Tag Archives: Extreme Pantser’s Guide

Return to the Ultimate Pantser’s Guide: Heroes and Villains and Oops! Oh my!

It’s hard to believe another week has gone by. I swear someone is stealing my time. Of course, it helps (not) that my daily routine is currently something like “Go to work. Come home. Find the latest round of cat puke and clean it up. Fix dinner. Go to bed.”

On the somewhat plus side I seem to be regaining at least some of my get up and go (at least, it doesn’t seem to have permanently got up and went) and actually spent a little time on the book of faces yesterday.

I may even get back to blogging on my own site again. I need to – I have a presentation and video from the test conference I spoke at that needs to go up and some other odds and sods I need to sort out there.

At any rate, I’m not in total hibernation any more.

So with that said, I hereby present to you the latest reinstalment of the Extreme Pantser’s Guide (also known as the Pantser Body of Knowledge and the Ultimate Pantser’s guide depending on just what my fingers decide to type). Enjoy.

The Pantser Body of Knowledge: Heroes and Villains and Oops! Oh My!

The time has come to take a look at the art and craft of characterization. This probably seems weird, since characterization is one of the things pantsers tend to get “free” – but getting it and writing it well aren’t the same thing. It’s worth reading up about what makes a good character and learning the skills of portraying a good character without the – often dubious – benefit of having this person show up inside your head and tell you stuff. Aside from anything else, your characters are the ultimate in unreliable narrator.

They’re artifacts of your subconscious, no matter how real they feel to you, and you don’t always know enough about their world and environment to know when they’ve got something wrong. This is where that bane of pantsers (yes, pantsers have rather a lot of banes. We collect them, I think) comes from, namely the character who thinks/acts like someone from your current era and culture despite being from something completely different.

Now, before people start jumping all over me, yes it is possible to do this. When you do, it had better be a deliberate way to show up some absurdity of the current era/culture and not because you think that’s how everyone thinks and acts. Trust me, it’s not. The US is currently more or less based on individual and guilt – meaning that it’s wrong whether anyone sees you or not, and that responsibility as well as glory rests on the individual’s actions. There’s two spectrums there – every society lies somewhere between the extremes of group-based versus individual-based, and shame/face versus guilt. Most of them fall somewhere in the middle, recognizing some individual rights/responsibilities, and operating on a mix of guilt and shame. More to the point, the more ‘natural’ (as in, this is mostly how humanity has been throughout history) mode leans heavily towards group-based and shame/face. This isn’t meant to be a critique or condemnation – it’s more to point out that the modern US (and the rest of the Anglosphere) is something of an anomaly, historically, so there’s a pretty good chance that anything you write is going to have at least one group and face oriented character. And that person will think and act very differently than you do.

Right. So culture shapes thought. So does climate (ask any Aussie, including this one). So does geography. All of that goes towards who and what your main character is. If he’s never been outside space stations and space ships before, he’s likely to have a bad case of agoraphobia the first time he walks on a planetary surface. Someone from a desert could regard water with near-religious awe.

Now comes the fun part – when pantsers write, we tend to be very strongly inside our character’s point of view. When readers read, we tend to start from the assumption that this person is like us. If drawing the character isn’t done well, the result can be jarring to say the least. A really bad effort can see the book take a flying lesson – which isn’t a good idea if you’re reading on an ereader.

As usual, go to the resources that are there to help plotters build realistic characters, and read them for the information about presenting the character information to readers. The goal is to Heinlein it in, the same way you Heinlein setting. The second big resource is authors who are experts at this – Terry Pratchett (who, let’s face it, is an expert at just about everything), Sarah Hoyt, Dave Freer, Mercedes Lackey (to some extent – she certainly has that rare gift of making a whiny, unlikeable character sympathetic – it’s worth reading the Vanyel books just for that technique). I’m sure there are others – this is just a list that comes to mind right now (and since I’m perpetually semi-brain-dead and usually stealing time from something else when I write, research isn’t an option).

The goal you aim for is to have the character’s actions and responses drop information about their life and basic assumptions without an “As you know, Bob”. The character who reaches for a weapon when stressed or startled – and which weapon – tells you a lot about the kind of person they are and some about their technology and social status. Basically, the first reaction of someone who does a lot of fighting, either as a professional soldier or something less formal, is going to be to go for their weapon, and they’ll feel naked without it. The same kind of reaction applies to someone who’s paranoid, although they’ll usually be wanting to go for a concealed weapon.

One plotter way to figure out this kind of thing is to watch people. It’s easy to do: sit somewhere busy and just observe. Take note of the little unconscious gestures – these are the tells that will give away an emotional state someone doesn’t want to admit to. Some of them are universals, like blushing, clenched fists, flexing the fingers, clutching something and the like. Others are specific to the culture: Western Anglo-Saxon-based cultures view looking someone in the eye as an indicator of both trustworthyness and respect, where many Asian cultures consider it respectful to avoid a direct gaze. A lot of hand gestures are culture specific , too – although I’m not aware of anywhere that treats a nod as “no” and a headshake as “yes”. The US (and most of the West, plus by now most of everywhere else) regards the upraised middle finger as a defiant and crude way to tell someone to “go forth and multiply” as it were. Raising the index and middle fingers is seen in the US as a “Victory” sign. But in Australia, New Zealand, and the UK (and probably elsewhere), it’s only “V for victory” if the back of your hand faces you. The other way around, particularly if you move from horizontal to vertical, has more or less the same meaning as the middle finger. Then you’ve got the individual-level gestures. This person chews her hair when she’s nervous. That one jigs one leg. Someone else never stands still. These little things can be used for the equivalent of “stage business” to break up the he-said-she-said rhythm of dialog and show more about your characters.

And of course, the more you, the pantser, practice these techniques, the more you’ll find yourself doing them automatically. You’ll go to revise something and clean up your dialog and it will all be there, with the kind of revealing details that leave you wondering if the blasted thing started to write itself when you weren’t looking (It didn’t. Trust me on this. It’s just that pantsers get into a kind of writing trance where the words just happen, and they don’t necessarily remember writing them all. It’s the same reason you don’t always remember doing some routine task, even though you actually did do it. Your subconscious was driving.)

So, with all of this in mind, your hero needs to be a bit larger-than-life (just because we all know life as it is, and most of us prefer life-as-is to be kind of dull), more or less aimed in the correct direction, but most importantly, sympathetic. Readers will accept and even empathize with someone they’d normally smack for being a total loser if it’s done right, but let your hero kick a puppy and you’ve lost them forever. This is actually an issue in a number of really old books: most modern Western readers have grown up in a culture that regards it as a Very Bad Thing to harm the helpless, and human nature is such that cute and helpless gets a stronger reaction than ugly and helpless. Yes, you probably could justify your hero beating grandma, if she’s nasty enough. You’d never get past kicking a puppy or a kitten. Heck, you’d probably lose them there even if you were going for humor.

One thing I’ve noticed is that any character, no matter who or what they are, who goes out of their way to protect the helpless will be liked. I can — and have — written a character who is verging on psychopathic but who sticks to an absolute refusal to harm the innocent. People like reading about him (no, this isn’t published, yet).

On the flip side, it’s kind of passé to have your villain kick the cat to show how evil he is. Villainy in stories can be anything from standing in opposition to whatever your hero needs to absolute evil (which I have yet to see portrayed effectively, but that’s a different issue). If your villain has any interaction in the story – it’s possible to write one who doesn’t and is seen solely through the actions of underlings – then he, she, or it, needs to have similar kinds of characterization. Since many authors don’t like spending time inside the minds of their villains, that means external cues. Body language is always a good one: someone who is confident of their abilities will stand straight and often use a dominant pose. Gestures will be strong, and you won’t see a nervous twitch anywhere.

Another characterization tool is the choice of words. Someone who’s nervous will talk around a topic rather than getting to the point. Someone who’s in charge and – for illustration purposes – evil will give orders and expect them to be obeyed, instantly. After all, if you kill your underlings in horribly inventive ways because they don’t obey quickly enough, you would expect them to be in a hurry to do what you tell them. Tone can be conveyed through pure dialog, as well.

As for oopses – you start writing thinking Freddy is your hero, but he’s actually the villain of the piece, or vice versa – that’s what revision is for. If you find out you got it wrong and it switches on you partway through, keep writing and use a nice, easy to find way to flag where you have to change things around. I use [this] to flag out anything I need to correct, look up, or otherwise check on once I’ve finished the story. The square brackets don’t get used anywhere else in my writing, they don’t get lost or changed if I switch word processor, computer, or operating system (yes, I routinely do all three), so I can do a search for “[” and find everything I’ve marked along the way, and fix it all.

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Return to the Extreme Pantser’s Guide: In the Middle of the Pants

First off, I hope everyone who celebrates Thanksgiving had a wonderful one. I certainly did, and completely forgot to post anything as a result. Sorry…

Moving on. I’m continuing with the Pantser’s Guide posts, not least because I’m slowly crawling out of the hole made by the combination of that time of life and general work and other stress. I’m improving. Not quite back to my normal snark-tastic self yet, but getting there.

So without further ado, some advice on what to do when your find yourself lost in the middle of the pants.

The Pantser Body of Knowledge: In the Middle of the Pants

Middles are often where pantsers have problems. There’s several reasons for this, but the big one is that we pantsers usually know the immediate future of the story, and have an idea how it ends, but what happens in between is pretty vague. With me the problem manifests in false starts — stories that I think have a novel, get anywhere from 10k words in up, then realize that there just isn’t enough there to sustain a novel. What tends to happen is that aspects of these false starts find their way into other books as subplots, or they get revived with extra material from a different false start.

So how to avoid getting stranded in the middle of the pants? It might be better than the damp crotch of the pants, but it’s still not a good place to be. Most of the legs have little ‘here be dragons’ signs, and it’s hard to find a viable way out. Sometimes you can’t even retrace your steps (we won’t talk about what happened to the pants in this case – you probably don’t want to know).

I can’t offer a definitive answer to this, and not just because I’m far from being without sin myself. The main reason I can’t say “do this, and it will work” is that every pantser is different, and extreme pantsers even more so. Everything from the mental exercises we use to switch on that precious flow of wordage from somewhere to the way the things we experience find their way into our writing is different.

That said, these are some of the things I’ve found helpful when stranded in the middle of the pants.

  • Writing exercises. It doesn’t matter what kind of exercise, just something to get back into the mode of fingers on keyboard and words pouring out. I’ve personally found that the exercise of writing blog posts about writing helps to get my mind working the right way to write fiction.
  • Doing it anyway. Sometimes you’ve just got to struggle through even though it’s like pulling teeth. I’ve got more than one published short story that was done this way. This is where knowing the craft really saves your anatomy: you can produce something that might not be quite right, but it’s at least going in more or less the correct direction using craft alone.
    For pantsers, this isn’t easy, and it’s even less pleasant, but it can be done. If you’ve learned your craft well enough, you can find that ten years later not even you can tell which parts you had to fight and which ones flowed.
  • Reread and microplot. I mentioned a couple of sections back that I obsessively narrate the next part in my head, working through possible options that way. Sometimes rereading from the start of a stuck piece then mentally exploring where it goes from there is enough to unstuck.
  • Work on something else, and keep your fingers crossed. This is probably the most dangerous method of dealing with a story trapped in the middle of the pants. It’s why I have such a flourishing collection of starts. Sometimes you can mentally refresh by working elsewhere, and sometimes not.
  • Learn plotting, characterization, world-building and all the other techniques so you can recognize before you get stuck that the story isn’t novel length – then let it resolve in its own space. With the explosion of epublishing, you’re not held to the official lengths where anything that’s between 10K and 90K words is effectively unmarketable. That’s right. The novella is coming back.
  • Don’t start it unless you know where it’s ending. I know I’ve broken this one, but for less experienced pantsers, it really does help. By all means put it in your ideas file, however you handle that, but wait until the story give you some kind of resolution to the mess it’s handed you before you start to write. When I looked back over some of my old starts, recently, I found this was the problem with every single one. I had no idea what they were aimed at, so they got themselves lost in the desert of the pants legs.
  • On a related note, don’t start it if you don’t have at least some glimmerings of a story. It’s all very well to have a wonderful setting and fascinating characters, but if they’re just hanging around doing their normal thing, well, it’s fun to visit, but it’s not a story. Remember, “The King died then the Queen died” is a sequence of events. “The King died then the Queen died of grief” is a story (A pretty cruddy story, but a story nonetheless. The Queen did something because of what had happened, leading to an ending). Yes, I’ve done this, too. I’m not sure how many starts I’ve got where it’s basically interesting character having “adventures” in a neat location, but there’s nothing driving it and nowhere to go.
  • Look for the reasons and the motivations. This is possibly one of the scariest ways to get yourself out of the kudzu-infested middle of the pants, because you won’t actually know where you’re going or why. Here’s how it works for me: I know what got my character/characters into this mess. I know who they are and why they do things (mostly. I have a few who don’t think I need to know these things). So given where they are right now, what would they do next? Rinse and repeat until you get an idea of how to get out of the pants-kudzu.
  • Drop a mountain on them. By all means try to avoid this as a plot method, especially if the mountain is coming out of nowhere, but if you can go back over what you had and find some apparently innocuous act of your character(s) that could generate a really nasty blowback about now, use it. That mouthy peasant your knight smacked down is actually a spy for a rival, and he’s set up an ambush that your knight can walk into and barely survive. The magical oops your wizard made has done the butterfly effect and generated a massive storm targeted on him. The nonentity your space pilot killed in a bar brawl was the son of the space station owner, and when your pilot tries to land with low fuel and air reserves and a cargo of valuables, he’s nearly blown to pieces. The possibilities here are endless. If necessary, go back and insert the incident that triggers your mountain now. Just don’t go overboard – too much mountain dropping, and your readers will start getting suspicious each time the pace slows and be looking for the next one. Also, the words, “Yeah, right.” are the kiss of death. You get that response from anything, you need to insert extra foreshadowing or change what you did.
  • Above all, don’t be afraid to let it suck. Trust me, it’s better to have something that you finish and can fix than it is to have a lost start. Even if sometimes you can’t fix it just yet because it’s… well. The Epic with Everything comes to mind here. I can’t fix that yet, although despite its flaws it has pull. I just don’t have the skills to fix it, yet. On the plus side, it is finished.

This isn’t a complete listing, either. Anyone who’s run into other ways of dealing with the strange ways of the middle of the pants is welcome to add their suggestions for finding a good leg. I’d love to hear them – a new technique is always helpful.

Meanwhile, don’t despair. Strange as the pants are, there’s usually a trouser leg you can use.

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Return to the Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Meet the Internal Editor

(Work has Kate snowed under and she asked me to post this for her.)

You’ve finished your first draft, you’ve given it a decent amount of time to sit (trust me, for pantsers this is essential), and now it’s time to edit. As with all things pantser, particularly extreme pantser, it’s not that simple. Editor time is when you need to take this thing that’s lived inside your head for months, and put it through the shredder – and most of the pantsers I know (yes, including me) have major problems letting go enough to do this.

Probably the first and simplest tool in the kit for turning on your editor-mind is to phase-shift: to look at the piece in a different format than the one you wrote it in. Print-outs work for this. So does making a copy of the file and getting the copy onto your ebook reader or smartphone (preferably one with annotation or editing capability) and reading it there. The different format is usually enough to keep you out of writer mindset (or worse, “this is my baby” mindset).

Editing somewhere you don’t write is another tool that, while simple, works. The goal of moving is to put yourself somewhere your subconscious doesn’t recognize as writing-space. If you wrote the novel on your laptop while taking the train to and from work, don’t edit it there – or at the very least, don’t mark it up there. It doesn’t matter whether you mark up in approved editorese or not: you’re the only person who’s going to see this stuff, so you’re the only person who needs to worry about it. Highlights on a kindle with a one or two word note to say what it needs are just as effective as handwritten comments on paper, or comments embedded in a word processor file.

A word of warning here: if your word processing application uses any form of auto-formatting turn it off. There are multiple versions of Word in the wild, Word Perfect still happens, and then you’ve got Open Office and its clones, as well as any number of other applications that will create something more or less like RTF (aka “Rich Text Format” – which is text with fonts, bold, underlines and some other formatting, but not the fancy stuff). They don’t all use the same internal codes for anything that is not an obvious keystroke. What that means is that the beautiful file on your Mac ends up looking like someone threw confetti all over it with all manner of weird characters involving tildes and accents where you thought you had a quote mark.

Actually, that’s two words of warning. Do not use your word processor’s embedded comments feature. Not everything you’re likely to be playing with is going to be able to support that. My preference for this is to use something that won’t appear anywhere else in the manuscript as a flag character. So I’ll be writing along and there’ll be something like [add more description] in the middle of the text. That tells me what I’ve got to do and where I’ve got to do it. Sometimes it’s a plot note, sometimes flagging a really crappy sentence, and sometimes a note to remind me that a character’s name needs to change.

For stuff I need to research but don’t want to lose I use the same trick – a sudden burst of [research this] will get added to the story as I write. When I’m done the markup pass-through, I can search for [ and do what needs to be done. The benefit of this is that you can do it with anything, even Notepad (well, if the book isn’t too big – Notepad can’t read very large files. Although if the file is that big, you have other problems).

Okay, so you have your internal editor. Guess what? The editor popped over from Evil Bastard Central, and will cheerfully tell you what you’re doing sucks rocks, while leaning back in a recliner drinking your virtual booze. This is quite normal. I know it sounds like split personality, but heck, we pantsers already host a ridiculous number of personalities anyway. What’s one more?

Quite a few authors externalize the editor-mind, even going so far as to give it a name. Julie Czerneda calls hers the “Great Editor Voice” aka GEV, and posts interesting conversations between her and her GEV on her sff.net newsgroup.

You don’t need to go that far. If it helps to do something like this, go for it. Otherwise, don’t worry. So long as you can flip to editor-mind when you need to, that’s enough.

Of course, the other side of this is getting back to author-mind when you’re done with the editor-mind. That’s… interesting. It’s also crucial – you don’t want to be in editor-mind when you’re writing, any more than writer-mind is good when you’re editing. While the toolset is much the same, they’re used in different ways. The writer-mind is applying the paint, building the picture and framing it, while the editor-mind applies a scalpel to clean up the bits that got smudged, and takes the sander to the frame to smooth off all the rough places and hide the marks where the hammer didn’t quite go where you meant it to, and so forth. Not all writers are good at editing, and not all editors are good at writing.

Depending on how clean your drafts are (in the sense of dangling plot threads, odd byways you forgot to come back to, ideas that hit halfway through that you need to go back and seed and other such pantser oddities), you might not need much in your edit passes. Mine are typically pretty light: there’s a pass for plot/character issues where I’ll usually pick up most of the typo and grammar as well, and a second pass that takes a closer look at phrasing and tightening. After that will depend on what Amanda and Sarah, my long-suffering beta readers and in Amanda’s case editor as well, have to say. You might need dozens of passes to clean things up.

Or not. Pantsers have a horrible tendency to over-edit until there’s no life left. We really can’t edit our work until we’ve had a chance to forget it, and we’ve got to be careful about who we listen to. If you try to fix everything everyone says, you’ll end up with flat, rolled out tofu. Very dead tofu, at that. Instead, look for the possible problem that sits under what they’re saying, and work out how to address that.

And that, fellow pantsers, is that. Go thou forth and explore the pants.

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Return of the Extreme Pantser’s Guide: What Happens Next

I’m in the last couple of weeks before my first time as a professional presenter in a testing conference (TestBash Philadelphia for those who are wondering) so what passes for my ability to focus is split between that and – as ever – the day job. Which is suitably Lovecraftian, or at least the code is.

So, without further ado, another instalment of the Extreme Pantser’s Guide and yes, I’ll probably be on mostly-hiatus until after the conference. I may not fully surface until Thanksgiving, just because it usually takes me a bit to let go after I’ve been wound tight for a while.

The Extreme Pantser’s Guide: What Happens Next

As an extreme pantser, I work in fits and starts. There’ll be a lot of words going down fast, followed by dry spells while I try to figure out what’s supposed to happen next, then another splat. Often, I’ll take notes that end up at the bottom of the story file, as reminders of things that need to happen at some stage. Depending on the story, I’ll have a lot of these, or next to nothing.

Impaler had very few notes, mostly on things like the date of Easter that year, the date of Passover, and various other major dates and festivals that would impact the plot. Easter also presented a challenge – Vlad had to conquer Constantinople before Easter because otherwise the pivotal scene that I knew happened in the Hagia Sophia couldn’t happen. Mostly, though, Impaler’s outline was “what is in Vlad’s campaign”. The actual events around that happened as I wrote them, quite literally in more than a few cases.

In that book, my dry spells happened because I needed to do more research – I’d know what needed to happen next, but not have enough information to describe it properly. So there’d be a flurry of web searches, reading assorted odd snippets, looking at reproductions of very old maps, and so forth, until the next set of scenes had its ‘clothes’.

ConVent went slightly differently because it started as pure piss-take and acquired a loose mystery plot as I went on. For it, I had a murderer, and a list of corpses that had to happen. Some people volunteered to be corpses, for which I’m grateful, and the ones who gave me bizarrely detailed death scene wish-lists really made life interesting (Hello, Basset, anyone?). ConVent also acquired a list of characters, mostly pastiche of observed behavior from several sources with a healthy dose of warped imagination, a few special request tuckerizations (Hello the Hoyts), and of course the main characters. The list was written more as a way of keeping the requests in check, including who to cast as corpses and how they wanted to die, but got added to so I didn’t lose track of the details.

The piece I’m working on at the moment, which may or may not finish, has no notes, no planning, and I’ve only recently worked out how it ends. What it’s got is a character with a strong voice and a determination to be heard. This is extreme pantsing at the pointy end. There are already (at a smidge over 10k words), several subplots making their presence known, and I’ve got a fair idea where the main stages of the plot fall. Beyond that? Nada. This character operates on a “need to know” basis, and I don’t need to know. Like everything I write, it’s advancing in intermittent spurts as I work out what the next bit needs to be.

Essentially, the extreme pantser is on a journey. The next part of the path might be clear, and maybe the distant goal, but the rest of the journey is still something of a mystery and only the subconscious has the map.

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Return to the Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Pacing

Kate got caught up by real life and asked me to post this for her. This is the second in her “Return to the Extreme Pantser’s Guide” posts. You can find the first one here. — Amanda

This chapter is the first of several covering various aspects of plotting and characterization technique from the extreme pantser’s perspective. The thing to remember here, is that this is stuff that matters, and if you as an extreme pantser don’t ‘get’ it free, you’re going to have to work a lot harder than a plotter would to get there – but not necessarily work in the same way.

One of the more interesting things I’ve found as I’ve developed as a writer is that I typically have a vague, not terribly clear feel for the techniques, but I’m not applying them with any sense or consistency because I don’t understand what the heck it is I’m trying to do, much less what my subconscious is throwing at me. Those unfortunate enough to have read some of my early stuff know what I mean here. You can see the shape I’m after but it’s kind of like a small child trying to color inside the lines.

I still color like that, but at least I’ve got better at writing.

So, pacing. This is what makes a story feel fast or slow. Unless you’re planning on writing literary fiction, you’re going to want a variety in your pacing – enough fast sections to drag your readers along with you, and enough slower ones that they have time to breathe. SF and Fantasy, particularly recently, tends to want to start fast, then have something of a slowdown before a series of increasingly sharper accelerations until the climax of the piece. Most – but not all – authors will give a chapter or three of wrapup after that at a nice, gentle pace. Sarah refers to this as the post-climax cigarette.

Pace is partly influenced by vocabulary: short, sharp verbs with minimal assistance from adverbs, action verbs in the sense that someone (preferably your protagonist) is acting… these tend to signal ‘fast’ to readers. Polysyllabic with lots of descriptive usually signals ‘slow’. We as readers are remarkably sensitive to these – to the extent that a particularly fast-paced scene in someone else’s book is quite capable of having me breathing heavily and feeling as though I just outran a bear.

So… read what you can about pacing, but also read fiction with known pace. L.K. Hamilton’s first three books are close to perfect examples of fast-paced. Terry Pratchett’s pacing is generally more leisurely, but again, pitch-perfect.

What tends to happen is that after immersing yourself in well-paced books, the extreme pantser builds a feel for pacing that manifests as “Something needs to happen soon” or “My character needs a break” – also, “Slowing things down here will increase tension” has been known to occur. In my case, rarely quite that explicit, but I do still operate at this level.

I know this sounds very vague and almost – horrors! – frou-frou, but it does seem to work this way at least for me. I’ve had to learn to trust in the pants, not least because the bloody things know more about how this works than I do (As a side note, this is one of the reasons why I’m bloody dangerous when I’m over-tired. It’s not just the narcolepsy, although that doesn’t help. It’s that all the ‘this is not socially acceptable’ filters stop working – which leads to unacceptable truths being aired out, often loudly).

 

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Return of the Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Getting Started

The long-running social media hiatus continues with another repost – the second part of the Extreme Pantser’s Guide – and yes, I do read the comments, I just don’t stay online long enough to answer them all. Or any of them, some weeks. Y’all do a lovely job of carrying on the conversation without me, though, so I’m not fussing.

The Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Getting Started

So, you’ve got the typical pantser problem of a neat scenario that’s grabbed you and won’t let go. How do you know when to start writing it and commit to a story?

I’m going to get really authoritative here and say “it depends”. Really, it does. I’ve started stories with nothing more than the scenario and had them build to a finish. I’ve had others I couldn’t start until I’d worked out how it ended. I’ve also had – not so often – cases where the starting scenario isn’t where the book actually starts, but I’ve got to write the bloody thing to work this out. On occasion, I have to know exactly where it starts before I can write it. This is one of those things that you learn by judgment, and by trial and error.

Yes, that does mean that the more extreme the pantser the more likely there’ll be a large collection of false starts, whether story ideas that didn’t have the pull they needed or weren’t quite right in some other, hard to define way, or ideas that simply weren’t big enough to sustain a book. Don’t throw them out. If your subconscious works anything like mine, unresolved story ideas will hang around like last week’s chili until you figure out where they belong and resolve them. That or they were never really “alive” in the first place.

Most of the pantsers I know operate on a principle of “Start story. Continue until the end.” It’s pretty typical for a pantser not to be able to write out of sequence, simply because if you can’t do the detailed outlining (or the detailed outlining ends up bearing no resemblance to your finished story) there’s no way the ‘good bit’ halfway through is going to end up being the same as what you thought it would be at the beginning – if you even know what that good bit is.

Given all of this, my advice to all you pantsers out there is to get something down as soon as you think there’s enough to carry it. It doesn’t have to be right, it just has to be there. What nailing something down early does is give you a feel for how the piece is going to evolve on you, and this being a primarily subconscious exercise that’s rather important.

While you’re playing with the idea, listen to a lot of different music. I’ve found that certain music acts to ‘set’ my subconscious for writing a piece. I’d also recommend prayer, if you’re the praying sort. I haven’t had this happen to me – yet – but I know people who’ve found themselves stuck with endlessly looping Abba’s Greatest Hits to write something. I gather this gives the conscious mind a pretty powerful incentive to get the thing finished, too. At any rate, the broader your listening, the more likely you’ll find something that works for your story.

For most pantsers I know (and if you’re an exception to this, feel free to ignore it), I’ve found the best way to start is to park butt in chair and start where you think it starts. Sometimes it will take off and you’ve written several chapters without realizing the passage of time. Other times you’ll need more before you can get moving. In either case, you’ve started. No amount of playing with an idea can reify it the way writing it down does.

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Return to the Past: Extreme Pantser’s Guide

Yes, I’m still on internet hiatus and minimal interaction with the rest of the universe. Since I’m also on limited brainpower while some hidden part of my mind (which I’m sure is off in the tropics somewhere with the drinks with the umbrellas and the attractive scenery) recuperates from whatever the heck is bothering it, I figured this would be a good time to start reposting a series I did rather more years back than I’d realized (seriously, 2011? I’d have sworn I haven’t been doing this for that long). So, herewith is the first part of the Extreme Pantser’s Guide, complete with link to the original (at least, presuming WordPress doesn’t do its usual job of messing things up).

Oh, and apologies for being slack on responding to comments. Those are also falling into the “social media vacation” as far as what passes for my mind is concerned.

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

 

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.

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