Compared to my 80,000 word boombastic word marathon of NaNoWriMo 2011, this year it feels like I barely limped across the finishing line with 57,000 words. In 2011 I set out with a vague idea of where I was going with my story, yet in 2012 I knew exactly what I wanted to write.
You’ll find an excerpt from my NaNo novel, The Survivors, further down the page, a chapter called Diablo Pro.
This year I was more controlled with my words, and instead of letting them explode across the page in an orgy of ideas, I paced myself and thought carefully about which sights I wanted to visit in Imaginationland.
The Survivors is a follow-up to my as yet unpublished novel The Range. Even though I was still editing the latest draft of that when NaNo 2012 began, I had already mapped out the plot structure for The Survivors. Most of it was in my head, though I had jotted down rough notes on new characters and conducted some research months ago.
By planning ahead I was able to take my time, muse over things, consider plot pathways and avoid running adrift in The Lifeless River Bed of Despondency and Meh. I can’t work out which method is better – write by the seat of my pants or write based on a planned structure. By better I mean more fun. No point writing if it ain’t fun, right dear blog reader?
Writing by the Seat of your Pants.
My 2011 NaNo novel, Shadowrealm Stalkers, was a wild ride and no mistake. No research. No plan. No clue. I started with a what-if idea and went from there. As the scenes and chapters started to grow, the undergrowth of plot began to clear, giving me a semi-decent view of the road ahead. And no, the story wasn’t about gardening. Even then when I sat down to write I’d say to myself: “Righty-ho, let’s see what crazy adventures await in Imaginationland tonight!”
I’ve given this method some thought (whilst driving home from work) and come up with a few pros and cons.
- Developing characters you barely know is very exciting. You lean more about them with each challenge they face.
- There’s little fear of veering off track because you don’t have a track to start with.
- Because these are fresh new character you can give them a lot of freedom. You’re enjoying the ride as a writer in much the same way the reader would.
- Plot structure can shift depending on your (or your character’s) mood.
- The thrill of adventure and the unexpected is a huge rush because you don’t know what’s going to happen next.
- You might find that when you’re into the story, earlier plot ideas become redundant which can lead to heavy editing later.
- Creating new characters on the fly can lead to continuity errors unless you’re careful to make notes as you go.
- Without planning some sub-plots can become unmanageable and tangled up in big fat knots.
- The initial adrenaline rush of setting sail into your adventure can run flat without knowing where you’re going.
- Due to the nature of writing without worrying, you may have some serious editing on your hands. Although I guess to some editing is where the fun begins!
Writing with a Planned Structure.
Because I’d given a lot of thought to The Survivors whilst writing The Range, I’d built up a mental model of the plot, where the twists and turns would be, which characters I would kill off and how, where to place the highs and lows and how I wanted the story to finish. I have a third novel in mind, though it’s barely in itch my noggin at the moment. Writing with a set goal in mind never really appealed to me before, it felt dull, lacking in shiny excitement and boring. So this was something of a double challenge for me – hit 50k in a month and so in a structured manner.
I gotta say, dear blog reader, I was wrong about the dullness! A good way to describe it is like doing a join-the-dots puzzle. The dots being chapters or key events and the lines you draw are the fun parts that connect the whole puzzle together. You know where you want to go from dot 17 to dot 18, that much is structured, but it’s how you get there that’s fun.
I guess you could say the Writing by the Seat of your Pants method is equally fun because you have to make up the dots as you go, though what you thought was going to be a masterpiece of art might end up a six-legged monkey-dog!
So here’s some pros and cons I’ve found for structured writing.
- Having a good idea of plot can help guide your characters. They have parameters and you can reign them in if they step out of line.
- You’re less likely to stall in The Lifeless River Bed of Despondency and Meh because you know which dot to head for.
- Creating characters ahead of time can aid with consistency. The bad guy introduced on page 12 will still have blue eyes on page 323.
- You can still enjoy the excitement of the story as it unfolds even though you know where you’re going. It’s the HOW that brings the buzz.
- Research can reinforce the world you create and reduce time spent correcting facts in later edits.
- Some research can feel like a chore at times. Working out what sort of crossbow, arrow and head type works best for shattering a human skull is kinda cool but checking flight times, building heights, breaking distances and so on isn’t quite as thrilling.
- It’s possible to feel stifled if you over develop your characters ahead of time. At times I prefer to make a few general notes rather than huge swathes of bullet points, back history, personality traits and so on. I guess this depends on what floats your boat.
- What you may have mapped out as a fantastic plot could become dull or overly complicated. This can lead to despondency and the worry about massive editing later can hinder you in finishing the story.
- Over thinking too many details can feel like you’ve placed too many hurdles on your story path.
- Organising plot mechanics ahead of time might stifle the natural flow of the story. Characters, even well mapped ones, need room to breath.
Structure or Pantser?
Honestly, I don’t know. I’ve enjoyed both styles of writing for different reasons. The see-how-it-goes method works well for me when writing short fiction. Shadowrealm Stalkers, my 2011 NaNo novel will probably need lengthy editing when I eventually get round to looking at it again. I love the feel of not knowing what’s going to happen next, what my hero or villain is going say in a tense situation is often quite surprising.
The Survivors isn’t finished, it stands at just under 60k and will likely be around 115k when complete. So far I’ve enjoyed the structure, knowing where to go, who to kill off, where the big fight scene will take place, and so on. I don’t have everything mapped out to the smallest detail, that would be insane! I guess it has been easier because I’m writing a story in a world I’ve already created in The Range. So maybe the structured method does work well in that sense.
Having said that I’m still able to write by the seat of pants because sometimes I don’t know how to get from dot 26 to dot 28. Let’s say the hero chases the bad guy to the edge of a cliff, that’s where I want to be, but how do I get there? That’s the fun part.
I reckon that a little of both methods is a good way to go, plan ahead, have an idea, but writing 30,000 words of notes before you start chapter one sounds exhausting to me! I love reaching the end of a chapter and collapsing back in my chair, exhausted by the journey! But I don’t fancy starting out that way.
How do you plan your story?
Are you a flying pantser or a structured dot to dotter?
And now, as promised, an excerpt from The Survivors.
This piece has not been edited.
In January Jamie Miller celebrated his 16th birthday. With the lights dimmed in the common room, family and friends sang Happy Birthday. He blew out candles on a small cake to cheerful, if quiet, applause. The few presents handed to him were wrapped in newspaper. When he opened the last one he couldn’t believe his eyes.
Across the table his ten-year old sister, Suzy, watched his reaction with wide grin.
In the centre of the newspaper nest sat a sling shot. Not just any sling shot, a Diablo Pro slingshot. It had a contoured soft grip, extendable arm rest and unbreakable power bands. Beside it was a pristine leather ammo pouch that could be clipped on his belt.
Jamie missed his old life. He often daydreamed of school and lazy afternoons in front of the TV or playing Xbox with his mates. Forced to grow up fast after the outbreak, he now had a different outlook on life, taking nothing for granted. As he gazed at the slingshot he realised it was the best birthday gift he’d ever received.
When his Dad coughed, Jamie lurched himself at his sister, hugged her tight and thanked her over and over.
Jamie waited patiently for the party to subside before taking the sling shot outside onto the launch that overhung the river. The sun hung low in the sky and mosquitoes buzzed in the air. He sat on the jetty at the end of the launch and cradled the Diablo in his hands as if caring for a new-born puppy.
“My very own sling shot,” he said to himself.
Suzy seldom wore anything on her feet. She moved like a ghost across the launch and sat beside her brother. She dangled her legs over the edge of the launch, and dipped her toes in the cool water that gurgled below.
“Thanks, Suze,” Jamie said. She blushed when he kissed her cheek “You’re the best sister ever.”
“Happy Birthday,” Suzy said with a big grin. “Could you teach me to shoot some time?”
“Hell yeah,” Jamie said. “You never know when we might need to protect each another, so we should both learn how to be really good shots.”
“Can we practice every day?” Suzy asked.
“Every afternoon. After chores we’ll set up targets over there.” He pointed to the end of the launch where fishing poles leant against the faded white washed wall. “We’ll take turns shooting and give each other tips.”
“And we can hunt for pebbles to use too.”
“We call them ammo,” Jamie said.
“Ammo,” Suzy repeated.
“Do you want to try it out?”
Suzy stared up at him in amazement. “Really?”
Jamie handed it to her. “Sure. Let’s get you set up.”
He felt proud that he could share his newest and most prized possession with his sister. The grown-ups at Larford Lakes Holiday Village taught the younger ones how to fish, cook and repair things like clothes. At times Jamie felt left out and wished he had a skill to teach the kids.
He took his sister’s hand and put it around the grip then extended the arm rest until it was comfortable for her. In the ammo pouch he found a collection of stones. He selected one and placed it in the cup then placed his hand over hers and pulled the bands back toward her.
“Keep your eye level with the cup and keep it between the forks,” he told her. “Then make sure the cup is aimed at your target. Pull back some more. Then take a deep breath.”
Suzy breathed in and shut her mouth.
“Then in your head you count to three and let go.”
Three seconds later Suzy released the cup. The stone shot high into the air and plopped into the river. Jamie cheered but Suzy looked unhappy.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. “That was really good for your first go.”
“But I didn’t hit anything,” she said.
“Of course you didn’t, silly Suze.” He laughed and hugged her. “We’re only practising. Tomorrow we’ll shot proper targets, okay?”
Suzy brightened up. “Okay.”
“Come on you two, let’s get you inside.” Their Dad was stood in the doorway smiling. “We’re shutting the power down in a few minutes.”
Suzy planted a wet kiss on her brother’s cheek and skipped inside. Jamie watched his Dad ease himself down on the jetty. They hadn’t spent much time together since they arrived at the compound and Jamie was okay with that most of the time. He was proud of his Dad, but worried when he saw how tired he was. Being the only doctor kept him busy.
“I still can’t believe it,” Jamie said. He gripped the sling shot and aimed at the glistening river. “If I’d have remembered to bring my old one when we left home Suzy could have one too.”
“Maybe she’ll get one for her birthday.”
“That’d be so cool.” Jamie said. “We’re going to be sling shot pro’s.”
“Take good care of it, Jamie. Make sure Suze knows how dangerous these things can be.”
“Don’t worry, I will.”
“I don’t agree with violence,” his Dad said. “But these days everyone should know how to defend themselves and when to choose offense or defence. People who use weapons must know the rules.”
“Rules?” asked Jamie. The Diablo hadn’t come with a box or a manual.
“Always show weapons the utmost respect. Never use them in anger. They’re a tool and once mastered they can become an extension of yourself. An angry person uses their tools in a sloppy manner but a calm person will always have the advantage. Does that make sense?”
Jamie thought about it. He’d never heard his Dad talk like that before. He usually droned on about medical stuff – how to stitch a wound or what medicines to use.
“Yeah,” Jamie replied. “It actually does.”
“Good to hear it.” They were silent for a moment. His Dad turned to face him. “I want you to promise me something.”
Jamie shrugged. “Sure.”
“If anything happens to me, promise you’ll do anything to protect your sister. Can you do that?”
“What’s going to happen?”
“Nothing, hopefully.” His Dad winked. “But the way things are we can’t be sure what’s around the corner. If something bad happens you must remember there’s always something to hope for. Remember that survival book I gave you last year? Always keep it with you. If things go bad take your sister east to the coast. Avoid towns and cities. Can you promise me you’ll do that?”
Jamie felt the horrors of the real world rush back to him – the screaming masses outside their house, their Dad yelling at them to duck down in the car seats. He still had nightmares of red skinned monsters chasing them through the neighbourhood. The compound by the river was a beautiful and peaceful place, there was rarely any reason to be afraid. His Dad had brought the horrors of the real world with a rush of panic.
“Okay,” Jamie said. He took a deep breath. “Promise I’ll look after her.”
They watched a Kingfisher snatch a fish out of the river. The setting sun threw deep red and orange slithers of glitter across the water. Jamie felt his Dad’s arm around his shoulders.
“Your Mum would’ve liked it here,” he said.
“She’d have loved painting the sunsets.”
“We’ve got a good life here now. But don’t rely on peace to last forever. Sooner or later you’ve got to be ready to move on.”
Jamie didn’t like thinking about leaving. He heard the compound leaders talking about preparations, but it felt like something that could happen in the far future.
His Dad sighed. “We’d best get inside before they turn off the juice.”
Jamie helped him up.
“Happy Birthday, Jamie.”
“Thanks Dad. It’s the best one ever.”
A few months later when Jamie pushed his sister into the hiding place under the floor boards he saw his Dad for the last time. He was yelling into the radio microphone. Jamie wanted to pull him down to safety, but there was barely enough room for two in the hidden space below the floor.
The infected had crashed through the outer walls of their compound so fast it shocked everyone. One by one the river side cottages were overrun until only a handful of survivors were left trapped in the main building.
Suzy was crying and yelling for her Dad.
Before he closed the hatch over their heads Jamie spotted his Diablo on the desk beside the radio.
He hesitated and almost climbed out to get it.
Windows shattered and their Dad yelled at them to hide.
In the darkness they huddled together and listened to the nightmare crashing above their heads.
“Wait for at least two days before you come out,” their Dad had told them when the infected surrounded their cottage. “And don’t make a sound. They won’t take any notice of the hatch unless they hear you.”
Jamie had waited three days before carefully pushing his shoulders against the hatch.
He closed his eyes and held his breath.
He imagined looking up at a crowd of infected waiting patiently to grab them.
The room above was empty, so was the chair where his Dad made his final announcement over the radio. Jamie tried his hardest not to cry. He needed to look strong and brave for Suzie. He didn’t know where they would go or who would look after them. How would they survive? What if the infected were still hanging around somewhere? How would he fight them off and protect his little sister?
Jamie didn’t see Diablo Pro sling shot on the desk next to the radio.
He saw hope.