Okay, pun was intended, because, good news:
- I’m posting writing!
- I’ve done some writing!
At least, they’re two of the important ways that you could read that. And indeed, I’m here to ramble about a few ways I’ve been learning But wait, there’s a third: I must post this, otherwise, I won’t let myself study this semester1. Oops!
Yes, life’s a very busy thing.
A number of weeks ago I started working 40 hours a week, which, even after counting transport, leaves me a decent amount of time2 to do other things. Take out the indispensables, and I’m left with about 3-4 hours every day to:
- Practice piano & violin
- Help organise a collaborative blog project
- Contribute to an open-source project3
- Rollerblade to save my aching back
- Interact with my family
Admittedly, writing has suffered the most out of all of these.
So what am I considering?
Going back to Uni, of course! Now, now, I’ll only be taking one subject at a time. Maybe. If I can sort something out. I have until this weekend to decide. Of course, I could, y’know, get distracted taking photos of the sunset…
Or I could tell you, I don’t pants anymore.
But wait, you what?
Yeah. I’m not a pantser anymore. For some of you, I’ve seen the light. For some of you, I’ve gone to the dark side5. But it’s neither, because both are beautiful, and I need both. And, okay, it’s hard. Plotting is new, plotting is a mess – yet plotting brings a clarity to my writing process that I’ve missed.
But to understand how I’ve got here, maybe we’ll take a little history lesson.
This is the earliest6 plot that I know I wrote. (NaNo 2013, wcg 30,000 words. The three previous years I was just having fun, but in 2013 I got serious.)
Spoiler alert: I didn’t keep to this at all. And it’s no wonder. The plan was essentially a pantsed novel in itself, just in super-vague form. There was no real reason for anything that happened. It just did.
2014 was better.
Unfortunately7 the plan stalled at Chapter XVIII and, frustrated, I began a new story from scratch. The freedom was amazing. I could write wherever I wanted to go. Chapters flowed from my fingertips. Dialogue felt natural; the world felt real. There was only one problem: I didn’t know how to end it.
For four and a half years, Criminal Innocent has sat unfinished at 44,340 words.
Nowadays, my writing is dry, lacks suspense at the best of times, and lacks depth everywhere. There is no purpose in the scenes except “That happened next” or “that had to happen because…”. In isolation, there are some fragments which are powerful, barely sufficient in number to keep me writing. But on the whole, my stories story aren’t stories. They’re recounts, pieces that catch your interest at times and lose you for the rest.
You see, I thought Pantsing had given me freedom, and that it was a good thing. What I didn’t realise is that it was teaching me I could write for the sake of writing. I was very, very wrong.
I mean. When was the last time you just scribbled on a piece of paper?
You have to, have to, have to have something to say.
Enter F, a good friend of mine 9. She came along when I was freely handing out the advice that all you had to do to make a story is to know what happens next. Right? After all, that’s how I wrote, and it was working. But here’s an exercise. List a hundred things that happened between the start of the paragraph and the end. List a thousand. List a million. Say “atoms vibrated” or “photons reached their eyes” and cover an uncountable number of events in a few words. Did the author write about them? No. Why not?
F taught me something invaluable, I should have learned in English class: writing has a purpose.
Please, don’t run away yet! If you’re one of those people who “writes for fun” or “writes for self-exploration” you should be agreeing with me here10, 11. This doesn’t mean that you’re writing the kind of boring literature people study and say is amazing12. This doesn’t mean you have to plot your work and plan every detail and symbol to the electron. No, for the people who don’t realise that writing has a purpose, that’s likely because you’ve already found yours. That’s why you’re not looking for it. You’ve found it already.
Oh, look, this is a prime example of me pantsing away at a post. I don’t want to edit now. I was writing with a purpose, and something else came to mind so I shifted focus. Can you find the shift? (Note: I did end up editing it, so the shift won’t be so obvious now.)
So: Pantsing didn’t work because I forgot why I was writing.
Plotting provides a framework for constantly re-focusing yourself. Consider this line from The Curse of Healing:
At first the story was to be a hyperbolic commentary on the impacts of fame; thus, David (the narrator) was supposed to be very quiet and reserved. The first four thousand words showed no hint of this. Technically, this information can be contained in a single sentence, but the more information you have, the greater picture you have. Since a story is simply a clear and compelling illustration of a point, giving yourself more information gives you a framework for constructing a pointier point. Remember: Sharper knives cut cleaner.
But there’s another big limitation pantsing has:
My brain isn’t big enough to remember what I’ve already written.
In order to know what else should happen in a story, you have to know what has happened in the story, since the two inextricably link together to form the greater picture. A simple solution is recording all important details in the story, but quickly you’ll find each detail you record makes a prediction about the future of the story. For example:
This note makes at least two promises: Vanessa will try to escape, and Vanessa will try to help this mind. This should have been simple, but fifteen thousand words in, her drive is gone. Thirty thousand words in, you’d forget that she ever did anything about it13. Clearly – twice over, now – writing purely by the seat of my pants doesn’t work for me.
(Please note: Neither of these will pertain to every story or every writer.)
#0 – Dragon Hunter
#1 – The Touch of Life
Since last year, I’ve been trying with little success to make progress on Novel, largely because I was struggling to keep in mind why and what I was writing. My biggest struggle was with my characters, who I’d never really fleshed out in the first place. This was touched on above. However, I found that if I read over what I’d already written, it was significantly easier to re-construct in my mind the personalities of my characters. This made it clear to me I needed some sort of framework to keep the relevant information more front-of-mind.
Because at this point Novel was becoming a mess, I started something new.
The Touch of Life aimed to lessen the responsibility placed on my memory by bringing the writing of interdependent points in the past, future, and present as close to each other as possible. My plan was to start by writing a brief introductory overview, following which I would write all the scenes that provided backstory to that overview, and then all the scenes that they provided backstory to14. Ideally, every scene would be positioned as close to the most pertinent other scene from its past and its future.
Very quickly I discovered I was writing faster and more fluently than any of my chronologically-written works, I found the freedom to re-iterate scenes that had already happened from a different point of view to tease out a different detail. I was free to write those scenes that I pictured in the future, and their proximity to each other really did help. This worked unbelievably well, but with no top-down view, it grew chaotic and difficult to keep track of. At this point, my dilemma was whether to start something new or to take some time to extract a plot from what I’d already written.
Naturally, I started something new15.
#2 – The Ghost Sisters
It took me a bit to know what to do with The Ghost Sisters. Firstly I just wrote, trying to see where my mind would take me. 2,000 words in, I was ready to get serious. First I tried Scapple, but with hardly anything to start with, the blank page was overwhelming. But then I opened Scrivener, and I knew what to do.
I’ve tried this strategy before, with The Curse of Healing, and I’m not sure why it was a total disaster. (This was touched on above.) In spite of that, I knew it would work this time, because of what I’d learned from The Touch of Life. Firstly, every scene I plotted had to be a turning point; if it wasn’t a turning point, it just became interesting backstory that would only possibly come to bear on the resulting storyline. See this brief description for chapter 2:
Although brief, this leaves a magical faraway-tree-forest of ideas in my mind, plenty enough to know exactly how the three scenes in this chapter should go16. But why is this different to The Curse of Healing? Well, here’s a chapter description from TCoH:
TCoH’s scenes are outlined as just the next thing happening to the MC. This isn’t bad, it’s just not what I needed. See, I don’t read that description and think “this conversation must focus on David’s fear of attention”, because it’s not framed as the most important thing here; instead, I just write a conversation, which more often than not will miss the point. The plan for The Ghost Sisters, however, focuses on the root of the problem, detailing what’s going on in Sculley’s mind. This allows me plenty of freedom to decide what happens, while taking the care of what I most often can’t – the why of what happens.
However, this is a new project, and I don’t know when its growing pains are going to show. All I know is that this framework is already making things easier for me, and I hope they will continue to in the future.
A P.S. for you
It’s important to realise that there’s a point to plotting. Because it’s simply a framework to assist with the weaknesses that plague some peoples’ pantsing, there’s nothing scary about it. It won’t work for everyone the same way because everyone thinks differently, and everyone needs a different supporting structure for writing. Some people don’t need any at all.
I’m hoping to find time to write another post focusing on how my writing has grown over the years, and another one focusing on the fact that writing has a purpose. Of course, I’ll have uni to do, so maybe I’ll talk about that. But for now?
Good luck, and have fun!! 😉