Magical Pantsing and Finding Your Creative Flow

I put up my Halloween decorations yesterday – and brought in the hummingbird feeders at the same time. That felt like a symmetrical seasonal changeover, all happening in the due course of the seasons.

So, on Monday, in a fit of frustrated eye-rolling, I fired off this tweet:

To my vast surprise, this tweet has received SO MANY likes and responses. Clearly I wasn’t the only one feeling this frustration. Quite a few people wrote back about feeling the pressure to learn to pre-plot. I’ve felt it, too. There’s a strong opinion in the writing community – and maybe in the world at large – that outlining and pre-plotting is the best way to write. That it’s faster, more organized, requires less revision later.

The thing is: it’s just not true.

I mean, sure for some people, that process works. It’s certainly the one we’re taught in school (for the most part). But I was the student who hated trying to write an outline before I wrote the paper. I tried, but it was agonizing. Finally I figured out to just write the paper, then make an outline from it, and turn that in. If the teacher or professor had comments or tweaks (which almost never happened), I could add them in. Though those were the days before word processing, so I’d have to retype the paper. STILL, doing it that way was faster for me, and produced better work.

This is key: we must find what works for each of us individually and honor that process. Those people who insist that we not only CAN learn a “better” way, but *should* – and I can vouch that a few people popped into my timeline to say things like “No offense, but you have to learn this if you want to sell books” – are not being helpful. (Also, I really think that if you feel compelled to start a reply with “No offense, but…” or “Honestly…” then maybe you’re not engaging in a  positive way.)

But “Pantsing” – derived from the phrase “fly by the seat of your pants,” and not my favorite descriptor by a long shot – is a way to access creative flow. I prefer to call it Writing for Discovery or Gardening. (I talked about this more on yesterday’s podcast, but for those who don’t listen, I’m reiterating a bit here.) For me, getting into the trance of writing opens up portals to other places, and the story flows in from there. “Gardening” is an analogy with a similar feel, where the beginning of the story is all planting seeds, the middle is nourishing the garden, and the ending is when it blossoms – and you discover what you’ve got.

Writing this way is absolutely an act of faith. It requires giving up conscious control of the story, which feels most uncomfortable to many people. It’s really the opposite of the academically taught methods, which focus on a cerebral approach. Sure, I get that many of my author friends access creative and subconscious flow in pre-plotting a story and writing the outline. Sadly, those conscious brain activities open no portals for me.

Several responders made the point that perhaps more pre-plotting and story-planning classes are taught because those methods *are* eminently more teachable. Which is a super valid point. In some ways, teaching someone to give up control and leap into the creative flow is nearly impossible. It’s so individual.

BUT, I think we can teach that this is an absolutely viable – and magical – way to access stories. We can make it clear that many, many authors who sell books (myself included) write this way. And we can talk about ways to open those portals, and how to keep them open. Also: not to panic.

So, I think I’m going to try this. I’m seeing about setting up a class. I’m also considering podcasting daily during NaNoWriMo with tips on pantsing your way through the month-long challenge. (There is, apparently, a podcast version called NaPodPoMo.) I’m also considering getting the author coaching set up and providing personalized support for writers during NaNoWriMo. If any of these ideas sound good to you, please let me know!

 

Worldbuilding – Foundation Process or Procrastination?

Our topic this week at the SFF Seven – one entirely appropriate for science fiction and fantasy authors – is “spending time on worldbuilding vs. actual drafting – what’s your balance?” Come on over to find out more. 

Early Stages – Who Should Help You Plot?

In keeping with our story-writing theme – last week we talked about how much space to give to the denouement – our topic at the SFF Seven this week focuses on the Early Stages of Plot Development. Do we work alone, with critique partner, developmental editor, or in a round-table group.

 

My answer is that this has changed dramatically for me over the course of my writing career – and it can vary by book. Plus, just recently I’ve done something Totally New, which isn’t even on that list. Come on over to find out what that is!

Of Hamsters, Pantsing and Becoming Creative

COqFN43XAAMDOlhI still get a total thrill when people send me pics of my books on the shelves. Maybe one day I’ll get over it, but not so far. Could be I’m getting tiresome about it because I showed my mom a pic on my phone that someone sent and said, “photos like this make me so happy!” And she said, “I know,” in that *tone* people get, like when you’ve said something too many times.

But, hey. Look! Me and Guy Gavriel Kay!

Hee hee hee.

I’m over at Word Whores today, trying to explain more about my process and why I don’t really care about learning to pre-plot my books.

How an Intuitive Gardener (Okay: Pantser) Creates Conflict & Outer Motivation

Carolyn Crane File Feb 22, 8 43 40 AMI’m lucky to have my crit partner and good friend, Carolyn Crane, visiting me for a few days. This involves much time spent writing, drinking and talking about writing. Perfection!

She’s even going to help me plot my next series, which is awesome, because she’s WAY better at plotting than I am. As in, she actually *does* it instead of my weirdly organic gardening method of plotting. Apropos of that, I’m over at Word Whores this morning, giving my non-plotter’s take on Development of character outer motivation and outer conflict.

Song Mash-ups and Fun Ways of Looking at Story Structure

Isabel 1_22_13Tomorrow is Isabel’s 7th birthday, so this is her birthday portrait.

I’ve been working diligently on the Phantom story, laying down the words, working up the story. (I feel really hip saying it like that, like “laying down the tracks.” I’ve been kind of obsessed with Pitch Perfect and how songs mash-up. That, however, is probably a different, but related post.)

It’s been interesting because, as you may or may not recall, this will be an eSerial. The story will be broken into six parts, released 2-4 weeks apart. I’m surprised at how much this feels like a new form to me. Normally I set up my story according the classic three-act structure. If you aren’t familiar, that means the Act I climax occurs around 25%, the midpoint or story hinge around 50%, the Act II climax at 75%, Act III climax at ~90% followed by denouement and assorted wrap-up. The simplest explanation I’ve heard for the three acts is: get your protagonist up a tree, throw rocks at him/her, get him or her down again. With the Phantom story, I figured out my overall arc and then set up mini-arcs for each episode as well. It makes for an interesting rhythm.

Lest you think I actually plot things out ahead of time, however, let me disabuse you of that notion immediately. I don’t. I can’t, really. I’m a write-for-discovery kind of gal and I seem to be unable to figure out the story any other way.  I’m at peace with that. The writers who extensively plot and outline ahead of time usually call this “pantsing” as in “flying by the seat of your pants.” I don’t much like this term. I think it says more about their fear of being out of control than anything salient about my method.

I was realizing, as I worked up this new structure, that this is like stretching canvas for me. I have painter friends and I love to watch them prepare canvas. One taught me how, so I could easily transport one of his paintings home and re-stretch it. They assemble the wooden frame to a particular size, choose the type of canvas they want, pull it tight over the frame and staple or nail it on. Then they add various gessos or other foundations, depending on their plans. (At this point I get fuzzy on the details.)

This is how setting up the story is for me: choosing the size, the foundation, with a sense of how it will eventually look. Then I paint the picture.

The other really cool thing I discovered is how my structures interweave. Oh look, I’m back to the mash-up thing. Guess it IS related. See, if you don’t know, a mash-up is when they take two or more different songs and weave them together. They might share a rhythm line and then the melodies work around each other, playing in counterpoint and blending, creating an entirely new song. Forgive me if I’m getting terms wrong, because I’m just not very good at understanding music. I *want* to understand, so I listen intently to this kind of thing, wanting to organically GET how this works.

An old boyfriend once cited the fact that I listen to the same songs over and over again as one factor in him dumping me. I can see that. But I also see how my tendency to get fixated on something like this also contributes to my understanding of other things. I didn’t get why I’ve been listening to the Pitch Perfect mash-ups on iPod over and over until just now.

My story is working the same way. Okay – if you hate math, leave now. But this is an example of what I found out. If I do 6 15K episodes, that’s 90K, give or take. That’s my overall frame. The Act I climax of the overall story takes place then around 22,500 words. That’s in the second episode. By the end of Act I, I should have my protagonist thoroughly up a tree – all the story clues and components should be in place. If I look at the internal structure of Episode 2, the midpoint, the story hinge, where things really change direction, occurs at 7,500 words into the 15K episode (halfway), which is at 22,500 words overall. Do you see? The overall Act I climax will be the SAME EVENT as the Episode 2 midpoint!

Isn’t that cool??

Just me?

If it were a musical mash-up, it would be that point where the two songs spiral up together and hit that came climactic note, for one harmonious moment.

We’ll see if it works like I hope it will. Off to paint in some images!

Mosaics and Misting

This morning at the gym, the guy lifting weights nearby had his music up loud enough that some leaked from his ear buds. He was listening to the Superman theme music. Somehow this both made me laugh and endeared me to him. Go Superman guy! Build those tasty muscles!

I totally want to build a character around that now.

Today is a very special Happy Birthday to my mom. Many of you already passed along good wishes last week during my surprise visit.

My mom’s new project is making mosaics.She took a class to learn how and now she’s creating this table top. It’s really perfect for her, because she shines at combining shapes and color. Pressed into service – and because my avowed task for the visit was to do whatever she wanted to do – I helped her put it together. It’s fun and different, like a puzzle where you don’t know what the picture will be when you’re done.

Oh, wait, that’s how I write.

It’s a good analogy, really. You choose the general shape of your story, the outline, the themes, the color scheme. You might have several really wonderful pieces that you know have to be in there, that you build around. But the final picture only emerges when you’ve finished.

This was actually the second time my mom put this together. The first time she had only the vertical border around the outside edge, which looked all wrong to her, once she finished. So, she took it apart and added the second, horizontal border. She kind of minded having to do that, but she’s retired and has this lovely leisurely life, so she has the time.

One of my friends wants to “reform” and learn to be a plotter. She’s said that she wants to save the time it takes by “pantsing” her books and plot first. It put me in mind of another comment I saw by a person who says that she’s a pantser and that’s why her blogs are so unfocused.

I think this last is like seeing the mosaic needs one more border and adding it in. The unfocused isn’t from not planning every detail ahead of time, it’s being unwilling to take the time to fix it. As for wanting to save that time in the first place, well, I understand. I totally do.

But I think it’s the wrong reason.

The press of time is artificial, I think. It’s emotionally driven. We want to write more books, faster, to make more money, to quite our day jobs and be rich RIGHT NOW.

It’s a kind of hysteria, really.

Another friend of mine, Bria Quinlan, wrote a terrific post on this, called I Am Not Broken. She gets down to the point that writing is about doing the work. Let me add, it’s about the journey, the creation, the spinning of the story. You might hasten this process with extensive pre-plotting, but you still have to write the story. You might plan out exactly how the mosaic should look when you’re done, but you still have to put the pieces all together.

And be willing to take them apart again, if it doesn’t look right.

I can understand wanting to get the product out there, but art, any art, is about engaging ourselves in the creative process. My mom isn’t making mosaics to sell. She’s making it for the sheer joy of it.

She’ll have something beautiful when she’s done, too.

Murky Is as Murky Does

A while back, I took a class in play-directing.

Okay, this was almost twenty years ago. So a titch more than a while.

At any rate, I had several reasons for doing it. I was in grad school getting a PhD in neurophysiology and all the science was making me feel like a left-brain cripple. Some of my best times in college had been running with the theater crowd. I took enough acting classes and performed in enough shows that I could have added a theater minor to my biology major, had it occurred to me. In grad school, I found myself lonely among the science-heads. I auditioned for a play, but I’m really not a very good actress. Where they didn’t know me, they didn’t even toss me the bit parts I’d had before.

(Yeah – the role I played in Equus? I totally got it because the director called me when the actress he’d cast was so offended at the role’s minor nature. Ask Jeffe – she’ll do it! It was fun, too.)

So, I thought I could break into the scene and make some little friends in the bargain, by taking a class. Finally, I was noodling about creative writing and I recalled how the Assistant Director of Equus had been an MFA student in playwriting and his adviser suggested he learn how to direct, to better understand how a script comes alive on stage.

(He also might have been a handsome blond from New Orleans with whom I had a little love affair, but that’s beside the point.)

It didn’t work out so well. I remained an outsider in the theater clique. Plus, because I was an outsider, I had a great deal of trouble casting my scenes – all the best people got snapped up by their friends.

However, I did learn something very interesting that serves me still today.

Though I seem to need to relearn the lesson, over and over.

The course culminated in two nights of One-Act Plays open to the public. Five of us put together about half an hour long plays. Mine was this creepy one (I forget the name) about a cold marriage where the wife kills the husband’s cat – either deliberately or through negligence. The husband then channels the cat (either becomes the cat or just flips out), stalks and attacks the wife.

It was a cool play.

And people liked it. They really liked it! (That’s me channeling Sally Fields.) I loved people telling me how they enjoyed it, with their faces lit up. You don’t get that in science. Then they’d say, “except I didn’t get if she killed the cat on purpose or not.” Or they’d say “I didn’t really understand if he was crazy or if it was the cat’s spirit.” This wasn’t in a contemplative, I’ll have to mull over the implications way. They were genuinely confused.

I realized that, in every spot of this little 30 to 45 minutes, where I hadn’t been crystal clear on what was going on, the audience hadn’t known either.

I thought I could leave some bits murky, but I lost them in every place I did.

Yeah, you know where this is going. I’ve completed the storyboard for The Body Gift. You can see it in all its Post-It glory above. I’m eliminating an entire POV, because its murky and I have a choice of de-murking (yes, that’s a word) or nuking it. I’m not sure I can de-murk, so off it goes.

The pink and dark blue notes? Those are places where I’m not crystal clear on why the characters are doing and saying what they do and say. See, my particular curse as a writer is I follow the characters and write the story as it happens to them. This means that I have to find out things about their world that they don’t tell me straight out. It doesn’t feel to me like I get to make it up.

The writers who plot out ahead of time call us Pantsers, because they see us as flying by the seat of our pants. I prefer the term Mister. That’s how it feels to me – like I sink into the mist and things come to me out of it.

It’s just not always easy to get the exact right thing to come out when I want it.

But, it’s clear I have to. Where I was murky on this story, the readers were confused.

Lesson learned.

And remind me next time.