Tuesday, September 14, 2010

WorldCon 2010 : Losing the Plot: Plotting in advance vs writing as you go

I must stress, these notes were typing up in real-time, while the panel was happening, so if I've misquoted someone, I'm terribly sorry.  I'll come back at the end of next week and fix up all the typos and whatnot, but, in the meantime, please enjoy these carefully-recorded hour-shortened summaries.  I've tried to maintain some of the personality of each of the panellists so, again, please forgive any idiosyncrasies, and if I've recorded any references to books, films, short stories, people or games incorrectly, that is entirely my fault, not the fault of the panellist I'm quoting.


Here's the blurb for Losing the Plot: Plotting in advance vs. writing as you go : 
"For some authors, the most important aspect of writing a story or novel is preparing a meticulously constructed plot. For others, the appeal of writing comes from developing the  story on the fly, and allowing the plot to develop as they go. What are the benefits and drawbacks of each approach, and the best techniques for plotting in a chosen way?
Stephen Dedman, John Scalzi, Melinda M. Snodgrass"

Also present were Lezli Robyn and Ian Tregillis.


M: George R. Martin describes this as the architects versus the gardeners.  Are you someone who builds from the ground up, or do you wander through the garden, smelling the flowers and getting inspired?  John’s already said he’s going to start a fight with Ian, so let’s start with you.

J: I’m totally going to kill him, oh my god.  No, I love him.  Having said that, gardening in the real world is a lot of work, and I’m not down for that. (Laughter)  My way of writing largely comes from a strategy of work avoidance, I think about it for years and I have A and I have Q and I have X, and I just have to find a way to link them together, and for me it’s about exploring the story.  Sometimes a character I thought was only incidental will become a main character, and that’s better for the story as a whole.

L: I’m pretty much the same.  I write with another writer, and he plans some of the elements, but usually the ending will change, but it still creates the feeling that we want to create.  I do the same thing with my short stories, I never do more than one draft, and I never edit, I go with the natural flow and then I move on.

I: I have a very limited supply of neuro-transmitters in my brain, because I think if I had to think about what I was writing while I was writing it, that would be tragic, because I’m not very spontaneously creative.  I need to know the beginning and the end, at least, and I’ve found over the years that it works best for me when I have an outline at the levels of scenes, where there’s room for spontaneous creativity, but I’m not relying on it.

S: I’m not a planner, but I do like to have the A, the Z and some idea of how long the alphabet is going to be. (Laughter)  I’m not going to start writing page 1 before I know the ending.  But sometimes you come across a publisher who wants an outline, sometimes in non-fiction page-by-page, but for my first novel I had a wonderful editor who was married to a writer and understood the process, so in effect I’d rather not have an outline, but in one case they wanted me to write a novel, so I asked for 4 months, because I thought I could get it done in 3 months if there were no disasters in my life, and that was like, “Yeah, right!”  But I wrote out a plan and having a plan to follow allowed me to write the novel in 3 months with no hiccups, and I doubt I could have done that without that plan.


M: I’m a planner, having worked in Hollywood.  I don’t write my novels that way, but I like knowing what my job is for that day, so if I know what I have to do that day I’ll do it, but if I don’t have a plan I’ll go do the laundry or ride a horse, so having a scene plan makes me work.  So I’m interested in the gardeners, you have your tentpole scenes, but what happens with the rest of it? Do you rely on intuition?

L: Basically in a nutshell, I’m guided not by where the dialogue goes, but certain lines that make you go “This would be so much better.”

J: For me one of the things that allows me to basically make it up as I go along was that before I started writing novels, I was an editor for a year looking particularly at humorous novels, I spent a whole year reading a thousand submissions a month where I had 20 spots to put things in, and ironically I would keep working after those 1000 submissions, because 90% of what you receive is slush, and the 10% of it that isn’t, is broken.  What happens is, after having done that for a year, if you look at your own writing, if you’re honest and not an egomaniac, is that you will feel dispassionate about what you’re writing, and that will allow you to see what works and what doesn’t.  So I have an internal editor, who hates my writing. (Laughter)  I’m essentially lazy, and I’ll try to do lazy dialogue, lazy description, but I have a ruthless editor in my head that lets me know as soon as possible that this is not the way to go, which makes it easy to find the correct path, and if you’re beaten every time you step off the path, you quickly learn to stay on the path.  As a writer, I suggest for every writer, spend time as an editor.

S: My trick, and it’s something I’ve learned over the years, in when I set aside a day for writing, if I don’t write 1000 words, and something has to happen to advance the plot or help us get to know a character, and if I can do that, it does manage to fall into place, usually.  Sometimes, yes, the characters will talk to you, and they’ll say “No, you haven’t given me enough reason to do this.” And you know you have to go back there later.  I polish what I wrote the previous day, then I write, and that keeps me on track.

J: Part of my work is critiquing scripts for Stargate Universe, and if you don’t follow the advice you’re giving, some part of your brain knows you’re a tremendous hypocrite.

M: Let’s hear from an architect.  In Hollywood we use different coloured pens to highlight characters, that way we can see if someone drops out in the middle of the script, and I do that for my book, so how do you handle that?

I: I hate being called an architect, because that implies I know what I’m doing. (Laughter) I tried several things, but now I use notecards with different coloured ink for different characters, and Act 1 will cover the floor of my office, which is great because every time I open the window they fly everywhere and I end up writing a different book. (Laughter)  But when I got to the end of the third book, I’d been thinking about it for so long it kind of just rolled downhill and it ended up being longer than I intended because I didn’t have that nice efficient path laid out, I was more hacking through the garden with a machete, going “I know here’s a hidden city back here somewhere!” (Laughter)

J: It sounds like you’re making a mix tape, putting the songs in order.

I: Yeah, you want dance music, then something slower…

J: And then here’s the song that gets you to third base. (Laughter)

M: But it’s not just about stringing the pearls along the line, some authors say to keep their characters in line they get them to write letters to them.  I’m ruthless, they do what I tell them, but how do you deal with that?

S: I had two characters at one point, and they absolutely wouldn’t do what I wanted them to do, so I changed the setting and the characters and that worked, so I kept the original characters around for a year and eventually found a story they would bother investigating, she wanted to dance, he wanted to sleep with her, why would they go explore the valley of the monsters?  (Laughter)  I don’t usually start with the characters, I start with the plot, except my first novel where I could hear a voice in each ear, I knew the characters so well, and I remember thinking “If I could teach these bastards to type, I could go have lunch!” (Laughter)

J: I don’t generally have my characters talking to me, because when you start hearing voices, that’s psychosis. (Laughter) Recently I was having trouble creating Zoe’s character, because she’s a 16-year-old girl, and I’ve never been. (Laughter) She raises her eyebrows back there, “Of course not, you’re a man”, yes, I know. (Laughter) But every time I would try to write this character my fingers would lock up because my internal editor would say “You know that’s not the way it’s supposed to be” and if you create rules for your character and you break those rules, you absolutely know it.


S: One of the reasons that I do hear the voices of my characters is because I’m an actor and I started off wanting to hear what they would sound like.

J: Oh, you definitely want to hear them, they’re just not real. (Laughter)

S: But sometimes readers don’t know that! (Laughter)

I: I’ve never had the experience where a character said “No, I won’t do that” but I have spent 80,000 words of a first draft figuring out who they are and why they would do that, but hopefully once we get to that point, the characters should be driving the story forward.  I think character is the most difficult story to write.

M: Where does it begin for you?

J: To be blunt, for me it’s very much the first line, because if the first line has to be interesting enough for me to go “I want to see what happens” and an interesting example of this is when I got the idea for Old Man’s war, I was in the shower, which is where I usually have ideas because I’m just standing around anyway (Laughter) and this line just popped into my head, “On his 75th birthday he did two things: visited his wife’s grave and joined the army” and my head just exploded, which made the shower very interesting. (Laughter)  Then another book, Android’s Dream, Tor didn’t particularly mind what I wrote for my second book, so I thought “I’ll punish them.” (Laughter) But again, it was another line that just popped into my head, and that line was “Dirk Muller didn’t know if he could fart his way into an international incident, but he was ready to find out.” And so was I!

I: I think my style is very similar to Lesli’s, in that I think about a story and then think about who would be the most damaged by it, and follow that character.

S: I’ve started almost every way possible, as long as I have an ending or a beginning, I can make it work.

I: Melinda and I are in the same writing group, and John has heard me whine about this, and in my current series I have a character who can see the future, and she’s so good at this that people have no idea how far ahead she’s looking, and when you start book one, she’s already solved book one and is looking forward into books 2 and 3 which meant that she knew what was going to happen which meant that I had to know, which meant a lot of outlining.  One of the good things about having a precognitive character is that foreshadowing becomes really easy. (Laughter) I actually had to cut it back, because it was too easy to think of ways she could be cryptic and set things up that would be very cool, in 3 years when the book came out, if anyone remembers. (Laughter)  But you know what, after finally getting through it, I’m glad I’m done.  Never again. (Laughter)

J: I would very shoot myself. (Laughter)

I: In fact, it was historical, as well as seeing the future, so if I ever offer to do either of those things ever again, just shoot me. (Laughter)

Q: Multi-series books?

J: Often you don’t know the book is part of the series until the publisher comes back and asks you to do a sequel. (Laughter)  Maintaining internal consistency, I make edits as they come up, in a continuous draft, so I don’t need to keep track of the things that I have t change at the end, they’re just done, so internal consistency is easy within the same book, but the problems come when you’re writing a sequel to something that’s already been published.

S: The one hard science fiction novel I’ve done, I kept notes about the planet and the science of the universe, but the rest of it was written just by immersing myself in the novel and writing while I was still enthusiastic, and writing a novel part time is something I never want to do again, which is why I write so much short fiction now.

Q: Software you use?

M: Scribner – Apple – It has this fantastic capacity to make notes, and you can put things like how characters look and where people are mentally, and that really saves you when you’re writing several books and you need to recall and certain character’s eye colour.

I: It’s very embarrassing to get two-thirds of the way through a book and remember that one of your characters only has one arm. (Laughter)

Q: Linear writing?

J: so you’re asking why don’t I do more work than I have to do? (Laughter)  But you have to keep the future in mind, and it’s easier to work forward because it gives you a lot more flexibility, because I might have a tentpole scene that, when I get there, absolutely doesn’t work, and I can change it, whereas if I’ve already written the scene, I’m locked in and have to undergo contortions to make it work.  You may be a far more complex writer than me, sir.

Q: Or I only write 4,000 words.

J: That too.

M: That would drive me crazy, what you’re describing.  I know George writes that way, and it absolutely amazes me, but I need to experience it at the same time as my characters.

L: If something good comes up, I make a note and get to it when it fits in.

I: I have an outline, but I like to have room work around it, and I work in a kind of fractal pattern until I get to the centre of the plot, and people watch me work and apparently it’s very interesting.

Q: Left-brained planning, right-brained write as you go.

J: I wrote an entire novel in notepad.  I find that all the doodads and gewgaws are fun to fiddle with, but essentially you just need to get it down.  The left-brained, right-brain thing, I’m wary of compartmentalising people, oh my god, you’re left-brained, I’m left-brained, let’s have sex. (Laughter) It’s simply as an individual you find what works, and most of the time I’m both left and right-brained, and some things I do just work and I don’t know where they come from, but you just need to find the process that works for you.

S: Back when I used to write poetry, I wrote by hand, but for scripts I used word processing software for the formatting, but that’s it, very basic software.

Q: Graphical representations of characters?

M: I have cards for my scenes, but I also have cards for my characters, and I have kind of graphs of relationships and graphs for  breaks, and I can see the break coming up, once I have my scenes and my tentpoles, it’s really about the relationships between the characters, because that interests me, as a writer.

Q: Does the plot make the character, or the character make the plot?

J: I mentioned earlier I had a similar character in the Ghost Brigades named Kayden, it was essentially a James Bond ending and he was supposed to get zapped by the humans, but later on I needed someone to deliver a huge hunk’n’chunk of exposition, as you do. (Laughter) And as I was writing I discovered that this character had a really strong moral conscience, and I found that later on when my main character needed some wisdom dropped on him, this character came back again and became integral to the plot, and the story changed to a great extent to accommodate what turned out to be an extraordinarily necessary aspect of the plot, so yes a character can change the plot.  What we say here is that a good character can make a good plot better, and the story would still be there without Kayden, but it might not be as good.

M: We could do an entire panel about those, I have a friend who says story is about information control and releasing information as it’s necessary.

S: Occasionally, you need to tell something earlier than you thought  you would, but that comes in in the rewriting, if you need another character to make the story stronger, you do it, if you need to rewrite a character’s backstory to make his motivations make sense, you do that.

Q: Architects – I like finding out how things happen, not as much fun to write if you know what’s going to happen.

I: I’ve not had that problem because when I talk about leaving enough room for my subconscious, maybe this is to do with dumb luck, but there have been enough points where I’ve been writing something and I’ve thought “Oh my god, this scene is almost set up, and if I do this, it’s going to make it look as if I planned it!” (Laughter)  Something like I give a character a nickname and it turns out later that there’s a good reason for it, those little moments give me an emotional high, that’s my favourite part of writing.

M: Some people can’t talk about a story before they write it, otherwise it becomes just dead leaves in their hands, but I find that having a plan gets me through those Kansas and Nebraska chapters where they’re not exciting, but they have to be there. (Laughter)

J: I share your pain because at the point where I get 2 thirds through the novel I need to write really quickly because the bloom is off the rose so I need to get it done as  soon as possible, otherwise I’ll just go “Ahhh, fuck it.” (Laughter)

S: If I do write an outline, I need to get the story out as soon as possible, while I’m still excited about it.

L: You’re trying to make the best version of your story as you can, and that’s exciting for me, even if you know the ending.

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