photo by rob.knight

The last time I posted, I mentioned the notes near my desk–the ones I used to help pull me through while writing what will be my second novel, The Moon Sisters. I’ve already shared the first note: Don’t doubt. Just work. Today I want to share something completely different.

Anyone who’s followed this blog for any length of time knows I have issues with “the process.”

I’m a pantser by nature, but after the protracted process with my first book–the complete rewrite, the significant revisions on top of that–I developed a serious case of plotter envy. I didn’t want another Sisyphean experience with book number two. I didn’t want to be a writer who could only pop out a book every four to five years.

Though some pantsers shun plotting, saying the story will end up stale and formulaic if it’s planned out ahead of time, I’ve seen plotters work through outlines and synopses, use Scrivener and the like, and end up with beautiful works of fiction that read as organic and authentic.

So I decided.

I’d control the second book. I’d make the characters do what I told them to do.

I invested in several giant packs of index cards, determined to be Queen of My Domain. And then I filled those cards with snippets of dialog, plot twists, character arcs, backstory, ideas for how the dual storylines in my novel would weave together, etc…

I used over two hundred index cards.

I ordered them all, and then I began to write. Uneasily. Going through the motions. There was no passion in the process.

You only feel this way because you’ve never written like this before, I told myself. You’re stressed because you have a contract and a deadline. Just follow the cards; you’ve already thought through this. 

Every once in a while, I gave into the pull to go “off-script.” The story would curve and arc and bounce, and sometimes surprise me. Times like those, I might not fully understand what a character had said or done, but I’d leave the offering in the script just in case it came to make sense. Because this I remembered well from my meandering, ofttimes frustrating journey with my debut: Those bits could be the most rewarding in the end.

I finally finished the draft, but you know what? It showed the stress of my process tug-of-war. My editor at the time noted that the story at times felt episodic.

I’d love to blame the index cards, but it was I who stuffed my story into a box, who didn’t heed the gut-sense that screamed not working, wrong way, stop. 

And I know better.

Ray Bradbury, genius writer that he was, had much to say about process:

Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy.

You can’t try to do things; you simply must do them.

It’s important to get out of your own way.

I needed to get out of my own way. I needed to let the story breathe.

I rewrote my second story, just like I rewrote my first story. I let it bloom messily off-script, as I toyed with new ideas and let the characters have their way, revealing nuances my pre-plotting mind hadn’t grasped, all the while knowing there’d be a lot of pruning later. (And there was.) Still. It’s what the story needed. It’s what I needed to love it, too.

This was the note I stuck on my desk during that rewrite:

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I still have plotter envy, and I may still try other techniques and tools down the road. (Scrivener, you are so tempting!) But I will never again force my story to fit a mold just because I think it should, because I’ve labeled my process lesser than. I may not be a natural storyteller, but I am a storyteller just the same.

Have you tried to adapt your process? Did you find success, or just stress? I’d love to hear about it.

Write on!

About Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh co-founded Writer Unboxed in 2006. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, was published in March. Her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, sold to Random House in a two-book deal in 2008, was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books, and was a Target Breakout Book. She's never been published with a lit magazine, but LOST's Carlton Cuse liked her Twitter haiku best and that made her pretty happy.