Monthly Archives: March 2016

Plotter/Pantser or Creation/Discovery?

Garden.For years I’ve heard writers describe themselves as plotters or pantsers. Plotters are the outliners — they have storyboards and note cards, outline every scene and character arc, and can talk three-act structure for hours. Then there are the pantsers, so-named because they write “by the seat of their pants,” discovering their story as they go. Some argue that for pantsers, the first draft of a book is the outline.

I used to define myself as a pantser, but the truth is, I’m somewhere in between. I loathe beat sheets, but I never jump into a story without taking copious notes first, writing character sketches and deciding on the major plot points. When asked, “plotter or pantser,” I’ll still answer pantser, but I found a better way to describe writing processes: creation versus discovery.

This outlook asks writers whether they see writing as a process of creating a story or discovering it. Creation writers are often outliners, building the book step by step. They are architects, starting with blueprints, then laying foundation, scaffolding, and finally filling in with plumbing, wiring, and paint. They know whether they’re building a cabin or a castle, a bungalow or a split-level. Sure, they may make changes along the way, but the final product often looks very similar to that first blueprint.

Discovery writers find their story through exploration. They plant the seeds of story ideas and then watch them grow. They know whether to expect roses or rhododendrons, orchids or oaks. But they don’t know exactly how those seeds will grow — where the buds will form, how the branches will bend, what other life those plants will bring to the garden. They may decide the daffodils are distracting from the tulips, or the maples are overshadowing the lilacs (just as a character may take control of a story that’s not theirs, or a secondary plot may distract from the main plot). Discovery writers will prune and water and weed until their garden thrives, but they wouldn’t have been able to say from the outset exactly what that garden would look like.

As a discovery writer, I have an idea of what my story will look like — what seeds to plant — but the most exciting part of writing is seeing how those seeds grow. My character sketches will show me new ways to add tension, or reveal possible subplots. I’ll start a scene and realize that in describing a painting on the wall I’ve unearthed another piece of the world’s history. A scene where I know two characters must meet could have something going on in the background that I decide to make important later. These moments of discovery are what make writing early drafts such a joy.

Do you prefer the plotter/pantser or creation/discovery model? What kind of writer are you?

Genre Lessons: Contemporary YA and Open Endings

Open door.I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. The idea is to get us better-acquainted with the types of books we may not normally read. In addition to improving my recommendations, I’m also studying these books from a writer’s perspective. Just because I don’t write a certain genre doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who do. If you want to see other posts in this series, check out the “genre lessons” tag.

This month we’re discussing YA, and I’ve decided to focus on contemporary YA. Several of the contemporary novels I’ve read recently have had open or ambiguous endings. Sometimes I thought this was done really well, while others I felt cheated as a reader. Every reader is different, but here’s what I’ve learned about what works and doesn’t work for me when it comes to open endings.

Not everything has to be 100% resolved in the end. Characters should feel like they had lives before the start of the novel, and they should feel like their lives will continue beyond the last page. As a reader, I like imagining what will come next. A couple great examples I read recently both involved the main characters navigating the uncertainty of their senior year of high school, worrying about where/whether to go to college, what would happen to their relationships after graduation, and so on. In both cases, we saw most of that uncertainty resolved as the characters made their choices for the next year and all went their separate ways. There was still the question of what happens next, will these friends stay together or drift apart, will this long-distance romance last. But the main sources of the characters’ frustrations — their insecurities about their plans for the next year, and their conflicts with their parents — were resolved.

That said, all the major plot threads should be resolved at the end. Not everything has to be tied up in a neat bow, but the narrative can’t just stop after something big happens that results in a change in the character(s) or their circumstances. Good stories start with a question — will John survive the zombie apocalypse? Will Gabi convince her boss to give her that promotion? Will the Goldberg children be all right after losing their mother (and the financial stability her income provided)? — and that question should be answered by the end of the novel. We don’t need to see all the Goldberg kids in successful careers/marriages at the end of the book, but we need to see them on a path to success at the very least. (Or on a path to total destruction, if that’s the kind of book you’re writing.) If John has a fling with Raul while battling zombies, it’s okay to leave their romance in limbo, but we need to know whether John will survive the zombies. Readers will feel cheated if they reach the end of a novel and the story question isn’t answered.

How do you feel about open endings? What works or doesn’t work for you? What stories would you recommend that do this well?

Flash Fiction: Being Concise

stopwatch.

Photo by Flickr user Search Engine People Blog

I often joke that I write novels because I can’t tell a short story. Non-writers may assume that fewer words = easier to write, but I’ve never found that to be the case. I think it’s much harder to tell a whole story in just a few thousand — or hundred — words. Each word has to be perfect, and often pulls double or triple duty, conveying not only the basic meaning but also the tone, voice, and rhythm of the piece. That’s a lot of pressure on one word!

No matter what length you’re writing, the ability to be concise is a good skill to have. That’s why I’ve started writing flash fiction. Forcing myself to tell a whole story in 100 words has helped me hone my craft, and has made it easier for me to write queries and synopses. If you’re looking for a fun, low-pressure way to get into flash fiction, Janet Reid frequently hosts contests on her blog. The community there is really supportive, and even if your entries don’t make the long lists, it’s fun to read those that do. I’ve yet to be a finalist, but I’m learning so much from these exercises and from reading others’ entries.

Do you write flash fiction? What tips do you have for writing short pieces?

Reading like a writer: Recommended reads

I like to wear my writer hat while reading, because it lets me appreciate the story on a different level. When I really like a book, I look at what the author did to bring the story to life and keep me invested. I think you can learn something about writing from every book, but I want to highlight a few books/series I’ve read recently that gave me great craft lessons as well as great stories.

A Darker Shade of Magic.The Shades of Magic series by V.E. Schwab (first book is A Darker Shade of Magic)

I love so much about this series (and Schwab’s other books) that I can’t choose just one element of craft to talk about with these books. Schwab is a master world builder, and clearly knows the rich history of all four of the magical worlds she’s created. But what makes the world building so good is that we only learn what we need to know as we need to know it. The setting is expanded in the second book, A Gathering of Shadows, as the politics of Red London become more prominent. The setting is integral to the plot, and the characters. And the characters themselves are all fully-fleshed, with goals and agendas of their own. Their actions drive the fast-paced plot. (I don’t usually pair “fast-paced” with fantasy, but if fantasy thrillers are a thing, these books sit squarely on that shelf.)

Cinder.The Lunar Chronicals series by Marissa Meyer (first book is Cinder)

This is one of the most well-plotted series I’ve ever read. Each book has its own story arc, but there are also arcs that span the entire series. In Cinder, Meyer sets up everything that will happen in the next three books, without it feeling forced or info-dumpy. We meet all the major characters, but Meyer introduces the stars of the next three books casually, so their appearance later in the series feels natural. If you’re writing something with multiple viewpoint characters who spend a lot of time apart, or whose stories don’t intersect until well into the book, I highly recommend reading ScarletCress, and Winter (books two, three, and four in the series).

Room.Room by Emma Donoghue

For those who aren’t familiar with Room, this is the story of a woman and her five-year-old son who are held captive in a sound-proofed shed converted into a one-room living space. Told from the five-year-old’s perspective. The viewpoint is so unique, and so well done. If you’re struggling to decide on a POV, or are having trouble staying in your viewpoint character’s head, this is a great example of a case where viewpoint makes the story. Room is also a good study of using viewpoint to build a setting, or to hide information from the reader.

What books would you recommend to study craft?

Podcasts for writers

mp3 player with headphones.I’ve always been a multi-tasker, and recently I’ve gotten into podcasts as a way to hear a great story or learn something new while cooking or doing chores. If you’re looking for some podcasts to brush up on your craft or learn more about the writing business, I’ve found the following helpful.

Writing Excuses — “a fast-paced, educational podcast for writers, by writers.” Authors Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Howard Taylor (writer and illustrator), and Dan Wells cover a wealth of craft-related topics, from beginnings to endings, characters to worldbuilding, pacing to revisions. Episodes are 15-20 minutes long, so they’re perfect for a walk (or run) around the block.

PubCrawl — I’ve been reading the Pub(lishing) Crawl blog for years, and was thrilled when two of the contributors started releasing weekly podcasts. These run a little longer than Writing Excuses (episodes are roughly an hour), but go into more depth on the business side of writing. Writers Kelly Van Sant and S. Jae Jones (JJ) have years of experience in the publishing world, both as agents’ interns/assistants and as editors. Past episodes have discussed pitches, advances and royalties, contracts, and queries.

This Creative Life — author Sarah Zarr interviews YA authors on a wide range of topics, from their inspiration to their writing habits to life as a published author.

Do you have any favorite writing podcasts? Please share in the comments!