B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree
How Authors Write Stories that Are Bigger than They Are
Some authors plan their stories in advance. Then the writing process puts flesh on the bones of this outline. A few surprises may turn up along the way, but the story follows the plan.
In this post I look at a different process called ‘pantsing’ – writing by the seat of the pants. This is when an author has little or no idea what they’re about to write – until they write it. These kinds of writers – like me – are keyhole peepers who wonder what might be lurking on the other side of the door. Their novels are a mystery to them and they discover the story by writing it. This uncorking of an unknown genie is a wild ride, scary and big. It’s also serious fun.
Writing without a plan
Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) has a great explanation: The characters in my novels are my own unrealised possibilities. Each one has crossed a border which I myself have circumvented … Beyond that border begins the secret the novel asks about.
Wow. His characters are taking him places he hasn’t been, through the keyhole to the unexplored territory beyond. The novel is a secret – a secret genie waiting to be uncorked, not by planning, by writing.
Pantsing varies from author to author but here are the ‘unrules’ of my own writing process:
Sit down at the blank screen. Wait
Eventually a sentence pops. Here’s the first sentence from my mystery-in-progress:
The parcel arrives at two o’clock.
As soon as I wrote this sentence, the secret novel began.
My subconscious – the dark place where secrets dwell – has popped a sentence and I’m going to trust it and go with it. Because I didn’t know I was going to write this sentence, the contents of the parcel is a secret – and full of possibilities. Who sent it? What’s in it? I have no idea. Perfect. The story is already bigger than I am, after only one sentence!
Let the writing be the thinking
At this point I could whip out my notebook and plot a story based on the arrival of a mysterious parcel, but instead I let my fingers on the keyboard reveal one sentence after another.
In The Second Path, the first sentence that wrote itself is: I wake on the beach and discover I’m naked. As I wrote on from here, I discovered that my main character Selkie Moon has not only lost her dress and her memory, but she’s been missing for two weeks. I had no idea where she’d been all this time and I had to write the whole book to find out. This pantsing process is very edgy and exciting, the not-knowing allows the genie to bloom in its own way.
Julia Cameron (The Artist’s Way) wrote: I don’t create characters, I meet them.
Just like real people turn up without announcing their potted histories, I let my characters gradually reveal themselves as I write. Each one is a genie in itself. Like the person who sent the parcel. What’s their secret? Each item in the parcel will lead to further secrets, uncorking different views of the genie.
I write dialogue without knowing what the characters are going to say. They shock me by taking me to those scary places I’ve circumvented, beyond the keyhole and the border.
Sometimes I write a dialogue over and over again, letting it take different directions and reveal different secrets about the characters – secrets that I have to investigate. This leads to bigger characters than I could create through planning.
Let it ride
Readers ask where authors get their ideas, but to me ideas are everywhere just waiting to reveal their secrets. When ideas pop into my head as I write, I pop them straight into the manuscript and let them niggle away until I know why they’re there. I keep a notebook by my bed so my sleeping mind can join subconscious dots – making connections that are bigger than I am.
As I was writing Chapter One of The First Lie, I looked around my writing room and saw my Shona sculpture (from Zimbabwe). With all Shona’s symbolic qualities of strength and groundedness, I popped her into the story as Selkie Moon’s keepsake – one of the few things she grabbed when escaping a destructive relationship. I love quirky objects because they’re also genies, and after her serendipitous arrival in the story Shona played a bigger part than I could ever have imagined.
Back to the sentence about the parcel, what if the parcel contains something unpredictable like a … doorknob? It has some of the qualities of a key but it’s lumpy and intriguing, and when I’m intrigued my subconscious starts working on what it could mean. That’s when big things happen, often creating a domino effect as they unfold.
I get glimpses of the end, but I hold them lightly. Playwright Maria Irene Fornes said: The moment you start pushing them to go in a certain direction, your characters stop talking.
I keep my characters talking – and creating destinies that are bigger than I could ever imagine – by pantsing my way right up to the last page. That’s when I finally come face to face with the genie!
A Free Ghost Story
This is how I wrote Laying Ghosts, a 24-page standalone haunted house story tangled up in a murder ballad dating back to the 1700s. It’s also the prequel to the Selkie Moon Mystery Series and explains to the reader (and the author!) just why Selkie suddenly took off to Hawaii. Download your free copy here
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