Thursday, 19 January 2017

Getting The Little Things Right

Hi Guys,

This time I thought I'd turn my attention to one of the problems that faces all writers, but especially pantsters like myself. Getting the details right. So here I'm talking about the things that in film and tv become known as continuity errors, where for example the hero gets in an overturned yellow sports car with damage in its side and drives away in an unblemished one – Commando. It's also about the issue of major plot holes and nonsensical plots. In Powers for example one of the anti-heroes forces another to help him in a complex prison break to murder a common enemy, simply because there is a “drainer” in it that could rob him of his teleportation ability. Problem is, all he really needed was a pump action shotgun and a balaclava. Teleport in, shoot his enemy in the head, shoot the machine and jump away. Simplicity itself.

These mistakes occur in writing as well as film and television. Sometimes they can be amusing, and occasionally they can completely ruin a book. But whichever they are, they shouldn't be there.

So how do we stop them? Or rather – how do I stop them? You will all have your own ideas as writers.

There are actually two approaches to preventing them from happening. Each approach is based on the style of writer you are. For plotters – those who like to plan out their books in advance of writing them – their approach actually protects them. Not perfectly. But it's hard to write in a plot hole when the plot is already laid out in detail with all the key developments written down in front of them. For plotters the best approach is simply to up their plotting so that their plots, time lines, world builds and character bio's etc, are written down in meticulous detail. A simple fix.

But for those like me who simply like to wade into writing the book without doing anything like that – pantsters – the fix is not quite so simple. For us we generally look at these issues as problems that we get around by constantly rewriting and editing our books as we write, and by being utterly focused on our work. But this isn't always enough.

So speaking purely for myself, I use a second approach. I write out the plot, time line, world build, character bio's, beastiary etc in a second document at the same time as I write the story. And as I write the story I have this second file open beside it. Then as I write I constantly update the data file. So for example for The Wolves of War, I had the story file Wolves in which I was working, and the data file WolvesData both open on my screen at the same time, and I simply swapped between the two as I wrote.

Sounds like a simple fix? It is. And it will save you a thousand headaches, and a thousand questions from beta readers, critics and readers as they hopefully enjoy your work. But I want to extend this a little to show just how invaluable this approach is in your writing for a pantster like me.

To return to Wolves for a bit which is obviously freshest in my memory, I'm going to look at just a couple of places this approach helped me immensely. I'll start with travelling.

Wolves is a traditional epic fantasy, and like many in the genre it involves the characters travelling large distances periodically. As the writer of course, I want for that travel to be realistic. To fit with the distances involved, the terrain crossed, and the means of travel. And I want to synch everything up with the plot so I don't have unreasonable time gaps where people are either not doing anything for excessive and inexplicable lengths of time while other characters are advancing the story, or else, rushing impossibly fast to do things so it all fits together in a logical story arc.

So to do this I include in my data file, two vital sections – the map and the time line.

The map is actually not a map for two very simple reasons. The first is that I can't actually draw a straight line even with a ruler. And the second is that my data file like all my writing is done in an older version of Word which doesn't handle graphics well. So instead my map is actually a series of locations, towns, cities, realms, and their distances / compass directions from another key location. And that actually works better for me than a map would since the distance and the means of travel give me the time taken to get from point A to B. And that in turn gives me a couple of notes to add to my time line as I write. The day the journey began and the day it ends.

In practise this becomes a straight forward approach. First I have the start point of the journey set out and a distance. So say my hero Briagh sets out for the fae realm on foot and carrying a large pack on Day Twenty One. His journey is a hundred and twenty leagues – three hundred and sixty miles. And the terrain is snow covered and flat. I simply estimate how far he can travel in a day under these conditions, and make an estimated time of twenty four days which means he arrives on Day Forty Five.

Now here's where the time line becomes so valuable. Because while Briagh is busy travelling my other main hero {anti-hero?} Elan is busy with her own story arc – arguing with the Court, escaping the city and giving chase for the second time. The time line allows me to place her story, chapter by chapter, at the exact right points in the story so that she can then arrive in the fae realm and start hunting down Briagh at the right time for him to have done what he needed to.

Another section included in my data file is the characters. Now here I don't just include the basic details like name, gender, race etc. I also include a minor biography for the important characters. Who is this man? What are his values? What does he care about? It doesn't have to be much. But it does have to be there. Because in any situation who a person is will determine how he will respond. So in Wolves, Briagh was a thief and a morph. A man whose entire life was based around running and hiding. Not trusting others with his secrets. Fearing exposure. So thrown into a new environment where his secret is known – how is he going to react? The bio is there as my guide to answering those questions, and it like the time line and the plot is being constantly added to as I write the story. {This of course is especially vital when as a pantster I tend to wander between writing different books at the same time and often don't write anything on the same book for days or months.}

Normally I include a beastiary in my data file – for a couple of reasons. The first is that I want a consistent set of creatures in my work that relate to my world. Is my world based on ancient Greek / Roman / Babylonian mythology? If so then I want it to include creatures from those mythologies like hell hounds, cerberi, minotaurs and not those of other mythologies. Similarly I need to nail down the characteristics and abilities of those beasts so that I don't have them doing things that they can't or wouldn't do. For example if a manticore is an ambush predator operating from its den in the forest depths, I don't want it to suddenly be out chasing down its prey across the savanna.

Other sections I usually include are the gods and religions of the world – you never know when you need a good curse or a priest to tell your characters about right and wrong. Likewise I add a language section – terms I use through the book. So in Wolves I took a number of terms from middle English and scattered them throughout the work, simply to keep the steam punk feel of the book alive. {This can be fascinating and fun research by the way, and you can learn a lot. For example in writing the book I discovered the term 'rakefire' which is essentially an over-stayer in an inn who refuses to pay for his lodgings and needs to be booted out in favour of paying guests.}

And last but by no means least I add a comments section. This I cannot stress the importance of strongly enough for pantsters and probably plotters to. This is simply a section where as I'm writing the book I have a random thought eg 'explain the magic of scrying somewhere in book'. This matters because obviously I as the writer know what scrying is and how it works in the book, so as I reread and edit it makes perfect sense to me. But if that isn't in the book somewhere, my readers may be left scratching their heads wondering what's happening.

So to those of you who like to write in the manner I do – by the seat of your pants – this is the approach I use, and I would commend it to you.

Here's hoping you have a great new year ahead.

Cheers, Greg.