Writing Stories Crocodile Hunter Style (and Other Ways)

I’ve been meaning to talk about planning a novel vs pantsing, but then Delphina2k on Tumblr summed it up so incredibly well in her comic:

You can reblog it here, if you’re so inclined.

Delphina’s comic talks about three ways to write stories, but for simplicity’s sake I’ll condense this down to two – mainly because, when I write, the Gardener and the Crocodile Hunter amount to the same thing.

For me, there are two methods: planning and pantsing.

 

What’s planning?

Planning is pretty much what it sounds like: it’s the Architecht in Delphina’s comic, and it’s what I do.  I plan out everything before I start writing a book, from the characters to the plot to the landscape.  I fill up folders with sketches and mind maps.  Every character will have a page dedicated to them.  The entire plot will be written in bullet points, following Kat O’Keefe’s three-act structure.

So far, I’ve only ever met one person who planned in more detail than me, and that was my BA dissertation tutor.  We got along remarkably well, as every time she said, ‘I want to see some character work for X,’ I’d pull four sheets of paper out my bag.

 

What’s good about it?

Planning makes your life easier, both as you’re writing and when you come to edit.  You’ll never get writer’s block because you don’t know what happens next – you can just whip out a sheet with your plot written on it and see what the next chapter is.  You’ll also find the editing less exhausting, because there shouldn’t be a need to swap whole scenes or chapters around, or remove entire characters, or work out how many storeys up your character’s office is.  You’ll have done it all already, in your planning stage.

What sucks about it?

For me?  Nothing.  I love planning.

But other people – in fact, most of the other writers I’ve met – look at me in horror when I say I’m a planner.  The trouble, for them, is that they get bored.  One of my friends often said she can’t see the point in writing a story if it’s already written out in bullet points.  I can understand this, even if I don’t agree with it.  When you read a book, it’s fun to be surprised by the plot twists, so it stands to reason it’d be just as fun to be surprised by them when you’re writing.

The other problem with planning is that you have to add another chunky stage to your writing process: the planning stage.  For the book I’m working on now, my planning stage lasted an entire month, and that was building on ideas I’d had for a few years.  If you’re going from scratch, it could take much longer; weeks and weeks of itching to write and knowing you can’t because it isn’t all planned out yet.

 

What’s pantsing?

The word ‘pantsing’ came from the phrase ‘writing by the seat of your pants’.  It’s the style that’s encouraged in NaNoWriMo, and the style my aforementioned friend prefers.  She likes to discover as she goes along: to just come up with an idea (‘evil plants from space!’) and, at most, do a bit of worldbuilding, draw a couple of characters, and go.

It means you need to be instinctive in your writing, and to have a very solid idea of how to drive a plot forward.  That’s if you’re going to write it in order – my friend would pick any scene she thought was interesting, write that, and then skip on to another with no regard for plot order.  Eventually, she said, they could all be rearranged to make a story.

 

What’s good about it?

Your story won’t be boring.  If you feel bored with the scene you’re writing, you’ll stop writing or throw in something to drive your story forward and make it exciting again.  This is where NaNoWriMo’s concept of ‘The Travelling Shovel of Death’ comes from – the site advised writers that, if they got bored, they should have someone kill a character with a shovel.  So many writers followed the advice, you can find it in published novels.

You get to have that fun feeling of surprise and wonder when you reach a place for an excellent plot twist, and realise what that twist should be.  Writing will feel more like a rollercoaster than a train ride.

 

What sucks about it?

You can get stuck.  Really stuck.  At least in my experience.

I once wrote a murder mystery story, all by the seat of my pants.  It was very exciting for most of the plot, getting my heroine into more and more horrible danger, introducing her to all the people that could have been the murderer, watching her flounder and struggle.  Then I got to the end – and had no idea who the murderer was.

The ending I wrote was terrible.  I was forced to throw my hands up and pick someone, and no one was a great choice.  No wonderful plot twist came to my head.  I sat and stared blankly at the story for months, and finally wrote an ending I hated.

 

This can also happen in the first few chapters of your novel, or right in the middle.  If you don’t have an instinct for keeping a plot running, and tying everything up at the end, you are going to struggle.

The other problem comes in when you’ve finished the whole novel and have to go back to edit.  It’s inevitable that you’ll make decisions at the end of the book that affect the beginning, so you’ll need to whizz back and potentially change entire chapters.  If you’ve written the way my friend does, you’ll have to take all those fragments you wrote and rearrange them into an actual story, like a jigsaw puzzle.  Those weeks you saved by not planning will get tacked on here in the editing.

 

Which is better?

Short answer?  Neither.

What’s good about planning is it doesn’t have the problems of pantsing.  What’s good about pantsing is it doesn’t have the problems of planning.  You have to decide what you find most helpful, or most frustrating.  Most people don’t even stick to one group or the other, but use a mixture of both.  Maybe they’ll plan their plot out, but not chapter-by-chapter, or they’ll plan their world but let the characters grow organically.

I call myself a planner, but even I sometimes think of something halfway through writing a book, something too good to leave out, and end up putting in that tiny bit by the seat of my pants.  This character should have an accent.  There should be a fight scene here.  And so on.

 

So, curiosity calls!  Which camp would you say you’re in?  And are there any reasons I haven’t raised as to why you prefer it?

 

 

Three Reasons Why I Don’t Read John Green

I love John Green.  I really do.  I’ve been following Vlogbrothers for four years now.  His Crash Course English Literature made me love Romeo and Juliet (a play I loathed even when I was in it), and his Crash Course World History made me interested in cultures I’d never even heard of.  He gives teenagers frank life advice and does hours of charity work.  Judging from Internet persona, he’s intelligent, friendly and funny, even if he occassionally makes horrible mistakes about Batman.  (It’s all right, he was quickly corrected by his brother, Hank Green, and because this is Youtube, their argument was autotuned into a song that will get stuck in your head.)

So far, I think this post breaks my record for most links within the text, but that’s what I get for blogging about an Internet celebrity.

Despite all of John Green’s finer qualities, though, I don’t read his books.  That isn’t to say I haven’t tried – I’ve picked up the odd copy from the library or a friend, tried beginnings and read snippets.  I’ve even read other book bloggers’ reviews of his books.  I just can’t seem to finish them.

Here’s why:

1) They are all contemporary realism

I am a fantasy writer.  It even says so at the top of the page, under my name!  (Unless this is the far-flung future where I’ve changed my subtitle, of course, but trust me that it used to.)  This means I am also, usually, a fantasy reader.  I won’t refuse to read contemporary realism, but it’s a very rare occassion when I enjoy it.  I already live in contemporary realism.  I want to see a world that’s different, whether it’s Middle Earth or deep space, or even just a different culture, or England a hundred years ago.

I’ve never seen the appeal of TV programmes like Eastenders, where we follow around the lives and drama of people like us.  If it’s comedy, I’m more likely to enjoy it, but John Green doesn’t write comedy.  He writes teen drama.  I went through seven years of teen drama when I was at school, and I don’t want to live it again.  Give me dragons, not homework!

2) His characters are pretentious and unlikeable

It’s a strangely common trope for John’s characters to be extraordinarily pretentious.  I don’t mean that they’re smart – plenty of teenagers are smart.  Plenty of teenagers, actually, are pretentious, but it gets boring to see the same kind of character over and over.

Just look at Gus in The Fault in Our Stars (on having an unlit cigarette in his mouth: ‘It’s a metaphor, see: You put the killing thing right between your teeth, but you don’t give it the power to do its killing.’), Miles in Looking for Alaska (‘They love their hair because they’re not smart enough to love something more interesting.’), and Q in Paper Towns (‘It is easy to forget how full the world is of people, full to bursting, and each of them imaginable and consistently misimagined.’)

‘But Amelia!’ you cry, ‘That’s the point!  John’s characters are pretentious and unlikeable so they can learn their lessons by the end of the book.  Besides, a flawless characters is boring!’

You’re dead right, a flawless character is boring.  But, to me, pretentiousness is a flaw that makes the character instantly unlikeable.  And it’s boring to me when all of his characters have the same flaw.

3) His writing style is crazy purple

One day, I went into Waterstones with a friend.  They had those little pieces of card on top of some of the books, with reviews on them – usually by other authors.  Giggling, my friend covered up the name on one of the reviews with her finger and said, ‘Guess who wrote this one.’

(This isn’t the card, but it is what it looked like.)

I read the review.  It was about two hundred words long, but could feasably have been cut down to fifty.  Most of the choppable words were fancy adjectives and adverbs, five or six syllables long, like ‘irrevocably’ and ‘unequivocally’.

I guessed, ‘It’s John Green, isn’t it?’

It was.

I knew because that’s how his books are written: in purple prose with the fanciest, longest words possible.  It’s a writing style I’ve hated since I was made to read Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber three years in a row.  It’s exhausting, and all those syllables aren’t necessary to make the writing beautiful.  Compare a John Green quote to one from To Kill a Mockingbird, or – my favourite example of beautiful writing – Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn:

‘Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.’ ~ The Fault in Our Stars, John Green

‘”There’s four kinds of folks in the world. There’s the ordinary kind, like us and the neighbors, there’s the kind like the Cunninghams out in the woods, the kind like the Ewells down at the dump, and the Negroes.”

“[…]Naw, Jem, I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.”‘ ~ To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

‘”Heroes know that things must happen when it is time for them to happen. A quest may not simply be abandoned; unicorns may go unrescued for a long time, but not forever; a happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story.”’ ~ The Last Unicorn, Peter Beagle


 

I think this is my longest blog post, and I’m going to make it even longer by reiterating that I like John Green.  He’s a lovely man whose videos, across various channels, have entertained me for years.  I just don’t like his writing, and when I step into WHSmith’s and Waterstones and see teen/YA shelves covered in cheap knock-offs of his books, it’s disheartening.  When I read articles like Dystopia is Done, Fantasy is Finished, it’s crushing.  I know this is just the way the publishing industry goes – not long ago the shops were full of paranormal romance, courtesy of Twilight, and then dystopia thanks to The Hunger Games.  But it’s all the more irritating when the current fad is one that I can’t summon any enthusiasm for.

I’m just going to have to sit back and wait for the next wave to start, and hope that we go back to fantasy this time.

To Kill a Mockingbird

This is a much happier review than 1984, I promise.

Besides 1984, I also brought To Kill a Mockingbird on holiday with me, because nothing washes down grimdark dystopia like Alabama racism!  I expected it to be another miserable story I’d trudge through because I had nothing else, but, truly, I loved it.

I’m sure there’s nothing I can say that other critics haven’t already, and much more eloquently.  It was just great.  I could see the message about racism all the way through, but never felt like I was being preached to.  (Actually, less of the book was about racism than I had thought – it seemed to me that racism was just one tool that Harper Lee used to make the point that everyone should be treated fairly.)  The fact that much of the plot hinged on a false rape accusation even felt vaguely topical, considering that false rape accusations are something I see people arguing about across the Internet to this day.  The plot was a little slow in its first half, but never so much that I was bored, and the voice was just amazing.  I could hear Scout’s Alabama accent in my head the whole way through, but it never felt silly or intrusive.

I’d like to point out, also, that To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favourite book titles.  I always assumed a mockingbird dies somewhere in the novel.  When I actually reached the line that explains it (‘Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy […] but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’) I said a soft, ‘Oooooh,’ under my breath.  I get it!  The mockingbird represents Tom Robinson, and Boo Radley, and anyone other innocent person who might be treated with inequality.  LITERATURE.

I tore through the whole book in the last few days of my holiday, holding it up in front of me even as I was brushing my teeth and stuffing clothes back in my suitcase.  I will definitely read it again.

So what about Harper Lee’s new book, Go Set a Watchman?  Well, I don’t know.  I’ve heard such mixed reviews I can’t decide whether I should read it or not – mixed not only because people can’t agree if they like it, but also because they can’t even agree what it is.  I’ve been told it’s a prequel, a sequel, or a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.  I’ve heard people bemoaning the ruin of Atticus Finch, lovely white knight of Mockingbird transformed into a racist in Watchman, and I’ve read articles where people are glad he’s more three-dimensional in this new book.

If I do read Go Set a Watchman, it won’t be for a while.  I’d like to let To Kill a Mockingbird settle in my head first, and besides, I have a pile of dissertation reading to get through …

1984

I took George Orwell’s 1984 with me on holiday – I know, nothing like a bit of dystopia for cheerful poolside reading – and now I’m going to do something potentially very silly and start criticising a piece of classic literature.

Perhaps it’s just because the book is old, and dystopia is no longer a rarity.  (Quite the opposite, in fact; since The Hunger Games, the YA market especially has been saturated with it.)  But, from now on, it’s going to drive me crazy when people hold up1984 as the Best Dystopia Ever because, honestly, I really didn’t like it.

The world-building, I’ll allow, is fantastic.  Orwell drew inspiration directly from the near-dystopian examples of his time: Nazi Germany and Communist Russia in particular.  The world of Big Brother is terrifyingly believeable.  But his writing also relies heavily on what Let’s Read With Nella refers to as The Law of Corn (‘a book’s merit is in inverse proportion to how much research the author feels obliged to copy and paste into the story’).  He frequently stops the plot to show off all the research and world-building he’s done.  This even goes as far as 1984‘s protagonist, Winston Smith, spending an entire chapter reading revolutionary propaganda, which is written word-for-word in the text.  Immediately after, Winston remarks that the propaganda contains absolutely no new information whatsoever.  It’s all exactly the things he’s been thinking anyway.

Yep, Orwell was so determined to show off the propaganda he’d written, he inserted an entirely pointless chapter into his book.  One that could easily have been summed up in the line ‘Winston read the propaganda’. The characters in 1984 aren’t likeable at all, including Winston, who fantasizes about raping and murdering a woman because she wears a chastity sash.  She later becomes his love interest, and when Winston tells her about his fantasy, she waves it off as a little joke rather than – you know – a terrifying threat.  Very … realistic?

The plot is incredibly slow, hindered all the way through by Orwell’s corning, and 100% predictable.  I immediately guessed that the woman Winston loathed (then loved) was some sort of revolutionary, and that the men Winston trusted would be part of the thought police.  I knew Winston would be caught, tortured, and inevitably killed or returned to society a shadow of his former self.  I hoped Orwell was just planting a bait-and-switch, but nope. The thing is, I don’t hate old books and I don’t only read YA.  I love The Great Gatsby, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and Dracula.  All old, all different genres and styles, and in all cases I can appreciate what made them classics.  But with 1984, the only thing I can imagine made it so well renowned was the novelty of dystopia. So, if you do like 1984, first: I’m sorry about the rant.  Second: tell me why!  I’m genuinely curious.  What made it so well-loved?