Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Flying By The Seat of Your Pants

Question of the day: You talk about plot complications, and I would like to know how you deal with those. As I am discovering, even the best-laid plans go awry when you actually put finger to keyboard, so I'd like to know how you approach such a instance. I have found that as I get to know my characters better, I am unhappy with some of the things I previously thought they would do - or even the direction of the plot. In such an instance, would you just make a note of it and go back to it a little later - or would you start a chapter rewrite there and then? I've been doing the latter, which doesn't bother me as the MS will literally keep me awake at nights if I don't attend to it immediately - but I'd be interested in some tips here.

Excellent question, and yes, I definitely wrestle with this, and have especially wrestled with this earlier in my novel-writing career, when I was still getting my sea legs as to how to write the best first draft possible. Because I am a pantser - as in, I don't outline, I don't have much of a clue what's going to happen, and I write by the seat of my pants - I often find, as you have, that the characters go places I totally didn't anticipate. In the manuscript I just completed (but, I'll note, haven't yet revised, which I'm sure will cause further changes), one of the main characters was a late entry into my imagination, and in fact, wasn't even part of my original idea, and the second half of the book took on a life of its own: I literally NEVER imagined what ended up happening was going to happen.

For me, this method works. I feels organic, honest and allows me to, I hope, create characters who aren't shoved into contrived circumstances because I deemed said circumstances necessary to get from point A to point B.

But. This method also means that yes, I often have to go back and tinker with what I've previously written. When I discover a disconnect, I go back and amend it right there and then. But this is because my writing and the plot tend to snowball...if I, in the back of my mind, know that there's some incongruity in the plot or the characters, I have a difficult time getting to the mental place I need to imagine their current lives or situations. (Wow, that's a really ambiguous sentence.) What I mean by that is that if I'm hung up on the thought of knowing that I need to change a character's past behavior or past life, it's hard for me to fully imagine their future behavior or their future life, because, as a pantser, all roads lead to the page I'm currently on. If something needs to be changed on page 56, well, then it's going to affect the outcome of page 102. Make sense? So I go back right then and rework it.

As I said, I've gotten better about this with every book I write because I have a much better understanding now of what I have to do to create tension, accelerate the plot, give the characters depth, etc. So I fall into fewer sand traps as I go. I guess my advice is to really ruminate on the action before you put it down on paper. Even though I might not spend my entire day writing, I do spend a lot of my non-writing hours mulling over what's going to go on the page when I do. I don't just sit down and write to write...I've long since hashed out WHY I'm asking a character to do something and WHERE this is going to lead to in the plot. If their actions make sense and propel the plot forward, then for the most part, I'm safe.

Anyone else deal with this? Do you go back right there and then to fix things or keep chugging along to get to the finished product?


Nadia Damon said...

Dear Allison,
Thanks so much for answering my question in such detail! I understand exactly what you mean and it's heartening to learn that this is something I can improve on as I become more experienced. :o))

I spend a lot of time - usually when walking the dog - thinking about how my story/characters should develop. I often know exactly what I'm going to write - almost always the first line verbatim (it appears in my head), before sitting down at the computer.

To answer your question, after realising that I actually disliked my protagonist on the basis that she would have a handshake resembling a limp lettuce, I took an axe to her in the first 10 chapters (I'm a journalist as well, so can be merciless when necessary!) and now find myself in the position of rooting for her.

I'd be interested to know the type of 'relationship' you develop with a character before weaving them into a story. I have read about authors literally becoming obsessed with a character. To be honest, as far as I'm concerned, my characters are really just the tools allowing me to do the job - and while I feel a growing interest in them, I haven't felt the need to list their likes/dislikes/food allergies in any level of detail. Should this too be something that develops organically during the writing rather than the planning process - or am I missing a trick here?

Once again, many thanks - and best regards,

Amie Stuart said...

I agree w/Allison. It definitely gets easier as you develop bigger writing chops. That said, if my character throws me for a loop, it's usually not huge so I just make a note to go back and change/tweak something.

Nadia I'm LOL@ your chopping your heroine. I had one of those but honestly I couldn't get past page 15--that's normal for me. If it's not going to work, no amount of forcing will put words to paper. I finally realized she was a) the antithesis of pretty much every heroine I've ever written and b) I coulnd't see myself spending 300+ pages with her.

I LOVE my characters (HELLO 300+ pages! LOL) but I don't spend tons of time getting to know them with interviews etc.--and it's not unusual for me to have characters show up fully formed.

Usually the curveballs I get are as some new character trait/oddity pops out, but it's rarely if ever from left field.

Nathanael Green said...

Thanks for the post! It's always nice to see that other writers are struggling with unruly characters doing what you never expected them to.

The way I deal with this is just keep moving. If I come to a point where I know something needs to change in a character's backstory, I just make a note to myself in bold and caps, and continue writing as if I'd already made the change. Then once I hit The End, I can go through and make those changes.

I find this keeps me moving toward the end. Otherwise, I spend way too much time revising the first four chapters until I lose momentum on the overall story.


Gwen Hayes said...

Great post...thanks to Amie Stuart for directing me here.

I am a "go backer". It might impede a fast first draft--but then again, when I hit the end, I usually only have a typo here and there to fix.

I have one character right now--the hero--who keeps me guessing, still. We're at 100 pages, I'd like to think I know his real motivation, but I don't think I do.

Anonymous said...

I'm a stickler for continuity, in books and in movies, and this has hindered me a bit in writing my manuscript. I found the problem no so much to be going back and fixing the back story but my tendency to OVERwrite my explanation of the back story.

I just got feedback from my agent on my MS and this was his consistent criticism: I don't give my reader enough credit to "get things" and so I overwrite to make sure there is continuity. Now I'm going back and cutting out the overwriting I'd done to explain a character's back story. Does that make sense?

Meg Spencer said...

It depends on the situation. I'm a pantser (love that term!) up to the point where I get really stuck. I've had a few major changes that I decided not to go back and change right away (the family relationship between two characters changing from grandson/grandfather to son/father was a big one in my current work), but I can keep the character changes in my head fairly well until I go back for revisions. I like to keep the momentum going as much as I can.

Where I get stuck is if I've had to make major plotting changes. I had two or three places where I was just stuck, and each time it was because my plot had derailed and I had no option other than to go back. In one case I completely abandoned four chapters. That hurt.

Trish Ryan said...

I'm surprised by how much this comes up with nonfiction, too...not so much the not knowing where your characters will go, but decisions about how to get them there: which details to include, how much the reader can infer vs. being told, what keeps the narrative moving...

As I reach the deadline for Book #2, I've learned that I can't make those decisions as I write. I have to write it all out, and then revise later (trusting my editor to help me make precision cuts rather than hacking everything up)

It takes longer this way, but every page written gives me more to work with than I had before. That keeps me going :)

Hayley E. Lavik said...

I'm a short-term plotter to some extent, and I know the next big destination, but it mostly builds as I go. After a lot of writing for the fun of it, I'm working on the first big, serious work, and at the moment I'm leaving some alterations untouched. I could probably keep myself going back and adjusting if I didn't press forward, and the whole point is to get that finished draft out. I've done some rethinking on character personalities in the early stages, but for the moment I just note it, explore it so I know it well, and keep going. I can shape it all up in revisions, when I know where it needs to lead.

Allison Winn Scotch said...

Thanks, everyone, for weighing in! Megan, you raise a good point, and I do something similar, which maybe I should have noted in the post: if it's not a big inconsistency, I'll just jot down the thing I need to go back and amend, and keep plowing through. It's only the biggies that I drop things for and go back and rewrite.

Leah - this is also a great point. I think I'll pull it out and discuss on the main blog. Thx!

Nadia Damon said...

Thanks everyone!
It's great to read everyone's comments and all really useful stuff.
Best regards, Nadia.

Maya / מיה said...

Great post! I'm trying right now to see if I can become an outliner rather than a pantser, but I suspect that my outlines will go out the window as I actually write. I like your method of cyclic editing as you go-- not TOO much, just enough to keep the story on track.

suzanneelizabeths.com said...

Allison, thanks for answering this question. I've often wondered what to do when you get stuck in the middle of the book and the plot just starts to peter out...I don't want to abandon the story....maybe just keep writing and see where that goes.

Lisa Katzenberger said...

I'm a first draft pantser too, but I'm working on my process for the second draft. So far it's been iterative, in that I focus on the rewrite in chunks. I look at the first 20 pages, rewrite them, look at the next 20, rewrite them based on how the beginning is different, etc.

In this book, I had to move scenes around a lot, but it settled itself back into place in the middle. I'm now facing the end, but I think I want to start back up at the beginning to solidify that before I dig into the final chapters.

Who knows how I’ll attack the third draft!

Anyway, it all makes my head spin but I love it! Bottom line, whatever keeps you typing every day probably does the trick!

Anonymous said...

Everybody this is me writing, you'll probably think this is odd. I am a hermit, sort of when it comes to tech stuff.
I'm a fellow writer in need of insperation etc.. I have a world inside of me that constantly evolves the second I dash away stroking my keys of imagination. I began writing when my mom died. I am horrible with spelling and grammar. Interestingly, I love to write anyway and I probably work more than average gifted writer because of that. I feel like a scrambler, always overworking on transforming my ms, I don't know if it would seem odd to you all, if I said, my ms has been re-writen about 12X... And I am still changing stuff. If I had a question for anyone who cared to answer it, would be. 'Writing well. Does it generally mean to write with no idea how things are going to end up? (or) Is it wiser to plan, write? Then spice up the unexpected and cultivate it? I would like to write in a combination of, grace, beauty, and shock.

Anonymous said...

sorry about the spelling, see what I mean, you are all probably laughing, rightfully so...
Anyway, if I have offended any grammar queens or kings tonight just ignore the whole thing. LOL!