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Monday, January 27, 2014

Quality Words over Quantity Words: A Fallacy

In the book, Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, artists Ted Orland and David Waylon told about a ceramics teacher who conducted an experiment in class. They decided to grade 1/2 of the class only on the quantity of ceramics produced and 1/2 solely on the quality of their project.

The Quality group was told that if they produced a quality pot at the very beginning of the semester, then they'd get an A and wouldn't have to do anything else. The Quantity group was told that if they produced 50 lbs of pots, they'd get an A, 40 lbs, a B, and so on.

The end result?

The students in the Quantity group produced the best work, according to technical and artistic sophistication. As they kept busy, producing pot after pot, they grew adept at working with the medium, refining their process, learning from their mistakes, and producing better and better pots.

The students in the Quality group focused on planning out what they would make, producing flawless work, and only worked on a few pieces over the course of the semester. As a result, they showed little improvement.

You might already see where I'm going with this post, from the title of it.

I want to liken this process to the plotting v. pantsing debate that I discussed in last week's post here. (I know some of your plotters are gearing up to filet me alive, but hear me out.)

The above story about the ceramics teacher can be found in the book Fail Fast, Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win, by Ryan Babineaux, PhD., and John Krumboltz, PhD. I found this post on The Daily Beast which discusses this book in further detail, and I have to tell you, I'm on board with what they are saying.

In essence, failing quickly in order to learn fast (also called failing forward) is the chant of successful businesses, concepts, and yes, books. (Click to tweet!)

Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, said that authors need to actually write to know what they are doing. We're to expect a "shitty first draft," a better second draft, and so on. In Fail Fast, the authors use the examples of Pixar films, Starbucks, and even comedians to bring home the point that you need to fail FAST to get on to performing well.

So pantsers, who sit down, stringing words together, revising, and then creating again, are actually depicting a great concept from Fail Fast:

You can’t know what writing is like, how you will feel about it, or what will result from it until you actually are doing it.

Let's Analyze

What do you have to think about the Fail Fast, Fail Often approach to writing?

Friday, January 24, 2014

Dear Jeannie: Cult Repercussions and Juvenile Delinquency

Dear Jeannie,

Phoenix was raised in a cult of assassins and trained to be a killer. Despite the violence and death worship around her, she somehow maintained a conscience and a horror for what she was a part of. As a teenager she escaped the cult and now works with a team of CAPES (an occupation similar to a bounty hunter or U. S. Marshall) for whom she deeply cares. It soon becomes clear to Phoenix that her former cult is involved in the case CAPES team is investigating. She would never want her teammates to know her past but to not speak up will put them in danger. Fear makes her want to run from ever again confronting the cult (b/c rejecting the cult is tantamount to a long but certain death) but she also can't abandon her friends, even though if they know the truth about her, they would reject her. Her childhood training made her cautious and calculating but also violent with a will of steel. She is quick tempered, isolated, intensely reserved, and self hating. When the situation comes to a head and they're all forced to run or fight, will she be able to spill her guts and fess up to her friends? How can she possibly cope and face this situation? 

Against a Wall, Somewhere in the Future

Dear Against a Wall,

Phoenix is in a tough spot, for sure. But you mentioned early on that she retained a horror about the things she was trained and carried out to do. That lets me know that her humanity is still in tact. You also said she's come to care for the CAPES team deeply. So she's going to try to protect them at all costs. I believe she'd try to keep her past a secret for as long as she can (out of self-preservation, which we all have)...but when the rubber meets the road and things come to a head, she will protect them by telling them and facing their rejection in order to save them. Because she is already isolative, she won't see this as the great sacrifice it really is, because their safety will mean more than her comfort or security. She's likely remember the choices she didn't make to do the right thing while within the cult, and not want that on her conscious either. I really don't see the other option of running as viable for her. She's more of an anti-hero, but she's still heroic...and running would be the opposite of heroic (and would make for a MUCH shorter book, lol!). Best of luck!

Dear Jeannie, 

Monet is a teenage girl forced to relocate to a new high school after she was expelled. She does have kleptomania and is a bit of a juvenile delinquent, which was an important factor in her expulsion. Because of this, her entire family moved towns and she and her parents have regular fights. How would this affect her in a new school and how would the regular conflicts affect her family life? 


Dear Relocating,

Most juvenile delinquents aren't going to change just because their environment did. If she's into stealing, then that compulsion doesn't go away. However, if she was involved in a "bad" group of kids in her previous town, and she gets in with the right kids in the new town, it's feasible she could change. But operating on the assumption that she is still involved in delinquent acts of stealing, she's going to continue to have school trouble and, of course, arguments with her parents, who aren't going to be able to keep moving b/c of her. Depending on how she views going to a new school, it could be a clean slate, or she could take up the mantle of a "troubled kid." Only you would know which one she'd most likely want. Her family life would deteriorate without intervention, and she'd gravitate toward more delinquent acts without a firm structure in place. Doesn't sound very good! But if you have more information that you'd want to share below that might change things, feel free! Thanks for writing in.

Got Questions?

Maybe I have answers. Leave your question below anonymously using monikers like Sleepless in Seattle. I'll post my answers in future Dear Jeannie columns. The queue is empty!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Plotting v. Pantsing: Is One Superior Over the Other?

Lisa Cron wrote a controversial post over at Writers Unboxed last week that has given this age-old discussion a recent boost. She's the author of Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence.

Hop over there and read it. Don't forget to check out the comments, because great authors like James Scott Bell and even agent Donald Maass chimed in under the comments section.

This is obviously a subject that pushes buttons. One commenter called writing by the seat of your pants a form of "literary masturbation." No joke.

Maass made this point:
I’m not at all against writing that get us to “see” things and “apprehend” moments with arresting clarity. That’s beautiful writing. But neither can I elevate plot over process. Both approaches create something fiction needs to be great. Greatness, though, comes from a synthesis of strong story events and deft use of the vast pallet of literary technique.
James Scott Bell, author of Plot and Structure, so a proponent of some aspect of structure to "set your story free," wrote a post on The Kill Zone about the Perils of Pure Pantsing. He makes the following statement about balancing of creation within a structure:
There is an art, of course, to all this. A time to play and risk and explore. It should be done strategically, though, for the greatest benefit.
Risking and exploring, yet done strategically. I love this concept, as it's a good place for writers who eschew plotting altogether to understand what it can do for them.

What's missing from the discussion in general, in my estimation, is the allowance for personality. Yes, pantsers can shove themselves into the outlining box. It does happen. 

But at what cost? 

The love of writing, for some, is found in the process. They accept the rewriting, or as Anne Lamott said in Bird by Bird, a "really shitty first draft."

Cron's purpose in the post wasn't exactly clear to me. She says she wasn't trying to "bash pantsing" with her article, but in the same paragraph where she says that maybe plotting isn't a person's "inherent, hardwired process," (a statement I heartily approve of!) she said, "Maybe it's a bad habit you picked up along the way."

That sounds like bashing to me.

Of course, the only reason I took exception to the post is b/c I'm a semi-pantser...I just didn't see the need to leave a comment with my disgruntlement (only b/c I chose to write an entire post instead).

What made me laugh was the long-winded commenters, most of whom were proponents of some sort of creative freedom. I'm sure their personalities drove them to write what they did, and I'm sure they wrote stream of consciousness to defend their pantsing ways. And likely, they hit "Submit" and knew an extreme self-satisfaction. It's in their personalities!

Bell's post resonated with me, so check it out as well at the link provided above. He values the process as well as the structure, and believes having a little bit of both can really aid a writer.

Maass requested that Cron write a post pushing plot-driven authors "off their high hill," as she so effectively did with writers "trapped in the loop of their 'process.'"

I'll be waiting for that post.

Let's Analyze

What are your thoughts? Is it fair to elevate either into a place of superiority?

Monday, January 13, 2014

Speaking on Stereotypes in Texas

Admit were already stereotyping those wonderful Texans. LOL.

I've been a little MIA because I'm preparing for my first workshop for the Woodlands, TX, chapter of ACFW this Saturday!

The Writers on the Storm Chapter has invited me to speak about Breaking Character Stereotypes, so I've been hard at work preparing my speech and updating my Stereotype Writing's Guide ebook. I'm adding all sorts of new stereotypes, and have forayed into the world of Calibre and formatting for Kindle and Nook. etc.

If you attend the workshop, I'll have .epub versions available of the current iteration of my Guide for sale, so if you're in the area, come! It won't be available online for some time.

Here's the deets about where we're meeting:

Lupe Tortilla
19437 Interstate 45 Frontage Rd

Shenandoah, TX 77385

Maybe I'll see you there. :)

Friday, January 10, 2014

Dear Jeannie: Prioritizing Coping and Civil War Pressures

Dear Jeannie,

Maryanne gets hit with several life-altering traumas at once--infidelity, professional failure, imprisonment and torture, massive culture shock (after a scientific mission ends in disaster and surviving crew members crash in an alien world). Because she was sheltered and stable, I don't think she has a lot of coping strategies in place for any one of these issues, much less all at once. Will she prioritize or shelve certain issues? She's well attuned to her own thoughts and feelings, but tends to be a bit dense where others are concerned.

Lost in Space

Dear Lost,

You're right. She'd probably have very poor coping skills shored up to deal with any of those stressors.  I'd want to direct you a series of posts I did on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Imprisonment and torture will infringe upon her Safety Needs (possibly her Basic Needs, depending on how they torture her), which takes precedence. You're not thinking about what a dirtbag your husband is when you're running for your life. The culture shock would be a Safety Need, as well, because when you're uncomfortable in your surroundings, your future and health and well-being are called into question. Her husband's infidelity is a Social Need problem, which would come after all the above. At the tail end would be her professional failure, which is an Esteem Need (and internal one, at it's the second tier of Esteem Needs. I hope this helps when thinking about how to order her coping with what. Best of luck!

Dear Jeannie,

As Civil war looms, Paulette is faced with two problems: the death of her father and a proposal from her childhood hero. Where she might have welcomed the romance with open arms, she now has political, economical, and social pressures on her that she doesn't welcome but cannot escape because she is running the family plantation in the Deep South. She's young to be coping with wartime troubles, especially as an unwanted leader in her ill-tempered home. How likely is she to want to wait out the war and her family instead of giving an immediate "YES!" to the boy she loves? (He's very anti-secession, so the added certainty of disaster or desertion weighs the scales awkwardly for her.)

Crooked in Colleton 

Dear Crooked,

At 16, in that era, she wouldn't feel psychologically ready to be married, no matter what her responsibilities had been up until then. According to this article, the mean marrying age for white women was around 23-24 years old. Now, she might want to ardently accept the proposal (most young girls would!), but perhaps they'd make the pact in secret, especially since the boy has anti-succession leanings. Waiting out the war would seem the most logical bet, but in every generation, there are those outliers who don't fit the bell curve. You know Paulette better than she an outlier? You mentioned that she was thrust into a leadership role in the plantation, which I assume the death of her father only solidified. Does she abhor this role? Enough that she'd eschew the whole thing and run off with this boy? It seems counterintuitive that she'd welcome the romance with open arms when his political leanings make things so awkward. Does she have strong feelings in the opposite direction? Would that be an insurmountable obstacle for her? Sorry to end with more questions, but you'd have to give some thought to these before making your final plan on the page. Thanks for writing in!

Got Questions?

Maybe I've got answers. Leave your comment anonymously below, using monikers like Sleepless in Seattle, and I'll post my response in future Dear Jeannie columns.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Dear Jeannie: Dressing Drab and Losing a Child

Dear Jeannie,

My heroine is the oldest of five, a member of the highest class of her society, was abused by her father as a child. Everything in her life is about protecting her sisters, and she's very bitter about men and her mother's obliviousness to what happened. Her father always told them little girls should never dress in colors because they attracted unwanted attention, which was immediately followed by said unwanted attention. As a kid her wardrobe was gray, brown, black, and very drab. As an adult she wears bright colors to make sure she isn't lost in a crowd and easy to dismiss if some man makes any kind of advance. With her mother's death she's now in the public eye as a High Lady, in a science fiction universe. She's torn between wanting to be left alone and not wanting to get lost in a crowd and becoming another statistic. I want to make sure her color choices make sense on a psychological level.

Lost in the Future

Dear Lost,

What happens between her childhood and adulthood will answer this question. If she does wear the bright colors, then she must have gone through a rebellious phase or an "I don't care" type phase. She would have to change her basic thinking about colors, and maybe come to the conclusion that brighter colors equals more protection (perhaps she saw this in action?). You don't specify when or how her mother dies, but an event such as that (especially if she was estranged with her) could prompt such drastic changes in her wardrobe. But this would need to be carefully thought out, because childhood trauma of abuse (I assume sexual in nature?) would be intricately tied to the need to dress drably an blend in. More info is needed about how she became a High Lady (and what that even is) for this to be fully fleshed out. Feel free to respond in the comment section below...but she sounds fascinating!

Dear Jeannie,

Reva has grown up in a demoralized martial-law state (following a failed coup). Her parents were big supporters of the put-down rebels, and she's grown up being fed a steady diet of bitter anger and frustration. Trouble is, she's fallen in love with (and married) a state sympathizer. He's fun, kind, solid--hard to resist. In an effort to start fresh, they've moved to a new frontier. My question is about the dynamics of their marriage. They had one child, who died right before the move, and Reva can't have any more children. What kind of grief/trauma is she going to face, especially cut off from the family and friends she grew up with? How is she going to react to other children they encounter in their new life?

Starting Over in Statesville

Dear Starting Over,

That is not where I thought you were going with this question (I thought it'd focus on the marriage itself between two people with opposite philosophies). Having a child die is considered one of the most traumatic experiences an adult can go through. It's unnatural in the life scheme of things, and will stay with her forever, made doubly traumatic by not being able to have any more children. She will experience grief, of course, and this can look as different as each individual is. I imagine she'd be more depressed without any of her regular support system around. She would have one of two prominent reactions to other children, which can and will change over time. 1) She can isolate away from them, not wanting to be reminded of her loss (which might be more likely in the beginning), or 2) She will want to be around children in any way possible, to take what joy she can have in them (more likely later on, I'd think). Best of luck writing her!

Got Questions?

Maybe I've got answers. Leave your question anonymously in the comment section below, using monikers like Sleepless in Seattle. I'll post my answers in future Dear Jeannie columns.

Hope your Christmas was wonderful, and that you're off too a good start in the new year! :)

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Cute Prayer for 2014

Happy New Year, everyone!