June 28th, 2013

The Maze to Amazing: Organic Layering

Pam Morsi

Pamela Morsi

by Pamela Morsi

As a writer without a plan, I don’t get invited to comment often on my writing process. Telling people, “oh, I just make it up as I go along” tends to annoy my colleagues and confuse newcomers. I’m an organic writer. Or at least that what Donald Maass calls it. Pardon the name dropping, but it’s Donald that got me into this gig.

Orly was reading his new book, 21st Century Fiction and there I was on page whatever as an example of “layering” to create a big book feel. So Orly asked me to write a blog on how I do this.

See my quote above.

This organic business is something I liken to a musician who plays by ear. The inability to read sheet music or to know the difference between a bass clef and a bullhorn, has never limited those individuals who hear the music clearly and can translate that from their brains to their fingers.

I see those of us who are organic writers behaving much the same.

Believe me, I don’t typically encourage this style. Every book, every chapter, every line is like stepping forward in complete darkness. You don’t know where you’re going, what it might lead to, or if any sense of completion will be waiting for you when you get there. I tell people, if you can write any other way, do it.

However, when I was thinking about this layering thing I surprised myself. The way I’m looking at it, layering may actually come more easily with an organic method. Not knowing where you’re going or why, invariably leads to a lot of unexpected roadside attractions. And maybe a little field trip into the organic may help the more sane and structured writer seeking more strata in a storyline.

Let me start with a kind of definition of layering. It is the stuff that surrounds the stage. It’s the adjective to the novel as noun. It may or may not effect the direction of the plot, but even when it doesn’t, it still adds depth to the action and the characters. The story can exist without layers. And layers themselves won’t make a story. But when you put the two together, you can come up with something very special.

So how can I plan to do that?

Actually, the plan is the enemy of layering.

There is a lot of good advice in writers’ mags and blogs about coming up with a plan and sticking with it. Good advice like: stay on message. Good advice like: every action should move the plot along. Good advice like: if you don’t know the purpose of a scene, delete it.

Stop! Stop! You’re killing me.

Those of us who write without a plan clearly don’t know what the message is. Whether the action moves the plot along or if the scene we’ve just written has a purpose. Honestly, we can’t know until the book is done. Therefore we spend a good deal of our time wandering around in the wilderness, trying to ascertain our plot, understand our characters and visualize our setting.

The advantage of this is that these tangents, these rabbit trails cause us to include so much more in our stories. Layer after layer of unexpected sideshow. This can be such fresh insight and so unique that it single-handedly lifts the story out of the standard into the exceptional.

For those of us who are plan-free, we count on this. For those of you who know how to get your ducks lined up in a row, it can be a new and exciting exercise. And it doesn’t have to mean giving up the control that works for you. It’s simply learning to give your subconscious the benefit of the doubt on a regular basis.

I always tell people that my subconscious is a better writer than I am. It pulls my line of thinking this way and that. I never know why…until suddenly things start tying up. The wordy, off-topic space waster from chapter four frequently becomes the perfect analogy for the character’s growth in chapter 22. But I could not have seen it, if I hadn’t gone off message when I did.

So allow yourself the freedom to wander away from the plan. When you write something that intrigues you, allow yourself to scurry off in that direction. You will still be able to find your way back. And your subconscious may see bigger possibilities than you can.

Don’t allow expediency to be the enemy of depth.

All of us feel tremendous pressure to get the work out quickly. Readers are waiting. Hurry up! The direct route from point A to point B is always going to be fastest. Allowing yourself to wander through the maze of rabbit trails is not fast at all. You can spend a day writing 3,000 words and, in fact, make no forward progress.

To quote the great Carrie Fisher, “Do you want it good or do you want it tomorrow?”

This is a cliché, of course. Lots of fabulous writing is done very quickly. But sometimes, for some things, we may need to take it slow.

Is this one of those times?

Going down rabbit trails is only worth it if depth is important to the audience you’re writing for, or it’s important to you. There is definitely a readership out there that finds any deviation from the plotline a nuisance. And if your writing production method is working just fine as it is, please do not let anyone pressure you into fixing something that isn’t broken.

But if you and your readers want more layering than you are currently coming up with, you could give an organic field trip a shot. To do that, however, you will have to stop being a slave to daily word count. This muddled method is slow. And it takes the time that it takes.

For those who simply must stick to a schedule, maybe you could dedicate two hours a week to deliberately running off on tangents and down rabbit holes. Don’t take the two from your current work plan. Peel off a couple of hours from non-writing activities. That way you won’t feel so bad about wishy-washy results. Most of what you write may ultimately be worthless and highly delete-able, that is to be expected. Organic layering is a trial and error business. Don’t be discouraged. Even if you don’t use one word of what you’ve come up with, it still serves to feed the subconscious writer in you in the same way that many find journaling or blogging useful. And you may turn a blind corner around a high hedge to discover that one analogy, that one symbol, that one succinct phrase that lifts your story to the heights that it has always deserved.

Appreciate the complexity of the world. As writers, we frequently try to narrow down the universe to fit between the book covers. Whether you’re looking through a telescope or a microscope, a lot is happening in that little circle of vision. There is no way that you can portray all of that in a single book or even in an endless series. But you can remind your readers of all that is there.

Are you an organic writer? What is YOUR process? Do you have any questions for Pamela?

About Pamela

Love OverdueRWA Hall of Fame member, national bestseller and two-time RITA winner, Pamela Morsi was duly warned. Lots of people mistakenly think they are writers, her mother told her. She’d be smart to give it up before she embarrassed herself. Fortunately, she rarely took her mother’s advice. Her 26th novel, LOVE OVERDUE, will be coming out in September from Mira Books. You can find her on –

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/PamelaMorsi/52601768362?fref=ts

Twitter: https://twitter.com/PamelaMorsi

and on her website https://pamelamorsi.com

52 comments to The Maze to Amazing: Organic Layering

  • Layering is part of what makes Raymond Chandler’s books so compelling.

    Those musicians who can riff without reading music have worked hard to understand the infrastructure; they KNOW what it takes to get from here to there at an instinctive level. Give that same opportunity to a beginner, and you get noise.

    Some folks, Stephen King, f’rinstance, have that instinct about writing. They can pants a story and build it to spec at the same time. Most writers weren’t born with King’s innate abilities.

    Larry Brooks makes the point in “Story Engineering” that planning and spontaneity don’t have to be mutually exclusive. If we know the 9 waypoints every story must hit, we can combine the best bits of planning with the great stuff of pantsing.

    A wandering unconscious is indeed a powerful writing tool. Much of the flavor of good writing is serendipity meeting awareness.

    • Indeed, Joel! I agree that you have to know the basic cadence, structure and needs of a story to be able to pull off being an organic writer. Pamela obviously understands all that, as her books are fantastic. 🙂

  • First of all, Pam, you can’t put all the blame on Donald for getting you into this – your fabulous books did that. 🙂 Thank you so much for agreeing to post with us today!! This post was exactly what I needed.

    –> “Appreciate the complexity of the world. As writers, we frequently try to narrow down the universe to fit between the book covers. Whether you’re looking through a telescope or a microscope, a lot is happening in that little circle of vision.”
    That quote is going on my wall to remind me to look through the telescope AND the microscope while I’m writing. And now, there’s a rabbit hole for me to jump into. 🙂

    • Me too, Orly. I find myself simplifying too much ALL THE TIME. It’s dreadfully disappointing when I catch myself at it.

      • I agree. A writing teacher of mine once drew an analogy to Ikebana (Japanese flower arranging) in which a piece of your story must always represent the sky, which is a metaphor for the universe. A piece must anchor us to the ground, to a specific place, and of course a piece must represent man, “us” the reader. It is the conjunction of these three things that creates depth.

  • Oh Pam, thank you so much for making me feel better about my process. ‘Organic’ sounds SO much better than ‘Panster.’ It sounds like I know what I’m doing! Which I don’t.

    I’m taping the quote, “my subconscious is a better writer than I am,” on my computer. That is exactly how it works for me!

    If any of you out there haven’t read Pam’s books, you’re missing out!

  • Love Pam’s books! Thanks Pam for giving me “permission” to wander! While I’m more a plotster (somewhere between a pantser and plotter) I do find myself frequently with surprises on the page as I write, and as you said, following that rabbit hole may just lead to the perfect analogy or symbol for my character’s personal growth arc. Thanks for sharing today!

  • Great post. I always thought ‘layering’ meant more sub plots, but when I discovered that my forays into characterization were considered adding depth, I was ecstatic. I’d been doing something “right.” I can’t plot in advance. I didn’t start writing until my AARP card was well-worn. I didn’t study the ‘rules.’ I just write. Organically.

  • This is such a great post! I write organically too. Thank you for giving such great perspective on this writing style. It works for me too (for creative non-fiction).

  • Thanks everybody for the kind words. And I think Joel is correct that just because a writer’s instincts are good, doesn’t mean he/she can’t learn some basics of structure. Beware however of getting too caught up in classes, courses and how-to books. Sometimes we may think we’re studying, but we’re really procrastinating. Writers write. We learn the most from our own experience.

    • This is good advice too. Thanks Pam for reminding us to trust our instincts. I like the idea of allowing a bit of tangential wandering even if we have a plan. You never know what might happen. Otherwise our writing, and our stories become predictable and stagnant.

  • Thank you! This is me! Yes! My subconscious is definitely the writer because my conscious overthinks everything.

  • Long live rabbit holes! Thanks, Pam, for explaining so well what can’t BE explained.

  • Reblogged this on Rakes Rogues and Romance and commented:
    First let me once again express my admiration for the authors who wirte for Writers in The Storm. They always have the most interesting topics and are spot on with their articles and comments.
    This blog post is so close to my heart right now, as I sit and sontiually become surprised by what pops up as I write my second book. The layering process builds, idea upon idea until it all just clicks. I know when I have reached the point where I can say “Aha! Finally my characters motivation is making sense to me. And it sure took him long enough to explain!”
    It’s hard to struggle through, when you know what it is you want to say, but the layers are not revealing themselves. Then suddenly, as they did for me this morning on my walk into work, it all started falling into place. Why my hero acted the way he did. How my heroine will make him realize it and move beyond. How it all advances the plot, to the final culmination.
    But none of this was how I intended it to look when I first started writing this book. And I’m so glad.
    Because where I thought I had such a good story originally, my characters didn’t agree, and fought me at every turn. When I finally sat down and listened, REALLY listened, I got it.
    So for me, it wasn’t so much as writing without a plan, as that is what I was doing initially too. it was also taking the time to realize that if I am fighting myself, forcing myself to make this work, it isn’t and it won’t.
    Have you started a book with an idea that your characters refused to participate in?
    Have you read a book where you couldn’t figure out why the characters acted the way they did?
    Enjoy the weekend! Happy reading and Happy writing!

    • Awww, Nancy, thanks for the kind words. Writing is such a hard, solitary venture, we want to reach a hand out to help others. Glad it’s working!

  • Pam, stories poke at me like a toddler wanting to know … “Are we there yet?” It’s good to know we don’t have to explain or disect how we finally get there. Thanks so much for writing this post … we compulsive types need to stick together 🙂

  • Who knew there were so many “organics” in the house! Yes, I too have trouble predicting where a story will go. And since I’m always not a minute ahead of my deadline, the cover copy on my books is typically written by someone who bases it on what I SAID the story was going to be about when I started. That can create a mismatch that is very confusing to the readers. But I assure myself that the story that got told is always better than the one I imagined I’d be telling.

  • Interesting article. I liked it.

  • I agree with Laura Drake above. Organic is better than panster! I’ve gone said rabbit trails many a time. Even I don’t immediately use them, I copy them to my X-Files for later use. I’m so glad to hear that a great writer like yourself uses this method. Thanks for the blog!

  • Thanks Liza. And Sharla, I have X-Files, too. I always think that everything I write will be something I’ll need sometime somewhere. Not true. But still, just in case…

  • It’s so good to know organic writing is good for something, lol. I’m so often told that if I plan everything out ahead of time, I’ll save time rewriting the draft. I’m not so sure about that.

    I like to think of writing as a fishing expedition. You don’t know what you’ve caught until the line goes taught and you reel it in. I’m having issues with the book I’m writing now because I feel hamstrung by my agent who likes me to send her early chapters so she can review my progress. The problem with this is that I’m not done with it yet, so she’s not seeing the finished product, the one I go through and revise after I’ve completed a first draft. So I’m kind of limping through this story rather than relaxing into my natural process. I’m trying to adapt, but it’s hard. And very, very slow.

    • Oh Karen, I am SO sympathetic. I don’t let anybody see my book until I am done. Any comments from “outsiders”, even if they are positive can change the trajectory of the story or even make me lose my nerve entirely. I won’t send in anything until I am done with it. Confident of it. I can’t take the risk. Writing is like walking a highwire. Why carry unnecessary stuff, like other people’s expectations?

  • By the way, Pam, when you come back and wonder about all the color that popped up in this post. That would be me, the Formatting Freak. 🙂

  • This sounds like my process, I just didn’t know there was a term for it. When I was in college, all my teachers instructed me to make an outline–including a professional writer whose masterclass I attended. But I could never stick to the outline, and everything I started ended up unfinished. Finally I just started writing & was able to complete a manuscript—and found all these subplots that made the story richer as I went along. Working on the revision now & still find myself filling in a few ‘bald spots’ but it’s the best thing I’ve written yet. Thanks for standing up against the rigid plotters and writers permission to trust their instincts.

    • For some of us, the things that may help others simply get in our way. I don’t want to be accused of not appreciating all the good work done by classes and workshops, but just as some children learn differently, some writers have to find other paths to express ourselves. We need to embrace our unique snowflake soul and just go with it. IMHO

  • Jenny thanks for the formatting. BTW, I DON’T know the “basic cadence, structure and needs of the story”. I don’t even know what Joel is talking about with his 9 waypoints. I attended a writing class in college and got burned so bad I didn’t write another word for almost 2 decades. I avoid workshops like the plague and I’ve bought a lot of writing books, but I haven’t actually read one. I’m afraid I’ll mess myself up. That if I find out what I’m supposed to do, I’ll quit doing what I do. Maybe that’s superstition. I hope The Whack Pantsters can have a writing superstitions seminar.

    • I do a songwriting challenge every year. Every year someone says they don’t want to learn music theory because it will mess up their songwriting.

      Well, I can tell you from experience, the more I know about music theory, the better my songs get. Not formulaic, not jammed into someone else’s mode. Just more of exactly what I wanted to write in the first place.

      Learning more will NEVER make us WORSE at what we do. It’s not possible. (I’m talking about real learning, not just gathering information which isn’t necessarily relevant to our goal.)

      The 9 waypoints are from Larry Brooks’ magnificent “Story Engineering.” He uses The Hunger Games as an example here:

      http://storyfix.com/hunger-games-9-the-entire-story-in-nine-sentences

    • Ooouuu … Pam, we just might have to do that for the WFWA retreat. 🙂

  • Pam,
    As a plotster writer who can’t write unless she has a plan, I thought layering was something you did afterwards to add in color, more emotion, and characterization. However, when I read your books, none of the directions you go seem to be far fetched. The directions I go when I write without a plan usually tend to be the wrong ones. I guess I’ll stick with what works for me. Carolyn Rae Author – facebook, Romancing the Gold, coming soon from Noble Romance.

  • Thank you for your wonderfully reassuring article. I had always thought I was just undisciplined and disorganised; but I have found the experience of delving into my unknown self and taking a mystery tour of my own subconscious irresistibly seductive; and now that I have a name for it and assurances that I am not alone in doing this, I can continue to indulge myself and not feel guilty about it. So, thank you, once again.

    • I seriously AM undisciplined and disorganized, but somehow the books do get written. So keep up the good work, Xpat. Feeling guilty is just another time waster. Don’t even go there.

  • I agree with Orly. I love this quote: “Appreciate the complexity of the world. As writers, we frequently try to narrow down the universe to fit between the book covers. Whether you’re looking through a telescope or a microscope, a lot is happening in that little circle of vision.” Timely advice. Thank you.

    • De Nada. It was fun doing this. And great that all the “organics” showed themselves. A huge thank you to everybody who read the blog and especially those who commented.

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you! This post is incredibly liberating for me.

    The first novel I ever wrote, I just sat down and wrote without any outline, finessing the weak points of my plot in the revision. It’s not published; it’s one of those “in the drawer” learning manuscripts I’ll probably go back to one day, as I keep learning more about writing. But it came out in a glorious rush, and it made me fall in love with the process of writing fiction (I’ve written and had personal essays published, but never fiction).

    Then, as I began to learn more about the craft of fiction writing, I started listening to the experts who told me I was doing it wrong. “No! You CAN’T write without knowing what’s going to happen! You MUST have an outline, complete with goal, motivation, conflict, scene, sequel, etc.!” I figured since they were the experts, they must know. And I tried, I really did, but ended up staring at a blank page and continually starting over. And I stayed that way for several months—blocked, hating it, and considering myself a poseur and a hack.

    But about two weeks ago, I got an idea for a new story from an online class I was taking. And this time I decided, screw it. NO outline. My WIP has a one-small-paragraph synopsis of what’s going to happen, a fairly-detailed bio for each of my two main characters, and that’s it. A week and a half ago I sat down and just started writing, and I’ve already cranked out nearly two chapters (a good pace for me, since I also work full time). I’m obviously not a plotter, and I’m just fighting against my nature if I try to be. Bless those of you who are detailed plotters and organizers; I envy and respect you, but I JUST DON’T GET IT, and I probably never will.

    So thanks to you, Pam, from now on I’ll proudly call myself an organic writer and just run with it, because obviously it’s how my brain is wired. And to quote that old commercial, it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature, so I’ll let the old girl have her way.

    • You go, girl! There are wonderful writers who know exactly how and why each word is written. And then there is US, the organics who feel our way blindly through a story. Sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn’t, but there is no changing one kind of writer for the other. We gotta be who we are, messed up and unorganized as that may be. Congrats on the good work. It will be something you’re always proud of.

  • Yvette Carol

    Loved this, Pamela. I’ll join you and take on Organic, kicking Pantser to the curb. No disrespect to my middle son, “Mr. Pants” (from SmartyPants). I think we often do get totally hitched up in the rules of the day, and take them on board, discarding what comes naturally. But if we’re not doing what comes naturally – then the work will never flow – and I can tell, in re-reading it, when my work isn’t flowing. It has a completely different feel. The thing I love most about the Organic method is the way – as you say, you’re ploughing forward in the dark – and you’re thinking, ‘what the heck?’ half the time, then that magic tingle starts to happen, when you realize as you progress, my gosh that hooks up with that, this is why that happened, and it’s nothing short of incredible. You really get these sense then of there’s something greater than me and my mind at work.

  • I’ve always thought of my writing process as wandering through a
    Gothic mansion with a failing flashlight. Who knows where I’ll end up? I much prefer your rabbit holes and trails. At least you get some sun! Love the post, love your work. Cheers!

  • Reblogged this on Reno Gal Says and commented:
    Many books on writing will tell the new author that outlining is a must. If you get stuck and haven’t outlined, then it is your fault because you didn’t work out the plot properly. The following blog post is a fresh take on writing without a plan. Do you outline your plots, or are you more of an organic writer? Does each sentence lead you to destinations unknown? If so, then you may feel the same way as Pamela Morsi does in her fantastic blog about her writing process. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. As always I love to hear your comments.

  • […] information and suggestions on craft. In a double-header mention here, I’ll start with a post by Pamela Morsi who talks about organic writing (which I like SO much better than “pantser”) and how to allow layers to the story work their […]