Pantser … or not

There are two approaches to writing fiction.  A Pantser writes from the seat of the pants. The writer lets the characters pull the story along. An Outliner (maybe we should say ‘Engineer’) lays out the story … the plot line … then begins writing.  So far, I’ve been a Pantser.

My third novel has a complicated plot, and my pants are hanging around my ankles as I crow-hop through the plot.

Pantsers speak proudly but often vaguely of letting the story write itself, but I’m beginning to understand that it just might be a good idea to have a notion of what’s going to happen.  After all, Aristotle, the first author of a book (well, treatise) on how to write, tells us right up front:  the plot is the most important element of the story.

“Aristotle identifies six aspects, or “parts,” of tragedy: PLOT (mythos), CHARACTER  (ēthos), LANGUAGE (lexis), THOUGHT (dianoia), SPECTACLE (opsis), and MUSICAL  composition (melopoiia).  The most important aspect of tragedy, to which all the others are subordinated, is the plot.” (Aristotle’s Theory of Tragedy, Margarlit Finkelberg.)

My friend Karl is the plot whisperer in my writing groups.  He suggested Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks, which makes a book-length project out of suggesting that the structure of modern fiction is always the same.

Brooks has continued the tradition of adding complexity to structure advice.  We have moved from Aristotle’s beginning-middle-end structure through the Middle Ages playwrights (five is the correct number of acts) to Freytag’s Pyramid (exposition—rising action—climax—falling action—denouement) to Brooks, who suggests nine steps.

1 Opening scene
2 A hooking moment (in first 20 pages)
3 A Setup inciting incident (can be the first plot point)
4 First plot point (20-25% through story)
5 First Pinch Point (3/8)
6 Context-shifting Midpoint
7 Second Pinch Point (5/8) middle of part 3
8 Second plot point (75%)
9 Final Resolution

Brooks promises a much shorter development cycle if I am mindful of the steps.    I could use the help.


Good Writing, Italics, Inner Monolog

I’m in rewrite on my second novel.  I occasionally run into the problem of how to show the reader a character’s thoughts as distinguished from what the character says.  There are no precise rules to follow, and that somehow makes it easier to get away with bad writing.  In doubt? Put the thought in quotes.  Wait … the characters have just been talking, so there are quote marks all over the place.  Okay, throw in some italics.

In frustration, I went to the Chicago Manual of Style Forum.  Not normally a place for writing advice, but great on so much else …

the original sentence was:  Ross took his cue, thinking Enough of this love fest. Time to send this country boy back where he belongs.

I got a great discussion and finally made a very small change, but one which to my ear makes the sentence better:  Ross took his cue. Enough of this love fest, he thought. Time to send this country boy back where he belongs.

AND it allowed me to get rid of the italics.

As they say, it’s the writing, stupid.

The Agony of Grammar

I’ve been running into an issue in writing lately that has me stumped: grammar. Specifically, how precisely to follow grammatical rules in writing, particularly in dialog. On the one hand, John McWhorter (Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue and others) points out that the language is always in motion and often intimates that the “rules” we follow are dated. On the other hand, a shared grammar should give the most possible meaning to those words we write.

The difficulty I have is bridging the gap between real speech, which has available to it gestures and visual cues to help meaning along.  Also, because it’s thought on the fly, it includes repeats, irrelevancies and meaningless y’knows, umms, and so on, which we tolerate and edit out.

Written dialog needs to be clean and economical while sounding natural. It’s a delicate balance. I try to stay grammatical, but occasionally find my characters sounding stuffy as a result. (That’s what rewrite is for.)

Here are some I struggle with or see in my writing groups:

Bring/take: Most people seem to know the difference between transporting something toward where we are now and transporting it away. That said, common usage is collapsing to just plain “bring.” Writing needs to minimize confusion about motion. I’m sticking with the distinction.

It's LIE, dammit!

It’s LIE, dammit!

Lay/Lie: Difficult because lay is also past tense of lie. But lay is something you do to an object and lie is an action you do to yourself. (Furthercomplicated by the fact that no one is interested in getting lied or even lain.) I stick with the distinction.

Who/whom: At least in speech, few of us observe the difference. I try to rework sentences to use who, thereby getting over the speed bump of the reader trying to remember the correct application of the rule instead of following the story line.

All part of the accretion of the craft.  If you have ones that bug you, let me know.



Details Details

DInerI’m beginning to understand that most of writing involves choices about where to land between extremes. The issue I’m currently working with in rewrite is the question of how much to tell. It came up because I got widely different comments in writing groups on the lead passage of my first novel:

“So you’re the dumbass.”

The woman plopped into the booth across from Joe Mayfield. The bite of over-easy egg halfway to his mouth dripped a spot of yolk on his pants.

“Pardon me?”

He put down his fork and tried for an offhand smile but knew it came off closer to a rictus.

The woman suppressed a grin and picked up a menu.

Joe had seen her come into the diner, now nearly empty after the breakfast rush. She was tall, not quite stick thin, out of place here in farm country in her cargo shorts, MIT T-shirt and an untamed mop of chestnut hair. Not the thug he’d been watching for since ditching Doughboy back in Orlando.


One writer’s take was: “I want to see more about the place. Sights, sounds, smells. This isn’t real to me.” On the other end of the spectrum: “Why do I need to know what she looks like? And what about Mayfield, your protagonist. Don’t you want to know what he looks like?”

I finally came up with what you see above. Because I’m writing in Joe Mayfield’s point of view, it seemed important to get the description of the woman we will come to know as Weezy. But she’s challenging Joe, and the challenge is what sets the story in motion. So I chose not to spend words to describe the diner. (The scene recurs later in the book, and there is a fuller description there.)

My go-to advice for rewrite is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. They helped me answer my question of where to land on the spectrum of more or less description: “When you describe every bit of action down to the last detail you give your readers a clear picture of what’s going on, … you also limit their imagination, and if you supply enough detail, you’ll alienate them in the process. Describing your action too precisely can be as condescending as describing your characters’ emotions. Far better to give your readers some hints and then allow them to fill in the blanks for themselves.” (p. 147)

Putting an Edge on Writing

My wife, Beverly, can’t stand the sound of knives being sharpened. Clever person thKnife sharpenerat she is, she gave me a professional knife sharpener several years ago. It’s big and electric, so she has plenty of warning when the urge to sharpen takes me.  The device has three sharpening positions. The first one comes with a special cover and dire warnings that it should be used only with very dull and distressed knives. The second grinding stone is where the basic business of sharpening gets done. The final position is not a stone, but an emery cloth that polishes the edge.

The sharpening process is similar to rewriting, at least for me. That first, most dangerous stone is for very dull writing, the kind that should be thrown out entirely. In my case, the second stone is my writing groups, where help from others grinds away some words, sharpens dialog and puts an edge on plot (sorry, I couldn’t resist). The final polish is copy editing to make the work shine (ditto).

Okay, it’s a bit labored as a metaphor, but it works for me.

Herman Melville … Sore Butt?

I wonder if Herman Melville’s butt got sore.

He looks comfortable enough here, doesn’t he?Melville  Or is that a look of pain?

I mean, the man wrote 206,000 words, then apparently did a rewrite, all in just a year and a half. . How many hours is that? Figure 100 – 200 words an hour and we’re talking 1,000 – 2,000 hours for the draft, and … I don’t know about you, but rewrite is twice as long.

So, let’s say at least 3,000 hours with butt planted firmly. Spread over a year and a half, that’s five and a half hours a day with no break, no vacation. Ouch!

I only mention this because my own backside has been complaining since I started writing. It’s an uncomfortable and unwelcome transition to add having a pain in the butt to being a pain in the butt (a somewhat longer-lasting problem).

Of course I live in a world of technology. Poor Melville! No FitBit or Apple watch to remind him to get his butt off the chair. No Herman Miller Aeron chair. (He probably couldn’t have afforded one, anyway.)

My butt still hurts if I write more than 1,000 words in a sitting, regardless of technology.

Rewrite and Guitar-making: The art of shaving the braces

Screen Shot 2015-03-06 at 8.30.04 PMWhen a luthier is making the top of an acoustic guitar, he or she is faced with a delicate balancing act: the spruce used for good tops is thin, 1/8” or less. And the tone of the instrument depends on putting enormous tension on this fragile sheet. The top needs support, but too much support deadens tone. The solution: scalloped bracing. The luthier adds braces, then finally shaves away as much as possible, leaving just enough to keep the instrument from collapsing.

So, your point, John?

Rewrite is similar, and it helps me to use the model of the luthier. The first draft is the rough top, braces in the right places (plot elements, characterization and so on). The rewrite scallops the braces, usually removing unnecessary wood so the story can ring true.

I guess it’s possible to torture this simile too much, but the thought helps me through the minutiae – those gentle passes of the draw knife over the brace that give the guitar – and the story – its voice.


GorillaI’m learning the wisdom in the writerly saying, “You never finish a novel, you just send it off when there’s no time left to rewrite.”

I’m in my eighth or ninth rewrite of Hack the Yak, still finding words to change, emotions to outline better, little plot quirks.  You know the old phrase, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’?  I’m afraid I may be in the ‘If it ain’t broke, fix it anyway’ phase of writing this novel.

Oops … an ellipsis where there should be an em dash.

Oh, well.  Per aspera ad astra.

First Draft Finished

Finished the first draft of Skins and Bone. Now on to the dread rewrite. This time, I’m going to be a little better organized than I was for Hack the Yak. This time, I have 120+ critiques. Better yet, this time I have the mistakes I made before. I hope the new ones (mistakes, that is) will be fewer this time!

The Pilgrim’s Progress

HTY progress chartWhen I started out writing Hack the Yak, I didn’t think about genre, length or plot.  Just an interesting story.  The characters pretty much wrote the plot as they developed.  I ended up with 127,000 words, a main plot, two subplots, and a trip through the country where the blues music I love came from.  Then came reality.  Editors and published writers pointed out that a beginning writer has to hit the expectation of the market, which is 80 to 90 thousand words for mystery/suspense … 100,000 at very most.  So the seventh rewrite took it to 88,000 words.  I’ll save the subplots for other novels.  The blues highway is gone, too, but it gave me a published short story and inspired two that are out to magazines. All in all, it’s been a wonderful learning experience.  I hope the next novel, Skins and Bone, will require a little less rewrite.