Friday, March 20, 2020

How I Trick My Pantser Brain into Plotting

E. J. Wenstrom, @EJWenstrom

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Plotter or pantser, there's a lot to be said for just getting the story down--even if it's a mess. E.J. Wenstrom shares tips on how to hash out a novel.

E. J. Wenstrom believes in complicated heroes, horrifying monsters, purple hair dye and standing to the right on escalators so the left side can walk. Her award-winning fantasy series Chronicles of the Third Realm War features a peculiar mashup of mythology, folklore, and an extra dash of her own special brand of chaos. It starts with Royal Palm Literary Award Book of the Year Mud (#1), Tides (#2), and Sparks (#3), as well as the prequel Rain (#0).

When she isn’t writing fiction, E. J. Wenstrom is a regular contributor to DIY MFA and BookRiot, and co-hosts the FANTASY+GIRL Podcast.

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Take it away E.J….

When I first started writing fiction, I was for too much of an artiste to force my creativity into an outline. I needed to be wild and unbound. I needed to hear the muses! But that first novel took me five years to write, and I knew I needed a better process. I more efficient process.

Since, I've learned to trick my brain into plotting by using what I call "ugly drafts" to hash out the beats of a full novel as a way to trick my mind into outlining while still chasing my creative bliss.

Using this method, I've written four more manuscripts since my debut released in 2016. Let’s talk about what this process looks like, and why it works.

Permission to be Messy

E.J. Wenstrom
It’s common advice to give yourself permission to be imperfect on a first draft. But I’m not talking about oops, a smudge of dirt got on your apron. I’m talking about sitting right down in the mud and reveling in it.

When I start a new story, I don’t worry about writing in full sentences yet—the first run through of the draft isn’t about creating something I can revise and perfect, it’s about brain dumping what I’ve got so far on the page.

It ends up looking like a running list of description, actions, symbols, and bouts of banter, (often untagged). There’s an absurd amount of typos. I’m completely shameless about my chaos—no one will ever see it like this but me, so I’m the only one it has to make sense to.

I always challenge myself to complete this step within a month. I haven’t actually done that yet, but I do manage it in about two. (Even with this process, I’m slow compared to many other writers—it is what it is.)

Don’t tell my pantser-brain, but I’m basically tricking myself into creating an outline. I’m just doing it in a way that embraces my penchant for the creativity of the moment.

(Here's more on A Faster Way to Write a First Draft)

Assess the Damage

As I pound out my ugly draft, I’m giving myself an early look at the shape of my story. This big-picture look early on lets me assess its pieces and consider if they’re in the right place for the story arc. I can look at it shape overall and make sure it has an arc.

Then I tinker and tweak and nudge the pieces around until they’re recognizable as a novel.

I also ride the inspiration as it grabs me to flesh out my ugly draft beats into more cohesive elements. I start making full sentences, maybe even paragraphs. Banter beats start to become dialogue, and settings start to bear concrete detail. If I hit a section that still has me stuck, I drop in some of the questions I’m struggling with and keep moving.

This tends to take another two or three months, and multiple runs through the draft. But because the focus is on honing the structure for the plot and character arcs and capturing the inspiration on the page as it hits me, it tends to be a fast-paced, productive phase. It’s amazing how much more of the story comes to me as the brain dump frees up more space in my mind.

(Here's more on 7 Reasons Why a First Draft Sucks)

Pull it Together

Eventually, you have to slow down and wrestle with the hard parts. Not everything will come to you naturally from creative momentum.

I try not to wait too long to start doing this, because this slower phase is where the deep thinking happens, and that’s important work. This is also where I start paying attention to spellcheck and grammar and considering line-level revisions like word choice.

I try to enter this phase by six months in, and spend about five to six months on this stage. During this time I go over the manuscript three or four times or until I think I’ve done all I can with it.

(Here's more on What a First Draft Should Look Like)

Time for the world

And there you have it—you’ve got a draft ready for your beta readers. This trusty system, while a bit unusual, has helped me reliably deliver a completed manuscript yearly.

Your mileage may vary, always do what’s right for you. But if you’re frustrated with how long your writing process takes, or find yourself sweating over word choices in early drafts only to completely overhaul the structure later on, this might be a shortcut to the same end results.

The secret is simply to use the momentum of your ideas to get enough down to start studying the structure first, and then work your way down to the details, and don’t sweat the nits along the way.

About Sparks, Chronicles of the Third Realm War #3 

Being Chosen by the Gods doesn’t mean much when the Gods have abandoned you.

Jordan was raised to save his people from the war to come. All his life he trained to take down the rebel army of demigods and demons foretold to tear the middle realm of Terath to pieces in their determination to destroy the Gods.

Now, the war is finally here. But everything that made Jordan special has been stripped away from him—his prophetic ability to hear the Gods in Their creation, his leadership over his people, even his faith.

As the rebels send a new threat to take down Jordan and the people of Haven—the most powerful wizard of all the ages—Jordan has never felt more lost. So when the golem who served as Jordan’s only friend and childhood protector disappears, Jordan sets out to fix at least one thing in this dark, broken world—even if it means breaking into the Gods’ home and hunting Them down—and bring back a soul for Adem.

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