Confessions of a Former Pantser

Plotting out in advance? Bah, that’s for amateurs… so said me, and probably an awful lot of other writers. Why plot when you can allow for the pure magic of writing? Story developments suddenly spring out of nowhere, leaving you exclaiming to open air – ‘Well, where the heck did that come from?’

No, no, far better (and much more fun) to fly by the seat of your pants. Hence, the popular term ‘pantser’. And the totally unnecessary picture above.

Yes, I always had an idea of how a story starts and how it ends (and most of mine do so happily), but you could outline that planning in three sentences. ‘Student girl and boy swap bodies with a middle-aged couple. A scientific experiment they didn’t know about. They swap back,’* kind of thing.

Until a few weeks ago, that is. There I am, minding my own business, muddling through the messy middles of several books and wondering why my characters keep getting distracted from their real purpose when an email wings its way towards me.

Nick Stephenson is an indie success story who also teaches the art of writing and selling your own books. He is currently trying to persuade me (and others, I don’t get personal emails from him) to sign up for his Story Engines course, one of those write a book in a month type programmes.

The freebie incentive is a pdf that outlines basic plotting, showing how it works through demonstrating its application in popular novels such as The Great Gatsby, Me Before You, The Hound of the Baskervilles and Tripwire.

The premise is you first work out who is the hero, who is the antagonist, what’s the conflict and what’s at stake. Then, you set out a rough plan for a preparation phase, then a reactive phase, a proactive phase and then the end. Each stage is marked by a gamechanger.

I’m summarising. And making it sound formulaic. Not all great writing does this or needs this. There might be one or more heroes. An antagonist might not always be that way. Gamechangers can vary significantly in scale.

But when I worked out a two-page plan for three of the projects I’m working on, it was easy to see what was missing, what was in the wrong place and what was doing nothing for the plot and/or character development.

I’d argue that plotting is more straightforward to do once you are into a book. By that point, you know your characters well, and you know what will be a gamechanger for them. Start with your general idea, write about a third of your book and then hone. That’s my advice anyway.

Happy writing!

*And there you have it. The spoiler-free plot for The Girl Who Swapped.

The Girl Who Swapped

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Beauty and the Vampire

Ten thousand words into a book and I needed matchsticks to prop up my eyes. And I’m the author. It’s not good when you’re boring the pants off yourself. It doesn’t bode well for a book.

I’ve wanted to write a decent YA novel for AGES. I’ve tried a few times, but not managed. I like one of my attempts, but a YA book it ain’t – more a coming of age thing meant to appeal to other people who grew up in the 80s/90s.

This time, I thought I’d try a tale about a girl who ends up a YouTube star with her make-up for spotty girls channel. It started off okay. I’d found her a boyfriend. I’d introduced them in the tried and trusted Pride and Prejudice way. I’d even injected a little social grit as my heroine had a little sister who was dying (she was using her channel to raise money to get her sister to Disneyland), and she’d gained a ton of followers online who hung on to her every word. Sometimes they were nasty to her, in authentic YouTube style-y.

And then…yawnsville. Darn it, the writing just slogged on, words clinging to the pages instead of dancing in the air.

Inspiration struck this week. I get a lot of my ideas while out walking. Keep her as a YouTube star, I thought, pacing out the steps to Asda, but change the world and make her motivation different. Let’s throw in vampires!

Now, instead of a YouTube make-up channel for spotty gels, she’s got another audience in mind—those who want to look like ordinary human beings, instead of bloodsuckers.

My heroine still needs to look after her little sister, as her family can’t afford the healthcare for vampire immunisation. Only rich folks can afford it, and that means I get to take a sly dig at Donald Trump too.

Always a bonus, right?

Throw in some Romeo and Juliet conflict via a potential vampire love interest et voila! Something rather more entertaining.

I might still bore it up. Wish me luck. And in a blatant attempt to direct you to my Wattpad account, you can read the first instalment here

How to Procrastinate Like A Pro

If a cat sits on your laptop, this also gives you the perfect excuse not to do something.

I need to re-write a book. I know how to start, I know what needs doing, and I’m still avoiding it.

Naturally, you can check out the web for lots of tips on how to avoid procrastination (admittedly an exercise in putting off itself), but what’s the fun in that?

So, if you too have something you are putting off, but are rapidly running out of reasons, try these out…

 

 

 

  1. Twitter! Made for the procrastinator (as are most forms of social media). Check out the trends. Follow the links. Spend ages dreaming up witty posts of 140 characters or less. Schedule them, so you have a steady supply of amusing Tweets.
  2. Take pictures of your pet for Twitter/Instagram. This takes AGES. You need to get a seriously good piccie, one that will get plenty of ‘likes’ and shares. Then, you can spend an age obsessively checking just how many ‘likes’ you get.
  3. Research. Whatever comes into your brain at this precise point, look it up online. Where did they film the Boston scenes for Outlander Series 3? (Glasgow, I think.) What are the nutritional qualities of caraway seeds? (Fibre and some essential oils). What is the weather forecast for the next few days? (Rain.) Are there exercises you can do to slim your face? (Yes. And there are LOADS of videos you can watch on this too.)
  4. Write a blog entry and pretend it is part of strengthening your brand and your marketing efforts*. Yeah, right.
  5. Email others you know enjoy the art of procrastination. They will probably reply quickly, asking a few questions of their own which will demand your immediate response. You can keep this up for hours, if necessary.
  6. Make sure all the apps on your phone are set to send you push notifications. Your phone will repeatedly bleep with lots of lovely, shiny new news!
  7. Fill in your tax return in advance. I know. You can tell just how much you are putting off something when filling in a tax return seems like a viable thing.

Of course, if you do want to avoid procrastination you could do the opposite to all of the above. You will, however, eventually need to fill in your tax return.

 

*Oh. Had better self-promote then. You can buy The Girl Who Swapped, a chick lit, humorous read, here

Rip it Up and Start Again

One of things I struggle with as a writer is revising and rewriting. When I finish something, I want to move on to another project or idea. The thought of going back to a manuscript, reading through it and working out what’s wrong never appeals.

I decided to try something different with one of my finished/unfinished projects – Two Slices of Carrot Cake. Writers tend to get wedded to their own words. It’s difficult to detach. I’m editing a book at the moment for someone else and it’s easy for me to strike that red line through unnecessary text, or see what needs to be rewritten.

Some years ago, I read an interview with the writer, Elizabeth Buchan. In it, she said when she writes a book, she writes it three times. Her first attempt gives her the ‘bones’ and from there she starts again and improves the original story. I’ve decided to try this, albeit I’ll just be writing the whole thing one more time, and not two…

The Creative Stuff

Although it seems daunting, writing the story again appeals because it’s about doing the enjoyable, creative stuff again. I know the plot, I know the characters and what they are like, how they speak and I know what happens to them afterwards, seeing as I wrote another book that featured them.

I wanted to change the angle of the story slightly too. After I wrote my first book, Katie and the Deelans, I sent it to agents. It was rejected by all of them, but I was contacted by one after I’d published it through Comely Bank Publishing, who said that he liked my ‘voice’ and was I working on anything else?

When I told him I was working on Two Slices of Carrot Cake, he said I could send it to him when I’d finished it. I did, and he rejected it, saying the ‘issues’ thing in it (eating disorders) didn’t work for him, but he did like the ‘voice’ and he thought a better idea would be to concentrate on the teenage girl using multiple personalities online and the trouble that results. Keep the eating disorder, but don’t make it the main focus.

The Flow Trap

When you try to shift the focus of a story by going back to the existing document, it’s hard. Sentences, paragraphs and chapters flow in a certain way. You get caught up in that flow – if I change this, then that won’t work, etc. If you start writing again, the existing flow isn’t an issue.

I’ve started it. I’m excited about it. I’m feeling creative once more. Keep your fingers crossed for me…

The Modern Super-Power – Part Two

Want a super-power? Concentrate*…

Man, that was HARD. I wrote recently about focusing on one thing at a time. I’d been listening to a podcast where Tim Ferris said he’d once heard someone say that being able to focus on one task at a time for up to two to five hours was the modern-day equivalent of a superpower.

If you write, you’ve turned procrastination into an art form. I have. My distractions include the cat. Oh, where are you wee Freddie, do you want a little cuddle? To be honest, most of the time, he probably wants to be left alone to sleep in peace.

Then, I run up and down stairs engaged in trivial tasks, such as putting my empty Diet Coke bottle in the recycling bin when it could quite happily wait until lunchtime. Or I check my emails and react to them, instead of doing what the professionals tell you and checking them, prioritising and replying to them once or twice a day.

I decided I would try to write for two hours straight without the distractions. I usually listen to the radio, so I turned that off. I closed Mailbird, so I didn’t see any notifications of new emails, and I highlighted things that I needed to look up, such as London tube station locations, so I didn’t surf the web while writing.

The discipline I needed! My first challenge was overhearing a conversation going on below me. Yes, I am that little old lady beloved of novelists who twitches the net curtains and peers out of the window at her neighbours. (Not so old though.) I desperately wanted to duck down beside the window ledge and see what was going on.

Then, I finished my Diet Coke and longed to take the empty bottle downstairs and out to the recycling bin. The bed in the spare room needed to be made (I’d left it earlier because the cat was sleeping on it) and while I was trying to find a way to describe a new male character, I itched to go next door and toss the duvet in the air.

But if you don’t count a toilet trip, I did it: two hours’ straight of writing and one whole chapter was the result.

To celebrate, I folded up all the socks that needed pairing. And now I’m off to make the bed in the spare room and annoy the cat.

Rock and roll, eh??

 

*Pic thanks to Maxipixel.

 

The Modern-Day Super Power

And today’s challenge is… I listened to a podcast earlier, where the guest was Tim Ferris known for books such as The Four Hour Body/Working Week and others.

During the podcast, which centred on self-improvement, he quoted someone who’d come up with the line that in today’s world, if you are able to focus on one thing only for two to five hours, it’s the modern-day equivalent of a superpower.

What do you get if you focus solely on one thing for two hours, then? I’m on a mission to find out. When I write, I seldom, if ever, complete any piece of writing without doing something else at the same time.

Mostly, I’m listening to the radio. But I’m also watching the email icon, and if I get a new e-mail, I’ll come out of Word and read it. Then, I might write something and feel the need to look stuff up—whether it’s fact checking or the thesaurus as I seek an alternative to a word I keep using. Or I’ll just look up anything random that pops into my mind.

There’s one piece of work I do every week that I never manage to write without doing something else. I wander off to see if my cat wants attention, or I check on the washing hanging outside. I fold up clothes or change the sheets on my bed. As I don’t find the work inspiring at all, it’s an effort to finish it. It would be much less of an effort if I just concentrated, wrote the whole lot at once and got it over and done with.

Ah, procrastination… thine embodiment is the writer.

The radio? Switch it off. My inbox? Close the mail app. Checking things—highlight them as a reminder to verify or refine after the words have been written. Housework? It will wait.

Here goes…

 

Pic thanks to Topher McCulloch on flickr

 

Writing Resolutions 2017

RockyWriting-wise, 2016 was a productive year for me. I finished three books, re-wrote one and started two more.

When I finished my first book three years ago, I vowed I’d never write another one. It had been a long, drawn-out process. The second one was easier and the third easier than that. I hit upon a formula. You might argue it’s not good to be formulaic, but if it helps you write who cares?

It would be nice to sell books… I accepted a long time ago that writing books was never going to make me money, but supplementing my income would be terrific. There are plenty of self-published authors out there who give out free advice on how to make money from writing – Mark Dawson, Joanna Penn and the likes. Perhaps 2017 should be the year when I start taking and following their advice?

Another resolution is to stop abandoning books when I’ve finished them. When I eventually got round to revising book number three, I ended up enjoying the exercise. I got plenty of feedback from people and it proved very useful. It improved my writing too. I got rid of the long sentences, the too-frequent use of parentheses and I cut down on modifiers. Another basic I was getting wrong was repetition. Once that’s been pointed out, however, you become almost paranoid about it. I use the online thesaurus more too.

I’d like to finish those two books I started last year. I’m a third of the way through one, but the other one needs more thought. I know what happens at the beginning and the end. The middle’s a bit tricky. Most writers probably recognise that issue. You know where you’re going – getting there is the tricky bit.

Anyway, Happy New Year! Here’s to your health and happiness in 2017.