Authoring Writing Advice

Pants on fire

This started as a reply to the question that comes up every so often in writing forums: “Plotter versus pantser.” The question is usually raised by someone who’s recently moved from the second camp to the first and is aflame with the evangelical zeal of the newly-converted. It’s a thinly-veiled (if it’s veiled at all) cry to embrace the joys of plotting.

I have thoughts on this. First, calling the split plotting vs pantsing judgmentally ignores the reality that pantsers do plot. The real split in process is whether the plot is fully planned prior to writing the narrative or discovered during writing the first draft. Even that split isn’t an absolute. Ask anyone who’s had a grand outline crash and burn when a new creative idea appears like a supernova in the middle of building their story.

I emphatically disagree with the idea that prior plotting requires more thought than pantsing straight out. It requires different thought. Just as ballet differs from gymnastics, pantsing and planning are both approaches to artistic creation that use many of the same basic tools in different ways.

Some people start their writing career as planners, some gravitate to it with experience or training (especially since creative workshops push its development) and some have no *need* for it. And all those paths are equally good if they lead to a result the author loves.

My (moderately complicated) novels can be outlined. The standard narrative structures are visible to anyone who wants to analyze them. But they develop that way straight to the page. Pantsed all the way. It’s the easiest way for me to write.

It’s a rough fight these days to remain a pantser because that approach doesn’t mesh well with production schedules and regular release dates. Discovery and punctuality don’t play well. Those truths do NOT make planning a better approach. Planning is a more commercially-friendly one. Not the same thing as better, except in one particular sense: financially.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that financial success is an invalid measure of writing goodness where goodness applies to ideas and wordcraft.

I am so tired of typing that point. It seems so damned obvious to me, but it gets lost in the shuffle every day.   Lots of lip service gets paid to “great writing gets overlooked every day” but the proof of disrespect is in the inability to join the SFWA, the science fiction writer’s trade organization, until you’ve achieved specific and arcane sales thresholds. (the blatant bias for short fiction and deliberate marginalization of independent novelists continue to irk me, but that’s a whole ‘nother post. And I acknowledge this is an SF thing.

The trade organizations for mystery/thrillers and for romance writing (for example) do not treat active membership like a private cool-kids-only club.

Anyway. Sales are great. I want all the sales ever. But I want to tell the stories in my heart even more, even if those stories do not fit into tidy categories or grow according to a tidy timetable. Which, so far, they have not. Thus I pants along producing my quirky, skewed tales. But I digress.

Back to the bigger the wider picture,  how should writers decide which method works best?

First we have to decide on our goals. Then we gan write start whichever method is most comfortable, and explore the others when–or if– it feels right, and in line with our changing, evolving goals and lives.

That last part is another oft-overlooked point. Developing a distinctive personal approach–finding a comfortable balance between mapping and discovery–is not a one-time choice, nor an irrevocable decision. It isn’t an us vs them issue. They’re both tools.

Analogy time again. Some people prefer hammers, some people love nail guns. And some people get great results with mallets. I like to play with ALL the tools, but to say any one of them is always the right one?  I reject that idea. Would we tell a woodworker who builds with dowels and glue they’ll never be successful/aren’t professional  unless they use a power drill and steel screws so they can make a certain number of cabinets a year? Nope.

All writers deserve the same artistic respect of being judged on quality results, not quantity or process.  That’s my cranky, contrarian take on the subject.  Again.

Authoring Writing Advice

Naomi Kwan: Strong like Water

Naomi is by far the nicest of my protagonists. She is generous and nurturing, a people-pleaser and a compromise-seeker. Unless cornered she will accommodate or retreat rather than confront, and she values peace over principle. She prefers physical exertion to mental effort, and sees no point in learning for learning’s sake.

In short, she is very much my opposite. I guess that philosophical/psychological saying about all of us containing infinities must be true. I created Naomi and adore her. but I have to step outside myself a long way to see life as she does.

Writing about her from other POVs also presented some serious headaches. Some of those characters don’t value the virtues of forbearance and endurance.  To them, Naomi looks like an unintelligent, ineffectual doormat waiting for people to walk all over her. I had to filter my words through their worldview while still showing readers the smart, compassionate, powerful person Naomi can be.

Victimization and abuse are hazards for self-effacing people,  granted, but they’re dangers Naomi has mostly worked out by the time she hits my stories. That was what I had to emphasize. She’s vulnerable, yes. Imperfect, certainly. Weak? No.

Naomi is strong like water: almost invisible, often taken for granted, but able to flow around any obstacle, seep into the smallest space and eventually, inexorably, get to the bottom of everything.

Let me digress a bit to discuss the way character creation meshes  with story design. Many authors start with ideas, plots, plans, or theme and then make characters whose skills and personalities will best present the desired ideas. Others take a real-life approach and put people they know into their stories, either as piecemeal traits or whole characters.

Me?  I … meet them. No, really.  Given the sheer amount of detailed advice and tools devoted to character development an author can find  on the internet, I suspect that’s not the norm, but it’s how I roll.

I came to storytelling through tabletop gaming, where I could sit and make new characters all night. Trait lists, talents, skills, vulnerabilities and fears– they come to me with as little conscious thought as making a fist or walking. I’m sure there’s lots going on under the hood, so to speak, but all I need is a germ of a an idea, a hint of a direction, and I can riff variations on a personality/past/plusses/minuses theme for hours.

Contrast this with my plotting struggles. Reducing the endless possibilities of a beginning to a single resolution requires tedious elimination of alternatives. It’s like chess, and I hate chess. It’s boring and brings me no joy. This explains why my writing process best resembles the technique I developed running role-playing sessions: begin with a set-up and an ending in mind, aim characters at the starting line, and let them find their own way to the ending.

I start every story with a mental image of someone doing something somewhere, and boom. The characters appear. The introductory pieces I write are rarely the first ones in the finished novel (often they don’t appear at all)  but the process itself is pure fun.

In this case, I was able to use the material as my first chapter. Serena showed up first. (I profiled her here, in case you missed it)    Before I finished writing that scene of her getting ready for a party, Naomi popped up from my subconscious fully-formed like some caretaker Athena, ready to do whatever needed doing for her friend.

That was great. I immediately knew she was my heroine. The drawback was that she was who she was. Risk-averse sweethearts are not  the kind of characters I picture when I think of fast-paced action storylines big on conflict, hostility and defiance of authority.

It occurs to me that I  could divide my characters into elemental groups. Take-charge, in-your-face, energetic fire characters like Parker and Alison move fast and burn nice straight lines to follow. Solid, principled, grounded characters like Justin and Felicity provide structure and framework, giving the story a direction. Flighty, airy, characters tend to breed complications and distractions (Hi, Carl) but they certainly add interesting detail.

But water? Oh, water is hardest of all to write. It’s difficult to contain, like air, and it’s even harder to push aside, but unless you do push it, it just sits there.

Like Naomi.

As it turns out, curiosity, laziness, and loyalty will push even the most conflict-averse heroine into action, and defiance comes in many forms, including passive evasion.

Naomi has no love for repetitive tasks, but poking her nose into things to see what’s inside is an irresistible temptation. Putting her in a situation where those two traits would combine disastrously was the key to getting her (and my plot)  moving.

And although she might not fight for herself, she will go to the wall for anyone she loves. All I had to do was write Serena into danger, and Naomi followed.

That’s how this all works for me. I set up my characters by playing to the weaknesses in their strengths, they do astounding things, and all I have to do is follow along and write it all down. Simple.  Well. Simple like riding a barrel over a waterfall is simple.

It’s worth the work and the risk of crashing at the bottom.  I meet such interesting people this way.




Writing Advice

Layered Narratives

I recently spent some time and thought energy discussing the role of heroism in stories: (I Don’t Need Another Hero) and on my feelings about portraying protagonists as heroic when their actions are anything but good.

Now I want to consider whole stories that do the same thing. Plots that create inaccurate mythology are even more prevalent than heroines who get away with murder, and I try to avoid them. There’s a trick to doing that, and I want to share the way I do it.

This is where I insert the usual disclaimer: this is about me. I don’t do advice.  This principle guides my work, and I think it makes my writing better–from a craft standpoint, not a moral one–than it otherwise would be.  I’m not talking about writing happy stories.  Pfft.  Hardly. (Anyone who’s read my work knows it leans to the dark side.) I’m talking about writing stories that say what I mean them to say.

All stories send out sneaky messages underneath the actual story itself. Call them subliminals. Call them subtext. Call them meta. Call them what you like. I’m sure there’s a literary term. The name isn’t the important point. The effect they have in the real world is.

Confused yet? Sorry. It isn’t a simple issue. Let me offer a few examples of meta-story issues that make me twitch. When news breaks —  I’m talking about real, it-by-golly-actually-happened events — observers instantly begin turning facts into narrative. People make stories. It’s a human thing. We make sense of the world by comparing it to the models of life that we build in our minds. And we’ve all heard witnesses make comments like these:
“He was such a quiet man.”
“She didn’t deserve to die like that.”
“How could this happen here?”
I’m sure you can come up with more, now that I’ve started the ball rolling.  Think about the implications of those statements. They’re dire ones. Perilous.

All quiet loners are violence time bombs or serial killers in the making.
A violent death would be okay if the victim were less of a saintly person.
There are safe zones in life, where bad things never happen.

None of those statements are true. Never have been true. They are stories that are believed because they are seen, and heard over and over and OVER, and they feel right in real life they’ve been absorbed through a multitude of lessons. When I watch feature movies and episodic television programs, when I read prose narratives or treat my eyes to graphic ones, those ideas are everywhere. There are reasons for it, of course. We want someone who dies to deserve it. We want villains to be identifiable in appearance. We want to believe in the illusion of safety.

These are just the tip of a mythology iceberg so big there’s a huge website devoted to spotting these elements in every venue of fiction. ( It’s an amazing, awe-inspiring stunning motherlode of information gathered by fans, for fans.) It’s all about facts. Interpretation, though–that’s up to the artists.

This isn’t the place for an argument over the validity of tropes, or how stereotypes are based on archetypes, or profiles have foundations in fact or so on. I’ll simply lay these truths out: the “people become abusers because they were abused” concept? Wrong. The quiet loner flips out and turns violent plotline: proven bullshit. The awkward geek getting the hot chick through sheer persistent nagging, without doing anything to make himself attractive? Don’t get me started on the abusive stalker behavior promoted by that trope. We’ll be here all week. I have so many statistics…moving on.

Fiction is a web of lies, but here’s the thing: storytellers are the ones who decide which lies to tell. The myths that shape us as we mature–the ones we accept and create for ourselves–leave us blind to so many important things. The stories we absorb affect the way we react in real life. I try to be conscious of this.

The one that goes, “Bad acts are good, as long as the victim deserved it?” That one makes me sick.

So, then. Here are a few things I eyeball with care, when going from the artful brain-to-page direct dreaming of the first draft to the craft of the subsequent edits.

Assumptions. We all make them.
Biases. We all have them.
Consciousness. This is the keystone. I try to know my own assumptions and biases. I try to craft the plot that tells the story I mean to tell, not the one I think I’m telling. Do I assume certain points of social order to be true without closely examining them? Do I believe one viewpoint over another? (Yes, and yes. We all do.)  I try to be sure, before I hit publish that I’ve said what I mean to say.
I like to see someone get saved who isn’t pretty, someone who isn’t kind behave heroically,  someone who isn’t brave step up to the action plate. Shouldn’t the petty, the rude, and the nasty also be saved from  disaster? Why do orphans always have to be adorable? Real children in need of real care are seldom perfect. And how could they be? They’re human. When someone kills someone else in cold blood when other alternatives are available, is it only a tragedy or a crime if the victim was a nice person, a good person, an attractive one? Laws, ethics and most moral codes would say no, but far too many stories say yes.

Make the principles serve the story. Make all the layers line up. If I believe in the sanctity of human life, are all my victims sympathetic? Are the people my heroines save worthy of her efforts by being tender, strong, and true?  If so, I might want to rethink my victims, because I’m only promoting sanctity for some lives. Are my villains unrelentingly evil? Do they do bad things because they want to see the world burn? Why? I might want to give them rational motivations and make their acts logical, even if the logic is twisted. Otherwise, my evil won’t look like the evil my readers see in their daily lives.

Getting second and third opinions is a painful but important step to getting this right. Painful, because disagreement inevitably feels like an attack. They’re personal beliefs, after all. It’s personal.  Important, because learning to understand many viewpoints–even opposing ones–is a critical writer’s skill. I’ve learned that my own visceral response is a good indicator that something’s amiss. It’s impossible for a reader’s opinion (on the writing!) to be an attack.  The power dynamic is all wrong. It’s my writing. I control it. Defending my position isn’t necessary. if I feel defensive,  there’s probably a splinter of an idea festering deep that needs examining. Taking the time to work it out will add to my ability to write well.

I try to write narratives that break loose from a foundation of ready lies and into the thin air of real, flawed human behavior. I can still hold up the ideals of kindness, bravery, honor, and sacrifice while admitting that few people ever attain them. That’s what will draw me into a book and hold me there until the last page. I don’t always succeed, but it’s always my goal.

I believe the best lies are ones that reflect the world back to us and make it a better place. That’s me. What are your beliefs? Does your writing reflect them? (Rhetorical questions. I’m just offering an excuse to go re-read your own work with an eye to subtext. Any excuse to re-read is a good one.)

Book reviews

Review: Mystic & Rider by Sharon Shinn

Disclaimer: Like most of my reviews of a sole title in a multi-book ecology, this review really covers elements common to the whole series, not merely the first book. The book is Mystic & Rider, and the series is called The Twelve Houses.

Every so often, I revisit the backlist of authors I love. It usually starts after I’ve finished the latest novel. When I’m done and I’m still hungry for reading and reluctant to leave that world behind, I go back to the beginning and read through all the way to the end again, series by series, chronologically by publication date.

It’s like going back home for a holiday and walking through the old neighborhood, only instead of the houses changing and the people moving on, I’ve moved on and changed. As time passes, my perspective shifts, and sometimes once-beloved stories look dramatically different then they did the first or even most recent time I read them.

I love Sharon Shinn’s work. All of it. Her Samaria series is a beautiful blend of a fantastical setting and some fabulous science. This series, though, remains my favorite from a craft standpoint.  The world-building is rich in detail, the characters are all flawed, complex, and tied to one another by many motives, not merely the thin threads of a single plot, the dialogue is snappy, and the writing is uncluttered–not a word wasted. Reading it all again, now that I’m taking my own writing seriously, is even more of a joy than it was the first time around.

The world of the Twelve Houses is, on first sight, a typical medieval fantasy setting. Then little flourishes and details of a complicated social structure are dropped like gems into the plot. The plot of this introductory novel looks like your basic companion quest. Then the politics and the personalities start to clash. Complications set in. Relationships build and break, and people act in their own self-interest, sometimes at a high cost.

Fantasy stories are like chocolate chip cookies. The recipes all use same basic ingredients, but they achieve astonishingly different results. My oatmeal-chocolate-chip-banana bars taste nothing like my mother’s crunchy name-brand recipe drop cookies. Add an ingredient or two, change the proportions of a few others, and the end product will be unique. That’s what’s done here. It’s a chocolate chip cookie, but it’s a rich one, full of chunky tidbits and subtle flavors.

Religious persecution, racial discrimination and economic  inequality are heavy topics to hang off the hero’s journey, but Shinn does so with finesse. This isn’t a morality play. It’s a rollicking adventure set in a complicated world. She doesn’t shrink from adding the grays and deeper shades to her societies and her characters, and the story is the better for it. Her characters are moral but mortal. They face hard choices with good intentions and get mixed results.

Best of all, from my perhaps-skewed viewpoint, there are no easy solutions. The story ends with a satisfying finale, but there’s no tidy resolution to the underlying issues. There is progress, there is always another conflict on the horizon, and the world goes on, even when the story ends.

If you like your fantasy with a little ambiguity and a lot of humanity, Shinn’s work is well worth the investment.