I’m back into a writing schedule in a way I have not actively done since about 2011. Writing every day is critical practice for any author, but I put my writing career on hold in order to finish graduate school. It was the right move (I graduated on track), but it meant that I stopped writing every day.
Getting back in the habit was something I decided to do in mid-2013, long after the post-graduation recovery period was over. I had books I wanted to finish and get published. I ended up writing every now and then, but the “every day” habit? No. No matter how much I berated myself or planned out writing schedules or set deadlines, I just could not pull anything out of my brain.
Part of that lack of success was that I had internalized a lot of “shoulds” into my ideas about writing fiction, ideas that had never bothered me as a journalist or technical writer or fanfiction author, because those are such different things from being a “professional, published novelist.”
So I thought.
But as month after month trailed by without any significant increase in word counts, I had to step back and review my process.
One thing I accepted a long, long time ago is that I’m a pantser, which is short for “writing by the seat of your pants”. Pantser writers don’t outline, story-board, summarize, or plan. We often only have a vague idea of where things are going, just some characters and maybe an ending. Or not. Sometimes just characters we barely know, in a spaceship without a name, going…somewhere. [evil laughter]
It sounds insane, especially to non-writers, but it works. I’ve found that outlining before I write is absolutely the worst thing I can do, it drives my creativity and creative investment into the ground. Sometimes, with tricky timelines or large stories, I’ll outline what I’ve already written to get a better grasp of event flow, but I have learned to never, ever try to outline what I haven’t written yet.
Unsurprisingly, what usually results is that I write myself into a very poorly thought out corner. I’ll realize that I don’t have an antagonist, or a plot, or character motivation and then everything comes to a crashing halt.
Which is fine, because what I do then is let the problem and the story stew on a back burner of my brain, and invariably, the result is an organic solution to the problem that is 100x better than any of the ideas I was trying force out. I’ve learned to trust the process on this, even if it is aggravating. I’ll chew on a story or character for days, weeks, sometimes months before the incredibly obvious answers pops up in my head.
I’m okay with being a pantser, after all this time.
What I had forgotten, or never really accepted, is that I am also a bridger.
That’s my own concoction of a word and a concept, because I’ve never seen anyone writing about it. Here’s what I mean by it: I write best, and fastest, when I write scenes mostly out of order.
The advice given to most writers is “start at the beginning and write to the end.”
Honestly, I do usually start at the beginning, but I’ve discovered that my huge writing hold up for the first part of this year was because I kept trying to write linearly, which seems like such a logical thing to do, right? But what would happen is that I’d get to a scene where I didn’t know what happened next, and without an outline I had no way of figuring out what happened next, so I’d just STOP.
The thing about bridging is that you establish what happens next by writing about what happens further down the road. I write a scene, stall, then write a scene that happens much later in the story. What I have to do is bridge those two scenes in such a way as to make sense. For instance, I’ll start with characters sitting down for dinner in Orlando, and at some point the conversation peters off and I stop writing the scene even though I know it’s not finished. The next day I’ll write a new scene about them chasing a dog in Manhattan. How did they get to Manhattan? WHY? What’s with the dog?
I’ll go back to the conversation in Orlando and realize, oh, this is the point where they decided to recuse a dog from its abusive owner and then drive back to Manhattan, because they are only in Orlando for Spring Break. What I have to do then is write the two or three scenes about them kidnapping the dog and driving up to New York, bridging to two originally written scenes
Voila, the story lives!
I know this sounds crazy but it’s really the most efficient way I’ve ever found for me to write, and it works magnificently for tapping into latent ideas I was not consciously aware of until I needed to find a way to explain them. I do not seriously recommend this style of writing, unless you’re desperate to try a new method because everything else is not working for you.
What it does require is a leap of faith — that whatever you write, no matter how outlandish or unrelated to the plot it might seem, belongs to the story and that it fits in there somehow. That’s both the tricky part, and the charm: making it work, writing by the seat of my pants to build all those bridges and create a story. It may seem hard to believe, especially looking as a plot-heavy book like The Protector, but that’s how all of my stories have been constructed: with a lot of faith, a little luck, and hard work.
It’s nice to be back in the groove.