Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

The Wing Man

First, before anything else, I must acknowledge the passing of arguably ‘the greatest sci-fi writer in history’ (though he would no doubt argue with the designation ‘sci-fi writer’), Ray Bradbury earlier this week. He was apparently writing pretty much to the end. You will be missed.

Next, this post is not about a guy running interference for his bud who is attempting to score, as in this rather obnoxious Coors Light commercial from several years back. This is about the mysterious act of ‘Winging It’, writing by discovery, or, as so many insist on calling it, ‘Pantsing.’

Since my dislike of the term ‘pantsing’ is so deep, and ‘discovery writer’ is rather cumbersome, we’ll just stick with Wingman.

How does writing work when you’re a Wingman? I suspect it’s like so many other things for writers: It all depends on who you are and how you work. There are probably as many different ways to wing it as there are to outline, which seems strange, doesn’t it? You would think as a Wingman I’m essentially just sitting down and writing whatever comes into my head. And while that happens to some extent, for me at least there’s a lot more planning than you would think. The thing of it is, almost all of the planning goes on in my head. I’ll use as an example of how this works my current WiP, which does have a working title, and has for several weeks now, a title that I hate, a title that will surely (hopefully) be changed, either by me or by some as-yet-to-be-determined publisher: Barton’s Women (no, it’s not about a harem or a brothel, and bears no relation to the old Star Trek episode, Mudd’s Women. It’s just the title that keeps popping up in my mind.).

Anyway, I believe the idea for this story first popped into my brain when the blackout associated with Hurricane Irene threatened to leave the Magpie stranded at her friend’s house (our own house was still at maximum capacity, however, as the Catbird had a friend who had spent the night with us). The idea percolated in the Back Room of my mind for some time, while I was busy reworking Parallel Lives and getting it ready for query. When that was done, I actually turned to something else at first, 2010’s NaNoWriMo, which I decided to polish and see if it had anything. I still think it does, and made some good progress around it at Christmas time, but when the Magpie went back for an overnight at her friend’s house, it popped up again, and that weekend, a prompt in my Writer’s Group about a man in a garden spurred a short bit about a man and two teenage girls (one his daughter, one her friend) working to turn a swath of lawn into a vegetable garden. It wasn’t planned. It was the melding that occurs between Back Room (blackout) and front room (the story of a man in a garden). And I liked it.

So, what comes next? Well, for this Wingman, a lot of thinking. The scene I had written was not the opening of this new book, but I knew it was early. What it gave me was a fixed point to work from, and a lot of questions: who are these people? Why are they doing this? Why is it so important (because there was a definite sense of urgency in the piece I wrote)? Answering those questions, in my head, led me to writing both forward and backward in the story.

When I’m into a story, it’s on my mind almost constantly. I think about it all the time. Doing the dishes? Thinking about the story. Driving to town? Thinking about the story. Running circles around the lawn on my riding mower? Story. But what’s happening during that thinking? It’s not so much an outlining. I don’t think, “Well, A just happened, so therefore I’ll have to write a scene where B happens.” Not usually, anyway. What happens instead is I see the characters doing this, hear their conversations, sort of like watching a movie. I actually at times sort of dictate in my head. I’ll hear bits like, “Kevin’s back ached when he bent to retrieve the shovel”. Yes, seriously. I’ll hear lengthy bits of narrative while I’m doing other things, and then when it’s writing time I’ll sit and try to retrieve it. In essence, I’m transcribing the narrative in my head, and changing it as I go along.

Now, there is also a lot of logical thought that goes into this. I’ll look at the story as it’s developing, and I’ll know I need something more here or there. I’ll know there’s something lacking in the tension department, or that I need a bigger push to get a character to do something. And sometimes I’ll even outline where I’ve been and try to use it as a way to help me get to where I want (or need) to be for the story to really work, but mostly I work off the running narrative in my head, and that can take me in unexpected places, because things have a way of either changing between the time I first thought of it and when I’m committing it to paper, or because I sometimes run out of ‘pre-thought narrative.’ And then anything can happen.

For me, this is just the way I write. What about you? If you are a Wingman (Wingwoman? Wingperson?), how much pre-thinking do you do? If you outline, how much of your actual writing is wung (That is so completely not a word, but it has to work. ‘Winged’ just doesn’t sound right, and we’ll skip over ‘wang’ entirely)? I’m always interested in hearing how others approach writing.

Thanks for stopping and sharing, have a nice weekend.

12 Responses

  1. I'm a mixture of "winging" and planning. I usually start with a general idea, then work it through in my head for a while or jot down some general notes. I do need to know the ending before I start and a few key scenes. Like you, I kind of "watch" things play out in my head and see where it could go, let it percolate for a while, and then transcribe it. I don't know if this will be my normal pattern for future books, but it's what's working right now. Thanks for sharing your process! Always interesting to see how another writer's brain works.

  2. OMG you just described my process almost to a tee. Except that with a full-time job and a four year old and a giant extended family, I forget a lot of sh*t now so at some point I start writing all my snippets down. Not in any kind of outline, just as notes. But yes, this is exactly, exactly what happens to me! And I get so into the story when I'm working on it (same for me, I'm always thinking about it) that I'm very distracted and the fam doesn't like that at all! Oh well, it's the downside of living with a writer, I suppose.

  3. I'm winging my current WIP, though I usually outline. In this case I'm just letting stuff stew in the back of my head without much conscious thought about the story–and then playing with whatever ideas emerge as I start to write.

  4. I love being a wingwoman! 🙂

    I don't think too much before writing the story. Generally 1 scene pops into my head – and that scene's usually the opening or ending scene. Then I let the characters walk around in my head until I'm ready to write – but I rarely think about them actively. They just kind of percolate. Then, when I'm ready to write, they are too. Sort of 🙂

    I just start writing and the story pours out 🙂

  5. I wing it. But I'm learning there are ways to find a compromise between detailed outlining and discovery writing. I'll be trying it out this fall for NaNo.

  6. I can't believe you used the p-word twice! I thought it was outlawed around The Doubting Writer. *Grins*

    Thanks for sharing your process, Jeff!

  7. Winging it isn't my thing when it comes to longer pieces; short stories and poems, sure, but not chapter length WiPs. I'll get the idea and mull it over in my head for a while, play with it and see just how I really like it. This time around, I wrote the whole first chapter before I did any planning, but after that chapter, I wrote out a storyline and started some character profiles. I'll admit, I totally wung the first chapter; it was the middle of the story that I'd been thinking about most. But I do like where my new piece is going, and so I'm planning the rest (at least to an extent) in the hope that I won't destroy it.

  8. I tend to wing a little bit, then do some serious planning, and then make a few changes to what I planned when I write again. I usually work with some kind of outline, though, so I guess I'm not much of a winger. I can definitely relate to watching it as a movie in your head while you're thinking about it, though–I do that a lot, though it's hard for me to do it on purpose.

  9. I used to think of myself as a purist planner, but then I realized I wasn't really. I'm a total winger. See, what made me think I was an outliner was the fact that I hand wrote my story map out before sitting down to the computer & typing it out. But what I'm actually doing is writing my first draft by hand, and I'm winging it the whole time. I didn't get this until my "outlining" was interrupted by my edits for book 1. I was so upset that my flow was disrupted & I haven't yet been able to pick it back up. I I realized then, I'm a total wingman!! Whodathunkit?!!!

  10. There's a lot of mixture of styles, and it's interesting to see not only how different people approach the process, but also how our approach can change over time or from project to project. And when I think about it, isn't what I'm doing in my head a form of planning?

  11. Great post. I am with you re: the dislike of the term 'Pantser.' every time I hear it I wonder where it came from. It probably has a real, and perhaps even relevant, origin, but it still bothers me. *grumble grumble* I'm using "wing man" from now on. I like that.

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