Monday, October 27, 2008

the plantser...

Dave Freer posting:

I blundered into writing. The bit about fools rushing in: that’s me.... And in retrospect maybe it was a good thing. You see Sarah advised things like seeking out writers and studying writing - well, I did the latter, but only other novels. There was NO money for ‘how to write’ books - we were on the ragged edge of disaster. As for other writers... Let me tell you they’re not thick on the ground in small towns in northern Zululand. Honest. I rattled several bushes and turned over at least three damp rocks. All I found was a slug and a very irate mamba. That was in pre-net days (the net was there I just didn’t have access until after I’d sold my first book)... so it was just me on my tod and a lot of novels - mostly courtesy of second hand book stores and other people’s throw outs.

I had no idea how to write a novel, but I wanted to. (I also had no idea of the obstacles - which can be a good thing too, except I was pretty damn dumb about falling over most of them, unnecessarily.) So I set about looking at the subset I was interested in - Not ‘authors I admire’ but, because I think oddly -- first book, good sellers. I looked at murder mysteries, romances, aga-sagas (yes, Maeve Binchy), thrillers, horror... even sf and fantasy. Made notes. Counted words per sentence. Worked out average syllables per word. Up and down peaks (number of pages). Noted character numbers, types, relationships, resolution types etc. Calculated proportions of dialogue. Yes. I am anal and obsessive, now that you mention it.

The one thing I never looked at was plot. All those nice books on plotting, 7 basic plots etc. which had I been in touch with writing books or my peers I would have been influenced by just didn’t come my way. So... as I didn’t know any better, I did my own way. Which, like most things I do is arse-about-face to most people. But it works for me. You see I am neither a plotter nor a pantser. I’m a character plantser, playing a complicated balancing act between situation and character. The end result is my books are usually born out of someone saying ‘you can’t do that!’(whereupon I must. Sorry.) So: I work out how said impossible thing could be done and that forms a core (and often an end) to my book. ("You can’t uplift rats and bats" - their skull capacity is too small - RATS BATS AND VATS. "You can’t be sure of habitable worlds around other stars" - A SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS ) I then write about 5K... introducing my lead characters, setting the scene. Pure pantser. I then sit down and use those characters to derive my plot. I’ve set the scene - (and therefore have some idea of the obstacles - both physical and of character) I probably know the outcome. I now know the character. The point is the plotter has worked out how the character will overcome the obstacles and meet his/her true love and arrive at the end. Join the dots. The pantser waits for the character to tell them how to cope with the obstacle, which they can only do when they get there... which can make a story meander. I sit and game scenarios. Usually in the bath. I even remember to wash sometimes. The result is the obstacles change to fit the character ... and sometimes I go back and change the character to fit the obstacle.

The point I am trying to make in my usual circuitous way is no two characters will deal with the same obstacle in the same way. Let us assume a large angry mob crowding a street between our hero and his goal. Benito would go up the side of building and go over them. Marco would attempt to reason with them (and it would then be necessary to put in the mob parents of children he’d helped - modify obstacle) Manfred would simply try brute force and die (hence need to modify obstacle or add force) Erik would pick out the leader of the mob and attempt to draw him into single combat. Cair would throw a thunder flash. Fat Fal would run away shouting ‘there he goes’ and let them run past him. Arial would run up the trousers of the leader and taking strategic hold tell him to take her to where she wants to go. Howard would attempt to reason with them, and die (unless they threatened someone else). Fionn would step into an alley (needs to be an alley) and start a fire, and call them to it. Meb would try to imitate him and set fire to either herself or the entire street, and need rescuing (her talents are wildly out of control). So I will build the story around the character and the obstacles and whatever else they may need....

So... by not knowing how to do this I evolved my own method. It works for me.

And the bathwater gets cold.


Marianne said...


Hang on till I stop laughing.

You write great blog! Maybe I should go track down your books and see if your 'voice' is just as funny in them. We should have some samples on a shelf somewhere, since Bob's painted the covers to a couple...

You know, I begin writing the same way as you do. I've got a general idea going in a certain direction, character studies in mind and some just write themselves. It's been said by a lot of writers that if you know your character/s well, they tell the story while you rush to get it down in print or on computer screen. It works a lot of the time. :-D Some of my characters come with fully fleshed personalities of their own and I so enjoy writing their stories. Got tripped up once by an unfinished Victorian Koala Bear Fantasy, and one character in particular that just took over. One of these days, I'm gonna go back and finish telling that story, and the sequels...

There is no one way to write a novel, everyone does it differently. Mind you, I dont't think I'm quite as, er, analytical as you were with breaking down what works in a book. Well, what works for me, anyway. :-D I've read a lot over the years and absorbed by osmosis what I like best that works for me. :-D

Great Monday post, Dave... :-D

Dave Freer said...

:-) There are quite a lot of my books in the Baen Free Library. There is always an element of humor, but RATS BATS & VATS (which involves cyber-uplifted rats (well, elephant shrews) and bats. The critters draw language principally from downloaded Shakespeare(rats)and G&S and forthe bats Irish folk and old Wobbly songs - as I believe language shapes the way you think - that have basic nature of the animals concerned overlaid with the linguistic pattern. Rats live fast, die soon, and think about food and sex (and these ones discovered strong drink) Bats are long lived, pairbond, gregraious and socialist, and in certain cases have sex ones a year... Natually they love each other but in this story they have to co-operate, and worse co-operate with humans!
PYRAMID SCHEME is the other book known for it's terrible puns and a rather riotous and politically incorrect jouney into Ancient mythology.
My characters -as I say i have shift and add things... it's a bit like doing a rubiks cube ;-)

The OnyxHawke Agency said...


Better still, come see him at Luncacon next year in NY. He's going to be GoH!

Marianne said...

We'll be there!!!

Rock on Escher-Hilton.