A Pretzel, Not a Breadstick

I love baking! And since my mother passed away some seven years ago, I love preparing our family’s traditional German dishes whenever I can. Last weekend I attempted to make homemade pretzels from scratch. Not the easiest of endeavors, for in the course of making the dough, shaping the pretzel, applying the lye paste, and baking them off without over baking or burning them, I came to realize that with all the twists and turns of the process, anything that could happen probably would.

This got me thinking about how I journey when writing a novel. I’m not a complete pantser, but I do find myself taking liberties with the skeletal outline I devise after writing the synopsis. I like the idea of having some kind of navigational plan without being so committed to it that I deny myself the adventure of creative surrender. But sometimes my little twists, turns, and deviations from the original outline or synopsis can lead me into swamplands where I forget where I’m headed and how I’d originally planned to get there. This can often produce oversimplified plots, superficial characterizations, and a saggy middle. Oh, what to do!

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Yet more often than not it sends me into a world of creative inspiration. For example, my plan for my most recent book was for the two no-good-niks to catch a train out of Venice, Italy toward safer ground in Slovenia. All was going along splendidly, until I for some unexplained reason had them jump off the train and head back to Venice—on foot (in women’s heels to be exact) and in the middle of a snowstorm. Now, how did that happen? I asked myself.

This small action set off a whole domino effect that I had not only not planned (sorry about the double negative), but didn’t know how to get back on track. I was caught in a crease of an intricately folded pretzel of my own doing. It took me another three chapters to get them back on the train to Slovenia, but not until they had kidnapped the heroine’s future mother-in-law, stolen a car, and met with a group of organized crime bosses while wearing said women’s attire. All because they had earlier jumped from a moving train! Incidentally, those three chapters were the most fun I’ve had writing in a long time.

I need a synopsis. And I need an outline of necessary scenes. But what I don’t need as a writer is the breadstick by itself. Occasionally I need to pants my way into pretzel mode, which would never happen had I not already formed the breadstick in the first place. So, here’s to the joy of not knowing what the hell I’m doing and coming out on the other side of that adventure with a more exciting, creative, and honest approach to storytelling.






Gwen Overland