Friday, March 30, 2012

To Pants or Not to Pants: Plotting Talk for Writers, Pt 1

Courtesy Google Images/
You've been asked the question a million times: Are you a plotter or a pantser? It sounds ominous, doesn't it? As though you might be plotting a revolution, or you might be planning to pants the unpopular kid in your class. But no, it's actually an important question about how you craft the plot and action of a story. And it's something we all have to understand about ourselves and our craft if we want to be better writers.

Before I get too deep into this blog series, let me give you some background that informs my approach to this question. I'm a fiction writer, working on my first official novel for the market. As a teen I wrote a novel too derivative to sell, though I did write it from start to finish. (This is big. You have to finish your stuff, to paraphrase Chuck Wendig.) I've worked for the past 8 years as a full-time copywriter and editor for nonprofit organizations, doing all kinds of magazine articles, fundraising letters, and PR. I've taught college writing courses since 1997, and tutored writing students one-on-one for even longer than that.

I say all this to set this series into context, because I come at plotting (and pantsing) from the viewpoint of someone who has not only spent years figuring out her own method to writing, but who has also worked hard with a lot of people to help them figure out the method that works for them. And that's the first thing I want to emphasize: We need to figure out what works for us as individual writers, because we each have a unique way of approaching our writing that is going to work for us. Our part is to find it.

It's important to remember that you—yes, you—have a unique way of planning your novel from start to finish that is going to work for you. Why? Because let's face it... The question of plotting vs. pantsing often comes across as an all-or-none proposition; one side is right, the other wrong. On the other hand, it's not impossible to find people who talk as though the issue is completely irrelevant, and it doesn't matter what you do

The truth, however, is that the issue does matter. We shouldn't blow it off. But it's not an all-or-nothing, right-wrong issue either. Both approaches can be effective, and you can use them both as it suits you, on the same project even.

That's right, I'm saying it right here in living color. You can plot and pants. And if you can learn to be flexible enough to do both, as needed, it may help your writing exponentially.

Proof that I don't pants:
Notes for my current novel
I plot and pants all the time, and I have for years. It's an approach that has worked for me since I was a teen in high school, just wetting my feet in research projects (non-fiction) and story-telling (fiction). In true confessional style, I'll tell you that I never have and probably never will outline anything in great details. Once I have to use Roman numerals, I'm out. I will never be a pure, 100% plotter. I'll always be a hybrid.

 But I don't completely pants to the point of having no direction or sense at all of where I want to go. Instead, I write things down as they occur to me. As you can see, I like to use 3 x 5 cards because I can physically hold them. As new ideas come, I add them to my file.

For me, new ideas often come as I'm writing a scene or thinking about a scene I'm going to write. That's why I say I'm a hybrid. Those ideas float up from my subconscious so often during the act of writing that I've learned it's a part of my process. So, I include it. It would be foolish not to. I'm finding what works for me. And I think all writers should do that for themselves. Try different things, and find what works for you. It will help you grow as a writer, and isn't that the goal?
More of my personal notes for
my urban fantasy WIP

Next week, I'll talk a little more about why you can't totally throw plotting out the window, as well as why pantsing on a good day is a lot like freewriting. In the meantime, tell me about how you plot or pants, as well as the plotting/pantsing questions you've faced. I'd like to address them in this series, if I can. And share this post with friends who might be interested, because I'd love to hear from a wide spectrum of writers on this topic. I think it'll provide interesting insights and tips for all of us.

See you next week!

Copyright (c) 2012 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Chipper Muse News

After a five-part series on Supporting Indie Authors, I thought I'd mix it up a bit. So, today I'm sharing what is spine-tingling new and awesome in the world of the Chipper Muse.

First, I'm using the word spine-tingling because of a New York Times article, "Your Brain on Fiction." There are some great tips for writers in this article. Seems that there's proof in neuroscience for some old saws of fiction-crafting wisdom that we've all heard a million times.

Your writing shines better when you use unique metaphors (which engage the brain) rather than cliches (which get tuned out because the brain records them as "just words").

And when you describe things, use the five senses because the sensory parts of the brain kick in as the reader reads. Write that scene where your character is running vividly enough, and the reader feels she is running too.

Hence, I'm hoping you are feeling shivers up your spine and that you smell delightful lavender and feel the silky delight of soft-scented rose petals in your hands as you enjoy my blog today. Thanks, New York Times.

On another note, Lissa Clouser, who is a friend from good old Nanowrimo, gave me a Kreativ Blogger award. So I want to give her a shout-out and thank-you here, and invite you to check out her writing blog, A Quid for a Quill. She's bold enough to write poetry as well as fantasy, and she's a lot of fun. When you stop by her blog, leave a comment and let her know I sent you over.

Lissa's blog mentioned a challenge to those of us writing novels to share 7 sentences from page 77 of our current work in progress. I'm game. My WIP is an urban fantasy, starring a girl who finds out a rumored family curse is no rumor after all. Here, you get a glimpse of the villain, Hex, as well as the evil baddie he's working for. Share thoughts if you'd like, since I'm currently taking critiques!
A rush of air moved past him, like a hot breath, hissing past his ear. “I’m right here, Hex,” a hard voice crackled.
Hex spun, hands instinctively grasping for purchase. There was nothing to hold onto. But he caught himself, straightened, and looked for the speaker. No one was there, expect for the silent five. But the fire in the trashcan flared up and twisted into odd shapes, flickers of images that Hex could barely comprehend before they slipped into new shapes. Startled, Hex backed away and tripped into another trashcan, sending the metal container spinning and rattling along the ground.
So, what do you think? What would you suggest to improve the writing?

If you're a regular reader of this blog, let me know what you're working on now. I'd love to read seven sentences from your work and give you feedback, if you're willing to share.

Next week, I'll be sharing the story of a fellow writer who has found success through word-of-mouth endorsements and reading groups. In the meantime, happy writing!

Copyright (c) 2012 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Muse Reviews: Noble by David Hulegaard

Not too long ago, I had the chance to read Noble, the first in a trilogy of mystery/science fiction books starring 1940s private investigator Miller Brinkman.

Author David Hulegaard creates an interesting world that mixes small town life with the big city of Washington, D.C., and a secret government installation thrown in for good measure. His protagonist, Brinkman, has to navigate all three as he tries to figure out what happened to a missing teenager named Jane.

The setting and characters fit in well for noir fiction. The small-town felt suitably inward, the perfect place for a teen to go missing and for a troubled PI to feel put upon enough to investigate, even though he initially prefers not to.

It took a little while for me to really get a sense that the book was set in the 1940s... though I'm not sure why. I think it may have been a mixture of two things: First, the small town where the book starts... I'm not used to that in noir, though that may be inexperience on my part, both with noir books and small towns. Perhaps I have watched too many Bogart movies set in L.A. to pick up on a noir vibe in a small-town setting.

And second, some of the character's speech felt more modern than I would have expected. Not so much modern slang, but rather a lack of 1940s slang. Or perhaps I missed the rhythm of the film noir dialogue that I'm used to. To be fair, I don't read much noir, and I'm sure there's a greater variety in the books than in the films I've seen from Bogart and Hitchcock. And at least one reader on Amazon found the lack of cliched detective speak to be refreshing. So there's a balance. I'm a fiend for snappy dialogue personally, so I'm biased.

By the time the story moves to Washington, D.C., and we meet Brinkman's ex-girlfriend, the setting felt a little more like an old Sam Spade story. So all is not lost.

The slight delay in feeling the story settle into its timeframe wasn't the end of the world. In fact, it was outweighed by the things I liked about the book. For example, Jane's stubborn teenage friend, who insists on hiring a PI, was very likeable. Even though Brinkman has his weaknesses (like a good noir protagonist should), he's also sympathetic. I found it easy to root for him. The writing flowed well, so the book is a quick read overall.

There was enough mystery to keep me asking questions as I read along. I was able to see a few plot twists coming before they arrived, but there was at least one thing that I didn't see coming. I'm fond of books that keep me guessing, so Noble gets credit for that.

Also, the science fiction part of the story was done well and it fits in perfectly with the 1940s noir setting. Mash-ups aren't always easy to do, and they don't always work that well. (See my opinion of Cowboys and Aliens for an example of a messy mash-up.) I think Hulegaard picked a mash-up that makes a great deal of sense, and he pulls it off in a suitable way.

As with an early book by any author (I believe this is Hulegaard's first published book), there are areas for improvement. Here and there, the writing could probably have been tighter, the description a little more punchy. The small-town sheriff definitely seemed a bit cliched. And I would have liked the book to showcase a little more of the seamy underbelly of life, which is what I like in noir. (For example, Brinkman's vice seems to be pie. Not leggy women who are trouble. Not the bottle. Not gambling debts. But pie. That was too tame for me.) These are relatively small quibbles, though, and I think they are a matter of taste.

Now, the idea behind the book... that was very intriguing. It's got a good, solid premise. I wouldn't mind seeing where Hulegaard plans to go next with the story. Overall, I'd recommend checking out Noble, especially if you like science fiction and noir fiction, or if you like genre mash-ups.

Buy the book on Amazon or visit the author's website. Follow him on Twitter: @hulegaardbooks.

Copyright (c) 2012 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Supporting Indie Authors, Part 5: Give the Gift of Feedback

When I use the term indie author, I'm using it a little loosely (for the purposes of this series, at least). What I'm really addressing is our need, no matter what route we've taken to publication, to market ourselves as authors. And also, what we as readers can do to help the authors we love to succeed.
Important feedback does stand out!
Courtesy of Google Images/

For me, you are indie if you are doing something on your own to get your book out there in the marketplace. And let's face it... Most authors have to do that at some point in their career, even if they're working with a traditional big publisher.

But of course, most authors are not working with the big publishers in New York. Instead, they're self-publishing, or using CreateSpace, or choosing small presses, or trying print-on-demand. And this means the authors are doing a lot on their own... editing, layout, and marketing. We as readers (and fellow writers) can help authors during their do-it-yourself process of getting their book out to the masses.

If you'd like to be helpful in a practical and simple way, you can do it by visiting an author's blog or website and seeing what's new. It might just so happen that the author will be asking for help that you can give. This has happened to me twice in recent months, and all I had to do was give feedback to the two authors in question. How easy is that?

The first author I helped was Dan Wells. Yes, the guy who wrote I Am Not a Serial Killer, which I reviewed here on the blog. Now, he's a little bigger than what we typically would call an indie writer, but still, he's a good example of what I mean by giving feedback. He asked for help with naming a resistance group in his new book Partials. I just happened to see him tweet about it, read his blog post, and thought: Hey, fun! I gave him a few ideas...

And here's the cool part: He used one of them, and now my name is in the Acknowledgments of his book. You can see his post and my comment here. That was an easy way to help him out, and we can do this for authors on a regular basis, because all authors need input from time to time. So if you have a favorite writer, keep an eye out for their questions. When they ask, it means they seriously do want to hear your suggestions, so you have a chance to be heard and make a difference.

The second author I was able to help out recently is a true indie writer, a guy named Bill Wetterman. As he prepared the marketing campaign for his self-published book, Room 1515, he was making a book trailer and wanted feedback. Wisely, perhaps, he has deleted the old version off his website (or I'd link to my comments on it), but while it was up, I got a chance to view it and offer suggestions for ways that I thought he could make the trailer more effective, and hopefully thus improve his sales.

Others gave him feedback too, and he took the suggestions and made a new trailer. It's here if you'd like to see it: Room 1515 book trailer. The cool part for me is that I can watch this new trailer and see where he made changes, knowing that he took some of my input to heart. I'm excited for Bill, because I think his current trailer will definitely help him gain readers. Which is the goal, right?

What I especially love about giving authors input when they ask for it is that it gives us, the readers, a chance to be involved in the process of getting books out there that we like. And we get to help authors keep writing. That's a real privilege, and we should consider it that way.

Have you ever had the chance to give an author a suggestion? Did you see your suggestion make an impact? Or maybe you're a writer who has asked readers for input and you have an interesting story about it that you'd like to share. I'd love to hear your thoughts, and my readers would too. So, do tell!

For part 1 of the series, go here.
For part 2 of the series, go here.
For part 3 of the series, go here.
For part 4 of the series, go here.

Copyright (c) 2012 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Supporting Indie Authors, Part 4: Donate to the Author's Other Endeavors

When we talk about supporting indie authors, we need to keep in mind a truth that affects all writers, indie or not: Many writers do not make a living full-time off their books. A majority of authors have to have their fingers in quite a few things, besides the actual books they write, in order to make a living.

Hey, whatever works to make a living, right?
Courtesy of Google Images/
The reason for this is simple: Entertainment gets old fast. And it doesn't continually generate income through the same stream. Let me give you a specific example.

Once I buy The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks, I won't be buying that book again. I've spent my eight bucks on it, and I'm done. Now, I may buy a sequel to that book, or a new book by Mr. Weeks because I liked The Way of Shadows so much. But my point is that once I invest in The Way of Shadows, I am almost guaranteed to never invest in that specific book again. Brent Weeks will not get more than eight bucks out of me for that particular book, and if he wants more than eight bucks for that particular book, he needs to find another reader for it.

Now, Mr. Weeks is doing pretty well with that book and his others, but there are countless 99-centsers out there in the same boat. (Or $1.99 or $2.99 authors. But you get my point.) When I buy their book and give them my dollar or three, I'm done. For authors with a smaller audience, or a non-mainstream audience if I can phrase it that way, alternate streams of income are essential to financial survival.

In fact, I believe this is one reason why there are a lot of people out there writing erotica as a side business. I'm not endorsing it, but I can't ignore that it pays well. It's a viable income stream if you're so inclined to go that route. And there are so many other streams besides book publishing that writers use to gain money. They do consultations. They offer editing and proofreading services. They give seminars. They teach. They podcast.

Have you considered stopping by the website of the indie authors you enjoy to see what they offer in terms of other items, besides books? Howard Tayler, author the web comic Schlock Mercenary, has said that the bulk of his finances comes through the hard copy compilations of his comics, but he offers things like T-shirts too, because that's a viable stream of income for him. People want them, so he sells them.

Lots of authors use alternative streams to raise funds. Michael Stackpole, author of I, Jedi and other novels, hosts a podcast on writing with fellow author Michael Mennenga, called Dragon Page, Cover to Cover. If you visit the website, you'll see a sizable link at the bottom right, inviting your support. You see, the two Mikes give great advice to fellow writers, the kind of advice that they could charge for, but don't. Yet if their advice is worth it (and I think it is), then it's worth donating to the podcast.

For that matter, if you're a fan of these writers, why not support the podcast when you can, out of fandom? Yes, I'm talking about supporting them even if you're not looking for writing advice. This probably stretches your thinking. But here's where I'm coming from: If writers need support to write their next novel (which you'd probably like to buy), then why not help them out by donating to their podcast or buying a T-shirt? It all works together to get those indie novels out into the public. And in many cases, what you'd be giving or purchasing costs equal to or even less than a hardcover book. It's an affordable solution I'm suggesting.

Anyway, these are just more thoughts on how to go out of the box on supporting our indie author friends. Do you have any other ideas for nontraditional support? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

For part 1: Supporting Indie Authors, go here.
For part 2: Smaller Equals More Effort, Not Less, go here.
For part 3: Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is, go here.

Copyright (c) 2012 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.