the one with pants, outlines, and ergonomic bottle nipples

Every so often in conversation, I’ll blather something to a non-writer about how I wanted a work-in-progress to progress a certain way, but my characters informed me otherwise. “But you’re the author,” comes the puzzled reply. “Don’t you control where the story goes?”

Well, yes. Of course.

But no, not really.

I used to be a seat-of-my-pants writer, plotting out nothing, simply diving into the story and lighting up the keyboard with whatever wanted to flare from my fingertips. Then, in 2004, I found myself splat in the middle of NaNoWriMo with zero clue as to what would happen in the rest of the scene, much less the rest of the book. The story stalled out at 12,000 words, and I haven’t touched it again in a decade-and-a-half.

It’s too bad, really. It was gonna be a rockin’ awesome story.

I think.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

After that somewhat vomitous experience, I rethought a few things. Like my whole approach to writing. It took a few years, but eventually I learned the art of pre-writing: character descriptions, chapter summaries, long synopses, the works. And it’s been great. Especially those long synopses (the one for my current WIP is almost 60 pages long) have pulled me up out of the quicksand when I floundered. A quick glance at my store of pre-written information, and I’m happily typing away again, the sucking mire of “writer’s block” paved over with a f*ckton of cement. Outlines are cramazing.

But.

In every story there comes at least one moment (but it’s usually a handful or so) when the writing slows down to a desiccated crawl through the Sahara with nary an oasis in sight. Stuff all outlines and chapter summaries! Sometimes they just don’t help, and for me, it’s invariably because the characters don’t want them to.

“Say whaaaa?” you say.

Yeah. It’s a thing, ya’ll. Lotsa times, the writing screeches to a dead halt because one character plants her feet, drops a hand to the hilt of her knife, braces herself, and says, “NO.”

What’s the Because?!?

The because, my friends, is that I’ve been trying to make my character do or say something that’s out-of-character for her to do.

And honestly, for a word-smith, I have an awful hard time hammering this concept into a shape that makes any sort of sense to other people. 

But I’ll give it a shot.

Let’s say I’ve got a character — we’ll call her Nera — who knows what she wants and isn’t shy about going out and getting it. Maybe she’s even a little bit ruthless in carving out her place in the world. She likes being in control. She harbors a subconscious core fear of making genuine, vulnerable connections with other people. Nera’s M.O. is to connect in a superficial way that lets her call the shots. At the first hint of genuine intimacy, she lashes out to ensure that the other person rejects her.

And let’s say I plop Nera smack in the middle of the frilliest, most over-Pinterested baby shower you can possibly imagine.

Now, Nera’s in-character response will be to do everything she can to get the hell out of there as soon as possible. She might just get up and stalk out the door, insulting the mom-to-be and all the hostesses. She might, when a hostess innocently asks her to cut the trifle, unsheath a massive dagger and use it to slice the dessert to smithereens and *then* stomp out. She might grab the dimpled baby cake topper, which is made of porcelain, and smash it on the floor before flinging herself over the side of the balcony and landing cat-like in the alley below before dashing off to change her phone number and delete her Facebook.

I can do all of this with Nera, and it feels natural. It feels like something she would do. Spouting invective at the pregnant lady? Yup, that’s Nera all right. Running away from a social situation that makes her palms break out in a clammy sweat? Most def her standard operating procedure. If I do these things with Nera, her story will practically write itself — because she’s the one determining its direction.

But that’s not what we’re talking about, is it?

We’re talking about stuff that slams a four-foot-thick steel wall in front of your story, causing it to screech to a dead stop at best, smash headlong into the wall at worst. We’re talking about stuff that leaves you with a headache and a nosebleed. Quick, get your schnoz away from your keyboard.

What might I do with Nera that would dam(n) up her story?

I might try to make her act out-of-character at the effed-up-frilly baby shower.

If Nera sips her strawberry sherbet punch

if she nibbles delicately at a mini-quiche and pops grapes into her mouth one at a time while chatting amiably about the weather and everybody’s health

if she participates in the game that has shower guests identify what mushy foods are smeared into otherwise clean diapers

if she giggles and coos over every pastel onesie and ergonomic bottle nipple

if she enjoys herself thoroughly

if she doesn’t spend the entire time biting back sarcasm and obscenities

if she stays ’til the end of the party and leaves quietly without having challenged anyone to a fistfight

if she attends the shower without a single ulterior motive

…then I have asked her to do things utterly out-of-character. She’ll have nothing more to do in her own story. I’ll have altered her character beyond recognition, preventing the continuation of the story I started. If I make Nera continue in this vein, I’ll be writing a completely different story. I’ll have to abandon her original story and write this different one. And this one, honestly, is pretty boring, because there’s no conflict or even a hint of tension in that second baby shower scenario.

If I keep trying to write the original story, picking up with the ending of the second baby shower scenario I’ll abandon it because Nera and I have nowhere to go from there. Blah blah writer emergency blah.

Plots or Pants?

So. Do I plot stories? Or do I pants them?
The answer is yes.

Like I said earlier, I plot everything out before I story. Characters, plot points, story arcs, beginnings, middles, climaxes, denouements, settings, descriptions. Before I set proverbial pen to proverbial paper, I know who’s doing what and why and where. I knot my safety net. And *then* I edge out onto the highwire.

About a quarter of the way out, when it’s too late to go back, my characters usually let me know that one of my knots is frayed. It’s not tight enough. I tied it in the wrong spot. If I keep going, story and I are going to fall. The net is gonna break, and though I will survive (or will I?), story will end up splattered on the hardpacked ground of the circus ring.

What I have to do is let the characters take my hands, keep me steady, hand me a balancing pole. I have to let them fix the knots in our safety net. So that when we fall — and, inevitably, we will — that’s when the characters decide to go off-outline — we fall together, we hit the net (aka outline, long synopsis, etc), and we bounce right back up onto the highwire and finish up the story.

This is my circus, these are my monkeys, and it’s my job to let them do their thing. Even when their thing is poo-flinging and I don’t want them to.

Have I used enough metaphors yet?

Men and Romance

Mama: Did you get much work done today?

Me: I wrote more than a thousand words on Elevator People.

Mama: Oh, good! Progress! (she said, knowing this to be something to celebrate)

Me: Yeah. But my main character is going off on a tangent.

Mama: How so?

Me: Well, there are suddenly all these romantic meanderings.

Mama: This is the sci-fi story, right?

Me: Yeah.

Mama: Romantic meanderings. Male main character?

Me: Yeah.

Mama (nodding): Men will do that. You have your work cut out for you.

(NOTE: I post this with only the greatest affection in my heart for my male readership. Bring on the romance, gentlemen.) : )

darkromance

Guest Blogger: Writer and Editor Jessie Sanders

Happy new week, my beloved inklings!

Last week, I promised you some more updatingness of the goings-on in my neck of the blogging woods. Or, rather, my neck of the Life-the-Universe-and-Everything Woods. This post kinda sorta falls into the updatingness category, because it concerns a novel that I recently helped edit:

Young Adult novel Into the Flames by Jessie Sanders — who happens to be friend, fellow writer, and my editor.

Into the Flames, Jessie’s first novel, is the intriguing and suspenseful story of Rahab Carmichael, who’s desperate to fit in at her new boarding school. Trouble is, Rahab happens to have some special powers that keep her from fitting in — and send her right into the arms of the other “freaks” at school. Teens will relate to Rahab’s story quite well, as will we adults who remember those “awful” days of being relegated to the “freaks” pile. Superhero powers or no. ; )

To celebrate the new release, I asked Jessie to share with us what sparked (ha ha, sparked, get it?) the idea for Into the Flames and how that idea grew and changed over the years. So, without further ado or adon’t, here’s Jessie:

The world of Grover Cleveland Academy started from something as simple as watching a trailer for the movie Treasure Planet. Yes, the Disney movie based off of Treasure Island only it’s set in space. You see, when I saw the character Jim Hawkins sailing through space on his little hover board, I knew I wanted to write about a character that could fly — for real. Instead of using a futuristic board to soar among the clouds, the character would use her own superpowers to fly, strapping her snowboard onto her boots as she went.

That’s how Jean Elizabeth “Scout” Wren was born. Ten years later, Scout is merely a secondary character in my novel Into the Flames. I never intended it to end up this way.

I can’t really tell you how Rahab came into existence. I just know that by the time I was done writing Born to Fly (Scout’s story), I knew that the next year a new girl would be moving to Grover Cleveland — Rahab Sapphira Carmichael. And I found that I liked her even more than Scout.

Scout was a loud tomboy who would rather play baseball than read a book. Rahab was shoved to the back burner because she was the youngest, and she allowed herself to be forgotten so that no one would notice that she was different. But I wanted people to notice her. I wanted her story to be told. So I told it.

Now just because Rahab came to me complete with swimsuit, goggles, and bangs doesn’t mean that she was perfect from the start. She’s been through some major changes in her development, but at the end of the day, she’s a caring, sensitive girl who just wants to be allowed to do the thing she loves the most — swim. She loves animals and is deathly afraid of fire. She has two older brothers whom she admires but can’t relate to. She’s got a lot of hurt in her past, but now she’s ready for a fresh start at her shiny new boarding school.

I really started working hard on Into the Flames during my creative writing class my senior year of college. What I really wanted was a novel that was driven by characters and just happened to include a fantasy element, not the other way around. When my classmates told me they loved the development of Rahab and her friends, I knew I was on the road to making my dream a reality.

Creating the plot of Into the Flames was hard. I had my cast of rich characters, but what to do with them? Well, knowing Rahab’s fear of fire, I was certain that it had to play into the climactic scene somehow. I also knew that I wanted to include resident bad boy Bracken Carnegie in said climactic scene. For many years, cheesy lines and completely implausible scenarios ran through my head and were subsequently deleted from the bank. Finally, after many cumulative hours of talking to myself, lamenting to others, and scratching through pages of bad dialogue, I hashed something out.

So now, from a small spark of an idea that led all the way to an entire world, I humbly bring to you the first book in the Grover Cleveland Academy series. I hope you enjoy Into the Flames as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Courtney here again. Pick up your Kindle copy of Into the Flames for $2.99 and get to readin’! And don’t forget to tell Jessie how much you enjoyed it. : )

Guest Blogger: Dante Mullins of Saltmarch

The author signed her books...never knowing that I watched.

I stepped into the coffee shop and knew
three things in an instant.

There were humans everywhere — flesh in
motion, sweat glistening, blood pulsing.

There wasn’t a hint of colors.
Holly — sweet, delectable, foolish creature
that she is — calls them “Technicolors.”
If only the communication between demon
and auguren were as simple as movie magic
technology.

But no matter. I saw not a single swipe of
color in the room, which was
enough to confirm no auguren was present.

Ah, you delicious humans — you should
know better than to come to my party
without one of your so-called saviors.

The third sensation that washed over me was
auditory:

They were playing my song.

Devil Inside.
The Strangest Party.
Need You Tonight.
Afterglow.

Take your pick, my tasty ones. If it’s the
sensual strains of INXS, it’s my song,
play it how you will.

Of course, none of the humans saw me as I
slipped in among them; I needed neither
human nor salt layers to enjoy myself in
this venue.

Without senses, I sensed them:
listening in, brushing an elbow here,
caressing the back of a neck there. I tasted
the heat of their breaths on the air.

My name was on their lips as they chatted
and flipped pages and sipped their lattes.
The syllables of my name echoed above the
crowd, rising to mix with the throbbing, savory
notes of my favorite music. If I had blood, it
would have pounded in that luscious rhythm.

If I had limbs, I would have danced and driven
them all wild.

The choice morsel who penned my story
signed her name again and again, never
knowing I stood at her shoulder, whispering
my appreciation. If she frowned once or
twice, it was only because, for one fraction
of a second, her soul felt my presence.

If her eyes scanned the crowd and met
another’s in the briefest of shared, troubled
looks, it was only because their exquisite
hearts trembled at the hunter’s nearness.

Ah, my tempting ones. Indeed, how I
longed to taste you. Just for a moment.

As I roved among them, old friends greeted
each other. New friends introduced themselves.
The baristas kept the coffee flowing. My own
favorite drink was not on tap — or, rather, I
restrained myself from tapping into it.

From a human perspective, blood and coffee
are not the best mixture. Nor do gobs of
flesh pair well with walnut brownies.

They laughed, all of them, those succulent,
frail humans. They mingled, they talked,
they congratulated the happy author. They
bought more books for her to sign, never
realizing that they were taking a piece of
me away with them.

How I shall enjoy getting to know them better.

Until next time, I remain most cravenly —
and cravingly — yours,

________________________________

The author would like to express (or espresso?) her gratitude to Vintage timeless Coffee for hosting the Colors of Deception Book Launch Party. Great fun was had and much coffee was imbibed by all. Everyone’s looking forward to launching Shadows after Midnight, Demons of Saltmarch Book 2, at Vintage in October!

Let’s Talk About Mosquitoes, Hives, and Outlines

I love words and how other people use them. Sometimes, I’ll be reading a novel and enjoying it most thoroughly — and BAM! I hit a phrase that makes me sit up and say out loud, “Odds bodkins, that was perfect.” One of my most enjoyable challenges in life is learning how to do that to my own readers…and, as ever, I remain a work-in-progress.

But. I heart mightily (and sometimes, I even liver) how other people use words. So, for years, I’ve collected quotes. I buy nifty little notebooks in various sizes and scribble them full of the fun, inspiring, infuriating, thought-provoking, artful, and elegant ruminations of my fellow humans.

Courtney's Quotes Collection

Some of them are writers (my tribe! Woot!). One such is Laura Resnick, a fantasy author who penned the following gem:

“For the first half of a book, I’ll cling to my outline in helpless terror. Then I’ll start veering away from it, which will worry me deeply for weeks. When I finally finish the book, I’ll suddenly realize I haven’t thought about my outline in ages and don’t quite remember what was in it.”

Once upon a time, I did not believe in outlines. I’d never heard of this thing called “pre-writing.” My preferred method of starting a novel was to sit down at the computer, open a Word document, and start typing. And that, my dear inklings, is how in 2004 I came to be in possession of a 12,000-word chunk of fantasy novel that was supposed to be the sequel to an already-completed epic. Instead, more than six years later, it lies still in unfinished, digital ignominy. I hope to finish it someday…

…but before that can happen, I’ll need to do all the pre-writing: for nowadays, I’ve abandoned my lackadaisical ways (mostly), and I’ve converted to Putting Faith In Outlines. (Oy vey, was that a long sentence. Sorry.) Spontaneity is great, but when I’m writing, it just gets me stuck in squelching, mosquito-infested bogs.

I don’t like mosquitoes. They give me welts. And sometimes hives.

So I’ve learned to appreciate outlines, and I’ve learned to like outlines, and I’ve learned to trust outlines. And, like Ms. Resnick, I’ve learned The Desperate Writer’s Clutch (by which I do not mean a purse). The spectre of that 12k-word unfortunate loometh at the edges of my writerly consciousness, yea verily and forsooth. While working on my current rough draft, I even printed the outline so that I could have it well within clutching distance instead of having to switch from the novel doc to the outline doc. (It’s nice to have one’s comforting blankie in sight at all times.)

That said, the second half of Resnick’s quote resonates with me just as much as the first half does. I’m thirteen chapters into the rough draft of a 15-chapter, paranormal fantasy novel. For the first eleven chapters, I hobbled along, using my outline as my crutch. Sometimes, I felt strong enough for a steady walk. Rare bursts of enthusiasm gave me the power to sprint. However, whether walking or sprinting, I never let go of that blankie crutch outline. I still needed something to lean on.

Chapter 12 changed a few things. I didn’t look at my outline for days! Characters talked and did, and they talked and did without a whole lot of help from me. What made the difference? I think it was my deeper understanding of my characters.

When I started writing their story, I didn’t know them well enough just to give them free rein. Every time they spoke or acted, I had to check the outline: Is this how it’s supposed to go? It is? Okay, then, tally-ho. I couldn’t trust my characters yet. I didn’t know them.

Now, we’ve been through twelve chapters of adventure together, and I’m starting not just to know these people but to know them. Their edges aren’t so blurry; I can see some sharp outlines. Ephemeral wisps on the wind have solidified into distinct voices. I’m seeing the shapes of their souls.

There comes a point at which the characters, not the outline, lead my thoughts and guide my fingers. And that’s where the magic happens. And it is glorious.