Creative work often begins during a time of crisis, when we are driven to connect with something deeper inside ourselves. No wonder I like this quote from psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross on finding yourself:
“Learn to get in touch with silence within yourself and know that everything in this life has a purpose. There are no mistakes, no coincidences; all events are blessings given to us to learn from. There is no need to go to India or anywhere else to find peace. You will find that deep place of silence right in your room, your garden or even your bathtub.” — quoted in Yoga Journal (h/t James Clear newsletter)
Painting: Oil on canvas by Tabby Ivy (from the collection of the author)
When I speak to groups of writers, I’m often asked if I’m a plotter or a pantser. * In groups of readers, I’m sometimes asked if I know the end of a book before I start it.
I confess I hate this question, at least the plotter-pantser aspect of it. (Readers are curious about our process and I get that and love it.) I’m a planner. Plot flows from specific characters being put in a specific situation, so I think a lot about the scenario, the setting, and who the people are. I make notes about the characters and what might happen. I jot down snippets of conversation, bits of description, and ideas sparked by my research. Then I put my notes in a rough chronological order, filling in additional things that occur to me as I go. In the course of this process, I do usually figure out the end and the killer, although both can change, as I get to know the characters and conflicts better. There are gaps. Sometimes I simply write “more stuff happens,” or “Pepper investigates,” or make notes for what I think might happen even though I don’t yet see how it all fits together. When I feel like I know generally what the major conflicts and motivations are and generally how it might play out, then I’m ready to start writing sentences and scenes.
I call this an outline. I once heard a writer describe exactly this same process and insist that she would never outline; outlining, she insisted, kills creativity and was to be avoided at all costs. I don’t know what she did call her notes, and I don’t know what happened in the 5th grade that made her hate the very word outline so much. I know I felt, still feel, kind of sorry for her, because she seemed too stuck on her perception of process; I am all but certain that unless she can see the value in being flexible in our process, when she runs into a story that won’t behave the way she thinks it should, she’ll get stuck on the page as well.
Then I heard an account of an author at a recent conference claiming that their process—I don’t know what it was—was the only way to write, and my heart sank a little.
I’m here to suggest we do three things:
Let go of absolutes. They aren’t useful and they too often turn into judgments. Saying your way is the best or the only way, or shaking your head and putting on a knowing smile that conveys your skepticism, creates hard feelings. It confuses beginners and can actually stifle or stop them. And it does you no favors. I get that it’s hard to understand how a process so different from your own can work, but clearly, it does. Brilliant and successful novels have been written with and without outlines, road maps, or whatever we call them.
Acknowledge that none of us is a purist. If you consider yourself a pantser who does little if any advance work, but you write a series on proposal, you do in fact already know a lot before you start Page 1. You know your setting, your major characters, and the tone and style of your story. If you’re a plotter or planner, the term I prefer, you know you need to be flexible and let things change, as I did in my second novel when I realized that the person I thought was the killer would not kill to get what he wanted—he needed the victim alive. And yet, there was a dead body. I looked more closely and realized the real killer had been hiding from me all along.
Be willing to challenge our assumptions. It’s common to hear “do whatever works for you,” and of course that is the bottom line. But I also see writers taking that truism as permission to stick with what they’ve always done. I can’t say a whole lot for sure, but after 15 published books, I can say that there will come a time when what you’ve always done is not going to work. A pantser will need to stop and write out what happens in the next three scenes or chapters, then write them, then sketch out the next few scenes and write them, before regaining the momentum that carries her to the end. A planner is going to write 60% of an outline and the ending, without knowing what happens in between, then start Chapter 1. Maybe she’ll finish that outline as she goes, maybe not; maybe she’ll get to 60% of a draft, take a break, and come back knowing what happens next and write out the rest of the outline, as I did with BLIND FAITH. Maybe she’ll write her way to the end “by the seat of her pants.”
The point is that whatever works is rarely going to be the same twice. We do ourselves and our community no favors by pretending that process is static. Different stories, different challenges may require a different approach. Our process may change over time, as we gain more confidence and as we take on bigger challenges.
We’re all discovering the story. We just do it in different ways, in different stages. Let’s practice a little grace along the way.
*Writing by the seat of the pants, that is, without an outline.
When I talk about the creative process,* I talk about the importance of asking questions in our work, to keep ourselves growing and our work maturing. For writers, those questions often have to do with craft, but I think we should also be challenging ourselves in what we write about as well, particularly delving into emotional experience. I like how this professor put it:
“Once you have learned to ask questions – relevant and appropriate and substantial questions – you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know.” — professor and author Neil Postman on the value of questions, in Teaching as a Subversive Activity (h/t, James Clear newsletter
When we’ve got a problem to solve, we’re often advised to “sleep on it.” And when i surveyed the writers of the Sisters in Crime Guppies chapter about brainstorming techniques,* many said they posed the problem to themselves before bed and let their subconscious mind work it out.
Turns out there’s a good reason for that sage advice.
According to Steve Calechman, writing in “Sleep to Solve a Problem” on the Harvard Health Publishing blog in May 2021, the brain is designed to find connections to problems while we are sleeping so we can act on them when we’re awake. That’s the reason we so often wake in the morning knowing what we want to do — or not do — even though we can’t necessarily articulate why; we don’t remember going through the logic, but our sleeping brain did it for us.
For some people, the process wakes them up and they find themselves regurgitating the day instead of sleeping; if that’s you, the article suggests some solutions. But we’re writers. Our goal is to use sleep to help us solve problems on the page. Sometimes ideas occur to us just as we’re falling asleep; at other times, the work is happening in the REM state of the 5:00 to 6:00 am hour. How to enhance that process? Trust it. Ask your subconscious mind to work on an issue — tell it the problem. “How does Pepper solve the conflict with Nate?” “How does my young reporter convince her editor to let her write this story?” Keep a pen and pad by your bed and write down all the ideas that wake you, without judging their merits. (Take your notepad into the bathroom if you need a light and don’t want to wake your partner!) The moment you wake up, remind yourself that you asked for help and scan your mind for its offerings. Jot them down. Build that trust. Build the process.
Way more fun than counting sheep.
*This became my article, “What Happens Next? 9 Tried-and-True Brainstorming Strategies for Fiction Writers,” in The Writer, February 2022.