Friday, August 10, 2012

The Trouble With Being a "Panther"

By Jane Kindred, @JaneKindred

Part of the How They Do It Series   

JH: I'd like to welcome fellow agency sister Jane Kindred to the blog today, to chat with us about something that baffles me. Writing without a net (or an outline). Since most of my own advice is colored by my love of story structure, I always love it when a guest author shares something that I'm not good at or do myself. If you've heard any of the reviews about her first novel, you'll see that pantsing works for Jane. And very well.

Jane began writing fantasy at age 12 in the wayback of a Plymouth Fury—which, as far as she recalls, never killed anyone…who didn’t have it coming. She spent her formative years ruining her eyes reading romance novels in the Tucson sun and watching Star Trek marathons in the dark. Although she was repeatedly urged to learn a marketable skill, she received a B.A. in Creative Writing anyway from the University of Arizona.

She now writes to the sound of San Francisco foghorns while two cats slowly but surely edge her off the side of the bed.

You can find Jane on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and on her website.

Take it away Jane... 

Last night, I was tweeting about yet another corner I’d written myself into (my books have seemingly no end of treacherous geometric angles), when the spellchecker on TweetDeck decided I was not a pantser, but a panther.

I’ve decided to keep the label. I like the idea of being a panther. Of course, I’m thinking of a nice, shiny black panther making its slow way through the humid jungle. As a friend said on Twitter, “Panther would suit you well. You could stalk, all broody like, and then POUNCE!” Why, yes. That was my clever little plan all along.

The trouble is, I sometimes feel like a visually impaired panther. (And perhaps this suits me, too, as I’m extremely near-sighted, with astigmatism in both eyes; and now that I’ve discovered the joy of needing bifocals, the end result is that I can’t ever really see anything properly, and often have to hold my laptop screen up to my face to check pixels and colors for my day job in design.) So as I stalk the plot of my story, I frequently end up wedged into pointy little angles, wherein I end up jotting down notes to myself like the one mentioned in another tweet from last night:

95K words in, and just wrote this in my notes: "Losing Y has to majorly f*** up X's plans...AND WE STILL DO NOT KNOW WHAT THESE ARE!!!! "

(That’s right; I write notes to myself in the royal “we.”) Even better, this note was not just about some random character. “X” is the antagonist of a six-book arc. And this is Book 6.

But stumbling through my books is half the fun. It’s the reason I’m a “panther” and not a plotter. I don’t want to know what’s going to happen, other than a vague idea of who’s going to end up with whom at the end. Writing, for me, is like watching a movie in my head and writing down notes as fast as I can to tell you all—all my close personal friends out there in reader-land—about this really cool movie I saw that played for one night only.

I’ve tried plotting in advance, using a number of popular methods. And bits and pieces of some of those methods have been really useful, like building your plot like a snowflake from a single logline, or outlining not only the novel, but breaking down each scene in advance. But when I try to follow through on any of these, I end up bogged down in my own head, obsessed with what’s going to happen in Chapter 22, Scene 3, Part d), and feeling like I can’t make the story work if I don’t know. The worst part is that even if I come up with something that seems plausible to me, the story begins to feel boring. Oh, the duchess is going to seduce to the demon in the middle of the book? Who cares? It’s like the worst spoiler in the world—somebody’s who’s already seen it told me exactly how the movie ends, and it’s a whodunit.

I began writing because I loved reading, and I wanted more stories when the books I’d read were done. But if I knew the ending of every book from the start, reading wouldn’t be very much fun. In my case, it seems the same thing applies to writing them.

So I’m kind of stuck with sneaking around behind my story’s back, stalking it through the jungle of words and trying to catch it at exactly the right moment for everything to fall into place. Which means a lot of bruised noses when I hit the wall.

My method for getting out of a plot corner (or a hole; depending on how sneaky my story has been, sometimes it’s a six-pointed oubliette) is a little embarrassing: I shower. There’s something about the warm water running over my head and the white noise it creates that lets my brain stop running around in circles and just enjoy the movie.

And inevitably, while standing there wasting 75 gallons of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir water and incurring ever more karmic debt, I’ll have a Eureka moment. If you happen to be around while I’m showering, you’re likely to hear sudden exclamations from the bathroom, such as “Oh my God! THAT’S why the queen sent him to find the ring! It’s HIS baby!” or “Oh, no…I have to kill Sasha!” It’s like I’ve got a soap opera in there with me. Which I suppose is apt, since this often happens while I’m sudsing up my shower puff. (How did this blog post end up sounding dirty?)

Those Eureka moments are the reason I write, and I love figuring out something that seemed impossible until the moment hit. I’ll use outlines to keep track of what I’ve written so far, and to remind myself of what’s coming up that I’ve already figured out, but I need to be free to steal along in the darkness behind my characters and take them by surprise. So I’m a myopic panther with a bruised nose and stubbed toes. And that’s just fine with me.

About The Midnight Court, Book Two of The House of Arkhangel’sk:

Against the pristine ice of Heaven, spilled blood and a demon’s fire will spark celestial war.

The exiled heir to the throne of Heaven, Grand Duchess Anazakia and her demon companions, Belphagor and Vasily, have made a comfortable home in the Russian city of Arkhangel’sk, but their domestic bliss is short lived. When their daughter Ola is taken as a pawn in Heaven’s demon revolution, the delicate fabric of their unorthodox family is torn apart—threatening to separate Belphagor and Vasily for good.

Anazakia is prepared to move Heaven and Earth to get her daughter back from Queen Aeval, risen in Elysium from the ashes of temporary defeat. But Aeval isn’t the only one seeking Ola’s strange power.

To conquer the forces amassing against them, Anazakia is prophesied to spill the blood of one close to her heart, while Vasily’s fire will prove more potent than anyone suspected. In the battle for supremacy over Heaven’s empire, loyalties will be tested and secrets will be revealed, but love will reign supernal.

Pre-order The Midnight Court, available August 30, at Amazon | Barnes & Noble | BAM | The Book Depository | Books On Board | Powell’s Books.

About The Fallen Queen, Book One of The House of Arkhangel’sk:

Heaven can go to hell.

Until her cousin slaughtered the supernal family, Anazakia’s father ruled the Heavens, governing noble Host and Fallen peasants alike. Now Anazakia is the last grand duchess of the House of Arkhangel’sk, and all she wants is to stay alive.

Hunted by Seraph assassins, Anazakia flees Heaven with two Fallen thieves—fire demon Vasily and air demon Belphagor, each with their own nefarious agenda—who hide her in the world of Man. The line between vice and virtue soon blurs, and when Belphagor is imprisoned, the unexpected passion of Vasily warms her through the Russian winter.

Heaven seems a distant dream, but when Anazakia learns the truth behind the celestial coup, she will have to return to fight for the throne—even if it means saving the man who murdered everyone she loved.

The Fallen Queen is available now at Amazon | Barnes & Noble | BAM | The Book Depository | Books On Board | Diesel | IndieBound | Powell’s Books.


  1. Showering? Yep, that's how I solve my plot holes too!

  2. Jane, thank you for this post. I am a panster. I don't want to be a panster, but every time I promise I'll use an outline - I just can't do it. It is the bored factor. I keep hoping I can change my panster ways but...

    I find my best answers in the shower, bath, and believe it or not while running on my eliptical. No more excuses not to exercise!

    I like your idea of keeping an outlines that tracks what I’ve written so far and to remember what's coming up. I might be able to follow through with this. I think this would help me and I could do this

  3. I refer to myself in the royal "we" too. My husband sometime worries about what voices or other creatures in my head I think I'm referring to.

    I'm a pantser too ... if I feel forced to push a story to a specific next plot point, I often start getting writer's block because I feel too constricted to be creative.

    Besides, would you rather walk through a garden in a straight line, or wander along and see what catches your eye? For me story development is somewhat similar.

  4. Ha! This must be a Tucson thing--I also have a B.A in Creative Writing from the UA (class of '85), grew up under that hot Tucson sun, and can't follow an outline to save my life.

    I enjoy posts like this because they give me hope. I too have been trying to structure, I too leave notes to my self, which usually start with "dumbass, he can't find her HERE, because x,y, and z haven't happened...", and I too usually have to sneak up on myself.

    Showers work great; I recently saw a very scientific explanation of why ideas come to people in the shower. Now, if I can just figure out a way to take notes without getting them wet, I might have a finished story on my hands.

    Jane, thanks for making me feel better.

  5. It's great to hear there are so many shower plotters here. :D As for voices in your head, um, yeah...doesn't everybody hear those? ~shifty eyes~

    Hey, EP, I was Class of '88. :) I wonder if our paths crossed at all? Of course, Jane Kindred is not the name I matriculated under, so we may never know. ;)

    For taking notes in the shower, I repeat the key points I've figured out aloud ("X is the baby daddy, I have to kill Sasha, the queen knew all along") so I can run to the bedroom when I'm done and write them down. This, unfortunately, sometimes gets confused with "milk, toilet paper, cat food" from the other running list in my head. :)

  6. This post and the comments had me cracking up. I especially enjoyed the visual of the myopic panther with the bruised nose and stubbed toes. I immediately got an image of the cartoon Bagheera wearing glasses (sliding down), with criss-crossed bandages on his nose, and a swollen paw.

    I do a combination of plotting and pantsing...depends on the book. I was such a confirmed plotter, my muse forced me to pants a novel, but I've found whether plotting or pantsing, I have those surprise moments, and without them the end result would be dull.

    I also have ideas come in the shower, and one book was written almost entirely in the bathtub. I'd pick at it and get nowhere, hop in the tub and the floodgates opened.

    That may be too much information...

  7. One of my MCs *loves* the tub. Sometimes it's the only place she'll talk to me. (I bet you know which one I mean, LK.) ;)

  8. Between considering myself a pantster (tho I like the pouncing panther analogy) and trying to plot my current wip I've plantsed myself into a major block.

    Thanks for sharing your tips. You reminded me I just might need to get back to my roots.

    Or just keep reading more blogs.


  9. I love reading about writers who write/plot/don't plot in all sorts of different ways. Love the shower eureka moments! While it's slightly annoying to suddenly discover the answer while changing a diaper or picking out soup at the grocery store, it does make writing that much more exciting!

    Thanks for a great post.

  10. @AmyMak: And that much more inconvenient while I'm driving, lol.

  11. Fine post, Jane--thanks :)

    What IS it about showering? As Janice well knows, I'm something of a pantser, too, and the shower almost invariably works when stuck tight in one of those self-crafted angles. Over the years, I've found that showers--or sometimes sleeping on it--will solve just about any creative snafu.

    The other thing that works for me when all else fails--and only then--is just giving up and asking the character directly ;-)


  12. I LOVED this article because I am a pantser (or panther) for that very reason. If I plan it out, it is boring and I can't write it. For me, the plot-hole is typically solved at 4AM when I'm half-awake. I've no idea why my brain kicks into gear at that hour, but it works for me. I'm glad to know I'm not alone.