Pantsing and Praying: My monkey-punk writing process.

This is the story of my by-the-seat-of-my-pants journey as a priest and a writer.  I’ve been meaning to write it for a while, but it took a fabulous post called Where I Write on Wonkomance and a lovely chat afterwards about not comparing ourselves to others on Twitter to finally urge me to do it.

pants praying

When I graduated from seminary and went to work in my first parish, I was excited about wearing a clerical collar (which has ceased to hold appeal) and about a vision of myself I truly hoped would come to pass—the new, contemplative me who practiced centering prayer in silence in the side chapel every morning before work.

I tried, just like I have my entire adult life, to beat my monkey brain into quiet submission, or to pet it gently, promise God loves it, and then tell it to calm the fuck down in a hissing whisper.

In spiritual direction, I confessed my longing for silence and stillness.  My director nodded sagely and gave me good advice.  But slowly, over many months together we began to notice something about my spiritual life.  All my energy and my sense of intimacy with God came through talking with friends, studying and thinking, or writing sermons.

Years worth of self-flagellation (is that redundant?) began to heal.  I wasn’t called to be a contemplative.  I had an extraordinarily extroverted spirituality.  I did not have to learn to be quiet to be close to God; I only had to be myself.  I don’t think anyone had explicitly told me otherwise—it wasn’t an institutional expectation or a formative mentor that had told me to squeeze my square self into the round hole.  I think it came from a grass-is-greener type fantasy that being someone else would be easier.  And when I let go of it and began to work with the realities of my personality, I felt very free.

With a little hindsight, I can see I’ve lived this journey with my writing process too.

Around this time last year I was gearing up to write my third novel in a NaNoWriMo boot camp. I received the adamant advice that I must have an outline before the month began.  Newbie me didn’t rebel.  In my previous writing—academic, fiction of all lengths, and in my sermons–I often began with the bones of an outline, just a few plot points to help me anchor the forward movement of my story.

But the person facilitating the boot camp said a few plot points weren’t enough.  My outline needed to spell out goal, motivation, and conflict for every scene.  She wasn’t trying to hammer me into the wrong hole, but simply help me be prepared for the marathon of writing in a way that she herself found helpful.   And I trusted that this must be the right way to write.  So I agonized to draft the outline.  Two days into the frenzy of writing sprints that is NaNoWriMo, none of my vast and intricate document applied anymore.  My characters weren’t who I’d imagined them to be at all.

Twice more, I tried to outline a novel.  I read Debra Dixon’s book Goal, Motivation and Conflict and tried writing out a scene by scene synopsis.  Again, I found I had to throw it all out.  I don’t really know if all this trashed planning was wasted, but I now know it’s not necessary for me.

Over and over again, I’ve found I can’t plan out my fiction writing, or my characters. The only planning that works is to write backstory that won’t go into the actual novel.  I can only think about the story in terms of story—not lists or spreadsheets.  I think it’s the extroverted part of me—I really need to encounter a fully fleshed out character before I can figure out what he or she will do with the shitty situation and the perfectly imperfect mate I’ve designed.

Here is my process as I have finally accepted it. I offer it because I so needed to hear from other writers how their processes worked and didn’t, defied common wisdom, and caused them the same kind of agonies and ecstasies mine causes me.  I also hope others will share the stages of their writing process.

  • Wildest Dreams: It usually happens in the middle of church, or in the shower, that I come up with a premise that excites me.   Afterwards, I try to explain and get puzzled looks.
  • Distracted Driving: I think about it this new idea at all the wrong times and in all the wrong places.  I almost drive into parked cars.
  • Sadistic stylings: I imagine some characters with extremely dark pasts and weird hang-ups.  Ideally these will clash in some delightful way and I cackle aloud in line at the grocery store.
  • Character Cocktail Party: I MUST write in each of their points of view to get to know them.  (Only once I know their voice can I understand their goals, motivations, and conflicts.)  I come to love them as one does a quirky, flawed old friend.
  • Butt on couch, words on page: After I write approximately two chapters in each character’s voice, I know in my gut how the whole romantic story arc will unfold, but even then, I cannot write an actual outline or really even explain it to a writing buddy.  At this point, if I sketch a few plot points, they might hold.  But I don’t even need to.  The words will flow as long as I can find time to write.  *Knocks on wood*
  • I type “The End” and I DO NOT WAIT: I know everyone says you should sit on a draft for a week and come back with fresh eyes.  Alone, my eyes will never be fresh.  I need people with whom to talk it through.  So after a very quick revision for internal consistency (like when I change a character’s name half-way through), I send it off for developmental betas.
  • I ask for help: I used to feel really ashamed by how much help I needed from my beta readers because I couldn’t spot the problems myself.  Just like I thought I should be able to tame my monkey brain.  But the truth is I am an extrovert and my hyper little monkey is the source of great ideas and the energy to write, a lot, while I am also a mom of toddler twins and a full-time priest.  It’s like I have a monkey-driven engine in my brain, and all that vine swinging generates power that I can convert into words on the page. (BTW: I promise I will never actually write a monkey-punk story)
  • I trust myself: This when I get loads of contradictory advice back, because I let people read something rough, and they don’t quite know what’s wrong.  I don’t take their advice, but I use it as a diagnostic tool.  Criticism removes the scales from my eyes and I do the hard work of revising again.  I often do another round of betas before submitting.

When I finally accepted that I am at heart a pantser who writes character driven stories from the gut, I began to trust my process so much more.  There are moments, like today, when I have all the notes back from the first round of betas, and I’m daunted to begin the surgery that has to happen now.  But I know I will, once I post this.

But first…

I would really love to hear about other people’s writing process.  And also if it has changed over time.  Please share!

Okay, now…*Presses Publish*

This entry was posted in Spirituality, Writing by Amber Belldene. Bookmark the permalink.

About Amber Belldene

Amber Belldene grew up on the Florida panhandle, swimming with alligators, climbing oak trees and diving for scallops…when she could pull herself away from a book. As a child, she hid her Nancy Drew novels inside the church bulletin and read mysteries during sermons—an irony that is not lost on her when she preaches these days. Amber is an Episcopal Priest and student of religion. She believes stories are the best way to explore human truths. Some people think it is strange for a minister to write romance, but it is perfectly natural to her, because the human desire for love is at the heart of every romance novel and God made people with that desire. She lives with her husband and two children in San Francisco


Pantsing and Praying: My monkey-punk writing process. — 22 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing, Amber! It’s helpful to hear from another extrovert who relies pretty extensively on beta readers/critique partners as well. Writing, for me, is only somewhat solitary– it’s actually quite social, if I’m doing it in the way that works for me. I chatter my way into ideas, as well as write my way into them. Very rarely do I silently think my way there. Similarly, when I’m working with kids in my librarian day job, I find that learning is often fairly loud.

    • Shelley Ann, It’s funny that even reading your comment that you also do it this way makes me feel better about the reliance on beta readers & writing friends thing. I guess I do have some kind of platonic ideal of a writer as an island, or lone ranger or something, that I keep unconsciously measuring myself against. I have to say Twitter is so great at making me not feel alone, and I am so glad that from all the tiny thumbnails, I recognized you and so many other writers at RWA and got to actually chat in person.

  2. So grateful to read this post today, Amber!

    After our experience with NaNo last year, I put hours into studying outlines, read loads of non-fiction about it (AKA – not writing) and finally have come to the point in my writing journey where I know I’m a pantser, and that’s okay!

    Your affirmation in this post felt so good to read this morning!

    The usefulness of an outline, IMHO, comes after my first draft is down, as an editing tool.

    I use it as a living document to organize my thoughts, help me see holes, and overall pacing – and, the BEST part of using it then – it helps me write the DREADED SYNOPSIS.

    Love your definition of the Monkey Engine fired brain – it’s nice to know I’m in good company!!

    • Paula, I am delighted this post is helping other people today. Yay! And yes and yes about the living outline as analytical tool (although I actually need mine to be a synopsis, it has to read like narrative!)

      Funny isn’t it that you and I have paralleled our journeys and are finding our processes to be so similar at this point?

  3. Thank you for this post. I’m a pantser and an introvert, and I also need time on the page (usually 10,000 words or so) to get to know my characters. Maybe because I’m an introvert, I think of this time as having an intimate conversation, mostly just listening to my characters talk. I let them say whatever they want, then I go back and read between the lines.

    I’m still trying to come to terms with my method. The outline method seems so much better in so many ways! But it doesn’t work for me, so I do the best I can with what I’ve got. I’ve come to think our methods are part of our voices, so I’m trying to accept my method as it is.

    Thanks for the affirmation. I needed this today!

    • Oooh. AJ, I love the idea that process and voice go together. That makes sense to me, because I love to write big-cast-of-character books from many POVs (doesn’t that scream EXTROVERT?). I wonder how where we write fits into this, since the post in Wonkomance led Shelley Ann Clark and Alexandra Haughton to talk about the diversity of process in the first place. This post probably makes it obvious why I write on my bike desk :-)

  4. The thought of having to come up with plot points, black moments, etc., makes me break out in a cold sweat. Once I have a pair of characters in mind and maybe the opening situation, I brainstorm with a friend to come up with some basic ideas. From that point, I have made myself learn how to write out a short synopsis before I really start writing. However, I rarely even look at it after that. I try out different opening lines and paragraphs with pencil and paper until I find the right one. After that, I start writing and let the characters tell the story. I liken it to stepping off a cliff and hoping like crazy the parachute will open. :-)

    • Alexis, this is great! Thanks for sharing. Yes, I suspect we all have that sense of leaping at some point along the way! I tend to use a synopsis as a tool after I’ve written the story to make sure it holds together!

  5. Exceptional revealing post, Amber. I sleep write. A story comes in the night. In the morning I begin. I don’t know if this happens to anyone else but this is true. The story is there, characters come to me and before too long The End. In my latest stories-a series of three Mature Romance under the umbrella title The Beginning. . .Not The End, romance blossoms as active seniors come alive proving , to quote Yogi Berra, “It ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over.”

    • Charmaine, now I can’t help but be jealous. I have a friend who always has these super profound spiritual dreams, but mine always seem to be about having to pee. And amen to “It ain’t Over ‘Til it’s Over”! That is a gift from God, IMHO :-)

  6. I’m a pantser who desperately wants to plot. And I work in fits and starts. I can stare at a screen for hours and not type a word, and then suddenly, 12 pages without thought.
    And I don’t write daily. I write about four days a week. I don’t do anything I’m ‘supposed’ to.
    But I get the job done.
    I used to have to edit as I went, and research anything that I didn’t know, as soon as it popped up, but now I put in a couple of hashtags and keep going, so I’ve at least grown that much!

  7. Thank you for sharing this step of your writing journey, Amber! It’s wonderful that you’re discovering and embracing the process that works for YOU. We’ve all got our own unique way of relating to the world, and if we go with that instead of fighting it, owe become better at everything we do.

    Might I suggest that you extroverts can be as contemplative as us introverts–it’s just that you’re better at contemplating via conversation/the spoken word rather than contemplating I solitude? I know that my husband is much better at thinking out loud than by himself, where I do my best thinking with a pen in hand while sitting in a quiet room. But we’re both still thinking. :)

    • Oh, I totally agree Lynn! No one could ever accuse me of not thinking–over thinking is far more likely. Contemplative is shorthand in the church world for the quiet life–in the sense that some monastic orders are called “contemplative” and have withdrawn from the world–and is often contrasted with the “active” life and those religious orders that engage more with the rest of the world.

      Shorthand–geez. I use jargon even when I don’t mean to. And for me, especially when I was in grad school, studying, thinking, writing and discussing were one of the major piece of my spiritual life. I think if I were only slightly less extroverted, I might have ended up an academic. I considered that PhD seriously twice.

      I suspect my masters thesis process was actually very much like the one I now use to write fiction!

  8. This was a wonderful post, Amber. Thank you. I’m surrounded by gifted pansters, it gives a plotter an identity crisis!

    I’m still coming to terms with my process. I am at times a very serious plotter and at other times a complete panster. My ideas almost entirely come from feelings. It might be a mood I’m in, or a feeling I want to experience, or an impression I got from a movie poster, or a fleeting experience from a movie that sparked a need in me to develop it further.

    Then I puzzle it out, building the world around the feeling until it is the most organic and perfectly logical thing in the world.

    And, then if I’m trying to develop a full length novel, I put my plotter hat on and plot the whole thing out, do character sheets, write from multiple PoV’s, the whole nine yards.

    If I’m in the grips of a need to experience that feeling, if I’m driven to write about it, I put my panster hat on and sit down and write. And write and write. Often, the products of my panster time serve as the kernels I develop into full novels. They rarely stand on their own as finished products, but they always make me happy.

    • How interesting, Samantha. That kernel of inspiration thing is very much how I write my short fiction, which you have read, but few other writing friends have. Thanks for sharing this.

  9. Amber, I enjoyed your post and admire your work as a spiritual pack leader. Your vocation and experiences therein must bring human struggles to mind. I’m finishing an upper YA book at this time, and reflecting how is clear to me. I write a synopsis first, and by doing this I plot both internal and external struggles of my protags. I write a few chapters but then go back to make sure goals align. This ends up making me a pantser.

    • Kathleen, thanks for sharing! I love synopses for the reason you’ve described–they really can capture the struggles in a nutshell (which is why they are a pain to write). For me, if I write one first, it still never resembles my finished product, but it helps me think about character better than an outline. Congratulations on finishing your YA! Woo Hoo!

  10. I loved the insight into your writing process. Sticking to a strict outline is foreign to me, too. I often find that ideas come to me while driving or walking, so I take a voice recorder with me and record them.

    • Interesting! That’s a great idea. I listen to my WIP in text to speech software when I am driving or walking–I find it gives me a different perspective on the text. Thanks for dropping by, Alyce!

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