2009-08-19 12.59.42

Valley of the Five Lakes, Jasper, Alberta

In the medical world, when a patient becomes sick, it’s important to establish a chain of causation as soon as possible. Understanding the “why” of an illness means you’re in a better position to understand its trajectory and how to interrupt it—how to get the person back to a place of wellness as soon as possible with the minimum of effort, cost, and side effects.

This is so critical, doctors invest years to acquire history-taking and physical-exam skills, and to internalize the protocols to the point they become automatic, almost Terminator-like. For example, a two-year-old child comes into the office with a cough, and your mind fills with a menu of disparate diagnostic possibilities (asthma, pneumonia, Barbie-shoe aspiration, etc.) and the questions you’ll use to discard the least probable.

Coming from that world, with the heft of process and tradition, it’s been interesting to discover I’m a pantster.

If you felt the heavy irony behind that “interesting”, you’d be right. My brain delivers story to me in inefficient and disconnected ways. A flash of a scene, a snippet of dialogue, or WordMares—my favorite, when your mind won’t turn off and your characters natter all night. While I’m grateful whenever the Muse talks to me, of course, and paradoxically adore the sensation of being out of control, I spend a good amount of time chasing a chain of story causality instead of writing. I spend a good amount of time being stuck.

How did a character, whom we last left carousing in a strip bar in Kentucky, end up a tonsured monk in Tibet? And why?

You may call them picky, but of one thing you can be assured: readers expect you to provide plausible answers to these kind of questions.

So I’ve recently realized a good part of the last four years has been about identifying the Jan Protocol for Pantsing. Can I find a way to reliably coax my brain to be more forthcoming with missing scenes?

This fall, the question became urgent. I had a manuscript stubbornly resisting completion. I’d spent months at a standstill with only a few patches that remained murky and impenetrable. It was messing with my confidence. Then I accidentally stumbled upon a useful brainstorming technique which is cheap, simple, and low-tech. If you’re stuck, perhaps it can help you, too.

To get as far as I had, I leaned on advice from other writers. I had already tried:

  • Outlining via the Snowflake Method, or similar.
  • Journaling, keeping the pen moving as I drilled down to the problem I was currently facing.
  • Character interviews.
  • Writing letters to my characters or letters from my characters or letters from one character to another.
  • Mind maps. There are computer programs some writers use, most noteably Scapple, which is supposed to mesh with Scrivener. I prefer the low-tech method of paper and pencil, though. Butcher paper works well, or this roll from Ikea.

The trouble with these methods is that they often pull me into recording minutia when I’m really after a high-level view of the story. Also, I end up with a bunch of paper to organize and store.

I had better success using books by two WU contributors.

  • Anything by Donald Maass is helpful. As you’ve probably noticed from his posts, he ends a lesson with questions—irresistible invitations to my subconscious.
  • Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story is essential reading. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

But what was the mysterious resource that allowed me to see the last 10% of my story this fall?

I made use of a uncritical, inexhaustible audience of one.

A lake.

I happened to be attending a writing retreat at the time. Despite my pathologic desire for self-sufficiency, I’d finally cracked and decided to take a fellow participant up on her offer to brainstorm together. But as she was temporarily engaged and I needed a rest from the computer, I meandered down to a nearby lake. The dock was abandoned and peaceful. Somehow, in anticipation of my meeting with her, I found myself explaining my story to the water.

It took an hour and a number of false starts, but eventually I had a story which hung together. At last.

Why did it work? If I had to guess, I believe it’s that:

  • I was supremely relaxed. I find nature soothing. I had no expectation of finding a solution, means of recording it if I found one, nor concerns about taking advantage of a generous person’s time.
  • Waterscapes, as an audience, are non-judgmental and endlessly patient. They don’t mind if your speech is halting or circular. They don’t accidentally interrupt your train of thought with a question or suggestion just as you’re getting going.
  • Most importantly, by telling the story aloud, I inadvertently reverted to the most intuitive, primal, and concentrated form of storytelling available to humans. We’ve been telling stories aloud for so long to one another, I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t one day discover a fireside-narrative gene.

So if you’re a stalled pantster who has tried all the text-based methods of brainstorming, and who likes to figure things out for yourself, do this: Find a calming setting that’s dislocated from your usual writing haunts. Leave your materials behind. Give “verbal” a try.

Who knows? On your next acknowledgments page, perhaps you’ll be giving credit to a stream or a mountain.

Unboxeders, what’s your favorite brainstorming technique? How do you go about filling scenic gaps and establishing a chain of causation within your story? Please share. The Jan protocol is as yet incomplete.



About Jan O'Hara

Jan O'Hara left her writing dreams behind for years to practice family medicine, but has found her way back to the world of fiction. Currently the voice of the Unpublished Writer here at Writer Unboxed, she hopes one day soon to become unqualified for the position.