Plotting by the Seat of my Pants

Should you plot your stories with meticulous care or should you write spontaneously and see where the muse takes you? I know writers who have an almost religious devotion to each approach and there are certainly pros and cons to each approach. My ability to plot stories before I write them has helped me make sales before I’ve taken the time to actually compose them. In this case, plotting can effectively become a pitch. An editor might solicit an idea from me. Afterwards, I go away and think about it for a time and then throw some ideas about how I would handle the story to the editor. The editor then gives me feedback on what works and what doesn’t work. This can be a very exciting process and it’s one I recently went through with an anthology editor and it’s also how I created the outline for my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. Hopefully I’ll be able to share news about the story I just wrote before the year is out.

Those who write by the seat of their pants argue that you don’t always know your characters when you start. The more you write, the more you understand their motivations. If you plot, there’s a danger you force your characters to take actions that aren’t true to them as they’ve developed. That’s a valid point, and one of the ways I counter that is to treat my outline more as a set of goals than as a detailed roadmap. For a short story, it tells me what my characters are going to do to set them off in a direction. It suggests complications they may encounter along the way. I don’t always write an ending. Instead, I think of ways the story might end depending on who the characters turn out to be. It’s exciting when I get to the end and the characters do something I don’t quite expect because its right for them. That happened to me this last week and I like the ending much better than any of the ones I actually plotted in advance.

In a novel, the plot points are a little more defined, but again, I try to keep them general enough that they serve as complications the characters encounter. There is a challenge if the characters diverge far enough from the original conception that they don’t encounter the complications laid out for them. At that point, there’s no choice but to revisit the outline. Figure out what path the characters are on and see whether there’s a way to get them to encounter the original complications or see if you just have to create new ones altogether.

Now, if an outline serves as the basis for a pitch, what happens if the story becomes very different from the outline? This is something I don’t worry about too much for two reasons. First off, good editors are more concerned about finding good stories than assuring your story perfectly matched the pitch you gave them. If the story works and doesn’t violate any guidelines, you’ve still got a really good chance of selling the story to an editor who solicited one from you and liked the pitch. Second, when you make your pitch, you’re not likely to give the editor your entire outline. Mostly you’re laying out the initial situation and the problem the characters are going to be faced with along the way. If you resolve those issues in a different way than you envisioned, no problem. The editor doesn’t necessarily know that. Again, what the editor will care about is whether or not the story works.

For pantsers, I recommend trying your hand at plotting a story or two. It could prove a lucrative and useful skill down the road. For plotters, I recommend leaving enough room in your outline to let your characters breathe and do things you didn’t quite expect. You might be surprised at the result!

Research in Writing: Reality vs Perceptions

I don’t think any sensible person would question that a responsible writer should do their homework and research any facts that go into their writing, even if what they’re writing is fiction. However, over the years, I’ve learned that getting it right doesn’t always mean that the people reading the story will think you’ve gotten it right. The reason is that not all readers have done the homework and come to a story with a set of preconceived notions. If you violate those preconceived notions they may actually think you’ve made a mistake.

For example, I’m an astronomer who works with telescopes for a living. When I say that, I know a lot of people might picture this dude from a Bud Light commercial a few years back:

In fact, we don’t wear lab coats. We don’t spend all night standing at the back of a telescope. Telescopes have been using digital cameras, feeding pictures into computers since the 1980s. Even in the days when we did work at the telescope, you were more likely to find us wearing heavy coats and we’d be working in the dark all night long blasting loud music to try to keep ourselves awake. In fact, this is what the control room at the 4-meter telescope on Kitt Peak looks like:

And you’ll notice there’s not a lab coat in sight. Why would there be? It’s not like we’re working with dangerous chemicals or anything.

I play with this very idea a bit in my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt when gangsters from a Mexican cartel show up at the story’s observatory to track down a missing drug shipment. They come to the place with preconceived notions they gained from television, but learn that the real astronomers they meet aren’t much like what they believed.

I run into this dichotomy when writing weird westerns and steampunk. People think they know the history of the old west because stories like the Gunfight at OK Corral or the life of Billy the Kid have been told in numerous movies. Even I get caught off guard. A while back, I was watching Doctor Who’s version of the Gunfight at OK Corral and they introduced a character named Phin Clanton. From all the movies, I knew Ike Clanton and his brother Billy, but who the heck was Phin? Sure enough, I looked it up and Ike and Billy had a brother named Phineas who was not at the famous gunfight. In tribute to my newfound knowledge, I gave Phin a role in Lightning Wolves.

In the end, this raises something of a question. Is it better to write to the facts, as best as they can be known, or to write to people’s perceptions? My take on this is that you should absolutely do due diligence researching the facts. You’ll bring an air of authenticity to your work and you’ll likely be able to bring better and richer details to the table. However, you should also see if pop culture has addressed your topic and how it’s been portrayed. If the facts seem to contradict what you’re seeing in the more pop cultural references, you may want to find a way to address the dichotomy in your story. Otherwise, you might get a rejection from a well meaning editor or a poor review from a fan who thinks you got the facts wrong despite your hard work.

Why Write Vampire Tales?

Perhaps one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve heard is don’t chase trends. In other words, don’t write a genre just because it’s popular and you expect to make a quick sale or lots of cash. Odds are, you’ll be sorely disappointed. SummersDragon'sFall By the same token, you should care a great deal about those subjects you do write about. After all you’re going to spend a lot of time with that subject writing, researching, and editing. If you have a measure of success, the book or story could be with you for some time after it’s written. You should be passionate about the subject.

I wrote my first vampire story in 2001 and I just sold my most recent vampire story this year, 2016. Vampires were popular when I started and continue to be popular. Even when my vampire novels reach relatively good sales ranks at Amazon, it’s not uncommon to see two or three hundred vampire novels with even better sales ranks. I think this shows both the popularity of the genre and explains why people at science fiction conventions often complain about how saturated the market is with vampire fiction. Of course, this is just another reason why passion is required. If you want to write a bestseller in a particular genre, it’s easiest to do so in a less popular genre than a more popular one!

So, why am I passionate about vampire stories? For me, they touch several themes near and dear to me. Growing up in urban Southern California, I was taught the night is a dangerous place with people lurking in shadows waiting to do me harm. I then went on to discover a love of astronomy and started spending a lot of time outdoors at night. I did learn to be careful and watchful at night, but I also learned that the night can be quiet and peaceful. Writing about vampires is like writing about kindred who are as passionate about the night as I am. I’ll note, the one time someone stole something from me, it was in broad daylight and I saw them coming. While I don’t fear the day, I can’t say it gives me more comfort than the night does.

What’s more, my dad died when I was young, forcing me to confront mortality head on early in life. There is admittedly a certain aspect of wish fulfillment in the idea of becoming a creature that circumvents death. However, living forever would come with costs. Among them, is the question of whether or not immortality is really all it’s cracked up to be and how one deals with hunting others to maintain an immortal existence.

I’m not only passionate about vampires, I’m passionate about history. Vampires of the Scarlet Order Writing about immortal vampires allows me to take a long view and write about people who get to see different periods of history and watch the world change. Of course, one of the consequences of being a vampire is that you can never really grow close to anyone other than a fellow vampire. Humans just grow old and die too quickly.

The website TVTropes.org has a very good page of suggestions for people who are interested in trying their hand at vampire fiction. One thing they discuss is that you should be genre savvy. This allows you to use and subvert tropes with knowledge of how others have approached the subject. Of course, this is another reason to be passionate about anything you wish to write about. If you’re doing it right, you’ll be spending a lot of time reading books and watching movies in the same genre you want to write. If you’re not passionate about it, that exercise will get old real fast.

If you’re passionate about vampires, or even just mildly curious, I hope you’ll spend some time getting to know some of my fictional friends in the following books:

Always Learning

Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some truly remarkable scientists, including Vera Rubin, one of the first people to obtain evidence for the existence of dark matter, and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who won the Nobel Prize in physics for developing the theory of the evolution of massive stars. One of the things that strikes me about such people is that while they know a lot and have a lot to teach, they still feel there is more to learn. The thirst for knowledge never goes away.

Earlier this week, I received the second round of edits for my wild west steampunk novel Lightning Wolves. Here we see the remains of the Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate, one of the locations in the novel as it appears today:

Terrenate

I’m pleased that the novel is progressing toward publication, but I was also pleased to see that my editor had some good practical advice for how I could improve my craft. It’s true that a writer needs a thick skin when dealing with honest, tough feedback from an editor, but what I’ve found almost more valuable is the lesson I learned from the scientists I mentioned—there’s always something to learn.

Experienced writers know that it’s possible to get into an endless cycle of revision. The way a lot of people get around that is simply to find a place where you feel satisfied that you have done your best job with the work in progress. The danger of this approach is that you can reach a place of stagnation, a place where the bar never gets raised on having “done your best job.” That’s another place where having an attitude that there’s always something to learn helps. It doesn’t just soften the blow of criticism, it really does help one grow—not just as a writer, but at whatever you choose to do.

WIYN

Another exciting thing about this past week is that I had a good full night observing at the WIYN telescope where we were able to use a device called the WIYN Tip-Tilt Module. This is an adaptive optics system that allows starlight to be concentrated into the strongest possible signal. In the six years I’ve been at Kitt Peak, the engineers have been working to get this device to work reliably and it was a genuine pleasure to see it succeed. We used it this week while imaging supernovae in distant galaxies. It reminds me that a willingness to learn coupled with persistence makes a very powerful combination, indeed.

Visiting a Creative Writing Class

This past Tuesday, I had the opportunity to visit my daughter’s high school creative writing class. The teacher had the students read my short story “The Zombie Shortage” from the anthology Zombiefied: An Anthology of All Things Zombie. I followed that by coming into the class and talking about my process for writing short stories and how I put that into practice with “The Zombie Shortage”. As I pointed out to the class, there are exceptions to all of these ideas, but these are things that have worked for me.

Edgar Allan Poe

Write the story in a single sitting. Back in high school, I was introduced to Edgar Allan Poe’s statement that a short story is a story that can be read in a single sitting. A few years later, I came to realize that if I expect a reader to read a story in a single sitting, I should endeavor to write a story in a single sitting. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I write a finished, polished story all at once, but at least I do my best to get a draft down in one sitting. Indeed, my most successful stories—meaning the ones that have sold for the most money or I’ve received the most positive feedback on—have all been written this way.

Focus on one coherent theme and bring it to a satisfying conclusion. Again, the source of this idea is Edgar Allan Poe. The part about focusing on one theme is probably the part most people might question, but again, I’ve found my most satisfying stories do that. The problem of the story is laid out in the first paragraph and a satisfying conclusion is reached by the end. Now, a satisfying conclusion doesn’t necessarily mean a “happy ending.” It just means wrap things up so your reader feels like they’ve read a complete story and not a chapter in a longer work.

Ray Bradbury

Visualize your story. There are various techniques for this. When I met Ray Bradbury, shown here in a photo by Alan Light, he talked about visualizing as he wrote—following the characters and seeing what they did and where they went. Some people today talk about this as writing “by the seat of your pants.” For me that’s not the most effective way to work. I find I like to visualize a story before I begin. I like to get to know it well and think of the characters as real people in a real situation before I sit down to write. I like to see the setting and I write based on things I know.

Practice. When I first heard Ray Bradbury talk thirty years ago, he likened writing to shooting baskets. You have to do it a lot to get good at it. You shoot and miss a lot. Eventually swish you get the ball in the basket. The more you do it, the more that happens. For me, the most successful stories have indeed felt much the same as a ball going through a basket. I haven’t really had doubt they were successful stories. Nevertheless, the lesson here is to practice and keep practicing until you get there.

Finally, while I have “The Zombie Shortage” on my mind, I just learned that the collection Zombiefied: An Anthology of All Things Zombie is now out in paperback! Here’s the link for it at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Zombiefied-Anthology-All-Things-Zombie/dp/0615910270/

Growing Pains

I spent this last week finishing a new draft of my wild west steampunk adventure, Lightning Wolves. This new draft was based on notes from my editor and one of my beta readers. Lightning Wolves continues the story of Owl Dance. It’s a story about trying new things and learning from the experience. It’s also a novel about bicycles.

Safety Bicycle 1887

Some things in life are like riding bicycles. The activities become so ingrained that you can pick them up years later, even if you haven’t practiced them. I’d argue that writing is more like competitive bicycling. You need to keep practicing and pushing yourself to make yourself better. You need the input of a good coach to help you see the mistakes you make so you become more effective. Editors and beta readers are like coaches to the writer.

As with previous novels, the process of making a revision based on the notes of others is both exasperating and wonderful. It’s exasperating, because I see those places where characters did things that didn’t make sense. I see all the places where I didn’t describe things clearly or where I was inconsistent with other places in the manuscript.

It’s wonderful because every time I go through this process, I learn something more that helps me grow as a writer. Of course, while it’s embarrassing to have these problems pointed out at this point, it would be that much worse to have those issues pointed out in a review after publication. I am definitely thankful for the work of editors!

Now that I’ve turned in the manuscript, I’m reminded of my days in high school and college when I turned in an assignment and I’m waiting for the teacher to let me know how I did. I’m admittedly a bit nervous, but I also know that whatever happens, I will endeavor to learn from the experience.

Wild West Steampunk by David Lee Summers

This week I was a guest at STEAMED! A blog about Writing Steampunk Fiction. I tell about my interest in Wild West Steampunk and give some tips for those who would also like to explore the Wild West in their writing. Drop by and share your thoughts. Maybe you can think of some other regions around the country or around the world that would make a great setting for Steampunk story!

STEAMED!

David Lee Summers is an author, editor, and astronomer living somewhere between the western and final frontiers.  He’s the author of the wild west steampunk adventure novel Owl Dance, which tells the story of Sheriff Ramon Morales, the healer Fatemeh Karimi, and their adventures with everything from clockwork wolves and electric kachinas to submariner pirates and Russian Airships.  He’s also the author of the Empires of Steam and Rust novella Revolution of Air and Rust, a story of Pancho Villa, espionage, American air power and parallel universes in 1915.  Learn more about Empires of Steam and Rust at http://steamandrust.blogspot.com and learn more about David at http://www.davidleesummers.com

Wild West Steampunk

by David Lee Summers

Wild-Wild-West-LiveWhen I was a kid, my mom loved to watch westerns on TV, especially on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon.  I found them boring.  I wanted to watch cartoons or Star Trek.  Then one…

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