I admire those writers who can sit down and plot out an entire novel in advance. I’ve never experienced it, but I imagine all the gut-wrenching, hair tearing uncertainty coming at that stage and the actual writing being a breeze. Once you’ve got the outline done, you sit down to write it. Easy, breezy, beautiful. Okay, so that’s the Cover Girl motto, but you can see how it might apply.

Me, I have to write to find out where I’m going. I can’t come to know the characters until I write them out and wrestle with their voices and their world views. Take my current novel (please!). I keep learning things about my heroine and her BFF (until death do they part) that are complete game-changers. I suspect that this is going to be a novel that I write, and then rewrite to add in all the twists I learned about only later, and then repeat ad infinitum until it all flows and the psychology of it is completely dead on. Emphasis on the dead.

This was the very hardest thing for me to learn as a writer. I’m a serious Type A personality, which makes me extremely demanding of myself. My early efforts at writing were painful, because I couldn’t allow myself to get things wrong, and I couldn’t always be right. (To my authors and husband: please ignore. I’m utterly infallible, of course. What ever gave you the impression that I might be human?) Giving myself permission to get it down and then get it right, which is my current mantra, was both freeing and terrifying. Doing it that way meant I might actually be (*gasp*) wrong. False starts, scenes that go nowhere, dialogue that doesn’t truly further the plot, places where the tension flags…it’s all there. Everyone goes through it. No one’s first draft is perfect. I know one or two authors who get awfully close, and I’d probably have to hate them if I didn’t love them so much. But the truth is, most of us agonize and go through draft after draft. Plotters too, I have it on good authority, because knowing what happens isn’t the same as knowing how it all happens, and sometimes the best-laid plans go awry.

I suppose what I’m trying to impart today is that imperfection isn’t the end of the world…or the end of the road. Sometimes you agonize a little more on the front end of the project (plotters), sometimes on the back end (pantsers), but it’s always a process. There’s always refinement and revision, sometimes whole scale cutting or rewriting.

If it doesn’t hurt, then you’re not doing it right.


28 comments to Mantra

  • “If it doesn’t hurt, then you’re not doing it right.” That is bit of a relief to hear… means I’m somewhere in the neighborhood of the right direction for my WIP :o) …
    I am coming from a similar mindset, and only recently (last few projects) have I started giving myself permission, saying a SFD is okay. Still have to fight some old habits, but it does make it easier to actually write – to use the outline as a belay while swinging across the rock face, exploring.

    Thanks for the post!

  • sagablessed

    My issue with current WIP is I I tried pantsing it, but it has fallen like a lead safe. I cannot get into my MC’s head. There is not connection between he and I because I have not figured out his personal dramas. I have to plot the characters’ lives before I write, then I need a basic outline or there is writing drama. Sometimes I even go so far as to make astrology charts for them. Silly, I know, but needed so I understand them.
    I have great respect for authors like you who can just sit and pants it. Wish I could.

  • I most often start in the middle then ask myself how did the characters get there and how can they get out of the mess they are in. I think in random order, so the story is not complete until I get all the pieces together in the right order. I do spend a lot of time filling in the blanks, but that’s the way it goes.

    What works for me is to write what comes to mind in a journal then transcribe my notes as the story comes together. By the time I feel ready to face the computer I know who I’m writing about, and most of what I add is descriptions and details that were not in the notes. And if what I had previously written doesn’t seem like something my characters would say or do then I change the scenes to something that makes more sense.

  • Rhonda

    Last November my mantra turned out to be ICFIIE (I can fix it in editing). Yes, I used it so often I made it an acronym 🙂

  • Thank you for this, Lucienne. It’s reassuring to know that we all suffer equally. 😉

    I fall somewhere in the middle. I know mostly what the story’s about and how I want it to end, but the details are negotiable. It’s a process I call neither plotter not pantser, but puzzler, and it hurts, too. This is one of those “beauty is pain” things, isn’t it? Ah well, it’s worth it. The mantra I keep telling myself these days is, “For the good of the story.” Because in the end, that’s what matters.

  • Lucienne, sometimes the more pain, the better the book and the deeper the writer has learned to go. I have a feeling that yours fits into this category.

    One tip for Saga — write a scene from the character’s early life, one that scared/scarred the character and made him what and who he is now. That can get me in to a character’s head better than almost anything.

  • “If it doesn’t hurt, then you’re not doing it right,” says my husband who is a personal trainer. LOL. Although, of course, he puts it a different way. The point is that nothing good ever comes easy.

    What an excellent post. It’s a great reminder that writing that first crappy draft is okay. There is always room to come up with twists and all the good stuff later. I’m a panster at heart and a perfectionist when it comes to my work and I refuse to start a novel without GMCs, plot points(Save the Cat’s beats),etc. and sometimes coming up with these to begin with make me want to pull my hair out. It’s great to see that every writer goes through this. No matter how big or how small.

    And an EXCELLENT reminder that each draft will shape that novel into the best it can be. It’s not going to happen in one draft.

  • Gypsyharper

    This makes me feel so much better about my WIP. I’m really struggling with it, and have so many pieces with no real idea of how they fit together yet. I have some ideas about where the plot is going, but definitely not anything that could be reasonably termed an “outline”. I just keep chipping away at it, and trying to come at it from a different direction when I get stuck. Maybe eventually it will actually resemble a book.

    @Rhonda – I love your mantra!

  • […] all!  I’m over at Magical Words today posting about my mantra.  Hope you’ll stop by.  Next on my articular slate (Shakespeare […]

  • Rhonda, great mantra!

    Laura, I’m similar. It’s not that I don’t have a general idea when I start out where my story is heading. I just can’t see all the major events along the way or how they’ll play out. Usually if I plot more than three chapters ahead, my characters will decide to dogleg before I get there. (Like I’m a Dungeon Master in D&D and the party I’m playing with keeps deciding to explore things I haven’t developed, totally refusing to walk into the ambushes already planned.)

  • Faith, that’s a great idea. Flying my geek flag again (I say proudly), my Dungeon Master used to have us write out bios or short pieces for our characters so we’d play them authentically.

    Regarding the pantsing, I often wonder if my drama/improv background plays into that at all.

  • Gypsyharper

    Ah role-playing memories. I played in a Star Wars game for a while where the game master would give out points for writing journals about each session as our characters. And sometimes we’d send e-mails back and forth in character to work out stuff that happened “off-screen”. Still one of the best games I’ve ever played in. It’s probably no coincidence that some of those friends are the ones I started a writing group with.

  • I always encourage the players to write up backgrounds and histories for their characters so that I can mine them for ways to screw them ov…..err…I mean, design portions of the game to cater to their stories, yeah, yeah, that’s it. 😉

  • “My unconscious mind, which is much smarter than I am, is a vital partner in the writing process.”
    —Cat Rambo

    “Your subconscious knows *way* more than you do about writing.”
    —Alexandra Sokoloff

  • I’m still trying to find the best balance between pantsing and plotting for myself. My nature is to just jump in and start writing, but as time has passed I’ve realized that while that may be the most fun way for me to write, it’s not necessarily the most productive way. I tend to go off on tangents, lose tracks of what I’m doing, and just generally get lost in words and ideas.

  • MaCrae

    “If it doesn’t hurt, then you’re not doing it right.”
    Then that must mean I’m doing it the most correct-ess-ness way ever!

    I’m so glad I’m not the only one! I do exactly what SiSi does. Lots and Lots of tangents.
    “False starts, scenes that go nowhere, dialogue that doesn’t truly further the plot, places where the tension flags…” you just described my writing process and progress! I’ve rewritten the beginning about six or seven times (no joke). And no matter how hard I try I CANNOT get into my second main character’s head. I just can’t do it! He’s just a flat paper puppet like my main character was before. “Do this, say this, act like this.” It drives me nuts! He has no place in the plot except for one vital part where he saves the MC’s life (because I told him to…). But he needs to have a really, really, big part in the plot and I haven’t a clue what it should be.

  • Razziecat

    I’ve gotten tons of great advice from this site, but this one, I have to say, I’m gonna print out and post near my computer! I’m wrestling with an outline (and you were spot-on when you said you might know what happens but not how…I found that out pretty fast) as well as with a bunch of “what ifs…” that have managed to derail a good deal of said outline. I may scrap the outline altogether and go back to my own old mantra: “I just wanna see what happens…”

  • I like to think I’m a plotter. I always plot out before I write, because I like to have a outline (even though I rarely follow it faithfully). By the time I’m done with the first draft, I realize that the outline doesn’t work anymore because my characters turned out to be different than what I thought. So I rewrite the outline, revise, and repeat so very many times… It does hurt, but I think it’s a good type of pain. It’s like body aches after working out, it bothers you for a day or two but in the long run it helps you 🙂

    “If it doesn’t hurt, then you’re not doing it right.”

  • Megan B.

    MaCrae, could someone else save the MC’s life? Then you could just take the flat guy out altogether. Just a thought.

  • This post should be in the starter’s kit for aspiring writers, along with the Advil, the copy of Scrivener, and the fifth of Jack Daniels. A seriously wonderful post, Lucienne. Striving for perfection is fine, so long as we realize that we’re never actually going to get there. Editing, revising, tearing out our hair, struggling to get that one key passage right — it’s all part of the process. And your tag line should be tattooed on my forehead, backwards, so that I can see it in the mirror a few times a day….

  • sagablessed

    David: just got Scrivner, have many NSAID’s, and mead. Lots of mead. Does that count?
    I also agree. This post should be chapter one or two in the start up kit.

  • I really couldn’t resist. I made us a card.

  • Saga, mead definitely counts! Especially if it’s Bunratty’s.

  • Razziecat

    Laura, that’s perfect! That should be my screensaver 🙂

  • TwilightHero

    Ahh perfectionism, my old enemy. Yup. Possibly the biggest barrier to increasing my average word count is the notion that I have to get it right the first time. This makes no sense, because I love editing. Seriously. Once I’ve got something to work with, my lizard brain lights up and starts going, okay, this I can cut, this I can save for later, this I know how to fix, hey, this part’s pretty good, I knew I had it in me 🙂 It’s the ‘something to work with’ that can be the hardest part. Great post, and a timely reminder.

    And I love the subconscious quotes from Wolf. It’s a great feeling when your writing problems work themselves out and you have no idea how you knew how to fix them.

  • quillet

    Many thanks, Lucienne. I needed to hear this.

  • Kim Shaw

    Thanks to Lucienne for this post – because right now the pain is so awful I thought I must surely be doing something wrong! As a first-timer on this blog, I’d like to say a big thank you to everyone who posts, and to all who take the time to add comments – I have found them just as informative, thought provoking and encouraging as the topic under discussion. Most of all it reminds me how much we can learn from each other, how similar our struggles are even though we may have totally different approaches to the problems – and best of all, there is always something to make you smile, and say to yourself ‘yep, that’s me!’

  • THE CAT WHO WALKED THROUGH WALLS is not my favorite Robert A. Heinlein novel from a plot perspective, but it’s completely memorable for it’s quotes on writing. For example, when his author-hero tries to explain what writing is like to a non-writer, who asks him:

    “If it hurts so much, why do you do it?”

    To which he responds, “Because it hurts more not to.”

    So, so true.