Monthly Theme: Pantsing VS Plotting
Pantsers write “by the seat of their pants”, not following a set structure but letting the story take them on a wild, sometimes chaotic, journey. It is also known as “Discovery Writing”.
Plotters plan out the novel in advance, sometimes in meticulous detail, setting out the story’s structure and following it from beginning to end.
Which of the two are you? Is one way better than another? While I would never dictate how anyone should write, it is true that each method has its pros and its cons, and also that many writers tend to fit somewhere between the two.
Here are some tips and tricks our members shared during our Monday night discussion:
- It helps to know where the story begins, and have some idea of how it will end.
- Consider your plot points to be “signposts” designed to move the plot in the right direction.
- Be flexible: if characters, or the plot, behaves in an unexpected manner, be prepared to move these signposts.
- Use the first draft of your discovery written novel to determine the structure of the second draft.
- Many writers (especially those that are also dedicated readers) will find themselves subconsciously following the traditional story structure.
What are you? A plotter? A Pantser? Or a hybrid?
Do you have any tips and tricks of your own?
Share them with us on Twitter: @chchwriters or comment here!
We are also happy to take suggestions for our Monthly themes!
Writing Non-human Characters
Back in July, I did a presentation on “How to Write Non-human Characters” as part of our Character Building Workshop, and I thought it time I shared a little of it here for those of you unable to attend. I have written several novels, and numerous short stories (including fanfiction), about birds, lemurs, animal-people (“furries”) and fantastical creatures such as goblins and Pokemon. Whilst I do, on occasion, have human characters in my story, they are generally not the main protagonist.
So, why do I favour non-human characters?
First and foremost, I love animals, plus I have a zoology degree and I’m not afraid to use it, to educate while I entertain.
Other reasons you might choose to write non-human protagonists:
- Challenge, to explore the world from a different perspective.
- Adds an extra quirk to a fairly mundane or traditional plot idea.
- Allegory or parable.
Non-human characters can range from realistic style animals (Incredible Journey, Watership Down), through to the aforementioned furries. Generally speaking, I prefer to read animal-protagonist novels in which the animals behave much like their wild counterparts, but with increased insight and complex communication, or truly anthropomorphic ones, where the characters still show some of their natural animal traits. The movie, Zootopia, is an excellent example of this. However, shows like Arthur, where the characters are basically just children that happen to look like animals, don’t interest me.
Of course, “non-human” can also refer to werewolves, elves and many other near-human species.
For the purposes of this post, I’m going to deal predominantly with mostly-realistic animal characters.
The first thing to do when writing an animal character is RESEARCH. I watch documentaries, read books, look up information on the internet. Remember, if you get one facet wrong there is someone out there who will notice and most zoologists aren’t shy about correcting errors! Of course, the more popular your animal is, the more is known about them, so not only will you have a plethora of information at your hands, there will also be more folks out there looking to correct any errors you might make. If you are making up the species, as I did with my goblins, then you can create as crazy an ecology as you like, but remember to keep it consistent!
Next you need a plot, and with that, CONFLICT. Is your character wild or domestic? If domestic, you could write a family drama from the animal’s perspective – The Last Family in England (aka The Labrador Pact) by Matt Haig is an excellent example of this. Murder mysteries seem popular too: why have several cats in the neighbourhood been found dead? Sit down and brainstorm a list of possible adventures that your domestic cat or dog could get up to. For both domestic and wild animals, there is the classic theme: trying to get home/find a new home, in which either the original habitat is destroyed (Animals of Farthing Wood) or the animal is taken from his/her home and must find her way back (Far From Home Cats). Survival in general is also a popular theme, (ie: Black Beauty and Bambi), but you will still need the plot to build to something – whether it be the battle for dominance to claim his position as head of the herd, or that final hurdle before being reunited with her owner or finding his forever home.
Even animal characters need PERSONALITY. They should always be a character first, animal second. They should have needs and wants, hopes and dreams – and forces (be it another character, or nature) acting against their achievement of these. Cliches are fairly common in animal-driven narratives: cats are sly and manipulative, dogs dependable and loyal, but it is fun to twist the stereotypes. After all, hyenas are generally portrayed as scheming and malicious thieves and rogues, but did you know that they do regularly hunt their own food (not just steal it), have a matriarchal society and form strong clan bonds, not entirely dissimilar to the oft-romantisied wolf?
Whether your animal character is predator or prey, pet or stray, it can be fun to delve into the world, look at it from a different perspective (don’t forget the senses!) and challenge yourself to write something different!
Angela Oliver is a writer and illustrator, a reader and a dreamer. She has independently published two novels via Amazon’s CreateSpace, Aroha’s Grand Adventure, about a weka (a flightless NZ bird) and her adventures as she makes her way home across the island, and Fellowship of the Ringtails, which she describes as “epic fantasy with lemurs”.
Finding value in a critique…
As a writer, if you ever want to publish – be it indie or traditional – you are going to need feedback on whether your novel works or doesn’t work. Critiques can be hard to take, and here’s some tips from our President, Judy Mohr, on how to find the value in even the harshest analysis.
Writing 101: Point of View (part 2)
We have already discussed First and Second (more briefly) person point of view (POV), so now we move on to the very popular Third Person.
What is Third Person POV?
Third Person POV uses pronouns such as: he, she and they, and also names. It shows you what that particular person is feeling, doing, seeing etc at that particular point in time. It creates more distance between the reader and the character, but can still be used to encourage a certain level of intimacy.
Third Person is popular across all the ranges of fiction, and even into non-fiction (especially historic). It is an especially useful tool in genres such as epic fantasy, or any prose where many characters are involved, often separated by distance and sometimes even time.
There are three specific types of Third Person narrative:
Third Person Objective
This is when the tale is written from the perspective of a neutral or impersonal narrator. They do not know precisely what any of the characters are thinking or feeling, only what they can observe them doing.
This can present a challenge to the writer; because you cannot see into the characters’ heads, then you must show what they are feeling by physical cues: such as expressions, stance and other behaviour. It is a good practise for writing in show, not tell.
However, it does not create intimacy between the reader and the characters.
Third Person Omniscient
The tale here is told from the perspective of a narrator capable of “seeing” into the heads of all the characters – basically, “Omniscient” means “All-knowing”.
I am not a fan of this perspective, as it is very hard to write it well, and it often leads into what I refer to as “head hopping”. This is when you jump from one character’s thoughts to another and it can be tremendously jarring. It is also harder to keep secrets from the reader when you know that one character is secretly planning on betraying the protagonist. This fact can, of course, also be used to ramp up the drama.
Third Person Limited
This is probably my favourite, and also the closest to First-Person you can get in a Third-Person narrative. Basically, for a passage of time – generally a chapter, sometimes only a paragraph, or even an entire story – the reader is made aware of one character’s emotions/thoughts etc, they are essentially viewing the world through that character’s eyes. Like with First-Person, although the pronouns still remain he/she/they.
It has an advantage over First-Person in that you can break away to another character or event more easily; you are able to describe the character without having to fall into “looking at themselves in the mirror” techniques; and it is easier when dealing with multiple story-lines.
The only issues with writing in Third-Person Limited is it can be quite easy to accidentally slip into someone else’s POV for a couple of sentences. This jars the reader, knocking them out of the spell the story has weaved into and can also be confusing. A good edit should be able to pick up on these instances.
Due to the nature of my stories: non-human protagonists, multiple POV characters, I favour Third-Person Limited in my writing. It is somewhat like having the best of both worlds: sharing the intimacy of one character’s thoughts and emotions, whilst also being able to break-away into a sub-plot.
Angela Oliver is a writer and illustrator, a reader and a dreamer.
Writing 101: Point of View (part 1)
There are various types of Point of View (POV) used in conventional writing. Over a series of blog posts we will be discussing the most frequently used mechanisms, their pros and their cons. We shall begin this series with First Person.
What is First Person POV?
First Person is when the story is told from the perspective of one character, the world as viewed through their eyes. It is characterised by use of the pronoun “I”. It puts the reader directly into the head of the protagonist; you can read their thoughts and see, hear, smell and feel via their senses. Thus it is a very intimate form of writing, creating a bond through the character and the reader.
It is currently very popular in Young Adult fiction: Vampire Academy, Twilight, Virals, and present, although less frequently, in Middle Grade:Bartimaeus series,Percy Jackson. It is often portrayed as though the reader were accounting their story to the reader, although sometimes it is written as a diary, letters or other correspondence. There seems to be some dichotomy amongst readers about whether or not they like it – I remember one customer avidly declared she would NEVER read anything written in First Person. I personally enjoy it, especially in stories with a strong, easily identifiable protagonist. The success of stories like Twilight can be, at least in part, attributed to the creation of a relatively flat, under-described character in which it is easy for the reader to imagine themselves.
Writing in First Person allows the writer to play with the reader. Ultimately, the tale will be biased in favour of the narrator, and as it is seen through their eyes, told through their voice, then the truth will be filtered through their own beliefs and thought-patterns. In, for example, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, the narrator is a teenage boy with Autism. He sees the world in black and white, and thus it takes him longer to figure out the shades-of-grey puzzles that the reader has already picked out. The narrator can also lie to the reader, allowing for unexpected twists. However, this should be done carefully, and the foreshadowing should offer some hints to what is really going on. One of my favourites along these lines is Joanne Harris’s Gentleman and Players. Everything should tie in neatly and the narrator should not be so much telling straight-out fibs but skipping around the truth and omitting relevant details.
One issue that I have with First Person narrative, is that I generally need to LIKE the character. If they have strong antisocial views – misogynistic, racist, sociopathic, etc – then it can make me very uncomfortable and I may wind up putting the book down. This is, I imagine, the intent of the author, such as in books like Perfume andLolita, which makes them a powerful read. However, I could not finish Catcher in the Rye because being in Holden’s head was making me emotionally irritated. Likewise, with Paulina Simon’s Tully, I really could not identify with the character and gave up on the book halfway through.
First Person does have some limitations, of course. It does not easily allow for split-narratives with multiple character leads. Some authors have remedied this by switching between two first person narrators – this can be very successful (one of my favourites is Deep Secret by Diana Wynne Jones) but must be done with care. Jumping between two first-person narrators can be very disorientating for the readers, especially those that practice a stop-start method of reading (snatching a page or two here and there) as it can be confusing to remember whose head you are in. This can be counteracted in several ways: changing font for each narrator, applying headers to the page, or – and this is the best – by having two very distinct characters with distinct voices. Whichever method chosen, the writer should select one narrator per chapter, and stick with them from beginning to end.
Another technique is to mix a first-person narrator with a fixed-third POV (more on these later). This allows more flexibility with events, but the main narrator should always be the one written in first-person.
Another limitation with First Person is that if the protagonist is not able to see, hear or otherwise experience an event, then it is almost as though it did not happen. A series I enjoy, Kim Harrison’s The Hollows, is written entirely through the POV of one character – Rachel Mariana Morgan (she is such a memorable character, that I can remember who entire name, something of a rarity) – however, in one of the books, one of the major supporting characters dies. But Rachel is not there to witness it and thus it all happens off-screen, and thus loses something of its impact (and keeps the reader wondering if it were true).
Some tips for writing in First Person:
- Keep the writing style true to the character. Ie: if your main character is an impulsive teenager with ADHD, keep the plot fast, and the action plentiful.
- Brainstorm your character first. Give them a name and traits – are they impulsive? Empathic? Quick to jump to the wrong conclusion? Once you have established this, make sure their behaviour is consistent throughout the narrative.
- Your character must be the centre of all the action.
- Don’t get too lost in their thoughts. Introspection can be boring. If it’s important to the plot, show it through their actions.
- There are more senses than just vision and hearing.
- Generally speaking, your First Person narrator will be most convincing if they are human.
- Describing your character can be difficult. Do this carefully. Mirror scenes should be avoided at all costs, and characters mentally bemoaning their hair-colour/style are likewise something of a cliché. For the most part, the reader doesn’t really need to know exactly what the character looks like – a few hints here and there will help, but most readers will create their own mental image.
First Person is a powerful POV, allowing the reader to immerse themselves completely in the body and mind of a character. It is best suited to stories with a strong central character.
Second Person POV is rarely used in fiction. It generally only shows up in the occasional literary short story, such as when an author is being experimental or trying to be clever, in poetry, or in children’s literature in the format of Choose Your Own Adventure and Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. It is characterised by the use of the pronoun “you”.
In tales when you make choices – such as the case with the children’s books mentioned, it is very suitable, because you, the reader, are driving the tale. However, it can make readers feel uncomfortable: “But I wouldn’t do that!” “I don’t think that way!” I have only ever read one novel in which it was used – Iain Banks Song of Stone.
It is, perhaps, a little ironic that it is not a popular mechanic to use, yet the goal of most wish-fulfilment fiction (such as Twilight) is to make the reader feel like they ARE Bella.
Second Person is not an easy POV to write from. It would probably be best in the inspirational-type literature – stuff like Jonathan Livingstone-Seagull and The Alchemist. Although it should be noted, neither of these are in Second Person.
Angela Oliver is a writer and illustrator, a reader and a dreamer.