As a writer, you’re always looking for possibilities. That’s what you do. You look at the world—and then beyond the world—and paint a picture of words born from what if. Nor does it matter what you write; the task is essentially the same. Your job as a storyteller is to immerse the reader in an experience beyond him or herself. You have to make the intangible real, in the heart and in the head.
But it’s not easy. Each book is a journey. I’ve taken quite a few of them over the past several years, but that doesn’t make me an expert. Far from it. I always feel lost in the woods, desperately so—but I suppose I’ve learned some things. I hope so.
For the next few days, as I participate in Lynn Viehl’s LEFT BEHIND AND LOVING IT virtual workshop, you’ll find a stream-of-consciousness attempt to talk about different aspects of writing and publishing, grouped into various subjects that will most certainly overlap. You cannot talk about character, after all, without addressing plot; and so on. This is the Unified Theory of Writing a Book, from the point of view of one who does not plot.
So, today we begin with method—or in my case, madness: writing without an outline; otherwise known as pantsing, playing it by ear, going organic, never knowing who’s going to open the door when the character knocks. It’s like being lost in a labyrinth. You follow paths without knowing the destination, only that when you reach the end, you’ll be in the heart of something bigger than yourself.
I do not fear plotting. I attempt it, with a great deal of diligence, at the beginning of every book and story. I write notes on cards and in spiral bound notebooks; I draw pictures, I make bubble diagrams with arrows that become flowcharts. I give it my best shot to know the book ahead of time, because it helps. It really does. I work from outlines when I write the comics, and it does not stifle creativity, or constrain; it simply gives you focus.
But I don’t write those comic book outlines (though I might contribute to them). And I don’t outline my novels, despite all my haphazard notes. For this terribly simple reason:
I just can’t do it.
I can make the attempt, but it’s a waste of time. I always stray. I stray from page one. I stray faster than a bullet fired by an angry drunk. I’ll draw a straight line from A to Z, and every time go crooked and curvy and upside down.
But not at random. Not for the hell of it. Because there’s always a reason, a good one—I just don’t know what that reason is until the moment I need to find it.
I read something the other day from the New York Times blog, an essay written by an artist who has been drawing members of American Ballet Theatre. He says this:
Each drawing is a live reaction to the moment, a surprise to me as it appears, a trust exercise and attempt to make something ephemeral and fleeting last.
Yes. That’s it.
Writing is a highly individual endeavor, and not simply because it’s usually done alone. Methods are individual, as are routines. We writers all have our magic spells for making the words feel right on the page. Some folks need coffee at the crack of dawn, or that special room away from home; a favorite chair and slippers, or a window with a view.
Some folks need an outline. Some folks need the freedom of the unknown.
I need the unknown. As I’ve implied, I occasionally wish that was not the case, but that’s the way it is. So, what’s a girl to do? What do all of us do, who are terrible outliners? How do you make this work? How do you write a book without knowing what will happen next?
I can’t tell you how to write organically. You either do, or you don’t—and you’ll know which one you are, early on. Indeed, you might find yourself evolving from organic writer to plotter—it can happen—or perhaps you’ll find yourself stuck within a happy medium of both, capable of jotting down loose notes, a loose plot, and then using that as a guideline as you write—still from the seat of your pants, but with a direction that is ever present at the back of your mind.
Until, however, you reach that point, all you can really do as a writer is just…go for it. Don’t agonize. Don’t let people tell you there’s only one right way, and that you must know where you’re going from start to finish. When I wrote Tiger Eye, I had the first line, and that was it. I spun a book from that beginning.
I was relentless. And you need to be relentless when you write organically. You have to be a fighter. You always have to be a fighter when you write, whether you plot ahead or not, but when you don’t plot, it’s easier to give up when you reach an impasse. And you will stall. You will get discouraged. But you cannot lose your momentum.
I cannot stress that enough. You must keep chipping away, a little each day, in order to keep the story-blood fresh and to stay in the moment. Writing organically is all about staying in the moment—your moment, the character’s moment.
When you create momentum in a story, you create a rush of need. A need to find out what happens next. Because you’re there—you’re in deep—you’re in the labyrinth with your characters and you’re invested in their well being, in experiencing the adventure with them. And that need will drive your story forward. It will keep you, the writer, strong and full of energy.
There is nothing else like that feeling. Nothing I’ve discovered yet. So maybe I can’t plot. Or maybe, deep down, I really don’t want to. Because part of my passion for telling stories is the mystery of finding the story; having an idea, a whim, a kernel of something strange and exciting, and then exploring it without a map, without anything but instinct and empathy and passion.
There is very little advice in what I just told you—more like a tangle of ideas, from one writer to another. But there—you’ve got a glimpse of method. My method, for writing organically. Which is nothing—absolutely nothing—without a firm grasp of character.
Character, when you write without a plan, is everything.
That is what I’ll discuss tomorrow. But first, an exercise. No need to post the results in the comments—this is for you alone, should you wish to participate. Just take ten minutes. Look at the picture I’ve posted below. Let it engage you. And then write the first line of a story. Don’t plot. Don’t think too much. Just write the first sentence. And then write the next—whatever feels natural. Let the emotions you feel from the image carry you forward.
See what happens.
Also, be sure to check out Lynn’s virtual workshops, which are incredibly informative. Over the years, she’s taught me more about the art of writing than any class or teacher could hope to.