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

The Ten Bonuses of Writing for a Living

Writing for a living—glamorous, well-paid, and sort of sexy and bohemian, right? Bohemian regarding the pay, certainly, but here are some of the reasons why I love being a writer…
1. You get to work for yourself, and most of the time your boss is kind, understanding, reasonable and supportive*.
2. You don’t have to go to meetings. (Well, not many of them.) When I lived in the office world, most meetings I went to were like the ones they show on the BBC show, W1A. Here’s a link to a clip for anyone not familiar with this most glorious of satires.
3. Your fingers get a good work-out every day. C’mon. We’re like pianists, our digits moving at double quick time over the keyboard.
4. As a copywriter, you get to find out a little about A LOT. This week, among other things, I dreamt up sales statements for cars (not bad for someone who knows SFA about horsepower, torque and HUD), dug into the importance of living wills, and entered the world of vintage Danish furniture.
5. Writing every day is great practice for what every copywriter really wants—to write novels (my own wee attempt is here). Yes, being forced to think up lots of different ways to make cars sound exciting, and vintage Danish furniture appealing hones those creative skills.
6. You can do it anywhere. So long as you have a connection to the internet, the world’s your oyster. If you want, you can become a trendy digital nomad.
7. Being praised for your work. This might not always happen—and sometimes the opposite occurs—but when someone says they love your stuff, your heart soars.
8. Doing what you love. Every. Single. Day. Hey, even those car statements. And those blogs about cleaning.
9. Reading. You can’t write for a living without doing a LOT of reading. Sometimes, it’s of the dull variety, but it’s always very varied, and I don’t know any writers who don’t also love reading too.
10. The money. That’s my little joke. My bad. Take it from me, kids. You don’t do this job for the moolah.

*You get the odd day when your boss is the BITCH FROM HELL.

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

Dialogue Tags

Reblogged from Caron Allan fiction:

Writing dialogue is one of those things that you either love or hate. I quite like it, and I’d like to think I’m quite good at it, but I could be just fooling myself.  Dialogue is conversation, it’s your characters acting and reacting together to enhance your story and move the plot along. Through dialogue, the inner person of your characters is revealed, and also their motives, hopes, desires, all the things that make them the people they are and enable them to act out their part in your story. Here are a few tips on what I feel makes good dialogue, or more importantly, what makes bad dialogue.

  1. Don’t over-tag.

What I mean is, you don’t need to assign a speaker and manner of speech to every instance of speech. If your dialogue is written clearly, the reader knows who is speaking. There is nothing more irritating than reading a constant stream of he saidhe added, she went onhe further addedshe replied, etc. Look at this:

“Henry,” his mother called, “How many times,” she asked, “Do I have to tell you to tidy your room?” She went on to say, “You know I don’t have time to do it for you. And in any case, now that you’re thirty-seven you should start to do a few things for yourself,” she added.

Eek! Really, this is all one speech – or it should be. I recommend cutting out the annoying little joining-uppy bits to create one nice smooth speech. Now, what about this one:

“Good morning, Mr Tomlinson,” said Jenny.

“Good morning, Jenny. How are you today?” asked Mr Tomlinson.

“I’m very well thank you, Mr Tomlinson. How are you?” Jenny replied.

“I am also very well, thank you Jenny,” Mr Tomlinson told her.

“I’m very glad to hear that, Mr Tomlinson,” said Jenny.

Maybe we could try writing out our little conversation with no tags at all. I’m sure we could do it so that it was clear who was speaking! Don’t over-tag. Please. I’m begging you.

  1. Adverbs and the humble ‘said’.

Some people say NEVER use adverbs, it is forbidden. They probably also say never go into the forest on a Wednesday…

I say use them occasionally if you want to. Whatever you use, it has to be carefully done. Also, it is almost as bad read a long list of ‘active’ verbs as it is to read a repeated list of adverbs:

The active verbs extravaganza first:

“Good morning, Mr Tomlinson,” Jenny declared.

“Good morning, Jenny. How are you today?” queried Mr Tomlinson.

“I’m very well thank you, Mr Tomlinson. How are you?” Jenny enquired.

“I am also very well, thank you Jenny,” Mr Tomlinson responded.

“I’m very glad to hear that, Mr Tomlinson,” Jenny explained.

OR with adverbs instead:

“Good morning, Mr Tomlinson,” Jenny said warmly.

“Good morning, Jenny. How are you today?” Mr Tomlinson asked worriedly.

“I’m very well thank you, Mr Tomlinson. How are you?” Jenny replied sincerely.

“I am also very well, thank you Jenny,” Mr Tomlinson smiled gratefully.

“I’m very glad to hear that, Mr Tomlinson,” said Jenny emphatically.

Okay, I know you would never write anything like that. But my point is, it’s definitely a case of six of one, half a dozen of the other. They both suck.

In my opinion, a lot of the time, it’s better to just stick with the good old-fashioned ‘said’. Because most of the time, we don’t really need to know how something is said, only what was said. How something is said will hopefully become clear within context of the dialogue. Or the reader can furnish this from their imagination.

Too many active verbs or adverbs and the reader will lose the thread, get lost in the jungle of language, the information conveyed in the paragraph will be lost and the wonderful spell of suspended disbelief you worked so hard to create will be broken as your reader is dragged back into the real world. And nobody wants that.

Said is invisible. The reader’s eye glosses over ‘said’ and fixes on the actual dialogue. Responded/replied/enquired/retorted are not invisible, they claim the reader’s attention and remind them they are reading a story.

  1. Natural – but not too natural

I know we want our dialogue to sound like it was uttered by a real live actual person, but we don’t want it to be too real. In real life we rarely speak properly. And we use a lot of fillers and gaps to get our meaning across. I once knew a lady whose entire speech was made up of fillers and gaps and I never knew what she was actually saying. Conversation was next to impossible, and misconstruing her meaning was a constant hazard. In real life, the above little scene would probably go like this:

“Oh, er, good morning, Mr Tomlinson,” said Jenny.

“And a very good er…to you, er, J…er Jenny. How are you, umm?” asked Mr Tomlinson.

“Well, I’m er, oh well, you know, well erm, thank you, Mr Tomlinson. And are you er…?” Jenny replied.

“I am also very well, thank you Jenny,” Mr Tomlinson told her.

“Well, I’m um, very glad to er…, Mr ummm,” said Jenny.

So ‘real’ speech is not for us. What we are looking for is a style that gives the appearance of reality without all that dreary waiting around and time-wasting. Sometimes we want a little hemming and hawing, as they say, but most of the time we don’t.

“Good morning, Mr Tomlinson.”

“Hello, Jenny. How are you today?”

“I’m fine thanks. Yourself?”

“Yes, thank you, I’m much better.”

“That’s great. Could I have half a pound of bacon, please?”

Yay, the scene finally moved on! And we’ve even learned something from what we’ve read: that a) this is some kind of shop or purchasing situation, b) Mr T has been poorly (that may be relevant) and c) that Jenny needs bacon! Now we are all set to introduce the big scene of the great Full English Breakfast Murders

So dialogue should attempt to be natural, but without real life’s untidiness; needs to be tagged sparingly and clearly but without fuss. More importantly it should move the story along.

Rewriting Your Novel – by Caron Allan

Caron Allan Fiction

Claim your free copy of the Criss Cross trilogy here (limited time only).

I love rewriting, writes Caron Allan. There, I’ve said it. I think I could be the only person in the history of the world who actually enjoys rewriting. In fact, I like it a lot more than writing the first draft. I hate that bit. Okay, maybe not hate. I love the thrill of writing the first 50 pages or so, when it’s all fresh and exciting, and it begins to unfold on the page. Love that. But…sooner or later I always hit the first-draft wall. I know it’s because I don’t plot. I’m a pantser, so sue me, I hate to plot. But it makes the initial experience of writing a draft rather an emotional, rivers-deep-mountains-high kind of affair. But…rewriting, oh that is a whole new thing. I LOVE rewriting. You are free from the ‘burden’ of creating and, stepping back from your work, you can begin to polish and tidy.

Don’t revise as you go. I know there are always a few people that system works for, but trust me, it’s not for most people. You get so bogged down in the detail that you never progress. Write the whole book, from beginning to end, always looking forwards, pressing on till you reach ‘The End’. If you can’t remember the names and places mentioned earlier in the story, just do what I do and put a massive X in its place. Or refer to a list of names and places you create as you go along. It’s so much easier to revise a whole book. Like creating a sculpture, you’ve got that solid block to chip away at.

Put Your Book Away

After finishing your first draft, don’t immediately start revisions. Unless you are on the clock and the deadline is almost on you, put the book away for as long as you can. This is the perfect time to write another book. Yes, really. Leave your first draft for at least a few weeks, ideally a few months, or even a year. You will need to approach it next time around with a degree of detachment to get out of writer mode and into rewriter mode.

So you’re ready to start. Read it. Don’t write, don’t type, don’t tweak, fiddle, twiddle or jiggle. Just read the whole story through from beginning to end. You are trying to get an overview. Afterwards, make notes on how you felt about the book. Does the story hang together? Does the plot progress logically (unless an illogical plot is essential to your story)? Do you have that sensation of tripping up as you read—a bit like when you miss a stair and think you’re falling—that’s when there’s a problem, usually a plot problem. Try to pinpoint what it was that made you feel like that. Put a sticky note on the page, or if a computer file, highlight the section, or bookmark it, or make a note in the Track Changes.

If you’re frustrated by not being able to make changes as you spot them, or worried you might forget, again, make notes in the Track Changes feature of Word, or pencil notes in the margin, or use sticky notes if working with a paper copy, just don’t change the body of the book yet. Hopefully after rereading the whole book, you will be able to see the strengths and weaknesses of your draft. You will see what needs to go. If not, give it to a trusted friend or writing pal to read. Ask them to be honest and not just pat you on the back. Rewriting can feel very much like ‘fixing problems’ or putting right things that are wrong, this can be quite demoralising. Don’t get into this mind set. Remember, you’re polishing, refining. Putting flesh on a flexible framework. It’s all good.

POV Consistency

Start tinkering. Start with the easy stuff like consistency of character description and behaviour, check the names and personal details of all characters, check place-names are correct and consistent throughout. Then move on to point of view. With POV, consistency is everything. If you’re writing anything other than an omniscient third person viewpoint, then there will be things your characters cannot know until it is revealed to them. Make sure you’ve nailed that.

Next, check for all those words you overuse. For me, that’s words like So, And and Also. A friend of mine uses Thus in almost every paragraph…it’s really annoying. If you use unusual words to describe something, don’t repeat them more than once as unusual words stick in the reader’s mind and break the spell: the worst possible offence you can commit as a writer of fiction. Make less use of unusual words such as coterie or Schadenfreude, words that stand out from the page. If you use clichés—please don’t—but if you absolutely must, do it just once, don’t repeat them.

Check hyphenation, apostrophe use, adverbs and speech tags. I don’t agree with the ‘don’t use adverbs, they’re evil’ approach, but use them sparingly. (See what I did there?) Keep metaphors and especially similes to a minimum, unless writing poetry, they are also irritating. Don’t use fussy speech tags: he responded, she retorted, etc. Once in a while is fine, but you don’t need to tag every speech, just enough so the reader knows who said what. The word ‘said’, 90% of the time, is the best speech tag there is, it’s invisible.

Tidy your grammar, get rid of typos and unnecessary repetition. Check your tense scenes or action scenes for long, meandering sentences that slow the reader down and take forever to read, or have to be reread to try to figure out the meaning. Check slow, reflective, emotional or romantic scenes for accidentally humorous clangers, or break-neck short sentences that rush the reader too quickly through the text.

Read it again. And again. Tweak as you go, now, but remember some changes will have a knock-on effect and need to be addressed multiple times throughout the book. Now pass the draft to your close friends/beta-readers/book group, for your first round of feedback.

Then—I hate to say it—you need to do it all again. I read somewhere that if you don’t hate your book by the time it is published, you haven’t done enough work on it, and believe me I’ve come so close to hating a couple of my books. Your book is not ready for your editor or proofreader until you are absolutely convinced that it’s perfect. Trust me, it won’t be. But it’ll be pretty close. As an editor, there’s nothing worse than getting a script that is little more than a first draft. It’s like seeing a neglected child. And when you make your first sale, it will feel like it was worth every minute.

Caron Allan

Caron Allan is an Indie author who writes cosy murder mysteries as well as not-so-cosy mysteries. Caron lives in Derbyshire, England, where Mr Darcy came from! Caron is deeply interested in literature and social history, and has a bachelor’s degree in those joint subjects.

By way of a day job, Caron works as an editor and proofreader on a freelance basis.

You can find out more about Caron’s writing on her website:

caronallanfiction.com

Also, Caron is on Facebook and Twitter and would love to hear from you.

https://www.facebook.com/Caron-Allan-476029805792096/

https://twitter.com/caron_allan

Lessons from Launching a Book

Obsessively checking KDP every day is not healthy. And it makes you feel like the world’s biggest LOSER.

Double LOSER feeling – checking other people’s rankings, which also feels stalker-ish.

Your book will move positions on the rankings terrifyingly quickly. Watch it drop 50,000 places in a few days, for example…

Repeated use of keywords work. I used chick lit 2017 in the tagline and description, and my book appears near the top of that search result.

You definitely need a tagline (or sub-heading) for your book.

You should make full use of the book description and include keywords in there.

Borrow other titles in the same genre or vein for your keywords. Use authors who write similar stuff too.

The 99p promotion works. You’ll just have to do it a lot.

People will read weird numbers of pages through the Kindle Unlimited and Kindle Owners’ Lending Libraries.

Selling outside the US and the UK is HARD.

After the first week, you will be selling your book to strangers. Unless you have TONNES of friends, they are going to be your biggest market.

You will start to bore yourself going on and on about your book on Twitter et al. Self-promotion is very un-Scottish and it makes you want to shut yourself in a darkened room, hide under the bed and pull a blanket over your head.

The Girl Who Swapped is available on Amazon.