Plotting vs. Pantsing 6: Helen Simonson

February 24th, 2010

pettigrew

Helen Simonson’s first novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, will be published by Random House on March 2 and is already attracting the kind of attention that usually attends the publication of a breakout book — great reviews in the trade, a nod from Janer Maslin in the New York Times, and Amazon numbers in the lowest of the low three digits, even before release.

Did I say this is a first novel?  Well, it is.  Helen Simonson was born in England and spent her teenage years in a small village in East Sussex. A graduate of the London School of Economics with an MFA from Stony Brook Southampton, she is a former travel advertising executive who has lived in America for the last two decades. A longtime resident of Brooklyn, she now lives with her husband and two sons in the Washington, D.C. area.  And a few years ago she sat down to write a novel, and here it is, and I can’t wait to read it.

WHB_Photo_PR

Plot or Panic?

No, I don’t outline. I am so suspicious of structure that I don’t have a regular grocery shopping day, or a grocery list, and our family laundry tends to pile up until everyone is out of underwear at eleven pm on a Sunday night. I always viewed ideas of structure and time management as some kind of government propaganda designed to keep the middle classes ‘living lives of quiet desperation.” I always wanted to be a free spirit. I wanted to be Auntie Mame, and Pippi Longstocking; and to be like the man in that old American Express commercial – at the airport with just a credit card in his shirt pocket.

Of course, I am not a free spirit. I am merely a disorganized mom who is always ten minutes behind her own life. There are always appointments I drop or double-book; missing homework I should have monitored; dinners I forget to make. Once, when we lived in New York and had a blackout, the local diner sent a man on a bicycle to check up on my well-being because I hadn’t ordered food in two days. This is a long way of saying that I was probably never destined to be a writer who outlines or plots before beginning a story.

My writing style can be best described as procrastination plus panic. It took me five years to write my debut novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, and it might have taken a lot longer, had the crashing economy not made it vital to finish my MFA thesis and go find a ‘real’ job. I will draw a gauzy veil over the final six weeks of terror in which self-doubt appeared as a very hairy little goblin woman who sat on my left shoulder and screamed abuse in my ear (‘you suck’ being her mildest incantation) and my world shrank to the three gray walls of a fabric cubicle and the glow of a laptop screen where Tim’s ‘Finish Your Novel’ pages would remind me that only the butt in the chair and the tapping fingers on the keyboard could save me.

Sometimes I really like the writing. What I like is the completely blank mind that comes …after I have said aloud the awkward meaning of what I am trying to say, only ungrammatical…and just before the perfect phrase pops up; syntactically shiny and glowing with freshness. Those moments make me get up from my office chair, numb-bottomed in my jeans, and do a little jig of joy. I also like the thrill of pages fresh and hot from the printer, with numbers in the footer and my name on the top left; Helen Simonson. It’s the name on the page that makes most of us write, isn’t it? It’s our own ‘Kilroy was here’ graffiti which we attempt to scrawl across the world in non-fading ink. I have written only one novel so far and I am horrified to report that it began with the slightest of ideas. I had a moment of clarity in which I decided to write something for myself – an afternoon treat with no calories, just for Helen – and my mind immediately produced a small brick house in the country and an older man, wearing his dead wife’s housecoat, answering the door to a stranger. I believe this moment of authentic self – in which I refused to care what others would think of me – was important to me and will be to you. We’d all like to be Tolstoy or Chekov, or Alice Munro, and sometimes we want that so badly that we reject our own voice – the one with the tendency to humor and a hokey desire for English cottages. However, at best we can expect to produce somewhat competent pastiches. To write something unique, I now believe, we can only go with the voice we have and hope that it is enough. When I wrote for myself, something sprang to life that I had not been able to create before. Give it a try.

Once I had a few lines, I just tried to keep going. Writing is like making one of those awful mosaic tabletops with broken plates and grout. Small shards of ideas, experience and images seemed to funnel from my head into my fingertips. I wrote linear, chapter by chapter; I also made visual story webs with fat markers on large sketchpads, as if I were in middle school. What I refused to do is to jump around and write all over the place, hoping to fit it together later. Many people like this method but I found it too scary.

I don’t believe it matters whether we write in a writing studio or a park bench and no one really needs a laptop newer than five years old (it’s just word processing). What we all need is just to pile up pages. I find the biggest problem in piling up the pages is headspace. If I so much as look at email, consider the dirty dishes in the kitchen, sneak into the refrigerator or fight with a telephone marketer, my head fills with noise and my writing is over for the day. I try to write in the mornings and to set aside anything else that pops into my head (call the plumber, pay the mortgage, am I picking up a kid or is he going to Crew?) by writing it in a daily planner under the heading ‘call after 1pm’.

I think that any kind of space and support you can build around your writing will help it survive. A set writing time, a writing class, a weekly editing group, a brief writing window carved out lunchtime at your ‘real’ job– all these can be useful. As my pages piled up, I found that they provided a foundation of support under the idea that I could be a writer. For those paying attention, this might seem, at first glance, to be complete acquiescence to the importance of having structure in my life. Sad, isn’t it?

Plot or Panic?
No, I don’t outline.  I am so suspicious of structure that I don’t have a regular grocery shopping day, or a grocery list, and our family laundry tends to pile up until everyone is out of underwear at eleven pm on a Sunday night.   I always viewed ideas of structure and time management as some kind of government propaganda designed to keep the middle classes ‘living lives of quiet desperation.”   I always wanted to be a free spirit.  I wanted to be Auntie Mame, and Pippi Longstocking; and to be like the man in that old American Express commercial – at the airport with just a credit card in his shirt pocket.
Of course, I am not a free spirit.  I am merely a disorganized mom who is always ten minutes behind her own life.  There are always appointments I drop or double-book; missing homework I should have monitored; dinners I forget to make.   Once, when we lived in New York and had a blackout, the local diner sent a man on a bicycle to check up on my well-being because I hadn’t ordered food in two days.   This is a long way of saying that I was probably never destined to be a writer who outlines or plots before beginning a story.
My writing style can be best described as procrastination plus panic.  It took me five years to write my debut novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, and it might have taken a lot longer, had the crashing economy not made it vital to finish my MFA thesis and go find a ‘real’ job.  I will draw a gauzy veil over the final six weeks of terror in which self-doubt appeared as a very hairy little goblin woman who sat on my left shoulder and screamed abuse in my ear (‘you suck’ being her mildest incantation) and my world shrank to the three gray walls of a fabric cubicle and the glow of a laptop screen where Tim’s ‘Finish Your Novel’ pages would remind me that only the butt in the chair and the tapping fingers on the keyboard could save me.
Sometimes I really like the writing.  What I like is the completely blank mind that comes …after I have said aloud the awkward meaning of what I am trying to say, only ungrammatical…and just before the perfect phrase pops up; syntactically shiny and glowing with freshness.  Those moments make me get up from my office chair, numb-bottomed in my jeans, and do a little jig of joy.  I also like the thrill of pages fresh and hot from the printer, with numbers in the footer and my name on the top left; Helen Simonson.  It’s the name on the page that makes most of us write, isn’t it?  It’s our own ‘Kilroy was here’ graffiti which we attempt to scrawl across the world in non-fading ink.   I have written only one novel so far and I am horrified to report that it began with the slightest of ideas.  I had a moment of clarity in which I decided to write something for myself – an afternoon treat with no calories, just for Helen – and my mind immediately produced a small brick house in the country and an older man, wearing his dead wife’s housecoat, answering the door to a stranger.  I believe this moment of authentic self – in which I refused to care what others would think of me – was important to me and will be to you.  We’d all like to be Tolstoy or Chekov, or Alice Munro, and sometimes we want that so badly that we reject our own voice – the one with the tendency to humor and a hokey desire for English cottages.  However, at best we can expect to produce somewhat competent pastiches.  To write something unique, I now believe, we can only go with the voice we have and hope that it is enough.  When I wrote for myself, something sprang to life that I had not been able to create before.  Give it a try.
Once I had a few lines, I just tried to keep going.  Writing is like making one of those awful mosaic tabletops with broken plates and grout.  Small shards of ideas, experience and images seemed to funnel from my head into my fingertips. I wrote linear, chapter by chapter; I also made visual story webs with fat markers on large sketchpads, as if I were in middle school.   What I refused to do is to jump around and write all over the place, hoping to fit it together later.  Many people like this method but I found it too scary.
I don’t believe it matters whether we write in a writing studio or a park bench and no one really needs a laptop newer than five years old (it’s just word processing).  What we all need is just to pile up pages.  I find the biggest problem in piling up the pages is headspace.  If I so much as look at email, consider the dirty dishes in the kitchen, sneak into the refrigerator or fight with a telephone marketer, my head fills with noise and my writing is over for the day.  I try to write in the mornings and to set aside anything else that pops into my head (call the plumber, pay the mortgage, am I picking up a kid or is he going to Crew?) by writing it in a daily planner under the heading ‘call after 1pm’.
I think that any kind of space and support you can build around your writing will help it survive.  A set writing time, a writing class, a weekly editing group, a brief writing window carved out lunchtime at your ‘real’ job– all these can be useful.  As my pages piled up, I found that they provided a foundation of support under the idea that I could be a writer.    For those paying attention, this might seem, at first glance, to be complete acquiescence to the importance of having structure in my life.  Sad, isn’t it
Plot or Panic?
No, I don’t outline.  I am so suspicious of structure that I don’t have a regular grocery shopping day, or a grocery list, and our family laundry tends to pile up until everyone is out of underwear at eleven pm on a Sunday night.   I always viewed ideas of structure and time management as some kind of government propaganda designed to keep the middle classes ‘living lives of quiet desperation.”   I always wanted to be a free spirit.  I wanted to be Auntie Mame, and Pippi Longstocking; and to be like the man in that old American Express commercial – at the airport with just a credit card in his shirt pocket.
Of course, I am not a free spirit.  I am merely a disorganized mom who is always ten minutes behind her own life.  There are always appointments I drop or double-book; missing homework I should have monitored; dinners I forget to make.   Once, when we lived in New York and had a blackout, the local diner sent a man on a bicycle to check up on my well-being because I hadn’t ordered food in two days.   This is a long way of saying that I was probably never destined to be a writer who outlines or plots before beginning a story.
My writing style can be best described as procrastination plus panic.  It took me five years to write my debut novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, and it might have taken a lot longer, had the crashing economy not made it vital to finish my MFA thesis and go find a ‘real’ job.  I will draw a gauzy veil over the final six weeks of terror in which self-doubt appeared as a very hairy little goblin woman who sat on my left shoulder and screamed abuse in my ear (‘you suck’ being her mildest incantation) and my world shrank to the three gray walls of a fabric cubicle and the glow of a laptop screen where Tim’s ‘Finish Your Novel’ pages would remind me that only the butt in the chair and the tapping fingers on the keyboard could save me.
Sometimes I really like the writing.  What I like is the completely blank mind that comes …after I have said aloud the awkward meaning of what I am trying to say, only ungrammatical…and just before the perfect phrase pops up; syntactically shiny and glowing with freshness.  Those moments make me get up from my office chair, numb-bottomed in my jeans, and do a little jig of joy.  I also like the thrill of pages fresh and hot from the printer, with numbers in the footer and my name on the top left; Helen Simonson.  It’s the name on the page that makes most of us write, isn’t it?  It’s our own ‘Kilroy was here’ graffiti which we attempt to scrawl across the world in non-fading ink.   I have written only one novel so far and I am horrified to report that it began with the slightest of ideas.  I had a moment of clarity in which I decided to write something for myself – an afternoon treat with no calories, just for Helen – and my mind immediately produced a small brick house in the country and an older man, wearing his dead wife’s housecoat, answering the door to a stranger.  I believe this moment of authentic self – in which I refused to care what others would think of me – was important to me and will be to you.  We’d all like to be Tolstoy or Chekov, or Alice Munro, and sometimes we want that so badly that we reject our own voice – the one with the tendency to humor and a hokey desire for English cottages.  However, at best we can expect to produce somewhat competent pastiches.  To write something unique, I now believe, we can only go with the voice we have and hope that it is enough.  When I wrote for myself, something sprang to life that I had not been able to create before.  Give it a try.
Once I had a few lines, I just tried to keep going.  Writing is like making one of those awful mosaic tabletops with broken plates and grout.  Small shards of ideas, experience and images seemed to funnel from my head into my fingertips. I wrote linear, chapter by chapter; I also made visual story webs with fat markers on large sketchpads, as if I were in middle school.   What I refused to do is to jump around and write all over the place, hoping to fit it together later.  Many people like this method but I found it too scary.
I don’t believe it matters whether we write in a writing studio or a park bench and no one really needs a laptop newer than five years old (it’s just word processing).  What we all need is just to pile up pages.  I find the biggest problem in piling up the pages is headspace.  If I so much as look at email, consider the dirty dishes in the kitchen, sneak into the refrigerator or fight with a telephone marketer, my head fills with noise and my writing is over for the day.  I try to write in the mornings and to set aside anything else that pops into my head (call the plumber, pay the mortgage, am I picking up a kid or is he going to Crew?) by writing it in a daily planner under the heading ‘call after 1pm’.
I think that any kind of space and support you can build around your writing will help it survive.  A set writing time, a writing class, a weekly editing group, a brief writing window carved out lunchtime at your ‘real’ job– all these can be useful.  As my pages piled up, I found that they provided a foundation of support under the idea that I could be a writer.    For those paying attention, this might seem, at first glance, to be complete acquiescence to the importance of having structure in my life.  Sad, isn’t it?

12 Responses to “Plotting vs. Pantsing 6: Helen Simonson”

  1. Larissa Says:

    I was actually rather amused at the “finding support for your writing” line given the distaste for structure. (c: But I agree-on both points. I keep working towards finding that great zen where everything flows around all free and lovely and yet still manages to…well..work.

    Writing for oneself is a beautiful idea. I think I’m afraid that I am going to sit down and there’s not going to be any voice there at all waiting to get out. It’s not true but the idea of being greeted by a vapid silence is pretty tough to handle.

    Wonderful piece. I have to find time to sit down and read the ones I’ve missed…

    I was in NOLA for Mardi Gras…:-D

  2. Cynthia Mueller Says:

    I can’t wait to read your book, Ms. Simonson. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your process description as it so most closely resembles my own. To date, I haven’t faced the dreaded silence, but I do struggle with the incessant buzz of thought fragments, voices, bits of description, dust, lint and cat hair that swirl around my head.

    When I feeling too overwhelmed by the buzz to do any “real” writing, I can trick myself into just scribbling in my notebook/journal. Then, when I’m not looking, I sneak over to the keyboard and start “actual” writing.

    My goblin is named Mrs. Bostwick, in honor of my fourth grade teacher. As I poke at the keys I can hear her tsk, tsk, tsking as she shakes her head. Somedays I can hardly bring myself to print out what I’ve written so I tell myself that she can’t comment/edit until I print it out for her to read.

    And I haven’t been bold enough to actually put my name in the header of my pages. What a concept!

    Thanks for the glimpse into your writing routine!

    captcha: inhaled and

    ps to Tim: This installment was well worth waiting for! Thanks…

  3. Stephen Jay Schwartz Says:

    Helen,
    First let me say that I love the cover of your book.
    And, congratulations on having finished it, and having it published, and for all the excitement that has already been generated by it.

    I couldn’t agree with you more, concerning the emphasis on writing for oneself. I’ve only just finished my second novel, and when I wrote that first one I had the exact same attitude as you – I wrote for myself. I didn’t care about being liked, or about being popular. I just wanted to write the best book I could, and something so dark and intense that only a small niche gropu might gravitate towards it. I believe it has accrued a larger audience than I had expected because it came from my heart, because I wasn’t thinking about trying to accumulate readers.

    I wonder how you will approach your next book. Do you have one in the works? Are you under contract? Will your process change if you have one year to write your second book, after you spent five years on your debut? Will the schedule require that you become more of a plotter than a panster?

    And I also agree that there’s only so much space in my head, and I want to fill it with writing. When the errands get in the way, the writing suffers.

    I can’t wait to read Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand!

  4. Julie Lomoe Says:

    What a wonderful description of the writing process. Your personal voice comes through vividly and makes me want to read your novel. Even better, your description inspires me to buckle down to my own writing.

  5. Bill Crider Says:

    I heartily agree about the set writing time. Setting a time for my writing was about the only thing I was organized enough to do. But then the time was more or less forced on my because I had a day job. The only times left for writing were early morning (no way was I getting up at 5:00 to write) or in the evening. So 7:00 P. M. became my starting time.

  6. Sylvia Says:

    This is the strongest argument for “trust your voice” that I’ve seen in a long time.

    Still, I’m amazed that you were so strict about writing linearly without having a clear view of the line!

  7. Helen Simonson Says:

    Dear Friends of Tim,

    Thank you so much for the illuminating comments. I’m immediately planning on naming my goblin! I suggest that everyone start naming, titling and making cover pages for what they write. If you wait for some outside force to name you a real writer – well the wait is long and the way is cold! I hope my second novel will move faster because I have less excuse to think no one will care. However, it will take how long it takes – I have no intention of trying to plot an outline just to make it go faster. I may get an office space outside of my home (that home office is just way too near the refrigerator). This is the most exciting week of my life but I can’t tell you how exciting it was to be able to write to Tim H. last April to tell him my book had sold. Regards, Helen S.

  8. Sphinx Ink Says:

    I am really enjoying this series, Tim (and guest writers). I especially like Helen’s essay, because her “method” is most like mine! Helen, much success to your book, and I will look for it.

  9. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, everybody —

    I knew you’d like Helen. During my occasional correspondence with her, it was clear to me that she had a real voice: clear, warm, humorous, sane, and reassuring. Exactly the qualities you want in a writer who’s ultimately going to sandbag you.

    Like all of you, I can’t wait to read MAJOR PETTIGREW. And like Stephen (and my wife), I love the jacket. Helen, what was your first reaction to it? Mine is almost always despair, followed by gradual acceptance. Once in a while (the new one, THE QUEEN OF PATPONG,for example) it’s startled joy.

    Sphinxy, thanks. I’m enjoying the series, too. We got a great lineup of writers. Riss, I don’t think you have to dread the silence — you’ve got too much energy and insight. And anyway, you can write about the silence.

    Cynthia, I agree that naming the goblin is a great idea. Give it a name that irritates it so you can diminish it jsut by saying its name. Amazing, isn’t it, how many of us carry scars on our creativity from bad elementary-school teachers? I also have to thank one who encouraged me in fifth grade and without whom I might never have written.

    More to come, everyone.

  10. sharai Says:

    Wow! I too love the cover and can’t wait to read the book! Just as Tim has inspired me to recently start writing for myself, Ms. Simonson has me all excited about writing more and better for myself. Thanks again for all these great ideas!

  11. Beth Terrell Says:

    Helen, this is a lovely description of the creative process. I can hardly wait to read your book, as that image of the older man answering the door in his dead wife’s housecoat immediately captured me.

    captcha: was quailing

    A fine description of victory over fear.

  12. Helen Simonson » Blog Archive » Read about my writing process on Tim Hallinan’s website Says:

    […] Tim Hallinan asked me to write a guest blog for his series on creative writing process.  Tim maintains a website full of useful advice for […]

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