughts about over the years. For a long time I believed that if an author writes a great book, a story that truly touches the hearts of readers, everything else will fall into place – a publisher will want to publish it, readers everywhere will want to read it, it’ll get great reviews, go to multiple printings, etc. All the things writers often worry about take care of themselves.

Though I still believe this to a certain degree I realize that, with so many books on the market these days, it might take a bit in the way of marketing for even a great book to find its readers.

I’m still refining my view on this one. But, for now, that’s my list of writerly beliefs.

Friday, 04 March 2022 18:40

The Importance of a Writer's Motivation

Following on from my last post, this question of what motivates writers and if any one reason is better than another…

I’ve been reading The Leading Edge by Holly Ransom. In her chapter titled Anchor to Purpose, Holly says, ‘The passion we derive from pursuing our purpose provides us the resolve and resilience to achieve major goals and impact…But in my experience, few people take the time to define their true motivation.’

A little bit further in the chapter she asks, ‘What is the change you want to see before you die? What gets you out of bed in the morning? What keeps you going when you’ve been shot down?’

She cautions readers to take time in answering these questions (A-ha! See, I knew it was important!) so I’ve been thinking a lot about it.

I thought I’d answered this question for myself but Ransom’s book got me wondering if what I believed was my true motivation really is.

I’ve told myself for some time now my main purpose is to move readers with my writing the same way I once moved listeners with my music.

But if I’m being totally honest, I have to admit there’s another side. Deep down there’s also the part of me that wants to take out awards, get rave reviews and be #1 on bestseller lists.

So which is it? If the second is my true motivation…well, it seems so egotistical. Will that selfishness come out in my writing? Should I admit my driving need is to prove myself? Or should I deny my ‘true nature’ and attempt to change my motivation to something a little more altruistic?

When I was ten I remember hearing the Tchaikovski Violin concerto for the first time and having a fire ignite inside me. I vowed I would play that music one day! I wanted those sounds to come out of me. I never asked myself why I wanted it, I just knew I did.

That desire kept me going through all the years and multiple set-backs until I was skilled enough to play the piece.

Winning competitions and auditions along the way helped as well. It gave me a sense I was moving closer to my goal and that others could hear my skills were improving.

Maybe it’s the same with writing. Maybe rave reviews, #1 ratings, and contest wins aren’t my primary motivation but simply proof I’m getting closer to my goal of moving others with my work.

Okay, yeah, I can live with that.

One thing I learned from my years of performing… If I focus on myself, I’m domed. But if I focus on the music I love, on what I want to give to the listener – in other words my true purpose – not only does it keep me going, but all my stage fright (page fright!) goes away.

Friday, 25 February 2022 10:54

Do Readers Care Why Writers Write?

Does an author’s motive for writing a story affect the quality of the end result?

Or, looked at from a writer’s perspective: Why do I write? Why does anyone write? Is any one reason better than another?

I’ve asked myself these things many times and never settled on an answer I like. A part of me thinks, what does it matter why you write? Yet somehow I sense the answer’s important and so I keep asking.

Below is only a partial list of reasons authors choose to write:

  • purely to entertain themselves
  • to escape their own world
  • to entertain others
  • to help, educate, or enlighten others
  • they feel they have something important to say
  • to become rich and famous
  • to understand themselves through the stories and characters they create
  • to prove to themselves/others that they can do it
  • for love of the creative process, the feeling of being ‘in flow’
  • they love mastering new skills
  • to expose wrongs/truths
  • to record history
  • to see their name on a book in a bookstore
  • to share their feelings with others, to communicate what’s inside them
  • to create experiences in their imagination that don’t exist in their own lives
  • to live vicariously through their characters
  • for the sense of power they feel as controllers of their own fictitious world
  • to have a lasting impact on the world

I’m sure others could add to this list. The question I’m asking is… From a reader’s point of view, considering the quality of the finished product, is any one of these author motivations better than another?

Elizabeth Gilbert says in Big Magic, whenever she hears an author say they wrote their book to help others, her reaction is, ‘Oh, please, don’t.’

Marketing gurus advise authors to write to the market. Creativity experts say if you aren’t passionate about your story it’ll show and anything less is being untrue to oneself as an artist.

James Scott Bell takes a middle-of-the-road approach, telling writers to find the sweet spot where their personal passion intersects with marketability.

But in the end does it makes any difference? Even the most egotistical creator who wants nothing but to see their name in lights can still create something of value, can’t they? Possibly even something extraordinary.

Most classical musicians I know simply love the music they’re playing and want to share it with others. At the same time there are those (and I have to admit they’re mostly violinists!) who thrive on standing center stage, being applauded by adoring audiences. Taken to extreme you get the egotistical rock star who cares little for the music itself and wants only to be worshipped by fans.

Whether an author writes for self-entertainment, to make millions, enlighten others, or change the world, does it matter to the reader?

Right now I’m leaning toward the answer: anyone who writes for any reason can produce a story others would want to read. But don’t hold me to that! I might change my mind.

I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on this. Readers and writers alike!

Friday, 18 February 2022 04:00

Having Patience With My Boring Charaters

Even after all the years I’ve been writing (I’ve been at now since 1991!) I’m still learning new things about the craft and about my own individual process.

In the middle of last year, halfway through writing another thriller, I came to the decision my characters were boring and no reader would ever want to hear their story. I set the manuscript aside and went on to work on something else.

It’s not the first time this has happened. Thankfully in every case, after taking a break, I’ve come back to the story with fresh eyes and found ways to make it more compelling, the characters more three dimensional.

Therefore I was hardly surprised when the same thing happened on this occasion. After working on a screenplay for several months, then having a break over Christmas, I went back and re-read the discarded manuscript and saw ways to bring its characters to life.

The difference this time was that I had an insight into why it happened.

When a reader picks up a book, they’re engaging with characters fully realized. In all but a few disappointing cases, the author has spent months, even years, fleshing out their heroes, heroines and villains into living, breathing individuals. Investing them with compelling motives, resonant pasts, strengths and weaknesses, and major challenges with which to contend.

For the author writing that very same book the experience can be vastly different. When I first begin to work on a story my characters are NOT fully formed. At the start they may be little more to me than simple arc- or stereotypes.

That’s what happened with my novel last year. In that first-draft stage my characters were nothing but cardboard cutouts. Is it any wonder they seemed boring to me? Now that I’ve got to know them better I really quite like them.

Perhaps authors differ in this regard. As in real life, some of us take longer to get to know others. The same could hold true with our characters. In a similar way, some characters could be more reticent than others, unwilling to reveal themselves at first. In any case I’d say it’s rare that a character ever leaps fully-formed into a writer’s mind. At least they’ve never leapt into mine!

Moving forward I’ll try to remember…for me the first draft of writing a novel is my ‘getting-to-know-you’ draft. My characters only seem dull at this stage because I don’t know them. I need to be patient and let them take as long as they need to show themselves.

I need to go easy on my boring characters. After all we’ve only just met.

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