Tag Archives: critique

Pantsers Anonymous

Hi, my name is Jo and I’m a Pantser.

I’ve been a Pantser for as long as I can remember. When I have an idea for a new story, I just sit down and write. Sometimes I know a little about the world I’m creating or the main character or the plot. But not often. I just figure it out as I go.

By the time I’m finished the first chapter, I’ve usually got a handle on the main characters. By the time I’ve hit the first conflict, I’ve generally figured out how the book will end. By the time I’m a third of the way through, I need to stop and write a brief outline for the rest of the book.

I’ve tried outlining before I start. I’ve tried creating files on characters and settings and plot points. But it just doesn’t work for me. It robs me of inspiration and makes me feel empty inside. So I long ago resigned myself to being a Pantser.

There’s plenty of us around. All of us writing by the seat of our pants and discovering the plot twists and turns as they happen. It’s exciting, really.

Most of the time.


But sometimes…

Sometimes it’s frustrating.

I recently had the opportunity to have the first three chapters of my WIP (Work in Progress) read by a published author whom I greatly respect. She offered to read my pages and send me some notes with her thoughts and feedback. Of course, I took her up on the offer. (Who wouldn’t?)

After a couple of weeks, I got her feedback. I read it several times. I went away and thought about it. Then I read it again.

I’m incredibly grateful to her for taking the time out of her schedule to read my still-in-its-early-stages draft and send me her thoughts. Incredibly grateful.

Especially because she complimented me on the scene I felt was strongest.

And also because she pointed out the flaws that I secretly feared (but knew) were on the page.

Her feedback went something like this:

  • I like the world you’ve created.
  • The sidekick character is terrific.
  • The protagonist is too bland.
  • It’s a very long run-up before it gets interesting. [Jo’s favourite scene]  is terrific and unusual. I don’t think the stuff up to then earns its place and it’s very explainy.

Now, I already pretty much knew that the first couple of chapters would be shortened and turned into a single chapter during revisions. So no problem there. As a pantser, the first couple of chapters of a first draft are really more about me getting into the story than anything else.

But the point about my protagonist being bland… Well.

Well, I really knew that already.

I started thinking more about him, and about how to bring his personality on to the page in a bigger way,. And I had a sudden realisation. An epiphany, if you will. I knew nothing about my protagonist.

Apparently he sprung into being, fully formed, at about the same time he developed magic powers. I had no clue who he was, deep down, what his values were, or what motivated him. So I’ve put my writing on pause to concentrate on developing my protagonist. And that, in turn, has led me to finally decide on the setting for my story.

Right now, I’m researching a setting, exploring the backstory of my main character, and immersing myself more fully into the world of my imagination. I’ve got notes galore on things I’ll have to change during revisions (which I’m really looking forward to). But first, I need to finish the research and write the remainder of my first draft.

Like I said, sometimes it’s frustrating to be a pantser. It’s crazy to write 60% of a novel without knowing where it’s set, or having any idea of the main character’s motivations.


But on the other hand…

I kind of like this kind of crazy.

Do you plot your novels first, or are you a member of Pantsers Anonymous? Have you been in a similar situation?


Filed under Writing

Outlining is for Sissys (and People Who Know How)

It’s quite a while since I’ve written about writing and even longer since I’ve written about my WIP (Work In Progress). In part, that’s because I’ve decided not to talk too  much about the writing process — there are a million blogs about writing and I don’t think I have too much different to offer — but it’s also partly because I’ve been stuck.

For the last four months I’ve been stuck. I’m 33,000 words into my novel. That’s 130 pages. Just over 40% done. In other words, I’m stuck in the muddy middle.

It’s not that I’d lost inspiration. Or passion. Or drive. It’s not that I’d fallen out of love with the story. Or the characters. Or the setting.

I just didn’t know what should happen next.

See, I’m what’s known by those in the business as a “pantser”. That means that, rather than preparing a full outline before I start, I write by the seat of my pants, with no idea what’s going to happen next until the words hit the paper.

I like writing that way. I like being surprised by my characters, and letting the plot develop as I give my characters free rein to act within their personalities, ambitions and abilities.  But sometimes…. sometimes it really sucks.

Like when I get stuck.

For four months I’ve been stuck. I love what I’d written so far. I’ve got a hero, a problem, and a desired outcome. I’ve had the hero attacked and almost killed, and assembled a team of allies around him. The story and characters are all set up and in perfect position for…. something.

I’d even worked out how the story was going to end — I knew what would happen in the final confrontation, who would live and who would die, who would get the girl and who would lose her, and even how the resolution would play out.

I just didn’t know how to get from point A to point B.

“I should outline it,” I said to myself. “That will help.”



I tried various methods. I tried index cards, computer programs, posters, post-it notes, a whiteboard…. Nothing. I couldn’t even put down a decent outline of what I’d already written.

So for four months I’ve done nothing.

Actually, that’s a lie. I’ve done a lot of thinking. I’ve done a couple of “novel building exercises” where I’ve written about my characters from unusual perspectives. And I’ve done a lot of thinking. (Did I say that already?)

And then last Friday I had an awesome meeting with my critique partner and fellow writer, Claire. We were talking about a series of books that I’ve been reading and I said, “I loved them but at the same time, they’re the kind of books that left me feeling totally depressed.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Because they’re so amazing,” I said. “They’re easy to read, with realistic characters you can fall in love with, and stories that just… Wow. They’re not complicated, there’s no flowery language and not a lot of symbolism or anything, but they’re awesome. They’re good, honest, fun stories. And that’s what I want to write. And reading these books leaves me feeling a bit depressed because I feel like I’ll never be able to create something as awesome as this.”

And do you know what Claire said to me? She said, “Yes, you will.”

There was a whole bunch of reasons and a pep talk attached to that statement, but the overall message was one of absolute, total conviction. Yes, you will. You will create something that people love. You will create stories that people want to read and immerse themselves in and tell their friends about. You will create stories that make other writers feel overjoyed and, at the same time, slightly depressed.

Yes, you will.

I left that meeting with renewed enthusiasm and vigour. I had 45 minutes until I had to pick Big Brother up from school, so I sat down in a park nearby, pulled out a pen and a piece of paper, and started to write.

I didn’t write an outline. I just made a list.

I ignored romance sub-plots and emotional overtones and details about the magic system. I ignored character development and angst. I just focused on the plot. And I made a list.

I made a list of everything that had happened so far. Short sentences. One sentence per line.

Then I left a big gap and made a list of everything that I already knew had to happen for the build-up to the final confrontation and the resolution.

When I was finished, I looked at my sheet of paper. I had 22 sentences written down, with a gap between numbers 9 and 10.

Each of the early sentences described, in very basic terms, a chapter I’d already written.

Each of the later sentences described, in very basic terms, a chapter I’d already planned to write.

And I suddenly realised something.

I’d written an outline.

And the solution to my problem was so obvious, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it before.

Apparently all I need to do to get my characters from point A to point B is to have one of the characters say, “Hey! Let’s go to point B! That would fix everything!”

Yep, after four months of being stuck, it turns out I can fix all my problems with the movie cliché, “Let’s get outta here.”

Thank you, accidental outline.

You’re a lifesaver.




Filed under Writing

Five Ways Writing is like doing a Jigsaw Puzzle


Last Saturday night I had a phone call from my sister. “Hey Jo,” she said. “I just bought a 2000 piece jigsaw puzzle. I don’t know why. I haven’t done one this big before. But I was thinking… We should have a competition. Do you have any 2000 piece puzzles you can do?”

Did I? No. Besides, it’s not much of a competition if we’re not doing the same puzzle, is it?

2000 Pieces of Healthy Competition

(As a note, it didn’t occur to me to say ‘No’ to the idea of a jigsaw competition. More about that another day.)

So I got all the details from her and planned to pick up the jigsaw from the local Toy & Game shop the following day. “Sure, have a head start,” I told my sister. “You’re going to need it!”

Over the last 11 days I’ve spent a goodly portion of time working on this puzzle and reflecting on the ways assembling a jigsaw is like writing. So, here goes:

1. It’s never as simple as just ‘sitting down to write’. There are always obstacles that need to be overcome.

Obstacle 1:

Sunday morning, off I went to the local Toy & Game shop (who will remain nameless) to buy a copy of the jigsaw. I was eager not to let Sister have too much of a head start. I browsed the jigsaw aisle. Slowly, my excitement began to fade. They didn’t have the one I wanted. Not to be defeated, I went over to the counter.

“Excuse me,” I said politely to the scruffy young man standing blank-faced behind the counter. “I was just looking for a particular Ravensburger jigsaw, but you don’t seem to have it. If you order it in, how long is it likely to take?”

The young man (teenager, really) turned to look at me blankly. His face remained expressionless for a moment, his jaw slack. Then he spoke. “We don’t order things people want anymore.”

I stared at him. Either he’d just said the most ridiculous thing a salesperson could ever say, or he’d uttered some kind of deep truth about the steady decline of bricks & mortar businesses in favour of the internet.

After a minute of silence, he added, “I suppose I could call some of our other stores. Maybe you could drive to one of them.” I thanked him, told him I’d order it online (he looked relieved), and went on my way. It took me until Tuesday to get a copy of the jigsaw. I did buy it online. On Ebay. And I got it $10 cheaper than if I’d purchased it in the store.

Obstacle 2:

The box said the completed jigsaw would be 98cm x 75cm. I measured my coffee table. Not big enough. I measured my dining table. Not big enough. Damn it. I didn’t have a flat surface big enough for the stupid puzzle. Except…

The only space big and flat enough was the floor. So into the spare room I went. I moved some furniture and lay a blanket on the floor. One work table coming up!

Obstacle 3:

Have you ever tried to do a 2000 piece jigsaw puzzle on the floor while a rambunctious 4-year-old excitedly tries to help. It’s time for “I just wanted to look at the pieces,” and “I think that one goes over there,” and “Oops. I fell over in the middle of the jigsaw.”

There’s never a perfect time, place, or environment to write. (Unless you’ve got a special writing room with a lock. In which case you have my undying envy.) Find ways around your obstacles, learn to ignore or overcome distractions, and remember that small children can easily be bribed with chocolate.

2. When you sit down to write, it may seem overwhelming. That’s okay. Don’t lose sight of what you’re trying to achieve.

Have you ever opened a box with 2000 jigsaw pieces in it? Until 8 days ago, I hadn’t. My first thought was “Holy bejoly, what have I gotten myself into?” I ran my fingers through the pieces, trying to figure out where to start. I randomly picked up two pieces to see if they would fit together. One was blue and one had squiggles all over it that was probably writing.

Then I sat back, picked up the lid, and looked at the image of the finished jigsaw. I decided to start with the edges, and then do all the squiggly writing. Time to start sorting.

Regardless of whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, have a plan. Maybe it’s a 100-page outline. Maybe it’s a “brief history of the world” in 50,000 words. Maybe it’s a series of index cards, or notes in Scrivener (or another writing program), something just a vague plotline in your head and an image of a character or scene. It doesn’t matter. Choose the plan that works for you, but make sure you have one. Otherwise you’ll either find yourself trying to mash together two random elements in the story or you’ll be so overwhelmed and confused you’ll give up.

3. Track how much you’ve done, not how much you’ve got to do.

It took me a few days to get the edges and the writing done. Then I decided to do the water, and started sorting through the pieces for blue bits. My husband happened past the room and commented, “Wow. You’ve done really well. But isn’t it funny how when you look at the pieces you’ve got left, there doesn’t seem to be any less?”

I hadn’t really noticed. But then I did. The box still seemed as full as it had been when I started. I had this sense that I’d never finish, that there were just too many pieces, too much to do. And so I stopped for the day.

Writing is a mental game. Don’t focus on the 95,000 words you’ve got left to write, or the months of revising ahead, or the difficulty in finding an agent, or the future of publishing. Congratulate yourself on having written the first 5,000 words. That’s more than you’d done last week.

4. Your peer network should help you feel good, not bad.

My sister and I talked on Saturday night, one week after the challenge began. (It doesn’t matter that I didn’t get the jigsaw until Tuesday. The challenge started on Saturday.) We were both a little reticent about sharing our progress initially.

 “What if she’s done more than me? What if I’m losing?”

So we didn’t talk about how much we’d done, we talked about the process we’d been following. We’d both started with the edges (obviously), but then we went in wildly different directions. I did the squiggly writing, then the water, then the white circles, and was working on the map. She’d started with the outside circles, then moved on to the white circles and the water, and was starting to work on the squiggly writing.

We didn’t talk at all about how much we had left to go. We talked about what we’d done, the challenges we’d faced, how we overcame them, the process we were following, and shared tips on the sections the other hadn’t done. We talked about the obstacles we’d needed to overcome. (She also didn’t have a table big enough so had built herself a coffee table to suit, she had commitments every evening after work, and she’d run out of beer.) Mostly, what we did was encourage each other.

When I hung up the phone, I still had no idea who was “winning”, but I went back to my puzzle with renewed vigour.

Your peer group (whether they’re a critique partner, writing group, online buddies, whatever) should give you encouragement and challenge you to improve. Having a peer group is an integral part of writing. Without one, it’s easy to feel like you’re all alone, slaving away over a hot keyboard. But if your peer group makes you feel bullied, useless, incompetent or stupid, ditch them. If your peer group tells you everything you do is wonderful (and you don’t believe them), ditch them. Find a new group of writers to hang with, either online or in person. It can make all the difference.

(Note: Don’t ditch them as friends, family, or colleagues. Just stop using them as your peer group/critique partner/beta reader.)

5. Set a deadline. Then share it with your peer group, friends, family, and random strangers on the street.

My brother called a few days ago to say that he would be passing through the area (none of my family lives within 600km (380 miles) of each other) on Saturday, and to check it would be alright for him and his girlfriend to crash the night.

“Of course!” I said. I was delighted to have heard from him. He’s great company, and his girlfriend is awesome.

Then I realised… I’ve got my puzzle set up on the floor of the spare room. I can’t move it without breaking it into itty bitty pieces. (2000 of them, to be exact.) And I don’t have anywhere else for Brother and Girlfriend to sleep. So that means…

That means I have to finish the jigsaw before this Saturday.

No pressure or anything. But let me tell you, every spare minute I have, I’m fitting pieces into the puzzle. Will I meet the deadline? Absolutely. Even if I’m up all night Friday.

If you don’t have a deadline, it’s easy to procrastinate. Or spend time designing new ways to outline, or new systems for recording information, or researching, or cleaning your desk, or whatever else you do when you know you’re supposed to be writing but instead find a productive way to avoid it. So set yourself a deadline and tell everyone about it. Give people permission to check up on you. And then work to achieve that deadline.

(Caveat: Make your deadline achievable based on your situation, and don’t be bullied into doing otherwise. Watching an unachievable deadline fly past is akin to motivation-suicide.)

So, how’s the jigsaw going? See for yourself: 

Look how much I've done! Three days to go.


Filed under Writing

Exciting Writing

I’ve had a much more successful week this week. Finally. I’m on Day 37 of the 100 Words for 100 Days Challenge, and seem to be slipping into a better routine/habit with my writing. Part of that may be because I’m starting to get to the “interesting” part of my novel. Which is not to say the rest hasn’t been interesting. It has. I’ve had goblins, and enchantments, and guns, and a clumsy PI. But now that I’m in the meat of the novel, I’m building towards my first magical fight.

Quick side-question: According to my husband, magic has to be “flashy” to be interesting. He grew up on Magic Missiles and Fireballs, and then transitioned to Dresden’s blasting rod, so I know the kind of “flashy” he means. But I tend towards a more subtle type of magic in my stories — cursed items, disguise spells, “charm person” enchantments and the like. What do you think? How much flash do you expect out of Urban Fantasy magic?

I’ve done some editting of my first draft this week (I’m sure I wrote something recently about the importance of not doing that!) and so lost word count when I hacked and slashed some pointless prose, but I’ve still finished 1900 words up on last week. It may not be 5000 a week, but I’m doing a heck of a lot better than I have been lately!

I had four people volunteer to read my short story last week, and have had two people come back to me with their thoughts and feedback so far. They’ve both been a great help, and I’m looking forward to getting all the feedback in so I can get started on some reworking. Yay for feedback! I also wrote another flash fiction story for Chuck Wendig’s weekly competition.

And in further excitement, I’ve booked my tickets for the Brisbane Writer’s Festival this year. I’m so excited. This will actually be my first time going to the festival, and I’m already counting the sleeps. (Only 23 to go!) For anyone interested, I’m attending a couple of workshops/masterclasses (The Australian Writer’s Marketplace Industry Masterclass and Tell Me a Story: How to Find Your Voice) as well as 4 ticketed sessions and 1 free session. I can’t wait!

I’ve also been thinking about Writing Retreats after hearing about Laura Stanfill‘s recent expedition, and wondering about the wisdom of partaking in one myself. Would it be a valuable chance for me to focus on my novel? Or is leaving my husband and two boys alone for an extended period of time (ie. more then 6 hours) just a recipe for disaster? So far, I’m undecided.


Filed under Writing

Productive Procrastination and Subjectivity

My weekly writing wrap-up is 12 hours late. I know. But it’s still Wednesday, so I figure it’s not all bad. Besides, I’ve been busy… Okay, I don’t have any good excuses. Or even mediocre excuses. Mostly, I’ve got the kind of excuses that really add up to procrastination. But it’s all been completely justifiable, productive procrastination. Really.

This week, I was insanely excited to be the winner of Chuck Wendig‘s Friday Flash Fiction competition, with my story Wish You Were Here. The prize was one of Chuck’s ebooks, and I chose Confessions of a Freelance Penmonkey. I’ve been procrastinating reading it for much of the week, and getting a lot out of it. If you haven’t read any/much of Chuck’s website, I’d highly recommend either diving headlong into his past posts, or picking up a copy of this book. It’s full of epic win. Oh, and drop by and read the other stories from this competition. It’s well worth it.

Of course, the euphoria of being the winner quickly transformed into a dire need to produce another good story for this week’s Flash Fiction Comp, the theme of which is: That poor, poor protagonist. If not a better story, then certainly one of comparable quality. Or at least one that doesn’t completely suck. And so I’ve spent far more time working on this piece of flash than I have my actual WIP.

Hmmm… That wasn’t really the idea. But… reading about writing… writing short stories… they’re both productive. So they’re not really procrastination. Right? Maybe?

So, long story short, (“Too late!”) I didn’t actually add a lot of word count to my novel this week. In fact, I only added *cringe* 600 words. But I DID write every day (even if 3 of those days were working on my Flash Fiction), so I’m now up to day 30 of my 100 Words Challenge.

In other writing news, I have been inspired by Stephen Watkins to enter a story into this quarter’s Writers of the Future competition. I’ve been editing and re-editing the story over the last two weeks. I’d love to have four or five people read it and give me some feedback/critique on it. If you’d be interested, please let me know.

I’ve spent much of this week thinking about the reaction that we get from others when they read our work. I put forward this statement:

Writing is Art. Art is subjective.

As I mentioned last week, I had a story receive an honourable mention in the recent Stringybark Speculative Fiction Award, and it was thusly published in an anthology. I requested feedback on the story, and received it this week. Part of the feedback was that of the three judges, two really liked my story (and rated it quite highly), but the third didn’t like it and didn’t want it published because s/he didn’t think it was new or different, and “nothing much happened”.


There’s absolutely nothing I could have changed about my writing that would have made that judge rank my story any higher. S/he didn’t like the story. Not because it was badly written, or because the writing was weak,  but because s/he thought the idea had been done before. And probably done better. The other judges thought that my storytelling made an “old” idea fresh and interesting. This judge didn’t want to read another story about time/space portals.


Now, it would be really easy to get upset, to yell and scream, to complain that you can’t judge the merits of a story on what you do or don’t like. But… Really? Everyone does. Why should a writing competition be any different to a fiction market, or an agent, or a publisher? Or, for that matter, a reader?

John Steinbeck is, by all accounts, an amazing writer. But I don’t like his books. I really don’t like them. I wouldn’t spend money on them. If I was a publisher, I wouldn’t have published them. On the other hand, look at Stephanie Meyer. Her “merits as a writer” are far and few between, but she has a huge following because people like her books. They like the stories, regardless of her writing ability.


And, you know what? I think that’s okay.

What do you think?


Filed under Writing

Weekly Wednesday Writing Wrap-Up 13

Is it that time of the week already? Are you sure? I’m pretty sure someone stole at least 2 days from my week…

If that didn’t give you a clue, let me spell it out. I really struggled to get any writing done this week. Really. I still did my 100 Words each day, but there were four days this week where that’s all I managed. Still, at least I could tick off a box on my 100 Words for 100 Days chart, and feel happy that I’d managed to do something. I’m now at day 30 of the challenge and going strong. I wrote a total of 1800 words this week, which takes my average daily word count to 337 (down from 363 last week). If I keep writing at that rate, I should have my first draft finished by the 15th of January.

Does anyone else track their progress like that, or is it just me?

In other writing news, I’ve also:

  • NOT been shortlisted on the competition I’ve been talking about. I’m not upset about it – I’m just glad to finally have an answer!
  • started working on a few revisions on said story in order to submit it elsewhere for publication.
  • edited/critiqued a short story for my critique-partner.
  • started work on a short story for my next writing group.
  • had a moment of excitement when I discovered that Emerald Barnes took my advice and started the 100 Words for 100 Days Challenge!

Quick question for you: Have you ever come up with an awesome premise for a novel, and then developed a great idea for a character and the basics of the plot, and then realised that it’s not the type of story that you can (or want to) write? Maybe it’s the wrong genre, or the wrong style, or maybe you just don’t like reading those books, and so can’t see yourself writing one. Is it just me? If it happens to you, what do you do with the idea?


Filed under Writing