For ‘seat-of-the-pants’ writers, the map-less journey to your novel’s ending is filled with exciting turns and suspense-filled late night driving. For many, the way is lit by an inner inspiration and the beckoning call of our characters. Wonders unfold in unique and interesting ways. The journey is full of discovery and enthusiasm.
Sometimes however, we’ll find ourselves completely off course, down a wrong turn, experiencing bumpy terrain (cluttered with potholes and speed humps). Fear rises and it’s tempting to slam on the breaks to get your bearings or turn around in search of an easier road. These fears are, from time to time, well founded. If all your instincts are screaming, “You are going the wrong way!”, chances are, ‘you are’.
This is not ‘always’ the case however. On occasion, these wrong turns are actually going very, VERY right. So how do you tell if you’re on the road to your novel’s swift and gruesome death, or creating the path to a brilliant book?
The truth is, in the beginning you simply CAN’T tell. As a novice writer, what you think is a brilliant idea may be average or even dismal. Thankfully, every moment we spend writing, and reading, gives us the experience to know when we have something worth writing about.
Despite these early fumbles the best thing any writer can do when they feel like they have something worth saying, is to write it! If you’re mid-story and you feel yourself taking a detour, take it. You may not know where that path will lead or what you will end up with, but first drafts are not set in concrete. You can rewrite scenes, characters, even whole chapters, if it just doesn’t work for you. As you write, you develop the experience needed to make every future journey easier.
“One of the great joys to writing fiction is that the characters decide which actions they will take and they always surprise, anger, fascinate, disturb, delight me.” â€“ Benita Porter, author of Outlaw Cravings, Colorstruck, and Skindeep.
Alternatively, you could track the concept in your mind. Rather than following the path with your pen, close your eyes and follow it with your imagination. This technique can be done in minutes rather than the days it may take to write these scenes. You can play the story out in your mind’s eye as if you were watching a movie. This may not be a particularly ‘seat-of-the-pants’ type approach but the advantage of ‘Mind Play’ is that you can play various scenarios through the hi-definition plasma of your mind’s eye and discover which you like best.
“I think this is what is so powerful about fiction. The writer enters a world to record the story, the action of that world, and it is full of twists and turns and revelations that surprise even the writer. A lot of times I don’t [have control of the story]. I have control of how I’m telling it, but not why. If I have an idea that I want to use, sometimes it feels like I’m shoe horning it into the book, so I step back and let the world of the imagination take over and guide me. And that place, inside all of us, where creativity is the engine and where ideas are born, never lets you down.” â€“ Adriana Trigiani, author of bestselling and critically acclaimed, Big Stone Gap and more.
Alternatively, you could listen. Read aloud your work and hear the cadence of your words. Stories that work have a pattern and melody that helps create the motion of your story. Scenes that don’t blend well into the existing pattern are often signs of a detour gone wrong. When the music of your writing hums with life, you’ve got something worth keeping.
It takes practice to hear the language in your stories. Practice by reading, reread your favorite authors, read your favorite genres, read non-fiction, read the newspaper, read the cereal box. Learn to recognize unique voices and unique language structure. Listen to the unique composition of literature melodies and learn to develop (and listen to) your own.
Brian Evenson, author of The Wavering Knife, said, “The writing that I like best is a writing that gives the sense simultaneously of great authority with the language â€“ of control â€“ and the sense that the writer is as surprised by the direction he’s going as the reader is, that he suddenly feels he’s leaving everything behind but is willing to keep on going and see what happens because the language demands that of him. I think that’s achieved by an intense focus on the mechanics of the story, an attention to individual sentence, to rhythm and sound patterns carried out to such a degree that the dynamics of individual sentences occupy the writer’s mind and allows what’s subconsciously present to rise, unpredictably and appallingly, to the surface.”
IN THE END
The journey of your story is an adventure that will often keep you on the edge of your seat. It’s a wild ride. It’s scary and unpredictable. Even those who spend time preparing long before they begin writing often find the story takes them where they never expected if we leave ourselves open to these deviations.
Ultimately, it is openness and a willingness to ‘go with the flow’ that allows us to explore these alternate pathways through our stories. Strict planners can find themselves stymied when the story wants to go where they hadn’t planned. This is one of the reasons combining planner and pantser techniques are the most effective way to write.
Vicki Pettersson, author of The Scent of Shadows and The Taste Of Night, also describes this remarkable experience: “I _am_ sometimes surprised by the direction of the story, and have to rewrite my outline, or realign my thoughts accordingly. If it’s coming alive on the page, that’s what needs to be there. As for some sort of fickle muse, I don’t believe in the muse. “She” is too often used as a crutch. I believe in the work. And I believe in the individual writer. There are things out there that only _you_ can write â€“ not me, not some nonexistent muse â€“ and it’s your experience and imagination that breathes life onto the page.”