Old Writer, New Tricks

By Mary Gillgannon

I’m what I call an intuitive or “into the mist” writer.  I have a general idea of what the story is about, but I don’t really plot. I’m also a linear writer. I start from the beginning and keep going on the rough draft until I reach the end. Between “non-plotting” and writing straight through, I usually end up with a complete mess and then have to go back and rewrite extensively to get a coherent and compelling story. It was pretty typical that for a 120,000 word novel, I’d write about 30,000 extra words. For my 160,000-word historical novel, I probably wrote 300,000!

About five years ago, I decided I wasn’t up to all that floundering and struggle and wasted words. I was going to learn to plot. I attended workshops, read books and talked to other writers about their plotting process. It all sounded good to me… until I sat down and tried to do it. Nothing happened. No story ideas came. My mind went blank and my muse refused to speak to me.

So, I went back to “writing into the mist” and writing linearly. I seemed to be getting better at it with my romances. But when I tried to write a fantasy series, I ended up with a 200,000 word book that needs to be about half that. Not to mention, I can’t market the series yet because I don’t know what happens in the second book, let alone the third and fourth. (I know. George R.R. Martin probably doesn’t really know where his series is going either. But he’s clearly better at this stuff than me.)

The feeling that there has to be a better way keeps gnawing at me. And maybe, just maybe, I’ve found it with my latest project. It’s a fantasy romance that I first started years ago. Because I was trying to sell on proposal back then, I actually wrote a very rough synopsis for this book. I started writing based on the synopsis, and after a few chapters, inevitably, the plot began to change. But then I did something different. I didn’t keep writing. I went back and started revising the synopsis to fit the story. As I did that, I realized there were lots of story questions I hadn’t addressed. So I went back and rewrote parts of the first few chapters. In the process, the whole story became clearer to me. For once, I wasn’t writing “into the mist”. I could actually see where I was going.

I’ve decided I would keep up with this new technique with this book. I’m beginning to think that maybe the problem isn’t that I don’t plot, but that I keep writing forward even when I don’t know what I’m doing. Maybe if I try to plot as I write the book and fix things as I go along, I won’t end up with such a disaster at the end.

I’ve been writing novels for over twenty years. It would be really exciting if I finally figured out a better way to do it!


Mary GillgannonMary 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 public library, where she she has the enviable task of purchasing adult fiction. She is married and has two grown children. When not working or writing she enjoys gardening, traveling and reading, of course! For more about Mary, visit her website and blog. She can also be found on Facebook.

Technology Chair
Wendy writes stories mixed with dark comedy for all ages, is addicted to website development, and loves to plan all sorts of events. She helps with the RMFW website and is the 2016 Co-conference Chair with Corinne O'Flynn. She is also helping to start up DenverLit, managing their website and frequently tweeting on their Twitter account.

3 thoughts on “Old Writer, New Tricks

  1. Thanks for the dead-on post, Mary. I’m out there in the mist with you. I’ll try your synopsis revision as a road map.

  2. I think I’m going to try the dynamic synopsis approach with my current project. I was getting tangled up in my timeline and cast of characters. If I write the synopsis with a precise timeline first, then at least I have a guide that can be as flexible as my characters and the circumstances demand..

  3. I too have to write start to finish once I begin the actual novel and can get really carried away with word count. A couple years ago I started writing a 20-40 page synopsis before tackling a 1st draft. I love this technique because it also gives me a chance to name characters and really get to know their personality before I dig in and write the whole novel. I also sometime grab a different notebook and write 1-5 pages of a characters backstory to get it out of my head. I’ve found that doing this helps to keep down the final word count of the 1st draft. The other good or bad thing is I do this whenever an awesome idea comes to mind. I have about 5 potential novels in the queue now. It’ll be much easier to pick them back up again, but I need to write faster.

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