Saturday, June 27, 2009

Writing into the Mist - Whatever Works

Award-winning Author Deb Stover makes no apologies for being an in-the-mist writer. Here on Five Scribes, we often talk of plotting, templates, and we certainly give our share to "How-to" Authors. For you pantsers, this one's for you. Thanks for joining us, Deb.

Writers are obsessed with plotting tools, toys, and techniques, as if these are the magic elixir that will spur them forth to publication and certain stardom. Speakers selling these "surefire" techniques look down their noses at those writers they call "pantsers." Those who don't adhere to outlines, plotting boards, fancy tools and toys are sometimes accused of "writing naked."

After all, what writer in their right mind would spurn a plotting technique claiming to simplify the novel writing process? Snake oil salesman often said they had certain cures and solutions to everything, too....

The first rule of writing fiction is simple. There are no rules.

Writing is a smorgasbord--take what you want and leave what you don't. The same holds true for critique--especially for critique. As my late husband, an engineer, always said, "Whatever works." And that means whatever works for you as a writer. It doesn't matter what works for Nora Roberts or Susan Elizabeth Phillips, if it makes you twitch or stare at the blinking cursor on a blank screen. All the spreadsheets, plotting boards, outlines, detailed synopses, brainstorming kits and tricks in the world aren't going to help if they send your muse screaming into the night.

Flying into the mist is a term coined by the brilliant Jo Beverley. Many writers have heard her mention it a time or two, either at conferences or on line. Her description works for the way I write, so I borrowed it for a recent workshop, and warned her in advance that I planned to blame her for the entire idea in case it wasn't well received. Seriously, all of Jo's books are perfect examples of how brilliant and successful flying into the mist can be.

We've all attended dozens of workshops about plotting, writing synopses, etcetera. For some writers it's as if someone turned on a light bulb when they discover the techniques involved with meticulous, tedious, detailed plotting. Fine. That's wonderful. I'm happy for them. In case you haven't figured it out by now, I'm not one of them.

I'm one of those who, early in my writing career, thought there was something wrong with me, because all these successful writers were trying to teach me another way to write. "I'm not doing it right," I told myself. Convinced that was why my first manuscript never sold, I set out to outline my second one and do it the "right" way."


That was pure torture. Something was missing. The book truly sucked. I worried and fretted, talked to other writers until a good friend--a multi-published author--asked me why my first book was fun and that one wasn't. Only then did I realize the simple answer. All the magic, the passion the adventure of storytelling was missing this time. Why was it missing? What was different? That was when my creative light bulb went off, and when I realized there really are no rules.

So I took my original idea, beause every story starts with an idea, a character, a situation--something--and sat down to write. Three months later, I had a completed manuscript to shop around. That one didn't sell either, but the third one did--also written my way.

Now I'm not saying I never write a synopsis first. I do--at least I do now. I didn't before that first sale when I had to write the complete anyway. Now I often sell on the synopsis then write the book. My editors--and my wonderful agent--have come to realize the finished project may only bear a minor resemblance to the original synopsis, but at least the characters and general premise are the same.

I never write scene-by-scene outlines. I don't know how to make a spreadsheet, and I don't want to know, thankyouverymuch. I do write character bios, interviews, horoscope charts, and even Tarot readings on occasion to help flesh out my characters. Those characters lead me on a merry chase, and the more multi-dimensional they are, the more twists and turns and depth the story will have. I do not dictate the direction those characters may take me. On the contrary--they lead and I follow. Sometimes I get revenge....

After all Romance is, first and foremost, character-driven fiction.

Some books require more research than others. Since I've written historicals, time-travels, and contemporaries, I've done a lot of it. I do some initial research to get a feel for the setting, but I never do all of it right up front for fear of letting it steal the magic of storytelling, and also to prevent me from writing any infodumps. If I reach a point in my story where I must have another fact, I use a dummy variable--always the same one so I won't miss it in a search--then go back to do the research later. Don't let details slow the flow when you're in a creative fever.

That's the beauty of writing into the mist. The characters and the story carry the author--and your reader--away on an adventure. It's exciting, mysterious, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Some of you are wondering where to start without an outline. Flying into the mist isn't for every writer, just as outlining and meticulous plotting aren't for me. Assuming you have an idea in the first place, then you should get to know your characters next. I always see one of both protagonists in a situation. In fact, I would say every story idea I've ever had has originated there, then blossomed from there.

Here is a simple exercise to test your skills at writing into the mist. Think about a character in your current project. Place your character on a dirt road--anywhere, anytime. There's a fork in the road. One fork disappears over a hill and the other down into the woods. Your character has to decide which fork to take, and you will discover what they will find when they do, and why they make that choice. Give yourself five minutes to write and see how your scene snowballs from there.

Writing into the mist isn't for the weak. It takes courage and believe in yourself and in the strength of your characters. If it doesn't work for you, then enjoy plotting boards and tools that do work. Whatever works....

This article ran first in Pikes Peak Romance Writers chapter newsletter. (Once upon a time, Deb Stover wanted to be Lois Lane, until she discovered Clark Kent is a fraud and there is no Superman. Since publication of SHADES OF ROSE in 1995, Stover has received dozens of awards for her cross-genre fiction, including ten Romantic Times nominations, and a 2005 Career Achievement Award. Her 12th full-length novel, THE GIFT, will be released by Dorchester Publishing in November 2009. For more information visit


JanetElaineSmith said...

Great article, Deb. I hadn't heard that term, but I know (and use) the principle. I did a detailed outline for my first book, Dunnottar. By the time I had finished the book I knew that wouldn't work again. The end story only vaguely resembled the one described in the outline. It is much more fun to be "driven" by the characters than to sit in the driver's seat myself.

Kristie Leigh Maguire said...

Great article, Deb. I am also a pantster. I have never written from an outline and couldn't sit down and plot a story before hand if I had to.

I've not heard the term writing into the mist before but it is very appropriate for the way I write.

Thanks for sharing that someone as successful in their writing career as you are writes the same way I do.

Kristie Leigh Maguire (romance author)

Leslie Ann said...

Nice article, Deb. I used to be a fervent panster, distaining all outlining...and to some extent I'm still one, but now I create a beat sheet. So while it gives me the story beats, the character reveals that drive the story are still there and exciting, as are the story turns I never expected.

So my working style is now a melding created by the neccesity of what I now write--screenplays.

The more I do it, the better and easier the process becomes and the more enjoyable, something I never thought possible when I finally acknowledged that I had to begin "beat sheeting" the story.

DebStover said...

Thanks for the feedback, all. Leslie Ann, in all honesty, I think most writers are a blend of both types. Some of us just lean more one way than the other. :)

Happy writing!


Epstein LaRue said...

Very interesting article! I'm an outliner also, but not a detailed one. I also write out my characters characteristics. This article gives me ideas on how to expand my thought process. Thanks again for the article! Epstein LaRue,