Monthly Archives: January 2013

Writing without a plan

On this blog and others you will often encounter discussions about different writing approaches, the general idea being that writers are either “pantsers” or “planners.” That is, some of us prefer to let our fingers lead us into the unknown (flying by the seat of our pants, so to speak), while others like to map out the story ahead of time so we can fill in the details systematically and let the tale fall into place as we go.

Each method has upsides and downsides. Pantsers are likely to get their projects up and running much faster, and, unbound by a preplanned route, they may find themselves going in unexpected, creative directions. On the other hand, they can write themselves into a hole and end up deleting a lot of promising material simply because it’s in the wrong story. Pantsers are at greater risk of continuity mistakes as well.

Planners are less likely to lose track of the story, and they can build more comprehensive, multidimensional worlds. They can also write with less anxiety, knowing that they are executing a sound game plan. But they might be oblivious to exciting story opportunities because their maps only show one road. If a planner is also a procrastinator, she can put chapter one on hold forever while she creates character bios, histories, and so on.

Rather than being two distinct extremes that exist in mutually exclusive worlds, though, these writing approaches lie on each end of a scale. I suspect most of us employ a method somewhere closer to one than the other, but with elements of both.

The only difference between his starting place as a writer and mine is technology.

The only difference between his starting place as a writer and mine is technology.

As I’ve mentioned here in the past, I consider myself a pantser, though I prefer the term “blank pager,” which makes me sound less like a sexual deviant. I also reported recently that I have begun composing a novel based on a three-word phrase that randomly appeared in my mind.

Of all the fiction I’ve ever written, this project is turning out to be the blank pagiest. What I mean is that I have no plan whatsoever. I just started by typing that three-word phrase and hit the gas pedal. Now ideas are spilling out from the fog of my subconscious faster than I can record them. Events are unfolding on my monitor screen as if I am merely a spectator detached from the hands that type the words. The unbridled spontaneity is invigorating my –

→ INSERT “TURNTABLE NEEDLE SCREECHING ACROSS A RECORD” SOUND EFFECT HERE ←

Have you ever taken a wrong turn and come face to face with a “road closed” sign? It’s happened to me twice: Once in Philadelphia (what’s with the bad street markings in that town?), and again this week when I introduced a bunch of new characters and a scenario into my novel that, I admit upon reflection, ran the whole thing into a ditch.

Days one and two of writing went swimmingly (if one considers the limited amount of time I have to write). Then, on day three, I was reminded of the pitfalls of blank-page writing when I took that wrong turn. For the rest of last week, I couldn’t get enthused enough to work on my project, but I didn’t yet realize why.

Sometimes you need to ruminate on things. Like when you think you’re mad at someone for a one reason, until a few days pass and then you have that “a-ha” moment, discovering you are actually upset about something entirely different (typically, your anger says more about you than about the person who pissed you off). A similar thing happened here, only I wasn’t mad, just uninspired… Until my a-ha jumped out and told me I had taken a wrong story turn.

So on Friday night, I opened my laptop, highlighted the offending pages without even looking at the words contained therein, and hit backspace… Goodbye new characters and events. Enjoy oblivion. No, you will not be paid if you do not appear in the finished novel. Get a better agent if you don’t like it.

Then I picked up where I’d left off, whacked away at the keys for several hours, and ended up improving my existing characters and storyline and giving everyone more depth and motivation. I’ll probably make more mistakes as I go, but at least I’ve got my mojo back, and I’m on the right road this time. I think. Such are the risks you take as a pantser.

Other than getting arrested on the subway for public indecency.

So how about you? Whether you are a “pantser” of a “planner,” or, as I prefer, a “blank pager” or an “outliner,” do you have any horror stories or tragedies about characters you had to fire or painful rewrites you had to make? Do share.

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Today I talked about an “a-ha” moment I had with my current writing project. Here was another A-Ha moment, way back in 1985:

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Expedient does not mean “fast”

In my editing travels I have come across this error far more often than you’d believe. Indeed, I find “expedient” used incorrectly with greater frequency than I find it used correctly.

For the record, expedient means advantageous or advisable.

I surmise that, because the word is similar in spelling to “expedite,” people sometimes conflate the two. Also, the second syllable sounds like speed. It’s as if the word gods set a bear trap for us. What did we ever do to offend them? Other than mangle the language all day, that is.

Some example of incorrect and correct usage of “Expedient.”

kirk

Incorrect:

Captain Kirk seduced the green alien woman in an expedient manner, having beamed down to her planet only minutes earlier.

Correct:

It would be expedient for the green alien woman to get tested for an STD after spending the night with Captain Kirk, a noted lothario.

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Incorrect:

Usain Bolt ran the 100-meter dash expediently.

Correct:

If you intend to run the 100-meter dash against Usain Bolt, it is expedient to practice as often as possible. Nevertheless, you are going to lose.

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Incorrect:

Republicans and Democrats worked together and passed the anti-Godzilla legislation in an expedient fashion.

Correct:

It was politically expedient for Republicans and Democrats to work together on an anti-Godzilla bill, what with the massive beast closing in on Los Angeles.

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Incorrect (though, in its wrongness, still true):

When you write expediently, you run the risk of making silly mistakes.

Correct:

If you think “expediently” means “quickly,” it is expedient for you to buy a dictionary.

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Today’s theme song is Faster than the Speed of Light by Swedish hard-rock guitar virtuoso Yngwie Malmsteen, whose fingers sure are speedy. Vocals by the great Joe Lynn Turner of Rainbow. They don’t make rock singers like that anymore.


Have you ever sneezed so hard…

… you knocked your skeleton out of alignment? I swear I’ve been pulling to the right ever since that sneeze from hell this afternoon. A few minutes ago I was trying to head for the dining room but ended up falling over the sofa armrest instead.

By the way, sorry if you were expecting a scatological response to the call of today’s post title. I don’t do potty humor. But I do have a nasty cold that I’ve christened “SneezeHammer,” for reasons that should be apparent.

Ok, that’s all today. I’ve got a novel to go work on (started yesterday, as promised).

I was going to close with Slayer’s “Skeletons of Society” as my theme-appropriate video, but I don’t suppose that most of my readers are into ’80s thrash metal. So here’s “It’s Nearly Africa” by XTC, a band that defies classification. The lyric “Shake your bag of bones” is repeated several times, an admonishment my illness has taken to heart.


The Plunge

Sorry if you came here for advice on unclogging your drain. Go down the hall, turn left, and through the automatic doors. Plumbing is the second blog on the right.

plungerOk, whoever is left… Sorry if you came here for advice on anything. I have none today. In fact, I’m using my blog for a neurotic confessional (which is much less interesting than an erotic confessional. That’s also a different blog). Still reading? Wow, you must be some kind of a weirdo.

I’m about to take the plunge. That is, I’ve been talking about writing a novel for ages now, tossing the concept around in my head and fleshing it out with characters and major events, including the ending. I’ve done a bunch of research. I’ve got a mental image of the story (I don’t do outlines). I’m finally ready to start writing.

Writing something else I mean.

Yup, I’ve been putting this thing off for a year and was determined to get cracking any day now. Then three words randomly popped into my head. I took out my laptop, typed those three words (I risk bad juju by saying what they are) and banged out a short story, total pantser style. I planned to polish it and send it out to a magazine or fiction site, but a voice in my head kept saying “Kill! Kill! Kill!”

Luckily, I usually ignore that voice – except in the case of centipedes in the basement. But the other voice, the one I can’t ignore, said, “There’s more to this story.”

I showed the short piece to a professional writer friend. She read it and said, “There’s more to this story.”

Spontaneously, stupidly, perhaps potential-career destroyingly, I’m putting the first project on a shelf and turning this short story into a novel… without the slightest idea what is going to happen past page 14, where the short ended. The rest is a blank. I’m going full pantser this time!

Oh, I say career destroyingly because I’ve already written two manuscripts that didn’t fit a specific genre and found out how little interest agents and publishers have in such things. I told myself a few years ago that I am only  going to write one more manuscript and, if I can’t generate interest, I’m done. That’s why I came up with the dark science-fiction concept I’ve been researching and planning for the past year and a half. Play it smart, put myself in a box, and hope for the best.

But that’s not the story I’m going to write. The story I’m going to write is… I don’t know, because all I have is three characters and a concept. I’m just going with my gut.

I am so not looking forward to the agonizing pangs of self-doubt that will take over my life soon. They’re already starting. I’m already telling myself it’s a stupid idea no one will want to read about. I’m already sure it will be a plotless disaster. I’m already lining up a sledgehammer so I can smash my laptop in a supreme act of catharsis.

Dang, isn’t it fun being a writer?

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Not my most creative idea, but it fits:


Thought of the Day

♥♥♥

We all have potential to be obsessed stalkers. Love happens when two obsessed stalkers don’t mind each other.

♥♥♥

Here’s my favorite stalker anthem, “Attack,” by one of the most underrated music artists of the 1960s, The Toys. It’s taken from a 45 rpm vinyl single, I suspect, so the sound isn’t spectacular. Lyrics included:

♥♥♥


How did you develop your writing voice?

If you are like me, you read a mix of novels, magazine and online articles, essays, blogs, and informational books on a rolling basis. Did you ever wonder why one writer goes for puns, another for gravity, a third for elegance, a fourth for gothic imagery, and so on? Do you consider how these writing voices compare to your style?

A Poet Without Tea

A Poet Without Tea

My fiction writing is characterized by short paragraphs and minimal detail. I rarely describe my characters’ appearance, unless doing so hints at their motivations. I tend to avoid backstory and instead leave clues through dialog. I’m not making an effort in that direction. It just comes out that way.

Some reasons I do this become obvious when I think about them. One, I don’t like tangential writing. Please don’t ever lend me a novel that stops the story for a chapter to describe how a boat engine works or to offer specs on popular wood lathes of the 1970s. I guarantee I will close it right there and give it back to you. Life is too short, and I’m not that polite.

You are surely aware of a certain famous, acclaimed, epic saga about an organized crime family, which was made into what many, including me, consider to be amongst the greatest films of all time. Unfortunately, I can’t get past page 50 of the book for all the relentless tangents. I’m sure the critics know more about great literature than I do, so I’ll just call myself a Philistine and move on.

I also despise excessive detail. I tried to get into a popular contemporary mystery series, but the author can’t resist grinding the story down to explain what each red-herring suspect has in his garden. Look, he’s either got flowers in there or vegetables. Unless I really need to know because the body of a Classical Studies major is buried under the zinnias, spare me the Latin names.

Not surprisingly, I’m inevitably influenced by writers I admire, and I tend to enjoy writers who get to the point (Elmore Leonard) and writers who have a dark wit (Poe). Peruse my story links under the Fiction tab above to witness some dovetailing.

My other influences are less apparent. I sometimes read novels and then watch the resultant film version, and I marvel how the screenwriters can tell the same story with only about 10% of the events making it to the screen. Harkening back to my public relations courses in college, during which the phrase “less is more” was branded onto my forehead, I am probably brainwashed to be a fiction minimalist.

And last, since I gravitate toward writers who are brisk and direct, I tend to seek writing instruction that is brisk and direct. Brisk and direct writing instructors tell you that exposition, even one word of it, is FOR PATHETIC LOSERS. You gotta find a way to tell the story without using exposition, they say. Leave clues through action and dialog. The circle is now complete!

My intent as a writer is to keep the story moving at a fast pace, make my characters interesting and colorful, and keep my reader hooked. My writing voice is a byproduct of that, not a means to an end.

So from whence does your writing voice derive? Have you thought about it? If your answer is too involved for the comments section below, why not blog it and let me know? I can post a link next time! Poets absolutely welcome. I may learn something yet.

While you are thinking about it, enjoy “Voices Carry” by ‘Til Tuesday, the first song I could think of with “voice” in the title. Sorry if they jam you with an advertisement first, and double sorry about the guy’s acting in the beginning. Yikes. Did they pay him?


I’ve got your modifier dangling right here, pal!

Alternate title: Why we all need an editor – Reason # 53

You know... like nunchuck skills, bowhunting skills, writing skills...

You know… like nunchuck skills, bowhunting skills, writing skills…

Many of the writing problems discussed here in the past, such as failing to eliminate extraneous words, can be overcome through practice and refinement. As our skills develop, we should be able to look at our prose and quickly identify the clutter.

However, even the best of us still need an editor, because we can’t catch everything.  And one of the toughest mistakes to spot in our own writing is the dangling modifier. I’ve seen this hideous little creature show up in plenty of published works, and I’m sure I’ve birthed my share. It often has the troublesome quality of being invisible to its creator yet hilariously obvious to everyone else.

The dangling modifier occurs when the writer mistakenly links an action or quality to the object of a sentence instead of to the subject of that sentence (or vice versa). Or when the writer is not clear about what is being modified.

Or something.

Sorry to sound so English teachery. I hate didactic writing discussions. In less boring terms, a dangling modifier occurs when, um… err… Look here, you’re just going to have to accept that dangling modifiers are plain old boring to talk about! I didn’t invent the bloody things, so let’s try to get through all this as painlessly as…

You know what? Why don’t we go straight to the examples?

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Ex. 1: “Harry told John that he was an asshat, since it was common for him to say rude things.”

Did Harry call John an asshat because Harry is often rude, or was Harry simply fed up with John’s frequent rudeness?

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Ex. 2: “Mary awoke to find blood on her sheets, suggesting she had turned into a werewolf during the night and killed yet again.”

Did Mary come out and suggest she had killed people the previous night, or did the blood on her sheets suggest that?

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Ex. 3: “A noted filmmaker in the fantasy genre, The Hobbit marks Peter Jackson’s fourth outing at the helm of a movie based on a Tolkien novel.”

This type of construction shows up in a lot of entertainment articles, and I suspect it’s a product of the writer trying to vary the sentence structure. If you’re reading it quickly, you may not notice that the sentence actually tells us The Hobbit is a noted filmmaker.

I don’t know of any great way to avoid dangling modifiers without an editor. You’ll just have to read and examine the logic of each sentence to make sure it means what you think it means.

You can also go overboard in the other direction. For example, the first sentence in the previous paragraph would be more definitive if it said, “I don’t know of any great way to avoid dangling modifiers if you choose to self-edit rather than to retain the services of a professional editor, who could give your manuscript a fresh read and spot such errors.” I didn’t explain all that because I figured you knew what I meant from the context.

As I’ve said before on this blog, I try to avoid absolutes in regard to writing rules. I ask you: What’s worse, a slight dangle that assumes the reader can understand context, or a perfectly clear, yet clunky and verbose, construction? Sometimes we have to take a cue from Johnny Cash and Walk the Line.