Sunday, October 26, 2014

"Planner or Pantser?"

This is the first of six posts about writing as a craft, which I'll post during National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo as it's affectionately called--an event during which an international variety of writers, hobbyists and professionals, teenagers and retirees, and perhaps as many as a half-million of them, try to draft a novel in a month.

Am I a planner--that is, do I plan out my novels in advance? Or am I a pantser--that is, do I just come up with a character and setting, situation, or problem and start writing and see what happens? I'll answer that question by the end.
Mindmap, from Wikipedia Commons

There are those passionate from each camp who can turn this into a loud debate. The pantsers (the term comes from writing "by the seat of the pants") can't imagine how you wouldn't get bored knowing in advance what's going to happen. The planners (aka plotters) can't imagine how you'd have anything like a novel at the end of 60,000 words of unplanned writing about a character's life. You'd have 60,000 words, they admit, but wouldn't it be something of a mess? The debate can escalate into an online dust-up in no time at all--which seems a bit silly to me.

Some genres seem more geared to one style or the other. While there may be a few pantsers among classic mystery writers, I suspect it's very few. There's so much to structure in a mystery--red herrings, plants, reveals, when the actions of the various actors occur versus when the sleuth finds them out--that it'd take some genius or structural savant to keep that all straight as she invented it and make it thrilling for the reader. On the other hand, a literary novel of self-discovery might work just as well without a writing plan.

If an author is to write in a plotted genre--which includes mystery, thriller, high fantasy, space opera, adventure, western--she'll have to arrange events in her novel to best effect at some point. That could be before she starts or between first and second drafts. Some pantsers even call the first draft the "discovery" draft, for they discover while writing what the book will be about, and then they start anew on the second draft with a plan in mind, using very few of the pages written in the first draft. Arranging events within a novel for increasing tension, and in logical order, is part of the task of the novelist. Unless she's writing stream of consciousness or experimental novel, it has to be done sometime. Pantsers generally need a draft more than planners before they achieve a finished novel.

An author might not have to plot in advance, on paper, if she writes a formulaic sort of book. Contemporary romances and westerns have a structure that is easy for a genre writer to internalize. The plotting has been done at some point in the writing process (or indeed years before the writer was born), so for each novel, there's no need to reinvent that wheel. Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey, re-envisioned for writers by Chrisopher Vogler here and in his book, is another sort of general plan. This can work well for coming of age stories, high fantasy, and first novels in thriller series, among other genres. It wouldn't be difficult to memorize that structure. Several screenwriters have internalized the three-act structure. And so a number of writers have a plan of sorts--even if they don't write it down in outline form--before they begin.

Planners use various methods to organize their ideas. Some draw mind maps. Some make a bullet-point list of major plot points. Some fill out twenty-page character interview forms. Some use the snowflake method, which starts with a one-sentence summary and builds it up to a bullet-point list of major scenes and then a complicated list of all scenes and then a summary of each scene, and then to the novel text itself. Others use unusual plans: they mock up a movie trailer first, perhaps, or paint a mural. Here are nine famous novels' plans. There are no rules here. "Whatever works for you" is the best advice there is, here.

Few plotters stick slavishly to their plans. In my novel Quake, for instance, I had another three viewpoint characters planned, each in a different location, but McKenna and Haruka, intended to be minor characters, won me over, and I tossed those others out to make room for the two girls. This resulted in my sticking to the events in one town, which made it a different novel than the one I had planned. Only the two main characters and the earthquakes stayed the same. Like most planners, I understood: the plan doesn't control the writer; the writer controls the plan.

Fraction of my Excel plot chart for the R Sparks Gothic, Mists of Seacliffe

And so I've revealed that I am a plotter. I use either a bullet-point plan for major scenes or a spreadsheet plan for all scenes, but I keep it flexible so that good ideas that arise during drafting can be fit in, too. Yes, I'm a planner--but that's descriptive, not prescriptive. Every writer should do what works for her.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Hurricane Gonzalo

I was so glad to hear that Bermuda suffered no deaths or serious injuries from this week's hurricane. Emergency preparedness works!

By MODIS/NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, October 17, 2014

Happy (?) Anniversary, SF Quake

25 years ago today was the Loma Prieta earthquake--the one that happened just before a  game of the World Series that pitted two SF Bay Area baseball teams against one another. A lot of the US learned of the quake from being tuned in to the pre-game show. Al Michaels: "I'll tell you what, we're having an earth--" and the transmission stopped. A friend of mine, watching that, reported that his friend said, "What? What's an 'earth?'" And my friend, a former Californian, couldn't help but laugh; he knew.

I was in a car in the East Bay and did not feel it. You had to be darned close to the epicenter to feel it in a moving car. Santa Cruz county residents later told me stories of pulling over to check their "flat tire," and then noticing everyone else seemed to have a flat tire, too--by that time the shaking was over but, being Californians, they figured it out pretty quickly. I felt nothing until the car hit a chunk of collapsed roadway a half-hour later and my teeth clacked together as the car bottomed out. (That section of road was closed an hour later and stayed closed for months.) I began to get suspicious about the lack of lights--either fog had really socked in the area ahead of me, or something was wrong. The car radio told me what.

The Bay Bridge was broken, so getting to my flat in the city required a strange route home, but I got there before three hours had passed. Everything on the north and south walls had fallen down, and kitchen drawers on those walls had shaken themselves open. The pets weren't sure they were ever coming out from under the bed, thank you very much, but once I knew they were alive, I felt calmed. (Food soon convinced them it was a good idea to rejoin society.) Cleaning up would have to wait for lights, power, and the next day.

One of the worst thoughts in a ~7.0 quake is "maybe that was just the foreshock." It's not a happy thought as tiny tremors keep rattling your home--and I have to say, that was the worst bit of trauma I experienced, and it really doesn't qualify as trauma...just edginess that faded over the months.

If you were alive and watched TV news about the event, you'd have thought that the city burned for days. A part of one block burned for a couple hours, and yet the same image was replayed steadily to scare viewers, keep them glued to the set, and hey, now it's commercial break, and come and buy this piece of junk you don't really need while your emotions are overriding your logic. Our collective awareness of the manipulations of "news" changed in The City that week. News is new--and perhaps useful--for a few hours; after that, it's too much speculation and subtle lies. We were back at work, everyone had power, everything was picked up but the wrecked highways, and according to the news, we were still in the midst of an active disaster.

The Oakland highway collapse was nasty, and it accounted for most of the deaths. The benefit to that is highways are designed differently now (small comfort to relatives of the victims, I'm sure). A 9.0 would still take several down, but for the most part, you can drive with more confidence on California's highways than on highways anywhere else--though Japan's are at least as well-built.
Cypress freeway 10/19/1989

I learned two small but useful lessons: bolt your bookcases and china/curio cases to the wall studs, and get earthquake museum gel for your breakables, an easy ounce of prevention. If you live anywhere on planet Earth, you can experience a quake. If you live in the New Madrid Seismic Zone, California, Alaska, Japan, New Zealand, you'd be wise to be well-prepared...and to trade in your brick home for a frame one, ASAP. Seriously, brick is a bad, bad building idea for earthquake zones. Remember, 63 people died in the Loma Prieta quake; over 100,000 died in a quake of the same magnitude in Haiti. Buildings are what kill people in quakes.

In most ways, I'm glad I had that experience. It certainly helped me to make my earthquake novel more realistic. My worst trauma today is seeing it is 25 years ago--man, that means I'm getting old! ;) I hope to be around to talk about it again at the 50th anniversary.

Monday, October 6, 2014


Shakeout is a worldwide earthquake drill. At 10:16 local time on 10-16, you pretend there's an earthquake.

If you want to go beyond that, put a pair of hiking boots, with a flashlight tucked into one, and hardhat or bike helmet next to them, and put them under your bed on 10/16. If an earthquake happens at night, it's right there, within easy reach. But if you do the basic drill--at home or the office or school or the public library--and encourage others to as well, it'll take you one minute. I saw this work in 1989 to prevent injuries. No doorways. Don't run outside. Protect yourself from falling debris.

Drop. Cover. Hold on. It's simple!

Saturday, October 4, 2014

In memory of the Mount Ontake dead

As of this post, there are 50 dead, 16 still missing. The volcano continues to put out dangerous gasses and ash. The 50 cm of ash built up on some slopes will contribute to a dangerous lahar when rains come. About a million tons of ash have fallen now--and it's a relatively small eruption.

Mount Ontake in calmer days
It's dangerous to hike on a volcano. Most eruptions have warning signs, but warnings can be misread...and worse, unheeded. This phreatic eruption--there was no warning for it. What could have saved people already up there enjoying their pleasant hike when the eruption came out of a lovely blue sky? Hard hats would have saved a few (though few of us want to go hiking in hard hats). A lightweight addition to your backpack is a dust mask--that might save you from deadly amounts of ash getting into your lungs and suffocating you. But nothing can save you once you're surrounded by toxic gas.

So be careful out there, hikers in the Cascades and Andes. Volcanoes are beautiful...but they can be deadly.