Plantser…

There are two standard ways to write a novel: the “Planner” method and the “Pantser” method.

Planners have (or claim to have) everything planned out. They figure out everything first, outline every detail, and then write the book. This method will work because it creates a pile of text with sufficient words and all the parts of a story. But, there is no Ah-hah moment. It‘s all laid out. Where’s the joy?

These books are often plot driven. Too often I see characters bent to fit a preconceived idea even though the author might feel the character would do something else.

Pantsers “just write”. Real Pantsers don’t have a plan… Writing this way is possible, but you at least need an idea!
Steven King is a Pantser done right. He starts with an idea or interesting concept, finds a starting group of characters, and then allows them to behave realistically.

This method can work. But, you need to have a good concept, and a handle on your characters (a handle… not a complete plan (please skip the second grade report card!)). You can succeed if you have the right skills and mindset.

But, people think the Pantser method is easy, “you jump in and write”. What they miss is that people like Steven King have had a lot of practice and an idea or concept in mind. Without those your story has a good chance of acting like a cow that finds a hole in the fence.

Being a Pantser takes work, it’s just different work. But, I like the freedom for surprises (that’s part of the fun).

Unless you‘re willing to put in the work; all I can say is “MOOO!”

When writing, I try to hold the middle ground. I have a situation and some big challenges planned. I have a handle on my characters and key events thought out (“fixed points in time” for you Doctor Who fans…). But, I don’t plan everything.

In one spot I may say, “Here my characters move out of their comfort zone into their adventure.” In another I may ask, “If my characters do this, how does the government react?”

I have a plan; however, I also allow things to move and grow as I learn about my characters and story.

This is the “Plantser” method. You plan (you know won’t happen), but you also leave yourself some freedom for the spontaneity and surprises that can make those great moments of literature.

Starting on the first, I’m once again doing NANOWRIMO dear reader. You might not hear much from me until December. My plan is here. And, I’m looking forward to having my questions answered!

I invite you to join us in the fun and madness of trying to write a 50,000+ word book in a month dear reader.

The choice is yours. And, I’ll see you next post!

Reading and writing

Well, I had planned to do a software thing this week… But, as it happens the new technology is kind of being a pain in the rear. So… We’ll talk about some old technology instead.

Woven in-between the other things on my schedule I am almost finished reading Steven King’s On Writing. For any of you who haven’t met the book it is a bit of a memoir, but a lot more of a how to write well book than a “when I was five we moved to…” sort of book. It is definitely worth a read.

One of the things Steven talks about is the relationship between reading and writing. I actually agree with him very much, to paraphrase his words “If you’re not reading you shouldn’t be writing either.”

We read for a lot of reason:

  1. We read to gain information
  2. We read for entertainment
  3. We read for inspiration
  4. We read to find good examples
  5. We read to find bad examples and to learn from other’s mistakes
  6. We… Well, you can run the list out as long as you like. The point is that there are a lot of reasons to read

Reading and writing are two different sides of an exchange of ideas. If you are going to do the writing side well, then you have to understand what the project looks like from the reading side including format, language use, punctuation, voice, etc. The way you learn about what things look like from the reading side is to read.

Reading shapes writing

It does. You pick up bits and pieces while reading that will show up in your writing (or will be kept out of your writing because you learned to avoid the mistakes…). But that doesn’t mean that your writing has to echo someone else’s too closely (that would be plagiarism…). No, reading shaping writing works best (and most ethically) as a process in which you pick up bits and pieces here and there and “try them on” in the process of finding your own voice and your own story.

I might pick up an arcane detail here, a formatting style there. I think I picked up my preference for using a polyphonic structure in large stories from George R.R. Martin, but some of my thoughts on how magic works are heavily influenced my David Eddings.

It’s a process that works over time. The stuff you read will influence how you write, but you really do need to draw in the bits you like and work on your own style (a while back I looked at some of my earlier stuff (like my first finished book length manuscript) and immediately decided I have to rewrite it before I put it out (can you say Tolkien much… And, that’s not even counting the fact that I hadn’t really figured out how to write female characters yet…)).

Don’t limit your reading

Don’t. I know you might want to write in a given genre, and you need to read a lot in that genre if you’re going to learn and write it well. But, it will help if you read outside your genre too. You might even want to jump the tracks and read some nonfiction (or read some fiction if you’re a nonfiction writer).

Reading outside of your area of specialization helps bring in fresh and interesting ideas. It can help sweep out the cliché’s and help you write things differently.

When I’m in my ‘normal’ work mode I usually have two or three books going at the same time. Usually I’m reading a novel or memoir (something where story is king), a nonfiction book about a subject I’m interested in or researching (coins, guns, history, psychology, geology (pretty much any of the ‘ologies’ really), or anything else I want or need to know more about, and one ‘worky icky’ book, one that is about writing, publishing, or marketing (you know the books that you don’t necessarily want to read but you need to in order to succeed in your craft).

One of the reasons I cycle between books is that I know the limits of my attention span, and I know how fast I can read. If I read too much of the same thing for too long my efficiency drops and it takes me longer to finish a book. Reading and rotating actually helps me pay attention and read more books in a given amount of time (your mileage may vary).  One of the keys is to make the books different. Reading three of the same kind of book at the same time would be more confusing than reading in three separate areas at the same time.

Putting it on the page

I’m a writer and an editor. I think a lot of the people who read this blog are writers, editors, and other sorts of folks involved in putting words on the screen or page. When we are reading, at least one of the things we are doing is learning about the writing process. We need to ask ourselves some questions about the stuff we’re reading and actually use our answers in the stuff we’re writing and editing.

Is that arcane fact interesting for some reason? How can you use it in your own work?

Is that opening effective? Is the writer conveying his/her meaning well? Is that an aspect you can borrow?

If the scene you just read sucks, then why does it suck? Are you guilty of the same mistake?

When we analyze the stuff we read, and then apply that analysis to our own writing, we develop our writing style and we are on the way to making ourselves better writers (you know, the ones who can write better, sell more, and actually make a dollar doing this stuff…).

It is important to put stuff into the system by reading and experiencing the world around us. And, if we want to be writers, we need to take that stuff we’ve put into the system and put it out in our own way, in our own words, and in our own works.

If you want to be a writer you’ve got to write. If you want to learn how to write better, you need to examine the written word, and that means reading.

There’s lots of other things to do (experiencing life and people is important too), but reading is a key to being a good writer (even a great one). And, of course, writing is kind of what the job is; it’s taking the knowledge and tools that we’ve gathered and using them in a satisfying and effective way. And that’s kind of what this is all about.

That’s it for this one dear reader. If you’re looking for something to read between this post and the next one, give On Writing a try, or take a look at a couple of posts here and at my other blog Words Mean Stuff (last week we actually talked about meaning, and next week we’re talking context). And… I’ll see you next post!

Editorial Choices…

As always I’m working on a couple of my own writing projects. At the same time my wife and I have been working on some editing projects to help a couple of other writers. This has all gotten me thinking about the choices I can make and actions I can take as an editor…

You can’t dictate everything…

You can’t. Ultimately the individual piece is the author’s piece. You can help shape that piece. You can help refine that piece. You can help the author make it better. But, what you can’t do, is take it away from the author completely (obviously we’re not talking about the whole copy right/rights to the characters can of worms (we can talk about that another day but not right now…)).

In a lot of ways being an editor is to be an assistant. In a lot of ways being an editor is like being a teacher. You are guiding and supporting an author in the process of creating a work. You can put in a lot of work, and you should be rewarded for it. But the person who had the idea and did the writing needs her/his own reward as well (it was his or her baby!).

In this side of things you can advise, but you can’t dictate. You are helping the writer to create and improve a piece of writing that ultimately belongs to its author. If you try to take it away then you’re going to have issues (we’re back to that copy right thing again…).

There are choices you can make.

If your author comes seeking advice, or asks for your input, you can certainly give both.

If your author asks “should I do ‘A’ or ‘B’?” It’s kind of your job as an editor to give the best answer you can.

You can choose what advice to give. You can choose how to give it (actually it’s often a good idea to discuss and even negotiate what kind of advice your giving and how BEFORE you start working together).

You can choose to say “one or both of us need to think on this some more”, or even “Let’s bring someone else in on this”.  There are good reasons for making these choices actually. Some things need more thought and planning. Sometimes you really do need to hand things off to, or enlist the aid of, someone else.

What’s an example of that last one? Here are a few…

My author client wants support in telling a good story. I can do that!

My author wants advice on how to present statistics in a piece. I can do that (I’ve tutored doctoral students in stats and written scientific papers…)

My author wants advice on how best to portray a bisexual Latina living on the U.S. Mexico border. Umm… Let me call in a friend from back when I was at San Diego State. In this case it’s not that I’m unwilling, it’s just that I happen to know someone with a much better skill set for that particular need.

An author (I won’t call this one mine…) contacts me to work on a piece entitled “ALL WHITE MEN ARE RACISIT SEXIST HOMOPHOBIC BIGOTS AND SHOULD BE SHOT OFF INTO THE SUN!!!!!!!”. This time I’m actually going to decline to work on the piece. I can sense right off the bat that there will be some problems in working on this one and I’m not the right person to work with this author (if nothing else the fact that the presented title is in all caps is a bit of a red flag…).

There are choices you can and should make…

Even though I come from the school that says “don’t take the piece from the author”, there are choices you can and should make.

You can, and should, make choices about who you work with. If you can see that the author in question is going to be a headache (or from the author side if you can see the editor is going to be a headache); then why would you choose to work with that person. If there’s not a compelling reason, then you might want to seek another partnership. And money alone isn’t compelling enough (for me at least!)

You can make choices about how you work with the person. One of the concepts we learn about in the seven habits of highly effective people is the idea of the win-win scenario. It might be a good idea to find ways to make your author/editor interactions win-win (from either position why are you going into this if you’re expecting to lose?).

And then there are some bigger ‘special case’ decisions…

So far most of what I’ve said has had to do with helping an author with a piece; you’re part of a team working to create something and make it the best that it can be. But, there is another hat that editors occasionally wear; being an editor you occasionally also serve in the role of publisher.

As an editor (and chief editor at that!) I try not to take my authors projects away from them. I’m not going to demand that they change the main character from a male to a female and species reassign the sidekick to be a bottle nosed dolphin. But at the same time if I’m going to be the one to publish the work, that does give me more of a say. The author can choose to write what he or she wants, but just because somebody wrote it doesn’t mean I have to publish it!

The difference is that when one steps from the role of editor to the roll of publisher one is transitioning from helping someone else to tell her/his story to actually using one’s own resources to put that story out to the world. Now that we’re talking about publishing I’m in a place where it is my name and reputation on the line as well.

What you write says something about you. What I publish says something about me.

(That’s why “ALL WHITE MEN ARE RACISIT SEXIST HOMOPHOBIC BIGOTS AND SHOULD BE SHOT OFF INTO THE SUN!!!!!!!” ain’t getting published at my company. It’s a message I don’t agree with and I’m not going to be forced to put my name on it. But, if the author feels like going somewhere else to publish it and that person/group chooses to publish it, then the fall out is their problem…)

I’m not for taking away anyone’s free speech (that would negatively impact my business), but at the same time I don’t have to give up my free speech by allowing people to use my company to say things that I can’t ethically agree with.

Summing it all up…

So there it is dear reader… Editors shouldn’t try to take away a writer’s work, or mutilate it in ways the author doesn’t agree with. But, at the same time, it is kind of the editor’s job to do his or her level best to help the projects he/she chooses to pick up become truly excellent.

Editors and writers can and should choose partners/coworkers that they can actually work with in an amicable way. And both need to work together to make the piece really good.

No matter what else happens, no one in the relationship: writer, editor, or publisher really has the right to force someone else to say something she/he/whatever else doesn’t agree with.

So that’s it for this one dear reader. Choose people to work with who will actually help the work to go forward, and don’t try to bully folks just because you don’t agree. And of course…

See you next post!

Google docs voice input: useful but quirky

Recently my wife and I were talking with a friend who teaches in the area of special needs students and special education in mainstream classrooms. During that discussion I discovered Google docs has a voice to text feature. So naturally I had to try it. And while I can’t say I’m throwing away my keyboard for a microphone there are times that this feature could be worthwhile.

Why I like it

There are times, like doing video scripts, that I want to write things that sound more like someone speaking naturally. In these cases it is easier to say it than to type it. For some reason when I type or write long hand I get into a mode that is more rhetorical and “printed word/texty” than I want. When I talk into a mic it’s easier to avoid that.

Also, there are times when I want my hands free while I’m writing (like when I’m trying to write up a craft project and need my hands free to do making stuff). Google docs voice feature is a free tool that helps with this.

Actually when I tested it the voice to text feature worked surprisingly well. It was able to have a fairly good level of accuracy in translating what I was saying. It was actually able to translate phrases like four in one chainmail without stress.

Of course the feature did have quirks and it wasn’t entirely a solution to my problems.

What I’m not happy with

The core engine driving the feature seems to be the same one that converts phone calls to texts for google voice. If you have ever seen the ‘creative’ resolutions that happen with that google feature you can imagine what happens if you cough, mumble, or pause mid word. You may also run into problems with more unusual idioms, phrases or words.

You will definitely need to do your editing because the software also occasionally swaps words for other words. In my test case the voice to text feature kept using the word ‘cloths’ for the word ‘close’…

The system is also light on punctuation and formatting options so you may need to put those in later. I was able to get a period by saying the word period, or a comma by saying the word comma. But if I said the word semicolon I got the word semicolon and not a punctuation mark.

Similarly you get a new line by saying “new line” unfortunately if you want a blank line between paragraphs you have to add it in later or say “new line”… wait… and then say “new line” again. This does tend to slow things down a bit. So you may be better off just accepting the fact that you will have to do your formatting later.

I found myself wondering what would happen if I wanted the word ‘period’ instead of a punctuation mark. I experimented and my results were mixed. If I talked about a woman’s period I got the word period. If I said “periods” the software would write “periods”. But if I talked about a trial period, or the colonial period, or said that the program “was the best software period” I got a punctuation mark.

 

And… Things kind of went downhill from there…

After finding the program’s selectivity about the word period I found myself wondering what would happen with other words.

Naturally the first place my mind went was the old F-bomb…

When you use that particular word you get f***.

You will also end up with c*** and a variety of other similar items when you use words that might be offensive to women. But oddly enough the word ass is apparently ok.

At this point I was feeling a bit wierd swearing at my computer, but hey if you’re going to go you might as well go all the way…

Oddly enough while Google docs voice tool seems to want to “bleep you out” if you say something insulting about women; it seems to be just fine with racial epiphytes against blacks, Jews, Italians and others.

At this point I was both surprised and offended and decided to stop.

Summing up

There are times that the voice to text feature is really useful. And I will use it in those cases; however, the feature does not have a full range of punctuation and text formatting features (and you know how much I love those parentheses…). This part makes it even more important to take the time to reread and edit the things you write using this feature.

And of course watch out for those wrong word situations…

I also find it odd that the software actively filters things that might be insulting to women, but seems to be fine with users insulting blacks and Jews (as long as they’re male of course…).

It’s also a good idea to remember that Google docs are stored online and may be more easily observed or pirated than things you keep resident to your machine.

In the final analysis I would say that if you think the idea of talk to text could be worthwhile for you, then give the Google docs voice tool a try. But realize that it does have its quirks and will increase your editing load. You may want to move on and try other speech to text software but the google docs voice to text feature is a starting point.

I would also love an explanation of what they will and will not censor (it’s a free tool so they can make their own choices… I just find the choices that have been made interesting).

That’s it for this one. See you next week