Monday, July 12, 2010

Writing Life: Tips For Beginning Writers (Part 2 of 5) - Working Styles & WIP


When you're starting out and getting used to writing on a regular basis, learning about your working style is probably the next step. Everyone has their own style. Even if you're familiar and comfortable with yours you might have to change or adapt it for a particular project you're working on. If you stick with writing long enough your working style may change over time.

Most people divide working styles into three categories, often referred to as plotters and pantsers or a combination of the two. A plotter is a planner. This writer will outline the story, come up with maps, character biographies and clothes, histories of the time and place, etc. all before even writing down one word of the story. A pantser (that is, "fly by the seat of your pants") will write the story down without knowing anything about it. This person will allow the story to grow "organically," letting the characters and events pull him/her along. The combination type does some of both.

There are disadvantages to both styles. A plotter may become so engrossed in getting every detail right that the story might never get written down. Sometimes plotters refuse to use a wonderful idea because it doesn't "fit" with the outline. A pantser might get lost on some (or all tangents) until the story is a mess and then faced with the daunting task of having to fix it. Sometimes a pantser will use every single wonderful idea and end up with a jumble of incidents but no story.

Advantages: A plotter has a pretty good idea of what the story is about to begin with and there is security and worth in this knowledge. A pantser thrives on the surprises that come up and cool ideas flying around. Neither style is better than the other. The only thing that matters is you go with the style you feel comfortable with.

A combination person might start out writing without knowing what the story is about and then stop and do some planning then continue writing. Or part of the story might be outlined first and then written down and other parts might be written on the fly.

Here are some tips for learning your style:
  • Experimentation is everything. If you want to try something, just do it. Sometimes I get embarrassed about stuff I want try even though no one is going to read it. For example, right now I'm writing a piece of fan fiction, something I've never done before. It's been instructive and satisfying but I almost didn't write it down because I was embarrassed about trying it out (Maybe I'm the only person who feels this way sometimes). Experiment with outlining, using index cards, jumping in and letting the story grow "organically." Try playing around with writing "in the style of " some author you love or imitating the structure of a story you really like when you're first starting out. Everything you do will be instructive and you don't have to show anything to anyone.
  • Write it down. This seems obvious but I've been guilty of this time and again. I'll run through ideas, scenes, stories in my head and think they're pretty cool but they're nothing until I get them on the computer screen. Remember when you write it down it may come out differently than you expected.
  • Learn about other writers' styles, both famous and people you know. I love the creative process and enjoy talking to people about how they work. I love reading books on writing and how published writers work. Take what you can use and play around.
  • Try different ways of working: handwriting the story, typing on a computer screen (or a combination of both). Try creative writing software (almost all of them let you play with a demo for a couple of weeks or a month). I use Scrivener and it has revolutionized the way I work. It gives me so much pleasure to open up my story and see everything in one place, including my scenes, notes, and research. Try writing tools such as books with writing prompts or books with checklists, cards, and a very structured way of putting together your story just for fun. You may not like it but you might find an idea that works for you.

Years ago, I bought a wonderful book about the creative process by Twyla Tharp, the dancer/choreographer, entitled "The Creative Habit." Though the book is written in the context of dance, it's for anyone who wants to be more creative so I suggest checking it out. In it, she talks about your "Creative DNA," that is, how you tend to approach the way you work on a project. She used writing as her example. How do you sense your story? By any kind of sensory perception? Many writers tend to "see" their story or parts of it but others might "hear" instead, such as two characters talking or "hear" what's going on in a setting. If you tend to "see" your story, how do you see it? Is it all about details, minutiae? Such as:

"Samuel Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting V under the more flexible V of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another smaller V. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The V motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down - from high flat temples - in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan." - Dashiell Hammett, Maltese Falcon.
Or do you see sweeping epics such as:
"This is a novel. Its characters and scenery are imaginary. There was no Venneford Ranch, no prairie town of Line Camp, no Skimmerhorn cattle drive in 1868, no Centennial. None of the families depicted here were real, nor founded upon real precedents. There was no Lame Beaver, nor Skimmerhorn nor Zendt nor Grebe. On the other hand, certain background incidents and characters are real. There was a great convocation in 1851 at Fort Laramie. There was a drought in 1931-1935....The South Platte River did behave as described." - James A. Michener, Centennial.
Some people see stories in what Tharp describes as "Sitcom," people sitting in the living room or kitchen having a conversation. Others see their stories cinematically, like watching a movie. There might be styles that could be called "Mini-Series" or "Trilogy" or "Comic Book" or "Monologue." There are other styles. These are just examples to get you thinking.

Thinking about and identifying your "Creative DNA" can be helpful. It doesn't mean you're a slave to it. It just helps to be aware of what feels natural and when you're experimenting with a style that is different.


Once again, this is just me. Your working style will and should be different. I'm most definitely a pantser. I've come up with four separate story lines for my novel even though the basic structure of the story remains the same with three different endings and two different beginnings. Let's not talk about the middle. After over a year of regular work I'm just now understanding that the story is about. I have dozens of scenes I wrote that I probably won't use. I'm just now learning about the locations of the story and fleshing out some of the characters' back stories.

I've been flailing around for a while but I wouldn't have it any other way. Why? Because I'm constantly surprised and this is the main reason I love writing so much. The characters are doing things, saying things that I had no clue was going to happen. The story is falling into place and all those weird loose ends are making sense and fitting together in ways I couldn't imagine before. I'm learning this story as I write it down and it's gotta be one of the coolest things EVER!

I've learned that instead of taking notes to figure out the story or characters, it's far better for me to write down scenes. Scenes allow me to explore what a character is doing in context of the story and to learn more about everything in general. All those scenes I won't be using and alternate story lines have been useful. Since I've learned what the story is about I feel like I can use some structure now such as preparing a timeline and delving deeply into character studies.

I've also learned that I can't think about my story too much. I see my creative process as the surface of the water with a vast ocean below. Some ideas will float around on the surface but it's best for me not to think in terms of "this happened, then this happened." Instead, I'll see snippet of a scene and then trust that when I go write it down the scene will come out whole. It always does.

Anyone who knows me won't be surprised that I see everything cinematically. It's all about the IMAX screen in my head. I think in terms of lighting, camera angles, pulling in for a closeup, tracking shots, you get the idea (I love cinematography!). I keep thinking I should take film making and acting classes to enhance my style.

Lastly, I have a peculiar focus on where and how my characters are moving in space: their posture, how they're breathing, where they are in a room and in relationship to each other if there's more than one person. Sometimes I get hung up on these details because I can't figure out how to get a character from one room to another without boring the hell out of myself with every detail about how the character is moving (or not moving) through space.


Your Work in Progress is very important. Choose whatever you want but choose carefully. Even if you're writing a short short story you're probably going to spend a lot of time and creative energy working on it and if you can't stand it you're never going to finish. This is doubly true if you're working on a novel. You are going to get sick of it. You're going to want to throw the whole thing out because it's all you've been thinking about for months, years. You must love what you're working on because that love will be the only thing that will bring you back and keep you moving forward until it's finished.

Me? I've been working on my novel for years now. I wrote the first draft and then put it away for a year because I didn't know what to do next. Since I picked up again, I've been working on it for more than two years with the last year being steady, regular work. I love this story so much. I love these characters and I can't wait to get back to it so I can learn more about what's going to happen next. Choose your WIP carefully. Don't settle for anything less than a story you love that much.

Next Post - Learning

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