Friday, July 22, 2011

Writing by the seat of your pants

The current blog title, which will probably change in another day or two, going by my recent pattern, is a reference to my plotting style.  Some people outline, writing out either in some detail or in a rough sketch, what the book they want to write is about.  They figure out what they need to research, get all the information and rough character sketches together, and often know what the ending will be.  In my writing group, we refer to them, logically enough, as Outliners.

The writing group, however, is mostly composed of Pantsters, so called because we write by the seat of our pants.  When I sit down to write a story, I don't know how it'll end.  I don't know what I'll need to foreshadow.  I don't know how many characters I'll introduce, or exactly what will happen.  I don't even have a rough idea.  I have one character who has told me some random detail about the story I'm sitting down to write, and I don't know the ending until I've written it.

I felt a lot better about my unplanned writing when I realized many of the writers I enjoy do precisely the same thing.  The series I've liked best have been mapped out in advance, but stand-alone books, generally, are more enjoyable for me if the writer was as surprised by his or her characters as I was.

That isn't to say that edits are useless.  If anything, with pantstering, edits are all the more important.  You have to tidy up the mess your characters have left on the pages.  You have to dab on some foreshadowing, and make sure that, despite all their surprises, the characters still make sense.  Often, you have to take out huge swaths of dialogue, because the characters never got around to a point in their conversation.  As fun as it may be for the writer to listen to his or her characters natter on for pages, dialogue does need to serve the narrative.

I had to train myself, early on, to stop valuing my first drafts so highly.  I've heard some writers call them "zero drafts," which I may be more comfortable calling them.  My initial drafts are VERY rough, and they meander and wander, and they're a mess.  I've learned to accept my messy writing, and sometimes I can clean up as I go.  I've learned how to preserve the pieces I really wanted, and how to say goodbye when they don't fit.

Perhaps I've learned the lesson too well, because I'm regularly reinventing the wheel in my rewrites.  I can't just change a few things around here and there.  My edits always start that way, but, after a chapter or two, I'm making it up from whole cloth, and simply pulling out the parts I liked best from the last draft.  I refer to my drafts as chaos theory in action; changing one tiny aspect of the early chapters changes everything about the final chapters.

I can't say my method is working, because, as I said in my last writing post, I'm not published, and I haven't screwed up the courage to even submit.  But, this method agrees with me, and I reserve the right to change my mind.


  1. I used to be a pantster, but with my novel I'm writing now, I actually outlined it. We'll see how it goes.

  2. I'm still planning on turning the Via concept into a series at some point. When I do, I'll probably have to outline it. Also, I won't be using your characters.

  3. The post's title, or the blog's? Because the blog's title might be too in-jokey for my non-writing friends. Maybe I should change the whole blog's title to "Writing By The Seat of My Pants." It's not like I map out my posts, or anything.

  4. This post and the one following it make me feel MUCH better about my own writing. I write the same as you and edit as I go, cutting and chopping chunks after spending hours on them.

    I'm also quite thin-skinned when it comes to feedback, often taking things quite personally.

    My response? Ask for as much feedback as I can. The more people say the same thing, the more that thing becomes something to change, cut or keep and feel proud of. It also desensitises me a bit. As an example, I recently asked on G+ for feedback on a short pitch for the novel I'm trying to write at the moment. I got some feedback that said, "this is rubbish, I wouldn't read it" and felt awful for a couple of days. After another two attempts (both posted on G+) I got much more positive feedback that has made me feel like I could actually write something worth reading.

    Keep at it, keep asking for feedback (I know you will do, that's why you've joined a writers' group, after all).

  5. I can't help but feel like the words on the page are a part of my soul I poured out for their consumption, and that rejection of those words is a rejection of ME. It's a bad way to think, for a writer, and so I work on training myself out of it. And then I go to too far an extreme, and throw out most of what I've written in a given draft.

    So, yeah. It's a work in progress.