When Libby and I are at the beach, we take a walk down our gravel road for her…er, constitutional. On one side, there’s a tidal creek, and at high tide, there may be six or seven feet of water. We might chase a few fiddler crabs or see minnows darting, but mostly, it’s floating sticks or the occasional clump of marsh grass. A perfectly innocent, picturesque tidal creek.
But at night, it’s a different story. In the gloomy shadows, it’s a creepy, downright scary stream of doom. Who knows what lurks in those tidal creek depths? Sharp-toothed alligators?! (Yes, there are alligators around here, once seen swimming in the ocean!) Rabid otters? Maybe even a junior sea serpent, or a selkie, or the creature from the marshy Black Lagoon!
The point is, my imagination runs wild when the environment changes and that triggers different, not to mention exciting stories as I mentally wander in the darkness. Which brings me to all the stories we write and how a bit of wandering might change everything.
I know writers never tire of the pantser vs. plotter writing approach but the longer I create stories, the more I wonder if there are any writers who truly follow one method over the other? It’s not so much a pantser OR a plotter as it is somewhere in between. A pantser/plotter hybrid if you will. At least for me, and at least for fiction.
And I’m pretty okay with mixing it up. Some of my best stories come from a bit of mental wandering in the middle of the firmest plot notes. It’s exciting when I stop for a moment and think, “What if?” When I dutifully check my carefully enumerated points and know what I’m supposed to be writing but I pause…and then say to myself, “Cathy, old girl, what if you just mosey down this interesting trail?”
And once that happens, I sigh and wave a fond farewell to my painstakingly-written plot notes. I swallow the red pill and fall down the rabbit hole to something entirely different from what I meticulously planned.
Sometimes, it can be glorious writing that brings out surprising truths in my characters and story, truths I didn’t know were lurking right there, under the surface! And sometimes, it can be a colossal waste of time and energy and a big, fat clump of dead-end sticks. But as you can probably guess, only the writing of the wandering will tell.
In my latest manuscript, I had—as I almost always do—a fairly firm plot all worked out. A wonderful plot. Really. But somewhere along the way, I strayed off the track. Honestly, I don’t remember exactly where or what made me pause, sit back in my chair, and ask, “What if?” I only know, to paraphrase the famous Frost poem:
Two plots diverged in a manuscript and I—
I took the one I wandered by,
And that has made all the difference.
(So what do you think? Do you mix it up with your writing methods or will you stand by your style, no matter what? Also, bonus points if you recognized the song alluded to in the title of this post!)