Hello. My name is Kate, and I am a pantser. I’m also – or so I’ve been told – ridiculously talented, in the sense that I get rather a lot of things ‘free’.
This is not the advantage it seems, so please put down those knives and let the grudges lie for a while. Sarah’s said before she rather pities the industry Dahlings because they’ve been told how wonderful they are and been isolated from any real critique or comparison, so they usually end up believing what they’re told. That means when things don’t work for them, they have no idea how to fix it.
The talented have much the same issue: if you get it free, you understand it at a level where it’s not in your conscious awareness. The issue here is that it may never have entered your conscious mind in the first place.
This is not at all unusual. Think of the last time you drove anywhere with more than your vehicle on the road. You know which of the other drivers aren’t at their best and could be a risk. You make multiple snap judgements every second based on the movement of the other cars around you, the way your car moves, and everything else you’re aware of. As often as not, not one of these hits your conscious mind. That is usually worrying about something totally different. Or carrying on a conversation with the other people in the car. Or looking forward to getting home.
If someone asked you, you’d say you didn’t do anything special during the drive, and you didn’t. But if something odd happens, and you’re thrown back into concentrating on driving, it gets much harder until you relax again and your subconscious routines take over.
Now, the learning to aim the car and use the pedals smoothly took practice, but the rest? You’ve been doing that all your life, as a pedestrian, as a passenger, so shifting context to do it as a driver is easy (have you ever noticed how rarely people bump into each other even in really crowded areas?) But what is it you’re actually doing?
You’re interpreting the movement of each of the sometimes more than a dozen cars in your field of vision as though they were an extension of the body of the driver, and running that through your personal body language interpreter, with input from and reference to your standard of “good enough” driving. Based on the results you’re making small adjustments to the pressure of your foot on the gas pedal, whether you need to use the brakes, how much distance between you and the vehicle in front, how fast you’re going and the exact direction you’re going in. Try doing that through your conscious mind in less than one second.
Moving back to writing, much the same thing happens when you don’t have to think about something – if you can sit down and have publishable or near-publishable first draft emerge, most of the grunt work is happening at the subconscious level. More than that, you may not know how to make it work, consciously. I certainly don’t.
To wit: the most recent chapter of my current WIP is horribly infodumpus with faceless heads expounding in an empty room. Why? There was a crapload of information that needed to happen, the “right” version of the chapter didn’t want to happen, so what emerged was very bland and dull. I didn’t see what I needed to do to fix it until Sarah’s post yesterday – because I usually get this stuff free. My characters pace, or they fiddle with stuff, or they’re doing something else while they’re talking. They’re not just sitting somewhere earnestly discussing. Maybe the fact that one of the characters is actually a ghost had something to do with it. I don’t know. But because I usually get it free, I had trouble seeing how I’d screwed up and what I needed to do to fix it.
This is why beta readers matter. You do have beta readers, right?
It’s also why technique books written for and by plotters are good. Sometimes if you – like I do far more often than I like to admit – get yourself tangled up in a corner somewhere, consciously using the techniques the way (I suppose) a plotter would can get you out of the mess. Or if things flat out aren’t working, you can brute force them by “being a plotter” for a while. Trust me, after you’ve been through and cleaned up your work, and had someone you trust help you edit it, you won’t know which bits were done which way any more than your readers will. Like with anything else, you use the tool that’s best for the job at hand (which is also why the toolbox needs more than a rusty old hammer in it).
Of course, with the things you get free, you actually have to work harder to do them well by numbers as it were. This is because when it’s working for you, you’re doing the writer-equivalent of driving on autopilot with your subconscious running the show. When you’re doing it the plotter way, all of that processing has to be done by your conscious mind, which is slower and tends to have trouble keeping track of a dozen or more threads that need to be juggled just so.
So envy not the pantser for being able to pull fully formed plots with interesting characters and descriptions from her nether regions. When that ability fails her, she has more trouble than you’d think.