A Score and More and Still Learning

I’ve been writing fiction for over twenty years, and this week I just figured out how I do it.

For years, I’ve bemoaned my inability to plot. Back when I was required to provide my editor with a short synopsis in order to sell another book, I was always able to come up with something. But the plotting I did seldom helped with the writing. Once I started the story, all bets were off. In fact, I learned it was much more productive to ignore what I’d plotted and simply write “into the mist”.

I am a linear writer. I rarely write scenes out of order. I start at the beginning and follow wherever the story leads—the trail of breadcrumbs along the dark, winding pathway through the forest. If I start to feel I’m getting off track, I may go back and rewrite a scene or two. But I usually find it’s better to keep going and fix plot problems at the end.

Although I’ve developed a sense of what seems to work best, I’ve never really understood the actual process. It’s almost like there’s something supernatural happening. A kind of magic. That may sound exciting, but in fact, that unknown magical element has always worried me. If you don’t understand how something works, how can you make certain it keeps happening? The fear the magic will leave me has always been there.

My faith in my writing process has been especially challenged the last few years. I seem to be much less productive than I used to be. Writing a book takes longer and I get stuck more. The magic seems to have grown fickle and elusive. Maybe I’ve worn it out. Maybe I don’t really have what it takes to create stories anymore.

I started a new book two months ago. Initially, I thought I was well on my way. I already had three chapters written from years ago. I tweaked and edited, but overall I was pretty satisfied. Then it came time to write new pages, and I found myself hideously stuck. Over three weeks I wrote three scenes, but none of them led anywhere. My characters stopped talking and froze on the page.

I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I liked my hero and heroine and was interested in their story. Why did they refuse to come to life? They didn’t seem to know what to do and how to move the plot forward. They were static and cardboard and miserably one-dimensional.

This went on day after day and I started to panic. Maybe I was too old. Maybe the magic is finite and I’ve used up my allotment. For the first time that I can remember, instead of providing me with an escape from the stresses of my life, writing itself became stressful. Like my characters on the page, I froze. When I tried to brainstorm where the story should go next, nothing happened.

I briefly considered abandoning the book and working on another project. I have a closet full of partial manuscripts. Maybe one of them would reignite my creativity. But if I tried writing something else and the same thing happened, I knew I would really be in trouble. I contribute a fair share of my success as a writer to my innate stubbornness and tenacity. No, by golly, I wasn’t going to give up on this book. I was going to will it into life somehow, some way.

One good thing about getting older is that I’m better at problem-solving. I also have more perspective. I told myself to crank down the panic and try to figure out what I was doing differently this time. What had changed?

And then a simple thought struck me. The way I write is to climb into my characters’ skin and become them. I see the world through their eyes. Based on what I see and feel as them, they come to life and start doing things.

I hadn’t done that this time. On paper, I had two fairly well fleshed-out characters, but instead of getting inside them and letting them live the story, I was trying to push them to the next plot point. I was outside of them, manipulating them. They became shadow puppets. Hollow empty ideas, rather than human characters.

So I went back, climbed into my hero’s skin and started writing. All at once, the blood flowed in his veins and he took a breath and then another. And just like that, I knew what he was feeling and what he was going to do next.

I will undoubtedly get stuck again. For me, it’s part of the process. But now I know a little bit of the secret of how it works. It’s still magic. Unreliable. Tricky. Unfathomable. But I’ve finally learned a few words of the spell, the sorcery that makes it all happen.

Mary Gillgannon
Mary Gillgannon writes romance novels set in the Dark Ages, medieval, and English Regency time periods and fantasy and historical novels with Celtic influences. Her books have been published in Russia, China, the Netherlands, and Germany. Raised in the Midwest, she now lives in Wyoming and works at a public library. She is married and has two grown children. When not working or writing, she enjoys gardening, traveling, and reading, of course! More about Mary on her website.

41 thoughts on “A Score and More and Still Learning

  1. Oh, I use it when I write multiple-viewpoint books (and in this one half of the story is told from the point of the heroine). I just try to only be in one character’s head at a time. LOL!

    • Thanks. I’ve been surprised how many other people write like this. Most of the time I feel like I’m weird for not being a plotter.

  2. Yes! This is what I do too. This is a very inspiring post and I enjoyed it so much! Thanks for the reminder. 🙂

    • I’m amazed at the response to this. I guess I’m not as weird as I thought. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Funny. I do the same thing. You explain your writing process (and mine) very well. I’m in the midst of my current WIP and been stuck for weeks. Maybe if I give your suggestion try, I’ll be able to move on. Thanks.

  4. Mary, Beautiful post! I too believe the way I write is magic, that someone is writing through me (or maybe several someones). But that’s OK with me. Magic is magic because we don’t understand it. It’s like the shy forest fawn that comes when no one’s watching. Turn too bright a light on it, it’s gone. So glad you turned your bright light off! Best wishes with the rest of the write.

    • It’s been very gratifying to realize how many people feel the way I do. Makes my struggle a lot less lonely. Best wishes on your own writing.

  5. I have to confess this very thing happened to me in my last release. I went from inside to outside of my characters and my editor wisely said – you have no heart for them. She was right. I was writing inspiration that came from without instead of within. Your similar journey has comforted me and given me greater insight to it all. Thank you!

    • I’m so glad my post was meaningful for you. Writing can be a lonely business; it’s so important to share our journeys.

  6. I really appreciate your sharing your process and your challenge with us. Your observation that when you depend on magic you’re pretty vulnerable, because you can’t control it or trust that it will always be there was so spot on. Really inspiring and helpful. Thanks!

    • So glad my struggles are helpful to so many. I’m been doing this so long, and yet it remains kind of an emotional roller coaster. I suspect that’s part of the magic. Our writing uses the emotional energy generated by the tension the process creates. Best wishes on your own writing.

  7. Sounds like several of us do ‘method writing.’ 🙂 But your recognition of what was wrong was really insightful. Sometimes we done realize when we’ve left the characters like that. Good going. I know you’ll finish this book–and the others in that closet !

    • Thanks for the support and encouragement, Barbara. Best wishes on your own writing.

  8. Interesting post. I’m stuck at the moment in the middle of a story. I’ve had thoughts of maybe I should just hang it all up. It’s happened to me before, but I realize that sometimes I just need a break because life (and its nagging commitments) is getting between me and my writing. That’s when I just take time off to get my life organized. For me, writing is like cooking–I can’t bake or cook unless the kitchen is tidy and in order.

    • I think i’m the opposite. I write best when the rest of my life is stressful and chaotic. Although then I really depend on for my sanity, which makes it really scary when it’s not going well. Best wishes for getting unstuck.

    • I guess I’m the opposite. If my life is messy and stressful, I like to escape into writing. The key is figuring out what works for you. Best wishes on your writing.

    • I’m surprised at how many of us are “into the mist” writers. I like that term so much more than “pantser”, which means you write “by the seat of your pants”. To me that implies something is propelling you forward, when for me it’s more like the “following the trail of breadcrumbs through the dark forest” analogy. Best wishes on your own writing.

  9. This reminded me of a conversation with my editor. I was explaining a certain scene/plot within the story. I could tell she wasn’t “getting” it. I then told her to think as a “Fae” and not as a human. She laughed and told me to get out of my hero’s head and skin, lol! I had merged completely with my hero. We both still laugh over that conversation. Thanks for the insight, Mary. I’m a plotter in the beginning, but after I give the reins to my characters, I’m no longer in control.

  10. That is so funny. I’ve never discussed my process with my editor(s). Maybe it’s better that way!

  11. Enjoyed reading your post. Makes perfect sense to me! My problem is that I’m stuck right now, and my characters must be mad at me because they won’t even speak to me. LOL

    • I seem to have hit a nerve here! Don’t know if this will help, but for me the key is not having my characters speak to me, but becoming them. Climb into their skin and look out at the world and see what they think. Best wishes on getting unstuck.

  12. Mary, you pantsers blow me away. I admire you so much because if i had to write that way, I would constantly be in a cold sweat, frozen at my laptop. As you can guess, I’m a serious plotter. So glad you worked out what was wrong. It always sounds so simple in hindsight, but when you are stuck stuck stuck, it’s anything but simple. Best, Anni xx

    • Us into the mist writers are mostly jealous of you. Plotting sound so much saner and safe. But you have to do it the way that works. Cheers!

  13. Reading this, it feels like you got into MY head. I’ll try your strategy and hopefully it will work for me too. Thanks, Mary.

  14. You write like I do. The plot seems to unfold before me. When I get stuck, I withdraw for a while and play with the plot in my head. Usually that helps.

  15. Yeah, I always say I have to get the book in my head and carry it around with me to be productive when I sit down to write. Before bed and early in the morning are the best times for me to slip into their world.

  16. Mary, I guess I’m an ‘into the mist’ writer, too. Thanks for the post and this new term for ‘pantser’! I’ve been kind of stuck for a while on my WIP, so I’ll see if I can climb back into my protag’s head and get on with it.

    • I visualize the process as my characters being a sort of shadow image and then I kind of merge with them and they come to life. It’s amazing how dependent I am on them to drive the plot. Best wishes on your writing.

  17. Great post! I too have be inside the character’s head in order to write their story. I’ve always assumed that’s partly because I like to write first person, and had no idea if anyone else did that. I’m also mostly a pantser, with an early synopsis that may or may not still be valid by the end of the first draft. But if I don’t develop my characters enough with details and backstory, it’s hard for me to get in their skin and I get stuck. So usually I need to either do that, or think through my plot a bit more, and I’m cruising along again. A nice walk never hurts either.

    • Ah, taking walks. Definitely helps me, too. Good way to get plot ideas to float to the top (of my consciousness, I guess).

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