By Amy Carpenter
I’m an SOP.
Yep. You read that right. SOP. That’s no typo. The P was not supposed to be a B.
I am a seat-of-the-pantser. Or a pantser, if you like (I don’t like—it makes it sound like I go around pantsing people, but to each their own). I write as the story comes to me, without the safety harness of an outline.
There’s nothing like it.
If I’m writing a novel, I start with an idea. That idea brings to life a character. And that character has a conflict. A major one. Something that could mean the end of all existence (or the end of something, but there must be some kind of end, something my character needs to fight for or against).
Idea, character, and conflict in hand, I start typing. The story unfolds. There’s world building and research, but mostly word vomit. Sentences spilling out of my head, through my fingers, and onto the screen (or, sometimes, paper).
I start daydreaming about my novel, my character. All day, every day while I’m writing the story, I obsess over it. I think about it the instant I wake up. I think about it while I wash the dishes and clean the toilets. I think about it while I drive. I think about it in church when I should be paying attention to the Sunday School lesson. The only time I don’t think about it, oddly enough, is when I sleep. Scenes fill my head, but I force myself to wait to write them, because if I write out of order (I do write chronologically, even if I don’t outline), I’m afraid I won’t be able to put the scattered scenes in the right order or write those pesky transition scenes. It’s a discipline thing. And a fear thing. Maybe someday I’ll take the plunge and start writing the scenes as they emerge (free fall into the ocean), but the novel I take that risk with has not yet come.
So my novel ends up being a series of scenes. Each chapter is its own short story, a little silken thread added to the web I spin (in case you’re wondering, I’m a black widow; I kill off major characters all the time—no one is safe from my venom). Just as my novel starts with an idea, each chapter starts with a sub-idea, which I expand upon as it comes to me (except when there’s an entire daydream to translate into words—then the idea has already been developed by my extremely active imagination).
On the other hand, when I write a short story, I don’t just free fall into the ocean. I free fall into the ocean with no clothes on.
No, I don’t sit at my laptop naked. But my thoughts are naked. My creative process is naked. I get an idea (no more than the equivalent of a writing prompt), and I fall with it. Tumble through the air, wind ripping and rippling away at my skin, letting the gravity of my story take me where it wants to take me.
It’s me, all my Freudian secrets (and all my character’s Freudian secrets) coming to fictional fruition in a written picture.
There’s no need to wait to write a transition scene as I must do when I write a novel. There’s no need to think of how I’m going to get from point A to point Z. I can just write and let the story happen, because it’s on such an itsy bitsy scale. My black widow self crafting her delicate, tiny web on the shrub just outside your door, not there the night before, but waiting for you as you come out the door in the morning. One sitting, and it’s done. (Until I edit it.) I’m Mozart, putting the notes on the staff as the song flits through my inner ear. The story is pure, straight from the source. Let the reader decide if that source is God, the devil, or just the tangled mass of neurons in my brain.
Those daydreamed scenes I force myself to wait to write for my novels, however . . .
They don’t always translate so well from daydream to written word. I keep them trapped so long in my head that sometimes it’s disappointing when I finally let them loose. I’ve been patient and waited for that climactic experience of finally writing them. But then they don’t come out as I’d so gloriously imagined. Which is why I should probably plunge in and WRITE them as they come to me. Which is why writing short stories is so much more fun than writing a novel. Free fall. Adrenalin junkie.
One time—and one time only—I strayed from being an SOP. I wrote a novella. I had a deadline to meet and a word count to stick to, so I started with an idea, got my character, got my conflict, and then put the whole thing down in a synopsis. It wasn’t written nearly well enough be labelled a short story. It was more of a play-by-play to keep me focused and within bounds. I didn’t quite cross over into the architectural realm of outlining, but there was a definite organization. Writing a synopsis before writing the actual story allowed me to fuse the creative, word-vomiting process with a more organized method that I’ve only used in my scientific, non-fiction writing. Because I had the synopsis, I wrote faster, unhampered by actually having to think about how to get from point A to point Z. Totally opposite from my experience with writing short stories, but with the same outcome—a readable (and hopefully entertaining) story.
But free falling naked into the Mariana Trench is so much more fun. Which is why I will keep writing like I do, SOP style. Black widow hopping about between branches, weaving my story in the night, ready to catch you in my web of improvised insanity.
Because that’s life—living by the seat of your pants, no matter how much you try to follow a plan. Remove that safety harness. Spin that web. Write that story.
Amy Carpenter is an editor, writer, mother and friend. Her professional works include the co-editing of the upcoming Secret of Souls. She spends her free time writing and revising her novel Transcendence.