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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Writing by the Seat of Your Pants

Writer's block can be like trying to force rusty wheels to turn!
I’ve been struggling a bit with writer’s block, so I’ve been reading books on how to get unstuck. I’m noticing a pattern with them – most encourage you to outline as you brainstorm. I love the idea of outlining, of having a rough (or not so rough) roadmap for where you’re going, and for my last novel, I used notecards to create one (a process I talked about with KM Weiland for her book, Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success). The notecards were glorious, like stepping stones along the way.

Having had a good experience with outlining, and having read all these wonderful, encouraging books that talk about outlining, I’d love to be able to outline to get myself unstuck on the two WIPs I’ve got going.

Unfortunately, it’s just…not…happening.

As much as I’d like to be a consistent outliner, the reality is that I’ve been a pantser most of my life. What’s a pantser, you may ask? Why, it’s someone who flies by the seat of their pants. If the outliners are Planners, the people who make it up as they go are Pantsers.

I’m starting to wonder if my problem is that I'm trying to force myself to be an outliner when that isn't really my nature. After all, being a pantser has worked for me for a lot of years. And I’m kind of a pantser in life, too. I don’t like things to be too scheduled, because what if I change my mind? And when it comes to other forms of creativity, like graphic design, I like to try different visual elements together and see what inspires me most, and go from there. I probably hit more dead ends than a lot of other creative people this way, but I also have some pretty unexpected turns in my stories. 

Although forcing myself to open up that document and put words on the page when I feel stuck and directionless is like trying to force rusty wheels to turn, I’ve discovered that if I’m persistent about it, I can get them to turn. And when I write, I discover things about my characters, about the story, that I’m just not sure I’d get if I were outlining. In other words, it’s the nuances I notice along the way that propel me from one plot point to another.

In an example some of you have probably seen me use before, in one of my novels the villain spontaneously shoots one of the heroes. I never had any intention of killing off the character who was shot (after all, she was one of my heroes!), but after she went down, I couldn’t for the life of me get her back up. I threw medical professionals at her, and I wished along with my other characters that she’d be okay, but in the end, she died. Another hero developed PTSD as a result, and that PTSD not only drove the second half of that novel, but most of the sequel. If I’d outlined, I’d never have killed her off. Yet somehow the actual writing is different, and I realized that it was the right thing for the story.

Of course, you can always make changes as you work from an outline, but I think I might have trouble flying off into these tangents that seem to bear the most fruit if I did. It’s while I’m floundering around in the darkness, writing anything I can think of just to get words on the page that I often seem to stumble upon the best material. I have a wild “what if?” moment, and I go with it because I don’t have anything better planned. And because I don’t have anything better planned, I also feel free to just go with whatever crazy repercussions I see as a result of that wild “what if?” moment.

So if you’re a pantser and you find yourself getting stuck, like I have, what can you do about it? Here are a few things that I’ve found helpful.

  • Get away from the manuscript to think about what happens next. I like to sit down to my computer with some inkling of an idea for where things are going next, but I don’t always come up with those inklings while I’m at the computer. In fact, I find that going for a long walk is one of the best ways for me to find my inklings. (Of course, I have been known to talk to myself while I’m plotting, which can be a little weird for the people walking the same place I am!)
  • If you normally type, try writing by hand, and vice versa. For some reason, when that blinking cursor on the screen is making me feel hopeless, I do much better on some notebook paper. For more information about why writing by hand can help us be more creative, check out my post, Thinking Outside the Computer.
  • Give yourself permission to write whatever it is, even if you think it might be awful. If I had a bunch of thoughts I knew were brilliant, I’d get them down into an outline! But sometimes I get these ideas, and like I said, I don’t have anything better planned, so down they go. And sometimes they end up being the best parts of the story.

If you’re a pantser, what are your tips? What helps you sit down at the computer, even when you have absolutely no idea where you’re going? 

Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD's book, THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO PSYCHOLOGY: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment, and Human Behavior helps writers avoid common misconceptions and inaccuracies and "get the psych right" in their stories. You can learn more about The Writer's Guide to Psychology, check out Dr. K's blog on Psychology Today, or follow her on Facebook or Google+


Tobi Summers said...

I used to be a Planner, right up until the moment I had a novel crash and burn because I couldn't figure out how to move away from the outline. I'm much more comfortable being a Pantser now, and I think my writing is better because of it (although maybe we should reserve judgment; I just lit a town on fire because my characters were having a boring conversation).

There are two things that help me. The first is, as you mentioned, just giving myself permission to write crap, with the idea that I'll "fix it in post." I try to hit a word count everyday, no matter if the words are good or bad. The second is changing my physical location. Even just moving from the couch to the backyard can help break the rut.

chihuahuazero said...

I'm still not sure if I'm better as a Plnner or a Pantser.

But I do better writing long-hand too!

Anonymous said...

I always outline but fly by the seat of my pants (with the outline in the back of my mind) as I draft. If a character pops on the scene, uninvited, I usually let him/her stay. If a character wants to do something contrary to what I've outlined, I let him. If a character doesn't want to do something I've outlined, I don't force her. So I guess that makes me a Pantsing Planner.

Lori Ann Freeland said...

Most of my best ideas come as I'm writing. Planning too much messes me up but I edit a lot. And change major things, too.

Great article. Helps me feel less crazy!

Suzanne said...

I'm a total pantser. I write summaries of my brainstorming and keep them as a very rough outline but almost everyday things change, from minor details to major plot events so an outline would be no good for me. I wish I could outline and write off a template but I guess that's just not meant to be.

David Jón Fuller said...

I like the freedom of just writing without an outline, but I think the amount of rewriting you inevitably do that way means your earlier drafts serve as outlines. That said, I do think the outline results from your conscious mind directing the story, whereas "pantsing" lets your subconscious direct the story -- often with surprising results. I think the story is strongest when the subconscious does its thing first, and the conscious mind finds what is best in that to use in the final version.

Anonymous said...

Funny, but after writing and having had published five novels and a novella, I suddenly think "I'm doing it all wrong! I need to outline! I need to write from plot! I shouldn't be pansting this next book!"

Though it's completely against how I "do" things, I keep thinking "I should . . ." and therefore haven't written a danged thing -- so why change? why after all that work above should I feel I need to do something different?

Good danged question! I'm going to open my word document and just Begin, as I always do.

Anonymous said...

I usually start by writing my query first, so I get my story idea down. Then I just start writing b/c it's an organic process for me . . . let's my story develop naturally & the characters lead me where they want to go. I just fill in my plot analysis and character grids as I go so I keep my facts straight. And of course that original query has a lot of tweaking by the end:) ~Good luck with your story!

Lyndy Lauglyn said...

Inspiration for scenes often come at a time when I am doing a mindless task. I'll jot down a few notes and add it to the story when at my computer. With each new scene, I'll let the story unfold without forcing it. So far, that has worked for me.

Mary Lindsey / Marissa Clarke said...

I work from an outline. My story always takes crazy departures, but I'd be lost without it. As for the writer's block, I usually skip a few chapters and write one I really want to write. It usually gets dumped in the trash and chalked up to a character study, but it gets me back into the excitement of the project.

Good luck, Carolyn!

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

Thanks for all your comments! I appreciate all of you chiming in about how you do things...with or without an outline, or somewhere in between!

kathrynmagendie, you sound like you were having the exact same problem as me! I hope you get some good stuff down!

Victoria Dixon said...

This is all so familiar! My last novel, I loosely plotted knowing that things would change in the second draft. As it turned out, there were only two characters and their scenes (which were a separate plot line from the rest of the book) who I never plotted at all. They wrote themselves into the story. They're also the only two characters whose scenes remained mostly untouched through the following drafts. It taught me the value of both drafting and pantsing. I do not think I COULD have written that epic of a book without that first, terrible draft and its awful plot. I'd still be on the first chapter trying to wrap my head around any story I could find. But allowing myself the leeway to digress let me discover the gold amid the dross. Great post and thanks for the book titles. I'll check them out. Now that I need to put together another epic plot. LOL