I’ve been writing for a long time. Since before I could physically write, in fact. My first book was called Bilbo Baggins Meets His Friends. I did the illustrations, and my mom wrote my dictated words. Bilbo and his friends have some crazy hats, for some reason that I no longer understand.
Then came my preteens and early teens, when I wrote Lord of the Rings fanfiction (still available online, though I won’t tell you where to find it) and terrible dragon stories (yes, both the dragons and the stories were terrible). In my mid-teens I moved on to under-developed fantasy and also some truly horrendous poetry.
In college I wrote some passable short stories and then, finally, a “short” story (6000 words) that I was really proud of. I got comments like, “This was really long, but I barely noticed because it was so good!” and “I don’t like fantasy, but your story makes me want to read more of it.” This story had a side character who intrigued me.
In 2012, for my first attempt at NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), I decided to write this character’s backstory. The following year, I finished a 100,000-word novel that ended up being not-quite-all of Raesh’s story. I have since (with several years of not-writing in there too) written an 115,000-word book two and 65,000 words of book three. I’ve also done a lot of editing.
In the last year and a half since quitting my job, I have grown immensely as a writer. Some things you just have to learn from experience and excessive amounts of practice. You know, things like using action beats instead of dialog tags and what it actually looks like to show-don’t-tell. Having more free time to read a lot also helps. So does going to conferences where people who know lots of things tell you those things.
Which is a perfect segue.
Two months ago I went to a writers conference called Realm Makers. My last blog post told you about everything I did to prepare for that conference. This blog post is here to tell you about some of the things that I learned there and what I’ve been doing differently since then.
Fairy Tale Retellings, a talk by CJ Redwine
I never thought I would write fairy tale retellings. Tends to be a younger audience, tends to have less complex plots, and I don’t want to be pigeon-holed into always writing them. But I attended the talk anyway, because it sounded the most interesting of all the talks that hour, and I’ve heard wonderful things about CJ. Here’s a brief summary of what she talked about:
Fairy tales are age-old, familiar stories. People are drawn to the themes of good vs evil and heroes rising up. In a fairy tale retelling, the fairy tale is the bare bones of the story you write. To start, choose a fairy tale. A famous fairy tale means you have an instant audience. It will be easy to market, but also a saturated market. Picking a little known fairy tale means your story will stand out more easily, but it will also be harder to market. Consider doing a mashup. Then you get the visibility of a famous fairy tale with the uniqueness of a lesser known one.
Next, read several different versions of the fairy tale you picked (Disney, Grimm, etc). Decide which parts are so iconic that you must keep them. Then tweak those parts. Ask why things happen the way they do. In your own story, try to answer these questions better than the original does. Make the fairy tale your own by playing with ‘what ifs’ and including the iconic imagery in unique ways.
CJ used her own Snow White retelling, The Shadow Queen (which I have since read and now highly recommend), as an example. What is iconic about Snow White? The evil queen, the mirror, the huntsman, the seven dwarves, the apple, the prince. What might you want to tweak? Well, it’s kinda weird that Snow just starts living with seven strange dwarves. Instead of dwarves, maybe we should have dragons! What if the huntsman and the prince were the same person? And also a dragon! And why does Snow eat an apple given to her by a mysterious and obviously creepy old woman? That’s pretty dumb. Maybe the poisoned apple imagery can be used elsewhere. Let’s have a Snow White who’s a lot smarter than that.
You can see how tweaking the iconic imagery can very quickly create a unique and interesting story that still has obvious call-backs to the original.
Why was this more interesting to me than I expected? More on that in a moment . . .
Plotting vs Pantsing
If you know anything about various writing styles, you’ve probably heard of plotting and pantsing. Plotting is where you plan everything out in advance so that when you start writing, you know what’s going to happen. That includes every scene and also the end. Pantsing (flying by the seat of your pants) is where you start writing and discover the story (including plot and characters) as you go along. You might not know what the end is until you write it.
I am a pantser. This is good and bad. Let’s break down why.
- Plotting: lots of work up front, lots of outlining, writing should go faster because you’ve already worked all the kinks out of the plot, not as much work at the end, less editing and rewriting, tends to have a stronger plot
- Pantsing: no work up front, just start, writing might take longer if you get stuck, might discover things halfway through that mean things at the beginning will need to change, tons of work at the end, tons of editing and rewriting, tends to have stronger characters
So essentially, the question is, do you want more work up front or more work at the end? But also consider that reworking an outline is much easier and faster than reworking an already-written story. I have always enjoyed being a pantser. Discovering the story as I write is fun! Unexpected things happen, and people show up that end up being major characters, and I’m just sitting there like, “Oh, okay. You do that then. Wait, what? Not that!” It’s exciting!
But you know what’s not exciting? Rewriting the majority of 200,000 words from scratch because of all the things I discovered along the way. That is sometimes both intimidating and discouraging.
So I decided to talk to someone about it. Someone who has experience with this kind of thing.
Plotting and Editing, a conversation with Catherine Jones Payne
Catherine suggested that I at least trying to be a plotter. If it doesn’t work, no big deal, but at least I would know. Many of the things that I am currently frustrated with about my writing come at least partially from being a pantser, so it seems like it’s worth a try. She gave me some tips on being a plotter in a way that tries to take the best of both worlds.
First, take a full week (or 40 hours whenever you have time) and outline your story. Don’t write a single bit of prose. Flesh out your characters. Build your world. Write a vague plot with a 3 act structure, then drill down to chapter by chapter plot descriptions.
Next, start writing based on your outline. Catherine suggested this process:
- Day 1, afternoon: write a bulleted outline of the next scene you’re going to write, don’t write any prose, just “person A walks in and says X, person B gets angry” etc, think of it as sketching the scene
- Day 1, evening: take a break, do whatever, let the scene marinate in the back of your mind, sleep on it
- Day 2, morning: write the scene, hopefully it will go smoothly, since you already know everything that should happen
- Day 2, afternoon: bulleted outline for the next scene
And the pattern continues. I love this idea. My best scenes (and the ones that have been easiest and fastest to write) are always the ones that have been building up in the back of my mind. I know they’re coming, and I’m excited to write them when they do. Catherine’s process seems to take advantage of how I write my best scenes and apply it to every scene. Make my own process work for me, but better.
If you stray from your outline as you’re writing scenes, that’s okay. An outline can always be reworked. But hopefully you’ve already worked out the major kinks during your week of plotting. You’ll still have a crappy first draft (because that’s just always the case), but ideally there won’t be any major reworking during the editing process.
Speaking of which, Catherine also gave me some tips on how not to be overwhelmed when editing a (freakin’ huge) novel.
- Read through the whole manuscript once without making any changes. As you do so, make a list of the big things you want to change.
- Take your first scene. Read through your list of big changes. Edit that first scene with those things in mind. Keep editing that scene until you are happy with it.
- Do the same thing with the next scene (read list, then edit).
- Edit scene by scene until you are done with your second draft. Now all your big issues are fixed, and you only had to go through the manuscript twice.
This is so much better than what I’ve been doing. Usually I go, “Oh, I need to change that thing.” And then I read through the entire manuscript, editing just that one thing. And then I repeat that process every single time I think of something that needs to change. This process is endless and unsustainable and incredibly wearing. It means I’m never done. It’s dumb. From now on, I’m doing it Catherine’s way. Plus, her way means I have a metric for how much I’ve completed. Every time I finish a scene, I can check it off the list.
What I’m Doing Now
So now the question is, what am I doing with all these new ideas?
The answer? I’m starting something new.
I’m setting aside my current three book saga (for now), because it’s a little overwhelming how much I need to change (due to both pantsing and becoming a better writer), and I think I need something fresh. I’m taking Catherine’s advice to try being a plotter. But because I don’t really know where to start when it comes to plot, I’m using CJ’s ideas and researching fairy tales. I’m not planning to write a fairy tale retelling, but if I need a plot, why not start there?
So I went to the library and checked out four fat books of fairy tales and folk tales. I read almost all of them. Fairy tales are weird, guys. But I came up with a dozen or so that I think are promising. I’m in the process of taking detailed notes on those ones, and then I’m going to use them to start piecing together a plot.
I’ve already picked my favorite story and named two of my main characters (not intentionally . . . their names seem to have sprung from the ether). I haven’t done any world-building yet, but that’s coming up soon. I plan to use Catherine’s plotting and writing advice, and then I hope it won’t be long before I can try out her editing advice too.
I’m very excited to see where all this goes!