Plotting vs. Pantsing

nanowrimo.jpgIt’s April, and that can only mean one thing: Camp NaNoWriMo! National Novel Writing Month is technically November, when crazy ambitious writers all around the world strive to “win” NaNoWriMo by writing 50,000 words in that one month. April’s Camp NaNoWriMo is similar, but each writer sets an individual goal. Some may stick with 50,000 words; some may be trying for writing ten minutes a day. The camaraderie is beyond inspirational!

One of the quintessential questions of NaNoWriMo is this: Are you a plotter or a pantser–or the combination of plantser? When I did NaNoWriMo the first time, I was a *pantser: a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writer. 

In my defense, I had already started that novel prior to NaNoWriMo. I knew where it began, I thought I knew where it was going, and I had a rough idea of how it would get there, so writing out a plot line seemed overkill. I mean, it was all in my brain. And writing is a creative endeavor, not one to plot out, right?

Sort of. Depends. Kinda.

The problem: I hadn’t thought through how some of my plot points would connect (or not). I had a couple of endings in mind, but they seemed impossible to get to, even once I was 50,000+ words in. I didn’t give up right away. I went back and re-worked scenes, moved scenes around (shout out to Novelize), edited, edited, edited. I just couldn’t get it right. So I shelved it. (You can read more about that here.) I do think it’s salvageable, but I think it will need to sit for awhile–and likely, I’ll start pretty much all over. Except this time I’ll plot before I start. This was a lesson I took with me into my current WIP.

I was about 4,000 words in The Devil Inside Me before I did any major plot sketching. I had my idea–then the idea for making it a trilogy–but thanks to my previous experience, I wanted to know where I was going with it before I was 50,000 words in. 

I did some research and came across the “snowflake” method for planning. I loved the idea of taking a one sentence summary of my story and expanding from there. I came up with my suspects and how they’d fit. I decided upon the locations of the murders–and the order in which they’d occur. I gave my poor protagonist a fatal flaw from hell. And I determined which Chicagoans were going to bite the proverbial bullet.

Magically, plot holes appeared. Shouldn’t I have this murder occur at that location? Shouldn’t I have this person die instead of that one? This non-linear method worked so well for me that before long, I was ready for the linear. I created a spreadsheet of scenes. More plot holes. I could see where the story became protagonist-heavy and antagonist-heavy, where I’d need to do some more research. Other obvious issues made themselves known, including my favorite: person A could not have been 18 during a crime committed ten years ago if they are only 21 today. (Did I mention I teach English and not math?)

Knowing these gaps in the beginning made writing that much easier. I still don’t want to try to control every detail because not doing so will allow some spontaneity and creativity to live in the process.  Has it been perfect? Not on your life. But has it given me direction and the freedom to sit down and pound out some good word counts? You bet, especially when you’re working full-time and trying to cram in 2000 words a day. If you’ve tried plotting and failed miserably, give the snowflake method a try. There is no one-size-fits-all writing handbook, after all.

Writers, who has NaNoWriMo’d? Did you love it? Hate it? Win? Fail miserably? Are you a plotter, pantser, or plantser? Share your strategies!

Readers, what are some stories you’ve read that have an impeccable plot that seems perfectly planned? Writers would love to read your well-loved examples!

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*Confession: Not having a plan is completely and utterly counterintuitive to who I am as a person, but for some reason, writing does not fit into that order for me. As a teacher, my lesson plan units for every class are all tabbed, labeled, divided, and in the same size, color, and brand of binders.  My clothes hang in rainbow (and sleeve-length) order in my closet. I once had a co-worker move everything on my desk to see if I could work without changing everything back first. I couldn’t. I’m that person.

A Writer’s Retreat

books-shelves-architecture-wood-442420.jpegSomewhere in this world is a perfect study. Rich mahogany bookshelves stretch from wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling, replete with a little rolling ladder to reach tomes on the uppermost shelves. An enormous window looks out onto a slightly overcast and rainy day, which we all know fosters the feeling of needing to read and write. An oversized chair upholstered in a chocolate-y brown velvet invites a reader to curl up in it, to enjoy the massive fireplace that’s roaring, taking the chill out of the rainy day. The piece-de-resistance of this study is the massive desk that is in the center of the room, its surface large enough to stretch out and take a nap on. The surface is devoid of anything, save maybe a cup of InkJoy and Frixion pens in every possible color. If you’re envisioning a combination of the mansion in Clue and the Gryffindor common room in Harry Potter, you’re in my head. Let’s face it, this is exactly where I picture JK Rowling sitting down to write another world in which she can send me.

I don’t have that study. Send me pictures if you do.

I must admit that there is part of me that thinks if only I had that kind of environment in which to write, surely the words would flow like honey. However, for most of us, our reality of where we write may be nothing more than where we get an opportunity to write.

I typically write at home, but I long to have a local writers’ group. Alas, country life has its cons, and this is one of them. I long to go to workshops and retreats, which are inevitably in “the” city of some sort (for me that would be Chicago–2-3 hours away, depending upon where you’re heading). I, like Chaucer’s tale-tellers, long to go on a pilgrimage, except my pilgrimage would be to the Story Studio in Chicago for write-ins, where the entire vibe is centered around writing and writers and stories and absolutely nothing else.

So, on those days when I start feeling like I haven’t had a good, solid chunk of writing time and I just need one, I plan my own writing retreat. Yes, I’m flying solo, but providing myself dedicated time and space to do nothing but writing has a way of reviving my spirit and my zest for the current WIP. The characters come back to life as I reconnect to the story–a win-win for everyone (except whoever may be the next fictional murder victim).

How do you plan a writing retreat for one? There are a few options, but first, determine your circumstance:

  1. ALL OTHER COHABITANTS HAVE LEFT THE BUILDING–also known as “what every parent dreams of.” In this option, your partner/spouse and all children have vacated the premises and left you alone. Be it for two hours or two days, allow that laundry to sit there, let those dishes stay in the sink. Give yourself that time–and permission–for just you and your creative side.  Set up a writing station–the couch, the dining table, the bed.  Be sure you have drinks and snacks of your choice on hand.

Recently, I felt a hankering to go to Panera, but it was C-O-L-D. My husband was gone all day working, so I had the house to myself. I may not have a big slab of mahogany, but I do have a farm table in my dining room with a beautiful view of the countryside. I lit a few candles, sliced myself a piece of banana nut bread, made some Earl Grey (I had to at least simulate Panera), and settled in to write. It was the most productive I’d been in days, and I’d like to think that the change of scenery of a different room did that for me.

2. YOU CAN LEAVE THE BUILDING.  Escape! It’s underrated, really.  Panera and our local library are two of my favorite places to write because I can avoid seeing what needs to be done at home. Explore your town or city. Is there a nice quiet nook in the public library?  Are you a Starbucks fiend? Bonus in some places: free wi-fi.

3. YOU CAN LEAVE THE BUILDING FOR A GLORIOUS WEEKEND.  Ah, this is my dream. Financially, it’s not always feasible, but thanks to Groupon and a great downtown-hotel deal, I’m planning a Chicago-escape weekend for myself. A change of pace, a new vista–both of these can help shake up the writer inside of you. Bonus: Take a train if you can. Great for people-watching, a train provides not only character-fodder and often free wi-fi, but also uninterrupted writing time.

Need some more inspiration for where to write? Check out Kristin Pope’s 22 Places to Write blog post on The Write Life for plenty more.

Writers, what are some of your favorite places to write? Share with us–we are all looking for ideas!

Readers, I’ve rambled on about the best places to write, but writers and readers are often one in the same. What are your favorite places to read?

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Editing, aka Negative Word Count

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Editing. The bane of some writers’ existence. This week I’ve been editing my most recent chapter in The Devil Inside Me, and I’ve been having a hard time following my own advice. In some ways I enjoy editing because it means I get to tighten everything up from character descriptions to plot lines. But what I hate about it, I truly hate: the disappearance of words from my beautiful word counter on the screen.

Logically, I know that is nonsensical. If I’m to tighten up my text, words will have to go. That doesn’t mean that I enjoy the feeling of work escaping into the ether. It’s been especially hard the last two weeks for me to go into editor mode from the must-get-butt-in-seat-and-words-on-page mindset that I mentioned in my post, “Finding Time to Write (and Read!)”.

And then, as if the writing gods could read my mind, Lauren Sapala’s blog post arrived in my inbox. All I saw was the subject line, and my gut heaved a sigh of relief: “Writing Progress Does Not Always Equal Word Count.”

Like the writing gods could read my mind, I tell you.

Guest blogger Anna-Marie O’Brien is behind this nugget of truth. Progress is more than just a word count. Sometimes you have to just let the book take you where you need to go. She says, “I’ve come to find that there is a push and a pull to writing…You have to go with the flow. But then, you also have to steer the ship.” Amen. For those of us who struggle with getting a word count in every single day and feel guilty when we don’t, this is a beautiful reminder that sometimes that’s not what it’s about. Sometimes you might need to get lost in research for a couple of hours. Sometimes you might just need to noodle over a character’s situation for a few days. And if that’s your way, that’s your way. Much gratitude to Anna-Marie for penning this post and to Lauren for sharing it!

Writers, do any of you fall in this category? Do you struggle with not fitting in the write-X-number-of-words-every-day form? How do you deal?

Readers, last week I shared a snippet of The Devil Inside Me. If you’d like to read even more, please sign up for my emailing list here!

 

 

Finding the Time to Write (and Read)

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Finding time to write and read can be challenging if you have a full-time job or children to tend to–or both. I teach high school English, and the demands of planning and grading for a writing-focused curriculum (for three grade levels) often cuts into my personal time. This is a way of life for many teachers; it’s just part of the job.

When I decided to be serious about putting The Devil Inside Me out there, I knew I couldn’t just write when the muse showed up. I would need to carve time out of my schedule. I’m a believer of the mantra “we make time for what’s important to us,” and this writing endeavor was important to me.

So, I crafted a schedule of goals for the year. That schedule included research, development of a website, and this blog. Each of those in turn added more to the schedule: trips to Chicago to capture the essence of a building or a nasty winter day, learning how to use WordPress and plug-ins, educating myself on creating a blog that could be meaningful to others. I wasn’t dedicating my “writing time” solely to writing; rather, I was dedicating my writing time to learning about the craft and how to get my work out there. Part of that included setting aside time each week for reading.

We all have challenges that take up writing/reading time. I live in the country. That translates to a 20 minute trip to get just about anywhere; to go to the nearest “city” means 30-40 minutes. (And I don’t mean Chicago–that’s 2-3 hours!) When a fellow writer serendipitously posted on social media that dictation made her commute productive, a light bulb went off. Why hadn’t I thought of that, especially when I listen to audiobooks on long trips? 

My next 30 minute trip into “the city” produced 1400 words. Second trip? 1200.  Third? 1300. I started simply–I’m only using Google Docs and my cell phone’s microphone. Now, this means you’ll end up with text that reads as follows: “ I always had these go floating around in my head goes spooky.” But it’s worth it to attempt to translate myself for the sake of having WORDS ON THE PAGE. Another plus: My inner editor is hogtied because I can’t look at my phone–all I can do is talk. This results in higher word counts in less time.

If you find yourself in your car frequently, perhaps this can work for you too! There are other tools that do a better job than my set-up. Joe Warnimont’s post on The Write Life lists several, including the well-known Dragon Dictation.

Writers, do you currently use voice-to-text to help with your writing? If so, share your tips and tricks in the comments!

Readers, do you love audiobooks, or do you need that paper in your hand?

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My Writing Is a Mess–and So Am I

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We interrupt this regularly-scheduled blog post to share a must-read from Lauren Sapala: “Writing Is Messy. That’s Just the Way It Is.” Lauren is the author of The INFJ Writer, a writing guide for introverts, as well as an autobiography, Between the Shadow and Lo. She is also a writing coach whose About Me page says her “blog is meant to nourish, heal, spark, and empower your creative flame,” and she does just that with blog posts such as “Why It’s No Coincidence So Many INFJs (and INFPs) Are Also Writers” and “Coping With Feeling Like You’re Never Good Enough.” How many people–writers or not–need to read that last one?

I had something different planned for a post today, but Lauren’s blog, in conjunction with various writer complaints about motivation and rejection I watched pop up this week on social media, made me feel as if I needed to share this. Right. Now.

First, let me say that I do not know Lauren in any way, short of following her blog for the past couple of months. I also didn’t share with her in advance that I was going to write this post because, well, read on.

In my very first blog post, I shared that I shelved my last attempt at a novel. If I weren’t head-over-heels in love with the current WIP (work-in-progress), I probably would have done the same with it a couple of months ago. I had reached a sticky point–I needed to go back and re-read, find the holes, discover where I was missing some clues, and gasp in horror that I changed the name of a character’s dog three times without ever noticing. (He also went from being a German Shepherd to a black Labrador Retriever in the same space.)

I could go on, but you really don’t want to know. Just ask my critique partner.

The key for me is that I believe in this novel. I believe in the story. I believe in the stories that will come from it. But if I didn’t, I could very easily have said forget it. I know that the writing process is just that–a process, yet mine seemed so very, well, unprofessional. Like I was just piecing things together. Or, as Lauren points out in her blog post: “Finally, I stitched all the pieces together and what I was left with resembled Frankenstein’s monster.”

I re-read, I made copious margin notes, and I started editing. I have finished the first third, which was my stopping point because of a big, gaping hole (and next on my list to write, right after this blog post).

So when Lauren’s glorious blog post arrived in my inbox this week, I read it with my jaw dropped the entire time. It was so incredibly spot on. It wasn’t just me. I wasn’t alone.

Writers–especially those of you who, like me, are unpublished, struggling, questioning yourselves–if you read only one thing today or even this week, please read Lauren’s blog post. She speaks the truth about just how messy writing can be, and how we don’t need to doubt ourselves: “…because I had never written a book before, the whole time I was going through this experience I assumed I was doing something seriously wrong…I chalked my struggles up to…being somehow vaguely ‘stupid’.” 

Isn’t it as if she were reading our minds?!?

Which leads me to why I didn’t contact her about this post: I believe that in this world of people trying to sell their services everywhere, it’s hard to ferret out a genuine compliment, a sincere nod of appreciation. I was so touched and empowered by her post that just sharing the link wasn’t enough–I had to share its impact in the hopes it would reach others as it did me. I’m positive that if you read it, it will do the same to you. Share your thoughts with me–and with Lauren!

What Harriet the Spy Taught Me

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A couple of posts back, I flippantly said that if Harriet the Spy was my favorite book in fourth grade, why would I ever deviate from that genre when writing?  To my surprise, a few of you messaged and said that you, too, loved Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet, and before I knew it, I was taking a trip back to where my love of mystery and thrillers began. 

My earliest screen-viewing memories include Clue, Macgyver, The Twilight Zone, and perhaps my favorite as a kid: Murder, She Wrote. When I had to write about the merits of The Scarlet Letter in high school, I focused almost entirely on the who-REALLY-is-the-father mystery and the psychology behind choices made. A good foundation built for my future self as a Law and Order junkie.

And then I discovered Agatha Christie. Maybe it was my Harriet the Spy training (I did run around my grandma’s neighborhood one summer with a spy notebook), but my thirteen year old self had gotten pretty good at solving those Murder, She Wrote episodes. When I picked up Hallowe’en Party, I was blown away. I didn’t have Angela Lansbury’s knowing glances to help me along, you know, and it was Christie’s writing that taught me what close reading really was. I also thoroughly blame her for my initial feelings of inadequacy when contemplating penning a mystery. My feelings were such that my first true attempt at a novel was in a completely different genre. We know where that landed.

When I was doing a bit of research for this post, I found a Writer’s Digest guest column by Jennifer McMahon, author of The Night Sister and The Winter People, in which she says to “think about the books you love, the ones you really lose yourself in. If those are mysteries, don’t try to write an historical romance or a quiet literary novel…Write what you love.” I only wish I’d found this post a couple of years ago. My current work-in-progress is mystery/crime fiction with a historical twist. I agree with Ms. McMahon: if it’s in your gut, if it’s in your heart, write it. Don’t try to write what you aren’t. Or, as Harriet the Spy’s nanny, Ole Golly said, “Sometimes you have to lie. But to yourself you must always tell the truth.”

Readers and writers, what books have been instrumental in making you who you are? I know there are as many varied responses as there are personalities out there! (And if you’d like to know more about Harriet the Spy, check out School Library Journal’s commentary. If you have kiddos, it’s a wonderful book to share.

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