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?)
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.
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.’
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
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.
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.
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
With just over a month to the release of my romantic thriller, Lying In Wait, I thought I’d write a few blogs about Australia's venomous snakes, as they feature prominently in the story.
In each of my next four posts I’ll either be sharing interesting facts I learned about snakes in researching the book, or personal encounters I’ve had with snakes since living in South Australia - one of which (described below) became the inspiration for the story itself.
All writers draw on personal experience when creating their stories whether they do it consciously or not. Sometimes it's a setting that inspires us, other times a person we meet. Sometimes it's a question we ponder - the classic 'what-if?' In the case of Lying In Wait it was a feeling – one I’d never experienced before.
Our family had recently purchased a 50 acre farm outside of Port Lincoln, South Australia (our home to this day) fulfilling a dream I'd always had of living in the country.
Not long after we moved in I discovered a highly venomous brown snake had taken up residence in our chook run ('chicken coop' for US readers). I'd kept snakes as a hobby back in the States so seeing him there every day when I gathered the eggs never bothered me. It was my husband who pointed out that, while the snake might not be a problem for me, it could be for our five-year-old son who often ran around the lawn with no shoes on.
One morning as I was gathering eggs I saw the snake sunning itself in the yard. I recalled my husband's fears and decided he was right, the snake had to go. But I couldn't bring myself to kill it. Having handled countless snakes growing up, I simply pinned its head, grabbed it firmly behind the neck and picked it up, my intention being to relocate it a safe distance away from our house.
As I stood debating where I might take it, I heard a small voice behind me say, 'Is Mummy going to die now?' I turned to find my husband and son standing at the gate watching me fearfully. My son, who'd been told never to touch a snake, simply assumed, that because I had, my death would follow.
Standing there holding that four-foot brown, hearing my son speak those words, I had a profound experience. I'd known of course this wasn't one of the harmless garter snakes I’d kept in my youth but in that moment the reality hit me with fresh force.
To my astonishment, rather than fear, I felt a sense of exhilaration. I won’t go into too much detail here, as part of this is explained in the story and I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice it to say, the feeling wasn’t altogether unpleasant.
In the days that followed, I found myself recalling the experience often and wondering what sort of person might become addicted to such a sensation. As I pondered the question, a character began to form in my mind, along with incidents from her past that helped to shape her personality.
From this I could see a possible scenario that would prove particularlly challenging to such a person, and gradually she drew to her others with the potential for creating further conflict.
In the end that character became Andrea Vaughn, heroine of Lying In Wait. In reading the story you may likely glimpse shadows of the real life experience that created her.
I recently watched a documentary about the comedian Chris Rock. Something he said had a far greater impact on me than I expected and I think it’ll stay with me a long time. Truth be told, I’m hoping it does.
Rock’s a pretty down-to-earth guy, at least that’s how he came across. At one point he was being questioned by reporters about a special he’d done on TV. The interviewers kept asking him things like, ‘What are your hopes for this project? Do you see it taking out any awards? Are you hoping to be nominated for an Emmy?’
Rock seemed a little confused by the questions. As the barrage continued ultimately he shrugged and said, ‘I just want to do good work.’
A calm came over me when I heard those words. Yes, of course! No overthinking it. No lofty, pretentious ambitions. No wanting to grind the opposition to dust. Just the simple desire to do your best.
Implied in the statement (at least to me) is also the understanding you might not always hit the target. That you have no control over how your efforts are received by others. Not everything you do will be equally popular. You just have to give each project your all and hope people like what you do.
Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots, has a similar quote he’s famous for: ‘Ignore the noise.’ His way of getting his players to block out all the hype and turmoil that often surrounds them and focus on what really matters – doing their best out on the field.
These two leaders from very different fields are, to me, saying the same thing: It’s not about external validation, but about turning inward; not about competition with others but competition with yourself. The striving to continually improve and be better today at what you do than you were the day before.
‘I just want to do good work.’
I think I just found my new mantra.
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.
Okay I admit I might have a problem – I’ve got enough journals to last a lifetime yet I can’t stop myself buying more!
I rarely use them as soon as I get them. I tuck them away on a shelf in my study until just the right purpose comes along. Each journal is different, you see. The size, the cover, the texture of the paper, the spacing of the lines…all these variables lend themselves to different contents.
Large pages with generous spacing between the lines seem to foster big thoughts and ideas. Whereas small, closely-lined pages are for more intimate, introspection. Glossy, slick paper is for writing fast as when brainstorming, freewriting or developing plot ideas.
Some of these journals have been on my shelf for ages, others have gotten a faster turnover. But sooner or later I’ll get to them all – I’m always looking for another excuse to start a new journal.
I keep a dedicated journal (or two or three) while writing each of my novels
I have a journal for recording my observations about my creative process in general
I have half a dozen notebooks full of story ideas
I have other workbooks where I explore those ideas, shaping them into possible plots
I have a journal called Notes To Self for recording insights – my own and from books I read – into ways to keep myself going when I’m feeling depressed or unmotivated
I have a notebook of ‘Beautiful Sentences’ containing passages from novels I’ve read that I found exquisitely written and from which I hope to learn.
I have a notebook for Words I Often Misspell (Oh boy, is that a big one!)
I have a notebook for stating my goals and my plans for reaching them
I have notebooks for reviewing the books I read – separate ones for novels, short stories, and non-fiction
I have a pocket-sized notebook I carry with me on my morning walks so I can jot down any thoughts that come to me
I have a journal I write in every day about anything that pops in my head
I have a notebook for recording advice on marketing
I have a notebook for recording funny incidents, things that have happened to me or others
I have a book of lists containing all the writing prompts I was ever given (Most Embarrassing Moments, Toys I Played With As A Kid, Pets I’ve had, etc, etc)
I have a journal of interesting characters – descriptions of people I know or encounter
I have a notebook listing my favorite novels, films and their various elements – my favorite heroes, heroines, villains, settings, scenes, relationships, etc.
I have a gratitude journal. A dieting journal. A notebook for recording facts about health. Another for my daily to-do check lists.
I have a dragon’s eye journal for recording my various Tarot readings.
I keep a small notebook in my bedside table for recording dreams I want to remember
Some are handmade and hugely expensive, others are cheap-oh back-to-school specials.
The thirteen leather journals I’ve filled over the years sit lined up on a table in my workroom that I think of as my writing ‘shrine’ – a tribute to all things writing related.
A sickness? Perhaps. I prefer to think of it as evidence of a passion for words and the desire to study all that goes into this fabulous craft. One thing I know – holding one of these treasures in my hands always gives my a moment a joy.
And in my defense here are some quotes from other authors on keeping journals:
“Paper has more patience than people.” Anne Frank
“Journaling both demands and creates stillness. It’s a break from the world.’ Ryan Holiday
“Keep a notebook. Travel with it, eat with it, sleep with it. Slap into it every stray thought that flutters through your mind.” Jack London
“Journals aren’t for the reader, they’re for the writer. To slow the mind. To wage peace upon oneself.” Ryan Holiday
Leonardo da Vinci kept his notebook on him at all times.