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The Extreme Pantser’s Guide: One – You Are Not Insane

by Kate Paulk

Today I’m starting a blog series of indeterminate length: this one about writing techniques and tips from the perspective on an extreme pantser. It will get weird: life does, when you write by the seat of your pants and assorted other parts of your anatomy (some of them without physical existence).  So, without further preambling, enjoy part 1 of the extreme pantser’s guide.

The fiction writing world splits between plotters and pantsers – that is, those who plan it out before they start, and those who write by the seat of their pants as it were. Since just about every piece of advice on plotting, character building and the like assumes it’s talking to a plotter, that leaves the pantsers wondering what’s wrong with them when they simply can’t do this.

Worse, when a pantser tries to work with the detailed outlines and so forth, the result is ‘dead’ – there’s no life there.

Of course, there’s a pretty broad spectrum from the detailed spreadsheet and hundreds of pages of notes of the extreme plotter to the neat idea of the extreme pantser, and everything in between. The thing is, as an extreme pantser myself, I get almost no value out of the usual advice. The most it does is help me to fix things on occasions when I’ve written myself into a corner – and when that happens what I’m actually doing is reverse engineering the plot/characters/etc to work out what I missed and where I went wrong.

So, if that’s the way you work, take comfort. You aren’t alone. If it’s not, feel free to read and snicker at the apparently needless suffering we extreme pantsers endure.

Here’s the important bit: if you write well enough, no-one will know how you did it, and no-one will care.

Well, agents and editors do if you have to deal with proposal hell, since you’ve got to be someone like Terry Pratchett or Stephen King to be able to write what hits you and know your publisher will take it and push it (and even then it’s not a guarantee). Unfortunately, “I’m an extreme pantser. Can’t I just tell you my great idea?” doesn’t go terribly well in the mainstream publishing world.

This is why the opening of online publishing and the indie presses is such a wonderful thing for extreme pantsers. We can write it and publish it, and not have to try to get it past gatekeepers who don’t understand that not everyone can turn in a nice summary of their book before they’ve written it. Heck, I have trouble putting together a nice summary of it after I’ve written it – because I’m not necessarily aware of what the book is about.

Anyone who’s looking for the snuggly hug-me coats can stop right now: what a book is about is not the same as the plot. Anyone who doubts that should read Thud!, Unseen Academicals, and Snuff and then reflect on the plot and what those books are about. Only then can you come and bitch at me for not knowing what my own books are about.

This, ladies, gentlemen, and beings of indeterminate gender or species, is the difference between plotting and pantsing. The plotter is working with the conscious mind. The pantser is being worked by the subconscious – which is usually smarter and faster than the conscious, but doesn’t make nearly as much sense until you’ve got enough of the pieces in place to see the larger picture. Sometimes it takes longer than that, if your subconscious does the Pratchett trick of layering multiple levels of story and “about” in there.

The other big drawback to having your subconscious run the show is that it doesn’t pay attention to things like deadlines, real life, the need to have an income, or pretty much anything else mundane. It meanders on doing its own thing, then pipes up and tells you “Write this. Now” and doesn’t give you any peace until you do it.

Now, it’s not magic. It’s not anything exotic, really. What it is, is the part of you that dreams taking in all sorts of things from everything you experience, making notes somewhere inaccessible to the rest of you, and presenting you with the results. It’s not that different from looking at a situation and feeling like there’s something badly wrong: your subconscious has taken in all the cues and made the call to get out.

We do most things through this method – all those thousands of snap judgments you make when you’re driving, whether you stay well back from that vehicle or start braking shortly before the traffic blockage ahead registers consciously, they’re all handled at a subconscious level once you’ve done enough driving to be able to make the snap judgments. I don’t know what the actual numbers are, but a large part of the average person’s day isn’t lived in the conscious mind.

It’s not surprising that writing would happen that way too.

So, you, the extreme pantser, are not crazy. At least, not because you’re an extreme pantser. I’m not making guarantees about any other kind of crazy.

 

 

20 Comments
  1. Thank you

    November 3, 2011
    • Kate Paulk #

      You’re welcome

      November 3, 2011
  2. “…other parts of your anatomy (some of them without physical exiatence)…”

    Can’t wait for the “Writing by the seat of your tentacles” blog.

    I’ve tried, but the chair just isn’t right for tentacles. Maybe a bar stool is what is needed, but at the desk or at the bar, eh?

    November 3, 2011
    • Kate Paulk #

      No, no, you’re doing it wrong…. You sit on something designed for the purpose, and use the tentacles to reach for stuff you’re wanting so you don’t have to stop typing to get it. Sitting on tentacles is just counterproductive.

      November 3, 2011
      • And Kate, writing from a very male perspective, right now, with Lucius Keeva, let me tell you, I UNDERSTAND the thing of body parts that don’t even have physical existence. I feel like Starr in Glory Road, when she was getting impressions. It’s a constant fight to keep the bloody character from taking over. Somehow I don’t think he’d fit my lifestyle. Our society so frowns upon “I find bad people, and I kill them.” Thinking with the er… socks I don’t even have is disturbing.

        November 4, 2011
      • Kate Paulk #

        Sarah,

        Trust me, I KNOW. After channeling Vlad, I know… Also about the body parts with no physical existence. The only explanation I can offer is that my subconscious has a much better imagination than I do. Anything else heads way too far into hug-me-coat territory

        November 4, 2011
  3. Ric Locke #

    Eh. Then there are the few of us whose subconscious has the attention span of a kitten on meth. I am not crazy. My subconscious is loony as a Canadian prarie.

    November 3, 2011
    • Um… Mine is too, and yet I let it write my subplots. You know what they say of the sane person who trusts crazy people. My grandmother had an expression “I wouldn’t go with him to Heaven. He’s crazy enough to push me down from it.” This… just might apply.

      November 4, 2011
      • Kate Paulk #

        Sarah,

        I don’t have to worry about that. I’m insane, so it doesn’t MATTER that my subconscious is also nuttier than a peanut plantation. Judging by what ends up on the page, either the combination works really well, or those are some bloody good medications. Or both.

        November 4, 2011
    • Kate Paulk #

      Ric,

      Considering that mine managed to produce the Knights in Tarnished Armor, ConVent, and Impaler, I’m inclined to suspect that mine is out there with yours. Probably holidaying in the Bahamas somewhere terrorizing the locals.

      November 4, 2011
  4. I’m beginning to wonder if writers aren’t odd just because they’re on better speaking terms with their subconscious than the normal run of humans.

    November 4, 2011
    • Kate Paulk #

      Pam,
      This is a possibility. Subconsciouses are notorious for resisting any kind of regular contact. They like to play greasy eminence.

      November 5, 2011
      • I think that plural is wrong!

        November 5, 2011
      • Subconsciousi ? Or just Subconsci ?

        Maybe we should just stick to Kate’s spelling, it hurts less.

        Or perhaps it depends on how many Characters are talking to you, verses multiple people each with a single subconscious. 😉

        November 5, 2011
      • Kate Paulk #

        Regardless of how it should be spelled, you both knew what I was talking about so it doesn’t matter. If there even is a legitimate plural for the word. (Illegitimate ones, absolutely).

        November 6, 2011
  5. Stephen Simmons #

    Yup, that’s me. Guilty on nearly all counts. The best flash-piece I ever wrote appeared in my mind as a fait accompli, and took under an hour to produce in submittable form. And every last drop of the “about” in “Faeries” showed up after I was more than half-done with the story I *thought* I was writing …

    The question is, how do I make it work on the things I need next? I keep getting more and more entries in the “ideas” folder, and not a lot of finished projects.

    November 6, 2011
    • Kate Paulk #

      Stephen,

      I’ll be talking more on this as the blog series progresses – ways to trick your subconscious into doing what you want it to.

      November 6, 2011
  6. This is one of the reasons I decided to go Indie. A published writer told me I could write the stories on spec if I really couldn’t outline, and I could only imagine what a horror story that would be. I’d end up with a lot of stories I couldn’t do anything with because the publisher didn’t like it and the contract didn’t permit me to do something else with it.

    March 17, 2012
    • YES. There was the year I did seventeen proposals and sold half of them. It’s literally draining, to leave those children there to die. I’m so glad I have other options now!

      March 17, 2012

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