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.