Friday, August 27, 2010

Friday Fricassee

Okay, writer-comrades. Let's chew on this one together, shall we?

Recently, someone tried to tell me how I "should" be writing my WIP. Not the actual plot, but the method. Plotter-vs.-pantser sort of thing.

You all know I'm a pantser. Or perhaps a pantser-in-recovery, as I make decided attempts at better organization along the way. Still, in the end, I do my best writing organically, and that's just the way it is. The way I am.

Now, I'm all about the journey toward improvement. Being open to critique is essential, reading good books is essential, sorting through advice and suggestions is essential. Notice I said "sorting through." Because it's not all going to be prime pickin'.

When it comes right down to it, though, the actual WAY that I write--my essential creative process--isn't going to drastically change. It may take me longer, or it may take me shorter. But it's like the set of lungs I've been given for breathing. I might breathe deeply or shallowly. I might cough or hiccup or hold my breath while I'm swimming. I might learn to use my diaphragm correctly to improve my singing, or I might smoke six packs a day and turn my lungs an attractive shade of black. But my lungs are my lungs. They will not essentially change.

Yeah, I know. That was one weird analogy.

So. This well-meaning person thinks my stories would work better if I constructed complete outlines first. And while I do see value in outlining, I have learned over and over again that it doesn't work for me. Really, truly, absolutely doesn't work.

It's like a physical pain, staring at that blank screen while trying to come up with the outline of a story that doesn't exist yet.

Joy-sucking. And if my joy is sucked dry, I won't want to write at all.

Jotting the story arc for a "book 2" is different. I've already got my world and my characters, and the screen doesn't feel quite so blank. But I'm still not going to write the story from a strict, worked-out-the-details-ahead-of-time outline. Even if I HAD that kind of outline, I imagine I'd veer pretty far from it as the story unfolded. It's how I work.

The main thing is to have a strong story AT THE END OF THE PROCESS. Strong plot. Strong story arc. Strong character arc. Strong worldbuilding. All the components in place regardless of how the author got there.

We're all different. And while I CRAVE honest critique and LOVE to hear about new plotting and worldbuilding techniques, I can't change the essence of my creative process. I've become more organized and less willing to jump into a new story without any direction at all. And I'm thankful for having learned the value of that.

But please. Don't tell me HOW to write! Tell me my latest story sucks; tell me you couldn't relate to my protag; tell me to start my story earlier or to up the tension or to create a longer, more satisfying denouement. Tell me to DO it, by all means. But don't tell me HOW.

I've watched Beth Revis flying by the seat of her pants on her latest WIP, and her debut novel is going to be amazing (yes, I do believe it is!). I've seen a picture of Holly Bodger's uber-organized plotting cork board and I stand in awe. (No, really. She knows this.) Holly has a novel out on submission right now and I'm sure it will sell (yes, I am!).

Two writers I admire. Two ways of writing. Should I tell one of them she's right and the other she's wrong? I don't think so.

So while I do appreciate the good intentions of my "you should write THIS way" advisor, I can't ultimately go there. I've changed many things about my writing over the last couple of years and I will (hopefully) continue to change, improve, grow. But to change my PROCESS? That's like changing my eye color. Yes, I'd like to be a better plotter, a better worldbuilder. And I can learn to do both! But my process is my process. It's separate from the actual writing.

Okay, your turn. Assess the way you work--the root-level, basic process that propels you. Do you feel like you could change that? If so, how?

And hey. If I'm whistling to myself way outside the ballpark, just tell me. (Especially you, Jodi Meadows.)


  1. I work like you. I have to tell myself the story first, meet the people, see the place--even when I'm creating visual art I have to start with me. Then I get everything organized. I've noticed that people who can work from the spark are engineers or architects: creative and awesome. I have to ignite the spark and smell the smoke then get the marshmallows. Ok my analogy is wonkier than yours!

  2. I agree that you can't tell someone how to create a story. That's like telling someone how to eat dinner. Eat the meat first, cutting small pieces and making sure to chew each bite 15 times, take a drink of milk, now start eating your vegetables...How absurd!

    I tend to let the story sit in my brain for awhile before I write anything down. Then I create what I call the "mess," which can include character sketches, major plot points, research, doodles, whatever. Then I start writing.

    I don't know that I could drastically change the way I work...maybe tweak it to make it better, but not make big changes.

  3. I normally pride myself on efficiency, but the way I write is probably the biggest waste of time imaginable. I don't outline, and even if I do, I don't follow it. I will write, oh say, 50 to 100 pages, then decide I don't like where it's going and scrap it. I start from scratch, sometimes doing it 2 or 3 times. If someone told me my process was horrible, I would probably agree. But I'm with you, I'm not gonna change it. With writing, it's about making it good, not efficient.

  4. I have to have an outline, but I don't necessarily adhere to it all of the time. I just need the security of thinking that I know where I'm going.

    When I read books I usually can't separate the seat-of-the-pants manuscripts from the outlined ones. I guess it boils down to what works for you in getting that first draft done and then revising and polishing like crazy.

  5. Your process is your own. It might change with the next book . . . or not.

    I know some of the points along the path of my story and I know how I want it to end. That's it.

    I enjoy learning about the characters when I write them. They surprise me, but I can always tie it back to some obscure thing I wrote at the beginning of the book.

    I'm currently 50 pgs into a new story and HAVE TO WRITE A SYNOPSIS. Talk about a soul-sucking process.

  6. To magolla--write the synopsis to tell what main turning pts you're going to hit. Be vague about how you're gonna get there. As long as "they" know you understand there's a reasonable path from A to X, "they'll" prob. be okay with that. Synopses are just another creative exercise--enjoy!

    As for today's topic...we can work on ways to streamline our process, make it more efficient, but no style points are given for HOW we got there. It's just gotta be good when it's done. Nobody says Monet was a great painter because he wore a beret while painting (or didn't). Authoress's advisor should MHOB :-)

  7. I attended a workshop recently that went into the brain processes of pantsers and plotters. Our minds actually work differently.

    Therefore, if a pantser forces herself to plot, she literally kills her own creativity. Our creativity shuts down once we know how everything is going to go (like in an outline.) On the flipside, plotters' creativity shuts down when they DON'T know where the story is going.

    I'd love to be a plotter, but I'm just not built that way. So, I've just learned to embrace the process that works for me. :)

  8. I agree with you that you can't change a person's working methodology - whether it's writing or anything else. Everyone is unique and has to get the job accomplished in the way that works best for them (the reason I left my last job).

    I'm a little bit of both. I don't really outline, but I do a kind of brain dump on paper where I start with "well, this happens here" and kind of think out loud to see where the story goes. Then I start writing independently from that, and if I forget where I wanted to go, I give it a glance back to remind myself.

    I have yet to have a story match an outline/brain dump when I'm done, but the background material...for me...helps remind me what I wanted to do.

  9. I love my corkboard ( but I know it's one of those things that doesn't work for everyone.

    And Authoress, the pic I showed you (above) is from "a good day." Right now, it looks like it was hit by a yellow sticky tornado! :-)

  10. It would be so boring if we all did it the same way!!!

    I'm mostly a pantster - but I do have the ending scene in mind. I usually have an ending scene & a beginning scene, I know my 2 main characters & then I start writing :)

  11. What a great post, Authoress! Every writer is different and how we write is deeply personal...and different.

  12. Excellent post as always. :) I'm a pantser as well. I've never had someone specifically tell me I needed to become a plotter, however I have sat in workshops where it was implied that ALL pubbed authors were of course plotters. (A huge falsehood ;)).

    I think all writers have to decided what works for them and them alone. Writing is subjective, so is the "best" way to do it ;).

  13. I agree with the poster that the advisor should MHOB. What a relevant post for me.

  14. Used to be a pantser, now I'm an outliner, and I must say, I'm surprised it took me so long to make the jump. I'm so ordered and scheduled in every other aspect of my life that outlining in writing just seems like a natural outgrowth of my personality.

    That said, I don't think everyone has to outline (especially if you've already tried it a few times, Authoress, and it hasn't worked). Sooner or later, every writer has to make concrete decisions - a lot of them - about his or her book, but the "sooner or later" is allowed. Outliners tend to make more decisions sooner, and pantsers more later, and that's okay.

    If there were one way to write, then there would probably be only one kind of book, and that would be kind of boring.

  15. I write not because I want to tell a story but because I want to discover a story. I start with a germ of an idea, an interesting character, a place or time, and then I set out to see what happens when I toss them all together. If I outline or even plot too much in my head, I know how the story goes. There's no drive for me to keep going. I keep myself writing each morning because I can't wait to find out what happens next. And I really hope I bring some of that excitement to the reader.

    It's a journey without a map, without hotel reservations, without even knowing whether you'll make it to the next gas station. Yes, sometimes I've broken down on the side of the road. Sometimes I've driven all night with no motel in sight. Sometimes I have to hike it on foot or retrace my steps in order to get on a decent route again. But, man, the unexpected adventures I find! The interesting people I meet! The random roadside attractions I discover! I just can't see that happening if I'm focused on getting to the next destination.

    My mother-in-law can't travel that way. She needs a detailed itinerary. She needs to know where she's stopping for lunch and at what time. Works for her and she always has a good time. But I wouldn't give up my travels for the world.

  16. "Joy sucking"

    You said it right there. If that's what it is, it won't work no matter how well it might work for the rest of the population. Same here with critique groups. I just quick mine. HAD to quit it. Because it was just that, "joy sucking"!!! If it doesn't fit into your own personal creative process, don't bother! YOU know what works for you and leave it at that.

    Smile and nod, and move on. You know how to do this...

  17. I really dislike when anyone tries to tell another how to do something creative. I mean, if you're an engineer for NASA, by all means, do exactly what you're told so there won't be any kind of catastrophe. But, in a creative field like writing, there are just so many ways to do the same thing.

    You can definitely learn from someone else by following their advice or their method, but even then you will eventually mold it into your own, unique method. I'm an art major in college and I constantly get people telling me how to do things. Not professors, mind you, but other students. I have to remind myself that the important thing to do at this stage of my academic career is to take risks, make mistakes, and learn.

    Personally, I always need an outline, but an incredibly rough one that allows me a lot of room. If not, my writing starts getting stale.

  18. I'm one of those people who can't write when faced with a blank word file. Instead, I do "synopses" for lack of a better word, writing them longhand in my notebook. Everything is present tense, but other than that, there's not much rhyme or reason to my technique.

    I just write down what events unfold as I see them in my head, and how the important characters feel about those events. Sometimes it's just a scene, sometimes it's a plot arc for the whole or part of the novel.

    Then I figure out how my characters will react to said situations, but this often changes by the time I actually get to typing up the scene. So, even though I have something planned, I don't always go with it if it doesn't feel right by the time I've added dialogue, narrative, etc.

    I often ask myself questions in these hypothetical synopses, like would it be better if character a said this in private, or in front of others? How does this affect the plot, other characters, etc? So by asking myself questions as I plot, I can examine multiple outcomes for any given scenario before I'm ready to type it.

    It's messy, but writing longhand helps me brainstorm.

  19. It's difficult to find a balance in accepting some advice, adopting some advice and also ignoring some advice.

    I think it is good to experiment with things that may seem counterintuitive, because you can only truly know if something fits you after trying it. But I guess ultimately, a lot of things that you started out with are the best fit.

    It is often more a matter of polishing and tweaking methods than radically change them.

  20. I find the outliners are usually those with clean, organized desks.

    I hate them. I bet their checkbooks are balanced, too. And if you look in their file labeled "receipts", you will actually find receipts. Amazing.

    And then there are the rest of us, those who file on the floor and are pretty sure our desk has a top, but we wouldn't bet money on it. All through college we wrote our outlines AFTER we completed our papers, and only because the prof insisted we hand one in. Same with our synopses.

    I wish I could be more organized in my writing life, but my characters won't let me. I remember when one of my supporting characters disclosed to me she was gay. I had no idea! When I looked back it all made sense, and I was very glad she trusted me enough to tell me. Her story will be highlighted in a later sequel (assuming there is a sequel, and a prequel!)

    There are just different types of people, which is what makes the world so great. No one way is better than the other, it's all what works for you.

    But if one of you organized types wants to write my synopsis, come on over!

  21. Oh I so HEAR you on this. I can't do a detailed outline either, kills it for me. But I do do a kind of loose thing where I give a sentance or two or three describing what each chapter will be about. This seems to work well for me. It's plain, it's simple and it doens't get in the way.

  22. I don't look forward to November, not because the days are getting short and it's gloomy but because I feel like most of the writers in the universe are telling me I should write a first draft in a month.

    You know what, I'm a slow and steady kind of girl and everytime I go for fast drafting, I end up with a mess.

    But maybe someday fast drafting will work for me--and maybe someday you'll want to work with the world's most detailed outline. The important thing to me is that we are what we are today--and are free to use a differnt technique tomorrow if we want. Them's my writing rules.

  23. I CANNOT plot, CANNOT outline. It sickens me and frustrates me, and it makes the process seem clinical and boring with a capital B.

    I pantster it almost all if not entirely ALL the way through. The characters will speak to me and take unforseen turns and twists down my storylines road, so I just make sure to go through my entire wor to make sure there is continuity of the ideas/themes. Sometimes I have to revise some sections and sometimes I throw in a foreshadowing or two that weren't there in the begginning so that it matches my middle and end.

    Please don't tell me to outline, that's for boring stuff like compositions and essays, man!

  24. It's all about you now, isn't it? I know in my world, it's all about me. I am a plotter, but I change things up as needed as I go along. That's just how this girl rolls and that's all there is to it. Same for you, I know.

    One thing to note: being a plotter doesn't mean that you have to stick to anything you've plotted or outlined. It just means you have a road map. And how often do you veer off the road to sightsee? I'll bet often. Rigidity kills creativity.

    Now, blogging, there I'm a pantser all the way.

  25. Everyone's process is different. Sometimes it takes a while to learn what yours is, and fine tune it, but everyone's is different. There is no right or wrong way.

    Other popular wisdom: You don't learn how to write books. You learn how to write *this* book.

  26. I'm a pantser attempting to become a plotter. It's for a good reason -- I have basically zero time to write these days (working mom), but I do have time to think through the plot while commuting.

    I'll be very interested to find out whether knowing the entire story in advance will kill my desire to write it, once I actually can sit down and put words on paper.

  27. I wrote two novels by the seat of my pants and it seemed to work out well -- at least in terms of getting the words down. Now I'm trying to outline the third novel and I'm having a hard time. I seem to spend a lot of time spinning my wheels. I think having an idea of where I want to go and a sense of character and overall story line is all I need. Too much outlining and plotting seems to suck the life out of me and I get stalled. I think each writer has to find what works for them -- experiment but stick with what feels right.

  28. I'm pretty much a panstser. A writer friend of mine had done a great post on how well her outlining technique worked and how at the end it gave her a solid, well-planned novel to revise from. I thought to myself, 'What the heck, why not give it a try?'

    So I used her outline technique (which was very thourough) and plotted out all the scenes and goals of the novel. I knew it all. I started writing...and struggled...and finally quit. Why? because at heart, I'm a pantser. When I KNOW what is going to happen next, I have no interest in writing it. There's no excitement. I stopped writing the novel at the halfway point. And it was a great storyline too.

    What I learned is do what works for you. If what you're doing isn't working, then yes in the name of zombies test out some new techniques. But if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  29. Thank you for this post! I am a pantser. (I feel like I'm in a self-help group.) ; ) I've tried to be 'responsible' and determine plot arcs, fill out charts, excels, etc. You hit the nail on the head. It's joy-sucking. I find I must drag myself to the computer, force my fingers to open the document and then stare at the blinking curser until I give up.

    Instead I gave up attempting to transform myself.

    How can I write about these people before I know them? How do I know what they're going to do until I explore the path they're taking? <--- my pantsers creed.

    Keep up the good work, and I know I don't 'know' you, though I follow you on Twitter and read this blog from time to time, *stalker much?* but I think I know you well enough to say anon doesn't know what he or she is talking about. Your CPs would tell you the truth about any MS--kindly and firmly (maybe with cookies if it was really bad)but the truth.

    That's my two cents.

  30. Yikes, there's someone out there who knows exactly how we should write?

    I'm with you (although a plotter) you know what works for you.

    For me, it's always interesting to learn about how others do it, but I need to bend their ideas and techniques to my use not the other way around.

  31. Wow. You all have such interesting approaches. I wish mine was just as awesome.

    I typically get several ideas a day for a book but few of them actually get my heart pounding harder and faster. When I get an idea it's usually just one sentence long. I write it down and let it sit for a while... like a few days to a few weeks for the characters to develop, the world, the plot, etc. Then I write from beginning to end, no chapter 2 then chapter 33 then chapter 19. I write from chapter 1 until the end.