Sparked by Words

Out of the Maze

Conventional wisdom states that a book must open with a passage from the most current time period of a story, but that’s not my comfort level. Organizing my story demands structure that doesn’t come naturally to me. My stories tend to ramble around like a steel ball rushing through a wooden maze of a dozen possible pathways until it finds the way out. Characters in my stories move back and forth between assorted phases of their lives, history pokes its professorial pen into the plot, fictional landscapes resonate with the physical appearance of actual mountains. Writing strategies: flashback to early trauma, flash-forward to possible resolution. Story arcs looking for the way out or at least to the end of the book. Many authors tell stories this way, weaving past events with present action, revealing the impact of old baggage, the way things long gone used to be. My problem is I write out of sequence. The charge is to put it together so a stranger reading late at night can follow the story without getting trapped in the maze.

I write in fits and spurts, pantsing as some call it. Parts of the story get written out of order, and if you ever visit my home you’ll see how that distractable method is reflected in the way I live. A dozen incomplete projects lie scattered around the room: a watercolor intended for my youngest grandchildren (drawn but not painted,) a basket of laundry ready for folding if it was actually washed yesterday (needs the sniff test first,) a partially eaten yogurt on the computer desk (probably best to toss the remainder.) It seems obvious to draw, then paint. To wash, then fold. To eat top down into the cup, then lick out the bottom. (OK, so you don’t lick.) The beginning actions of mundane tasks present themselves in obvious order.

I’ve never had any trouble starting a story. It’s knowing how to begin it that’s the problem. Writing, however, doesn’t begin at one obvious moment in time and location because life doesn’t either. Well, maybe the egg and sperm routine, but that’s not what I mean. You can detect my rambling choreography in this post. It presents a problem when I write – where to begin. I originally began my first novel in a shtetl in Poland more than one hundred years ago, but the story is about the journey of a contemporary American woman. Writing 101 says to begin with the American woman, so eventually I tossed what had been a flashback masquerading as an opening scene to make its appearance later in the book. The story is stronger now. It still conveys a world grievously lost but has a direct appeal to contemporary audiences.

My third adult book took shape as an outline, a practice I’d disdained all through college. (I was more likely to fake an outline after the finished project – bad student.) Yet the outline format helped keep me on track with the progression of the story. There are still many scenes that recall past situations and some that suggest future events, but the flow is contained by the underlying structure to which I remained true. Characters consider past moments as they impact the current situation, a natural evolution of lives defined by story. A teenage boy recalls the girlfriend he thought loved him. A middle aged man remembers the woman he used to love. A woman yearns for the mother who once loved her. A pastor reminds everyone of what might yet be. A collection of past relationships and future possibilities construct the singular day of the story.

Much as I’m endeared to pantsing, (such fun to write, as if a story is a series of moments tumbling down steps, events landing where they may,) I might resort to an outline for future books.  They will always include portions of earlier incidents and later repercussions. That’s the way life is – one haphazard decision resulting in a terrible outcome, and hopefully one eureka moment leading to a glorious conclusion. The way to begin a story, whether pantsing or outlining, is to drop the steel ball into the maze and then tip the wooden box every which way.

Next, write. And then, rewrite.

 

 

Maze image courtesy Google Images, Pixabay

 

 

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Comments on: "Out of the Maze" (40)

  1. I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s haphazard.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s funny how well pantsing can work! I write blog posts that way — but they’re easy because they are so short. But that’s also how I’m writing my (not for publication) autobiography. It’s a sporadic, years long project that I undertook in order to better understand my life. “Pantsing”. Comes from “seat of the pants” I suppose?

    Liked by 2 people

  3. One thing that surprises me time and again is how often — even though I’m pantsing — things just come together. I write something and think, “Well, that’s a digression”, but then by the end, the “digression” has come together with everything else to form a coherent whole.

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  4. Does having an outline in your head count? Just saves writing it down.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As I wrote to Paul Sandstone (got to his comment first) I always have an internal outline. The tedium of writing it down bores the heck out of me. Efforts to do this segue into the story itself so I just take it from there. So I would say yes, no need to write an actual outline, but you have to know where you’re going. What do you find true as an editor? Can you see a difference, and would you recommend some writers to try one method or the other?

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  5. I admire authors who tell their story in a non-chronological fashion. That can be tricky to do, and so far, mine have all been linear. So it’s great that comes natural to you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I would point out All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr as an outstanding example of non-chronological presentation. He researched and wrote for ten years before publication, and he’s talked about his intentional construction as a way of pulling the reader into the story. Another example is Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. She began the story as a NaNoWriMo entry and then developed it into a full book. In my opinion, the non-chronology is unnecessarily confusing, but I don’t know if it was an outcome of the way she began the book or was an intentional device.

      In my own case, the first book was actually two stories that eventually connected, and I wrote them first as two separate stories, then linked the chapters so the interwoven elements support the story as a whole.

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    • what a great avitar, roughseasinthemed 🙂

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  6. Shari, have you tried the snowflake method/ [https://www.standoutbooks.com/the-snowflake-method-randy-ingermanson/] It might be a good fit for you.

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    • I’m familiar with it but so far have found my elementary somewhat discombobulated strategy effective for my goals. It allows my creative impulses lots of room, much of which I reign in during re-writes. But I might look into it again. Thanks for the reminder, Glynis.

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  7. I’m definitely an outliner, but am impressed by those who can do just what you do: write almost from stream of consciousness. I need order which is probably why I write thrillers and history. You, though–your voice as you described it is perfect for your topics.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Pantsing? That’s the REAL reason I read your LONNNNNNNG posts – to learn new vocabulary. Never head of that before so I looked it up:

    Pantsed (verb) : The past tense and past participle of the verb meaning to pull down someone’s trousers, revealing underwear or other undergarments. You got pantsed, kid! … Pantsformers (noun) : A pair of pants equipped with zippers that can “pantsform” into shorts.

    I have no idea how that fits into writing but I do think I’ve led a bloomering life.

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    • I think in reference to writing it means writing by the seat of your pants rather than planning it first a la outline or other organizational tool. In fact, I think even people who think they are pantsing are really more organized than they want to believe. I always have a pretty firm idea what I want to write about, who the primary characters will be, and the eventual outcome. I dislike doing formal outlines and am quickly bored by writing my ideas in any way other than to write my story. However, I also always write a great deal of background info loaded with all kinds of research so I can check details for accuracy.

      Judy, you have led a bloomering life, thank heaven for little miracles.

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  9. The problem for me with outlining first is that my ideas evolve so rapidly no outline has ever withstood a few hours work.

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  10. That cheered me up, Sharon! Thanks so much for your kind words!

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  11. A pantser after my own heart. I must read these stories of yours. Again, I realize how much we have much in common.

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  12. have always been in awe of pantsters, then decided to be ok with not being one. when I ‘pants’ I start off ok, then get lost lost lost

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  13. read down a bit further – am joyed to see talk’s turned to alpacas/llamas!!!!

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  14. I really like your ball and box analogy, Shari. I have seen my mind work similarly when writing poetry. Considering the angles a reader might take. The beginning can be tough, I agree, and so can the ending. Knowing when I’ve said enough and the story over… for the time being.

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    • I have the same problem, Audrey – knowing when I’ve said enough and not going on too long. It can be tricky but I find reading my stuff aloud helps. Poetry of course must be read aloud.

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