Category Archives: J. H. Tabbott, author – books and articles

JHT author notes, books, short stories, promotions, reviews, articles, and upcoming events.

Pantsing, Plotting, and Sussing

 

Pantsing, and Plotting, and Sussing …      Oh My!

I’ve read a number of literary discussions on the relative merits of “pantsing” versus “plotting” when it comes to developing one’s story line, and have always been left in a little quandary as to which I’ve done when writing my first novel, “The Expanding Seas”. I didn’t start out with a plot. I began only with a scenario that I found intriguing.

As I wrote, the typical form of most SciFi/adventure plots took shape. I placed my protagonists in the most impossible position. They would have to outwit their captors, overcome great odds, recognize and accept they had a greater responsibility, and ultimately take action to protect others. Obviously, this is a common trope in many genres.

But wait! Not so fast! Rather than plot out how I’d lead my characters and story toward resolution, I found myself approaching each new chapter in their journey from the standpoint of “why have these particular obstacles been placed in front of them”, “what would they need to do next”, and “how might this affect their goals”.

I had already set up a myriad of questions in my opening chapters. I felt I really needed to answer each to properly grasp the next logical action or event – before I could move on. Sussing these out, recognizing this natural progression, is what drove each successive chapter. Moreover, it’s what logically forced twisting the plot before the end.

Now, I won’t suggest that Sussing – as a concept – should be given an equal place next to Pantsing and Plotting. Perhaps it might be regarded a subset to plotting. But I do suspect it fits somewhere in between the two.

You start your story, establish the rules of your story world, then must follow those rules. If you are writing SciFi, or procedural (detective) novels, some of these rules may be strict, leading you down the same path to discovery as your characters. And the more confidant and professional you make your characters – both heroes and villains – the narrower that path will be. Their logic begins leading you down the path to a better understanding of the world you created, and maybe even of your own world.

My own sussing led me in an entirely new direction, and dramatically affected my novel’s theme.

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Protocols, Procedures, and Rules…Oh My!

Having already staked out a position on bad rules, it seems only appropriate that I should give equal time to the value of good rules – in general, at least.

OneTwoThree.

(Scene from MGM’s classic 1, 2, 3…with James Cagney)

The reason we constantly surround ourselves by “best” and “required” practices is to get through life in the least stressful, most efficient and productive manner.

Being human, we are, after all, toolmakers. Much like a computer, hammer, and test tube, these protocols, procedures, and (yes) rules are simply tools. Their purpose is to help us get the job – whatever that may be – done in the best way we can manage!

This brings up two questions. The first is “what is the right tool for the job”. If you have a box of screws and some wood to assemble, do you use a hammer? Obviously, a screwdriver would be better. But then there is that adage “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. Remember that? Good! Now forget it. Go out and buy a damned screwdriver.

IMG_1180The second question is “are these the best tools for the job”. This is more subtle. If you have some hammering, sawing, screwing, and gluing to be done on your project, do you buy the ten-pound hammer, hand saw, long handled screw-driver, and Elmer’s Glue? Or do you buy the heavy-duty electric stapler, a saber saw,IMG_0055 an electric drill, and a water-proof epoxy? Now there are variables. Each must be taken into account to formulate your answer.

In fact, now you have multiple variables affecting your decision on each tool. How big is your project – i.e. how much repetitive action will be involved with each function? What type of materials will you be working on – thin, soft wood? thick, hard wood? And how many projects of this nature will you be participating in, in the future? Will it be just this once? Will this be one of a series of similar projects you’ll need to do? How much time can you allot to this project? Need it yesterday? Need it next week? Plus how precise must your work be? Impeccable quality? Rough, simple and functional? Some place in between?

I’ll assume you’ve got the idea. Answers to these questions will help determine what tools – protocols, procedures, or rules – will work. However, the one safe, albeit generic, takeaway you can get from this exercise, is that most tasks can be successfully accomplished in several ways. What practices are good, better, best, or awful will depend upon your individual situation. The difference, if any, will be in their relative efficiency.

Let’s look at your woodworking project. You have flexibility in the order of work, and the safeguards you choose. You might cut all the wood to size in advance of doing any assembly. You might instead begin assembly of some parts as you finish cutting each piece. Neither practice will be wrong, but their relative efficiencies will depend upon your allotment of time and your immediate objectives. Do you need to turn out a number of units quickly? Then the piecemeal approach might be more effective. Do you need to complete the entire batch quickly? Then doing the cutting, then assembly in stages might be better.

Either way, you get the job done, and get it done right. But the procedure – tool – you choose must fit your objectives and deadlines.

Note that the physical tools you have at your disposal, whether hammer and nail, or computer and software, still affect your final efficiencies. The more automated your tools are, the shorter, simpler your protocols, and the more efficient your overall operation can be.

Bottom line – no procedures, protocols, or rules are – or should be – carved in stone. There are only “best and latest” practices that fit your current situation. The truly “best practice” is to recognize best practice is a moving target, and that organizations should always review and strive to achieve better. The tools – protocols – you

Four friends accept responsibility
(Four teammates dedicated to established  procedures embrace exciting new conditions.)

 use today were developed over time through trial and failure,

In a changing world, when you stop reviewing and refining your procedures – stop updating your tools – you stagnate and set yourself up for failure.

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Book Review: SLEEPING PLANET by William K. Burkett Jr.

I have read and loved hard SciFi my whole life. However,  I first read this when I was only thirteen. It is not hard SciFi. The science isn’t even remotely accurate. But it was irresistible – unquestionably the first science fiction “DIE HARD” of its day

DSCN0835You get a resourceful hero who is determined not to lose, but who faces overwhelming odds (an entire occupation force). There is also the reliable outsider who can’t participate in the action, but whose efforts still aid the hero’s fight. And you have the clever villain, slowly tracking down and boxing in the hero.

Earth and its Venus* and Mars settlements have been at war with the invading Llarian forces for years, stalemated. To break the stalemate, the Llarians devise a plan to place the billions of humans on these planets into a hibernation-like sleep, and use them as hostages. It is spectacularly successful, except for a small handful of “unaffecteds” – humans who did not succumb to the sleep.

One among these is Rierson, an Atlanta lawyer and avid hunter, alone in the Georgia backwoods when the “big sleep” takes place. Another is Donovan, a crippled London truck driver, with a grouchy disposition and a sharp wit. Donovan uses his wits to intimidate his superstitious Llarian guards with stories about his Grandpa’s ghost wanting revenge. Riersen fights his way through squads of invading troops, while he tries to figure out what has happened.

Donovan’s tall tales begin to spread among the Llarian ranks, and stories of Rierson’s exploits begin giving them credence. As each learns of the other’s efforts, they both focus on creating fear and panic in the ranks of the Llarian occupation force.

While rank and file “Larrys” are fretting over being murdered by Earth’s ghosts, a brilliant Llarian  intelligence officer is putting together the puzzle pieces and tracking down Rierson. He sets a trap, and draws the net closer and closer to capture Rierson.

The rest I leave to readers to discover for themselves. Rierson’s tactics and  solution are imaginative, and are sheer fun to read. I always wished Hollywood would make a movie of this, and with the ILM class graphics now available, the ending would be joyously fun Hollywood magic.

Bruce Willis may have saved the people in the Nakatoma Tower, but Rierson very coolly saves the world.  This is a fast, fun, action-filled yarn from start to finish. On the Pizza Scale, I’d give it eight slices.

*I doubt the “science” in this book was even accurate  when it was first published in 1964. If not, obviously the publishers decided to overlook that weakness. I was recently surprised to find it had been reprinted (after a long hiatus) in 2012.  All they changed was the cheesy 60’s SciFi cover (robots & guns), although the new cover is rather blah (a tree – go figure). The cheesy one is actually better. And classic.

Burkett was only eighteen when he wrote this, and probably not worried about research or accuracy. At the same time, he clearly had a logical mind, and his character’s actions – both the heroes and villains – reflected that clear logic, thereby making the story more interesting (I hate when authors have smart characters do dumb things just to advance the plot). 

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