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?
RWA 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 -
and on her website https://pamelamorsi.com