Are You a ‘Pantser’

Steven James is a pantser. He is the critically acclaimed author of thirteen novels and and has a master’s degree in storytelling. Publishers Weekly calls him “master storyteller at the peak of his game.” Steven’s groundbreaking book Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules won a Storytelling World award as one of the best resources for storytellers in 2015. When he’s not working on his next novel, Steven teaches Novel Writing Intensive retreats across the country with New York Times Bestselling author Robert Dugoni.

Steven James
Steven James

In his October 15, 2015 article in Writer’s Digest, He says, “I can’t think of a single time I’ve received instruction on writing a story without an outline. You’ll hear the importance of plotting out your story trumpeted at writing conferences nationwide, and if you don’t follow those formulas you’ll be labeled an SOPer (that is, a “seat-of-the-pantser,” or sometimes just a “pantser”—and no, I’m not making this up).

“Lots of outliners teach that a story should have three acts. That’s simply not true. Regardless of how many acts or scenes your story has, this is what it needs to have in order to be effective and complete: an orientation to the world of the characters, an origination of conflict, an escalation of tension, rising stakes, a moment at which everything seems lost, a climactic encounter, a satisfying conclusion, and a transformation of a character or situation (usually both).

“Popular outline and structure “formulas” are filled with misconceptions about what makes a story work. Rather than straightjacketing your story by forcing it into three acts, or trying to map it out as “character-driven” or “plot-driven,” take the organic approach by first simply asking yourself what is truly at the heart of your story.

“Remember: What your story really needs is an orientation, a crisis or calling that disrupts normal life, relentless escalation of tension, and a satisfying climax. Along the way, you’ll need to make sure readers are compelled to empathize and connect with the main character(s), feel enough emotion to stay intrigued by the story, and gain enough insight to see the world with new eyes when they’re done.

“Focus all of your attention at the heart of your story, keeping these essential elements and goals in mind, and you’ll begin to intuitively understand what needs to happen to drive the story forward.

“When you’re informed about what makes a story work, you’re never writing from the seat of your pants. By letting your story develop organically, you’re delving deeper and deeper into the essence of what storytelling is all about.

“Forget all that rubbish you’ve heard about staying on track and not following rabbit trails. Of course you should follow them. It’s inherent to the creative process. Who knows? What you at first thought was just a rabbit trail leading nowhere in particular might take you to a breathtaking overlook that eclipses everything you previously had in mind.

“Without serendipitous discoveries, your story runs the risk of feeling artificial and prepackaged. Give yourself the freedom to explore the terrain of your story. Wander daily through your idea field and unreservedly embrace the adventure.

“Think of your story as a contract with your readers, an agreement that you will entertain, surprise and satisfy them. Every choice that your characters make has an implication; every promise you make needs to be fulfilled. The more promises you break, the less readers will trust you. And often, when readers put a book down, that’s exactly why—they’ve stopped trusting that you’re going to fulfill the promises you’ve made.

“Organic writers are well-equipped to make big promises and then keep them. We’re never directionless, because we can always work on scenes that fulfill promises we’ve made earlier, or go back and foreshadow the fulfillment of promises we think of as the story takes shape.

“In storytelling, what will happen informs what is happening, and what is happening informs what did. You cannot know where a story needs to go until you know where it’s been, but you cannot know where it needs to have been until you know where it’s going.

“It’s a paradox.

“So, in practice, how does this work? When you sit down at the keyboard each day, what do you do if you don’t have an outline to work from?

“Reorient yourself to the context. Print out the previous 50 or 100 pages (once a week I find it helpful to do the whole novel) and read it through the eyes of a reader, not an editor. Remember, readers aren’t looking for what’s wrong with the story; they’re looking for what’s right with it. Continually ask yourself, What are readers wondering about, hoping for and expecting at this moment in the story? Then give it to them.

“Draft the scene that would naturally come next. The length and breadth of the scene needs to be shaped by the narrative forces I mentioned earlier.

“Go back and rework earlier scenes as needed. What you write organically will often have implications on the story you’ve already written.

“Keep track of unanswered questions and unresolved problems. Review them before each read- through of your manuscript.

“Come up with a system to organize your ideas as they develop. In addition to files of character descriptions, phrases, clues and so on, I have four word processing files I use to organize my thoughts: 1) Plot Questions, 2) Reminders, 3) Discarded Ideas and 4) Notes.

“If you find yourself at a loss for what to write next, come up with a way to make things worse, let the characters respond naturally to what’s happening, write a scene that fulfills a promise you made earlier in the book, or work on a scene you know readers will expect based on your genre and the story you’ve told so far. When you understand the principles of good storytelling, you always have a place to start.

“Move into and out of the story, big picture, small picture, focusing one day on the forest and the next day on the trees. Follow these ideas, and stories will unfold before you.

“Leave outlining to English teachers.”

Enhancing the Sense of Place

There is a n article in the Writer’s Digest by Jonelle Patrick of November 3 last year, which has some good ideas on how writers can make their descriptions of place more powerful to the reader. One of her ideas, in particular, is quite good.

Jonelle Patrick is the author of five novels set in Japan. Her newest mystery, The Last Tea Bowl Thief, was published by Seventh Street Books in October 2020. She’s a graduate of Stanford University and the Sendagaya Japanese Language Institute, and also a member of the Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, and Sisters in Crime. She divides her time between Tokyo and San Francisco.

Jonelle Patrick
Jonelle Patrick

Ms Patrick says: “Creating a sense of place can be so much more than a painterly description of the sea, or the comforting smell of coffee in the kitchen. Places aren’t just sets to be described. They exist in time. They have a history. The same place can be comforting or menacing, depending on who’s experiencing it, when they’re experiencing it, and what else is happening while they’re experiencing it.

“Let’s start easy: What’s the weather like? A chapter that takes place in a thunderstorm will feel very different from one that takes place in a heatwave. Extreme weather—like a blizzard or a hurricane—creates tension that can amplify what your characters are feeling, spur them to action, or cause them to make decisions they’re either proud of or regret. What’s the temperature like? Heat and cold can slow down your characters’ ability to make decisions and act on them. Tempers flare with discomfort, characters relax and are lulled into complacency when the temperature is balmy. Does your character suddenly go cold, even though the room is hot? Do they flush with shame, even in a snowstorm?

“A setting seen through the eyes of a child isn’t the same when seen through the eyes of a basketball player—a room looks different from three feet above the ground than it does from six. A small person (or someone who is sitting) will notice different details than a tall one (or someone who is standing). A space that dwarfs the viewer feels different from one where the viewer feels cramped. A character’s experience level also alters the feeling of a place—imagine how differently an alien from another planet would describe a church, compared to a vicar who preaches there every Sunday. If you describe a place from a position of long experience—making the reader take small leaps and guesses until they catch up to the character’s level of experience—you can make your reader feel like an insider. And the opposite technique—making a character guess wrong about what a familiar place is used for—can do the same.

“Knowing what happened in a place—either recently or in the distant past—changes how a character reacts to it and how a reader feels about it. A cave that was sacred to Native Americans feels different from one that harboured escaped slaves, even if it’s the same cave. And a room where a murder occurred feels very different from a room used to store copier paper, even if it’s the same room.

“A place where someone waits for their lover feels very different from a place where someone fears they’ll meet an accuser. A sense of place can be enhanced by describing it in terms of what the character expects to happen there.

And the most interesting idea: axe the adjectives and adverbs.

“Finally, I’m going to tell you to forget what you learned in school. Use adjectives sparingly, and insert adverbs only when nothing else will work. Your writing will instantly feel much more professional. Consider this paragraph that probably would have gotten you a solid “A” from your sainted high school English teacher:

The dark church is scary at night, with only two flickering candles on the shadowy altar. When the bell begins to toll at midnight, the candles go out, and the room grows colder. A ghostly blue cloud begins to gather near the peaked ceiling. As the phantom figure grows more distinct, I recognize its face as a long-ago vicar whose death had been blamed on my grandmother.

“A perfectly workmanlike description, right? You can picture the place, maybe even feel a shiver of apprehension. But look what happens when we deliver the same information without any adjectives or adverbs:

I shiver as the bell begins to toll. …nine…ten…eleven…midnight. As if on cue, the altar candles flicker and go out. He’s here. I can feel him. His presence sucks the warmth from the room, makes my hair stand on end. Before the shape even begins to swirl and coalesce between the rafters far overhead, I know it’s the vicar. The vicar who had died because of what my grandmother did.‘”

This is a very good example of effective writing which uses only the most effective nouns and verbs!

Most e-books harm children learning to read

Last week my post was about the benefits of Ebooks for boys. This week, I have excerpts from an article published by the same newspaper (The Telegraph) several years later (March 9, 2021), but this one focuses on the impediments that Ebooks place in the development of children’s reading skills.

Youngsters who listen to podcasts are more likely to enjoy reading and more likely to read every day compared to their peers

This more recent article is written by Dominic Penna, who is a journalist with The Telegraph. He says, “Most ebooks actually harm children in their efforts to learn to read because the added use of technology can be distracting, research has found.

In a comprehensive review of 39 different studies, researchers found that children aged one to eight-years-old were less likely to understand picture books when they read the digital version compared to the print.

This is because some digital books included games at the end of chapters and other resources which diverted attention from the story itself, which had a negative effect on learning in younger children in particular.

Overall, print books outperformed their technological alternatives by an average of seven per cent when children were assessed on their comprehension of what they had read, according to the research from the University of Stavanger in Norway.

‘In particular, the presence of short games embedded in story apps may explain children’s poor comprehension of digital books, as these distract young children’s attention from the story,’ the authors wrote.

They added: ‘Given that the human information processing system has a limited capacity, distributing cognitive resources across the story narrative, handling the device, and children’s expectations concerning an electronic device may be the reason for the reported negative effects.’

Professor Natalia Kucirkova, the co-author of the study and a professor at the Open University, said that added online tools such as dictionaries interfere with how well children can understand the story or text that they are trying to read.

However this was not the case for books which provided important context to their stories, which boosted comprehension more than their paperback counterparts.

Three of the studies that were featured in the analysis also found that reading on screens strongly correlates with lower reading ability levels across primary and secondary school children alike, something which continues into adulthood.

But while dictionaries embedded in digital books were often found to adversely affect children’s understanding of particular stories, they were cited as among the key reasons that digital reading improves their language skills.

In fact, the vocabulary of children who read ebooks improved by an average of 22 per cent when compared to printed texts across the studies analysed.

The findings come as children were increasingly forced to turn to ebooks as school libraries shut due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Reading among children had reached a 15-year low before the first coronavirus lockdown last year, but has since increased by more than eight per cent, with one in three young people saying they read more books between March and June last year.

Irene Picton, Research Manager at the National Literacy Trust, said: ‘We know many families enjoy sharing both print and digital books, and that both formats can support literacy,’ said ‘The findings of this fascinating meta-analysis highlight the importance of careful, evidence-led design of digital books to ensure children’s reading is supported most effectively.

‘It also provides valuable insight for educators and parents by identifying which digital enhancements do, and do not, support comprehension and vocabulary.’

Children and young people who have enjoyed podcasts during the pandemic are more likely to enjoy reading and read every day compared to their peers, the Trust claimed last year.”

My reaction is that the choice of eBook versus printed version will depend on the preference of the child and the characteristics of the book. Neither, in my opinion, has an inherent advantage.

Ebooks for Boys

There is an article in the Telegraph of 9 December 2015 by ‘Agency’. This article is interesting because it seems to be contradicted by and article in the same newspaper on 10 March 2021. I’ll post the latter article later in the week, so that you can decide where the truth lies.

The 2015 article says: “Reading on a tablet encourages boys to think it is “cool” and they are more likely to have their nose in a story for longer.

The study showed boys moved further ahead when reading on tablets

The study, published by the National Literary Trust is based on a survey of 468 pupils at 40 schools across the UK, who took part in an e-reading project.

Overall, youngsters taking part in the scheme saw their reading levels increase by an average of eight months – with boys improving by an average of 8.4 months, compared to 7.2 months for their female classmates.

And while just over half (51.8 per cent) of children saw reading as “cool” before the project, this rose to around two thirds (65.9 per cent) afterwards, with twice as many boys describing reading in this way (66.5 per cent compared to 34.4 per cent at the start of the initiative).

At the same time, the proportion of boys who described reading as difficult fell from 28 per cent to 15.9 per cent.

There was an 11 per cent increase in the number of boys who enjoyed reading using technology, a 25 per cent rise in the number who read daily using ebooks and a 22 per cent increase in those who read for an hour or longer.

In general, there was also a drop in the percentage of schoolchildren who said they could not find things to read that interested them (down from 31.3 per cent to 19.7 per cent).

Irene Picton, research manager at the National Literary Trust, said the study showed the impact of ebooks on reading enjoyment “goes well beyond the novelty” of reading in a new format.

‘Children who enjoy reading are more likely to do better at school and beyond, so finding ways to help children enjoy reading and to do so more often is vital to increase their literacy,’ she said.

‘It is important to recognise the increased reading opportunities that technology offers pupils and how it can help children who struggle to read, for example by giving them the option of increasing the font size of the text. This study indicates that technology has most potential to engage children, particularly boys, who do not enjoy reading.’

A Trust spokesman said it wasn’t clear why young boys were particularly attracted to ebooks but speculated it could be because ‘they can change the size of text, are able to have less or more words on a page’.

The spokesman also said ‘boys feel more comfortable with technology, and it’s an image thing because they prefer to be seen reading an e-book’.

More research on the reasons behind the uptake by boys is expected next year.

Harry Bingham
Harry Bingham

I received an email yesterday from Harry of Jericho Writers in which he quoted from George Saunders’ book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, a book about reading and writing. Saunders wrote: “I’ve worked with so many wildly talented young writers over the years that I feel qualified to say that there are two things that separate writers who go on to publish from those who don’t.

First, a willingness to revise.

Second, the extent to which the writer has learned to make causality.”

Harry’s email is quite lengthy, so I’ll summarise the points that he and George Saunders make.

First, about revising. Harry says, “The most frustrating writers I’ve ever dealt with are ones who come to us with a really strong manuscript, which they then don’t revise. I remember one writer in particular who had a genuinely interesting and well-written manuscript. It needed a brisk haircut, three or four weeks in the workshop, and it would have been ready to meet some agents. And – it never did. It never got there.”

From my point of view, revision is essential. Painful, yes at times, but if there’ a good editor, if we’ve listened to him/her, and if we’ve taken on board her/his points it is just self-destructive not to follow the advice we’re given.

What about causality? Harry makes clear that he’s not talking about the causality that one can observe on a billiard table: predictable physics. He is talking about the events that are caused by humanity – by the characteristics, the values the hunches, the emotions, the values of individuals. This richness is what makes a story interesting. It’s when a character does something unexpected, but understandable, and that throws the plot off its expected course. Or perhaps it is the character’s surprise reaction to an expected development. This kind of causality is easy to say, but not so easy to bring to life. Our characters themselves must have real depth, uniqueness and some internal conflicts to make this kind of rich causality work.

While we’re on the subject of what differentiates writers who get published from those who don’t, there is an interesting lead article in the Spring 2021 issue of The Author entitled “Winner Take All” by Robert H Frank, who says, “Whether a book becomes a bestseller depends on many factors, perhaps the most important of which is whether it’s any good. But as millions of authors are painfully aware, many good books never achieve bestseller status. By far the strongest predictor of whether a book of given quality will become a bestseller is whether it was written by an author of earlier bestsellers. If an author’s book succeeds, they become a more attractive client for a high profile literary agent. That means their next cash advance will exceed the previous one by an even larger amount than it would have, which will create additional pressure on their publisher to publicise their new title more aggressively. And so on.”

Happy Easter