Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Writing by the seat of your pants-ers! ~ Breaking all the rules, so you can write!

Aloha to all the pantser writers out there. I’ve written this blog with the “redheaded stepchildren” of writing in mind. While it’s slightly tongue-in-cheek, it’s also a little how the plotters make me feel sometimes. Like I’m being a wayward naughty child, because I won’t “be sensible” or plan things out. They see my writing by the seat of my pants writing style as shambolic and disorganized. And I’ve just had enough! I’m taking a stand. This is the anti-writers rules. J

They remind me of the people who are morning people: If I never hear another person say, “It’s the best part of the day.” It won’t be too soon.

If I never get woken at 7 a.m. just as I’m drifting off to sleep with a surprised and slightly offended, “Are you still asleep?” It won’t be too soon.

Like the night owl, the pantsers are largely misunderstood and considered slightly “abnormal” and “weird,” to the day larks and plotters.

I decided it was time to show some support to the pantser writers out there. I’m on several writers groups and it seems like nearly every day, there’s some poor soul who writes in and says things like: I don’t know if I’ll ever be a real writer, I can’t seem to get a routine or write in the mornings. Sometimes I don’t write for days on end.

They’re two minutes away from slitting their wrists and I want to yell, STOP! You’re fine, you’re normal. Come back! Put that razor blade down! Gently now. That’s…right. Phew.

You see, when I was first starting out as a writer, I read ALL the books on how to be a good writer. Because somewhere it probably has that on a plotters list...

1.    Make sure you read every book you can on being a writer before you even start writing one word! Do not attempt to even write one word until you have done that. You will not be eligible for your gold stars if you do.

I know I sound like I’m giving the poor old plotters a hard time here.

I am and I’m not.

I’m more trying to give the pantsers a different view from the one they normally encounter as a pantser person. So please don’t write into me plotters with death threats. The only thing that consoles me with that is that you’ll have to plan it out before you do it, so I have time to move somewhere else and go into the Witness Protection Program.

Okay, enough acting the goat.

The fact is: the plotters and pantser writers just do it differently and that’s okay.

I want to give the pantsers PERMISSION to be themselves. No apologies, feeling silly, guilty or like rotten awful people because they didn’t do a three page character analyze of every single character in their book. I want someone starting out to realize, you can write anything and be good at it, even if you never follow a single writer’s “rule.” And there are lots of them. Every famous writer has a list of what works—for them.

The thing is, we’re all different.

What worked for Ernest might not work for you. Jack wrote out in the wilds of California. Ernest in piratesville Key West. John on the Monterey Coast. And they all wrote different things. None of them sounds like the other. They were all unique in their own way. So are you.

One of Hemingway's poly-dactyl - 6 toed cats. Be unique!!!

Take advantage of that. It doesn’t make sense that we should all follow the same path as writers either, in the stories we write, the styles or the way we set up our workday.  

I started out reading other people’s rules on being a writer and came away feeling completely demoralized. I thought, I haven’t got a hope in hell of pulling this off. There’s no way, I can follow all those rules. Bugger!

I really did want to be a writer, but well, the rules made it seem like I’d never succeed. I was kidding myself.

I did let it set me back for a short time, but eventually I got brave and just wrote anyway. I flouted convention, something I’m good at, so I made the most of it and discovered that regardless of the way I write, publishers still want to buy my work. By spring this year, I’ll have four books published. Two are already out and I’m in contract for two others. My pride and joy, the first novel in my Troika trilogy series comes out in spring.

But if I’d listened to the "experts," I’d still be unpublished by a house.

I’m also published in self-publishing. I wrote that book by the “plotter” method to some degree. It took me ten long years. What a slog, compared to the novel Henry and Isolde coming out next year, which took me a year with other projects going on around it to write, edit and submit.

Troika sleigh and horses - 3 equal things. 

When I wrote my plotter PITA book, in a way I’d given up on being a “real” writer. It had been hard work. I hadn’t enjoyed it at times. It took me ages. Producing a book every ten years was unlikely to keep me in gum drops, let alone tropical island, beachfront houses. Let’s face it. I just wasn’t cut out to be a writer…

Or was I?

When I start down and began writing Henry and Isolde, I wasn’t writing it to sell. I was a lonely woman in a marriage that wasn’t working. It was an escape for me. I could lock myself in my office and just pour out my fantasies and day dreams. I didn’t have to plot out the book, where the story was going. What the characters were doing, or who they were. I didn’t have to have anything organized. I was just writing scenes down that popped into my head. Bits of dialogue I’d dreamed up that appealed to me. Fun scenarios. Sexy scenarios. Romantic scenarios.

I wrote in my own accent and then switched to an American Southern accent for the male character. I quite fancied being swept off my feet by a black Southern Gentleman with that lovely New Orleans cadence and slowness. I could see him in my minds eye. He looked remarkably like that incredibly sexy, older black actor with the freckles.

It was all fantasy, what did it matter?

I found a picture I liked of him and put it up on my computer. It was all “a bit of fun.” What did it matter? It wasn’t like I was going to publish this book or anything?

I wanted to write a “nice wee romance.” It didn’t have to be deep or have a complete plot. I was really just letting off steam, writing because I felt compelled to do it. I’d wake up and feel—alive. Something that hadn’t been there for a while. What the hell!

Instead of being bored and/or immersed in a book I was reading when my husband went to work, I couldn’t wait to get him out the door, so I could closet myself away on my keyboard. What would Henry and Izzy get up to today? Who knew?

I’d either have had a scene running through my head that was perfect, what I call a ‘hot’ scene or the bubble of a new one would be forming. I was really just writing down what had already been playing in my head for a day or two. Taking dictation.

I wrote about my dream house in New Orleans. And my old Hollywood swimming pool, I’d always rather fancied. I’d gone to a friends once in New Zealand who had a secret garden and it had captured me. I love walled gardens and courtyard gardens. I wrote about that. I’d become a shadow of my former exuberant self. Izzy was the me I wanted to be again. Henry seemed like he’d have an interesting mother, I based Miss Isadora on my own eccentric interesting mother. And on it went.

I didn’t have set times I wrote.

I wrote when I’d poured myself my daily “tipple.” My half shot of Bacardi in a 700ml glass, a quarter filled with ice and overflowing with diet cola.

I wrote at three in the morning or five at night.

I wrote in dribs and drabs.

I wrote some days and not others. Sometimes I’d just have something percolating in my head. A wee fantasy that I’d play over and over until it was at its most perfect. Then I wrote it down while it was running “hot.”

I never walked away from a hot scene. I wrote it down because I knew it would be gone the next day.

I didn’t care about spelling, my dreadful syntax or my New Zealand education, grammatical errors etc. I just wrote it all down.

I didn’t care that I’m slightly dyslexic. Sometimes odd words turn up in my manuscripts (MS.) I fixed them later. I wrote the whole of Henry and Isolde, reading it (no kidding) at least two hundred times and it was only on the read through out loud that I’d realized I’d put in clique instead of cliché. It was funny. I changed it to cliché.

If I had a scene that was delicious. I didn’t wait to get to the juicy part. I started in the middle of it. Then ‘back filled’ it later. Adding in the texture or cream of the story.

I wrote the end sometimes before I had the beginning.

I wrote random scenes, dialogue.

I made random notes to myself on yellow legal pads, where are all over the house. God help me if I ever had to ACTUALLY find a piece of info. But that’s okay. The notes said things like: Henry, Southern Gentleman, uses the phrase ‘It’s a wonder.’ Charlie, pocket watch? Very sexy.

I researched randomly, Southern words, a phrase here, a fact there.

I edited when I felt like it.

One day…I realized I had a story coming together…

I panicked then.

Oh my God, what if nothing else turns up, now that I’m actually WRITING a REAL story. I learned to let go on the days nothing was there. I didn’t force myself. I didn’t make myself write drivel. I sat on the couch and had a drink, gazing off into space. Then out of nowhere, a bubble of a scene would form. I’d play it through in my head, letting it unfold and show itself to me.

When nothing more seemed to come, I’d type like billy-o getting it all down.

Then Charlie turned up, a rogue character.

I came unstuck as I tried to corral him. He was stampeding through my “nice wee love story.” He wanted all sorts of things that I didn’t think the readers would like in a million years. Little did I know he’d become the driving force behind all my stories. The most loved of all my characters and the most intriguing for people. I had no control over him.

I felt slightly uncomfortable at some of the things he wanted.

I talked to my mentor about it. He said, “Just go with it, give him one scene and see how it plays out. It’ll probably keep him quiet.”

It didn’t. He just wanted more and more… I nicknamed him “bloody Charlie” because he was so persistent. He was supposed to be the side-kick secondary character, best friend to Henry. But he wanted much, much more than that. I gave it to him in the end. The story was no longer being written by me. I was just taking dictation and it was fabulous!!!

I didn’t worry about writer’s block because I wasn’t trying to control the story. It was being told to me by what all us writers end up calling ‘The Muses’ in one form or another. I always joke that mine are off in The Bahamas on a snorkeling holiday when they seem to not be around. I had a death in my life and couldn’t write much. I joked that they’d gotten a six month snorkeling trip organized for themselves. I thought, surely to God, their visas will be up soon and they’ll come back, which they did when I started to recover and heal. The wee buggers!

My Muses snorkeling in the Bahamas.. the wee buggers!!

When I can’t get a scene to work, I leave it. I just walk away in the middle of it. When the rest of it is ready to come, it’ll turn up.

I write in no particular order. I cut and paste things around in the story. Despite my brain looking like a jumble sale, it seems to have the pieces organized for itself anyway. I don’t seem to have continuity problems in general. And there’s always a save somewhere.

I read about someone who inadvertently changed a characters name and hadn’t realized. Published and everything. Whoops. She saved that by remarking in the next story that sometimes the character went by a nickname. I was snorting with appreciative laughter. Nice save!

I don’t write perfectly or correctly. I just write. Later, I go back and edit like a fiend. I enjoy it. I liken editing to having this gorgeous “chunk” or “nugget” of a story you’ve found, or ‘dug up.’ Then you get to cut and polish it, bringing out all its brilliant facets, making it shine. I fire up the chainsaw at the edit stage. I took out 66,000 words from Henry and Isolde to get it to the 110,000 word ceiling I needed for my publisher Muse It Up.

I didn’t organize a bunch of beta readers. Good luck trying to read the story from end to end, when I still had bits missing in the middle. Or no end. Or the beginning was a bit murky. It didn’t matter.

I didn’t need a character file on each character. They were such a part of me and so real to me, that I knew them, inside out and upside down. If you asked me any question about Henry, Izzy or Charlie, I could give you an answer almost instantly.

The names just popped in. The title just turned up. The characters wafted through my brain like people coming in from a particularly robust game of tennis. They’d bustle in noisily, hot and sweaty, chuck their tennis rackets in the corner and say, “Phew, hot bloody work. Let me just get myself a drink, then I’ll sit down and tell you a story.” And they would.

I wrote from my own life. If someone challenged me on something, I wanted to be able to say, “I’ve had that happen.” Delicious phrases and words over the years came out to greet me and get used in a story.

I write in the first person POV—point of view. Apparently you’re not “supposed” to. It’s one of the “writers rules.”

But I love it and so do my readers. I get to immerse myself in my characters, so do the readers. When I write, I feel like Henry writing down his thoughts. Or I feel like I’m in Charlie’s body. They become so real to me that I’ve had some funny moments with them.

One day, I woke up, thinking of nothing in particular. Then something came up and I thought, God, I must tell Henry about that. I sat stock still. My God, I’m either going quite, quite mad or I’ve just had a character come so fully to life, I’m leaving myself reminder notes to tell him something later. It was a gorgeous moment. All writers have them if they’re lucky. I thought, Henry’s not real. It’s terribly disappointing when this happens. Sometimes I miss them terribly if I’m not writing about them. I pine for Charlie and Henry sometimes. I want to meet them in real life. That’s how alive they feel and if they feel like that to you. They will feel like that to the reader.

My best writing buddy Michele ‘Mikey’ Rakes has arguments with her characters. Mine just dig their toes in until I write things the way they want them written.

I’ve learned that anything I think, “Oh no, the readers won’t go for that,” is usually out and out wrong. They will and they do. The characters know themselves better than I do. They know what they can and can’t do.

If you have a character go ‘rogue’ on you—order in champagne. There’s a chance you’ve just struck a vein of gold.

Once your ego and mind is out of the way, the really creative forces can flow on through you.

It’s not that you don’t have some say, but you’re really the producer rather than the director. The director (the characters) know how they want to ‘shoot’ the scene. Your job as the producer is to make sure there are always enough coffee and donuts/Bacardi, cola, ice etc, available. The computer’s turned on and other ‘behind the scenes’ things that are needed for a production. Perhaps reminding them, “Remember we have to have a blow up scene around this point. And a final one before the HEA part.” Or that the Russian samovar needs to be mentioned again or tied in with the scene here.

I often see ‘rules’ that say, just TRY being a plotter. It’ll make you a better writer. Why? Why would you change something that works like a dream for you, into something that’s awkward and unnatural? Our bodies and selves all have their own rhythm. Different things work for different people.

A hundred years ago in a ‘day job from hell,’ I ran a deli in a supermarket. I had to start work at seven in the morning. I was like a walking zombie. I didn’t wake up until four in the afternoon when I was knocking off. People kept saying to me, you’ll get used to it. I never did. My body’s rhythms were just not set up for those kinds of hours. Once day in a fit of lunacy by the store manager on storing cheese in unrefrigerated places, I had a meltdown and walked out. This is what happens when you’re not in your own cycle or circuit. Things are just wrong. You snap!

And so it is being a writer that’s a pantser, trying to squish yourself into a plotter way of writing. You’ll eventually snap! You’ll stretch the rubber band too far one day and KA-PING! You’ll end up with a nasty backlash mark on your forehead if you’re lucky and an eye missing if you’re not.

I know people who have written out the whole synopsis before they’ve even written a word down. Then feel bound and obligated to stick to that story, hell or high water. You’re setting yourself up for ‘writers block’ when you do that. If you get stuck on a piece (because it’s probably not right for the book in some way,) you can be stuck there for a very long time. Like at one of those traffic lights where the damn things on a loop and won’t cycle into the green. In the end, you go through a red light and feel guilty all day for it.

Writing as a pantser means, you simply move on. You treat the light like a four way stop. Instead of going straight ahead, you make a right hand turn and go onto something else or go around it slightly.

When I’m “stuck,” I don’t agonize over it for hours, days, weeks. I stop working on that part and write a different scene. Either the scene I’m trying to write doesn’t work for some reason and it will come to light why. Or it hasn’t percolated enough yet and just needs some ‘standing’ time to come to a nice full roast and brew. Either way is fine. You’re still writing.

The story goes that Isaac Asimov used to have a room that he had several typewriters set up around the room with a piece of paper in them. When one story got stuck, he simply got up, walked to another typewriter and sat down to work on what was in that carriage. He wrote prolifically and I’ll bet he never had a days “writers block” in his life.

I follow Isaac’s way of doing things. I’m always writing several books at once. I currently have two full novels on my computer. Another seven-eighths finished. The other half finished. Neither of which stress me. The rest will turn up when it’s ready. In the meantime, I edit. I also have half a Christmas story. Again, more will turn up, I’m not worried about it. I have half a novella. And a nearly finished new novel, about to be fired off to a publisher next month. I have two lines of a story, two pages, that might never get finished and that’s okay.

I never look at my work and think, my God, I never bloody finish anything. That’s not true.

I have two, ten-thousand word stories published through a ‘real live’ publisher. Two novels coming out, one next month and one in spring. Plus, I know this one being submitted next month will get picked up.

When I’ve just submitted a book and got it “off my plate,” (for now,) I feel around in my energy to see what needs work next? Do I need to edit or have I got a new idea. I go with whatever pops into the flow, because that’s where the best work will come from. Making myself do something is a sure way to slow everything up.

A brief word too on having a publisher and self-publishing. In these days of the internet and e-books, neither is better or worse than the other. Both have valid pluses and minuses. I know a few writers who do both. With modern software programs and things like Amazon’s kdp program and Smashwords, you can self-publish a book and it will look just as professional as a house book.

The only ways I see people let themselves down a wee bit is that the editing you get with a house, is usually superb. And the process is systematic which I like. At this stage, the methodical step by step has huge merit, whether for a pantser or plotter writer.

Here’s how most good publishers do it.

The content editor goes through my manuscript (MS) and edits for flow, word changes that might work better, repetition, continuity etc. When it comes back, I accept or reject anything they’ve done in the “track changes” program. Then send it back. We go back and forth until we’re both happy we’re got it as tight as it can be. If you’re stuck for dough, swap with another writer who also needs an editor. It’s another pair of eyes.

Editors have bad reputations, but in my experience, they’re wonderful. Their job is to give you the best MS possible. They’re not there to change your style, but to polish it up a bit, smooth out the rough bits. Like that rough gemstone that just needs to be cut and polished into brilliance, they do that with a story. And every single writer from the top sellers to the newbies need a good editor. We’re too close to our own work to see it clearly.

A good editor will fix a sentence you spent twenty minutes mucking with and gave up in disgust on. Take it. It’s part of the process. They want your story to look as fabulous as possible. You don’t have to accept everything they suggest. And if you get an editor who doesn’t seem to ‘get’ what you’re writing about, request another one or stand your ground. You need to be on the same page. Don’t let anyone put words into your story that you or the characters wouldn’t use. You know your characters well. You know how they speak and think.

To be honest, few editors do this. The good ones pick up the cadence and rhythm of the book early and work with the style.

Once we’ve done the content edit, we go to the Line Editor. They’re the grammar, punctuation and general house style people. Again, back and forth until everyone’s happy. Then I wait for my cover art. Finally galley’s or proofreading.

Here’s one of my rules: And it’s only one I never break for a good reason.

Always read through your MS out loud on galley’s or the proofreading stage. I published my first book myself and oh my God, the amount of stupid typo’s in there is downright embarrassing. If I’d either gotten it professionally proofed or read it out loud myself, I wouldn’t have had that issue. Now, I’m embarrassed to know that people have the print version of the jolly thing. I re-edited it recently and re-released it on Amazon as an e-book. On the up side, it showed me how far I’d come as a writer. On the down side, it was truly cringe worthy material as to how bad the editing was.

When we read a book in our head, we naturally fill in missing words, or skip over words that are there. Sometimes we change a thought mid-sentence and part of the wording gets left in.

“I was saying to John... (I decide to change this to said.)

I was said to John… (I’ve left the ‘was’ in there.) It’s very easy to do.

Read it out loud on final edit. You’ll catch all this stuff. I often put in ‘a apple,’ even though I know the rule for ‘an’ before a vowel word. It’s the way I speak and what I hear in my head. When I speak it out loud though, I can hear the missing ‘n.’ Despite the best intentions of our word processing programs, after a while that green squiggly line becomes like ‘white noise’ in the background in your MS.

Even when your content and line editor have gone over the MS a dozen or more times, everyone will still miss those funny wee words. Read it out loud on your final stage. I see more and more books published with stupid typos, missing words etc in them. A read out loud would have caught them.

SOME OF MY RULES for ME J (and feel free to absolutely ignore these… please)

Never walk away from a “hot” scene. Start in the middle of the sentence if you have to.

Work at night or whenever it’s most bewitching for YOUR brain.

Never research too much at the start. Do that afterward and you’ll be surprised how much you already intuitively knew.

Have at least one alcoholic beverage to start you off on your writing day. It frees up the brain.

Always take precise dictation from any rogue character that turns up. They’ll be your best characters, you most loved, your deepest loves.

Get the bloody thing down. Don’t worry about the textures of it so much. Get the story on paper, go back and ‘fill’ it with the cream later and ice (frost) it later.

Don’t write everyday. You don’t get a chance for the really good stuff to build and percolate. Always run wee plays in your head of all your scenes. Speak the dialogue out loud, move about. Do it in the car, pretend you’re on a hands free cell phone. LOL. By the time, it’s running “hot”—you can just dictate the whole thing down, line by line.

Always send your work to your email at the end of the day and read it on your tablet, cell phone etc. It always reads differently to on the computer.

In the final edit stage. ALWAYS read your work out loud to yourself. You’ll catch most of the funny wee extra words either put in or left out when you changed sentences mid way, or your hands typed slower than your brain. You’ll also catch weird words which you’ve read over a hundred times. I had clique in Henry and Isolde, which I reckon I read at least two hundred times! When I read it out loud, I heard it. The word was supposed to cliché. LOL. Your brain will read over skipped or wrong words after a wee bit.

But the best rule for writing is there are NO rules. Every single writer has to write in a way that’s best for THEM. Make your own rules for YOU. 

You can find Meg on: 

Meg Amor

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  1. I agree with you, Meg. Yesterday I started my first draft of a new book. I hand-wrote it instead of using a computer. I am more complete that way in my thinking. I write anything and everything. It will all be revised anyway. You want your raw thoughts, gut feelings.

    I've taken many writing classes. I know the rules also. I don't want to write cookie-cutter books. People have mentioned I have a unique voice in my books. I write pretty casual and I love talking to the reader. A big no-no that I insisted not changing when editors came into the picture.

    This book I am trying to be more organized with using some note cards so I don't forget details and have to search the entire book to find out what I want. I pretty much write the story as I go. I'm definitely not a plotter. I'm a free writer who then has to do many revisions. I love to write and don't want to be squashed.

    Great post! Thank you.

  2. Aloha Susan! :-)

    Thanks for coming over, reading and commenting. Much appreciated. :-)

    I love hearing about your writing process. I agree, you do have a great style and unique voice with your writing. It's very easy to read and be part of the story, which I love.

    I love that.. cookie cutter books. That's a great way to describe things. I guess we are non-formulaic and that works for me. The authors I love are all like that. They all have their own voice and it's clear in the work. I go back to them time and again.

    Thanks so much for posting. That was excellent. :-)

    Pantsers R Us. :-)

    Thanks and aloha Meg :-)

  3. Lots of great, and fun!, info here, thanks Meg! I'm both a pantser and a plotter. I have to have a general plot of who does what and why and how it all ends. But general so I can "discover" the book as I go along. Of course, I write mysteries, so...

  4. Aloha Conda! :-) Thanks so much for coming over to read and comment. :-)

    I suspect with a mystery you might have to have more of an idea what's happening, otherwise you end up with some tangling threads in it. I like that... 'discover' the book. Yes, very much so. I always like to see what my characters are going to do.. They do generally give me general ideas before I start writing. It's like a wire service that I get telex's from every so often. I write them down and stock them until I feel compelled to start writing. Then I just take dictation. LOL.

    Thanks again. Much appreciated.

    Aloha Meg :-)