I’m not, by nature, a risk-taker. In the great fairground of life, while everyone else is riding the rollercoaster, you’ll find me on the carousel – freaking out about it going too fast, at that. I gained the nickname ‘Granny’ early in life (I’m talking third class in primary school) due to my tendency to worry about everyone and everything. I’d dearly love to be the type of person who effortlessly goes with the flow, and copes with everything life might care to throw at them without tears and wailing, but one cannot argue with one’s essential biology.
My name’s Sinéad, and I must have a plan at all times. I’m not proud of it, but there it is.
When it comes to writing, this tendency really comes into its own. Normally, I can’t put a word on paper unless I have a meticulously worked-out scaffolding within which to build whatever I’m writing. Before I begin a story – before I even choose names for my characters, sometimes – I’ve got to know what’s going to happen at the end, at least in a general sense. I’ve even been known to write chapter plans, within which I write paragraph plans, within which I write sentence plans – you get the idea. This probably comes from my past career as a researcher and doctoral candidate, wherein an excessive level of preparation was necessary to ensure you got your thesis written on time (and, crucially, before your funding ran out); most of the time, in my fiction writing, it helps. But sometimes, it has the opposite effect.
I’ve had stories which have suffered so much from an excess of preparation that they’ve begun to resemble hermit crabs, forced to break out of their encrusted shell of plotting due to unexpected twists in their telling. Over the course of my adventure in writing so far, I’ve discovered that stories tend to do their own thing, a lot of the time. You might think you have a handle on a character, and that you can predict what they’ll do in any given situation, but – much like life itself – this often turns out to be nonsense. Interactions between your fictional people can mean an unplanned reaction, or unexpected chemistry, or the development of an entirely different (and, hopefully, far more interesting) way to resolve a plot crisis. If, however, you’ve set your plot in stone, and if even one tiny change means that the whole thing starts to crumble down around your ears, you’re in trouble.
The hermit crab has to shuck off its old shell, and make the desperate dash across the sea floor, its vulnerable soft bits showing, until it finds a new one. And so on, and so on, until – inevitably – it gets gobbled up by something with lots of teeth and very little sympathy for its predicament. My need to plot excessively, and the lack of elasticity that can come with this way of thinking, has spelled disaster for many a vulnerable story. I’ve wished, often, that I could just write a story as it came to me and forget the rigid scaffold, but I never thought I’d actually do it.
So, it came as a big surprise when, a few months ago, it started happening all on its own.
My latest novel draft (which I’ve just completed) is a continuation of my NaNoWriMo project, which came to me in a burst of inspiration as I was midway through plotting out another story entirely. I started to write it because I was under time pressure to begin, and there wasn’t enough opportunity to sketch out a proper plan for the whole thing. All I had was a character name and a sense of a voice, and an opening paragraph or two. ‘I’ll do the plan later,’ I assured myself as the words started to pile up. ‘Once I have a handle on where the story’s going.’
Except, I didn’t.
I just wrote. Every day, when I sat down, the story did what it wanted. Characters walked into my head like actors out of the wings, their lines memorised. Things worked out, organically, based around the characters and what they wanted. As the story – rapidly turning into a novel – started to grow, I realised my inner Plotter was trying to wrest control from my newly-discovered Pantser persona. ‘This can’t work,’ I’d say, even as I wrote it. ‘This setting is ridiculous,’ I’d mutter, even as my characters strode across it. ‘No reader would ever believe this,’ I’d scoff, as my fingers tapped it out. ‘Look, stop being ridiculous!’ my brain regularly snapped at me. ‘You simply can’t continue with this without a clear plan in place!’
But, I did.
I’m not going to lie. Nothing I’ve ever written has ever given me so much heartburn, or quite so many sleepless nights. The draft grew miles too long, and it was a huge effort to just ignore that and keep going until the story was told. All my usual props – strict plotting, word-count limits, characters who do this, and this, and then this, and nothing else – had to be jettisoned in favour of a protagonist who, pretty much, did whatever she liked. It was a total change for me in terms of technique and the writing experience, and once I came to the end of it, I was drained in body and mind.
But I had a story – reward enough for all my effort on its own, of course, but this time I’d gained far more than a first draft. I’d gained confidence in myself and my own ability, and I’d learned that sometimes getting rid of the plot and trusting your gut is the way to go. I’m not saying that this is how I’ll write forevermore (because I’m pretty sure old ‘Granny’ is waiting to pounce on me again, headscarf and wagging finger at the ready), but all I do know is that my adventure in ‘pantsing’ was one of the most useful, and worthwhile, things I’ve ever done.
You won’t see me setting foot on a rollercoaster just yet, all the same.(c) Sinéad (S.J.) O’Hart
Sinéad (S.J.) O’Hart likes medieval stuff, reading, tea, and custard, and blogs about reading and writing at http://sjohart.wordpress.com. Obsessed with writing for young people, she’s currently editing a children’s book which grew out of a hare-brained NaNoWriMo idea. Her short stories and flash fiction can be found in ‘The Bohemyth’, ‘Number Eleven Magazine’, ‘Synaesthesia Magazine,’ ‘wordlegs’, and ‘The Looking Glass Magazine’. Follow Sinéad on Twitter @SJOHart.