That’s easy for me to say, because I suck at it. Sure, I had tried outlining very early on in my career, but never in earnest. So after I’d written a few books, I decided to give it a serious go—notecards and everything. I spent nearly six months outlining an idea I had for a book, and you know what happened? I got SO GODDAMNED BORED with everything I threw the entire story out, never to return.
I am what is called a classic Pantser (as in writing from the seat of). This, as opposed to my Plotser colleagues, who can see the entirety of a story, start to finish, before they actually write it out. As a dedicated Panstser, all I ever need to do is continually ask myself one question:
What if? is the question that drives the story for me. And this question has a sibling: What does that mean?
All my books start out with an idea of an opening scene. That’s it. No sense of any character, no arc for the story, and certainly not an ending. Just a (hopefully) gripping opening scene, one I’d like to read myself, or see in a movie. In my third novel The Comfort of Black, I initially opened with a sex scene between a husband and wife. My nugget of an idea was theirs was a stale and fracturing marriage, and the scene would be meaningful because, despite their struggles, they’ve decided to try to conceive a child, and this night was their first concerted effort. They finish, the husband falls asleep, and the wife sits in bed, mulling the possibility of becoming a mother. Then, I thought:
What if the husband starts talking in his sleep? And what if his sleep-talking is about some terrible crime he may have committed? What does that mean? How would the wife react? What is he hiding? What does she do next?
Oh, the possibilities.
Answering the question of what if is how I derive nearly all of my enjoyment in writing. I love not knowing what the hell I’m doing. I love subjecting a character to a highly intense experience for about 100 pages, and then spending the next 300 pages trying to figure out what it all means. I learn as my character learns. Things evolve, storylines develop organically, and suddenly, at some point in the novel, it pops. All the answers unfold. And, because the answers often surprise me, they end up (usually) surprising my readers as well. I once killed off a major character during a what if moment, and it was delightful.
But pure Pantsing is not for the faint of heart. Some downfalls:
- You will absolutely sit for hours and not have a clue what the next chapter should be about.
- You could be 300 pages in and realize 1) you don’t have answers to your questions, 2) your answers are completely implausible, 3) your story is stupid and you’re doomed.
- You have to do A LOT of revising, mostly because of the points above.
- You have to heavily rely on your subconscious to figure everything out.
- You could think of a what if at the end of the story that’s so good you can’t ignore it, but you’d have to change everything before it.
All of these things have happened to me. And that’s okay, because the enjoyment for me is the high-risk/high-return proposition of just starting with an engaging scene and building around it, one what if at a time.
Besides, I really don’t know how to do it any other way.
Making It Up
Newly added episodes of my interview series Making It Up are out! This month I chatted with New York Times bestselling romance author Sabrina Jeffries (Undercover Duke), brilliant debut novelist Clare Whitfield (People of Abandoned Character), USA Today bestselling novelist Xio Axelrod (The Girl With Stars in Her Eyes), and international bestselling author Brad Parks (Unthinkable). In addition to the personal, in-depth conversations, each episode features an impromptu short-story each guest and I craft together.
All episodes are available on my YouTube channel and wherever you get your favorite podcasts. Check them out now here!
|What I’m Reading|
Just started Stephen King’s latest novel Billy Summers. Stay tuned for my thoughts next month!
|What I’m Watching|
The White Lotus (2021, HBO Max) – Another winner from HBO Max, The White Lotus is loosely a mix of Big Little Lies and Fantasy Island. From the website: The White Lotus is a sharp social satire following the exploits of various employees and guests at an exclusive Hawaiian resort over the span of one highly transformative week. Damn, this show is good.
An eclectic group of guests descend on this resort, and over the course of their stays we get to watch all their dark secrets and fears bubble to the surface. There’s the highly dysfunctional tech-millionaire family, the unlikely honeymoon couple, the alcoholic grieving her mother’s death, and, of course, the resort staff charged with creating memorable experiences for their guests. And what memories!
Equal parts dark, disturbing, and hysterical, The White Lotus starts and ends as a whodunnit, with biting social commentary threading the narrative. And perhaps the best part is Murray Bartlett as Armand, the resort manager. Give this man an Emmy.
|Photo of the Month|
My girl, waving goodbye to her mom and me after moving her into college at Michigan State. Hey, 1,199 miles away isn’t so bad, is it? (*sob*)
|Update from My Kids|
Since my son was three or so I’ve always cut his hair. He HATED getting his hair cut at a real place, and the last time her did he bit the stylist and told her he hated her. Yup.
So over the years I taught myself a thing or two about cutting hair, and while I won’t say I was ever great at it, I was at least good enough that he never got beat up at school for having a terrible cut.
But my son just turned 16 and decided to go with a professional. As you can see below, the haircut turned out great, but man, why are my kids all abandoning me?
|Update from My Cat|
I took this shot of my cat and texted it to my daughter, who immediately wrote back this line from Titanic:
DRAW ME LIKE ONE OF YOUR FRENCH GIRLS, JACK
|Internet Find of the Month, Sent to Me by a Friend|
|A Reader’s Instagram Pic That I Love|
|What’s in my Backyard?|
I have three different neighborhood cats who like to skulk about in my backyard, mostly at night. Here’s one in the early morning trying to nab a squirrel and failing miserably.
That’s it for now! See you next month.