New Voice: Pam Bachorz on Candor

Pam Bachorz is the first-time author of Candor (Egmont, 2009). From the promotional copy:

Oscar Banks has everything under control. In a town where his father brainwashes everyone, he’s found a way to secretly fight the subliminal Messages.

He’s got them all fooled: Oscar’s the top student and the best-behaved teen in town. Nobody knows he’s made his own Messages to deprogram his brain.

Oscar has even found a way to get rich. For a hefty price, he helps new kids escape Candor, Florida; before they’re transformed into cookie-cutter teens.

But then Nia Silva moves to Candor, and Oscar’s carefully-controlled world crumbles.

Are you a plotter or a plunger? Do you outline first, write to explore first, or engage some combination of the two? Then where do you go from there? What about this approach appeals to you? What advice do you have for beginning writers struggling with plot?

I am a plotter who tries to be open to the possibilities of plunging as I write.

Before I start writing, I decide on my story’s major plot points: two turning points with a midpoint between ’em, and the climax. I also try to see what the two “pinch points” are–things that help to hold up the plot between the “big events.”

This may sound a bit clinical or overdone to some, but I find it much easier to be expansive and creative when there’s a structure to start with.

Next, I turn to my “story wire:” a long, long horizontal wire hanging in my office (a $10 IKEA curtain hanger) with lots of curtain clips dangling from it. While I plot, I write down very brief (e.g. 10 words or less) scene descriptions on index cards, and hang them on the wire. Then I move them around, taking individual scenes off the wire (and sometimes putting them back on) as needed, until I feel like I have a good sense of how my story will be “shaped.” Usually I end up discarding as many scenes as I keep.

This entire planning method borrows heavily from Syd Field’s screenwriting techniques (Syd Field’s Screenwriting Workshop DVD by Syd Field (Final Draft, 2002). I love that guy. I watch his DVD at least once at the start of each project, to stop the ever-escalating panic that I have no idea what I am going to do with my bright, shiny idea.

While I’m working on my plot, I also like to do freewriting about my characters: sometimes in their voice, sometimes as an impartial reporter, sometimes as a weird mother-figure who loves them terribly (can you tell I’m a mama in my “real” life?). I find this really helps to inform what happens in my plot. As we all well know, the best plot is driven by the characters’ actions… and how will I know what they’ll do unless I get to know them a bit?

That being said, I discover an awful lot about my characters as I write the story—and the plot changes too. Even with all my preparation, I still ask myself at the start of each chapter: “What really should be happening next? Does my story wire leave anything out? Can I skip ahead to something more interesting?”

Often the answer is to stay on the path I already sketched out with my plot cards. But sometimes the story and the characters, take over. I just hold on tight and let them take me for a ride—but not without some kind of map! During those times, I’ll usually make sure my next big plot point still makes sense (if it doesn’t, I’ll change it), then just figure out the new plot, one or two chapters as a time, as I write.

This approach appeals to me because I like to know what’s coming next. Awhile ago, my son was having a problem with transitioning between activities at daycare. The teacher said she had to first inform him a change was coming and then tell him what was coming next.

I couldn’t understand why this was a bad or unusual thing. “Of course,” I told her. “Who doesn’t want to know what’s coming?” So I guess my writer self is a two-year-old who just wants structure and a hint at what comes next.

I’ve tried it the other way: I have a completed National Novel Writing Month middle-grade novel in my drawer that I wrote by plunging. And it’s pretty bad. Of course no NaNoWriMo baby is truly great, but this one wasn’t even worth editing. And I hating the wild lost feeling I had the entire time.

Can you tell I’m one of those people who doesn’t drive anywhere without my GPS? No control issues here, no siree.

For writers struggling with plot, I’d suggest turning to plot-writing guides by screenwriters. It’s always good to experience art outside of the realm you’re creating in.

Plus, in my experience, it seems like plot is far less mystical and more of a learned craft for screenwriters. Many of the novel “plotting” books I’ve read suggest doing things like just “letting it grow organically” and “writing what makes your toes tingle.”

Bah. If my toes tingle, it’s because I forgot to turn the heat up. I think people struggling with plot should try concrete techniques and exercises, and then see what works for them.

As someone with a full-time day job, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

It’s not easy, but I can’t afford to be a full-time writer, not yet. So I work a full-time job, mother a preschooler, and try to find time to ensure that my husband doesn’t forget what color my eyes are! I have to schedule my writing time.

At the end of each week, I pull out a little calendar template that I made for myself. It has certain “guaranteed” writing times that I use every week (for example, 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. on the weekdays). And then there are blanks to fill in other times.

I schedule a minimum of ten writing hours per week (sometimes many more when I am in the midst of a project), on top of any “pro” time I spend answering interviews, talking with my agent, working on my website, etc. Then I post my little calendar on the door to my study.

My husband can check anytime and see that he’ll be having some quality solo-daddy time on Sunday morning, but I did leave Monday night open, etc.

I try to vary my schedule a little each week to stay on my toes and not get too settled into a routine. I find it’s harder to get started if I write at the same time week after week (except for my weekday mornings!).

Cynsational Notes

The New Voices Series is a celebration of debut authors of 2009. First-timers may also be featured in more traditional author interviews over the course of the year.