The Middle Way

I pantsed the heck out of my first romance novel. I had an idea, thought about it for a while, scratched out a one-page outline, and wrote a thousand words a day until it was done. This was the sum total of what I knew about the structure of a romance novel before I started, all gleaned from reading sixty of them in four months: In the first half, the characters are unable to get together due to lots of external circumstances. Around the halfway mark, they have sex. At about the three-quarters mark, something goes terribly wrong, and at about nine-tenths mark, someone commits a great act of heroism and rescues everything. It wasn’t a lot—I was missing the whole idea of goal-motivation-conflict, not to mention just about everything I needed to know about how to write a beginning—but it was apparently enough.

When I wrote my second novel, I decided I was going to plot it to within an inch of its life. I used Karen Wiesner’s First Draft in Thirty Days, and I knew absolutely everything about what was going to go into that novel—what the characters wore to bed, what would happen in scene fifty-four, the exact words in which the hero would propose to the heroine. That novel came out okay, too, but not good enough that I actually wanted to revise it and try to sell it.

I worried that plotting had killed the second novel, so I immediately started pantsing the third, and I got about 30,000 words into it before I realized that I could never go back to the pantsy state in which I wrote my first novel. I was just too innocent back then. I’ve learned more now, most notably that I am not much for extremes. I like to know a fair amount about what I’m doing before I do it—it reduces my anxiety. But I don’t like to know too much about what I’m doing before I do it, either, because that takes all the fun out of it. So I think I need to write my novels using “middle way” —some plotting, some pantsing.

I’ve had the same problem finding a middle way between sprinting through drafts and getting stuck and fussy. I wrote the second book in a series of sprints, and when I was all done, I realized that it is monumentally difficult to deal with 90,000 completely unedited words. If something has gone mildly awry in chapter 3, it has turned into a literary catastrophe by the black moment.

So then I tried to generate a cleaner manuscript, only to find that I was so busy polishing that I’d forgotten to write.

A long email conversation with Ruthie Knox reminded me of the middle way: Ruthie writes by making at least two passes—an initial writing-only, non-fussy one and several additional ones with intensifying degrees of poking and fussiness. That method makes sure there’s time for both writer-brain (that freeform, delightful, where-the-magic-happens sprint-for-the-finish experience) and editor-brain (where reason sets in and you get yourself back on track before proceeding).

I’m grateful to have the time and space for experimentation with process, because apparently, I’m a bit of a glommer-on—I hear about a technique or a method or a way of thinking about things, and I grab onto it like it’s going to save me. My challenge going forward is to remember that there’s probably another way that’s diametrically opposed to the one I just latched onto, and that my way, which is the only way that matters, is somewhere in the middle.