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Writing Out of My Comfort Zone

By Lee Tobin McClain

I’m usually a planner…

I’m a planner in all areas of my life. I write grocery lists, yearly goals, and daily plans. Most relevant to this post, I plan out my novels. I have chapter outlines and Goal-Motivation-Conflict charts for every book I write, and I usually plan out each scene before I write it.

But what’s life without change? So this November, National Novel Writing Month, when I had a book to write with fewer constraints than usual (it’s indie), I decided to try writing by the seat of my pants. Wow, what an experience! I hated and loved it.

The Experiment

Joy of My Heart is part of the Arcadia Valley Romance series, so I already knew the setting. I knew one of the main characters, since she’s the last of four siblings featured in this particular series. And I knew the story would be contemporary Christian romance. That’s it. Everything else would be decided spur of the moment.

My first surprise was my hero, who came to life based on the stock photography couple who appear on my cover. When I saw him at full cover size, I thought: wow, he’s nearly bald and he looks a little… old.

Boom! I had a conflict. I made my hero ten years older than the hero—too old, according to her protective big brothers—and I made him a cancer survivor. The hero himself thinks he’s a bad boyfriend candidate, too… especially since he’s at serious risk of recurrence.

Starting on November 1st, I wrote the 1667 words per day required by NaNoWriMo, ending up with 50,000 words at the end of the month. Many times, I had no idea of what would happen next in my story, but I didn’t allow myself to plan out scenes. I did break down and do a chapter outline midway through the book, but I encouraged myself to deviate from it at the slightest whim.

The Discomfort

I hated writing without a plan! I had a continual sense that the book was horrible and that I wouldn’t know what to say the next day. Blundering ahead gave me a constant sensation of incompetence and uncertainty.

When I absolutely didn’t know what to write next, I did what Dean Wesley Smith, author of Writing Into the Dark: How to Write a Novel Without an Outline, suggests: I just wrote the next sentence. And the next, and the next. I found I could always come up with one more sentence.

The Benefits

I would recommend this experiment to anyone who has the freedom to write something that may turn out a different way than expected, because:

  • I broke out of a rut. This was the fourth novel in a series, and the umpteenth Contemporary Christian Romance I’ve written. But it felt different from any other writing experience I’ve had.
  • I wrote a more creative book. Teen runaway hiding out on the hero’s property? Okay, c’mon in! Another teen boy, this one with a serious weight problem? Welcome! Cancer recurrence? Um, this is a romance, but… sure, whatever! Random dog giving birth on the front porch? Not sure if you’ll survive the edit, but let me get you and the pups a blanket and water bowl for now.
  • I am rejuvenated, and so happy to be back to my planning mode. Getting out my color coded note cards to plan my next project made me giggle with glee. Writing my way feels exciting and new again.

So how about you… are you a plotter or a pantser? Would you consider taking a trip to the other side for the length of a project?

Publisher’s Weekly bestselling author Lee Tobin McClain read Gone With The Wind in third grade and has been an incurable romantic ever since. When she’s not writing emotional love stories, she’s probably driving around a carload of snarky teen girls, playing with her rescue dog, or teaching aspiring writers in Seton Hill University’s MFA program. She is probably not cleaning her house.




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One Response to Writing Out of My Comfort Zone

  1. Ane Mulligan says:

    I’m ia planster. I have to have a basic plan, but then onc that’s in place, I write SOTP. I prefer to have that basic outline in place, but it doesn’t always happen. I seem to end up plotting by thirds: 1st third, 2nd etc.