Advice, Books, Craft, Doubt, Fiction, Writing

Ray Bradbury wrote this just for me!

If you’re a writer, I’m sure you’ve heard the terms plotter and pantser. For the non-writers: those terms refer to opposites in how much a writer prepares before he begins a work. Pantser comes from an aviation saying, “Fly by the seat of his pants.” meaning to fly on instinct alone, without instruments. (Finally looked that up.)

I’ve confessed to being a pantser, but the truth is, often my method is more like ultimate pantsing. I take the bare bones of a story idea and explore it—not before I write, but as I write. At first, I didn’t realize there was any other way to write. Then I decided to become a SERIOUS writer and bought book after book promising to teach me how to work like a real writer. Uh-oh.

I learned many useful things from these books, but some of the advice stymied my Muse. I hadn’t pre-written outlines, synopses, plot points charts, etc. for my many stories and one novel. And because I hadn’t followed those rules, I feared none of my work could possibly be any good. My hope for publication faded.

Then, a little over three years ago, I put my fingers to keyboard to elaborate on a dream I’d had and write it as a story. But the characters kept talking to me and the story grew. My dream turned into a novel. Some new writer friends thought it was a good novel. But I doubted their judgment because, again, I’d written mostly on instinct. In fact, most of the time, it felt as though I was only taking dictation. So how could it be good?

I’ve mentioned in a few recent posts that I was reading Ray Bradbury’s collection of essays on writing, Zen in the Art of Writing. I finally reached the last chapter and read something that, for me, surpassed all the bon mots I’d selected before. Mr. Bradbury didn’t know it, but he wrote the following part just for me:

The time will come when your characters will write your stories for you, when your emotions, free of literary cant and commercial bias, will blast the page and tell the truth.

Remember: Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact rather than before. It cannot precede action. It is the chart that remains when an action is through. That is all Plot ever should be. It is human desire let run, running, and reaching a goal. It cannot be mechanical. It can only be dynamic.

So, stand aside, forget targets, let the characters, your fingers, body, blood, and heart do.

Sha-zam! A celebrated writer had validated my method. It may not be every writer’s way, but it’s right for me. I no longer have to doubt the value of a story just because it seemed to write itself. Of course, not everything I write will work, but if it fails, it won’t be because I flew without instruments. It will be because I didn’t “stand aside” enough to let my “fingers, body, blood, and heart do”.

What say ye? Does Bradbury’s advice make your heart sing or shudder?


Photo credits: Anne Burgess – Creative Commons License

Characters, Craft, Editing, Fiction, My Books, Novel, Reader, Writing

Writing out the darkness

I’m still reading my completed novel with red pen in hand. This is the last time—until an agent or editor asks for changes. And yes, I said that before, but this time I mean it. It’s past time to move on to the next novel.

I’ve been plotting the new one in my head for months now. I know my main character well because she was a minor character in the last novel. She was a middle-aged woman in that one, but this story will start with her at age twelve. I “see” the other characters, and have written brief sketches of them for my file. I know how the story begins and ends. I’ve drafted several key scenes. One, I wrote yesterday.

It was not an easy scene to write, and I doubt my critique partners will thank me for it, but it’s crucial to the story. In fact, there are a few very dark scenes in the beginning of this book. That’s something I’m concerned about balancing out because of a recent reading experience.

I appreciate the author’s talent, but the story is so depressing I fear there’s little chance of a happy—or even hopeful—ending. I’m not sure I’ll finish reading the book. Not that I require my reads to have happily-ever-after endings, though I admit I’m partial to endings with at least a glimmer of hope things will work out well. I think the problem with that novel is more that I don’t care much for the main character, so I’m not as willing to walk through the darkness with her.

With that in mind, my goal is to make my main character sympathetic and weave a little light through the darkness, so I don’t discover I’ve written a book readers would despair of finishing. Let’s see if I can pull it off.

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Critique, Feedback, Fiction, Writing

Story or character, which weighs more?

In previous posts, I’ve told you about the beta-readers who praised my work, but now I’m going to come clean. One writer, though complimentary on my writing skills, did not think my story was successful. I respected his opinion, and certainly appreciated the time he spent reading my manuscript and writing his critique, but I was honestly perplexed how he failed to “get” so many elements of my story.

I was disappointed, to be sure, but I didn’t panic because I had solid responses to his objections. I didn’t start tearing my book apart because I knew every element he questioned was integral to the story. Did my book need work? Obviously, so—I subsequently revised the version he read, adding 16,000 words, though only a small part of those words addressed his issues. Yet his critique nagged me.

Recently, I listened to him discuss the next issue he would address in his own work—a supernatural tale. His story was finished, fully fleshed out, and now, he said, he would go back and add more characterization. I sat there thinking how wrong that sounded. Finally, the reason why thunked me on the head. His method sounded wrong to me because it’s the opposite of mine.

He has a great story he wants to tell … and, by the way, there are people in the story. I want to tell you about some people … and, by the way, they have a story.

That is a definition of action-driven vs. character-driven fiction. I’m not saying one is better than the other, that plot-driven fiction can’t have good characterization, or story doesn’t matter in character-driven fiction. But I think writers take different approaches to each.

I start with just a story premise—a situation, really—and then I explore the characters in that situation: who they are, what they want, why they don’t have it. I want to see where they live, what they do for work and pleasure, who populates their lives. I have to know them inside and out. Only then can I write their story.

Tell me, what kind of fiction do you write, and which takes precedence, story or character?

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Critique, Doubt, Editing, Fiction, My Books, Novel, Publish, Read, Writing

What if I have an ugly baby and don’t know it?

How can you edit a book you love? My critique partners will attest to my ability to be a nitpicky line editor, so I have no problem doing the same with my own writing. What I’m having a problem with is looking at the plot objectively.

My novel?
My novel?

I wrote this story. I like this story. Correction: I love this story. But do I love this story like a mother loves her child—no matter what? Or am I right to love this story? Does it deserve my love?

If I had written the story just for myself, I wouldn’t even question this. My goal, however, is to see this novel published, therefore I don’t have the luxury of not questioning.

That brings me to another question.

I plan to ask both writers and non-writers to beta-read this novel. What if those who are just readers like the plot, but the writers find problems with it? Or vice versa? Whose opinion should I value more?

Bah! I’m just borrowing trouble, now!

Editing, Fiction, Novel, Words, Writing

The Writing on the … Mirror

When my husband changed clothes after work the other night, he walked out of the bedroom and asked, “Why do you have ‘eyes’ and ‘whole world’ written on the bathroom mirror? The answer, of course, was simple. A great line had come to me while I showered, so I had written those words with eyeliner as a reminder!

Are we writers ever not writing? Don’t you all have plot ideas, titles, and bits of dialogue written on paper scraps, notebooks, or napkins? Is part of your brain rephrasing dialogue as you watch a movie, or line editing as you read a novel, or screeching every time you run across a typo online? Do you weigh the short story value of anecdotes shared in conversation? Does that panhandler in the median inspire a poem? Did that women behind you in line just spout the funniest line of dialogue you’ve heard in ages?

Hmmm … are we writers all suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder?