Wednesday, July 02, 2008
Writing by GPS
In June of 2000, the DH, #2 son and I took a big trip to Alaska. Before our plane ever took off from Alabama, I knew where we’d stay the first night, when we’d pick up our motorhome and I had made reservations at RV parks for every night of our trip. The fishing guide had been hired, our tour through Denali National Park was scheduled as well as the glacier tour in Prince William Sound.
I’d left nothing to chance but even with all the planning, we did have some moments of spontaneity. The only thing I didn’t have was a GPS. I still don’t have one. I like the feel of a crisp, new roadmap in my hands. And if I’ve really planned the trip, the route will be marked with yellow highlighter.
Unfortunately, I’ve come to realize I write very much like I plan a trip. I have this story I’ve been working on for uhm, over a year. And until a few days ago I’d been stuck on uhm, page four. It’s a vacation road trip romance and I had this uhm, outline. The heroine was on an escorted motorcoach tour through Mexico and I found a tour online just like what I wanted my heroine to take. I knew where she’d be every step of the way. I decided exactly where the hero would kiss her the first time and which night they’d get a little frisky in his hotel room. She had everything she’d need in her suitcase and she had a novel (romance of course) to read on the tour bus and she’d even brought along some snacks since she had no idea what she’d find in the jungles of Mexico.
Sadly, this whole process has led to frustration, and any adventures that might befall the characters are either not taken or end too soon. The writing is stilted and the characters are shallow. They’re so boring you’d never want to engage them in a conversation at a cocktail party. I’m thinking maybe I need to kill them off in a fiery bus crash. Where have I heard that before?
Somewhere though (you guessed it -- right around page four), a group of banditos staged a hijacking and kept things at a standstill. Then last week I forced myself to just start writing on the story again (I’m just too darned stubborn for my own good sometimes – I should have trashed this story ages ago or let the banditos execute them one by one in the jungle) and at one point I kinda sorta abandoned the outline and let the heroine have full rein.
Well! She took off in a direction that wasn’t in the outline and once the dust had settled I realized that at one point she’d left her ex-husband because he had a fling with a summer intern and in another place she said she’d left him because his pregnant girlfriend showed up on the doorstep demanding he take responsibility for their baby.
I repeated stuff. I got ahead of myself and had her talking about the beach when she was still in the jungle. I had the tour bus in two different cities miles apart on the same day.
So I went to our Goals email loop where we cheer each other on and hold each other accountable and I yelled, “HELP!” I asked how the pantsters did it. How do you write without some sort of roadmap and not have the end result end up as a mess?
The answers I got were a big shock. All this time I thought the pantsters just instinctively knew where their stories started, where they ended and exactly which route to take to get them there.
Ha! They all admitted they don’t. They all have the same detours and mix-ups and messes I have. They just keep going until they type “The End” and then they fix it in the revision process.
Who’d have thunk it? All this time I thought I had to know it all up front and tell my characters where they were going every step of the way, and it turns out I should probably let them tell me where they want to go, allow them to make a few messes and then clean up after them. And I’m guessing they’ll probably surprise the heck out of me and make the story a lot better than if I’d made them follow the map.
So, fellow writers, tell me your plotter or pantser tales. Any advice for someone who desperately needs help letting go of the map?
P.S. Congratulations to hometown girl Margaret Hoelzer who qualifed last night for a trip to Beijing as a member of the United States women's 100 meter backstroke team. She still has a chance to qualify in the 200 meter backstroke, which is her specialty. This will be Margaret's second Olympic games (she placed 5th in the 200 back in the Athens games in 2004). I remember her when she was five years old and played soccer with #2 son. We'll be cheering loudly for her at our house come August.