Ray Bradbury wrote this just for me!

If you’re a writer, I’m sure you’ve heard the terms plotter and pantser. For the non-writers: those terms refer to opposites in how much a writer prepares before he begins a work. Pantser comes from an aviation saying, “Fly by the seat of his pants.” meaning to fly on instinct alone, without instruments. (Finally looked that up.)

I’ve confessed to being a pantser, but the truth is, often my method is more like ultimate pantsing. I take the bare bones of a story idea and explore it—not before I write, but as I write. At first, I didn’t realize there was any other way to write. Then I decided to become a SERIOUS writer and bought book after book promising to teach me how to work like a real writer. Uh-oh.

I learned many useful things from these books, but some of the advice stymied my Muse. I hadn’t pre-written outlines, synopses, plot points charts, etc. for my many stories and one novel. And because I hadn’t followed those rules, I feared none of my work could possibly be any good. My hope for publication faded.

Then, a little over three years ago, I put my fingers to keyboard to elaborate on a dream I’d had and write it as a story. But the characters kept talking to me and the story grew. My dream turned into a novel. Some new writer friends thought it was a good novel. But I doubted their judgment because, again, I’d written mostly on instinct. In fact, most of the time, it felt as though I was only taking dictation. So how could it be good?

I’ve mentioned in a few recent posts that I was reading Ray Bradbury’s collection of essays on writing, Zen in the Art of Writing. I finally reached the last chapter and read something that, for me, surpassed all the bon mots I’d selected before. Mr. Bradbury didn’t know it, but he wrote the following part just for me:

The time will come when your characters will write your stories for you, when your emotions, free of literary cant and commercial bias, will blast the page and tell the truth.

Remember: Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact rather than before. It cannot precede action. It is the chart that remains when an action is through. That is all Plot ever should be. It is human desire let run, running, and reaching a goal. It cannot be mechanical. It can only be dynamic.

So, stand aside, forget targets, let the characters, your fingers, body, blood, and heart do.

Sha-zam! A celebrated writer had validated my method. It may not be every writer’s way, but it’s right for me. I no longer have to doubt the value of a story just because it seemed to write itself. Of course, not everything I write will work, but if it fails, it won’t be because I flew without instruments. It will be because I didn’t “stand aside” enough to let my “fingers, body, blood, and heart do”.

What say ye? Does Bradbury’s advice make your heart sing or shudder?


Photo credits: Anne Burgess – Creative Commons License

39 thoughts on “Ray Bradbury wrote this just for me!

  1. Thank you for sharing this. It gives me hope for what I call circle thinking. If I go around and around a character or an idea enough, they’ll let me write about it.

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  2. Wear Panster Pants!

    Linda, I read this book several years ago. After reading your previous post on Bradbury I wondered where my copy was or if I had gotten if from the library. A short time later I needed to move some books shelves and what do you know, there was Bradbury hidden behind a stack of fiction and poetry. I snatched it out and read the first two pages. Now it hangs out in the messy pile of books, magazines and kids’ art next to my bed.

    I am so happy and relieved to hear your panster admission. I don’t know the first thing about plot points and outlines. I work on only the vaguest notions and the brightest images in my mind and have the gravest doubts as to how this will translate into a complete manuscript.

    Bradbury is one of my literary heroes, self-taught and stalwart, able to run forward screaming only to look back when he reaches the end and see the footprints he’s left in the snow.

    An excellent quote and so wonderful to hear your writing intuition validated.

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    1. Thank you, E.Victoria. I had this book checked out of the library, but I want a copy of my own. I’m happy to hear synchronicity brought your copy back to you. 🙂

      Thank you for sharing that you write like I do. I’ve lived in fear that my writing method would brand me a FAKE. It’s nice to know that greater writers than I am just let go and follow the story. 😀

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  3. It absolutely makes my heart sing–what an incredible series of quotes–everyone so rich.

    Thanks for sharing that, Linda–I hadn’t read that before. Nor had I heard of the collection so thank you for that, too!

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  4. I LOVE this! I have just finished reading Something Wicked This Way Comes, (for the 3rd time I may add) and he is such a great writer, so to have someone like him say that, well, that’s just music to my ears.

    I could never sit here and plan a novel, or outline it, I had to let my boy take over and tell me his story, and I never knew where it was going as I wrote it, and so the end was as much as a surprise as it would have been on a reader.

    Thanks for sharing such wisdom Linda 🙂

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    1. You’re welcome, Alannah. I wish I had read this years ago, yet I know I’ll need to read it again because I so easily lose my confidence. I look forward to getting out of the way of my WIP this week. 😉

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  5. You are all so very clever. But you have given me a great idea. I will stop writing my novel stand back and let Joe tell it. It’s his story after all. Hopefully then I will get out of the muddle I am in.
    I will go to the library today and check out that Bradbury book. Thanks for sharing.

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  6. Lovely post:) I sometimes doubt myself too for not doing a lot of research before writing. I even decided to make a timeline for my story in an effort to change, but it turned out to demotivate me so now I haven’t written anything more for over a month on my story:( It just seemed… insurmountable!
    But there are tons of ways to write!:) Whatever works best for the individual writer^^,

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  7. My best writing is always from the intuitive mind. But some event out there usually starts me off. Getting it accurate and well written is where the work part comes in. So my vote is mixed.

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  8. Sing, sing, sing! Yes, plot is important, but I have heard many the writing professor lament those that focus on that and not much more. When I line things completely out before writing the story, I find that I shut myself down. I’ve learned to outline what the story is after my first draft and then revise based on what needs to be cut or added. Great quote and post!

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    1. I’m loving this chorus of voices, Barbara. 🙂 Writing first and then evaluating what I have is the way I’ve always written. When I believed that wasn’t the RIGHT way and tried to outline and all that jazz, it affected me the same way it does you.

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  9. I’ve always loved Bradbury and his constant affirmation that my way of writing might not really be as crazy as everyone else might suggest. This advice definitely makes me sing. Even in a rewrite of a book that HAS ALREADY BEEN WRITTEN, my characters are doing other things that surprise me and work for the new direction I wanted to take the rewrite. It’s such an amazing feeling when they do that, too, especially when it’s a good fit. You’re all, “Aww! Thanks, characters, you rock!”

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    1. I wish I’d read Bradbury’s book sooner, L.S., though all things in their time, and I certainly needed his book now. I’ve been puttering along in my WIP because I keep questioning where it’s going. I need to put away the map, shut-up, and enjoy the ride. 😉

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  10. Linda, This is a book I haven’t read yet, but I certainly love the quote. I often think of myself as a panster, but on some days I wonder if there isn’t an outliner hidden in there somewhere. Right now, I’m reading James Scott Bell’s book on Plot and Structure, which is offering insight in a different way — not suggestions on strict outlining, but certainly a bit of pre-planning. Not sure how it will fit into future attempts at noveling, but it has given me a little more confidence in the draft of the novel I’m working with now.

    A draft written initially by the seat of my pants.

    Interesting.

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    1. Christi, looking for the plot after you write the initial draft is what Bradbury was talking about. But clearly, many authors need, and write well, with plotting before writing that first word. Writer know thyself. 🙂

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    1. Thank you for subscribing, Thinker. 🙂 You don’t really need to know those terms. You just need to figure out what writing method works best for you and stick with it, no matter what other writers do.

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  11. I needed to read this today, especially after a recent somewhat jarring experience with a new critique group. It really was my fault for thinking I could work through a new novel with a critique group. The novel is not ready for that yet. Anyway, I’m definitely a “pantser.”

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    1. I’m glad it helped you, Cristina. I don’t know if your novel was a complete draft, but I learned that I cannot submit chapters of an incomplete novel for critique. Feedback at that stage totally threw me off course. I wish you well on your novel.

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  12. I remember a variation of this quotation. I believe it introduced a group of Bradbury’s stories. I went looking, but can’t find it. Somehow, it communicated the feeling that footprints in snow didn’t appear or disappear until the writer took a step…it sustained me for years. At the time I read it, I was an artist — it allowed me to trust myself even when I arrived at the studio without an idea.

    I’m not sure how I feel about characters running by…they might have another agenda, Robin

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