Monday, March 6, 2023

Planning for Intuitives (a/k/a Pansters) -- by Rachel


I’m a panster. For those who don’t travel in writers’ circles, that means I write by the seat of my pants (intuition) rather than by a hard and fast outline. That puts me in the company of novelists like Stephen King, Margaret Atwood and Hemingway (as opposed to outliners like JK Rowling, John Irving and my critique partner, Christine Lindsay).

 For my part, I’d write by outline if I could. I’ve watched Christine put enough work into her planning stages that she was able to write a first draft in three months, and boy did that make me envious.

The thing is, for pansters, the magic happens when we’re typing away and behind the character’s eyes. That’s when the story starts talking, the characters tell us who they are and plot twists pop up. Details emerge, characters deepen, and new what-ifs suggest changes. (Christine says that makes her envious).

So does that mean I don’t plan, that I simply sit down at the computer and wait for lightning strikes of inspiration? Not at all. I suspect that there are very few pansters that extreme. 

 Here’s what planning looks like for me:

 Before I begin writing:

I plan general character sketches, make notes on premise and conflict, and work out the beginning (inciting event), the major turning points and finale. However, I keep these general and don’t sweat them. I’ve learned that these plans are fluid and will probably be revised multiple times, sometimes drastically.

In the early stage of writing:

I write a few scenes to see if the characters have anything to tell me. If the scene falls flat, I change things and see what chemistry sparks. This is where I often revamp occupations, genders and backstories. Characters I planned or didn’t plan shuffle in or out. As needed, I go back to my notes and revise.

 For example, in my current work, I wrote my main character as a doctor. But she refused to talk, think or act like a doctor. In one early scene I had this idea that she should sketch a portrait, and when I wrote that scene, the story exploded with fun details and new twists. Ember the doctor became Ember the artist. Sometimes the character just knows and runs off with your plot in exciting and unpredictable ways.

FYI, if your character refuses to cooperate with your plans, my advice is to listen to them.

 As I write the first draft:

  • I make notes before I begin a scene – main action, conflict, favorite points, how it leads toward the finale. You could call these mini-outlines.
  • As I take walks and do the dishes, my conscious thinking relaxes and the storyline comes to me. As I type, I listen, and if something unexpected happens, I ask if this is something that’s going to redirect my story in a good way.
  • After I’ve written a scene, I go back and edit (not to perfection, just to add in details). These added details feed the story’s arc, and send in course corrections like the following:

I was a fair way into my current story when I decided to write a scene in a secondary character’s point of view, not to put it in the book, but simply to get a better sense of who she was. The first draft was a bore, so I added a new character, a neglected toddler. Better, but it sill needed color. I had Cassie, my teen, struggle to remember a fairytale. Instead she took the little boy outside and under a harvest moon, told him about the moon breaking off from the earth eons ago.

 There you go – a girl with a passion (astronomy), someone to love (a little boy), and a goal (to keep him safe). To make her a major character with a point of view complicated my outline in so many ways, but I couldn’t tell her no. Her character and story had grabbed my attention, and I knew I had to follow her to see where she was leading me.

 I won’t lie. Writing a first draft this way, listening, always listening requires a great deal of mental energy, and it's time-consuming. The process is messy (much like the formation of the moon). There are no straight lines on my map, but it’s the only way I can work. If the writing dictates to me, I obey, and go back to my plan and revise.


Monday, February 20, 2023

FIRST DRAFT aka Cow Manure -- by Christine


As a passionate gardener I cannot overstate the value of good, sterilized cow manure for my vegetable patch and perennials. But we’re not talking about my other passions, we’re talking about that first draft of whatever you’re writing, full-length manuscript to a short blog piece, and everything in between. Or as in my current work-in-progress, a dual time novel which adds a whole new dimension to developing that first draft.

 Rachel recently shared about the fear of the blank page and I’m following up with a truth that as a writer you must absolutely come to believe with the driven devotion of an Irish monk on the barren island of Skellig. Your first draft will be and must be absolute #@&%, in polite words—cow manure. 

 I know it’s hard, believe me I know, but you must get words on the page. You may end up tomorrow or several months from now deleting 50% of those words, but here’s the thing:  50% or less—or more—may end up being absolute gold, an absolute treasure of a scene or the surprising development of a character, etc. You will use these standout passages later to craft the rest of your story.

The temptation, however, to edit your first draft as you write is overwhelming. You read over those first words, and you cringe. But don’t go back. Hold on to your vision with the tenacity of that Irish monk as a full-scale gale whips you back against that thin, rocky cliff.

 As I write my thoughts on first drafts, I must insert a but, a huge BUT. I cannot go any further on this theme because I believe I have put the cart before the horse. Another garden or farm analogy. I confess that I am not a seat-of-the-pants writer but an outliner. In my opinion, before you start the first draft you’ve got to put in some planning work. No first draft really goes smoothly until you have worked on the following:

  • Premise
  • Characters
  • Setting
  • Preliminary Research
  • Outline

 With first drafts though I must interject an analogy from another of my passions—art. When working with clay one must repeatedly slam the clay onto a work surface to force out air bubbles. Then you slap that clay on in huge clumps. Then you begin to scrape away huge amounts of that clay to sculpt and carve the image you desire. It’s the same with your novel. You can’t really edit until you’ve got the whole lump to work with. The objective is to flesh out the outline into 70-100k words, no matter how those words fail to live up to your dreams.

 It’s okay if it’s messy – you’re just getting the story down in detail on the first round. The depth and beautiful language, etc. comes later when you can see the whole story.

To keep your motivation up during this time, remember that artists, no matter whether they are painting, sculpting, writing music or fiction, see the finished vision in their heads. This is what motivates us to keep going when the raw material is rough and ragged. As imperfect as the first draft seems now, once it’s all down, you’ll have the opportunity to craft that clay into that Bust of Nefertiti or carve that Michelangelo’s David out of marble.

 Remember to be that driven monk on the Isle of Skellig. Keep the faith until you’re done.

Monday, February 6, 2023

10 Tips for Overcoming Your Fear of the Blank page


If you find staring down a blank page frightening, know you’re in good company. It’s a common issue for writers, from students writing their first term paper to multi-published authors. Putting those first clumsy words down, digging for the unknown parts of your scene, and wondering if the final product will live up to your imagination can be disconcerting. In fact, starting the day’s writing is often likened to diving headlong into a cold sea. Here are a few tips that may help you warm up to the writing when the water looks too icy.

1)      Start early in the day. Your mind is at its best after a good night’s sleep, and while you’re still close to your dreaming subconscious. Even if all you can give in the morning is half an hour before heading off to work, getting a few paragraphs written gives you that dose of courage that makes you feel as if you can finish the scene later in the day.

2)      Jot down a few notes beforehand. Having the skeleton of what you’ll write gives you a good start, even if you veer off in different directions later. I’m no outliner, but writing down a few key points for the scene ahead gives me the feeling that I’m not staring into an abyss when I begin.

3)      Remember the first draft is just the clay. It’s rough. It’s flawed. And that’s okay. Later you’ll mold it into something better, once you’ve got the first draft in place. As the popular Nora Roberts quote goes, “I can fix a bad page, but I can’t fix a blank one.”

4)      End your day’s writing in mid-stream. This was Hemingway’s technique. By leaving his day’s work in the middle of a scene, he guaranteed that he wouldn’t be coming in cold for the next day’s work.

5)      Prime the pump. Begin writing, even if it’s not your story. Steinbeck warmed up by writing a letter to his editor each day before starting his work on East of Eden. I’ve heard of other novelists who start the day with a journal entry, random lists of words or even a haiku to get the words flowing. 

6)      Write quickly. Too much thought might be what holds you back. Writing fast allows your subconscious to take over, and you could be surprised at what it brings to the surface.

7)      Focus on the page, not the novel. A page per day makes for a 365-page novel in a year, but only facing the day’s work, not the entire project makes it less overwhelming.

 8)      Remember the joy. Writing comes with a lot of challenges. But what excites you about the scene you’re about to write? What is particularly fun, beautiful or interesting? Focus on that, and you'll be more eager to show up at your computer.

9)   Read and read some more. Read poetry. Read fiction. Read non-fiction. And you’ll be so saturated with words and ideas, you’ll have the material to work with. Many authors start their writing time by reading something short. Once you’ve started stacking up the pages, you may even want to read a page or two of your favorite already-written scenes to remind yourself you can do this thing.

10)    Write consistently. If possible, write daily at the same time in the same place. Our brains may rear and buck when they feel like we’re taking on something new (a/k/a scary), but once we’ve built the habit, our mind is more likely to face the blank page with calmness.

There are probably dozens of other ideas where those came from. Ask other writers. But most importantly, ask yourself: what gives you the courage to begin a fresh scene?

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Dual Timeline Novels -- by Christine

Photo taken by Christine on her last trip to Ireland of the famous
Dark Hedges so often photographed and filmed in N. Ireland.
And to think it is really just a lane in a farmer's field.

My current work-in-progress is a dual timeline. For ages, I’ve been calling it a Time-Slip novel which is a whole different kettle of fish. Time slip is a plot device in fantasy and science fiction in which a character magically travels through time, such as Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court or Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, a huge favorite of mine, but not to be confused with dual timeline.

Dual timelines weave together two or more separate eras in which characters flesh out their individual stories, but the past has a definite influence on the future or present day, and often the future story has the more satisfying ending to storylines slightly unfinished in the older story.

  • Questions are answered.
  • Mysteries are solved.
  • Relationships past and present are solidified

But both times have their clearly defined story arcs. A few favorite authors of mine in this genre are Kate Morton, Susanna Kearsley, Kristin Hannah.

At the last writers’ conference I attended, an agent advised me that publishers are wary of dual timeline novels because, more often than not, the quality of one of the timelines is better than the other. Readers are left to flip through one story to get to the other. So, as far as writing goes the multiple stories must be equally well written.

  • Suspense in both stories must be well constructed.
  • Characters must be fully developed.
  • Conflict must be fully rounded and believable. 

As writers we can take no shortcuts to just match one story up to the other.

In essence the writer is telling two separate stories over two different times that weave together significant commonalities, such as place, family ties, war, an object of value. The list is endless.

While writing a dual timeline has its challenges, I find as a reader I enjoy this genre the most. Funny that I’ve never tried to write this type of story until now when way back when I was a teenager, I read what was to become one of the top five of my life-long favorites, Mary Stewart’s Touch Not the Cat.

In Touch Not the Cat Stewart’s sequences from the far past are much shorter than her current day sections, but they gripped me because the answers to the current day heroine’s journey are suspensefully unfolded in those shorter sections. There was a certain magic to the subliminal slip for me as a reader going between the past and current day. There I believe is the commonality between these two difference genres, time-slip and dual time, that I equally love. It is the magic required in both genres. 

That is why I’m setting my dual timeline novel in the place I was born, Ireland. Emigrating from that island when I was a five-year-old has meant that the land of my birth has always held that magic for me. Who of us isn’t enthralled by the past lives of our ancestors, to imagine walking where they walked? To feel the same swell of emotion as we stand on clifftops overlooking the same oceans? To imagine their voices? It’s sheer magic. 


Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Unifying a Novel with Multiple Storylines -- by Rachel


Writing a novel with multiple storylines can be a fun challenge. However, as your storylines diverge, it is important to make sure all of the story threads do in fact weave into one story tapestry. Otherwise, the reader will leave your story feeling muddled.

Here are a few methods to make sure your various storylines hang together as one and keep the reader feeling engaged.

Present multiple sides of a single story.

The most straightforward way to carry off multiple storylines is to present a single story from multiple points of view. This weaves the tapestry together easily and cleanly. In Daisy Jones & the Six, all of the band members tell one story: the band’s rise and fall. Each character presents their own view and own substories, with the two stars, Daisy and Billy, getting the most airtime.

You can spice up this method by ensuring that some of the POVs cast doubt on previous character accounts, present an unreliable version, or in some way turns the story on its head.  Piccoult does this in Nineteen Minutes where she presents a school shooting from different characters’ points of view, but her goal is to change the reader’s judgement about the events as each new perspective is presented.

Write the path of characters finding their way to each other.

This keeps the tension up as two main characters or groups head for that meeting the reader knows is coming, the crux of the story. In All the Light We Cannot See, the reader waits on pins and needles as Marie-Laure, the blind girl, hides in her uncle’s home during WWII, while Werner, conscripted by the Nazis for his precocious engineering skills, heads in her direction. Doerr makes the meeting feel inevitable and suspenseful, keeping the two stories closely linked, but he doesn’t stop there. The two stories are further intertwined by the children’s history. It is Marie-Laure’s family that hosted a science radio show, which reached the orphan, Werner, and sparked his interest in engineering and still comes to him as fond memories as he faces the nightmare of war. That third piece is important. As you make the upcoming meeting of the characters a center point of your novel, how else can you connect the characters?

The wider the storylines verge, the tighter your central premise and theme need to be.

If you have two or more storylines that ramble, especially where the characters are leading separate lives apart from each other through much of the novel, it’s crucial to have something that knits the stories close together. This can the burning question, a mystery that all of the characters are working to solve, or someone at risk that multiple characters are trying to save. One of my favorite wide-ranging novels, The Lake House, has quite a number of characters and spans back and forth over a century, but all through the  novel, Morton ties it together with a single question: what happened to the baby who disappeared?

Additionally, if you have parallel storylines running, it’s important that they’re linked by common themes. Think how in the TV series, This is Us, one episode may cover different time periods, generations and locations, but in each one, the threads deal with the same theme – the impossibility of being a perfect parent, say, or addiction.

As our world has become more chaotic, it is quite common to see storylines bob and weave across various characters, settings, and wider plots. This is a good thing, as our culture comes to recognize the variety that feeds into our own stories. If this is the story you’re writing, that’s fantastic. Just don’t forget to give some thought to how you’ll keep your multiple storylines unified into one central story.  


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