Category Archives: On Writing

Posts about the art and craft of writing

Turning the Corner

The joy of writing a novel by the seat of my pants is that I get to find out what the story is as I go along. There's a wonderful freedom to it. I need a character, so I make one up; and the character comes to life and has his own needs and wants and needs his own backstory, and this suggests new events and conflicts and complications.

In my current work in progress, for example, Michael Henderson (of Vikings at Dino's) begins the novel in the middle of a firefight…in the middle of a department/grocery store:

I shrank down behind the display of crab lozenges ("As good as Mother used to make!") as another round whizzed past my ear. I was longing to mash the button nestled under my left thumb but knew that I mustn't. The wrought iron of the display rack might have given me more comfort if its frills and scroll work hadn't had so many gaps in them.

Mr. Monocle, which is to say the fellow with whom I was sharing the scant cover of the display, glanced sideways at the contraption in my right hand.

"Bit overpowered for the situation, don't you think?" he said, returning fire with yet another carefully aimed shot from his long pistol. There was a wisp of steam and a report that was much quieter than I would have expected. "This is small arms work, what? But perhaps you know your business best."

"It's all I've got," I said.

He was looking down the iron sights of his long pistol when I said it, and so help me he lowered the gun and studied me through his monocle. His handlebar mustache twitched.

"All you've got?" he said in a tone of faint consternation. He continued to study me until the next bullet from the fellow down the aisle knocked the natty bowler off his head.

"Oh, blast," he said. "Brand new, that was." Turning back to the matter at hand he fired a quick shot—"Hah, that will teach him to show his head!"—and then applied himself once more to looking down the sights.

He was a sight himself. He was wearing a form-fitting coat of blue broadcloth, equally form-fitting cream trousers, and high black boots. Around his neck was a cravat sort-of-thing that had the kind of artless folds that only come with untold hours of practice. There was a long knife tucked in a sheath on the outside of one of his boots, and a holster of plain black leather at his waist. The holster was empty, of course.

At this point I had no idea who "Mr. Monocle" was; even the name was just a nickname Michael gave him, because Michael often gives nicknames to people whose names he doesn't know. The whole point was to put Michael in a situation, so that I could figure out what he was doing there. The story would grow from that.

And so, almost 80,000 words later, it has; and "Mr. Monocle," whom I thought a throw-away character at the time, proved too much fun to throw away. It's fair to say that the whole story—plot, setting, and world—grew out of this vision of a well-armed gentleman in vaguely Regency attire in a Target or Walmart-like store.

And as it begins, so it continues: I just follow along and see where it goes.

But eventually there comes a time where the continuous invention has to stop—a time where instead of introducing new elements, I have to look to resolving all of the conflicts. I call this "turning the corner", and it's a difficult moment.

Usually by this time in the story I have a number of notions in my head about how the book will end, usually in the form of one or more brief scene-lets. And it's at the point that even while writing by the seat of my pants I need to figure out at least the broad sequence of events that leads to those outcomes.

This is generally a difficult moment: first, because it involves planning things out in advance, a dangerous activity for a pantser; and second, because of the way a pantser's mind works. Or, at least, the way my mind works.

See, it isn't really true that I don't plan things out in advance. It's just that I leave that sort of thing to my subconscious, or, as I call it, my back-brain. When I've got a creative problem that's giving me trouble, I chew on it a bit, and then move on to other things. That loads it into my back-brain. Then I come back to it a day or two days or a week later, and there's the answer, all ready for me to capture in pixels. (This works in software development, too.)

And sometimes I come back to it, and sit down and try to write, and it's like pulling teeth. That usually means that my back-brain isn't done yet. So I go away and come back the next day, or two…and sometimes it still isn't done.

When November started, I was about 70,000 words into Very Truly Run After; as of today, as the month draws to a close, I'm at not quite 80,000. Not very good progress by NaNoWriMo standards, but I'm more than satisfied. I spent a couple of weeks wrestling with a couple of scenes; but really, I was wrestling with turning the corner. Now, I think, I've pretty well got it.

There's still plenty of room for invention, mind you: the end isn't that close. But now I can see the trail that will get me to the climax, and that's a very good feeling indeed for Thanksgiving weekend.

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photo credit: niiicedave _IGP9494.PEF CA-70 NB Feather River Scenic Byway Bute County California via photopin (license)

Riding the Pantser Tank

Famously there are two kinds of novelists, plotters and pantsers. Plotters are those who work out the plot in great detail ahead of time, outlining everything to within in an inch of its life. P.G. Wodehouse, for example, was a plotter par excellence: he'd put each scene on a card and pin them to a board, moving them around until the farce played out just precisely the way he wanted it. And then there are the pantsers, who write "by the seat of their pants" and discover the shape of the story in the writing of it. (If you Google "plotters and pantsers" you'll find an amazing collection of links describing this phenomenon, including self-help guides for pantsers who want to be plotters and (somewhat surprisingly) vice-versa.)

Me, I'm a pantser all the way, as I recently rediscovered all over again while trying to get started on the sequel to Vikings at Dino's.

See, I wrote Vikings at Dino's to find out what was going to happen. I was walking to a local burger joint to get some lunch and do some studying; and on the way I got the yen to start a new novel. I wanted to start with a situation that was bizarre and inexplicable, and then somehow make it all make sense. And I thought…what if a guy was having lunch and a horde of Vikings crashed in, kicking butt and taking heads? What would he do? Where did the Vikings come from? And then what? And I was off. I've spent considerable time polishing that first scene, but quite a few of the original words remain.

And after that initial scene it was all about seeing where it led—and what ultimately happened to Michael Henderson surprised me quite a bit. I often had some ideas about where I was going, but many of the best elements emerged seemingly out of nowhere in the process of composition. I call it riding the Pantser Tank: you're tearing through the landscape, bashing your way through obstacles…and you never know what the treads will uncover.

I wrote Vikings at Dino's several years ago. My family wanted a sequel immediately, but I'd never been able to come up with an idea that I liked. The problem was, I knew too much. I knew the characters inside and out, and in planning a sequel I was trying to figure out what would make logical sense as an extension of the original story. I was trying, in fact, to be a plotter, and figure it all out ahead of time, based on what I already knew; and somehow, nothing every got written.

But then I got Vikings at Dino's into print, and several people immediately asked me for a sequel; and my kids added their voices to that, and I said, "OK, I need to get down to business. How can I do that?"

The answer turned out to be simple. Instead of trying to figure out the plot—instead of trying to be the plotter I manifestly am not—I needed to put Michael Henderson and his friends into a situation…and then let them be themselves, and find out in the writing what the story was going to be. In short, I needed to climb back into the Pantser Tank and let it roll.

At the same time, the new story needed to follow from the old one; I couldn't begin with a completely empty slate. So I picked a problem that Michael was bound to run into, and put him in a scene in which he'd already run into it. I had no idea, at first, how he got into the situation, or how he'd get out of it, but I knew I could ride the tank to victory. And then a new character popped up to help him in the first paragraph, and a couple of chapters later he refused to go away…and there I was, bubbling with new ideas and going great guns. I'm now over 50,000 words into it, and discovering new things about my characters and their world every time I sit down to write.

In short, I'm having a blast.

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photo credit: King Tiger via photopin (license)

On Catholic Fiction

This blog is associated with The Catholic Conspiracy family of Catholic bloggers; and as an author I write from a Catholic world view. But what does that mean for my novels? Are they "Catholic Fiction"?

It all depends on what you mean by "Catholic Fiction".

As a blogger I've written extensively about the Catholic faith in a number of venues, and most notably at my Patheos blog, "Cry Woof!". There my goal is to talk about the Catholic faith: to explain, to teach, and to enlighten.

As a novelist, though, my goal is to be a teller of tales: to entertain, to amuse, and, I hope, to make you laugh. In that sense, I hope that my work is Catholic fiction in exactly the same sense (if not in the same degree) that the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and Tim Powers is Catholic fiction: that is, fiction written by a Catholic. I may occasionally touch on Catholic matters in my books (the S'Mary's World project, which I hope to get back to one day, concerns a Catholic colony world) but my intent as a novelist is never didactic.

Teaching is teaching and storytelling is storytelling. Mixing the two is possible, as C.S. Lewis did in The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce; but precisely what these two books gain as teaching tools they lose as stories. My aim is different: the tale well told, and the laugh honestly earned.

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photo credit: public domain, WikiMedia Commons