Plotting vs. Pantsing

Well, another Camp NaNoWriMo has come and gone. I did a slightly better job this time, but still failed to meet my word count. Rather than feel discouraged, this forced me to step back and analyze what I, and my story, really need right now. The answer: stop pantsing and start plotting.

For those unfamiliar with the terms, “pantsing” refers to a style of writing where the author writes “by the seat of their pants”. That is, they don’t plan what they’re going to write. They just write, and see where the story takes them. This method lends itself well to events like NaNoWriMo, where the core purpose is simply to get words on paper.

The other method of writing is plotting. This method involves planning a story ahead of time by outlining beats and story arcs. This is where stories can get nice and complex. Plotting lends itself to stories that involve a lot of world building, mystery/intrigue, etc.

In my own writing life, I find pantsing to be a lot of fun. It gives a sense of freedom and takes away the pressures of a complicated story. I can set my characters free to get into all sorts of trouble. It’s an exceedingly helpful method to break writers block.

However, when it comes to actually creating a cohesive story, I need to plot. I need to have a sense of where I’m going so that I can reel my characters back in and push them in the right direction. Plotting is what gives my characters their drives and purposes, and it ties together all the foreshadowing, easter eggs, histories, connections…

Especially considering my current project, Serafima’s Stone, runs concurrent to Grigory’s Gadget, I can’t have my characters cutting loose and running rampant. Some events are already set in stone. They’re like fixed points in time a la Doctor Who. I can’t change them, and I certainly can’t ignore them. I need to incorporate them, and the best way I know how is to outline, outline, OUTLINE!

And so, now that July has come to an end, I have opened up my Scrivener file and begun getting those characters in line!

Struggling With Fantasy Names

Genres like Fantasy and Science Fiction are notorious for having unusual names. Character and place names help set the tone and the setting of a story. The Lord of the Rings would read a little differently if it told a tale about Bob and Rick rather than Frodo and Samwise.

So we speculative fiction authors do (and should, in my opinion) use or create names the readers may not hear in their every day lives. But how do you know if a fantasy name is too complicated?

I generally don’t struggle with fantasy names, and as a result have a hard time figuring out when a name might be difficult for a reader. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in Watervliet (pronounced WAH-ter-vuh-LEET) in New York, near other places with Dutch and Haudenosaunee names like Rensselaer (depending on who you ask, pronounced either RENS-slur or REN-suh-LEER), Schenectady (ska-NEK-tah-dee), and Niskayuna (NIH-skah-YOO-nah); or perhaps it’s because throughout my life I’ve known people with non-Western names.

So, how can a writer determine if a reader will be able (or at least willing to try) to pronounce a character or place name? One place to start is to use (or create) names that follow the conventions of the language you’re writing in. If that language is English, for example, readers may have trouble with Gaelic names. While both languages technically use the same alphabet, they read letters and letter combinations very differently. Therefore, an English-speaking reader may see the name Caoimhe and try to pronounce it as “Cow-EE-meh” or some variant, when the actual pronunciation is “KWEE-vah”.

Beta readers are a valuable resource for this issue as well. If your betas all come back complaining about the same name, it may be worth reexamining that name to see if it could or should be tweaked.

In my Gaslight Frontier Series, I’ve given my characters Russian or other Slavic names, and based place names on Russian words. Russian uses a different alphabet than English, so some trouble lies with transliteration. For example, the name Alexi could also be written as Alexei, Aleksi, Aleksei, etc. I chose to spell it as Alexi because it was the simplest transliteration.

Some names, though, still give some of my readers trouble. As the author, you have to decide if that will be something you accept or something you change. Only you can make that final determination.

World-Building: Creating a Universe From Scratch

I’m currently putting the finishing touches on my map for Grigory’s Gadget (which will then be beautified by the wonderful artists at Deranged Doctor Design), so world-building has been on my mind.  World-building can be a rough ride. Where do you start when you place a story in a fictional place? How much detail should you include, and where, and how? Here’s some advice I have from creating my own fictional world for Grigory’s Gadget and the Gaslight Frontier Series.

  1. Chicken or the Egg? Which comes first, establishing your fictional world, or establishing your story? For me, this is an iterative process. The world informs the plot, and the plot informs the world. Are your characters traveling by ship? Great, that means there’s an ocean. How big is that ocean, how far are they traveling? What type of ships exist in your world, and what does that mean for speed and the feasible length of the trip? Plot and setting ask and answer questions back and forth like this, likely throughout the entirety of your story.
  2. Real-world inspiration: All fictional worlds take pieces from the real world, in one manner or another. Architecture, social structure, religion, climate – there are a myriad of inspirations throughout the world and throughout history. What makes your world unique is how you combine these elements, and give them your own spin. In the case of Grigory’s Gadget, I took inspiration from the Russian language and from Russian history, particularly from the first half of the 20th century.  I also took inspiration from the “Golden Age of Pirates” that occurred in the 1700s. I tied these bits of inspiration together with steampunk and a sprinkling of dieselpunk.
  3. Keeping track: Building your own world is a big endeavor. How are you supposed to keep track of all this? There are a lot of specific answers, but one general one: keep note of EVERY. LITTLE. DETAIL. Details slip through the cracks very easily, especially if it’s a detail you decide on the fly to include in a brief conversation in the middle of your novel. As far as how to keep track of those details, here are some of the things I do. The big one, of course, is the map. That map determined a lot of the plot of my book, because it determined how long my characters would be at sea between points A and B. It also determined how quickly the climate would change as they headed south. Another tool I found very helpful is the software Aeon Timeline. I used this software to keep track of the various goings-on in my world, from weather events to political events to the more minor details of my plot. It’s a nice way to see how those different elements overlap, and will definitely come in handy as I work on the sequel, which runs concurrent to Grigory’s Gadget. The other tool I use is Scrivener. This software is amazing for keeping your writing organized, and that includes all of your research and world details as well. I have a folder in Scrivener for my world, which includes reference photos, relevant Wikipedia articles, and a Glossary of terms for my world. That Glossary is to help me keep track of what I named places, objects, etc, and what they mean.

So that’s my advice on world-building! Let me know in the comments if you have any questions. Happy writing!