In the previous entry in this series
, I appealed to those of you who love to try out new tools. The enthusiasts. In this post, I'm appealing to those at the other end of the spectrum - folks who turn up their noses at the thought of any kind of constraining structure around their writing process.
Dedicated plotters will surround themselves with outlines and plans and character sheets right from the start. At the extreme, some folks may not write a single word until they know every plot twist, every character trait, and have mapped out their world to the last detail.
In contrast, maybe you are one of those people who can sit down to a blank page and just write. Words come, characters form on the page and the story unfolds. You have no idea where it is taking you, but that's the fun of it. And you have no need for tools other than your imagination and something to write on.
As long as what you're doing works for you
, that's wonderful. I envy you.
But what happens when you start to hit problems? It's a rare writer who can throw words at the page and end up with a coherent and compelling story. Sooner or later, most of us start getting snarled up in our web of words and have to sort out the mess.
The beauty of most of the tools I've talked about is that they can be used at any stage of the writing process
. To the plotters, the toolkit is an indispensible part of the process. To the pantsers out there, scornful of such deadening constraints, I offer the toolkit instead as a safety net. Only to be used in emergency.
But when an emergency strikes, you'll be glad to have some help at your side.
The trick is to recognise when you are hitting difficulties, and choose a workable way to extricate yourself.
Hello, I'm a pantser and my plot's in a knot...
The first step on the path to salvation is to admit you need saving.
Do you ever find yourself noticing signs like this?
You re-read and find inconsistencies: a name spelled one way in the first half, and differently later on, or someone with brown eyes in one chapter and blue in the next; your burglar getting ready for a midnight jaunt right after eating bacon & eggs and admiring the dawn chorus.
That "small building" you described that must be the size of Buckingham Palace from all the rooms and hallways your characters just walked down once they were inside.
You hit a road block because you keep getting lost in a complex sequence of actions: Legless the Oaf puts down his sword so he can open the door...no, wait, he needs the sword in his hand when the door opens and the Ballrag attacks him...hang on, didn't he lose his sword in the Crack of Doom in the last chapter?
Your plot has meandered out of all control and you've no idea what happens next, but you suspect you've passed that same twist in the road three times now.
Or maybe you think you're OK, but your critique partners start pointing out things that you hadn't noticed: inconsistencies, cardboard characters, actions that have no credible motivation.
Or, you're trying to revise your magnum opus and it feels like you're wrestling an octopus.
All these are signs that you're in a hole and you might need something more than your bare hands to dig yourself out.
I'm a pantser! Get me out of here!
When it comes to getting out of difficulty, I suggest that the outcomes-based approach I've promoted becomes more important than ever.
If your aim is to write as freely as you can, then you likely want to put as little effort as possible into formal structure. This means you really don't want to waste time and energy throwing random tools at a problem hoping for a fix. All the more need then to understand what you are trying to achieve and choose the best tool for the job.
First, understand what it is that's causing you trouble. For example, are you getting into knots over time, space, distance, causation, motivation, description, character development, story arc?
Having identified the source of your angst, what outcome do you need? Consistency, a clear visualisation of the scene, controlled reveal of information, credible motivation for actions and reactions?
Only once you understand what you need help with, and what outcome you seek, pick something that will help you sort out the mess as quickly as possible, and let you get on with the fun of writing.
So, skeptical pantsers of the world, my message is simple...
The conceptual tools I've talked about in this series are not chains to bind you.
Used sparingly, at the right time and for the right reasons, they are your lifelines.