Deer in the Headlights. You with Me?

by Vicki Stiefel

I’m driving my words along for miles and miles, and out of the darkness, a deer leaps into my headlights. Yeah, that happens sometimes. The deer might be a huge, horned buck—brake, brake! Or, perhaps it’s a small fawn, all cute and sweet, that toddles onto my highway. No matter the size, I grip the wheel. Hard.

See, when I write, I follow those headlights. I use scenes, rather than chapters. I have big plans, a “sort of" map in my head, and a definite destination as I tap the keys on a book. But there’s that damned deer jumping right in front of me.

Today’s misadventure: I was merrily on my way to the Guadalupe mountains in Texas, zooming across desert highway, pounding the keys like a woman on a mission. I knew exactly where I was going—to those damned mountains and I would get there today.

And the deer appeared—a majestic doe, full grown. I jerked to a stop. Didn't want to run over the poor critter. And the next thing I knew, I was hooking a left—what!—and driving onto a far bumpier road, headed for… Now where the hell was I going?

That’s my process when writing my novels. (It was Tony Hillerman's, too. He told me so. Reassured me that I wasn't batso.) My first draft goes like this—crazy and chaotic, starts and stops, sputters and varooms. And side roads. Plenty of those. But, and this is essential, those side roads:
    • Must advance the plot.
    • Must end with more problems for the POV character.
    • Must deepen character.
    • Must be meaningful.

What if they don’t? When I’m editing, I toss ‘em out. That hurts! Or, if fixable, I do that. A pain in the neck and a lot of added work. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

In current fiction-writing lingo, I’m a pantster. Pansters have to edit the heck out of that first draft, since its often a hot mess. Continuity matters, as does rhythm and voice and a host of other things that can derail a story.

So why not outline? Plot out my story? Draw a map? 

Oh, I’d love to be able to do any one of those. All the major scenes and elements skeletoned out. I wouldn’t have to be anxious ninety percent of the time. Nor would I fear that “what’s next?” blankness. But for me, the fun (and agony) of writing is in the journey. The exploration. The un-knowingness. Plotting is too spoilery for me. Plus, desperate to lose that anxiety and fear, I’ve tried it. I got bored.  

So for me, it’s not a choice. I react to that deer in the headlights every single time. How about you?

What are you? A Pantster? A Plotter? Or something in-between? 

Posted on June 4, 2016 and filed under Writing.