I picked up Take Off Your Pants! in some deal or the other because I’d heard that it was popular, and I’d saWhere I got the book: purchased on Kindle.
I picked up Take Off Your Pants! in some deal or the other because I’d heard that it was popular, and I’d say its popularity is justified. I’m groping toward my own perfect outlining method and consequently paying attention to what’s worked for other people. You have to understand that all books about writing say essentially the same things, but they all say those things differently enough that you either end up confused or you gather together lots and lots of ideas and then arrive at a solution that’s never quite like anyone else’s but works for you. And THEN you write a book about it . . . .
So yeah, this is a book about plotting à la Libbie Hawker, and she starts off by telling us how totally awesome she is because she can rip out a first draft in three weeks on the basis of her totally awesome outline:
The story was sound and whole, with a fascinating central character and a compelling plot—the kind you can’t look away from. Even in outline form, the story felt complete, with a clear set of problems for the main character to tackle, rising tension . . . and an ending that felt deeply satisfying . . . .
That, for me, was a bad beginning to an otherwise fairly good book, because there’s nothing that awakens the Snark Monster faster than an author telling you how amazing their books are. Plus using their own books as Examples of Awesomeness while explaining their methods. It’s a dangerous ploy, because your reader probably doesn’t have the same reading tastes as you (naturally we all write what we like to read), so your examples can really fall flat.
Then there’s a discussion of the plotter vs. pantser vs. plotser debate I’ve heard oh, so many times and really didn’t need to hear again. I totally agree that IF your business model is built on high-volume output, your goal is to make mucho dinero, and you’re the kind of writer who sees a story as going one way only, you should train yourself to outline each and every novel. And I also agree that the best novels have a strong underlying structure, which is why I’m reading a bunch of plotting books right now. And yet I have my reservations about the trend in indie publishing toward chasing the money with fast-written books aimed squarely at the market. Aren’t we becoming too like the traditional publishing world we turned our backs on? And frankly, although Ms. Hawker is no doubt a fine writer, many aren’t, and need to spend more time exploring and experimenting rather than turning themselves into writing machines. I don’t think these are the people she’s aiming at, but they WILL read her book and expect to be earning a gazillion dollars by Christmas.
Anyhow, then comes the meat of the book. It’s a fairly straightforward exposition of what I always think of as the top-down method of plotting, where you start with some very general considerations and then drill down to the details. It reminds me of what I’ve heard about Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering: Character Development, Story Concept, Scene Construction, although I’ve yet to read that one. Hawker draws on famous novels, her own work and some invented examples to illustrate what she’s talking about. Mercifully, she doesn’t go off on as many tangents as books on writing so often do, and deserves considerable credit for resisting that temptation. The hero’s journey raises its head, inevitably since we’re really talking about genre writing of the more straightforward kind here. And then we have the whole business of beats—personally I think all good writers do beats, but they call it a first draft and they’re ready to rewrite it. This business of writing out the mechanics of a scene before you write the scene itself deprives the writer of those “flow” moments that can happen even at the first draft stage. My own feeling is that every rewrite of a scene should be an attempt to render the scene itself, not just the mechanics. You probably won’t get it right at first, but that’s what second drafts are for.
On the whole, I found Hawker’s advice to be a useful exposition of information that I’ve heard all over the place. Her ability to stay focused on what she’s telling the reader is a blessing, and for that alone I’d recommend the book to a writer looking for a method to hang a plot on. It’s simple and straightforward, and keeps some important elements of story structure in mind. Whether your book will be totally awesome if you follow her advice will depend on how much time you’ve spent writing and on how much more learning you’ve done.
Verdict: good for the already experienced writer who needs to think more seriously about structure. ...more
Where I got the book: a gift from the author. Katharine Grubb is my critique partner and I worked on this book, so you can take this review with howevWhere I got the book: a gift from the author. Katharine Grubb is my critique partner and I worked on this book, so you can take this review with however big a pinch of salt you like.
But I’m unashamedly five-starring it, because this thing is USEFUL, people. I’ve read a lot of writing books over the last few months, trying to improve my own processes, and this book, possibly in combination with Take Off Your Pants!: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing, is going to remain by my side as I go into the rewrites of my WIP.
Why is it good? It’s organized, that’s why. It’s aimed at people who feel like they have a novel in them but also feel that a) they don’t know enough about novel-writing to do a good job and b) they just don’t have the time to do this. They are totally me in 2008, when I had this story that had been writing itself in my head for 14 years but seriously never thought I’d get round to writing it.
The secondary audience would be people who’ve maybe written part of a novel, or perhaps even produced a first draft, but don’t feel like they’re doing a very good job of it. That would be me in 2009 when I began pantsing the 14-year-old story. I kind of got one-third in and realized I was going way too fast for where I needed to be at the end of the novel, so I produced a very sketchy sort of timeline (I didn’t know about outlining) and wrote on. Then I revised the timeline and wrote some more, until I got to the end. That one’s still awaiting revision on my computer since I realized I wrote well but had no clue how to produce a decent novel. This is the book I needed at that point, instead of just kind of randomly floundering around until I started finding the information I needed.
Grubb breaks down the process of planning and writing a novel into ALL the steps, beginning with getting yourself organized so that you have more time to write. Having started her own novel-writing career while homeschooling five young kids, learning to be organized was key for her. She tends to write for readers with similar issues of household and child management, so those whose issues are different might feel a bit left out. Although, of course, it’s always good to have a plan to keep our houses clean and eat well while we’re writing, whatever our personal circumstances. I didn’t have the homeschooling but I pretty much went through the same journey of trying to fit writing into my life once I gave in to the urge to novelize, and one of the things we have in common is our love of breaking stuff down into manageable chunks and making LISTS.
After getting organized comes becoming a writer (in the sense of actually writing stuff), then learning the craft of novel-writing, then learning the business of becoming a working writer. There’s some brief discussion on getting feedback, joining communities and so on, and a quick overview of moving toward publication, but as Grubb says at some point, these aren’t matters you should be worrying about while you’re writing your first novel. The point, really, is to learn enough to actually be able to produce a decent novel—its onward journey is going to vary wildly in accordance with every writer’s level of talent, personality, networking ability and level of perseverance.
Each section has exercises you can do ten minutes at a time, by setting a timer and just going for it until the timer beeps. I don’t use that technique much myself any more except at times when I have to crack the whip over my own back to get something done, but you know, it’s a big help to give yourself permission to do ONE THING AND NOTHING ELSE for ten minutes. It’s also a chunk of time small enough that you can either persuade your family members to leave you alone for just ten minutes, or slip it in while they’re watching TV, or take ten minutes of your work lunch, or get up ten minutes earlier—whatever you need.
There are examples, but not too many, and drawn from novels that most people will at least know a bit about even if they haven’t read them. I find that helpful—I’ve been known to complain about craft books that yak on about a hit from 1990 that may have been a great book but has since disappeared from view. It’s much handier to reference the popular novels, even if they aren’t the greatest critical successes.
And of course it’s well written and very nicely edited. I’m not talking about my own contribution here, you understand, but about Grubb and her team at Hodder & Stoughton. Different box styles and symbols are used to help you flick quickly back through the book. It’s indexed, has a nice bibliography and a handy list of writers’ associations with their website URLs.
At my stage there’s a lot in here that I don’t need, but I’m keeping Write A Novel In Ten Minutes A Day on my desk as a reference to dip into, particularly as regards the chapters on character-building and narrative voice, two areas where I always beat myself up for not putting in enough work.
My final remark is that this book is published as part of the Teach Yourself series, and has thus been rendered into British spelling. Ha. I’d tease Grubb mercilessly about this if I were meaner. But I also wanted to say that as a child I loved the Teach Yourself books. I’d look for secondhand copies, buy them and try to teach myself Russian or whatever—usually languages or something potentially dangerous, like chemistry. I never succeeded because I didn’t have sufficient self-mastery at that age, but just seeing a Teach Yourself book brings back fond memories of a nerdy little girl who found life outside school intensely boring, lived inside her own head most of the time, and dreamed of doing something spectacular with her life....more
Where I got the book: free download offered, I think, by a writers’ blog.
This book promises to:
1. Increase your writing speed (number of words per houWhere I got the book: free download offered, I think, by a writers’ blog.
This book promises to:
1. Increase your writing speed (number of words per hour) 2. Increase your writing stamina (number of hours you can write in a day) 3. Improve your book production process
It’s in two parts—first, Leonelle talks in a structured way about her own journey to hit the above goals, and second, she includes her online writing diary from the months where she was publicly tracking her progress, or lack thereof.
If something about the title sounds familiar, it’s because it closely resembles the subtitle of Rachel Aaron’s 2012 how-to, 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love—although a quick look on Amazon produced the surprising insight that there are a dozen books with similar titles. It seems like writing faster is something we’d all like to do, and that there are quite a few people willing to tell us how to do it. Personally, I’m fairly happy with my writing speed (1,600 words/hour when I’m in what Leonelle calls ‘flow’) and how much I get to write each day depends more on how much time I can fit round my other responsibilities than on how much stamina I’ve got for writing (although see below).
I found some of the first part resonated with me, although there wasn’t much I didn’t already know. Track your work—yep, I already do that, although Leonelle’s screenshots of her own methods gave me some new ideas for reassessing mine. In particular, it had never occurred to me to use RescueTime, which I’ve had installed on my computer for years as a way of reminding myself to stay off social media, as a tool for closer study of productivity. Use the Pomodoro Technique—yep, I do that from time to time, although I find I only go there when I’m really crunched nowadays. I’ve become pretty good at focusing on tasks for that 25-40 minute slice of time that seems to be most people’s optimum.
She also emphasizes outlining your work, and gives examples of her own methods. I always hate it when writers do that, as I never like their examples! But she’s convinced me I should read Story Engineering: Character Development, Story Concept, Scene Construction, however annoying its reviews make me think I’d find it. The methods Leonelle demonstrates somewhat resemble the Snowflake Method, going from short point to paragraph, and I’ll agree that if you don’t count those early stages when you’re still thinking out the plot, your writing speed by the time you get to the final stage of actually writing the novel should fly along. I’ve been doing a rewrite in the last few weeks, so I know how fast I type when I’ve figured out the characters and the story.
And yet, there’s something disingenuous about the boosting of what I’d call heavy outlining methods as a solution for writing faster, pouring scorn on “pantsers” who write first and basically plot after. Since really good pantsers rewrite anyway, their first draft serves many of the same purposes as heavy outlining and can throw up some very keepable bits of prose that can later be worked back into the final rewrite. Perhaps I need to write a book about that :D
Leonelle then covers distractions, and if you’ve been around writing circles for long enough you’ll know all about the perils of social media and TV (and yet, see below), and then moves on to some standards such as editing etc.
If I’d stopped at the end of the first section, I think I’d have described the book as a competent, if not particularly original, roundup of methods a writer needs to try to increase his or her productivity, useful perhaps for writers who’ve written their first novel and are starting to realize that this is hard work. But it’s when I got to the somewhat overlong second section—the diary—that I started to get really fascinated. I got to sit on the shoulder of a writer who has a very different lifestyle to mine (far fewer responsibilities, more pressure to make money) and watch as she practised what she preached. And what did I find out?
- That those tripled writing speeds mostly came from using a complicated setup of dictation software, which she carried around with her during long walks around Chicago. The point being, of course, that you can dictate much faster than you type, as well as saving your wrists and fingers from all the mechanical problems that can arise from too much typing or poor ergonomics. Well, that isn’t going to work for me—the expense and fiddling about of buying and learning the technology and fixing it when it glitched (which seemed to be often) lacked the simplicity that, for me, is the key to productivity, and being a caregiver I don’t have the uninterrupted blocks of time Leonelle had.
- That she failed more often than she succeeded. She spent many days not writing at all; or she wrote loads of fiction but failed to do any of that freelance work to pay the bills (she eventually gave up on freelancing); or she put down plenty of words than then sat, unedited, on her computer.
- That she watched a LOT of TV. Holy cow. I never even think of turning on the TV till after dinner and, seriously, you should NOT have the TV on while editing. From the sprinkling of mistakes (it’s per se not per say, wean not ween, eke not eek) I deduce that Leonelle is more of a watcher than a reader, and good writers are avid readers. Telling your readers to turn off the TV and then implicitly giving them permission to turn it back on isn’t a great message.
- That a successful day of writing would inevitably be followed by days of exhaustion. These solutions don’t work for me unless they’re sustainable, so showing me ways I can bust a gut on the occasional day (which I already know I can do) isn’t particularly helpful.
- That being an indie writer also means editing, producing and marketing, and that’s bloody hard. Well, I already knew that, and one of my biggest problems to date has been working out systems for handling all of those parts of the indie life. If you lean too heavily on one of the four corners of your indie table you unbalance the other three legs, every single time. The one good solution I got from Leonelle was to do the editing during the first writing session, which I now do, and just accept that word count for that day’s going to be low.
- That in the end Leonelle actually found a slightly different path to success than what she described in her book. She alludes to what she’s doing at the end and I was able to put two and two together to figure out how she’s making money from writing (not saying what in case I’m wrong, but I think I’m right)—and let’s say it’s a path I’m not going to take.
Verdict: an interesting little book from which I derived some elucidation but no real delivery—none that would be practical for me—on its promises. I don’t know whether the download I received was a draft, but I think the second section could do with some editing to make it read better, and it needs to have its links put back in....more
This short (85 pages) craft book turned out to be worth buying despite its brevity, because (apart from somWhere I got the book: purchased on Kindle.
This short (85 pages) craft book turned out to be worth buying despite its brevity, because (apart from some cutesy stuff at the beginning about Pam Pantser, Paul Plotter and so on—why do people DO that?—James Scott Bell does a pretty good job of getting across his instruction points without the ego-boosting and meandering that so many writing gurus employ. He focuses on the realization that the mid-point of a story contains a moment where the main character has to face himself or herself, and provides a simple structure for incorporating that mid-point moment into your novel. He uses several familiar examples, including Gone With The Wind (which has an extremely memorable mid-point right before the intermission in the movie), and explains how to incorporate the mid-point into an outline (I rather liked his outline, which was a bit different from most).
In the last thirty or so pages, Bell shows you how to apply his simplified structure to story ideas and then leads into some general remarks on craft which are kind of filler but he didn’t over-elaborate so I was OK with them. I wouldn’t call this book earth-shattering or particularly memorable, but the notion that a great story has a mid-point is worth considering and if the price of the Kindle version continues low I’d recommend this as a no-brainer buy for writers looking for solid craft ideas....more
Plotting is one of those aspects of novel writing that looks a lot simpler from the outside. New writersWhere I got the book: borrowed from a friend.
Plotting is one of those aspects of novel writing that looks a lot simpler from the outside. New writers (and sometimes not so new) can find they have a great story in their head, have solid writing skills, a good command of dialogue, and a knack for description, but once they transfer their story to paper it just isn’t working. The middle’s saggy or the ending lacks pizzazz or the beginning is overloaded with backstory—if you hang around writing groups for a while, you soon begin to spot the problems with everyone else’s writing, and eventually you begin to see it in your own.
I don’t think a grasp of plotting should be confined only to novelists, either. Non-fiction writers, particularly those attempting a memoir, need to understand story-telling skills just as much as fiction writers do. Any story needs a structure.
Of course there are those people called pantsers who just sit down and write, and tell you that they never do any plotting. I would argue that successful pantsers are just people who are very good at holding a plot structure in their heads, but I’d also advise keen plotters to sit down occasionally and try to write a story entirely without plotting it, just to see what happens. I’ve been trying that myself lately, and a couple of stories have emerged that will serve as concepts or foundations for novels, once rewritten in a slightly more orderly way.
But enough about me. The Plot Whisperer struck me as a good place to begin as I started work on plotting a new novel (me again) and indeed, it proved to be of value. For copyright reasons I can’t show you the mind map I made using Alderson’s suggestions, but it’s pretty extensive—given that I threw a new item onto the mind map every time something Alderson wrote struck me as useful and the resulting mind map is huge, I would say that there is much of use to be found in this 233-page book.
Alderson starts out describing the difference between left-brained and right-brained writers—I found that thought-provoking. Right-brained writers, as you’d expect, see the big picture of a story, while left-brainers have a more sequential approach and are good at writing out a story scene by scene. Interestingly, looking at my mind map I can see that Alderson is predominantly right-brained—she’s excellent at providing the reader with all the elements of a good story, less skilled in explaining how you go about the process of building a good plot step by step.
Alderson does provide the reader with a visual representation of plot in her plot planner, which looks a bit like a sales graph. If you want to see this and other plotting visuals, visit my Pinterest board on the subject. Because there are other ways of visualizing plotting out there, any or all of which could be useful for your particular book, and maybe it’s Alderson’s that’ll resonate with you. I think if I look at all the story elements she talks about in the course of the book and map them onto the plot planner diagram she provides, I might see her method more clearly—but to actually embark on plotting out your own story via her diagram, you need something like a six-foot-long sheet of paper and a place to lay it out while you place sticky notes on it, which doesn’t work so well for me. She also provides a scene tracker chart example that could be easily replicated in any spreadsheet program and that’s good, but again my own brain doesn’t do too well with spreadsheets when it comes to novels. It’s too, well, spreadsheety (whereas, for example, I’m an Excel GODDESS when it comes to logging my word counts and analyzing how well I’m doing compared to my writing goals).
What I mean by “the process of building a good plot step by step” is that whole business of how you get a story out of your brain and into decent shape on the page, preferably without having to rewrite too much (although Alderson is clearly a fan of rewriting, as she often refers to the (many?) rewrites you’re going to be doing as you craft your novel. Which is awesome for writers who either write VERY FAST or have a lot of time for writing, but for those under contract or obliged to sandwich their writing time in with other responsibilities, getting your plot structure/story right first time, most of the time is a valuable skill.) Most of us start with the bare bones of a story—how it begins, a few key scenes, and how it ends—and then we have to build flesh onto the bones by coming up with secondary characters, subplots and world-building. Having done this a few times, I can take Alderson’s plot elements and possibly map them onto her plot planner diagram as my own plot elements, but I’m not sure how clear that process would be for someone trying out plotting in the early stages of a writing career.
The Plot Whisperer also suffered a bit from a tendency of all writing books, which is to veer off into tangents about what is and isn’t good writing. I think Alderson is right when she claims there’s such a thing as a Universal Story (which differs from one genre to another,) but there’s no such thing as a universal book or universal writing. Reading is an incredibly subjective exercise—how many of us are open-mouthed with disbelief because THAT book or THAT book are bestsellers and loved by millions, and we just KNOW they’re badly written? Are we gifted with some kind of superior discernment? For example, Alderson at one point introduces the notion of Constantly Escalating Tension, a concept that’s led to more bad Doctor Who episodes than I can count. Sometimes, and in some genres, the tension needs to be subtle and subterranean, a wander through a dark wood rather than a series of ever-greater perils with lots of shouting (and, in the case of Doctor Who, running). At times, I felt like I was being told how to write my book rather than how to plot it, and I want to hear about mechanics rather than specifics so such advice doesn’t work for me.
I also had a bit of trouble with the ‘Writer’s Way’ sidebars, in which Alderson explains all the angst you, the writer, are going to experience as you hit point A or point B in your story. Really? Well, Alderson runs plotting workshops, so maybe her generalizations are the result of experience, but I’ve never suffered in these ways. She makes writers sound like a pretty neurotic lot—well, some of us are, but many of us aren’t.
Final verdict—worth buying because it’s more thorough and less egotistical than many books about writing tend to be, but still not my Ideal Plotting Book. I’m beginning to think such a thing doesn’t exist....more
With knowledgeable editors rarer than purple elephants and increasing numbers of wannabe historical fictionWhere I got the book: purchased on Kindle.
With knowledgeable editors rarer than purple elephants and increasing numbers of wannabe historical fiction writers self-publishing, the chance of really good historical blunders is high. I've reviewed quite a few novels with hysterical howlers; many of them were ARCs so I couldn't point out the mistakes in my reviews, but some were published, presumably edited, novels from major publishing houses. Two that jump to mind were the prim and proper young lady climbing out of a carriage window in front of the hero in what would have been CROTCHLESS UNDERWEAR, and the accident at a London stoplight around 14 years before the first traffic signals made their appearance in England. That last author is, in fact, singled out by Alleyn for one of her other books, as a how-not-to-do-it example, which tickled me no end.
Most of the book, though, isn't attacks on authors. Most of the book is an idiosyncratic but very entertaining look at some of the most common traps in historical fiction, written to amuse but also (hopefully) to provoke wannabe historical fiction writers into doing the most basic research at the very least. There are always, ALWAYS, however much you research, going to be readers who think you're wrong, from the Ph.D. whose thesis was on EXACTLY the period you've covered to the general reader who doesn't think people said "bump" to refer to a pregnant woman's belly in the 19th century (that's from a review of a book I wrote, and maybe she's right...) But the point is to avoid making too many errors that provoke an OH COME ON and a little book-throwing from the general reader; my Kindle narrowly escaped damage when one self-pubber had someone perform a Heimlich maneuver in 1912 (look it up).
Alleyn's basic message is: do some background research before you start writing and look things up as you go along, if only on Wikipedia. Don't get your ideas about history from other people's fiction or from movies or TV, which are often wrong. If you're dealing with the aristocracy, for gawd's sake gain a basic understanding about how titles work. And if a character's undergarments are showing, make sure they're correct for the period and that people actually wore undergarments back then (hint: often, they didn't.)
In among all the amusing advice are some very helpful chapters; the one on titles is pretty thorough and should be required reading for all American authors and many Brits. There is an excellent list of resource books at the end, which alone is worth the price of the download.
The only things I take issue with are the screamingly horrible cover (is it ironic?)* and Alleyn using her own fiction as a how-to-do-it example, especially as she uses the term "teenage" in a period well before the idea of a teenager was invented. Those are minor quibbles given the amount of entertainment I got from a book that can be read by both writers and readers of historical fiction. Heartily recommended.