Writing, Thinking, Pantsing, and Miracles

Pantsing, when successful, lets you create a story closely resembling the spark that ignited it. ~Janalyn Voigt, Live, Write, Breathe

The first step in starting a blog is finding the perfect name. I wanted to call mine Contrariwise, as an homage to Lewis Carroll and to my ability to locate an argument in nearly any issue I come across.

Contrariwise was already in use, however, several times over, and I couldn’t find another literary allusion that satisfied, so I named it Whiskertips. It was my own invention, an homage to the two whiskered beasts with whom I share living quarters.

The next step is thinking of something to blog about. For most people, determining a theme would be Step #1. Reversing the steps led to a series of posts I like to think of as eclectic. In other words, I wrote about whatever came to mind. I also hosted guest bloggers. Mark Twain and Emily Dickinson appeared often. But after a while, nothing came to mind, and I began to fall back on the beasts. When they IMG_0832.1assumed complete control of content, I withdrew and created another blog. I took its name from Gertrude Stein: To Write Is to Write Is to Write.* In a note in the sidebar, I stated the purpose: I would write about the experience of becoming a writer. I would write about writing.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

But the best-laid plans of mice and men, etc. In only weeks–days–I had another eclectic blog on my hands. Why? Because I didn’t know anything about writing.

Or, to qualify that, I didn’t know anything writers–or anyone else–would want to read.

I know the basics: grammar, usage, mechanics, various elements of fiction, methods and techniques learned from reading, attending workshops, taking classes, reading articles, books, and blogs. But I had nothing to add.  Other people had gotten there first. And who wants to read another article about where the commas go?

The worst part was that most of the authorities claimed to have the One True Way:

Write fast. Don’t revise as you go. Outline–you have to outline every scene. Use index cards. Use colored pens. Tape butcher paper to the wall. Never share your work before you’ve completed it. Find a critique group. Write 1,000 words a day, and in ninety days you’ll have a completed manuscript. Write every day. Write morning pages. Keep a writing journal. Keep a bible for your manuscript. Query early. Query later. Have a platform. Establish a brand.

All good advice, I was sure. And frustrating, because I couldn’t seem to follow the rules.

Finally, I gave up. The experts were great at explaining how they write, but they weren’t so good at telling me how to write.

I had to struggle for a while, find my own way, develop my own process, set my own rules, and deviate from rules I’d outgrown.

Now, after years of wrangling with the experts, and with myself, I finally have something to say about how I write:

I don’t start with an outline. I start with a character and a line and go from there. I can’t construct a decent plot until I understand the characters, and I can’t understand the characters until I know their backstories. The only way I can know backstories is to write them, not in a separate document, but as part of the manuscript itself. Afterward, I go back and start putting the material in order. I may have to scrap some of the best parts–the darlings–but they go in a Darlings file so I can use them later if I find a place they fit.

This method is called pantsing–as in flying by the seat of your pants. Some plotters look down on pantsers. That used to make me feel like a failure. Then I read Writing Mysteries, a collection of essays edited by Sue Grafton, in which Tony Hillerman tells about his own pantsing. He said it takes longer, but in the end, he gets there. Since reading that, I’ve stopped apologizing for pantsing. What’s good for Tony Hillerman is good enough for me.

Let me make one thing clear: I revise. The condition of my first manuscript dictates that I revise a lot. The end product looks very different from the original.

Because I’m a pantser, the NanoWriMo program of writing a 50,000-word novel in thirty days doesn’t bring out the best in me. I write more slowly, and I can’t pound out a book on someone else’s timetable. For years I registered for NaNo and then wrote perhaps ten words. That’s called losing Nano.  Now I register and write whatever I want on my own timetable. I lose nothing, NaNo loses nothing.

(There’s another reason I don’t do well with NaNoWriMo. I don’t like to talk about it. But if you want to read about it, check Wikipedia under Passive-Aggressive behavior.)

The exception to my pantsing process occurs when a story comes to me already outlined. One such blessed event happened one night just after I’d gotten into bed and turned out the light: a story appeared, beginning, middle and end. I thought it would take about 600 words, but the final version turned out to be nearly 5,000 words. It included a little pantsing.

When I began this post, I knew only two or three things about writing, but now I realize I know more. Having already run on at length, I will leave the rest for another time. After I’ve pointed out one more thing:

Some writers, myself included, know (There’s another one!)–that writing is  a form of thinking, a way to generate ideas, to learn what we already know.

But I also subscribe to Gertrude Stein’s description:

One of the pleasant things that those of us who write or paint do
is to have the daily miracle. It does come.

I depend on the daily miracle. When I write, and keep on writing, it does come.

 *

*The entire quotation is “To write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write.” I presume it was not already in use because no one wanted it.

*

Posted by Kathy Waller 0kathy-blog

Kathy blogs at To Write Is to Write Is to Write and at  the group blog Writing Wranglers and Warriors.

Find her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kathy.waller68.

 

 

Don’t Cry for Me, Austin, Texas

0kathy-blog

Posted by Kathy Waller

*****

On Saturday, Gale and I will leave on a seven-hour drive to Alpine, in West Texas. We’ll attend the Writers’ League of Texas’ 2014 Summer Writing Retreat.

  • Big Bend National Park. By Kathy Waller.

    Big Bend National Park. By Kathy Waller.

    I’m almost ready to leave. All I have to do is

  • print out and re-read all email correspondence from the WLT concerning the retreat;
  • put together and print at least fifty pages of my rough raft, which isn’t too rough considering all the revising and polishing I’ve done, against all the best advice; (putting together the draft entails sorting through the many files I’ve saved under a variety of names, none of which makes sense now);
  • buy new sneakers (the retreat doesn’t require formal dress) and a passel of socks to replace those the dryer has eaten; buy new khaki slacks if I can find a pair whose legs don’t drag the ground (petites are usually sold out);
  • pile everything I need to take, and a few things I don’t, on the guest room bed beside the suitcase, which is closed to prevent William and Ernest (big, hulking guy cats) from sleeping in it;
  • find my favorite novel, Harper Lee‘s To Kill a Mockingbird, for class, even though the book violates the cardinal rule of novel-writing by beginning with several pages of backstory and getting away with it;
  • buy a notebook, even though I have several, because a week-long retreat merits a new one, and pens in a variety of styles and colors;
  • make sure the laptop, the cord, the mouse, and my camera are stowed safely inside my
    More prizes!

    More prizes!

    green Austin Mystery Writers tote; make sure my charged cell phone and the charger are stowed safely inside my purse;

  • confirm with my husband that the car will make it to Alpine and back;
  • do one last load of laundry; pack;
  • get up early, load the car, pick up Gale, and head out.

Gale is probably ready to leave now. She is organized.

Some people would say we’re crazy, driving half-way across the state to do homework every night. Before my first retreat, three years ago, I might have said the same.

But at the end of the first day’s class, I was so energized that I couldn’t stop writing. I wrote long emails that made better reading than anything else I produced during the week. (I had a friend patient enough to read them and kind enough to say, “Send more.”) I might even have done some blogging. After all that, I completed my homework.

The person responsible for my sudden productivity was Karleen Koen, novelist and teacher, whose class was titled something like Writing Your Novel, but who actually taught creativity, with activities designed to quiet the internal critic and allow ideas to surface. One of the ten-minute writings I did in class later turned into a thirty-page story for the Austin Mystery Writers’ anthology of short stories.* Anyone who can pull me out of the doldrums and start me on a creative binge, as Karleen did, is an exemplary teacher.

Next week, I’ll spend five days in another of Karleen’s classes: The Damned Rough Draft: Reframing and Reimagining Your Novel in Its Beginning Stages. Gale is registered to take the class, too. I have a vision of two roommates writing busily away every night.

Of course, we’ll also sit on the porch of the little 1950s tourist court where we’re staying (and where I once ran into a lizard in the shower), enjoying the cool, clear, mosquito-less evenings in a town that, every night, turns off all lights and lets the stars shine through.

And there’s the restaurant in nearby Marfa that serves pistachio encrusted fried chicken breast. I hear they’ve added pistachio encrusted steak to the menu.

Some of our Sisters in Crime will be there. We’ll definitely run into them and will perhaps cook up some mischief.

And there’s the extra day Gale and I will spend after the conference roaming around the countryside. Fort Davis. The MacDonald Observatory. Balmorhea State Park, a cool oasis in the high desert. Big Bend National Park. Endless possibilities.

But I’m going out there to write. I’ll do nothing to distract us from Karleen Koen’s class. Based on my experience, it will be too valuable to play hookey, even mentally.  But we will play, because Karleen believes that’s where creativity comes from.

And that’s how my August will begin.

English: This is Alpine, Texas with the six-th...

English: This is Alpine, Texas with the six-thousand foot plus Ranger, Twin Sisters, & Paisano Peaks in the foreground. (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Public domain. By Rebelcry (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

So, ‘though I’ll be far away from beautiful Austin, Texas for an entire week, there’s no reason to pity me.

I’ll be in the mountains, doing what I love.

 

 

 

 

 *****

*Have you heard about the AMW anthology? If not, you will.

 *****

Kathy Waller blogs at To Write Is to Write Is to Write.

Karleen Koen blogs at Karleen Koen–writing life.