Authorial Intrusion: Pantser vs. Plotter

Plotter |ˈplätər| noun: 1. Someone who makes plans; a writer who maps out her story before she begins. 2. A sensible, logical person.

Pantser |pants*er| noun: 1. A person who works by the seat of her pants, esp. a writer. 2. Said person who writes dozens, maybe hundreds, of pages only to delete them. 3. Someone who will, in the wee small hours of the morning, weep into her computer keyboard because she realizes this %^&@ story is boring, the characters have no purpose, and the plot is going nowhere.

 

I confess. I am a pantser. I know. I can hear all you plotters out there. Life is easier when you’re a plotter. If you’re a plotter, the story would have a road map, a rough outline. You can avoid writing your characters into a metaphorical corner, where the only way out is to dump hundreds (yes, hundreds) of pages. When you’re stuck, you can go back to your outline and get unstuck. You know What Happens Next. I know all this. It’s exactly what I tell my writing students.

Yet something kept me from writing an outline. In the first flush of excitement for a new story, I don’t want to pull momentum away from development.  I like having the spark of an idea and exploring, seeing what the story is about, who the characters are. It unfolds for me as it appears on the page. There’s something magical in that.

Plotting uses a different part of the brain. It’s like fitting puzzle pieces together or playing a game of Tetris. It requires focus and planning. Plotting feels like someone asking me what I want for dinner next Tuesday.

Some authors are devoted plotters. John Grisham: “I’ve learned that the more time I spend on the outline, the easier the book is to write.”   Katherine Anne Porter: “If I didn’t know the ending of a story, I wouldn’t begin. I always write my last line, my last paragraph, my last page first.” And this is what J.K. Rowling calls her “basic plot outline.” I’m starting to get hives.

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J.K. Rowling’s outline for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, chapters 13-24

But I understand that you can’t write a series of books as complex as Harry Potter without keeping track of the subplots and characters’ relationships to each other, and I also get that suspense/thrillers like the ones Grisham writes need to have a certain plot progression. Outlines help with both of those things.

A few months ago, I gave it a shot. I had come to a point in my novel in progress that I needed to know how the main conflict was going to play out so I could start leading my characters there. I went old school and did the whole Roman numeral style thing with little indentations and everything. It was a long, tedious mess. If the characters could come to life from the page, even they would complain how bored they were.

Fast forward to last week. I had to write a novel synopsis for a workshop I’ll be attending this summer. I wrote a paragraph and a (muse/bolt of lightning/demi-god) gave me some inspiration to keep writing. Before I knew it, I was writing an outline. But it didn’t look like an outline, it was a stream-of-consciousness, free-form paragraph that went on for a page.

It needs some tinkering and a change of focus, but now I have a much better idea of where the story is going and how to get my characters from point A to point B. Dare I say it, I am now officially a plotter.

Let me know if you outline. I’d love some suggestions. 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

The Loft A little plug: I’ll be teaching my popular creative writing class this summer through The Loft Literary Center, beginning June 15. It’s eight weeks, all online.

 

 

 

Why We Read: To Recognize Ourselves

Literature is an unbreakable bridge…When readers recognize themselves in a writer’s work, you’ve built this unbreakable bridge [between the writer and reader] that is a spiritual connection. ~Cheryl Strayed

The best stories, the most memorable stories, are the ones in which I develop a connection with the main character. I know when this begins to happen because I find myself (gasp) underlining sentences and, if I don’t have a pen handy, turning the corners of pages.

What is this connection? Connection can be a fanciful, dreamy term. Connection, in real life or in the pages of a good book, is recognition. It’s identifying with someone. It’s more than just a clever line or an unusual situation, which is why I rarely find recognition in genre stories where the focus is on the uniqueness of the character’s circumstances, rather than character himself. I can imagine how terrifying it would be to find myself stranded on Mars, but I never saw myself in Mark Watney.

That’s not to say that a character’s personality or circumstances should mirror my own. Recognition doesn’t need to come in the literary equivalent of a mini-me. In fact, the most poignant moments are when I see glimpses of myself in characters vastly different from me. Lily Bart in The House of Mirth. Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Eilis Lacey in Brooklyn. Mary Sutter in My Name Is Mary Sutter. These characters have lives that are nothing like mine, yet I feel that connection.

Seldon pushed his hat back and took a side glance at her. “Success—what is success? I shall be interested to have your definition.”

“Success?” She [Lily Bart] hesitated. “Why, to get as much out of life as one can, I suppose. It’s a relative quality after all.”

The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton

I found that recognition most recently in Alice Pearse in A Window Openswho is desperately trying to find a work/life balance. This is from Lorraine’s review at Enchanted Prose:

Alice, though, is an optimistic soul, so when she/“employee #305” enters her minimalist, impersonal white workplace she translates “stark” into “elegant.” Keep in mind she’s also an independent soul…who is determined to succeed. Fear of failure, a potent yet misguided motivator.

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Alice feels personal, familiar. And I feel validated and acknowledged. I am seen, even though I may be alone in the room. I think this is what we mean when we say that we really like a character, and why it’s so difficult to continue reading a story with unlikeable characters.

I’m currently reading a novel with multiple alternating points of view. One of the characters, Willa, is instantly recognizable to me. The other points of view character, not so much. That’s not to say they aren’t wonderfully written characters—dynamic and interesting—just that I don’t have that special connection. I spend a lot of those chapters hoping that I’ll be getting back to Willa soon. I think this may often be the case in multiple point of view stories. The characters are in direct competition with each other for the reader’s attention. Readers may not get enough “page time” with any one character to develop this deep connection. Or they don’t like one of the point of view characters.

That deep recognition doesn’t happen in every book. It can be a bit elusive like chasing the Loch Ness monster, but when it does, it feels like that unbreakable bridge.

 

 

Have you had  that deep recognition with any characters?

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

Free-For-All Friday

The world is a little less funky today. RIP Prince.  Let’s party like it’s 1999, just one more time.  (Oh, the hair!)

 

 

Bye, Andrew Jackson. Hello, Harriet Tubman. Harriet Tubman will grace the front of the US $20.

This Modern Love podcast moved me to tears: “My First Lesson in Motherhood” about a woman’s almost immediate challenges with a daughter adopted from China. Listen to it here.

I’ve been catching up on Maria Shriver’s Architects of Change series. Maria Shriver shares interesting conversations with some interesting people: Debbie Allen, Seth Rogen, and Russell Simmons to name a few.  And, her site is looking for contributors. I know a few of you have work that would be a perfect fit. Share your story here.

We’re always on the lookout for inspirational stories (approximately 800-1,000 words) and you are invited to share yours. Have you had a transformative life experience that has led to compelling life lessons or a powerful life mission?

 

This week, Reggie and I spent a beautiful spring day on our roof deck.  He ate the plants and I enjoyed the view of the Manhattan skyline.

Reggie

 

Hope you’re enjoying fine spring days wherever you are.

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

Nature Calls: Sea Turtles

A few days ago I was caught in the Internet Vortex of Strange And Useless Stuff (familiar with this place?) when I stumbled across a charming sea-turtle’s-eye-view clip. I realized that everything I knew about sea turtles was gleaned from Crush in Finding Nemo. I figured most of them don’t speak like surfer dudes, so I wanted learn more about these venerable reptiles that have been around for 150 million years.

Sea turtles inhabit all salt water areas of the world, traveling thousands of miles between foraging areas and nesting sites. One female logged a 12,000-mile roundtrip from Papua New Guinea to the Northwestern US. How they migrate is still a mystery. One theory suggests they use the earth’s magnetic fields.

 

Green Sea Turtle

A green sea turtle at the New England Aquarium. © Lorianne DiSabato

There are seven species of sea turtles: green, hawksbill, loggerhead, leatherback, olive ridley, Australian flatback, and Kemp’s ridley. All are endangered or threatened. More on this in a moment.

Leatherbacks (Dermochelys coriacea), the largest of all sea turtles, can weigh nearly 1,000 pounds and measure more than 60 inches, but most are in the 100-pound range.

They eat mainly jellyfish and seaweed, but also feast on squid, barnacles, and sea anemones. Adult green turtles (Chelonia mydas) are solely herbivores, eating seagrass and algae.

 

Hawksbill Sea Turtle

Hawksbill Sea Turtle. © Caroline Rogers for US Fish & Wildlife Service

 

Non-exclusive arrangements

Sea turtles live anywhere from 50-80 years, but don’t become mature until 20 or 30 years old. Males never leave the ocean, while females come ashore only to lay eggs on beaches. (Except green sea turtles. Occasionally they can be seen sunbathing near albatross nesting sites.)

As nesting season begins, females often mate with several males. She stores the sperm for several months, meaning the eggs will be fertilized by many different males. In one season, she may lay between 65-180 eggs. This sounds like a lot of eggs, but many of the tiny hatchlings won’t survive the short but treacherous journey from sandy nest to the sea. Predators, from gulls to crabs to humans, lie in wait.

Leatherback hatchlings

Leatherback hatchlings at the Mabibi Beach, South Africa. © Jeroen Looyé

Endangered

The recent past has not been kind to sea turtles. Humans have built condos on their nesting sites, then installed glaring lights, disturbing their rhythms. (Beach lights are disorienting to hatchlings, causing them to stray inland instead of going to the sea.)  Fishing nets continue to ensnare them. Sea turtles face a unique kind of threat from climate change. It alters sand temperatures at turtle nesting sites, which affects the sex of hatchlings. The warmer it is, the more females in that clutch of eggs.

But…a small victory!  On April 4, the status of green sea turtles in Florida and Mexico was downgraded from endangered to threatened. I know this isn’t much, but it’s a step in the right direction. The population has rebounded from a handful to just over 2,200. This increase took nearly 40 years, so they’re not out of the woods. Efforts are being made to protect nesting grounds and reduce the use of fishing nets along coastlines worldwide. In the Mediterranean, South Pacific, and West Pacific, green sea turtles are still endangered.

Now for the clip that inspired this post…this female green sea turtle will take you on a quick tour of the Great Barrier Reef.

To learn more about sea turtles, visit the Sea Turtle Conservancy.

Authorial Intrusion: He Admonished Gravely

How do you choose your next book to read? It’s a difficult question to answer, right? Some mysterious mixture of serendipity, subconscious awareness, and mood comes together to make me pull a specific book off the shelf and say, “Yes, this one.”

A few weeks ago, I knew I’d be entering a busy period between work and teaching, and I wanted to read something that wasn’t too demanding. Something that would envelope me like a hot cup of tea or make me smile like an old episode of Happy Days.

My eye landed on Anne of Green Gables.  The perfect choice! I hadn’t read it since I was a girl. Now I’ve been whisked away to Prince Edward Island and the Lake of Shining Waters with chatty, imaginative Anne. (That’s Anne with an “e” thank you very much.) It’s every bit as charming as I remembered.

You may be familiar with the story: the Cuthberts have decided to adopt a boy from the local orphanage to help out around their farm. When the orphanage sends Anne instead, the Cuthberts nearly return her. She’s not at all what they were looking for. Anne grows on them, staying true to herself, despite many innocent mix-ups.

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Boy, how times have changed, and I don’t only mean in terms of social norms. The craft of fiction (and nonfiction for that matter) isn’t static. It’s a living, breathing art that’s evolving. Just as the Renaissance gave way to Baroque and Celine Dion led to Idina Menzel, so too do styles in literature. We read with a 21st century mindset. I can appreciate Dickens, but my modern sensibilities balk at pages (literally) of description of fog. (Note: if you find fog intriguing, Dickens is your guy.)

I noticed this as I was reading Anne of Green Gables. The way Montgomery told the story of a young orphan girl is different from the way John Green or Rainbow Rowell would tell the same story today. Some are subtle and some are glaring. One that stood out immediately was dialogue. While these dialogue tags were commonplace in early modern stories, they are discouraged now, and for good reason.

  • “It’s so nice to be appreciated,” sighed Anne rapturously.
  • “I’ll try to be a model pupil,” agreed Anne dolefully.
  • “I don’t think there’s much chance of you dying of grief as long as you can talk, Anne,” said Marilla unsympathetically.
  • “I must go home,” repeated Diana, stupidly but determinedly.
  • “Now please help yourself, Diana,” she said politely.
  • “It was dreadful of me to forget,” said Anne apologetically.

I could go on. About half of the dialogue used tags other than “said” or added an adverb to describe how the dialogue was spoken. It was all I could do not to get a red pen and mark up the book.

As author Elmore Leonard said (only partially tongue in cheek), “Never use an adverb to modify the verb said… he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.”

So why bother reading classics? We may not want to emulate the omniscient POV or the abundance of adverbs, but classics are classics for a reason. They provide a snapshot of a time and place and writing style.We learn what was important to people in the Jazz Age or what life was like in mid-19th century Russia because someone put ink to paper. They are a conversation between author and reader, who may have lived thousands of miles and hundreds of years apart. We can still find value in the conversation.

And styles have a habit of coming back around. That’s why I’m still holding onto my circa-1983 Madonna lace gloves. You never know.

What was the last classic novel or essay you read?

Have a great weekend, everyone!