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Rowena Cory Daniells is the author of ten books for adults, including the fantasy series King Rolen’s Kin trilogy (look out for the giveaway at the end!) and The Last T’En trilogy (read more about Rowena here). She’s also a pantser, which means she doesn’t plan her stories before she writes.
“When I start out to write a book,” she says, “I have an idea of the characters and what I want to put them through, as for the rest I wing it.”
At the same time, Rowena’s told me that she does plan “the main character/s, their preoccupations and that I’m going to test them, to explore some aspect of the human condition”.
“I think of the first draft as the right-brain creative draft. In further drafts, the left-brain logic side dominates.”
But if she plans some aspects of her work, how much of a pantser is Rowena really? Perhaps she’s more of a planner than she realises? Fascinated as I am by the different approaches and techniques writers use when creating stories, I devised a set of cunning questions to find out…
1. When writing organically, what is it that you enjoy most about that process, and what is it you find most difficult?
Writing organically (being a pantser) is like taking a leap of faith, every time you start a story. In the early years I wrote the opening pages of many short stories that didn’t reach fruition. After a while you learn how to write yourself out of a corner.
If I’m writing a book and I jam up, I know it is because something earlier on isn’t quite right and my story-writing instincts won’t let me build on a flawed foundation. I’ll have a feeling about where the flaw is – for instance, character A’s motivation 200 pages earlier wouldn’t drive him do what he wants to do now – so I go back and rewrite that scene. I slip the motivation in as a subtext so that it is foreshadowed and then, when he does react, it makes sense.
I think of this as working through the block, because the change will often have a ripple effect in the rest of the character’s interactions and I’ll read through the ms from that point, tweaking scenes as I go, until I get to the point where I jammed up and then the writing will flow.
The jamming up used to frustrate me, but now that I know it is because of a flaw in the foundation. I know to trust my story-writing instincts. Sometimes I have to let the ms sit for a day until my subconscious provides me with the insight to where the flaw is.
The part I enjoy most about writing organically is the excitement of going along for the ride with the characters. They react in unexpected ways. I’m currently writing the next King Rolen’s Kin trilogy and Piro keeps saying things that surprise me.
2. Do you ever imagine your protagonist’s world so vividly you find it encroaching into daydreams, dreams or other random thoughts?
I find myself arriving somewhere with no idea how I got there because my head has been in my book. Sometimes, when my poor husband takes me out for a romantic dinner for two, he’ll sigh and look across at me and say – this table is very crowded – because he knows I’m off with my characters. It’s like they and their worlds are just one step away from me at all times and I can slip through without any trouble.
The most interesting part is how plot holes or twists will just come to me while I’m doing other things. Some things come to me in dreams. The premise for the Shallow Sea came to me in a dream while I was sharing a hotel room with Marianne de Pierres at World Con. I sat up and said I just had the most amazing dream and described it and since then I’ve built on it, writing half a dozen short stories and a duology about a tropical paradise filled with beauty and danger.
A lot of writing for me is intuitive, but there is also a large proportion that is craft. I think of the first draft as the right-brain creative draft. In further drafts, the left-brain logic side dominates. In these later drafts I weave more layers into the story, finding ways to emphasise the themes that I wrote about unconsciously.
I love this part of the writing as well, because the polishing and embedding of sub text is fascinating. While I say that first draft is right-brain and second draft is left-brain, in both processes there is a crossover. I make intuitive leaps in the later drafts, just as I make deliberate craft decisions in the first draft.
3. What are some of the things you always plan before you write?
I don’t tend to plan very much. I’ll circle an idea, approaching it from different angles. The premise for the story will coalesce in my mind, sometimes in a dream, although sometimes I’ll be aware of the process. The premise will arise from things that worry me about the world, or evocative images or phrases that arouse an emotion and I’ll let them brew until I know what I want to say.
I’ll know the main character/s, their preoccupations and that I’m going to test them, to explore some aspect of the human condition. What I don’t know is the nitty gritty of what will happen from scene to scene or how they will react. The character will grow as the book grows.
Because I tend to read across a wide range of fiction and nonfiction, the sources for the ideas and world building are already in my mental filing system. I’ll be pulling together diverse information from things I read about last week to a National Geographic article I read 30 years ago.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t research. As I write I might need to know something specific. For instance, while writing the Shallow Sea I needed to know how far away the horizon line is if you are sitting in a rowboat and conversely, what if you were in the crow’s nest of a ship, how much further away is the horizon?
So, when I start out to write a book, I have an idea of the characters and what I want to put them through, as for the rest I wing it.
4. What are some of the things you always end up changing as you go?
I don’t know how to answer this one, as each book is different, having said that I find myself coming back to certain themes because these are the things that trouble me. For instance, after I’ve written the first draft of something I’ll realise that the theme I’m exploring is acceptance of people who are different from yourself (overcoming prejudice), or I’ll be exploring the divide between male and female.
In the later drafts I make very deliberate decisions to tighten the tension of the narrative. What do I reveal here? What does the reader need to know to worry about the character? What can I hide from the character but reveal to the reader? What can I plant within the character that the reader can perceive but the character can’t perceive as yet? All these things make the story more interesting.
5. Do you know the ending of your stories before you write them?
I think I know the ending <grin> but the characters often prove me wrong and I’m happy to go with that. Alternatively, you could say my story-writing instincts prove more inventive.
6. Once you start writing, do you ever change your mind about where a story might be heading?
The change will come as a realisation that the story has to go in a different direction. It is all about trusting to instinct. I think some people are born with a story telling gene. Actually, I woke up the other night with the realisation that there must be an evolutionary need for this.
After all, we make sense of the world through story. We embed narratives with morals and themes. Put it another way, by encoding information in a framework of character, cause and effect leading to a resolution, we make information memorable. Eg.The boy who cried wolf. That information at a very early stage of human development would have meant the difference between life and death for the members of the tribe. By threading it into a story about characters we cared about, the tribe’s story tellers ensured the information was remembered and passed on to later generations. It ensured the survival of all those who shared the information. This explains our love of story and why so many people feel the need to create stories and share them.
We still seek the reason behind events (character motivation – why did he bomb that building) and resolution (he’s been caught so he can’t do it again). We need closure. It doesn’t necessarily happen in real life. In a story, we see the motivation, the act, the consequences and the resolution which is very satisfying.
Wow, I went totally off topic there.
7. Do you ever find your protagonist approaching an unplanned, but perfect pitfall? If so, how far back do you go back and foreshadow that pitfall (back to the beginning, a few chapters or you don’t go back)?
I think I answered this one earlier on (in question 1). When a pitfall arises, for instance in King Rolen’s Kin when Byren claims to be the owner of the pendant that really belongs to Orrade. He does it instinctively to protect his friend. He does it because he’s that sort of person. He can’t help himself. So the pitfall is embedded in his character. It makes him who he is and it makes us like him because his motivation comes from the goodness of his heart, even if the consequences of his action are dire and we might wish he’d acted otherwise.
Planner or Pantser?
So what do you think? Does Rowena sound more like a pantser or a planner to you? She doesn’t plan the nitty gritty of what will happen from scene to scene, yet she develops a mental filing system of ideas, uses it to pull together diverse information, and plans her characters and their preoccupations.
Perhaps the division writers make between writing as a planner and as a pantser isn’t all that clear cut? Next time I’m going to test out my theory by comparing Rowena’s answers with those Kate Forsyth gave me in a previous post. You’ll be surprised what it shows… I certainly was!
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To win one of the King Rolen’s Kin books, simply use the comments section below to tell Rowena your favourite mythical beast and why. Please post before midnight on Friday 23rd September 2011.