The Plot-Pant Continuum

Crossposted to Deadline Dames. So you want to know how the Dames got started? Stay tuned…

Someone once said, “You don’t know how to write novels. You only know how to write the novel you’re writing NOW.”

Wise words.

Writers fall on a continuum. You have your pantsers, who tend to store things in their head and blithely run through a novel; then you have your plotters, who have a variety of strategies for deciding on what happens in a novel before they write it. (Strategies like outlining, 3X5 cards, mapping a novel on butcher or kraft paper, Post-Its, you name it.) Anywhere you land in that process is fine as long as you come up with a workable product at the end.

I’ve been an inveterate pantser for most of my writing life. I generally work hot and fast after a protracted period of getting the book clear inside my skull, led on from point to point by the Muse, halting only for those places where I have to feel out what happens next like a woman with a plug in one hand searching for a socket in a dark room. (While artillery goes off all around and rats are trying to eat me…) Sometimes (as we discussed last night on Twitter) I stick inessential or don’t-have-it parts in [square brackets] and flail onward while the momentum is hot. Things like [big fight goes here, yadda yadda, get gun kicked away in struggle and wound to hip]. You get the idea.

Then there comes a book to change all that.

I’ve actually outlined the rest of the book I’m working on, in square bracket chunks.

This upsets me a little. I tend not to “plot” so much because the few times I’ve tried it, I’ve ended up feeling confined by the strictures and throwing them out anyway. It’s like someone peering over my shoulder as I write, which is the kiss of death for any kind of peace of mind for me.

Part of having a sustainable writing career is learning to take these sorts of changes with a minimum of flailing. Or, at least, scheduling in the flailing so you can meet your deadline.

So now I’m forced to take a deep breath and repeat to myself, Be mellow. It’s another way of doing the book. As long as the book gets done, we’re OK with however we get there. Just do what the novel needs now, and don’t worry so much about it. You’ve done this thirty-odd times, and each time it’s been different. You finished the other books, you can do this one, outline or not.

So my message for this Friday? Relax. Each book, short story, poem, what-have-you, is unique. Some won’t get finished. Others need different preparations along the plotter-pantser continuum to come to fruition. If this was easy, or if one size fit every novel, well, this would be a lot easier.

But it isn’t. Just ride the pony you’ve got for now.

Now, when I start losing my mind in another twenty thousand words, can someone point me back at this and thwap me on the head until I chill out?

Thanks.

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Shake That Into Place

I am doing #Askawriter tonight at 6:30PM PST. For 20-25 minutes I will answer questions on Twitter about writing and publishing.

I climbed on the treadmill yesterday. A half-mile later, the simple answer to my dilemma hit me right between the eyes. Security cameras. That’s how that character knows what he knows. Duh! So then I had 2.25 miles to think about it and the implications.

That’s the big secondary reason why I exercise. Physical movement often shakes the creative nuts and bolts enough to jam things into place. I’ve always been good at thinking on my feet.

So today is for seeing just where that revelation will end us up in terms of Dru 4, and also for reading Public Enemies. (Yes, the movie was based on it. But it’s about So Much More than the movie. Did you know Pretty Boy Floyd, the Barker Gang, Bonnie & Clyde, and John Dillinger were active at the same time?) It’s a fascinating book, and Burrough obviously loves his material. He’s not half bad as a writer, either.

So, um, you guys can stop sending bonbons now. The Muse was deluged. I’m sure she’s throwing stuff at me now in self-defense. I have not-very-nice thoughts of letting her eat her way out of the pile of beribboned boxes…but then I decided to lend a hand.

She is my Muse, after all.

Over and out.

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Give That Bitch Some Bonbons

The Muse, again. Taking the story through a bootlegger’s turn, and now she’s sitting on her red velvet fainting-couch, selecting bonbons from a beribboned cardboard box, and thinking through how she’s going to tell me to fix this thing. I can’t go any further until I figure out how Character A has received the information he’s going to impart to Girl Friday. I know there’s a solution, it’s on the tip of my brain. The goddamn Muse is sitting on it.

Some days she’s like that.

I am just going to keep throwing bonbons at her until she takes pity on me or until the solution wriggles out from under her and into my head. In the meantime, I’ll be working on another project to make this one jealous. Making books jealous of each other is a good way to jolt them free. If I’m not working on one thing I’m working on another, and that’s what’s saving my sanity.

Such as it is.

So. I’ll be shoveling bonbons and working on the homicidal-fae book today if anyone needs me. If you see the Muse, throw some choco at her or kick her pretty little derriere, willya?

Thanks. You’re a pal. I couldn’t do this without you.

*exits stage right, hands fisted in hair, muttering*

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It Will Go In The Graveyard Like Every Other Wrong Turn

The morning is nice and gray and soft-edged outside my windows. Not foggy, but not with the glare of spring sunshine and a blue lidless sky either. I’m glad–you live in the Pacific NW for long enough, you start getting nervous when it’s not cloudy or raining. No doubt the rain will start later today, but for now it’s just…cloudy. And I like it. The synchronicity engine is still turning over and echoing under the surface of Real Life.

Yesterday I was fighting tooth and nail with the latest book, and I figured out the point where things had gone wrong was…whoops, 10K words ago. After much thought and cutting and pasting, I only lost about 8K of those words. *headdesk* There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Not to mention cursing, bitching, and wandering around the house muttering and glaring balefully at things. I hadn’t precisely gone wrong, I’d just…well, had a major plot thing happen too soon, and it removed a lot of the necessary tension for the book to go forward. Plus I can always keep that 8K chunk for if I need it later. It will go in the graveyard like every other wrong turn.

If there’s one thing that’s changed about me writing, it’s that I only feel a twinge and not a huge soul-devouring terror when I slice out a huge chunk of text.

So now I have to figure out how to proceed from five steps back.

Those are the days when writing is intensely frustrating and nothing seems to go right. They hit just often enough to remind me that the usual state of affairs is a gift.

I have great hopes for today.

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Keep Showing Up

There comes a point in every book where one realizes one is not writing the damn book. The damn book is taking shape under one’s fingers, according to its own will and desires. You might as well just be a tube the words are coming through. Although the story needs the tube to contain it–and to work to put it on the page–it certainly doesn’t, well, obey.

I think this frightens a lot of people who want to write. The sense that they might not be in control, or that the story might be coming through them, is a scary one. It’s like having an alien in your brain. Others fight the organic life of the story and end up with a mess, where the reader can tell the writer fought tooth and nail to retain control instead of letting the story take shape. It’s sad to read–it’s like looking at a limping, broken thing that once used to soar.

Even writing to spec requires some submission to the story’s desires. There’s the focused daydream of planning the story, where chunks of the narrative arc come out of the mist and loom inside one’s head like frigates, and then there’s the day to day writing, where you have to get to a particular plot point, but the pleasure resides in deciding how.

This may be different for other writers, I don’t know. For me, it’s an odd tandem: the discipline to sit down and be present every day and the gift of the story taking shape of its own accord. I decided a long time ago that coming up with the story wasn’t really my job. That’s the Muse’s job. Mine is being present in front of the keyboard every day, ready, willing, and Mabel. I give the Muse the vague specs and she takes over. She needs my hands and my willingness, and I need that damn fairy dust she sneezes out. We’re a symbiote, but it requires work.

Anyway, I’ve reached the point in the current book–around 30K, sometimes a little later–where I sit back to think about what comes next and I realize I am not steering this train. The tracks are laid and they’re taking me somewhere through that wall of fog. It’s equal parts terrifying and downright exciting.

Terrifying because I am counting on this other thing to produce the story needed for me to continue working and earning money. Exciting because it’s a rollercoaster, and you know…she’s never let me down yet. The Muse is a fickle, tricky, nasty little wench. But she is also faithful in her fashion, and as long as I’ve shown up she’s never taken a sick day. There’s a certain amount of comfort in realizing that as long as I’m doing my best, she’s going to keep slugging away too.

So, I’m about to turn on the foglamps and charge forward into that white cloudbank. There’s always the risk of running off the edge of a cliff. But if I haven’t yet, in over thirty finished books and God knows how many short stories and slush bits…well, I’ll take my chances and trust the Muse.

She hasn’t let me down yet. All I’ve got to do is keep showing up.

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Optimism Proceeds Apace

First, the links: there’s a giveaway of Flesh Circus over at NL Berger’s place. And here’s an opinion piece about how the Internet does not mean the death of publishing. Oh, and nuts in Texas might be affecting the textbooks your children will use. (This last one is why I’m so glad I have a great deal of information and supplementary reading for my kids just hanging around the house.)

It’s been a time of big changes here at Casa Saintcrow, and we’ve just accomplished one of the biggest. Which has required a wrenching in our personal habits–now we’re all getting up between 6 and 7 AM. This is not cool for my biorhythms, man.

I have always been a night owl. Always. Given my druthers, I’d be completely nocturnal. Unfortunately, life won’t allow that. So I’m stuck on a schedule that my entire body rebels against. It’s hell for the first half-hour or so of my day, until I can get enough coffee in to trick my flesh into believing that it should be vertical, not to mention ambulatory and thinking.

Fortunately, the Little Prince and Princess are both so excited, they adore the new schedule and are quickly falling into a routine. And getting up this early leaves me with a shoal of time in the early afternoon that’s turned quite productive. (My productivity has also been helped by a number of stressors Going Away.) So, it’s got its good things.

The “make 2010 MY year” Optimism Experiment is going full steam. I’m fitting into size 14 jeans. While this does not sound like a lot, if you’ve ever lost a significant amount of weight, you know what it feels like to hit a milestone. Which this size definitely is, for me. I have even more grounds for optimism, in that there’s been nothing so far in the past two months that I couldn’t handle. I am beginning to feel okay about things, another huge step up.

On the other hand…I think I have to ditch about 1K I wrote yesterday evening. It’s a great scene, but I think it belongs a touch later in the book. This is why having a slush file for each book is so important for me. Of all the slush piles, the one for To Hell And Back is most extensive, because I had two or three different fully-finished versions of the book. That was a lot of work. Damn.

In any case, it’s time for the treadmill now. I am feeling cautiously, faintly optimistic about this entire 2010 thing. Which is way, way better than the alternative.

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Busy. Back soon.

Today is a day for clothes shopping. No, not for me. I’d rather have my skin peeled off in strips than go clothes shopping for me. But I do like going shopping for the kids. We’re doing the midyear school clothes basics tour today–jeans, T-shirts and solid sweaters, because they keep growing and this will provide a base for them when they Go To School. It’s going to be fun.

Sadly, it must be a banzai run rather than an all-day safari, because I’ve line edits to keep whaling at. Editing makes me cranky. I’m glad someone else has done most of the markup for me and I can just approve it or insert my own changes. This is the last big push before copyedits, so it will set me up for writing Dru 4–which is taking shape quite nicely, to the tune of 2K a day or thereabouts.

So, don’t expect to hear from me a lot for the rest of the week. Unless it’s a moderate amount of bitching on Twitter. That’s about all I have energy for.

Cover me. I’m going in…

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