How to Wing It, Literarily

Yesterday a friend asked me if I had any advice on writing without an outline. I’m a panster. For anyone who doesn’t know, writers are typically divided into two camps – plotters and pansters. A plotter knows everything down to the last detail. They have pages and pages (and pages) of outlines for the series, the novel, the current chapter. They know what everyone will wear in X scene. They are generally impressive creatures with a long-term battle strategy.

Pansters, like myself, cannot work this way. The way we write sounds either whimsical or downright ineffective to most people, especially hardcore plotters. “How can you work that way?” “I could never do that.” “Don’t you need /some/ kind of outline?” are all things I hear regularly when I’m asked about writing. The answer: No.

Once I have The Story in my head, I start writing. I don’t need an outline. I can’t use an outline – and believe me, I have tried and tried again to be a more organized, structure-oriented writer. “It’s supposed to make me more efficient,” I’ve wailed, staring at a notebook full of detailed plotting notes. But the truth is, for a true panster, overthinking your novel can kill it.

I generally find plotters and pansters are people who approach life differently – plotters are destination-minded, pansters are journey-minded.

I need a vague idea of the ending when I begin a book, but it may change several times during the story and take me completely by surprise because I don’t need the destination to be solid. The development of my characters is more important to me, and that takes time and I need to be surprised. The less I know about my characters when I start, the more I unravel along the way and the more natural it feels for me to write it.

However, I don’t believe pantsing is any easier than plotting. It has downfalls, like hitting a metaphorical wall and sitting back, wondering how on earth you’re supposed to fix the mess you’ve created for everyone. It means not being able to continue until that one detail clicks in your head, because everything else rests on it. It means spending much of your writing time thinking, instead of referring to pre-thought-out notes. It means having writer’s block – something I’ve noticed is less frequent in plotters. (There are those who completely wave aside the concept of pansters altogether, viewing us as flighty, un-dedicated beings without the backbone to sit down and plot out a story. The truth is, we get just as much done as plotters; we simply have different ways of going about it.)

So, now that we all know what pantsing is, I have a little advice I’ve gleaned over a decade of writing and making mistakes.

Go with your gut. This is incredibly important when I’m writing. If there’s something I really, really want to write, something I know I need to write, it needs to be written. Whether it’s a novel or simply a plot point – when I ignore these deep-seated twinges, I regret it. Every single time.

Write when you feel like writing. One endless difficulty in my life is that I never just have ‘creative energy’ – it’s always a very specific type of creative energy. If I feel the need to write, I can’t turn that energy into drawing energy, even when I try. When you feel a surge of writing energy, write if you can. If you can’t physically get to paper or a computer, let your mind do some writing instead. There is no shame in writing when the inspiration strikes, because inspiration is like a muscle – the more you use it, the more you have. Inspiration takes work, and is well worth it.

•  Because we work more from inspiration than notes, let yourself be inspired. Watch things. Read books. Listen to music. Go somewhere new and pay attention. Sometimes I wonder why I can’t just sit in my room for days on end and keep up an endless supply of inspiration. Inspiration needs to be stimulated, and you don’t get stimulation from doing nothing.

Don’t put limits on your book. You are free (within moral boundaries) to write anything you like. Don’t be afraid to add X character because ‘he doesn’t fit’ or let the plot take a sharp turn. Remember, there’s a good movie about aliens and cowboys and people liked it. Besides, it’s a first draft – not the end of all things.

That said, don’t write with a ‘first draft’ mindset. I used to, and it resulted in many novels that ‘needed a lot of rewriting.’ Did they ever get the rewrite? Not most of them. Write well. Write tightly. Give everything your best effort, because we pansters don’t like the thought of rewriting, revising, and editing and so going back and doing all those things seems like a very daunting task that results in abandoned first drafts. Write your first draft like it’s the last draft, like this is the version that’s going to hit shelves. (Note: In the first draft, I don’t mind things like typos or some awkward sentences because the act of technically editing doesn’t daunt me that much. Figure out what does daunt you, and do your best to thwart it in the first round.)

Have beta readers who give active feedback. Not the beta readers who leave your chapter sitting in their inbox until they can get around to it – the readers you know will react to each chapter. This kind of encouragement is incredibly helpful and spurs us to write better and better, knowing a real person is out there waiting to see what happens next.

Plot. Sometimes I need to sit there and figure out what happens in a certain chapter. Sometimes you can’t blindly push through and you need to take an extra step – BREATHE. It will be fine. Nobody will slide in and take away your panster card.

Remember – half the great writers you know and love are, or were, pansters. If they could do it, so can you.

“I met a lot of things along the way that astonished me. Tom Bombadil I knew already; but I had never been to Bree. Strider sitting in the corner at the inn was a shock, I had no more idea who he was than had Frodo. The Mines of Moria had been a mere name; and of Lothlorien no word had reached my mortal ears till I came there. Far away I knew there were the Horse-lords on the confines of an ancient Kingdom of Men, but Fangorn Forest was an unforseen adventure. I had never heard of the House of Eorl nor the Stewards of Gondor. Most disquieting of all, Saruman had never been revealed to me, and I was as mystified as Frodo at Gandalf’s failure to appear on September 22.”

— J. R. R. Tolkien,

in a letter to W. H. Auden 7 June 1955

 

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A Villain’s Mind: Part One

A while back a friend asked, “You know that quote that floats around, the ‘every villain is the hero of their own story’? Do you think that’s true?” More recently another friend mentioned he’d been reading a book on writing and the author had claimed,

“The antagonist needs to be developed well enough that you can understand how he thinks and what motivates him, but he doesn’t need to have a full character arc and undergo transformation, like your protagonist does.”

If any of you know me at all, you know that dug under my skin like a red-hot needle. Doesn’t need a full character ark? Developed ‘well enough’? I don’t just disagree, I disagree vehemently and I’m here to tell you why.

The world of entertainment overflows with examples of poorly-written villains. Shallow, one-dimensional characters with nothing better to do than take over the world, get rich, or kill the Hero for that one slight that one time fifteen years ago. Pick a standard villain from any Tom Cruise movie (if you can remember them). Did they leave much of an impression on you? Did you care about them? Were they anything more than a plot device, something for the Hero to overcome with cool gadgets and witty banter?

No?

How about any James Bond film? It’s the same problem, dressed up in even cooler gadgets and even more monologues (and probably the same nuclear codes).

Did you care about any of these villains? Probably not (if you did, I don’t know whether to feel bad for you or be impressed at your ability to care for all and sundry). ‘Okay, but Mirriam,’ you might say, ‘it really didn’t matter. I still enjoyed X movie.’

Fair point. BUT. Think about a movie or a book with a villain that was so complex, so well-written, so three-dimensional, that he stayed with you. That he added to the story, that you were almost disappointed to see him foiled or defeated. (I’m saying ‘he’ but this post could also, obviously, go for any villainess you think of.)

NUADA

You can sit through and relatively enjoy any new Tom Cruise action flick, but when a villain is written with care, you take a ‘fun’ story and turn it into something emotional that stays with you, because it creates emotional conflict inside you, the reader/viewer. You become attached to the hero (hopefully he or she is well-written) but you’re also attached to the villain, and you anticipate and dread the climax of the story because you know one of them has to go down and it probably ain’t the hero.

BLOFELD1

Or say you felt no sympathy toward the villain, not really. Their actions were evil; you wanted to see them gone. You hated them. They were everything you despise and you railed against the book every time they succeeded or gained an upper hand.

Villains should make you feel something.

They should be more than plot devices. They should be more than factory-processed clones of one another, spouting the same dialogue and acting on the same motivations.

Your villain is also one of your characters. He’s not exempt. I hear young writers talk about their characters ‘and the villain’ as if he’s in some other box in a corner, not really part of the main crew, and that mindset is extremely detrimental to writing a good antagonist.

Because here’s the thing – YOUR VILLAIN SHOULD BE EXACTLY AS IMPORTANT AS YOUR MAIN CHARACTER.

He is a different type of character. He’s there for different reasons. But without him, you would have no story. Without him, your hero would have nothing to fight for and nothing to overcome.

When you write a shoddy, one-dimensional, lazy villain, you insult your hero and your own writing abilities. Your hero should have what it takes to go up against the very worst. You should have what it takes to write the very worst. Otherwise it’s a sign you don’t believe in your abilities – or the abilities of your main character.

Over the course of several upcoming blog posts, I’ll be talking about different types of villains – the good, the bad, the beautiful – and discussing what makes a memorable addition to your cast of characters. In the meantime –

Who is your favorite (or most hated) fictional villain of all-time?

The Glamour Man – Snippets

This has been an Interesting NaNo. It’s been a game of fall-behind (re: focus on art commissions + live life) and catch-up. Family came to visit (definitely a good thing) and my wrist injured itself (definitely a bad thing but I have no idea how it happened, thank you for asking). I’m down to the website assuring me I’ll finish by December Third, which means I can definitely reach 50k if I put my mind to it + my wrist continues to heal. But, amid the chaos, I have knocked out forty thousand words and I’m finally here to post some snippets (the whole thing is badly in need of editing, but it’s NaNo. You get the idea).

The Glamour Man Cover

(obviously I don’t own luke goss, zach mcgowan, or tati gabrielle so please don’t assume I am claiming ownership of them no matter how much I would like to)

“I’m curious,” said Kaz after a moment, crouching to pick up a six-inch stick from the ground. He studied the sharper end and continued, “Has your luck always been this bad, or were you saving it all up for me?”

“Don’t flatter yourself; I was saving it up for you and your brother.”


She had never met a werewolf face-to-face – she’d seen them, but only the city kind; the sort who wore business suits and ate at Chinese restaurants. They tended to wave their werewolf status around like a banner – look at me, I’m a badass! – but Shunkaha had none of that pretense, and Pen almost wanted to like him for it.

“The food in cans doesn’t go bad,” said the girl, looking up at Kaz and offering the can of baked beans to him. “My mom said so.”

“It’s been almost fifty years,” Pen pointed out, dubious.

“She is right,” said Kaz, frowning and taking the can from the girl. He turned it over in his hands, studying it for signs of tampering. “Canned food never gets old.”


She listened, her senses too alert still to let her sleep, as Kaz came back; she heard him drop the firewood and clear out a dirt ring for a fire. At least he didn’t swear while he did it, she thought groggily; he just worked in silence, but his movements managed to sound angry enough without his putting voice to them.


Pen looked to Kaz, but he folded his arms and watched with an expression somewhere between exasperation and curiosity. “You aren’t worried?” she asked, glancing at Zeke. He looked like he was enjoying it with a draconian kind of fierceness, although apparently neither of them had struck out at the other yet.

“Not yet,” said Kaz. “I imagine he might want some help before the end, but he won’t get any. Against the rules.”

She stared at him, incredulous. “You’re not going to help him even if he needs it?”

He glanced down at her with a flash of annoyance, but it quickly faded into faint humor as he turned his attention back to the ring. “Not my brother. Ander, his opponent. A large fellow, I grant you, but nowhere near as dedicated to the skill. He prefers to beat things to death.”

“And there’s no chance of him – I don’t know, beating Zeke to death?”

“Not really, no,” said Kaz.


“He’s a faerie.”

“Obviously. Unless people bred flying monkeys before the apocalypse and never bothered to write about it.”

“Even you must know that faeries and technology…” He laughed once, a hushed, angry syllable that died quickly. “Do not mix.”

“So you mutate things on purpose?”

“My kin are easily bored. Not much for entertainment down here during day hours.”

“Doesn’t it hurt them? Elves are faeries, too; even you guys.”

He looked back at her, a snarl forming although he knew she couldn’t see it. “Do you think we have not already suffered from its effects?”


“Where does this lead?”

“Keep your voice down.”

“I’ve never heard of that place. It sounds like fun.”


“Am I under the Wrath?” asked Kaz calmly, his hands folded in front of him as he waited, watching as they circled him as if he’d become their prey.

“No,” said Nor with distaste. “Not as of yet, that is. No Wrath; but lots of disappointment, plenty and more.”

“If I’m not under the Wrath, get out of my way.”

Nath laughed in Kaz’s ear. “You two think you aren’t parts of our Nest; think you’re above us like everyone out there. Always have, since you came sliding out of the black into the blacker covered in birthblood.”

“He’s right.” Nor put a hand on his hip and lifted the other, a four-inch blade gleaming from his grip. “You two can only slide by on favors so many times. You didn’t report back in; you missed the Offering time. No-one slights Mudda like that and gets away without a payback.”

“If I’m not under the Wrath,” repeated Kaz, curling his loathing of them around the words like a poisonous fume, “get out of my way.”


 

Worthy?

I follow quite a few Christian Instagram accounts. You know the kind I mean – beautiful photography pages run by artsy Christian women, constantly posting quotes in swooping calligraphy or posting pictures of half-empty coffee cups with their thoughts from the day.  While I generally enjoy what these women post, there’s a repeated phrase I see every other time I pull up my feed. Someone will be holding one of those cute adjustable lettering-signs with the words You are worthy.

It’s a nice, affirming phrase. It even sounds fairly Christian on the surface – Christ died for me, so naturally I must be worthy of His attention.

Am I, though?

A few weeks ago I bought a study book called Proven by Jennie Allen. She opens the book with a story from her own life, featuring her daughter. “After years of tutors and tears and so much hard work and so little reward,” she writes, “my child received a diagnosis: Dyslexia.” When Jenny sat down to tell her daughter what was wrong with her, the girl began to cry. Her reason for crying, however, took Jenny by surprise as, after a few minute of tears, her daughter said, “So there’s a reason all this has been so hard for me?”

The tears, Jenny writes, were relief. Relief because the difficulty was now something they could understand, something they could work with.

Before I continue, let me state something: I’m a very independent person. Not to say I don’t need help or that I have it all figured out, but I loathe asking for things. I can take care of things myself, I don’t need to burden anyone else with my problems, I’m the shoulder people lean on and not the other way around. I’m always fine; if I work hard enough, I can keep everything under control. My control.

These aren’t always conscious things I tell myself, but the mindset of ‘I can handle it’ is very much alive and well in me. In a society that views independence as the ultimate achievement, it might not sound like such a bad thing. Coupled with the fact I’m an optimistic realist, this means I’ve often found myself telling people, “You can do it!” or, “You’ve got this.”

Harmless, encouraging phrases. A lot like “You are worthy.”

As I finished the introduction of ‘Proven,’ one question stood out to me.

What do you hope for in this study? the book asked me, and before I quite realized it, I’d written down an answer that stunned me.

I hope to stop believing in myself.

It sounds so backwards, doesn’t it? We’re constantly told that we can do it if we only have the guts, that we can handle anything that come our way, that ‘we are enough.’ And it’s a flat-out, bold-faced lie. A clever one, too – if the enemy can wrap up a debilitating lie in the wrappings of encouragement and optimism, it’s much easier to swallow. Chocolate coating makes it go down easier.

But the truth is – none of us are worthy. None of us are enough. We don’t got this.

Sure, maybe ‘we can do it’ to an extent, but not the way God can do it. It can seem like we have things under control, but sooner or later we’re looking at a broken mess and wondering what happened? 

John 7: 37-38 says, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.”

In comparison,

Jeremiah 2:13 says, “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and  have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.”

When we start believing that we are enough, that we are somehow worthy, it places a huge burden on us to continue being enough, to keep being worthy. But it’s a surprisingly difficult thing to maintain, because how do we know what’s good enough? What’s ‘worthy’ enough? What’s our work to worth ratio?

When we start believing we’re worthy, we place the responsibility of God’s grace on ourselves, and none of us have shoulders broad enough for that. And so I’m trying to let go. To ignore the voices that tell me I’m worthy, that I’m enough, that I’ve got this, that I just need to believe in myself.

It’s time to believe in Someone much bigger. Someone who makes us worthy – and that, I think, is a very freeing thing.

The Glamour Man: Snippets from NaNoWriMo

In my last post, I talked about the novel I had actually last-minute decided to write for NaNo; the novel that had taken over my previous idea as the culmination of several past novel ideas. The Glamour Man was once several novels – Aftermath, a post-apocalypse/zombie novel, A Midnight Dreary, a Wild Hunt-oriented faerie novel (and the one I was going to write for NaNo) and a Wizard of Oz concept I was going to play with at some point in time.

I haven’t written an official synopsis for The Glamour Man yet, so here’s the poor man’s version –

Pendor Moonby is a Greenthumb, one of the few people remaining with the ability to grow plants in a world where such energy is absconded by the Faerie. She’s a drifter, and when a spellstorm destroys her livelihood she picks up and moves on – or tries to. Caught up in the fate of two nocturnal Pale Elves due to misunderstanding, she is told of one person who can give them all the truth they’re looking for – the mysterious Glamour Man.


She had just decided to go back out the way she came when a sound trailed along the tunnel, like a living thing crawling over her head. Pen froze, listening, searching for the source of the sound in the near-black.

Flexing her fingers around the staff, she took a step forward.

The sound stopped her again – this time it came from behind; a deep clicking sound, like a handful of marbles bouncing down a flight of stairs.


How did something so tall move so quietly?

“Wo’gwa chea?” His voice echoed off the stone walls and as he bent down, his features became visible – milky skin and a black upper lip, curved in a grin. She thought he had two pairs of eyes for a moment, until she realized goggles were strapped around his forehead, their round eyes almost as unnerving as the pale, blinking set below. Raising his voice, he called, “Ey, Mond! She’da hab’o fly-rat!”

Her mind raced, trying to translate the cobbled-together faerie language. She recognized ‘fly-rat’ well enough – he was referring to Tip, his arms wrapped around her neck.


Spell-storms – a malevolent side-effect of the war – were not just larger than natural storms. If the lightning, frequent and searching, struck you it left you with something to remember it by. People discovered they could only hear on a different frequency, or someone previously right-handed was now left-handed, or someone now had a forked tongue.

Sometimes they were worse – the lightning never killed, but sometimes death was a kinder option.  Pen had once seen a man reduced to a shriveled, skeletal nightmare crawling along the street looking for his eyes. She wondered somewhere if someone had been struck with lightning and received an extra pair.


If a Pale Elf had really been captured, it would probably be on display in the Showoff, a circle a block away where all the big things happened – trials by combat, midsummer dances, speeches, executions, and rummage sales.


Pen stopped moving. She’d seen a dog with rabies once; the diseased animal hadn’t acted like a dog should. It hadn’t been afraid of her, it hadn’t moved like an animal. It hadn’t known danger when it saw danger. The morlock reminded her of the dog – it was putting itself in danger this way, coming out in the daylight, standing less than ten yards behind a crowd of humans who hated Pale Elves as much as anyone.

As if sensing the weight of her gaze, the Pale Elf slowly turned his head to look at her.

“Beat it,” he said.


She made her way toward the front gates – from a distance she could see they were still open, but as she turned the corner to approach them, she saw they were guarded. The Governor’s men had formed a line across it, each bearing a torch and a sword. Night was falling, and Pale Elves were nocturnal.

Apparently they hadn’t seen the rabid one climb a wall.


The mohawked elf strode stiffly over. He wasn’t taller than his companion, but his hair gave him an added two feet.

It didn’t seem to intimidate the other, who said, “Back off. I can handle her.”

“Menem veeson ey’so,” said the other elf with a soft snort.

Pen had never heard this much faerie spoken in her life – she actively avoided them, like any sensible human, but she found herself entranced by the funky lyricism of it. She felt like the language would mug her in a back alley while singing her a lullaby.


Do you have a favorite snippet from YOUR NaNo? If so, leave it in the comments; I’d love to read it!