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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

This "Pantser" Describes How His Works of Fiction Had Their Beginnings, Mostly Odd

Through Savvy Author I learned the term pantser -- writers who don't plan or outline. That's me. I write by the seat of my pants. I want to make an aesthetic argument for that method, but not in a debate mode. If outlining and planning works for you, then I'm not trying to woo you to the rowdy, messy pantser crowd.

My goal in writing is to use words to create reality. I believe this is writing that does not describe reality, but creates it. I believe that words are like notes of music and when you get the right ones in the right order you create a kind of music that will resonate as a reality in the mind of the reader. I used to get offended when a reader asked if what I had written was true or really happened, as if I had no imagination. Now I take it as a compliment. The words have created a reality for the reader and he or she doesn't realize how creative is the writing.

Outlining and planning for me leads to descriptive writing, not creative writing.

I did develop my fiction voice while working for at a newspaper as reporter, editor and column writer. The column writing was especially helpful. That voice, I suppose, has a strong sense of objective reporting about it.

I also feel that knowing the end of a story for the writer destroys a feeling of discovery. And that feeling of discovery is essential in creative writing.

But how does this pantser get started? Usually, I get the idea of a scene or a character or hear a bit of dialogue and then begin to create the character and surroundings and learn what they are saying and what they are thinking.

One of my watering hole friends worked as a contract small-package deliveryman and one day he came in the bar telling how he had just finished delivering the head of a dog to the university for rabies testing. That image stayed with me for a long time before this opening scene for SPILL, a political comedy,  presented itself:

Fred Underwood was driving his 15-year-old, once-white, now rust-speckled Nissan pickup six miles over the speed limit on his way to deliver the head of a dog to the state’s vet school for rabies testing when several things happened to him.

It probably takes we pantsers a longer time to write our works. I'd been thinking about Fred Underwood for years, but when I finally knew enough about him to set him on his journey it then took me only three months to complete the work. Most of my novels and novellas have taken me years, sometimes decades, to conclude. They live in me and in my subconscious and dreams until given life through the written word.

When I was in grade school in Wichita, KS, a thunderstorm brought down the huge limb of a oak tree in the alley on our block and I turned it into a kind of a fort. In my twenties I started what would be the literary novella One More Victim.

The most important summer of my life began with a house-shaking thunder-boomer that woke me up on a Thursday night in 1958 near the end of my fifth-grade school year.

About the time I started that story I was standing at the back door of the house where we lived in Hutchinson, KS when I worked at the paper there. It was February, and I saw crows in the yard pecking into our black plastic garbage sacks to find things to eat. It started a poem in my head. It wasn't until my fifties that I found the last stanza of that poem and thus the conclusion of the three-part One More Victim.

I don't know if young writers today have the patience to wait thirty years to complete a work. But I do know how extraordinarily fulfilling it is to do so. The greatest reward for me is not sales, but readers for whom my prose resonates.

I'm all over the genre board. Maybe that's because as a pantser I delve into all areas of my psyche. What has been called a dangerous suspense/thriller and brilliantly disturbing by my publisher at Curiosity Quills, Blow Up the Roses scared the crap out of me.

We were living in Olathe, KS at that time. I was managing editor of the paper. I had that fantasy that most husbands get, I imagine, from time to time. What if instead of driving to work, I just got on the interstate and kept going.

Here is the original beginning:

When Michael Keene reached the interstate, a few blocks from his home, he turned left instead of right and headed south, steering his nifty little gray Honda Civic against the direction a group of geese were flying overhead. Thinking he might hear the honkers, he opened the window of the car, but they were too high, or maybe the wind carried their calls away from his ear. Or maybe they just were traveling silently, as was he.

Later, on that chilly morning in April, when Mrs. Keene received the call from the office asking if her husband was ill, she first thought of an accident, then car trouble, then foul play, then desertion. She should have thought first of desertion because when Mr. Keene didn't show up the next day or the one after that, the police investigator put on a smile deep with practiced kindness as she mentioned the possibility that Mr. Keene had been kidnapped and said, "Ma'am, I'm sorry, I've seen this before. Were you having any marital problems?"

So I knew that Betty Keene's husband abandoned her, but I didn't know why. We lived on a cul d'sac. I began to populate Mrs. Keene's cul d'sac with her neighbors. A horrible murder had happened in Olathe and I knew that occur on Mrs. Keene's cul d'sac. I created Mr. Califano, single and retired, who had a recurring and baffling nightmare: He was in the middle of a rose garden that was blowing up around him. I didn't know why. And I knew Mr. Brown on the other side of Mrs. Keene's was doing horrible things in his basement. I didn't know what. In fact, when I learned just how horrible, I almost stopped writing the book. But characters have a way of demanding they live their lives. So I let Mrs. Keene, Mr. Califano, Mr. Brown, and several other cul d'sac neighbors with their own demons, live out their lives.

As a pantser I've written in all points of view. As a pantser, too, I don't have to experiment with which POV to use. It just comes naturally.

Blow Up the Roses is in third person. It means the reader knows what each character is thinking and experiencing while the characters themselves only know what the other characters reveal to them through action and dialogue. This places the reader in a kind of Godlike position. But, of course, you can't give the reader complete knowledge about each character. Sometimes the reader needs to learn along with the character. If you've outlined and planned each character, then you know all about them instead of creating as they live in the novel. Again, you are describing them, not creating them. And as the characters are created the pantser way, the plot and story should be revealed to you and the reader, not decided ahead of time by you.

The voice for this book is more distant than in my other fiction. I think I wanted to keep it, and what was going on in it, at arm's length. I think that's why I also used the honorifics of Mr. and Mrs. so much. I needed some distance from the awful things that were coming out of my own mind.

People ask about research and resources used to write a novel. I think we pantsers draw upon what is around us and interests us.

The language of flowers plays an important role in Blow Up the Roses. One of the oldest books in my family library was "Language of Flowers," published in 1885. You probably know that a red rose stands for love. But did you know that a morning glory stood for affection. People would give each other bouquets and those groupings of flowers and plants contained messages. You had to identify the plant to decode the message. Mr. Califano grows roses and teaches Mrs. Keene about the language of flowers. That understanding plays a critical role at the book's climax.

The tag line for the novel is "The language of flowers can be terribly blunt."

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