Friday, November 13, 2009

Stranger in a Strange Land

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?”

Liz Selvig


CarolynDavid said...

Panserland is a very scary place. I agree with what you said though, and I just may have to try and take a side trip there some time:) great post

Lynn Lovegreen said...

What a great metaphor for shaking up the routine and trying something new. Yes, it would be scary, but it might give me a whole new source of inspiration. Maybe I'll try it with my next project.

Tamera Lynn said...

Love your blog, Liz! I started out as a hard core pantser, too. I didn't know any different! But now I like to plot it all out, and if a pantsing mood takes me and my characters astray, I still run with it if it's good. For February Trust I plotted the whole thing, and then got two thirds through, and my characters refused to go on until I pantsed for a while. I think sometimes creativity needs both kinds of thinking to fully lower.

LizeeS said...

I totally agree. I think that's what scares pantsers about plotting -- that all the joy of letting our characters loose to tell us what they want will disappear. Not at all! We only know the bones of the story after plotting --not what twists and turns it may take. You're so right about getting the most out of using bits of both methods.

Laramie Sasseville said...

Hey, Liz - I'm like you: new to the plotting board, but since this is not my first book it's easier for me to try something new - now that I know how much is likely to be changed in revisions no matter what I start with. :)

~ Laramie

LizeeS said...

Good point Laramie. No matter how you get your first draft, it's just that--a first draft! But I happen to know, you did an AWESOME job with your plotting board. You speaka da language more fluently than I do at this point and it's going to serve you well :-)

Juniper Bell said...

Bravo for trying something new! Whether you end up hating it or loving it, it's always good to stretch yourself. Besides, it's a Liz book, so it's going to be great no matter what technique you use!

(I happen to like the "little bit of both" philosophy.)

Colleen Shine said...

Great post, Liz! And from one Panster-in-Transition to another, it IS fun to plot. And to think outside the box. I decided that I didn't know my character well enough. So, I actually wrote out interview questions, made him sit in front of me, and then convince me he was the man for the job. It was awesome!!!
Thanks for the encouragement.

boonebrux said...

Liz, maybe one day I'll join you in Plotterville. I pantsed my last book and boy and I paying the price now. I could use a little preplotting. Look for me. I'll be the one in the hamster ball.

LizeeS said...

LOL Jackie! The hamster ball will work just fine. You might even come to Plottingland more randomly than I did: you can go more random places, kind of like the Dyson Ball they advertise on TV. We can hold each others' hands.