On Trying Not To Fly By the Seat of My Pants

By Nancy Jo Cullen


I’m a writer who regularly finishes projects, but I wouldn’t describe myself as a writer with a regular practice. This is something I feel I should be able to correct and yet somehow writing continues to occur only when I can fit it around the other obligations of my life. After nearly three decades of this irregular writing practice I’m starting to believe irregular is my regular. And, to be honest, this type of practice works very well for me when I’m writing poetry. But, for me, a long fiction project needs regular attention if it’s going to blossom. When I look back at the anxiety-inducing process of constantly feeling lost while I wrote my first novel I have to think that beginning with some kind of plan might actually be a kinder way to treat myself in a writing life that doesn’t always allow me to sit at my computer every day to work.

I’m at the preliminary stage with this novel; ideas are bouncing around my brain like pinballs, I’m scribbling down notes in a Dollar Store exercise book, and everything seems exciting and smart. Since I haven’t actually started writing I don’t hate myself, or my ideas yet. At the moment I’m feeling pretty excited about the whole project and, because I’d like to hold on to this enthusiasm for more than the first two pages, I’m thinking about how I might better prepare for the long-term work of the project.  So, I’m developing a process wherein I, a fly by the seat of my pants writer, might begin to rely on some planning. It seems to me that working from an outline might be a better approach, a more self-loving approach when embarking on such a large project.

Naturally I turned to the internet to look for outline templates and, no shade to writers who work with outlines, but the more I read about outlines… hell, I can’t even write a five-year plan; what possessed me to think I could write an outline for a novel? And, I admit it; the thought of writing an outline for a novel makes me feel worried I’ll take all of the joy out of the process of creating the story.

I remind myself that this is a natural reaction for someone who has never worked with an outline, or blueprint, or whatever you want to call it. I want to call it scaffolding. And for this current project I’m going to be working from what I think is best referred to as an “outlineish.” For sure, part of the reason I find this process of building an early structure from which to create my novel daunting is that I might find out my idea is plain bad. Wouldn’t it be better if I just spent a couple of years feeling overwhelmed and disoriented inside the project until I hammer out a way to make it work? (I kid!)

Anyway, I’m thinking of my approach to planning like how I might think of an upcoming week, some things I know are going to happen for sure and so I build in the time and space for them, the rest of it I deal with as it arises. I don’t try to account for every “beat” of each day but I know when I’m going to the gym or to the dentist. I might suddenly find myself having drinks with a pal I ran into on the street, but that’s a good thing and I’m going to let myself enjoy it, as long as there is the time and space to do so.

At this point I understand my protagonist’s journey. I know where she begins and where I want her to finish and I know a few important things that must happen to her to help her get to the place where the story ends. But there are other important characters in the novel I know much less about, characters who will have influence on my protagonist’s story. I need to understand them more clearly because I know that’s exactly where I’ll get lost, where I got lost before, in that quagmire of unclear relationships.

So in order to understand these characters, I need to know their biographies, to know why they’d go along, or not, with my protagonist. Good lord, after resisting creating character biographies, from my days in theatre school until now—decades later—I’m going to write character biographies! Hot damn! And that will be the bulk of my pre-planning work. I’ll draw a loose map of the story and I hope that understanding my characters and their motivations along with knowing the moments that must happen, the points that will allow for transitions, that I can work my way through the process of writing a novel just a little bit like my travel though a week. I know I have some places my protagonist will have to get to and I know sometimes she must get there with other characters and that sometimes she will get there on her own. I’ll make every effort to get to my computer for at least one hour a day (is this starting to sound like wedding vows?) then badda bing, badda boom, the novel will be done! Easy peasy!

I’ll let you know in approximately three years how well my approach to novel planning turned out. Ha! I suppose even when I’m planning I’m still really just flying by the seat of my pants.

The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Nancy Jo Cullen is the fourth recipient of the Writers’ Trust Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBT Emerging Writers. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph and her short story collection, Canary, was the winner of the 2012 Metcalf-Rooke Award. Her poetry has been shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award, the Writers’ Guild of Alberta’s Stephan G. Stephansson Award and the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize. She lived in Calgary for over two decades and still returns regularly to connect with family and friends. She now lives in Kingston, Canada.

Nancy's latest novel, The Western Alienation Merit Badge, was published in Spring 2019 by Wolsak & Wynn, to wide critical acclaim.