How to Plot and Pants at the Same Time

pantser, n. — A writer who “flies by the seat of their pants” when drafting a book, rarely plotting more than the basics and never going so far as to outlinegiphy2

When I first started seriously writing I was a die-hard pantser. Any advance plotting more in-depth than the basics–world, protagonist, antagonist, and conflict–seemed restrictive at best, and pure tyranny at worst. My reasoning went that I couldn’t possibly be truly original, spontaneous, and creative with my writing if I had every last detail trussed up into a series of predetermined scenes. I had to let my imagination run wild! Find the flow! Go where my characters needed me to go!

Well. That all worked okay for a little while. But when I started drafting my second full-length novel, I ran into a curious problem. About a quarter of the way through–somewhere around the 20-25K word mark–I got stuck. I didn’t know exactly why, but the story had gone off track and I couldn’t figure out how to get it back ON track because I didn’t know where it was going. So, in pure pantser style, I started over. I began the story a little later into the action, changed up a few characters, and introduced the villain earlier. Things were going smoothly, until BAM. Yep, you guessed it. I was stuck again.

giphyHmm. Maybe pantsing wasn’t the most efficient method after all. Since I wasn’t particularly keen on writing another twenty thousand words I wasn’t going to use,  I started reading instead. I started with Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, then moved on to Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder. Neither had all the answers, but I was beginning to see that maybe stories needed structure and planning after all. By the time I read Brook’s Story Engineering, I was ready to listen to what he had to say.

I like to call it Story Architecture. Stories, like buildings, have shapes, comprised of certain elements that are nearly constant across the board. Whether it’s a shack in the woods or a Frank Lloyd Wright art-home, a house has walls, a roof, at least one door, and nearly always windows. Similarly, a story must comprise certain elements that make it, well, a story. Beats. Pinch-points. Emotional arcs. And once you start identifying these building blocks, you start seeing them everywhere. The book you just picked up at the library. The latest summer blockbuster. The cartoon your niece is watching. And most importantly, you start seeing them in your own work. And you start seeing why your by-the-seat-of-your-pants-story has run into the ground.

giphy3And so I started outlining. I cobbled together a worksheet/beat-sheet that includes elements from Story Engineering, Save the Cat!, and even The Hero’s Journey, and I’ve used it to outline every manuscript I’ve written since. This beat-sheet helps me map out every plot point, every emotional arc, every shift in tension or sympathy. It helps me build the scaffolding upon which a readable story can be built.

But. (Y’all knew there was gonna be a but.) You may be able to take the girl out of the pants, but you can’t take the pants out of the girl (that sounded way less weird in my head). So I still try to find ways to incorporate the spontaneity and extemporaneousness of pantsing while also rigorously plotting.

First, I never outline too deeply–working through an outline beat by beat is bad enough, so I find scene by scene outlining to be way too stifling for me. Second, I never outline the climax and denouement of the story, instead letting the culmination and conclusion arise organically from the plot and characters as they stand. And finally, I never refer to back to my outline once I’ve completed it! Usually, after spending so much time with the plot, beats, pinch-points and emotional arcs, the shape of the story has already been built enough in my head that I can safely play it out on paper. And even if I decide along the way that I want to change the paint color or add an annex or even knock down a wall, I’m secure enough in the overall structure of the story that this won’t derail the entire plot.

giphy1My method probably isn’t for everyone! But whether you’re mostly a plotter or a mostly pantser, it goes to show that a little bit of flexibility in either direction can go a long way.

Resources:

Kurt Vonnegut, and the Shapes of Stories

Jami Gold | Worksheets for Writers

Pixar’s 22 Rules for Storytelling

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No Kids in Cages

Yesterday, Shauna sent me a message to remind me I was up on the blog rotation, and to be honest, I had forgotten. I immediately began wracking my brains for a topic to write about, something to do with my writing process, or the books I’ve been reading lately. But there was only one thing on my mind, and I knew I had to write about it. So today’s post isn’t about writing, reading, or creative life, although it ties into all of them because I’ve been unable to think about much else lately. It’s not full of funny Michael Scott GIFs or self-deprecating jokes or encouraging words.

Today’s post is about humanity.

Look, I don’t consider myself a very political person. Don’t get me wrong–I have opinions (some more strongly held than others) and I read the news (when I can stomach it) and I vote (when it matters). But I don’t march in the street anymore, and I don’t put signs in my front yard, and if someone on Facebook or Twitter confronts me about most issues, I usually disengage because I can’t stand arguing with strangers on the internet. Why? I don’t know exactly, but if I had to guess I’d say it springs from a combination of creeping disillusionment, a little apathy, and–if I’m being totally honest–self-preservation bordering on selfishness.

But this issue transcends politics. The treatment of immigrant children at the borders of this country–the United States of America, land of the free and home of the brave, a country I love down to my bones–is downright inhumane. Children should not be forcibly separated from their parents. Period. I’ve heard all the counter arguments and I don’t care. What’s happening to these kids is cruel, immoral, unconscionable behavior anywhere in the world, but most especially in a nation whose stated “inalienable rights” are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I will not stand idly by, and I hope you won’t either.

As writers, empathy is one of our greatest and most important tools. Every day, we put ourselves in other peoples’ shoes and walk miles and miles (or rather, hundreds of thousands of words). We must be able to experience joys and sadnesses not our own in order to bring our characters to life. But we must have empathy for real people too–living, breathing, aching humans–who have already endured unimaginable trauma and continue to face unbearable treatment at the hands of our government and law enforcement. So I entreat you, you–writer, reader, friend or foe–to have empathy today for these children. Call your congressperson. Write angry letters to your local newspaper. Donate to your charity of choice. Find the humanity inside you and act upon in, somehow, someway.

Shakespeare wrote, in the Book of Sir Thomas More:

…whither would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour? Go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, Spain or Portugal,
Nay, anywhere that not adheres to England,
Why, you must needs be strangers, would you be pleas’d
To find a nation of such barbarous temper
That breaking out in hideous violence
Would not afford you an abode on earth.
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, not that the elements
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But charter’d unto them? What would you think
To be used thus? This is the strangers’ case
And this your mountainish inhumanity.

It’s powerful, isn’t it? What would you think, to be used thus? Let the day not come that any of us should be driven from this country, but it bears thinking what welcome we might receive anywhere else in the world, if this is how we treat their poor, their tired, their huddled masses…their children.

Ways to Help Right Now:

Donate:

Pueblos Sin Fronteras

Border Angels

Kid Lit Says No Kids in Cages

Call your Congressperson and say:  “Hi, my name is [YOUR NAME] and my zip code is [YOUR ZIP]. I’m urging the Senator to denounce Trump’s family separation policy and use all of Congress’ authority to stop it.”

Join a Protest: Check out Families Belong Together to find a protest or rally near you

Critique Partners in Crime

If you’ve been in the publishing industry for any length of time, you’ll probably recognize the phrase critique partner. For those of you who haven’t, a critique partner (commonly abbreviate to CP) is an invaluable asset to any writer at any and every stage in their career. Usually another author or publishing professional, a CP offers up their time and expertise to critique your manuscript/story/poem/etc in exchange for your time and expertise in doing the same for them. While a CP can sometimes play the role of beta reader (an avid reader who reads your MS and tells you whether it is any good), ideally the relationship is deeper and broader.

giphy1I feel like I’m not explaining this well. Okay, how’s this? A CP is like an unholy (or maybe holy) alliance between a friend, a colleague, a work wife/husband, a therapist, a critic, and a cheerleader. Having and being a CP is messy. It’s complicated. And it is wildly, wildly important to a writer’s growth and success in this often isolating business of being an author.

This week, I experienced both ends of the CP relationship with two different CPs. First, I had the great pleasure of reading our very own Shauna’s forthcoming novel Blackbird (which will incidentally knock y’all’s socks off) and offering feedback. And second, I shared my very recently finished and terribly rough first draft of my Swan Lake retelling with a different CP. They were two very different experiences, but they both reminded me of just how important it is to not only have CPs, but to actually share work with them.

Not all CPs are created equal, but here are a few things I’d look out for when finding someone to share work with!

  1. Someone who isn’t afraid to be honest. It’s literally right there in the name: critique partner. Not white-lie-to-guard-your-ego partner. Not even pull-their-punches partner. You know that one friend who you always take shopping because she’ll actually tell you if those pants make your butt look big? Yeah, that’s what you need from a CP. Because if they can’t be honest in their criticism, it’s not going to push you to be better, or work harder, or be honest with yourself.

    One caveat: do draw the line at nasty. There’s no call to be unnecessarily harsh, that’s not useful to anyone either.

  2. giphy2Someone who will be your cheerleader. Does this seem counter-intuitive? It’s really not. Your CPs also need to love your work kind of unconditionally, regardless off whether it’s a flaming trash pile of a first draft or a polished to near-perfect-sheen soon-to-be published work of art. The ultimate goal of a CP relationship is making each other better–if someone hates your work, what’s the point?
  3. Someone who understands (if not shares) your genre, voice, aesthetic, etc. Similar to the above, it’s a waste of their time and yours if they don’t get what you’re trying to accomplish. Maybe you write fast-paced action thrillers and they write steamy romance. That can totally work (and might honestly give you a different perspective from a CP who writes in your genre) but if their only criticism is that there aren’t enough love scenes, you might want to reconsider.
  4. giphy3Someone who can brainstorm with you. Now, this is a big ask, and you might not find this in every CP you build a relationship with–and that’s okay! But a great CP isn’t just an editor, or even a beta reader, although it’s certainly useful if they have a decent grasp of grammar, sentence structure, and plot. Ideally, they’re also someone who you can bounce your hair-brained ideas off of, who won’t say “but,” but maybe “ooh, and–!” Someone who spitballs scenarios about your sequel not because they feel like they know better than you but because they’re just so invested in your characters. Someone who sees through the disordered jumble of your nonsense first drafts to the story you didn’t know you were trying to tell.

Now, if you’re read to find your OTCP (One (or several!) True Critique Partner), here are a few resources to set you on your way! (If you’re really at a loss, Twitter is a great place to start, as are writer blogs and genre-specific interest groups! You can never go wrong with NaNoWriMo either!)

Absolute Write

Critique Circle 

Critique.org

Scribophile

 

To Trunk, or Not To Trunk

Have you ever heard a writer refer to a “trunk book,” or even “trunking a book”? Although the exact definition seems to change depending on who you ask, the term usually describes a project an author has spent a good deal of time, effort, and often emotional energy on, only to decide–based on any number of reasons–that the book is no longer worth said effort and should be abandoned, for now or even for ever. A trunk book gathers dust (usually metaphorically, in the abyss of one’s hard drive rather than a physical trunk), out of sight and out of mind, hardly ever revisited and rarely revived.

giphy5

Now, don’t misunderstand me: a trunk book is not automatically a bad book. They certainly can be (one of mine is 100% a Very Bad Book) but they can also be genre books with a non-existent markets, or good books that didn’t survive querying or submission, or half-baked novels writers simply lost interest in partway through. In fact, I would even wager that most authors have at least one book they trunked and still think of fondly, perhaps dreaming of someday resurrecting it and giving it new life.

My current trunk book count is three (that’s not counting false starts or massive rewrites, which would push the number significantly higher). There is my very first completed novel, which I now know belongs hidden away in the dark and really doesn’t ever need to see the light of day under any circumstances. I actually still quite like my second book, a demon-hunting urban fantasy set in London, but sadly I trailed the market by about 2 years and no one wanted to touch it. The third–a paranormal science fiction (I just made up that genre) set in a city where dreams are forbidden–is very dear to me, especially since it got me into PitchWars and landed me my agent, but I’ve come to realize it would need an overhaul.

giphy1

Gods help me, I sold my fourth book. (Hashtag Amber & Dusk, go add it on Goodreads!)

And that catches us up to my current work-in-progress. The story is a loose, Celtic-inspired retelling of Swan Lake, told from the perspective of the “Black Swan.” This book has been difficult from the start, and has taken me waaayyyy longer than anything else I’ve ever written. I started it nearly a year and a half ago, as a distraction from the mind-curdling misery that is editor submission. (Let me tell you, the first few false starts were so angsty you’d think I was fifteen and listening to My Chemical Romance on repeat.) I passed my halfway mark last spring, but every word felt labored, every sentence a struggle. So when I got my revision letter for A&D, I was more than happy to put it aside until this fall.

At which point I opened it up and realized I needed to add a character and change the tense. (When am I going to learn to write in the appropriate tense from the start?) Oh, and no big deal, restructure everything.

giphy2

And now, after months of feeling blocked and struggling to get any words whatsoever, I’m finally close-ish to finishing. Like twenty thousand words until “The End.” Tops.

But…I’ll be honest. I’m this close to trunking this book. Even with that finish line in sight, I’ve been falling into the Orphean trap of looking backwards at the chapters I’ve already done. And I’ve completely lost perspective. One minute I’ll be marveling at a turn of phrase or good scene, and the next I’ll be absolutely certain the entire manuscript is a boring, self-indulgent, plot-less dumpster fire. At this point, the only thing preventing me from trunking this book is this irrational thought: “But I’ve never trunked a book I didn’t finish before.” 

giphy

Truman Capote once remarked, on the topic of his last unfinished book he spent twenty years working on, “Either I’m going to kill it, or it’s going to kill me.” The unfinished draft of the novel was published posthumously.

So I guess what I’m saying is, maybe it’s time I trunk this book.

Do you have any trunk books gathering dust? When do you decide to abandon a project? Let me know in the comment section below!

 

Ode to ElfQuest

For those of you who follow me on Twitter (or anywhere, really) you’ve probably heard me gush about ElfQuest at some point or another. While I’m not quite a super-fan, Wendy and Richard Pini’s cult graphic novel series ElfQuest was my first fandom, and in some ways has been my most enduring. So when I realized that 2018 marked the 40th anniversary of the long-running series (just last week, in fact!) I knew I had to write a post about the impact it’s had on my life, and all the love I still carry for Cutter Kinseeker’s epic journey.

Created by Wendy and Richard Pini in the late ’70’s, the basic story goes like this:

wolfsong
Image belongs to the Pinis

Scattered across the primitive World of Two Moons, a race of telepathic elves struggle to survive and coexist. When the Wolfriders–a tribe of hunter-gatherer elves sharing a unique bond with wolves and led by a young chieftain named Cutter–are driven from their forest Holt by hostile humans, they set off to find a new home. But instead, they stumble upon a village of elves known as the Sun Folk, a peaceful, agrarian tribe who tell of the mythical High Ones, the powerful ancestors of all elves. Determined to reunite all the scattered elf tribes, Cutter sets off across the World of Two Moons in search of the legendary Palace of the High Ones.

I came across the series when I was very young–6 years old, maybe 7. My mom got the first volume out of the library for my teenaged brother, who took one look at the lush illustrations and fantastical setting and pronounced it “girly stuff.” Even though I couldn’t read or comprehend much of the dialogue, I spent hours looking at the art and piecing together the story. Later, I obsessively read and reread the graphic novels. My paperback copies of the Original Quest became tattered from over-use, the bindings breaking and the pages falling out. And when I wasn’t reading ElfQuest, I was playing ElfQuest. My younger siblings and I used to stick butter knives in our belts and spend hours climbing trees, pretending to be Wolfriders.

So what makes the series so great? I’m so glad you asked! *clears throat* *pats seat*

skywiseattack
Image belongs to the Pinis

First of all, the artwork is incredible. Sometimes delicate and fey, other times brutal and blood-soaked, Wendy Pini’s art is always entrancing. It’s not perfect, of course–the first volume starts out a little rocky art-wise (hey, that’s what first books are for!) and in the latter volumes it took on some questionable ’80’s aesthetic flair, but that just means it’s never static. Fluid but not fickle, the artwork evolves with the elves’ epic journey and reflects the changes the characters themselves undergo.

Moreover, ElfQuest was diverse before it was cool. The series features an incredibly racially varied cast of male, female and arguably non-binary characters, and even though the graphic novels nominally follow Cutter, a male elf chieftain, there is an undeniable thread of feminism threading through the story. Although each of the elf tribes has different social mores, for the most part the female elves are free to be whomever they choose and do whatever they choose. Some are fierce warriors, like Go-Back chief Kahvi, or agile hunters, like Nightfall. Others are peaceful spiritualists, like ancient Savah, or gentle healers, like powerful and beautiful Leetah. They are both vivacious lovers and dedicated mothers; female sexuality is considered a natural and beautiful part of elfin life, never something to be ashamed of.

Winnowill Cover
Image belongs to the Pinis

And finally, ElfQuest explores perhaps its most powerful theme, and one that is so very important in this day and age: racial prejudice and the arbitrary boundaries separating otherwise similar groups. When the elves first arrive on the World of Two Moons, they are labeled as demons by the native humans and savagely persecuted. Due to this treatment, elves deeply mistrust and hate humans. Similarly, a race of earth-dwelling trolls resent the elves for what they see as elitist and arrogant attitudes. But throughout the series the Pinis show us that the things that bind these disparate races as well as the divisions within the races are greater than the things separating them. And ultimately, the greatest evil and threat to the elves arises from within their own ranks, in the form of the corrupting influence of the wicked Winnowill.

The final volume of the Final Quest comes out this year to mark the end of an incredible 40 year journey! Will you be reading the end to Cutter’s quest? I know I will.

AMBER & DUSK Cover Reveal!

Gentle readers, the day has finally come! After nearly three years of plotting, drafting, rewriting, revising, rewriting, rewriting, oh and a little more rewriting, AMBER & DUSK is finally turning into a real book! With just about nine months to go until release, I wanted to share the official (and, if I may say, glorious) cover with the world! Scroll down to enjoy a short synopsis of the novel as well as an exclusive excerpt and, of course, the final cover!

Blurb:

Sylvie has always known she deserves more. Out in the permanent twilight of the Dusklands, her guardians called her power to create illusions a curse. But Sylvie knows it promises her a place in Coeur d’Or, the palais of the Amber Empress and her highborn legacies.

So Sylvie sets off toward the Amber City, a glittering jewel under a sun that never sets, to take what is hers.

But her hope for a better life is quickly dimmed. The empress invites her in only as part of a wicked wager among her powerful courtiers. Sylvie must assume a new name, Mirage, and begin to navigate secretive social circles and deadly games of intrigue in order to claim her spot. Soon it becomes apparent that nothing is as it appears and no one, including her cruel yet captivating sponsor, Sunder, will answer her questions. As Mirage strives to assume what should be her rightful place, she’ll have to consider whether it is worth the price she must pay.

A vivid, extraordinary YA debut.

Excerpt:

I wasn’t highborn. Or if I was, whoever sired me disowned me, dumping me in the shadows at the edge of the world like I was worthless. The thought stoked the ember of rage burning always within me, a bright kernel hard and polished as a ruby.

When I opened my hands illusions spilled out, beautiful and terrible and impossible to control.

Trees of kembric, draped in garlands of jewels.

Bouquets of skyflowers.

Bracelets of stars.

I wasn’t worthless. I wasn’t an aberration, a freak, a monster. I was a legacy.

I ran away from the Temple of the Scion because I knew I deserved better than merely being tolerated. Much as I’d tried to follow in their footsteps when I was young, I had never belonged with the Sisters, and they had certainly never loved me. They had taught me many things: that to laugh too loudly in the presence of the Scion was a sin, and that the bruises and scrapes inflicted by the ignorant village kids were my own fault, and that dreaming of anything outside the dank walls of the temple was too dangerous to be allowed.

They had taught me that being alive was not the same thing as living.

They had tried to stop me from leaving, when I finally fled. They had burned the Imperial Insignia and tried to lock me in my room, panic churning their studied tranquility into chaos. But I’d escaped. Jagged satisfaction tinged with guilt burned through me when I remembered how I’d repaid a lifetime of their indifference.

But I deserved the chance to find where I belonged. To find a world where my gift — my legacy — did not frighten superstitious Sisters or enrage cruel children. To find a world forged in sunlight and honed on dreams, as perilous and intoxicating as the colors spilling jewel-bright from my fingertips.

Cover:

Screen Shot 2018-02-09 at 12.35.09 PM

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Pre-order here:

Amazon  /  Book Depository

The Perks of Being a Writer

Ah yes, the glamorous life of an author. Isolation. Too much coffee. Waking up in the middle of the night with incoherent plot ideas and then not being able to fall asleep again. Google searches not fit to be seen by anyone, ever, including (or maybe especially?) the FBI. Pajamas all day, and not in a cute way. So why, you might ask, do any of us do it?

Excellent question, my friend. Since you didn’t ask, here are some (only mildly sarcastic) reasons why you too might consider joining the venerable ranks of writers everywhere.

It’s child’s play

200…In the most literal sense you can think of. Did you ever make up elaborate dramatic scenarios for your model horses? Play Barbies, except Barbie was an exiled warrior princess and Ken was her evil uncle? Act out ElfQuest scenes in the trees behind your house using butter-knives as swords?

If so, you’re in luck! Your inner child might be able to channel all that imagination into an adult occupation crafting something other people will want to read.

We’re all mad here

Worried your parents/significant other/coworkers will be a little concerned that you stayed up all night inventing place names for a world that doesn’t exist? Never fear, the writing community is here!

Whether it’s to whinge, swagger, brainstorm, or just commiserate about life, writing communities are ace. I’ve met so many amazing humans, both online and in person, who understand from experience what it is to have villains monologuing over coffee and imaginary romances interrupting dinner. Who dream in technicolor and then turn those dreams into something real.

You’ll get lost

2001We live in an era of GPS, of Siri and background location monitoring and having the news pushed directly to your phone. Our lives are on display on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. We always know where we are. Where the closest sushi restaurant is. Hell, we even know where our friends are in relation to where we are!

Don’t you ever want to get lost? Here’s a thought–open a book. Better yet, open your mind. Let go of the real world and get lost in a world you create. There is fragility here, but there is also infinite possibility. And the best part? You can always find your way home.

You’ll live forever

Mortality is relentless, unyielding, inexorable. Part of being alive is the unforgiving fact that we all must someday die. But writing–writing! Think of all the cramped, dusty bookstores you’ve wandered. Did you ever pick out an ancient paperback, flipping through the pages and finding some word or phrase that called to you? Did you buy that book, read it, without recognizing the author’s name or knowing anything about their life?

With your words, you rage against the dying of the light. With your words, you outlive yourself. With your words, you have the chance to live forever.

Just kidding, I was actually referring to Edward Cullen.

You’ll be rich!

2002Oh, did you think I meant real money? LOL I say. LOL all day.

But you will be wealthy. Reach out and touch the gold of sunlight along a river you just invented. The bright silver of treachery–an unexpected knife in the dim. Jewels of worlds wink at you from the void–they belong only to you unless you choose to share them. This is real currency: getting  so deep inside yourself you find something you did not know was there.

What are your reasons to write? Share your thoughts in the comments below!