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Facing the abyss

Every time I talk about my evolving writing process, I’m sure my long-time blog followers just roll their eyes and think, “Again?” Watching me over the last two years has been like the proverbial tennis match where I’m the ball bouncing between Plotting and Pantsing.

My first three books—and two in there that went unfinished—were written “into the mist”, begun with only the spark of a premise and a rough idea of my characters. After the pain of cutting as many as 15,000 words to work myself out of a corner, and being unable to finish those two books for lack of direction, I decided that I should approach my writing in a more organized fashion. One that befits a logic-oriented, list-making planner like myself.

I came to this opinion after reading brilliant books from the likes of Larry Brooks and Blake Snyder and hearing others wax on about plotting and structure and how it saves them. Published authors talked of the need to provide synopses or outlines for future books to their editors, and I wondered how I'd ever do that if I remained firmly in the pantser crowd.

And while I did manage to do some rough outlining before I wrote BLIND FURY—outlining that helped keep me on target during NaNoWriMo—I still ended up writing blind a lot of the time. Which, to be honest, is half the fun.

So, I fancied myself a hybrid writer, plotser, tweener, or whatever your favorite term is. If I could just take a few weeks of “prewriting” to nail down the GMC for the main characters and get my major turning points in place before I got started, the words would flow like the great Mississippi.

Or not.

So—for now—I’ve decided I’m this kind of writer: a heavy-on-the-pantsing hybrid writer who must (as my friend Sharon Wray put it) “embrace the abyss of revisions” at the end. Because, let’s face it, my need for perfection from the outset came from a desire to avoid those agonizing rewrites that I now think are unavoidable whether I plot or not.

I had become so paralyzed by my need for a workable structure that I didn’t write anything of value for four months! I played with scenes, wrote ten—I’m not kidding—different story openings for a book I’ve been thinking about for months, wrote getting-to-know-my-character scenes, and generally goofed off, but didn’t sit down and get serious.

Some of those words will be useful, but it avoided the real work of starting the book.

A few things helped get me unstuck. Dwight Swain’s amazing book TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER. A lot of omphaloskepsis. And just this week, this post by Allison Brennan.

So, I’m back to where I started, but with a different perspective. I now have an awareness of structure and of what types of scenes I need to be writing if I’m in the first 25K of the book versus the last 25K.

I know about scene and sequel, motivation-reaction units, active setting, and ending hooks. I know that if I finish the book and it doesn’t need any plot changes—ha, I wish!—I’d still have to go back and layer in more emotion, dig into deeper POV through setting, tighten the action, polish the words.

I know that if I finish the book and the structure is off, I can fix it.

I know that if I run with my original idea and get stuck along the way, I can always back up and forge a new path.

I know that the first draft doesn’t have to be—and in fact, will never be—perfect.

So I'm standing on the cliff facing the abyss again.

Time to jump.

Photo credit: MORARU RIDGE IN FOG – BUCEGI MOUNTAINS © Iuliana Bucurescu |

Tell your friends!


  1. Curtis



    Excellent post.
    I am “not” rolling my eyes. 🙂 And, your writing is certainly evolving.

    For what it is worth.
    1. Your titles have become zingers in the last four posts beginning with your guest post. People would kill to be able to flip titles like that.

    2. The four month of do nothing equates to the rest and cultivation of a field before planting. A time as necessary as all that follows. Remember it is evolution. No forcing allowed. 🙂

    3. Your writing has become seamless in structure and comes from a deeper place within you.

    4. You seem to be more comfortable with the writer you are rather than the writer you think you are supposed to be. Meaning, you are finding your way.

    5. You have crossed a line. Who you were before you wrote this post as a writer has passed into who you have become as a writer. Once that space opens within us there is no way back. I’m glad you jumped. Something tells me you have found your wings. Of course, the only way to know is to try them. Again and again and again.


    • Reply

      Curtis: On those rare occasions that you grace this site with your presence, I am always profoundly glad you did. 🙂

      For all of your kind thoughts and words of wisdom, and for sticking with my little blog for so long, thank you!

  2. Reply

    Hybrid is the way to go… for me at least.

    The hook, the what if, or the imagine if, question develops quickly for me. That’s where the core starts.

    Then I think of the start of the story. I can see my opening as vividly as a favorite movie scene. I have to have that.

    I know up front some key scenes that transform the relationship.

    I figure out the main characters in good detail. I can picture them, and hear their voices. I know what they like, love, hate. I also know what concerns them, and what scares them and what moves them.

    From there, the story develops as I write it. I don’t know how it’ll end most of the time. But about halfway through, my characters give me a hint or two. Do I revise? Yes, big time. Do I find key themes, and holes that I had not considered? Yes.

    Do whatever causes the words to spill out of your fingertips. Don’t second guess yourself, but do try different things. At one point, I think (hope) a technique will emerge that works for us every time.

    At the James Scott Bell workshop, he shared a story. He was at a writer’s conference attending a session on plotting. How much, what techniques, etc. Next to him was Lee Child. Lee said, “I don’t even know what my story’s about until I finish it.” It all works.

    Good luck!

    • Reply

      I think we all want that magic bullet that will make the process easier, but in the end, we just have to embrace that it’ll never be easy if the end result is going to be any good.

      You and I write a lot alike, I think. Even when I “plotted” out BLIND FURY, I still wasn’t sure who the bad guy was going to be until the end, or how the final showdown would play out.

      Thanks for the bit with James Scott Bell and Lee Child. Love that!

  3. Reply

    Hi Gwen! Great post. I’m a plotter – at least I have a skeletal outline when I start a book. I don’t figure out the in between bits until I sit down to write that scene but I definitely know what the scene is about and where it needs to go. I don’t mind revisions but with my method they usually don’t focus in the area of plotting.

    You can do it!

    And speaking of jumping – I’m getting ready to start my book that I will write in Scrivener. You challenged me and I’m taking it! So, I guess I;m jumping too . . . : )

    • Reply

      Robin: Your process sounds a lot like how I wrote the last book. And even without having all the turning points figured out in detail, I always try to make sure each scene has a goal and purpose before I get into it.

      Thanks for the encouragement. Good luck with the new book!

  4. Reply

    Gwen, I’m right there with you. In fact, I was just composing a blog with a very similar theme (Check back on my blog on Friday!).

    I tried so hard to plan out my story in advance that I stopped writing altogether. I’ve come to the hard realization that my brain just doesn’t work that way.

    Once I embraced the mister in me, I started enjoying my writing again and the words started to really flow.

    Do you mind if I link back to this blog in mine?

    • Reply

      Mary: It sounds like we’re in a similar place right now. I really had this sense that writing had lost the joy and the ideas just weren’t flowing. I realized that a lot of my ideas for what happens in later scenes come while writing the early ones. If I never start, I can’t get to the end.

      Now that I’ve started back up again, the words and ideas are there. Amazing.

      Feel free to link back, and thanks!

      • Reply

        This is why I always write a “discovery draft” which is sort of an outline, but I can’t know the parts I don’t know till I roll through it once. Then the problems, character issues, continuity issues become clear to me and I can start revising. I consider my first revision the real first draft.

        • Reply

          I think that’s sort of the direction I’m heading, Christine. We’ll see. Who knows, maybe the process for each book will be different, but, boy, I hope not!

  5. Reply

    I’ve learned the hard way to embrace my process. No matter how much I think “I’ve” planned the story, the story ends up hijacking me and rewriting itself out of sheer necessity. The characters force me to do their bidding. But still, they allow me the delusion of believing I can plan and plot and have turning points and all that just so they can dance on the page. It’s inevitable. It’s reality. It’s all good if the characters are happy.

    Character drives the story. Once I get my little plotting stuff out of the way, it rolls.

    Have fun staring at the abyss and leaping into the unknown!


  6. Reply

    Great post, Gwen. And thanks for the link to Allison Brennan’s post as well. Much food for thought and inspiration from you both. Thanks!!

  7. Reply

    Thank goodness. Someone else like me. I began to use Scrivener about 6 months ago and, realising the power of the software, changed how I write to something more organised. At least that was the theory. I can’t write to outlines and arcs because the story emerges under my fingers, not in rigid disciplines. So, my problem is that I want to use Scrivener and do use it, but, since I began, I haven’t written anything new, just jumped in with the software and got bogged down in a lot of research and confusion – but at least the research is all in one file. I am spending today trying to work out how to make it work for me instead of me working for it. And, as it’s Sunday, sending up a prayer that I can get my mojo back.

    • Reply

      Avril: I write in scenes, so I whenever I’m ready to write a new one, I create a new document and go. This allows me to easily find a scene again, move it around if needed, or take it out (I keep “deleted scenes” in an Unused Scenes folder) without disrupting the rest of the story.

      I use the Label and Status to track POV and day of the week. I use Composition mode (fka full screen) to write without distraction, synopsis to track the goal and purpose of each scene, and snapshots to store an old version of a scene before I make major changes.

      You might check out some of my Scrivener posts on the tab above. The intro talks a little about how I use it, and the other posts may give you some ideas as well. Good luck!

  8. Reply

    Gwen, thank you for your advice. I shall certainly take it. In fact, I have programmed in the next 3 hours to check out your posts and play with the software. I’m especially interested in the Label and Status option. I’ll keep you posted of progress. Thanks again.

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