Losing what you get free

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.


  1. Where’s that Triple Like button? Every bit of this applies to me, and it consolidates a lot of thoughts I’ve had in recent months. When I’m on a roll, the words just come out as good as I’m likely to get them, 5,000 at a pop. A clean-up draft, and I’m done. When I’m not on a roll… Ugh.

    I would love to always be on a roll; but I would like to just keep a steady pace, and avoid Ugh.

    1. Oh, yes. That’s where the techniques help – but for pantsers that can be a whole lot more difficult than for plotters.

  2. Amen. There’s nothing like “write, write, write, SPLAT, what hit me?” to send me scrambling for scratch paper and a pen to start an outline. Usually followed by “well, duhr, of course that doesn’t work” and the sound of palm hitting forehead.

  3. When i write those horrible infodump chapters, I just figure it’s my subconscious having too much fun with the worldbuilding. I save that part to a special file (generally named “working title trash”) so it’s handy to refer to later. And, yes, get a lot more formal until the subconscious gets back to the regular job.

    But if I ever lose the ability to pull characters out of thin air, I’ll just give up and go back to being a reader.

    1. Heh. That’s a viable technique. Although I have to admit I don’t “pull” characters out of thin air. Characters happen to me. Usually accompanied by a clue-by-four of Story.

      1. My Characters just move in, and wait for me to find a problem for them to have. A few bring story problems with them, which I really appreciate, but the majority just run around kicking puppies and not telling what sort of job they’ve just been hired for.

        1. I have a series of stories about living and working on the Moon which works a little like that. I meet a character and learn his job, and then I have to think what that job would be like on the Moon and how it might lead to a crisis on which to hang a story. I know they have stories, I just have to learn enough about their jobs to find the stories.

  4. If you are willing to take blog topic requests, I’d like to know how you gathered helpful beta readers. What did you tell them so that they told you helpful things rather than suggesting adding commas in scenes you are trying to decide whether or not to throw out?

    1. I can certainly do a post on that topic – although the short version is that there’s a lot of trial and error in finding good beta readers.

      Welcome to the asylum… er… club.

  5. An interesting thought, Kate. I need to consider some aspects of what you’re discussing here.

    Mostly I’d like to know how to write while exhausted. I’ve been doing an unpaid editorial internship for a sports Web site, which, while valuable in that it’s current and verifiable experience, has also made it more difficult for me to keep up my blog — much less write any fiction whatsoever.

    What little I’ve written is more along the lines of prose notes — “Bruno’s going to do this. Sarah will do that. Jelena will say a bunch of stuff here.” That sort of thing — and while it’s better than nothing in that I have some idea when I go back to it what I’m about, the latter part of what’s needed, the true life of it, just isn’t there yet.

    What I probably need to do is just rest. When I do rest enough, all of this comes into focus.

    But life has not allowed. (I know you know the drill.)

    So I’ll work with what I have, as we all do, and hope for the best. (And if prose notes are all I can do, at least I’m still writing those.)

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