Thursday, June 26, 2014

How to Write Like a Pantser

Today, class, we’ll be discussing pantsers and their creative process. By the end of this blog you will be able to call yourself a writer. Not necessarily a good writer, mind, but you’ll be able to fulfill the basic definition.

Writers are divided into two subspecies: pantsers and plotters. Plotters are the ones who outline. They plan out every twist and turn of their stories before they commit a single word of fiction to paper or screen. Writing goes faster for them because they don’t have to sweat over what comes next. They always know where the story’s heading and how it’s going to wind up. For example, J. K. Rowling wrote the ending to the Harry Potter series first, then wrote seven entire books with this one scene as the ultimate goal. Now that’s what I call a plotter.

Pantsers, like Nike, subscribe to the motto “Just do it.” You get an idea. You sit down and write it, sometimes with planning, most often not. You may or may not know how your story ends when you start it. Pantsing is like driving on a twisty back road. You’ve never been on it before, every curve brings a new surprise, and you have no idea where it’s going but that doesn’t matter because it has to end up somewhere eventually. Might as well sit back and enjoy the ride. Pantsing your way through a book is the easiest thing in the world.

Until one of those impulsive turns takes you into a wall. Then the hair-tearing begins. Pantsing your way through a book is sheer insanity.

Why would anybody subject themselves to this? Because the fun lies in trying to figure out what happens next. It’s no fun at all when you’re in the middle of it. Once you’re past the roadblock, though, you can look back and go, “That was easier than I thought.” More likely you’ll think, “Jesus, that thing was a bitch. Next time I’m writing an outline.” But outlines leach away all the surprises. Where’s the fun in that?

The best part of being a pantser is the adrenaline rush. You write yourself into a corner. Writing yourself out again becomes the challenge. Montana McCullen is trapped in the crypt and the walls are closing in. Oh, and she’s bleeding from that gunshot wound from the bad guy who didn’t exist when you sat down to write this morning and surprised you with his presence—and his aim—as much as he did Montana. In ten minutes you won’t have a protagonist any more. What do you do?

Swear a lot and drink something, preferably with caffeine in it. Then do your job and get the poor girl the hell out of there. You can do it! You’re a writer!

I run into this a lot in the course of creating a story. I learned a long time ago not to wait for inspiration. Inspiration hits me while I’m working. If I want my muse to show up, I have to make it worth her time. These last-second flashes of genius have led to hours of plot frustration, sweat, inventive swearing and gallons of Coca-Cola consumed. Was it worth it? That’s up to the readers.

A couple for instances: I was writing a fantasy story where the heroes had to get to the bad guy’s castle, but thanks to magic couldn’t reach it. They’d head toward it only to find themselves farther away. “There’s a trick to it,” said one of the locals. I stopped dead and stared at the screen. “There is?” I muttered. “Nobody told me.” The story came to a halt for awhile so I could figure out what the trick was. Eventually the answer (it was deceptively simple) occurred to me. The rest of the story followed without incident.

More recently I hit a snag in the serial story I’ve been writing over on Shapeshifter Seductions. The good guys have found the bad guy’s secret underground laboratory, hidden under a miniature golf course. Where’s the door’s locking mechanism? That paragraph of the hero considering and discarding ideas is Writer Me thinking on paper, trying to come up with a way out of the dead end I just wrote myself into. On top of that, I was suffering from a bout of the runs at the time, and had to abandon the blog every few minutes to dash to the toilet. One of those sprints must have jogged the ol’ brain, because I came up with an answer. You can read it all here. (I can do links now! Yay!)

For the record, I do use outlines, or partial outlines, but I keep them mostly in my head. Sometimes I’ll write them down if I get stuck. They’re general things, along the lines of, “Billy needs to get to Santa Fe. He doesn’t have enough money for a bus, so he steals a car. Eventually he gets there.” Everything in between I’ll figure out while I’m writing, including what happens between him and the girl he stole the car from, the one now travelling to Santa Fe with him. See, it’s working already.

It doesn’t always. Having no road map means a lot of dead ends and abandoned stories. Not to mention the rewriting, because once you’re done you have to go back and clean things up so all those “inspirations” make sense. I usually write at least three drafts. I’ll bet a really good plotter only needs one. Wonder how many outlines they write?

I should try the outline thing. That sounds like a great way to put off the actual writing. Procrastination and I are old drinking buddies. Mr. ‘Crast hates it when I pants.

So you want to be a writer? Sit down and start writing. See where your story goes and where it ends up. Let me know what happens.


Savanna Kougar said...

Yep, I've written-painted myself into so many corners, I can't remember them all... but that's when inspiration-realization and the brain burning all work together, and voila, the story continues, or the end comes about... if I have no ending. My heroines and heroes are constantly surprising me too, with aspects of their character or their past I never guessed at... it's a strange, strange world, master jack ... when you're basically a pantser writer... mostly after the fact, I have to create a file for the characters, the world building, etc.

Great post, Pat!

Pat C. said...

It happened during this post. Montana McCullen was a man in the first draft. Three paragraphs later I went back and gave him a sex change. She'll probably show up in Talbot's Peak at some point. She'd be a fun foil for Cochrane if he wasn't in Tibet.

Savanna Kougar said...

Understand! Well heck, lots of ways to get back to the Peak... the Yeti could decide to travel the underground tunnels that crisscross the planet, and return 'him'.