I was just talking to a new acquaintance at a dinner party a few weeks ago. She’s the wife of a friend of my husband, and although we’ve interacted a little bit on Facebook, this was my first time really talking to her face to face. She, like many non-writer friends, was fascinated by the idea that a “regular” person can just write a novel — let alone many novels.
I certainly don’t blame her. If you’d told me five years ago that someday (like, this week), I’d be publishing my fourteenth full-length novel, I would have questioned your sanity. I mean, sure, I’ve always been a voracious reader. And given how many books I’ve read in my lifetime, I probably have a better sense than the average person of how a novel “works.” But to go from that to actually writing one? No way!
Fast forward to today. It amazes even me that I’ve written more than a dozen novels. By this time next year, I’ll probably be approaching twenty books. How have I done it?
Okay, that probably sounds dumb, or like I’m pretending ignorance. The fact is, I certainly have learned a lot over the last few years about writing. And I’m always learning more. Clearly I’m not a “newbie” anymore as a writer. But every single time I start a new book, I still take a deep breath, look at the blank screen on my monitor, and will myself to believe that it will work out. And so far, it always has.
Going back to the dinner party — my new acquaintance, whom I’ll call Katie, asked me one of the questions I get a lot from people who find out I’m a romance author: do you start out with a book knowing everything that’s going to happen, or do you just make it up as you go along?
The answer is… a little of both.
In the writing community, we often talk about “plotters” vs. “pantsers.” A plotter, as you can probably imagine, is someone who writes out a detailed plot, down to what will happen in every chapter, before he or she ever starts actually writing the book. A pantser is someone who does the opposite: just starts writing. In other words, someone who “flies by the seat of his/her pants.”
In a way, I guess I think about plotters vs. pantsers as people who are setting out on a road trip. The plotters have a detailed map of how they’re going to get to their destination. The pantsers know where they’re starting, and where they want to end up, but they’re going to turn on the car, point it in more or less the right direction, and leave it up to serendipity to find the “scenic route” to get to their destination.
In my daily life, I’m definitely the kind of person who NEEDS to have a plan. I’d no sooner leave my house with no idea how I’m going to get to my destination than I would leave the house wearing a snorkel and a pink sparkly tutu.
But as a writer? I’m definitely a pantser.
I start out every novel with a sense of who my main characters are. I know their names, what they look like, and what their childhoods were like. I know what their internal and external conflicts are, and how those conflicts are going to get in the way of their falling in love. I know that by the end of the novel, they will have surmounted those conflicts, and declared their undying devotion to each other. I might even have some ideas for a few funny, or sad, or tense scenes.
But beyond that — the novel evolves the way it wants to evolve.
I’ve plotted books before. But the fact is, I don’t like writing that way. One of my favorite things about writing books is letting the relationships between the characters develop organically. And for me, that just happens better when I’m letting the characters drive the plot, not the other way around. When the characters show me the way — where they want to go, what they want to do — their relationship evolves more naturally. They know what they’re doing. The process reminds me a little of a quote attributed to Michelangelo (not than I’m anything like Michelangelo), saying that when he sculpted, he took a piece of marble, saw the figure living inside it, and then chipped away everything that wasn’t that figure.
In my case?
I put my hands to the keyboard, and let the characters tell me who they are.