Friday, February 26, 2016

Plotting and Pantsing--When to Plan and When to Write, and Why Both Are Useful as You Build Your Book



Erin, a blog reader who has taken my online book-writing classes, wrote with a great question:  "I'm struggling a bit of time management in terms of planning vs writing. Case in point, I get about 30-45 minutes of writing a day. I feel like this should be used towards actually writing my book. The planning exercises are helpful but they don't feel like real, actual writing. So on days where I'm planning and world building and working on character profiles, etc., I feel like I'm not writing or progressing in terms of my novel."
Erin wondered about the balance between what she called "actual writing" and all the planning and plotting that goes into building a book's structure.
"Right now I feel guilty planning but stuck writing," she said.  "It's a terrible place to be!"

Welcome to the world of structure versus writing, or plotting versus pantsing, as it's known in many writing circles.  Some writers love to know where they're going ahead of time--the plotters or planners.  Others love the discovery process of just writing and seeing what emerges.

Friday, February 19, 2016

False Agreements and Your Narrator's Epiphany



A blog reader from New England sent a great question, which ties into a discussion happening in one of my online classes right now, about the growth of a character in memoir and fiction.  How that character always starts their story with a false agreement.  How that agreement changes until the character realizes what's true.

The false agreement also happens in nonfiction.  We pick up a book to get new insights, to move from limited knowledge into wider understanding. 

So, imagine what false agreement your story starts with.  What is the status quo?  What does everybody put up with, to get along? 

Friday, February 12, 2016

Planting Sensory Details--What to Use, When to Use It--for Emotional Impact in Your Writing

Skilled writers use sensory details to bring emotion to the reader.  Oddly enough, emotion doesn't come from fast-paced action.  Our hearts may race, we may read fast, but all we feel is tension and speed.  Characters' thoughts and feelings don't bring emotion to the reader either.  We may relate, but it doesn't hit that part of the brain where memories reside, where our emotions slide past the logical mind.

Sensory details tap into our reptilian brain, the part that responds without filter by any logic.  Smells and sounds are often the most evocative of sensory details in writing. 

A great example:  this opening paragraph of Janet Fitch's acclaimed novel, White Oleander:

"The Santa Anas blew in hot from the desert, shriveling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw.  Only the oleanders thrived, their delicate poisonous blooms, their dagger green leaves.  We could not sleep in the hot, dry nights, my mother and I."

Can you sense the danger in those images?  She keeps it short and sharp.  The words hot, shriveling, poisonous, dagger work with the senses of touch, texture, taste, and sight.  Quite a lot packed into a short three lines.  And then, we get the people.  Who could not sleep.  Something really bad is going to happen . . . and it does. 


But how do you use sensory details in your own writing?  How many is enough, how much is too much?

Two Kinds of Sensory Details
The example from White Oleander uses one kind of sensory detail:  external.  These descriptions have to do with the environment of the story.  The winds, the desert heat, the death of everything but poisonous flowers.

Another kind of sensory detail comes from the internal senses.  What a person feels in her throat as she stares across the room at someone she hates.  What happens on the skin when we read that letter. 

External sensory details are most effective, of the two.  You can use more of them without boring the reader or sounding like you're heavy handed. 

Internal sensory details are trickier.  We readers expect them to be present--they are one way we know what the character is feeling without being told.  Show, don't tell, in other words.  "He saw that his foot was jiggling, tried to stop it" is more effective than just stating, "He was suddenly nervous." 

But they can also become overdone, even cliche.

When to Use Internal Sensory Details
Sensory details are a pause in the momentum of your story.  They ask a reader to stop for a few seconds and access an emotion.  You don't want to do this a lot.  If you do, the story will slowly sink.  No forward motion.

But if you don't add any, readers won't know what a character is perceiving, feeling, or thinking, without you saying "He felt sad" or "They sighed, disappointed."  (Telling, not showing.)

A thriller writer wrote me about this.  She'd been planting sensory details at peak emotional moments in her scene, a good change from telling how her narrator felt.  She worked from the simpler ones ("His stomach clenched.") to more complex and imaginative ("A dull pain gnawed his stomach.").  She even experimented with metaphorical ones:  " A worm of anxiety writhed within her."   But was it OK to say a body part did something it couldn't actually do in real life, like the stomach that clenched or the chest that froze?  Would it be better to say "her chest felt like it suddenly froze?"  I think personally I would avoid using a detail that the body couldn't do, but I've certainly felt a stomach clench, so that works for me as a reader.  "Ice ran in his veins" is another one that I see a lot.  Not possible, but used!

She tried to avoid the cliches of "Her heart raced" and "The pit of his stomach felt hollow" but she was confused about this.  Could she use some of these more ordinary sensory details here and there?  Or was it better to use fewer, and make them more creative?  Cliches are just descriptors that are overused, so they lose their meaning.   Always, more original ones are better (and more work).

She also wondered how frequently to use them--her average is two or three every nine pages in a 350 page manuscript.  Was that too many for an intense thriller?  

For this great question, I would send her back to her favorite books in her genre.  Read a couple of first chapters of thrillers she likes a lot.  Underline or highlight whenever she sees an internal sensory detail. (She'll need to read like a writer, not like a reader to see these--they are usually invisible to readers, in skillful writing.)  My copy of The Girl on the Train has about two or three per chapter, about the average she's going for.   In certain chapters, there are more. 

Look at a couple of books.  Get an average you can live with.  See what these writers use for sensory details--do they go for the complex or the simple. 

Problem is, there's no hard-and-fast rule.  Most writers develop an intuitive sense about sensory details, based on their genre and audience.  Literary writers use more than writers working in commercial fiction.

Friday, February 5, 2016

How Long Can My Timeline Be? Story Arc Questions and Answers

Many first-time novelists and memoirists struggle with timelines, asking excellent questions in my classes.  Two favorite ones: 

* How long a span of years or months or days can my book cover?

 
* What should I condense, what should I expand (Do I have to relate everything in real time or can it be summarized)?

A memoir writer from Massachusetts recently emailed me about this.  She wants to cover her childhood in the first quarter of her book.  Then she asked about fast forwarding fifteen years to the next major turning point.   What will this do to readers' attention?   Will they stay with her?

Similarly, first-time novelists ask me about how much of a character's background is necessary, for the reader to make sense of their actions in the main story.  Isn't it easier to just start early in their lives, show why they are who they are, then bring on the crisis?