I like a rut as much as the next person – a comforting, familiar routine where you can accomplish a lot because you know what you’re doing. On the other hand, I hate a rut as much as the next person – living with hamster-wheel dull days and a lack of inspiration as you take the same steps over the same terrain.
So, which emotion is more powerful? For me it depends on the day or the project. If things are going well, I see no need to change the routine. However, if I’m spinning my hamster-wheel, well, it’s time to think outside my comfort zone and head for new territory.
I’ve always felt sorry for people who aren’t willing to TRY something new and different if what they’re doing isn’t working. I’m not talking about Über-Efficient people whose processes work for them all the time. (I only know about three of those people anyhow.) I’m talking about those who follow that definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
Very very often that’s me in a nut(case) shell. So, for my next project I decided to take my squeaking hamster wheel to a strange land. Let me begin by explaining that I LOVE the world of Pantsing. I love the discovery of random conversations leading to the next situation in my story. I love an organic process where I let my characters think for me—tell me their story as I do nothing but data entry. Unfortunately, most of my characters talk just as much as I do. And they like pretty scenery just as much as I do. And the book just kind of goes on and on -- story in there somewhere.
I realized, I don’t wanna deal with editing another book where the last half contains a solid plot and the first half must be edited to fit. Not that it can’t be done-I’m living proof it can. I just don’t wanna.
So my new destination is a place called Plottingland. At first my little hamster wheel rolled down streets I sort of recognized: What Color Are Your Hero’s Eyes Avenue and How Does the Book End Lane. But then we got into the heart of the new country and my wheel tipped over after hitting a plotting board. Let’s just say, Toto, we weren’t in Pantsingworld any longer.
I looked around a landscape of precisely marked-off grids, piled with neat stacks of sticky notes and instructions carefully labeled: Character sketches, Setting sketches, Beginning, Middle, End. And three words that scared me silly: Goal Motivation and Conflict. How the heck was I supposed to navigate this neighborhood? It was Beverly Hills compared to the redneck chaos I’d come from: a place where characters pop out from somewhere in the junkyard of my imagination. How could I possibly know goal motivation and conflict before I’d written the dang story?
And then I found my first guideline. It was, horrors, a “template.” A series of who-what-where-when-how-why type questions that, when filled out, gave me a one-paragraph sketch of My Book. Amazing! Before I’d written a word. And that led to a one-page character sketch, and a full page summary and … and I’m still here in Plottingland working on figuring out my story before even writing the first line. And you know what? It’s fun!
It’s also been several weeks and I still don’t speak “Plotting” very fluently. And there are moments I search desperately for a way to fix my hamster wheel and flee back to Pantsingworld. But I haven’t. I’m planning to stay a stranger in this strange land a while longer, just to see if I can make this something different work.
Okay, this may have sounded like a pitch for that tired old writer’s subject, pantsing vs. plotting with me taking the plotting side. No way. Trust me, my right brain hates me right now. What I want to do is encourage you to try rolling away from that comfort zone when you feel stuck or are tired of the rut that keeps you safe but spinning the wheel. If you’re a pantser—follow me. If you’re a do-or-die plotter, don’t say you can’t do it any other way: set a timer for fifteen minutes and write a scene out of order. Or a chapter. Or, gasp, a character sketch. You never know—your new strange land may end up full of wonderful new friends—and books!
What have you done lately to “think outside your comfort zone?”