Recently, my best friend and writing buddy said one of the most devastatingly true things about me I’ve ever been faced with. In a discussion about starting a new project where I’m trying to be less structured in my prep (we’ll get to that), she looked me dead in the eye and said, “You were just resistant to admitting you’re a vibes-based writer until someone put it on a chart.”
That is not actually a burn, just a very accurate statement of fact, but oof, how dare she know me so well.
Let me back up a little bit: I’m currently in my absolute favorite part of the writing process, the idea phase. The part where everything is magical and wonderful because it’s all just scattered thoughts and fleeting mental images and there aren’t any messy words yet, no decisions have been made or committed to, so it’s all just potential floating around in the ether and it feels great.
I know what comes next, though, which is all the hard stuff. Making choices about what the book is, what it should actually contain, and getting the words down. Even that isn’t the really hard part — I enjoy drafting! But after that comes revision, and, for me, the part where I throw it all out and rewrite from scratch, sometimes more than once, before I have a draft of the right version of the story I can revise into something good. If you’ve been reading this newsletter for awhile, you know that my process sucks and is frustrating — we’re talking tens of hundreds of thousands of words, written and then thrown out never to be seen again — and also that I’ve been playing around with possible ways to improve it.
Another little bit of context: if you poke around the online writing community, you’ll run into a lot of discussion about plotting vs pantsing, meaning writing by plotting your novel out ahead of time vs flying by the seat of your pants through the novel draft. I have always been a plotter. As a reader, my favorite moment of a book tends to be the lead in to the climax where you see all the dominoes are set up, you can make out a pattern you never expected even though you watched them all get placed, and then BOOM, they start to fall down. It’s so cool and satisfying!! That is what I strive for as a writer, which has always meant knowing what the pieces are and where they go ahead of time so the knock-down moment can have maximum impact. I also love story structure and pulling stories apart, seeing how all the pieces fit together, seeing the patterns and noticing the ways they get built up. That stuff is my jam!
So yeah, I’m a plotter! And weirdly, it’s part of my identity. There’s a lot that I could unpack there, but in short: people talk a lot about character-based writing, and I absolutely get why, but it’s often discussed as if it’s in opposition to plot-based writing. I have always come to plot much earlier in the process than character, I’m defensive about it, and personally, I will absolutely read a story with flat characters but an interesting plot over a story with great characters where nothing much happens. I like plots! I’m good at plotting!
But also, like… am I?
The thing is, if I were actually particularly good at what I’ve been describing, plotting so I can set dominoes up to knock them down effectively, I probably wouldn’t have to rewrite from the ground up so many times. The problem isn’t that I can’t knock them down, it’s that I have the wrong game pieces on the board, like I’m putting dominoes on a chess board or something, and I have to write the whole frigging manuscript to realize I should have been using chess pieces all along, WHOOPS. I can’t tell what the heart of the story is until I’ve written it and can brush away everything it isn’t, and find just the few bits and pieces I need and reshape the story around those.
When I get something right, it tends to feel like this: you know how, in a video game, an object you can interact with will often sparkle or glow a little bit to indicate you can pick it up? When I was in the late states of writing Bound by Blood and Sand I stuck a knife into one of the flashback scenes, mostly because I needed a random object, and my brain went, “hmm.” In a much later flashback scene they needed a knife, and when I pictured the scene it was basically glowing and I went, “HMM. I bet that’s going to be important down the line.” Which it was! That knife was the macguffin that kicked off the whole plot of the second book. It was nowhere in an outline, not in any bullet points, nothing I could have planned for. Yet I knew from the second I wrote it into a scene thatit was going to be important.
I’m not a pantser, though! I literally can not imagine writing without knowing where I’m going. How would you even do that??? (I know many many people actually do that. My mind boggles. You’re all wizards, I suspect.)
But all of this leaves me…where? When I decided to do NaNoWriMo last fall, it was a little bit of acceptance that it was maybe worth trying to write something without knowing as much going into it, trying to trust my gut a bit since I know it sometimes provides those little sparkly moments, and that feeling of this is the thing!! has so far never steered me wrong.
Somewhere along the way I stumbled on the phrase “intuitive writer”. Which, yes, describes me, but felt a little too… vibes-y for me. I still want to know what I’m doing, where I’m going. I want to be organized with this whole business. Also, I don’t believe in vibes of any sort, the woo-woo of it all is just not for me… but the phrase gave me somewhere to start looking for new approaches. From there I stumbled on The Four Types of Novel Writers, a Youtube video from Ellen Brock. She breaks writers down along two axes: plotting vs pantings, but also methodological vs intuitive. It creates four quadrants that writers might fall into: methodological pantsers, methodological plotters, intuitive pantsers and, drumroll please, intuitive plotters. All on a nice little chart.
(This is, of course, the chart I referred to in that quote way earlier in this newsletter.)
She then has videos with advice for each of those types, so I watched the one for intuitive writers. Then I watched it again, and took notes. Because oh. OH. Yeah. I am a plotter, I do need to know what I’m doing ahead of time, but I’ve been working like a methodological plotter for years and running into the same problem over and over. I love story structure, but relying on it so strictly and then using a neat little bullet-pointed outline has not been getting me there. Some of Brock’s suggestions are things I already do, that I know work well for me (always working in chronological order, reading aloud when I’m revising), so I’m trying some of her other suggestions now. Particularly: daydream more, daydream longer, before you start outlining; write down all random flashes of intuition so you don’t have to re-intuit them later; write narrative summaries and see what they spark for you.
Way up above, I said that the idea phase is my favorite part of writing. Basically, this is permission to just revel in it for awhile. So I have been — I’ve been making a point of doing things like taking a long walk listening to music rather than a podcast so my brain can chug along in the background, which almost always gives me a little bit of an “oooh!!” that I write down as soon as I get home. The more of that I do, the connections feel like they’re starting to spark. Like: I went from “here’s a neat idea for some worldbuilding, I think,” to “well, that would mean the people in that area would have to deal with…” to “OH HERE’S A GUY FROM THAT AREA, he’s now the secondary protagonist with a major subplot, also my new favorite.”
Listen: I don’t know for sure that this will get me closer to the heart of the story the first time through. Only time will tell. But I do know that bits and pieces have been falling into my brain constantly over the last few weeks — when I’m walking, when I’m in the shower, when I’m making dinner, and last night I had a complete picture of a whole scene as I was falling asleep. That’s a feeling I lost for a long time. I hope this is setting me up for a smoother, quicker experience with this new project, but even if it isn’t, it feels freaking amazing and I’m having a great time.