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The Shadow Workshop [4]: Confessions of a reformed pantser

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“Are you a plotter or a pantser?”

I was asked this while sitting at the Clarion West booth at Emerald City Comicon. I first saw this dichotomy outlined in a post on the NaNoWriMo blog. (NaNoWriMo = National Novel Writing Month, where the challenge is to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November.

“Plotter” or “planner” is fairly obvious — somebody who plans out a novel before starting to write it.

“Pantser” refers to “seat-of-pants” meaning, you just start writing and see what happens. It’s kind of a funny way to describe oneself, really. “Pantser” isn’t even a word. (Although it does have “pants” in it, which makes my inner 10-year-old giggle.)

By inclination, I’m a pantser. Soooo much a pantser. What I live for is that moment when the spark hits the tinder and the story goes FOOM! and even though I’m a fast typist, I’m still not fast enough to capture the words as they zing around in my head.

I like the writing part of writing — the act of putting words on the page, capturing dialog and description and action and weird world-building details. I like stumbling across the perfect phrase and the unexpected character insight. I like to be surprised. I like to feel like I’m taking dictation from the universe.

I also like the paragraph-level revising part of writing — the act of striking and smoothing and tweaking and rearranging and reading sentences out loud so I can taste them and see if they need more black pepper.I like writing to be visceral. I want it to feel like slam-dancing at a punk rock concert or starring in a Mad Max movie.

PEDAL TO THE METAL, BABY, BLAST THAT FLAMING GUITAR AND LETS GOOOOOO!!!!!

So, you know, writing as a rush, an ecstatic experience. That’s the fun part. And who wouldn’t want life to always be the fun part?

There are probably writers who pants everything for their whole careers and never have to change because it always works for them. (I get the impression Stephen King is a bit of a pantser) But for me, it had turned into a trap. I’ve talked before about my sophomore slump — after successfully pantsing one novel, all my follow-up attempts seemed to die around the 40,000 word mark.

I even intuited that the problem might be one of planning. I tried to write a few novel outlines, based on examples I had seen online. These examples were very dry and formal — this chapter, this happens, next chapter, this happens. It wasn’t fun to write the outlines. It wasn’t fun to try writing books based on these outlines. And they still died, a particularly ignoble death, right around 40,000 words.

Plotting was a bust, so I went back to pantsing.

During Clarion West, I was writing short stories. It seemed absurd to try plotting something that’s only 3500 – 5000 words, so I did it once, and when that story wasn’t better or easier to write than the others, I didn’t try it again.

!!!PANTS FOREVER!!!!

After the workshop I wrote a second novel (pantsed of course) which I was just about to think about revising and sending around, when I started working on this idea I had about werewolves. It started as a kind of unwieldy short story that I didn’t want to stop writing. I kept on writing (pantsing all the way) until I had a first draft of a whole novel. It took about a year, more or less as expected.

But it was terrible.

Okay, maybe not terrible-terrible. But… boring. Trust me, when I find my own words boring, everyone else will too. I’m the most sympathetic audience there could ever be for my own writing. (At first, anyway. After a while I start to hate everything I’ve ever done, but that’s just Writer Angst.)

So I thought about it and made some notes and read a few “how to write” books and figured out where I went wrong (so I thought) and wrote another draft. Still mostly pantsed, but the first draft was my roadmap this time, and it only took about two months to write a draft that wasn’t quite so boring. So that version became my “shape it up and try to sell it” text, and that went on for a few months, including some very helpful critique sessions and first readers, and all of us agreed on one flaw: it started a bit slow. And that’s no good when you’re trying to sell a first novel, is it?

That’s when I enlisted the services of Anne Mini, as a professional fresh set of eyes to help me with the submission process. We had a very nice brainstorming session, and it was her idea to begin with a flashback to the character as a teenager. So I wrote that. We both thought it was a big improvement. But then I couldn’t seem to bridge the gap between the flashback and the present day, and she suggested setting the whole thing when the protagonist is a teenager and making it YA.

Nooooooo, I wailed to myself. I can’t rewrite it agaaaaaaaiiiiiiinnnnnn…..

(Engine in brain turns over, sputters to life.)

But if I did, it would look like…

So I wrote an outline.

Actually, I wrote a synopsis. A synopsis is this thing — it’s kind of like a narrative abstract of a novel — anyway, you’re supposed to write one when you’re trying to sell a novel, so I had a lot of practice trying to write them, even though I felt like I was always wretchedly bad at it. But those were synposis for books I had already written. This one — where I hadn’t written the book yet, but had a wealth of material to draw on — just seemed to fall into place.

When I wrote a new version of the novel according to the synopsis, that went pretty well too. There were things that weren’t in the synopsis, and things that diverged from the synopsis. But overall, having the synopsis helped a lot. It was like trying to navigate a strange city, and for the first time I had a map.

So what was the difference between my synopsis and the outlines I tried earlier? The synopsis was a narrative in its own right. It focused on the dominant conflicts and story turns — this happens, but then this complicates things, so this other thing happens, and that makes it worse, so the protagonist does this. None of that specifies where the chapter breaks occur. It doesn’t note number or length of scenes, or insist that the scenes happen in a particular order. It implies, but doesn’t spell out, secondary conflicts.

When I tried to write outlines previously, it was more like following a series of Mapquest instructions, without actually having a map. Turn left here, turn right here. And that can work, probably, if the instructions are accurate and you don’t make any wrong turns and your way is never blocked by construction and you don’t have the world’s worst sense of direction. But I need more than a set of instructions. I need to know where I am.

So I had discovered that just heading in a particular direction with no idea what the terrain looked like was fun, but I often got lost and didn’t know how to find my way back. Outlining a series of rigid directions wasn’t fun, and I still got lost. A narrative outline helped keep me oriented in space, so that I didn’t waste so much effort tromping through the blackberry vines just to get to a brick wall.

A narrative synopsis can take a while to write — and it can feel like you’re not being very productive when you spend weeks and weeks working on something that needs to be, at most, about 3,000 words. And it won’t fix every problem. I finished a draft of the Waking Up Naked in Strange Places sequel (still looking for the right catchy name) based on a narrative synopsis, but I still didn’t like it very much, so now I’m writing a new synopsis before tackling version 2 of the book itself.

I don’t regret the time I spent pantsing, the hundreds of thousands of words spilled, because it was practice. And I still think I’m often going to pants first drafts of novels, on the theory that you have to explore the territory before you can map it. But I’m never going to try to write a final version without a synopsis again. And that’s why I describe myself as a reformed pantser.

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