October 30, 2015

Writing Methods

There's this idea that two methods of writing exist, plotting and pantsing (flying by the seat of one's pants). Plotters outline the whole story in advance, potentially in great detail, then write a first draft that follows the outline. Pantsers begin writing with no plan and discover the story in the process of writing it, knowing they'll revise later to make everything fit together better. Often these two strategies are discussed with the suggestion that any given writer is one type or the other.

As with most dichotomies, the reality is more of a spectrum. Plenty of plotters expect to adjust or even ignore their outlines once they start writing and think up new ideas. Pantsers usually have some overall plot concept in mind at the beginning and may have many smaller details planned out. People also swear by writing processes that fall in between the two camps or aren't identifiable as either. And while some writers can only imagine working at one or the other extreme, others try out both at different times.

A month ago I gave an update on the novel I'm plotting in a hardcore way. This is the first time I've done extensive outlining before the first draft, but much of the work feels familiar from planning subsequent drafts of novels I wrote pantsily. I'm now revising my outline, which is also a familiar process, and I'm still pleased at the idea that all this advance work will eventually lead to a first draft that's solid, well-structured, and doesn't require several rounds of rewriting.

In response to a discussion about that post, my friend Julia wrote an amazing breakdown of her writing process, which involves a great deal of outlining and advance planning. Many of the steps Julia details are similar to what I've been doing as I plot out this novel, as well as what I've done when preparing for past revisions. Some of the parts that resonate with me aren't things I was conscious of doing or wouldn't have thought to call out, so I'm very impressed with her level of insight into her own process. Do check out her post, and feel free to imagine me doing most of that stuff, especially lying on the floor in despair.

While I'm enjoying my plotting, other than the bouts of floor despair, I was growing eager to begin writing something new, and this plot-in-progress isn't ready to embark on yet. I'd been musing for a while on another idea I thought I might be able to start drafting, but once I took notes on what I'd thought of so far, I found I didn't have enough to work with. I went through the "I will never have another idea oh wait I have an idea" routine surprisingly quickly and came up with something that I was fairly confident could result in a novel-length text.

In the past month, I've written 25,000 words on this new novel, and while I will not claim that they are good words in their present combination, they do set in motion a story that I'm curious to get to the end of. I've been pantsing pretty hard, assigning the characters problems that come to me on a whim, setting up scenes with no plan for how they'll play out, and surprising myself with intriguing developments. I have a very general sort of conclusion in mind but only the vaguest sense of how I might get there, which is both fun and terrifying. I fully expect that if this story turns out to be any good, I'll have to throw out at least half the subplots and overhaul many of the characters in the next draft. This novel, unlike the one I'm pre-plotting, will require a ton of rewriting.

I like plotting, and I like pantsing. Maybe eventually I'll decide that one end of the spectrum is more useful for me to stick with, but at the moment, I'm quite content to be working with both methods.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In The Atlantic, Noah Charney explains the the reality of the modern book tour: "Then arrived another solution that I only learned about on my first tour, back in 2007 for my novel The Art Thief. It peeled back the veil over this quasi-legendary concept of authors on tour (I imagined groupies, whiskey, cigarette smoke, typewriters), and exposed me to a new, and completely fascinating, role that I never knew existed: that of the awkwardly named 'escort.'"

October 19, 2015

Thoughts I Had While Young

Earlier in this journey through my childhood writing, I noted that I don't have much in the way of fiction from sixth grade, and the same is true of seventh, probably because my middle school curriculum put a heavy focus on creative writing in eighth grade. We'll get to that soon.

The documents preserved in my seventh grade folder are primarily nonfiction reports and essays, though one exception is an afterword I was assigned to write for the novel SHANE, speculating on what happens after the end of the story. (All I remember of this book is that it involves a guy on a horse, or maybe that means all I remember is the cover.) Throughout my school career, writing an additional chapter to a novel was a frequent (and fun, for me) assignment. If this is a widespread phenomenon, it's just occurred to me that a lot more of us have written fan fiction than we might have realized.

The most "interesting" works from this time period are a number of opinion pieces, but before we check out those essays, I want to share one fact-based report, in part because it has such a ridiculous cover.

October 8, 2015

September Reading Recap

I read outstanding books last month, mostly. I highly recommend two recently published novels, MAKE YOUR HOME AMONG STRANGERS and SAFEKEEPING, which I hope are on their way to wider recognition. The graphic memoir FUN HOME has already garnered much praise, and deservedly so. I was less impressed by the acclaimed older novel RABBIT, RUN. Read on for full reviews:

MAKE YOUR HOME AMONG STRANGERS by Jennine Capó Crucet: Lizet has left Miami and her Cuban immigrant parents to attend a prestigious college in upstate New York. She's completely out of her depth there and in serious academic trouble by Thanksgiving, when she makes a surprise trip home. Upon her return to Miami, she discovers that her mother, along with most of the city, is more interested in the arrival of a young Cuban boy, the only survivor from an ill-fated boatload of refugees. As the fate of this youngster (a fictionalized version of Elián González) turns into an ongoing news story, Lizet keeps running up against the ways she's grown apart from her family and the ways she doesn't fit in at school.

This novel pulled me in immediately with a strong narrative voice, and I remained engrossed throughout. Lizet is an excellent protagonist. At times her stubbornness is frustrating, and she possesses the impulsivity and arrogance of a teen on the verge of adulthood, but that same determination is just as often admirable, and I felt great sympathy for her fear and confusion as she faces new grownup challenges. The story is beautifully, powerfully written, and every character and situation is real and compelling.

Lizet and her family are a product of Crucet's imagination, but the author drew upon her own experiences as a first-generation college student. She published a fascinating essay in the New York Times about her real life challenges and another on realizing this story should be told. I'm glad it's out there.

→ Jessamyn Hope will be one of the guest speakers at Book Riot Live, so I looked at a sample of her debut novel, SAFEKEEPING. Within a couple of pages, I was invested, and I only grew more intrigued as the story took me deeper into the problems and pasts of the characters.

When Adam shows up in Israel to volunteer at a kibbutz, he's in bad condition. He's suffering alcohol withdrawal, he's fled New York City after committing a crime, and his only possession is a brooch, the treasured heirloom of his recently deceased grandfather. The brooch is what's brought him to the kibbutz, where he expects to find a woman his grandfather loved long ago, but the search is harder than he anticipated. As Adam hunts for the mystery woman, other people he encounters on the kibbutz are caught up in quests of their own. The collisions between the concerns of different characters and the gradual reveal of emotional backstories propels the story along and makes this a gripping read.

Historical and cultural details are skillfully woven through the novel without ever slowing down the story. I knew almost nothing about kibbutzim and was glad the book portrays this fictional, but probably representative, kibbutz from its founding in the 1930s up to the 1990s, when the main story is set and the community faces a financial crisis. The book also introduced me to several other pieces of history that came as surprises when they appeared in the story. The unexpected connections in this novel impressed me most. I loved watching how different pieces were set up and then fell into place, satisfyingly but not too tidily. Hope is a masterful storyteller, and I eagerly await more from her.

FUN HOME by Alison Bechdel is an engrossing graphic memoir that I'm glad I finally picked up. I don't often make reading time for comics, and I'm not usually interested in memoir, but I'd been curious about this book since I started hearing praise for it, particularly since I like Bechdel's Dykes to Watch Out For strip. Since I'll get the opportunity to attend the Fun Home musical on my trip to New York next month, I knew it was time to check out the book. It's just as good as everyone says.