Years ago, when I first got all fired up at the prospect of writing for publication, I went to an evening seminar that changed the way I thought about writing. I wish I could remember the speaker’s name so I could give her full credit for the experience and thank her for turning my writing world upside down in such a profound and positive way.
She said something that has stuck with me to this day:
[tweetthis]If you want to write a book, you’ve already written it. You just need to get it onto the page.[/tweetthis]
I could sum up my writing life over the past two years as “Kay learns to get the heck out of the story’s way.” And this has never been more apparent than in the short story I’m working on now.
You know I’m a plotter. I like knowing exactly where I’m going every time I sit down to write. Heck, I create spreadsheets and wrote a whole article about plotting within Scrivener.
Then, this short story.
When I first conceived the concept for my quartet of short stories, I knew in general terms what my heroines were about and what the plots were. No problem there. I had roughly plotted the first and second stories out, so it was just a matter of filling in some blanks, right? Right?
Then I started writing the second story. It went something like this:
- First scene: Piece of cake. I knew exactly what needed to happen there.
- Second scene: Hang on. Why is the heroine saying that? Why is the secondary character behaving that way? And where did this third character come from?
- Third scene: What does the heroine think she’s doing?
- Fourth scene: Holy crap, they’re not supposed to do that!
You might gather that the wheels had come off the synopsis for my second short story. Well, it turns out that the general turning points, dark moment, and climax were roughly correct, but the Girls in the Basement had very specific ideas about how the heroine was going to get to them — ideas that hadn’t bubbled up into my consciousness until I actually started writing.
This meant revising my scene-by-scene synopsis to better fit what the Girls had in mind. On the face of it, the work wasn’t all that difficult — it’s a bit like putting together a jigsaw puzzle — but at the same time, I became aware that the Girls just might have a few more tricks up their sleeves.
So I compromised by revising the scene synopses up to the first turning point. After I see what the Girls have in mind, I can revise the next segment of scenes up to the next turning point.
I thought at first that this was a real drag — I like the plotting experience to be tidy and consistent — but soon realized that what’s actually happening is that the story as it wants to be told is speaking to me. The story, which is already written in my head, is constantly bumping up against what my conscious brain thinks is interesting, compelling, and marketable.
Clearly the answer is not to toss out all the craft and marketing information we have at hand, but rather to integrate that external information into our story-dreaming by the Girls. And then my work is to trust the Girls to know what they’re doing.
Sounds like work, doesn’t it? And yet I suspect all this integration occurs outside my conscious awareness, like those jigsaw puzzle pieces being sifted and shuffled and rotated until they form a coherent picture. Then one day I happen to glance over at what the Girls are doing and think, “Aha! So that’s what the heroine is doing! Now it makes perfect sense!”
So the story asks me to hear it as it is, and in doing so asks me to hold the plot lightly, as a fluid and changeable thing. It’s a little scary, but it’s also freeing. Even this hardcore plotter can learn to be a bit more pantser.