Recommended Writing Process for the Criminally Insane


Do criminally insane writers exist?

I’m not even sure the phrase “Criminally Insane” means anything. A horror film called Criminally Insane came out in 1975, but it was not about writers and it was certainly not legitimized by the presence of APA-certified consulting psychiatrists on set. I prefer the alternate title, Crazy Fat Ethel, anyway. A movie should deliver on the promise of its title.

But I digress (if it’s possible to digress from a topic one hasn’t brought up yet). Now that I’m in the groove with my novel-in-progress, I believe I am taking pantsing to a new level of chaos. Warning: You plotters might experience actual physical pain reading this.

I have no outline, a given for a pantser. I am not using writing software (beyond MS Word). I have tons of characters existing in four overlapping subplots, none of whom have written biographies and all of whom are tracked only within the haunted labyrinth of my synapses. And the best part: I’m writing out of sequence. That is, I am not composing the story in the order that events unfold. I’m doing this because 1.) I’ve lost my mind, and 2.) I am realizing what this story is about as I go, and when the ideas hit, I often need to go back and set them up with a bridging event. Oh, I gave up on numbering the chapters for reasons that should be obvious. I’m giving them placeholder names like “Car” and “Run” and “What am I thinking?”

crazy fat ethelYou are no doubt thinking I have an unreadable disaster on my hands. It’s ok. I don’t blame you. No one can follow such a method and produce anything other than an incoherent word jumble. Funny thing is, it’s working for me. It’s like I have a box of invisible puzzle pieces and no idea what image I am assembling, yet an image is emerging anyway. Because once a piece is in place, the cloak of invisibility drops for that piece. Now I’m starting to feel the satisfying snap of pieces unexpectedly interlocking and creating clusters of pieces. I don’t know that I’ll ever work this way again, but I’m finding that chaos has its attributes.

In case you are a criminally insane writer, or just one who feels stagnant and is up for a change in methodology, here’s a summary of my steps so far. It’s the closest thing to an outline I’m composing this year:

I. Get a story idea from a three-word phrase that, of its own volition, pops into your head while you are showering

II. Write a short story based on the idea

III. Like the short-story enough to turn it into a novel, only set the novel years before the events in the short story take place

IV. Make the antagonists friends

V. Start in story in the middle, then tell the backstory

VI. Don’t think, just write. The characters and events will reveal themselves as you go

VII. Realize one of your minor characters is actually the villain and go back to fill in his story

VIII. Realize your characters are all connected and have been committing parallel acts (some overt and some symbolic), but with different motives, decide that is awesome in its organic-ness, and go back to build the bridges.

IX. Be confident that it will work and be interesting and different.

X. Nothing. I thought my outline would look better ending in “X”

That’s it. Happy insanity. Feel free to tell me I’m a fool in the comments!

32 responses to “Recommended Writing Process for the Criminally Insane

  • fictionalpenguin

    I’m not sure about criminally insane, but I did have a moment of Psycho-like inspiration (Book two of Joshua’s Nightmares stabbed me in the brain when I was in the shower. Okay. The comparison isn’t as clever as I’d thought.).

    Also, all Roman numeral lists look better ending on X. You could have a list of the blandest things in the world, and it would still seem better ending on X.

    • ericjbaker

      And Bland X is better than plain old, bland, don’t you think?

      Didn’t I see your post the other day about writing half a novel in two hours? Or maybe it was two weeks and I’m exaggerating, but it appears you were recently struck by your own form of deranged inspiration.

      • fictionalpenguin

        I finished the first draft of a novel in about two and a half months, give or take, and broke one hundred pages of book two in under a week. Certainly deranged. I’m not so sure how far I’d go with calling it inspiration.

        • fictionalpenguin

          Also, you may be happy to know that Full Blown Cranium’s CD is still, in fact, one of only a few in my (current) car. That is to say it’s one of the ones that made the cut after I transferred all the things from my poor, totaled Hyundai.

        • ericjbaker

          That was it. 100 pages, one week. pretty impressive. Your derangement serves you well. And thanks for appreciating the tunes. Hopefully we will begin recording a new batch soon.

  • toconnell88

    250 pounds of unadulterated brilliance! That sounds like such an unorthodox way to work; I can only conclude it’s pure genius. Everything is so regimented these days. We get so bogged down with traditional structures and processes, so it’s refreshing to see someone who’s willing to write in a way many would consider the unequivocal ‘wrong’ way.

    Good luck to you, you great mad thing.

    • ericjbaker

      Thanks! I hope it works. I feel like it has promise, but I’ve thought other things had promise. For all my chaos now, I will be flogging it to death with rewrites later.

  • nrhatch

    Ha! Whatever happens . . . it sure sounds like you are having FUN with the process.

    I like the analogy to a jigsaw puzzle revealing itself a piece at a time . . . sneaking out from under the edge of the invisibility cloak when Kathy Bates isn’t looking.

  • livelytwist

    Your writing process sounds crazy, but you also sound as if you’re having fun. I think you’re more organized than you let on, that there’s a fair bit of plotting going on . . . Your writings on this blog lead me to believe so or do you have a split personality thingy going on 🙂 ? Nah! Keep having fun Eric 🙂

    • ericjbaker

      To be fair, I do go in with ideas, but I don’t map what I’m going to write. My blog posts rarely end up being what I thought they would be when I started typing. My material is better that way for some reason.

      I feel weird not ending on a smiley, so: 🙂

  • Jill Weatherholt

    I’m happy to hear your story is moving along, Eric. It sounds as though you’re having a lot of fun with it. I think that’s the important thing, especially if we ever want to reach, the end. Good luck!

  • change it up editing

    Not sure what this says about me, but I rather like your method. I’m a hard-core plotter and tend to overanalyze every word, every semicolon, every line space until I’m happy with them, and I also tend to burn out that way, so your strategy appeals on more than a few levels.

    “Whatever Works” should be the writer’s motto IMHO. Too many writers write to a formula, and sadly, their stories tend to be formulaic; I suspect yours will not have that issue. Happy craziness, Eric!

    • ericjbaker

      I’m sure I’ve talked about it before, but when I outline fiction, it ends up lifeless and predictable. However, I’m swimming with sharks on this one. You may have to throw me a life preserver after my third or fiftieth draft!

  • Kevin Brennan

    Do not adjust your medication. You’re on to something!

    Maybe X. should be: Finish the book if it’s the last thing you do.

    • ericjbaker

      If I were into writing worthwhile blog posts and were mature enough to not go for the gag every time, I would embrace your profound idea for a conclusion.

      By the way, have you been posting? I swear I saw a repost of your blog by Marie Bailey but did not see the original in my reader.

      • Kevin Brennan

        Well, to thine own self be true, dood!

        And yes, I’ve been posting. Wouldn’t surprise me to learn that WordPress is funky. They did ban me for three days for no reason, after all.

  • Janna G. Noelle

    I think I actually experienced chest pains while reading this. It sounds like you’re employing the proverbial “spaghetti” method (i.e. throw it at the wall and see what sticks), or in more literary parlance, the Shitty First Draft, but if its working for you, I guess that’s good. You’re going to have a lot of fun with revisions. 😛

    But seriously, if one is a fast writer, I could see this method working. For a slow poke like me, I’d forget too many important details without notes and a sequential flow. But really, who am I to judge one’s unconventional story-creation methods when I my own method for creating a historical fiction novel is definitely not recommended. You just help inspire a blog post.

    • ericjbaker

      You know I do this deliberately to give you anxiety with these posts. It’s like I’m holding my finger a half inch away from you while proclaiming, “I’m not touching you.”

      I honestly don’t think I’m throwing in random material that doesn’t fit. That’s why it’s interesting. I feel like I’m able to see the story points better and where they belong by doing it out of order. Sure, I’ll have to do a lot of rewriting, but I would anyway. I’m a word flogger.

      My brain is not normal. In college, I used to give presentations without notes or without even planning what I was going to talk about. A classmate once told me I had “a mind like a steel trap.” Information goes in, assembles itself, and then comes back out in a new order. Meanwhile, I can’t remember a flipping phone number to save my life. If you told me your phone number, I would forget it within 5 seconds. If I look at a phone number on a piece of paper and then look away to punch it in, I can’t.

      We like to go back and forth on the whole plotting vs blank paging debate, but surely our methods are suited to our respective material and subject matter. The idea of writing historical fiction is so daunting to me that I would never attempt it, largely because of all the research and preparation involved. That doesn’t mean I’m not looking forward to reading your completed manuscript, though!

      • Janna G. Noelle

        I’m looking forward to reading your as well. That’s actually really cool that you can start at a given point (or multiple points) and see your story radiate out in all directions. Pretty sure I couldn’t do that, even in draft.

  • A Writer Inspired

    I absolutely love how completely opposite of me this is! I wish we were doing A to Z together writing in juxtaposition to each other. So amazing how flexible our brains are that we can actually do this and write something worth reading. You’re a fool but then so am I!

  • Dave

    Eric, you are no fool in my book. In fact, you are my new hero. Well, you were my hero already, but now you are really my hero. I can only aspire to your level of pantserly/who-gives-a-flip-about-plotting writing method. If that makes me criminally insane, then don’t give me the lithium or the thorazine and let me write 🙂

    I think you should create a longer list with more details so you can end with “L”. What says disorganization more than a 50 point list on how to write without plotting?

    • ericjbaker

      The pressure! This novel better be good or I’ll have an awful lot of people to answer to.

      Funny thing: When Janna Noelle and I were planning our “Plotting vs. Pantsing” debate a little while, I emailed her a detailed outline of how I thought the post should be laid out. As the “pantser” in the argument, I ended my message with “Yes, irony. Don’t think I’m oblivious to it.” She was like, “Uh-huh.”

  • 1WriteWay

    I see in one of your comments that you could give presentations without notes or planning. I have colleagues like that, and I’ve often envied them because I always had to write out, word for word, my presentations and then rehearse and rehearse until I do could the presentation in my sleep. Not fun. Maybe that is why I’m a pantser when it comes to my own writing. I otherwise have to be so organized that it’s rather freeing to be disorganized in my writing. One of my favorite NaNoWri novels evolved from writing scenes out of sequence. Once I allowed myself that freedom, writing became more fun and less stressful as I worked toward the 50K mark. I agree with Dave. You are my hero 🙂

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