The west-facing wall of my Unicorn Room holds two important developmental tools of my craft. A three-foot by three-foot cork board displays a visual representation of the plot and character arc for my thesis novel and a similar-sized white board shows the bones of a story in progress. One is a Vision Board and the other a W-storyboard. Above the W, purple vinyl letters on shell-pink paint read, “No mud, no lotus.”
This quote, the title of Thich Nhat Hanh’s book on mindful living, reminds me to embrace the mud required to write books from within the depths of my mind, heart, and soul. Some might mistake my long process for perfectionism. That is not what I seek in my writing. I aim for truth which takes years of diving into the mud, trusting the lotus to bloom.
Not everyone writes the same way. Some barely process at all and yet, make wonders of surface material. I think of writers who naturally observe the details of people and write stories — drama, horror, comedy — with flair and ease. Others write with intellect, emotion, or both. Some dabble when the mood strikes. Many follow the story that begs for release.
No matter planner, pantser, or plantser, every writer encounters mud.
Planners do exactly what it sounds like they do — they plan. I hold an image of my eldest in mind. From an early age, she planned her life in lists. She journals and monitors data. When she was 12, she convinced me to track the number of infant and mother mortalities in the graveyards where I collected stories. She wanted to track and discern. Today she works for a science data organization, planning communications between scientists and media. She plans before she writes with the precision of a Dungeon Master.
Pantsers are the free-spirited writers chasing the lead of a story by the seat of their pants. Pantsers live in perpetual media res. They don’t know the beginning or the end, they write what comes to them and follow what unfolds. They don’t know the plot; that’s what they are writing to discover. They love their characters and fall in love with the dozens more that step out onto their pages. They don’t whip the WIP, they ride it into the sunset.
Plantsers combine the elements of planning with the discovery of free-writing. Some plantsers outline from the beginning and others track their plot as it unfolds. Every writer eventually comes to terms with the reality of needing both attributes. Planners have to draft their plans and pantsers have to frame their drafts. Both will come to a tentative, “The End,” and require a Revision Plan. It’s revision that confounds many writers. But we aren’t there yet.
We are talking mud because it’s time to embrace the suck, which is warrior slang for accepting the friction that comes from facing the unpleasant inevitable. Writers face the mud when planning or pantsing stalls. No matter your best laid plans or your pages of drafting, the story will get stuck. It’s part of the process. We anticipate mud this time of year because it is NaNoPlaNo. Time to plan (yes, Pantsers, this includes you) for National Novel Writing Month.
This year, Carrot Ranch will be a NaNoWriMo Mentor. Once a week, I’ll offer tips and encouragement to participants, which will be useful for all writers beyond the month-long event. I’ve started The Congress of Rough Writers group at NaNoWriMo and if you want to join, you need to send me your official member handle at the site. If you have never NaNoed before and want to go for it, I’ll help you get started. Email me at email@example.com. I’m a huge fan of the event and organization. NaNoWriMo is an incubator, global community, and the best writing tool for drafting (yes, Planners, this tool is for you, too).
The reason I have a Vision Board and W-Storyboard mounted on the wall opposite from where I meditate and commune with Unicorns is because I want/need kinesthetic tools for my craft. I interact with both boards, involving my body in the mind and heart process of writing. I also create music playlists and dance when I’m stuck mentally. I believe in mudding tools.
99-words is a tool, too. NaNoWriMo is sixteen 99-word stories a day. It takes five minutes to draft 99-words, so roughly it will take an hour and a half to write 1,667 words a day. That’s speed drafting, which happens on the good days. Count on three hours of writing on the slowest days. NaNoWriMo teaches you the value of stick-to-it-ness. In 30 days you will have gone from 99 words to 50,000.
The best way to deal with the mud is to plan for it (settle down, Planners; stop whining Pantsers).
I may as well say it. “Hi, I’m Charli Mills and I’m a recovering Pantser.” My deep processing and pantsing inclination seemed a match made in Muse Heaven but not so. They languished, lost in the wilderness of never-ending-stories. I’ve learned to use planning for my deep processing and to allow pantsing during dream time (pre-writing phase) and scheduled drafting stints. My profs were right — never again will I draft a novel without a Plan. My MFA program introduced me to tools and I will share some of them with you. I encourage you to explore each one, try them on, and keep what fits. I’ve created my own hybrid of planning starting with the simple and ending with the complexity of combined plot and character arc that I can map on my W.
NaNoPlaNo (Planning for Drafting)
- First, test your premise.
- Story Spine is a simple structure for stories of any length: Jumpstart Your Story.
- Plots are structure: Nine Basic Plots.
- Combine plot with character arc: Worksheet based on Lisa Cron’s Story Genius
- Outline your novel: 8 Ways to Outline
- Use storyboards: Storyboarding
- Develop a character arc: How to Create One
A few other resources can help you in the planning phase, or be used as references throughout your drafting. One is TV Tropes. We’ve used this resource at Carrot Ranch to develop wickedly fun and unexpected prompts during the TUFF challenges. It details genres you didn’t even know existed. It’s a great way to jumpstart plotting or character development. The other is a Name Generator. There is nothing worse than getting stuck in the mud because you can’t come up with a quick name for the character who just walked onto the page.
I’d like to welcome any writers from Finlandia, especially those in Helsinki Slang, the university writing group. I’ll be planning weekly NaNoWriMo Write-ins with our fabulous campus library and providing a Zoom Room for any Carrot Ranchers who want to write-in, too. If you have NaNoWriMo questions, you can add them to the comments and stories below. If anyone in the community wants to answer, please join in! We all embrace the power of diverse perspectives and lived experiences at the Ranch.
And before we embrace the mud, please note the extended deadline. I will be on the North Shore of my beloved Lady Lake Superior for a week in Two Harbors, Minnesota with a dear Minneapolis friend who has a condo. I get to teach classes via Zoom and sit by the fireplace in between hikes, train rides, agate hunting, and working on client projects. I’m currently wrapping up a book I’ve been researching and editing since June and have two days to finish it. And I survived my first mid-term grading period.
Life is good, though muddy at times.
“Without suffering, there’s no happiness. So we shouldn’t discriminate against the mud. We have to learn how to embrace and cradle our own suffering and the suffering of the world, with a lot of tenderness.”~ Thích Nhất Hạnh
October 14, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story embraces the mud. What is the mud, real or metaphor? How does it transform a character or place? What happens? Go where the prompt leads!
EXTENDED DEADLINE Respond by October 26, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Face Down in the Mud by Charli Mills
Max howled when her ankle buckled, sending her face first into the Keweenaw mud. Rain pounded. The trail morphed into a rivulet. She refused to drown in a mud puddle. She pushed up; her upper body still Marine-strong. That blasted leg. Useless foot. Unreliable ankle. Her second howl had nothing to do with unhealable soft tissue. Without her unit, without a purpose, life sucked. Embrace the suck. She managed to rise to one knee, the other leg mired. When her dad emerged from the woods, her relief was genuine. Even if he was wearing a wet pink gauze skirt.