For me, every book is like a college road trip with a group of friends. I know I'm leaving campus and heading for Graceland. I have a general map – I know which direction I need to go at least – and I’m pretty sure I want to See Rock City, stop at the outlet mall in Nashville, and do some bar-hopping on Beale Street on the way. (That’s the synopsis I turn in to my editor.) But when I see that sign for the Giant Ball of String or The World’s Biggest Sweet Potato, I turn because it sounds like it might be fun. I figure I'll get to Graceland eventually.
And because I’m with friends, I enjoy the ride. Except when I don’t. Someone is going to keep changing the music to a crappy station and then sing along off-key. Someone else is going to conveniently “forget” their wallet and never chip in for gas. No one wants to take a turn riding in the middle of the back seat. After a while, I’m wondering why I ever thought I liked these people in the first place and contemplating ditching them at the next rest area (where, if I’m really lucky, a serial killer will find them).
Know what I mean?
Now, when I get stuck, I’m stuck. That general road map is kinda helpful – I know I’m at Rock City, and the next stop is Nashville, but I don’t know how to get back to the interstate. And it’s not like I can skip ahead and write that great scene that takes place on Beale Street. I don’t know what happens between here and there, so there’s a good chance that conversation won’t work by the time I catch up. Maybe my characters will have already had that moment by then – in a rest area on the side of I-24. And, of course, there’s an equally good chance they won’t make it to Beale Street at all. Hell, they might not make it to Nashville.
Another problem with Pantsers (or at least this Pantser) is that we end up writing ourselves into scenes we don’t have any research on. All of a sudden, my characters are pulling into the parking lot at the World’s Biggest Sweet Potato, and I don’t know how big the sweet potato is, who grew it, who decided it was the World’s Biggest, what purpose it serves in the tourist industry of the surrounding area, or even how much it costs to get in to see it. (In particularly exciting circumstances, I’m not even sure exactly where they are or what I hope to accomplish with this little side trip.) Everything has to come to a grinding halt while I frantically start Googling “giant sweet potatoes.” And, should I happen to find the email address of the country’s leading expert on exceptionally large yams, he’s always out of the office until Monday.
What? I’m supposed to just leave my hero and heroine in the Sweet Potato parking lot for a couple of days? Um, I’m on a deadline, people.
But Pantsing through a book has its charms, too. Because I don’t have everything plotted out, I never get bored of the story or feel it’s getting predictable. Because I don’t have a plan set in stone, I’m fine with adding interesting details and side trips and just weaving them into the book as I go along. So my characters stop at the Giant Sweet Potato. The heroine has a soft spot in her heart for sweet potatoes because her mother used to make them for her. (Go back and stick that in chapter 2). But her mother is dead now (quick trip back to chapter one), so this is an emotional and healing moment for her. Later, in chapter twelve, when I need the hero to make a grand romantic gesture, he’ll cook her a sweet potato casserole from his mother’s recipe. Ooh, when he asks his mother for the recipe, they are able to break down that estrangement barrier that I will go back right now and add in chapter five, and then reconcile in a way that makes him realize he’s not his father – run back to chapter three -- and can therefore commit to the heroine in a satisfying HEA. And they’ll get married at Graceland!
Plotters reading this just dropped dead from a heart attack – and it wasn’t from the butter and marshmallows in the casserole.
Road trip and sweet potato metaphors aside, this is exactly how I write books. Ask the Playfriends – they have to listen to me whine and argue my way through every single book because my people have gone off chasing giant yams and I don’t know how to get them back on the road to Graceland. It’s painful. For everyone. But eventually, it gets the job done.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go research giant balls of string. Ooh, and Elvis impersonators!