I have very few vices. I quit smoking just over 12 years ago, and I rarely drink, so I’m pretty squeaky clean. Well, mostly. We already discussed comfort foods, and there are the times when the Gorilla Cheese truck gets so close that I am unable to resist a delicious grilled cheese sandwich. Oh and there’s Tally Ho—the roast beef on a bun place in my hometown that calls to me every time I drive by it.
So. Temptation. The notion of temptation implies something we should resist doing, but are strongly drawn to anyway. No one ever says, “I’m SO tempted to go to the gym and work out,” or “I’m SO tempted to drink that wheatgrass juice”*. Nope, at least, no one I know says those things. The people I know say things like, “I’m tempted to skip the gym and go to Tally Ho,” or, “Instead of mowing the lawn with my face, I’m tempted to stalk the Gorilla Cheese truck—that’s exercise, right?”
But to make this post about writing, I’m not going to talk (more) about my food temptations, but my writing one, and take a little look at its causes.
I’ll be honest here and admit that I am very often tempted to not write. In fact, I’m sure every writer, beyond the very first exciting sentence they ever wrote, has been tempted to not write at one time or another. Writing is hard work and I’m tempted all the time to just not do it.
Like when I sat down to write this post, I was tempted to NOT write it and instead, do a thousand other things, including stare at my shiny new bookmarks for a while.
Aren’t they pretty? Say it with me: “Ooohhhh, Ahhhhhh. Shiny.”
But why was I tempted not to write? If I’m honest with myself, it’s because I really had no idea what I was going to write about, (which should come as no surprise to you if you read last week’s post). So, in other words, I was stalling. But I still needed to get this post done, so I forced myself to put away the bookmarks and the internet and opened up my Word doc. And stared at the screen for a while. And then went back online and found some pictures to include. But in the end, I needed to ignore the temptation to stall and wander and just get the work done. Sometimes, I need to put more brain effort in and sometimes I need to just eliminate distractions (goodbye, Twitter!), but in the end, it’s just a matter of being strong and facing that temptation and not giving in until the work is done. My writing motto, ripped off from Nike is “Just Do It”, which applies as much to writing as it does to sports. You can’t win against temptation unless you just do it. Butt In Chair. And I guess I usually win, because I have written a lot of books, and there hasn’t been a day spent writing that I haven’t been tempted to do something else. Like go get a grilled cheese.
Your turn: what tempts you away from your writing?
*Uh, have you ever had wheatgrass juice? That stuff tastes like lawn. Gross.
Congrats to Vivien, winner of a copy of The Wicked and The Just!
From the 2012 Debs…
Deb Joanne just got word that she’s going to be presenting at the NCTE Conference in November. VEGAS, BABY!!!
Deb Erika is so excited to see that the schedule for the upcoming SC Book Festival is online! Now she can gush about how excited she is to be presenting on two panels–and presenting on a fiction panel with Deb Friend Therese Fowler on Sunday, May 20!
Deb Molly is currently in Minneapolis, where she had her first official reading at the delightful Red Balloon Bookshop (which not only got special permission to sell copies of The Princesses of Iowa a week before its official release, but also SOLD OUT of those copies!) and then spent a fabulous day at the Loft Literary Center’s Children’s & Young Adult Literature Conference. She’ll also be signing books on Monday, 4/30, at the International Reading Association Conference in Chicago — swing by Candlewick’s table (#1026) between 3 and 4, and say hi!
Deb Eileenrevealed her ARC for THE ALMOST TRUTH. We love the cover and can’t wait for its release on December 4, 2012!
Deb Guest Siobhan Fallon will be reading from YOU KNOW WHEN THE MEN ARE GONE on Monday, April 30th at Porter Square Books.
Deb Guest Sarah McCoy was featured in The Huffington Post’s The Book Club blog this past week–read her powerful post on the personal challenges of writing THE BAKER’S DAUGHTER here!
Deb Guest Tayari Jones will be in Boston at Grub Street’s The Muse and the Marketplace on Saturday, May 5, starting at 2:15. Details here!
If you were near Newburyport, MA, this weekend, hopefully you stopped by the Newburyport Literary Festival and saw Deb Guest Matthew Quickpresenting!
Deb Dish – Since we’re coming up to Temptation Week on the Ball, what is one temptation you can never resist?
Deb Joanne – Cheese. No, fried foods. No, pie. Wait, no, lobster. Shoot. Can I just say “All foods?”. (I am also very tempted to roll my eyes at Deb Linda’s pun below. But I will resist. Or, you know, not.)
Deb Erika Oh boy, where to begin? I might say TV. You see, we don’t have TV in our house so every time I get within five feet of one (ie, hotels) and I get my hands on that remote, I’m a goner. I could sit there and click aimlessly until my husband comes and takes it away from me.
Deb Molly Puppies, and the smooching thereof.
Deb Linda Well, I’m tempted to say chocolate, of course. But that’s a given. I’m going to have to say a good pun. They are so tough for me to resist! It’s very bad of me, and I should probably be *cough* punished for it.
We’re extending a big Deb Welcome (back!) to past Deb Joelle Anthony today. It hasn’t been that long since Joelle was here–she was in the 2010 Deb Class, but in case you’re new in these parts, here’s her official bio:
Joëlle currently lives on a tiny island in British Columbia with her musician husband, Victor Anthony, and two cats, Sophie & Marley. As for the future, their only plan is to avoid real jobs, write and play guitar in front of the woodstove, and live happily ever after. Her debut young adult novel, Restoring Harmony, was published in the spring of 2012, and her latest release, The Right & the Real is available now, both from Putnam.
And about Joelle’s latest book, The Right & the Real:
From the author of “Restoring Harmony.” Kicked out for refusing to join a cult, 17-year-old Jamie must find a way to survive on her own.
Jamie should have known something was off about the church of the Right and the Real from the start, especially when the Teacher claimed he wasn’t just an ordinary spiritual leader, but Jesus Christ, himself. But she was too taken by Josh, the eldest son of one of the church’s disciples, and his all-American good looks. Josh is the most popular boy at school too, and the first boy outside the drama geeks to give Jamie a second look. But getting her Dad involved in a cult was not part of the plan when she started dating Josh. Neither was her dad’s marriage to the fanatic Mira, or getting kicked out, or seeing Josh in secret because the church has deemed her persona non grata.
Jamie’s life has completely fallen apart. Finding her way back won’t be easy, but when her Dad gets himself into serious trouble, will Jamie be ready to rescue him, and maybe even forgive him?
Sounds AMAZING, Joelle! And now, Joelle talks plotting with us.
Let me just dust off my tiara and I’ll be right with you. Okay…there!
In 2010, when I was part of the Ball, my day was Friday. After reading four stellar posts on whatever topic it was that week, I felt like if I couldn’t add anything just as good, I better be funny, and that’s usually the approach I took to the post. Since this is posting on Saturday, I figure I better be stellar and funny. Ummm…no pressure.
When I first started submitting, the rejections I got often included something like, “Great voice!” or “The voice is strong.” What they never included was, “Excellent plot!” In fact, if they mentioned plot at all, the notes were more likely to be, “Lots of holes in the plot.” “Implausible.” “Convoluted.” They probably could’ve added boring to the mixture, but by then the editor was too sleepy to bother.
So how did I go from boring to “fast pacing” and “page turner” (Publisher’s Weekly for The Right & the Real)? I wish I knew because then I could write a book about it and maybe do a TED talk or reign supreme at the SCBWI-LA conference next summer.
The truth is that I do know. Here’s the secret:
I started paying attention to the plot.
I know. That sounds so simple, but it’s actually true. As an actor, I’d pretty much let the playwright take care of the plot, and I worked on character and voice. And that’s what I was doing in my writing. Except there wasn’t any playwright to save my butt.
I started by reading craft books on plot. While most are useful, I’ve discovered books on mystery writing are often exceptionally helpful, even if you’re not writing a mystery. Essentially, all books to some extent are mysteries anyway. I mean, you don’t give the big climax away until the end, do you?
The next thing I started doing was paying attention to plot and pacing while I read other people’s novels. I’d like to say that after a handful, I got the gist of it, but honestly, I read about 300 books over two years before I really started to get a sense of plot. Also, during that time, I was lucky enough to land a critique group, an agent, and eventually, an editor willing to work on plot with me. I cannot begin to express how much they all helped me with this.
If you’re struggling with plot, the first thing to do is ask yourself, “Have I been giving it its due?” And if the answer is no, then you now know where to start.
Thanks for having me on the Deb Ball.
Oh, and one more thing on plotting. This is my plot to take over the world!
And if that video wasn’t gift enough, Joelle has generously offered up a copy of The Right and the Real to one of our lucky commenters! Just tell us a little about YOUR plot to take over the world and/or what your cult would be like.
Just because I’m an admitted pantser (or should that be “pantster”? I mean, I don’t go around pantsing fellow writers or anything … nah, pantser just looks better), and made one little reference to Bungee jumping in the comments on Tuesday, they’re tweeting stuff like this and this about me.
Not that I can blame them. I mean, I suppose I do have a … how shall I put it? let’s see … somewhat naughty take on a lot of subjects. What can I say? Innuendo is inherently amusing. (Well, to me, anyway. Your mileage may vary.)
So, yes I happen to find the analogy of Bungee jumping naked to be an apt descriptor of my writing style. I get an idea, I strip it of restraints, and I plunge. You should try it — it’s exhilarating.
(Analogically speaking, of course, because damn. I would never Bungee jump in real life, clothed or unclothed. I mean, come on. Mental fearlessness differs hugely from physical fearlessness.)
Anyhoo, a while back, on my own blog, I explained how I write. Since “writing” encompasses “plotting,” I thought I’d share it here.
(Hey, I’ve already explained that I’m a green blogger—I recycle when I can. *grin*)
Here’s what I said then, and it still applies:
If I actually have anything organized enough to be called a “process,” I suppose I would label it:
Because when creativity strikes, it is a rather chaotic process for me. When an idea bubbles up I chase it around my head for a while.
I purposefully do not write it down, because I figure if the idea isn’t compelling enough to stick with me in this embryonic phase, it’s not worth the paper and ink. Or the hard drive space. (Yes, I have lost ideas this way. Would they have made good books? Huh. Guess I’ll never know.)
If after a week or two the idea just won’t go away, if characters appear, spinning micro-fantasies in my head at odd hours of the day and night, then I start to write.
At the beginning.
Chapter 1, page 1. Just as if I were reading instead of writing. In fact, that’s how I like to think of my writing–as interactive reading. It’s more fun that way.
And then I continue until I reach the end. Linear Linda, that’s me.
See, I’m a “pantser.” A writer who doesn’t outline. Sure, I have a vague, big-picture idea of what’s going to happen, but the details remain obscure until I reach them. I want them to surprise me.
(I tried to outline a book once. Very precise, very organized. As soon as I knew for sure what was going to happen, I got bored with it and quit. Which was a pretty good indication the method wasn’t for me.)
Of course, sometimes the surprises I run across with my process mean I have to go back and tweak the earlier chapters, but that’s okay. Tweakage is fun.
Working this way also means it’s tough for me to achieve a consistent output. My daily word count varies from -5000 (a personal best for hacking out stuff that just wasn’t going to fit) to +3500 or so. Mostly it hovers between one and two thousand. Not blazing fast, but it’ll get the job done.
Since I tweak as I go, as soon as I finish the “first” draft I’m pretty much ready to send it off to my fantastic critique partners and beta readers. They may have had a small taste of it along the way, but mostly I’d rather they read it whole, so they can give me an overall impression of the book as a complete entity before they start pouncing on what tends to be a prodigious number of typos. (Those beasties multiply in cyberspace, I swear.)
I take whatever they tell me to heart. They are that good. Now, I don’t necessarily follow all their suggestions–for one thing, these amazingly brilliant women don’t always *gasp* agree, so that would be impossible–but I give them all serious consideration.
After incorporating whatever changes I’ve decided will work, I do one last run to make sure no inconsistencies have been introduced. If they have, I fix them.
Voila! A book is born.
That’s it. Basically, writing a book is simple. But not easy.
Best of luck with yours.
*CHAOS! = Creativity Happening Again, Oh Snap! (What? You thought I was going to use a different S-word, didn’t you? Well, I can be polite. Sometimes. So there.)
Really, when you think about it, my new analogy of Naked Bungee Jumping fits together pretty well with my old Controlled CHAOS paradigm. I mean, seriously, what is Bungee jumping naked if not controlled chaos?
So, where does your writing style (or lifestyle in general) fall? Do you tend toward order or chaos?
(Of course, what we really want to know is, do you Bungee jump—er, write—naked? Do feel free to answer both.)
The problem with writing memoirs is that you’re confined to the truth. I hear writers talk all the time about how they have the plots for their next five novels filed away in their brains, be it a vision of a single scene from which the whole book will blossom, or a big thematical question that will drive the story. For me, it doesn’t work that way.
Since MWF Seeking BFF is in the “project memoir” genre (not sure I love that term, but we’ll use it for now) I could, I guess, just continue to come up with project-related ideas and see what happens. Spend the year not wearing pants! Dye my hair a different color every month! But that doesn’t really address what I hope to do with my writing, which is to highlight the issues I’m dealing with—the ones I think others might be too—and share my personal story in hopes of saying aloud that which, perhaps, we’re all thinking but are too embarrassed to admit.
What this means, of course, is that sometimes I have to wait for a plot to reveal itself. Maybe the revelation is in the form of memories that, when looked at together, actually form a story of their own. Or maybe it’s like MWF, where I have a problem I can’t shake and think,”ok, I guess I’ll have to conquer this now.”
In either case, when it comes down to writing the actual book, plotting is about sitting down, looking at the pieces of truth, and fitting them together like a puzzle. You want a good mix of scene setting, real dialogue and inner dialogue, but you also need to make sure that the stories you’re telling have a larger message. A memoir can’t be “I went to the grocery store, then I came home, then I went to sleep.” Unless you are Snooki, or someone famous enough that people just want to know that you do your own food shopping. If you’re, you know, me, people only care what you did if it will, in some small way, teach them about themselves.
Sometimes I find it extra-frustrating that I don’t have five book ideas filed away. But I also think writing memoirs keeps me engaged in my own life. It forces me to pay special attention to the issues that get lodged in my brain, to see which ones might play out into a story. And it adds a bit of excitement to the moments when I wonder where life will take me. Because, right now, I have no idea where I’ll be by book three–I don’t know what my story will be. I might know what I hope it will be, but life rarely goes according to plan.
And there’s something poetic to the notion of waiting for your life, your plot, to unfold.
What is the life event that, even when living it, made you think: This could be my next plot?
I started my writing career as a poet. I’m sure there are poets who spend a lot of time planning and shaping their work, but for me, each poem began as a tug at my subconscious, a blur at the edge of my vision, a half-remembered phrase under an early autumn moon. Over time – an hour, maybe, or a few days – the tug would turn itself into a first line and I’d sit down and write the first draft, which could take anywhere from twenty minutes to a few hours, but not much more. Two or three drafts later, I would type it up, paste it into my journal, and move on with my life.
The process was fast. I found if I spent too much time muddling over an image, I’d lose the spark of inspiration that had ignited my imagination in the first place, and the poem would become stale. It was better not to think too hard about any one poem, but keep moving forward, hoping the next one would come out exactly as I meant.
After ten years of writing poems, I turned my hand to fiction, only to discover that my method didn’t translate. As it turns out, you can’t just wait for the inspiration to hit you and get the whole draft down in an hour. Also, apparently you can’t just dive in and hope the whole thing will work out in the end. (Well, I’ve heard some people can do just that, but for me? I got 300 pages into my first novel when I realized I’d need at least another 300 to finish the thing… it was ugly.)
Years of writing poetry had given me facility with language, the ability to translate moments into sentences, and strength of detail and description. But plot? Not so much.
And then I discovered outlining.
I outlined my first novel twice: once before I started writing it, and again after I’d sold it, when I was waist-deep in revisions and no longer had any perspective on what the stupid thing was even about. The first outline was fairly simple; just a chapter-by-chapter summary of what would happen in the book, which made actually writing the thing pretty easy. I just had to consult my outline! What happens in chapter 10? Oh, they go to the abandoned amusement park and meet Old Man Withers? Easy!
My second outline was slightly more complicated, and also much prettier. I wrote every single scene in the entire book down on its own index card, including a color-coded list of characters in each scene. Then I taped all the cards (close to 100) on my kitchen cabinets, which are nice and white and right across from my favorite writing spot at the kitchen table. (My wife, by the way, did not find this method nearly as awesome as I did. I can’t imagine why. Who wouldn’t want to stare at a scene breakdown everytime you go for a bowl of cereal?)
The color-coding method worked well. It allowed me to see the entire book at once, something I hadn’t been able to do in years. I could track the movement of each of my characters through the book, and see that the first time all the characters were in the same room together was right around the climax. I could also see the repetitive parts, where the same characters had back-to-back scenes.
When I finally took down my kitchen outline, a few weeks after I’d sent my manuscript in to my editor, my kitchen looked very sad and empty. (My editor suggested I outline my next book in the bathroom, to constrain the complexity of plotting and to give guests much needed reading material. What else are bath crayons for?)
If you’re thinking about tackling a huge project, whether it be a novel, memoir, novella, or even a long story, but you’re intimidated by the length and complexity of the story in your head, get out the index cards and markers and give outlining a try! Your kitchen cabinets will thank you.
Once again, it’s confession time at the Ball! This week’s tell-all subject (as you now know from Deb Joanne’s post yesterday) is plotting. Specifically: Plotter or Pantser?
Now I’ll admit—only within the last few years have I come to know of this “pantser” term. I had no idea—really!—that there was such a category. When I realized there were other writers out there like myself—and that we had a term for our method (or madness, you be the judge), I was relieved. But here’s the thing: When it comes to picking a side, I can’t.
I’m kind of, sort of, well…both.
Hear me out:
At the beginning of a novel, I’m all pants. I sit down at my computer with no notes and let it fly. And it does, oh, it soars, baby! We reach cruising altitude and it’s magic. Turbulence free. Seat belts are off and the Bloody Mary Mix is flowing.
And then, somewhere around page 100, one of the engines goes out, the wing snaps off and I’m in a nosedive.
What do I do then?
You guessed it: I pull a Diana Prince and spin myself from bespectacled Pantser to lasso-wielding Plotter.
And just in the nick of time, crisis is averted and I regain control of my aircraft.
Now here’s where I have to explain yet again: When I say I become a plotter, it isn’t that I begin to construct a formal outline, but rather I build out thumbnail sketches of the next two to three chapters. What do I mean by thumbnail sketches?
First, I’ll simply write out a chapters worth of scenes, in sequence, in single sentences.
Here’s a made-up example:
-Loni arrives at the train station.
-Joshua is eating in the café and sees her.
-Loni and Joshua connect on the platform. He sees she is holding a copy of his book.
Really basic stuff.
Then I’ll go back in and flesh out those sentences to thumbnails, including important plotting elements and snippets of dialogue—most likely the conversations where the tension in the scene will peak. (Because I like my instant gratification!)
-Loni arrives at the train station.
Reveal memory of first train trip with her father. Show how she’s nervous.
-Joshua is eating in the café and sees her.
He leaves letter behind by mistake. Spills something on his tie so it can be there for her to brush off in next scene.
-Loni and Joshua connect on the platform. He sees she is holding a copy of his book.
Joshua to Loni: “You told me you’d sooner have a root canal than read my books.”
“I never said that.”
“You absolutely did. That night at Monica’s party. You said it with such a straight face I kept waiting for you to break into laughter but you never did. I was crushed.”
This will usually be enough “outline” to get me back on track, to see far enough ahead in my plotting to know where my novel is headed and to make sure my road map makes sense. (Or at least as much sense as it can in a first draft.)
So there you have it, dear friends. It would seem I’m a true Gemini, flip-flopping back and forth between plotter and pantser.
No, wait. That’s not good enough. I know it’s still early in the week, but what the heck! I’m going to go out on a limb here and say I’m a little bit pantser, I’m a little bit plotter. So ladies and gentleman, I think that makes me…yes, you guessed it:
* * * *
What about you all? Do you favor one or the other in your writing? Do you think a writer can be both? Or have you an idea for yet ANOTHER category? More importantly, is there a transportation analogy I’ve left out of this post??
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