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Monday, March 10, 2008

The Organic Approach (Or I Have No Idea What I'm Doing)

One night about a dozen years ago, I sat at my computer to perform an experiment: to see if I could write something. I had a scene in mind, a fictionalized version of a real-life incident in Paris. That scene–the first piece of fiction I ever wrote–wound up in Chapter Four of my first manuscript. And it survived intact to appear in Chapter Ten of my recent release, A Perfect Stranger.

So began my haphazard, horrifying writing process. I still write scenes as they come to me, in a completely random fashion. I skip bits I think I'll need but don't want to deal with at the moment–if I'm lucky, I'll discover I don't need them at all. I don't keep track of where my characters have been, and I have no idea where they're headed. I'm spoiled, I'm undisciplined, I'm a mess. But I've stopped stressing over my shortcomings because my crazy method appears to be working.

There was a time I thought there was something wrong with my routine, and I attended every plotting workshop I could find. I took copious notes on charts, grids, notebooks, outlines, arcs, lines, color-coded columns, act-based organizational plans–you name it, I considered it. And then I tossed it all aside with a shrug. I figured I could spend lots of time organizing my thoughts, or I could let them spill onto the manuscript pages and see what developed. Chaos suits me, and I'm sticking with it.

When people ask me about my process, I usually answer, "You don't want to know." One night, a friend pressed for a response, so I told her. In detail. She actually turned a slight shade of green. "You're right," she told me when I finished explaining. "I don't want to know."

You don't want to know, either. Which will shorten this blog post considerably.

I do need a couple of things before I open a document and type Chapter Whatever: a character, a mood, an incident. Some sort of story premise is nice, but not necessary. I began Learning Curve with nothing more than the image of a slightly depressed man walking down a wide, deserted corridor. Make-Believe Cowboy got its start when I envisioned a scene where a horse-savvy movie star scared a rancher who thought he'd break his neck riding bareback. That's all I had when I started writing those two books. No names, no goals, no motivations, no conflicts, no ends in sight.

I'm the Unplotter.

Okay, so I need more than an image or an idea if I want to sell on proposal (and I do). I need to come up with a couple of things that might happen, invent some fuzzy character backstories, and weave them into a vague-but-compelling synopsis. I also need an editor who'll trust me to pull another rabbit out of my plotless hat.

I realize now why I started writing when I discovered romance novels: I'm a completely character-driven writer. So it makes sense that I'd feel at home in such a character-driven genre. And since this is genre fiction, we all know how the story's going to end, right? What makes the reading fun is finding out how this couple will arrive at their happy ending. And what makes the writing fun for me is tagging along on their journey.

Plots? Who needs 'em? Once I figure out what makes my characters tick, I stop worrying about what happens next. I stumble along with my characters as we make our way to The End, with fits & starts, with a little second-guessing and a few retakes, with no idea what's going to happen next. Just as I do with my friends in real life.

Are you an Unplotter? Are you willing to jump off a story cliff, figuring you'll write in a parachute at some point on the way down? Are you ready to toss aside your charts and graphs and embrace the unknown? Or does the anarchy on your pages make you feel insecure when your critique partners mention structure?

Terry McLaughlin is busy unplotting the next two books in her new Built To Last series for Harlequin Superromance. Look for the first book in the series, A Small-Town Temptation, in May.

26 Comments:

At 8:14 AM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Great post, Terry! We are kindred spirits!

I wrote a great many "scenes", with no idea of where any story line might lead. None of them were ever finished, but I certainly learned a lot about character, and that's what drives my work to. But it did take plotting out a story to enable me to finish a manuscript. My plot consisted of a one page numberline, with a short description of each chapter. My rambling plots are web outlines with endless possibilities from each key scene.

It's as close to organization as I've been able to come, but it's working for me, so far.

I know I really have to have that first "big" funny, sensual, or romantic scene with the main characters come alive for me before I can go back and figure out how the characters got there, and where they go next.

 
At 9:26 AM, Blogger Eden Sharpe said...

I'm mostly an unplotter too! I'm trying to reform myself, but when I get a visual scene in my head, (and I have a hard time visualizing things), I have to find out what the rest of the story is.
The rest of my story is me empathizing with the characters to try to find out why they're feeling the way they feel and what came before and what comes after. I literally feel my characters' ways. (I'm an INFP in Myers-Briggs, if that helps explain my process.:) )
So this blog and other resources are to help me find a more efficient method of stimulating the "muse".
I'm so glad there are Unplotters out there publishing books, so that I know it's possible if I don't get the hang of plotting.

 
At 11:24 AM, Anonymous Colleen Gleason said...

LOLOL. I am soooo an unplotter, too, Terry!

Although now that I, like you, have to sell on proposal, I've become a little more disciplined. Fortunately, my editor understands that synopses are written to be changed.

Great post. And I love your books--so you're right, something's working!

 
At 11:54 AM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Add me to the list of Unplotters. I like that word, Terry! I do have a tiny bit more figured out before I start writing...but not much.

Great blog! You've succeeded in making all of us feel better about our chaotic writing processes. Thanks.

 
At 12:18 PM, Anonymous Amy Addison said...

Nope. Plotter.

I tried Unplotting last year for NaNo and wound up with an anxiety-inducing 51,000-word mess. Once I pretended I hadn't written it and went back to my own process and started from scratch, the story came together much better, I feel much more calm when I'm working and I'm excited to sit down at the computer each day.

 
At 1:35 PM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Hi, Gillian!

Kindred spirits are precious--I'm glad I've found one :-). Like you, I've got to make my connection with my characters by writing a juicy scene (or two...or three). If I can get excited about them and their story (whatever that ends up being), it'll pull me through to The End.

I love your concept of a "web outline." Brilliant!

 
At 1:43 PM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Hi there, Eden!

Your description sounds a lot like how my stories happen--first I get a vivid impression, and then I work forwards and backwards (and inside and out), all at the same time.

I chatted with Harlequin Mills & Boon editor Sheila Hodgson while I was in Australia last summer, and she told me that we "intuitive" writers are some of the best storytellers around.

Good luck stimulating your muse, Eden--it sounds like you've aware of what works for you, which is a terrific start ;-).

 
At 1:50 PM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Colleen, you are too kind (I'm blushing here). And you're SO lucky to have an editor who understands :-)! Thank goodness most editors don't view synopses as some kind of contract, or most writers would be in trouble ;-).

Theresa--I'm in awe of your brainstorming talent. Your post on March 3 was fantastic! Great ideas there for churning out material to build a book on.

For the last couple of books I started jotting down ideas for future scenes, and the lists provided reasons to work on days I wasn't in the mood to create. I find that getting started is often the hardest part, and if I have at least a vague idea of something I could write on any given day, the pages start adding up fast.

 
At 2:06 PM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Amy--feeling calm and in control of your writing is a good thing :-)! I don't blame you for sticking to what works for you.

I typically write about 100 pages or so of anything that comes to mind (during my completely spoiled, I'm-having-a-blast, isn't-writing-fun? phase), and then that anxiety you mentioned begins to suffocate me. That's when I take a couple of days to scroll through the mess, looking at what I've produced and trying to figure out what it all means, and then I arrange the bits in something that resembles a story...sort of. I figure I can always go back and patch up the holes and clear up arcs ;-).

There are times I wish I could charge ahead in a logical order. I'm sure I'd save time. But the few times I tried it, I felt the story was in control, not me.

Isn't it fascinating and fun how differently we all tell our stories :-)?

 
At 2:13 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

My first book was written on the fly. It has a somewhat unusual structure, but could be fixed without tremendous work. I think most writers sense when the story needs something -- a dramatic or tender moment, some comic relief, etc. For me, plotting ahead of time is a security blanket. I could write without it, but each book I complete makes me feel that I need to do better on the next one. When I start out with a plot that's at least reasonable, it gives me the confidence to write.

 
At 2:19 PM, Blogger Terry Odell said...

HI -
interesting post. I can't plot more than 3 chapters at a time--and it's usually more like 3 scenes. Some days, three pages, or three paragraphs.

I, too, am character driven. A book idea comes as a way to use some scene I've envisioned between two characters--not always hero & heroine, although it's usually got one of them in it. Or a line of dialogue I want to use. Or a piece of action. Which leads to a scene, which leads to a book. Scares me sometimes.

But, I can't write out of order. Even if my envisioned bit is going to be at the middle (or even the end) of the book, I have to get there chronologically.

Then I start to get acquainted with my characters, writing what I know is back story, which I'll cut once I get to know my characters better. I do a LOT of cutting.

 
At 2:38 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Terry O, I'm with you. I can't write out of order. I'm a very linear writer.

I find that with tighter deadlines, I have to plot more ahead of time. And when you sell on synopsis that is true, too. But I miss the fun of "Flying into the Mist," as Jo Beverley would say.

My books start with a character or a scene and I make up the story around it, but it is always constructed in order: Beginning, Middle, and End.

But plotting in detail using charts or notecards or scene outlines takes the joy out of writing for me. For other people (Not Terry M, though!) that is the joy of writing.

But Nora Roberts says, "There is no right way to write a book." Whatever works for you is what you should do! Some books require different strategies, too.

 
At 5:22 PM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Esri--I'm all for anything that gives a writer confidence ;-). It sounds like you've found the key to beefing up yours :-).

On my last book project, I suckered myself into a "plotting" situation where I felt so confident I was downright smug. I told friends that book was going to practically write itself, since I had the entire thing outlined (outlined far more than usual, that is).

What a mistake that outline turned out to be. That was the hardest book I ever wrote! I didn't connect with the story and start making progress until I set my plans aside (and they were good plans!) and gave the characters some breathing room.

Your point about knowing when a story needs something is SO important! I often stop to make sure I've included those "aha!" and "awww" moments where readers will realize the characters are falling in love.

 
At 5:29 PM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Hi, Terry--omigosh, another scene/vision-inspired writer :-)! There are plenty of us, but we rarely get any attention, because we can't offer workshops. Well, we could offer them, I suppose, but they'd be really brief and confusing ;-).

Your process of writing all the backstory--and then cutting it--is terrific. Kudos to you for knowing it deserves to be cut ;-)!

I wish I could write in a logical, linear fashion, like you. It would make things a lot easier for me when I go back to figure out what's happening & when.

 
At 5:45 PM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Diane--it's amazing (and reassuring) to see how many people there are who build a story around a character or a scene. So many sources of inspiration :-)!

Writing in a linear fashion would make it easier for me to keep my story and character arcs tidy, but I'm too impulsive to wait until I get to the "good" parts. I write the fun stuff first (and then my deadlines force me to write the rest).

 
At 6:25 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Writing in a linear fashion would make it easier for me to keep my story and character arcs tidy, but I'm too impulsive to wait until I get to the "good" parts. I write the fun stuff first (and then my deadlines force me to write the rest).

Terry, I don't know what the fun stuff will be until I get to it. Oh, I might know that there will be a love scene here or a fight there, but I don't know what the set up is until I get there and my characters show me what happens next.

 
At 6:52 PM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Diane--Aha! Your point makes perfect sense...which is additional proof that my writing process is completely nonsensical ;-).

 
At 8:19 PM, Blogger Ladyhawk said...

Terry, I loved A Perfect Stranger and look forward to your Built to Last series. And like you, I'm an unplotter, though for me I've frequently written the end before I'm half way through the story. I've also written scenes that I realized, as the story develops, simply do not fit the characters but are too good to delete, so I cut and paste to another document, and another story is born. LOL!
~Judy T

 
At 9:24 PM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Aww, thank you, Judy, for your kind comments :-).

Okay, you win the Unplotter prize. Cutting scenes from one manuscript to jump start another? I'm shaking my head in amazement here.

As for writing the end of the story at about the halfway point...oh, yes, that's a lot of fun ;-).

 
At 9:34 PM, Blogger Merrillee said...

Terry,
Great post. I'll have a post next week that will follow up on this topic.
Merrillee

 
At 10:39 PM, Blogger doglady said...

Thanks so much, Terry, for making me feel much better about those conversations in my head that come to me out of the blue! That's where many of my stories start. I think I have told the story of how my current and only novel Lost in Love got started. I was stuck working on another novel and a friend/CP told me about an exercise she was doing in writing glass. They drew words out of a hat and had to write a story using those words. The words were glittering - cave - journal and soldier. I wrote a first chapter about a stuffy duke and a sunny hoydenish girl going on a ride over the Yorkshire moors when a sinkhole opened up and they fell into a cave. I now have an entire novel based on that little bit. I have started my second novel and the idea came to me about a woman who has the power to "see" animals' memories, but doesn't want anyone to know it. It turned into a Gothic when I was surfing the net for photos of the village in England where I lived and I came across a site that had photos of the nearby village of Dunwich which literally fell into the see. The photos were so hauntingly beautiful and well there it went. Now if I could just get a rough synopsis of some sort written. Not that I will end up following it, but one can hope!

 
At 8:41 AM, Blogger SFWriter said...

Here's another curve for the Unplotters: you can be an Unplotter, and a plotter, too!

My stories come to me exactly like yours, Terry. A mood, a character, a random scene. A what-if. A dark alley and a tense moment with no lead-up and no resolution. I just let it develop and see where it takes me.

Sometimes it just fizzles out and comes back to life years later.

Sometimes not.

Sometimes it keeps going and then writes itself into a corner. Then I have to get out the charts and the boards and the planning hat.

But I will probably keep revising the plan as the characters tell me what's really going on in their world.

 
At 9:24 PM, Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Ah. But what do you do when you have to, eeek, write a proposal????

 
At 11:04 PM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Yay, Merrillee! I'm looking forward to hearing from a fellow Unplotter :-).

 
At 11:09 PM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

doglady--the way stories come to people is pure magic :-). Yours sound wonderful!

sfwriter--any process that works for a writer is a good process ;-). I've stopped and jotted some notes or an outline too, at times. Just because I never look at those scraps again doesn't mean they don't help organize me...for a few minutes ;-).

 
At 11:24 PM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Hi, Janet :-)! What do I do when I have to write a proposal? Whine. A LOT (just ask my husband).

My first editor used to give me the green light based on a sketchy outline page or two, or perhaps a peek at the beginning of a manuscript. I'd get right to work, and eventually, after I'd produced enough of the right kind of material, I'd send her a full, formal proposal.

But I always kept chugging along in my own way, one story after another. Contracts would appear, and I'd sign them and send them in, but those didn't matter as much as the verbal agreements and mutual trust. Our arrangement allowed me to produce more quickly than ever before, without a gap in projects. Heaven for a writer like me :-). We were a good fit, and I miss her very, very much.

 

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