Sunday, March 05, 2006

Doing It My Way--And Doubting It

I knew I wanted to be a novelist when I was in junior high, and being the compulsive person that I am, I went to the library and checked out about half a dozen books on how to write a novel. I wanted to learn how "real" authors write. I don't know if I just got lucky or if the library skewed its choice of titles, but every single book was written by a plotter.

The more I read, the more disheartened I became. I didn't do any of these things the authors said I had to do in order to be a "real" writer. I can't say if it was only my perception as a teenager or if it really was true, but I recall there being a tone of It Must Be Done This Way in each of those how-to books.

As you may have guessed, I'm a seat of the pants writer by nature, but at fourteen, I didn't realize there were plotters and pantsers. All I knew was the books said I had to do it their way and I didn't. But I decided that I could learn. I had my mom drive me to Target and I bought 3x5 index cards. I already had the cork board, now all I needed was plot points to write on the cards.

I struggled for weeks. I had to renew the books from the library. I struggled some more. These plotter methods sapped every last drop of joy from storytelling, and I knew if I ever wanted to write, I couldn't do it like the books said.

Even in the eighth grade I was determined (My mom called it stubborn) and I decided that I was going to do it my way. I returned the books to the library and tossed the index cards in a drawer. Maybe I'd never be a "real" writer, but at least I was going to enjoy writing again. And I did. I found the fun I'd lost trying to be a plotter.

Because of this experience as a teenager, I'm very sensitive to any author telling someone they have to write one way. Whenever someone asks me about how I do it, I always end by saying, "but you should do whatever works for you. There is no wrong way to write."

But part of me is still this impressionable fourteen-year-old girl, certain that her way is somehow wrong. As much as I love to read author blogs, I have a really hard time when they start talking about their process because I never seem to do anything the same way as another author does it.

I just sit down and write.

I'm a seat of the pants writer and slow, but my first draft is usually fairly close to the final version of my book. Yes, I have holes to plug, and yes, there's a lot of clean up to do, but I rarely write scenes that don't make it into the story.

Yet it seems inevitable that about the time I'm cruising along with my writing, I'll see a blog where the author does do a lot of cutting and rearranging and I start wondering, well, maybe I'm wrong, maybe I should be gutting my stories more. I always have to remind myself that my way works for me. Maybe I'm so slow because my subconscious is working out what scene is the right one to come next.

Or I'll find a blog where the author writes her first draft in like three weeks and then fleshes it out. I can't do that. I know I can't, but I still struggle with whether this way is the right way. But I know if I laid out my story in a barebones way, it's told and I'd have to fight to work on it because my mind would be so ready to move onto the next idea. Yet there are writers who swear by this method. It works for them.

Am I the only one who struggles not to feel as if I'm doing something wrong when I read how other authors write? Do other seat of the pants writers feel guilty, as if they're doing something wrong for not plotting ahead of time? And the big question for me, do plotters ever doubt their methods of writing? Do they ever think they should be more of a pantser? Or is this questioning only for seat of the pants writers? (Or is it just me?)


Sharon Schulze said...

Patti, your method sounds a lot like mine. What I write in my draft (pretty much my only draft) generally ends up, with minor tweaking for typos, etc. as my final draft.

I hear you on the doubt issue; in my case, I'm fighting my inner engineer (my former profession). That nagging pest keeps telling me if I just write x pages/day, the book will be done in so many days . . . and don't I want to _plan_, to be organized? Argh! You'd think by now I'd be pretty good at shutting up the nagging voice.

I guess we need to accept what works for us--our way is no more "wrong" than anyone else's is right.

Much easier said than done, unfortunately.

Sally MacKenzie said...

Well, my guess is plotters can write the how to books because they have a nice tidy system.

I think I'm a mix--a little plotting, a little pantsing. My first step in starting a new book is to panic. I'll never be able to do this. I have no ideas. I have no plot. Then I start to think about my characters. I do write a few index cards on what my characters are like and I jot down some ideas about a plot. I get a scene or two that I want to write. And then I start. Suffering seems to be a necessary part of the deal.

Some famous writer once wrote--I hope I'm not mangling this too much--that writing is easy. Just open a vein.

Colleen Thompson said...

I think I'm a mix of plotter and pantser, too. I used to write completely by the seat of the pants, but it wasn't working for me. I was always writing myself into blind alleys and having to ditch hundreds of pages. It took forever and frustrated me to bits. Besides, after my first sale, I wanted to sell on proposal, which meant I had to cough up a synopsis before finishing the book. But the joy of surprising myself was too much to give up.

I compromise by writing blind for the first two or three chapters to get to know my characters and flesh out my premise. While writing, I try to picture my "target": an ideal outcome I imagine my poor, flawed characters to grow toward. Then I write a synopsis that tells a bare bones story of how the characters arrive there. Of course, I leave out most of the subplots, secondary characters, etc. Then while I'm writing the book, I surprise myself with these elements. Plus, I almost invariably think of something stronger than the original plan along the way. But I do write my way to that ideal outcome I originally envisioned. The details are very different when I finish, but I like having a target at which to aim.

But that's just what works for me. I sure wish I knew an easier way, because at the three-quarter mark in every single manuscript, I hit the wall - a place where I can see absolutely no way possible to resolve the story and get to the HEA. At this point, I always want to call my editor and ask if we can forget about the whole book, no hard feelings, because it's Never Going to Work. But alas, I've already spent the portion of the advance I've received. Plus, I have past experience to go by, which tells me my brain balks whenever I get to the hard part. And so, after much angsting, I go ahead and finish.

And since I write fairly slowly and agonize and edit along the way, my first draft is pretty much (aside from a few minor things and about 10K typos) the finished product.

Nancy Morse said...

Patti, there's no right way or wrong way, only your own way. Whatever works. For me starting a book is the hardest part. It's like the Chinese water torture, slow and painful. I write a fairly lengthy synopsis which I then break down into chapters and follow pretty faithfully to the end. I'm good with characterizion and dialogue, it's plotting that's my bane. Sometimes I feel like I'm brain dead. So I start with what little I have and build from there until things just seem to fall into place. When I first started writing, I wrote random scenes and then pieced them together in chronological order. Now I write from beginning to end. Like I said, whatever works.

Sharon Schulze said...

Nancy, do you find you write somewhat slowly at first, then speed up as you get more and more into the book? Chapters 4 - 7 or so are more difficult for me, but the more I get into the story, the faster I seem to go. By the last quarter of the book I feel like I'm on a runaway train!

I guess I'm a blend of pantser and plotter; I do need the structure of an outline (I'm a linear thinker, and I need some clue where I'm going next), but if I make it too detailed, it can bog things down instead of helping (maybe not enough room for creativity?). Years ago I tried the detailed planning with index cards, and found it didn't work for me at all.

Everyone works differently, and I swear, some books are different than others, too.

It's always challenging!

K from Chandler, Az said...

I want to be a writer and have no idea how to go about it. I was at a plotting workshop and had almost 2 chapts lined out and the instructor holding the class asked me lots of questions I could not answer about my characters and seemed upset with me when I did not know the answers. Then she told me if the conflict between the heroine and hero could be solved in a conversation there was no book. Now I agree with all of this. What she said to me was correct!

When I asked for more she couldn't give it to me and somehow made feel stupid for asking. In the three weeks since that workshop I have felt like I will never accomplish this. I am going to a conference in April, but I want to write now. I have no idea where to turn or what to say. I have joined a local RWA chapt and a couple online. I don't even know what to post. I would love to know if I am a plotter or pantser. Now I just feel helpless.

-Sad and confused

gailbarrett said...

Hi "sad and confused" - the good news is that even published writers feel like you do! I think we are all rather neurotic about what we do. I used to follow the books and make detailed outlines but nothing sold. I think the reason was that I was TOO focused on plot and pushing my characters around. Now what I do is think about the characters. I need to know their internal and external GMC's (goal, motivation and conflict). "Sad" -- if you haven't read Deb Dixon's fabulous GMC book, I suggest you start there. I also need to know what will happen in the black period and how it will get resolved. I HATE it when people say we should be making detailed character charts. I just don't do that. If I had to wait until I knew my characters' favorite colors and food, etc. before I started writing, I would never write at all. I don't even know my own favorite color:)! Anyhow, the bottom line is (for me) that no matter how you do it, writing is hard and stressful. You just go ahead and do it anyway. Only take the advice that makes sense for you. Try not to let the doubts get you down. That's my opinion.

JoAnn Ross said...

First of all, Dear Sad and Confused, your instructer was wrong. Maybe knowing everything ahead of times works for her, but if I had to depend on that, I'd still be at book one. I come to know my characters the same way I do people in real life. Over time. Part of the fun and excitement of writing is the discovery. if your local chapter is the one in Phoenx, you'll find lots of help! There's also another I belong to, RWA-online, that's terrific.

Colleen's already said much of what I'd tell you. (Except, to show how different writers are, as much as I like and admire Deb Dixon, I could never get my head around GMC. *g* So, don't feel even sadder if you can't either.)

I've written over 90 books, and not only has my process changed over time, it's been known to change during the writing of the book. I wrote 2 books with 68 page scene by scene outlines because my agent at the time -- who was also Sandra Brown's agent and made her do the same thing -- worked that way. I've written books by only knowing an opening line, a turning point in the story and hopefully how it'll end (but that can change) when I started. Usually I know about ten scenes ahead of where I'm writing and I keep track of them with color coded -- by character -- post-its on a large board so I can easily move them around and see at a glance how much book time each character is getting. I'm working on two books at the moment -- one heavily plotted, the other more free-flowing. I'm betting that when I'm finished, no one will be able to tell which was which.

You have to find the process that works for you. As well as the process that works for you at the moment and, as I said, don't be surprised if that changes. And as helpful as how-to books and workshops can be, the best way to learn to write is how most of us who got started before chapters and conferences and on-line workshops did. By reading every book in the genre we wanted to write that we could get our hands on. Then writing. Then reading some more. Then writing a LOT more. So, you needn't wait until that conference in April. Just start writing now. Often, I know I'm ready to start on a book when I hear the characters talking in my head. That's often far stronger, in the beginning, than any narrative. Whatever it is that's wanting you to tell your story, go with that. At this point, don't worry about knowing everything or starting at point A and writing to Point Z. If you hear your characters talking, write that down! It'll be a starting point for you and help you get to know them. It you see a location, a spooky vampire castle, a windswept moor, a seacoast, or country road, write the description. If you see someone driving away with someone shooting at them, write that down! First of all, you can never depend on your memory for those scenes that flit through your mind. Plus, at this point, you just want to get something down on paper. Once you do that, it gets easier.

Although this is getting way long even for me, here's one more piece of advice. Most writers I know have difficulty getting started in again after any type of long break. It's important, especially in the beginning, to write nearly every day. Even if you only write a page a day, that's a book a year. I've been writing and published for 23 years and still try to write something every day. That's my main process, and it seems to be working. Most of the time. LOL

Good luck!

Nancy Morse said...

Yes, Sharon, it's always slow going at first. But I'd say that by chapter 5 things usually get rolling.

For sad & confused, I offer this. My husband is a drummer and when he was a kid, he took some lessons from a well known drummer who told him to learn all the technical stuff and then throw it out. You can go to all the workshops in the world and learn absolutely everything there is to know about plotting, characterization, pacing, etc., but the time comes when you have to throw it all out and just do it. By throwing it all out I don't mean to ignore the basics. But if you think only of doing all the right things, you'll get stuck there and never write from your heart. Read, read and read some more of the types of books you'd like to write. Trust your instincts. If you think you've written something good, send it to an editor and let her tell you what's good or bad about it. I am a firm beliver in learning through trial and error. And nobody "makes" you feel stupid. If you felt stupid, it's because you chose to react to her comments that way. How you react is within your control. I think it's too soon to determine whether you're a plotter or a pantser. Write a few books and then you'll see which way you lean. Good luck.

Alfie said...

Colleen! At last (air-embracing you) I've found someone who writes the way I do. You described it perfectly (almost). I say 'almost' because JoAnn also nailed my writing 'style.' It seems to change a bit with every book. And THAT is the problem as far as I'm concerned. Just when I think I have it figured out, it changes. Darn.
And Sally, I had to laugh at your line that "plotters can write the how to books because they have a nice tidy system." I've written a 'how-to' book and I DON'T have a system. And that's one of the scariest things about writing a 'how-to' book. Someone may expect me to know all those things I don't know--like how -to have a system!
K from Chandler: You'll learn an amazing amount from RWA and the chapters you've joined. But the best thing you can learn is to use what is applicable to you and your style of writing and pitch the rest of it out the window. One of the things I remember most about being a beginner was horrible feeling I always had that I was doing it wrong. I finally learned that one of the best things about being a writer was that there was no right way or wrong way to do it. From now own, just pretend you gearing up to be in a Nike commercial and JUST DO IT. You'll learn what you need to know, when you need it. I guarantee you.

And Patti, great post.

JoAnn Ross said...

Oh, K from Chandler, Alfie reminded me of something important you need to keep in mind when you attend that conference! If any writer says her way is the only "correct" way to write a book, do not believe her! One of my favorite quotes is from Somersett Maugham: "There are only three rules to writing a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are." :)

You're going to hear a LOT of rules and "must-dos." Except for some possible ones about ms formatting, the trick is to take what you find useful and don't worry about the rest. Oh, and have a wonderful time!

Alfie said...

Oh, JoAnn reminded me of something I wish I'd said. Yes, have a wonderful time at the conference and use it to start making and collecting writing friends. More than anything, they will get you through the upsets, feelings of helplessness and stupidity, the frustrations and especially the joys-- at every stage of your career.

Patti O'Shea said...


It sounds like your first version is cleaner than mine. I usually end up with holes to plug at the very least.

I have a friend (not a writer) who refers to that inner nagging voice as a squirrel chattering away at her, undermining her self-confidence. I think writers must have very loud squirrels. :-)


Patti O'Shea said...


I bet you're right about plotters writing books because they have a system. It's awfully hard for a pantser to fill enough pages. My method, like I said in my original post, is to just sit down and write. One sentence How-To books wouldn't sell. ;-)


Patti O'Shea said...


I'm a mix too. I wrote RAVYN'S FLIGHT completely seat of the pants, but I sold POWER OF TWO on proposal and had a very tight deadline. I had to have some structure to finish on time.

What I like to do is come up with some general plot points to write toward. It gives me something to aim for, but isn't restrictive. When I wrote TPOT, I would list "chapter goals" before I started each one. I've never done that since, but that was helpful too because I was doing it right before I was going to start that chapter. The book I just turned in actually stayed very close to my synopsis. =8-O


Patti O'Shea said...


I know you're right about there being no wrong way--I chant that to myself whenever I start questioning that--but, boy, those books I read when I was a teen left a big mark. :-( I'm still working on this.

And we are all different. One of my favorite parts to write is the first three or four chapters of the book. I think it's partially because it's new and the novelty hasn't worn off yet. Since those chapters usually end up needing a fair amount of work compared to the rest of the book, it can't because I write them more easily. :-/


Patti O'Shea said...


You've received some really good advice from some fabulous writers. What you're going through now is what I went through reading those books I mentioned in my post. Don't let anyone tell you that your way of writing is wrong. You write the way that works best for you. There is no reason why you need to know everything up front with your story or your characters.

In my first book, I had no clue that my hero felt responsible for the death of three soldiers and the incapacitation of a fourth until I was halfway through the book. What did I do? After I finished, I revised and added the foreshadowing necessary for this event to be revealed.

I'm using this as an example because it illustrates that there really is no need to know everything before you write. My best advice is to take what works for you, jettison the rest, and write. Lose yourself in your story. So what if you don't do character sketches that are 30 pages long? You'll get to know your characters as you write them. There are as many different ways to write as there are writers.

I didn't find a writers' group until I'd been writing for years. Because of this, I learned to write without hearing about any rules other than the ones I learned in school/college and from those How To Write books that I read. (And I'd decided to ignore those). I think I lucked out. I had time to learn on my own without anyone saying "Thou shalt" or "Thou shalt not." Do what works for you and ignore anyone who says differently.

And hugs about what that workshop did to you!

Patti O'Shea said...


After I sold my first book, a long-time author that I know told me that the process changes from book to book (and even within a book). She told me not to struggle to write the way you've written in the past, go with the new process and don't worry about it. Her advice was the best thing because my process has changed for each book. I've yet to write the same way twice.

And thanks!

K in Az said...

Patti, Alfie, Nancy and JoAnn...

Wow!!!! Thank you for all of your wonderful comments and and encouragment. It means alot to hear them from authors who I have read and throughly enjoyed their work.

Nancy.. you were right about my reactions to the words I heard and while I was writing my post I heard your words in my head and that prompted me to sit down after posting and started writing backstory for my character.

I let my characters tell me about themselves and it felt wonderfull I just let it flow.

Tonight reading your words helped tremendously. I am looking foward to the conference in April, but more I looking forward to meeting and making friends with other writers.

Thanks again!
K in Az

JoAnn Ross said...

K-- I'm glad you're feeling more positive!! And Alfie was so right about friends. My dearest and longest friends are other writers I've met over the years. I've no doubt the same will prove true for you! Have a grand time at the conference and tell everyone hi from us at PASIC!!


Nancy Morse said...

K - Have a good time at the conference. Perhaps more important than any technical thing you can learn is making friends with other writers (once you weed out the ones who don't want you to succeed-be prepared, they're out there) because the support you'll get from them will be invaluable. Good luck with your writing. I hope to read your books some day.