There’s no such thing as a real pantser, or a real planner

I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no such thing as a pantser when it comes to writing. And I say this as a self-confessed pantser. I’ve stood up and defended the position of writing from the hip against those pesky planners. I’ve defended the greater creative purity of the unplanned writing session. But it’s all bollocks. And you know what? There are no real planners either. This is a bell-curve, so there will be those outliers, but I’ll get to them later.

Firstly, in case you’re the one person who doesn’t know what a pantser or a planner is, let me explain. When it comes to writing fiction, there are two primary camps – people who plan everything and decide on each detail of the plot before they start writing, who are called planners, and people who plan nothing and just let the story all pour out au naturel, called pantsers. These people have also been referred to as architects and gardeners, and in that post I talk about being a bit of one and a bit of the other. But here I intend to make the bolder statement that we’re all a bit of both.

I’ve always identified mostly as a pantser. I don’t like to know everything that’s going to happen in a story before I start to write. What’s the point in writing it then? It’d be like writing it twice – once in note form, then again in detail. But I do make some notes. I have a good idea where things are going and what major events are going to occur in a story. I sometimes don’t know exactly how a book or story is going to end, but I have a good idea where I’m going with it and the ideas I’m playing with. The process of discovery that accompanies the writing then, as my subconscious tells the story through my characters, is the thing I love most about writing. So I do write a lot by the seat of my pants. But I plan too.

It’s the same for planners. Any great writer, no matter how strictly they might plan a book, will gladly let a new idea or an unexpected turn take the story somewhere else. That may mean that they stop and re-plan, based on the unexpected revelation. Or they may just roll with it. The bits and details in between their carefully planned markers will still need filling in, and they will have to cover those transitions and interstices with writing from the hip.

So no pantser never plans, and no planner never pants. Like I said above, it’s a bell-curve. I think it’s more a case of where on the curve you sit. Not whether you’re a pantser or a planner, but to what degree you plan. We’re all plantsers – we all sit down with a story idea and we work on it. We have to. There needs to be some ideas in mind of what we’re writing about, who our characters are (at least in their most superficial incarnation to begin with) and where we’re going with it. That’s planning. But the degree to which we plan that, or how much we leave open, is the only thing that separates our writing styles.

Kim Wilkins is a writer with something like 24 published novels and she is quite vocal about being a very detailed planner. Whenever you raise the subject with her, she will simply cry, “Two million words in print! I rest my case!” and she does kinda have a point. But really, all she’s saying is that she plans a lot, not only a little bit. There’s a case in her argument that everyone should plan a lot. I disagree. I don’t plan in anything like the detail Kim does, but I do plan to a certain extent. We all do. And no matter how much Kim plans, no matter how much of an outlier she is on one side of the bell curve, I bet there’s some pantsing in there too. Just like the person who pretty much pants the whole way will still have a small amount of planning, somewhere in the back of their mind. And even when someone pretty much pants the thing entirely, there comes a point when they need to pull it all together at the end and that requires a bit of planning.

There’s no such thing as a pantser or a planner. There’s just the degree to which we plan.

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Bloodstones contributor copies arrived

BloodstonesLook at this beautiful tome. It’s the Bloodstones anthology from Ticonderoga Publications, edited by the awesomely talented Amanda Pillar. You can tell she’s awesomely talented because she picked one of my stories to be in this book. And all the others, of course. Bloodstones is an anthology of short fiction using unusual creatures, myths and legends in dark, urban fantasy settings. And let’s be honest, that kind of brief is right up my flagpole. My story is called Cephalopoda Obsessia and it’s my little cephalopod overlord homage. I won’t say any more than that.

The book has a great line-up of authors (I’ll post the full list below) and boasts a broad range of subject matter. From the back cover blurb, we’re told we’ll encounter ancient Greek monsters, lamia, gorgons and kraken, as well as the Malay toyol and dukun, Chinese xiannu, Haitian voodoo, ghosts, Cthulhu, selkies and (get this!) the Philippino Alan. That one really has me interested. I mean, I’ll be honest, I have no fucking idea what half the stuff on that list is. But there’s a monster called an Alan? Sign me up!

The forward is by the very talented author, Seanan Maguire, and she says really lovely things about the anthology. Things like, “There was not a story in this book that did not surprise and delight me…” and “…a map to a whole new realm of horror.” Shit, yeah, I like the sound of that. So I can’t wait to get my teeth into this one. You can get your copy from indiebooksonline.com, or all the usual Amazon type places.

Here’s the full list of 17 stories:

  • Joanne Anderton, “Sanaa’s Army”
  • Alan Baxter, “Cephalopoda Obsessia”
  • Jenny Blackford, “A Moveable Feast”
  • Vivian Caethe, “Skin”
  • MD Curelas, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”
  • Thoraiya Dyer, “Surviving Film”
  • Dirk Flinthart, “The Bull in Winter”
  • Stephanie Gunn, “The Skin of the World”
  • Richard Harland, “A Mother’s Love”
  • Pete Kempshall, “Dead Inside”
  • Penny Love, “A Small Bad Thing”
  • Karen Maric, “Embracing the Invisible”
  • Christine Morgan, “Ferreau’s Curse”
  • Nicole Murphy, “Euryale”
  • Kat Otis, “And the Dead Shall be Raised Incorruptible”
  • Dan Rabarts, “The Bone Plate”
  • Erin Underwood, “The Foam Born”

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Time for another Top 100

I haven’t done one of these posts for a while, so I thought it was about time. I came across this post of the Top 100 Sci-Fi Books
. Apparently it’s “A statistical survey of the all-time Top 100 sci-fi books”. Whatever that means. There’s a link on the post where you can click to take part in the poll and it takes you to a massive list of SF titles and you’re asked to select ten of them. So by “statistical” I think they mean “voted”. Anyway, it struck me as an interesting list, so I thought I’d see how many of this alleged top 100 books I’ve read. The list is below. Sometimes you’ll see [S1], which means the first book in a series, or [C], which means it’s a single author collection. I’ve bolded all the titles I’ve read. The ones all in italics are books I have, but have yet to get around to reading.

1          Orson Scott Card        Ender’s Game [S1]      1985

2          Frank Herbert  Dune [S1]        1965

3          Isaac Asimov  Foundation [S1-3]       1951

4          Douglas Adams          Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy [S1]         1979

5          Robert A Heinlein       Stranger in a Strange Land     1961

6          George Orwell            1984    1949

7          Ray Bradbury Fahrenheit 451            1954

8          Arthur C Clarke          2001: A Space Odyssey          1968

9          Isaac Asimov  [C] I, Robot    1950

10        Philip K Dick  Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?         1968

11        Robert A Heinlein       Starship Troopers        1959

12        William Gibson           Neuromancer   1984

13        Larry Niven     Ringworld       1970

14        Arthur C Clarke          Rendezvous With Rama         1973

15        Dan Simmons Hyperion [S1] 1989

16        H G Wells       The Time Machine      1895

17        Aldous Huxley            Brave New World       1932

18        Arthur C Clarke          Childhood’s End         1954

19        H G Wells       The War of the Worlds           1898

20        Joe Haldeman The Forever War         1974

21        Robert A Heinlein       The Moon is a Harsh Mistress 1966

22        Ray Bradbury      The Martian Chronicles    1950

23        Kurt Vonnegut            Slaughterhouse Five    1969

24        Neal Stephenson         Snow Crash     1992

25        Niven & Pournelle      The Mote in God’s Eye           1975

26        Ursula K Le Guin       The Left Hand of Darkness    1969

27        Orson Scott Card        Speaker for the Dead [S2]      1986

28        Michael Crichton        Jurassic Park    1990

29        Philip K Dick    The Man in the High Castle    1962

30        Isaac Asimov    The Caves of Steel      1954

31        Jules Verne      20,000 Leagues Under the Sea           1870

32        Alfred Bester  The Stars My Destination       1956

33        Roger Zelazny Lord of Light  1967

34        Frederik Pohl  Gateway          1977

35        Michael Crichton        The Andromeda Strain           1969

36        Madeleine L’Engle      A Wrinkle In Time      1962

37        Stanislaw Lem            Solaris 1961

38        Kurt Vonnegut            Cat’s Cradle    1963

39        Carl Sagan       Contact           1985

40        Isaac Asimov  The Gods Themselves 1972

41        Philip K Dick  Ubik    1969

42        Vernor Vinge  A Fire Upon the Deep            1991

43        Anthony Burgess        A Clockwork Orange  1962

44        John Wyndham           The Day of the Triffids           1951

45        Robert A Heinlein       Time Enough For Love           1973

46        Neal Stephenson         Cryptonomicon           1999

47        Kim Stanley Robinson            Red Mars [S1] 1992

48        Mary Shelley   Frankenstein    1818

49        Walter M Miller          A Canticle for Leibowitz        1959

50        Daniel Keyes   Flowers for Algernon  1966

51        Isaac Asimov  The End Of Eternity   1955

52        Jules Verne      Journey to the Center of the Earth     1864

53        Iain M Banks  Player Of Games [S2] 1988

54        L Ron Hubbard           Battlefield Earth         1982   < Seriously!?

55        Peter F Hamilton         The Reality Dysfunction [S1] 1996

56        Orson Scott Card        Ender’s Shadow [S1]  1999

57        Ursula K Le Guin       The Dispossessed        1974

58        Neal Stephenson         The Diamond Age      1995

59        Greg Bear        Eon      1985

60        Philip Jose Farmer       To Your Scattered Bodies Go            1971

61        Kurt Vonnegut            The Sirens of Titan      1959

62        David Brin      Startide Rising [S2]    1983

63        Philip K Dick  A Scanner Darkly       1977

64        Niven & Pournelle      Lucifer’s Hammer       1977

65        Margaret Atwood       The Handmaid’s Tale  1985

66        Arthur C Clarke          The City and the Stars            1956

67        Michael Crichton        Sphere 1987

68        Harry Harrison            The Stainless Steel Rat [S1]    1961

69        Robert A Heinlein       The Door Into Summer           1956

70        Alfred Bester  The Demolished Man  1953

71        Gene Wolfe     The Fifth Head of Cerberus    1972

72        Alastair Reynolds       Revelation Space [S1] 2000

73        H G Wells       The Invisible Man       1897

74        Robert A Heinlein       Citizen Of the Galaxy 1957

75        Edgar Rice Burroughs            A Princess of Mars [S1]          1912

76        Robert A Heinlein        The Puppet Masters    1951

77        Dan Simmons  Ilium    2003

78        Connie Willis  Doomsday Book         1992

79        C S Lewis        Out of the Silent Planet [S1]  1938

80        Robert A Heinlein       Have Space-Suit – Will Travel            1958

81        Edwin A Abbott         Flatland           1884

82        Cormac McCarthy       The Road        2006

83        Richard Morgan          Altered Carbon [S1]   2002

84        John Scalzi       Old Man’s War            2005 < I can honestly say this is one of the worst SF books I've ever read.85        Philip K Dick  The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch         1964

86        Iain M Banks  Use of Weapons [S3]  1990

87        John Wyndham           The Chrysalids            1955

88        Ursula K Le Guin       The Lathe of Heaven  1971

89        Clifford Simak            Way Station    1963

90        Stanislaw Lem            [C] The Cyberiad        1974

91        John Brunner   Stand on Zanzibar       1969

92        Philip K Dick  VALIS            1981

93        David Brin      The Postman   1985

94        Robert Louis Stevenson          Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde          1886

95        Julian May       The Many-Colored Land [S1]            1981

96        Arkady & Boris Strugatsky    Roadside Picnic          1972

97        Greg Bear        The Forge of God       1987

98        Richard Matheson       I Am Legend  1954

99        James Blish     [C] Cities in Flight      1955

100      Arthur Conan Doyle   The Lost World           1912

There are a few on there that I can’t remember for sure if I’ve read or not. I think I might have, many years ago, but it’s equally possible I just thought I should read them but never got around it it. So I’ve left them. The bolded ones I know I’ve read – it’s not a bad showing, though how some of them have made it onto the best 100 list mystifies me. It has also, however, served to remind me of a hell of a lot of books that I haven’t read yet but really want to!

So I’ve read 41 out of that 100. How about you?

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The Importance of Research in Writing

One of the things I like most about writing is the research it leads me to. I think of a story idea and start developing it, then discover I need to know more about something that’s relevant to the story. When I was writing MageSign, for example, I needed to have a good working knowledge of cults and their methods of indoctrination. I could have just made it all up, but it’s important to me to know that I’m getting things right. And I owe it to my readers to deliver something as factually correct and consistent as possible. There’s an authenticity to well-researched fiction. Equally, poorly researched fiction stands out as being pretty rubbish, even if a reader can’t quite put their finger on why. That’s the basis for my Write The Fight Right workshops, after all.

With the cults thing I was lucky in that my mother-in-law is a psychiatrist. She’s been exposed to all kinds of stuff in her line of work and was able to direct me to good quality resources on the subject. I read a lot, educated myself and hopefully wrote an engaging and authentic book that resonated with readers. Along the way, I greatly enjoyed the process, because I learned new things. Education is good, mm-kay.

fallen-lebbonWhy am I bringing this up now? Well, I had a really good read partly spoiled by poor research. I’ve just read a novel by Tim Lebbon called Fallen. It’s a great read – a dark fantasy set in the world of Noreela. It’s a bold idea, got great characters, excellent writing and some really cool stuff happens (although I was really disappointed with the ending, which was a shame). I won’t give much away, except to say that the story follows two Voyagers, Ramus and Nomi, and their band of bodyguards. Ramus and Nomi travel and learn for the sake of expanding the knowledge of their nation. To the far south of their land is the Great Divide, a huge wall of rock that stretches from coast to coast and is lost in the clouds above. No one knows how high it is, what’s at the top (if it even has a top) or anything else. So, for reasons explored in interesting ways through the book, Ramus and Nomi set out to climb the Great Divide.

It is a good book and I enjoyed it for the most part. Other than the ending, which I won’t spoil, the other thing that really annoyed me was the climbing research. I don’t know how much experience Tim Lebbon has as a climber. Personally, I’ve only climbed a little bit. It’s a great pastime and one I’d like to do more. However, when I started reading the bit about the climb (which, as you can tell from my brief synopsis above, is a very large and integral part of the book) I had a shock. The characters, as they climbed, kept hammering crampons into the rock face to tie their ropes to for safety. Crampons? I has a confused. This is a crampon:

crampon

Crampons are things you strap to your boots to improve traction on snow and ice, especially for ice climbing. You can get walking versions too, for glacier walking and the like. Can you imagine hammering one of those into a rock face and tying a rope to it? You be pretty fucking dead, pretty fucking quick.

These days people use passive safety devices called nuts or hexes for securing their ropes, or more active devices like spring-loaded camming devices. In the old days, they would have just hammered iron spikes into the rock face, I imagine. I don’t know this for certain and would have to research it, but that wouldn’t be hard. Especially with things like Wikipedia and all the hobby forums out there.

Incidentally, even though Lebbon made that mistake, how does something like that get past an editor? Does no-one connected with that book know what a crampon is? Well, I guess that’s a stupid question. Obviously no-one did. And it really spoiled the read for me, because I do know what a crampon is and every time I read about a character hammering one into the rock the narrative became farcical and I ground my teeth and had to try to ignore it and push on regardless.

I’m glad I did because, like I said, it is a good book, ending notwithstanding. Except for the bloody crampon thing. There was another thing I read once, written by an American, where a character passed briefly through England and stopped in a shop. He was charged in Euros. They don’t use Euros in Britain – still the good old pound sterling. It’s a small thing that’s really annoying because it makes the author look dumb and makes the reader question everything else included in the book. If a writer can’t tell the difference between a shoe accessory and a safety device, can I trust him or her on anything else? Unless, of course, I’m really missing something vital and there’s another definition of crampon that I’m not aware of and couldn’t find when I checked.

Even in fantasy and other forms of speculative fiction, it’s really important to get the details right. Internal consistency is essential and building your speculative world in a framework of believable and accurate detail is the only way that suspension of disbelief will survive. We all make mistakes, I’m sure. I bet there are some things in my books that make certain people grind their teeth in frustration. I really hope there aren’t, but I’m not so egotistical to think that I’ve got everything exactly right. But I do try to get things right, I research deeply and the bonus is that I really enjoy that research.

We’re always told to write what we know. Which is a load of bollocks, of course, because we’d run out of things pretty quickly. But we can learn about stuff and then write about it. It’s important that we do, because the process is good fun and it makes us better writers and more informed people. Then we write better books and stories.

Perhaps this whole post is easily summed up thus: When you’re writing, make sure you know the difference between a spiky shoe accessory and an iron spike.

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