Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A dangerous yearning

In the last few posts on writing tools, I've talked not about the tools themselves but about the kinds of writers who may - or may not - embrace them.

First, I preached to the converted - you inveterate planners, who avidly lap up any new way of organising thoughts. My mission there wasn't to enthuse about the endless variety of tools available, but to caution against gorging yourselves to the detriment of your writing.

Then I threw myself on the mercy of the pantsers, risking your ridicule as I offer the tools as valuable lifelines in times of adversity while you sail the trackless seas of unstructured creativity.

Now I address a different audience: those who yearn to be more structured, more disciplined in your writing.

In a sense, this whole series of posts was inspired by you.

Over the last year or so, I've seen numerous blog posts describing one tool or another. In amongst comments on how great an idea this was, I invariably saw a few plaintive cries of "if only I was that organised."

And I felt some resonance with those cries, because (believe me here!) my own writing process is not all that organised. More ominously, I found myself sinking into despairing feelings of inadequacy. "If So-And-So-Big-Name-Writer is using this method and I'm not," the thinking went, "then maybe I'm not a real writer."


It was then that I decided to rebel against those feelings. At the same time, I wondered if others out there, you of the "if only I was that organised" variety, might suffer the same pangs whenever you see someone espousing some nifty tool to ferret out structural plot weaknesses or lack of character growth.

Sure, it's good to be curious. Try out new ideas. You never know, they might be helpful. But if they don't work for you, then don't stress about it. This is back to my core theme: know the outcome you seek, and pick a tool that works for you to achieve it.

Just because you don't use Snowflake Pro, or religiously outline each chapter on colour-coded index cards, doesn't make you a bad writer. There are all sorts of reasons why you may not be good writer, but failure to use any given tool or technique does not number among them.

No more so than the conspicuous absence of a Le Creuset $1,500 copper cookware set in your kitchen cupboard makes you a bad cook.

So, my message to the yearners out there is: 
yearn away, but nix the angst!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

It's quiet around here

Ali and Megan set off this morning to a big Provincial Girl Guide camp, called SOAR, over on the mainland. As Ali plays a big part in organising things like this for our District, you can imagine that this event has kinda dominated our lives for the last month or more.

The last week, especially, has been a whirlwind of packing and preparation and gathering all the gear for the District's patrols.

We were up at 5:15 this morning to rendezvous with all the girls and adults, before they set off for the ferry.

Now they're gone, it is eerily quiet. The garage is empty of gear. It's just me and Matthew.

Today went well. I wanted to crawl back into bed when we got home just after 6:00, but decided to take advantage of the early start. Grocery shopping done, then dropping off soft plastics for recycling and visit to the bank.

Then my mind turned to other matters: fitting a new electrical connector to the utility trailer - a pin sheared off yesterday when they hitched up to drop off the mountain of camping gear being sent on ahead. Easier said than done. It's a four-pin plug, but for some reason there's five wires going into it!

We seem to have some hint of summer at last, so made up for the early start with a siesta out on the deck. Refreshed, time to mow the lawns, then walk Gypsy in one of the many parks in our neighbourhood, before settling Matthew in front of a movie and rustling up a homemade pizza.

So far, so good. But they are away for a full week. More like eight days, because they don't get home until late next Saturday afternoon.

That is the longest any of us have ever been apart.

Wish us luck!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Dark Side Addendum

Hmmm...that could be a good title for a novel, couldn't it?

Back to the point, though. I had a few more thoughts about my last post, and realized that the question of when to "tool up" is a lot more subtle than I may have suggested.

I focused a lot on the opposite ends of the spectrum - plotters versus pantsers - and I may have implied that you can only be one or the other. You either lay your full toolkit out right at the start, like a surgeon embarking on a quadruple bypass, or resort to it only when you've gone off the rails and are trying to rescue a train wreck of a novel.

No! That wasn't the idea at all.

Let me repeat a key sentence from last time: the beauty of most of the tools I've talked about is that they can be used at any stage of the writing process.

That means before, after, during, or in any combination.

Think about a simple example: the humble character sheet. Some folks are likely to start these off right at the outset. Like putting on clean underwear before leaving the house, it's an ingrained habit. But some folks may go through the whole story without making any kind of character notes at all. Erm, no, I don't think I'll extend the analogy.

Me? I've never felt the need for full-blown character sheets, not yet anyway, but I do make character notes constantly throughout the writing as details about the characters emerge. I don't do much up front, but nor do I wait until I need to rescue myself from trouble.

The point is, the same tool can often be used at different times, in different ways, and for different purposes.

In this example, the outcome I seek is usually simple consistency: I jot down details as I invent them so I can use them consistently later. I know I'll get into a muddle if I don't, so that's how I work.

And, to complicate matters, the same writer might use different tools at different stages of the game. It's not an all or nothing deal. So even a devoted plotter may only bring out certain standard favorites before setting pen to paper (character sheets...check, outline...check, ...), maybe bringing other tools to bear at later stages of the writing, and keeping others in reserve for use only when needed.

There is no light and dark; we are all shades of grey.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Welcome to the dark side...

In the previous entry in this series, I appealed to those of you who love to try out new tools. The enthusiasts. In this post, I'm appealing to those at the other end of the spectrum - folks who turn up their noses at the thought of any kind of constraining structure around their writing process.

Dedicated plotters will surround themselves with outlines and plans and character sheets right from the start. At the extreme, some folks may not write a single word until they know every plot twist, every character trait, and have mapped out their world to the last detail.

In contrast, maybe you are one of those people who can sit down to a blank page and just write. Words come, characters form on the page and the story unfolds. You have no idea where it is taking you, but that's the fun of it. And you have no need for tools other than your imagination and something to write on.

As long as what you're doing works for you, that's wonderful. I envy you.

But what happens when you start to hit problems? It's a rare writer who can throw words at the page and end up with a coherent and compelling story. Sooner or later, most of us start getting snarled up in our web of words and have to sort out the mess.

The beauty of most of the tools I've talked about is that they can be used at any stage of the writing process. To the plotters, the toolkit is an indispensible part of the process. To the pantsers out there, scornful of such deadening constraints, I offer the toolkit instead as a safety net. Only to be used in emergency.

But when an emergency strikes, you'll be glad to have some help at your side.

The trick is to recognise when you are hitting difficulties, and choose a workable way to extricate yourself.

Hello, I'm a pantser and my plot's in a knot...

The first step on the path to salvation is to admit you need saving.

Do you ever find yourself noticing signs like this?

You re-read and find inconsistencies: a name spelled one way in the first half, and differently later on, or someone with brown eyes in one chapter and blue in the next; your burglar getting ready for a midnight jaunt right after eating bacon & eggs and admiring the dawn chorus.

That "small building" you described that must be the size of Buckingham Palace from all the rooms and hallways your characters just walked down once they were inside.

You hit a road block because you keep getting lost in a complex sequence of actions: Legless the Oaf puts down his sword so he can open the, wait, he needs the sword in his hand when the door opens and the Ballrag attacks him...hang on, didn't he lose his sword in the Crack of Doom in the last chapter?

Your plot has meandered out of all control and you've no idea what happens next, but you suspect you've passed that same twist in the road three times now.

Or maybe you think you're OK, but your critique partners start pointing out things that you hadn't noticed: inconsistencies, cardboard characters, actions that have no credible motivation.

Or, you're trying to revise your magnum opus and it feels like you're wrestling an octopus.

All these are signs that you're in a hole and you might need something more than your bare hands to dig yourself out.

I'm a pantser! Get me out of here!

When it comes to getting out of difficulty, I suggest that the outcomes-based approach I've promoted becomes more important than ever.

If your aim is to write as freely as you can, then you likely want to put as little effort as possible into formal structure. This means you really don't want to waste time and energy throwing random tools at a problem hoping for a fix. All the more need then to understand what you are trying to achieve and choose the best tool for the job.

First, understand what it is that's causing you trouble. For example, are you getting into knots over time, space, distance, causation, motivation, description, character development, story arc?

Having identified the source of your angst, what outcome do you need? Consistency, a clear visualisation of the scene, controlled reveal of information, credible motivation for actions and reactions?

Only once you understand what you need help with, and what outcome you seek, pick something that will help you sort out the mess as quickly as possible, and let you get on with the fun of writing.

So, skeptical pantsers of the world, my message is simple...

The conceptual tools I've talked about in this series are not chains to bind you.

Used sparingly, at the right time and for the right reasons, they are your lifelines.

Happy writing.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Hello Sooke

Been slacking on the blogging front because we've all been away for a few days. Not that it feels like a few days, though. It feels more like I've blinked and missed it, and work beckons again tomorrow. *Sigh*

We thought we'd give somewhere new a try for a short early summer break. All of us have been through Sooke, out on the south-west coast of Vancouver Island, many times on the way to cub or guide camps, but we've never spent time exploring the community itself.

The campground was comfortable and spacious, a feeling enhanced by an eerie lack of trade. There couldn't have been many more than a dozen pitches occupied at any one time. I'm guessing the rather dismal summer so far may have had a hand in that. Well, it gave us room to sprawl a bit without annoying anyone.

We visited the museum, just down the road, where Megan got up close and personal with a large chunk of firewood...

Matthew got a bear hug...

And the very next day we saw the real thing roaming the hillside just a few yards from the side of the road...

We saw quite a bit of wildlife in our few days: several deer, a seal, eagles, and a pair of osprey nesting on top of a lighting pole. This day, we'd driven out to Botanical Beach for a picnic. Whales often come close to shore here, and they'd been sighted that morning, but they'd moved on by the time we got there. So, no whales, but on the drive back we saw cars stopped by the side of the highway and this black bear cub wandering around. Last year, the kids got their first glimpse of a bear in the wild, but that was fleeting and distant. This was very close, and probably the highlight of the trip.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Happy Canada Day, eh

As is our custom, we went into Sidney to watch the Canada Day parade this morning.

Megan took part, as a last-minute banner-bearer for the dog training club.
Along the road where we usually sit, the proprieters at a little corner cafe give out free popcorn and lemonade. The empty popcorn cup comes in handy to stash candies dished out along the way. They give out stickers too, like this maple leaf that Matthew is wearing.

Hmmm...I think I've got one of these in my back yard!

It was cold this morning, especially with a breeze coming off the sea, but the sun came out in the afternoon so we could make use of our newly-painted deck, and that great Canadian icon - the battleship-sized barbecue!

Happy Canada Day.
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