Fairy Tale Retellings and Pantsing

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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:

  1. 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
  2. Day 1, evening: take a break, do whatever, let the scene marinate in the back of your mind, sleep on it
  3. Day 2, morning: write the scene, hopefully it will go smoothly, since you already know everything that should happen
  4. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Do the same thing with the next scene (read list, then edit).
  4. 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!

5 thoughts on “Fairy Tale Retellings and Pantsing

  1. It’s interesting to read about what you do and what you’ve learned, and everything that goes into the ‘writing a book’ process. Someday you will most likely be a famous author.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Writing is like planning a road trip for you and a stranger to take together.

    Plotting is sitting down a month or two in advance and planning out the whole of your journey from beginning to end. You’ll set a starting point (Boston) and an ending point (Washington State), and pick out specific destinations you want to hit along the way with the help of a map and a guidebook, ensuring the practical matters of sufficient gas stations, rest stops and restaurants will be addressed, and finding the most direct routes so you make good time and get to your destinations efficiently. You might occasionally, while looking at the map, realize that your route takes you nearby the worlds largest ball of yarn, or a highly rated museum, so you’ll plan light diversions because they’re interesting and won’t be too much of a departure off your route, but for the most part you’ll stick to the well traversed highways, because they’re safer. You’ll be sure to check Yelp and Google reviews to see the highest rated stops along the way too, so you can be sure to visit those, knowing that it’s safest for the stranger –who might be a picky eater– to select the popular choices. If you do this, the stranger and you will have a fine time. You’ll never end up in a situation where you run out of gas or have to pee in a bush by the side of the road, or eat at a greasy spoon with cockroaches in the soup. At the end of the day both you and the stranger will have pleasant memories of the somewhat uneventful, but entirely safe trip, and they will trust you to take them on another one in the future, because nothing really bad happened.

    Pantsing is, a year or two in advance of the trip, jumping in your car alone, taking with you only a compass, knowing vaguely that you might want to go ‘west’ and starting out on the nearest back-road, letting the chips fall where they may. The journey will take much longer, you’ll have to backtrack numerous times as you hit dead ends and untraversable roads, you might end up crossing your legs while driving through a particularly empty stretch of highway, desperately looking for a rest stop; running out of gas; or going to sleep hungry in your car trapped under a foot of snow. Your vehicle might break down because you didn’t check the oil first, and you might realize half way there that you don’t even like California and it’s a better idea to go to Texas, so you’ll switch directions a few times. All of this might be super frustrating for you, because it’s hard to figure out where you’re going and you have to face all of the trials of driving blind, knowing you might not ever get to a usable destination at all. But at the same time, that circuitous route might take you to the best creole restaurant that’s not even listed on Yelp. You might end up in a small town and stay at a bed and breakfast with the most interesting people you’ve ever met. You might find a place so idyllic that you just have to include it on the trip, regardless of how out of the way it is, just because of how incredible the vistas are. And the end result of the road trip, when you finally go with the stranger, will be a confusing and polarizing trip, lacking clear direction, taking highly inefficient detours way out of the way at times, and the stranger might hate it, saying, “I thought you said we were going to Washington State, why are we stopping in Louisiana first… why are we going down this unpaved road to get there?!” but they may also love it, “Okay, no you were totally right, I’m so glad we stopped in Louisiana, the fried crayfish po-boy was to DIE for!” Your trip won’t appeal to most people, but it’ll make you incredibly happy, because you get to visit all of your favorite places, and people who are wired like you will love it as well, begging you to take them on another one.

    It’s risk vs reward. Plotting gives you the chance to see obstacles way before they arrive, making sure that the stranger you’re bring with you is comfortable for the ride by choosing the safest, most time tested ways of telling a story. Pantsing risks wasting months of your life lost in areas that the stranger will never even experience, as you edit them out of the end trip, but it also allows you to really explore areas and experiences that following the time tested scripts of popular road trips past would never come close to discovering.

    As I understand it, the best writers do both. They start by letting their imaginations go wild in a flurry of brainstorming. No idea is a bad idea at this stage. This is flying around the whole US scrap-booking all the neat things they find. They fill up a whole notebook of themes and moments and characters and set-pieces, possibility after possibility. Then, looking at all the places they went and the things they wrote down, they begin to organize and structure a potential trip through them; like putting push pin’s in a map of the US, selecting all the possible cities and destinations they want to ensure they visit along the way that are commiserate with the story they want to tell. Once they have that broad idea, they loosely outline, connecting with string all the pins together on the map, removing pins that just don’t fit, or they rework the journey to include them later, or they find different cities that are more organically along the route that still provide a sufficient experience. This allows them to foreshadow and create character arcs and recurring motifs and themes long before writing, so they don’t box themselves into a corner or have to re-write massive sections because they realize that they need to introduce a character earlier in the journey, or make a personality change, or have characters go to a different location first. Then, when the story looks relatively well constructed, they start putting in the rest stops, the short details along the way, making sure the journey works moment to moment. It’s like infinitely zooming into the map until all they’re doing is editing the individual words between the destinations, like choosing which lane to travel in on the highway. Finally, they pick a vehicle (first person vs third person, who will be the narrator, etc) and begin taking the route themselves, making sure that it works in practice, not just ‘on paper’. This is the act of writing, and this is where the discoveries begin, as they realize while driving that a road is closed, or that their car doesn’t hold enough gas for a given stretch, or that it’s not the right vehicle for the terrain, or that there’s a marvelous place that they’ll miss too much while driving past it, so an edit is needed.

    This is why I love the idea of the proven fairytale retelling, or the fan-fiction you wrote before it. Like you said, it gives you the time-tested structure while allowing you to play around with the actual trip, so you can stretch your writing muscles on riskier aspects like polarizing characters or scenes, without getting completely lost on a journey that peters out midway through. I also very much like bulleted outlines eg.

    Jim is a jerk
    Jim is not a jerk

    Jim is a jerk
    Jim has a life changing experience
    Jim is not a jerk

    Jim is a Jerk
    Jim’s jerkness hurts someone he cares about
    Jim realizes that his actions have consequences
    Jim has a life changing experience
    Jim decides to think before he speaks
    Jim is not a jerk

    etc.

    I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to do it, but the best writers are both completely true to themselves AND cognizant of the needs of the stranger with whom they will be sharing the ride. You might be able to drive 6 hours without a bathroom break, but most people can’t, so if your trip has a 6 hour ride in it with no stops, you might need to re-work your trip if you want it to have mass appeal. At the same time, you also need to be willing and brave enough to say, “trust me” when you take the stranger on a winding, difficult and out of the way road, knowing that the stop at the end is well worth the detour.

    Those are my thoughts on the matter, but of course maybe none of what I wrote makes any sense because I just completely pantsed it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow. I haven’t checked my blog in far too long, and apparently wordpress never notified me of this comment? Apologies for the excessively late reply! You make a LOT of great points in this very thorough metaphor, but the biggest one is that the best writers can use the strengths of both plotting and pantsing. That’s exactly what I’m trying to do. 🙂 I also love that last point, that writers must be both true to themselves and cognizant of the readers’ needs. If they don’t do the first, then why are *they* writing at all? If they don’t do the second, no one will read it. The other point that you touched on that I think is far more important than most aspiring writers realize is the importance of editing. You can be 100% plotter or 100% panster or anywhere in between, but whatever your writing style, there will be issues. When you edit, you must solve all the issues that cropped up, whether that be the wild detour that was hilarious but made you run out of gas, or the long stretch of road that got you to California with plenty food and gas but was incredibly boring.

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  3. Yeah I’m definitely a plotter which I really like, but that has the effect that I hardly write anything because the energy to get started is so difficult. I have to be really motivated in order to spend the effort doing all that planning before getting to the fun part. :/

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