Doctor Strange Writer, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Pantsing*
*Pantsing is short hand for “flying by the seat of the pants” as you write. I.e. the opposite of plotting in advance.
Last week I got a mayday from a friend who is a new writer. You see, she had outlined her book, and it died in the outlining. She now knows what is happening, and doesn’t want to write it anymore.
I killed at least three books that way when I was a newby, so I was all sympathy. (Shuddup. I can too be all sympathy.)
We gave her some strategies for resurrecting a book you’ve killed that way, including but not limited to “go sideways”; “do something you haven’t plotted”; “introduce a new villain.”
She was very confused though because, as she put it “I’m an organized person. I wanted to outline it all up front.”
And I realized that like her and for the longest time, I had this idea that plotters are more organized/adult/professional than those writers who fly by the seat of the pants. I know a lot of my colleagues have the same idea, including those who told me I really needed to become a plotter when I already was (actually I was an extreme plotter) and those who say it’s the only way to write fast.
Like many things about writing, it’s a myth. The problem is that, like other myths, it can hurt you, if you’re not the sort of writer who SHOULD be plotting in advance.
If you’re someone who gets your characters for free: i.e. they just show up in your head uninvited; or for whom stories start with this situation that just shows up in your head and demands to be written, or even someone who gets snatches of scenes from a story and tries to figure out where they fit – more importantly, if you’re someone who might not realize what your story “means” or is trying to say till you finish it, you might be a natural pantser.
I have all these symptoms, notwithstanding which, because I thought that I HAD to to be a grown up writer, I spent most of my writing life, until very recent years, writing from strict plot.
Then a few years ago I “broke.” Ie I burned out. I don’t know if it was as a result of that that my subconscious finally got the upper hand and got to control things. All I know is that when you’re blocked so tight that you can’t even write a note to your family, you’ll take writing in any form it comes. And if the novels and stories insist on not letting you see ahead more than a paragraph or a chapter, but the stuff still keeps pouring out, then you just write it. And then you shock yourself by finding out your pantser stuff is better and more tight than your carefully plotted stuff.
I suspect, btw, Agatha Christie underwent a similar process, simply because in her bio she talks about plotting whole books carefully before writing, but later on in life she said her writing was like driving a car down a winding road at night, never able to see more than what was shown in the headlights.
Having done it both ways now, I will talk to you about he advantages and disadvantages of giving up on plot and flying by the seat of the pants.
The only disadvantage I can think of is that you might have to discard a lot of the story/writing when you get to the end and are editing for coherency and flow. Mind you, I did that a lot as a newby, even when I was plotting tightly. (One of the skills you learn as a writer is what to put in and what to leave out.) And right now I don’t do that a lot (a paragraph here and there) even when the book is totally pansted.
I suppose there might be another disadvantage to not outlining if you’re a relatively new published or unpublished writer and going traditional publishing. Publishers LIKE outlines. They want you to tell them exactly what you’re going to deliver so they know what in heck to put on the schedule. This of course becomes less important if you are more published and it completely goes out the window if you’re either going indie, or if your stuff is so uniformly publishable that you can just write on spec, then send it in.
But for me at least the disadvantages of plotting greatly outweigh those of pantsing disadvantages. So, here is – what is wrong with outlining:
1- I find, particularly if you’re new to the game, that if you’re outlining – that is, trying to lay down the whole plot before you know these characters very intimately – that you tend to reach for the trite plot turn or the clichéd denouement. You feel under pressure to come up with something, and of course you’re not very immersed in the world yet. It’s natural.
2- It’s very hard to include subplots in the outlining, so that it will tend to strip these away in either importance or in actual fact of existence.
3- You’re more likely to make your characters into little puppets with no personalities of their own if you try to stick too tightly to the plot.
4- You remove yourself from the experience the reader will have reading the book. In the worst case, like my friend, you’ll find that your subconscious thinks you’ve already written the book. In the milder case, it just makes you bored. You know what is going to happen and writing becomes “just work.” It is impossible for some of that not to bleed through to the page, unless you have WAY more discipline than I do.
5- It’s easy for you to convince yourself that you have a tight plot, because “look, tons of things happens.” The problem is that many times what happens has no relevance to the central problem/emotional impact, which is, after all, what a book is about. (No, really, trust me.)
But Sarah, you say, isn’t plotting more professional/cleaner/more grownup?
I don’t know about that. I finally gave myself permission to pantse when I heard Terry Pratchett talk about how, until the climax scene in Tiffany Aching, he had no clue how (or if) she should prevail.
If Terry Pratchett is a pantser, how much more professional would I want to be?
But Sarah, you say, wouldn’t pantsying take more time?
Well, it doesn’t to me, and yesterday I came across an interview with Rex Stout in an old magazine. Rex Stout, famously, wrote his books in about a week (and usually in Winter. Is John Ringo his reincarnation? Curious minds want to know – runs.) He was also an extreme pantser. The interview included such gems as “until the character said that, I didn’t know Nero Wolfe had a son” and his explaining that the fun of writing was to discover the book the same way the reader would. And he wrote a novel in a week, and required almost no editing.
Now, understand me, I’m not saying this means you shouldn’t work at your plotting or learn your writing. Even the most gifted among us paint with a very limited palet and will start to sound boring if we don’t learn the craft enough to know how to diversify.
Just because you’re pulling from the subconscious, doesn’t mean your subconscious doesn’t have to be trained. Read the good how to books (and the bad ones, till they go against the wall when they tell you anyone who writes genre is sub-normal.) Read books in the genre you’re trying to write in. In your off time diagram the novels that you really enjoy.
All of this goes into the subconscious, as well as the conscious, and if you do that, you’ll find that your plotting will improve, even if you are a pure pantser.
This doesn’t mean you should absolutely never plot. I have friends who are plotters and excellent writers, and heck, I might yet come across a novel that demands I plot it tightly in advance.
What I mean is: Learn your craft. And then trust yourself.