Coffee Dates: Pantser or Plotter

Good Morning, Creatives!

Friday is finally upon us! How was your week? Any new ideas pop up, or old projects wrapped up and tied with a neat bow? Friday is the perfect time to wrap things up, or to birth a new idea when you have all weekend to indulge in a little daydreaming or extra journaling.

This week’s question is about just that, and it’s an age-old question for writers everywhere! Are you a pantser or a plotter? In other words, do you plot your stories out beforehand, or discover them as you go?

My Process

I used to be a die-hard plotter. I would cover my walls with sticky notes and plan out every scene verbatim. But eventually my characters started to rebel, and I found myself drawn into new territory every time I sat down to write. Now, especially with new books upon me and new ideas taking shape, I have been forced a few times to slow down and plot a bit out beforehand. I always like to know the quarter mark, halfway mark, and three-quarter mark, and what starts the climax. Other than that, I usually let it unfold as it comes!

My Struggles Within That

I don’t always know what’s happening next! World-building catches me out fairly often, and I’m forced to push pause on writing and figure out what’s happening in my head. Sometimes that slows the process down a good bit, and sometimes it changes the direction of the story so drastically that even I scarcely recognize it. Life as a writer is always an adventure!

Your Thoughts

Which are you? Do you plot your books religiously before you ever write a word, or do you start with a few ideas, a stunning character, and a devil-may-care attitude that carries you through to the last page? I’d love to hear about your process, and how it’s changed over the years as you’ve grown as a writer. Tell me about it in the comments!

A Writer’s Life: Details

A writer’s life is in the details.

Have you ever noticed this? Of course, our stories are about grand adventures, life-changing events, and worlds and people that only belong in our minds.

But where the story really catches a reader—where it connects, where it makes them pause and linger because in that sentence they were there, in the story—those moments are in the details.

In the hitch of breath. In the smell of crushed grass and blood. In the silver gleam of a dragon’s scales, or the glint of moonlight on a soldier’s musket in the midst of the Civil War.

Those are the moments that catch a reader. Not the dates, not statistics, not the entire history and structure of the Paris sewers. (Looking at you, Victor Hugo.) The reader wants to see the world through the eyes of your character, and the best way to make it happen is in the details.

Details

Still, that’s hard, right? How do you know which details to write about? Because I can guarantee, if you toss every single detail in a battle scene at the reader, your scene will be ten pages long and the reader will give up in exasperation.

It’s just as bad to overwhelm your readers as it is to starve them.

Thankfully, most of us are writers because we aren’t content with the world through the eyes of a nine-to-five job.

We know what we want to see. We know what snatches us into the scene, what makes us pause.

Except when we don’t.

Sometimes it feels like some kind of witch’s brew that we forgot to get the recipe for. A little lighting, a little sound, maybe the creak of an old oak in the wind. Oaks creak, right? Or an owl. We could stick an owl in there—if owls live in that sort of environment

After a while, it gets a little desperate, and the details we throw in end up taking away rather than adding to our scene.

How To Make It Happen

So how do we know what belongs and what doesn’t? How do we find the details that matter, that catch a reader, and avoid our characters talking in white space, or worse, spending ten pages describing the Paris sewers instead of telling the story?

So how do we find life in the details?

Because you can. I do. The details are my favorite part of a story, and when I find them as a reader it always, always catches me into the story.

As a writer, I revel in them. I’ve made my mistakes (too many to count, actually), and I’ve found my rhythm.

I do it with two truths, three tricks, and one breath.

Truth #1

Magic is everywhere . . . especially in the mundane. Everything around us is moving, shaping, telling stories that will probably never be written down. Everything is story fodder, everything has the details you’re searching for.

And you won’t find them in front of a blank screen and a blinking cursor.

Writers need to live. They need to go for walks, sit in coffee shops, go to plays and movies, walk through crowded rooms. The more you notice the details—especially the ones that catch your eye and feel important—the more you’ll be able to project that into your writing.

Truth #2

If you haven’t made a mistake lately, you aren’t growing.

My delete key is my best friend. I have deleted probably ten times as many words as I’ve ever kept and never felt bad about one of them. If a scene is going wrong, and I feel like I’ve missed the details that matter, I’ll start over.

It drives my sister nuts.

Every word I write is teaching me, whether I keep it or not. The mistakes you make in pursuit of the details are your apprenticeship. What you delete will teach you more than what you keep.

Three Tricks

  1. Notice everything. When you’re out walking, when you’re at the mall, and especially when you’re traveling. Keep a journal just for the things you see and smell and taste and touch. The more you immerse yourself in the details, the more you’ll understand which ones are important and which can be tossed aside.
  2. Find what you love and write about that. The rain. Wind. Coffee shops, sunshine, pine forests. If you love what you’re describing, it will come out that much more vivid. My stories always include rainy nights—because I love rain, and I can immediately capture the details that matter to me.
  3. Take special care of the small things. The larger something is, the more time it will take to describe and the quicker you will lose your reader. So describe your huge cities and palaces that reach to the sky as briefly as possible, then show the reader the swinging sign above your character’s apothecary, the cat lounging in the window, and the steam rising above a bubbling beaker. Those are the details that will matter.

One Breath

As I’m writing this, I’m sitting on a picnic blanket in a neighborhood park with a view of Pikes Peak stretching out in front of me.

And I’ll be honest, it’s far easier to focus on the kids that are chasing each other around the park or the clutter of things we brought with us or even the work I’m struggling to get done rather than enjoying the fact that the peaks are gray and blue today and crowned with snow, that I’m sitting under the most beautiful spruce tree, or that the wind smells like spring at last.

That needs a pause. One breath. A moment of mindfulness. That’s where the details are found.

Good luck, dearest writer! May your tea be hot and your dreams wild.

What are your favorite kinds of details to use in a story? Tell me about them in the comments! And stay tuned for next week, when we will be discussing perfectionism and toxic effect it can have on a work-in-progress.

A Gathering Of Souls

I went to a writing conference this weekend.

The Young Women’s Writing Workshop, if we’re going to be technical about it. I’m just going to call it a gathering of souls.

It was the best thing I’ve done for my writing and my soul all year.

I think. I’ve done a lot of things for my soul this year. But this one was particularly relaxing and inspiring, so we’re going to say it was the best thing.

Or one of the best.

I’m going to shut up now.

Seriously, though, this conference was the most invigorating, inspiring thing I’ve done for a long time. When writers gather together, especially in small, tightly knit groups, things happen, man. Things. Happen. Ideas flow, people cry, books are built, fears are overcome, and dreams are realized.

I am not exaggerating.

The conference is held every year in Glen Eyrie, Colorado. And every year, I tell myself that I can’t afford it this time. Then I book a last minute room because I can’t bear to be left out when all my friends are gathering together. Oh, and the venue is a castle.

Like, a real castle.

I think it’s the only castle in Colorado. Certainly, it’s the most beautiful castle in Colorado.

So who can resist that?

The conference lasted for three days, Friday to Sunday, and the weekend was a kaleidoscope of classes, conversations with some of the most interesting people you will ever meet, and ideas. Our mentor, Nancy Rue, is one of the most brilliant and beautiful women you’ll find out there, and her love for her craft and zest for life is catching. When she gets excited about something, it’s impossible not to get excited about it too. More than that, she is committed to speaking God’s heart and bringing his spirit into the room while she teaches. Which accounts for how powerful this weekend was for all of us.

So, Nancy, I thank you for being your own wonderful self. We all needed it this weekend.

If I had to detail out everything that happened this weekend, I could probably ramble on for a few hours and never get to the point of it all. Instead, let’s just say it was a weekend of good food, beautiful scenery, tears, ideas, play-dough, dreams, books, tea, and good people. So, the best kind of weekend.

I can’t wait to go back next year.

(And, yes, I did say play-dough. I’d explain, but . . . I think I’ll just let you wonder.)

Have you ever been to a writing conference? Would you like to? We’d love to see you next year and include you in our gathering!

 

 

On The Edge Of Living

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All men die, I tell them when they ask me why the world ends the way it does. And when they die, they come here.

We’re not dead. Not yet. They ask me why that is, but I don’t tell them the reason. I don’t tell them that we’re the forgotten people, the ones sent ahead to meet Death before she was sent for them. Some know already.

The ones that don’t are happier not knowing.

We live in the cliffs. Beneath Death’s falls, on the edge of the world. The seventh sea flows above us, spilling over the black rocks, tumbling into the abyss below us. The dead follow the current, and they fall. Straight to heaven’s doors, the tales say, or maybe straight through hell’s gates. I’ve stopped trying to guess which. Maybe it’s both at once. Maybe neither.

Either way, I don’t intend to find out. We live on the edge of the world, in the span of breath between living and dying, and I have no intention of joining either side.

Instead, I watch the sunrise from the black rocks, the cliffs and ledges. The light passes through the falling water, glinting like jewels, gleaming like veils of gossamer and pearls. Rainbows dance across the damp stones, and mist hangs in the air, smelling of wet earth and sea air. The dead pass us by, hardly more than a flicker of pale light, a solitary spirit caught up by the falling water and the ocean currents.

I’ve been watching them this morning, mostly before the sun came up. They’re easiest to see by moonlight, and I find that I think clearer when I’m behind the falls. I’ve lost count of how many souls have gone by, some of them so thin that they’re nearly transparent, but I have to go back now. The others will be waiting, and if I don’t come they’ll worry.

I rise, climbing down from the ledge I’ve been sitting on. The rocks are slick with mist and moss, but I’ve been climbing these cliffs for a millennia, and it’s been a very long time since I’ve slipped. I know these rocks too well.

The ledges below are flushed with green, with tangled vines and waving leaves. The gardens are being tended already, and more people are awake than I expected. Fires are being lit, coals fanned to life and kindled again with driftwood and dried grass. I kneel beside one, helping the woman to blow the embers to life again. She glances at me, at my soaked shirt and wet hair, and smiles. “Been at the falls?”

I shrug. “Keeping watch, that’s all.”

She nods. Someone is always watching the falls, not for the dead, but for the living. Those who were sent ahead, meant to meet Death on her way rather than waiting for her. People like Mazia, whose uncles put her on a boat in the seventh sea and towed her into the current. She spoke with the wind, they said, and her smile belonged to the devil.

Personally, I’ve always liked her smile.

Ewan, too, came to us from his own family. His legs are crippled, and they were finished with him. Most of the others have the same story. A child that no one wanted, a baby that was an inconvenience, a grandmother who was a burden. They come to use one by one, and we take them in. The lip of the falls catches them, the rocks that allow the dead through but hold back the living. I hear them, or someone does, and we bring them here. Here, where the sun shines like liquid gold through the curtain of falling water, where the moon rests on her flight across the sky, and the stars seek shelter from the burning rays of the sun. Death doesn’t come looking for us here, and the nights are cool and still, broken only by the rushing of the falls. They are broken when they come, but they heal. There is peace in growing things, in gathering a harvest, in building a colony. We live on the edge of the world, in the span of breath between living and dying, and we are content.

Snowstorms and Michael Crichton

Photo by Sindre Strøm from Pexels

Fun fact: it is snowing today.

Actually, it has been snowing all week.

I think it might have something to do with it being January. And my living in Colorado, where we randomly get blizzards in January and sometimes have to stay at home because the snow is almost as high as our knees and we can’t get our cars out of the driveway.

Crazy, right?

This week has been one long succession of crazy, actually. Besides a round of job interviews (or attempted job interviews), I have also done my best to get to work, finish my writing projects for the week, conquer a cold, and keep my house warm enough to comfortably live in despite the frigid temperatures and high winds.

I managed most of these things.

Definitely not all.

For example, on Tuesday, in the midst of a snowstorm that was actually a blizzard, my dad and I piled into his Subaru in an attempt to make it to work.

Spoiler.

We did not make it.

We got stuck three times. Once on the way and twice on the way back. In-between, we waited at a neighbor’s house for the plow to come and save us. My dad worked. I binge read Michael Crichton’s Micro.

If you have never read Micro, I would highly recommend it. Michael Crichton’s books are a rather new addition to my shelves, and the more I read, the more impressed I am. I think Micro is my new favorite of his works. The story is engaging, fast-paced, and about as scary as they come. If you’re a fan of Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park, or monster thrillers of any kind, I would highly recommend it.

To be honest, it was the perfect book for the type of day I was having. Instead of focusing on being stuck at a stranger’s house for several hours, trudging through calf-deep snow, and being battered about by bone-chilling winds, I got to explore another world and immerse myself in the dangers and grandeur of a microscopic world.

And, seeing as how we were stuck for seven hours, and I never did get to work, I managed to read the entire book that day.

All 400 pages of it.

So it wasn’t entirely a lost cause.

And we did make it home eventually. Neither of us were frost-bitten, and my dad even got his car back with minimal damage.

I think next time, though, I will just stay home and read Michael Crichton by my wood stove instead. Blizzards in January are not some of my favorite things.

Portrait of a Missionary

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As a writer, I am fascinated by people.

No two people carry the same stories. Their life experiences, their worldview, and their hopes and dreams are uniquely their own. No work of fiction can compare to the beauty and complexity of the world around us, but, caught in our jobs, our routines, and our day-to-day tasks, it’s easy to lose sight of the richness of life amidst the mundane.

In this series, I would like to reawaken your awareness of the extraordinary.

A.R. Geiger

Not everyone has the privilege of a returning missionary sitting at their dinner table.

As I was setting out our plates and sitting down opposite my visitor, I was very aware of this. Even in my unique position as this particular missionary’s sister, I only get the chance to have dinner with him once every other year or so. Armin Geiger is a youth pastor in Vanuatu, a collection of islands in the South Pacific, and he returns to the United States very rarely.

When he does, I like to make sure I have at least one evening with him.

He didn’t hesitate when I told him I wanted a story. His life in Vanuatu is a strange mix of the mundane and the fantastical, of office work, a regular job, and schedules, and, scattered throughout, adventures worthy of a far longer post than this one. He always has a story ready when I ask.

“We were in west coast Santo on the medical ship last year,” he told me, already forgetting his dinner. “Giving care to the local communities. But their clinic location was set up in one village, and all the other people had to travel to get there. We knew a lot of elderly and disabled people needed medical care. So a local, one other girl, and I took a tender—a small speedboat—and drove forty minutes up the coast from where the ship was anchored.”

He sat back in his chair, pausing to remember. “We arrived and the waves were stronger than we anticipated. So I hopped off with this other girl, and we go off with the local to find these two old ladies. In this small woven hut, we find this one lady who was practically deaf, hunched over, frail as a bone, with this stick that she used to walk. She was in her seventies, I think, dressed in a classic, flowery gown that they wear in the islands. My friend began to walk her toward the shore, while I went to get the other patient, who ended up being an old lady who had no legs. Not as old, probably in her forties or fifties, but she had no legs and some sort of odd, wheelchair type thing that didn’t work so well.”

“So we half-carried, half-wheeled her to the shore, which was probably 200-300 meters away, and when we arrived, the waves had gotten even bigger.” He ran his hand through his hair, looking out the window. “And so the challenge was to get these two old ladies into the boat with waves that were up to my chest and not kill them or drown them. Cause at that age, you’re very frail. The guy on the boat had it running because you had to keep it running continually. So he’s running it with prow pointed out to sea, hitting every wave and riding it out. We’re timing it with the waves. So I scooped up the old grandma with the walking stick, and when a wave comes and it runs down, I run in and chuck her on board.”

I laughed, and he grinned, continuing, “She’s sitting there, freaking out,” he lets out a yell that sounds as much like an older woman as a twenty-something man can sound. “Then we go back for the next lady. I’m carrying her in front of my chest and the boat comes down—‘cause when it’s on a wave it’s up high, like above my head—the boat comes down, and I go for it to put her in. Then the wave comes a little sooner than we anticipated, so I lift the lady up high above my head, and the wave hits me in the chest, drenching me, ruining my phone.”

He lifts his arms above his head, demonstrating for me, totally caught up in his story now. “So I’m holding her as high as I can, and the waves are still coming, and then the boat comes down again and I chucked her onto the side and the guy on top grabbed her and pulled her up.”

“Pretty intense couple of moments,” he tells me, pausing again as he remembers the boat trip and the struggle to get the women aboard and back down the coast, “because if she fell in, that would not have been good. But we got them safely to the location, where they got medical care and glasses.”

I got up to refill his plate, marveling that, to him, his story is a fairly normal part of his life in Vanuatu. To me, it sounds as outlandish as one of the history books I grew up on, and the realization serves as a reminder that the extraordinary still remains hidden among the mundane.

But, as I said, not everyone has the pleasure of a returning missionary sitting at their dinner table.