Planning versus Pantsing

I had the chance to chat some weeks back with the sublime and wonderful S.G. Wong (who you’ve GOT to read… she’s over at http://www.sgwong.com and please check her out).  She was kind enough to sketch out her writing process, which involves planning, outlines and careful plotting of the story arc well ahead of putting actual words down on paper.

She then asked about my writing process.  My stumbling newbie answer was “totally by the seat of my pants” which is true – I often sit down at my keyboard and start typing with absolutely no idea what’s going to come out or in what direction the story will move.

When this works, it’s like I am transcribing a tale as it unrolls behind my eyes… the words flow like water and I write chapters of really good stuff.

When this doesn’t work, of course, I’m sort of stuck.  I will read and re-read the same opening paragraphs, trying to get the words rolling.  I’m currently stuck within a short story that started out en fuego – the first two paragraphs popped into my brain and I was off to the races.  But five pages in and I have no idea where to go next.  A great opening and then… *crickets*

Sometimes when this happens I keep typing, almost randomly.  I’ve broken through a few story barriers this way, and once I get words down they are usually fixable; rarely have I had to throw everything out and start again.  My background as a newspaper reporter taught me to keep typing until I had something ready by the deadline, and my Day Job for the last 22 years has similar deadline-driven requirements.

But it’s not professional, is it?  I mean, surely I can concoct an outline now and then?

Actually, I don’t think I can.  Oh, I still remember Sophomore English, with its outlining and its thesis-building (I still see the chalkboard with “Introduction.  Thesis Statement.  Three Supporting Points.  Restatement of Thesis.  Conclusion.” in my nightmares….)  But my brain simply doesn’t work that way; I’d write out the entire essay and drive the teacher nuts by handing it as “final” when the class was supposed to be working on first draft outlines.  So long as I paid attention to where my thoughts were going, I could arrive safely.

I also once dictated off the top of my head a final paper for a college course over the phone when a buddy in the Engineering College blew a mental tire trying to write about Hemingway.  Come to think of it,  I ghost-took ENG 101 and 102 a half-dozen times, as the only Liberal Arts major among my group of friends.

So – a technical response for my Day Job?  I can almost write those in my sleep by now.  But in fiction, I’m learning all over again that I have to pay attention.  Pay attention to where my protagonist or antagonist is headed, so I can type them out a path.   Pay attention to internal logic, and whether the story arc is a smooth bend or a nasty switchback.

I also have to explain things that don’t exist outside the hamster cage that is my brain, and I’m learning that writing all this out into a cohesive story is a lot more difficult than any technical proposal.

I am also learning there is no correct way to write – just because my narrative lurches like that hamster is hopping across a pond full of lily pads doesn’t mean I won’t cross safely (though I might torture a metaphor until it squeaks).

I can remain in awe of S.G. Wong’s disciplined approach – of all the writers who know every single plot point before they even begin the story – but us pantsers can get the job done, too.

It’s not better, it’s not (okay, it might be a little….) worse – it’s just different.  And if it works for you, it’s the best way.

 

 

Lazy Writing

(Caveat: I have never written a screenplay.  It is unlikely I will ever write a screenplay.  I know nothing about writing screenplays.)

I got that out of the way right up front because I’m about to discuss lazy writing, based upon a weekend of watching movies.  In a little over 24 hours I saw Deadpool 2, Mission Impossible: Fallout, Crazy Rich Asians and The Meg.

This was not really on purpose, mind you.  The Dearly Beloved and I were in Southwest Michigan for the weekend and our little cottage doesn’t have TV reception, so we watch a lot of movies.  Deadpool 2 was at Redbox so we snagged it Saturday night.

Then MI:F was at the local dollar cinema in Paw Paw and we caught the Sunday matinee, mainly to get out of the freakin’ heat and humidity for a couple of hours.

Then while driving around (because the car has air conditioning and it was STILL FREAKIN’ HOT) we stumbled upon a real, honest-to-goodness Drive In movie theater in Dowagiac, with double feature showing that night.

You can Google reviews elsewhere, but I am easily amused and had a great time with all four movies.  But through this marathon I started contemplating lazy writing, and how it’s so easy a trap  to fall into.

It all started with DP2, when (um, spoiler? maybe?) the main character twice broke the 4th wall and tossed off “that’s just lazy writing” lines.

But then MI:F seemed to work to the opposite of lazy writing; there were so many things going on, so many impossible stunts and crazy, ante-upping scenes that the writers may still have band-aids on their poor little fingers from typing it all out. I know I was exhausted and all I had to do was sit there munching popcorn.

CRA was definitely not lazy – the writing was crisp, the acting was great, and now I want to go live rich in Singapore – but then the finale of our weekend at the movies adventure came on.  Big-ass shark time.

First of all, I enjoyed The Meg more than I thought I would.  It delivered on what it promised to be.  But the characters were written like someone took a dart board with every possible cliche’, spun it randomly, took 3 shots of tequila, and then threw darts.

Lazy writing.

Further, there was no reason for the cast to move around in the movie like they did.  You want your square-jawed hero to go chase down a mammoth shark?  Fine.  But there’s no reason the computer expert needs to go along.  Or the billionaire who’s paying for the research.  Or the dude whose sole job seems to be manipulating the underwater drone the shark destroyed in the first 5 minutes of the movie.  The entire cast moved as a unit (station to boat to other boat to yet another boat) for no reason except to be onscreen for comic relief (the black guy, who definitely did NOT sign up for this) or shark chow (see the movie, but it’s who you’d expect).

Lazy writing.

I too am a lazy writer.  My Muse is either drunk most of the time or wants to get back to its Telenovellas, so it often tosses me garbage.  Idea for a new story?  It’s very likely the most cliche’ thing you’ve ever heard, full of offensive stereotypes (I seriously almost handed in something with an old gypsy curse central to the plot) and at most minimal forethought.

So I send the idea back into the hamster cage that is my brain and tell my Muse to do better.  Usually something slightly less offensive comes out (ooh! The gypsy can be a voodoo doctor instead!)  and back it goes again.

Eventually, an idea comes out, panting slightly from running on the hamster wheel but usable and – reasonably – inoffensive.   That’s when I sit down to write.  I still discard a great deal of what goes down on paper (my Muse can be lazy at any time, day or night) but it’s my process to try to avoid the laziest of lazy writing.

As I grow as a writer, I hope the process gets better.  Maybe if I take away the Muse’s dartboard and tequila?

When Words Collide!

Attended my first creative conference this past weekend.  I’ve been to a lot of conferences for my Day Job, but never a comic con, writer’s con, F&SF con… so another first.

IT….WAS…AWESOME!  I learned so much – from the organizers, volunteers, panelists, moderators and fellow attendees.  A special shout-out to my wonderful editor, Rhonda Parrish, who welcomed me into the circle of writers (and the evening ‘bar con’) with open arms; and S.G. Wong, who put up with my silly questions and nervous chatter with grace and equanimity.

I had a chance to read from my story at the “Fire” anthology release.  It’s getting good buzz on Amazon and Goodreads – having read through most of the short stories I see why.  I’m in awe of my book buddies… I share space with talented, creative and very funny people.   I even signed my first autographs (as a natural Lefty, my penmanship is horrid but I aimed for “legible” which is about as good as I get.)

If you’re interested, it’s available on Amazon and probably other places as well –

Thanks to everyone for the experience, and I intend to be there next year!

 

Guest Blogging Post, or “I can’t believe I wrote the whole thing”

Leah at “Small Queer, Big Opinions” hosts a Writer Wednesday, and was kind enough to publish my guest post: a few hundred words of how to incorporate drinking into your characters and their stories.

https://smallqueerbigopinions.wordpress.com/2018/07/25/writer-wednesday-a-guest-post-by-jb-riley/#more-4184

For those of you who don’t know me (and why on earth anyone other than my Mom will ever read this, I don’t know) I am a bit of a fan of drinking.  Let me explain –

My heritage is vastly Irish with a Canadian spin. That means I a) essentially burst into flame in direct sunlight; b) adore cold weather, hockey, and gloomy landscapes; and c) have the capacity of a bull moose when it comes to alcohol consumption.

(Seriously… I am still celebrated in certain circles at my day job for drinking the former chief sales officer under the table at a company event years ago.  He was 6’8″ and over 300 pounds.)

I also did a lot of bar tending in my misspent youth, and a lot of folksinging where the payout was drinks for the night and tips. So let’s just say I have a knowledge, understanding and appreciation for booze.  Leah sent out an open call for guest posts and I was proud to oblige.

I may expand on the theme in future posts here – it’s a fun topic and one relevant to a lot of stories.  In the meantime, Slainte!

PS – the photo is Lilly the Akita.  She was seeking tummy rubs and not hung over, but it’s too perfect a “morning after” picture not to use.

 

 

 

When Words Collide!

This cover is from the anthology containing my “very first, about to be published” story!  The anthology is going to be sent out into the world!  It is part of the 2018 “When Words Collide” convention this month in Calgary!  I am going! (Expect lots more exclamation points!)

Seriously – this is how it all started in August 2017.  I saw an open submissions note… somewhere and thought to give it a try.  Though I have written all my life, my last attempt at “authorship” was a couple decades ago, before I started my current job and simply had no spare time or brain cells.

What I do have is the painstakingly-polished skill of writing to technical requirements, and Rhonda Parrish – the awesome editor – had laid out very specific things she wanted to see in the stories.  I cobbled together my best attempt at meeting those requirements and hula-hula-hallelujah she liked it!  Even more amazingly, she bought it!

(See? Exclamation points…)

Since then I have written and sold a horror story (link will appear when it’s published online) and am working on more.  I still have no time thanks to my work, but have discovered fiction writing stretches different parts of my brain. I’m going to keep writing whether I sell anything more or not; and in the meantime, I’m off to Calgary for When Words Collide!