Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Self Diagnosis - Outliner or Panster?

A popular post from September 2013.

By Josi S. Kilpack

At first glance this seems easy to determine about yourself, but put off making the determination until you answer a few questions.

First, let's define the two terms:

Outliner: This is a writer who spends a relatively significant amount of time planning out their book in its entirety before sitting down to a blank page and beginning the actual writing process. A true outline consists of knowing the beginning, middle, and, especially, the end of your project.

Panster: This is a writer who's 'swinging by the seat of your pants.' This means that the author has no written plan when they start their project, but rather they let the story unfold for them as it will unfold for their reader.

So, here are the questions to ask yourself:

1) Do your stories typically begin (as in very first thought about it) with a character or a storyline?

2) When you sit down to write, do you have a pretty good idea of what you will be writing?

3) Do you have a set goal when you sit down? (# of words, specific scene)

4) Would you say your strength is in drafting or revising?

5) Have you ever written with an outline, if so, what percentage of your story stayed exact to the outline you began with?

6) Have you ever completely free-written a project with no written outline to follow?

7) Do you find yourself bored with your story if you know what is going to happen next?

Now, look at the answers you gave to these questions. Go back to the definitions of outliner or panser and see which one better suits you. You may very well find yourself straddling both places--that's actually pretty normal. Most of us are hybrids, but we tend to lean one way or another. Here's how I answered these questions:

1) My stories start with character--most pansters are the same way. However, I am currently writing a series that uses the same character over and over again. Because my character is established, I have to focus more on plot when a story gets going for me. I also have to be aware of plot elements, motivations, settings, themes, and methods of murder used in the earlier books. I've found that my panster ways are seriously impeded by the considerations I HAVE to make. Amid this series I've done a co-authored series as well and it has been much more in tune with my panster ways, and yet I've had to be considerate of the other stories in the series. It hasn't been as difficult as in my mysteries, but I've had to have some written plans, and especially, coordination with my co-authors

2) As a panster, I usually know what my writing for that day will 'start' with, but I don't know where it will end which I think is pretty typical for us panster types. When I'm using an outline, I find it's pretty much the same thing except I have a bit more direction because it's written down. Regardless of which 'mode' I'm in, I almost always go back and read/revise what I wrote the last time I sat down to write before I start new writing. This catches me up to my story and reminds me where I am.

3) I rarely have a set word count goal when I set down--when I am too invested in writing a set number of words, I get anxious. I will often have a goal regarding a scene to either write or revise. I try to keep my goals small enough that I KNOW I will meet it. If I have too big of expectations, I run a high risk of frustration. Often, a small goal will get me into a groove and I'll move on to the next scene without a problem. I actually have no idea if this is more typical of an outliner or a panster, I think it has more to do with anxiety issues :-)

4) My strength is definitely in revising. Most pansters are the same way--they draft to learn their story and then they revise to make it good. Outliners on the other hand are often very strong drafters and their first draft is quite solid and fleshed out because they developed a lot of the ideas prior to writing them.

5) I have attempted many outlines and, up until my most recent project, I would say I kept to about 25% of what I outlined. I therefore felt as though I had wasted the other 75% worth of effort. This isn't entirely fair because any amount of time spent planning and thinking through our story makes our end result better, if only because we reject something that doesn't work, but it still frustrates me. With my most recent project, however, I have done a very long and multifaceted outline. I spent a few weeks on it and used 90% of what I outlined. I am still pantsing a lot of the story and I've moved a lot of things around, but I feel as though I have well utilized the time I put into the outline, which is an exciting thing for me.

6) I have completely free-written many projects. I always have a second document for 'cuts' and have had up to 800 pages of cuts for one project. For me, the story does not develop fluidly so I often take tangents that result in 10, 40, 150 page cuts because what I've written turns out to be crap. I still have to be forgiving about it because it helps me learn my story, but it's a big reason why I want to learn to outline, so as to avoid so much cutting. I 'enjoy' freewritting more, however. Most pansters enjoy writing without knowing what's around the next corner.

7) I have never found myself bored with a story because I know what's going to happen next. Even if the story is fully developed in my mind, I know it's not 'real' until it's on the page. This leans more towards me being an outliner, as many pansters don't want to outline because it loses some of the magic of the story.

As my own self-diagnosis, I would call myself a panster. It's my natural inclination and my 'happy' place. However, as my writing has transitioned from a hobby, to an identity, to a career, I am developing into more of an outliner. The expectations of me require that I give summaries and even synopsis before a project is completed, so there is no option for me to free-write start to finish. I am, however, very happy with the experience so far. I'm learning a lot and growing and beyond wanting to write great books, learning and growing should be one of our top priorities as a writer. Perhaps the day will come where everything I write is brilliant and I can tell anyone who wants a summary of book not yet written to go to the devil and they will scurry away like mice, but that day hasn't come and if I ever want it to, I need to learn the skills that will take me there.

So, which side of the fence are you on, or like me, are your arms out to help maintain your balance between the two.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Staying True to Your Characters

A popular post from January 2012.

by Annette Lyon

I love reading a book where the characters are so well-drawn that they feel real. Where I read a description or action and know exactly why this character said, acted, or described something a specific way.

Writing characters that are round instead of flat, who seem to breathe off the page instead of walk around like paper dolls, is hard.

Some time ago I posted about character lenses. That concept is one of my favorite tools for characterization, ever. If you haven't read that post, go read it now to brush up on what I mean by "lenses."

Short version: It's the unique way each character views the world. (But the post explains it in greater detail.)

The crucial part:
Creating a lens does you no good unless that lens colors every page that the character shows up on. If we see it for the first time on page 287, it's useless.

Here are some ways to give your character a lens:

A Defining Characteristic
I've visited the house of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius twice in my lifetime. Both times, a trait of his stood out to me: he was a synesthete, meaning he had what's known as synesthesia.

Synethesia is when two senses that wouldn't normally cross, do. One synesthete may see colors with letters. Another may associate a personality with numbers, and so on.

For Sibelius, sound had color. He had a painting hanging in his house with a lot of a specific shade of yellow that, to him, was D Major. A bright green fireplace was the exact shade of F major. (Apparently he "saw" only major keys, not minor.)

Give your character something that distinguishes them, like synesthesia . . . or something less dramatic.

Does your synesthete hear a shrill minor key when walking in city traffic? Does a lullaby evoke a peaceful light blue? If we learn how your character interacts with their world through their individual attributes, everything will be more alive, even if that attribute isn't nearly as "out there" as synesthesia.

What really gets your character excited?

If it's food, then a totally awesome event should be described in terms of European chocolate or a favorite restaurant's cuisine.

If your character loves to knit, use terms about yarn, stitches, gauges, needles, and the frustration of frogging.

If it's motorcycles, use terms that evoke the passion, whether it's rev and gear, or other things, like the challenge of fixing the engine yourself, running out of gas, a flat tire, or the thrill of wind in your hair.

If your character is a football star and experiences something totally exciting, don't describe it as heavenly; describe it as feeling like he won the Super Bowl.

Whatever your character is good at is likely something that will color their lens.

For some old friends of mine, that would be theater. I could write about an actor and use theater terms to color experiences in the story, events in the story that of themselves have nothing to do with theater. Think green room, opening night jitters, break a leg, flop, standing ovation, etc.

Brandon Sanderson does this well in his Way of Kings. A main character is a soldier, but he's no ordinary soldier; as a boy, he was trained to be a surgeon. He views life (and the battlefield) in terms of a surgeon. He doesn't just see blood; he knows exactly where the man was pierced with a sword and how it must have missed an artery, because of the way the blood flows.

Dad grew up as a farm boy. Mom grew up in a metropolitan European city. People used to joke that they were the embodiment of the Green Acres TV show, and the idea wasn't that far off.

When Dad saw my sister watching Charlotte's Web and crying, he shook his head and said, "Pigs are dirty. And they're food." By this point, he was a professor, but it was the farm boy speaking.

Mom, on the other hand, to this day, finds her eye drawn every time she passes a Jaguar on the road. The metropolitan girl is still there.

A different way of looking at it: A few years ago, PEG's own Heather Moore and I co-chaired a writing conference, and as part of our duties, we picked up a literary agent from the airport. On the way to dinner, she commented about how gorgeous the mountains were.

This was mid-March. As northern Utahns know, that's probably the ugliest time of year for our dear mountains. But for someone who'd never seen mountains like this, close up, they were beautiful.

In a story, a Utahn might not notice the mountains unless the seasons were changing, especially in the fall. But a transplant would.

Along the same vein, a tourist might walk the streets of Manhattan, head back to see the tops of the skyscrapers, and a local would know right away that the other person is a tourist. Locals don't gaze upward at the skyscrapers.

In every scene, get into your point-of-view character's head and mindset. That could mean more than one of these elements. Perrin in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series uses both black smith imagery and wolf imagery as his lens, and both totally work.

As you think about your characters, you'll not so much create a lens for them as much as discover what's already there.

Friday, June 5, 2015

E-book vs. Traditional Publishing: Pros and Cons

A popular post from March 27, 2013

by Annette Lyon

With the huge boom of e-book publishing, particularly self-publishing, writers today have more options than ever before. What to do? Are there still benefits to traditional publishing? What are the benefits to going out on your own? Which should you pick?

Recently I talked about how to do self-publishing the right way if that's the path you take. You can read about that here.

Today I thought I'd talk about both sides of the fence, because the answer to the big question of how and where to publish and why will be different for every writer, because we all have different goals.

E-book Self-publishing

Some of the pros here are obvious. First and foremost, you don't need to snag an agent or publishing house to get your work available to the reading public. In addition, you have full control over the content and presentation, including the cover, editing, and formatting.

A huge pro for self-publishing today is that if your writing square peg doesn't fit into the standard round hole of the limited number of publishers out there, you can still find the audience out there who is eager to read your work.

Another big pro is the timeline: You can publish whenever you want, and you get paid much quicker. No waiting years for advances and royalty checks.

The cons for self-publishing are the flip side of the coin for each pro. Because it's so easy to self-publish, many writers jump on that ship and click the publish button before they're truly ready. They may not get their work ripped apart by solid critique partners, get it professionally edited after that, or get it proofed after that. They may not hire a trained graphic designer for the cover. (Basically, it's really easy to land into all of the pitfalls mentioned in that other post.)

I know many, many writers who will agree with me on this next point: While there will always be outliers who are the exception to the rule, generally speaking, the most successful self-published e-books are authored by writers who have already been in the industry a long time and who have experienced the submission/rejection/acceptance process, followed by the publishing house editorial processes.

Those are big things to have experienced . . . or to not have experienced. Writers who have gone through the ups and downs and who have had outside eyes weigh in on their work again and again: Those are the people most likely to succeed with e-books, because they've already experienced publishing and what it takes. They probably already have the chops.

This is not to say that if you've never been traditionally published that you can't succeed. It just means that you have to take the time to make sure you've worked long enough at your craft to have it down, and that you have people you can trust to tell you the truth. In other words: Don't self-publish your first book. And likely not the first several. You need to learn the craft and learn it well. Putting up sub-par work just because you really want to be published will only come back to haunt you.

Traditional Publishing

I can summarize the biggest con here in one word: gatekeepers. While agents and editors serve a valuable purpose in sifting the wheat from the chaff, sometimes they have to toss a great book to the side because it doesn't fit what they are selling or publishing right then. And that's frustrating. Great books don't always get published. That's a reality.

Another down side is that the time lag in traditional publishing can feel brutal. Getting an agent can take forever. Selling your book even longer. And once it's accepted for publication, it may not hit shelves for at least a year, possibly two. That can feel like an eternity.

And yet. Traditional publishing does have some major pros. Part of that is the professional package you get, with content and line editing, cover design, interior layout, and so on. Another is that they pay for all of those things, assuming all of the risk. And that includes hard-copy books getting printed and shipped.

More importantly, however, because publishers are assuming the financial risk, they invest money in your book so it can succeed. They have marketing dollars and advertising outlets writers simply don't have. (Scholastic book orders, anyone?) They have the muscle to reach more readers than you can ever do on your own. Granted, not all books get big budgets, but even a small one is probably more than you can do.

Part of their power lies in distribution. Good luck getting a hard-copy book into any bookstore, especially a chain like Barnes and Noble, if you're self-published. It pretty much never happens. Distribution is a huge plus for traditional publishers.

This includes selling internationally. Sure, Kindle is opening up in other markets, like Germany, Spain and Italy, but with traditional publishing, you can get international deals--and translations--of hard-copy books into bookstores in a huge number of markets. I know a writer who sells a lot of books in the US but makes more on his international sales through the different countries that have purchased foreign rights to his books.

Another thing to consider is that the bestsellers' lists are almost exclusively made up of traditionally published books. It's easier to get struck by lightning than to get on one of those with a self-published e-book. Meaning that yes, it's happened, but seriously, more people get struck by lightning each year than the number self-published books than have ever gotten onto those lists. (I actually looked it up.)

And then there's the fact that there's something to be said about the validation and respect that traditionally published writers tend to get more than self-published ones, whether or not it's justified. I don't know of a writer who wouldn't love to have "New York Times Bestselling Author" next to their name.

So Now What?

Many writers have concluded that picking one side over the other isn't necessary, and that doing both may actually help their careers. One romance author reportedly makes significantly more money with her self-published e-books, but she can sell them in higher quantities because she's traditionally published as well, so readers trust her name and brand more than they would if she were entirely independent.

Which side you pick—or whether you intend to pursue a bit of both—is a decision only you can make. You'll have to make a list of your personal goals and decide on the route mostly likely to to help you reach those goals.

Regardless of what you choose, one critical decision should remain the same for all writers:

Study up on your craft and write the best book you're capable of.

Everything else comes later.