From Bones to Hair: Building a Story

When I write a new story, I approach it like constructing a building or a living organism. First you lay the foundation (premise), then you build the framework, which I envision as the bones. At this stage, I have the main plot points down and the major scenes are in their place to push the rising and falling action to the climax and the denoument. Some scenes are fully realized, others are brief narratives that describe the action and the purpose of the scene. Anything goes at this point. Anything, no matter how bizarre or disjointed is allowed. That’s the first draft.

The second draft is where the meat and connective tissue are added. In the second draft, I focus on transitional scenes and place the actions and dialog that foreshadow coming events. I beef up and write the scenes that are simple narratives and I look for plot holes and dropped plot lines. Simple scenes that were mostly dialog get blocking and characters start moving around the space. Scenes that do not serve to advance the plot in any way are cut, but saved for reference or re-purposing.

The third draft gets skin. The “skin” hides the technique. Scene and sequel should flow seamlessly. Transitions are smoothed. Passive voice is removed. Grammar is analyzed for consistency. Character reactions are analyzed and tweaked for appropriate response. Stilted dialog is reworked to sound more natural. Characters’ mannerisms and subtle gestures are tweaked. Setting and descriptions take center stage.

The fourth draft is the hair, makeup and clothing. In the fourth draft, typos, overused words and phrases come out. The fourth draft is where the little details are added to ensure that readers are emotionally involved in the story. Everything that doesn’t create immediacy or place the reader in the middle of the action comes out or gets reworked. This is the devilish draft because it takes  so long to complete and the results are not readily apparent to anyone but me. The devil is in the details and the fourth draft is all about the nit-picky details. Upon completion, this is the draft that goes to the beta readers for a final look.

A fifth draft goes to the editors for a figurative photoshopping, and becomes the final draft that makes it to publication.

I don’t know if all writers work this way, but this technique has worked for me because it allows me to write cyclically. Once I have the main points in, I can jump around in the story as details for plot threads solidify in my mind, returning to key points to make sure there is a coherent flow from one to another.

***

The first draft of THE BROKEN WING is complete and revisions have already begun on the second draft. Still no concrete date set for its release.

Is Ignorance Truly Bliss?

I miss the good old days before I supposedly knew what I was doing.

Back in the last Century, at the end of the 80’s, I was a happy wannabe writer. A new invention had sprung up and I was having oodles of fun using my secretarial skills that I’d made a point to learn in the 9th grade to help me in my future career as a writer. My skills as a touch typist landed me clerical jobs and my boundless curiosity drove me to learn various computer programs. My dad enlisted my help keeping the books for his company on his brand-new TRS-80 computers. One of the perks was that I could have one of those 8” floppies to store my writing on, and print it up on his dot matrix printer for editing and archival! Those computers spoke TRS-DOS and I became proficient with the language. (If you’ve read SOVRAN’S PAWN you’ll understand the significance of that.)

In those days, I just told stories. I didn’t worry overly much with “hopping heads” or “pacing” or “plot reversals.” I just threw things at my characters and let them deal with them, developing along the way. It was raw and it was fun. It was also very, very bad writing but I didn’t care. Ignorance was bliss.

The 90’s rolled around and computer disks shrunk. WYSIWYG replaced dot matrix, and a magical little thing called Windows appeared on the horizon. That was when I lost my innocence. I went to my first writer’s meeting and I had my very first critique – not only by published authors, mind you, but authors whose books I had read and enjoyed. I was intimidated and terrified. By the time they finished their very gentle, but honest critique, I felt stripped bare, humiliated, dejected and a complete failure. I wanted to crawl away and lick my wounds in private.

I will be forever thankful that my then-husband had the foresight to accompany me to that meeting and sit through the critique at my side, listening to every word. When it was over, he could see how shattered I was. Putting his hand over mine, he leaned forward and said, “May I ask you a question?”

I cringed. He wasn’t exactly the most diplomatic sort. At their nods, he picked up my submission and set it on the table in front of him.

“Please be honest. Do you think she has talent to pursue writing, or do you think she’s wasting her time?”

The question took them by surprise, I think. They looked from me to my husband and then to one another, shifting uncomfortably in their chairs. Slowly the nodding began.

“She has talent…”

“This is an excellent beginning. She only needs to learn a little more about storycraft.”

Then they explained to my husband and to me, because I hung on every word, that the things they had pointed out in the critique were common among newbie writers. I was guilty of passive voice, shifting from one POV character to another within a scene, letting the reader stay just outside the action as an observer and not a participant, telling and not showing.

That was the beginning of my professional writing career. Starting that day, I threw myself headlong into learning everything I could about story craft. From that day, the sheer joy of writing and spinning stories diminished a little more every time I sat down to work. Now I spend more time thinking of my writing as rising and falling action, goal-conflict-disaster-repeat, scene and sequel, plot points, inciting incident, dark moment, resolution, reward, than I spend just telling a story.

I do hate the middle part of the story. That’s where you torture your characters to prepare them for the grand finale. You have to move them ever onward towards that grand decision that makes the climax worthwhile.

Fast forward to 2012. SOVRAN’S PAWN is the first book in a series. It’s Act I and as such, was fun to write. BARRON’S LAST STAND is the Final Act. The big finish and also a lot of fun. Book Two (let’s try out the title THE BROKEN WING) is Act 2 in the overall series arc. I hate the second act. This is where story craft is vital and plot and pacing are of primary importance. The action MUST rise and fall. The plot MUST reverse at the right time or the reader will lose interest.

I stared at my storyboard until my eyes crossed. I filled index cards with scenes and notes until I ran out of them. I had a beginning and an ending, but a convoluted path between the two, with holes large enough to fly a Tau-class cruiser through. I was beginning to despair ever making sense of this story when the advice came in from another writer to stop planning and just let the story unfold.

So simple, yet sitting on this side of the last twenty-two years, it’s much more difficult than it used to be. I sat down, put my notes aside, and just started writing, letting my characters tell their story without worrying about how many words I was racking up or how passive the voice. Since I started doing that, I’ve added more than ten thousand words to the manuscript and I’m falling in love with the characters again. I know much of it will be cut and revised in the editing process, but for now, the story is unfolding and it’s poignant and funny and lovely and sad. I hope I can stay out of my own way long enough to tell it all the way through.

***

How has learning the “proper” way to do things changed your outlook on your work or hobbies?

Is Indiana Jones a Pantser?

One question writers get asked a lot is “planner or pantser?” First time I heard this, I stared at the person like they were from another dimension. Pantsing, or being pantsed has a completely different meaning in my world. I have three older brothers. Being a pantser in my house was being the person who went around catching ususpecting victims from behind and yanking their pants down around their ankles.

No, no, no, silly writer! Planner or pantser is the question about your writing process. Do you plan your story out with outlines and notes first? Or do you fly by the seat of your pants and make it up as you go, like Indiana Jones chasing after the lost Ark of the Covenant?

Ah! I see now. It has nothing to do with adolescent pranks at all! Am I an organized linear thinker or am I a free-wheeling free-spirit?

I had to think about this one. For many years, I had what was jokingly referred to by my family as my “neverending story.” It was pretty much the equivalent of a television series in that my characters dealt with one crisis after another, resolving one only to have another one hit them after a short commercial break. This is not uncommon among pantsers. The problem with this for me is that story craft and construction suffer as the tale rambles on and on without any real buildup of tension, but it can be a fun ride!

The alternative is to have every move planned out and outlined with few, if any, surprises to the writer. But this way, you can be assured that the story builds at the appropriate times and advances the plot towards the climax… and all that other nuts and boltsy storytelling stuff that writers must master if they hope to find any measure of readership. Learning to write is something we all do in school. Learning to craft a story is a skill most writers spend a lifetime learning to master. Story craft without skillful wordsmithery or vice versa is what separates mediocre writing from stellar writing. Both disciplines must not only be studied, but mastered.

That’s one reason I (and many other writers) hate reviewing books. I see all the technical flaws. The most common flaws are*:

  • Typos
  • Misused words
  • Backstory dump
  • Passive voice
  • Telling not showing
  • Flat characters
  • Lack of tension
  • Plot points in the wrong place
  • Poorly developed middle
  • Unsatisfying story resolution
  • Sudden inexplicable character change without reasonable explanation or foreshadowing
  • Unsympathetic or unlikeable main characters

Historically, editors have caught these issues before they ever saw the light of day. Now, with the ease of self-publishing and with smaller press publishers, I see more and more of these issues in books on the market. Most of these issues can be resolved before the second draft if only the writer had done a little more planning and a little less pantsing.

What do I do? I know my flaws as a writer. I know my tendency towards passive voice. I know that I tend to info dump and miss the key moment to introduce a major plot point. I am guilty of every manuscript flaw on the list and several more I can’t think of at the moment. I write in a combination of first pantsing, then planning.

Plot points are key pivotal moments that change the course of the story. They’re the moments that take your characters out of their comfort zones and send them after the larger quest. They’re the scenes that are required to drive your story in the direction you want it to go. They happen at pretty much the same place in every story. You can see them if you know what you’re looking for. These are the scenes I try to write first. They tend to get revised several times before the end of the story, but they are the vital joints that propel the story forward.

Once I have the major plot points worked out, I make sure I have them at the right place in the story. If my first five chapters drag on without introducing the first plot point, then I’m starting the story in the wrong place.

Once the bare bones of plot points are laid out, I start pantsing. This is where I let my free-spirit soar and unleash my creativity. I let my characters go and just have fun with them following them from one plot point to another. I know I’ve got to get them to a certain point and I ask myself how to accomplish that. Once I get the pantsing urge out, I put my planning hat back on and look at the story, analyzing it for pacing, coherence, holes, dropped plot threads or missed opportunities.

I go back and forth between the two until it’s ready for the beta readers and finally the editor.

It’s not the way I started writing. It’s not the most fun way to write. It is the result of decades of story craft study, countless writer’s workshops, and numerous critiques that stripped my manuscripts bare and exposed their flaws for all to see. In short, it’s the way I’ve learned to write professionally.

I need a combination of planning and pantsing because for me, without the planning, if I presented my writing to the world, I would feel exposed, as if I had my pants down around my ankles, waiting for someone to point and laugh. By the same token, if I didn’t wing it every now and again, my work would fall flat and be too mechanical without any spontaneity or fun. Some of my favorite lines and scenes have come from just seeing where the spirit takes me. One method is not superior to another, but in utilizing both, I find that my writing shines brightest.

***

How about you? Are you a planner, a pantser or some combination of the two?

***

*Note:  Fifty Shades of Grey was guilty of all of these technical flaws which is why writers everywhere hold it in such contempt.