Stepping Into A Writer’s World

In my recent post, A Season for Writing, I wrote about the fact that I’d started a new WIP set in California, and that I could almost feel the sunshine.

And the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that this feeling of place, of inhabiting the world where my characters live, is the way I know that my story has ‘legs.’

I don’t know about you guys, but I get story ideas all the time. Walking down the street, at the airport, in the shower. Some become stories, but others, for now, remain fragments, nothing more than a few sentences.

I’m not a plotter – I don’t sit down and write detailed plot graphs and chapter plans. I tried it once, but my characters didn’t like it and decided to run off in an entirely different direction. I knew then that it wasn’t for me. I’m envious of people who can plan their books that way – though I love the excitement of flying by the seat of my pants when writing a new story, there are moments when I have no idea what will happen next, or whether I can bring things to a speedy conclusion, and a nicely plotted graph would be very helpful. However, when I can ‘see’ my characters and their surroundings clearly, I take it as a signpost that all will be well.

Instead, when I start a new story, I take one of the little fragments – an idea, a couple of characters, a key event – and I start writing. I don’t think about it too much, because if I squeeze the idea too tightly it won’t be able to race forward, dragging me along with it. It’s quite a balancing act, caring just enough that the story knows you’re interested, but not so much it decides to quit, or run off with someone else. (If you’ve read Big Magic you’ll know what I’m talking about). And sometimes it goes nowhere – I don’t get that magic tickle in my stomach and fingers, I’m not thinking about the characters when I’m out walking. But sometimes, a world starts to spring up around me. Scenes and characters appear, almost as though they’ve been waiting for me to shout ‘Action!’, one scene linking into the next. I find myself thinking about the new story world at odd times, little snippets coming to me. And that’s when I know I’m on my way.

And so it is with this new WIP. I’ve been working on it for a little while, up to almost 10K words now, and I confess I did get slightly stuck at one point, but a chat with my critique partner (which will be another blog post) soon got things going again. And now that I can hear the surf, feel the sunshine and see the streets of the (fictional) town where my characters live, I know it’s going to be okay. That the story will unfurl for me. Because that’s how it’s always been. Whether I’m wandering the green woods of Ambeth, the beach Heaven in A Thousand Rooms, or the near-future world of The Last Raven, as long as I know where I am, I can see a way forward.

And maybe that’s how life is, sometimes, too.

How about you? How do you know when a story has ‘legs’? Are you a Planner, or a Pantser, or something in between?


Enjoyed this post? Want to read more? Find me on Twitter @AuthorHelenJFacebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Plus my latest book release, Under Stone (Ambeth Chronicles #4), is now available on Amazon. Visit my Amazon Author Page to see more.

 

A Wild Ride

IMG_0950I tried this whole planning thing. Honestly, I really did. I spent ages making little chart-y things and tables, planning my blog posts and work weeks and monthly goals. I tried writing out chapter lists and character arcs and tying them all together into some sort of marvellous grid that would become a whole big story.

But planning doesn’t work for me.

I’ve always been a kind of fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants girl. The kind of person who’d rather say ‘I tried’ than ‘I wish I’d tried’, then jumps in and gives it a go. Sometimes this ends in failure. Sometimes it ends in triumph. Sometimes it leads to somewhere quite unexpected.

When I worked for other people I was very organised. The fast pace of advertising meant I had to be, starting the day with a list of things which, despite the amount of time I spent crossing them off, seemed longer by the time I went home. I’ve always worked hard, trying to learn something and take away a positive, no matter how negative the work experience (and some have been quite negative). I don’t like being late for things, I run my household pretty tightly, and I’m quite good at prioritising.

But planning isn’t really my thing.

img_0384I think about the future, of course I do. I have a child and a mortgage and an idea of where I’d like to end up. But I’ve learned that life can pick you up and shake you around like dice in a jar, tipping you out to land as fortune takes you. And so, while I squirrel away my hopes like nuts in case of winter, I’m aware that winter might come in quite a different form than I imagined, and so the only thing I can really be prepared for is change.

See? I can’t even plan this post. I had meant to write about the festoons of post-it notes that have replaced my carefully typed lists, the piles of paperwork and scraps of scribbled notes, all of which have a twisted sort of order in my own mind but nowhere else, a system only my brain can understand. I wanted to write about the fact that, when I tell a story, I can forget about planning any part of it other than the main events, as the characters will pull me along in their wake, typing as fast as I can to keep up with their actions. And that I love, absolutely love, the wild ride of it, the feeling of discovery as the story unfolds around me like the petals of a flower.

IMG_0806But instead my mind and tapping fingers have taken me outside the cluttered confines of my desk, pointing out that planning really isn’t something that’s worked out for me, in many aspects of my life. And that I can waste time formatting documents and printing up checklists all I want, but when the jar begins to shake again I’d better be ready for where I’m going to land. That life itself is wild and organic and that I am a dancing leaf on the wind – I can fight it, try and organise it into charts and boxes, or I can simply go along with it to wherever it takes me, bringing all that I have, all that I am, along for the ride.


Note: I wrote this post yesterday when I was still feeling a little shaken for several reasons. I’m not quite so fey as it sounds – I do work hard and focus on what I want to achieve. But setting concrete plans, beyond a couple of big things, is something that has never really worked for me – as soon as I do so the universe has a way of demonstrating that it has other plans for me…

Breathing Out

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I’ve been in a bit of a blog lull this week. This usually happens to me after I’ve finished a big writing project – it’s as though my mind needs a few days to rest before it can get back to the business of working with words again.

I think it’s entirely natural, really. You can’t keep producing work without taking time, every so often, to re-set everything. When you’re inhabiting a particular fictional world for a few weeks, you need to withdraw from it briefly before diving headfirst into the next instalment. You can’t breathe out without first breathing in.

I’ve had a few people ask me already when book three in my Ambeth Chronicles will be out. They’ve already read books one and two (wow!) and are keen for more. This thrills me immensely. 🙂

In answer to their question, book three is already written. It also has a title, Hills and Valleys, and I’m now starting on the structural edit. And before you think that I’m some sort of crazy writing machine, I had written four of my Ambeth books before I published the first one – it just worked out that way, the story pouring out of me over a two year period. I’ve also written the very last line in the sixth and final book, and know just how the story ends. Which is fun, as it means I can add clues into the earlier books that will lead to events in the later books.

A tangle of plotlines...
A tangle of plotlines…

I’ve stated before that I’m a Pantser when it comes to writing – it’s the method that works for me, despite efforts to plan things out. I’ve also likened writing to weaving, bringing threads of different storylines together to make a pattern. And now I can see where threads need to be pulled and rearranged, appearing earlier in the pattern than I had originally thought. Which is where the structural edit comes in.

Finally, a little update on my marketing experiment. Since I ran my free promotion, I’ve had six new ratings on Goodreads (all positive, thank goodness), plus my KENP count is continuing to rise. I’m hoping to see an uptake in sales over the next few weeks, but we’ll see. However, early figures seem to indicate that I’ve definitely increased my reading audience already, which was the aim of my promotion.

And that’s my Friday 🙂 Happy weekend, everyone! Hope it’s a good one.

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The Perils Of Being A Pantser

A tangle of ideas...
This is what writing looks like to a Pantser…

I’ve said this before – I am a Pantser. When I start writing I have an idea, maybe a couple of characters and an end point but not much idea of what happens in between. But off I go anyway, letting the story pull me forward, sometimes finding what the characters choose to do or not do as surprising as if someone else had written the story. It can be an exhilarating feeling, words coming from my fingers as fast as I can type them, the story pouring onto the page.

Oh, I’ve tried the whole planning thing, laying out the chapters and what I expect to have happen to each character, the whole thing building to a neat and tidy solution. But then I start to write and the characters come to me, pulling my hair back to whisper in my ear, tapping me on the shoulder during my morning walk.

‘we would never do that’

‘I’m actually interested in this other character’

‘this happened to me as well’

‘I’m not such a bad guy’

And I have to give in, knowing in my heart, or that spot under the breastbone where such feelings reside, that what they are saying is absolutely true. That they know, better than I do, it will all work out in the end.

Only thing is, writing like this makes structure a bit of an unwieldy beast. I’m wrestling with it at the moment as I make a final structural edit to No Quarter before sending it to my editor. I feel like an old time lion tamer with my chair and whip, shouting at all the paragraphs to get it together and make sense, dammit, while they roar and claw at the air, unhappy to be pushed around. But we’re getting there. I’ve had to add a few extra scenes, plus realised there was a whole section where time of day and weather were pushed aside, when they actually needed to be part of things. And as it’s the second part in a serial, more threads are coming into the weave, new characters and storylines taking their place in the story.

I confess, I do have my moments where I wish it was all laid out in front of me as orderly notes. I’ve gone as far as to write a small list of some of the main characters, just for continuity’s sake. And I have a small pile of paper with notes scribbled on, various colours of pen, which I refer to as I bring it all together. But that’s as far as the planning goes, I’m afraid.

So how does your writing garden grow? Is it orderly rows of well planned chapters, or a wilderness of tangled plotlines you struggle to pull into place?

PS I am looking forward to Eurovision tonight – how about you?!