Wednesday, August 28, 2013

To Pants or To Plot: That Is The Question

A little while ago (ok, fine, like a month ago, but as I noted shortly thereafter, I've stopped making promises about what I write about next on this blog, because I have the attention span of a drugged, concussed goldfish when it comes to planning my blog posts) I promised that I would talk some more about this theme that's been popping in some comments: pantsers vs. plotters. For those crafty readers who are keeping track of the subjects of my posts (and why would you do such a foolish thing?), you'll notice that this is my way of digging myself out of the pit of editing - also known as being certifiably crazypants, or wallowing in massive insecurity - and emerge back into the world of crafting a novel. You know, the stuff you do long before editors appear with giant red markers and destroy your darling words help you make your work better.

A pantser, by the way, is a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writer. In short, that's someone who does the polar opposite of what I do when I'm writing. The writer L.G. Smith describes the pantser process on her blog (which is fantastic, and which you should follow like I do): "I'm mostly a pantser, meaning I don't plan out my novels in advance of writing them. I tend to jump in the deep end and see how long it takes me to either drown or swim. Knock on wood, I've managed to swim back to shore with my last two novels."

Essentially, what this means is that a pantser writer doesn't need an outline or need help with a plot skeleton, because she doesn't have a skeleton at all. She has a big glommy viscous mass of ideas, sort of like a giant jellyfish, that she plops onto a page, and plucks words and scenes and characters out of with magic elf-fingers and crafts into a beautiful story with a few waves of her mysterious magic elf-wand, and if by some small, weird chance there are problems with the story or basic things that just don't make sense, she pushes on through her jellyfish-idea-pile and sorts that little unimportant stuff out later.

At least, this is how I imagine it works.

I used to write this way, so you would think that I would know how it works, but considering the fact that I always ended up sobbing on the floor by my computer, banging my head against giant unsolvable plot problems and begging my characters to cooperate, I think it's safe to say that I have no freaking clue.

I do not understand how people use this non-process and make it work; or, to continue with L.G. Smith's metaphor, how they don't end up drowning in an immense confusing ocean of a plot hole.

But they do. They write novels and get them published, and the novels are pretty amazing, and I'm willing to bet that they don't sob through the entire process. I admire these writers the way I would admire a pink fairy armadillo: with a lot of amazement and disbelief, and also a big dose of jealousy, because who doesn't want a cute little pink shell of their very own???

And then there are people like me: the plotters (a word which looks and sounds suspiciously like "plodders"). The anal-retentive, neurotic, process-driven people who make outlines for fun and derive great satisfaction from organizing their books by subject matter, then alphabetical order by author within each subject.

Am I just describing myself? Oh...

I've already detailed how my process works in a series of posts, but here's an overview: 1) get a seed, 2) develop and research it, 3) psychoanalyze the hell out of your characters, 4) develop a basic story based on those characters, 5) create a plot skeleton, 6) flesh out the skeleton, 7) write each scene on the outline until you have a complete draft, 8) REJOICE AND DO GREAT DANCES OF CELEBRATION TO THE GODS OF WRITING, and then 9) edit and edit and edit and edit and edit and....

You know, I'm really glad I wrote out my process like that, in a mini-outline, because now I see at least two or three things I haven't written blogs posts about yet! Now I have new ideas! And I know what to write! Let me just jot down my ideas so I don't forget about them -

See how that works?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Secret to Great Writing - and Life

I've done it, everyone. I've discovered the secret to writing, and maybe even to LIFE, the universe, and everything. And no, it's no 42. At least not as far as I can tell.

It's called vacation.

Yes, I know, not the most innovative idea, but that's what I'm on this week. In Vermont. One of my favorite places on the planet. As I write this post, I'm sitting on the porch of the coziest, homiest, most welcoming inn you can imagine, looking up as the sun begins to set behind the soft, gentle slopes of the Green Mountains, and breathing in the summer smells of grass, old wood, and growing life. One of the inn's barn cats is curled up next to me, purring.

Yup. No complaints here.

So, I'm going to take a break from desperate hoarding, bad habits, and general writing insecurities, and... well, actually, I'm just going to take a break.

I apologize for the total lack of useful or insightful writing information in this post, or really any information at all. I did reveal the secret to great writing, though, so that counts for something, right?


Oh, well.

I'll be back next week with a full post - and I'll catch up on reading all of my weekly blogs then (I owe all of you a really interesting and conversation-starting comment).

I'll leave you with this last thought: M.L. Swift is my hero. You should all visit his blog. If you can now a) follow me on Twitter or Google+; b) follow this blog; or c) find me at all, it is thanks in large part to this man. I am hugely grateful, and you can all blame him if I keep popping up in your feeds from now on.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

My Name is Liz, and I'm a Hoarder

Last week I joined the Insecure Writers Support Group, and it was a smashing success. I discovered a ton of great blogs (check out 'My Weekly Read' on the left-hand side of the page), electronically met a bunch of other writers, and felt less alone in my nail-biting hair-pulling hand-wringing neurotic-isms - um, I mean, writing insecurity. So, a big heartfelt thank you to Alex J. Cavanaugh and all of the other IWSG participants who stopped by and left me comments. I love comments!

I'm still editing away at my poor manuscript, of course. And still having itty bitty little freak-outs about it. And then laughing at myself, which, by the way, is the single best sanity-saving tactic I've ever discovered.

So, in the spirit of good-natured self-teasing (something I just occasionally indulge in on this blog), I'm going to post a little bit more about editing Cloudland. Also, I still can't think about anything else.

My editor sent me another batch of slaughtered marked-up pages a while ago, and when we were discussing the proposed edits, she pointed out a scene - one entire scene, mind you - and suggested that I might not need it.

Let me just repeat that: she suggested I might not need an entire scene!!!

In order to understand my panicked repetition and over-used italics, you have to understand a little not-so-well-kept secret about writers: we are word-pack-rats. Writers talk about language the way that hoarders talk about piles of boxes. Tell a writer to cut a paragraph, and she'll respond with , "NONONO WAIT! DON'T GET RID OF THAT! There might be something GOOD in there!! Let me just see..." *rifles around in manuscript* "Yeah, yeah, this sentence - this sentence is GENIUS! And this one here -"  *more rifling; words fly through the air* "Oh yeah, this one is the KEY TO THE WHOLE BOOK!!" 

We are language hoarders. I realize I'm over-generalizing here, but show me a writer who never minds cutting anything she's written, and I'll show you a pint-sized hippopotamus who plays the violin and sings Carmen in perfect Italian.

This is what I'm talking about when I mention that I'm murdering my darlings: it's an often-used writing expression that points out how common it is for writers to clutch their favorite paragraphs to their chests with crazed Gollum-like desperation, and how important it is to cut those buggers out of the book because they are WEIGHING IT THE HELL DOWN. I write these sections that I think are lovely and genius and perfect, and then my editor comes along and tells me they're unnecessary. And you know what? She's right. Just because something is well-written doesn't mean that it belongs in the novel.

Here's how OCD we are: many, many writers (myself included) keep files of their cut paragraphs/chapters/scenes for so-called "use in a future book". You know, like your Aunt Bertha keeps massive boxes of junk mail and catalogs just in case she ever wants to order something from Ikea. And who knows? Maybe someday I will really use something I cut, and maybe some day Bertha will buy her seventeenth All-In-One Book Organizer/Vegetable Peeler. It's possible, so all hoarding tendencies aside, I'm going to keep that damn file and hope to use something in there, some day.

Incidentally, I didn't cut the scene. Instead, I took a look at why my editor was suggesting that it was unnecessary, and realized that I hadn't written it the way that I had intended. In fact, I'd written it wrong. It sounds dramatic, but I saw that the metaphors I'd used were almost the opposite of what I was trying to express. This is a scene that takes place towards the end of the book, in the magical land in the clouds, where everything is a metaphor; using the wrong one is a pretty major mistake. It was, I think, the last scene I wrote before I finished the first draft of the book, and I was both stuck for ideas and determined to finish the draft, so you can see how I might have rushed through it just a wee bit.

Anyway, I went back to the drawing board and came up with better metaphors, and re-wrote the scene. I'm going to send it to my editor - along with the rest of the entire draft HALLELUJAH!!!!!! - shortly. We'll see if it makes the final cut.

In the meantime, I'm gritting my teeth, and laughing a lot, and committing a hell of a lot of word-murders.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Insecure Writers: And Now We Edit

NOTE: I'm joining a new group: The Insecure Writers. It's an online group, meaning that no one ever really meets face-to-face, which is so perfectly appropriate for writers (to make a grand over-generalization about us, of course) that I had to join. We 'meet' the first Wednesday of every month, so there will be a nice neurotic post about writing - so different from my other posts, I know - once a month.

I'm going to make an attempt to be brief today. Not one of my strengths, but I'm this close (holds up thumb and forefinger with itty bitty space in between) to finishing the first-pass edit of Cloudland, and I am jonesing to get back to it. Like, leg-shaking hand-tremors gimme-my-fix-NOW jonesing.

And oh yes, I do mean first-pass (or really third-pass), because there's a whole long chain of editing that happens to a novel after a first draft is finished:

  1. The writer reads the first draft and alternates between perfect joy and horrified disbelief. She tries to remove the bits that cause the disbelief and does great celebratory dances around the awesome bits.
  2. Second draft. The writer enlists one or two very kind, wise close friends with some expertise in writing/reading/editing to read the draft and point out the places where the writer has gone a wee bit overboard, which should really be cut before anyone else is allowed to read it.
  3. Third draft. The writer takes a few deep breaths and engages the help of a professional editor. With the help of this editor, she murders paragraphs and slashes and burns all of the "long's" and "slow's" and other problematic and generally over-written sections.
  4. Fourth draft. The writer and the editor go through the novel again (with a lighter touch, one would hope) to make sure that now that it's nice and lean, it all still flows and makes sense and that there's story continuity and all of that important stuff. 
  5. Fifth (or more) draft. The writer finds an agent (Snap. Just like that! Soooo easy!) That agent likely has one or two or seventy ideas for improving the manuscript.
  6. Many more drafts. The agent finds a publisher (also super-duper quick and easy, of course) and the publisher has a just a few tiny little suggestions before agreeing to take a major risk and spend money on this unknown author and her precious manuscript. Just a couple of very small edits. 

Of course, this is my version of the editing process. Some writers probably have very different processes (and if any writers are reading this and do have better processes, please for the love of God share them with me. Kay, thanks.)

All of this, of course, can lead to just the teeniest tiniest sense of insecurity. Y'know, no biggie. Just something along the lines of "OH DEAR GOD WILL ANYTHING BE LEFT OF MY BELOVED MANUSCRIPT WHEN EVERYONE IS DONE KILLING IT???"

Which is ridiculous and dramatic and mildly insane, and also probably entirely normal for anyone who has ever had anything edited. Emails, reports, novels, scripts, letters, grocery lists, whatever. There's always this moment where you think, "Wait, why are you getting rid of that? That was a genius idea! Don't we need seventy-five different adjectives/kinds of spinach/statistics/ways to say "dear"/etc?"

Anyway. I'm almost there on step #3 (does this feel like a 12-step program to anyone else??) Before I sign off for today, I'll share one more tidbit from the annals of editing:

This one is one of the worst offenses of my bad habit #4, pairing actions and body parts. I actually, with no sense of humor or irony at all, wrote the following sentence: "Then she [Sara] has no choice but to squeeze his hand, and nod her own head." 

Yes, folks, that's right, I am now pointing out that my characters only nod their own heads, not anyone else's! Because if I didn't - CHAOS!! WHOSE HEAD IS SARA NODDING?? WHAT ON EARTH IS HAPPENING IN THIS NOVEL??

Needless to say, the image this conjures is priceless: Sara putting her hand on her head, and pushing it up and down in an unmistakable nod.

Too bad I'm not writing farce, or satire, because that's a gem, there.