Playing Jazz With Words

You hear a lot of talk of “discovery writers” and “outliners” in the writing world. The “pantsers” and the “plotters,” respectively. It’s true that there are a lot of people that fall into both categories–including many of my friends–and human nature loves dichotomies, but I’ve never fit comfortably either, and I suspect I’m not alone.

Last night, I had occasion to have a long conversation with a new writer who’s vexed and confused by the options before him when it comes to writing process, and saying “you have to find your own way” only left him more despondent. I know that look–I’ve been there many times when faced with a new field of endeavor with so many options that at once feel constraining and non-specific. So, in the hope of letting those new writers who don’t comfortably fit a category know that they’re not alone, I’m going to describe my method.

But first, the reasons why the two popular methods don’t work for me.

Pulling Down My Pants

“Pantsers” are folks that write by the seat of their pants. They trust their subconscious and just fly on from word one, muddling through as they go–and often, they’re brilliant. Many of my favorite short story writers (including Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, and Dean Wesley Smith) write like this, and they are quite often bloody brilliant.

I’ve done this with short stories–sometimes, I’ve done it really well. But for every short story I’ve finished with this method, I have five that started, sputtered, and stopped. Some I’ve gone back and done in a way more suited to my workflow–others I’ve abandoned and think of fondly, like childhood friends I’m unlikely ever to see again.

Why do they sputter? Frankly, it’s because I often write from a milieu, and only infrequently is a milieu sufficient to sustain a whole story. My process often relies on the collision of two dissimilar ideas in my own head, and without those two ideas, the story won’t spin.

With novels, it’s the same problem, only worse. Unless the story itself is a discovery process with a very constrained point of view, there isn’t a lot I can get a foothold on. Even then, I only get so far before I have to resort to other methods.

Which brings us to outlining.

Sketchy Thinking

The beauty of an outline is that you never have to worry about where you’re going. You decide in advance what happens, and why, and when–sometimes in rough detail, sometimes in minutia. Many of my favorite novelists (including Gail Carriger, Stephen R. Donaldson, and Frank Herbert) work this way, to spectacular result, and the method has innate appeal. The question of “what’s next” that can get writers blocked on a project, and pre-laying the track means you don’t have to worry about going off it and losing the plot.

But it comes with a cost: spontaneity. My particular neuroses innately rebel against tight pre-plotting. Once I’ve written an entire story in my mind once, it’s a slog to write it again, and that slog sometimes shows in the finished product (which is why there are a few novels and stories that will never see the light of day–they are, according to my betas, stale-born, and I don’t have the heart to go back and redraft them from scratch).

However, for someone of my disposition there is a third way to write.

I call it “playing jazz.”

Why Jazz?

Using music as an analog, a pantser would be like a musician who has so internalized structure that they can pick up an instrument and do a solo jam that is neither dull nor directionless. An outliner would be a concert pianist who rote memorizes perfectly a pre-composed piece, and then adds texture and flourish by the way she performs the notes and accents the silences.

Jazz is an artform between. Like writing, music depends upon deviating from a well-understood structure. In both music and writing, structure is king–without it, you don’t have anything that resembles a story, or music. But with jazz, the structure is malleable within certain limits, and the bulk of the piece within those limits is made up of improvisation to such an extent that no two performances of the same piece will ever be the same. Sometimes, they may not even sound like the same song.

To play Jazz with words, you need the baseline structure–a few story beats you must hit for everything to work well. Then, in the vast spaces in between, you connect the dots by playing in between them–exploring the complications, finding the indirect ways between points A and B and C. In a long, plot heavy novel like The Antithesis Progression, the individual storylines will all have those points, and there will be planned points of intersection between them, but the jazz happens in the execution. In books with a more straightforward structure, like The Clarke Lantham Mysteries or Down From Ten, there is more improvisation–but in either case, the method lays in playing to the strengths of both outlining and discovery writing, while sidestepping the aspects of both processes that my particular twisted psychology finds unendurable.

It’s All About Process

My first million-and-a-quarter words qualify me as a neophyte in the writing world, but they have taught me why it takes so long for writers to find their voice. Learning a process will allow you to grapple with story structure in a way that will help you tell stories that connect with your audience. There is no right way. There is only the way that you find that works for you. If you, like my conversation partner last night, are feeling confused by the prescriptions offered by writers further along than you, take heart! It’s normal for all of us to think “my way worked for me, so it should work for everyone.”

But however well-intentioned that advice, the fact remains: only you are capable of working out what process works best for you. And whether you’re writing books and screenplays with highly developed structures (like episodic television, or category romance) or that are more free-form (like slipstream), the process you go through to get there will vary according to your psychology. Take my description of “playing jazz” as another possible option–but don’t take it as gospel. Your mileage may vary.

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