Symbol and Story

With a Whip And A Chair but only because the electrical cattle prod is on the blink, again.

That’s what I answer if you ask me how I control my muse.

And by this I don’t mean getting ideas – I’ve already confessed I have more ideas than I’d like, and frankly if things get any tighter I might resort to standing at corners, near writer’s conferences and whispering to passing groups, “Hey, buddy, wanna buy an idea?”

No the problem starts once the idea is in motion.  One of the things I disliked about the… ancient regime of writing, the traditional way of going about things, is that if I wanted to sell something I needed a proposal.  And sometimes I needed to tweak the proposal to be acceptable to the publisher.  Which was to my purpose, nothing, as you will see.

Later I sold some books on one paragraph description, but even then houses were likely to say “Okay, you told us who dies and where the body is hidden, but what is the purpose of the book?  What does it mean?”

Yesterday Robert was helping me cook dinner.  As usual in this house, when two of us are busy at anything non-mental, the talk turned to writing.  When it’s the four of us we talk of other stuff too, mind you.  This might be a trained reflex to prevent the house from becoming an extended, overstretched, single-focus writers’ conference.

So, Robert was chopping the salad and said that the problem he has in sticking to any kind of outline, or even changing a book so “it’s not quite so weird” is that “if I play with any of the elements, the meaning might not ever come out right, or I might not ever know what the meaning is, even.”

This was the first time I knew he works like I do, with the meaning unfolding slowly – I was going to say like a flower opening but that’s not the right metaphor.  It’s more like you just found an egg in the woods and you bring it home, and as it starts to crack, you wait to see what comes out and have no idea if it’s a snake, a lizard or a bird.  Only this egg was in show business before (shuddup – whose blog is this, anyway) being an egg, and so opens very slowly, letting you catch this which might be a claw or a beak, or a fang, then a glimmer of brown that might be pin feathers or infant scales, then—  Then suddenly and gloriously it opens up (and you could literally get addicted to that moment.)  and it’s like the whole universe unfolds, and you see it all and what it means.  Afterwards, as I read the book over for editing, I realize it’s all a cohesive whole and it all points the right way and that the glimmers of the meaning/result are obvious halfway through. But while I’m in it I don’t see it.

I’ve always know this —  no, wait, a brief digression is in order:  When I started writing I was a pantser, which is roughly the method I’m describing.  Pantser is short for “flying by the seat of my pants.”  It is opposed to “plotter.”  Plotter has many varieties mind.  Some people write a two page plot and leave all the details and subplots blank.  Some people write plots that are novels without the dialog and the more vivid description.

Any time you get a bunch of writers together, you hear plotters and pantsers arguing. The Hattfields and the McCoys have nothing on us.  “You guys just throw stuff at the page and see if it sticks.  Your plots aren’t cohesive.”  “You hold your plot so tightly you squeeze the life right out.  Inside your carefully outlined books there’s live characters screaming to come out.”  You haven’t lived till you see a bestseller plotter or pantser comment on the book of a bestseller of the other group.  The curl of the lip, the sneer in the voice, the “So and so is one of THEM and it shows.”

My problem is that, by temperament, I’m a plotter.  Look, I’d be an engineer if it weren’t for the tragic fact that I can’t give someone a phone number without transposing at least two digits – and in equations I can get to be lots of fun.  Mind you, I loved math, and given enough time to make sure I hadn’t transposed anything, I was very good at it.  But I guessed at an early age that working in a high pressure environment where I’d be required to solve mathematical problems quickly and in the middle of chaos, my little problem could become a major liability.  So I gave up on the dream.  But my temperament is still the same.  I like to know the thing will work before I build it.  I like to know what elements I can alter.  I like to know and be able to tell the publisher “Yeah, put the dragon on the cover.  There’s a dragon in it” and not have it turn into an emu or an ostrich halfway through.  A well plotted, well oiled novel moves the way it’s supposed to, and does what it’s supposed to… except…

I tried it.  Did I EVER try it.  You can’t say I didn’t give it more than a fair shot.  For about the first five years of my career I forced myself to plot, tightly.  I removed everything that my – for lack of a better term – muse insisted on putting in.  Funny scenes, excessive grief, and the bit where he held onto her hand for no good reason.  Also, the moment when the character realizes there’s something wrong with him.  Or…  All of that.  If it didn’t move the main plot or one of the auxiliary plots forward, it came out.  (And the auxiliary plots had to move the main plot forward.)  At the end of it, my outlines could run to fifty pages, and had side notes on what this scene or that was trying to show.

I was saved from strict plotting by attending a reading of a fellow author.  The fans had heard her read that novel before and requested one particular scene.  “The bit with the sausage.”  It was a scene that took place in an inn and it wasn’t – it couldn’t be – in any way instrumental to moving the plot forward.  It was a bit of slapstick, the equivalent of Shakespeare’s bits with the man and the dog.  It meant nothing.  The audience LOVED it.

This was when I was revising Draw One In The Dark to deliver, and about to cut the scene I call “three guys in a car” which is basically when you have the three, very young protagonists, coming away from a fight, getting food and clothes, and well… making jokes with each other the way three guys who aren’t (yet) friends and who were in a fight on the same side do.

It wasn’t in the outline, and my gimlet eye judged it to be useless.  Just three guys being sort of funny in a car.  It was using up words and I should cut it.  (I should explain here I come from a poetry background.  Every word must do work or out it comes.)  After watching that scene I decided to leave it in.

I’ve just revised DOITD for re-issue (I think in Summer, but those of you who are flies can ask Toni.)  And now, that I’ve been away for… 5? years, the scene reads completely different.  Without it, the book wouldn’t really work.  Or rather, it would work, but the meaning wouldn’t be the same.  That is the scene in which the guys become friends, and what makes it possible to believe they look out for each other in the climax.

So, I’m not dumber than the average bear.  But I didn’t know why my mind was inserting that scene in there, when it did, and were it not for the fortuitous having listened to the audience reaction to that bit with the sausage, I’d have mutilated the book.

I have not read the other books I’ve written as a strict plotter to see if I mutilated them, either.  I don’t want to know, unless the rights revert and I get to fix them, there is no point.

But what I’d never conceptualized till last night was WHY it worked or didn’t.  And why I can’t work as a plotter – unlike other people I won’t sneer and say no one can.  I’ve got friends who are plotters and who do very well – and why a lot of other people – rational people, even from STEM backgrounds – are forced to be pantsers.

I told Robert I’d told a ton of editors “I have to write the book so I know what it’s about.”  (Note, children, this process is very bad with legislation.)  And “I work through issues by writing a book.”

And Robert said “Oh, that explains it.  I’ve felt for a long time that I write with the same part of the brain with which I do calculus.  It makes sense, one way or another, it’s highly abstract manipulation of symbols.  This is why given a set of premises, writers can write something that’s, say, extremely Libertarian while they themselves are well nigh Stalinist.  It’s why writers who can’t discuss a subject coherently can write a novel that puts everything in place for other people.”

I thought about it.  I was always rather good at higher math, where it’s all symbols.  It’s the kitchen math that trips me up.

Robert explains this better than I do, but if you take the various elements of the novel as symbols that you are manipulating to get a result that makes mental/emotional sense, you can see where it would be out of the control of the author.

Your subconscious comes in by (usually) dictating the problem that must be worked out.  In my case, stuff that’s been nagging at me tends to fall into novels: rebellious ne’er do well children; the dynamics of government… what have you.  And then the “equation” sets itself up in my head.  Sometimes I have control over the parameters, sometimes I don’t.  (One of my published books – no, not the upcoming one, that was something I couldn’t change – I changed the gender of the main character.)  Robert said something about this phase being where you setup the symbols and – I think.  It’s been a long time since I took calc, and it wasn’t in English – populate them.

And then you work through the problem set up that way by rules of logic.  (And novels have their own internal logic.)

To ask a writer who works that way what the novel means before the novel is done is sort of like asking what the result of a new mathematical proof will be before the mathematician is done solving it.  It doesn’t work that way.

Now, you say “but you’re always teaching us techniques.  If we have no control, what good are they?”  Well, mathematicians still need to know math.  Everything you learn goes into your “internal rules” and besides, if you get to the end and the result is “two ducks” and you’re writing a novel that involves physics, you want to know where you went wrong and how to change it.

One of the most common signs that you did something wrong, btw, is when the novel “seizes” i.e. the mechanism stops working, because you violated a fundamental rule of how the novel logic works.  That means you need to go back and work through and try to find out what went wrong.  For that you need to know what the general rules are.

So, now if you work like me, you have the tools to explain it to people “It’s like solving a calculus problem; in Martian; under water; blindfolded.  I can’t tell you what it means till I get to the end.”

Now, if I could get series to stop presenting this way.  In the Earth revolution series, for instance, I can see EXACTLY one book ahead, and I have glimmers of what I think is book six?  But I don’t even know how long the thing is.

Quadratic equations.  Under water.  In the dark.  Blindfolded.  In Martian.  With my feet in a cement sack.

But it’s the only way to do it, and so I forge on.


149 responses to “Symbol and Story

  1. Martin L. Shoemaker

    In one of my stories, I killed off a major character. I literally didn’t know I was going to do that until the start of the paragraph where it happened (and it was a short paragraph). And suddenly I knew the story was about the sacrifices the protagonist made for her people, and why they mattered; and with his death she gave up the life they might have had together.

    I have had readers — romance readers in particular — ask me to save him and give them their Happily Ever After. But I can’t. The story doesn’t mean the same thing to me if he lives.

    • In A Few Good Men the significant death happened as I was typing, and I couldn’t erase that paragraph. I was planning sequels for that character before that!

      And eventually I figured out it was all about “Your Life, Your Fortune, Your Sacred Honor — did you think they were just words? Did you think it was all a game?”

    • In my limited experience, I find that the details, the things that make something vivid, are like painting the black & white sketch. As soon as it’s in full color, suddenly it gels and locks in. This can be a bit of business, or a character catastrophe, whatever.

      Just before that happens, in that loose unsolidified space a chapter or scene ahead where nothing is rigid yet, alternatives just keep presenting themselves out of my subconscious. If I know the approximate direction I’m headed in (semi-detailed near-term outlines), the alternatives are more customized, but not always. This is where the “of course, THAT’S how that should work” stuff seems to come from. I’m finding that anything which arrives with that much fanfare is invulnerable — it’s gonna go into the book. It’s just too “right”. I’ll skew the remainder of the plot to accommodate it, as necessary.

      As an example, I’m working out the basic plot for book 3 of my WIP. One young girl is going to be abducted for marriage, but who by? One villain who lost a wife to the girl’s foster-father needs to show villainy. Another villain, the girl’s more senior relative, needs to bribe the first into alliance. I’m sure you can see where this is heading but it only just occurred to me that villain 2 should collude in diverting the girl to villain 1 as the payment for alliance, effectively setting up a chain of betrayals to fight against.

      Apparently I see plot elements/scenes first, before I understand motive. All my initial notes for a story are a pile of loose disconnected scenes, just about all of which make it into the final book (though the agents may change). When working out connected plots I have to construct motives to help me understand who some of the agents have to be, and that helps me flesh out their characters. Then it cycles back round into a real plot.

      Is it like this for everyone? I’m such a newbie, I can’t tell yet. 🙂

  2. I think I have a compromise between ‘plotting’ and ‘pantsing’ – I have a general idea of where I am going, plot-wise, and what is generally supposed to happen .. but all kinds of odd and seat-of-the-pants stuff comes out as I get there. And in just about every book, when I’m about three-fourths done, out of the blue I have a scathingly-brilliant notion which requires that I have to go back and revise to get it worked in properly. Last time it was to have a male character turn out to be a bigamist … hey, I didn’t want to write the death scene, as it had already been established that he was dying of tuberculosis, and it was going to be grim to write, so I was working out a way of it happening off-stage, so to speak, and then I thought … hey, it opens up a couple of possible future story-lines, gives the heroine some motivation for certain of her actions and feelings, and it let me vent on some old resentments.
    I killed off a fairly major heroic and sympathetic character too … and readers have been weeping over it ever since. Some of the alpha readers of the first draft asked for a reprieve … but I couldn’t possibly – a lot of the remaining plot depended on it, and I had planned it from the beginning, anyway!

    • Yeah, that’s what I do too. I have a general idea, and then it … changes. BUT often that completely changes the meaning of it.

    • I have two stories, one of which an alpha reader has looked at, that make me shake my head and wonder what the heck is going on with the MC. They took twists that really bother me and will probably bug most readers. Then that alpha reader said, “yeah, [MC] is well on her way into a full-on PTSD depression” and he was right. All at once a whole new line of character development became clear. Yes, the MC is having a long-overdue mental meltdown, because she’s been conditioned for one thing and her adopted religion and belief system contradicts that conditioning. No wonder she’s acting bizarre, even for her.

      • LOL. Uh, yes. I was having problems with a story recently, until a reader said “You realize the characters are brilliant and tripping over their own brains every turn.” And then I went “OH.”

  3. I am a panster– I tried to plot– I bought those books that tell you how to plot and set up the book (Marshall plan). I got so bored that I quit… I could never get past the first scene. Then one day I tried Nanowrimo and finished my novel in 50,000 plus. I had several partial novels cluttering my mind. I took them one at a time and wrote. Write now I am seized. I have been seized since the election. I think I’ll have to quit listening to the news and go back to writing, but for now I am just sitting here.

    Anyway– my first book was a “coming of age” epic fantasy. My MC was supposed to marry the prince and rule the kingdom– but it didn’t end that way– Let’s say that her job was to save the kingdom and she gave her life to do it. I sometimes see the first and last scene when I start a book– that is it.

    When I edit, I tell myself well the next thing must be this– I know I forgot it… and then there is that particular shadowing… I don’t even know I am typing it in the first draft. It is freaky sometimes–

    • you have to get out of the news, yes, or circumscribe them to part of your mind. I have had to do the same. Our battle is just as important, Cyn, and you can’t desert now.

      • No I won’t desert– I have to find a way to start again… I guess it will be butt in the seat time– I used to do that when I couldn’t write… I need to start again

    • “I certainly don’t sit down and plan a book out before I write it. There’s a phrase I use called “The Valley Full of Clouds.” Writing a novel is as if you are going off on a journey across a valley. The valley is full of mist, but you can see the top of a tree here and the top of another tree over there. And with any luck you can see the other side of the valley. But you cannot see down into the mist. Nevertheless, you head for the first tree.” Terry Pratchett

      • You know, hearing him talk of his process gave me PERMISSION to be a pantser.

        • I steal that metaphor all the time. I add to it that I go through and blaze the trail, and then come back and build the good solid path that people can actually walk on, afterward. Which does sometimes require modification from the blazed trail — always does, if you mean minor ones.

    • Wayne Blackburn

      Though I still would not call myself a writer, Sarah has inspired me to start working in that direction, and I know that I would not be able to get anywhere without a fairly well fleshed-out outline. If it’s a short, I might get by with holding the outline in my head (that is what I did with the first one), but if I have something as long as a book, I’ll need it written down, or I’ll get confused beyond measure.

      Based on my own perspective, I would suggest that the plotters are jealous of the pantsers, because they can’t hold the story together that way.

      Then there’s the fact that I get what I would consider good story ideas, but have no idea where to go from there.

      • It is an apprenticeship and takes awhile before you know what to do with a story, Wayne– It helps to read about the elements– It takes longer to figure out how to put them together and when to break the rules.

        • Wayne — this is Sarah’s voice from on high — buy yourself Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer. Read it. Make notes. Slot to read it every year or so. THEN make another run at it.

      • Wayne;

        FWIW, I’m just discovering a process that sounds like the combination plotter/pantser. I’m redrafting a piece that’s — what? — 14 years old? I know where the story went in that first draft. (I have hated it since it was first written and thought for all this time it would never go anywhere.) But that’s the limit of the outline.

        Yes, I have an outline — of sorts. But I’m NOT editing it. I’m not referring to it. I’m not mining it for those little gems you love so much in your own stuff. I’m treating it as though it were a new story.

        I’m working it one scene at a time. Write the scene. Work it until it’s DONE. Move on to the next scene. Each scene progresses according to the story logic out of the one prior. And I have an overall arc that was implicit in the opening that will be called back in the close. Not only is it moving quite quickly (for me), but I also feel pretty confident I can finish it in close to the word count I’m projecting. That is to say, I’ve found a narrative pace that works for me.

        This time.

        Now 13-14 years between drafts can get to be problematic…

        And, BTW, I know I’ve said this before, but i’ll be asking for betas in a little bit.


    • I do both — sometimes working as a pantser, and other times working as a plotter. My biggest problem is that quite frequently my characters have ideas of their own and take off with them. I have NEVER had a novel I plotted work out exactly as I’d plotted it.

      My back is hurting so badly right now that I want to scream, and has been for the last three days. I guess I turned the wrong way, or bent over wrong, or something. I know anything I write while I feel this way will have to be significantly edited, but I still have this urge to put pixels to screen.

      One thing I’ve learned for me is that it’s ALWAYS harder to write a sequel than it is to write the first book. Some days it drives me crazy!

      • Mike –do you have a heating pad? That might help your back– I just started a sequel and I am going back to it after the holidays — the hardest thing about it is that I need to read the first book to remember names of characters–

      • Would some painkillers help? There’s also tiger balm and biofreeze. Excuse me if my comment is unwelcome. I have osteoarthritis so I have continual pain.

        • I have some friends who’ve had great success with back problems in the medium/long term by standing while they were working, rather than sitting. It’s hard to get used to at first, but I think sitting is a lot harder on your back muscles than standing is, and I think it tends to align your vertebrae more correctly. I don’t know if it helps, or not, just thought I’d mention it in case someone wants to look into it more 🙂

        • Emily – I have a VERY bad back, and some days just aren’t worth getting out of bed. Today was one of them, but the 7YO was up at 7:30, and he needs close watching.

          I take pain pills — every day. There are days, however, when even the best of them (prescribed narcotics) don’t help. Not to mention taking them too often plays hobs with my blood sugar (I’m a diabetic). I’ll survive, it’s just not very pleasant right now. I know there are better times coming, I just grumble because I have to wait for them.

          I have spinal stenosis, degenerative disk disease, neuropathy, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, and diabetes, to hit the major problems. Today seems to be one of those days where they’re ganging up on me!

          • Any chance, where you live, to try some sort of cold treatments? Swimming, during the winter, in holes cut in the ice is mostly an old people hobby in my country, and that is because for many it really works with arthritis and osteoarthritis pain. Some inside pools also have small ice water ones which can be used during the summer. I presume those might be hard to find over there, but if you have a tub and could fill it with very cold water and ice that might work.

            By the way, the trick with ice water immersion is to take a sauna both before and after. Hot shower would probably work too, but it should be long enough and hot enough that you are really starting to get uncomfortable with being too warm. If you manage that the ice water won’t then even feel particularly uncomfortable getting in, go in slowly but at a steady speed. And the cold water immersion part should last only a few minutes, that way there is no real risk of frostbite or hypothermia.

            People who do it regularly also claim that it seems to help with their immune systems too, like that they have fewer or no colds during the winter. I have done it occasionally, and what I can say is that it does seem to help with pains and aches, you feel less after it than before. And the only real health risk should be if you have a something like a heart condition, then the alternative heat and abrupt cold immersion is a bad idea.

            You occasionally see youtube videos of people doing that ice hole winter swimming, but what they tend to leave out is the sauna part. 🙂

  4. Cooking. You can follow a recipe but you aren’t actually cooking. Cooking, real, proper cooking, requires you recognize that the ingredients vary and the recipe wants adjustment on the fly. Maybe the tomatoes you’re basing the sauce on are more watery than usual, or their taste a little sharper, so you have to adjust the cooking times, the amount of oregano and celery (depending on how “green” the celery tastes today – maybe it has to be blanched first) and how sweet your onions are … and so on and so forth.

    Some cooks need to adhere closely to a recipe, some just need to glance at the ingredients and know what end result is wanted. But until you start chopping and slicing and cooking you don’t actually know how you’re getting to the destination.

    • a good chef takes a taste too– before serving the dish

      • Ayup – and best know the diner’s preferences when making something like chili, so they don’t go overboard (or underboard) with the hot peppers. Which addresses some of the complaints on the snippet of Hell Bound; people weren’t sure how spicy the dish was supposed to be.

        “Salt to taste” is almost always an instruction.

        Anybody who thinks that all curry powder is interchangeable has no business in the kitchen beyond washing the pots.)

        • or all chili peppers– 😉

          • G-d save us from writers who think a bell pepper = a banana pepper = a habanero.

            • Oh yea– I laughed the first time I met someone who didn’t know what a bell pepper was– and also thought they were hot. WHEEEEE

            • my younger son thinks so — he thinks bell peppers are SPICY. This makes my head spin.

                • When I was a little kid, I seem to remember bell peppers tasting a lot sharper than they do now. It wasn’t like “spicy,” but it was kinda acrid?

                  Of course, when I was a little kid, combing my hair was inherently painful and all turtlenecks were inherently scratchy.

                  • I remember bell peppers being “spicy” but this was Portugal and they might have been. OTOH I also thought onion was “hot” and Marsh does too.

                    • Oh well– then you don’t know what is hot 😉 The hubby does Thai Hot– I do much less, but onions aren’t hot to me.

                    • They’re not hot to me now, though. And I can take moderate hot (not like my husband and older son.) BUT they’re spicy to my younger son, so I wonder if it’s age/sensitivity related. Younger son is my dad’s clone — or my clone of a different gender. Take it as it comes.

                  • oh, that bell-pepper-taste they get in everything they touch? yeah, I don’t like that either.

                    • That’s why I never buy green peppers. Red, Yellow & Orange peppers are sweet.

                    • My spouse and kid don’t like any bell peppers. Not… spicy, but bitter or something. They just hate them. I used to dislike them, but discovered red and orange ones were sweeter, and got to liking even the green ones. MORE FOR ME!

                      I think it’s a supertaster thing — or something on the continuum for that, anyway. They’re also ultra-picky about anything actually picante, even more than a tendermouth like me. (I grew up in Texas and cannot stand most hotsauce dips for chips. So sad!)

          • Or that chili powder and powdered chilies are interchangeable.

            • My mother sent my wife a bag of dried Cayenne peppers the first time we were in Germany. DW decided to crush some of them for chili. The chili was great, and the Cayennes were terrific. I got this frantic telephone call at work, though, while she was preparing it. She’d accidentally rubbed her upper lip while she was crushing them, and her lip was on fire. Luckily we had some sour cream on hand. I told her to rub some sour cream on the area that was burning, and it would make it stop. Sour cream will neutralize capsacin, the part of hot peppers that provide the “hot”.

        • I’m the only one who likes curry in this family, so I rarely go through the trouble of mixing it myself. Chilli — very hot — and make pot on side for self and younger son who aren’t crazy like the other two, aka, them who snack on raw japaleno peppers.

          • Canned jalapenoes make a better snack food.

            • Wayne Blackburn

              Yeah, there’s something odd about raw jalapenos, but I can’t put my finger on it.

              • I want to call it a sharp taste, but that ain’t quite right. Anyways while I might eat a raw jalapeno or two, to see how they are going to be, they are much better canned.

                • My mother used to tell the story about when I was very young (15-16 months), and would steal jalapeños from a neighbor’s pepper plant where they lived in California. She said I used to eat them, while huge tears would stream down my face. I’ve had a taste for jalapeños ever since.

                  My first introduction to Thai food was in a restaurant in Saigon when I was stationed there in 1971. I like jalapeños, but habaneros are MUCH hotter! I learned to eat it, and today like the Thai food served at a couple of Thai restaurants in the city.

                  My dad never grew anything but Cayennes in his garden. Mom used to put up about 30 pints of peppers every year. My wife doesn’t like anything overly hot, so we don’t have it very often.

                  • Habaneros are very hot, but most don’t seem to have a lot of flavor, just heat. They are very good mixed with carrot juice however.

                  • oooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo.,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,[]

          • My hubby snacks on canned jalapenos and really likes hot chili– I learned to like curry when I was in South Africa. I have to be light on the curry or the hubby won’t eat it though. 😉

      • AND asks older son for taste, in case own taste is off — which happens a lot these days. I think it’s hormonal. After seeing guys madly salt stuff I thought was on the salty side, I LEARNED.

        • It could also be nutritional, as you have been “under the weather” of late. A prolonged flu or respiratory infection will deplete the body’s zinc and impair the sense of taste. This is particularly apparent with tomatoes but affects other foods as well.

            • I once had a very bad upper respiratory infection (bad enough to move my sleep apnea from “tolerable” to “requires treatment”) and afterward found that food had no flavor, such that a BLT was merely texture.

              A co-worker responded to a self-deprecating remark about it at a company lunch one day and told me of her similar experience: as a waitress she had been tasked with prepping the salad station and was on her sixth “bad” tomato before it struck her that the problem might be her rather than the tomatoes.

              She advised zinc supplements and I regained my savor for life. It could also be hormonal; depression correlates to loss of appetite, loss of appetite is certainly depressing and thus the vicious cycles.

          • Wayne Blackburn

            Tomatoes? Really?

            Oh, thank you. I had wondered what was up with that illness I had about 20 years ago, where I got nauseous if I even THOUGHT of tomatoes or tomato-based things for at least 6 weeks afterwards.

          • You just reminded me to take my zinc tablet. Though I took the cranberry one without reminder, at least.

    • I’ve often thought writing and cooking were closely linked. Most, if not all (I don’t know about some of them) of my writer friends cook, and when I block on writing (yes, I’m a look at ingredients, mentally “taste” dish, adjust and substitute as a I go.) I block on cooking too.

      • One thing that blocks my creative writing is the periods where I’m swamped with writing projects for work. I think there must be a limited amount of mental processing power for any such subject in my head, because when I write (even if it’s a different subject, like academic science, or essays) all day for weeks, I can’t make myself write at all at home. There’s just nothing left.

        • I can understand that one—

        • Maartje, absolutely. Because my college course load is mostly paper-writing — History and English Lit profs insist on them, for some reason — I find my novel-writing is severely circumscribed during the term. Creativity is a well, and only yeah-deep before you hit sand. Every creative person needs time to allow their well to refill, and if your day job takes creativity, there’s less left for writing. Nobody has creativity in endless quantity: use too much of it at a time and either you run out, or else its quality gets compromised.

          • Yeah, I need to start doing these articles ONE day a week and storing them, or I get mooshed for the day. Though today is working, for whatever reason.

          • When I advise people about day jobs, I always tell them to look for something that won’t sap their writing energy.

            College, alas, is inevitable.

            Though I have actually heard of one writer who had a day job involving writing and didn’t mind it. Gene Wolfe worked for a magazine about factories and spent his days writing and editing articles. Most of us need less day writing to write off hours.

        • I had that same problem, Maartje. Part of it is that you have to get prepared to write. If you’re prepared to write at work (thinking of the subject, determining how to arrange the information you want to present, what to emphasize and what to downplay, etc.,) your mind sets that pattern, and it takes some serious concentration to return to other writing. There’s also the possibility that the work pattern will overflow into the “other” writing, and require some MAJOR editing.

      • For what it’s worth, all of my family are good cooks. Both my parents cook and both of my brothers cook. There’s… really not much point in me doing so because they have the skill and practice to make things much more quickly than I do and I am lazy enough not to bother often.

        I bake or make desserts from time to time, but I rarely cook. And, actually, if my family wants someone to “make it look pretty” they get me to plate. (I’m not bad at cooking. Honestly, with practice, I’d probably be as good as they are. But the only dish I’ve ever tried making that ended up binnable was the sweet potato gnocchi I tried to make for Thanksgiving two years ago. And as I understand it, gnocchi is difficult to make in general and the recipe itself had a lot of detractors when I checked the comments trying to figure out how to get it to work.) Food Network is one of the few channels I ever watch anymore.

        But I definitely think like a cook as a writer in the sense of “look at things, try it. hmm. mentally substitute. try it. okay, that seems good – let’s go”. Doesn’t mean I’ll always foresee how the flavors blend, but I’m rarely dissatisfied with the result. (There are times, however, when it turns out like the sweet potato gnocchi.)

        • But I definitely think like a cook as a writer in the sense of “look at things, try it. hmm. mentally substitute. try it. okay, that seems good – let’s go”.

          In many ways the processes are similar. Once you have your main characters and a theme for the meal, most of the ingredients fall into place. Your main characters are the entree and if they don’t fit together all of the side dishes (sub-plots) and trimmings won’t make it work. If your characters are honest and have integrity there are limits how they can be used; a secondary character who is a potato can’t be used as if he were cranberry mold.

          Why I am having trouble with visions of an Iron Chef equivalent for authors?

        • Oh, great. From now on instead of asking Kate and Amanda if it’s a fish or a cabbage or a book, I’ll ask if it’s sweet potato gnocchi. (Sweet potato chips are great, btw. Pre-low-carb being a necessity I made them for parties.)

          • I’ve eaten sweet potato chips, also baked, fried, mashed, and in a pie (tastes a lot like pumpkin pie). Don’t think I’ve ever eaten sweet potato gnocchi, though… I guess it wasn’t a dish served in the South.

            • That’s why I wanted to make it! xD

            • I’ve eaten the store-bought kind. Rather bland. I could not taste the sweet-potato. *shrugs* Too much chili and curry may have toasted my taste buds.

            • I tend to steer clear of anything with sweet potato in the title, since I’ve never had it cooked in a way I liked.

              • I steer clear of sweet potatoes, yams, and beets. Pumpkins too– It is strange because I am the only one in the fam. that won’t eat them.

                • I couldn’t stand sweet potatoes nor yams until I learned to eat them baked, with a little butter, some salt and plenty of fresh ground black pepper.

                  Now as I think upon it, I bet some sliced pickled jalpenos would go well on them.

      • Speaking of cooking and writing, the other set of similarities exists for cooking and doing science, especially the experimental aspects of it. Basically, all the same qualities that make someone a good cook help tremendously as a good (bench) scientist, and vice versa. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a significant bleedover into writing, too, from either direction. Although, writing is likely more tied to the theoretical/creative parts of scientific theory and hypothesis formulation. But writing scientific proposals or manuscripts essentially requires you to tell a story that makes sense from beginning to end. And all the little parts your subconscious adds to the writing experience in terms of how your brain ends up plotting for you, how the characters develop, have analogous forms in hypothesis generation/planning experiments/drawing conclusions.

        TL;DR I wouldn’t be surprised if most avid writers also have all the qualities that make a person good at science, given time to pursue it and sufficient background knowledge 🙂

    • That’s how Sarah cooks! I need to say this because she isn’t going to brag, but professional chefs have complemented dishes she created on the fly.

  5. I start off with an idea — Prime Target actually came to me as a dream of the CEO’s speech, with the follow-on thought: “how did Nick get there?” — and I let it happen from there. I throw it all in, every last thought, edit for spelling and grammar, then it’s up to Peerless Editor Jeff Hill to make comments like, “This para belongs in Chap 2, not 4,” and “This section slows the plot down too much, and doesn’t tell us any more about the character than we already know,” and sometimes (wonderfully) “Please expand this section; it deserves more,” and even more
    I see myself more as a movie director who shoots all the scenes and gets the best out of the actors, and Jeff is the editor who cuts it all up to make sense of it all. (It does help that Jeff has seen pretty much every single word I’ve ever written for over twenty years.)
    Moral of the story: Some people can write, some people can edit, and only a very few can do both. If you’re a writer, find a good, objective editor who knows your writing and understands your genre. Then just write the shit out of it.

    • Martin L. Shoemaker

      One of mine started with just a “What If”, a setting, a character, and a visual (which is unusual for me, I’m not normally that visual), followed shortly by two more visuals (including a second character). I knew the first visual was the start of the first act, the second was the middle of the second act, and the third was the climax of the last act. I didn’t know the number of acts, the other characters, or the point of the thing. I just knew I had to connect those characters to those visuals in that order and do it in a way that made sense and made a story.

    • I’m sending him my current WIP when it’s finished.


  6. I’m a pantser. When I sit down to write my outline, I have no idea beyond a few events what’s going on, usually.

    When the story dies on me, it’s generally a sign that what I thought happened next should instead be stood on its head. If they are going to learn something at the fair, have a dragon show up to break up the fair but good.

  7. I’m a short-story pantser and a novel plotter. I think it comes from my other “long” works, where I have to have an outline, period end. At a certain point the mass of information required overwhelms my available memory and I have to go to plotting in order to keep things straight. Running fight scenes also have to be semi-plotted. Probably to keep physical motions matched with characters, in those cases where it is more than two or three going after eachother.

  8. Does a story have to mean anything besides being fun to read?

    • No — but humans tend to want a story to “make sense” i.e. “fun” to us means touching something deeper. The editors who asked me, almost for sure meant “political” (except one) but stories still have a “meaning” in the sense they touch something deep. Otherwise they’re not fun. They’re “And then he got up and brushed his teeth and” — The difference between an entertaining story and a boring one is the difference between the Last Centurion and your aunt Minnie telling you how difficult it was to get back home after she got her cards and ID stolen in Greece. Both are harrowing adventures, but one means something.

      I don’t know if that makes sense. I’m willing to continue discussing, because I think I”m doing a very bad job of explaining.

    • “Have to mean anything” I am not sure. But I find that for a story to be “fun to read” it has to contains at least some element of Truth about the human condition, which usually means something.

      • Exactly. I didn’t mean “message stories” I meant… stories that make one thing/mean something.

        • Which is why “grey goo” stories leave one depressed; they are essentially arguing that nothing has meaning.

          If nothing has meaning, then the story has no meaning and I’ve wasted time reading it that could have been spent drinking myself into a stupor.

  9. I’m pretty much a plotter. Before I start, I have a pretty good idea of where the story is going. On the few occasions when I’ve found myself blocked, it turns out that I haven’t thought the thing through enough. In a couple of cases I wrote the start and the end before I wrote what came between. I knew where the story was going. However, strong characters can lead to a deviation. I’ve never had one completely take over the story, but quite often they want to take a detour on the route to the end I’ve already decided on.

    With regard to killing off characters, I once sold a story to ANALOG in which I killed off some sympathetic characters within the first few pages, to provide motivation for the people who had to solve the problem in the rest of the story.

    In a story I’m currently working on, one of the main characters gets a nasty dose of radiation, because the job has to be done and he’s the commander. He can’t order a subordinate to take that risk. In the end he will die of cancer.

  10. I do more programming than writing these days, but I have written about six novels worth of text for video games. I rarely have trouble with game writing.

    I couldn’t get either pantsing or plotting to work for non-game writing. Maybe it’s just the 10,000 hours thing. I tried pantsing first, which gave me lots of good starts, but they all fell apart in the middle, and I couldn’t figure out how to continue. With plotting, I could finish a novel, but it always ended with the characters in the book being unbelievable or unlikeable, while the characters in my head kept crying in the corner and refusing to talk to me.

    • Well, I’m still not a strict pantser. … Except for three books, which would only let me see a chapter ahead.

      Keep at it. I recommend you do some novel diagramming (Yes, yes, I’ll write a post explaining how to.)

  11. A prolonged period of editing has so cowed my Muse she only presents Ideas That Must Be Written Down Now So You Don’t Forget once of twice a week. I appreciate the break, and live in terror of what’s gpoing to happen when I return to regular writing. Feast or Famine? I’ll find out.

    And it’ll be all pants, guaranteed. I vaguely outline, sometimes, generally after I’m a third of the way through the story. Vague, as in one or two pages of guideposts to hit along the way. I only go detailed when I crash and burn on a necessary scene. And _only_ for that one scene. Fights seem to need more thought and planning, whether guns, swords, magic or some combination.

    • Do you know, if I stop writing for two weeks, the damn thing sends me VIVID dreams of stories and plots.

      • Last time I did this, I found myself up writing at oh dark thirty so I didn’t forget the Stupid Bombs, the sense of a journey, of being a young teenager out in the desert with my dad. Only it wasn’t me, and it wasn’t my dad. It was the character and _her_ dad.

        I figure anouther month of editing work and I’ll have up a completed “series arc” on Kindle, and I can go on to other things. I just wonder if the Muse will return, or if I’ll get a respite to learn Create Space and Kobo.

        • I was there this morning. Still haven’t re-read what I wrote, yet, but it seemed good at the time.


          • Just the act of writing it down cements it in your mind. When I started writing the story, I used a lot of elements from the dream, but the plot, the bad guy, why they had to stop the bad guy, and why the teen agers did not want to bring any adults into the situation, and so forth needed to be added.

        • I got ambushed while waiting for a plane this afternoon. Thanks be, I had my Little Black Book of Ideas readily available and could write them down before they drove me farther up the wall. Results: one Murphy story, one MC story, and apparently I’m supposed to turn a scrap scene into a full-blown story.

    • Fights seem to need more thought and planning, whether guns, swords, magic or some combination.

      That isn’t plotting, it is choreography.

      • And for me it’s very difficult. I’ve been known to diagram them — you see, I have no visual MEMORY. I can visualize, I just can’t hold it in my head long enough.

      • Choreography. Oh, I hadn’t thought of it like that, but yes.

      • Wayne Blackburn

        I really hate it when someone has not done this, so that the fight description gives me whiplash from trying to follow the characters from one action to another.

        • I suspect nobody wants to get into an extended discussion of porn, but one problem I have found on those occasions when I’ve read any is trying to figure how anybody not an Olympic gymnast or an experienced yoga practitioner manages to achieve some of the positions described without dislocation of multiple joints.

          When you choreograph a sex scene or a fight sequence, please try to avoid making me stop and go, Waitaminit, how could he possibly do that from that position? Ouch!

  12. Totally off topic, but right now 21.12.2012 is getting towards the evening here (well, sun is setting) and the world hasn’t ended yet. You still have a few more hours to wait, though. Maybe I should and rent a Roland Emmerich or some such film?

    • EVERYTHING fails us this year, even the sweet meteor of death. (Sighs.)

      • That just reminded me of a Demotivator: WISHES
        When you wish upon a falling star, your dreams can come true. Unless it’s really a meteorite hurtling to the Earth which will destroy all life. Then you’re pretty much hosed no matter what you wish for. Unless it’s death by meteor.