Saturday, July 16, 2011

Welcome to the dark side...

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, 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.

Happy writing.


  1. The pantser is a wilful beast. Resisting the tinking it through part of the process is often a problem. Enjoyed reading baout your conceptual tools, hope it helps some lost souls out there.

    Moody Writing

  2. Hey Mood! Everyone has to find their own balance between thinking and just writing, but if I can help just one person out there I'll be happy.

  3. I think there is probably quite a difference between fiction and non-fiction writing, but I tend to do best when I know what I will be writing about next... I think about it as I fall asleep at night, wake up with it in the morning, so that when I sit down to write that "scene" it feels like I am rewriting instead of composing. Then again, I am writing from what actually happened at some point in my life, as opposed to pulling the story out of my imagination - something I admire in others, because I am quite incapable of doing it.

    Thanks for making us think.


  4. I've been told I'm a plotser - in other words I'm a pantser who does some plotting. For me writing is an organic process, I like to turn up to the page (as Stephen King would put it) and see where the characters take me. However, I'm also a visual thinker. So, a mock cover, back cover blurb, collage of key points/images, and a few mind-maps detailing key points are vital. I also have a large sheet of brown paper on which I record the plot, chapters, scenes etc as I write. If I didn't do any of this, and just tried to write my novel, I'd soon get confused and hopelessly lost!

    Awesome post. I've just tweeted it for others to read.

    Ellie Garratt

  5. This is me...the nose turner upper. :) I do a lot of editing to fix messups. I have to say that as far as inconsistencies go, I try to tackle these right away. See, I reread everything each chapter as I write them, then go back for a second and third reread of the whole book. I see, so the best way for us pansters to help ourselves is to pinpoint our problem aread. I agree. We all need a little bit of order. Great post!

  6. Saloma, I hadn't thought about the difference between fiction and non-fiction. I guess a lot of the need for structure still applies, and there will still be people who need to plan ahead, and people who prefer to dive straight in.

    Ellie, that sounds remarkably like my own process. I'm visual too, and love plans and mind-maps. I need enough structure up front to give me direction and stop me getting confused, but then I like to clear my mind, envisage a scene, and just write it. Plotser it is!

    LOL Laila, feel free to turn your nose up all you like!

    One of the biggest reasons I like some up-front work is because I loathe going back to fix things up. I think that's my programming background plus (paradoxically) a dose of laziness. I found it less work overall to invest time up-front and try to get it as right as possible in one go. Worked pretty well for software. Not so much for writing :(

  7. I think we should always keep an open mind when we struggle with a certain technique. Each of us has a unique process, but that doesn't always mean it's the best or most efficient. If we feel held back in some way, experimenting can definitely help. Maybe it'll work, maybe not. But at least trying means a commitment to finding a solution to get past whatever is holding us back. :)

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  8. So true, Angela. I've been focusing on intentional use of tools, but experimentation, a leap into the unknown, can help us past roadblocks in unforseen ways. Thanks for stopping by.

  9. Hey Ian! Enjoying your blog. I've been out here before. We have a mutual buddy, J. Jansen. I've found that you and J have similar ideals, yet your writing styles are so different. It's fascinating.

    Interesting post. I also have a programming background and am an extreme plotter. Every character, twist/turn, word count per scene, story timeline is outlined from beginning to end before I write my first word. When the story decides to deviate from this rigid world in which I write, my heart rate shoots to dangerous levels. I always let the story have its way, then I spend countless hours correcting outlines. Tools can definitely help organize this process--I've tried many--but have fallen back to the good old spreadsheet. I'm a sucker for the flexibility of graphing, outlining and scripting that can be done in Excel and opensource spreadsheets.

    Have you written a synopsis for Ghosts yet? When I went through that very painful exercise, having an outline was a HUGE help.


  10. Hello Pam. Yes, I stumbled on your site via J's. Glad to be able to connect with the person behind the critiques ;)

    I have written a synopsis for Ghosts, several different lengths in fact. It was a brutal process. I had a sketch of an outline, and I did chapter summaries too, but I don't think that helped me much. I think the synopsis has to capture some of the feeling and voice of the writing, which makes it very different from an outline.

  11. Yeah, definitely need voice in the synopsis. I used the outline to keep me on track and plucked the verbiage directly from the manuscript to maintain the voice (with changes to narrative tense and POV). I suppose I'll find out how well I pulled this off if/when agents respond.


  12. Fingers crossed for some positive responses, Pam!


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