When You’re Lost In The Depths Of The Pants
First, blame Sarah. Her post yesterday started this, particularly the commenters who identified themselves as pantsers (or in some cases, Panzers, which are clearly Germanic pantsers with really big guns. I’m presuming the DD caliber rack-mounted weapons I possess count, and I’m pretty sure there’s Germanic somewhere in the family tree).
Of course, when you’re an extreme pantser like me, you do run the risk of getting lost somewhere deep in the pants, possibly with a bad case of plot kudzu making it impossible to see where you’re going. Some of Sarah’s commenters wondered what to do when they get lost or they run out of spoons and simply can’t make things work the usual way if they’re extreme pantsers who really can’t work from an outline.
I’m definitely one of these, but maybe not the best person to be throwing suggestions out here, given that I’m coming off several years of dry spell (on the plus side, a long dry spell kills off that pants-kudzu like nothing else), but I can give a few suggestions, ranging from minimal to extreme.
I’ll start with the least intrusive ones (and yes, I did try all of these. They all failed).
- Try to push through anyway. Even if your pantser intuition has deserted you and you have no idea where the thing is supposed to go now, try some formless middle stuff where things happen without any real definition (you know, kind of like the middle ¾ of the last Harry Potter book).
- If that doesn’t work, try some plot diagramming. If necessary, start at the beginning of the book and try to keep going after you ran into the kudzu by working out what should happen. It might unstick you, it might not.
- Take a short break to write something else – but make sure you give yourself permission to suck first. Fanfic can be helpful with this, because it’s a lot easier to tell yourself that it doesn’t matter, because it’s only fanfic. Sometimes the change of scenery/pace can be enough to give you a fresh perspective when you get back to the stuck piece.
- Repeat steps 1 through 3 a few times until you get desperate. During this stage, it helps to remind yourself that you personally do not suck even if your writing seems to have transmogrified into a supermassive black hole. Personally, I don’t recommend going this far. Even though I did.
- Throw it away and start again. This is drastic pants-surgery, but it can work, especially if you’re not writing something under a contract. If you have a contract and need to turn in the book at a specific time, this might be when you start locking yourself in the bathroom or book a library study room (thanks for the suggestion, Brad!) or somewhere else you can guarantee you won’t be disturbed with snacks, your laptop, and no Internet. If nothing else, Internet withdrawal might push you to the appropriate level of desperation. (Leave notes for yourself to do the research you need later).
- Write another book. This option is only to be considered if you aren’t contracted and you have the freedom to do it. When things are this desperate, and the pants-kudzu is that overgrown, it can be more important that you recapture the feeling of a story flowing than finishing the blocked piece. The reason this one can work is the psychological one: if you’re stuck badly enough for long enough it starts to eat at your confidence in all the ways Sarah described. Starting – and finishing – something else that isn’t that book can give you confidence to bull your way through that book later.
As an extreme pantser, my experience is that something like 50% of the process is trusting your subconscious. Another 50% is having the confidence to let your subconscious steer. Then there’s 50% figuring out how to turn your conscious brain off, and 50% shaping what emerges so it doesn’t read like that weird dream you had where the talking carrot was utterly terrifying but nobody else in the universe can tell.
You could also do it the hard way: learn the techniques well enough that you can do what Sarah calls painting by numbers and plot it out in an outline then write to the outline.
Personally, I find that more difficult than any other method I’ve tried.