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?

Dare to write the darkness. Also: ain’t no such thang as writer’s block.

“Everyone has talent. What is rare is courage to follow the talent to the dark place where it leads.”

–Erica Jong

Once upon a time, I got stuck and needed rescuing, and the above quote pulled me up out of the sucking quagmire.

*squelches*

Now, my darlingest readers, in order to help you understand just what happened, I must take you back in time to a place fraught with danger and derring-do, abysses and adventures. ‘Twas a place both frightening and fabulous, and feckless wanderers found themselves fettered in both frying pans and fires.

Yes. Yes, you guess correctly, my ingenious inklings.

It was The Climax of a First Draft.

The climax of Elevator People, Draft 1, to be exact, and I had a sad. The whirlwind of writing-insanity was drawing to a close. I’d overcome the heady challenge of Beginning, Middle, and Near-End. I yearned for the Twitter cameraderie of wordsprints and communal writing procrastination. I’d dropped like a stone from my keyboard-pounding mountain peak and found myself wallowing in the Valley of Deep Post-Climactic Sorrow.

That happens sometimes. I get past the story’s climax and lose interest. I’ve written the denouement so many times in my head, it’s a chore to type it all out where other people can actually read it. I mourn the time when the story was fresh and exciting and the blank page, while intimidating, sparkles with the beauty of unmarred potential. I get sad and go off rummaging around for sparkly new things.

But the only thing that lifts me aloft again is writing itself.

So, finally, I shed my mourning veil and stripped off my black mourning bands. I delved into Elevator People once again, and with the most enthusiasm I’d felt for the story since Chapter 5. I was typing merrily along when suddenly! Out of Nowhere! There Came a Great Ginormous Wall of Writer’s Block! Zounds and Oy Vey!

I struck and was stuck. For, dismayingly enough, that Great Ginormous Wall was composed of Dark Stuff I Didn’t Wanna Write.

Lest you misunderstand me, dear inklings, let me assure you that I don’t usually balk at writing the Dark Stuff. When I was 15 and completing my first novel, I killed off about 40% of humanity at the beginning of the story. A teenage psychopath attacked the protagonists halfway through, and the climax involved the main character’s boyfriend getting shot and bleeding out with his head in her lap. (Muy tragic, n’est-ce pas?) That’s fairly gritty for a 15-year-old, conservative Christian kid. “Dark” can be relative, that much is certain.

Writing darkness in light

Writing darkness in light

So. I’m not afraid of the Dark. But on that blockety-blocked writing afternoon, I got to a point in the story where I knew the Dark Stuff was coming. I looked at my computer screen, watched the cursor blink at me a few times, and said aloud, “I don’t want to write this.” I closed the file and walked away.

(Figuratively speaking. In reality, I probably just popped over to Facebook and switched my brain off.)

A day or so passed, and I didn’t go back to my story. Why? I simply didn’t want to. That’s all there was to it.

But then a new day dawned, and it brought Twitter, and with Twitter the quote I’m going to make you read again, because I’m feeling all vignettey right now:

“Everyone has talent. What is rare is courage to follow the talent to the dark place where it leads.”

–Erica Jong

Sometimes, synchronicity just reaches out from whatever dimension it lives in and slaps you right upside the noggin.

“Okay, fine,” thought I. Story 1, Courtney 0. Whoopee, that’s what I get for not doing my job. So instead of staring up at the Great Ginormous Wall of Dark Stuff I Don’t Wanna Write and slumping into dejected discouragement, I girded up my loins (yikes!), pulled out my trusty sledgehammer, and pounded my way through that wall until rubble surrounded me and a thick haze of dust lay upon the air.

I followed the talent to the dark place where it led, and I wrote the Dark Stuff because that was where the story needed to go.

I have come to believe this as truth: There is no such thing as “writer’s block.”

Let me repeat:

There is no such thing as “writer’s block.”

There is I’m Not Focused Block.
There is I Don’t Care Enough Block.
There is I’m Not Giving Myself Permission Block.
There is I Am Plain Too Lazy Block (this one gets me, too).*

And there is I Don’t Wanna Write The Dark Stuff Block.

But sometimes, you just gotta suck it up, gird your loins, put on your Big Girl Panties, and DEAL WITH IT.

Don’t shy away.
Hold your head high, grit your teeth, buckle down, and rubber-cement your buttocks to the chair.
ART HARD, GORGEOUS.
Art hard through the Dark Stuff.
Write the thing.

Not every story will need to go to that Dark Place. But some of them will. (I’d venture to say most of them will. Truth, even beautiful truth, is a scary, vulnerable place.) And when your story goes there, writer, don’t hide. Acknowledge your fear, but don’t be skittish. Don’t quit. Do as I say, not as I do: don’t let it make you quit for even a day! It’s too easy to let one day turn into two, then four, then twenty. That Great Ginormous Wall of Stuck (read: FEAR) gets higher the longer you let it stand.

Every time you give in to fear, that Great Ginormous Wall gets thicker.

Write the Dark Stuff.
Let it flow.
Let it be what it needs to be.

Your story will benefit–and you’ll be stronger for it.

*There are other forms of so-called “writer’s block,” but they are another story and shall be told another time.

ANNOUNCING: #Specfic #Horror #SF Short Stories Wanted!

Best-selling Far From Home Series author Tony Healey has put out a call for short stories. He’s publishing an anthology for charity in November and is taking submissions in speculative fiction, horror, and sci-fi. Here are the details from Tony himself:

TITLE: TO BE DECIDED

AGENDA: Charity anthology of Speculative / Horror / SF short stories with 100% of proceeds to go to The Cystic Fibrosis Trust

WHAT I’M LOOKING FOR: One short story per person in the speculative, horror and SF genres no longer than 10,000 words. They can be previously published work, provided you have the rights to allow me to reuse them. For unpublished new work, it should be the best you can get it, although all new stories will go through an editorial process.

EXPLANATION: I am looking to put together an anthology of speculative, horror and SF stories to raise funds for The Cystic Fibrosis Trust.

As this is a charity anthology, I cannot offer any form of payment. You will be submitting your work in the knowledge that it will be used to raise money for a charitable cause. However, you will be able to publish your story elsewhere, independent of the anthology. And, if the anthology is as successful as I hope it will be, you will gain free promotion of your own work from its sale.

I am in contact with an artist I have admired for years, who worked on numerous famous book covers in the 70’s. I’m hopeful that he will allow me to reuse a piece of his for the front cover.

I will be contacting several well known authors, both traditionally and independently published, to see if they will be willing to either contribute a new piece of fiction, or allow me to reprint something already published.

Note that in the case of work being reprinted where it has already been published, I will accept it ‘as is,’ i.e. there will be no edits required or requested.

The anthology will be professionally edited, formatted and will have a professional cover. It will be a Kindle exclusive. There will be regular updates on my site www.tonyhealey.com regarding how many copies of the anthology have sold, and how much has been raised.

HOW TO SUBMIT: Email me at tonyleehealey@gmail.com with ANTHOLOGY in the subject line and your story as an attachment. The deadline will be the end of October, 2013 for a January 2014 release.

So, there you have it, folks. Get your short story engines revved up and let those writing fingers fly!

#Amwriting Your First Draft: The Editwock Will Steal Your Soul

NOTE: I wrote a version of the following post for JuNoWriMo 2013. Becca Campbell, one of the founders of JuNoWriMo, was kind enough to ask me to write a Pep Talk for this year’s event. I was only too happy to oblige. What follows is a version of that Pep Talk, altered to suit the needs not only of WriMos, but of first-draft novel-writers everywhere. Enjoy!

Greetings, O Ye Warriors of the Mighty Pen!

Word documents. Word wars. Word mongering. Wordiness. WORD COUNTS!

If you’ve committed yourself to writing a novel (which is not unlike committing yourself, period), then you’ve committed to hammering out that first draft no matter what it takes. Some of you have done this before, some of you are doing this for the first time. But whether you’re an oldtimer or a newbie, you know that words are key to succeeding in this crazed endeavor we call noveling.

This could be an Editwock.

This could be an Editwock.

Well, duh. It’s kind of hard to write a novel without using words. I suppose you could try using music notes instead, but you’d probably end up with some kind of post-postmodern, Wagner-derivative opera suffering from an existential crisis, and I don’t think any of us want to hear that. And writing your novel using Morse code might be tedious. So, words it is.

But the thing about words is…they’re tricksy. They flit like pixies across your page or screen, all innocent-like with their serifs and curlicues…and then they just squat there. Brooding. Staring back at you from your work-in-progress and making you care about them. Making you want to change them. Daring you to change them.

If you change one, you’ll want to change others. You won’t be able to help it; editing when you’re not an editor is some kind of weird addiction. Once you start, you can’t stop. AND THE WORDS KNOW THIS, PEOPLE.

One minute, you’re writing merrily along, something about Our Heroine rescuing the doomed prophecy puppies and drinking the magic elixir in the nick of time. Next minute, you start editing, and before you know it, your Plot Point #3 has turned into Carrot Magnetic Demolition Force 7 and there’s really no turning back after that.

What I’m getting at here, y’all, is that while you’re first-draft-ing, you must avoid editing. The words will tempt you to edit. They will lift their lovely faces to the morning sun, open their lovely mouths, and give voice to lovely siren calls of editing bliss. Do not listen to them! “Beware the Editwock, my son! The affixes that bite, the compounds that catch!”

*ahem* Sorry. Slight Carrollian digression there. But you get the point. First drafts and editing don’t mix. If you let yourself edit, you’ll slow yourself down. Those chapters won’t write themselves, y’know. You gotta put in your butt-to-chair time, and if you take that time for editing instead of writing, you’re going to be hard-pressed to slog through the Middle-of-Story Blues or have the energy for the Finish Line Sprint.

Your best friend, dear writer, is the admonition emblazoned upon the JuNoWriMo homepage:

JUST WRITE.

Don’t worry about the “mistakes” (better known as “happy little accidents,” right?). Don’t worry about the typos, the synonyms, the passive voice, the dangling participles. After you’ve used the last of your strength to type “The End,” you can give in to the sweet seduction and edit all you like. But for now, resist. Don’t worry, and just write.

You have a novel to finish. And the great news is, you can finish it and you will finish it. You’re sacrificing sleep to get there. You’re sacrificing time with friends and family. You’re sacrificing the calm that comes from not over-caffeinating 24/7.

And yes, you’re sacrificing the luxury of poring over your own every word and tweaking each word to perfection.

But all this sacrifice is worth it. In the end, you’ll have a first draft in your hands — and editing it will be glorious. So just write, hon. That’s your only job right now, and you can do it.

Now stop reading this and get back to it. : )

__________________________
Other JuNoWriMo Pep Talks by Nina Post (contemporary fiction), Hugh Howey (WOOL series), and Rayne Hall (dark fantasy fiction).

On Censorship

“The fact is that censorship always defeats its own purpose, for it creates, in the end, the kind of society that is incapable of exercising real discretion.”

~Henry Steele Commager

“Anytime you censor people, you are deliberately breeding weak people.”

~Aaron Pogue

This is really a propos nothing in particular; I happened to stumble across the Commager quote, and it reminded me of the Aaron quote. Both are worth sharing, and since blogs tend to be good places to share things and my blog has remained neglected of late, I decided to do my sharing here and now. : )

Writing Means Creating Hay

So. As far as significant blogposts go, I honestly got nuthin’ for ya today, y’all. The reason for this is that I’ve spent every possible moment of the past 36 hours working on the sequel to Rethana’s Surrender.

The goal, in case you hadn’t already guessed, is to get this sequel ready for editing before the baby comes. I feel like I’m pretty well on-track to accomplishing this; but still, I remain aware that time groweth short. So, with much aplomb, Ima make hay while the sun shines.

Over the past 36 hours, the creation of said hay has been: finishing up an entire chapter of new material and editing into submission two chapters of material I last tinkered with four years ago.

I LOVE MY JOB. : )

That is all.