I don’t think the hardest part of learning to write is the craft. It’s learning how you write a book. I believe your brain already knows how, but it’s not talking. So you dig, finding and discarding methods over your shoulder like a cheap clotheshorse at a Macy’s sale.
Frustrating, isn’t it? And it seems whichever method our brain has chosen, we’re not happy with. We want that person’s process – or that one (kind of like hair, no?). We keep looking, hoping something new will be THE thing that works better, faster—oh, might as well admit it—easier.
I was a career CFO (read: corporate bean-counter). I’m compulsively organized and I love outlines, so I knew I’d be a 40-page outline plotter.
Yet, when I sat down to write my first book, the creative side of my brain gave the organized side the finger. When I try to use these amazing, fun tools, the story goes dead. If you know what’s going to happen, why write it? So, like it or not, I’m a pantser. I’m learning to live with the disappointment of all those bright shiny tools that I can’t use.
If you’re a pantser, you know how it works: You start with a kernel of something: a situation, a character, a what if. Stephen King said, in On Writing, “Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered, pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to . . . get as much as each one out of the ground as intact as possible.”
That’s what feels like for me. I begin usually with a character. I know her misunderstanding of the world (or flaw), and I usually know a beginning scene. I may even know a key scene or two along the way – something that stuck in my head and won’t let go. I know that in the end, she will have learned if not to overcome the flaw, at least understand it better. She’s in a better place than the mud, blood and beer I’ve pulled her through.
As in any process, there are pros and cons. I’ll give you a couple of mine. I’d love to hear other pantsers’.
- No tears in the writer; no tears in the reader (Robert Frost). Since I don’t know what’s going to happen next, I think it’s easier to live in deep POV. I’m as surprised as my main character by what happens. I think it helps make my writing more ‘real’ and immediate.
- I think of it as following a bread-crumb trail. I don’t know where I’m going, or how to get there, but it’s okay, because I only need to find the next crumb; to know the next scene. And the next, until eventually I can see the last scene. When I get there, it feels very familiar – like I’ve known where I was going all along.
- It’s exciting. I can’t wait to get up in the morning and find out what happens next.
- It feels like rebellion. I’m a trail blazer, a rabble-rouser and an outsider. I don’t need no stinking rules. I’m Truman Capote, mysterious and unknowable (without the weird parts).
- Some tools do work. Ones like Cron’s Story Genius, that espouse thinking about the foundation blocks of your story, rather than specifics of plotting.
- A new idea is shiny and perfect – at least until you dig into the details you can’t see in the beginning.
- Did you ever read something you wrote, and think, ‘Wow, I am not that smart.’ Sometimes ideas come to me that are better than I’m capable of.
- All those pretty shiny tools wrapped under a tree, with someone else’s name on them.
- I get stuck. Often. My bread-crumb trail peters out in the middle of a thorny thicket, and I don’t know how to get out!
- I don’t really know the themes, or what the book is truly about, until I finish it. If I want to portray a theme or a motif, I can’t make it happen. I just think about it, and hope a miracle happens, and it ends up in the book. Happily, so far, it has.
- Secondary characters can take over the story and you won’t even notice until a critter (critique partner) points it out.
- To every book, there is a middle (aka: The Pit of Despair). I know the end, but there’s no way to get there from where I am.
- I’ve heard other pantsers wander off on tangents and end up having to throw away huge chunks of what their story is not.
And this is really the crux of my angst. I wonder if it’s the same for all the pantsers everywhere.
I don’t know where this stuff comes from.
If you don’t purposefully have a plan and follow it, you don’t even have the illusion of control (to be fair, plotters probably don’t believe they have total control, either). That means, you’re relying on something you don’t understand. Don’t get me wrong; epiphanies happen, and when they do, glitter falls like snow from the sky. But what if they don’t? What if I never get another idea? What if this story doesn’t gel into something that makes any sense at all?
Okay, so far, the next idea has always come and I’ve managed to complete twelve novels—even won accolades. But past performance is no guarantee of future results, right?
I don’t believe in things I can’t see – like muses. I’m a practical pragmatist. I know the stories all come from my subconscious. But that doesn’t make me feel better. I want control, dang it. It’s like relying on a gift; it’s wonderful and appreciated, but it’s not good business practice to expect that it will always be there.
What to DO about it
Aside from breathing into a paper bag. If you’re stuck, here are some ideas to help pull you out of the mud.
- Call a lifeline – I have several friends who are used to me calling them and shouting gibberish through tears. They calm me down, we talk the problem out, and voila! The answer unfolds. Cherish those people (I’m looking at Orly).
- Go take a shower — Or wherever it is you get your ideas. Doing the dishes, gardening, bathing the cat, whatever works for you. I get on my bicycle; for some reason keeping my conscious mind busy with balancing, traffic and directions frees up the subconscious, and Gordian knots unravel.
- Write a scene you DO know. Doesn’t matter if it’s the last scene. Sometimes, it breaks the logjam, and you can work back from there, to where you’re stuck.
- Take up drinking. Just kidding. Though it might make you feel better, it won’t help you get unstuck.
- If you feel like you’re getting off the path, and wandering in the weeds, draw a map. I use an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of scenes. Lisa Cron’s Scene cards work, too. Something that helps give you a bird’s eye view of the forest, instead of focusing on all those trees.
- Many writers consider the first draft just sand shoveled in, to be able to make sand castles in the revision phase. Orly Konig calls this, ‘pantsing with suspenders’.
- Back up and remember why you began this book (topic) to begin with; what was that spark – that human condition you wanted to explore? Write it in magic marker and tape in up at eye level. Then look at every scene, to see where you lost the path.
- Pull out threads. Odds are, you’ll have more than one character, theme, motif, and/or plot thread. Follow each of those…did you lose one?
One Other Suggestion for when you’re stuck:
And this works whether you’re a plotter, pantser, or something in-between. A friend of mine, Susan Squires, taught me this.
The cortex of your brain is hardwired to respond to questions. Its job is to accumulate data to answer any questions you ask, just like it’s been doing for 50,000 years. What you do is ask yourself a question about your problem before you fall asleep. It needs to be a small question, and specific. How do I fix this mess?, would not be a good question. A better one would be: What would be a good bit of backstory to show why my character is overreacting? See? Small questions. Your brain will help you. It can’t help itself, if you ask it the right questions. It sounds crazy, but try it for two weeks – I swear by it!
The Bottom Line:
I don’t think we have much choice whether we’re pantsing, or plotting or any variation thereof. All we can do is make the most of the advantages we’re given, and negate the negatives as much as is possible.
And we pantsers just hope whatever it is that’s feeding us this stuff doesn’t stop!