Writing as Discovery

by Janis Patterson

Want to start a lively ‘discussion’ among writers? All you have to do is say something about how ‘plotting’ or ‘pantsing’ is superior. It doesn’t make any difference which; both have their outspoken and extremely vocal adherents. Just make sure you can hold your ground or you have a direct path to an exit. Both sides have passionate adherents.

For those who aren’t familiar with the terms (if there are any of you left out there!) ‘plotting’ is basically an outline, yes, like you used to make in elementary school, but adapted toward a book. Whether it’s the old Roman numeral/Arabic numeral/alphanumeric letter – i.e., bullet point type of outline – or a paragraph style, the outline is a detailed road map of every twist and turn in your story. ‘Pantsing’ is taken from the old phrase ‘seat of your pants,’ meaning you just write and see what happens.

In general, pantsers tend to do more re-writing than plotters, but plotters spend more time on pre-writing work.

I am an avowed pantser. Sort of. My personal system is sort of like a suspension bridge. I know where the story begins. I know where the story will pretty much end – but that has been known to change. I know a couple of plot points in between, though they can be shifted a bit during writing. Then all that’s left is to spin the webwork of the story between them. Does my story change while I’m writing? Yes, it can and has, and I think that’s a good thing, because that means the story is growing organically and being true to itself and – more importantly – to its characters.

Plotters vary from those who put down only a few plot points and notes to those who put in every raise of the hero’s eyebrow and every shrug of the heroine’s shoulders. They also do lots of pre-plotting work, making character sheets, location maps and doing interviews with their characters. I once saw a character worksheet that was at least 5 pages long and included such things as the character’s favorite flavor of JellO and their maternal grandmother’s maiden name. Personally, I’ve had close friends for decades and I don’t know that much about them!

Always willing to improve my craft, I once took a much touted ten-box plotting course that was supposed to be almost magical in creating a book’s structure. A stubborn person, I finished it even though I knew from the second or third lesson that it wasn’t for me. After all, I had paid for it and believe in getting my money’s worth.

Basically you put every turning point and every reaction into one of the ten boxes. An outline, just minus the Roman and Arabic numerals. Using this system I plotted a pretty good romantic suspense novel about Egypt, antiquities smuggling, trust issues, terrorism and a dirty bomb thrown in for good measure.

It will never be written, at least not by me. By the time the last box was filled in I was so bored with the whole idea I never wanted to see it again. Believe me, it shows in the final product when the writer is bored with the project. No matter how good the writer is, the book is lifeless and mechanical.

Don’t think this is a vote either for or against plotting or pantsing. It’s one of those things to which there is no one ‘right’ answer for everyone. The writer has to decide for himself what works for him. And perhaps it is the reader who is the ultimate judge, though most don’t have the slightest idea of the writer’s process. They just know if they like the book or not.

So what do I do? I get an idea for an opening situation, I sit down and I start to write. If the idea is sound, if the story is a good one, the characters just take over and I become more scribe than writer. Do I have to go back and do some re-writing when the plot changes direction? Occasionally, but it only makes the story stronger. Sometimes it surprises me what comes up on the screen as I write, and to my mind that is a good thing. Remember, someone – I don’t remember who – said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

Wishing everyone a Merry Christmas, and a wonderful holiday season!

A Pantser’s Kind of Outline, by Amber Foxx

I sometimes say I don’t outline, but in a way I do—backwards. After I write a chapter, I take notes on the plot progression, including the events that might be clues or might be loose ends. This becomes a clean-up guide as well as a quick review of the story structure when I finish improvising and following my characters where they choose to go. I also note emerging themes and subplots. Later, I use the notes as revision tools. They help me in deciding what to keep, expand, or cut.

Having reached the near-end of my work in progress, the crisis and the partial solution to the mystery, I now have the denouement chapter to write, the one where I tie up the last loose ends. In looking back over my notes, I find about half are tied up. As for the remaining ones, many are so minor I can cut the lines that set them up, while others are significant questions that have to be answered. I’m glad I kept that list. Now I have something bordering an outline in advance for the final chapter, as well as a plan for future cuts and reorganization.

*****

The sale on books one and two in the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series will end June 13. Until then, you can still download The Calling free and buy Shaman’s Blues for 99 cents. No murder, just mystery.

Pantsing the Revision

That wasn’t the plan. I was cutting subplots, cutting back to one point of view, and changing some aspects of the crime, and I thought it would all work out in a predicted direction. Then I introduced a certain secret earlier in the plot, and out of the blue, my protagonist, Mae Martin, made a decision that changed everything.

It was a well-timed decision on her part, plot-wise. I’m at the Act Two/Act Three transition point, where the protagonist has to pass through her second doorway of no return. This choice she made, seemingly without my input, will raise the stakes for her exponentially, increasing the risks to her relationships and her reputation. It’s something only she can do, and if she doesn’t do it, there are risks to other people’s well-being. It’s a choice between two “bads.” (Meanwhile, in her romantic life she’s struggling with the choice between “goods.”)

The amazing thing to me about this unexpected turn she took is that it’s going to tie up all the loose ends, when it’s resolved.

At least, I think so.

I keep chapter notes as I go, something like a hindsight outline, noting Mae’s goal for each chapter and scene (I’m writing third person but only in her POV), the disaster or hook at the end, the loose ends each chapter has created that will need to be tied up, and the progress in the main plot and subplots. I suppose I can consider some of those notes a plan, since a few are quick sketches of what I can see coming next, but I can’t see very far ahead. Some parts of the original version have found their way almost whole into this revision, and others still might. I wonder if the end will. I liked it the first time around, but it may no longer fit. One of the biggest mysteries in writing a mystery is how my creative mind works.

A character in the work in progress used a phrase I didn’t expect him to say, referring to certain people as his and Mae’s “shadow families.” In the middle of the night, I realized that could be the title. It fits the plot and also the pattern of my titles: two words with a mysterious ring to them, suited to psychic mysteries without murder. The Calling, Shaman’s Blues, Snake Face, Soul Loss, Ghost Sickness, Death Omen … Shadow Family?

 

Undermind at Work

That’s not a typo. I have not been undermined at work. I’m rereading Guy Claxton’s Hare Brain Tortoise Mind, and he refers to the slow processes of creativity and insight as the undermind—the part of the brain that’s working beneath the level of verbal expression and logic, the part that can detect patterns the conscious surface of the mind misses. The part that creates what the surface mind cannot. I read the book eighteen years ago when it first came out, but I wasn’t writing fiction back then, just academic research papers. I perceive its ideas differently now.

On this reading, I see in it an explanation of how pantsing a plot works. Those of us who write that way often marvel at how we laid clues we didn’t know were there and how we brought in characters whose purpose was unclear at the time, but who later revealed why they showed up and asked to be included. The undermind is best at solving complex, ambiguous problems and recognizing hidden patterns. The other mode of thinking, what Claxton calls d-mode, for deliberative mode, is better at problems with clear rules and defined parameters. I see d-mode as the revision mind and the undermind as the first draft mind. I’m at a point of indecision near the end of a first draft. D-mode wants me to evaluate my options. The undermind wants me to keep writing and see what happens.

I can apply the concepts of the undermind and d-mode to how my characters solve problems as well.  Claxton describes experiments in which trying too hard, having time pressure, or having too much at stake can all inhibit subjects’ problem-solving and pattern-detecting abilities. The slow, unhurried tortoise mind is better at breakthroughs, and yet the nature of a mystery plot is anything but slow and unhurried. Still, a character may encounter a puzzle early on, be unable to solve it, attend to other problems while the initial puzzle simmers in the back of her mind, and then have a flash of insight. The flash isn’t a flash, though. All along, her undermind was at work. I’ve seen mystery writers use this pattern well, showing the protagonist’s frustrating sense that the solution is near while not quite grasping it yet, knowing that something in the mind-shadows wants to be understood.

D-mode works well while talking because it’s verbal and structured. When characters are doing the logical kind of problem-solving, dialogue is natural. Claxton cites studies in which subjects were asked to solve puzzles and either talk or be silent while they did it. With clear though challenging puzzles in which all the information was present and needed to be analyzed, talking improved the outcomes. However, with insight problems, bewildering visual puzzles that required creative shifts of perspective, talking got in the way or turned into babble such as, “I don’t know what I’m thinking. Nothing. I’m not actually thinking.” Silence gave better results. In fiction, this second process might take place in an internal scene, a sequel or reflection. The different modes of problem-solving could lead to conflict, as an analytical type needs to talk things out while an intuitive type needs to stop talking—and stop listening to words—in order to think.

My preference for creating my first draft from the undermind may be why I like a plot mandala better than an outline. I draw a circle and begin writing character names and story themes in what feel like the right places, then let my undermind connect the patterns among them.

Images: 19th century Chinese puzzle ball with the twelve concentric balls inside; puzzle cube; math equation dice.

Small Change, Big Change

When I started improvising my current work in progress, I had a seed for a plot in mind, but it changed directions because of one small thing. My first-round chapter-by-chapter critique partner told me that the name I was using for a character’s business, Minerva Press, is a real publishing house. No big deal, I thought. It would be simple to change it. She would name her small press after a lesser-known goddess. Having already established that this character was part Finnish, I picked Loviatar, a Finnish goddess, from the pantheon of my search results, though I had no idea why anyone would name a business after her. She’s a dark goddess, the blind daughter of death, the bringer of scourges into the world.

Rather than reject this goddess, I kept reading about her. Something told me to stick with her.

One article mentioned that that Loviatar is popular with black metal musicians. What, I wondered, is black metal? At the time, I didn’t know the difference between black metal, heavy metal, death metal, thrash metal, melodic death metal and Viking metal, or that most of these genres even existed. The next thing I knew, I was watching such bands on YouTube and digging into Nordic black metal and the world view of that culture, finding some unexpected connections with (not kidding) the Romantic Movement and Shelley’s views on Satan as the hero of Paradise Lost. My character is a poet, and faculty advisor to a poetry club. With the name of her small press, her backstory changed. Her situation of danger changed. The motives of her enemies changed. The only thing that didn’t change is my taste in music; I didn’t become a fan of black metal when she did.

I may have a title for the story that’s evolving: Dark Goddess.

Strangely, many of the plot elements fit better into the new version of the story than the old one. Clues that I’d planted, puzzling myself, fell into place. If I’d finished the first draft before sharing chapters, it would be a different story. Maybe I still would have liked it, but it would have been lighter, less complicated, and more predictable. And I don’t ever want to be predictable. Even to myself!