Tag Archives: Roz Morris

Between Panster and Plotter: Finding a Middle Ground

look downstairs into stairwell whirlWhen it comes to writing, I’m a “pantster,” as they say; I spit out drafts of a story in one forward motion, without looking back.

That’s the kind of writer I started out as, anyway.

The first essay I wrote (and submitted…poor editors) was a cathartic experience, in which I hardly glanced back even to edit. And, the novel I’m working on right now poured onto my computer screen during a frenzied dash to win a NaNoWriMo banner in 2009. Or, was it 2008? It’s a little murky now, sort of like that first draft.

But lately, I’ve been reading James Scott Bell’s book on plot and structure, and I’m discovering a middle ground between writing a first draft with one eye open and pre-planning a story scene by scene. Bell’s book gives writers a look at the basics of plot and story structure, using a set of principles he calls “the LOCK system.: Lead, Objective, Confrontation, and Knockout.

“That novel,” as I affectionately call it, still needs a lot of work, so I picked up this book with the aim of applying it to my draft — to see what I was missing, figure out what might be holding me back. What I’m discovering is that, even though I haven’t finished Bell’s book, understanding the LOCK system is changing the way I see this WIP (in a good way) and giving me new insight on how I approach all of my fiction.

Seeing how my novel incorporates the four LOCK principles, I’m more confident that the plot can work. More interesting, though, is the new perspective I have on an upcoming short story deadline. I was invited to join a group of writers and contribute a 10,000 word story to an anthology, and now there’s more than a self-imposed deadline looming on my calendar. This short story will stretch my skills as a writer, I’m sure, and I love a challenge (she says, knees shaking). If this were pre-Bell days, I would sit down with a main character and a first line and go with them, face my fears and see what happens. This time, though, I’m brainstorming more before I write, thinking through the lead and his objective, considering confrontations and a possible Knockout ending.

Whether or not pre-planning will change the outcome of the story, I don’t know. And, I’m not giving up on writing by the seat of my pants completely. There’s something about this simple planning, though, that gives me a teeny bit of confidence as I approach this story. And, maybe…just maybe…all the “thinking time” (as Roz Morris calls it in her excellent book, Nail Your Novel) will mean less time at my computer.

Since finding time to sit and write at my laptop seems almost impossible these days, I’ll take the “writing” however it comes.

Has your approach to crafting your stories changed lately?

Maybe If I Had Those Boots: A List, Linda Carter, and Letting Go

I am a listmaker, a planner, and a victim of my own high expectations. I began the summer by designing a hefty writing goal: finish the current draft of my novel by the end of June. Even now, as I type those words, the task seems like it should have plausible. Easy. But, after only two weeks into my summer vacation, I realized I wouldn’t reach that goal.

Couldn’t reach it.

Headaches ensued, followed by a case of the “poor me’s,” and soon those clouds in the sky that lingered well past their welcome meant more than just rain.

“It’s summer, for crying out loud,” I complained to a friend. “Life is good. Why do I feel so bad?”

My friend suggested I write another list, a different one, a list of every expectation I set for myself. Later, when I read it back to her, she pointed out an interesting theme, so that I understood the skewed vision I had, of me:

Linda Carter could kick a novel into submission in no time, and have dinner on the table by six o’clock. She could swim the deep ocean to rescue a sinking sub and then surface, lipstick and mascara (and sanity) in tact. But I’m not Linda Carter. My hair gives way two minutes into a workout, and those bullet-deflecting bracelets are useless against the snide remarks of that committee in my head.

Making that list of expectations was quite a revelation, from a personal point of view and a writer’s perspective. I can’t do everything I set out to do, and that’s okay. So now, I have two new goals: relax and just be —

Present.

Amanda Hoving talks about similar revelations in a recent post on her blog. Yes, time is ticking away, but that I don’t need to drive myself crazy or beat myself up.

Wise words came from a few other folks, too, words that help keep me grounded, lately:

1) Comments on a recent post of my own, which reiterate I am not alone in my struggle to complete a novel, and that perhaps I could consider that story as a shorter work (there’s that perspective bit again).

2) Passages from Roz Morris’ Nail Your Novel, a great book for writers with just an idea or with an unfinished draft in hand. Early on in her book, she says something that speaks directly to me, in how I work my draft and (apparently) in how I plan my days:

Don’t make lists…lists tie you down to having events happen in a certain order, and this is not the time for you to be deciding that.

Lists do help me get organized. But, like every asset, making lists quickly swings to a defect when that particular action takes me down into a feeling of failure. Morris knows this, and she offers several tasks for writers that help move a novel forward, without obsessing over the mantra, “I should be doing this, or that, by now.”

3) Jan O’Hara’s recent post on Writer Unboxed, a poignant essay on letting go, relaxing, and embracing the kind of writing that feeds your spirit. She says:

I’ve noticed a tendency for writers to devalue their natural talents, perhaps because the writing can feel easier. (Not “easy”, because writing is seldom that.)  Sometimes I think we are so used to telling stories about struggle, we believe that’s the only way to exist. If it isn’t hard, it doesn’t count. If we aren’t wrung out by the process, it can’t contain much worth.

Go read Jan’s essay. Then, set out – or head back – to do what you love.

Speaking of, just for today, this is what I’m doing:

  • Using Morris’ book to push my story draft towards the finish (whether that be 80,000 words or 40,000), but not panicking if that happens at a much slower rate.
  • Writing and revising flash fiction (maybe even putting them into a collection), because that’s a genre I enjoy, and one in which I feel I can succeed.

Linda Carter can keep her boots.

What high expectations can you let go of today?

The iPhone: It’s like having another brain.

That’s what my friend told me, when I said I was considering an upgrade from my old-school cell phone to an iPhone. “I keep going back and forth, though,” I sighed. “I mean, I don’t really need it.”

“Get it,” she insisted. “You’re a writer.”

My ears perked up, then. I love it when someone outside the circles of writing helps me acknowledge that I am, in fact, a writer. Some days, I still have trouble saying those words out loud. Plus, I was intrigued by how certain she was that an iPhone would complement my other writing tools. So, I bought one.

It is lovely. Even the box it came in is pretty, with its minimalist and sleek design.

(Taken with my iPhone and emailed to my laptop. Just call me Fancypants.)

I’ve already put the phone to good writerly use, too, downloading the Kindle app and buying a copy of Roz Morris’ Nail Your Novel. The other day, when I suddenly had a few hours to sit in a coffee shop, I whipped out my phone, my pen and paper, and read through the beginnings of Morris’ book. I scribbled down notes. I wrote out the first few tasks. I felt productive.

I also purchased an eBook novella by Cathryn Grant, a book only available for eReaders. That “Buy now with 1 click” button on the Kindle Store page is a little dangerous, but I’d be missing out on Cathryn’s novella without this iPhone and that Kindle app.

Technology, be it wireless internet or free apps for a phone, makes a writer’s life a little easier. I’m finally getting that, in bits and pieces.

What about you? How are you using the technology you have on hand to move your writing along? Or, do you have a secret iPhone app I should know about? My son keeps pushing me to download the free Monster Truck game, but I’m not so sure I’m ready for virtual mud-bogging.

While you’re thinking, here are a few other posts on technology and iPhone apps for writers:

  1. Lisa Rivero talks here about all the fun things she’s doing with technology and writing these days, including this great video she created in conjunction with a current book project. The video, like a mini book trailer, is a great way to whet the appetites of readers and introduce her main character, Hattie, to the modern world.
  2. “Ultimate iPhone Apps for Writers: 30+ Productivity and Creativity Boosts,” from Jane Friedman, There Are No Rules. As always, Jane offers plenty of links and great information.
  3. “iPhone Apps for Writers,” from appadvice.com. This one includes information on Writer’s Studio, an app that mixes visual and audio components with writing.
  4. “12 applications for writers on my iPhone right now,” from Michael Alexander on The Editorial Engine. Listed here is iBlue Sky, an app that makes a map of your brainstorming ideas.

A Synopsis and a Critique: Distance is a Good Thing

A few months ago, I took a novel writing workshop. Most of us in the group had little experience critiquing another’s work. And, several of us were beginners when it came to writing a novel.

Everyone looked forward to the critiques; no one wanted to tackle the required one-page synopsis. In fact, several groans broke out as the word hung in the air above us.

Synopsis.

I had never attempted a synopsis, and – since this was a class for beginners – I stuck to my motto of “I have nothing to lose.” I remained optimistic.

But, it was hard to write. In an essay, entitled “Writing a synopsis can rock your novel,” Roz Morris explains – in a more concise way – why writing one overwhelms most writers.

[W]riting a synopsis is hard…because we’re so close to the detail that we can’t see what to include and what to leave out. It’s all important, right? Writing a synopsis requires you to view the novel from a distance, which is all but impossible when you’ve been living in the thick of it. But it also gives you distance. Like looking at a maze from above, you can see patterns you couldn’t see when it’s all wood and trees.

I didn’t have that distance. I spent too much time on the back story and the beginning and very little time talking about the end of the story. When I took my synopsis to class for critique, I expected pointers on how to tighten it up, maybe thoughts on what to delete or add (like a few forgotten characters). But, being the first to go under the knife, that critique ran long, detailed and painful. My spirits fell, and I left wondering if I should continue to write the story.*

Joni B. Cole published an article in the July 2010 issue of The Writer on the “7 Myths About Feedback.” Two stand out for me as reasons why that particular critique was so discouraging.

“Writers should be silent during their story discussions.” This was my first face-to-face critique. When the workshop leader suggested the writer sit quietly while everyone else discussed the story, I did exactly that. In Cole’s article, she says that many workshops use the “silent writer” policy, but there comes a time when the writer should speak up.

…[When] negative comments are flying at you like the arrows at St. Sebastian, don’t just sit there.

Much of the criticism that night came across very harsh, a lot of it based on the synopsis alone. Critiquing a synopsis to such depths while still in the revision process threw me off track, especially because I sat quiet and fielded the “arrows” with my open chest.

That said, another myth – “The goal of feedback is to help ‘fix’ a story” reminded me how reeling in the negative part of the experience and focusing on the positive can keep a writer moving forward.  Cole says a writer should:

…[T]hink of feedback not in terms of fixes, but reader responses. And by this I mean any response that gets the writer to write more and write better.”

After my experience, I took several days “off” from my story until I recovered from the sting of some of the other writers’ comments. Then, I looked deeper into the issues their comments addressed: problems of clarity, character development, and plot.

Next weekend, I’m heading out of town. One of my writing goals during my vacation (because a writer is always writing, even when we’re digging our toes in the sand or traipsing through the woods) is to look at the chapter one rewrite of my current novel in progress, with the first draft of the full manuscript, and write out a new synopsis. Then, I hope to give the first chapter and synopsis to a friend for critique.

After reading Morris’s essay and Cole’s article, and after reviewing my own past experience again, I’m confident of a few things. First, I know I want to write a synopsis early in the process again. I agree with Morris when she explains how a writer can use a synopsis to her benefit:

Summarizing like this lets me kick away the clutter to see the strong core of the story. I’ve seen patterns I didn’t know were there and given real punch to my plot.

I love the image of looking down on the story from a distance and seeing the patterns unfold, seeing the core of the story and the path of the character. I need that kind of perspective in revision.

Second, when I send the synopsis and first chapter out for critique, I will remember:

  • This synopsis is a draft, a first draft.
  • To find a critique partner who knows how to talk about what works, as well as how to ask questions about what doesn’t work.
  • That I don’t have to sit and listen to critique with my heart in my hand and my mouth closed. I can ask questions.

A synopsis doesn’t have to be a thorn in my side, and neither does another writer’s feedback. With a little distance, I can incorporate both into a successful revision.

* I did eventually put that story down, though the decision wasn’t a result of that particular critique.

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