The Journey Without a Map: Writing By The Seat of Your Pants
Where do story ideas come from? It’s a question writers are commonly asked and one that leaves me completely stumped. Some writers create complex character sketches then rigorously outline their novels, knowing exactly who will do what and when. But then there are writers like myself who fly by the seat of our pants, meaning we sit down and let the story unfold. Leaving me to wonder, where exactly do my ideas originate?
Part of my style of writing can be attributed to my background. One of my duties when freelance writing for an online publication was to interview people. I always started with a list of questions that I wanted to ask, but the direction and end result of the interview depended greatly on the person being interviewed. I’d learn more about them, they had their own agenda, and an article would result.
That method of journalism has translated into my fiction writing. I start with a skeletal outline of what I think the story is about, but the fun comes when the characters show up and start running the show. It’s through writing that I learn about the characters, their backstory, and how they react in a given situation. This knowledge propels the twists and turns in the story, and I can honestly say that none of my stories have ever ended the way I originally thought they would. Only through writing am I able to understand the story I am telling, and later revisions help to mold and structure the story further.
When I first had the idea for Blaming the Wind, all I knew is that I wanted to explore the lives of two married couples. I had no outline whatsoever, but I had a general sense of the characters: an unemployed, pregnant newlywed, a mom who is the breadwinner of her family, a sports agent, and a stay-at-home dad. I let these characters occupy space in my thoughts and researched their professions until I felt compelled to put fingers on keyboard and start writing.
As I wrote, I grew fascinated with these characters that were coming alive on the page. Instead of forcing them to act according to an outline, I got into the head of each character. What would she do in this situation? How would he think to rectify his mistake? And when writing like that, you have to be open to where the characters take you.
Of course, writing without an outline has its challenges. Knowing your characters and having a general idea of the story are great for the big picture. But it’s easy to stall in the middle of the story. Often I’ll get to the halfway point and think, what the heck happens now? I start wishing I had an outline to guide me. So, I’ll do just that. I’ll spend time brainstorming what exactly the characters want then plot ways to complicate their paths to getting there. I’ll flesh out supporting characters and add subplots. Then, with enough material ahead of me, I start writing again.
Outline-less writing creates a solid first draft, but then the real fun begins after I let the story sit for a while then return to edit. Since I hadn’t spent a lot of time beforehand thinking about plot and character arcs, the different acts, and story beats, this all comes into play during editing. My go-to guide is Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell. So, while creativity writes the first draft, structure shapes that draft into something that resembles an actual novel.
So where do ideas come from? I still have no idea. It’s kind of like a dream. The story originates from you – past experiences, people you’ve known, what you’ve read, ideas for the future- yet it takes shape as a completely separate entity.
Get your copy of Alessandra Harris’ book, Blaming the Wind here: