I couldn’t think what to write this week. This is my fifth start. However, my deadline is approaching, so the pressure is on. I have to go with whatever slips onto the screen.
Actually, I prefer this way. You know that old Tommy Cooper joke, ‘I used to be indecisive, but now I’m not quite sure’? That’s me. I’m hopeless with all kinds of decisions if I’m given some space, from what to order in cafés; to deciding on paint colours; which film to see, or which book to read next. In such situations, ditherers like me can be time-consuming nuisances.
Set me a snap-decision-situation, though, and I’m transformed. In writing terms, I’m what’s technically referred to as a ‘seat of the pants-er’. I tend towards instinct rather than working to a plan.
Even when copying notes from the page onto my laptop, I often stray from the original, and it only takes a couple of extra words to throw a character off-plot. I used to try and control this, to align the new material to my original plan. It never worked. Situations became forced, characters acted in unnatural ways, spoke lines I didn’t believe in.
Some writers work out every stage of their story before they pick up a pen, or touch the keyboard. I’ve tried pre-plotting: used post-its, mind-mapping, charts, story-boards… They’re in boxes at the back of my office, mouldering. Ideas may have spun off them, but the careful central workings remain untouched. Why? They feel wrong.
It was workshops that helped me to become comfortable with ‘pants-er’ writing. Taking part in timed-exercises, when the aim is to produce a first draft for re-working at home, often I’d produce something that felt close to complete. Sometimes it was only as I took my turn in reading out, that I realised the sense of what I’d written. I’d come away from those sessions walking on air.
Gradually I learned to trust my creative responses. Over the years I’ve stopped measuring how random or surreal a starting point is. I let the words, the characters, lead me. Sometimes they go no-where, but I keep them. I’ve found, often, that it can take time for the sense of a piece of writing to become clear. The opening lines for one of my stories that made it into an anthology waited over a year in my notebook, before I began to see what it could become.
*Picture by By Petar Milošević – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40274671