Getting Someplace while Going Nowhere: Two lessons about writing that I learned from stationary swim
Let’s start with the obvious question: What in the world is stationary swimming? It is just swimming while using a contraption—basically a belt attached to a bungee cord—that allows you to swim in one place so that people with tiny pools, like me, can still swim “laps” without having to turn around every three strokes. Very helpful. And while I was swimming yesterday, I started thinking about how swimming was like writing in a couple of ways. Wondering if my brain has gotten waterlogged? Stay with me for a few minutes.
When I’m swimming, I use both my arms and legs to propel me through the water. If I stop using one or the other, I can’t produce enough forward motion to keep that bungee cord tight, and I get pulled backward. This made me think about the different ways we, as writers, propel ourselves through our stories. Those of us who are plotters tend to pull ourselves through the story by grabbing hold of the next plot point we’ve laid out, kind of like swimming with our arms. We see what’s next, reach for it, and yank our story forward. Pantsers, on the other hand, push themselves through their stories by the power of what they’ve already written, like swimming with their legs. Their forward momentum is created by the ideas and words that are behind them. As things happen in the story, their characters react, which leads to the next plot point, which leads to the next reaction—you get the picture. Neither of these methods is wrong, but I’d argue that using both is the best way to keep your writing as tight as my bungee cord. If you focus just on the “arms” of plotting, the action can sometimes feel inauthentic, as if your characters are bouncing along the plot instead of creating it with their actions and decisions. You have to get to that next outline point, so you make it happen, even if maybe a different route would feel more genuine for your protagonist. Too much “legs” (pantsing), and the plot doesn’t always gel. Since you don’t know where you are going ahead of time, your path through the story can sometimes wander, leading to a flabby plot. Using both your arms and your legs—some plotting, some pantsing—can solve these problems, giving you a framework to guide you without stifling your creativity. For example, you could plan out the main plot points as benchmarks but leave the smaller details to evolve as you write. This gives you a destination to aim for but allows for new ideas to take you places you might not have thought of beforehand. The bungee cord stays tight as you pull and push your way through your story.
Another thing I noticed while swimming was that I frequently “space out” for long periods. Since I’m swimming in one place, I don’t have to worry about when I need to turn around or about swimming off into another lane (in my tiny pool, there isn’t another lane!), so my mind can wander freely. And I often get creative ideas when this happens—ideas for books, songs, and even blog posts! 😊 But when I “come back to the real world,” I often realize that I’m not kicking as hard as I should be or that I’ve veered off toward the side of the pool. I correct these things and continue on. Writing the first draft of your book is like the “spacing out” portion of my swim. You let your mind wander, let those creative ideas come, and don’t think too hard about getting it “right.” You just let it happen and get all of your ideas down on the page. But when you’ve finished your first draft, you have to come back to the real world. This is where you determine where you need to even things out or change direction. You consider all those ideas you’ve written down and see which ones are keeping your story afloat and which are dragging it down. You take that creative freewheeling and give it a little discipline. Both of these parts of the process are vital to creating an original and tight story.
So, you see, you really can get ideas about writing from splashing around in one place! And hopefully you see that writing can benefit from both the pull of plotting and the push of pantsing, both the creativity of spacing out and the discipline of coming back to reality. Using all of the tools available to you can keep you moving ahead with your story in the strongest way possible. Do you lean more toward your “arms” or your “legs” when writing? Are you stronger in the “spaced out” first draft or the more disciplined rewrite? Share your thoughts below!