Tag Archives: pantser

Writing Process Blog Tour

Author and blogger Kim Bullock has invited me to participate in the Writing Process Blog Tour. Kim is a historical fiction writer currently working on a novel based on the life of her great-grandfather, landscape painter Carl Ahrens, and his wife. She blogs at What Women Write.

What am I working on?
My work-in-progress is a family saga tentatively entitled, “A Prayer for Maura.” The story centers on the estranged relationship between Frank O’Malley, the patriarch of a Boston Irish-Catholic family, and his daughter, Maura. They had a falling out over Maura’s decision to have an abortion, which triggered a series of events that culminated in the murder of Betty, Frank’s wife. It is now ten years later. Frank is dying of cancer. Maura never did have the abortion, but couldn’t face her family after her mother’s death. Frank’s dying wish is to reconcile with his daughter and solve the mystery of how his beloved wife was murdered.

How does my work differ from others in my genre?
There are a number of authors who specialize in family sagas. My favorites, my personal Holy Trinity, are Anne Tyler, Alice McDermott and Alice Munro. In my wildest dreams, I couldn’t write as well as any of those three esteemed authors. A common thread running through their stories and those of others in the genre (Sue Miller comes to mind) is the unhappiness that sets in for a female as she advances toward middle age trapped in an unsatisfying marriage. As Peggy Lee sang, many of these characters seem to be saying, “Is that all there is to life?” In some cases, these characters act on those feelings and in some of these stories, they decide the grass isn’t always greener or they don’t fully appreciate what they have. So what’s different about my work? In both of my stories, my first novel, Small Change , and my current WIP, the protagonists were much younger—teen-agers when the stories began and on the cusp of middle age when the stories ended. My two main characters, John Sykowski and Maura O’Malley, are defined not only by the choices they make, but by regrets over missed opportunities, feelings not acted on and dreams not pursued. They are very different characters, but they share some common struggles.

Why do I write what I do?
I read many genres and enjoy many types of writers. I like mysteries, literary fiction, Young Adult, psychological thrillers, legal thrillers (Grisham and Turow), and even horror. I am drawn to stories that center on families. There is something about the dynamics of family relationships that makes for powerful fiction. Of all the relationships that humans have in their lives, the family is the most enduring, complicated and often the most difficult. The potential for conflict and tension—the twin staples that move stories forward—are always present in a family situation. Even families that appear content and happy on the outside undoubtedly have tensions simmering somewhere beneath the surface. What I aim to do through my writing is to show (not tell!) that when it comes down to it, when all else in life fails, a person’s family is all she has. And if a person does not appreciate and love his family, he’s lost something fundamental to his being. And I try to convey that in a way that is not preachy. OK, sermon over.

How does my writing process work?
Oh boy, that is a good question. The short answer is I am a pantser at heart who is trying to be more of a plotter. I start with a germ of an idea. In the case of Small Change, I was thinking about a family’s first real summer vacation. That’s not much of a story, though, so I asked a series of “what if” questions. What if this blue collar family from the Chicago suburbs meets another family that is the polar opposite? What if this other family is from rural Iowa and is headed by a minister? What if these families become intertwined over the years through various relationships. And, of course, what if there was a big family secret that even the first-person protagonist did not find out for twenty years? So I started there.

I do a lot of outlining in my head before committing any words to the page. My mental outline usually consists of about a dozen milestone scenes that get the story from the beginning to the end—in this case from 1973 to 2000. The nice thing about a general roadmap is that you can make mid-course corrections. The first draft for me is one of discovery and one of my major ones was that I had drawn the character Rebekka all wrong. I pictured her as the typical wild child of a clergyman, but that didn’t feel right to me. Instead she became the victim of withering verbal attacks by her mother and grandfather, the mother believing Rebekka’s birth had ruined her life and the grandfather believing it had ruined his son’s life. Rebekka became the heroine of the story and her inner strength and fortitude allowed her to rise above a bad childhood. A more dramatic mid-course correction occurred in A Prayer for Maura. Originally Frank O’Malley was the main character, but I had trouble writing scenes from his point of view. The scenes from Maura’s point of view felt more alive and full of energy.

The lesson is that every writer has a different process. If you are a pantser and it works for you, that’s great. If you cannot write without a detailed plot outline, that’s great, too. I’ve become a believer in thinking through major story questions and character development before beginning a draft because it can save a lot of unnecessary revisions later on.

I am attempting to line up some of my author friends to participate in this tour. If you are interested please contact me at cblake55@comcast.net.

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A Cautionary Note for Pantsers

Author Lisa Cron wrote a thoughtful piece over on Writer Unboxed on January 10, 2013, that got me thinking. If you haven’t read Lisa’s work, I highly recommend her latest book, “Wired for Story,” a guide to how writers can use storytelling techniques to trigger the brain’s natural ability to read stories.

Cron’s post on Writer Unboxed focused on the technique, advocated by Anne Lamont in her famous “Shitty First Drafts” chapter in the classic work, Bird by Bird, to “let it all pour out” when writing a first draft. Cron posits that Lamont’s point has been widely misinterpreted. Lamont was not suggesting writers dive into a first draft with no thought or regard for the story they are trying to tell. Having said that, Cron proceeded to discuss why the “let it all pour out” approach does not serve the writer well.

“Let’s face it, it’s much easier—seemingly liberating—to let ‘er rip and write without thinking, pantser-style, than it is to think about what you’re writing beforehand, and track it as you go,” Cron wrote.

Read the full post

Cron recommended nine tips to avoid the trap of flying blind and ending up with an incoherent draft. I won’t repeat them all here, but four of these tips in particular resonated with me:

#2. Know what your point is before you begin to write.

#4. Know the over-arching problem your protagonist will face.

#5. Know your ending first.

#8. Concentrate on the “why” and not the “what.”

As an unabashed pantser, I should have taken exception to what Cron wrote, but as I reflected on it, she was dead-on. It’s fine to “let ‘er rip,” but here’s a cautionary note: a writer must think his story through before putting a single word on the page. So here are the things I always work out before I sit down to write:

  • Premise: what is the story about?
  • Protagonist’s goals and obstacles. These should be made clear to the reader as early in the story as is possible.
  • Antagonist’s role and ways in which the antagonist will thwart the main character.
  • Major milestones in the story. What are the events that will drive the story forward?
  • Major conflicts. How will these be set up and developed and resolved for maximum impact?
  • Ending. Even if you change your mind about the ending (as I have done during the final stages of a first draft), a writer cannot reach a destination unless he knows where he is going.
  • Theme. Though this is sound logic, I nearly completed the first draft of my first published novel, Small Change, without having any idea what the theme was. It came to me in a quote by the main character’s mother that I wrote almost unconsciously (it must have been there all the time in my brain). It was one of those ah-ha moments a writer experiences.

I give a lot of thought to the points above before I start to write. I prepare a three to four page outline listing the major events of the story in narrative form. Then I let ‘er rip.

If you want to take a deeper dive into outlining techniques, I recommend K.M. Weiland’s book, Outlining Your Novel.

I will be reviewing both Cron’s and Weiland’s books in future posts.

If you are a pantser, how much thought do you give to outlining?

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