Sometimes the writing itself is the only way to pull back that proverbial curtain to finally pinpoint what exactly needs to be written – where the genuine story is. By doing the actual writing, some writers figure out what it is they’re writing. A plotter would cringe. The plotters know from the beginning what they want to write. They know their genre, their voice, their pacing, momentum, and plot points. They outline clearly before setting off. It can be an efficient, successful way to write. A seat-of-the-pantser, on the other hand, might nod knowingly, even with fear coursing through the veins… because the pantsers among us often remain unconvinced that story will emerge from the chaos. Or they’re never sure how it happens. But writing can be one, the other, plotting and pantsing both, and everything in between. An eyes-closed full-speed-ahead dream-state stream-of-consciousness style of writing that then becomes “story” in revision, or a more methodical construction of scenes in sequence. Either way, I’d argue that revealing the mystery writer-to-self as well as writer-to-reader is always part of the goal.
My new novel Mailbox: A Scattershot Novel of Racing, Dares and Danger, Occasional Nakedness, and Faith is the only long work I’ve created in the full-speed ahead manner, and it was great fun to write. It’s fiction, but its timeline and many plot points were pulled from my own experience, so its process was both plotting and pantsing. I turned 13 in 1979. My protagonist Sandy Drue turns 13 in 1979. I learned to ride a horse and shoot a gun at summer camp, at age 8, and so did she. I have a younger brother who played soccer. So does she. I worked tradeshows and in my parents’ distribution warehouse. So does she. My family moved from the East Coast to Kansas City, and so did hers. Her difficulties and cultural adjustments were similar to mine. But her stories are hers, and the fiction rose from there.
I knew what I wanted her main story question to be and how I wanted to follow its progression to an end. I didn’t waver as to the point of view, the voice, or the construction I wanted to use for this unconventional novel of loosely linked shorties, so although I wasn’t following a strict outline, I had my parameters set and could then close my eyes and roll with it. A bit more of a roller coaster ride on safe tracks than a full-speed pick-up truck kind of ride. I took a workshop with Andre Dubus III a year ago, and he advocates for the pick-up. In fact, he said forget the eyes-closed, no headlights, behind the wheel of the pick-up, but climb into the back of the pick-up and go screaming down the road with your writing. His novel House of Sand and Fog is an absolute thing of beauty, and I do hope to create a blind-and-screaming-back-of-pick-up novel myself one of these days, but for Mailbox, I loved the freedom to figure out what I was writing as I wrote it, but know where I wanted to go even as it was moving forward. That sense of making progress is deeply satisfying.
A first glance at Mailbox might tempt a reader to think it doesn’t necessarily follow a planned sequence. That reader would not be wrong! But then too, they would. Because a subtle thread of connection does guide one vignette to the next, and there’s a plot development or narrative arc that becomes apparent as the journey continues. I’d say there’s no final yanking back of a curtain so much as a slow pulling away, wrinkle by wrinkle, until the final revelation is suddenly complete.
Sandy opens with a scene she remembers from early childhood when school bullies demand to know what religion she is. She answers “nothing,” which satisfies neither the bullies nor herself. But figuring out the question of God’s existence is a tall order for a seven year old, much less figuring out which God and which House of God. It takes Sandy a few more life lessons before she knows her own beliefs. Sandy Drue writes her stories and figures out her truth. Nancy Freund writes Sandy Drue’s stories and reveals new depths of understanding as she goes about her own journey – looking back and looking ahead. Some people write for profit, some for catharsis and their own personal discovery, while others write to entertain or guide their readers in some way… there are hundreds of reasons to write and ways to do it. The bottom line is it needs to be satisfying – ideally even, fun. If you can find your way to that, you’ve got it made.
I think with Mailbox my process of half pick-up-truck, half roller coaster, pulling back curtains as we sped along, was just about right. I am now a month past publication date with Mailbox… just surfacing, really. The reviews so far are great news -- Sandy’s story seems to resonate with people from all over the world. When I was Sandy’s age, as the Screamroller at Kansas City’s Worlds of Fun would finally grind to a halt and the safety bars would click and rise to free the riders, I would usually climb out of the car panting, “just one more, let’s go again.” When you publish a book that feels like that, you must be on the right track.
So what about you? Wild ride or something safe? Somewhere in between? How often does your writing surprise you? Please do comment and connect. That’s where the real fun in all of this is.
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