A rambling train-of-thought approach to describing how I do what I do.
So. Hi. Welcome to the inside of my head. It’s a messy place most of the time. But the cool thing is, somehow I manage to wrangle my thoughts and output stuff that is, while not perfect by any means, still coherent and, hopefully, enjoyable to read.
How does that happen? Short answer? Most days I have no idea.
Longer answer follows. You know, as I drink coffee and figure out what leashes my muse so I can fill pages that will entertain and delight.
Okay. *cracks knuckles*
The truth is, I am not a plotter by nature. This should become obvious as you read this post. I enjoy discovering the story as I write, which means I don’t like being constrained by things like outlines. Actually, I find that if I draft an outline, I then feel like I’ve already written the book. That completely sucks the fun out of the process for me. So yes, I’m a pantser who finds great joy in drafting.
I’m sure some of you reading this don’t get it and maybe even shook your head just then, and that’s okay. We’re all different, and that’s what makes it interesting when writers get together and talk about their processes. There are as many approaches to writing as there are writers.
But I digress. Time to get back to my process.
When I sit down to write a book, I generally have three to five plot points in my head that I will write to. That leaves a lot of room to flesh out the characters and story without having to do a lot of pre-work (I’m not a fan of research—I love going down internet rabbit-holes [read the reviews, you will not be disappointed] as much as the next person, but I’m not talking about getting sucked into silly and pointless YouTube videos, I’m talking Serious Research that is 100% accurate. Not my jam.).
The bad news is that often pantsers who do no pre-work can easily get stuck.
Like, I’ll sit there and ask my blank page, “Where does the story go from here?” Sometimes I don’t know. Like, really don’t know. How does Character A get from plot point Two to plot point Three? No freaking clue.
That’s when I get seriously stuck and can’t get words on a page. I’ll try and try but nope. Nothing’s coming. Some people call it writer’s block, but I’m not so formal, I just call it being stuck because it’s just a matter of not knowing what comes next.
After writing for years, I have finally come to learn that getting stuck is nothing to fear or get upset about. That no matter how hard I try to grab that muse and force her to look at the blank page, that is not the way to get unstuck.
To get unstuck, I need to walk away. My muse needs to frolic in a meadow or go for drinks at the pub—I don’t really know what she does when she needs time away from the project. I just know that I need to set her free for a bit.
I have come to trust that my brain will whirr along in the background while I give it space. Go on a walk, enjoy a Paint Nite (I can’t recommend this enough for writers—it is a wonderful way to get out of the house and turn your brain completely off for an evening. Plus, at the end of it you have a piece of art that you can hang in your home—or not) or in very hard cases, take a few days and refill the well on a mini holiday where writing is NOT on the agenda. Go to the beach, take in some movies, visit with friends. Talk about stuff other than your current WIP.
In other words, get away from the keyboard. Once the muse has had her little vaca and is ready to work again, she’ll come back. She’ll poke you in the face at three a.m.. Or will pinch your butt while you’re in the shower with no way to write down her epiphanies. Probably, it’ll be at the most inconvenient time, like in the middle of a colonoscopy.
Point is, she will come back. Trust that. Trust yourself. That just might be the hardest part of writing.
Another common problem with being a pantser is that moment when I realize, “Oh *#@$ I’ve written myself into a corner.”
That’s when my writing turns into every knitting project I’ve ever attempted: inevitably, I’ll have to unravel rows and rows of work to fix that mistake that would otherwise always be a mark on what could have been a good project.
Every time I have to do this, I think that next time I’m going to outline.
And then I don’t.
No, really, I don’t. Even though I know it would make the writing easier and go more quickly.
But hey, what are you going to do? This is how I roll, and even though it’s more work in the end, writing from scratch is my joy.
And I totally need that. Because the business side of things isn’t always a joy. In fact, publishing can be the antithesis of joy. Sometimes publishing kills joy. Slaughters it and leaves it for dead on the side of the road.
I’ve had long stretches where I found no joy in my work. Before my debut finally sold in late 2010 (it was something like the fifteenth book I’d written and—I think—the fifth or sixth manuscript that had gone on submission), I hadn’t written for over a year. I was done with trying to get published. DONE. My heart had been broken so many times that I was over it and couldn’t bring myself to continue trying. I still had a few subs out there but was just going to let them shrivel up and die on the vine.
And then I got the call. SMALL MEDIUM AT LARGE was going to get published.
Bam. I got sucked back in. I found the joy again. Only to have my heart broken again. And again. It still gets broken and then sucks me back in somehow.
So yeah, I need to give myself permission to write in a way that may create more work and is backward, if it gives me joy.
Because why else bother? If there is no joy, I may as well do something else. Seriously, anything else.
“But Joanne,” you may be thinking, “what about write-for-hire projects where someone asks you to write to their outline? You’ve done those, haven’t you?”
Yes, I have. I’ve done a few write-for-hire projects, but that doesn’t mean there was no joy in writing them. They can be really fun, actually. Working to someone else’s outline allows me to fill in spaces with my own creativity without the pressure of writing the outline myself. It’s a different kind of creative process and on a smaller scale, where the plot points are set out, and I work to give the plot voice and add humour.
Since I didn’t write those outlines, my brain didn’t feel like the book had been written already. Hence, I could still find joy in that drafting even though it’s slightly different.
But left to my own devices and writing my own stories from the ground up, I’m still a total pantser.
Hey, remember where I said this was going to be a rambly train-of-thought post? I was not kidding.
But you know what? It was fun to write, so there you go. Hopefully, you got something out of it too.
If not, my bio’s below—feel free to complain directly.
p.s. If you haven’t checked out the rest of this blog, DO. There are amazing perspectives on not only the creative process, but also rejection, and art and fear, with more to come. In a world where being a writer can be lonely and isolating, it’s nice to be reminded there are other like-minded folks. I also find they’re often hanging out on Facebook when they say they are writing. Myself included, but I blame the muse who was probably in the pub at the time.
A survivor of the corporate world, JOANNE LEVY now works from home, doing administrative work for other authors and creating the friends she wishes she had when she was a kid. She lives in rural-ish Ontario with her husband, Labrador Retriever, African Grey Parrot, and two cats, one of whom vomited during the writing of this bio. Joanne’s books include the forthcoming UNTITLED(not the actual title) from Orca books, CRUSHING IT, SMALL MEDIUM AT LARGE, and a couple written by her not-so-secret alter-ego, Tamsin Lane: YAEL AND THE PARTY OF THE YEAR and TARA TAKES THE STAGE .
Visit Joanne online at www.joannelevy.com