Friday, February 27, 2015
by Paul D. Marks
I don’t think I have an “ideal” landscape, but I do like to see something appealing and engaging outside the window, whether a busy cityscape from a high-rise or a view of the hills or a country scene.
That said, I’ve written in places where there wasn’t much of a view. Just the stucco wall of the apartment next door or even worse the inside wall of my apartment and no view of anything. But I didn’t like that much. Don’t like having nothing to look at, and when that was the case I would put pictures on the walls that would “inspire” me. In our last house, we had a pretty nice view...but it was on the back side of the house and my office was on the front side, looking out at the street. So the walls there were decorated largely with Edward Hopper prints – good for writing mysteries and noir. But some of the time I’d write on the laptop in the kitchen or family room where I could look out at the view. Which was nice...except for the time the hills across the way were blazing and smoke was furling up. And then hoping the fire wouldn’t jump over to us.
My office might be a cluttered mess, but I can block that out. Having something serene outside to look at calms me and gives me the peace of mind I need to get into that Zen writing state (he said with only a hint of sarcasm, at least about the Zen).
I do like our view here, but Robin’s view is to die for. Can’t compete with that. Very nice!
And, while I do like something to look at out the window, I also like to “shut the world out” when I write, not in a visual sense. But in a sense of quiet. I need quiet, for reasons I won’t bore you with. I’ve lived in places where there was construction going on next door or across the alley. Sometimes eighteen hours a day. Once the vibrations from the construction were so bad that when I tried to play a record the needle would skip across it, making a sound as irritating as fingers on a blackboard.
When I haven’t had quiet, I would play music to mask the background sounds. Mostly the music turned to white noise.
And unlike Susan, who thrives on external stimulation, I can’t write well or at all in public places. I’m just too distracted by everything going on around me. I want to drink and chat and have fun. So I like retreating to my clean, well-lighted place, to borrow a phrase.
Thursday, February 26, 2015
Wednesday, February 25, 2015
Squirrel and Zombiesby Clare O'Donohue
Q: Do you pull down your shades and shut out the world when you write? Or are you motivated by a city view? A view of nature? What is the ideal landscape for your creativity?
I don't have a dedicated office space in my house (though a girl can dream). I have a kitchen table, and I have living room couch. I have a nearby Starbucks. I have whatever hotel I'm in because my job keeps me on the road. But I've found that the writing mojo isn't so much based on what I'm looking at as what mood I'm in.
I have two writing personalities. "Squirrel" appears faithfully every time I sit down to write. Anyone who has seen the movie "Up" knows what I'm talking about. In the movie the dog gets easily distracted by anything resembling a squirrel, running off mid-sentence sometimes. In real life it's me who gets distracted by anything resembling... anything.
I fidget, spend a lot of time reading the articles on Cracked.com, get up for my fourth cup of tea in an hour, realize I need to return an email, and remember that I haven't cleaned the refrigerator in a while. I don't mind a little squirrel in my life, it's when he overstays his welcome - wasting whole days - that I really get annoyed.
The second personality comes later, when I've found the words again. I start writing and writing and forget the world, the internet, and household chores. My half finished cup of tea gets cold on the desk. When I'm really in a book, the world outside could turn into a scene from The Walking Dead. Zombies could roam by my window, break into my house, take a chunk out of my leg, and I'd keep typing. "Just let me finish this chapter," I'd say to the undead creature making me his lunch, "and then I'll go zombie-ing with you."
It doesn't matter to me whether I'm hidden away in an undecorated room, or sitting on the floor in a crowded, flight-delayed airport gate. If I'm in zombie-mode, the only view I care about is the one on my laptop.
I have found that it's easier for me to get into zombie-mode when I write in the same place every day. Maybe my squirrel personality is bored by the same-old scenery so I get down to business sooner, or maybe my brain just knows this is where the writing happens. I find it's easier when I don't have music playing, so that goes off. I don't close the blinds because scenery is not a distraction, but I do avoid the internet because it's not just a distraction it's a time-suck.
So when I find I'm spending too much time in squirrel mode, I force the routine of being in the same place, at the same time, in relative quiet, until I'm so far zombie that I don't care. Two or three good zombie days and I can venture back out into the distracting world. I've not just written a fair amount, but I'm filled with ideas for the next chapter or two - something that can keep me writing just in case squirrel pops up again.
Tuesday, February 24, 2015
Monday, February 23, 2015
Friday, February 20, 2015
I'm pleased to welcome a distinguished group of writers to help round out this week's discussion on the question "Are you an outliner or a seat-of-the-pantser? Have you ever tried to do it the other way? What happened?" Barb Goffman, Edith Maxwell, Kathy Lynn Emerson, and I all have stories which have been named finalists for this year's Agatha Award for Best Short Story, to be presented at Malice Domestic the first weekend in May. Soon after the finalists were announced, Edith invited us all to join in a big group post at Wicked Cozy Authors, which will appear on Friday, March 6— and Kathy also offered to host another post at Maine Crime Writers in April as well. Stay tuned for all of that!
In the meantime, I thought that this week's question here at Criminal Minds offered a good chance for each of us to talk about our nominated stories, what method we used in writing them, and whether that was the approach we normally took—or a step in a new direction. I'll kick things off, and then include each author's response below—along with a link to each story (embedded in the story's title in the heading for each section). Thanks again to Edith for suggesting this blog hop in general!
Art Taylor on "The Odds Are Against Us" and "Premonition"
"The Odds Are Against Us," on the other hand, was pretty carefully plotted from start to finish before I started writing it—all of it focused around a choice that the narrator needs to make, the consequences that follow that choice, and the way that the past both determines and then complicates both the choice and the aftermath. Because of what I saw as the greater thematic heft of this story, I felt like it really needed to be calibrated pretty carefully each step of the way, and I'd laid out each of the scenes and their purpose in advance to determine the movement of all the parts.
So which do I usually do? My writing generally follows a wide range of approaches. Some stories build in unexpected directions, some are planned out firmly, and sometimes it's a combination of approaches—surprises for me that I hope surprise the reader too.
Barb Goffman on "The Shadow Knows"
For “The Shadow Knows,” I wanted to write about a superstitious man, Gus, who believes his town groundhog, Moe, actually controls the weather. Gus decides to get rid of Moe so his town could finally have an early spring. I wanted Gus to be injured while trying to nab Moe, but it took a while to figure out how to make that funny, which was my goal. (In the end, it’s all in the voice. If the same scenario had happened to a less grouchy person, it wouldn’t have been funny.)
I tried to write a story by the seat of my pants once. In the end, that was way too much work. I ended up writing a lot of things that ultimately didn’t serve the story’s purpose and had to be deleted, and I still haven’t sold that story. So while I tip my hat at pantsers, I am firmly and happily a plantser.
Edith Maxwell on "Just Desserts for Johnny"
Sometimes an entire story will pop up while I'm out walking, and all I have to do is fill in the details, but it’s not like I plotted it. It just appeared in my brain, and those are the stories that seem to write themselves.
Novels are a bit different, especially since my publisher at Kensington asks for a three-to-four page synopsis before I write the book. But I still pretty much pantser it, as long as I update the synopsis when the book is finished. The most plotting I do is three or four scenes ahead.
Kathy Lynn Emerson on "The Blessing Witch"
Thursday, February 19, 2015
Are you an outliner or a seat-of-the-pantser? Have you ever tried to do it the other way? What happened?
I graduated college with a degree in mechanical engineering. I like plans, schematics, and spreadsheets. Formulae, laws of physics, straight lines, sharp corners, curves described by elegant mathematics. I believe in ORDER.
If I tried to write something without an outline, I have full confidence it would devolve rapidly. I’d start writing a scene, and everything would be fine for a few minutes, but before too long it would go flying off the rails. For instance, have you ever had an argument with someone, but ten minutes later, you’ve miraculously switched positions? Which reminds me of a book I read once, where the characters’ back stories kept shifting, making following the chain of events difficult, at best. Not as difficult as rocket science, but still hard. Did you ever wonder how these advanced 3-D rendering technologies have changed the way engineers design rockets? And rockets are way, way cool. Maybe I should write a book about people hijacking a rocket and settling on Mars. Mmmm, Mars. I do like their chocolate. And if anyone is interested, I prefer dark chocolate. I understand it’s actually healthy for you. And I’m all about the health. Hey! Squirrel!
But I digress. (If you couldn’t tell, I often write these blog posts by the seat of my pants.)
Now, where was I?
Oh, yes. Outlining. I outline, but when I say I “outline,” it’s not like how we were taught in third grade. Nothing formal whatsoever—no Roman numerals, no subsection 12-G-IV-c, no indenting. First, I map out how the story begins. Then I plot out how the story ends. I also like to pencil in some of the major turning points along the way. Then I fill in the scenes that connect these “tent poles.”
Sometimes I have a good idea what a scene should contain, but often my outline consists of little more than: “Scene 14: Joe and Sue meet in the old chemical plant. Joe tells her something shocking, and Sue runs off, slips, and falls into a vat of hydrochloric acid.”
I should make it clear that I’m not a slave to my outline. I view it as a living, almost-breathing entity. When things change (and boy, do they ever), I change right along with them (or should I say, I change my outline right along with them). In my writing workshops, I tell outliners that if things aren’t working, consider changing your outline. (Similarly, I tell pantsers they need to change their pants (ba-da-bing!).)
Sometimes I wish I had the ability to just sit down and start writing (with the reasonable expectation of producing something decent). That’s right, on some level, I envy the pantsers. So carefree. So happy-go-lucky. So…Bohemian.
But even if I did write more by-the-seat-of-my-pants, I don’t think anyone would ever confuse me with a free-wheeling, spontaneous artiste. And that’s something I’ll just have to learn to live with.
Wednesday, February 18, 2015
Tuesday, February 17, 2015
Monday, February 16, 2015
by Meredith Cole
Plan ahead, that's my motto. I like lists. I like maps. I like to use a recipe. And I like to have a plan before I begin anything.
But I'm not inflexible. If a plan doesn't work, if there's something interesting by the side of the road, I'm fully in favor of taking a detour. I add spices that are not listed in the recipe or substitute ingredients when I don't have something on hand. I get a great new idea while I'm writing, or realize a character would be better if they were twenty years older or a man or something, then I change my story. But I like to start with a master plan to deviate from.
I wasn't always an outliner. I was a seat-of-the-pantser for years and years. And I found that I never actually finished anything. At some point in almost every story I realized that I had no idea what came next and I gave up. I have lots of terrible unfinished stories in boxes somewhere. Or in a landfill. And believe me, there's no need to dig any of them up.
So I began to make myself daydream for a little while and scribble down some ideas about my story before I was allowed to begin. I consider it part of the creative process. I try out different ideas and try to imagine different scenarios and outcomes. I scribble down the end, if I know it. I try to flesh out the middle, too. And if I feel like I've got enough for a novel, I begin.
The more books I write, though, the more flexible I've noticed that I've become about having what I would consider an outline. I get a kernel of an idea and write a few pages, testing out the voice. Then I let the story percolate. A few days later, I get some more ideas about where the story could go and I write those new ideas down. I definitely trust myself not to get stuck in dark alleys quite as often as I used to, with or without a map.
Friday, February 13, 2015
How do you hammer out your first drafts? Have you ever used NaNoWriMo or the 3-Day Novel Contest, or a similar group motivation effort, to get your first draft done?
by Paul D. Marks
Should I quit while I’m ahead and just leave it at that? No, why not put my foot in it more:
I’m too much of a hermit and an individualist to do the group thing. I like to sit in my cave and just write. And I’m pretty disciplined, so I don’t need those things to motivate me. But whatever works for any particular writer is what they should do.
As to how I hammer out my first drafts – I sit myself in a chair, usually at my desk, and write. I’m a pantster, so I write by the seat of my pants. Early drafts are just sort of stream of consciousness...but with some purpose in mind ‘cause I do have a story idea and some characters I’m working with. And I tend to do a lot of drafts because the early ones are so all over the place. But with each I see the story and characters developing. And often the characters change the nature of the story or at least the direction it’s going in.
When I teach on occasion, the thing I find with students is that they’re all gung ho...until it comes time to actually do the work. Everybody, it seems, thinks they’re a writer or at least wants to be. The difference between people who are writers and the wanna-bes is usually no more than sitting oneself down and doing it, improving your writing over time, and then having the persistence to keep doing it in the face of rejection, which can be devastating.
Maybe NaNoWriMo or other things like it are useful to some people, help them get motivated and give them word counts to reach for. But ultimately, whether you just sit your ass in a chair or use NaNoWriMo or one of the other methods to motivate you, it still comes down to just sitting your ass in the chair and doing it.
Okay, ‘nuff said. Now I’m off to watch cute cat videos.
*attributed to Red Smith, Hemingway and others, but I think Red Smith is the one who said it
Thursday, February 12, 2015
I was a few books in before I heard of Nanowrimo and I was already superstitious about changing things in case the whole soufflé collapsed, so the answer to the second bit is "no".
About the first bit, though . . .
The ideal is 2000 words a day, 5 days a week, for 10 weeks, giving a 100K first draft in under a season. It doesn't always work out. More likely is 3000 confident words a day to start with, typed with brio and a song in the heart, then what my husband calls the Big Early Wobble, when I select four or more of the following remarks and combine them in any order:
- I can't do this
- This time it's real
- I've never understood less about a story
- I don't know who these characters are
- There's no colour
- It's too thin
- This isn't a world
- This has never happened before
- I have never felt like this before
- Why do you always tell me I always do this?
- Yes, you have
- Yes, pretty much word for word
- Not just last time, every time
- I bet it'll be okay
- Why not write it and see if maybe it's okay
- I honestly believe it might be okay
- Yes, but I really think you have
- Yes, you totally have, you crazy lunatic
So now I have to decide between a. faking a late Big Early Wobble and b. doing without one altogether. Truth be told I'm worried that without the BEW the book won't be any good. I'm having a Midway Meta-Wobble.
But I think, all things considered, I'll just bash on, typing and weeping. I'm quite fond of some of the characters in this one - they make me laugh - and as well as that I'm not sure what's going to happen next and I'm interested to find out. In fact I stopped typing today at the end of a pretty torrid scene with the words [trots over to other computer to remind self]:
"The colour drained from D----'s face until she was candle-white and her lips were almost blue.
'What is it?' I asked her."
Right now, I have no idea and that's why I love being a pantser. I'd bet my morning coffee that when I sit down and start typing tomorrow I'll realise what it is and it'll be something hidden away in what I've already written, like an Easter egg, waiting to pop up in the story. It feels like magic.
Once I've written another three drafts, fixed the glitches, killed the stinky bits, smashed the Easter eggs and sprinkled the crumbs from beginning to end of the story, maybe some of it'll look a wee bit like magic too.
Wednesday, February 11, 2015
by Clare O'Donohue
Q: How do you hammer out your first drafts? Have you ever used NaNoWriMo or the 3-Day Novel Contest, or a similar group motivation effort, to get your first draft done?
I wish I had a formula for getting first drafts done. Some have sputtered out in fits and starts, others have poured out quickly. I've described before writing the first draft of Missing Persons in a 10 week marathon. It's about 80,000 words and most of the first draft actually made it into the finished novel.
Like Susan, I saw the benefit of that kind of writing - the characters stayed with me always. In fact the real world felt less real in those ten weeks than the one I was putting on the page. I wrote and wrote and wrote, 10, 20, and in one case, 30 pages in a day. I'd turn off the computer feeling dizzy and exhausted only to turn it on again because the words would just not stop coming out of me. It was wonderful and painful at the same time. And I wish I could do it again.
That book had a particular set of circumstances, though, I've not yet been able to duplicate. I wasn't working. If I wrote full time would that happen again? I don't know.
When I'm writing a first draft my must do is 1000 words a day, five days a week. For me that means a first draft in four reasonably painless months. That is a commitment I can usually stick with. For all those days when I sneak ahead, getting in 1500 words, there are days when I manage only 500, so it all works out. But 1000 is my goal every time I sit down to write.
I've never done NaNoWiMo, though after Robin's experience I may give it a go, but I have try. I like the idea of seeing my progress in a chart, and being part of a community of people all heading toward the same goal. And though the word count is higher than the one I usually set, that's part of the fun, I imagine. The challenge of pushing yourself a little bit more than normal and of seeing what can happen when you don't give up.
But between now and November, I'm sticking with my 1000 word goal. I'm a firm believer that in anything - from exercise to saving for retirement, learning a new language, or writing a novel, consistency is the key. (Except when it's not, see Missing Persons.)
Tuesday, February 10, 2015
NaNo asks participants to write 50,000 words in a month. The idea is that if you can get that far, you have the skeleton of a first draft and you'll probably continue. This means you need a daily word count of 1667 words per day. It includes weekends and holidays, so if you want to take a rest day, you have to pad your count on other days.
I used it slightly differently. I had 40,000 words of a work in progress, so I used November to hammer out an additional 50,000. This way, I reasoned, even if the words were a mess (and they were!) I'd have a good chunk of material to shape into a readable story.