Friday 17 January 2020

Writers’ Questions: Should I write an outline (plotters vs. pantsers)?

In the last two posts in my Writers’ Questions series I dived into the business side of being an author with posts on finding literary agents and how to query them. Today, I’m returning to craft, with a discussion of how writers approach plotting out lengthy and complex novels.

G.R.R. Martin (1948- )
First, let’s start with some definitions:

The plotter: The writer who prefers to plan their novel meticulously before typing “Chapter One”. They may follow a specific novel planning method (you’ll find many for free online) or their feeling for plot may be instinctual, but either way they create their own map to take them from beginning to end of the writing process.

An outline: The plotter’s map and their secret weapon. This can vary in length and structure but it’s usually a document that sketches out the events of the novel, chapter by chapter, hitting all major plot points. Other plotters may eschew written outlines and plan using post-it notes or whiteboards (think: the murder detective’s office in a TV drama).

The pantser: The writer who prefers to fly by their seat of their proverbial pants. They make up their story as they write and may have little to no idea about where or how their novel will end at the outset.

Discovery writing: What the pantser engages in. Writing is an act of exploration where the writer is “surprised” by the events of their own novel.

Architects and Gardeners: Game of Thrones author G.R.R. Martin’s preferred terms for plotters and pantsers respectively. The only key difference here is that Martin sees gardeners as planting seeds, which bloom later on in their stories. This suggests a little more forethought than simply “pantsing” it.

The ARCs (advance reader copies) of Bronte's Mistress
The plotter vs. pantser debate is one that divides writers—and not along neat lines of success. Some swear by outlines, others feel they’d limit their creativity. But, if you’ve never outlined before and any of the following statements are true for you, I’d advise giving it a go:

You’re super organised in other areas of your life
Your calendar is colour-coded, your inbox is empty, you keep lists of birthdays and set reminders on your phone? If so, outlining isn’t just something that might be helpful for you—you might even enjoy it!

You’ve been writing the same novel for YEARS
Maybe an outline will help you see the finish line.

Your novels are never long enough
If you’re making the transition from shorter fiction to works of a novel length, outlining in advance could help you see if your plot is really complex enough to stretch across 70,000-110,000 words.

Your story loses its way
Your middle is slow or you’re getting feedback that your ending doesn’t quite map back to your opening. An outline could be an answer to your woes.

For my upcoming novel, Bronte’s Mistress, I acted more as a plotter than a pantser, although I’ve played with both approaches to writing. Because my novel is historical, and about real people, I started with a spreadsheet of all known events, categorised by whether they were important to my protagonist, the men in her life, her children or the Bronte family. I used this list to determine the best opening, climax and ending of my novel and then played the fun game of “fill in the blanks”, inventing the imagined events that would fall between those history had recorded.

A sneak peek at my early planning spreadsheet for Bronte's Mistress
Using Scrivener, I then noted the (real or made up) events I was sure would be scenes in the text sections where I’d go on to write them. I also inserted any snatches of prose (usually dialogue) that had come into my head during this plotting process to ensure I didn’t lose them.

My outline then was less of a standalone document than the sketch an artist applies paint over or bones later clothed with flesh. There was still so much I “discovered” along the way (especially related to flashbacks about events before the novel started and the characterisation of more minor characters), but my map kept my ship on course, not dashed against the rocks.

I’d love to hear from you about your experiences. Do you have a favourite outlining technique? Or do you love to invent as you go? As ever, if there are any other topics you’d love me to cover in my Writers’ Questions series, let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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Saturday 11 January 2020

Theatre Review: The Woman in Black, McKittirick Hotel, New York City

I first read Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (1983) as a child when I came across the book in my local library. I’d recently “discovered” Victorian literature and had been reading lots of Brontë and Dickens. The cover first attracted me (I was already drawn to a Gothic aesthetic!) and, funny enough for someone who would go on to become a historical novelist, I was little disappointed when I realised this wasn’t a “real” nineteenth-century novel but a work from the previous decade.

Since then, I’ve experienced the story several times in different media. There was a touring production of the popular stage adaptation, which I attended at Belfast Opera House with giggling teenage classmates. We screamed at the jump scares and I marvelled at the stage effects (I’d never seen a Broadway or West End show before and loved the lighting and use of translucent curtains). When I was at university, I saw the 2012 film adaptation starring Daniel Radcliffe. A friend’s girlfriend covered her eyes for most of the movie and deemed it a horror film.

Each time, varied as these experiences were, my response has been the same. The Woman in Black has more style than substance. It’s Victoriana for those who don’t know much about the Victorians. But it’s all in good fun and can be visually compelling—just as the novel’s cover was to me many years ago.

This week I attended another production of the stage play, this time at the McKittirick Hotel in Manhattan. The McKittirick isn’t a real hotel but a performance space with drinking and dining venues. It’s also home to Sleep No More, the most popular immersive theatre experience in the city. I was excited to see what they would do with The Woman in Black.

What I didn’t expect was that, while Brits revel in how Victorian The Woman in Black is (from creepy music boxes, to face-obscuring fashions to ponies and traps), Americans really respond to the story’s Britishness. Prior to the show, attendees can dine in booths designed to resemble those of an English pub. We ate pies and drank ale. There was even HP Sauce on the table, which seemed pretty un-Victorian, until I read up on it and realised that the brand dates from 1895. The performance space also includes a bar, hence the billing of this The Woman in Black as a “ghost play in a pub.”

Slightly disappointingly, these pre-show bells and whistles, reminiscent of the pie dinner I enjoyed prior to the Barrow Street Theatre’s production of Sweeney Todd a couple of years ago, were the most innovative part of the production. Otherwise the play will be familiar to those who’ve seen it at other venues, despite the McKittirick’s fabled reputation.

There are only three actors (and one is the unspeaking ghost). Some props and even a dog are make-believe, with the script rhapsodising on the power of audiences’ imaginations. It’s all very meta and the Gothic tropes (empty rocking chairs, abandoned toys, descending mist) are so hackneyed they verge on cliché.

I ended the night with the same feeling The Woman in Black has always left me with—disappointment that I didn’t enjoy it more, given my love of Victorian Gothic, but also some satisfaction that the period of literature I’m most fascinated by continues to have such mass appeal. There’s something about the preoccupations, fashions, and stories of the nineteenth century that audiences keep coming back to—and that’s great news for a historical novelist like me.

If you’re looking for a fun night out and like your pie, consider checking out the production at the McKittirick. But at $100+ for the whole experience, I’d caution against breaking the bank to attend.

What NYC-based theatre production would you like to see the Secret Victorianist review next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

If you want to learn more about my debut novel, Brontë’s Mistress, check out my website here. Historical novelist Jeanne Mackin writes, Anyone who has ever thrilled to a Brontë novel needs to read this glorious historical novel about the Brontë sisters and their brother, Branwell, and his affair with the outrageous, scandalous woman who broke all conventions.”

Thursday 2 January 2020

Austen in 2020: Miss Austen by Gill Hornby and The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner

One of the unexpected and wonderful perks of getting a novel published is that you’re able to get your hands on other books early in the form of ARCs (advance reader copies).

So this week I’m giving you a sneak peek of two of my favourite forthcoming novels I’ve been lucky enough to read. What’s more, they’re on a theme! Jane Austen lovers rejoice at these two new responses to one of history’s most loved writers.

I <3 ARCs!
Gill Hornby’s Miss Austen (coming this month in the UK, this April in the US) is the story of the other Austen sister—Cassandra. Austen novels often end with a proposal of marriage, but Hornby’s novel begins with one, before our heroine Cassy’s life is sent in an unexpected direction following the tragic death of her fiancé. The novel alternates between Jane and Cassandra’s youth, including the infancy of Jane’s writing, and 1840, when an elderly and frail Cassandra must protect her late sister’s legacy.

Hornby’s novel is ambitious (she writes letters by Jane herself!) and touching. I enjoyed being in the perspective of an older protagonist and the foregrounding of the sisters’ relationship. There is romance in here and keen social observation worthy of Austen herself, but the heart of the novel is this one key relationship that helped make Jane Jane.

Natalie Jenner’s The Jane Austen Society (coming this May) takes us into the twentieth century. Set in the 1940s in Chawton, where Jane Austen spent the last years of her life, the novel is the (sadly fictitious) origin story of the Jane Austen Society, which preserves Jane’s home and possessions for antiquity.

A love of Austen’s novels binds the ensemble cast together. There’s a lonely doctor, a young war widow, a quiet farmer, a sad spinster, a Hollywood starlet and an academically-minded maid. They disagree on their favourite Austen novels, but one thing unites them—their desire to share Jane with the world.

I loved how discussion of Austen’s novels, down to quoting lines of her prose, becomes a language that brings Jenner’s characters together and the echoes of various Austen plotlines in the conclusions of the society members’ stories. This is a novel that will reward readers who know their Austen well, but still delight those who do not.

I’d recommend Miss Austen and The Jane Austen Society to all Austenites. Both novels, along with Molly Greeley’s The Clergyman’s Wife, which I also reviewed recently, prove there’s still plenty of room for more novels inspired by Jane.

More of a Bronte fan? My novel, Bronte’s Mistress, based on the scandalous affair between Branwell Bronte, the Bronte sisters’ brother, and his employer’s wife, is available for pre-order now! You can also connect with me on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for my email newsletter below.

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