Write Over the Hump

Sounds sometimes can trigger strong emotions… and great story ideas. Here’s a maddening little sound to start you off on your writing today… where will it take you?

Water drip, drip, dripped from somewhere close by.

To Plot or Not To Plot… A Pantser’s Saga

I woke up at 3:00 a.m. one morning, with a story opening full in my head. It was so clear I could see the words as though they had been typed onto paper. So, I got up, turned on the computer, and wrote about Kaia Devon for 10 minutes.

It wasn’t much, only two pages, about 600 words, but doggone if I do say so myself, they were 600 really good words. An opening that breaks all the rules, but that somehow works (a writing friend, Mark Arnold, said it has something to do with the ice cream…). Clues are dropped to past and future events. There’s a whopping twist at the top of the second page that so far has made everyone who’s read or heard it, startle a bit, then laugh with surprise. And a really dark, unexpected twist at the bottom of page two that makes readers gasp.

Not bad for a middle-of-the-night, wake-up-and-write session.

But — and here’s the kicker — I have no idea what this story is about. No clue what “the incident” with Kaia’s parents is. Not the least idea what is in that safe-deposit box. I do know what causes that twist at the end, but what it means as far as the plot? And where the story goes from here? Not a clue.

That’s because I’m what’s known as a “Pantser.” In other words, I write by the “seat of my pants.” I don’t plot out any of my stories, don’t make an outline, don’t line up the events of the story in order of occurrence. I write to see what is going to happen, to find out what my characters will do in the situations I put them in. For me, if I know ahead of time what will happen, I have no need to write the story.

We all hear and read advice from “experts” about having an outline, how important one is to the flow and success of the story. Some writers are dedicated “Plotters,” like Anne Perry who crafts 40 to 60 page outlines to work from. And that’s good—if your mind happens to work that way. But what the advice about outlines ignores is that not everyone can work from an outline.

It’s a matter of brain chemistry.

Some brains need the structure of an outline, a roadmap that makes the direction of the story clear. It revs up the creative motor, and the writer can churn out scene after exciting scene, like running a marathon. Without a roadmap, without a clear linear direction with plot points along the way showing at least the major events and leading to a set ending, the blank sheet of paper (virtual or real) remains blank.

The outline is the gas that makes the engine run.

But for some brains, an outline becomes a break in the gas line. It leaks out all the fuel, leaving an empty tank. It stops creativity cold, leaving the writer floundering the the midst of writer’s block. But let that writer just put words on the page, allow the characters to “take over” and dictate how they want their story told, then the engine fires with enthusiasm and creativity. Scenes not on the writer’s radar appear out of nowhere; surprising twists never before thought of arise from the void; endings morph from an early idea into something even better and more satisfying. And amazing stories flow onto the page.

The lack of an outline fires these engines and makes them purr.

And, of course, there are those who fall somewhere between these two extremes: Those who work best with an abbreviated outline, or just a few notes on the main events of the story, or those who only need to know how the story starts and ends.

Like I said, I’m a true “Pantser.” Even when I know how I want a story to end, usually when I get there something else happens. Something better. Something more exciting. The characters take over and do their own thing. The story has flown off on a tangent and my original idea no longer works.

I discovered my true process with my first book, Tangled Webs. I’d spend hours outlining the next few chapters, but when I’d sit down to write them, by the middle of the first chapter the story would have veered off in another direction and I’d have to scrap all that planning. Next day, same thing. And the next. And the next. So much wasted time. (And yes, the characters changed the ending I wanted, too!)

Eventually, about halfway through the book, I gave up on outlining. Permanently. Now I just sit, and write, and go with the flow. When I don’t, the story just doesn’t work. I’ve learned to “Pants” it, to give my brain the space to work to its fullest capacity in the way it works best.

There’s no right or wrong. There’s only what works for you.

So forget all the advice. Experiment and find out where you fall on the Plotter-Pantser spectrum. Try a full outline; an abbreviated one; a few notes; or just writing whatever comes to mind. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that just because an “expert” says that outlining is the way it has to be, that you have to write that way. Trust yourself and your process. That’s where your truest and most authentic stories lie.

So now, tell me: Are you a Pantser (like me) or a Plotter (like Anne Perry)? Or are you somewhere in between those two extremes?

Write Over the Hump

Remember, you can change the gender of any prompt, or make the singular plural. Just as long as you use the prompt as your opening line. Today’s is open-ended, so let your imagination run. Have fun with this one!

It didn’t really fit her, but…

Dialogue Tips from Marilyn Meredith

My guest blogger today is the prolific Marilyn Meredith, author of the Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery series, and the Rocky Bluff PD series (as F.M. Meredith). She’s here today to talk about dialogue and give us some tips on how she makes her dialogue sound so normal and natural. Marilyn?


Though you want dialogue to be realistic sounding, don’t copy how we really talk such as: “Hello, how are you.” “I’m fine, and you?” Leave all this greeting stuff and comments about the weather out unless it is important to the plot.

Dialogue should do one of two things: Move the plot along or reveal character.

Said and asked are better than the multitude of other dialogue tags such as responded, agreed, etc.

Better still use the character’s action as a dialogue tag instead. “No way.” Dan pulled out his gun.

Or use description as a dialogue tag. Cynthia’s silk skirt swirled around her long legs. “Are you coming or not?”

Go easy on the exclamation points. If the dialogue is exclamatory enough, an exclamation point is unnecessary. An exclamation point should never be used in narrative. Elmore Leonard said, “Use only one exclamation point in a novel.”

Don’t ever have a character tell someone something that they already know to get information across. Maybe it is something that ought to be in narrative, but be careful of an information dump.

When writing, start a new paragraph every time a new person speaks or does something. This will help the reader follow what is going on.

Even if the conversation is between two people, if it goes on for long, put in a dialogue tag so that the reader knows who is talking. Of course, if there is a big difference in how each person speaks, this won’t be necessary.

For instance, if one person is educated, his grammar will be perfect. Another might use lots of clichés, or use poor grammar. If someone is from the south, he/she will speak differently than someone from New York. Another might not use complete sentences. Listen to people carefully (eavesdropping works) and watch for different speech patterns.

Never have one person speak for long periods of time—when we’re talking to one another, we interrupt, change the subject, etc.

Be sure that the reader knows where the dialogue is taking place. I’ve read too many books where I had no idea where the characters were having their conversation.

And my last tip, beware of talking heads. This means we need to see the characters and what they are doing while the conversation is going on. No one sits or stands perfectly still while talking—and this bring you back to the fact that you can use an action as a dialogue tag.

Phil scratched his head. “What do you expect me to do about it?”

Thanks for some great advice, Marilyn! I know I learned a lot today. What about you, readers? Any comments or questions for Marilyn?

Marilyn Meredith is the author of the Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery series, and the Rocky Bluff P.D. series under the name F. M. Meredith. She taught writing for Writers Digest School for 10 years, and has given seminars and classes at various writing conferences and workshops all around the country and in Hawaii. She lives in the foothills of the Sierra in central California.

My latest Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery is Seldom Traveled.

The tranquility of Bear Creek is disrupted by a runaway fugitive, a vicious murderer, and a raging forest fire. Deputy Tempe Crabtree is threatened by all three.

My webpage: http://fictionfoyou.com

Blog post: https://marilynmeredith.blogspot.com

Amazon Page: Marilyn Meredith

Facebook: Marilyn Meredith

Twitter: marilynmeredith

My books are available in all the usual places.

Marilyn Meredith on Dialogue

Marilyn Meredith, author of the Tempe Crabtree mystery series, and the Rocky Bluff PD series writing as F.M. Mereidth) will be here on Sunday, March 5, with some great tips on creating realistic dialogue. With so many books under her belt, she’s a real master at dialogue! Don’t miss her blog post. Stop by on Sunday, she’ll be waiting for your comments and questions!

Lida Sideris Speaks!

Lida Sideris is the author of Murder And Other Unnatural Disasters, a rollocking ride through the Hollywood entertainment industry with the quirkiest characters ever created. (This reader prays that Corrie and Michael are the start of a fabulous series!) She’s here today to answer some insightful questions about her stories, her writing, and herself.

Welcome, Lida!

  1. When did you first know you were going to be a writer?

I longed to be a published author for nearly half a century, but just didn’t know if I had it in me. So I started out small. Magazine pieces, articles, essays. It wasn’t until I won a scholarship to the San Francisco Writers’ Conference that I believed it possible.

2. Where do your ideas come from? 

The seeds come from my everyday life (in my novel, my heroine works in a movie studio like I once did), but once they germinate, I’ve no idea how tall they’ll grow (my heroine investigates a catnapping and possible alien encounter – where those ideas came from I’ll never know).

3.How many hours a day do you write?

On a good day, I can write about 6-8 hours (minus many little breaks where I’ll take a walk, bake cookies or hang with my chickens – all of which help me mull over my writing). When working the day job, I’ll write anywhere from 0-3 hours. I’m afraid it’s often 0.

4. Which of your characters is most like you, and why?

Great question! In my first draft, the heroine was me. Only problem was, I kept nodding off while writing. I realized that in order to stay awake, I needed to exclude all resemblances to me. So hopefully, there’re only microscopic bits of me here and there.

5.What was the most valuable piece of writing advice you ever received?

Don’t stop to edit, don’t even think about it, until you reach The End.

6. How many times do you redo the opening of your stories before you are satisfied with them?

Not much. Only about 30-40 times! And revisions overall? Probably over 100 times.

7. How do you choose the names for your characters?

Corrie Locke popped into my head immediately. It was the only name for my heroine. The two male leads have my sons’ middle names, and the rest of the cast come from names I overhear or spot in magazines, or on the spice shelf in my pantry.

8. Which came first, the characters, the plot, or the setting?

The setting. I knew the book would be based in SoCal where I spent most of my life. I wanted to take places familiar to me and make crazy things happen, so that I (and the reader hopefully) wouldn’t look at those places quite the same way again.

9. Are you a Plotter or a Pantser?

The seat of my pants are quite worn, thanks very much. No one was more surprised than I was once the killer was unveiled. I like it that way. Keeps me entertained and on my toes.

10. What is the one story you would like to write, but just can’t?

I’d like to finish the historical fiction novel that I started. But the story’s not a happy one, and I don’t want to write anything that may deflate readers. The books I enjoy the most are those that leave me feeling good at the end. That’s what I’d like to be able to accomplish.

Thank you, Susan, for hosting me!

And, thank you, Lida. It’s nice to meet another inveterate Pantser! Most of the fun in writing for me is finding out what happens to my characters!

Hope everyone had a great time with Lida today. Feel free to leave comments, ask questions, or talk about Lida’s fantastic book, Murder and Other Unnatural Disasters. But be warned: this one is addicting. Read it only if you like a great mystery, fantastic twists, fascinating characters and lots of humor.

Here’s where you can purchase the book, and ways to keep in touch with Lida:

The book:

Lida’s Amazon Page:

website: www.lidasideris.com


Write Over the Hump

Sometimes something specific will set our minds whirling. But sometimes it’s the very vagueness of a phrase that starts our inner story machine chugging along. How’s this prompt for non-specificity?

They painted it…