Monday, 27 January 2014

Plotters Versus Pantsers

Are you a Plotter or a Pantser? Some people stand firmly in one camp or the other, with heels dug deeply into the ground, never straying to the ‘other side’.

Plotters have their favorite plot planner and stroke it lovingly each time a new book idea is brewing. This sleek, well-groomed animal is probably a linear, left-brained writer, meticulously researching details and filling out a character chart before even typing ‘Chapter 1’.

The Pantser paces distractedly, sort of hyena-like, bolting when an idea strikes or quietly basking
Photo from by Anankkml
in the sun, contemplating and daydreaming while complex scenes play out in her head. A pantser writes by the seat of her pants and scowls each time she walks by the blank plot planner hanging on the wall. She’s most likely a right-brained, character-driven writer.

My name is Anne and I am a Pantser!

At my recent novel writing retreat, I boldly announced that I am a ‘pantser’. Even though I shared a tried and true (by others) plot planner, beautifully laid out and explained in The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master, I dug my heels in, claiming an affinity with my hyena brethren (the more I learn about hyena’s the more I like them… but that’s for another discussion). As I wrote my first novel, Mental Pause, the story flowed from me so rapidly I didn’t have time to plot it out. My characters took over their own development and I had to let them determine what and where the next plot twist would be and how my protagonist would react and when the antagonist would show her true colors. I was dreaming about plot and character development both day and night and couldn’t wait to hit the keyboard to pour out the scenes that were playing in my head.

Is it Different for Fiction vs. Non-Fiction Writers?

So, I strongly believed that I was a pantser, at least when writing fiction. You see, my first two books were non-fiction and both started with a very specific, very linear, chapter outline (which I considered the plot planner’s non-fiction cousin).  So I could only assume that was the determining factor.

As a ‘multi-genre’ writer I often feel a bit torn between which soapbox I should jump on.  So, I had this pantser persona in my head after the experience of writing my first novel. I had loosely jotted down ideas but never thought about plotting a novel. Imagine my surprise when I realized while working on my next novel (which is about halfway done) that I ground to a screeching halt as I tried to apply my ‘pantser’ mentality! During the time I was writing my first novel, we had just moved to Thailand, I didn’t have much freelance work going on, didn’t know many people and it was the tail end of rainy season… and it was National Novel Writing Month. To top it off, I was suffering from peri-menopause’s horrible night sweats, mood swings, and paranoia. You name the symptom, I had it! I needed something to pour myself into so, I wrote all day every day… and loved it! 

Fast-forward two years and we have a full, busy life but I still protect time every week to work on my next novel. The problem is, I can never remember where I left off (another symptom of menopause). I forget the name of that secondary character I introduced the last time I sat down to write (or even if I actually brought them into the picture yet). I kept having to go back and re-read what I wrote and take the first half hour at least, getting back into the story to figure out where I was on the plotline, which was all in my head except for the random notes I had arbitrarily written in a ‘dump’ file! *A side note: I do recommend keeping a dump file going - somewhere to park those wild ideas that come to you out of nowhere but don't have a place... yet!

A Pantser Embraces the Plot Planner... for Now!

As the frustration grew, I finally realized that it would be helpful to have a plot outline or even a scene tracker. I guess I should follow my own advice more often. I started pulling the plotline from the deep dark recesses of my mind, pushing aside the frustration and self-doubt that had crept up. Maybe I wasn’t meant to be a novelist. Maybe my debut novel would be my first and last! NO! My mind screamed back. And, I listened. I hammered out all the scenes that still needed to happen to reach the climax and conclusion for Deep Deceit (my working title) and cried with relief as I went back to where I left off and the words started flowing and the odd glance at the scene tracker kept it going.

That’s not to say that some of the scenes won’t be scrubbed for better ideas or they might fall into a different order as I go but I’m feeling much more confident now and am making progress again. I’m still not letting go of the ‘pantser’ in me because I might need her. Is it possible I’m ambidextrous? Who are you?

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Inspiration Comes From the Strangest Places

When I sat down to think about where inspiration comes from the first thought that came to my mind was, hunger. Well, it was past noon and my body was telling me that it was time to put some nourishment into it. So, even though the fingertips were gently pulsing, anticipating the feeling of euphoria as an idea takes shape, I took a quick break to answer the stomach’s gnawing demand. The fingers were introduced to the sweet and oft times aggravating feeling of anticipation.

Once satiated, I was able to concentrate on the bigger picture. I believe a huge part of inspiration comes from the manifestations of human emotion due to internal and external stimulation and the senses that are triggered by those emotions.  That’s a little cerebral so I’ll drill down just a bit.

It’s the Simple Things – The External

As I was sitting on my balcony one sunny morning, listening to the birds in the trees and sipping my coffee, a slight movement out of the corner of my eye caught my attention. Living in Thailand I’ve learned not to jump at the slightest touch or movement… actually developed a sense of awe at the creatures, big and small, milling about on their daily mission. So, I’ll get back to my example. There was a slight breeze and the tree right next to the railing was tickling my left elbow. As I gazed closer at a darker patch on the leaf closest to me, I saw the most peculiar bug happily riding the swaying leaf. I was mesmerized. He was brown so the colour wasn’t that riveting but the closer I looked and the more detail I took in, the cooler he became. He had several body sections separated by zigzag lines. His head sported long, thin, antennae topped off by round, fuzzy balls with the finest little hairs. I couldn’t help thinking that this was probably the type of creature that inspired the creators of the characters in Pixar’s Monsters Inc. and maybe even Avatar; definitely Dr. Seuss!

Imagination needs to be sparked by something and nature is a prime suspect in my world.

It’s the Unpleasant – The Internal

The inspiration for my first novel, Mental Pause, which launched on March 8th, 2013 came from what is, in my opinion the worst symptom that a women suffering from peri-menopause can have… The Night Sweat. It’s evil incarnate. I had been having them every night for months and the lack of sleep was starting to wear on me, not to mention wearing out the sheets that had to be washed almost daily. One particularly slimy night, even though the A/C was pumping full blast, the sweat burst forth and I lay there taking stock of the sensations it was eliciting both physical and emotional… the crevices that pools were forming in and the texture of my skin. Since I couldn’t sleep, I did what most writers would do. I hit the keyboard and pounded out the mad ramblings of a peri-menopausal woman. I laughed and cried as I wrote and thought, ‘this woman is crazy.’ In order to make myself feel better, I added a bit of imagination to it (spurred on by the delirium from exhaustion, which can also provide some great inspiration) and turned it into a novel. That first rambling session that described the night sweat found a home in chapter 1 of my novel.

So, we are inspired by the beauty of nature and sometimes driven to inspiration by physical discomfort. Anything else?

It’s the Painful – What others do Unto You

I just had a tooth pulled so the next time I need to describe a nasty assault on the senses, I’ll have some inspiration to draw from (I have a phobia of dentists so my experience was filled with more angst than most, although I don’t think many people enjoy a ride in the dental chair). My hands are even starting to shake with the memory as I write this so allow me to leave it at that!

Other sensations can bring equally visceral inspiration – frustration, anger, happiness, despair, elation, fear or any other emotion you can name. The key is to look deeper into identifying what has triggered those emotions and start the description there while adding as many senses as possible, without going overboard. The other challenge is to think of comparisons (it felt like…) that are original and haven’t been overdone. As I thought about the onset of a night sweat, the image of an army of marching red ants sprung to mind so I used that in the description…
Not long after, Abbie awoke to the pinpricks of heat crawling all over her body
like a thousand red ants leaving tiny, scorching footprints behind.

I do tend to refer to nature a lot when I write but whenever I need a little help in drumming up some inspiration to describe emotions and feelings I reach for The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. Sometimes it gives just the nudge I need to shake things up a bit. It sure beats going to the dentist!

Note: this blog first appeared as a guest post in The Alliterative Allomorph: The Artist Unleashed as part of the Virtual Book Tour for the launch of my first novel, Mental Pause. The Alliterative Allomorph is the brain child of Jessica Bell, the author of Adverbs and Cliches In a Nutshell (there's actually an 'In a Nutshell' series of books Jessica has written).

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Ever Contemplated Your Life Loops?

Well, Happy New Year! I've had a very long hiatus, visiting family and friends over Christmas and am back! While I was home, I had the pleasure of attending a TEDxWomen event at my alma mater in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Mount Saint Vincent University. I was able to snag a ticket because I'm an alum and I felt very proud sitting in the audience listening to the inspirational talks that the local organizers had lined up. Here is my favorite I'd like to share with you. The funny and very talented, Holly Carr with 'Life Loops' (make sure you watch it in full screen):

Hope you enjoyed Holly's message... and talent! I'll be back soon with more on my writing and self-publishing adventures. I have lots to share :)