Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Pantsing aka Free Writing



It wasn’t until I went to the last LTUE in Provo that I first heard the term “pantsing,” short for “flying by the seat of your pants.” I attended the panel on the topic and found it to be one of the most liberating writing panels I’ve ever sat in on.
I’ve known for a while that writers pretty much divide themselves into two camps: outliners and free writers. Both camps have their pros and cons. Outliners have the big advantage of being organized in how they approach their writing, so they know exactly what’s going to happen before they write it and they don’t have to do as much rewriting and editing later. Free writers, on the other hand, seem to have no idea what they want to write until they start writing. They just get words on the page, and only later do they go back and make sense of it. This often allows their writing to be more organic and natural, whereas outliners can be more confined by their structure (emphasis on can). However, free writers have to put in at least ten times the work that an outliner does, because they have to go back and redo everything many, many times after their initial creative word-vomit session.
I’m definitely a free writer. Many, many times I have wished I could be an outliner. It just sounds so much easier. It’s such a struggle for me to define in advance what my characters are going to do. One of the writers on the panel at LTUE put it this way: pantsers often have the characters of a story come to us first, and we just don’t know what we want to do with them yet. We like letting the characters “decide” for themselves, which basically just means we prefer to figure that out as we go, using the character we know in our head as the guideline.
There were many times that I felt like maybe I was less of a real writer because outlining was so hard for me. That’s why that LTUE panel had me feeling so validated. I realized how many other writers there are out there who are like me, and yet are still successful. I realized it was ok to be a pantser, as long as I recognized both the benefits and pitfalls to this method of writing, and adjusted accordingly.
Here are a few important tips for successful pantsing (hopefully I’ll get good at following all of these one day):
·         You CANNOT edit as you go. If you let yourself go back and fix things before you finish your first draft—you will never finish that first draft. Also, you never know when something you went back and changed might have turned out to be just what you needed after you finish. Leave it alone, finish your first draft, no matter how crappy, and leave the editing for later.
·         Don’t be afraid to redo everything. This is hard for me sometimes. Not only do I get attached my writing, but I also get lazy. Sometimes I look at it and think, “This scene is already written. It’s decent. It could be a lot better. My whole story would drastically improve if I let myself completely redo the whole first half, but it just sounds like so much work.” In the end, you just have to face the monster. The biggest pitfall of pantsing is you have to go back and drastically rewrite everything after your first draft in order to end up with a decent manuscript. As a pantser, you can’t be afraid of how much extra work you give yourself because of your chosen method of writing, or it won’t work for you.
·         Make an outline as you write. This would have saved me so much effort if I had figured this out from the beginning. Though we pantsers never outline before we write, we need to outline after we write. After every writing session, update a separate document with chapters or page numbers listed and what is going there. Make it detailed and keep it updated, or you will be very sad later on. It helps so much to know what you’ve written and where for when you have to go back, rewrite, and rearrange. The truth is, just because you’re a free-spirited pantser doesn’t mean you get to be totally disorganized. Often times, you’re actually just making your outline by writing the whole first draft first. By the time you’re done, your outline should be ready for you to work with for when you start over again—and make it all make sense this time.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The writing habit

Taking time away from writing is hard sometimes. Getting back into it is even harder.

The year has been a productive one for me. I found that if I log my writing time, I am more encouraged to keep at it each day. Using an Excel sheet, I’ve recorded the number of minutes on a particular writing task, and the same for the next one. At the end of the day, I’ve totaled the time and converted to hours. Each daily count was added and then averaged. For the first half of the year I’ve been spending just a tad over four hours a day on some writing activity. Not all of it was actual writing. Some was fulfilling WIFYR assistant duties or meeting with my critique group or attending a writing presentation. But still, four hours is four hours.

The day after WIFYR, my family whisked me away to Europe. What was I to do about my writing? I was in a groove and was quite enjoying a regular dose of scribbling down words. Plus, I didn’t want to mess up my daily writing average. Yet, with the activities planned, I could tell early on my laptop was not going to get much use. Add to the fact it would be a nuisance to haul around, I chose give myself a break from it altogether.

And that was okay. I missed it, and thought about my works-in-progress, and spent a few minutes in my characters’ heads, but I managed to live without writing.

Now that I’m home, I’ve been surprised at how slow it has been to get back into the swing of things. Blame it on jet lag or whatever, I haven’t been productive. I can’t get motivated to open the laptop and when I do, the story I was so enthused about a few weeks back seems impossible to resume.

Fortunately, the habit is beginning to return. Two SCBWI events this week has helped. The editor at WIFYR gave us ’til the end of July to submit to her. My writer’s group is providing a boot to the backside to help that deadline become a reality. I’m a writer and words insist on being written. 


(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

Friday, July 18, 2014

SCBWI Is Here for You

If you're involved in children's writing and/or illustrating in any way (which I assume you are since you're reading this blog), and if you don't already know about SCBWI, let me enlighten you. Because this organization will help you in perfecting your craft, learning about the industry, connecting with colleagues, and avoiding many mistakes that will save you time. 

The world's most unpronounceable acronym stands for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Our international headquarters is based in Los Angeles, and we have regional chapters throughout the world. The region we're in is Utah/southern Idaho. You can learn lots more at the web site scbwi.org and at our region's page on that site. 

Tonight--yes, July 18, 2014--you have a chance to connect in person with others in the organization, including me. We're gathering for the annual summer potluck, which is just a time to socialize, talk shop, and generally have a blast.  Here are all the details:


Hello writers and illustrators in Utah and Southern Idaho!

Writing or illustrating can be a lonely endeavor, so join us this summer for some much-needed social time.  We'll be coming together at the Rice Terrace Pavilion at Liberty Park (600 E. 900 S. in Salt Lake City, Utah) on Friday, July 18th from 6pm-9pm to eat and mingle.

You don't have to be a member of SCBWI to join us for this free event, so bring all your writing or illustrating friends with you. The more the merrier! 

Potluck assignments are as follows:
YA writers: pasta salads, potato salads, deviled eggs
MG writers: fruit, fruit salads, desserts
Picture Book writers: fried chicken, finger sandwiches, other finger foods
Illustrators: green salads, chips and dips
You may want to bring your own lawn chair as well.

SOCIAL NETWORKING AT THE SOCIAL:
Are you still struggling to figure out where to start with your online presence? Bring your smartphones and other wifi-enabled devices and we'll help you get connected. We'll have teachers on hand to walk you through the steps to signing up and using your social networks of choice, as well as offer suggestions on ways to contibute to the online conversation.
THE VIRTUAL PARTY:
Can't make it to the social? This year you can join us virtually! We will be using the hashtags #GoSocial and #SCBWIUtahSouthIdaho for this event, so you can follow the event on twitter, instagram, and other social networks.

We hope to see you at the social (in person or online)!


For a map and directions to the pavilion, please visit our website at http://utahsouthidaho.scbwi.org/events/2014utah-summer-potluck-social/

Friday, July 11, 2014

Read Like a Writer: The 100 Rule

More than one local prolific author has said she read hundreds of books in her genre before writing her own well. Hundreds. Good books, bad books, but all in the genre in which she intended to write.

I think this is possibly the best course one could take for writing. And you'd be surprised how many people I know want to write in a genre that they don't actually read: people with a picture book idea who think if they throw some rhyming words together it is publishable without ever cracking a published picture book, people who read nonfiction but want to write dystopian YA, people who only read romance but want to write memoir.

It's normal to be in love with our own ideas. They are our babies, after all. But if we are going to send them out into the world, we have to know what their place in the world could be. And to do that, we have to know something about their peers. (It also helps with writing the dreaded queries ... a topic I'll discuss on my next post.)

So I want to pass on this advice: read in your genre. Read a lot in your genre. Yes, hundreds of books. Okay, start with 20 and build. But make a serious goal.

But when you read, read like a writer.

Reading like a reader is passive, it is as simple as deciding if you "like" or "don't like" a book.

To read like a writer is to question and answer exactly what it is that is and isn't working. In fact, finding a book that you don't like can be of more value than digging into a book that you love. When we love a book, we are taken by it in a visceral, emotional way. It becomes "ours" in a way that our own writing is "ours." It is hard to be critical of your darlings.

On the other hand, good old favorites—the ones you've read over and over, the ones that you feel you already know—can be useful to look at closely because you aren't getting caught up in the plot. You know it well enough to lift the curtain and see what is underneath each page.

When you are reading hundreds, though, you are bound to find those that you don't like. Those can be easier to take apart. Because the undeniable fact is that this book made it. So you have to figure out what it is about the book—the language, the construction, the story, the setting, the dialogue, the characters—that managed to get it passed the gauntlet of queries, slush piles, agents, publishers, and book stores to find its place on this shelf (be it physical or digital).

So, break it down.

Really understand the construction of the book. Think of it as a scaffolding upon which the words hang. Even in a picture book—the most compact of stories—plot is carefully built like the frame of a building. It must be solid and balanced. Writers are engineers. Read like an engineer.

Carefully note dialogue that moves you and dialogue that seems unnecessary. Then figure out why that is. The "why" isn't always that easy to decipher. It may be the language, or it may be the setting in which the dialogue takes place. Also look at the balance of dialogue to exposition. When does the description of a movement from a character "say" more than dialogue? How is it done?

Are there single, carefully chosen words that tell more about the setting than a lengthy description?

Whatever it is you want to learn, you can learn a lot about it by the careful reading of many examples. The more, the better. Say, one hundred.

How long will you take to read one hundred ... like a writer?

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Another Way to Use Your Writing Group

Most of us know how useful a writers group can be for receiving feedback on your works in progress. My group has been invaluable, improving not only the quality of my work but my skills as a writer as well.

We don't limit ourselves to critique sessions. We email each other, share work online, and have our very own top-secret Facebook page. Occasionally, two or three members of the group will meet at a local cafe to write for a while. The women in the group have even had overnight writing retreats. We are there for each other, to trade advice and support each other how ever we can, even when we're not sitting around a table.

Yesterday, we tried something a little different.

Some of us have been struggling to write recently, with all the usual summer distractions or heavy workloads. So we decided to meet for an afternoon of writing. We didn't set any ground rules except one: meet in a neutral place so nobody had the distractions of home.

We considered several locations, from work conference rooms to libraries, and finally settled on the church near one member's home. It was a good location, quiet and comfortable.

A couple of people couldn't make it, due to work schedules or World Cup parties. I often miss daytime get-togethers because of work, but we intentionally scheduled it during my vacation.

I can't speak for the others who were there, but it was a productive afternoon for me. I'm revising a difficult part of my WIP, and it has been easy to find excuses to avoid the work. But sitting in a nearly empty church building from about 1:30 to about 5:00 meant that I could either work or sit there and do nothing. Sure, some of that time was spent socializing, but for most of it, we worked. Once in a while we'd ask each other for advice on a difficult passage or commiserate when struggling with a name or a scene. Mostly, we supported each other and kept each other on task.

And, of course, we enjoyed treats. That goes without saying.

So, if you're part of a group, or even if you just know some writers, I can recommend taking an afternoon to write together. Ultimately, writing is still mostly an individual process, but sometimes working by yourselves together can provide a great boost and ensure that you don't spend another day mastering your avoidance skills.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Break It

Naturally the UCW has been all agog over WIFYR. And sadly, I was not able to attend this year (sigh). But it got me thinking about all of the inspiration I've received from writing groups and conferences over the years. One speech given last year at WIFYR by Stephen Fraser, a literary agent from Jennifer De Chiara Lit Agency, has really stuck with me.

What he essentially talked about was the importance of following your inner compass.

At many conferences and at many writing classes, the fear for most not-yet-published writers is to look like an unpublished writer. To look like an amateur. So a zillion classes are given about what the "rules" of publishing are: exactly how long each genre should be, exactly how it should be written, exactly what most publishers are looking for ....

I don't know about you, but I always bristle at these boxes and labels and rules. My hand is the one that shoots up every time with the every annoying "But why?" (Yep, I'm still that kid in class.) Why do books with beautiful illustrations have to be for three-year-olds? Why do characters in middle grade books have to use pop-culture vernacular? Why can't a picture book have 1500 words? Why ...? Why ...? Why ...?

There are many reasons to follow many of the rules. But the answer usually given to me is always the least satisfying: Because publishers know that X sells because that is what has sold.

But Fraser pointed out the importance of being the first. You never know if your version of breaking the rules could be the one that starts a new trend.

Who knew sparkly vampires would be irresistible until it was done? Who thought that mixing fairy tale archetypes into a hodgepodge world based on Greek mythology and Joseph Campbell-like folklore would capture the fascination of young readers in today's pop culture ... until it was done? Who knew that rewriting classics using monsters would be a "thing"? Who said Death could be a popular narrator?

And this viewpoint came from a well-known literary agent who had previously worked at such publishing houses as HarperCollins, Scholastic, and Simon & Schuster. In other words, a guy who is looking to publish rule-breakers. There are those in the publishing industry that can think outside of the highly organized, very rigid box of publishing.

And they are looking for writers like you and me.

This fact has probably given me more strength and determination to keep writing than any I've received.

So break it. The rule. The narrative arc. The law. The genre. The stylebook. The mold. The norm.

Take that idea of yours that just doesn't fit and run with it.

Write it from your soul. Be the one to do what hasn't yet been done.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Guest post: Sharon Mayhew on her writing process

Scott's note: I'm happy to introduce Sharon Mayhew. Sharon commented on one of the posts in my Mobile Author series about her not-particularly mobile writing method, which spawned a couple of requests for more information. I'm happy that she agreed to write a guest post showing her process in detail. And so, without further ado, here is a highly instructive post about one writer's process. I hope you find it as helpful and interesting as I do.



When Scott invited me to share my organizational system for writing, I was thrilled. I've been writing and blogging since 2007. I occasionally blog about writing, but usually my posts are about life, books and other writers. There are so many blogs doing a terrific job on the craft of writing that I thought I would stick to other things.

Some people say they are plotters and some say they are pantsers, to be honest I'm not sure what I am. Maybe you guys can tell me once you see my writing process.

For the historical fiction MG novel I just completed (well, until I hear otherwise), I started by listening to my grandparents tell about their experiences during WWII. I started taking notes and telling them why I was jotting down their memories. I took lots of notes and am so grateful they were willing to share what was a difficult time in their lives with me.


I also wrote letters and got letters back from other family members who lived during this time period.


Then I typed up notes and potential scenes to use in my manuscripts.


I read a lot, both fiction and non-fiction. Some books were for children and some were not, most notably I read selections from Winston Churchill's THE SECOND WORLD WAR series. (I have to quote him here, as his words were and are such an inspiration to me.) ~Never, never, never give up~ I realize he was talking about the war and the spirits of the people in England, but for me it took on a whole different meaning. Sharing my families and friends stories is something I have to do and I won't give up until it is published. It was my honor to fictionalize moments in their lives.


I visited museums and took lots of pictures, then organized them into envelopes, so when I started writing I could pull out photos for those scenes.


One museum I visited had replicas of government brochures, posters, and letters available for purchase. These items were extremely helpful for finding details about daily living. I also visited antique shops and purchased bits and pieces to inspire me. My grandfather gave me some documents from the war, too.


Then I organized all the research and books into files based on locations that they applied to.


I printed of a variety of different maps of England. I even found one that showed the railroad system during the war.


To my surprise, one of my blog friends, Gary at Klahanie Blog, told me he was from the village in England I was writing about. He sent me photographs, which was spectacular, as I hadn't been to Leek since I was a child.

Once I finished with my initial research, I organized and typed up my notes. Then I wrote them on index cards. It may seem redundant to write notes, type notes and then write them again, but each time I did this I was ingraining the research into my brain.


I kept a list of words and phrases that I liked and were appropriate for the time period. I mounted them on poster boards and then hung them up on bulletin boards in my office.

By now I kind of know where the scenes are going to take place in my story, so I mount the scene cards on poster board and then mount what could potentially happen in each location. I try to use the senses as much as possible in each scene. (ex: the sounds, the smells, how things feel and taste) 



Most of the poster boards  were hanging on the bulletin boards in my office, so I could glance up from my desk and review them as I was writing and thinking. I also used an easel for the scene I was currently working on close to me.



I didn't use all of my research notes in this manuscript, but I left the manuscript open ended so if I do have the opportunity to write a sequel I already have some starting spots.


I'm sure there are much better ways of organizing your research and thoughts, but this worked for me. I think you have to find what method works for you...

Thanks for letting me share my process with you guys. If you are interested in reading my blog it's called SK Mayhew, Kidlit Writer. I'm @SharonKMayhew on Twitter.

So, what do you think? Am I a plotter or a pantser? 

What are you?