What’s a Pantster to Do When They’re Stuck? Go Tell It TO the Mountain.

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.

 

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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.

Comments

  1. says

    As a fellow pantser I’ve been there–at an impasse, without a clue. I have found that long walks during which I engage in intense brain storming work for me. I look at the story from all angles. No idea is too outlandish to consider. It could take days, but eventually a solution emerges and that can be the most satisfying part of the process. Of course I am also trying hard to be more of a plotter. I’ve read several good craft books on plotting, but old habits remain. Good luck with your MS.
    CG Blake´s last blog post ..Book Review: The Lightning Charmer, By Kathryn Magendie

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  2. says

    Jan, What a great idea! Can’t believe I haven’t tried it since I’m lucky enough to have an ocean across the street and over the sea wall. Also can’t believe I didn’t think of it since when I was a trial lawyer, I often practiced my closing arguments while walking on the beach. Like you, I’ve spent much of my adult life in the world of logic and cause-and-effect only to discover that, when it comes to story, I’m a pants-er. Such a creative way to be but it can foster – in me – insecurity and fear. And I’m stuck at the moment. So I’ll try telling it to the ocean, though I may wait until the temperature goes above freezing! Thanks for the inspiration.
    Mary Incontro´s last blog post ..Memory: Building Materials for a Story

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    • says

      When I knew I was going to have to break bad news to a patient, I’d practice delivering it in the car. Perhaps a long drive would work while you’re awaiting the spring thaw. At any rate, I’m delighted if this can springboard you to another means of brainstorming. We logic-driven sorts need all the help we can muster!
      Jan O’Hara´s last blog post ..Firecracker Alert: Joshilyn Jackson on Writer Unboxed

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  3. says

    Yes. No question. It’s the relaxed brain state.

    My best ideas seem to come out of nowhere when I’m in the shower after a run or watching TV, but instead of watching I’m kind of zoning off into my own world or on a walk.

    It’s frustrating to be a pantster because my background is the hyper-organized lawyer variety and yet…for me it feel so creative and sometimes the solutions or twists that arise out of pantsing (ugh! is that really a word?) are so elegant, perfect and surprising that I’m certain they could never have come from anything as prosaic as an outline.
    Johanna´s last blog post ..Desolation of a Movie

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    • says

      “…it feel so creative and sometimes the solutions or twists that arise out of pantsing are so elegant, perfect and surprising that I’m certain they could never have come from anything as prosaic as an outline.”

      Exactly! The logic-driven part of me would like to be a successful outliner, but there’s another part which revels in the surprise. Do plotters feel the same degree of euphoria, I wonder?
      Jan O’Hara´s last blog post ..Firecracker Alert: Joshilyn Jackson on Writer Unboxed

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  4. Morgyn says

    Jan, Wordmares? Howling out loud laughter! What’s worse? Dreamseeding for these monsters, seeking the ‘way through.’ Do it all the time when I haven’t managed to wear myself out physically during the day.

    So there with you re Donald and Lisa. Another good resource, You’ve Got a Book In You by Elizabeth Sims.

    In the how to do it while conscious venue, I hit the treadmill, music cranked, thirty minutes at a time. Eyes closed most of that time, envisioning the scene I’m working on. Or, in the pool, hanging off the edge, floating, ears under the water, again, envisioning. Movement, be it running or floating, seems to turn things loose.

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    • says

      With that avatar, no wonder you laughed at WordMares. :)

      Do you walk on the treadmill with your eyes closed?? My, you’re an intrepid soul. I could copy you on the pool idea, though. And thank you for the Sims reference.

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  5. says

    I do my best thinking while driving home after hockey. I’m tired, I’m sweaty, I get a nice view of the Bay from the bridge, and for once I have nothing else to do but think. I’m wondering, though, if there’s room in the Jan Protocol for pets. Like landscapes, they’re also good listeners and not at all judgmental. But I guess it would be difficult not to interpret a tail-wag from your dog as approval – or a whine as criticism!
    Lori Schafer´s last blog post ..What Doesn’t Kill You Does Not Make You Stronger

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    • says

      Ha, Lori, you so nailed my precious-snowflake qualities! Since coming home, I’ve tried to tell my story to the cats, but they are so…feline, you know? It’s good training for dealing with critics, but not for coaxing forth the Muse.

      My dog would sit there forever, but her eyebrows float at inappropriate times. And she comes with an agenda–namely getting the human up for a walk. ;)

      I do like your post-workout drive, though. I can see that would work for me. Thank you for the ideas!

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  6. says

    Two things which work for me: Yes, a walk in the woods never fails. There’s something about being surrounded by trees and listening in the silence that brings up ideas.
    The second thing is that I truly believe that I will find the solution. As Keats wrote: Truth is Beauty and Beauty is Truth. That is all there is to know.

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    • says

      Trees are excellent listeners, particularly the old, deciduous ones with craggy bark.

      And a beautiful quote. If you can keep that knowing inside, I can see it would be powerful.

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  7. thinkpiece says

    I’m a faithful reader and I enjoyed this post but surely … surely … someone can come up with a better word than “Pantster,” ugh.

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  8. thinkpiece says

    Haha, I mean “pantser,” my brain won’t even allow it to penetrate!

    Anyhow, writers, I’m thinking on it!

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  9. says

    I happen to be on holiday in a beautiful spot near water. Only problem is the water’s frozen. And it’s 6 degrees F. Perhaps this will promote a hastening of my performance and a faster resolution… Or frostbite. Great post, Boss! Congrats on your solution.
    Vaughn Roycroft´s last blog post ..Spartans, What is Your Profession?

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  10. says

    OMG, this happens all the time during first drafts. I find that forcing progress makes the blank worse. I usually spend time away from the story. Relaxing is key with music, walking, or reading something different like poetry or a cooking magazine. Then a thread or word or image appears and that gets me going again. I do like your idea of a character writing a letter to the other character. Thanks!
    paula cappa´s last blog post ..A Slimy Little Horror

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  11. says

    Jan-

    Thanks for the kind words. It’s interesting (we need a better word) that you found your breakthrough near water. Crossing water is a classic component of the hero’s journey.

    You say you were relaxed but I’d say you were also ready. Every story stirs resistance in its author. Why? The reasons are as different as stories and people. What matters is to first see the resistance, then see that it’s not the story creating the barrier but oneself, and why.

    From there the path usually reveals itself. Breakthroughs can happen in many ways, in many places, with many methods…but they always happen inside. The reward is feeling characters leap free and take flight.

    Good for you taking a retreat. Oh, how I long for that. How as the food?
    Donald Maass´s last blog post ..Deal: Matthew McBride

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    • says

      Hmmm. Your theory is interesting, Don, as I’d had a hectic but wonderful summer and had taken a workshop just weeks prior, which deal with the subject of Life. In dealing with my story troubles, I can honestly say I’d hit the same point of commitment before, even gone so far as to set up similar external circumstances to facilitate a breakthrough. But on account of the workshop, I went to that retreat in a different headspace. In other words, you might be saying I need to be a more grounded human being to be a productive writer. What a novel thought. (And good news for my family, methinks. ;) )

      The food was great! Homemade, low-fat, vegetarian, and best of all, very little of it made by me. Hope you get to have a similar experience.
      Jan O’Hara´s last blog post ..Firecracker Alert: Joshilyn Jackson on Writer Unboxed

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  12. Carmel says

    Lying in bed, either first thing in the morning or last thing at night, I close my eyes and run the story through my head (it really is the relaxing-and-not-forcing-it thing that works).

    By the way, your character didn’t need to leave Kentucky and go to Tibet. ;) There’s a wonderful (and relaxing!) monastery here – made famous by Thomas Merton and the monks’ fruitcake and cheese.

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    • says

      Are you in Kentucky, Carmel? Thank you for the insider tips!

      I can see the morning review would work nicely. That semi-alert state is often the one which produces my best dialogue, interestingly.

      Are you able to turn your brain off after a bedtime review? That’s usually when I end up with my WordMares.

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      • Carmel says

        Yes – in KY.

        No – my problem is I fall asleep before I get something written down. I’m a wake up in the middle of the night kind of bad sleeper, and the ensuing adrenaline is not conducive to creative thought processes.

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  13. says

    New notebooks and pens always help. Last summer, I took a can of chalkboard paint to one entire wall and I bought rainbow chalk and designated a color for each character. Then I told the story in quotes–this way, every time something life-shattering happened to a character, I would use a color for their quote and then I could see the story as character development, instead of this happened, this happened, oh then this. I’m an outliner, but the story feels forced if I don’t write it from the character’s mouths.
    Anastasia Elizabeth´s last blog post ..Raising Stakes, Part Two

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  14. R.L. Black says

    I like this, Jan. I am a Pantster and frequently end up stuck, so this sounds like a great ideal. The funny thing is, I had a dream last night about a lake! ~ R.L. Black

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  15. says

    Thank you Jan, I’m so glad you mentioned the lake concept. Now I don’t have to put a french drain in my backyard. I can use my seasonal pound to help me finish my story. Hey, that would make me a Pondster.
    Right?
    No!
    Meh.

    “How do you go about filling scenic gaps and establishing a chain of causation within your story?”
    (Oh yeah, it’s butt kissing time.)

    I normally wander over to WRITER UNBOXED!

    BAM!

    Yeah, that’s right!

    WRITER UNBOXED (insert profanity word(s) here)!

    If I can’t find that scenic gap filler in a post from year 2013, then I’ll just mosey on over to year 2012, 2011, 2010, or 2009.
    Om num num num!

    There is a plethora of information at Writer Unboxed. Yes- you read correctly. Pleth-o-ra!

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  16. says

    Loved this, Jan. I often do something similar — I tell myself the story on a long walk by the water. (And if there’s no ocean, the shower is always handy!)

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    • says

      Do you have enough hot water to last?

      Too funny that we’d have a similar process, Liz. I swear we must have common ancestry at some point. Mine is probably the illegitimate line, though. ;)

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  17. says

    It’s not just a panster issue. After all, plotters are just pansters who start with the cribnotes version. I like to play on my protagonists biggest fear, or biggest hang-up, to get me from here to there. For example, my protag in my current WIP has a hearty distrust of his fellow humans, never willing to stick his neck out for anyone. When I needed a way to ensure he remained stuck in an Ohio workers camp (think Great Depression 2014), I played on that fear. Don’t ask exactly how I came up with the solution, but I wrote a scene where he does actually stop and help a stranded traveler, only to be beaten, robbed, and left with a broken leg. Now I’ve re-enforced the mistrust and broken my man’s leg to ensure he can’t leave the place I need him to be. I know it’s not the same as staring at a lake (I suggest fishing, by the way), but simply going back to my protag’s greatest fear helps me to come up with a viable solution, and one that adds an extra element to the scene.
    Ron Estrada´s last blog post ..52 Books Warm-up and Give-away

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    • says

      Yes and yes, Ron. Excellent points. Pantsters simply have to work to develop a 200- to 600- page “outline”. And what a good reminder on how to keep it organic to the character while–as Lisa Cron would say–keeping it on point.

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  18. Denise Willson says

    WordMares! Love it!

    Totally funny to read your post today, Jan, as I was opening my box of goodies (books) I’d ordered online, and voila, Lisa Cron’s Wired For Story! Add this to my pile of Donald Maass books and I’m good to go!

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth (And GOT, now that I’ve written and edited to THE END)

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  19. Jeanne Kisacky says

    Great post Jan, so glad you found the right audience at the right time. Since hearing my own voice out loud seemingly causes my brain to freeze up, I have a halfway version of what you did, at least when weather permits–I still go into nature, but I write my dialogue down.
    Also, if you’re looking for other Tibetan monastery locales, there’s also one in Ithaca, NY. ;-)

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    • says

      Oh, that’s right about the Buddhist influence in Ithaca, Jeanne. I’d forgotten about that. Too bad the example I cited was for illustrative purposes only. I could come visit for the purposes of research.

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  20. says

    Brainstorming is one of my favorite things to do. My preference is on the phone or in person, so ideas can bounce off each participant at the speed of … well … words! What one says, another picks up on, sparking a new idea, until you finally get to the zinger. :)
    Ane Mulligan´s last blog post ..My Top Books 10 of 2013

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    • says

      I need to stretch my wings in this manner, Ane. Is this natural for you? Are you an extrovert in other areas, or have you simply discovered it’s efficient and conducive to writing breakthroughs?

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      • says

        I’m a recent convert to brainstorming. Like you, Jan, I was always trying to figure everything out on my own. And I’m such an introverted troll that talking about my ideas scared the poop out of me.

        In a moment of desperation a few months ago, I agreed to talk through some ideas with a crit partner and holy wow! Now I don’t hesitate to call when she asks “wanna talk through it?” Lots of ideas get discarded but there’s almost always a “yes, that!” moment.

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        • says

          That’s encouraging, Orly! As it happens, this last week I was able to try out an in-person brainstorming session, and like you, I found it fabulous. I’m going to have to let go of the relentless drive to self-sufficiency and assume people are genuine when they offer help.

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  21. Alisha Rohde says

    “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.”

    Yes, THIS. It’s so reassuring to see how many others, here in the comments, are also pansters, too–especially as folks who are “planny” in other parts of our lives. I’ve been wrestling with that dichotomy (trying to plan, finding I need to step back and let go) all year, and I’m glad I’m not the only one. :-)

    I’m with Vaughn: the lake (Michigan) is mighty cold just now, but it IS within walking distance, so I will watch for some milder days to get myself out there. If nothing else, I can cultivate even more talking to myself at home…and cultivate a bit more patience with my process. Truthfully, that’s the reminder I really needed for today, and I thank you for it!

    From the pantsing perspective, glad you know you are finding Cron and Maass helpful–their posts on Writer Unboxed have really been speaking to me as I wrestle with a rough draft, and I’m in the process of acquiring their books now.

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    • says

      “If nothing else, I can cultivate even more talking to myself at home…and cultivate a bit more patience with my process. Truthfully, that’s the reminder I really needed for today…”

      I’ve needed to hear this again and again, myself, so I’m glad if it resonated. We MUST be gentle with ourselves.

      From the similarities of our thought processes, I’m pretty sure you’re going to enjoy the Maass, Cron books, too. Best of luck.

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  22. says

    Jan, my fail-proof method is to aspirate a Barbie shoe. When I cough it out, it’s covered with gelled story ideas. (Well, now that I’ve brought that vile image to mind, where’s the disinfectant?)

    As the risk of sounding like I design Hallmark cards with sunsets as the recurring motif, I often get ideas strolling by the beach, so your water spirit lives in me too. But bicycling is one of my mainstays: I have fully rendered sentences come into my head while I’m riding, which can be challenging to try and retain while I pedal to get home to write them down.

    And of course, there’s bourbon too…
    Tom Bentley´s last blog post ..Paranoid Bell Peppers and Other Writing Prompts

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    • says

      “Jan, my fail-proof method is to aspirate a Barbie shoe.”

      Now see, I was thinking of you when I wrote this post, Tom, but I was trying not to be too obvious. You’ve blown it now.

      In case you haven’t noticed it yourself, I’m also going to point out the Tom Bentley B-pattern for Plotting Success: beach, bike, bourbon. What goes next on that list? Buxom blonde?

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  23. says

    Telling myself the story outloud, imagining a listener, working out the blanks and rocky spots. Yes! It’s an excellent way to find the through-line. Luckily I live out in the woods and can chatter away like a chipmunk. If I do it out in civilization, I get odd looks (“what is that woman on?”). Perhaps then I can pretend it’s a cell phone conversation.

    The term “pantser” is dreadful. Every time, I get an image of old-style comedians with baggy plaid pants and worse jokes. Brainstorming here … “intuitive plotter” … “natural novelist” … “explorative writer” … “plot discoverer” … “inquisitive author”… “story rustler” … (mix and match).

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    • says

      When I’ve been spotted talking to myself in the city, I bust a few dance moves to assure them I’m merely singing, rather than in the grip of a psychotic episode or–more dangerous yet–a plotting episode.

      I like “story rustler”. It’s got a hint of agency and romance…

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  24. says

    Talk out loud to myself? There was a time I would shun such advice. But recently I was in the CITY crossing the street, the woman ahead of me was talking–seemingly–to herself, but she was holding a cell-phone–that’s what made it o.k. So, the next time I’m stuck, I’ll follow your advice–but I’ll bring a cell-phone. : )
    Leanne Dyck´s last blog post ..Free pattern: Mini Sweater

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    • says

      There ya go. Another simple, cheap, effective solution to the eccentricity of writing.

      PS: I haven’t tried this technique via voice memo; knowing I’m being recorded inhibits me. But that would be another worthwhile experiment.

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  25. says

    Jan,

    I’m making my holiday rounds to wish you well and saw that you’re over here today. First off, love the view you had on your retreat. I think that would inspire anyone who had a decent set of peepers.

    Second, the way you offhandedly toss in these deadpan, seemingly serious questions and lists cracks me up (and they are serious, but with a hilarious absurdity—which of course, is what you’re trying to accomplish). Exactly how did he get to Tibet? I’m always asking those questions. Just had to let you know it’s not for naught and my funny bone very much appreciates it.

    Lisa’s book has been on my list for way too long now. I keep forgetting whenever I’m buying books.

    Have a safe and joyful holiday season. :)
    ML Swift´s last blog post ..PBC News and Year-end Adieus

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    • says

      You are far too kind, Michael, but I’m grateful nonetheless. It’s nice to *know* what works for people rather than trying to read the tea leaves.

      All my best to you and yours for the holidays!

      As for the gentleman in Tibet, sadly, he was metaphoric, a mere illustration. In my present WiP, I am dealing with a character’s trans-Atlantic dislocation, but nobody gets shaved and there are no naked ladies. Sorry.

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      • says

        But of course, this I knew. I’m thick, but not that thick. That’s what I meant about the deadpan, seemingly serious questions. They sound like “real” questions…plausible story lines, but the absurdity…it cracks me up. Like I’m reading something by a version of Steven Wright. I guess what I’m saying is that I enjoy your writing. You complete me…or at least a portion of my blogroll. :)
        ML Swift´s last blog post ..PBC News and Year-end Adieus

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  26. says

    Jan, I like this thought, especially the notion of calling upon the fundamental expression of the storytelling art. I’m a confirmed pantser, and so far my stalls have been overcome by just stopping and letting my back burner simmer on whatever it is that’s causing it. It has always been a point where the story took a wrong turn, a turn that didn’t go where a character needed to go. Next time I’ll see if I can add a lake to the process. Thanks.

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  27. tom combs says

    I completed my first work using what would be considered pantser mode. I plan to use a loose outline for my second.

    I agree with the earlier comment that the two modes differ less than many folks suggest. Certainly roadblocks and becoming “stuck” are not unique to either. I also believe that creativity is not enhanced or limited by one mode or the other.

    Regarding a better term than pantser – might the term “freestyle” apply?

    e.g. “do you freestyle or outline?”

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  28. tom combs says

    Jan –
    A follow up thought (thanks for the stimulating blog) – when stuck or something is not working in my writing I find help in talk.

    I haven’t had the experience of talking to a lake, or trees about my writing (though I’m not knocking it – whatever works).Talking with a human animal who has writing awareness or is an ardent fan of story has helped me many times.

    The problem sharing process requires me to communicate my story and pose my dilemma/block/uneasiness in a way that is accessible. i.e I have to tell the story. Sometimes I find that a challenge and this difficulty highlights immediately part of what is wrong (e.g. story is disjointed in some fashion).

    Communicating the story (or having to discuss/explain such that it tracks for my listener/stand-in reader) often identifies problems and points me in the direction of progress.

    Some of the sessions end with a head-cocked, puzzled “Hmmm” from my partner.
    I slink away feeling like I told a joke and butchered the punch line BUT I usually have some notion of where things are going wrong.

    The key ingredient is the knowledgeable listener (they are hard to find and invaluable).

    Not sure what I’ve laid out makes sense. Perhaps it might help someone.

    Nice post, Jan.

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    • says

      “The key ingredient is the knowledgeable listener (they are hard to find and invaluable).”

      I agree. Especially when you *know* you’re going to hit a disjointed spot, it’s critical to have someone patient, gentle, but insightful about story. That doesn’t mean they have to be a writer, of course, but it’s a rare person who’ll invest that much time with you unless they are.

      It doesn’t sound to me like you’re in need of a lake, and that’s wonderful. Whatever works, right? ;)

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      • Tom Combs says

        Jan-
        Whatever works indeed!
        It occurs to me that if the rare commodity of a knowledgable collaborator is unavailable, the use of a lake as stand-in requires me to tell the story. The process is similar and I can see the benefit.
        Thank you!

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  29. MJ says

    A thought-provoking post, as usual, Jan, and lovely extra help in the comments.

    Judy Bridges, author of “Shut Up and Write,” has a giant teddy bear to whom she tells her stories. She says he’s a great listener.

    Two techniques I didn’t see mentioned above: Sometimes I pretend I’m someone else and think about what that person would write. Or I try to figure out the least likely thing to happen next–and that shakes loose a twist that fits.

    Here’s to a relaxed, creative new year!

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  30. says

    Jan, Sister.
    I share your affliction: CFO by day, author by night. I’m organized to a fault. I LOVE plotting tools. I just can’t use them.

    What loosens the story knot in my head is riding my bicycle. Something about being in nature, and my mundane brain being occupied with balancing, traffic, logistics, etc. frees up the creative side.

    I keep a small DVR in the pocket of my jersey and record what comes out for transcription later.

    I made the mistake of playing back some for a crit group member once, not realizing she’d laugh hysterically, wondering what I’d been doing….all the heavy breathing.

    How embarrassing.

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  31. says

    I love this, and the idea of a fireside-narrative gene.

    You wrote:

    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.

    Oh, boy, do I identify with this. My problem is that I really like making a mess. I love it, even. So in terms of creation, those little pieces of paper, with their somewhat illegible scrawlings, make me ridiculously happy. But as happy as they make me, I loathe and even resent having to sort through them later. If I ever figure out how to make these two parts of me work well together, I’ll let you know, however I suspect chances of an accord are slim.

    In terms of my favorite brainstorming technique, I’d have to give it to “the thinking shower.” Go in with a question, the more focused the better, come out with an answer. It works 90% of the time, I swear.

    Write on, Jan. I’m excited to read your book one day soon.

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  32. says

    “I really like making a mess. I love it, even. So in terms of creation, those little pieces of paper, with their somewhat illegible scrawlings, make me ridiculously happy. But as happy as they make me, I loathe and even resent having to sort through them later.”

    Yes! This is me exactly, except to add to the confusion, I have multiple WiPs on the go at any one time. So a note or scribble which induced excitement three months ago becomes a burden I don’t dare discard now.

    As to the last bit, thank you, T. That means a lot to me. xo
    Jan O’Hara´s last blog post ..Firecracker Alert: Joshilyn Jackson on Writer Unboxed

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  33. says

    Jan, this really resonated with me as I often go outside and putter around on my little ranch when I am stuck in a scene and am always unstuck when I come back in to my office. I also find a lot of ideas starts flowing when I am taking my morning walk. Hard to juggle the dog leash and the laptop though. LOL

    I’m sharing part of this on my blog today. I do Odds and Ends on Fridays, sharing things I have found of interest in the news or online. Thanks for giving me such great material to include.
    Maryann Miller´s last blog post ..Urban Fantasy – Guest Post by Margo Collins

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